Dixie Walker of the Dodgers–the People’s Choice
By Maury Allen with Susan Walker
University of Alabama Press, 344 pages, $22.50
Fred “Dixie” Walker played 18 seasons in the major leagues between 1931 and 1949, batted .306, and might now be in the Hall of Fame if not for things he said—or was widely believed to have said—when Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier. Veteran sportswriter Maury Allen, author of superb biographies of, among others, Roger Maris, Casey Stengel and Robinson, teams with Walker’s daughter Susan to rehabilitate Dixie’s reputation. (And, simultaneously, that of his brother Harry “The Hat,” who, like Dixie, won a National League batting title.)
What comes across in this heartfelt and important book is the story of a basically gentle and decent man who did much to overcome the limitations and prejudices of his small-town Southern upbringing and who came to admire Robinson. “Robinson’s status in the game can never be diminished,” Allen writes. “Walker’s significance should be touted.”
The Baseball Codes
By Jason Turbow with Michael Duca
Pantheon Books, 304 pages, $25
After reading The Baseball Codes, you’ll feel you’re watching baseball with 3-D glasses—that is, you’ll see all kinds of patterns and hidden meanings you never thought to look for before. In chapters such as “Don’t Show Players Up,” “Mound Conference Etiquette,” “Retaliation” and “The Clubhouse Police,” Turbow and Duca highlight the unwritten rules that all veterans know but are seldom discussed.
In “Don’t Show Players Up” they write: “At or near the top of any pitcher’s peeves is the home-run pimp, a hitter who lingers in the batter’s box as the ball soars over the wall. The first great player to fit this bill was Minnesota’s Hall of Fame Slugger Harmon Killebrew (as Frank Robinson observed, “He hit the ball so high he could watch them”).
From “Mound Conference Etiquette”: Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson implemented a rule with his pitchers. “I don’t want to hear you,” he said. “Just give me the ball. I have no desire to hear a pitcher’s feelings, because if something goes wrong I’m the one who’s going to get fired, not the pitcher.”
In perhaps their savviest chapter, “If You’re Not Cheating, You’re Not Trying,” they shrewdly observe that “when it comes to cheating in baseball ... many tactics that go against the letter of the law are viewed as perfectly acceptable, both by those who utilize them and those against whom they’re enacted ... Think about it this way, because others certainly do: deceiving an umpire is cheating, but deceiving an opponent (say by stealing his signs) is simply hard-nosed competition.”
Perhaps the most fun new book of the baseball season.
The Man with Two Arms
By Billy Lombardo
The Overlook Press, 336 pages, $24.95
Most great baseball fiction—books such as Bernard Malamud’s The Natural, W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe and Kevin Baker’s Sometimes You See It Coming come quickly to mind—are heavy on the realism but with a touch of the weird. Billy Lombardo’s fits neatly on a shelf with those classics.
Lombardo, author of such fine collections of short stories as Logic of A Rose and Meanwhile, Roxy Mourns, is a Chicago-based writer and editor who is both a master of fiction and a consummate observer of the game, which is what makes his strange premise so oddly believable: Henry Granville, a baseball fanatic, trains his son Danny to pitch with both hands, much in the way Mickey Mantle’s father trained him as a switch hitter. Lombardo is as deft at handling the comic and tragic aspects of his story as his creation, Danny, is at whizzing them in from both sides of the plate. Let’s subtitle The Man with Two Arms “The Unnatural” and call it the best baseball-themed fiction so far this decade
The Eastern Stars–How Baseball Changed the
Dominican Town of San Pedro de Macoris
By Mark Kurlansky
Riverhead Books, 288 pages, $25.95
(available in stores April 15)
Reversing the wording results in a more accurate subtitle for The Eastern Stars: “How the Dominican Town of San Pedro de Macoris Changed Baseball.” Sammy Sosa, Alfonso Soriano and the Yankees’ own Robbie Cano, to name only three of the most prominent, are from the impoverished village.
The Eastern Stars is a cutaway view of the step-by-step journey of dozens of major league players from the dusty streets of their hometown to wealth and fame in big league cities in the U.S. Each story is more thrilling and heartrending than the one before it. But not all the players are heroes, though as Mark Kurlansky writes, “Heroics is a lot to expect from someone snatched away without education at age sixteen and handed fame and wealth at a dizzying speed.”
(BTW, fans of the delightful 2008 movie Sugar, about an aspiring Dominican player, should love this book.)
Cardboard Gods: An All-American Tale Told
Through Baseball Cards
By Josh Wilker
Seven Footer Press, 208 pages, $24.95
Nearly every American male suffered the indignity of having his mother throw out his baseball cards, but Josh Wilker apparently had an enlightened mom, and we can thank her for her part in making Cardboard Gods possible.
Baseball cards may just be pieces of cardboard to many people, but try telling that to Wilker, whose obsession with them led to an imaginary letter exchange with Carl Yastrzemski, and that’s just the beginning. In Cardboard Gods Wilker connects baseball cards to more pop-culture references than a season of Family Guy, everything from Louis L’Amour westerns to Jack Kerouac to Elvis Costello.
Cardboard Gods covers territory any boy whose heart pounded at the thought of the wax paper packages will recognize. If you loved the game, you loved your cards, and you’ll love this book. Added bonus: Dozens of cards are reproduced in full color, including my favorite, Topps’ 1980 Mark “The Bird” Fidrych.
Birmingham native Allen Barra writes about sports and culture for numerous publications, including The Wall Street Journal, American Heritage and the L.A. Times. Barra is also the author of the well-reviewed biography Yogi Berra: Eternal Yankee.