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Serious Fun

America’s Pastime

Just in time for summer, a round-up of more than two dozen of baseball's greatest books.

Book Cover The days are long past when Jacques Barzun’s quote, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball,” has any use. Consider this: we are about a third of the way through the MLB season and we are still being offered both professional hockey and basketball. And to move from what may be ridiculous to the sublime, the professional football draft is a major televised event—which, by the way, draws more viewers than the NBA playoff games. Don’t get me started on that.

Despite my conscious disdain for professional sports, at this point in the new season it is very difficult to resist the stirrings of interest prompted by a nearly lifelong connection to baseball. However, by the time I process what puts me off about MLB, I am happily watching my son’s little-league and AAU games (which have their own problems, described in Whose Game Is It Anyway?, and by Mark Hyman in Until it Hurts).

Former New York Times sports columnist Robert Lipsyte recently offered some intriguing commentary, which included this:
Give baseball its due: no sport has ever enthralled so many intellectuals. Right into this century, media gas bags were still calling it “the national pastime” (long after football, by most measurements, had captured that title) and using baseball terminology to touch base with the man in the bleachers…It was the ultimate team game of individuals! You didn’t have to be a physical freak to play! It was a perfect expression of American independence and exceptionalism!
Whatever the relative popularity of various sports in the national recreational and entertainment regime, there is still high interest and a viable market for baseball books—some of which, not surprisingly, are quite wonderful. Topping my list are a few handfuls of volumes, in no particular order:

1) Paul Dickson’s third edition of The Dickson Baseball Dictionary (WW Norton), has a subtitle that is unsubtle in its hyperbole: “The Revised, Expanded, and Now Definitive Work on the Language of Baseball.” That aside, the new edition updates the original that was published in 1989 (and the 2nd edition of 1999) and contains 10,000 entries, more than 18,000 definitions, and more than 250 photos, many rare and previously unpublished. The definitions include the history of baseball terms, their origins and the date they first come into play; Dickson frequently traces terms back to unanticipated roots.

2) Though Baseball Americana: Treasures from the Library of Congress, by Harry Katz, Frank Ceresi, and Phil Michel (Smithsonian), still maintains the delusion of the sovereignty of baseball in America, it does make splendid use of the Library of Congress’s extensive collection, putting together over 350 images featuring all manner of baseball treasures and arcana.

Book Cover 3) Two summers ago I came across We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball by Kadir Nelson (Jump at The Sun/Hyperion) in an effort to educate my young Little Leaguer about baseball’s no-longer-well-hidden past. The title, “We are the ship; all else the sea,” quotes Rube Foster, founder of the Negro National League, and this book introduces many of its sung and unsung heroes—Oscar Charleston, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, and the great Satchel Paige—in a clear and straightforward narrative embellished by reproductions of 33 paintings Nelson created for this admirable book. Since the book’s publication, the art has crisscrossed the United States in a traveling exhibition.

4) In Bottom of the Ninth: Branch Rickey, Casey Stengel, and the Daring Scheme to Save Baseball from Itself (Holt), sportswriter Michael Shapiro focuses on a turning point in baseball history in 1960, when some of baseball’s key power players—men like the Dodgers’ owner Walter O’Malley—came to understand the rising popularity of other sports. They began to entertain some unconventional ideas for dealing with baseball’s hegemony—two of which were the creation of a third league, the Continental League, and the pooling of television revenues for the benefit of all the teams. And Shapiro suggests the seventh game of the 1960 World Series between the Yankees and the Pirates, featuring Bill Mazerowski’s walk-off home run, changed forever the then National Pastime.

5) Apparently Roger Clemens, whose statistical credentials were a first-class ticket to Cooperstown, warrants two serious inquiries, one by the New York Daily News sports investigative team—American Icon: The Fall of Roger Clemens and the Rise of Steroids in America’s Pastime by Teri Thompson, Nathaniel Vinton, Michael O’Keeffe, and Christian Red (Knopf)—and the other by sportswriter Jeff Pearlman, The Rocket That Fell to Earth: Roger Clemens and the Rage for Baseball Immortality (Harper Collins), the product of 500 interviews. The story is only partly about the Faustian bargain Clemens allegedly made by using performance enhancers—it’s as much about the operation of a modern sports business and the behind-the-scenes inside-baseball stuff that in other areas is called gossip.

