Sunday, March 26, 2006

In time for opening day, a lineup of 9 for baseball

By Mike Lillich | Star correspondent | |For fans who can't wait for Major League's Baseball's opening day April 3, when the boys of summer take center (field) stage, here are some books to open in the meantime.

"A Great Day in Cooperstown: The Improbable Birth of Baseball's Hall of Fame" by Jim Reisler. - Photo provided by Carroll & Graf.

This bounty of books provides a kaleidoscopic view of the national pastime -- classic and contemporary baseball journalism, a comprehensive history of the Negro Leagues, mathematical extrapolations from a new generation of high-tech Web-based analysts, a no-holds-barred foray into fantasy baseball and a number of considerations of the huge 20th-century historical and cultural forces baseball has both adapted to and reflected.
There's a Chicago-Midwestern bias in these offerings with books about the White Sox's championship season, a hooky-playing season in Wrigleyville, a remembrance of the Negro Leagues' Indianapolis Clowns and a collection of Baseball Digest columns edited by a longtime Chicago baseball writer.
Phil Rogers, senior baseball writer and columnist for the Chicago Tribune, tells the inside story of the Windy City's first World Series winner in a combined 183 Chicago baseball seasons in "Say It's So: The Chicago White Sox's Magical Season" (Triumph Books, 266 pages, $24.95). The colorful, multicultural, all-for-one blue-collar bunch (if baseball millionaires can be said to be blue-collar) proved that championship teams can achieve ultimate success and overcome superstars and big odds through teamwork, smarts, leadership and grit. "Say It's So," aside from a couple embarrassing editing gaffes, is a solid page-turner that even a Cubs fan could love. The color Trib photos are a nice bonus.
The ticket to the field of dreams for Gen Y-ers whose summer plans include the Wrigley Field bleachers is Kevin Kaduk's "Wrigleyworld: A Season in Baseball's Best Neighborhood" (New American Library, 288 pages, $23.95). The author is a brash and sentimental 26-year-old Kansas City sports reporter who took a year off work to move back to Chicago and follow the 2005 Cubs season every day. The first-person account includes not only a blow-by-blow of the season but also meditations on Old Style beer, deep insight into transactions with ticket scalpers, Billy Goat exorcisms, Wrigleyville bar reviews, a road trip to Yankee Stadium and then to Cooperstown for Ryne Sandberg's Hall of Fame induction. The final game of the season is a rain-soaked loss. Alas. Wait till this year?
"Shades of Glory: The Negro Leagues and the Story of African-American Baseball" (National Geographic, 422 pages, $26) grew out of a $250,000 grant from Major League Baseball that funded a "comprehensive history of African-American baseball from 1860-1960." Lawrence Hogan, a history professor at Union College in New Jersey, headed the research team that submitted its massive study, "Out of the Shadows," to the Hall of Fame in 2005.
Hogan then took on the role of principal author of this definitive and highly readable history of black baseball just in time for this year's Hall of Fame series of events honoring Negro League players.
There are Indiana connections here. Hogan received his doctorate in history and black history from Indiana University and has taught at IU, Notre Dame and DePauw.
Sam Walker, a sports columnist for The Wall Street Journal, gets the MVP for "Fantasyland: A Season on Baseball's Lunatic Fringe" (Viking, 354 pages, $25.95), the wildest, most entertaining book of the early season by clawing his way into Tout Wars, the World Series of fantasy baseball.
Fantasy or "Rotisserie" baseball is a bona fide phenomenon, a statistics-based game among virtual teams in self-administered leagues. Walker describes it as "a game of baseball smarts . . . (as well as) a test of economics, mathematics and game theory." Not only are there currently an estimated 5 million participants who pay real money to "buy" players in preseason auctions, but the methods of the fantasy league aficionados also have "bullied their way into the consciousness of baseball executives."
Walker sets out to prove he can beat the fantasy immortals and "determine, once and for all, which device was better at predicting a ballplayer's performance: the laptop or the human eye, cold, hard data or gut hunches and intuition."
Like almost all questers, Walker and his team don't come home with the holy grail, but his book offers solid reporting, moxie, wit and laugh-out-loud humor.
