The Books of Summer


Full Count: Inside Cuban Baseball

By Milton H. Jamail, Southern Illinois University Press, 222 pp., $24.95

If you think the story of baseball in Cuba begins and ends with El Duque’s rickety raft, er, boat defection, pick up a copy of Full Count. Jamail’s jam-packed work documents the defectors, but it also looks at who stayed behind and why. For every Rey Ordóñez, after all, there’s a German Mesa, long considered Cuba’s best shortstop and the guy for whom Ordóñez played backup. Jamail writes about Cuba’s historic love affair with baseball and its rebellious roots—the game was embraced as an anticolonial sport under Spanish occupation. Since then, it’s become the national pastime, surely far more so than it is here. The book introduces us to some of Cuba’s best athletes, many eager to stay and play for their homeland but also trapped by a system that doesn’t let them adequately support themselves. Predicting a day when Cuban players will outnumber other Latin Americans in big-league ball, Jamail is critical of both the punitive U.S. embargo and Castro’s almost puritanical insistence on amateurism and total athletic loyalty. Instead, the book reserves its affection for athletes and fans—especially the aficionados who regularly gather in Havana’s Parque Central to passionately debate their favorite sport. Though it could have used a strong edit to keep it on a tighter path, Full Count is an entertaining and even-handed contribution to a debate rarely heard in rational terms. —Joanna Cagan

Baseball Dynasties: The Greatest Teams of All Time

By Rob Neyer and Eddie Epstein, Norton, 384 pp., $29.95 (cloth), $17.95 (paper)

It’s the ultimate talk-radio chestnut, the one Mike and the Mad Dog dust off on those lazy summer days when the Mets and the Yanks both have the day off: What’s the greatest baseball team of all time? It’s a fascinating question, but unfortunately most of the dozen or so books that have tackled the issue shed less light on the subject than Vinnie from Queens. That’s where Baseball Dynasties by columnist Rob Neyer and former baseball executive Eddie Epstein comes in. Instead of just telling us how damn great those ’27 Yankees were—they had eight Hall of Famers, by gosh—Neyer and Epstein take an approach that’s analytical without being academic. (Neyer, it should be pointed out, is a former assistant to baseball guru Bill James.) The result is clearly the smartest and most entertaining book ever written on the subject of great teams. They analyze the contenders one by one—from the ’06 Chicago Cubs to the ’98 Yankees—discussing not only what made them great, but how they got that way and why they ultimately collapsed. The authors’ pet statistical method—the standard deviations of a team’s runs scored and runs allowed compared to the league’s—raises almost as many questions as it answers, but the book’s balance between the big picture (Who’s the greatest pitcher ever?) and God-like details (“Pinch running for the A’s, Herb Washington”) more than compensates. So, what is the greatest team of all time? You’ll just have to buy the book. Or call WFAN. —Allen St. John

Fodor’s Baseball Vacations (Second Edition)

By Bruce Adams and Margaret Engel, Fodor’s Travel Publications, 371 pp., $18

This ballpark travel guide, originally published in 1997 and now available in a revised edition, covers a few major-league and spring-training stadiums but is essentially a minor-league guide, with profiles of nearly 100 chitlin-circuit diamonds. The new edition comes at a good time, because the major-league stadium-design renaissance has now trickled down to the minors, with several excellent retro-yet-modern parks having opened in the past few years. Although Adams and Engel’s writing style might best be described as suburban, they do a good job of explaining each ballpark’s pros and cons, and give tips regarding which seats have the best foul-ball potential, which hotel the visiting team stays in, what else there is to do in the area, and so on. They also point out some long-neglected chapters in baseball history, like the wave of WPA-built stadiums in the ’30s and ’40s. Despite omitting my favorite minor-league venue (Wahconah Park in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, home of the famous sun delay) and failing to point out some of the quirks that make the minors so endearing (no mention of the fact that the Asheville Tourists’ scoreboard lists the score for “Visitors” and “Tourists”!), Baseball Vacations is the best guide of its type, and a worthwhile buy for the baseball road-tripper. —Paul Lukas

Red Smith on Baseball

By Red Smith, Ivan R. Dee, 363 pp., $24.95

Unlike the vast majority of sports columnists, who operate under the assumption that the realm of sport exists mainly so that they can comment on it, the late Red Smith usually let the events he covered do the talking. That they spoke to him during his half-century career in a markedly different way than to his press-box colleagues stemmed from the fact that Smith was that most unique combination of men: a master reporter and a master storyteller. He knew where and how to find the right yarn, and, boy, could he spin it—andunder the blood-sweat-and-more-blood pressures of daily deadlines, no less.

Red Smith on Baseball is a terrific collection of 167 columns written between 1941 and ’81 for Smith’s longtime flagship outlets, the Herald Tribune and the Times. New York baseball fans should gobble it up, as its pages are filled with the feats and foibles of the likes of DiMaggio, Durocher, Mays, Mantle, Rickey, Robinson, and Stengel. Smith captures their exploits with characteristic grace and wit, whether the quotable quotes emanate from his colorful subjects (Casey on Mantle getting down on himself during a slump: “He wants to kill himself, which would be a hard thing, making the kind of money he is and so young”) or, more frequently, from Smith’s own singular mind. Here’s his lead after the Yankees put away Bobby Thomson and the rest of the destiny-seeking Giants in the 1951 World Series:

“They bundled up the charms and amulets, the love philters and voodoo powders, the shrunken skulls and soggy old tea leaves and crystal balls and magic wands, and pitched ’em into the Harlem River yesterday. The Yankees don’t believe in miracles. They only believe in Santa Claus (pronounced Hank Bauer).”

As they almost never say in the newsroom anymore: That’s not typing, that’s writing. —Billy Altman