HARK, HEROES! READERS IN SEARCH OF ADMIRABLE ATHLETES WILL FIND SATISFACTION IN THESE WORKS

December 11, 1995

If you are among those sharing the conviction that there are
more villains than heroes afoot in sports nowadays, allow me to
commend to your Christmas shopping needs several new books that
recall epic figures of an earlier time. Of these, none may be of
more heroic stature than Walter Johnson, that paragon of homely
virtue and pitching excellence who shed so much glory on the
first quarter of this century. He was, wrote one admirer, "the
hero that never struts; the star that never brags." Pitching his
entire 21-year career for the old Washington Senators, a team
often found in the middle or at the bottom of the American
League standings, Johnson was able to fastball his way to an
amazing 416 victories, second in baseball history only to Cy
Young's 511. His career strikeout record of 3,508 would
last 56 years until shattered by another flamethrower--Nolan Ryan.

But as good as Johnson was on the field, he was even better off
it, a man of positively saintly personal habits. He didn't
smoke, drink, gamble or chase women indiscriminately at a time
when his baseball contemporaries wholeheartedly embraced these
pleasurable vices. And he was of such an even disposition that
he accepted without complaint the misplays of teammates and the
misjudgments of umpires. His biggest fear on the mound was not
in giving up a hit but of hitting a batter with one of his
lethal high hard ones.

Johnson was so virtuous that he even got a character reference
from the pitcher-hating Ty Cobb on the occasion of his running
for Congress from Maryland in 1940. "I think so highly of this
man's integrity," wrote Cobb to the Bethesda Journal, that "I
can't resist recommending him to the voters of his district."
(Johnson lost to an incumbent, not necessarily because of Cobb's
endorsement.) And Will Rogers, the ranking humorist of the age,
was able to say of him in all sincerity, "Any man, woman or
child in the United States that don't love Walter Johnson and
admire him as a man, is not a good American."

So what can you say of such an unblemished specimen in print?
Where's the conflict? The controversy? And why would anyone read
a book about him written by, of all people, his grandson? Well,
there are plenty of good reasons to buy Walter Johnson:
Baseball's Big Train by grandson Henry W. Thomas (Phenom Press,
$24.95), not the least of which are the author's thorough
knowledge of the period and his evenhanded treatment of his
subject.

And Johnson's life and career were hardly without drama. Born on
a Kansas farm, he was transplanted as a boy to Southern
California, where his father found work but not fortune in the
burgeoning oil business. Johnson tore up the local leagues with
his virtually unhittable fastball and then moved to semipro ball
in Idaho, where he was discovered by the Senators, who were
dazzled by such velocity. With a sidearm motion so casual and
unhurried he never appeared to be doing anything more strenuous
than playing catch, Johnson may have thrown harder than anyone
in the history of the game, harder even than Ryan or Bob Feller.
There were, of course, no radar guns in Johnson's time, only the
awed recollections of contemporary hitters. Casey Stengel once
walked away from the plate to the dugout after two Johnson
strikes. When he was informed by the umpire that the last throw
was to first base, not to the plate, Casey replied, "That's all
right. I didn't see the other two either." As a joke, catcher
Eddie Ainsmith once persuaded Johnson under darkening skies to
wind up as if to pitch but to never let the ball go. "Strike
three!" the umpire bellowed upon hearing Ainsmith pound his
empty mitt. "[That ball] was a foot wide!" protested the hitter.

In the years from 1910 to 1919, Johnson won a cool 35% of his
team's games. Over the course of his career, he led the league
in strikeouts 12 times, in shutouts seven times, in complete
games and wins six times, and in innings pitched and earned run
average five times. He was 36-7 in 1913 with an ERA of 1.09. He
had 11 seasons in his career in which his ERA was below 2.00.
But with the Senators it was never easy. In 1916 he lost 13
one-run games, four by scores of 1-0. And by the time the
Senators reached the World Series, he was 36 years old and
fighting a sore arm. He lost his first two starts in that 1924
Series against the Giants, then as the nation outside New York
rejoiced, he pitched four scoreless innings in relief to win the
12-inning final game that gave Washington its first world
championship.

His middle years were marked by tragedy. In the span of nine
years, his father, his baby daughter, his grandfather, his
mother-in-law, a sister, and finally, and most devastatingly,
his wife, Hazel, died. Johnson never fully recovered from
Hazel's death, and his last years, spent on a Maryland farm,
were melancholy ones. He himself succumbed to a brain tumor at
age 59 on Dec. 10, 1946. "He died like he lived--with quiet
dignity," wrote the nurse at his bedside. "As gently as a
feather wafted out the window, and just as silently, his soul
took flight."

