Summer Baseball Nation: Nine Days in the Wood Bat Leagues Will Geoghegan University of Nebraska Press April 2020 ISBN 978-1-4962-1399-0 240 pages HC: $29.95 Order now!
For Americans not waking up at 6 a.m. to watch livestreamed Taiwanese baseball, reading about baseball with the coronavirus pandemic ongoing is probably as good as we’re going to get.
Luckily, there’s Will Geoghegan’s debut book Summer Baseball Nation: Nine Days in the Wood Bat Leagues (University of Nebraska, 2020). It’s forgivable if you aren’t aware of “wood bat” leagues, also known summer collegiate baseball. This level of the sport has been growing in popularity over the past couple decades, but it remains far more popular in certain pockets of the US and Canada compared with others. Essentially, top college players swap out their aluminum bats for wooden ones and show off their baseball abilities in front of professional scouts. The leagues vary wildly in setup, quality, and atmosphere. That’s what makes this book a welcome addition to baseball literature – it’s the first one I’ve come across that attempts to cover a good sampling of top leagues from across the national landscape. And it gives the reader well-researched but also manageable and generally well-paced background information paired with on-the-ground reporting from games from Massachusetts’ Cape Cod all the way up to Fairbanks, Alaska.
Some readers may be surprised to learn that some of the more successful franchises in these leagues, like the Madison (Wisconsin) Mallards and Savannah Bananas, sell more tickets than many affiliated minor league franchises. But there are also other teams and whole leagues that run on non-profit models. Games in some of these leagues have a retro, mom-and-pop feel to them. The Cape Cod Baseball League, generally regarded as the best of them talent-wise, even offers free admission to each of its games and the teams are all community run. Geoghegan is particularly knowledgeable about the game in New England, where this level has deep roots. He also brings in some of his own memories from growing up and going out to games on the Cape with his family, which are a welcome addition to the book.
As far as reporting highlights, of particular interest was the Alaska section. One of the most intriguing things about this level of play is that there’s an annual game in Alaska that takes place at midnight, taking advantage of the sunlight available late into evenings in the summertime there. And Geoghegan covering the marketing antics of the Northwoods League staging a home run derby on Lake Michigan (not even in a stadium, but actually hitting balls directly into the lake) was another hit. There was also an anecdotal section of a Cape Cod team reporting to its first practice and the coach surprising them by having them play a Wiffle ball game as though they’re kids. While that sounds like a corny icebreaker and, in fact, is fairly corny, it still works great as an anecdote for Geoghegan to show the reader the nerves that can easily bubble up in some of these young players as many of them will soon get to play regularly in front of Major League Baseball scouts for the first time in their careers.
One area where I thought there was perhaps more to be mined was looking at the ethical question of how many games are played in some of these leagues, considering that players can’t be paid due to college eligibility rules. There are some for-profit teams that play more than 70 games over the summer with very few days off. While the players do get some benefits in these setups, like great crowds and exposure, it still seems like a lot to ask. The question would be to what extent individual teams in these environments offer enough quality training, high-level coaching, game meals, etc., to make the relationship still somewhat fair. On the surface, some leagues seem to strike a much better balance than others.
With that said, it would also be easy to go too much into the details there and distract from the overall purpose of the book, which is about giving interested readers a wide sampling and understanding of summer baseball game environments. Along similar lines, the book does a fantastic job showing the human side of the game by depicting the pecking order of players. There are some players who serve essentially as roster placeholders while high-end players are finishing college seasons that have run longer than expected, due to the NCAA Tournament. And there are also the inevitable injuries and pitcher shutdowns that crop up that can free space for lesser-known players to shine. Geoghegan does a commendable job of bringing these characters to life.
The Cape Cod Baseball League’s season was recently cancelled for this year, meaning it’s the first time no games will be played there since 1946. While some teams and leagues are still clinging to some hope of getting some of their seasons in, there are huge logistical challenges with many players in the best of these leagues needing to move in from other parts of the country to live with local host families. This, of course, could wind up a huge risk for communities and players given the pandemic. For that reason, this book may very well have to get us to the next summer season. And it’s a good read, at least. Even when the author nerds out with stats at some moments, I found that even oddly charming for how it showed the writer’s enthusiasm and newspaperman workmanship. And this book truly soars in its depiction of game day atmosphere, which I believe is really what we all probably want the most right now. With this book, it’s almost like you’re at the games.
Gregory Sullivan is the book review editor of Change Seven. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, VICE Sports, The Toronto Star, The Collagist, The Nervous Breakdown, and other places. He grew up in Georgia, worked as a newspaper journalist in Georgia and Tennessee, and completed an MFA in fiction from Rutgers University. Now, he lives and writes in North Carolina.