Baseball Books for the 2017 Off-Season: Cubs-Kinsella Edition

617305340-e1477191679888For this sixth annual round-up of baseball books I’ve read in the past year, I’m thinking about some things that are different this time.  One of them is sad; one of them is joyous.

Let’s start with the joyous.

The Chicago Cubs won the World Series!

How awesome is that?!?  The team provided a great season, great stories, great personalities, a great World Series, a great game seven, and a great celebration.  Those readers in the Chicago area know that every day we see many, many people decked out in Cubs championship gear.  We see W flags everywhere.  The 2016 Chicago Cubs will forever be heroes no matter where they go or where their fans may roam.

The sadder note involves the passing of two of my favorite baseball writers:  Gene Fehler and W. P. Kinsella.  These two gentlemen were instrumental in forming my understanding of how baseball and literature can merge.  Fehler’s Center Field Grasses is still the best book of baseball poetry I’ve ever read.  When I first blogged about baseball books in 2011, here is what I said about Center Field Grasses:  “Page after page of perfect baseball poems. If you only read one book from this list, it should probably be this one.”  I was honored when Gene Fehler left a nice comment on my About page.

W. P. Kinsella was the author of many fine baseball books, including Shoeless Joe and The Iowa Baseball Confederacy.  I was honored to meet him a couple of times.  The first was at a book store when he came to Chicago to promote Box Socials.  I was there a little early, standing near the front of the store looking at magazines.  A book store employee was nearby asking people who came in the door, “Are you here for the signing?” and directing those interested toward the back of the store.  When Kinsella arrived, bushy hair flying and glasses askew, she didn’t know it was him and asked, “Are you here for the signing?”  Kinsella answered in a big voice, “I am the signing!”

Gail Borden Library in Elgin, Illinois also hosted Kinsella for a talk and signing one afternoon.  Again, I was early, and I had the chance to visit with him one on one.  I don’t remember the exact context, but he gave me a piece of writing advice.  He said that whenever he was stuck, he would set aside his work and take out a little piece of paper and write a little poem about what he was really trying to say.

That day I also told Kinsella a Shoeless Joe-related story.  When I taught that book to a group of AP seniors, a couple of them came up with the idea to call Veda Ponikvar.  Veda Ponikvar was the Minnesota journalist who wrote Moonlight Graham’s obituary.  When W. P. Kinsella came to Minnesota to learn more about Moonlight Graham’s life, her beautiful tribute became an important thread in his most famous novel, and Veda Ponikvar is mentioned by name in Shoeless Joe.  When my students called Ms. Ponikvar she told them that when Kinsella came to town he was accompanied by … J. D. Salinger, also a character in Shoeless Joe.  After talking to Veda Ponikvar, my students couldn’t wait to call me at home at night to tell about their conversation.  I was fascinated that my students called up a character in a novel who told them a story about the author that was likely just as fictional as the novel.  Anyway, I told Kinsella all this that day in Elgin, and he just shook his shaggy head without responding to any of it.

Kinsella also wrote the excellent short story “The Last Pennant Before Armageddon,” in which God tells the crusty old manager of the Chicago Cubs in a dream that the Cubs can win the National League pennant but the world will end the next day, and it’s the manager’s choice.  This story can be found in Kinsella’s short story collection The Thrill of the Grass.

I’m sorry there will not be more baseball fiction from W. P. Kinsella.  His life ended with a doctor’s assistance on September, 16, 2016, the day after the Cubs clinched the National League Central title and a month before the Cubs claimed the National League pennant.

Let’s move on to the books.  This year I will share one novel, two nonfiction titles, and four picture books.  It seems only fitting to lead off with a book involving the Chicago Cubs.

Best Seat in the House: Diary of a Wrigley Field UsherBest Seat in the House: Diary of a Wrigley Field Usher by Bruce Bohrer

Bruce Bohrer is the kind of usher who puts the “friendly” in The Friendly Confines, Wrigley Field’s nickname. The subtitle—“Diary of a Wrigley Field Usher”—tells you how this book is organized. Bohrer simply jotted down his impressions of the Cubs games he worked from 2003-2011. Nothing fancy here. My favorite parts were Bohrer’s descriptions of the signs, sights, and shirts he witnessed. Wrigley Field is not like any other place on Earth, and Bruce Bohrer captures its charm. As the team, park, and neighborhood continue to evolve, Bohrer’s remembrances may become even more important and poignant.

The Baseball Whisperer: A Small-Town Coach Who Shaped Big League DreamsThe Baseball Whisperer: A Small-Town Coach Who Shaped Big League Dreams by Michael Tackett

The Baseball Whisperer is Michael Tackett’s look inside the Clarinda A’s, a semipro team situated in a small Iowa town that has produced more than thirty major-league players, including one Hall-of-Famer, Ozzie Smith. Merle Eberly was the coach and manager of the A’s for decades, but it was a family endeavor more than the work of one man, and that family is the book’s focus.

