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.