One-Minute Book Reviews

October 19, 2007

Waving a Red-and-White Towel for ‘Veeck — As in Wreck’: The Best Book Ever Written About Cleveland Baseball?

He sent a midget to the plate in St. Louis, inadvertently caused a fan riot in Chicago and brought the first black player, Larry Doby, into the American League in Cleveland

By Janice Harayda

One of the first things I asked my new co-workers after I moved to Ohio to become the book editor of the Plain Dealer was, “What are the best books about Cleveland?” Many people mentioned the memoirs of the most colorful owner in the history of the Cleveland Indians, Veeck — As in Wreck : The Autobiography of Bill Veeck, by Bill Veeck with Ed Linn, with a foreword by Bob Verdi (University of Chicago Press, $16, paperback).

I later learned that ardent baseball fans regard this straight-talking book as one of the best ever written about the sport. And its admirers include the ex-baseball commissioner Fay Vincent, who listed it among his five favorites in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year.

“Bill Veeck’s memoir is an irreverent and funny account of his days as an unorthodox baseball owner — and indeed he did try some silly tricks to draw crowds,” Vincent wrote. “Sometimes he went over the line, as with Eddie Gaedel, the midget he sent up to bat for the St. Louis Browns in 1951, and ‘Disco Demolition Night,’ which turned into a fan riot in 1979, when he owed the Chicago White Sox. But Veeck also made a serious and singular contribution to the game in 1947 when, as the owner of the Cleveland Indians, he brought the first black player, Larry Doby, into the American League. But because Jackie Robinson preceded Doby into the major leagues by a few months, both Doby and Veeck have been somewhat overlooked … Bill Veeck may have been a bit of a wreck, but he deserves much more attention and credit than he has received.”

One sign of the enduring importance of Veeck — As in Wreck is that its latest edition comes from the distinguished University of Chicago Press (which, it’s safe to say, is not going to be publishing Dennis Rodman‘s Bad as I Wanna Be a half century from now). You might say that the book, first published in 1962, is the rare sports memoir for which fans still wave the literary equivalent those red-and-white Tribe towels that you’ve seen if you’ve watched the American League Championship Series. You can read an excerpt from Veeck — As in Wreck on site for the University of Chicago Press: www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/852180.html.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 13, 2007

Three Good Picture-Book Editions of Ernest L. Thayer’s Classic ‘Casey at the Bat’ – A Poem for All Baseball Seasons


Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville – mighty Casey has struck out.

– From Ernest L. Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat”

By Janice Harayda

“Casey at the Bat” is one of the few poems that nearly all American children like. Yet it is hard to say exactly why this is so.

The story told in the poem almost couldn’t be simpler. A home team is losing a baseball game – perhaps not even an especially important one — when its star player gets an unexpected chance to bat in the last inning. Everybody is sure that “mighty Casey” can bring victory to the Mudville Nine. Instead, he strikes out and the team loses.

This is hardly a riveting drama compared with what children read in contemporary books or see in the movies and on television. And you can’t say that author Ernest L. Thayer makes up for it with brilliant poetry – he doesn’t. Thayer tells Casey’s story in rhyming couplets of iambic heptameter, a nearly obsolete verse form known as the fourteener because a line typically has 14 syllables or seven iambic feet. But he has a slack enough grip on that form that you can’t always tell whether he meant a phrase to be read as iambic, trochaic or anapestic meter. Some of his baseball terms are unfamiliar today, too, such calling a weak player as a “cake.”

Generations of Americans have responded to objections like these with, “Who cares?” First published in the San Francisco Examiner in 1888, “Casey at the Bat” transcends its limits by appealing to a universal human desire – the wish to have heroes and yet also to see them fail sometimes, letting us off the hook for our own failures. Like all good heroes, Casey is like us and not like us. And three illustrators revitalize him in picture books that use the full title and subtitle of the poem, “Casey at the Bat: A Ballad of the Republic Sung in the Year 1888.”

Thayer’s Casey plays in an adult league. But Patricia Polacco www.patriciapolacco.com turns Casey into a freckled-faced boy — an updated Norman Rockwell character more impish than arrogant — in her winsome 1988 Casey at the Bat. Polacco adds brief prose bookends that allow her to give Casey a baseball-loving sister and a long-eared dog in this paperback edition of the poem, which is hard to find but available in many libraries. If you click on the link for the book on her Web site, you can send a free electronic postcard bearing a picture of Casey. Her youthful characters and bright, airy illustrations, which abound with primary colors, make this a good edition for preschoolers.

School-age children may prefer the 2003 Casey at the Bat (Simon & Schuster, $16.95) www.simonsayskids.com, illustrated by the gifted C.F. Payne. Casey has a handlebar moustache and mythic Paul Bunyan-esque proportions in this atmospheric book that evokes the flavor of 19th-century baseball. Payne’s book ends with an excellent four-page note on the history and afterlife of the poem, which explains some of its real-life parallels and how vaudeville helped to make it famous.

Christopher Bing won a 2001 Caldecott Honor award from the American Library Association www.ala.org for his ambitious Casey at the Bat (Handprint Books, $17.95), printed on pages that resemble yellowing newsprint with halftone pictures (the kind you find in the Wall Street Journal). Each spread is a pastiche that includes more than lines from the poem and a picture of the game. It also has overlaid images — reproductions of the ticket stubs, baseball cards and newspaper editorials about the game. One editorial supports fans outraged by advent of the baseball glove: “They justifiably see this move as a disgrace – perhaps the first step in the calculated and tragic emasculation of the game.” At times the supplementary material can be distracting, a case of what the British call over-egging the pudding. But much of it is fascinating and a feast for detail-oriented children in grades 3 and up.

