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2007 Spring Baseball Roundup

Baseball Books

2007 Spring Baseball Roundup

Baseball as Continuing Education

In 1982, Thomas Boswell of The Washington Post published HOW LIFE IMITATES THE WORLD SERIES, a collection of his baseball columns. Since there are many aspects of life reflected within the national pastime, it was an apt title. But consider another analogy: The national pastime can be found in myriad "disciplines" --- from art to music, from film to literature, and from math to science. So in that regard, baseball imitates school. A typical curriculum might look something like this.

First Period: American History

OPENING DAY: The Story of Jackie Robinson's First Season by Jonathan Eig (Simon & Schuster)

Jackie Robinson has been the subject of dozens of books over the years, ranging from children's biographies to sociological studies. But with April 15th marking the 60th anniversary of his debut as the first African-American in the major leagues, the time is ripe for a new look.

Jonathan Eig, who chronicled the life and death of Lou Gehrig in his last book, relives Jackie Robinson's inaugural campaign, with all its stomach-churning tension. His teammates, several of whom hailed from the South, looked on him as less than human, as did many of his opponents. Hotels would not allow him to stay with the rest of the team, and restaurants would not serve him. Fans sent him death threats and heaped all sorts of vile humiliations upon him. Such pressures might have crushed a weaker individual, and perhaps it did take its toll on Robinson in later years; he died at the age of 53, the victim of a heart attack. Gradually, however, the rest of the Dodgers came to appreciate what he brought to the game. In Robinson's 10 years with the team, they made it to the World Series six times. 

Years before Rosa Parks ushered the "official" struggle for civil rights by refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus, Robinson similarly declined to yield to prejudice while serving in the U.S. military. In the eyes of Branch Rickey, president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Robinson's courage made him a prime candidate to break baseball's color line.

With so many books already out there, Eig does a commendable job in portraying the angst of that first season, dropping little nuggets along the way to serve as hopeful portents of a time when the media would stop referring to players by their

Second Period: African American Studies

THE SOUL OF BASEBALL: A Road Trip Through Buck O'Neil's America by Joe Posnanski (William Morrow)

Buck O'Neil was an elderly ex-Negro Leaguer who got a second chance at fame as a "talking head" in Ken Burns's 1994 "Baseball" documentary. Joe Posnanski, a columnist for the Kansas City Star, befriended the genial O'Neil and wrote this bittersweet account of a man who, like Will Rogers, never seemed to meet someone he didn't like. His ability to brighten the day of children and adults alike made O'Neil a media darling in his later years, sought-after to offer his considered opinion on topics ranging from the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum to the use of steroids.

Posnanski was closer to his subject than most authors of this type of book. His chapters progress through more ominous tones, though subtly at first, as the 94-year-old O'Neil finds it a bit harder to get through his appearances and the demands put upon him. The disappointment of being passed over by the Baseball Hall of Fame as 17 of his contemporaries --- all deceased --- were elected is almost palpable to the reader, but through it all O'Neil puts on a brave face. And when the end came --- O'Neil passed away last October --- we feel we've lost someone close to us.

O'Neil was a fan of baseball and jazz, so it's appropriate that Posnanski names many of his chapters with song titles. I guess he figured that Buck would have liked it that way.

Third Period: Practical Arts

THE CHEATER'S GUIDE TO BASEBALL by Derek Zumsteg (Houghton Mifflin)

Far be it from me to condone such activity, but Derek Zumsteg is an apt professor when it comes to the finer points of getting around the rules. His overview includes a history of underhandedness and a how-to of deception, with no one involved with the game coming away clean. Pitchers scuff the ball or surreptitiously apply foreign substances. Catchers try to "steal a strike" by moving their gloves into the strike zone to try to deceive the umpire while other fielders apply phantom tags to wangle an out call. Hitters cork their bats to increase their bat speed. Even groundskeepers "adjust" the field --- a little extra moisture on the basepath or a harder pitching mound --- to put the opposition at a disadvantage.

Managers try to delay the game if it serves their purposes. Fans also come into play, so to speak, by heckling the opposition or interfering with the opposing team's fielders.

While gambling isn't cheating, per se, it can affect the way a game is played or managed. Pete Rose was banned for betting on games that he managed for the Cincinnati Reds, even though he claims only to have bet on his team to win. But did he ever manipulate his lineup to gain advantage or use his insider's knowledge? 

Then there's the whole steroid issue. Zumsteg asks, hopefully facetiously, "if everyone does it, is it cheating?" The fact is that everyone doesn't do it.

Despite the questionable morality of his topic, Zumsteg has done an excellent job in bringing this unseemly side of the game to life.

