Ron Kaplan

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Baseball is an emotional game. For every thrill of victory there is an agony of defeat. Yet the fans still have faith, still think their team, though mired in the basement for a decade, has a good a chance to win the championship. Come September, if not earlier, they're right back where they started, still spouting the optimistic rallying cry, Wait 'til next year! Then there's the male-bonding factor, as fathers pass their love of the game to the next generation. And for many, the memories of playing the sport as a child linger for a lifetime. Jim Bouton, author of the watershed (and recently re-released) Ball Four: The Final Pitch, condensed these sentiments into one sentence: You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time. There are several new books which embrace the emotional grip of the national pastime.

If you're old enough to have been a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, no game was more emblematic of that queasy feeling of having the floor pulled out from under you than the 1951 playoff game with the hated cross-town rival New York Giants. It was the contest in which Bobby Thomson hit his shot heard 'round the world. One only has to look at the photo of Ralph Branca, the poster boy for bad sports karma, crying on the clubhouse steps, to understand the tremendous ups and downs athletes and fans face on a regular basis. John Kuenster deftly captures this attitude in Heartbreakers: Baseball's Most Agonizing Defeats. He cites many examples of victory cruelly denied by a poorly timed home run, an error or some other mishap. A more recent example was Red Sox Bill Buckner's fielding gaffe against the New York Mets in the 1986 World Series. Boston was two strikes away from its first world championship since the days of Babe Ruth, only to see victory slip away.

The home run is the most dramatic way to send fans into fits of agony or ecstasy. One swing of the bat can spell doom for the opposition. Rich Westcott chronicles the most famous of these shots in Great Home Runs of the 20th Century. The aforementioned Thomson blast is included, of course, as well as Mark McGwire's and Sammy Sosa's record breakers, Carlton Fisk's extra-inning thriller against the Reds in 1972, Bill Mazeroski's 1960 World Series walk-off home run against the mighty Yankees, and a hobbling Kirk Gibson's last-gasp blast in the '88 Fall Classic, all fodder for the highlight reels.

One of the more heartwarming stories in recent years is told in The Oldest Rookie: Big-League Dreams From a Small-Town Guy, by Jim Morris with Joel Engel. Morris was one of thousands of prospects who, despite their talent, fail to make it to the major leagues. After puttering around in the minors for several years, fighting injury and the pressure to get on with his life, Morris retired, struggling to make a living and provide for his family. Almost 15 years after he threw his last professional pitch, Morris, by now a high school baseball coach who still had a 95 mph fastball, accepted a challenge from his team: if they made the playoffs, he would try out for a major league team. When the high school team scored a come-from-behind victory in the playoffs, Morris was forced to keep his promise. At the tryouts, he threw faster than he ever had, earning a place with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. No, this book is not a retelling of The Natural; Morris did not become a latter-day Roy Hobbs. He just lived his dream, and he relates his amazing story with humility and charm.

Although the headlines usually focus on the stratospheric salaries of today's top stars, George Gmelch's Inside Pitch: Life in Professional Baseballshows another side of the sport. Gmelch gives readers an overview of the whole process of becoming a professional ballplayer, from the time a player emerges from the womb of his amateur days and signs his first professional contract until he leaves the game, either on his own or on orders from a higher authority. This fascinating book calls on the insights of scouts, managers, coaches, front office personnel and the players themselves. Gmelch shows fans the day-to-day, humdrum, insecure toil of the minor leaguer who is often ill-prepared for life away from home, unfamiliar with the most rudimentary tasks such as doing laundry and handling finances and such. The author calls upon his own background as a minor leaguer, giving Inside Pitch a unique air of authenticity.

Baseball Extra, edited by Eric C. Caren, is one of the more unusual compilations available to baseball fans. Reprints from more than a century of newspapers not only highlight the national pastime, but help put it in historical perspective. Baseball reports share the pages with non-sports news, both regional and national. The huge format of the book gives the reader that being there feeling and makes for hours of fascinating reading.

Ron Kaplan is a freelance writer specializing in baseball. In a role-reversal, he took his father to his first baseball game when he was 65.

