Baseball Picture Books

19 08 2012

I love baseball.  What’s great about baseball is all the personalities, all the quirks, all the rich moments of history.  There’s so much there, and so much of it is woven into the fabric of American society from the mid 1800s to the 1960s and 1970s when baseball started to become more business than sport, more about money than being America’s past time.

One of the things I love most about the game is the fun stories that are hidden away.  Every player, more so than football and basketball in my mind, has their own story to tell.  Two of my favorites are Roberto Clemente and Larry Doby.

Clemente, by Willie Perdomo, is one of those books that shows you how some players were bigger than the game.  Roberto Clemente was the first Latin American superstar in baseball.  His story mirrors Jackie Robinson’s in many ways, and this book shows one of the most important – that he was a hero to other people, that he showed them that a Puerto Rican kid could grow up to be rich and famous, and that a hero is more than just someone who runs around a ballfield for a living.

Clemente was a hero in every sense of the word.  As a ballplayer, he did represent hope to a segment of society that had none of their own to root for.  However, off the field he was a true hero, giving his time, his money, and his life to help people who weren’t as fortunate as he was.  This book looks at Clemente through the eyes of a young fan who idolized the Pirates outfielder for all of those reasons.

Just as Good by Chris Crowe is the story of Larry Doby.  Who?  That’s what you’re probably asking, but Larry Doby was an African American player – the second ever to make it to the big leagues, the first in the American League, and the first to win a World Series ring.  He was just as good as Jackie Robinson, but Robinson gets all the glory.  Doby, who is also in the Hall of Fame, gets the star treatment in this picture book, and the author makes the case for Doby’s success was even more important for black athletes than Robinson’s was.

This story, also told through the eyes of a young fan, shows the impact Doby’s career had on young African Americans.  Unfortunately, Doby is a sometimes forgotten player in our history, but Crowe does everything he can to undo that for his readers.

These are the kind of books I love before heading on a road trip to see a ball game in Pittsburgh or Cleveland with my boys.  To look at a statue of Clemente or Doby is one thing, but to know their story is so much more meaningful.

Clemente was the 76th book I read this summer, and Just as Good was the 84th.  I’m getting close to finishing my quest for reading 90 books in 90 days over break.  

Just Like Josh Gibson

10 08 2012

Anyone who’s ever had a dream that they weren’t allowed to have come true, should read Just Like Josh Gibson.  This delightful little picture book by Coretta Scott King award winning author Angela Johnson, with illustrations by Beth Peck, is both heart breaking and warming at the same time.

The story is a flashback, grandma telling her grand-daughter how, as a young girl, she just loved to play baseball.  Grandma, so she says, could play just like Josh Gibson – she could catch anything and hit the ball a mile.

Josh Gibson was, in his day, called the black Babe Ruth.   Many say he was even better than the Bambino, and legend has it that he hit hundreds more home runs.  But, because he was black, he never got a chance to play in the big leagues, only the Negro Leagues.

Grandma dealt with the same problem.  She was a girl, so she couldn’t play in the real organized games with fancy uniforms and real meaning.  She only got to play in pick-up sandlot games, but when she did, she dominated.  Hitting a ton and catching everything that came her way.

The book parallels grandma’s dreams with Gibson’s very well, bringing to light racist and sexist ideas that prevent many from achieving their dreams.  The story is deep and meaningful, but fun, and the pastel illustrations bring you back to the time period very well.

To top it off, there’s a nice little biography of Josh Gibson at the end, giving a little recognition to the man that may have been the greatest ball player ever, but very few have ever heard of – that, in and of itself, is to be commended.

This one’s a great book for all ages.  For middle grade students it would work well as a companion to other stories from that time period, like Christopher Paul Curtis’ Bud Not Buddy or The Mighty Miss Malone.

This summer I’m on a quest to read 90 books in 90 days.  Just Like Josh Gibson was #65.  

Jack and Larry

9 07 2012

I enjoy baseball books, but this is a very different sort of baseball book.  Jack and Larry: Jack Graney and Larry, the Cleveland Baseball Dog is not so much about the game as it is about the relationships we form in sports.

Barbara Gregorich is a local author who has an affinity for unique baseball stories.  Her previous book is about a women’s baseball league in the 1940s and this one is about a baseball dog.

Yup, you read that right – a baseball dog.  You see, Jack Graney was the Cleveland Naps’ (this is before they were the Indians) left fielder and lead off hitter.  The team was bad.  Real bad.  Jack felt a great deal of that was because of the lack of camaraderie on the team.  Then in 1912, the team’s trainer won a bull-terrier in a card game.  He brought the dog, Larry, to the ballpark and he became the team’s mascot.