Fourth Period: Study Hall

WATCHING BASEBALL SMARTER: A Professional Fan's Guide for Beginners, Semi-Experts, and Deeply Serious Geeks by Zack Hample (Vintage)

Zack Hample, whose claim to fame is the inordinate amount of baseballs he's snagged at major league games over the years, gets the nod for "teacher of the year" with this simple but informative volume. Within these scant pages, he manages to tell you everything you need to know, from the grips for various pitches, to the building of a batting order, to defensive strategies.

The chapter on statistics --- an integral part of the fan experience --- includes a cogent explanation of how to decipher a box score, what all those numbers mean, and just how important they really are in explaining the quality of the players. Every "foreign phrase" is highlighted and explained in an extensive glossary.

There have been several "basic" titles over the past few years seeking to serve as the source for the novice enthusiast, and there may be authors with higher status than Hample, but few explain the elemental game better.

Fifth Period: Economics

THE BASEBALL ECONOMIST: The Real Game Exposed by J.C. Bradbury (Dutton)

Ever since Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner came out with FREAKONOMICS a few years back, others have tried this approach to making their subjects interesting and relevant to "normal" people.

In this regard, J.C. Bradbury, an associate professor in economics, wants to break down such issues to baseball fans whose biggest concern is the price of his ticket and a beer. The author examines several aspects of the game, some of which seem to be a bit of a reach ("The Extinct Left-Handed Catcher," "How Good is Leo Mazzone?") to the overall theme.

His main concept seems to be that most teams with low salaries are better on a cost-per-victory basis than the big spenders. That may be, but the comparison loses steam when it comes down to the final equation: winning a championship. It's impossible for a book on economics to avoid statistical charts and formulae, and just as difficult to make it exciting.

Bradury's best essay deals with judging a player's value to his team. Using the concept of "marginal revenue product," Bradbury juxtaposes the player's contributions with the amount of money invested in his development (training, upkeep, etc.) to come up with his figures. Is Alex Rodriguez's salary justified? Barry Bonds's? The first year rookie? You'll have to consult Bradbury's expose for the final answer.

Sixth Period: Psychology

THE PSYCHOLOGY OF BASEBALL: Inside the Mental Game of the Major League Player by Mike Stadler (Gotham)

"Listen to any radio or television broadcast and…you get a liberal dose of psychology," writes Mike Stadler, an associate professor of psychology. "The announcers…try to read the minds of the players on the field to make known their motives and struggles."

Even though there are many sub-categories of psychology, most of us probably narrow the subject down to the thought processes of why we do things. What happened in the minds of second basemen Chuck Knoblauch and Steve Sax that turned them from all-stars to mental cripples, unable to make a simple throw to first base? Or a batter who can't seem to fight his way out of a slump, or a pitcher who can't find the strike zone?

While Stadler does address those inquiries, he spends too much time bogged down with the analytic aspects, which might ultimately divert the interest of his lay audience.

Seventh Period: Civics

METS ESSENTIAL: Everything You Need to Know to be a Real Fan!by Matthew Silverman (Triumph)

Can a "real fan" get her information from a book? If so, then Matthew Silverman's METS ESSENTIAL is a good starting point, but only that. He covers the main historical points and throws in a few facts, figures, lists and opinions, but compared with previous books on the topic, it falls a bit short. For one thing, there's a definite lack of statistics, and real fans would not be afraid to face the demons of some truly dreadful seasons in the form of a more in-depth recap (examples of these include Leonard Koppett's THE NEW YORK METS and Peter Golenbock's AMAZIN': The Miraculous History of New York's Most Beloved Baseball Team).

While Silverman's book might provide a "Cliffs Notes"-style education, this would only serve the reader for a few moments when in the presence of real Mets fans.

Eighth Period: Language Arts

SCORING FROM SECOND: Writers on Baseball edited by Philip F. Deaver (Bison Books)

Philip F. Deaver has assembled nearly three-dozen "creative non-fiction" stories from a broad range of writers. While Leslie Epstein (father of Red Sox general manager Theo), Louis D. Rudin, Jr. and Michael Sternberg might not be the equals of Updike, Mailer, Roth and Bellow, their hearts are in the right place.

These previously-published essays and excerpts recall the heroes of youth, exploits --- or lack thereof --- on the diamond, and other issues that elate or haunt long after other childish things are put aside. Through these pieces, the contributors seek to answer the burning question: What is it about the game that stirs such passion? What makes otherwise intelligent people with more important considerations wax poetical about what has long been considered a child's game? 

Anthologies such as this run the risk of unevenness. Depending on the reader's mood, the stories can either delight ("Opening Ceremony" by Kyle Minor) or depress ("Death of a Shortstop" by Robert Vivian). Tom Stanton serves as "closer" with his misty-eyed rendition of the closing of Tiger Stadium, a traditional place of male-bonding for his family.

With all the flaws inherent with this volume, SCORING FROM SECOND nevertheless serves as a reminder of how well baseball and the written word have partnered ever since bat first met ball.

--- Reviewed by Ron Kaplan (

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