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Baseball Books


As the commercial says, "Chicks dig the long ball." So do guys, actually. In fact, baseball fans are generally in awe of brawny bashers who can hoist the horsehide out of the park. This year's assortment of baseball titles features a healthy dose of biographies about some of the greatest hitters of all time, as well as a photographic retrospective of what many sports historians consider the greatest era in baseball.

No account of baseball would be complete without paying respect to Babe Ruth. More than a half-century after his death, books still recall his greatness on the field and his influence on American culture.

Jim Reisler takes a look at the nominative, if not the actual, beginning of Ruthian lore in BABE RUTH: Launching the Legend. Ruth had been a star in Boston for the first several years of his career, pitching and batting the Red Sox to three world championships. If he hadn't turned to playing the outfield full time to take advantage of his hitting prowess, who knows how many wins he would have earned on the mound?

But Boston did not hold the exciting promise of New York, and it wasn't until the Yankees acquired him in 1920 that the "legend" was truly launched. Before Ruth appeared on the scene, the Yankees were a lackluster team; with the Sultan of Swat in camp, they evolved into the most successful sports franchise of all time.

Reisler focuses on that inaugural season. The facts and lore have been told before, but that doesn't detract from hearing them again, with slightly different nuance. He also concentrates on Ruth's impact on the diamond rather than on the salacious off-the-field antics, crediting Ruth with transforming the game from "small ball" --- hitting singles, bunting the runner over, etc. --- to one where a single swing of the bat could not only win the game, but give the fans a jolt.

The man who eventually broke Ruth's all-time record of 714 home runs is the subject of another wonderful offering by Tom Stanton in HANK AARON AND THE HOME RUN THAT CHANGED AMERICA, marking the thirtieth anniversary of the feat.

For most of his career, Aaron, an outfielder for the Milwaukee (and later Atlanta) Braves, went about his work with comparatively little media attention. But that changed as he came within striking distance of Ruth's record (1973-74). Those years should have been a time of excitement and joyful anticipation. Instead, they were a horror.

Stanton, author of THE LAST SEASON, a bittersweet tale about the closing of Detroit's Tiger Stadium, mixes sport with social commentary as he describes the withering pressures and racism Aaron faced (perhaps exacerbated by playing in the deep south), including assorted death threats to himself and his family, hate mail and the inexplicable indifference of baseball's commissioner Bowie Kuhn.

The increasing media focus and demands on his time on top of the daily grind for an aging athlete were compounded by the small mindedness of those who believed that Aaron, as an African-American, had no "right" to such acclaim. Instead of enjoying the ride, it reached the point where Aaron told reporters, "I want to get this nightmare over with."

Did that 715th home run really change America? One would hope that America did not need much changing, but the shameful truth is that there were (and still are) aspects of life in need of improvement. But if something as trivial as a sporting feat can make it happen … hey, whatever it takes.

Mickey Mantle was another favorite son, the golden boy of the post War generation. Blessed with speed, power, good looks and playing in baseball's Mecca, he also served as the symbol of the flawed hero. What more could he have accomplished if he had been able to avoid injury and keep away from the booze?

Maury Allen and Bill Liederman combine their talents to remind readers of Mantle's impact in the anecdotal volume, OUR MICKEY: Cherished Memories of an American Icon.

Allen, a top-flight New York sportswriter, contributes stories mainly from Mantle's teammates and opponents, while Liederman, who helped established the popular New York restaurant that bears the legend's name, gives a sense of what "The Mick" meant to his fans, including such prominent personalities as Billy Crystal, Donald Trump, Henry Kissinger and George Plimpton. The fact that many of the stories have been told before in no way detracts from the enjoyment of hearing them again.

The alert reader will note that there is no commentary from Larry King, that perennial friend to celebrities in OUR MICKEY. There are two possible reasons. The first is that King was an avowed Brooklyn Dodger fan, a constant post-season punching bag of Mantle and his Yankee teammates. The second might be that King was too busy working on a book of his own, explaining to his fans and co-generationalists, WHY I LOVE BASEBALL.

King is a master storyteller. He spins his yarns about his favorite players and teams and how growing up in New York in the 1930s colored his perception of the game, with its colorful characters and thrilling memories, perhaps embellished with the passing of time. His easy style and comforting manner accentuates his believability, even if you've heard these stories before.

Baby boomers from the Big Apple can't help but feel a bit smug. For them, the "golden age" of baseball is defined as the span beginning shortly after World War II and ending as the Dodgers and Giants, like prospectors of a century before, left the east coast for the "gold coast" of California.

Vic Ziegel, a journalistic contemporary of Maury Allen, offers SUMMER IN THE CITY: New York Baseball, 1947-1957 as proof of this embarrassment of riches.

For those eleven years, a New York team appeared in every World Series except the 1948 face-off between the Boston Braves and the Cleveland Indians. In fact, the Yankees faced the Dodgers in six "subway series," winning five world titles, and the Giants in another in-house affair (1951, the year of Bobby Thomson's dramatic home run to win the pennant against the Dodgers). The other fall classic appearances pitted the Yankees against the Philadelphia Phillies (1950) and the Giants against the Indians (1954).

Ziegel adds his commentary to photographs from his employer, the New York Daily News, to illustrate the excitement generated by these "boys of summer," including several shots of the fans' joys and frustrations. This is especially true of the poignant shots regarding the final games of the Dodgers and Giants in New York.

With Alex Rodriguez about to launch a new era in New York baseball, it's important --- not to mention just plain fun --- to look back on those special players and moments of the past as a reminder of how the game connects the generations, one unto the other.

   --- Reviewed by Ron Kaplan (

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