A somewhat different, certainly more familiar and, in his own
way, no less exemplary figure is portrayed in DiMaggio: An
Illustrated Life by Dick Johnson and Glenn Stout (Walker & Co.,
$29.95). The authors, who previously collaborated on a biography
of Ted Williams, do a workmanlike job of tracing this icon's
journey from the San Francisco waterfront to marriage to Marilyn
Monroe and international celebrityhood. They are particularly
effective in detailing the events of his now legendary 56-game
hitting streak in 1941. Wisely, they point out that while the
streak may have sent the rest of the sporting public into
various stages of quotidian anxiety, Joe DiMaggio himself was
relatively unaffected by it, for the simple reason that he had
been there before. Eight years earlier, as an 18-year-old rookie
with the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League,
Joltin' Joe had hit in 61 straight games, so for the most part,
he took his daily bingles in stride.

The photographs in this volume are excellent, starting with the
cover shot of the somber slugger honing his famously productive
bat. But there are occasional errors in the text, most notably
one howler describing Hank Greenberg, who was, with DiMaggio,
one of the greatest of right-handed power hitters, as
"left-handed." And on a smaller scale, Saints Peter and Paul
Church in San Francisco, where DiMaggio and his first wife,
Dorothy Arnold, were married, is not a cathedral.

In keeping with his reclusive persona, DiMaggio did not
cooperate in the preparation of this book, but some lively, if
somewhat dated essays by Thomas Boswell, Stephen Jay Gould, Luke
Salisbury and the late Mickey Mantle (with Mickey Herskowitz)
heighten the text. Novelist Salisbury deftly describes
DiMaggio's marriage to his second wife--like his first, an
actress, but of somewhat greater renown--as a union of "the man
who needed no one and the woman who needed everyone." And of the
ongoing DiMaggio mystique, Salisbury writes, "Joe DiMaggio
understood what it meant to be Joe DiMaggio." Not that that's
such an easy thing to do, for as former teammate and current
broadcaster Jerry Coleman tells us in these pages, "He had to be
perfect every day. He had to be Joe DiMaggio every day."

There are heroes and a smattering of villains as well in Diamond
Dreams: Thirty Years of Baseball Through the Lens of Walter
Iooss (Little, Brown & Co., $40), with a text by the seemingly
ubiquitous Boswell. This is a most beautiful collection of
photographs, both in color and black and white, by one of the
premier sports photographers of the past three decades. The
vivid images range from the now classic shot of Yogi Berra with
back to camera to another of Willie Stargell puzzling over a
rubber chicken. There is a particularly affecting profile study
of a contemplative Paul Molitor, chest hair spewing manfully
from the collar of his uniform shirt. Boswell's commentary is
often on the mark. He describes Steve Carlton as having an
"Ubermensch superiority complex" and former Red Sox slugger Jim
Rice as someone who might well have been "day in and day out ...
the most unpleasant man in baseball." But it is Iooss's artistry
that gives this volume its enduring quality.

Jerry Jones, the turbulent proprietor of the Dallas Cowboys,
hardly qualifies as a hero--certainly not in the eyes of his NFL
colleagues, one of whom, San Francisco 49er president Carmen
Policy, calls him a "snake oil salesman" in King of the Cowboys:
The Life and Times of Jerry Jones by Dallas writer and
broadcaster Jim Dent (Adams Publishing, $22). Dent characterizes
his subject in often overheated prose as "an adrenaline-charged
blur of a man" whose as yet unchecked ambition would drastically
alter the NFL's time-honored revenue-sharing plan into a
Cowboy-dominated enterprise and convert Texas Stadium into the
centerpiece of a football theme park. Along the way, Jones has
cashiered one coaching legend (Tom Landry) and another in the
making (Jimmy Johnson), and has outraged both fans and former
Cowboy players with his hard-hearted ticket policies. "I broke
my neck for the Cowboys," laments former All-Pro safety Cliff
Harris, "and I can't even get two tickets to home games."

Jones is also portrayed here as a boozer and womanizer of
gargantuan appetites who, once his long workday is over, "flips
off the office lights and heads for the bright lights," almost
always without his truly long-suffering wife, Gene. Dent, in
fact, tells how Jones caused talk among his already disapproving
fellow owners by escorting a blonde to an NFL meeting,
introducing her as his marketing director. But Dent does give
the devil his due, actually more than his due, as "perhaps the
most successful and recognizable sports owner in history,"
conveniently overlooking the likes of George Halas, Connie Mack
and Walter O'Malley. There is, writes Dent, "no formula that can
measure Jones. He may truly be without precedent. Only he knows
where he's going...."

As far as his fellow owners are concerned, he can't get going
too quickly or too far.

B/W PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS DiMaggio kept his cool during his 56-game hitting streak in '41. associated press [Joe DiMaggio wearing sunglasses]COLOR PHOTO: WALTER IOOSS Diamond Dreams is full of vivid images such as this one of Detroit Tiger Alan Trammell sliding in '93.

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