The writes of spring: New baseball books come in many flavors

03/07/2014 12:00 AM

03/08/2014 9:56 PM

In his new book, a tribute to a beloved ballpark and the ex-Kansas City infielder who helped make it so, George Will grumbles about nostalgic fans who carry on about the sacredness of their favorite sport:

“They have a high-octane sentimentality about everything from playing catch with Dad to baseball’s resemblance to heaven. Is there anything that baseball has not been said to resemble? Or to be a metaphor for?”

This is a bit rich given the political columnist’s considerable role in “Baseball,” Ken Burns’ reverent documentary, but Will’s point is taken: People like to talk and write about the game in hushed tones, as if it were a museum piece or a divine relic. Which gets boring in a hurry.

As always, this spring brings a host of new books about the game. The best of these forgo hagiography and grandiose nonsense, opting instead for directness, humor and, in a few cases, the sort of earthy lingo you might hear from a slugger who’s just taken a 95-mph fastball between the shoulder blades.

Because it stars the Chicago Cubs, Will’s

“A Nice Little Place on the North Side: Wrigley Field at One Hundred”

(224 pages; Crown Archetype; $25) is necessarily full of anecdotes about inept ball-playing. In the early 1940s, a bewildered Cub “tried to steal third with the bases loaded,” he writes, and in 1979 another, “trying to throw a runner out at the plate, beaned the batboy.”

At the other end of the spectrum, the great Ernie Banks is the book’s most vivid presence. He wasn’t always destined for the Hall of Fame — “when he was a child in Dallas,” Will writes, “his father had to bribe him with pocket change to get him to play catch.”

But after his superb showing for the Negro League’s Kansas City Monarchs, Banks was in the majors at 22 and a 40-plus home-run hitter before he was 25. He “was for a decade,” Will writes, “the only reason for fans to go out to see the home team.”

As Banks was in the midst of his superlative performance in Chicago, a Cincinnati switch-hitter was beginning a career in which he’d get more hits than anyone in the sport’s history. In

“Pete Rose: An American Dilemma”

(352 pages; Sport Illustrated Books; $26.95), Kostya Kennedy uses the life story of a preternaturally driven athlete to examine our collective attitudes about forgiveness and redemption.

Comparing him to players who used performance-enhancing substances, Kennedy suggests that Rose, exiled from Major League Baseball for betting on games, has received an overly harsh punishment. “Rose,” he writes, “has been banished for the incalculable damage he might have done to the foundation of the game. Steroid users are reviled for the damage they actually did.”

The man they called “Charlie Hustle” plays a bit part in a colorful memoir by Doug Harvey, who umpired for 30 years in the majors. “Rose, in my opinion, was the best thing that ever happened to baseball — and the worst. He deserves what he got,” Harvey contends in

“They Called Me God: The Best Umpire Who Ever Lived”

(288 pages; Gallery; $27), written with Peter Golenbock.

Harvey seems to recall every argument he had with a player, manager or coach, several of which are related in language that prevents them from being quoted here.

Not all of his encounters were contentious, however. One time, he recalls, Mets manager Casey Stengel launched a complaint with this bit of politesse: “Young man, it appeared to me that the second baseman had the ball and tagged the man coming in, and therefore I feel he should be out.”

Rose and Harvey first stepped onto big-league diamonds in the early 1960s. By then, the sport had been invigorated by the arrival of African-American players who, beginning in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Jackie Robinson (also a former K.C. Monarch), were finally allowed to play alongside their white peers.

In

“1954: The Year Willie Mays and the First Generation of Black Superstars Changed Major League Baseball Forever”

(304 pages; Da Capo; $25.99), Bill Madden examines the competitive realignments that followed the end of baseball’s shameful segregation policy.

Madden demonstrates how some ball clubs embraced change, while others impeded it. By the middle of the 1950s, he writes, “there was still staunch resistance from teams, especially in the American League, led by the Yankees, to integrate.” Soon enough, Madden writes, the balance of power would shift to more forward-looking organizations.

Two of the key figures from Madden’s book take center stage in historian William C. Kashatus’

“Jackie and Campy: The Untold Story of Their Rocky Relationship and the Breaking of Baseball’s Color Line”

(248 pages; University of Nebraska; $24.95), which focuses on teammates who helped end Major League Baseball’s shameful whites-only policy.

Kashatus’ valiant subjects — Robinson, the Dodgers groundbreaking star, and Roy Campanella, an African-American who joined the team in 1948 — disagreed about how to attain equal rights. In the mid-1950s, after the Ku Klux Klan bombed several black churches in the South, Campanella said that such violence could be prevented if blacks “stopped pressing to get too far too fast,” Kashatus writes.

In turn, he adds, Robinson “considered his teammate an ‘Uncle Tom’ because of his behavior as an agreeable black man in a white society.”

In

“Outsider Baseball: The Weird World of Hardball on the Fringe, 1876-1950”

(336 pages; Chicago Review Press; $26.95), Scott Simkus comes at the game’s history from a different angle, appraising the quality of players and teams that weren’t affiliated with the major leagues.

His approach, systematic and data-driven, is used to analyze everything from the pitching prowess of Jackie Mitchell, a teen girl pitcher who was briefly famous in the 1930s, to the speed of Negro League star James “Cool Papa” Bell, the Kansas City Monarch who could circle the bases at a remarkable pace.

Looking at archival rainfall totals and the recorded home-to-home times of some of Bell’s contemporaries, Simkus concludes that “just maybe, in hot weather and on a dry diamond, Cool Papa Bell did break the 13-second barrier,” making him the fastest player ever.

A somewhat less fleet-footed ex-Kansas City ballplayer, Jason Kendall — a durable, good-hitting catcher who spent 2010 with the Royals — has a new book of his own, in which he schools fans on the subtleties of life and competition in the Majors.

Written with Lee Judge, a sports writer and editorial cartoonist with The Star, Kendall’s

“Throwback: A Big-League Catcher Tells How the Game Is Really Played”

(304 pages; St. Martin’s; $25.99) gives readers a thorough rundown of each player’s many in-game responsibilities, explains how to tell if a batter is trying to go deep or simply spray a hit to the opposite field (it has a lot to do with the positioning of his feet) and tells a few funny stories about clubhouse etiquette and autograph-seekers.

Kendall also defines some of the game’s workplace jargon. “Eyewash,” he explains, “is anything done just because it looks good. The owner’s in town today? Let’s run the bases” in pregame warm-ups.

Known for his no-nonsense style, Kendall isn’t much for eyewash. As he puts it, “If you don’t know how to run the bases by August, you’re already screwed.”

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