Extra innings for baseball fans !

More promising baseball books are scheduled to hit the bookstore shelves as the season progresses:
A Pitcher's Story: Innings with David Cone by Roger Angell. One of our best baseball writers takes a candid look at the craft of pitching.
Home Runedited by George Plimpton. A collection of first-rate fiction and nonfiction writing about a winning topic: home runs. Contributors include John Updike, Garrison Keillor and Don DeLillo.
The Final Season: Fathers, Sons and One Last Season in a Classic American Ballpark by Tom Stanton. A moving memoir about the loss of a beloved ballpark Tiger Stadium in Detroit and the way in which one parent comes to terms with his mortality.
 

Baseball is an emotional game. For every thrill of victory there is an agony of defeat. Yet the fans still have faith, still think their team, though mired in the basement for a decade, has a good a chance to win the championship. Come September, if not earlier, they're right back where they started, still […]
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'Tis the season to think about the literary sports fans on your shopping list. And this year's batch of gift books has something for sports fans of every stripe.

The links enthusiast will appreciate The 500 World's Greatest Golf Holes by George Peper and the editors of Golf magazine. Not courses, mind you, but individual holes. How do you go about choosing such an elite group out of an estimated half-million? What defines greatness in this case? There are no blueprints, the author states in the introduction. They are inevitably a blend of art and science, nature and man, tradition and heterodoxy, stubbornness and compromise, dedicated genius and dumb luck. Each selection includes the course, the hole number, the location, the architects, the length and par. For example, the par three, 139-yard, 15th hole at the Cypress Point Club at California's Pebble Beach designed by Alister MacKenzie is listed as the second greatest. (What, you thought I was going to reveal the greatest? And ruin the suspense?) The gorgeous photography and lyrical narrative make this a heavyweight, figuratively as well as literally (Golf Holes weighs in at a hefty five pounds).

Whether or not you consider it athletics, NASCAR has quickly become one of the most popular spectator sports in the country. Drivers adorn cereal boxes and reap their share of endorsements. Nine photographers contributed to Speedweeks: 10 Days at Daytona, which covers the crown jewel of auto racing, the Daytona 500. The high-speed camera work captures the color and drama of every aspect of the event. From the fans to the pit crews to the cars and the men who drive them, Speedweeks represents the finest in mechanized sports.

Baseball's Best Shots: The Greatest Baseball Photography of All Time contains some of the most famous snapshots in the rich history of the national pastime: the fierce Ty Cobb sliding into third, his spikes flashing mayhem; an extreme close-up of Babe Ruth. In another shot, Ruth is seen hugging Lou Gehrig as the Iron Horse made his poignant farewell at Yankee Stadium. Then there's the Pulitzer Prize-winning shot by Nat Fein of Ruth's own goodbye to the game nearly a decade later. There are also plenty of shots aimed at today's fans, featuring the likes of Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Ken Griffey, Jr. While some readers might question the selection of some of the more recent photos as the best of all time, they are definitely artistic and entertaining.

Football is also represented in the gift book category with NFL's Greatest: Pro Football's Best Players, Teams, and Games. Again we have the issue of subjectivity when it comes to deciding the best in any area. NFL's Greatest features the 100 premier players in gridiron history, including the likes of Gayle Sayers, Walter Peyton, Dan Marino, Broadway Joe Namath, Joe Montana, Dick Butkis and other household names. The most exalted teams are also profiled, as well as individual games and the watershed events that helped shape the sport into a challenger for the hearts of America's fans.

Some wiseacre was once asked what one book he'd want if stranded on a desert island. The dictionary, he replied, because it has all the other books in it. This is an apt description of Sports: The Complete Visual Reference, by Francois Fortin, a combination of abridged rule book and instruction manual. If you've ever flipped through the sports channel at 3 a.m. and wondered just what Australian Rules Football was all about, here's where to find the answer. Terminology, equipment and playing conditions are included along with thousands of illustrations of the various recreations, which are broken down into categories such as team, precision (e.g., archery and billiards), mechanized (auto racing) and combat sports, among others. A major reference source, this one is definitely a keeper, so by the time the next Olympics rolls around, you'll know the difference between hurling and curling.

