In early January, I finished the book The Baseball 100 by Joe Posnanski, his 300K-word magnum opus that I consider it the ultimate baseball history book. I read its almost 900 pages in three days!
The book provides short but substantive biographies of players the author considers the best 100 of all-time. There is something powerful about seeing the life journeys of so many people back-to-back-to-back 100x over.
I expected great anecdotes, statistical analysis, and minor squabbles with Posnanski’s choices or ranking, and I was not disappointed. But I didn’t expect the way it made me reflect on life in God’s world. Throughout the book, several themes that stuck with me.
One was the role of fathers in the development and success of players.
The way I see it, you can categorize fathers of famous ball players in a few categories, three prominent ones being:
- Former Professional Players. Bobby Bonds, Ken Griffey Sr., Cal Ripken Sr., etc. It makes sense for the sons of experienced players to be great.
- Effective dad-coaches* with a positive influence. Chipper Jones is an example from the book. Outside of Posnanski’s top 100, current stars Bryce Harper and Kris Bryant come to mind.
- Effective dad-coaches with a negative influence. Carlton Fisk, George Brett, and Mickey Mantle were examples from the book. This isn’t to say their influence was solely negative, but the essays certainly drew out negative effects of obsessive and demanding fathers who were never satisfied with their son’s performances. Posnanski quotes the film Searching for Bobby Fischer to illustrate this dynamic for many players, “How many ballplayers grow up afraid of losing their father’s love every time they come to the plate?”
This third category of fathers made me think a lot. The pressure of a father could drive a player to fear and despair, but it certainly had something to do with achieving greatness, even if a player couldn’t fully enjoy their achievements.
Take Mickey Mantle, for instance. The great Yankee was a 3x MVP, 7x World Series Champ, and member of the 500-HR club. (If you’re not a baseball fan, each of those alone place him in elite status.) While in rehab for alcoholism, Mantle wrote a grief letter to his father, presumably to help him overcome past hurt that contributed to his alcoholism. Posnanski wrote that “in the letter he apologized to his father for not living up to expectations… he also wrote about the pain of expectations, and how he wanted Mutt [Mantle’s father] to stop running his life.” These are words from an all-time baseball great, years beyond his playing days. I wonder if Mantle ever got over his daddy-issues.
The last example I’ll share is from Carlton Fisk, one of the greatest catchers of all-time and owner of one of the most iconic playoff home runs in history. He said this to his father in his Hall of Fame induction speech, pausing as he held back tears, “I always wanted you to be proud of me. And sometimes just because you could have done better doesn’t mean you’ve done badly.” These words show how his dad’s constant pressure defined their relationship and shaped Fisk’s life.
Two thoughts came to mind on this third type of baseball father.
First, would each player have achieved the greatness they did without the pressure of their fathers? Maybe, maybe not. It’s impossible to know like so many other ‘what ifs’ of sports history.
Second, how different is our relationship with our heavenly Father? He wants us to be all we can be in His Kingdom, but motivates us by grace, not guilt. We are approved because of Christ’s work, not our own. I love Paul’s example in 1 Corinthians 15:10, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” Paul rested in grace and was motivated by grace to work hard. May the Lord motivate us by His grace to follow Him and lead others.
A second theme through the book was sin (although Posnanski didn’t use theological categories). Several of the players mentioned were simply not good people even by the world’s standards—racists, prideful jerks, adulterers, and more.
Sin caused the major stain on baseball history: the fact that the Negro Leagues even had to exist. I’m thankful Posnanski included many players from that league in his list, bending over backwards to explain their greatness even if traditional statistics and accolades were replaced by legendary (and possibly hyperbolic) anecdotes. But that’s all that history has left us in some cases.
As we look at the statistical records that have an outsized place in considering baseball history (think of the all-time home run leader list), one can only wonder how many home runs Negro League slugger Josh Gibson actually hit and how many less home runs Babe Ruth would have hit if he batted against the best Negro pitchers and not only white pitchers. History, including baseball history, is complicated because of sin.
One last theme I’ll mention, relating to the last, is that of gaining the whole world and forfeiting your soul. I hesitate to speculate on living people I don’t know personally—so take what I say with a grain of salt. But so many ballplayers have sought fame and fortune at the expense of their souls.
Barry Bonds, the all-time home run king is a possible example. Bonds has been ostracized by the baseball community due to PED use and his overall demeanor. He may indeed be the greatest player of all-time. But years after his career is over, the way Bonds described his life and relationship with MLB was, “I feel like a ghost. A ghost in a big empty house, just rattling around.” Bonds wasn’t speaking on the state of his soul, but how would someone describe gaining the world and losing their soul without biblical language? Perhaps like Bonds did.
(I’ll mention one last thing before wrapping up this reflection. I’ve had the privilege of meeting many MLB players the past couple of years who love the Lord Jesus and want to grow. Please pray with me for God to build a discipleship culture among athletes and that He would raise up many gospel workers from their ranks.)
If you’re a baseball fan and want to read the ultimate baseball history book, read The Baseball 100. If you do, keep an eye for the myriad of ways it unintentionally shows you God’s truth in the fabric of life in our fallen world.
* When I say ‘dad-coaches’ I don’t mean ‘official’ coaches but rather informal motivators.