In Jack Sweeney’s ode to baseball, diamonds are a boy’s best friend – Gloucester Daily Times




In a newsroom full of baseball fanatics, who gets to review a book about fantasy baseball teams? Me. Who barely knows a baseball from a bat. I’m not sure what the thinking behind this was. A fresh perspective? An experiment in getting away from tried and tired sports writer cliches? No worries there. 

I had already taken a shot at reviewing one sports-related book, and let me put it this way: It was, from my point of view, not exactly a page-turner.

This one looked more promising if for no other reason than it had lots of great pictures. Pictures, as the author later told me, painstakingly culled from The Baseball Hall of Fame, of baseball legends, many of whom, like Willie “Puddin Head” Jones, I’d never heard of.

There was one I’d never seen of a young, almost svelte Babe Ruth that made me see how he could have once been a ladies man. There was another of Nellie Fox with a wad of chewing tobacco in his cheek described by the author as “the size of a baseball.” There were iconic shots of every baseball icon that ever swung a bat, pitched a ball, caught a fly, stole a base — or, like the eagle-eyed Connie Mack — called the shots in the back office.

Unlike me, the author of this tome — titled “101 All Time Fantasy Baseball Teams” — is a baseball savant. He is also a baseball oxymoron in that he is a native New Yorker and a Red Sox fan.

His name is Jack Sweeney, a longtime Gloucester transplant, who, as he tells his readers, “grew up in the capital of baseball.” That would be 1950s Nassau County, Long Island — just outside Manhattan, and as the ball flies, in the same neck of the woods as Brooklyn, where the Dodgers then reigned.

But Sweeney wasn’t a Dodgers fan. Or even a Yankee fan. He was, he tells us, a Giants fan. Yes, New York City had no fewer than three major league baseball teams back then, and from the earliest age, Sweeney dreamed of them. Later, during endless meetings as a corporate careerist, he dreamed more specifically of fantasy baseball teams. I imagine him sitting there listening to someone drone on about marketing statistics, thinking “Mickey Mantle and Willy Mays” — who, incidentally, was his all-time favorite “five-tool” player.

Baseball savants will forgive me if the above coupling makes no sense: I plead profound ignorance.

But, after reading Sweeney’s book, I will say this: I am lot less ignorant about baseball.

The author’s love of the game is contagious, even to someone who would rather be watching ballet. Sweeney is a very entertaining writer and a wonderful storyteller, talents he attributes to being Irish. The stories he tells — of 60 of baseball’s all-time icons — are, in total, the story of the old ball game, from the first official crack of a Knickerbocker bat back in Newark, New Jersey, circa 1847, to the money machine the sport has (sadly, in the author’s opinion) become today.

These densely entertaining cameos are so engrossing that, to be honest, I stopped noticing the author’s painstakingly assembled fantasy teams. Sweeney chooses his teams by categories, many of which are as fanciful as they are fantastic, and include animal names (e.g., Nellie Fox), colors (e.g., Shawn Green), plants (e.g., Pete Rose), body parts (e.g., Bill Hands), cities and towns (e.g., Daryl Boston), and baseball itself (e.g., Herb Score).

I leave it to those who know a lot more about baseball than I do to judge Jack Sweeney’s 101 fantasy teams. But everything else about this book had me hooked.

All 339 pages are as loaded as the bases in a Fenway cliffhanger with narrative gems: anecdotes, facts, figures, photos, triumphs, tragedies, trivia, ups, downs, clowns, characters and game-changing moments behind what — according to the tens of millions of TV viewers who just watched the Cubs beat the Indians — is still America’s favorite pastime.

This was a labor of love that was 13 years in the making, the author tells me, and a family endeavor to boot. Sweeney’s wife Marie, an artist, created the cover, and his granddaughter Toni accompanied him on a fantasy baseball odyssey that took them to games at no fewer than 18 ballparks throughout the country.

For the most part, Sweeney, who says he “wrote to put a smile on peoples’ faces,” does just that. But he gets deadly serious when it comes, for instance, to the Negro leagues and the terrible bigotry endured by great players such as Jackie Robinson who finally broke baseball’s color barrier.

Likewise, he takes more than a dim view of steroids and the way that money and celebrity have inflated the egos, not to mention the bank accounts, of too many of today’s big name players. “I remember,” he says, “when you’d be riding the subway to the game along with the ballplayers who’d be playing in the game.”

Does he miss those good old days? “Yes, absolutely,” he says. “Not that pro players shouldn’t make a great living, but nowadays, they’re like emperors and baseball games are like rock concerts. I like to go to the game to watch the game,” he says, and sighs. “I hate to think it will lose its soul.”

Then he brightens and like the Irishman he is, says, “Still, to hear that someone like you likes the book, well, it warms the cockles of my heart.” This little book should also warm the cockles of lots of baseball lovers’ hearts. Remember that, when you’re looking for stocking stuffers this Christmas.

Joann Mackenzie may be contacted at 978-675-2707, or at jmackenzie@gloucestertimes.com.

The book

“101 All-Time Fantasy Baseball Teams”

By Jack Sweeney

Softcover, 339 pages

Available on Amazon — $18.95; $7.99 for Kindle.



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