Some sports books are grand slams, some are fouls


IN HIS introduction to "The Random House Book of Sports Stories," editor L.M. Schulman draws an eloquent parallel between books and sports.

"To read a story is to watch a game created by a writer," Schulman writes. "We begin with its opening words and follow it to its outcome as eagerly as any fan leading forward at the starter's gun or the cry of 'Play ball!' And if the story is good, if the author has the talent and does not cheat, we see life as we long to see it, as clearly as if we sat in a box seat or in front of a giant TV, held spellbound by the action and by our hunger to know the results. Who won? Who lost? How, what and why?"

Of course many books, like many games the Orioles have played lately, are without drama; they're over by the third inning. Some recently published sports books for kids pack a home run punch; others are the equivalent of .230 career hitters.

* "The Random House Book of Sports Stories," selected by L.M. Schulman, illustrated by Thomas B. Allen (Random House, $15.95, ages 14 and up). The publisher lists this book for ages 10 and up, but it's far too sophisticated for most middle schoolers. This is an anthology of short stories by an all-star lineup: James Thurber, William Faulkner, John Updike, Ernest Hemingway, Ring Lardner and Jack London, to name six of the 16 authors. A 12-year-old may not have the patience to follow Faulkner through a typical 100-word sentence, or to decipher the colloquial first-person style Thurber adopts in "You Could Look It Up."

But this book could hook a 16-year-old who's convinced that all literature is as remote as a Jane Austin allegory. "The Bear" is a not-too-strenuous introduction to Faulkner, and "My Old Man" will no doubt encourage another generation of

teen-age boys to read Hemingway.

Although classics never go out-of-date, my two favorite stories in this collection were the most contemporary. A chapter from "The Moves Make the Man," by Bruce Brooks, is about a racist high school basketball coach, and "Raymond's Run," by Toni Cade Bambara is the only selection with a female lead. In it, Hazel Elizabeth Deborah Parker, also known as Squeaky, is a third-grader who happens to be the fastest kid in her Harlem neighborhood. But the fame she gains winning races can't match the lessons she learns caring for her brother Raymond, "who's not quite right."

This anthology is a winner as long as it isn't forced on a young reader who could become frustrated. Thomas B. Allen's pencil-and-charcoal drawings add to the classic feel.

* "Any Number Can Play," by George Sullivan, illustrated by John Caldwell (Thomas Y. Crowell, $13.95, ages 8 and up). Now here is an accessible book. Sullivan has great fun putting together facts and anecdotes behind uniform numbers worn by famous and not-so-famous athletes.

He includes trivia questions, lists of retired numbers and vignettes about lucky and unlucky numbers (Ralph Branca switched from No. 13 to No. 12 after giving up Bobby Thomson's home run in the 1951 playoff between the Dodgers and the NTC Giants). He even covers the Indianapolis Colts' ill-fated attempt to "unretire" the No. 82 worn by Ramond Berry and the No. 89 worn by Gino Marchetti.

* "The Story of Roberto Clemente, All-Star Hero," by Jim O'Connor, illustrated by Stephen Marchesi (Dell Yearling paperback, $2.95, ages 8-12). In recent years, many biographies of Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente have been published, for good reason: Both were heroes in the genuine sense of the word, unlike the hollow "role models" in sports today.

Like Robinson, Clemente had detractors among sportswriters of his time, and O'Connor doesn't gloss over the fact that many considered Clemente a malingerer who wouldn't play hurt. Instead of ignoring Clemente's faults, however, O'Connor chronicles his growth: From a teen-ager focused on his own goals to a mature team leader who spent time tutoring young players like Matty Alou.

The newest generation of baseball fans needs to learn of Clemente, a black man from Puerto Rico who died in a plane crash while transporting supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. This is a fine introduction, although the black-and-white charcoal sketches are amateurish. It would have been much better to use some of the many photographs that convey Clemente's grace and strength.

* "Mice at Bat," story and pictures by Kelly Oechsli (Harper Trophy paperback, $3.50, ages 4-8). Written for beginning readers, this book's plot takes a while to get moving. But once the mice take the field to play baseball -- about halfway through the story -- the action picks up. The ending is satisfying, and there are plenty of pictures, though Oechsli manages to make the mice look like rats.

* "Fox Under First Base," by Jim Latimer, pictures by Lisa McCue (Charles Scribner's Sons, $13.95, ages 5-8). This is the story of a fox who burrows under a baseball park and surfaces at the first base bag. From his hide-out he sneaks onto the field and steals baseballs, until he has collected 100.

There's really not much of a plot. The detective inspector, a porcupine, tries to nab the fox, who befriends a bear named James, who convinces the fox to return the baseballs. Latimer likes to hear himself write: "James was fast, wonderfully fast for an animal with fire-hydrant feet and dinner-plate paws." Fire-hydrant feet? Oh well, McCue's wonderfully old-fashioned scratchboard and watercolor paintings manage to carry the day.

* "The Never Sink Nine in Major-League Melissa," by Gibbs Davis, illustrated by George Ulrich (Bantam First Skylark paperback, $2.75, ages 5-8). It's hard to find books for readers who feel they're too grown-up for picture books but aren't ready to graduate to the Newbery winners. Bantam has tried to fill the vacuum with its First Skylark line of paperbacks.

This is one in a series about a Little League team, the Never Sink Nine. The story is fast-paced, and if it's entertaining and encourages kids to read in their free time, that's probably all we can ask.

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