Sports Collectors Digest: The Ultimate Baseball Book

By Marty Appel

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the publication of “The Ultimate Baseball Book”, and after 30 years, it still does a good job at holding onto that title.

It’s not a statistical wonder, and there have been other fine coffee table books published since, but using the word “ultimate” was a great marketing tool, and no one who has bought this book has ever felt shortchanged.

In fact, it has remained in print for all these years and has probably sold more than 400,000 copies, despite never hitting the best-seller list, even when it first came out. That would make it one of the biggest selling baseball books ever published.

“We certainly didn’t expect that it would remain in print for 30 years or that it would do as well as it’s done,” notes Daniel Okrent, who with Harris Lewine, the art director, served as the editor of the book.

Okrent, now 61, has had a distinguished career far removed from baseball, but will forever be linked to the game by the book, by the book Nine Innings (also still in print), and by inventing a little thing called Rotisserie Baseball in the same year that Ultimate was published. Publishing the “The Ultimate Baseball Book” and inventing Rotisserie Baseball in the same year – at age 31 – is called having a good year. Most of us would be happy to just read a book like this and participate in some fantasy league.

“I was worked at the publisher Harcourt Brace in 1976-77,” he recalls, “and I had in mind a series of ‘ultimate’ books to play to people’s passions. My time at Harcourt came to a close before I had a chance to do any of them, but I took the concept for a baseball version to about a dozen publishers before Houghton Miflin bought it. They now own Harcourt, so in that sense, it has come full cycle.”

Okrent was just getting his feet wet in the baseball world around this time. He was assigned to write an Earl Weaver feature for the New York Times Magazine in 1978, but the Orioles got off to a 3-16 start, and the article was never done. Then Bob Creamer, a senior editor at Sports Illustrated, engaged him to write a story about seeing all 26 teams play in 13 days. That really thrust him inside baseball.

“Actually, I’m glad to be out of it and just a fan,” he reflects. “I still get called regularly to review baseball books or participate in baseball anthologies, but I rarely say yes. I needed to get away to recapture my love of the game. It’s better from afar.”

The Ultimate Baseball Book was a hefty $35 as a hardcover when it was issued and was an immediate hit in the gift market for baseball fans. It includes essays by Creamer, Jonathan Yardley, Wilfrid Sheed, Red Smith, Roy Blount Jr., Tom Wicker, John Leonard, Mordecai Richler and George V. Higgins, (and George Will in a later edition), fabulous photos, studious captions by Okrent himself, important historical text by Dave Nemec, and a wonderful poem called “Anthem” by William Wallace composed entirely of old baseball nicknames. The editors combed through 15,000 photos to come up with the 700 seldom-seen ones that were ‘ultimately’ chosen. Not all were player photos; some were advertisements, cartoons, book and magazine covers, sheet music, trading cards, and more.

The text was set in Times New Roman, giving it much the look of vintage baseball literature and bowing to the traditions of early baseball.

“We got a really nice review by Art Hill in Sports Illustrated,” says Okrent. “He wrote that it was ‘the baseball book I’ve always wanted.’ That gave it a big boost with the public.”

The book enjoyed several softcover updates and new energy boosts every few years, the most recent being in 2000.

Okrent these days describes himself as a writer and publishing consultant, but his distinguished career includes a stint as the first public editor of the New York Times, as well as holding editorial positions at Time, Life, New England Monthly, and Esquire. Early on, also on assignment from Creamer, he “discovered” Bill James with the first national story about the emerging stat guru. He also appeared frequently on camera in Ken Burns’ “Baseball” series for PBS in 1994, a year best forgotten by fans (no World Series) except for Burns project.

With the publishing industry entering rough seas during our nation’s recession, (let me know when we can start calling it Great Depression II), many authors of marginally mainstream books are finding happiness in the world of self-publishing. Books that might sell less than 10,000 copies, or command advances of less than $20,000 are being passed over in the hope that fewer books, but more “sure-things” will be the way to go.

That bit of news got me thinking about one of the first self-published baseball books I ever encountered, a very nice 10×8 softcover called SF Giants: An Oral History, by Mike Mandel.

