SCOTTSDALE, Arizona -- It's rare when you read a baseball book that really makes you think about so many disparate elements across the entire history of the game, but George Castle's "Baseball's Game Changers" does an excellent job of linking many parts of the game we all love, and their importance to its history.
This book has 50 chapters, each dedicated to a person, event, or category of things that have influenced baseball since its beginning, and Castle ranks them from 1 to 50 in terms of importance. (I thought it was a little bit odd to organize the book starting with a countdown from No. 5 to No. 1, and then have the rest in order of importance from No. 6 to No. 50, but after a while of reading you won't mind.)
Most book reviews won't give away the book's plot, but I don't think it's really giving much away to reveal the top-five rankings here, since you'll likely agree on them, even if you don't agree on the exact order. From 5 to 1: the Black Sox scandal, Marvin Miller, TV's influence on the game, Jackie Robinson and Babe Ruth. All of those things and people created huge changes in the way the game was run and played, and in the introduction Castle says choosing between Ruth and Robinson for the top spot was "splitting hairs."
Beyond the top five, Castle examines in detail things such as bullpen specialization, Tommy John surgery, the arbitration system, sabermetrics (in which someone you know provided some quotes), expansion, regional sports networks, and dozens of other things that have changed the game in a significant way. One of the things I liked best when reading this book was many color photos that I had never seen before, including the one that's at the top of this review, with a Cubs and White Sox star of their time, standing next to a TV camera and Jack Brickhouse, representing some of the key influences on the game in Chicago as well as nationally.
I enjoyed this book and though you might not agree with all the rankings, Castle says that's OK, and part of the point of it:
For Baseball's Game Changers, I decided to throw out a massive number of topics, winnow them down to the top 50, and then rank them based on how dramatically they altered the national pastime. In the process, I moved some game changers up, others down, and designated even more for assignment. I have pounded the keyboard to explain my decisions, and I open up my list for your examination and your disputes. If baseball can't handle a good rhubarb, it can't handle anything.
This is a fun read and a good way to start off a new baseball season. The photos really make the book (even if there is one included of Marty Brennaman). Highly recommended.