By IAN WILSON
It’s a great time to find a comfy chair, sit back, crack a book and get lost in it for a few hours.
With that in mind, we’ve compiled a list of 10 books that are of interest to Alberta baseball fans. These titles include biographies, historical studies, movie-inspiring tales and first-person accounts of experimental baseball projects.
So, in no particular order, here are the books and authors that have captivated our attention:
SHOELESS JOE by W.P. Kinsella
It would’ve been quite easy to make this a list entirely composed of Kinsella’s work. The Edmonton-born author made a career out of mixing mysticism with the beauty of baseball. His other works – such as The Thrill of the Grass, The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, and The Essential W.P. Kinsella – are well worth your time, but we opted for the familiar cornfield from Shoeless Joe because it’s a great introduction to the author.
The story, which served as the inspiration for the 1989 movie Field of Dreams, follows Ray Kinsella, who heeds a magical voice that encourages him to build a ball diamond on his farm. It’s a work that combines memorable lines (“If you build it, he will come.”) with intriguing characters (fictionalized versions of J.D. Salinger and Moonlight Graham), but it also brings out the sentimental best of baseball. It may be too syrupy for some, but not us.
HOME GAME by Bret Boone and Kevin Cook
A veteran of 15 Major League Baseball (MLB) seasons who played for two years with the Calgary Cannons of the Pacific Coast League, second baseman Bret Boone was an accomplished player with plenty of stories to tell about his career.
Those yarns of patrolling the middle infield with Barry Larkin and Omar Vizquel, winning Gold Gloves and Silver Slugger awards, and dealing with steroid allegations from Jose Canseco provided plenty of fodder for the book, which was published in 2016.
Calgarians will enjoy reading about his time with the Cannons in 1992 and 1993, but Boone also made history as the first third-generation MLB player, following the example provided by his grandfather, Ray, and his dad, Bob. In addition, Bret’s brother, Aaron, also played in the majors and is now the manager of the New York Yankees. With so much sporting lineage in place, this book goes beyond just the story of one player. It gives us a seat at the Boone dinner table and dishes up decades of family baseball history.
MINOR PLAYERS, MAJOR DREAMS by Brett H. Mandel
Intriguing bit of undercover work here, as Mandel’s first book sees him join the Ogden Raptors of the Pioneer League for the 1994 season. The recreational ball player from Philadelphia spent most of the time riding the pine, although he does get a few hacks in over the course of the year.
The author’s embedded approach, meanwhile, provides some outstanding insight into the life of a professional baseball player in the minor leagues. Mandel brings the reader on the bumpy bus rides, into the crowded hotel rooms and behind the scenes for a number of rants from the coaches. We get to know the players, the fans, the management and the day-to-day activities that come with playing rookie-level baseball.
We also get a glimpse of the Medicine Hat Blue Jays and Lethbridge Mounties, who were a part of the eight-team league at the time. Medicine Hat’s Athletic Park even provides the cover photo for the book!
THE RAJAH OF RENFREW by Brant Ducey
Author Brant Ducey provides an in-depth look at his father, John Ducey, Edmonton’s Mr. Baseball. The elder Ducey, who had the Edmonton Trappers’ ballpark named after him, is a member of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame and the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame.
The 1998 book, however, provides more than just a biographical look at the player, umpire and promoter. It delves into the history of baseball in the Edmonton area and gives readers a look at dozens of images from the early days of the game in Alberta. At over 500 pages, this is a comprehensive examination of baseball in the region, and a must have for history buffs.
HAWK by Andre Dawson with Tom Bird
Soft-spoken superstar Andre Dawson earned his first paycheque from professional baseball as a member of the Lethbridge Expos in 1975, representing Alberta’s first team in the Pioneer League. The outfielder played just one season in the province and graduated to the major leagues for a decade-long stint with Montreal shortly after.
Those early days are recounted in Hawk: An Inspiring Story of Success at the Game of Life and Baseball. The book, which was published in 1994 when Dawson was a member of the Boston Red Sox, reflects on the bulk of his playing days, including his stellar campaigns with the Expos and his National League MVP season with the Chicago Cubs in 1987. It obviously does not include anything about the final two seasons of his playing career (he was a member of the Florida Marlins in 1995 and 1996) or his reaction to be named a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
We should note, however, that another autobiography on Dawson – entitled If You Love This Game … An MVP’s Life in Baseball – was published in 2012. That may contain a more complete picture of the man from Miami, but we haven’t had the opportunity to look through it yet.
