Books by James A. Riley

Released: Feb. 1, 1996

An inspiring if static firsthand account of a celebrated baseball career, coauthored by Riley, an authority on the Negro Leagues. Irvin has a right to be proud; he also has a gift for being humble. Born in 1919, one of 13 children, Irvin recounts with equal nostalgia both the dire poverty of his early years on an Alabama farm and his relatively stable later childhood in northern New Jersey. He also details fondly the great sacrifices and support provided by his parents. This ingratiating lack of self- consciousness extends to his descriptions of fellow Hall of Famers Josh Gibson (``without a doubt the greatest hitter I ever saw, black or white'') and Jackie Robinson (``a tremendous, well-rounded athlete'' though ``it seemed like he thought he was just a little bit better than other players''). He makes no bones about how the ``gentleman's agreement'' barring black players from the game robbed him of his prime. However, he evenhandedly remembers the good times and camaraderie of Negro League road trips, as well as a few kindnesses extended by whites who risked severe reprisal for their generosity. Irvin entered the Major Leagues with the New York Giants in 1950. Though well past his peak as an athlete, he helped pace the team to two pennants and one World Series win while also serving as mentor to a young centerfielder of unworldly talent named Willie Mays. Beginning in the mid-'50s, Monte worked in the baseball commissioner's office, and he serves up some pointed commentary about the game's evolution, opining about contract arbitration (which ``has really hurt baseball more than anything else'') and the designated-hitter rule (``Pitchers can be very aggressive . . . because they never have to come to the plate''), among other controversial topics. Never one to intellectualize needlessly, Irvin has a tempered approach to baseball that will be tonic against those who attempt to make the game more complex and ``meaningful'' than it really is. Read full book review >
Released: Jan. 1, 1995

An intimate memoir of the Negro Leagues by one of its greatest players. Though Riley (The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, not reviewed) gets credit for helping Leonard write his autobiography, this book reads as if it were a verbatim transcription of Leonard's taped reminiscences. That is the book's weakness and its strength. It rambles and lacks consistent narrative structure, but it is also an important memoir of an era in American sports—and in American history—that has only begun to get the attention it deserves. The slick-fielding first baseman was one of the best hitters in the Negro Leagues from 1934 to 1950, and most observers believe that if it weren't for segregation he would have been a superstar in the major leagues. Leonard's memory is encyclopedic: He recalls plays and players from when he was a 13- year-old playing semi-pro ball in 1921 to his last game, at 47, in a Mexican league in 1955. He tells stories of grueling three-games- a-day schedules; of endless travel from one seedy segregated hotel to another; of lousy pay and breached contracts; and of winters spent in menial labor to make ends meet. Lou Gehrig, the white player to whom Leonard is most often compared, had a far more comfortable life, but Leonard expresses no rancor and only mild regret. Nor, at 87, does he romanticize the past. The Negro Leagues were not as good as the major leagues, he writes, and it is virtually impossible to measure black players of the era against their white counterparts. Leonard writes that Gehrig probably was a better player than he was. But he also wishes he'd had the chance to find out. An invaluable historical document and the record of a remarkable life. Read full book review >