As the title suggests, it was an oral history of the Giants, which included most of the players from their inaugural season, 1958, plus an array of futures like Bobby Bonds, Jack Clark, Vida Blue and Chris Speier. Hearing in their own words the birth of a franchise in what had long been a Pacific Coast League stronghold makes for great reading. A number of those players have passed on and with the 50th anniversary of the team’s move to the west coast having just passed, it was great fun to pick up the book again and read the reflections of Bill Rigney, Johnny Antonelli, Hank Sauer, Daryl Spencer, Jim Davenport, Felipe Alou, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, Juan Marichal, Whitey Lockman et al.

The book came out in 1979 and cost $9.95. 6,000 copies were printed and sold.

“I made a little money with it,” says Mandel, now a Boston resident. “But to hear Russ Hodges and Lon Simmons talk about it on the radio was the best part.”

Mandel was 27 when he started it, and he did all of the interviews in person. A press pass enabled him to capture what he could at Candlestick Park in 1977 and 1978, and then he hit the road with his tape recorder, going around the country and into Latin America. For Cepeda, he had to do the interview at a Federal prison camp in Florida, where the Baby Bull was a guest after a marijuana smuggling charge.

“I’m actually an artist by profession,” says Mandel. “I liked Studs Terkel’s books and as an artist I thought that it didn’t matter what the subject matter might be, but that an artist would approach the project with a more open ended attitude. Of course, I was a Giants fan since I was eight, in 1958, so I grew up with the team in SF.

“Chronicle Books was interested, but they wanted to design it in a more commercial way. I had many experiences publishing my own artist books, so I was happy to do it myself.”

Mandel considered Rigney to be his best interview. “He could tell a story better than anyone,” he says. “But John Curtis could talk about baseball with the perspective of a philosopher. He was the last one in the book and among the best.”

There are some non-players in the book. The sportswriters Harry Jupiter, Bob Stevens and Charles Einstein; farm director Jack Schwarz (“We came out here in ’57 with a real larder full of prospects just waiting to be unveiled”), head groundskeeper Matty Schwab, and equipment manager Eddie Logan, whose father handled the Giants and Yankees back to the John McGraw and Babe Ruth days.

“I had Horace Stoneham but I accidentally recorded over his interview with Jesus Alou,” Mandel adds, speaking of the Giants owner, the man who moved the team west. “I tried to interview him again, but he refused. I think he knew he screwed up by talking to me the first time. He was pretty drunk and told me all kinds of stuff full of racial slurs, and it would have been the interview of the book.”

As for interviews missed, Mandel writes in his introduction, “I am sorry I was unable to make the portrait of {Willie} Mays. His absence leaves the work forever incomplete.”

Alas, Mike tried. With considerable help from a Giants PR man and an AP photographer, he went to Mays’ house by appointment, but Willie didn’t show up. On a second attempt, he refused to talk without being paid.

“I understood his money issues from his past and how he was used by people, so I didn’t take it personally. But obviously, I would have loved to have had him in there. McCovey, Marichal and Cepeda were all approachable.”

Not many teams have been the subjects of oral histories, but ironically, a second one on the Giants came along in 1998, this one, including Mays. Willie spent two hours with author Steve Bitker in his home, obviously more mellow, but also on better terms with Giants management than Mandel found him 20 years earlier when he was on the Mets payroll. And Mays is terrific in this sit-down, talking of his sadness of leaving New York, how Candlestick robbed him of home runs, and his trade to the Mets. “…you could feel that the fans wanted their own ballplayer. .And I guess they chose Cepeda. It didn’t bother me,” he said of his reception in 1958.

This book included only the ’58 team, and is called The Original San Francisco Giants, and published by Sports Publishing, Inc. The interviews remain fascinating, some with the benefit of an extra two decades of reflection. For real Giant fans, both books are important. For me, I loved the self-published adventure experienced by Mandel, and continue to admire what a great job he did in delivering this fine book for all fans.

Wish he had gotten Willie though. And so does he.