Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Review of "Split Season"

When I saw that a book was going to be written about the 1981 baseball season, I was hoping that it was available for review prior to publication.  The usual places where advance copies are available didn't have it, so I went for broke:  I found the author on Facebook and sent him a private message asking for one.  Lucky for me, he graciously accepted my request and I am very glad he did, as I enjoyed this book about that unique season.  Here is my review of "Split Season."

“Split Season 1981: Fernandomaina, the Bronx Zoo and the Strike That Saved Baseball” by Jeff Katz

Baseball, history, strike, Yankees, Dodgers

Publish date:
May 19, 2015

336 pages

4 1/2 of 5 stars (excellent)

1981 was a baseball season that was unusual for many reasons. It was the first season in which a player’s strike took place during the middle of the season. It was the first season in which the divisional series was played.  This extra round of playoffs was necessitated by the decision to split the season after the 50 day strike ended. Oh, yes, there were also some memorable moments on the field as well when a portly Mexican pitcher took the baseball world by storm, the New York Yankees signed a player to the biggest contract at that time, and a relatively obscure pitcher for the Cleveland Indians pitched a perfect game, the 12th in the history of the game.

In his book “Split Season”, current Cooperstown (NY) mayor Jeff Katz writes about that strange season in equal parts baseball and labor negotiations.  Like the season, this split in topics was about equal in length and had many memorable passages in both parts.  Unlike the season, there was no outcry about a lack of quality or interest nor did it seem like a gimmick when Katz wrote about the action on the field and in the negotiation rooms with in-depth description and great research.

The sections on the labor negotiations, the issue over compensation to teams who lose players to free agency, and the poor communication on the topic between not only the two parties but also within the owners’ club, were my favorite parts of the book.  Most readers of baseball book don’t like to read about this topic, but Katz’s style made it fascinating reading that I couldn’t put down.  He did stay neutral on the topic, but if he had a bias, it appeared to be against the owners because of their poor communication and lack of solidarity. 

The baseball sections were great as well.  Reading about the rise of Fernando Valenzuela as a rookie for the Dodgers, the ranting and meddling of George Steinbrenner and also stories about other good teams that year such as the Oakland A’s and Montreal Expos will make the reader either feel like he or she was there, or will bring back many good memories of the game that season.   This despite the lower attendance after the strike ended and the ill-fated split season.  It should be noted that the two teams who had the best records in the National League that season, the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds, did not qualify for the playoffs in this format, something that embarrassed the owners who devised the scheme.

Like on the field, the best writing about the game itself was saved for the playoffs, especially the recaps of the league championship series and the World Series, won by the Dodgers in six games.  Just the writing about the Yankees alone in this section makes it fun to read.

My only issue with the book was that most of it focused on only a handful of teams and there was little mention of the non-contending teams.  One item that I did wish merited more attention was that it was the last season of baseball at Metropolitan Stadium in Minnesota.  The old park that was the Minnesota Twins’ first home didn’t get a single mention.  The only reference about this was that the Twins were going to move to “the new Dome” in 1982.  As someone who spent many summer days and nights at Metropolitan Stadium, I was hoping the book would mention this.

Despite that slight, I enjoyed this book immensely and it is highly recommended for all baseball fans and historians.  It is an excellent account of one of the strangest years in baseball history.

I wish to thank Mr. Katz for providing an advance review copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Did I skim?

Pace of the book: 
This was a very fast read considering the length of the book.  Because Katz writes most of this, especially the sections on the labor negotiations and the strike, in plain language, it made those sections easy to read and comprehend.

Do I recommend? 
Baseball fans and readers who enjoy baseball history will want to pick up this book on this pivotal but very unusual season for Major League Baseball

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