The Baseball 100, by Joe Posnanski (Avid Reader Press, 880 pages, $40)
Any attempt to rank truly the top 100 players in baseball history is destined to be a fool’s errand. How could one hope to accurately and authoritatively evaluate players across nine different positions and from different eras, who played in vastly different ballparks and used different versions of juiced and dead balls? For many lists, the controversy and debate are the point.
What’s different about Joe Posnanski’s new book, The Baseball 100, is that the rankings are essentially a sideshow. They’re a framework onto which the stories take root. At center stage are the captivating life narratives of the players who have made baseball great and who help to explain why the game means so much to so many.
Posnanski, who has written for The Athletic, Sports Illustrated, and NBC Sports, is the perfect man for the job. He’s shown throughout his career that he both understands the power of a great story and can sniff out the under-the-radar tales that have not been told anywhere else. His book The Soul of Baseball is a modern classic, taking readers on a journey across the country with the Negro League legend Buck O’Neil. In later works he took a deep dive into the friendship between golfers Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus and gave a fresh perspective on the incredible life of magician Harry Houdini.
In The Baseball 100, Posnanski takes the opportunity to tell 100 different stories and shows an uncanny ability to find a fresh angle to every player’s journey. He doesn’t shy away from the raw numbers and accomplishments on the field, but in some of the book’s best moments he relates a legend’s story to themes that hit closer to home for nonathletes — complicated personalities, the fruits of hard work, family strife, rivalries, overcoming long odds. There are good guys, “bad” guys, and every personality type in between.
Through the relationship between Carlton Fisk (No. 80) and his dad Cecil, we experience the “complicated business” of fathers and sons, reaching a crescendo with Fisk’s lengthy induction speech at the Baseball Hall of Fame. The extraordinary career of Jimmie Foxx (33) is tempered by his troubles after retirement — the washout manager Jimmy Dugan in A League of Their Own is based on his life.
Steve Carlton (63) famously did not talk to reporters during his playing days, but Posnanski digs deep to let the reader into the world of a lifelong loner who, by the way, possessed perhaps the best slider in the history of baseball. Bob Feller (55), by most accounts, lived a fairy-tale life. However, Posnanski reveals a man also haunted by the loss, to military service during World War II, of what should have been four of his best years on the mound.
The book rarely is better than when considering the complicated case of Curt Schilling (88), a player whose on-field brilliance has been overshadowed at times by off-field controversies:
Yes, he would pick fights, say offensive things, push the boundaries of taste and compassion. But he was also deeply generous. In his career, he won the Branch Rickey Award, the Roberto Clemente Award, the Lou Gehrig Award, and the Hutch Award, all of them for charity, community service, and displaying admirable character on and off the field. . . . He gave tirelessly of his time to support the military, to support children’s charities, to support people in need.
A former Arizona Diamondbacks official described Schilling as a player whose teammates loved him the day he pitched but on the other four days hated him. In the end, Posnanski admits that even he can’t figure out what drives the all-time great.
The Baseball 100 often is less about what makes these men great athletes than about what makes them tick. Even though the Schilling entry remains somewhat unresolved, the reader feels that he has come to know a legend in a way he hadn’t before.
Posnanski brings an inquisitive mind to the proceedings, relentlessly pursuing the why and how of success, through voracious research and firsthand interviews from his career as a sportswriter. Like famed baseball historian and analyst Bill James, who is referenced multiple times in the book, Posnanski questions everything, asking, “Is what we thought really true?”
Most importantly, Posnanski’s writing radiates an unceasing joy that can be difficult to find these days. He loves these players. He loves these stories. This is no place for cynicism and negativity. The Baseball 100 is a celebration that will leave you believing once again (or, perhaps, for the first time) in the magic of the game.
At 880 pages, The Baseball 100 is not necessarily meant to be read in one sitting. In its initial form, as a series hosted on the sports website The Athletic, entries were released daily through mid April 2020. If readers pace themselves, those who missed it the first time will find it to be the perfect companion for the approaching winter, the long, cold evenings between the last game of the World Series and Opening Day.