Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Take Me Out to the Ballgame

Baseball season is in full swing, so this is a perfect time to tell you about some great baseball books:

There’s No Crying in Baseball!

The history of American baseball is strong with stories of dignity, hope, and courage.

Adler, David A. Lou Gehrig: The Luckiest Man. San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1997.

Lou Gehrig wasn’t called The Iron Man for nothing. A man who never missed a day of school in eight years and never missed a single New York Yankees game in fourteen years was truly a force to be reckoned with, and a man thought to be unstoppable. Inexplicably, Gehrig began to miss swings. He had trouble keeping his balance. Although his manager refused to fire him, Gehrig eventually took himself out of the game and was examined by Mayo Clinic specialists. The diagnosis was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (AML), a rare and deadly disease of the nervous system.

This beautiful biography tells the story of the admirable Lou Gehrig, from his heyday as Babe Ruth’s rival to his final dignified and courageous days. Those nostalgic for “old Brooklyn” and old time baseball will surely linger over the illustrations, while the final illustrations of “Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day” and the day of Gehrig’s death will probably leave you with a lump in your throat.

Hopkinson, Deborah. Girl Wonder: A Baseball Story in Nine Innings. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2003.

The inspiring life of Alta Weiss is deftly covered by Deborah Hopkinson in this slim biography. Time and time again, Alta was told to “act like a lady” and quite playing baseball. She persevered and rose to fame as the “Girl Wonder” of The Independents, a semi-professional team in Ohio. If you have an early elementary student daunted by the shelves of thick biographies, check this out for him or her. An author’s note informs the reader that Alta graduated from Starling-Ohio Medical College in 1914, the only woman in her class.

Robinson, Sharon. Promises to Keep: How Jackie Robinson Changed America. New York: Scholastic Press, 2004.

What comes to your mind when you think of biographies written by children of celebrities? Do you usually think of books like Mommie Dearest? True, there is no lack of “tell all” books written by these adult children. However, Sharon Robinson’s biography of her father, Jackie Robinson, is definitely not one of them. The career of Jackie Robinson, both as a ground-breaking baseball player and civil rights activist, is definitely meaty enough, rich enough, and inspirational enough to frame an awesome read. Robinson’s biography, however, is more than a “by the numbers” biography; she begins the book with an overview of African American history that preceded and influenced her grandparents’ and parents’ lives. A timeline of black baseball history is threaded throughout the columns of the book, alongside snapshots, pictures of newspaper clippings, and family mementos. As the adoring daughter of Jackie Robinson, her biography is admittedly not objective. Her prose, however, is direct and matter of fact.

Every April 15th is a special day in American baseball, for it is the annual "Jackie Robinson Day." This past April 15th was particularly special, for it was the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color line in American baseball. That day was celebrated by many major league players, including Washington Nationals first baseman Dmitri Young, wearing Robinson's retired number 42 in honor of the day.

Uhlberg, Myron. Dad, Jackie, and Me. Atlanta: Peachtree, 2005.
Sometimes, you come across a book that’s so remarkable and wonderful that it lingers with you long after you’ve closed its cover. So remarkable and so wonderful that you know that any words you use to describe it will not do the book justice. That’s exactly how I feel about Dad, Jackie, and Me. The story of a young baseball fan and his deaf father paralleled against the integration of Jackie Robinson into the Brooklyn Dodgers is told brilliantly through evocative illustrations and moving text. The young narrator tells of his father’s appreciation (and identification) with Jackie Robinson, the young baseball star of the Negro Leagues recently signed to the Dodgers. This sudden interest in Robinson is surprising, since his father never seemed to care about baseball. However, they’re off to a Dodgers game.

Dad is deaf, but he isn’t mute. “AH-GEE!” he calls out when Robinson flies on the field. This attracts much attention from nearby fans, which embarrasses the young boy.

His attention is soon torn away from his discomfort to the “horrible names” that the Giants are yelling to Jackie (at his father’s request, he fingerspells the words).

The game flames his father’s interest in Robinson and in baseball in general. Having a shared interest brings father and son closer together;
they attend Dodgers games whenever they can and witness the indignities thrown Robinson’s way during the game. In between games, they scrapbook Robinson’s career. Dad continues to yell “AH-GEE!” but Robinson doesn’t notice, until one fine and fabulous day. And faster than you can say, “Jackie Robinson,” you think “It can’t get better than this.”

Au contraire, mon frere! It’s time to read the Author’s Note. The Author’s Note in which Myron Uhlberg tells you that the story was inspired by his father, who was also deaf and was also an avid fan of Jackie Robinson. Who took him to Dodgers games, showed him how Robinson was proving the racists wrong, and taught him about a deaf baseball player named William Ellsworth Hoy (hint to Uhlberg-write a picture book about Hoy!).

Marvelous. Just marvelous.

A League of Their Own

One of the most fascinating sports stories of all time is the formulation and popularity of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which received much renewed attention when A League of Their Own was released to great popularity.

