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Two baseball biographies and the trickiness of history

SB Nation logo SB Nation 12/20/2020 James Fillmore
a man in a baseball uniform throwing a ball: Steve Dalkowski. Because girls do make passes at men who wear glasses. © Photo by National Baseball Hall of Fame Library/MLB via Getty Images Steve Dalkowski. Because girls do make passes at men who wear glasses.

Mutt’s Dream, by Howard Burman / Dalko, by Bill Dembski, Alex Thomas, and Brian Vikander

How do you write a new book about Mickey Mantle, when so, so many have been written already? (A quick look at the New York Public Library’s online catalog lists 129 results.) In Mutt’s Dream, Howard Burman tries a method I’m unfamiliar with, and I’m not entirely sure it works. It’s an interesting attempt, however.

The book is exclusively about Mantle’s childhood (although little foreshadowings of his future personal demons find their way in). The family grew up poor in Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl, and times was plenty of tough. Mantle’s father, Earl “Mutt” Mantle, bounced between sharecropping and working in the horribly poisonous lead/zinc mines. A lifelong baseball fan, Mutt was determined that Mickey escape such a life. He trained Mickey hard to play baseball – some would say, too hard.

So far, so familiar. Plenty of baseball players past and present have similar stories. What’s unusual about Mutt’s Dream is the storytelling style.

And, make no mistake, it’s a story, not a standard biography at all. Burman is a very experienced theater guy, so he writes a highly dramatized account, a collection of scenes. Most of which are told through dialogue and description of the characters’ actions. Yet there’s also the presumed inner thoughts of characters when dialogue and description aren’t enough. And it’s all told in the present tense. So you get plenty of sentences like “Mickey likes to hear that people think he’s a good player, but he’s always hesitant to accept the praise. His shyness always comes to the fore in such situations, particularly when talking to adults.”

The overall effect is somewhat like reading a well-plotted YA novel. But there are events in the book that definitely wouldn’t be in most such novels; including alcoholism and a horrifying description of sexual abuse by older children (which others have written about in more standard biographies).

The “Acknowledgements” section describes both Burman’s method and why I had a small problem with it. “All the stories portrayed here are true – or, at least, they were claimed to be true by Mickey, or his family and friends, or were related as true by the press. Some dialogue is word-for-word accurate as recorded; some has been invented but is always consistent with the reality of the situation.”

Here, Burman’s giving away the game. Anyone who knows the faintest thing about history knows that secondhand stories aren’t necessarily reliable. Neither are firsthand ones. Nor are eyewitness accounts (most wrongful convictions are based on honest-but-flawed eyewitness accounts).

Let’s see if you’d buy this example: Joe missed baseball badly. He felt like retirement had left a hole in his soul. But recently he’d met a charming, handsome St. Paul writer named “James” who promised to teach him profound life lessons. James one day tells Joe, “for the greatest lesson I can teach you, you must give all your earthly belongings to me.” Joe is nervous, but he agrees to what James says, and one week later transfers all his fortune into James’s Swiss bank account. Joe asks, “what is the lesson?” James tells him, “never trust me with money,” and drives away in what used to be Joe’s car. This hurts Joe greatly, and he only finds comfort in delicious milk.

Of course, none of that is true (except the handsome/charming part). But the point is, when you start writing in this style, you can stretch a reader’s credulity. Certain events in any real person’s life can be fairly well documented, and they can describe thoughts/feelings to others. However, individual accounts can be foggy, particularly of long-ago memories such as childhood.

That said, there are times where Mutt’s Dream is very effective. Particularly when simply describing the horrible Dust Bowl or mining conditions, or the hell that was sharecropping. (If you know the old coal-mining song saying “I owe my soul to the company store,” that’s essentially sharecropping in farm work.) Mantle’s time in the hospital recovering from a nasty leg infection will get to anybody who’s ever had, or ever been, a very sick/injured kid.

Ultimately, this is more a book for Mantle completists than the general fan, although I did respect the effort to at least try something original.

In Dalko, the authors have a different problem. How do you write about an interesting baseball character when you know every source is hugely suspect?

Steve Dalkowski was a legendary fireballing pitcher who bounced around the minors for several years (including Rochester, then an Orioles affiliate) yet never mastered control. Basically everyone who saw him has stories about his fastball, and these stories have circulated for decades. Ron Shelton, the ex-minor leaguer who wrote “Bull Durham,” based the Nuke Laloosh character on stories he heard.

(Dalkowski, unlike Laloosh, was probably not a dim guy, and the veteran assigned to help him out wasn’t giving pitching advice, he was supposed to rein in Dalkowski’s ferocious struggles with alcoholism. It didn’t work — in fact, the reverse happened.)

That’s one of the challenges in writing this book. Dalkowski’s battle with the bottle eventually led to severe dementia, and so the memories he recounted became increasingly inconsistent.

There’s also the seemingly simple (but not really) matter of determining how hard Dalkowski threw. No radar guns back then. Some scouts claimed it would be well over 100 today. The US military set up a test for him, and it rang out at around 90. Not the stuff of legend. Yet the test was structured in such a way that an inaccurate throw would skewer the measurements.

And Dalkowski was famously inaccurate. Opposing batters would sometimes refuse to face him, on the sensible grounds that a pitch you can’t even see could kill you. (Dalkowski never killed anyone, although some players and at least one umpire required medical attention.)

The authors have put out a call for any filmed footage of Dalkowski pitching — this might show his fastball speed. No filmed record has, yet, been found. Consider the difficulty, here. Assuming somebody found film in Grandma’s attic, they’d need a projector. Then know how to run a projector. Then know that this silent footage was Dalkowski (almost all home movies from the era didn’t have sound). It’s not an impossible search; it does have long odds.

Although a biography, much of the book is about trying to answer this question; how hard did he really throw? There’s also a few more reconstructed box scores than is probably necessary (although I’ve yet to meet a game recapper who has the magic formula for “how to summarize games/not get bogged down in description,” I know I don’t).

I found the last chapters my favorites. Dalkowski’s declining health is a sad tale, but there were always people doing their best to help. His wife, until she couldn’t handle the drinking anymore. His former teammates and friends. Finally, his sister, who got Dalkowski into an assisted-living facility towards the end.

Ultimately, a compelling story about a guy who had an incredible skill, with never the knack to harness it.

And those are my two book reviews about baseball players with amazing talents and sad deaths! For the record, I don’t like writing about depressing things, but the stories about athletes saving puppies never seem to fall in my lap, so that’s that.

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