Review of the Day: Heroes of Baseball
Right off the bat I'd like to say that if you're looking for a reviewer who knows their baseball through and through, I am not your woman. This review will not contain long lamentations over why Mr. Robert Lipsyte did not include such-n-such a player or harbor lengthy critiques of his encapsulations of certain games. I enjoy baseball, of course, but I've always spent more of my time watching minor league games than anything particularly major (Go, Saint Paul Saints!). As for individual players, the bulk of my knowledge, to be perfectly blunt, begins and ends with that episode of The Simpsons where Mr. Burns hires everyone from Daryl Strawberry to Don Mattingly to play in his softball league. In a way, I was a perfect test-subject for Lipsyte's intense and interesting look at what exactly constitutes a baseball "hero". I may not know much about the game, but I know my good non-fiction literature and this book definitely fits the description. Smarter than just a listing of baseball greats, Lipsyte takes the time to ask what it is that makes a hero and whether the men featured in this book deserve such an appellation, so that in bringing up such questions, this book stands apart.
From A.G. Spalding to Randy Johnson, from 1869 to today, Robert Lipsyte states his goals for this book right from the start. Mentioning how contemporary baseball stars feel like close friends to us he goes on to say that, "After you read this book, I hope you'll also feel you know some of the older heroes of baseball who brought our game to life and kept it alive for us." And so we see baseball grow from its early beginnings as a male diversion to the powerhouse moneymaker it is today. Lipsyte covers the usual suspects (Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Lou Gehrig, etc.) while also sprinkling in a feeling for the times in which they lived. Illustrated by a vibrant design that makes use of copious amounts of colored and sepia-toned photographs, moments both heroic and shameful come to light here with varying results. What you end up with, then, is a complex encompassing of players of every shape and stripe that make up the wonderful game that is baseball.
Part of what I liked about this book so much was the form of the narrative. Right from the start we learn a little about our author's youth, then we move on to some quick thoughts on what makes a baseball hero. Not long thereafter we zoom into the big names in the field and their accomplishments. Credit Lipsyte then with his broad characteristics of what a significant accomplishment might be. For example, in an act of respect for his child readers, Lipsyte explains what the reserve rule was and why Curt Flood was a hero to break it (and at his own expense at that). Plus the range of players Lipsyte is able to pull from is just incredible. He does a top notch job of diversifying the sport, even going so far as to look at where baseball may be going someday. What other book on the topic for kids would spend as much time examining baseball in Japan and stars like Ichiro Suzuki? Or predict something like, "Maybe the next monster talent in the outfield who will make things happen will come from China"? And then to wind down the book with a final look at the attributes that raise a ballplayer's status from star to hero alongside the photos of Jackie Robinson, Roberto Clemente, and Babe Ruth... well, I'm no sentimentalist, but Lipsyte's work on this book is a class act through and through.
Obviously an eyebrow or two will be raised in terms of the inclusion of Ty Cobb. Even I in my state of perpetual baseball ignorance know that Cobb was a bad bad man. Why celebrate him here? Lipsyte credits Cobb with not being a great person but rather a "great player". At one point he goes so far as to even say of our heroes that, "Some are the players who, with skill and intensity, show us how the game was made to be played (like Ty Cobb)." Which naturally begs the question of whether or not this means that the game is meant to be played down, dirty, mean, and with spikes aimed squarely at the fellows covering the bases. Lipsyte obviously stands by his choice, and that actually makes the book more interesting. If a baseball player is a nasty piece of work, can they still be a "hero" of the game? I guess that may all depend on which team you're rooting for, eh?
The text is punctuated regularly by sidebars that effectively break apart the narrative with a variety of fun facts. One, for example, might give a list of various baseball nicknames and where they came from. Another is entitled, "Records That Will Never Be Broken". I was particularly amused by a section that covered Lipsyte's favorite baseball movies. Some may be a tad old for the child audiences he's recommending them to ("Bull Durham", for example) and "Damn Yankees" is nowhere in sight. Which, in retrospect, is probably a good thing. By the way, is it true that no baseball cards come with gum anymore? And why was Lawrence Peter Berra nicknamed "Yogi"? As you can see, some panels inspire more questions than they answer.
So do people like Mark McGwire, Ty Cobb, and Pete Rose belong in a book like this? You be the judge. Lipsyte's style is endearing partly because he doesn't tell young baseball fans what to think. They can accept or deny these weak men as they lay. Heck, there's even a sidebar entitled, "Pete Rose: You Decide" that puts the facts of the matter before the child reader. As I mentioned before, I'm not a baseball fanatic myself so there could well be facts and opinions missing from Lipsyte's view of some of the events recorded in this book for all I know. Yet somehow, I think this is a lovely piece of work. It hangs together well as a whole, is filled to brimming with superb photographs from every era, contains a great "Further Reading" Bibliography so important in a children's book, has great websites listed, an Index, a Timeline on the front AND back endpapers, and even a Glossary of Terms. Fill in Lisyte's range and great writing and you've got yourself a non-fiction hit on your hands. Great for rookies like myself.
Notes On the Design: I wonder if making non-fiction children’s titles look like coffee table books will be a new trend soon. Now I greatly appreciated the fact that jacket designer Sonia Chaghatzbanian knew to put contemporary pics of Ichiro Suzuki and Sammy Sosa on the cover alongside old time favs. I’ve nothing against the old fellows, but if you want a kid to pic up a book entirely of his or her own accord, put something recent there for instant appeal. Less appealing were the endpapers. It’s cool that there’s a timeline right at the beginning of the book and right at the end, of course. I’m not denying that. But obviously whoever designed “Heroes of Baseball” wasn’t aware that libraries purchasing it will 9 times out of ten glue the cover flap to the endpapers, thereby obscuring the timeline in some parts. Sheesh. Take into account as well the fact that the book won’t fit on most library shelves due to its peculiar size and it becomes clear that Atheneum’s got some ‘splaining to do.