Book Cover 6) The fact that former New York Met All-Star pitcher Ron Darling attended Yale, where he was a two-time All-American, is good evidence that the man can articulate some of the mysteries and subtleties of his craft—which he does in The Complete Game: Reflections on Baseball and the Art of Pitching (Vintage).

7) Speaking of baseball pitchers, it’s not a complete conversation without mentioning the legendary Leroy “Satchel” Paige. James Sturm, who is a wonderful artist, collaborated with Rich Tommasio on the graphic narrative Satchel Paige Striking Out Jim Crow (Drawn and Quarterly), another book with which I made sure my son Cuba became familiar. Which, quite naturally, led to his attending a reading by Larry Tye of his well-regarded, award-winning Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend (Random House), where he had the author sign a copy of the book and a baseball. But I digress. Odd also, that as great—dare I say iconic—as Paige was, that Larry Tye was the first writer to seriously profile him. But, to quote the Bard, “All’s well that ends well.”

8) Historian Timothy Gray deserves kudos for unearthing and chronicling the pre-integration contests between Satchel Paige and other African- American stars, and Dizzy Dean’s so-called All Stars, in his fine tome, Satch, Dizzy & Rapid Robert: The Wild Saga of Interracial Baseball before Jackie Robinson (Simon & Schuster). To quote It’s Only A Game’s Bill Littlefield, “Stories about Satchel Paige are often funny. Just as often, if not more often, they have a shameful undercurrent… Showmanship, flexibility, and the profit motive trumped ignorance and racism to some extent when the Major League Baseball season was over. Barnstorming tours often featured black and white players, sometimes as teammates.”

Book Cover 9) The Yankees, by virtue of their residency in the Universe’s epicenter of ambition, and because occasionally they merit all the attention and scrutiny that money buys, (although it is to be noted that the best current Yankee, Derek Jeter, has not yet been entombed in a book) are represented with a number of books. There is former New York Times reporter Selena Roberts’s takedown of Alex Rodriguez, A-Rod: The Many Lives of Alex Rodriguez (Harper)—make of it what you will—and Joe Torre’s (with Tom Verducci) second volume, The Yankee Years (Doubleday/Anchor), where he continues to cash in on his successful stint as a Steinbrenner underling, and, just in time, a profile of the man himself, Steinbrenner: The Last Lion of Baseball, by Bill Madden (Harper). Personally, I can’t imagine wanting to know any more about a man who has acquitted himself with bluster and boorishness in pursuit of glory and profit—which may be quintessentially American, but still not pretty. I can imagine reading up on one Yankee, thanks to sports scribe Allen Barra: his Yogi Berra: Eternal Yankee (WW Norton) does a service to the historiography of “the bums game” (as Berra’s father referred to it) and the inimitable Lawrence “Yogi” Berra, who played on 10 World Championship teams.

10) Considering the last few years of baseball, where putative heroes and icons were disgraced (or, more accurately, disgraced themselves), it is good to be reminded that before the steroid era and multi-million dollar contracts there were genuine stars and super athletes in the game. James Hirsch offers a comprehensive profile of the “Say Hey” kid in Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend (Scribner), based on extensive interviews with everyone from Barry Bonds and Bill Clinton to Hank Aaron, Kareem Adul-Jabbar, Tom Seaver, and Woody Allen, and countless hours spent with Mays. For many years, Mays has been viewed as enigmatic and unknowable—no doubt this tome will dispel that image. Henry Aaron, once baseball’s all-time home run king (and in some people’s minds, still) and owner of many other records, is well represented by Howard Bryant’s The Last Hero: The Life of Henry Aaron (Pantheon), where his long and storied career spanned the Negro League era to the displaced (from Milwaukee) Atlanta Braves, and at its center was a well-fought rivalry with Mays. The story of baseball is much richer for these two players and their well-told biographies.

11) Collecting baseball cards was surely a big thing in the history of baseball, and in some ways a sport unto itself (think fantasy baseball). In Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards became An American Obsession (Atlantic Monthly Press), journalist Dave Jamieson discovers that his prized boyhood possession—his baseball card collection—is worth almost nothing as he delves into what turns out to be a fascinating history of a once-vital tradition. Also, The T206 Collection: The Players & Their Stories by Tom Zappala and Ellen Zappala (Peter Randall) is a well-printed commemorative edition celebrating the 100th anniversary of the very special T206 collection (1909-1911). It includes the most valuable baseball card of all (the T206 Honus Wagner), 38 Hall of Famers, and another 353 players who contributed to the rich and colorful sport of baseball.

