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A starting lineup of new baseball books

Sunday, May 25, 2003

This spring, there seem to be as many new baseball books as Pirates left on base.

Here's commentary on two and a list of several other interesting titles.

"The Last Good Season" by Michael Shapiro (Doubleday, $24.95)

Do we really need another book about the Brooklyn Dodgers? If it's a good read like Michael Shapiro's, why not?

Shapiro, who was 5 when the team left for Los Angeles, writes his story like a detective yarn:

There are colorful characters, backroom deals, engaging prose and an ending Raymond Chandler would appreciate: They won the pennant but lost the World Series, then broke the fans' hearts by skipping town.

The last hurrah for Robinson, Campy, The Duke, Pee Wee, et al came in 1956. While they battled Milwaukee for the pennant, owner Walter O'Malley began looking to California.

In some ways, this is a synthesis of Roger Kahn's "The Boys of Summer," Neil J. Sullivan's "The Dodgers Move West" and Robert Caro's "Robert Moses and the Fall of New York."

It's familiar territory. But a pennant race decided on the season's final days is always a good yarn, and there are nice sections on Sal Maglie, the Dodgers' wives and the changing neighborhoods in Brooklyn.

America is a young country, with few myths to sustain it. The Brooklyn Dodgers might serve as one. The team presented an image America likes to think is representative: tough, honest, unpretentious, and where a kid, regardless of race or religion, could make it big.

In a 1950s movie, David says about Goliath, "He gets bigger every year." So, it seems, do the Dodgers.

-- By Jon Caroulis, a freelance writer living in Philadelphia.

"May the Best Team Win: Baseball Economics and Public Policy" by Andrew Zimbalist (Brookings Institution Press, $24.95)

If history is any guide, baseball fans are taking their places in the bleachers and forgetting all that messy talk about strikes and contraction that loomed darkly last season.

This is unfortunate. For, as Andrew Zimbalist demonstrates, the grand old game's troubles did not evaporate in the warmth generated by last year's last-minute contract settlement by the team owners and players.

Rather, says Zimbalist, an economist and one of the nation's pre-eminent authorities on baseball's balderdash, structural flaws remain and will, unless repaired, continue to endanger the game.

But all is not hopeless, says the good professor from Smith College. Solutions can be found to baseball's interlocking puzzles of competitive imbalance, spiraling ticket costs and drooping popularity. In fact, he says, salvation may be as simple as stripping away the economic insulation that has shielded the sport from its own self-destructive behavior: its dubious claim to monopoly authority.

Though concise and coherent, this is not light reading. There is more regression analysis than character development. Think of it as a "Federalist Papers" for sports.

-- By Jon Morgan, The Baltimore Sun


"Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville" by Stephen Jay Gould (Norton , $24.95)

The late Stephen Jay Gould, best known for his texts on biology and evolution, was a baseball fan as well. He wrote numerous essays on the sport for such publications as Natural History, a range of which is collected here.

"Game Time: A Baseball Companion" by Roger Angell (Harcourt, $25)

These previously published baseball pieces by the venerable Angell of the New Yorker are introduced by Richard Ford, a contributor to the magazine where Angell was once fiction editor. The respectful intro leads us to the serious, at times naive, writing of a reverent fan covering the game from the 1930s on.

"Foul Ball" by Jim Bouton (Bulldog Publishing, $24.95)

The former pitcher and author of "Ball Four" joined a campaign several years ago to save Wahconah Park, an ancient ballpark in Pittsfield, Mass. The town fathers want a new park paid for by the public, that old new story about stadium financing. The park still stands.

A dispute with the book's original publisher, PublicAffairs, forced Bouton to cancel his contract and publish the book himself. It's a curious story, made more interesting by corporate timidity.

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