Monday, June 20, 2005

Review: The ULTIMATE Washington Baseball Trivia Book


The Ultimate Washington Baseball Trivia (2004), by David Elfin. Published by 21st Century Online Publishing; 112 pages; $9.95 (but can be purchased for $7.46 here)

When I was a kid, two of my favorite books were entitled Baseball Brain Teasers and Baseball's Best: The MVPs. I suppose the titles are so self-explantory I needn't elaborate too much concerning the contents; suffice it to say that the first book provided obscure baseball trivia (and assorted, well, brain-teasers) and the other provided biographical information.

I'm not a kid anymore, but the two subjects still fascinate me. Every so often, I pull out the old Bill James Baseball Book series---not really because I care about how much Monopoly money James would have spent on Jerry Don Gleaton in 1990, but because it contains interesting historical information, mainly in Rob Neyer's "Chasers" sidebars and James' entries in his (lamentably, not completed) "Alphabetical Biography Register."

And so it was, with an almost child-like gleefulness, that I enjoyed David Elfin's Ultimate Washington Baseball Trivia Book. (I do want to know what makes it ultimate, though, as opposed to "comprehensive" or "really good.")

Elfin's book has three main virtues.

First, it is no mere trivia book; though Elfin proudly points to "279 trivia questions" in his Foreward, the appreciative reader will find that Elfin sneaks a tremendous bit of evaluation and biographical information into just over 100 pages. He provides an all-time Washington all-star team ("Washington's Best")---as well as all-decade teams, beginning in the "pre-1911" period and progressing onward to the decade preceding and including the doleful 1971 season. Further, Elfin picks a few players from each decade and provides corresponding two-page biographical spreads, one page for a photo and the other for the copy.

The second virtue naturally follows from the first, and that is the book's exceptional organization. Each decade is presented, in essence, as a discrete era. Let's say you want to bone up on your 1931-40 era knowledge; well, look no further than pages 46-73, which give the reader 1) a picture of outfielder George Case, 2) the all-decade team (including Negro League stars, by the way), 3) a picture/bio spread of Joe Cronin (including the background on how Cronin married Clark Griffith's niece/adopted daughter, only to be traded away), 4) some concentrated questions about first baseman from around that era ("The First Sackers") with corresponding answers, 5) similar questions and answers regarding shortstops ("In the Hole"), 6) a picture/bio spread on second baseman Buddy Myer, 7) a full-page picture of Griffith Stadium from the era, 8) a picture/bio spread on Josh Gibson, 9) more trivia and answers on Washington opponents of the era, 10) a picture/bio spread on Buck Leonard, and 11) trivia questions and answers concerning "The Presidents" and DC baseball (Republicans held a 2 1/2 game edge in terms of "better presidential Opening Day record," and I guess they've stretched it to three now).

That's a remarkable amount of information, and it's presented in a swift manner.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the book possesses a certain earnest pride in DC baseball that makes it a pleasure to read. Elfin, a Washington Times sportswriter, identifies himself in the Foreward as a Washington-area native. He grew up on the Senators II and still loves them: "[they] weren't a great team, . . . but they were ours." He still marvels at Frank Howard's "jaw-dropping" moon shots, just as he did when he was nine years old. For good measure, the final page identifies him as a member of the "Eddie Brinkman Fan Club" and contains a photograph of Elfin and a buddy posing with Denny McLain in, fittingly, 1971.

I'm not sure if this is really the expectation, since Elfin was born in 1960, well before the old-timers featured in the book; however, I get the sense that the book is fun not because of the facts and trivia and all-decade lists, but because Elfin allows the reader to revel vicariously in his love and appreciation for DC baseball.

At any rate, the tone is a welcomed change. Personally, I've grown tired already of a strident tone that is talking hold regarding our new Nats. At the sake of sounding utterly cliched, it resembles one of those "if you're not with us, then you're against us" scenarios. That might work in foreign policy, perhaps, or maybe in space opera; it's not becoming for a discussion, though. Thus, I find Elfin's book a respite from the belabored topics of the day, topics with which readers of this blog and others no doubt are familiar.

The book is not perfect, of course. As evidenced by the date of David Pinto's review (early December), this book was written and published on a warp speed schedule. As such, there are several editing errors, including an inelegant misspelling of pastime ("pasttime") on the back flap. Furthermore, if you are looking for SABR-quality depth in the biographical material or the statistics cited, don't bother. That's not the purpose of this book.

However, that lack of depth also serves to the reader's benefit. When I was nine, all I cared about were batting average, homers, ribbies, wins, and ERA, too. And, sometimes, it's fun to be nine again.



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