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February 8 2001 : Book Review Round Up of OffSeason Reading

Between all the books I got on baseball for Christmas, and the many books I collected throughout the season in anticipation of a long, cold winter, I had quite a reading list waiting for me when the season ended. Unfortunately for me, despite the size of the stockpile, I’m out of books to read and I still have several weeks to go before spring exhibition games start! There’s nothing left to do but write about them, I guess. I’ll review here some of the highlights of my offseason reading.

Baseball Days by Bill Littlefield

As a born and bred Yankee fan, I approach any book written by a Boston-area sports figure with skepticism. Mr. Littlefield, however, displays the same equanimity, intelligence, and heartfelt love for the game of baseball in this book as he does on his weekly National Public Radio show “Only A Game.” The book is a collection of essays, but between the volume’s flowing design (new essays do not start on a new page) and lively writing, it reads more like a conversation. Though each piece holds up on its own, their arrangement invites the reader to keep turning the pages, as the author steers the topic “From the Sandlots to the Show” (the book’s subtitle). Tryout camps, zealous fans, rain delays, old players, weekend leagues, fielding, it’s all in Littlefield’s book. He writes with grace, and humor, and a sharp eye for observation. The book is also made beautiful by many great photographs throughout. I wouldn’t hesitate to give this as a gift to any baseball fan, no matter what their team affiliation, Little League or Major League. It is, quite simply, one of the best books on the sport I’ve yet read, and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute I was reading it. The perfect salve for the sting of the offseason cold.

Reflections of the Game: Lives in Baseball, by photographer Ronald C. Modra, with an essay by Pat Jordan

This is a beautiful, four-color coffee table book of the baseball photography of Sports Illustrated photographer Ron Modra. Modra has seen, and shot, it all, and the compendium of portraits and action shots is quite impressive. Accompanying the photos are short recollections by Modra (and the players themselves), that give insight into the photos and the men in them. David Justice called Modra a “stalker” and wouldn’t agree to a photo until his then-wife Halle Berry coaxed him into it. Taking Wade Boggs all the way to a chicken farm for a photo shoot. Waiting for Pudge Rodriguez in his bathroom. Jordan’s essay is also worth reading, for a personal look at a man who tried to make it in organized baseball and ended up writing about it instead. Pretty much the only fault with this book is that no one bothered to check the spellings on the names of the players anywhere in the book. Hence you have such egregious errors as Cal Ripkin (Ripken), Lou Gerhig (Gehrig), Hank Baurer (Bauer), Raphael Palmero (Rafael Palmeiro), and Craig (Graig) Nettles, appearing in text, captions, and even on the book jacket. Given that Modra’s strengths are through the lens of the camera, I can forgive him, but I am finding it much harder to forgive his publisher. It seems disrespectful to the game to have such a profusion of errors. If LIFE put out a book about American Presidents, we’d certainly think it ridiculous if they had captioned them Ronald Regan and Will Clinton, wouldn’t we? Maybe I’m too picky. Each photograph is worth the proverbial thousand words, whether spelled right or not.

Full Count: Inside Cuban Baseball, by Milton H. Jamail

I picked this book up at a publishing trade show in the summer, which is lucky, because I doubt I’d find it easily in a bookstore. Jamail writes for USA Today’s Baseball Weekly and other publications on the subject of baseball in Cuba, but this book is from Southern Illinois University Press (one of their “Writing Baseball” series). Let’s just say I wouldn’t expect to see it in the airport bookstores where I usually buy Baseball Weekly. Full Count does a great job of encapsulating the history of baseball in Cuba, and describing the current state of the sport there today. After reading this book, I can see why American scouts are eager to open the Cuban “market” and why baseball figures so large in Castro’s politics. Cuba, being run with a Soviet-style mentality as regards sports and national identity, funnels its talented youngsters into special baseball schools starting when the kids are very, very young. Hmm, four hours of baseball practice and coaching per day, for life? It’s no wonder that even when the third- and fourth-string position players defect, American teams bid like mad for their services. Jamail also makes clear how Castro’s economic policies are strangling many aspects of life in Cuba, including baseball, despite all Fidel’s love of the game. What will happen when Fidel’s reign ends? And how will baseball continue to play a part in US/Cuban relations? Despite the fact this is a university press book, and ostensibly an academic text, the tone is neither dry nor overly scholarly. Jamail writes passionately and personally about Cuba, its players and its fans.

Writing Baseball, edited by Jerry Klinkowitz

While we’re at it, there’s another book from a university press I picked up second hand in a used bookstore, and truly enjoyed. Jerry Klinkowitz is a college professor AND an executive for a minor league team (Waterloo Diamonds, formerly Waterloo Indians), who provides for our reading pleasure in this anthology a cross-section of baseball writing, from selections of old novels to contemporary ones, from personal essays to player biographies. For high-minded lit crit types like myself, Klinkowitz’s introduction alone is worth the price of the book: talking about the explicit and definitive relationship between the sport of baseball and the language associated with it, and legitimizing scholarly interest in baseball for numerous reasons. (As if I needed proof!) The selections themselves are all a joy to read as well, including W.P. Kinsella’s “How I Got My Nickname,” Garrison Keillor’s “Three New Twins Join Club In Spring,” and other gems. Unfortunately, I think the book may be going out of print ( lists it as a “special order’) but now I am curious to see Klinkowitz’ other book: “Owning a Piece of the Minors,” which is still widely available.

The Curse of the Bambino, by Dan Shaughnessy

Well, there is one subject that I trust Boston-area sportwriters with, and that is the failure of the Red Sox. I admit, I’m somewhat fascinated by the sociology of the sad sack Sox and their fans, and Shaughnessy confirms my worst fears about the situation: yes, losing breeds losing. The “curse” itself may be a kind of group fear of success, because, after all, if the Sox were to win the World Series, wouldn’t that shatter the generations-old worldview of their zealous followers? By choking, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, and perennially slumping in September, the Sox uphold the expectations of their fans, therefore it’s hard to say they “disappoint” exactly. Reading this book, as a Yankees fan, is a bit like watching a train wreck in slow motion–gruesome and fascinating at the same time. My only disappointment with the book is that although Shaughnessy spends many pages excoriating former Red Sox owners and general managers for selling off talent like Babe Ruth, he really doesn’t say much about the recent decade’s continual loss of talent. Shudder to think Yankees fans, if in 1999 and 2000 the Red Sox had both Roger Clemens and Mo Vaughn in addition to Pedro, Nomar, etc? But maybe it doesn’t matter. I believe the Red Sox will never win without a massive change in attitude. In other words, Yankee supremacy is safe for a long time to come.

I read a whole lot more books than this, but that’s enough for one day…

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