Ron Kaplan writes from Montclair, New Jersey.

'Tis the season to think about the literary sports fans on your shopping list. And this year's batch of gift books has something for sports fans of every stripe. The links enthusiast will appreciate The 500 World's Greatest Golf Holes by George Peper and the editors of Golf magazine. Not courses, mind you, but individual holes. […]
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George Will, the political pundit, freely admits that he was the kid who played right field on his team. And indeed he looks the part a slight, bespectacled bookworm, too much an egghead for the rest of the gang. Instead of building up his athletic prowess, he developed a knowledge and love for the game which he displays in Bunts, a collection of his writings on the national pastime. This is Will's second foray into baseball. His Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball, was a bestseller.

Most of the pieces in Bunts, which span some 25 years, are gleaned from his Newsweek and Washington Post columns, with a few other musings tossed in for good measure. In his earlier writings he strives to prove that rooting for his childhood idols, the Chicago Cubs (the poster team for baseball mediocrity), and being a baseball fan were not mutually exclusive. Indeed, of the book's 80 pieces, 15 refer to the this team which had not won a pennant since 1945 and whose overall record is well below the break-even point. On the flip side, a few of the stories deal with the Baltimore Orioles, one of the more successful franchises. Will is a Member of the Board for the O's, which is the closest thing Washington, D.C., has to a team since the Senators left town in 1972.

Bunts is about more than the strain of being a Cubs fan, however. Will reports on such luminaries as Pete Rose, whose passion for gambling ultimately conflicted with his passion for baseball; Curt Flood, whose sacrifice made today's free agency possible; Cal Ripken, Jr., the new "Iron Man" of baseball; Steve Palermo, an umpire who was shot and paralyzed while trying to prevent an armed robbery; perennial batting champion Tony Gwynn; and Jon Miller, the stylish broadcaster for ESPN and the San Francisco Giants. But Will also writes about lesser lights in the horsehide firmament, including Andy Van Slyke, a colorful and outspoken outfielder; Jamie Quirk, a journeyman catcher; and Brett Butler, "The Human Bunt." Will addresses issues as well, offering his insights on the designated hitter, voting for players for the annual all-star game, and even tackling the questionable origins of baseball. He writes with great nostalgia as he contrasts the sport between his favorite era, the 1950s, and the neon nineties. His columns on baseball's various labor unrests show little patience for either side, blaming both players and owners for imperiling the great game that has bridged generations and seen America through good times and bad.

It might be hard to conceive that Will, an icon of the conservative movement, can wax so poetically about something as "trivial" as baseball. But Bunts proves his ardor for the game, with all its triumphs, heartbreaks, and shortcomings.

George Will, the political pundit, freely admits that he was the kid who played right field on his team. And indeed he looks the part a slight, bespectacled bookworm, too much an egghead for the rest of the gang. Instead of building up his athletic prowess, he developed a knowledge and love for the game […]
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The late Stephen Ambrose, who brought the Lewis and Clark expedition to life for adult readers in his best-selling book Undaunted Courage, does the same for young people in This Vast Land: A Young Man’s Journal of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. This fictional account of the famous westward excursion is Ambrose’s final book and his only work for young readers.

Eighteen-year-old George Shannon, an enterprising young man from Philadelphia anxious to join the expedition, convinces Captain Meriwether Lewis that neither his youth nor his genteel upbringing should be held against him. Lewis eventually accepts Shannon, charging him with the responsibility of keeping a journal of their travels.

Through Shannon’s words, Ambrose portrays the sense of wonder and wariness of this band of pioneers, braving the elements, boredom and other challenges in their quest to expand the nation one day, one mile at a time. As if to mirror the growth of the nation, Shannon develops from a relatively innocent youth to a hardened frontiersman. Though faced with dangerous situations and dishonorable dealings from various Native Americans, he refuses to generalize and condemn all: “I cannot agree with Capt. Louis [sic] that [they] are savages. Some of them are to be sure, . . . but this does not mean all Indians are.” Lewis and Clark complete their assignment, but the story does not end there. The narrative continues many years later, with Shannon, now an established attorney, hailing his colleagues in commemorative ceremonies, defending their actions and refuting historical inaccuracies.

