Reviews: From Campanella to Tampa Bay Rays, baseball books make cool beach reading

Baseball season is under way, and so is the season for baseball books.

Campy: The Two Lives of Roy Campanella

By Neil Lanctot

Simon & Schuster, 560 pages, $28

With the publication of Neil Lanctot's superb Campy — the baseball biography of the year — Roy Campanella's story has finally been told.

Born to an Italian-American father and African-American mother, Campanella was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946, one year after Jackie Robinson, and went on to win three Most Valuable Player awards and play in five World Series. His career was cut short in 1958 by an automobile accident that forced him to use a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

Lanctot is frank, as no previous writer has been, about Campanella's strained relationship with his teammate Jackie Robinson and his bitter feuds with players like Billy Martin. But nothing crushed his indomitable spirit. Two years before his death a reporter asked him why he was at the Dodgers spring training camp. He replied " 'Cause it's beautiful." "You mean baseball?" asked the writer. "No," said Campy, "the whole damn world."

The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First

By Jonah Keri

Ballantine Books/ESPN Books, 253 pages, $26

Pro football has been described as "socialist" — the league gives each team an equal share of TV money — while baseball is "dog eat dog" — big dog eats little dog.

In The Extra 2%, an exhilarating read for fans of both baseball and finance, Jonah Keri, co-author and editor of Baseball Between the Numbers, tells how one underdog clawed its way to the top. Well, almost. The Tampa Bay Rays nearly got to the World Series, largely because when former Goldman Sachs colleagues Stuart Sternberg and Matthew Silverman took over in 2005, they threw out baseball "wisdom" and worked from a basis of proven financial strategies, such as "positive arbitrage" — "simultaneously buying one asset . . . cheaper than the one you're selling"

Above all, The Extra 2% is about the role a positive attitude can play in winning. When asked how the Rays could compete with the goliath Red Sox and Yankees, GM Andrew Friedman said it was getting close to impossible. "But it's do-able."

The Baseball: Stunts, Scandals and Secrets Beneath the Stitches

By Zack Hample

Vintage Books, 346 pages, $16.95

Zack Hample is the worst person to go to a baseball game with — if you plan on catching a baseball. He has snagged 4,662 baseballs, fair and foul, in 48 major league stadiums, and his streak of snaring at least one ball in 661 consecutive games is the fan's equivalent of Cal Ripken's 2,632 consecutive games played.

Who else, then, to write the most fun baseball book of the year? In The Baseball, you can read about "Foul Balls in Pop Culture" (most realistic movie catch: Ferris Bueller's Day Off), "How to Get a Player to Throw You a Ball" (Hint: Wear a cap and shirt from an opposing team. "You'll look like such a big fan that the players will feel guilty about not taking care of you").

Note to Zack: Have you ever caught a ball in Rickwood Field, Birmingham, Ala., the country's oldest ballpark? Let me know if you've got something to trade, hot shot.

56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports

By Kostya Kennedy

Sports Illustrated Books, 368 pages, $26.95

In the film version of Farewell, My Lovely, Robert Mitchum's Detective Philip Marlowe marks time, like millions of Americans, following Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak. Marlowe would have loved Kostya Kennedy's 56, which captures the atmosphere in a country perched on the edge of war.

56 is loaded with period detail — you can almost smell the marinara sauce simmering in Italian restaurants and hear the crackling of radios from New York to Los Angeles as Americans everywhere began and ended their day by finding out if the great DiMaggio got a hit.

Kennedy combines the sweep of a historian, the narrative power of a novelist and the passion of a fan. "DiMaggio's streak," he concludes, "was the only event in baseball history that defied probabilistic explanation. In the end, the DiMaggio Enigma persists." Of the 17,290 players who have appeared in the major leagues, "Only one of them had ever hit in 56 straight games."

Cuban Star: How One Negro League Owner Changed the Face of Baseball

By Adrian Burgos Jr.

Hill and Wang, 286 pages, $28

There probably hasn't been a movie based on the life of Alex Pompez because Hollywood would have rejected his story as too improbable. And because there was no definitive book on his life. With Cuban Star, Adrian Burgos Jr. has provided one, and it's one of the best baseball books of the new millennium.

Actually, it's about much more than baseball. Pompez, an Afro-Cuban, was not only the owner of a Negro League team — first called the Cuban Stars, later the New York Cubans — but he was also a racketeer, a partner with Dutch Schultz and, finally, a respectable Negro League scout for the New York Giants.

Burgos, author of Playing America's Game: Baseball, Latinos and the Color Line, is a terrific writer and knows when he has a great subject. Pompez's life story "embodied both the dreams deferred and the promise of America's game with a twist."

Allen Barra's most recent book is "Rickwood Field: A Century in America's Oldest Ballpark."

Reviews: From Campanella to Tampa Bay Rays, baseball books make cool beach reading 04/09/11 [Last modified: Saturday, April 9, 2011 5:30am]

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