Baseball has been hard on fans the past few years, with strikes, lockouts and some conspicuous acts of bad sportsmanship. But fortunately, there has been no shortage of first-rate baseball books. Like no other sport, baseball--whose contemplative pace and rhythms are deeply etched in the American consciousness--inspires writers, artists and poets to put pen and brush to paper to express their feelings about our national pastime.
The best baseball books transport us beyond the diamond and the dugout, to other times, places and situations. We can watch Satchel Paige throw his famous "bee ball" or his "two-hump blooper." We can hear the crowd roaring, "We love you, Lou," as Lou Gehrig addresses his fans at Yankee Stadium after illness has forced his early retirement. We can see what life is like for a young baseball fan in Venezuela, and how a Jewish ballplayer feels when an important game conflicts with a religious holiday.Although there may still be snow on some baseball diamonds, children everywhere are oiling their mitts and limbering up for the coming season. This time of year, it's harder than ever to get kids to stop hitting baseballs and start hitting the books. But the following selections are sure to draw young fans. After all, if kids can't be out playing or watching a baseball game, the next best thing is reading about it.
Teammates, by Peter Golenbock, illustrated by Paul Bacon (Harcourt Brace, $6, ages 5-8).
Fifty years have passed since Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, breaking the color barrier in major-league baseball. For children who have grown up cheering for Mo Vaughn, Barry Bonds and other black baseball giants, it may be hard to imagine a time when pro baseball was a white man's game. "Teammates" is a compelling account of the hardship Robinson endured as the first black to play in all-white baseball, suffering threats and taunts from opponents and fans, and even some of his own teammates. The book tells of the unlikely bond between Robinson and Dodger shortstop Pee Wee Reese, who silenced a jeering crowd in the Cincinnati ballpark by putting his arm around Robinson's shoulder. This book reminds us what life was like in segregated America, "when automobiles were black and looked like tanks and laundry was white and hung on clotheslines to dry."
When Willard Met Babe Ruth, by Donald Hall, illustrated by Barry Moser (Harcourt Brace, $16, ages 5-8).
Everyone who cares about baseball knows the story of Babe Ruth, so it's a challenge to come up with a story for young readers that puts his life in a fresh and engaging context. Donald Hall, one of America's most celebrated poets and an avowed baseball fan, has scored a grand slam with this wonderful book about a boy named Willard who grows up in the town of Wilmot Flat, N.H., during the reign of the Home Run King. One day, Willard and his father happen upon Ruth and his wife in their fancy roadster, stuck in a ditch. In return for their help in freeing the car, the Babe gives Willard a baseball glove. The book follows the slugger's hard-hitting career as Willard grows up and becomes a sportswriter for the local newspaper, and the country plunges from the Roaring '20s into the Great Depression. The lush watercolor illustrations capture the spirit of old-fashioned baseball and small-town life.
Up to the Plate, by Margot Fortunato Galt (Lerner Publications, $22.95, ages 10-14).
When America entered World War II, many major-league players traded their baseball uniforms for military uniforms, and the All American Girls Professional Baseball League was launched to fill the void. (The popular movie "A League of Their Own" is based on the league.) This handsomely designed and illustrated book tells the story of these talented athletes, who were trained not only to bat the ball but to bat their eyelashes. With team names like the Chicago Colleens and the Springfield Sallies, these women drew fans with their gutsy base-running and fielding. One skeptical sportscaster admitted after watching a game, "Chatter was the only feminine touch to the proceedings."
Lou Gehrig: The Luckiest Man, By David A. Adler, illustrated by Terry Widener (Harcourt Brace, $15, ages 5-9).
Yankee slugger Lou Gehrig was known as the "Iron Horse" because of his astonishing endurance. When he retired in 1939, he had played 2,130 consecutive games in his 14 years of professional baseball, a record that stood until Cal Ripken Jr. broke it last year. This beautifully illustrated book describes Gehrig's courage in the face of a fatal disease that struck him at the height of his career, and of the incredible outpouring of support he received from teammates and fans. "For the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break I got," said Gehrig to the crowd at Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939. "Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth."
The Negro Leagues, by James A. Riley (Chelsea House, $8.95, ages 10-14).