Ambrose writes in the vernacular of the era, with intentionally incorrect spellings, which can be distracting at times. Parents and teachers should also be cautioned that there is a fair amount of violence in the book, as well as some brief but fairly explicit sexual material. Still, Ambrose’s novel is an imaginative and informative account that puts a human face on an expedition that helped to shape a nation. Ron Kaplan writes from Montclair, New Jersey.

The late Stephen Ambrose, who brought the Lewis and Clark expedition to life for adult readers in his best-selling book Undaunted Courage, does the same for young people in This Vast Land: A Young Man’s Journal of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. This fictional account of the famous westward excursion is Ambrose’s final book and […]
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For baseball fans who admire fine writing as much as a home-run swing, two new collections will be at the top of the spring roster. Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville: My Lifelong Passion for Baseball (Norton, $24.95, 320 pages, ISBN 0393057550) by the late Stephen Jay Gould is a wonderful collection of essays and book reviews the author contributed to The New York Review of Books, Vanity Fair and The New York Times. Reminiscing about old players and new theories, about the use of statistics and the blue melancholy of being a Red Sox fan, the author writes about the game with warmth and authority. As baseball scribe for The New Yorker, Roger Angell has been writing about the game for more than 40 years. Game Time: A Baseball Companion spans four decades and collects the best of his work. He has seen the game morph from a "plantation mentality," in which the owners called all the shots, to today's sport where, it could be said, the inmates are running the asylum. With his ability to take the reader below the surface, Angell gains access to old idols like Tom Seaver, as well as today's stars, including Pedro Martinez and Barry Bonds. In his hands, these players are more than just numbers in a box score; they're men with depth and soul. Angell's thoughtful prose will warm baseball fans even on the coldest days of the off-season.

 

For baseball fans who admire fine writing as much as a home-run swing, two new collections will be at the top of the spring roster. Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville: My Lifelong Passion for Baseball (Norton, $24.95, 320 pages, ISBN 0393057550) by the late Stephen Jay Gould is a wonderful collection of essays and book […]
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Baseball books are like weddings: they always seem to include something old (biographies and team histories), something new (lots of numbers for statistics and fantasy leagues fanciers), something borrowed (how many original books can you write about the mighty Yankees?) and something blue (anything about the Dodgers). True fans stick with their teams for richer or poorer, for better or worse, through sickness and health, till death do them part. Following in this time-honored tradition, we've assembled a few of this season's top baseball titles.

Something old

Some pundits opine that baseball has lost its status as the national pastime. This may be true, but there's no denying that when it comes to inspiring writers and artists to demonstrate their affection for a game, no other sport comes close. The Perfect Game: America Looks at Baseball by Elizabeth V. Warren, former curator for the American Folk Art Museum in New York, provides ample proof. Based on a recent exhibition at the museum, The Perfect Game looks at teams; the women's game; bats and balls; signs; and other aspects of the sport. Warren's goal is to introduce baseball fans to the world of folk art and show them that "there is another way, beyond the relics and collectibles of the past, to look at the history of their beloved sport." Unlike other books that meld art and baseball, Warren's text concentrates on the artists and their methods rather than the ballplayers and the game. The overall feel is that of a well-done arts-and-crafts show. Particularly engaging are the unusual figures made from wood or metal depicting athletes in various stages of play.

Something new

Why do they serve hot dogs at ballgames? How do those guys take care of the field and all that equipment? How did the stadium architects decide how many restrooms to build? Oh, the things we think of while watching a game at the ballpark! Vince Staten addresses these and other conundrums in Why is the Foul Pole Fair? (Or, Answers to the Baseball Questions Your Dad Hoped You Wouldn't Ask). Reading Staten, whose book is full of humorous and thoughtful observations, is like sitting next to Andy Rooney at the ballgame. He explores topics like bubble gum cards, athletic supporters and team nicknames, and he isn't satisfied to merely answer the surface questions. He delves into the social history of numerous components in an almost stream-of-consciousness style. He's certainly done his research, offering hard-to-find, fascinating facts.

