Primers on the nation's pastime
Baseball: It's not just a game; it's an education.
As we embark on a new season of baseball, it's a good time to consider how all-encompassing the sport has become. History, sociology, geography, math, science, and literature are all linked to the game, and this season's assortment of baseball books touches all these bases.
As the new millennium approached, we saw a seemingly exponential increase in arguments over who's baseball's best fill-in-the-blank. Rob Neyer, a columnist for ESPN.com, and Eddie Epstein, a former member of two major league organizations, seek to answer some of those questions in Baseball Dynasties: The Greatest Teams of All Time (hardback $29.95, 0393048942). The authors do a marvelous job of putting the evidence together, reminiscent of the works of Bill James, the analytic guru who revolutionized baseball statistics. How do the 1999 Yankees compare with other all-time great clubs like the St. Louis Cardinals of the 1940s, or the Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s? You want quantitative proof? Dynasties supplies the numbers. Historical context? Got that, too. Amusing anecdotal information? It's here. Neyer and Epstein liven up their reports with accompanying essays and offer their opinions on the worst teams of all time, as well as the best of the Negro League clubs. They sum up with their definitive answer, which is . . . come on now, did you really think I was going to tell you?
Another gem in the quest to pick the best is Baseball: 100 Classic Moments in the History of the Game by Joseph Wallace, Neil Hamilton, and Marty Appel (Dorling Kindersley, $30, 0789451212). Narrowing down the top 100 out of over 150,000 major league games played is a Herculean task, and the authors acquit themselves well. Rather than ranking the events, Moments moves through the years like newsreels played in old movie theaters. See Babe Ruth slam his 60th home run, a record they said would never be broken. See Roger Maris hit 61 homers, a mark they said would surely never be surpassed. See Mark McGwire vaporize the old standard. Now what are they saying? Other landmarks include Bobby Thomson's shot heard round the world, Jackie Robinson breaking baseball's color line, the first night game, and Cal Ripken's ascension as baseball's new Iron Man, as well as more poignant moments such as Lou Gehrig's farewell. Generously illustrated, Moments is written with the proper respect due such milestones without being overly saccharine.
Jules Tygiel, a professor at San Francisco State University, takes a more scholarly approach in Past Tme: Baseball as History (Oxford University Press, $25, 0195089588). The author of the acclaimed Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy takes the unusual perspective of examining how America puts its stamp on the game, rather than vice versa. What effect did the growth of radio and later television have on baseball? How did the post-World War II exodus to the suburbs, combined with innovations in travel, change the geographic nature and economics of the national pastime? One of the more interesting chapters deals with the immeasurable contribution of Henry Chadwick, a 19th century newspaperman, without whose keen mind and foresight we might not have the myriad statistics that are, as he put it, the mortar of which baseball is held together.
Now get your calculators and slide rules handy. Baseball isn't brain surgery, it's physics, according to Keep Your Eye on the Ball: Curveballs, Knuckleballs, and Fallacies of Baseball, Revised and Updated by Robert G. Watts and A. Terry Bahill (W.H. Freeman and Company, $14.95, 0716737175). These two engineering professors painstakingly discuss the effects of air and rotation as the ball leaves the pitcher's hand and what happens when it meets the bat. They also tell you why it's virtually impossible for a hitter to, in fact, keep his eye on the ball. It would be interesting to hear what the legendary Ted Williams, one of the most ardent ballplayer/students of the game, would have to say about this one.
For creative writing we have Garret Mathews' Baseball Days: Recollections of America's Favorite Pastime (Contemporary Books, $16.95, 0809225611), which reminds us that the game is instilled in us as children. Bill Bradley, Patrick Buchanan, Robert Goulet, Eli Wallach, Monty Hall, Kreskin the Mentalist, Charles Schultz, Edwin Newman, Mickey Spillane, W.P. Kinsella, and Dave Barry are among the dozens of celebrities who share their special memories of growing up with baseball. Not all of the anecdotes are heroic; in fact, many of them reveal a decided lack of talent, making Days more realistic. One of the more amusing tales is told by former major leaguer Rick Dempsey who recalled that his little league coach, unbeknownst to the players and their parents, just happened to be an accomplished bank robber.
In the literature department we have The Quotable Baseball Fanatic, edited by Louis D. Rubin Jr. (Lyons Press, $20, 1585740128). It's not Bartlett's Quotations, but many of the aphorisms will be familiar to fans. Athletes and writers share their wisdom about such meaningful topics as the good old days, umpiring, the business of baseball, and retirement, proving that ballplayers say the darnedest things.
Batter Up! The Ultimate Baseball Scorekeeper by Benjamin Eli Smith (Chronicle Books, $14.95, 0811826112) is truly an educational tool, a workbook designed to teach neophytes of any age how to enjoy the game through the joys of scorekeeping. Kids in particular will enjoy this book which also serves as a journal to keep track of all the fun. There are features about post-season play, pages for collecting autographs, and suggestions for further reading and on-line sources. So visit your local bookstore and start boning up. This will be on the quiz.
Ron Kaplan writes from Montclair, New Jersey.
Other good new books for those interested in the study of baseball include:
Management: The Man in the Dugout: Baseball's Top Managers and How They Got That Way by Leonard Koppett (Temple University Press, $29.50, 1566397456)
Classics: Shakespeare on Baseball: Such Time-Beguiling Sport by William Shakespeare and David Goodnough (Barricade Books, $10, 1569801398)
Economics: The Money Pitch: Baseball Free Agency and Salary Arbitration by Roger I. Abrams (Temple University Press, $27.95, 156639774X)
Literature: Off Season (Writing Baseball) by Eliot Asinof (Southern Illinois University Press, $22.50, 0809322978)
Phys Ed: 52-Week Baseball Training by Gene Coleman (Human Kinetics, $19.95, 0736003223, $19.95)
History: Baseball Chronology by David Nemec (New American Library, $6.99, 0785339604)