Reference books for children run the risk of being juvenile in the worst sense of the word: banal in language, bland in content. The Lincoln Library of Sports Champions (Frontier Press, $158.95) avoids this pitfall admirably and could well rate a place on the family shelf next to the Britannica or the World Book. An offspring of the Lincoln Library series, which deals with general subjects such as social studies, language and fine arts, the Sports Champions is a first of its kind: a 15-volume source of biographical information on nearly 500 of the world's athletes, past and present, famous and not-so-famous, from Henry Aaron to Emil Zatopek.
The publishers hope that it will have a special appeal to fifth- and sixth-graders who are slow at their books. "Surveys show that many children in this country do not like to read," says Art Berke, who was editor of the project before becoming an assistant to Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. "We felt that if a child glanced through one of these books and read the captions under a picture of O. J. Simpson or Billie Jean King, it could be a big step toward getting that child into the world of books."
To encourage the reluctant reader to look past the United Press International news photos and into the biographies, the first paragraph of each entry tells in boldface how to pronounce the subject's name and summarizes his or her achievements. An extensive glossary in the 14th volume helps tell the young reader what the "alley oop" pass is or what is meant by a "technical knockout."
Since the biographies are ably written and interesting to adults as well as to children, a question comes to mind: Is the set an educational tool or a general reference work?
"Probably both," says Berke, "because we didn't want to talk down to today's kids: whether they read or not, they are pretty aware of what's going on around them. We chose to discuss things like Grover Cleveland Alexander's troubles with alcohol and epilepsy, and the fact that Big Daddy Lipscomb died from an overdose of drugs. But with the young reader in mind we thought it advisable to omit pictures of automobile crashes and the category of bullfighters."
Did you know that George Halas once played right field for the New York Yankees? A photograph of Papa Bear in pinstripes proves it. Ever see a Japanese baseball card of Sadaharu Oh? A picture of one is included. And there is a 1932 photograph of Bobby Jones standing in the middle of a pile of rocks and bottles on an empty lot in Georgia. Few will recognize it as the grassroots of the Augusta National golf course. Throw in a lineup of contrasting characters from Red Smith to Robyn Smith and enough rodeo cowboys, archers and flycasters to cover more than 50 different sports, and you end up with a well-rounded reference set.
"A lot of these stories didn't come easy," says Bill Madden, a UPI sportswriter who wrote many of the bio sketches. "What we have done is condense the files of UPI, The New York Times and the best source material available on these people and put it in one place. Believe it or not, I've been stumped here at UPI many times now and had to call home and ask my wife to look up the answer in the Lincoln Library." The books, handsomely bound and abundantly illustrated, were designed by the LSC & P Design Group of New York, creator of the late NBC peacock.