Something borrowed

Bats are practically communal property when kids gather at the ballfield. Baseball gloves, on the other hand, are much more personal and shared only with great reluctance. They are often the first piece of sports equipment a kid receives and certainly one of the most prized possessions of childhood. Noah Liberman chronicles this special relationship with equal measures of reverence and bemusement in Glove Affairs: The Romance, History, and Tradition of the Baseball Glove. In its nascent days, baseball was a manly sport. Using a glove was an open invitation for ridicule for anyone wimpy enough to wear one. Players accepted broken fingers and other injuries inherent in bare-handed play as badges of honor. But honor only went so far. The first use of a mitt was reported by the Cincinnati Commercial in 1870, and since then the glove has evolved from a leather accessory with the fingers cut off to today's huge multi-hued aggregations of material seemingly capable of catching a small cow. What's the best method to break in that new mitt? Ballplayers have been debating this for generations. There are almost as many recipes for glove conditioning as for barbecue sauces, so Liberman's chapter on the ever-important care and feeding of gloves is most welcome, as is his ode to those magicians who can take old and decaying mitts and restore them to youthful vigor. This playful edition is a welcome change from baseball's more serious books.

Something blue

Dodger Blue is the topic of Michael Shapiro's nostalgic look at The Last Good Season: Brooklyn, The Dodgers, and Their Final Pennant Race Together. Believe it or not, there are still people in Brooklyn who count among their darkest moments the day their beloved "Bums" left for the West coast. More so than most teams, the Dodgers had a special connection with their city. By 1956, the team's nucleus including Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella and Gil Hodges were well past their prime. The city itself was changing as the post-war generation began its flight to the suburbs, leaving in its place a demographic (read African-American and Hispanic) that Walter O'Malley, the team's owner, felt could not adequately support the team, although he would maintain it was a question of economics, not race, on which the Dodgers based their departure. In The Last Good Season, Shapiro concentrates on the players, their families and Brooklyn as a whole. His narrative has, of necessity, a sense of doom. His ode to a simpler time makes for bittersweet but rewarding reading, and not only for baseball fans. After all, the Dodgers were about more than a game; they were about community.

On deck

More exciting baseball books are scheduled for publication in the coming months. Watch for these titles:

The Teammates by David Halberstam (May/ Hyperion). A portrait of four Boston Red Sox players from the famed 1949 team who remained friends for more than 60 years.

October Men: Reggie Jackson, George Steinbrenner, Billy Martin, and the Yankees' Miraculous Finish in 1978 by Roger Kahn (May/Harcourt). An account of the raucous season in which the Yankees won the World Series despite Martin's mid-season departure.

The Hidden Language of Baseball by Paul Dickson (May/Walker). A fascinating look at the intricate systems of signs used by players and coaches.

Planet of the Umps: A Baseball Life from Behind the Plate by Ken Kaiser (May/Thomas Dunne Books). The adventures and misadventures of a 20-year major league umpire.

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis (June/Norton). How the Oakland Athletics achieved major league success with a minor league payroll. Ron Kaplan is a writer from Montclair, New Jersey.

Baseball books are like weddings: they always seem to include something old (biographies and team histories), something new (lots of numbers for statistics and fantasy leagues fanciers), something borrowed (how many original books can you write about the mighty Yankees?) and something blue (anything about the Dodgers). True fans stick with their teams for richer […]
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Pieter Bruegel was a 16th century artist, known for his quirky presentation of people and places. Besides painting traditional portraits and landscapes, he was famous for his illustrations of parables and proverbs, such as Big Fish Eat Little Fish and Tower of Babel.

Anders C. Shafer, an artist in his own right and professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, concentrates on two years of Bruegel's life as the young artist travels across Europe to find inspiration for his paintings. His journey is the backdrop for this charming book.

