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04-17-2006, 01:57 PM

Summertime reading suggestions on baseball
By Bruce Dancis / Sacramento Bee

These are times that try the souls of baseball fans. For the second year in a row, the most talked-about book on baseball is not a new biography of a Hall of Fame player, or a great new encyclopedia of stats, but a book about steroids.

"Game of Shadows" (Gotham Books, 332 pages, $26), by San Francisco Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, contains compelling evidence of the use of steroids, human growth hormones and other performance-enhancing substances by Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield and other athletes, and has forced Major League Baseball to begin a thorough investigation into the matter.

Along with Jose Canseco's "Juiced" from 2005, out now in a new paperback edition (Regan Books, 290 pages, $15.95), which sprayed unproven, but plausible, accusations about steroid use, "Game of Shadows" calls into question the batting records of the 1990s and early 2000s.

For some, this means the era of the 1990s and early 2000s will always be tainted. But that won't make it unique in baseball history. Amphetamine and cocaine use by players in the 1970s and '80s surely affected baseball records and statistics. So did changes to the rules of the game and the ball itself throughout the game's history.

One could also argue that all of the records before 1947 are tainted, because segregation kept African American and black Caribbean players out of the big leagues.

A sense of what was missing from the major leagues because of segregation can be gained from "Shades of Glory: The Negro Leagues and the Story of African-American Baseball" (National Geographic Books, 422 pages, $26) by Lawrence D. Hogan and others.

Published in association with the National Baseball Hall of Fame to coincide with the induction in February of a group of players and executives from the Negro Leagues and pre-Negro Leagues, it's a well-researched look at the talent and achievements of many under-recognized players.

Puerto Rico's Roberto Clemente was not the first Caribbean ballplayer in the big leagues, but he was the first black Caribbean player to become a star and an eventual member of the Hall of Fame. His biography, "Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero" (to be published April 25, Simon & Schuster, 386 pages, $26), by David Maraniss of the Washington Post, is the best baseball book of 2006 so far.

Former Boston Globe and Sports Illustrated writer Leigh Montville turns his attention from Ted Williams, whose life he chronicled two years ago, to an even greater slugger in "The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth" (to be published May 2, Doubleday, $26.95).

Three new books offer remembrances of the game from the players themselves:

Former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent's "The Only Game in Town" (Simon & Schuster, 244 pages, $26) includes interviews with players from the 1930s and '40s, including Detroit Tigers pitcher Elden Auker, Kansas City Monarchs (Negro Leagues) first baseman Buck O'Neil and Boston/Milwaukee Braves pitcher Warren Spahn.

Auker's own memoir, "Sleeper Cars and Flannel Uniforms" (Triumph Books, 218 pages, $14.95 paperback), is a lively account of his career filled with anecdotes about Hall of Fame teammates such as Hank Greenberg, Mickey Cochrane and Charlie Gehringer.

Phil Pepe's "Catfish, Yaz, and Hammerin' Hank" (Triumph, 336 pages, $27.95, including a 42-minute DVD) features oral histories of players, managers and other baseball notables about the 1970s, with photographs and interviews with such famous figures as Oakland A's outfielder Reggie Jackson, New York Mets pitcher Tom Seaver and baseball union leader Marvin Miller.

Other new books exploring various aspects of baseball history include:

"Spalding's World Tour" (Public Affairs, 384 pages, $26), by Mark Lamster, which recounts how sporting goods mogul and Chicago White Stockings owner A.G. Spalding in 1888-89 led his team and a collection of National League stars on an international tour that brought baseball to Hawaii, New Zealand, Australia, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Egypt, Italy, France, England and Ireland.

"Barnstorming to Heaven" (University of Alabama Press, 424 pages, $35), by Alan J. Pollock, the story of the Indianapolis Clowns, an all-black team that toured the country combining baseball and entertainment from the late 1920s into the '60s (and which for a short time in the early '50s had on its roster an 18-year-old shortstop named Henry Aaron).

"The Boys Who Were Left Behind" (University of Nebraska Press, $174 pages, $29.95), by John Heidenry and Brett Topel, the eye-opening story of the "Streetcar Series," the incongruous wartime 1944 World Series between the powerhouse St. Louis Cardinals of the National League and the American League's frequently cellar-dwelling St. Louis Browns.

Looking at the modern game of baseball has increasingly involved the creative use and understanding of both old and new baseball statistics and the studying of new questions to evaluate the ability of players and make strategic decisions.

The father of this kind of study was Bill James, who first started challenging the conventional wisdom in the late 1970s with his "Baseball Abstract" and eventually influenced the thinking of many fans, researchers and, finally, baseball insiders. James is the subject of Scott Gray's "The Mind of Bill James: How a Complete Outsider Changed Baseball" (Doubleday, 232 pages, $23.95), which is both a biography and a primer to understanding James' essential ideas.

(Even better are James' books themselves, particularly "The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract" and "Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame?")

The best of the annual guides are:

"Baseball Prospectus 2006: Statistics, Analysis, and Insight for the Information Age" (Workman Publishing, 576 pages, $18.95 paperback), a terrific combination of individual player stats and team reports.

"The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2006" (ACTA Sports, 336 pages, $17.95 paperback), featuring breakdowns of every team's performance in the 2005 season plus essays by Bill James, Rob Neyer and others.

John Dewan's "The Fielding Bible" (ACTA Sports, 241 pages, $19.95), a new and systematic position-by-position analysis of fielding, a previously hard-to-measure category.

"Baseball Between the Numbers: Why Everything You Know About the Game is Wrong" (Basic Books, 454 page, $24.95) by the Baseball Prospectus Team of Experts is always entertaining, if not always conclusive or persuasive. The writers look at such questions as "Did Derek Jeter Deserve the Gold Glove?" "Is David Ortiz a Clutch Hitter?" and "Is Barry Bonds Better Than Babe Ruth?"

Another entertaining book in this vein is "Behind-the-Scenes Baseball" (ACTA Sports, 312 pages, $14.95), by Doug Decatur, a veteran statistical consultant. Decatur's three-part book features stories and anecdotes from his career, a General Manager's IQ test and a look at the Astros' 2004 late-season run for the National League pennant.

Finally, for the one indispensable baseball reference work that includes the career stats for every player who ever appeared in a major league game, a season-by-season history of baseball from 1871 (the National Association, predecessor to the National League) through the 2005 season and more, check out "The 2006 ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia" (Sterling Publishing, 1,744 pages, $24.95 paperback), edited by Gary Gillette and Peter Palmer.