Everybody’s talking about Derek Jeter’s quest for 3,000 hits. When his career is over, though, here’s what people will remember: He won a zillion honors but most of all was he honorable.
Jeter now has a biography worthy of his achievements in Ian O’Connor’s “The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26). Jeter was a prodigy who turned into a problem, making loads of errors in the minors and hitting erratically. A farm-club executive called him “the worst shortstop I’ve ever seen.” O’Connor tells the story of how he went on to become the premier Yankee of his time and one of the greatest ballplayers anyone of this generation has seen.
A biracial symbol of American possibility, Jeter did it by “learning how to survive and occasionally thrive in a game built around failure” -- and thriving despite a troubled relationship with his neighbor on the left side of the infield, Alex Rodriguez.
Not that Jeter was a silent sufferer as Rodriguez gamboled on and off the field. He was capable of “shooting A-Rod the kind of stare armed troops often gave each other from opposite sides of the 38th parallel,” O’Connor says.
Even so, the very presence of a ballplayer with what O’Connor calls “a steady moral compass” is enough to make us all cheer -- for Jeter if not always for the Yanks.
Then there’s Stan Musial. Nobody doesn’t like Stan the Man, and that’s part of the riddle at the heart of George Vecsey’s “Stan Musial: An American Life” (Ballantine/ESPN Books, $26), a heroic biography that asks why the Cardinal great never had a cult of his own -- and was never celebrated as an emblem of the culture.
“Almost as if by will, DiMaggio and (Ted) Williams became distant towering legends, the stormy Himalayas,” Vecsey writes, “whereas Stan the Man endured as the weathered old Appalachians, like the coal-laden hills behind his boyhood home in Donora, Pennsylvania.”
Musial was appreciated but not venerated. In his day he was admired for his remarkable skills and his gentle human touch. Now he is nearly forgotten except by old-timers who remember him as a Dvorak of the diamond, an old master ready to be rediscovered.
But with his trademark feet-parallel batting stance, Musial left his mark on the game, and on St. Louis, to this day one of the great baseball towns. Armed with what Vecsey calls “his spontaneous generosity of heart and wallet,” he was baseball’s “happy face” -- a Happy Warrior, you might say, only unlike Al Smith and Hubert Humphrey, who also were described that way, Musial’s story is one of triumph. He was, in short, a winner.
“He exuded endless optimism, a one-man GI bill, grateful to be working at his trade, which in his case was being one of the greatest hitters the game has ever known,” Vecsey writes. “And then, somehow, Stanley was obscured.” Vecsey’s book is a reclamation job for a baseball career with much to claim.
‘An Accidental Sportswriter’
Robert Lipsyte, like Vecsey, spent years as a sports columnist at the New York Times. But he describes himself in the title of his memoir as “An Accidental Sportswriter” (Ecco, $25.99).
He began as a fat boy who knew almost nothing about sports. He grew into a man who loved the Times more than sports and who developed an antipathy to what he calls “Jock Culture.”
Lipsyte’s achievement -- much harder than it looks -- is to have remained an outsider among insiders, a man envied for the life he led yet troubled that he was wasting his life. I would argue that a life spent around Gay Talese, Mickey Mantle, Casey Stengel, Howard Cosell, Billie Jean King and Muhammad Ali, whom Lipsyte met while standing with the Beatles, is not a life wasted.
All that time was invested -- and the dividend is a sportswriter’s memoir different from all the rest.
(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The opinions expressed are his own.)