A week or two ago I mentioned a very promising book that I’d just become aware of, Now Batting, Number…: The Mystique, Superstition, and Lore of Baseball’s Uniform Numbers, by Jack Looney. At the time, I hadn’t actually obtained a copy of the book itself, but by now I’ve gotten one and spent some time with it.
The good news: There’s a small mountain of information here, including team-by-team historical roster breakdowns of every MLB team (i.e., if you want to know what number Tommie Agee wore for the White Sox in 1967, it’s in here), all-time “best of” rosters for each uni number (i.e., the greatest players to wear No. 3, No. 7, etc.), an entire chapter devoted to equipment managers, plenty of fun anecdotes, and a lot more. The production values are generally quite high — good color photos, high-quality coated paper, etc. At 545 pages — many of them rendered in relatively fine print — you’re getting a lot for your dough.
The bad news: The writing style often feels slapdash. Transitions range from choppy to nonexistent, as if Looney collected loads of information over the course of many years and then did his best to throw it together without actually smoothing out any of the junctures (which I bet is exactly what happened). There are also factual errors, some of which are pretty glaring: In a single paragraph, Looney misidentifies the year in which Willie Mays joined the Mets (1972, not ’73) and misspells Alejandro PeÃ±a’s first name as Alexandro. It’s great that he includes a list of pitchers who’ve worn single-digit numbers, but not so great that his list doesn’t include Wayne Gomes, who wore No. 2 for the Giants in 2001 (easily confirmed in the all-time Giants roster listing just a few pages away). And while some of the photos are great (if you’ve heard about Andy Messersmith’s infamous “Channel 17” jersey but have never actually seen it, it’s in here), more of them seem apropos of nothing, as if they were just put there to fill up space.
Bottom line: If you’re sufficiently detail-obsessive to read Uni Watch, you probably need this book on your shelf. But you’ll likely be annoyed by a few of its flaws. Necessary but imperfect — life is like that sometimes.
Fortunately, there’s another new book on the market that I can recommend with fewer reservations: A Game of Inches: The Stories Behind the Innovations That Shaped Baseball, by Peter Morris. This book isn’t uni-centric per se, but there’s a short chapter devoted to uniforms and a much larger one focusing on the genesis of batting gloves, helmets, catcher’s gear, and other equipment. Meanwhile, if you want to learn the stories behind left-handed catchers, the hidden-ball trick, basket catches, team captains, squeeze plays, peeking at the catcher’s signals during an at-bat, and plenty more, this is the place. The writing is excellent, and Morris spends plenty of time debunking various myths and apocryphal stories that have become entrenched over the years. To his enormous credit, he’s also willing to say, “I don’t know” or “It’s not clear which story is accurate here” on various points — always the sign of a good historian. Don’t miss.
Uni Watch News Ticker: Interesting bit of early-’90s logo creep here — check out those Champion logos on umpire John McSherry’s pant leg and sweater sleeve. … Elastic-less pants update: Last week a reader reported that the Cubs’ broadcasters had mentioned on the air that Scott Eyre had been fined for removing the elastic for his pant cuffs. But now comes this dispatch from reader Lincoln King: “Cubs broadcasters Len Kasper and Bob Brenly reported during the June 23rd Cubs game that Scott Eyre received word that he would not be fined by MLB after all. Instead, he was given a warning.” … Dean Miller has come up with the perfect design for a new Phillies uniform.