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It can be hard to capture the man behind the on-field achievements, but three new books do just that for Rickey Henderson, Ken Caminiti and Jackie Robinson.
Baseball history is full of iconic figures, those whose achievements are so outsized that it is difficult to imagine them as mere humans. And yet they are people like you and I with their own particular struggles and aspirations and inner lives that an exclusive focus on their on-field achievements can ignore. In recent months, three new biographies on baseball icons have been released, and in their own way, each does a great job of capturing these icons in their fullness, showing not only what made them remarkable athletes, but fascinating people as well.
First is Dan Good’s biography of 1996 NL MVP Ken Caminiti, Playing Through the Pain: Ken Caminiti and the Steroids Confession That Changed Baseball Forever, a book Good spent a full decade researching and writing. Over the course of his research, Good spoke with practically everyone connected with Caminiti. Not only teammates and coaches, but also people he was in rehab with and the man who supplied him with his steroids, among dozens upon dozens of others. It is impossible to imagine a more thorough rendering of Caminiti’s life.
While Good certainly addresses all that made Caminiti a beloved player by fans in both Houston and San Diego — especially his often breathtaking fielding at the hot corner — he also focuses on the off-field challenges that haunted him throughout his life. Good reveals that Caminiti was a victim of childhood sexual abuse, adding a further sense of tragedy to an already-tragic life. Caminiti is also well-known for being among the first MLB players to publicly admit to using steroids, shining a light on something that few are still willing to speak openly about twenty years later.
Playing Through the Pain is a very well-researched and profoundly empathetic biography that looks at Caminiti’s life with rigor and compassion. Caminiti’s story is a sad one and Good consistently treats it with all the sensitivity necessary, capturing a man whose triumphs on the field were too often outweighed by his struggles off of it. Readers will find themselves cheering for Caminiti, despite already knowing how the story ends. It is a masterclass in how sports writers can treat sensitive subjects without condescending towards them or offering judgment, a work that reckons with a complicated, and almost mythic figure without ever losing sight of his humanity. It is a book that captures the ultimate highs and lows, not only of sports, but of life.
Rickey Henderson is one of the greatest characters in baseball history
Second is Howard Bryant’s new biography of Rickey Henderson, Rickey: The Life and Legend of an American Original. With Rickey, Bryant does more than write a biography of Rickey Henderson; he offers a cultural history of Oakland, explaining how the Great Migration and segregation in the East Bay created a world where many great athletes — Rickey Henderson, Curt Flood, Dave Stewart, Bill Russell, Frank Robinson, and Joe Morgan among others — rose to greatness in spite of a society that conspired to hold them back. It is tremendous, and impassioned, history writing.
Henderson is, of course, one of the great characters in baseball history. But Bryant avoids the too-common impulse to treat Rickey as a purely comic figure. Rickey is certainly entertaining and often funny, but many widely distributed Rickey anecdotes turned him into a stereotype instead of a person. As Bryant writes: “Rickey was a character. Rickey was unique. Rickey was bizarre and funny and aloof, but there was a difference between Rickey being on his own program and the fictionalized minstrel stories that diminished him and used him to reinforce the Black stereotypes so many had spent their careers trying to shed.” And peeling back these layers, showcasing the fascinating human behind the (often fictional or exaggerated) stories is a major part of what makes Bryant’s biography so great. What is revealed is a man more intelligent, driven, strong-willed, talented, and yes, funny, than any number of these alleged anecdotes could convey.
Bryant also does a great job of depicting what made Rickey such a thrilling player to watch. Seemingly, every few pages, I was going to YouTube in the hopes of finding footage of a play that Bryant had described. To read Rickey is to continually marvel at all that Henderson achieved, what a disruptive presence he was on the field, and how he dominated from the lead-off position in a way no other baseball player ever has – or is likely to again. And as modern as Rickey Henders will feel to readers – which is fitting in light of how much he did to usher in a new era of baseball – it is also a portrait of a type of player that no longer exists anymore. As Bryant notes in the epilogue, “During the 2019 season, 13 teams stole fewer bases than the 66 Rickey swiped in 1998 – when he was 39.”
To call Rickey a great biography is accurate, but it undersells the fullness of Bryant’s achievement. It is also a tribute to one of the greatest players in baseball history and to the particular abilities, spirit, and background that made him so special and unique. Few writers are better at blending sports history and cultural criticism than Howard Bryant and every page of Rickey contains a reminder of what makes his work so special.
Third is Kostya Kennedy’s new book on Jackie Robinson, True: The Four Seasons of Jackie Robinson. In it, Kennedy writes about four different years in Robinson’s life, focusing on his specific struggles and triumphs during that time and what they reveal about the man he was. Kennedy covers his first year with the Montreal Royals in 1946, his MVP year with the Dodgers in 1949, his final season in 1956, and the year of his early death in 1972. It is a unique way to look at a man whose life and triumphs have been covered so many times that one would be justified in wondering if there are any new angles left to explore.
This strategy is similar to the one Kennedy took in an earlier book he wrote about Joe DiMaggio’s infamous 56-game hitting streak. By focusing exclusively on that brief period in DiMaggio’s life, he was able to cast new light on both that achievement and the man who did it. He does the same thing here. It allows him to linger on specific revealing moments, allowing the reader to spend time with Robinson, getting a feel for the man instead of just delivering them new facts and information.
And like Bryant does for Henderson, Kennedy also captures what made Robinson such an exciting player – the absolute terror he inspired on the basepaths, how he could even work his way out of a rundown through sheer speed and will, how he “could change the game with a feint.” Anyone reading will find themselves wishing for infinitely more footage of Robinson playing than there is.
At one point, while writing about how Robinson was perceived by the public during his time with the Dodgers Kennedy writes this: “He could be overlooked as an individual, unseen, and thus, for all his extraordinary fame and the familiarity of his name and figure, never truly seen at all. An outline of himself. Almost, in a certain sense, invisible.” In spite of how famous and revered he is today – in fact, because of these things – one could say the same about Robinson today. Many do not see him as a flesh and blood person, but as an abstract symbol of integration and Civil Rights. He can represent whatever one wants and in this sense remains “never truly seen at all.” True is a book that takes pains to undo this trend, to wrestle with a gifted athlete and a complex man who was even greater than his reputation would have one believe. It looks at Robinson as he was – as a man rather than an icon.