Tuesday, April 27, 1999

Half-dozen books cover other bases

        Of course, not every book out this spring is devoted or related to 1998's pyrotechnic season. Here is a rundown on half a dozen of the best of the rest.

        • Castro's Curveball (Ballantine Books; $23.95) by Tim Wendel is the most heralded baseball fiction of the year (as well as the most neatly timed, with the Baltimore Orioles having played an exhibition game in Cuba this spring). The protagonist of this evocative story is Billy Bryan, a career Washington Senators minor-league catcher playing winter ball in Cuba. When Bryan discovers a local (named Fidel) with a major-league curve ball, he gets sucked into a world of romance, revolution, heroism and tragedy.

        • The Pride of Havana: a History of Cuban Baseball by Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria (Oxford University Press; $35) is an important if not consistently interesting contribution to baseball literature. Quite brilliant when expounding upon the importance of baseball in the social and cultural development of Cuba, as well as the contributions of Cubans to American professional baseball, the book lags when it gives equal time to amateur baseball matters of questionable importance.

        Nevertheless, The Pride of Havana has instantly become an invaluable reference. For instance, about Fidel Catro's “alleged prowess in the sport, and the irony that, had he been signed by the Senators or Giants, there would have been no Cuban revolution,” Mr. Echevarria says, “The whole thing is fabrication by an American journalist whose name is now lost, and it is never told in Cuba, because everyone would know it to be false.”

        • Fenway: a Biography in Words and Pictures (Houghton Mifflin Company; $30) is a well-done photographic tribute to one of the last classical ballparks.

        Although veteran Red Sox beat writer Dan Shaughnessy provides an elegant, knowledgeable main text, a group of celebrities and ex-ballplayers (such as Bucky Dent, the Yankees shortstop who hit the infamous home run that won the Yankees-Red Sox playoff game of 1978) also weigh in with remembrances of games at Fenway. Throughout the book, passion for Fenway's quirky beauty and intimacy is tempered by a sense of nostalgia over the doomed ballpark's imminent demise.

        • George Brett: From Here to Cooperstown by George Brett with Steve Cameron (Addax Publishing; $26.95) celebrates the popular Royals third baseman's induction this summer into the Baseball Hall of Fame. While not literary great shakes, this must-have book for Mr. Brett's fans features more than 100 candid photos (many from the all-normal childhood Mr. Brett shared with three older brothers) and the equally candid thoughts of Mr. Brett. He purports to be amazed that his baseball journey is concluding with a trip to Cooperstown.

        • Owning a Piece of the Minors by Jerry Klinkowitz (Southern Illinois University Press; $24.95). Last year, SIU Press began publishing the series Writing Baseball. The first two books were reprints of Eliot Asinof's Man on Spikes and James T. Farrell's My Baseball Diary. SIU Press' choice for its first original book is this one. It's a good choice.

        Today, minor leagues are big business. That wasn't the case during the 1970s and '80s, when Mr. Klinkowitz was part owner of the Waterloo Diamonds in Iowa. His motivation for owning a bush-league franchise had more to do with rediscovering forgotten childhood dreams and preserving a civic treasure than making money. One of baseball writing's first-rate observers and stylists, Mr. Klinkowitz skillfully conveys what it's like to devote oneself to a team and to a game for the simple love of doing so.

        • Total Baseball, edited by the Four Horse (hide) Men, a k a John Thorn, Pete Palmer, Michael Gershman and David Pietrusza (Total Sports; $59.95). As usual, this indispensable tome, now in its sixth edition, mounts a serious challenge to Macmillan's venerable Baseball Encyclopedia.

        New for this edition are: histories of baseball in Korea, Taiwan and Australia; an enhanced Awards and Honors section; and an expansion of players biographies from 100 to 400.

        Ruth, Maris, Sosa and McGwire are depicted on the cover, but the book is dedicated to the “home run kings who have lead all major-league players for a single season, or, for an entire career: Hank Aaron, Dan Brouthers, Roger Connor, George Hall, Charley Jones, Roger Maris, Mark McGwire, Babe Ruth, Harry Stovey, Ned Williamson, Honorable Mention: Sammy Sosa.”

        — Mike Shannon


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