Each of these editions has virtues. But no one needs to buy a book to enjoy Thayer’s poem. “Casey at the Bat” is out of copyright and available for free on many sites, including that of the Academy of American Poets www.poets.org. (The punctuation varies on the sites, reflecting that of different editions that have appeared in the past century.) It’s also short enough that you could read it to children during the seventh-inning stretch of a playoff or World Series game. And would you really prefer that they hear another beer commercial instead?

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

October 12, 2007

‘Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright; / The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light … ‘

Filed under: Children's Books,Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:43 am
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Of course, not in the land of the Mets and Yankees, where I live. But tomorrow One-Minute Book Reviews will review three picture-book versions of Ernest L. Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat,” an ideal poem to read with children during the World Series. To avoid missing this post, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed. In the meantime, you can find reviews of other picture books by clicking on the “Children’s Books” category below the “Top Posts” list at right.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 5, 2007

‘Casey at the Bat’ — Coming Soon to ‘Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read’

Filed under: Classics,Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:17 pm
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Yes, Ernest L. Thayer’s classic is a narrative poem, not a book, about the day there was “no joy in Mudville.” But there are at least three good picture-book versions of Casey at the Bat in print, and One-Minute Book Reviews will review them all soon in its “Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read” series. To avoid missing this review, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

A World Series Memoir for Children and Adults

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:13 pm
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Looking for a book to put you — or a young baseball fan in your household — in the mood for the World Series? Don’t forget Phillip Hoose’s Perfect, Once Removed: When Baseball Was All the World to Me (Walker, $19.95) www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/08/16/.

In this lively memoir Hoose www.philliphoose.com remembers the year when he was in the fourth grade and his cousin once removed, Don Larsen pitched a perfect game for the Yankees against the Dodgers in the 1956 World Series. The publisher www.walkerbooks.com is cross-marketing this book, rightly, to adults and adolescents: Boomers may enjoy its vivid reminiscences of the way baseball used to be, but it’s also likely to appeal to many sports-loving children too old for picture books, especially moment-by-moment account of Larsen’s perfect game in Chapter 8.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

August 16, 2007

Phillip Hoose Remembers When His Cousin, Don Larsen, Pitched the Only Perfect Game in World Series History

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction,Sports — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:49 am
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A baseball memoir that speaks both to young fans and those old enough to miss the days when players smoked Camels in the dugout

Perfect, Once Removed: When Baseball Was All the World to Me. By Phillip Hoose. Walker, 176 pp., $19.95.

By Janice Harayda

Baseball books tend to preach to the bleachers. If you don’t understand the infield fly-rule or the job of a short-reliever, you can’t necessarily expect any help from their authors, who typically take a certain amount of knowledge – if not fanaticism – for granted.

Perfect, Once Removed is the rare baseball book that has something for fans at all levels. In this lively memoir Phillip Hoose tells how his cousin once removed, Don Larsen, pitched a perfect game for the Yankees against the Dodgers in the 1956 World Series and, in doing so, helped him adjust to being a fourth-grader in Speedway, Indiana. The book could have become an exercise in special pleading for a famous relative. But Perfect, Once Removed gives such balanced view of Hoose’s and Larsen’s entwined stories that it may appeal to many people besides baby boomers who love to recall the great Yankee-Dodger games of yore, including a baseball-loving adolescents.

Part of the charm of Perfect, Once Removed is that Hoose respects his fourth-grade views and resists the impulse to correct them in hindsight, though he ends with a catch-up visit with then 76-year-old Larsen. He recalls that in the 1950s, ballplayers endorsed cigarettes so often that he created a scrapbook of the ads:

“To a man, these ballplayers reported that smoking helped them relax. They all enjoyed the mildness of a Camel. A cigarette before a game helped them perform better, and a butt in the locker room afterward helped them unwind. As Mickey Mantle put it, ‘For mildness and flavor, you can’t beat Camels!’ It all made sense to me.”

Hoose isn’t endorsing smoking, just recalling how he reacted to all that puffing by his heroes. And that kind of frankness help to give his book a relevance that extends beyond the personal. Perfect, Once Removed isn’t just family story. It’s a book about the way baseball used to be and a useful antidote to the tendency to idealize the past. If you think steroids are ruining the game, consider this: Would you prefer that ballplayers were still in endorsing Camels in major magazines?

Best line: One of many colorful details in this book involves how the catcher for Larsen’s perfect game celebrated the event: “Yogi Berra promptly went out and had his catcher’s mitt bronzed.”

Worst line: Hoose says that he has re-created some dialogue but that his book is “entirely accurate as to what was said and how it was said.” This claim is generally credible. It is much less so when he says that the Dodger fans on the school playground told him: “Your cousin sucks.” In 1956 they would have said, “Your cousin stinks.”

Editor: George Gibson

Published: October 2006 www.philliphoose.com

Recommendation? An excellent gift for a reader who loves to recall the days of demigods like Mantle, Berra and their teammates. School Library Journal also recommends Perfect, Once Removed for high school students (and it may appeal to some baseball fans as young as 10 or 11). This is a good book to read aloud to sports-loving children too old for picture books, especially moment-by-moment account of Larsen’s perfect game in Chapter 8.

Caveat lector: This review was based on the advance reading edition. Some material in the finished book may differ.

Furthermore: Hoose also wrote the award-winning The Race to Save the Lord God Bird (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $20), a nonfiction book about the ivory-billed woodpecker that appeared on many “Best Books of 2004” lists.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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