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If only the ball bounced better than the checks

Mad Seasons: The Story of the First Women’s Professional Basketball League, 1978-1981
By Karra Porter
University of Nebraska, 336 pp., illustrated, $18.95

Little League, Big Dreams: Inside the Hope, the Hype and the Glory of the Greatest World Series Ever Played
By Charles Euchner
Sourcebooks, 320 pp., $22.95

Spalding’s World Tour: The Epic Adventure That Took Baseball Around the Globe — And Made It America’s Game
By Mark Lamster
PublicAffairs, 341 pp., illustrated, $26

Baseball: A History of America’s Favorite Game
By George Vecsey
Modern Library, 252 pp., $21.95

Wanda Szeremeta was delighted with the chance to play professional basketball in the United States in 1979, but not grateful enough to play for free. The evening after the owners of the New Jersey Gems gave her a check that bounced, Szeremeta joined the team's owner in the ticket booth. As each fan handed over his or her cash for that night's game, Szeremeta grabbed the money and tucked it in her sock. When she had $300, she told her boss, ``OK. Now I'll play."

Stories like that characterize the WBL, the first women's pro basketball league. In terms of almost everything but generating terrific stories and providing an opportunity for women who wanted to keep playing basketball after college, the league was a failure. It lasted only three years, and only three of its 17 teams were in business for all three seasons. As Karra Porter reports in ``Mad Seasons," ``At one time or another, more than half of the WBL players experienced no pay or slow pay." Szeremeta was not the only player to concoct a creative response to that circumstance. Muffet McGraw, who played for the California Dreams, told Porter: ``My husband would wait outside practice on pay day with the car running so we'd be the first ones to the bank . . . sometimes just the first couple of checks would clear."

Still, most of the former Nebraska Wranglers, Minnesota Fillies, and Dayton Rockettes told Porter they wouldn't have missed the opportunity to ride the buses and play in the sometimes ill-lit and empty buildings (attendance at one game was 88) where the WBL briefly did business, in part because, as Debra Waddy-Rossow, late of the Chicago Hustle, said to her husband, ``this is my one chance to be a pioneer." It is right and proper that the efforts of these women have been chronicled in `` Mad Seasons. "

Several of the baseball stories collected by Charles Euchner in ``Little League, Big Dreams" are no less bizarre than the ones in `` Mad Seasons, " and some are sadder. Consider, for example, the spectacle of former major leaguer Dante Bichette screaming insults at the 12-year-olds playing against his son's team because Bichette believes they're stealing the catcher's signs. He excuses his behavior by explaining that whereas in the big leagues he'd have told his pitcher to throw at the opposing batters, he can't do that in Little League.

The discouraging aspect of the Little League World Series is that over the years, the adults have assumed more responsibility for organizing the spectacle to which television has been paying more attention. The encouraging side of the story involves the resilience of children. Their inclination to have fun is apparently even stronger than the determination of some coaches to mold kids into miniature pros -- a verity for which Euchner finds support when he notices that the kids are enjoying themselves most when they're playing out of position in post-tournament games that don't count.

Albert Spalding's admirable qualities included an arm that was apparently made of rubber -- he pitched 53 complete games in 1876, winning 47 -- and exceptional self-confidence. Following the 1888 baseball season, Spalding led two teams' worth of ballplayers on a trip around the world designed to plant the game's flag and establish Spalding's brand in such unlikely baseball outposts as Egypt, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) , and France. Spalding's less admirable inclinations included bending the truth and flimflamming his business partners so thoroughly that sometimes they weren't sure whether his schemes were making them rich or ruining them.

Mark Lamster's ``Spalding's World Tour" does justice to Spalding's complex character and provides a sense of what the world was like when American ballplayers staged a contest to see who could hit the Sphinx in the eye with a baseball and sang their favorite song: `` We are the Howling Wolves / And this is our night to howl / And we howl thus: Wooo!"

Spalding makes an appearance in George Vecsey's ``Baseball," where the author correctly identifies the wily entrepreneur as one of the men who powerfully opposed the participation of black players in what passed for Major League Baseball while he promoted the game as emblematic of all that was fine and noble about the nation. Vecsey's achievement in this extraordinary book is the presentation of an excellent short history of a game that's been going on for a long time. His strategy is to identify a score of remarkable individuals and significant events from whom or which the stories emerge like bright threads to establish the whole fabric of baseball. To tug at just a few of those threads is to risk misrepresentation of the tapestry Vecsey has created, but it's worth mentioning that he lyrically characterizes the members of the team that came to be known as the Black Sox as ``baseball's lost boys," makes a case that Stan Musial is connected to both baseball in the early 20th century and to Japan's home run champion, Sadaharu Oh, and recognizes that Pete Rose was once a great and accomplished player and is now ``a seedy ghost who would not go away."

Bill Littlefield hosts NPR's ``Only a Game" each Saturday at 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. from WBUR in Boston.

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