The Clarinda A’s were not a glamorous team in terms of fancy trappings and state of the art equipment, but they won consistently and, more importantly, fostered a sense of community among the players, and between the team and the town. It’s easy to admire the small town that embraces the A’s players and takes them into their homes, as well as the way Eberly used baseball to shape college players into men of character.

Tackett writes lovingly about every aspect of the Clarinda A’s, but in some places the long quotes make his book seem more like an unedited scrapbook than a narrative, although it always finds its way back to the heart of the story. If you want a nice read about people with an admirable attitude toward baseball, The Baseball Whisperer is worth your time.

The Might Have BeenThe Might Have Been by Joseph M. Schuster

Edward Everett Yates is a baseball player. That’s all he’s ever been. Players like Edward Everett will do whatever it takes to stay in the game and avoid “the World” of a mundane job and family obligations. Sometimes that involves making conscious decisions, but fate also has a way of intervening, like the freak injury that leaves Edward Everett with Moonlight Graham-like career statistics. But there is always a story behind the metrics, and that stats vs. story conflict is important in The Might Have Been. Various characters value one more than the other, resulting in the decisions and consequences at the heart of Joseph M. Schuster’s novel.

I admire how Schuster unfolds the in-game scenes. Baseball is a game where minute details control larger outcomes, and Schuster masterfully illuminates the drama in those details, even though they last only an instant. Schuster also gives us the wider scope of the game, as we see Edward Everett navigating the nuances of the game on and off the field, controlling them to whatever extent he can, all while floundering in his non-baseball relationships. Devotion to something—baseball, family, logic—means that other things will be less important. The Might Have Been is about what we choose to put at the center of our lives.

The Kid from Diamond Street: The Extraordinary Story of Baseball Legend Edith HoughtonThe Kid from Diamond Street: The Extraordinary Story of Baseball Legend Edith Houghton by Audrey Vernick

With The Kid from Diamond Street, Audrey Vernick and Steven Salerno bring us another excellent nonfiction baseball picture book.

Edith Houghton, the kid from Diamond Street in Philadelphia, liked to say, “I guess I was born with a baseball in my hand.” By the time she was ten years old, Edith was the starting shortstop for the 1922 Philadelphia Bobbies, a professional women’s baseball team. As a member of the Bobbies, she barnstormed across America and toured Japan.

I’m extremely glad that Audrey Vernick continues to unearth these historic baseball treasures. Not only does she preserve little known niches of baseball history, but Vernick finds the angles most likely to captivate young readers. Steven Salerno’s artwork evokes the 1920s with caricatures just this side of being cartoons and scenes colored in tones similar to postcards of that era.

Can you tell I like everything about this book?

A Ticket to the Pennant: A Tale of Baseball in SeattleA Ticket to the Pennant: A Tale of Baseball in Seattle by Mark Holtzen

Huey is on the way to a championship game featuring his beloved Seattle Rainiers–a minor league team in the 1950s–but he can’t find his ticket! So, he revisits everywhere he has been lately to see if he can recover the missing ticket. After he finds his ticket in a surprising place, he arrives at the game just in time to witness a dramatic finish.

The story here is a little thin, but it gives author Mark Holtzen the opportunity to pay homage to various Seattle landmarks and family businesses, as well as insights into minor league play from several decades ago. Illustrator John Skewes is a former Disney artist, and his characters are both expressive and fun to look at.

The love of baseball definitely comes through here, and those in the Seattle area will especially enjoy this tale.

Baseball Saved UsBaseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki

I’m forever amazed at the number of poignant stories swirling around the great game of baseball. Has any other game ever provided as many life lessons?

Baseball Saved Us involves a Japanese-American boy whose family is part of the internment camp program during World War II. As he becomes aware of the hatred aimed at him and his race, he channels his emotions into baseball.

This picture book is an excellent choice for helping young readers better understand many topics and issues: prejudice, World War II, governmental mistakes, emotional self-control, etc. Baseball Saved Us would work well for a read-aloud, book group discussion, or stand-alone text.

The William Hoy Story: How a Deaf Baseball Player Changed the GameThe William Hoy Story: How a Deaf Baseball Player Changed the Game by Nancy Churnin

Here is yet another excellent nonfiction picture book about one of baseball’s lesser-known figures. William Hoy was a deaf major-league player from the turn of the last century who was known for his strong, accurate outfield throws and his prowess in stealing bases.

With bright colors and easy-to-discern facial expressions, The William Hoy Story effectively conveys a range of emotions, as well as important messages about perseverance and physical differences.

For more baseball book reviews, search “baseball” on this blog.

Please let me know your recommendations of other baseball books!  Thanks for reading.

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