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Crowding the plate

As the new season begins, fans can feast on a generous helping of baseball books

Baseball may no longer be America's favorite sport (that's football) or America's pastime (that's loafing around watching TV), but no game surpasses it for generating books. Every spring they come in with the shad, a great pouring forth of history, biography, memoir, fiction, statistical analysis, oddities and quiddities -- and exposé. It is overwhelming, even bizarre, but when the torrent ceases -- and it dwindled ominously after the players' strike of 1994-95 -- we will know that baseball has had it.

This season's most talked-about books outside the white lines will be Mark Fainaru-Wada's and Lance Williams's ''Game of Shadows: Barry Bonds, BALCO, and the Steroids Scandal That Rocked Professional Sports" and Howard Bryant's ''Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power, and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball," so there's no point in adding to the clamor, dismayed though we are by the whole shabby business. In fact, we are so dismayed we are making this a steroid-free round-up.

The season's best book so far gets right to the heart of the game's survival at the organizational level. Economist Andrew Zimbalist's ''In the Best Interests of Baseball: The Revolutionary Reign of Bud Selig" (Wiley, $24.95) begins with a history of the office of the commissioner and its holders. Given the game's antitrust exemption, the commissioner should protect the interest of the fans, but, as Zimbalist shows, if this was ever the case it became conclusively not so in 1992, when Fay Vincent was ousted for being inadequately deferent to the wishes of the owners and replaced with an acting commissioner in the person of Bud Selig -- a club owner and, even then, ''probably the most powerful man in baseball."

The book, which is far from kind to Selig, explores the basic contradictions that emerge from an owner-friendly commissioner and the unique license that the antitrust exemption gives baseball. Zimbalist does allow that Selig moved baseball from the dozy days of taking fans for granted to an era of intense and effective marketing. On the other hand, he shows that labor relations and the revenue imbalance between teams are still as problematic as they ever were, owners' shakedowns of the cities their teams tenant are rampant, and the antitrust exemption continues to pervert the business.

A case in point is Washington, D.C., now home to the Nationals, for whose new stadium the D.C. Council has pledged $611 million of taxpayers' money -- this, even though the team is still, as of this writing, the property of Major League Baseball and the ward of Selig. ''National Pastime: Sports, Politics, and the Return of Baseball to Washington, D.C.," by Barry Svrluga (Doubleday, $22.95), a sportswriter for The Washington Post, recounts the story of how baseball left the capital and the machinations of its return. These included murmurings from Republicans in Congress that if George Soros got a stake in the team, they ''just might look into baseball's antitrust exemption."

Svrluga deals also with Selig's mollification of the owner of the Orioles, the irrational cable TV coverage -- or lack of it -- of the games, the long and acrimonious battle over funding the stadium, and, sympathetically, with the trials of manager Frank Robinson, GM Jim Bowden, the players, and the fans during the Nationals' first season in the capital, a creditable .500 performance.

''Shades of Glory: The Negro Leagues and the Story of African-American Baseball," by Lawrence D. Hogan (National Geographic, $26), has been published to coincide with this February's election of 17 outstanding figures of Negro League baseball to the Hall of Fame. The book is a brisk history of the subject complete with wonderful photographs, 20 pages of statistics, and a number of profiles of individuals. These include Ray Brown, ''the best player not in the Hall of Fame," now rectified, as well as other just-elected notables: Effa Manly, part owner of the Newark Eagles (who was not, as it happens, actually black); Cristobal Torriente, a tragic figure who outslugged the Bambino in an exhibition game three homers to none but died of cirrhosis of the liver in his early 30s; and Pittsfield native Frank Grant, genius second baseman and potent bat of 19th-century baseball, black and white.

''Barnstorming to Heaven: Syd Pollack and His Great Black Teams," by Alan J. Pollack, edited by James A. Riley (University of Alabama, $35), is about the ''Harlem Globetrotters of Baseball," the erstwhile Miami Giants and Ethiopian Clowns, who became, variously, the Indianapolis and Cincinnati Clowns. Written by the owner's son, it is part memoir and part history of the country's most successful barnstorming baseball team, a changing group of black ballplayers, including three women, who attracted fans for their inspired clowning, but who were also dazzlingly accomplished players. Among the characters in these pages is King Tut, whose huge glove, sinking-boat routine in center field, offering of giant eyeglasses to umpires, and other stunts are part of both clown and baseball history.

''Stepping Up: The Story of Curt Flood and His Fight for Baseball Players' Rights," by Alex Belth (Persea, $22.95), begins in the fall of 1969, when Curt Flood, veteran center fielder for the St. Louis Cardinals, was informed by ''a middle-echelon coffee drinker in the front office" that he had just been traded to the Phillies. Flood's refusal to be treated as chattel and decision to take baseball to court led eventually to overturning baseball's player reserve clause, though he lost his suit and never profited from it. This is one of the many chapters in baseball's history that explain the abiding distrust players hold for team owners.

''Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero," by David Maraniss (Simon & Schuster, $26), tells the story of 12-time Gold Glove winner Roberto Clemente, who was also maltreated by club owners' high-handed finagling, ending up in Pittsburgh, a city he would never have chosen. Maraniss gets across both Clemente's feeling of being underappreciated, his truly spectacular talents, and his commitment to Hispanic players. His account of the events leading up to Clemente's death in 1972 in a rackety plane trying to get relief supplies to Honduran earthquake victims (past Anastasio Somoza Debayle's predatory bagmen) is excellent and detailed.

Two books about two improbable World Series appear this spring. ''The Boys Who Were Left Behind: The 1944 World Series Between the Hapless St. Louis Browns and the Legendary St. Louis Cardinals," by John Heidenry and Brett Topel (University of Nebraska, $29.95), is the entertaining tale of the all-St. Louis World Series of 1944, when the Cardinals met ''indisputably the worst team in the history of baseball," the Browns, ''a collection of misfits, 4-Fs, brawlers, and drunks," who had somehow won the American League pennant, finishing the season with a four-game sweep of the Yankees.

The six-game Series was another story, with the Browns clocking up a .182 team average and striking out 49 times. The book is filled with fascinating wartime detail, a good deal of bathos, and the mighty presence of Stan Musial.

The unfortunate Browns became the present Baltimore Orioles in 1954 and finally won a World Series in the contest described in Tom Adelman's ''Black and Blue: The Golden Arm, the Robinson Boys, and the 1966 World Series That Stunned America" (Little, Brown, $24.95). The key to the Orioles' triumph lay in their acquisition of Frank Robinson, though the still-segregated city of Baltimore scarcely deserved him. On the other hand, the Dodgers scarcely deserved their two pitching aces, Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax, who staged a two-man strike against the tightfisted Walter O'Malley. The book, which delivers good baseball action, ownerly perfidy, and social context, reminds us how far we are from the 1960s.

''The Only Game in Town: Baseball Stars of the 1930s and 1940s Talk About the Game They Loved," edited by Fay Vincent (Simon & Schuster, $26), is a chatty treasure inspired by Lawrence Ritter's ''The Glory of Their Times" and is the first volume of a projected oral history of baseball. The book consists of 10 players' descriptions of their lives in baseball with considerable emphasis being given to the integration of the game.

Buck O'Neil and Elden Auker reflect on pre-integration baseball, while Larry Doby and Monte Irwin describe the challenge of being among the first black players to play in the big leagues. Also included are Tommy Heinrich, Dom DiMaggio, Warren Spahn, Ralph Kiner, arch know-it-all Bob Feller (who conditioned himself through farm work, push-ups, and deep knee bends, not ''all this fancy, heavy-chromed equipment"), and our own modest and indomitable favorite, Johnny Pesky.

Any guesses as to which game Cecilia Tan and Bill Nowlin choose as the greatest of them all in their ''Fifty Greatest Red Sox Games" (Wiley, $22.95)? Correct. And second to that magic engagement that spanned Oct. 17 and 18, 2004, is Sunday, Oct. 12, 1986, best remembered for Dave Henderson's exculpatory home run and sacrifice fly against the Angels. It saved the Red Sox from extinction in the ALCS, propelling them toward Oct. 25, 1986, the sixth greatest contest, according to the two savants, synonymous though it is with the expression ''Bill Buckner." The games, which range from 1903 to 2004, are excellently described and reflected upon -- as well as highly debatable, making the book a bible for bibulous evenings.

''Day by Day With the Boston Red Sox" is the sort of heroic compilation that we associate with Bill Nowlin (Rounder, paperback, $17.95). The plump book records Red Sox events, adventures, misfortunes, births, deaths, debuts, and transactions for every day of the year. On this day in 1933, for instance, the team was almost wiped out in a train wreck that killed the engineer and fireman. This is an endlessly fascinating work that has Father's Day written all over it.

''Boston's Royal Rooters" is by Peter Nash, the founder of Cooperstown's new Baseball Fan Hall of Fame (Arcadia, paperback, $19.99). The book consists of photographs and commentary recording fandom from the early days of Nuf-Ced McGreevy and the Royal Rooters to the Dropkick Murphys of 2004, with plenty of lesser-known oddballs and well-known big bugs in between.

''Baseball Field Guide: An In-Depth Illustrated Guide to the Complete Rules of Baseball," by Dan Formosa and Paul Hamburger (Thunder's Mouth, paperback, $13.95), lives up to its subtitle while remaining splendidly clear and concise.

It is both reference work and, in its detail, illustration, and generosity of subject matter, a book to read for sheer pleasure. ''Eleven Ways to Balk": Can you name them? Must a player wear a cap? What is the penalty if he tries to catch a batted ball with it? What is the history and role of Lena Blackburne Rubbing Mud? The answers are here.

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