Slowly, Larry brought the team together.  They started to play like more of a unit, more like a real team.  It took some time, but they improved in the standings.

This book is about the team while Jack and Larry are there – from 1912 until the early 1920s, how the team fares during that time period, and the relationship built between man and dog, as well as the friendship Jack has with some of his famous teammates (Nap Lajoie, Tris Speaker, and Ray Chapman.

The whole book is written in a very simple, free verse poem form that feels like a baseball historian is having a very relaxing conversation with the reader.

It’s a great book for baseball fans, fans of novels written in verse, and history buffs.  The best part is that it tells an unknown piece of baseball history in a very unique way.  As much as I know about baseball (and a few years ago I read a pretty long adult book about the 1920 Indians season), I hadn’t heard of Jack Graney and never knew Cleveland had Larry as a mascot, and even without Larry, Jack is a pretty interesting guy – first batter to face Babe Ruth, first player to wear a number on his uniform, and the first former player to become a major league broadcaster.  I highly recommend this one.

I’m on a mission.  I want to read 90 books in 90 days this summer.  Jack and Larry was #34.


9 07 2012

I coached the 6th grade baseball team in Minooka for 8 seasons, and we’ve always had some pretty good teams, so I’ve seen my share of standout baseball players.

My first year there was a kid on the 7th grade team that really stood out.  He was tall, strong, and threw so hard that no one else stood a chance.  I remember working with Coach Hasler and Coach Simotes at the beginning of that season and thinking, “that kid is going somewhere.”  He did.  He was a first round draft pick of the Houston Astros a few years ago and is currently working his way through their minor leagues, playing in this year’s single A all-star game.

A few years later, I had a pretty good team, but our shortstop that year was light-years beyond everyone else.  You could just see the hours and hours of work he put in with his dad and big brothers (one of them played in the minors for the San Diego Padres for a few years too), and that hard work paid off.  In every aspect of the game he was better than his peers.

Even this past season I saw it.  There were a few boys that really stood out, but one more than others.  He ran faster, hit farther, threw harder…  He even out-thought the rest of the players on the field.  No matter the game situation, he knew what to do and reacted perfectly.

I was lucky enough to coach some great kids over the years, but it’s this handful of superstars – real standouts – that I was reminded of while reading Heat by Mike Lupica.

Heat is about about a 12 year old boy named Michael Arroyo who is one of those kids – no matter what position he’s playing, he’s the best player on the field.  His teammates know it.  His coaches know it.  His dad and brother know it.  He knows it.  Michael’s unbelievable talent will probably carry his team to the Little League World Series, which has always been a dream for both Michael and his Dad.  Unfortunately, some other coaches don’t believe that Michael, with the skill he has, can really be only 12.  They demand he show a birth certificate.

The problem is, Michael was born in Cuba and his family escaped from there by sneaking into Florida years ago.  Michael has no way to get a birth certificate from the Cuban government, and his dad is too busy taking care of his sick uncle 1,000s of miles away to be of any help.  So Mike is kicked off the team, unable to play until he can prove his age.

There’s more to Heat than just baseball.  It’s about Mike’s relationship with his older brother; it’s about his friendship with the team’s catcher, Manny; it’s about fitting in.  It’s about identity, self-worth, and problem solving.  In other words, it’s about what a 12 year old boy’s life is always about.

Heat, just like most of Mike Lupica’s books, is a great read.  It’s a perfect choice for sporty boys and girls who appreciate well drawn characters, an exciting plot, and tons of baseball action.

Heat is the 33rd book I’ve read this summer as I work towards my mission of finishing 90 books in 90 days over break.  

Babe Ruth Saves Baseball

29 05 2012

Babe Ruth Saves Baseball! isn’t really a biography of the Bambino, instead it’s the story of the impact The Babe had on the game in the early 1920s.  

The book is loaded with fun, colorful illustrations help tell the story of how Babe Ruth became the greatest homerun hitter in baseball, and how, after the 1919 Black Sox scandel, his larger than life personality and towering homers kept people interested in the game.

The book is historically accurate, and gives some great insight into what made the Babe tick, why his switched from pitching to hitting, why Yankee Stadium was called “The House the Ruth Built,” and just how popular the Yankee slugger was all around the country.

This one was my 5th book of the summer as I shoot for reading 90 books in 90 days over break.  Keep following along here as I shoot for my goal.