Thursday, November 03, 2011

I Read a Book: The Underground Baseball Encyclopedia

The Underground Baseball Encyclopedia: Baseball Stuff You Never Needed to Know and Can Certainly Live Without

By Robert Schnakenberg
282 pages
Triumph Books, 2010



Baseball constantly rewards us with historic, unforgettable moments -- new milestones, no-hitters, World Series victories and so forth. But for every Lou Gehrig farewell speech, there's a Disco Demolition Night, as baseball also delivers an ever-increasing amount of arcane, oddball lore. There are enough drunken antics, wild '70s hair hairstyles, and George Brett hemorrhoids to fill an encyclopedia. Now, thanks to Brooklyn-based author Robert Schnakenberg, it finally does.

The Underground Baseball Encyclopedia is a tidy, cross-referenced compendium of the game's underbelly: the sordid and the silly, the scandalous and the stupid. Other than tasteful coverage of a few truly ugly episodes (i.e., Lyman Bostock’s murder), Schnakenberg usually goes for the laffs. And why not?

Here’s an A-to-Z sampler: Astroturf, The Bad News Bears, Cocaine Seven, Double Knit Uniforms, Eephus Pitch, Fuck Face Card, Greenies, House of David, The Isotopes, Juiced, Harry Kalas, Lake Erie Midge, Morganna, "No Pepper," Saduharu Oh, Joe Pepitone, Dan Quisenberry, Road Beef, Schottzie, Tomahawk Chop, Bob Uecker, Bill Veeck, Winfield Seagull Incident, Xenophobia ("See Rocker, John"), Youppi, and Don Zimmer.

Baseball is a game full of eccentrics, and the UBE has loads of ‘em -- players (Dock Ellis), fans (Steve Bartman), broadcasters (Harry Caray), and various other characters (wacky ballpark vendors, secret mistresses, "disgraceful" National Anthem singers). There’s Chief Wahoo and Chief Noc-a-Homa, Billy Bean and Billy Beane, The Baseball Bunch and The Brady Bunch (specifically, the episode guest-starring Don Drysdale). And, of course, mascots. Nearly 60 are listed, and while most of the book’s entries are limited to a few sentences, the Phillie Phanatic has by far the longest UBE write-up, spread across four pages.

Schnakenberg admits up front that his survey is "far from comprehensive," but a few oversights remain: the (Mario) Mendoza Line, 1975 bubblegum-blowing champ Kurt Bevacqua, Kenny Powers... Granted, defining what constitutes "underground" is pretty much impossible, yet some inconsistencies are apparent: Dodger Dogs are included, Fenway Franks are not; Johnny Bench Batter Up is in, the Rod Carew Batting Trainer is out; there’s Larry Doby’s Cock, but no Merkle’s Boner.

Still, with over 400 solidly researched entries, the UBE is a fun read for both casual and hardcore fans, at least those of us whose appreciation of the game isn’t limited to the Ken Burns-y, Field of Dreams-type stuff, but who dig the offbeat sidelights just as much. Maybe even more.

Originally appeared in a shorter version in Zisk #20.
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