The Fantastic Voyage of Pieter Bruegel is written loosely in journal form from the subject's point of view, with his impressions of the people and cities he visits. He departs from his home town of Antwerp, following his mentor's advice to travel to Rome and complete his formal education there. Along the way, Bruegel encounters the usual mix of humankind: helpful hosts who take him in as one of their own and mean-spirited folks who threaten his safety and pocketbook.

The young artist writes of his adventures as he travels to France, where he meets an unscrupulous ferry pilot; over the Alps, where he is accosted by a band of boys who seek to rob him; and to Sicily, where he finds an unusual topic to paint: a group of beekeepers plying their trade in outfits which render them safe from the bees, but virtually sightless.

At last, Bruegel arrives in Rome and is totally awed by the heady experience. He finds work painting trees on the ceiling of a church. The highlight of his journey, though, is when the great Michelangelo visits the church and offers comments on the work. He draws and sculpts like an angel, Bruegel reports, but he stinks like a monkey. So much for hero worship.

The illustrations by Shafer are simple and complex at the same time, not unlike Bruegel himself. At the end of the journal, Shafer includes reproductions of several of Bruegel's masterpieces.

This book provides a wonderful opportunity to introduce children not only to the world of art, but aspects of history as well. And Shafer presents his subject in a way that makes these lessons easy to absorb.

Pieter Bruegel was a 16th century artist, known for his quirky presentation of people and places. Besides painting traditional portraits and landscapes, he was famous for his illustrations of parables and proverbs, such as Big Fish Eat Little Fish and Tower of Babel. Anders C. Shafer, an artist in his own right and professor emeritus […]
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Indian Shoes is a collection of delightful tales about a little boy named Ray, a young Native American who lives in Chicago with his grandfather. Halfmoon is the type of grandfather that any kid would love to have for his own. Wise and playful, he allows Ray to feel his way through life and make mistakes, yet he is also protective. In turn, Ray seeks to please the old man.

In the title story, he tries to figure out a way to buy the pair of genuine Seminole Moccasins from Oklahoma that sit in an antique store window after Grampa Halfmoon casually remarks that the shoes remind him of home. Ray realizes the wistful comments are an indication of homesickness but doesn't have enough money to make the purchase. His inventive way of handling the problem will remind the reader of the type of solution Tom Sawyer might conjure up.

Other episodes deal with the ordinary and not-so-ordinary situations of neighborhood life. In "Don't Forget the Pants!" Ray must deal with the nightmare we all have at some point. In "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" he and Grampa Halfmoon start off Christmas feeling a bit sad because they are so far from home for the winter holiday. But they find solace in tending to some special, needy creatures.

"The Accident" teaches us that despite our best efforts, not everything goes our way and we have to learn from our disappointments. "Team Colors," on the other hand, demonstrates the joy of serendipity. My favorite, though, was the final piece, "Night Fishing," in which Ray and his grandfather spend some simple quality time together on an excursion. There's no need for thunderous action or mysterious settings.

Cynthia Leitich Smith, who has written on Native American themes in two other children's books, Jingle Dancer and Rain Is Not My Indian Name, brings a gentle touch to her stories. The role of family is obvious throughout as both Ray and Grampa Halfmoon fondly recall an absent aunt or far-away cousins back in Oklahoma. Images of sitting around the kitchen table with the smell of bacon frying are almost palpable, and the relationship between these two is as heartwarming to see as an old family photo album.

Be prepared to reach for the phone so the kids can call their grandparents after reading Indian Shoes.

 

Ron Kaplan writes from Montclair, New Jersey.

Indian Shoes is a collection of delightful tales about a little boy named Ray, a young Native American who lives in Chicago with his grandfather. Halfmoon is the type of grandfather that any kid would love to have for his own. Wise and playful, he allows Ray to feel his way through life and make […]
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Rosemary Wells is famous for the comforting, cuddly characters Max and Ruby, two young rabbits who get in and out of all sorts of trouble. In Wingwalker, she covers more serious territory, telling a tale in which faith and an open mind weave magic, and things heretofore unimaginable are, in fact, possible.

