The Thinking Fan’s Guide to Baseball by Leonard Koppett

The Thinking Fan’s Guide to Baseball by Leonard Koppett, (Sport classic Books, 2004), 442 pages.

Leonard Koppett was one of the most respected baseball (and basketball) writers of his generation when he died in June 2003. He spent over sixty years working as a sports journalist and authored seventeen books, most notably “The Thinking Fan’s Guide to Baseball”. Originally published in 1967, it was revised and reissued on more than one occasion before this edition was put together following Koppett’s passing.

“The Thinking Fan’s guide to Baseball” is an excellent introduction to all facets of the sport. This weighty tome is split into three main sections: the Game on the Field, Behind the Scenes and the Whole Ball Game.

The final section contains a series of articles on specific topics, ranging from Spring Training to the Hall of Fame. Koppett’s knowledge, understanding and sheer enthusiasm shines through and makes this section a real pleasure for established baseball fans and newcomers alike. Three of the articles stand out for me. Reproduced exactly as it was written in 1966, Koppett’s take on the Willie Mays-Mickey Mantle debate provides an excellent summary of the careers of two genuine greats of the game, with Mays slightly coming out on top in the author’s reckoning.

Koppett uses one chapter to pay homage to his “baseball guru”: Casey Stengel. Describing him as “Socrates in the dugout”, Koppett breaks Stengel’s career into five stages, concentrating in particular on the fifth stage spent with the emerging New York Mets.

Finally, anyone interested in an overview of how the game evolved from it’s formative years to the one we know today should look no further than the “Evolution of the Playing Rules” chapter in this book. While some changes obviously had far reaching consequences (not least the pitcher moving from throwing underhand to overhand), some of the lesser-known intricacies of the rules are also exposed. Certainly the importance of knowing your place in the batting order is drilled home to any budding young ballplayer!

The middle section of the book takes a look at the people who work in and around the game and particularly how their roles have changed over the years. Be they owners, scouts, agents or the Commissioner, they have been forced to adapt as the business of baseball has evolved. For all of them, the growing presence of the media has played its part in this process and Koppett tackles his speciality with aplomb.

The growing importance of television, and the subsequent demotion of newspaper reporters, clearly rankled with Koppett. A part of me thinks that his take on the current media situation is already slightly out of date though. He draws a distinction between the “electronic reporters” (radio and TV) who want to transmit their thoughts immediately and the newspaper writers whose product “can’t be delivered to the reader until hours later” (specifically noting that the two competing groups “get in each other’s way”).

A beat writer’s game report will be on the Internet nowadays soon after the final out has been recorded, so that distinction has probably already become blurred. Nevertheless, it is still provides a very useful insight into the lives of those who report on baseball for a living and if your interest is raised by this chapter, Koppett’s final book, “The Rise and Fall of the Press Box”, will undoubtedly be worth buying as well.

The first section of the book is the most successful, but perhaps causes the biggest split amongst potential readers. For an American who has grown up playing the game, much of what is written here will be far from new territory. For a Brit who has never played the game, it is absolutely invaluable information. Koppett goes into great depth about each discipline in the game, in many cases highlighting points that an average fan will pick up while watching a game and then digging deeper into the thought processes behind what is happening.

Koppett begins his analysis with the hitters and he initially reminds us that fear (of being hit by a hard baseball pitched at frightening speeds) has to be conquered first and foremost. He then provides an insight into the key thoughts that should run through a batter’s mind as he stands in the on-deck circle, before discussing the approach hitters may take at the plate in different game situations.

He describes hitting as “the artistic science”, while pitching is “the scientific art”. The fundamental difference between the two is that the hitter is always reacting to what the pitcher does, while the pitcher holds the initiative. Koppett’s chapter on pitching includes his list of the five key pitching premises and an explanation of each of the main different types of pitches (and their variations).

For both hitters and pitchers, Koppett tries to take you into their minds, to help you understand what they may be thinking at any given point in a game. He draws on examples from many different eras to illustrate his points, often making it clear that what works for one man may not work for another.

The third main discipline, fielding, is then addressed with an explanation of the special demands of each fielding position. The TV cameras often pick up outfielders reminding each other how many outs there have been in an inning and Koppett reinforces the importance of mental preparation in successful fielding. Mental preparation is also revealed to be a fundamental part of base stealing, communication via signals, and managing (described as “the art of worrying”). Athletic ability is clearly far from the only attribute that makes for a talented ballplayer.

Maybe an American baseball fan might feel slightly misled by the title of this book. It doesn’t contain revolutionary, new ideas or advanced statistical analysis as you would perhaps expect. Instead, it appeals to the “thinking fan” by taking you into the minds of those who play and work around the game.

As a British baseball fan, this book has greatly increased my knowledge and appreciation of many facets of the sport that may have otherwise passed me by. It’s split into thirty-three sizeable chapters that you can dip into at your leisure and I’m sure you will be regularly reaching for it from your bookshelf if you buy a copy.

Have you read “The Thinking Fan’s Guide to Baseball”? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below. Can you recommend any other similar books? If so, let us know.

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