There are few things baseball fans love to argue about more than the Hall of Fame. Every single baseball gan has at least one guy they think belongs in the Hall. Almost every baseball fan has at least one guy they think shouldn’t be in the Hall. One thing we can all agree on is this: players who have been elected to the Hall will always be better remembered that those that are not. Baseball Nation’s Marc Normandin and Sky Kalkman, the former managing editor of [Beyond the Box Score], wanted to make sure that a number of these players wouldn’t be “lost to history”. They secured funding to produce the book through a Kickstarter project, and used the funds to arrange an All-Star list of writers to contribute. The result was 43 vastly different essays about 43 vastly different baseball players who should not be forgotten. Together, these essays have been published as The Hall of Nearly Great.
There are three chapters that every Braves fan will want to read first. The second chapter is devoted to the great Dale Murphy. Joe Posnanski tells us why he votes for Dale Murphy every year to make the Hall and why he understands those who don’t. In the fourth chapter, Jon Bois writes about Lonnie Smith as a “grand champion” of storytelling. It’s one of the best stories in the book and culminates with Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. Chapter thirty-three is from Tommy Bennett on the Crime Dog, Fred McGriff. His essay is very numbers driven and one of the few I think failed to capture why so many people love the player in the collection. Still, as he tells the story of why McGriff missed out on the 500 home run mark, it’s hard not to pound your fist in frustration. Seven more home runs any maybe Fred McGriff doesn’t qualify for this book.
There are other stories of the Braves throughout the book. In his long essay on Kenny Lofton, Cee Angi all but skips over his year with the Braves. His performance on the base path that year is chalked up to injury and his mourning from having left Cleveland. Jeff Passan searches for pitcher Andy Messersmith, who signed with the Braves as a free agent after the historic Seitz decision in the mid 1970s, and fails to find him. Former Braves announcer Jon “Boog” Sciambi contributes an entertaining and well written piece on Robin Ventura.
The rest of the book is a grab bag of baseball personalities whose stories shouldn’t be forgotten. David Roth tells the story of Keith Hernandez insanity and drug use. Craig Fehrman talks about the skill of staying healthy, the one skill Eric Davis didn’t possess. Owen Good investigates Urban Shocker, a pitcher with a winning record in the 1920s against some of the best offensive baseball teams that the game has seen. Don Mattingly’s early success, trouble with Yankee management and late career back pain are detailed by Steven Goldman. Grant Brisbee shows us that to Giants fans, Will Clark “was baseball”, much as Dale Murphy was to Braves fans in the 1980s. King Kaufman convincingly explains why Ron Cey was better than Steve Gravey. Craig Calaterra relishes at the opportunity to look back at Alan Trammell’s career and all that it meant to him. Other contributors include Rob Neyer, The Common Man, Wendy Thurm, Sam Miller, Cecilia Tan, Jonah Keri and Eric Nusbaum. Other players covered include Bobby Bonds, Luis Tiant, Bobby Grich, Bernie Williams and Fernando Valenzuela.
The book’s highlight is the utterly absurd chapter on Dick Allen by poet and NotGraphs contributor, Carson Cistulli. I’m not sure I understand a word of it, and I’ve read it four times. It may be from a book that he’s writing on Dick Allen, but I suspect that’s a joke, but I honestly can’t tell. One thing for sure, it is ridiculously entertaining and worth the price of the book alone.
“The Hall of Nearly Great” suffers from the same flaws (larring shifts in tone mostly) as every book that includes contributions by numerous writers. Still, when the essays work, they work remarkably well. It’s also near impossible to criticize the goal of the project. This book, assembled by Kalkman and Normandin, serves their purpose and their subjects well.