EDGAR by Edgar Martinez with Larry Stone
It’s a really exclusive club – to be a Hall of Fame player who played minor-league baseball for a team in Alberta before ultimately being summoned to Cooperstown.
As mentioned, Andre Dawson did it. So to did Edgar Martinez.
Stone, a Seattle Times sports columnist, collaborated with Martinez to tell the famous designated hitter’s story in the autobiography Edgar, which was released last year. It’s a well-researched chronicle of the former Pacific Coast League star, and it devotes a number of pages to his 276 games with the Calgary Cannons in the 1980s.
PERFECT I’M NOT by David Wells with Chris Kreski
From the quiet guys, Dawson and Martinez, we move on to someone a tad more outspoken: lefty starting pitcher David Wells.
A quick look at the cover – featuring the former Yankee in a sleeveless undershirt on a motorbike, and the subtitle: “Boomer on Beer, Brawls, Backaches, and Baseball” – let’s you know that you’ll want to grab your helmet if you climb aboard, because this is going to be quite the ride. A mix of Canseco’s Juiced book and Motley Crue’s The Dirt, Wells pulls no punches and spares no crude thoughts in this raucous adventure. What he lacks in social graces, the Californian more than makes up for in entertainment value.
The second-round pick of the Blue Jays, who played eight seasons for Toronto and won a World Series with the club, began his pro career in Medicine Hat in 1982. That year, alongside his future World Series-winning teammates Jimmy Key and Pat Borders, Wells and the Baby Jays claimed a Pioneer League title. But it’s his impressions of Medicine Hat and his details about living at the Silver Buckle Inn that are truly captivating.
OUT OF LEFT FIELD by Art Thiel
Thiel’s thorough account of the tenacious work – and fortune – that went into starting up and maintaining an MLB club in the Pacific Northwest is a fun read for Seattle Mariners fans. It explores pivotal moments for the team, such as the arrival and departure of star players Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez and Randy Johnson, as well as the unlikely scenario that allowed the M’s to build Safeco Field. The behind-the-scenes business moves, political decisions and baseball personalities that influenced the Mariners from the 1970s through the early 2000s are covered in detail.
There is no focus on their Triple-A affiliate of the Pacific Coast League, the Calgary Cannons. Nonetheless, the alumni of the Stampede City squad are regularly cast as characters in this engaging tale. Edgar Martinez, Bret Boone, Jay Buhner, Tino Martinez, Omar Vizquel, Mike Blowers and countless other Calgary graduates make an appearance.
GOING THE DISTANCE by William Steele
This is not a book by the Shoeless Joe author we introduced at the top of our list, but this one is all about him. This definitive biography puts a spotlight on W.P. Kinsella’s early years in rural Alberta, his high school education in Edmonton, and his tumultuous time as a professor at the University of Calgary. It follows Kinsella to British Columbia, where he worked as a taxi driver and a restaurant owner before ultimately experiencing success as a writer.
Steele reveals a hard-working, at times cantankerous, personality. And the book is not simply one author repeatedly praising another – Kinsella was gracious enough to share his warts, as well as his triumphs. We see his personal shortcomings, his failed marriages, and opinions that many people consider controversial. Steele truly did go the distance, as it pertained to Kinsella, with this book.
THE WAX PACK by Brad Balukjian
It’s a wonderful premise for a book – open a pack of old baseball cards, then hop in your car and track down those players to see what became of them.
Using a pack of 1986 Topps baseball cards as his muse, Balukjian did just that, and he encountered some players with Alberta ties along the way.
Don Carman, a key figure in The Wax Pack, pitched briefly for the Cannons in 1993. Gary Pettis was a popular outfielder with the Edmonton Trappers in the 1980s, and Garry Templeton managed the Trap in 2000. Platoon infielder and expert pinch hitter Rance Mulliniks, meanwhile, visited Vauxhall Academy earlier this year for the team’s banquet.
That’s it for our baseball literature list. What baseball books are you reading right now? What reads with Alberta connections are on your list? Let us know in the comments – and thanks for reading!