Book Cover 12) Having evolved, and perhaps mutated, over a long period, it is obvious that there are rules in baseball that, for the most part, are competently enforced by the umpires and various league officials, and then there are other protocols that guide the behavior and performance of players. Jason Turbow and Michael Duka have put together an amusing and informative book on this subject, The Baseball Codes: Beanballs, Sign Stealing & Bench Clearing Brawls: The Unwritten Rules of America’s Pastime (Pantheon), which delves into all manner of the sport’s customs and rituals.

13) Of all the vantage points from which to view the game of baseball, the umpire’s perspective is the least understood and certainly the least sympathetic. Having spent a few seasons occasionally umpiring in Little League, I can say with newly found appreciation that it is more difficult than it looks and requires a special, unappreciated skill set. Those of you interested in the world of the men in blue, New York Times writer Bruce Weber (who once threw a no-hitter in Little League) has penned As They See ‘Em: A Fan’s Travels in the Land of Umpires (Scribner).

14) There are a handful of baseball novels of which it may be said that not only do they faithfully and respectfully mirror the game of which they are written but they are also literary gems—which is another matter entirely. Chicago’s Billy Lombardo has written a book that joins that pantheon with his The Man with Two Arms (Overlook). In it, baseball-crazed Henry Granville grooms his young son Danny to pitch (and pitch well) with either arm. Danny makes it to the Bigs, then trouble ensues as Henry becomes the focus of an ambitious journalist. Another fine Chicago writer Stuart Dybek applauds: “Lombardo writes with a naturalness that makes his street-smart surface wholly convincing, but the seeming effortlessness of his storytelling depends on a sophisticated sense of craft and a deep sense of empathy.”

15) By now it should be clear that there are very few things connected with baseball that have escaped the grasp of dedicated scribblers. Charles Fountain, who, to his credit, wrote the one extant biography (Another Man’s Poison) of Boston’s late, great columnist George Frazier, has staked out a place for himself in baseball lore with Under the March Sun: The Story of Spring Training (Oxford U Press).

16) Here’s a piece of history that has a fine narrative energy, a star-studded cast of characters including Babe Ruth, and some memorable quotes from the likes of sports-writing immortals such as Damon Runyon, Grantland Rice, and Heywood Broun: 1921: The Yankees, the Giants, and the Battle for Baseball Supremacy in New York by Lyle Spatz and Steve Steinberg (University of Nebraska Press). It includes over 50 photographs to bring that historic season alive. Bob Costas observes:
Two decades into the twentieth century, much of baseball was still playing a turn-of-the-century game. 1921 represents one of the pivot points in baseball history, as the old style and its proponents, embodied by John McGraw and his Giants, began to give way to what would become the modern game, as embodied by Babe Ruth and his Yankees.
Book Cover 17) Baseball writer Tim Wendel, who wrote one of the worst novels on Cuba I had the displeasure to read, has produced a fascinating monograph High Heat: The Secret History of the Fastball and the Improbable Search for the Fastest Pitcher of All Time (da Capo). David Maraniss, no stranger to baseball history, opines, “High Heat is a great idea brilliantly executed. Tim Wendel, one of my favorite baseball writers, delivers this fastball with a winning mix of science, biography, and mythology.”

18) Former major leaguer Doug Glanville didn’t need a ghostwriter—he is a regular contributor to the New York Times—to write The Game From Where I Stand (Times Books), an articulate view of the game he clearly loves.

19) No list of books would be complete without a list (of sorts), which is essentially what editor Seth Manning compiles in Top of the Order (da Capo) by polling 25 writers—with some surprising inclusions—to write about their favorite player.

20) Also, there are a couple of books that I have previously noted that are worth adding to this laundry list: Robert Elias’s The Empire Strikes Out (The New Press), which represents a progressive/revisionist history of baseball beyond the borders of the U.S.A., and an intriguing profile and analysis of Dodger left-fielder Manny Ramirez, Becoming Manny: Inside the Life of Baseball’s Most Enigmatic Slugger by Jean Rhodes, Shawn Boburg, and Leigh Montville (Scribner).

21) Lastly, one of my favorite baseball books, if you are lucky enough to find it, is El Beisbol: Travels Through the Pan-American Pastime by John Krich. It’s a fine travelogue through the baseball happy Caribbean basin where the game is still played with joy and dedication.
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