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WHAT'S THE greatest game ever played? The one most often granted "greatest" status, the Colts-Giants 1958 NFL Championship Game, is the subject this month of Mark Bowden's The Best Game Ever. That same title was also used last year by veteran sports journalist Jim Reisler for his account of Game 7 of the 1960 World Series, in which Bill Mazeroski beat the Yankees with a walk-off home run.
In his book former George magazine editor Richard Bradley revisits the 1978 playoff between the Red Sox and Yankees—or, as it's known in Boston, the Bucky F------ Dent Game—and breathes fresh life into an oft-told story. Bradley alternates play-by-play of the game with novelistic accounts of Boston's regular-season collapse (the Sox blew a 14-game lead in the AL East) and New York's Bronx Zoo craziness ( manager Billy Martin was fired midway through the season and replaced by Bob Lemon). His reconstruction of the playoff game is poignant, even if you're a Yankees fan. Boston pitcher Dennis Eckersley recalls watching leftfielder Carl Yastrzemski from the dugout as Dent's seventh-inning pop fly cleared Fenway Park's Green Monster. When Eckersley says the future Hall of Famer "just sort of drooped," every Red Sox fan will, for a second, forget that the Curse of the Bambino has since been put to rest.
As dramatic as that moment is, though, the '78 playoff isn't quite worthy of the book's title; many games have been as well played, for greater stakes. Still, The Greatest Game is an incisive look at a transformative era in baseball history. In an age when Red Sox and Yankees players speak of each other like diplomats, it's shocking to recall the venom that once flowed: Catchers Carlton Fisk and Thurman Munson brawl on the field and bicker off it, and when Boston's Bill Lee calls Martin "a Nazi," the Yankees' manager responds by sending a dead mackerel to the Red Sox' clubhouse. "Not only did you want to win, but you wanted to grind 'em into the ground," Yastrzemski says. Greatest game? No, but it was the best rivalry.
A CLASSIC of the baseball canon is The Glory of Their Times, Lawrence S. Ritter's 1966 oral history featuring some of the game's early stars. Burke, an SI senior editor, and Fornatale update the format in Change Up, a collection of interviews with players, executives and broadcasters about eight seminal moments of the last half century. The topics range from social and economic upheavals (the influx of Latin players, the birth of the players' union) to innovations such as the designated hitter. The interview subjects, who include Cal Ripken Jr., Derek Jeter, Earl Weaver and Ball Four author Jim Bouton, play off each other in virtual roundtable discussions that are rich with insights—Frank Robinson (right) reflects on umpires' racial biases when he became the first black manager, in 1975—and humorous anecdotes (former Orioles DH Tommy Davis recalls interrupting a phone call with his wife for an at bat). Talking baseball has rarely been so enlightening.
WHY A CURVEBALL
IN Babe Ruth's Home Run Secrets, a 1928 Popular Mechanics article reprinted in Why a Curveball Curves, the Bambino says he hates when an opposing "twirler" throws him a slow breaking pitch. "What I like best of all is when they steam over fast ones," he says. "Those are the ones I like to nibble on." Interestingly, a 2007 piece in the book shows that a batter can hit a hook farther than a heater because the curve comes off the bat with more backspin, which translates into more lift—suggesting that if the Babe had been a man of science, he might still have that career home run record. That's just one of several I-did-not-know-that moments in Curveball, a collection of Popular Mechanics pieces about sports. Among the writers are several athletes, but the truly eggheaded stuff is wisely left to the pros: Physicist Peter Brancazio answers the titular question, and he, like most of Curveball's authors, does so enjoyably, in a style that's thorough yet fun.
THE STATHEADS at BP are often accused of being emotionless, overly scientific drones bent on reducing a pastoral pastime to a heap of numbers. To be fair, they do seem like people who know their way around a slide rule. The Prospectus, BP's 13th annual preseason guide, is full of formulas such as SNLVAR, which, it turns out, has nothing to do with variations on Saturday Night Live skits. (It's Support Neutral Lineup-adjusted Value Added above Replacement.) But the Prospectus is more than a data dump. The team-by-team breakdowns are insightful—take the number-free argument that Dusty Baker was a good hire for the Reds because he will handle more of the major league personnel moves and allow G.M. Wayne Krivsky to focus on his true passion, the farm system. Another clever moment: the quote from Turgenev's Fathers and Sons that introduces the look at the aging Mets. The Prospectus was clearly written by people who love the game with their hearts as well as their minds.