For the baseball traditionalist, this book is a flat-out pleasure and treasure. "The Best of Baseball Digest: The Greatest Players, the Greatest Games, the Greatest Writers From Baseball's Most Exciting Years" (Ivan R. Dee, 453 pages, $29.95) is a collection of stories and columns from Baseball Digest, the self-proclaimed "oldest baseball magazine in the country." It begins with a rather formal 1946 essay on the greatest hitters in the game (the best: "Shoeless" Joe Jackson) and ends with the editor's piece wrapping up the White Sox 2005 World Series victory.
John Kuenster, editor of Baseball Digest and former staff member and columnist for the Chicago Daily News, mines a rich writerly vein and fields an all-star literary lineup: Heywood Broun, Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, Roger Kahn, Jim Murray, Thomas Boswell, Peter Gammons and Mike Royko. There also are a number of "as told to pieces" presenting the baseball thoughts of Sandy Koufax, Lou Boudreau, Nellie Fox, Ryne Sandberg, Don Larsen and others. The book also boasts vintage black-and-white photos.
The great day in Cooperstown was June 12, 1939, the opening of Baseball's Hall of Fame. Jim Reisler evokes the day colorfully with anecdotes about the "immortals," such as Connie Mack, Babe Ruth and Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis' in "A Great Day in Cooperstown: The Improbable Birth of Baseball's Hall of Fame" (Carroll & Graf, 241 pages, $26). It is widely accepted now that, despite claims of the day, Cooperstown was not baseball's birthplace. In truth, Cooperstown was an out-of-the-way, down-on-its-luck Depression town with a few marketing geniuses far ahead of their time. They built the hall, and baseball and the world came. The Hall of Fame story and enterprise, an engaging story in its own right, also is a wonderful touchstone that Reisler employs to add his own well-researched and finely crafted insight into baseball's history, lore and characters.
"Baseball Between the Numbers: Why Everything You Know About the Game is Wrong" (Basic Books, 454 pages, $24.95) is this year's baseball book for the fanatic who wants to dominate water cooler and tavern conversations as well as the deadly serious fantasy leagues.
The book is the work of the Baseball Prospectus that runs a Web site (www..baseballpros where the group takes Bill James' "sabermetrics"(from SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research) numbers to a new numerical level to analyze and judge the game and its players. Editor Jonah Keri and his experts are smart guys, and to their credit they lay out in the introduction that the ultimate goal of all the "monster in the closet" numbers is more fun for the fan. Also to their credit, the book is laid out in chapters covering burning baseball questions such as:
Is Barry Bonds Better than Babe Ruth?
Did Derek Jeter deserve the Gold Glove?
Is Alex Rodriguez overpaid?
Do high salaries lead to high ticket prices?
Expert Nate Silver writes: "We believe some of these questions have 'right' answers . . . others will remain tantalizingly uncertain, to be debated long after the bartender has begun picking up the chairs."
Syd Pollock owned the Indianapolis Clowns, whose combination of quality baseball and zany entertainment was inspired by the Harlem Globetrotters. In fact, "Goose" Tatum played for the Clowns in the summer and the Globetrotters in the winter. White and Jewish, Pollock was the father of the author of this history and adoring memoir, "Barnstorming to Heaven: Syd Pollock and his Great Black Teams" (University of Alabama Press, 407 pages, $35).
Son Alan grew up on the road with the barnstorming enterprise that played both against local and Negro League teams. Indianapolis was one of several homes in the Clowns' 40-year history.
"Few and Chosen: Defining Dodgers Greatness Across the Eras" (Triumph Books, 200 pages, $27.95), which ranks the Top 5 Dodgers of all time at each position, requires a reader who is a Brooklyn-Los Angeles Dodgers true believer -- and there are great players and characters for believers -- or a baseball encyclopedist.
The book, by Duke Snider with Phil Pepe) is the latest in a series of "Few and Chosen" titles, including the Yankees with Whitey Ford, the Cubs with Ron Santo and the Cardinals with Tim McCarver.

Mike Lillich is a business writer and assistant director at the Purdue News Service. He can be reached at


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