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2006 Spring Baseball Roundup

Baseball Books

2006 Spring Baseball Roundup


Following their first World Series Championship in almost 90 years, more than a dozen titles acknowledging the Boston Red Sox's accomplishment hit the shelves. Now that the novelty has finally worn off, the genre can get back to normal, with its usual assortment of heroes, villains and eclectic themes.'s Ron Kaplan takes a look at some of these titles just in time for the start of the 2006 Major League Baseball season.

Michael Kun, co-author of THE BASEBALL UNCYCLOPEDIA, makes a particularly astute observation about the state of baseball literature over the last few years. Go into a bookstore, he writes, and you will find more often than not:

Books about the Yankees.
Books about the Red Sox.
Books about the Yankees and the Red Sox.
Books about players who played for the Yankees.
Books about players who played for the Red Sox.
Books about players who played for the Yankees and the Red Sox.
And, depending upon where you live, a book or two about your local team.

It's not much of an exaggeration. Following their first World's Championship in almost 90 years, more than a dozen titles acknowledging the Boston Red Sox's accomplishment hit the shelves.

Now that the novelty has finally worn off, the genre can get back to normal, with its usual assortment of heroes, villains, and eclectic themes.

He may not have won any home run crown or broken the color line or set any official policy, but Bill James is one of the most influential people in the history of the game. His witty analyses and unique way of looking at statistics have made him either a visionary or the devil incarnate, depending on whether you're open to new ideas or a strict traditionalist. His theories fuel the fires of such institutions as the Boston Red Sox, who hired him as an advisor in 2002, and the Oakland Athletics, whose general manager, Billy Beane, incorporated James's ideas into the now-famous strategy for putting a team together known as "Moneyball."

Like many people of genius, James has his quirks. He was not especially thrilled with being the subject of a biography but came to accept the idea. In THE MIND OF BILL JAMES: How a Complete Outsider Changed Baseball, Scott Gray intersperses observations about James with observations from James, taken from his now-famous Baseball Abstract annuals and other writings that skewered the "conventional wisdom" that had been in place for a century.

While Gray sometimes goes a little too far in offering examples of Jamesian baseball theory, which can cause the brain to numb, he opens the eyes of the heretofore uninitiated and widens the peepers of James's fans even more.

If Dave Barry and Andy Rooney ever collaborate on a book about the national pastime, it would probably be along the lines of THE BASEBALL UNCYCLOPEDIA: A Highly Opinionated, Myth-Busting Guide to the Great American Game. The unusual writing team of Michael Kun and Howard Bloom--- both attorneys with the same firm, albeit from opposite coasts --- take turns commenting on sundry topics and personalities, all designed to dispel preconceived notions. And they're serious about that myth-busting part. Each entry includes a disproof ("A Tie Does Not Go to the Runner", "Baseball is Not a Metaphor for Life"), almost to a curmudgeonly extent.

Each entry bears the "signature" or the contributor, with Kun and Bloom arguing back and forth like a couple of school kids at times. For example, Bloom contends that "Cal Ripken was Not a Great Baseball Player." "Howard Does Not Know What He is Talking About," counters Kun.

Humor abounds but is especially present at the bottom of the page, in copious footnotes. It's a little labor-intensive but well worth the effort.

Contradicting the statement above, there are indeed several titles about the Yankees out this year. Most are overwhelmingly complimentary and nostalgic, calling to mind that fine lineage of Ruth, DiMaggio, Mantle and Jeter. That doesn't mean, however, that they were perfect.

The Bronx Bombers were never known for their progressive thinking. They were among the last teams to break the color line, almost 10 years after Jackie Robinson came on the scene. Management's position at the time was that they really didn't care if their fan base included African Americans (though they expressed the sentiment in less politically correct terms).

That's what makes it all the more unusual for Cecil Harris, a black sportswriter for several New York and national publications, to pledge his allegiance to the (former) united team of white bread in CALL THE YANKEES MY DADDY: Reflections on Baseball, Race, and Family.

