Books In Brief -- Baseball

April 06, 2008|By Allen Barra | Allen Barra,Special to The Sun

Baseball touches more literary bases - fiction, folklore, oral history, statistics - than any other sport. Here's a scorecard on the best new titles of 2008.

You Can Observe a Lot by Watching By Yogi Berra with Dave Kaplan

John Wiley & Sons / 240 pages /$25

You can observe a lot by reading Yogi. No baseball legend is so good at making you feel baseball from the inside - its competitiveness, its heartbreak, its humor. Dave Kaplan, a former reporter with the New York Daily News, captures Yogi in full conversational stride: "Casey [Stengel] and Joe [DiMaggio] couldn't be more different, but they were a lot alike." And, "People think because my name is Yogi that I didn't worry because I was into yoga or meditated. Not quite." But don't get this book for its flip-page Yogi-isms; get it because it offers nearly half a century's distilled wisdom on the subject of teammates and the value of team play from the sport's biggest winner (14 pennants and 10 World Series rings).

Ty Cobb, Safe at Home By Don Rhodes

The Lyons Press / 195 pages / $16

Ty Cobb won a record 12 batting titles, slashed infielders with sharpened spikes and once bragged about killing a mugger with a penknife. He was a racist and at least a borderline psychotic. He was also, it turns out, a startlingly complex man, the first professional athlete to become wealthy through business investments (Coca-Cola) and a man who cared deeply enough about his community to help fund Cobb Memorial Hospital in Royston, Ga. (which evolved in time into the Ty Cobb Healthcare System). Don Rhodes of the popular "Ramblin' Rhodes" syndicated music columns may be the first man ever to make Cobb appear human - which is not to say normal. Safe at Home is the best book to date about baseball's strangest and most extreme personality.

Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Legends: The Truth, The Lies and Everything Else By Rob Neyer

Simon & Schuster / 331 pages / $16

ESPN.com's Rob Neyer could take certified public accounting and mine it for great bathroom reading, but you won't leave his Big Book of Baseball Legends in the bathroom. Neyer has collected every baseball story you've ever heard (and a few you haven't) and dug into their origins. In the process, whether affirming or debunking, he invariably comes up with facts even more interesting than the legends. Billy Martin did bench Reggie Jackson in the 1977 playoffs, but the outcome suggests that Martin wasn't picking on Reggie but playing an educated hunch; comic actor Danny Kaye did not pinch-hit for Lou Gehrig to keep his consecutive-games streak alive (and the story did not originate with Humphrey Bogart); Dizzy Dean did not force John McGraw to quit his managing career. These chapters are like literary potato chips.

Change Up: An Oral History of 8 Key Events That Shaped Baseball By Larry Burke and Peter Thomas Fornatale with Jim Baker

Rodale Books / 290 pages / $25

The premise of Change Up is both simple and ingenious: Take eight major changes in baseball since 1960 and record the testimony of eyewitnesses. From the first head of the players association, Marvin Miller: The players "were really pieces of property that were owned ... and that was the source of any problems the players might have." From Minnie Minoso, the first black Latin player in the big leagues: "Why did I want to go to the United States [from Cuba]? You fall in love with what people say. ... Sometimes you have a dream, from a long, long time, long way back, to visit some country just because you fall in love with what people say about the country." Oral history, probably because most of it is unfocused, tends to be dull; Change Up combines the perspective of history with the immediacy of journalism.

The End of Baseball By Peter Schilling Jr.

Ivan R. Dee / 340 pages / $25

To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, some baseball novels see things as they are and ask why; Pete Schilling Jr.'s brilliantly conceived The End of Baseball sees things that weren't and imagines what could have been. Starting from an unconfirmed baseball legend - that maverick baseball owner Bill Veeck once tried to buy the Philadelphia A's and roster them with Negro League stars - Schilling re-imagines post-1944 America in the wake of an event infinitely more convulsive than Jackie Robinson's signing by the Brooklyn Dodgers. Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis and J. Edgar Hoover (who think Veeck is a Communist) are not happy, and the city of Philadelphia and, eventually, all of America are changed forever by the entry of Negro League stars Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige and Cuban great Martin Dihigo into the national spotlight. The best baseball novel so far this century.

Allen Barra writes about sports for The Wall Street Journal. His biography "Yogi Berra, Eternal Yankee" will be published by W.W. Norton next spring.

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