Tim Wendel’s book on the history of the fastball in baseball is a great read for several reasons. One, the guy obviously loves the game. His zeal for the history of the game and the people he interviews is evident on every page. Two, he has done his homework. He travels and talks to current and former players and managers. He reads newspaper accounts of games and players. He digs through reports from the Hall of Fame archives in order to put each pitcher in perspective. Third, he knows how to write. Baseball books can be boring if the author simply spouts stats. Wendel captures the highs and lows of the game, and the fan’s ongoing fascination with comparing players from different eras with each other.
High Heat describes Wendel’s personal search for the fastest pitcher of all-time. The book is part-biography (looking at the lives of Walter Johnson, Bob Fellers, Nolan Ryan, and others) and part-history (understanding how the game has changed over the years) and part-science (trying to explain the mechanics of the fastball and what happens to the pitcher’s arm when he throws it). Interwoven with these different perspectives on the question is Wendel’s own personal journey. This is what gives the book coherence and intrigue. He isn’t simply writing about fastball pitchers. He’s trying to answer a personal question (can he discover the fastest pitcher of all-time?), which is impossible to answer at the outset but worth discussing.
I enjoyed the journey immensely and would recommend this book to anyone who likes baseball, especially baseball trivia. I was especially intrigued by the answer that Wendel gives in his concluding chapter. He names Nolan Ryan the fastest of all-time, not based solely on MPH, but on stewardship of the gift of speed. After studying the question, Wendel came to the conclusion that some may have thrown harder, but no one managed the gift as well as Ryan. So many fastball pitchers pitch only for a short time (because of injury or destructive behavior). Many others aren’t able to harness their speed to actually pitch well against hitters. But Ryan didn’t only throw hard. He worked hard and pitched well for a very long time.
This book reminded me of the fact that being good at something is not enough. Wendell acknowledges that throwing the ball hard is a gift from above. Some people simply have it. The key question is what they do with it. What do you do with the gifts you have been given? Do you manage those gifts well or squander them? We can get laziest in the areas where we are most naturally talented. We know we shouldn’t, but we do. The difference between being great and average may only be found in how hard we work in the areas in which we are gifted.