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Murph’s Reading List: Best new Bay Area sports books for quarantine

© Cody Glenn | 2019 May 14

As an old sportswriter, I keep a keen eye on my ink-stained colleagues. I still love to read them. When the Murphy family hard-copy newspaper hits our driveway every morning, it’s the sound of loyalty.

Many of you have stopped taking newspapers, but the Jock Blog is not here to dive into the cultural changes that have caused that — nor the cultural detritus that has resulted.

Instead, I just want to use this week’s entry to shine a light on the scribes out there still getting it done, and making our lives better. By that, I mean we in the Bay Area are currently being treated to no fewer than four new sports books by four of our best scribblers.

Each one is worth your while. And hey, Father’s Day is coming up, so you’re welcome.

We start with the biggest topic, and that’s simply a number: “24”.

The Chronicle’s national baseball writer, John Shea, took on the daring and daunting topic of another Willie Mays biography. Considering the center fielder himself published an autobiography “Say Hey: The Autobiography of Willie Mays”, and considering the serious author James Hirsch wrote a 640-page book on Mays in 2010, “Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend” you’d think Shea was only left with maybe describing a few random at-bats from 1968 and Mays’ favorite cheeses.


The brilliance of Shea’s book is its accessibility. Shea writes cleanly, and has said the book is meant for classrooms, so future generations can access the legend of maybe the greatest all-around player who ever lived.

Known in press circles as “Colombo” for his always-probing final questions when most thought interviews were over, Shea is able to unearth new material by sitting with Mays for over 100 hours. Shea earned Mays’ trust. The result is a fresh feel, the key decision being to bold-face Mays’ own thoughts on his Alabama childhood, the Negro Leagues, New York in the early 1950s, how to play the outfield, years at Candlestick Park, the excruciating details of the 1962 World Series, how to dominate All-Star games, ranking his greatest catches, the emotions of being traded to the Mets, to name a few.

Photo editor Brad Mangin curates some never-before-seen photos that punch up the work, and take the reader back to the days of Mays’ handsome, strapping youth. That’s not to mention Shea’s sleuthing skills in chasing down fresh quotes from Mays’ old teammates and opponents.

Bottom line: this book didn’t just illuminate Mays for me, who never saw him play; but it’s going to the top of my 12-year-old’s summer reading list.

Then again, John Shea is a Tam High graduate, so you shouldn’t expect anything less than top-shelf work.

Next up is the memoir from the man who for my money was the best writer of my era: the inimitable Lowell Cohn. I confess, I have a rooting interest in Cohn’s outstanding new collection of sports and life memories, “Gloves Off: 40 Years of Unfiltered Sportswriting” — after all, Lowell gave me the great honor of writing the foreword. I think so highly of Lowell and his writing, I stressed over that foreword for weeks.

This book is about writing, and human observation. Turning his sharp, critical, comic and sometimes even sentimental columnist eye towards Bill Walsh, Frank Robinson, Don Nelson, Bruce Bochy, Jim Harbaugh, boxing legends, the hilarity of writer-player interactions, his Brooklyn childhood and my personal favorite, a day spent with “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz, Cohn transports us through time and stadiums and teams — with tight sentence structure, and powerful analysis that alters your thinking. Lowell is the best. You can’t not read this.

I just finished the very sweet “From the Stick to the Cove”, by Giants legendary clubhouse manager Mike Murphy, as written by and longtime ball writer, the Bay’s own Chris Haft. How can you read “Murph” reminiscing about Mays, Bochy, meeting Frank Sinatra and John Wayne, listing all his invented nicknames for players and not smile? Murph is always the first one introduced on Opening Day, and as Haft writes, was the first to get a 2010 World Series ring. You get a chance to read the thoughts of a guy who started at Seals Stadium as a batboy, and a chance to relive the Giants during a baseball-free pandemic, you do it.

The only book of the Mt. Bookmore releases I haven’t been able to read yet is the esteemed Joan Ryan’s offering: “Intangibles: Unlocking the Science and Soul of Team Chemistry”, but it’s next on the list. First off, Ryan is, like Cohn, one of the great writers of our era. Second off, we had Ryan on our show, and she was fantastic in detailing the key thoughts behind the book — that in an era of sabermetrics and analytics, there is still both and art and a science to the human interaction of sport. Her anecdote about Jake Peavy saying that his teammates “summon up a strength in me that I cannot manufacture myself” says it all.

We just finished listing our favorite high school movies on the show, and when flicks like “Hoosiers” and “Coach Carter” and “Remember the Titans” and “Friday Night Lights” make the list, you know humanity is something important to all of us. That’s what Ryan is getting at.

Four books. Four Bay legends. Good time to be a reader, fellow quarantine sports fans.


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