One of the most fascinating chapters in baseball history is the story of the Negro Leagues, whose players, including pitching wizard Satchel Paige and slugger Josh Gibson (known as "the black Babe Ruth"), thrilled black and white fans alike. This book is among the best on the subject. Packed with vivid photographs, it traces the development of black baseball teams after the turn of the century, when, by "gentlemen's agreement," blacks were effectively banned from the white major leagues. The Negro Leagues managed to survive, and even prosper for a time, although their players were often denied amenities such as hotel and restaurant accommodations. The Negro Leagues met their demise in the 1950s, as baseball, like the rest of America, was transformed by integration.
Honus and Me, by Dan Gutman (Avon, $14, ages 9-14).
A captivating blend of fact and fantasy about a 12-year-old boy named Joseph Stoshack who discovers a valuable 1909 Honus Wagner baseball card while cleaning out his elderly neighbor's attic. Like most early baseball cards, this one was printed by a tobacco company, and Wagner, who strongly opposed smoking, ordered it discontinued after only a few were printed. Dan Gutman has a keen ear for baseball talk, and he creates an appealing character in "Stosh," an aspiring ballplayer who seems to have fallen into a permanent slump. Who can resist a kid who says: "I guess I'm kinda funny-looking. If I wasn't me, I'd probably be making fun of me, too."
Batboy: An Inside Look at Spring Training, by Joan Anderson, photographs by Matthew Cavanaugh (Penguin, $15.99, ages 6-10).
Young readers will enjoy this behind-the-scenes view of spring training through the eyes of 13-year-old Kenny Garibaldi, who has the enviable but arduous job of batboy for the San Francisco Giants. We follow Kenny through a long day that starts with dirty laundry, sorting and delivering fan mail, cleaning muddy shoes and even unwrapping gum for players on the run. The afternoon climaxes in an exciting game and ends, of course, with more dirty laundry. His job is "a subtle dance of being in the center of the action and yet seeming not to be there at all." Kenny knows the players' quirky superstitions, including who likes their uniforms damp and who likes their shoes washed, not shined. The bold color photographs provide a closeup look of the locker room and dugout, a perspective fans rarely see.
Baseball in the Barrios, by Henry Horenstein (Harcourt Brace, $16, ages 6-10).
It's hardly surprising that several of our greatest professional baseball players--including Luis Aparicio and Chico Carrasquel--have come from Venezuela, where the sport is as popular as it is in the States. This is a delightful photo-essay about 9-year-old baseball fan Hubaldo Antonio Romero Paez, who lives in a hillside barrio overlooking Caracas. Hubaldo introduces the reader to his friends, family, neighborhood and country, and the many forms of baseball played there. While life in Caracas differs in some ways from life in the U.S., youth baseball shares much in common: "On game nights (our field) is packed with the players' parents and families, and emotions run high," says Hubaldo. "Fathers scream at the umpires when their sons are called out. Some mothers, like my mom, try to calm their husbands down, but many others scream louder than the fathers."
The Koufax Dilemma, by Steven Schnur, illustrated by Meryl Treatner (Morrow, $15, ages 10 and older).
When Danny Guttman's mom insists that he celebrate Passover, even though it means missing his chance to pitch at his team's opening game, he's in a difficult spot. But he takes some comfort in knowing that the great hurler Sandy Koufax refused to pitch at the World Series one year because it conflicted with Yom Kippur. A surprise guest at the seder dinner convinces Danny he made the right decision. When it's time for Danny to ask the four questions of Passover, he handles his recitation flawlessly. "They were there," he says, "on the tip of my tongue, like four good fastballs crossing the plate, each one a strike." The book examines not only the dilemma of choosing between loyalty to one's faith and loyalty to one's team, but how a strong coach, family and friends can help a kid grow up.
A Game of Catch, by Richard Wilbur, illustrated by Barry Moser (Harcourt Brace, $15.95, ages 8-12).
In the skillful hands of Richard Wilbur, former U.S. poet laureate, a simple game of catch between two boys, Monk and Glennie, turns into an uneasy triangle when they are joined by their friend Scho. The story's subtlety might be lost on some younger readers, but others are sure to be engaged by the sheer glory of Wilbur's prose, as when Scho leaves the game to climb an apple tree, finding "a place where several supple branches were knit to make a dangerous chair." Barry Moser's brilliant watercolors convey the sun-infused languor of a summer day.