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A Season Opener!

Baseball Books

A Season Opener!

After 9/11, one of the first signs that America was trying to get back to normal was the resumption of the major league baseball schedule. Somber ceremonies honoring the fallen and restating our faith in our country preceded games, and "God Bless America" replaced "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" at the seventh inning stretch.

National Geographic and the National Baseball Hall of Fame have combined in a timely effort to demonstrate the bond America has with baseball. The National Geographic has long been praised for combining thoughtful prose with exhilarating illustrations. This reputation, earned primarily for bringing exotic locations to the reader, is reaffirmed on the home front in BASEBALL AS AMERICA. The editors of this labor of love have collected a diverse group of writers to examine the national pastime as much more than just a game, but as a way of life. It has infiltrated our speech, our music, our reading, even our eating habits (in a long-ago commercial, Humphrey Bogart declared that "a hot dog at the ballpark was like a steak at The Ritz."). Chapters include themes such as "Our National Spirit," "Ideals and Injustices," "Sharing a Common Culture," and "Weaving Myths."

Jules Tygiel, one of the sport's most respected historians, introduces the various chapters, which are written by an eclectic group from many disciplines. Steven Reiss, a professor at Northern Illinois University, discusses "Baseball and Ethnicity"; best-selling novelist John Grisham reports on "Growing Up With Baseball"; and Molly O'Neill, a food columnist for The New York Times (and sister of the recently-retired Paul O'Neill) weighs in with "Fathers Eating Hot Dogs with Sons." Even good old Charlie Brown, the eternal optimist, merits discussion.

Nor has National Geographic forgotten that it helps to establish an interest in the game at an early age. AMERICA AT BAT: Baseball Stuff and Stories is perfectly tailored for young readers. It packs a colorful punch in a scant 48 pages, dealing with the most important aspects of the game, liberally illustrated and just plain fun. Each chapter concludes with a quiz, to make sure the kids were paying attention.

BASEBALL AS AMERICA was produced in conjunction with a traveling tour of baseball icons and artifacts by the Hall of Fame. The four-year program kicked off in March at New York's Museum of Natural History and will make stops in Los Angeles, Chicago, Cincinnati, St. Petersburg, Washington, St. Louis, and Houston. Put aside the genteel discussions of the social relevance of the game and you realize that as long as there has been baseball, there have been arguments over which team or stadium was better. Mantle or Mays? DiMaggio or Williams?

While less glitzy than BASEBALL AS AMERICA, Dean A. Sullivan's LATE INNINGS is just as illuminating in justifying the significance of the game in our culture.

Using excerpts from newspapers, organized baseball internal memoranda, and congressional reports and hearings as a narrative, Sullivan adds his own commentary to review some of baseball's high and low points between 1945 and 1972.

Relatively few of the articles report on the game as played on the field, although the really important ones, such as Bobby Thomson's "shot heard round the world" (1951) and Harvey Haddix's 12-inning near-perfect game (1959) are among the handful selected for inclusion.

The bulk of LATE INNINGS takes place off the diamond, with issues that are no less important in the game's evolution: the impact of television on the major and minor leagues; franchise relocation; expansion; the influx of African-Americans into the pro ranks and the consequent decline of the Negro Leagues; comings (the debut of Willie Mays) and goings (Mickey Mantle's last home run); antitrust hearings; and Curt Flood's wrangling with the baseball establishment to usher in the era of free agency.

Sullivan, editor of EARLY INNINGS and MIDDLE INNINGS, which cover 1825-1900 and 1900-1948 respectively, does a fine job of gathering representative pieces that show baseball as a work in progress, ever-growing, ever-changing.

Allen Barra, a sportswriter for The Wall Street Journal and Village Voice, examines some of these issues in CLEARING THE BASES. Known for his anti-conventional views, he opines on how the changing conditions (night baseball was introduced in 1935; Jackie Robinson opening the door for other black players) have impacted the game. Among other issues on his mind are why pitchers can't seem to throw complete games any more and what happened to the Mets' short-lived dynasty in the mid-1980s. He uses his own statistical methods to back up his theories (readers might be shocked at his pick for the greatest player ever). Regardless of whether this book answers questions or causes more arguments, it will cause readers to think about their own cherished beliefs. But buyer beware: Barra slips in some chapters on "lesser sports" such as basketball and football, a fact that is omitted from the book cover.

Speaking of the Mets, the title of Peter Golenbock's latest baseball tome alone is sure to cause a few arguments with Yankee fans. But the author of similar books on the Yankees, Red Sox, and Cubs has done his usual thorough job of collecting anecdotal history from the people closest to the scene in AMAZIN': The Miraculous History of New York's Most Beloved Baseball Team.

The Mets are a young club, relatively speaking, just now entering (along with many fans) into the mid-life crisis stage. Like all of us, they have had their ups and downs, laughs and tears, which are laid bare for us to see. One of the most interesting chapters is how the team was put together following the abandonment of the Dodgers and Giants, who left New York following the 1956 season. The machinations of finding a replacement are fascinating, both on a political level and within the confines of the baseball establishment, which believed that a National League franchise in the country's largest metropolitan area was unnecessary.

AMAZIN' tracks the teams progress (or lack thereof) through interviews with players and other team personnel throughout the Mets' 40 years. One complaint is the lack of variety in the choice of interviewees, especially in the most recent years. People have their own takes, their own agendas on things, and relying on a select few can put a spin on the truth. Still, Golenbock is the baseball version of Studs Terkel, letting his subjects do most of the talking, filling in background where needed. A book like this has been long in coming for Mets' fans.

Frank O'Rourke is not a household name. He's no W. P. Kinsella, no Mark Harris, no Ring Lardner. But during the 1940s and 1950s he wrote some of the most eloquent baseball short stories you're likely to find. Most of the pieces that appear in THE HEAVENLY WORLD SERIES were originally published in such magazines as The Saturday Evening Post and Esquire. They are at once triumphant and sad, often disguising actual players of the era as easily recognized avatars.

O'Rourke, who died in 1989, tells these tales with such subdued yet stirring passion, that you don't even mind that many of them are essentially the same, frequently dealing with a fading player's love for the game --- to the extent that he will do just about anything not to give it up. He knows the ride can't go on forever but still seeks that one more game, one more inning, one more at bat, one more pitch, whether at the major league level or for some two-bit sandlot team in a one-horse town. And when it truly is over, he wants to see the sanctity of the game passed down to a worthy standard-bearer.

Ironically, the short story of the book's title just might be the least compelling, a World Series in the great hereafter between the American and National Leagues' dearly departed, under the watchful eyes of Ty Cobb, John McGraw, Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, and the Supreme Being, the ultimate umpire. Interesting in concept, lacking in delivery. A much more enthralling entry is a paean to a ballplayer who knows the odds are against him but perseveres to gain the respect of his opponents on the field and in the stands. Another is a reference to a crooked player trying to stick with the game, despite the contempt of his fellow ballists.

There is a tendency to deal in hyperbole when writing about baseball: the verdant fields, fathers playing catch with sons, the theory of infinity for a game without a time clock and whose boundaries extend forever, ever diverging from home plate. And while some of this sentimentality is exhibited here, there is plenty of tangible evidence that baseball is America. To offer just one bit of evidence: The President has traditionally thrown out the first pitch since the days of William Howard Taft. What other sport can make such a claim? Does the President ever kick off the first football? Make the first free throw? I rest my case.

--- Reviewed by Ron Kaplan