With the 2014 baseball season rapidly approaching, I’m a little behind on posting my annual assortment of baseball books. Here are four picture books, one middle-grade novel, and five nonfiction works that baseball fans might enjoy. A couple of these reviews appeared in slightly different form on Goodreads or elsewhere on this blog.
Miracle Mud: Lena Blackburne and the Secret Mud That Changed Baseball by David A. Kelley. Miracle Mud gives us the true story of Lena Blackburne, a mediocre player who concocted just the right mixture of New Jersey to rub on baseballs to remove the shine. Baseball has so many niches to explore, and this book delves into an angle I didn’t know about.
Pirates at the Plate by Aaron Frisch. Pirates take on cowboys in a game that gets out of hand. The illustrations are entertaining, but to be truthful, I didn’t get much out of this picture book. Maybe I need to be eight years old again.
Something to Prove: The Great Satchel Paige Vs. Rookie Joe DiMaggio by Robert Skead. Another one of those niche picture books, this one gives us a glimpse of two legendary players facing each other for the first time as Negro League legend Satchel Paige is brought to town by the New York Yankees to see if a young prospect named Joe DiMaggio is ready to face big league pitchers. In addition to capturing the character of both players, Something to Prove provides useful background on baseball’s segregated past.
Take Me Out to the Yakyu by Aaron Meshon. Although the narrative is thin, Take Me Out to the Yakyu compares American and Japanese baseball through the eyes of a boy enjoying baseball with his two grandfathers, one in America and one in Japan. This book’s has an appealing graphic design and would work well for exploring the concept of comparison.
Screaming at the Ump by Audrey Vernick. This middle-grade novel’s narrator is sixth-grader Casey Snowden, a baseball-writer-wannabe whose father and grandfather run the third best (out of three) umpiring schools in America. The supporting cast of Screaming at the Ump is one of its appeals, along with interesting perspectives on the training of umpires. For young readers interested in baseball, Audrey Vernick provides authentic insights that go beyond the cliches found in most sports books.
Is This a Great Game, or What?: From A-Rod’s Heart to Zim’s Head–My 25 Years in Baseball by Tim Kurkjian. Josh and Brad–friends and good baseball guys–both recommended this book to me within 24 hours. They were right. Tim Kurkjian draws on his 25 years as a baseball writer to give his views on various quirks and crannies of the game. Each chapter includes interesting anecdotes, most of which I’d never heard.
The Bullpen Gospels: A Non-Prospect’s Pursuit of the Major Leagues and the Meaning of Life by Dirk Hayhurst. What is life really like in the minor leagues? Other books have explored that questions, but usually the answer is filtered through a sportswriter. The Bullpen Gospels is the first installment of Dirk Hayhurst’s memoirs of life in the minors, with brief stops in the majors. I highly recommend this one for its authenticity, honesty and humor.
Driving Mr. Yogi: Yogi Berra, Ron Guidry, and Baseball’s Greatest Gift by Harvey Araton. Former Yankees Yogi Berra and Ron Guidry are best friends. This charming book tells the story of two players from different eras who eventually forge a unique friendship long after their playing days. Yogi Berra stories are always entertaining, and this book is full of them, although we also see Yogi in declining health as he approaches his ninetieth birthday.
The Victory Season: The End of World War II and the Birth of Baseball’s Golden Age by Robert Weintraub. The Victory Season focuses on major league baseball’s 1946 season, notable as the first post-World War II campaign and the beginning of what some call baseball’s golden age. Some star players who went to war returned for the ’46 season in excellent form, like Ted Williams and Bob Feller. Other players returned with less skill than before the war. Of course, still others paid the ultimate sacrifice and did not return at all.
Weintraub tells all of their stories against the backdrop of a home front emerging from a war footing to face new realities, and how that environment affected the national pastime. For example, after leaving military service, Jackie Robinson spent the 1946 season playing a championship season for the minor league Montreal Royals, warming up for his momentous breaking of baseball’s racial barrier the following season. Baseball owners also depended on what was known as the reserve clause to control players’ salaries and careers. But in 1946, the reserve clause faced two challenges that would first soften owners’ iron grip and eventually loosen the reserve clause. A wealthy Mexican league owner lured away some top talent fresh from the military with salaries far above what they could earn in America, and union organizers began to make small inroads into clubhouses filled with modestly paid players, most of whom needed to work a second job in the off-season in order to have incomes similar to the fans who paid to watch them play.
The Victory Season is filled with baseball greats, and Weintraub’s story-telling brings them to life in their war-time and post-war incarnations: Williams, Feller, Joe and Dom DiMaggio, Jackie Robinson, Stan Musial, Eddie Stanky, Leo Durocher, Johnny Pesky, Red Shoendienst and on and on. My favorite “character” here is Enos Slaughter. Known as Country Slaughter throughout the league, his infectious carefree demeanor and rambunctious playing style exemplified an American attitude set free from the shortages and worries of the way years.
A quick aside: In the early 1990s I met Enos Slaughter at a card show. Then in his mid-seventies, Slaughter was wearing a flannel shirt and looked like any senior citizen you might run into at Home Depot or a local coffee shop. He laughed, smiled, chatted, and shook hands with everyone who stood in line for his autograph. His 1946 persona as presented in The Victory Season meshes perfectly with my own impression from more than four decades later.
The Victory Season will appeal to fans of the Dodgers, especially the Brooklyn version, as well as Cardinals, Red Sox, and Indians fans. But it’s really a baseball book that will satisfy history buffs and a history book for all baseball fans.
A Nice Little Place on the North Side: Wrigley Field at One Hundred by George F. Will. George F. Will’s Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball (1990) is one of my favorite baseball books, and probably the one that taught me the most. Now, almost a quarter-century after that book, Will turns his attention to one of my favorite subjects, Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs. A Nice Little Place on the North Side: Wrigley Field at One Hundred is part history, part sociology, and part grudging homage.
No one alive today has witnessed a Cubs world championship, a phenomenon last experienced in 1908. The Cubs’ last World Series appearance was in 1945 when they lost to the Detroit Tigers. Will makes the case that the Cubs and losing are part of a design that can be blamed directly on how Wrigley Field has been managed and marketed. Attendance for most professional sports teams varies with the team’s successes and failures. This, however, does not apply to the Cubs. Attendance at Wrigley Field is not affected by win-loss records. Through several changes of ownership, the Wrigley Field experience—and it is a wonderfully pure, nostalgic way to take in a game—has been marketed and cultivated more diligently than the on-field talent. The new owners show signs (no pun intended) of changing this tradition.
A Nice Little Place is at its best when the stories involve the colorful characters and episodes that have unfolded at The Friendly Confines. Still, some of the early material involving early 20th century business transactions is sort of colorless, and the history of beer in America section is too long. Because I read Will’s book in galley form, I’m reluctant to quote anything, but he had me chuckling in some places, and in other places contemplating the economic, psychological, and even spiritual implications of Wrigley Field and its effect on the Chicago Cubs.
A Nice Little Place on the North Side is available on March 25, 2014, and I recommend reading it before beginning the 2014 celebration of Wrigley Field’s 100th birthday.