While partisans of other sports debate—usually with no more than subjective evidence—which is "fastest growing," which attracts the most spectators and which appears to wield the most influence, baseball continues to grow on the publishers' lists of new books. Every year volumes pour off the presses covering every aspect of the game—historical research, statistical analyses, biographies and autobiographies, polemics, deifications. Even more indicative of the sport's pervasive effect is the number of works of fiction that employ baseball as metaphor for their themes—Nancy Willard's brilliant Things Invisible to See and those by Percival Everett and David Carkeet, among others.
Heroic achievements are perennials. Already, there are at least six volumes on the shelves celebrating Pete Rose's year. Each season, too, has its megabook, a fat, juicy work oozing goodies that the true aficionado finds irresistible. This year's volume is The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (Villard Books, $24.95), 700-odd pages that wouldn't cost the publisher a dime if they carried a satisfaction-guaranteed-or-money-back come-on. The only possible drawback is its dull title, which gives no hint of the witty, graceful, stimulating material between its covers, to which James's wife, Susan McCarthy, clearly contributed much effort as well as inspiration. A highly personal tract, it nevertheless is all-inclusive in its purview, though one section alone should justify commercial success. James brings light and clarity to the endless bar and barbecue arguments about Mays vs. Mantle vs. Snider, Rizzuto vs. Reese, Koufax vs. Spahn vs. Grove, and a thousand others. Don't buy this one for somebody's birthday; buy it for yourself.
The preceding compendium doesn't include the flood of children's books, picture books, quiz books, how-to books...and those that try to be different or break new ground. One that tries and can be highly recommended is A Baseball Winter (Macmillan, $16.95). It is edited by Terry Pluto and Jeffrey Neuman and contains the work of past and present newspaper-beat reporters Pluto, Peter Pascarelli, Tim Tucker, Ross Newhan and Marty Noble. The hot stove league's season has been with us and been written about for a long time, of course, but the action changed dramatically with the advent of free agency. It has been some time since the league's hot news concerned how many deer were shot by outfielders in November or how many fish were caught by pitchers in December. A Baseball Winter tries to make a coherent narrative out of the events that took place from October 1984 to April 1985—all the trades, drafts, million-dollar arbitration proceedings and other activities that flow directly from the legal decisions that freed players from the restrictions of the reserve clause. Generally, it succeeds. It concentrates on five clubs, with reports by writers who have covered those teams throughout the regular season: Pluto (Indians), Pascarelli (Phillies), Tucker (Braves), Newhan (Angels) and Noble (Mets). The wealth and intricacy of detail and the observations by five informed reporters as each club tries to "win its pennant in the winter," or at least improve itself, are fascinating.
Obviously, this is not a book for the ages; the current winter multimillion-dollar wonderland may well feature even wilder doings. (A record 160 players filed for salary arbitration this year as opposed to 93 in the period covered by the book, and their money demands are just as record breaking). Nevertheless, it is as much a book about the confrontations and tactics of participants brought about by free agency as it is about the people involved and, as such, is a valid guide for understanding any winter season. And lusting after stars, such as Ted Turner's quest for Bruce Sutter and Frank Cashen's for Gary Carter—both consummated here—is a perennial winter theme. The writing in A Baseball Winter is competent but hardly dazzling. However, by way of defense, it wasn't meant to be. Other flaws may well spring from good intentions. For example, there's a 10-page minibiography of Andre Thornton in a section about some of the Indians' problems. It's a story certainly worth telling, and Pluto does it well. (One assumes it's Pluto, though there are no bylines in the text.) But it doesn't belong in this book. Maybe Pluto, a fan himself, found it a goody he could not resist.