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Bios of Campanella, Clemente highlight baseball books of spring


As baseball fans count down the final restless days of spring training, gearing-up for fantasy drafts and hoping that none of their favorite players get hurt, let's turn to the new crop of baseball books that will soon hit the shelves.

Here are some titles worth checking out:

Campy, by Neil Lanctot

Roy Campanella won three National League MVPs as the catcher of the Brooklyn Dodgers but his greatness is often overshadowed by teammate Jackie Robinson and catching contemporary Yogi Berra. His story, however, is fascinating, and a significant biography is long overdue. Neil Lanctot, who wrote an award-winning history of the Negro Leagues, is up the task.

Campanella, whose father was Italian, played nine years in the Negro Leagues and in Mexico and was considered briefly for the majors in an ill-conceived tryout by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1942. Campanella was a better, far more seasoned player than Robinson by the time the latter signed with Brooklyn in 1945 but Lanctot explains, "Robinson's feistiness, [then-Dodgers GM Branch] Rickey likely believed, would be of great value to the fight [to integrate] than Campy's more placid nature."

Lanctot presents Campy's story with the meticulous research of a historian and the considered prose of a novelist. This book is a keeper.

21: The Story of Roberto Clemente, by Wilfred Santiago

The saga of Roberto Clemente is well known to baseball fans yet it has been given new life in this stunning graphic novel by Santiago, a Puerto Rican cartoonist who lives in Chicago. Clemente's tale off the field is that of a tragic hero, ideally suited to be told in words and pictures. Beyond that, his physical beauty and grace on the field is captured by Santiago's deceptively simple artwork. Santiago's panels have a sharp, cinematic feel and the compositions and framing give the readers a better sense of how dynamic and explosive the game is than any baseball movie.

The wonder of this book is that is will appeal to kids and adults alike. Even non baseball fans will fall under its spell. The national pastime has been virtually untouched by the graphic novel genre but if Santiago's effort is any indication, the marriage of subject and form is nothing short of a grand slam. Santiago has set the bar high, though, and we'll be all the richer if anyone can approach the artistry and emotional resonance of this memorable book.

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SI Recommends

The Extra 2 %, by Jonah Keri

The comparisons to Michael Lewis' Moneyball are inevitable, but Jonah Keri's story about how the Tampa Bay Rays have used Wall Street strategies to compete with the monsters of the AL East stands on its own. It may not be in the same league as Lewis' classic as a dramatic work -- it lacks a charismatic central figure like Billy Beane and few writers are as polished as Lewis -- but it is a more satisfying baseball book, and more intellectually honest too.

Keri writes in an approachable, even-handed manner, occasionally showing his trademark humor but never in a flippant way. He's able to synthesize the analytics of the game with good, old-fashioned storytelling. The sections of the book on the Rays' original owner, Vince Naimoli, and current manager Joe Maddon, are especially strong.

Keri's book is rooted in the realities of the industry. "The idea behind the extra 2% -- finding ways to gain that little essential edge on the competition -- will always exist, in baseball as in business," writes Keri. "It just won't always belong to the Tampa Bay Rays."

Baseball in the Garden of Eden, by John Thorn

Thorn, recently named the official historian of Major League Baseball, has spent a career immersed in baseball history, debunking myths and half-truths along the way. In his latest book, he plays to his strengths, painting a picture of the game's Paleolithic age that is crisp and entertaining. Thorn takes on the myths of the games origins -- no, Abner Doubleday did not invent the game in Cooperstown, and nope, it was not invented as a city game. Baseball, according to Thorn, can be traced back to the 18th century and originated in the country. It later became viable as a professional sport because of, not in spite of, gambling.

Thorn set out to write a book, using fresh research, to expose the truth about the old game. "However," he writes "as time wore on I found myself more engaged by the lies, and the reasons for their creation, and have sought her not to simply contradict them but to fathom them."

In today's age of scandal and celebrity, fans might be tempted to look at the past as a time of innocence. But Thorn cautions us that "the liars and schemers in this not so innocent age of the game proved to be fare more compelling characters than the straight arrows."

Bonus Books

Tomes about the Yankees and Red Sox are a cottage industry onto themselves. For the New Yorkers, SI Senior Editor Kostya Kennedy's incisive account of Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak (56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number In Sports) should not be missed. And Derek Jeter: From the Pages of the New York Times, is also a worthy volume, featuring glossy pictures and fine reporting from the paper of record. Bill White's memoir, Uppity, is not strictly a Yankee book though it touches on White's days as straight man to Phil Rizzuto in the broadcast booth. It paints a vivid portrait of White's days as the president of the National League as well as his playing career, first with the Giants, where he was sandwiched between Orlando Cepeda and Willie McCovey, and then with the Cardinals, were he was part of the 1964 World Series champions that featured Bob Gibson and Curt Flood.

As for the Red Sox, Dan Barry's well-crafted account of a marathon minor league game in Pawtucket, Bottom of the 33rd, is a fine addition to the literary cannon of literature about the Old Towne team. Harvey Frommer's Remembering Fenway Park is a handsome coffee table book that marks the centenary of the grand old park. Later this year, historian Glenn Stout, co-author of Red Sox Century (with Richard Johnson) will release Fenway 1912: The Birth of a Ballpark, a Championship Season, and Fenway's Remarkable First Year. Using documents that have informed no other book, it will detail the construction of Fenway Park, tell the story of Boston's race for the 1912 pennant and "World's Series." In the capable hands of Stout, it promises to make all other books about Fenway's construction and first season obsolete.