In 1995, almost 40 years after Elston Howard donned Yankee pinstripes, Harris became the first black sportswriter assigned to cover the team on a full-time basis. But such distinction did not protect him from displays of racism that seem unbelievable in modern-day America. He writes of being stopped at the press gate by overzealous guards who were skeptical of his press credentials and pays homage to African Americans who paved the way for his generation, much as Jackie Robinson did for black players a generation ago. His frustration carries over to the reluctance of Yankees owner George Steinbrenner to give him the time of day, although he states it was because he wrote for a small newspaper chain, not because of racial overtones.

Like all professionals, Harris's fandom gave way to professionalism, a concept somewhat foreign to athletes, who chaff at every unkind word said or written about them. He notes several confrontations and has little patience for black players who expect better treatment because they share a common racial background, criticizing him for not being "black enough." His excitement about the team's good fortunes is tempered by the frustration of his job.

Ivan Felt and Harris Conklin, two long-time Mets fans --- Conklin's father was the team's physician when the Mets debuted in 1962 --- collaborated on BELIEVENIKS!: 2005: The Year We Wrote a Book About the Mets, a back-and-forth exchange about the promise and disappointment of a team that frequently seems on the verge of accomplishment, only to run out of steam or into a slew of injuries.

The book follows the same style as last year's bestseller, FAITHFUL: Two Diehard Boston Red Sox Fans Chronicle the Historic 2004 Season, by Red Sox fans Stephen King and Stewart O'Nan, a superior effort. (It's hard to determine which fans --- Bostonians or New Yorkers, for either the Mets or Yankees --- are the bigger complainers).

Note that the title of the book offers no clue about the fortunes of the team. Rather it merely heralds the fact that Felt and Harris published. The book art, which depicts a fortune-teller gazing into a baseball-themed crystal ball, seems similarly disconnected from reality.

Amid the observations, delivered in an almost stream-of-consciousness manner and that includes snatches of poetry and fictional ramblings about the Mets' performance (and lack thereof), one of the more humorous exchanges deals with Felt's disastrous attempt to fix a problem with his cable TV reception (including a transcript of his conversation with the offending cable company).

When the Mets' season comes to an end at the hands of their perennial nemesis, the Atlanta Braves, one wishes the authors would pack it up too, but they soldier on to the bitter end.

An "Encyclopedia Metsiana" offers catty remarks about a select group of past and present members of the team, with such contributions as "Cameron, Mike (2004-?): A major leaguer."

The game has always been romanticized. With apologies to Shakespeare, baseball is the stuff dreams are made of. Summer evokes memories of childhood or at least leisurely times.

Just about every year, some retired player weighs in on the state of the sport, how things were better in his day and warning of dire times ahead if management and labor don't start behaving in a sane, responsible fashion.

Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt is the latest Cassandra. Schmidt, who played third base for the Philadelphia Phillies in the 1970s and '80s, mixes past and present in CLEARING THE BASES: Juiced Players, Monster Salaries, Sham Records, and a Hall of Famer's Search for the Soul of Baseball, a combination autobiography/baseball history/primer.

He recalls his humble beginnings and compares it with the status of players starting out today. He discusses the birth of free agency and wonders if current fans have any team loyalty anymore, what with players jumping from team to team. It's worth noting that Schmidt chose to play his entire career with one team rather than pursue much more lucrative contracts elsewhere.

Schmidt also weighs in on such hot-button issues as drug use (Which is a bigger transgression, I wonder: imbibing in recreational drugs such as cocaine that do nothing to help the team, or steroids, which might enhance performance and thereby help win games?), home run records, and whether or not Pete Rose should be enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

Books on the "art" of baseball have been on the shelves for years. They usually consist of reproductions of paintings, photographs or sculptures, most of which are nicely done, but after a while seem the same.

One of the most unusual and visually interesting baseball books in recent years is SAYONARA HOME RUN! The Art of the Japanese Baseball Card. Unlike the traditional American card, made popular by Topps beginning in the early 1950s, Japanese cards come in various shapes and formats. In addition to hundreds of colorful examples, authors John Gall and Gary Engel present a brief history of the development of baseball in Japan and profiles on the nation's most popular players (as well as a brief dictionary of baseball terms in Japanese).

   --- Reviewed by Ron Kaplan