Reuben is a second-grader in Ambler, Oklahoma, in the less-frantic era of the 1920s. At a county fair, he wins a ride in a bi-plane every young boy's dream. But the experience is so terrifying, the youngster vows never to ride in a plane again.

The air holds woe as well as wonder when the dust storms of the Depression rush through Reuben's hometown. Suddenly his father, a dance instructor, and mother, a cafe cook, are thrown out of work and, together with millions of other Americans, are forced adjust to their new circumstances. How the family manages through the tough times makes for an inspirational tale of friendship and courage. Reuben's father scours the want ads daily. When he can't find work close to home, he decides to expand the family's horizons and look elsewhere. An unusual advertisement beckons them to Minnesota, where the job of "wingwalker" with a traveling carnival awaits. Reuben and his mother both have doubts about dad's career choice, but they hope for the best as they sell off their possessions and load up the car. Part of the book's magic (not just in a figurative sense) comes from the carnival's characters: the fat man, the tattooed lady, the fire-eater and the human snake. All have lessons to teach Reuben as he struggles to overcome his worries and turn them around so that he, too, can join his father as a "wingwalker." Wells' easygoing, honest storytelling makes Wingwalker the type of book kids and their parents will enjoy reading together. Brian Selznick's illustrations are full of brown and golden hues, which remind one of the sepia tones of old family photographs. And Wingwalker warmly addresses a basic child's fantasy soaring high through the air, free as a bird. Ron Kaplan writes from Montclair, New Jersey.

Rosemary Wells is famous for the comforting, cuddly characters Max and Ruby, two young rabbits who get in and out of all sorts of trouble. In Wingwalker, she covers more serious territory, telling a tale in which faith and an open mind weave magic, and things heretofore unimaginable are, in fact, possible. Reuben is a […]
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Over the winter, "contraction" was the buzzword in baseball. Fueled by claims that a majority of the teams were operating in the red, the commissioner's office announced it was considering eliminating up to four clubs and drastically reconfiguring the game as we know it. But you wouldn't know there was any problem with the national pastime from looking at the book industry. From statistical analyses to literary homages, dozens of baseball titles are due out this year. The following are a few we feel merit consideration for M.V.B. (Most Valuable Book) 2002.

"The man in the box office . . . will tell you that a baseball franchise in a large city is a mint'." These words weren't written to counter the commissioner's charges; they come from "Baseball as the Bleachers Like It," an essay by Charles E. Van Loan, written in 1909. His piece is one of many to be found in Baseball: A Literary Anthology, a classic volume of poetry, fiction and nonfiction edited by Nicholas Dawidoff. Author of the best-selling book The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg, Dawidoff has assembled a wonderful collection that includes contributions from legendary baseball writers Roger Angell, Roger Kahn and Damon Runyon, as well as unexpected sources like Carl Sandburg, Jonathan Schwartz and Tallulah Bankhead. While there are some familiar pieces here, the book's charm lies in its variety of voices authors not known for sportswriting. Contributions from Thomas Wolfe, William Carlos Williams, Amiri Baraka and Stephen King (who would have expected a genial, non-morbid piece on Little League from the master of horror?) make this anthology special.

The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum Baseball Desk Referenceby Lawrence T. Lorimer is a perfect blend of history, statistics, illustrations and just plain fun that any fan, novice or expert will enjoy. Part encyclopedia, part primer, part pop culture history book, this volume covers all the bases (pardon the pun). Beginning with a timeline of the game's significant events, Baseball Desk Reference contains a year-by-year breakdown of the major leagues, team histories and profiles of hundreds of top players. There's also extensive coverage of baseball around the world, rules, techniques of play and instruction on how to score a game.

Additionally, the book examines baseball's impact on other cultural forms, like cinema, literature and music. This heavyweight book bears the name of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, so expect a high quality addition to your sports library. In Clearing the Bases: The Greatest Baseball Debates of the Last Century, Allen Barra, popular sports columnist for The Wall Street Journal and Salon.com, presents discussions of the sport's most confounding questions. He examines weighty issues such as why pitchers can't throw complete games anymore, and who should wear the mantle of "Greatest Living Player" now that Joltin' Joe DiMaggio is gone. Among the more compelling and original debates are Barra's theories on the failure of the 1986 Mets to maintain National League dominance, and the "back story" about Roger Maris breaking Babe Ruth's home run record. Barra's clear-eyed analysis makes Clearing the Bases one of the most thought-provoking books on the game to appear in some time.