Adler, David A. Mama Played Baseball. San Diego: Harcourt Inc, 2003.
Amy’s mother, like many other women during the United States’s involvement in World War II, works out of the home. Instead of working in a factory, however, Amy’s mother is a baseball player. This is a sweet and loving picture book chronicling a mother-daughter relationship and the effect of the war on a family. One of the most darling and lovely illustrations I have seen in a picture book is found halfway through the book; Amy is watching her mother autograph her very own baseball. Have mercy, Chris O’Leary!

Macy, Sue. A Whole New Ball Game: The Story of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1993.

If you’ve wondered how closely A League Of Their Own mirrored the actual AAGPBL, you’ll want to take a look at Sue Macy’s account (answer: Quite closely, except the women were typically in their late teens and early twenties, probably younger than the characters in the movie. There was an AAGPL league named the Rockford Peaches, but all the characters in the movie are fictional). From the women’s “charm school” experiences to the lifelong friendships formed throughout the league, the reader will revel in the notoriety, eventual respect and popularity earned by the league.

Before Jackie Broke the Color Line: The Negro Leagues

Renewed interest in the Negro Leagues is giving much deserved attention to the powerful players of the Negro Leagues, which was in existence until the last teams folded in the 1960s.

Brasher, William. The Story of Negro League Baseball. New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1994.

If you are looking for an in-depth introduction to the Negro Leagues for children, this book is ideal. There’s nothing flashy about the book’s presentation; just fascinating and occasionally heartbreaking detail after detail about the popularity, hardships, and inevitable decline of the Leagues. Brashler unflinchingly describes the tremendous traveling difficulties and indignities that were forced upon the players due to the Jim Crow laws, the tension between the “clowning” leagues (which influenced the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team) and the “regular” teams, the pride that African American communities took in the leagues, and the players‘ lives after their baseball careers and the Leagues came to an end. He intimately connects the reader with the comraderie of the players as well as with the vast inequalities of the Jim Crow era, as seen through the world of baseball.

Winter, Jonah. Fair Ball! 14 Great Stars From Baseball’s Negro Leagues. New York: Scholastic Press, 1999.

As a fan of the Negro Leagues, Jonah Winter longed for baseball cards that detailed the careers of the great Negro League players: Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, Buck Leonard, Josh Gibson. Though economical with words (the pages are designed to look like baseball cards, complete with statistics and 3-4 paragraphs), Winter makes each player’s achievements and accomplishments come alive with unbridled enthusiasm.

Fan Fiction: Fun Baseball Fiction

Gutman, Dan. Honus & Me. New York: Avon Books, 1997.

I first learned of this baseball card time travel series several months ago via a patron request. Joe Stoshack discovers a rare Honus Wagner baseball card that is worth a fortune. That’s just the beginning of his adventures, which lead to Joe befriending Honus and traveling back in time with him to 1909. Time travel, humor, and adventure are mixed with a healthy dosing of baseball history. You’ll probably want to read the other books in Gutman’s series.

Heymsfeld, Carla. Coaching Ms. Parker. New York: Bradbury Press, 1992.

Fourth grade teacher Ms. Parker is not looking forward to the annual sixth graders vs. faculty baseball game. Out of sympathy, Mike volunteers (and volunteers his friends) to help coach her for the big game. She agrees, but only if Mike writes book reviews of books chosen by her. At 85 pages, this is a very quick read that contains gentle humor and realistic school situations to which most children can relate.

Park, Barbara. Skinnybones. New York: Random House, 1982.

Looking for a laugh out loud read? Barbara Park is your kind of author. Skinnybones is the story of Alex Frankovitch., the smallest boy on his baseball team. Alex is pretty honest about his lack of prowess in baseball, but it doesn’t stop him from his mouth getting him in trouble! This is a funny fast read, ideal for reluctant readers.

Blogger’s Choice:

When I prepare for a Book Bundle, I always read many more books than the number of books I chose to review. Therefore, all the titles mentioned in the bundles are books I feel are worthy of greater attention. However, there are always titles that are the cream of the crop, and I intend to single them out by marking them as “Blogger’s Choice.” Without further delay, here are the “Blogger’s Choice” for the Play Ball! Book bundle:

Adler, David A. Lou Gehrig: The Luckiest Man. San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1997.

Adler, David A. Mama Played Baseball. San Diego: Harcourt Inc, 2003.

Uhlberg, Myron. Dad, Jackie, and Me. Atlanta: Peachtree, 2005.

Park, Barbara. Skinnybones. New York: Random House, 1982.

Baseball Goes Digital

There are also a number of great baseball sites on the Internet.

General Baseball Links:

Exploratorium: Science of Baseball

National Baseball Hall of Fame

MLB’s Kid’s Zone

Historic Baseball

Baseball Historian

Washington Nationals

The Language of Baseball

Baseball Almanac

Today in Baseball History

All American Girls Professional League:

All American Girls Professional Baseball League (1943-1954)

Science of Baseball: The Girls of Summer

National Women’s Baseball Hall of Fame

Negro League Baseball:


Negro League Baseball

Negro League Baseball Museum

Negro League Baseball Players’ Association

Out of the Shadows: Negro League Baseball

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