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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.