What is so rare as a day in June? James Buckley Jr., author of The Visual Dictionary of Baseball, offers the answer in Perfect: The Inside Story of Baseball's Sixteen Perfect Games. Yes, that's 16 games out of more than 170,000 major league contests. (You figure the odds; my head reels at the concept.) The first official "perfecto" was pitched in 1880. The most recent, in 1999, came from the hands of Yankee David Cone on "Yogi Berra Day," with Don Larsen himself the pitcher of a perfect game in the 1956 World Series throwing out the ceremonial first ball. Again, the odds. . . . As Buckley reveals, the 16 pitchers who found their four-leaf clovers were by no means the best of their profession. Only five Cy Young, Addie Joss, Jim Bunning (who wrote the foreword for Perfect), Sandy Koufax and Jim "Catfish" Hunter were good enough for consideration and eventual inclusion into the Hall of Fame; the others simply enjoyed their day in the spotlight.

Buckley chronicles each game in fine detail, but perhaps his best work comes when discussing the heartbreak of those who had nearly but not quite flawless games, such as another Yankee, Mike Mussina. With two out and two strikes in the ninth inning of a game against the Yankee's arch-rival, the Boston Red Sox, Mussina lost his bid. Capturing the drama of such unforgettable contests, Perfect is a wonderful appreciation of the sport, a celebration of baseball history as it happened and as it might have been.

Ron Kaplan writes from Montclair, New Jersey.

 

Over the winter, "contraction" was the buzzword in baseball. Fueled by claims that a majority of the teams were operating in the red, the commissioner's office announced it was considering eliminating up to four clubs and drastically reconfiguring the game as we know it. But you wouldn't know there was any problem with the national […]
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How many of you remember the agony of having to memorize the Gettysburg Address in school? Or perhaps it was something by one of the founding fathers? Who needs this stuff? you would moan. What’s the point? The major problem with historic orations, students have always complained, is that they are dry. American Heritage, one of the foremost magazines about this nation’s culture, has collected an eclectic set of speeches given not only by politicians, but also by people in many walks of life, from sports figures to ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.

The Book of Great American Speeches for Young People contains over 100 discourses on a myriad of topics. Some classics can be found within, such as Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s address after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy. On a lighter political note, there’s the Checker’s Speech, in which Richard Nixon swore that the only gift he received during the 1952 campaign was a little cocker spaniel and that "we’re gonna keep him."   Other orators in The Book of Great American Speeches for Young People include Malcolm X, Langston Hughes, John F. Kennedy, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Mark Twain, just to name a few. Speeches are used to influence and encourage, so there are several declamations which consider the struggles for women’s suffrage, civil rights and the evils of slavery. And since the nation was founded on free speech, there are also numerous discourses of protest and dissent. The less earthshaking fare, though no less dramatic, is also here. Lou Gehrig paid an emotional farewell to baseball, in which, though stricken with the terminal illness that would one day bear his name, he considered himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. One of the more poignant speeches, to which young readers will relate, was given by 10-year-old Samantha Smith in 1983 to the Children’s Symposium on the Year 2001, after her impassioned letter to Soviet Premier Yuri Andropov made world news. The letter stated her fears of nuclear war between his country and America, proving that young people can make a difference.

In addition to its generous collection, The Book of Great American Speeches for Young People encourages readers to speak out for what they believe in. Its concluding chapter on how (and why) to make an effective speech will give the reader a boost of confidence and a skill which will prove useful long after school days are over.

 

How many of you remember the agony of having to memorize the Gettysburg Address in school? Or perhaps it was something by one of the founding fathers? Who needs this stuff? you would moan. What’s the point? The major problem with historic orations, students have always complained, is that they are dry. American Heritage, one […]

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