Books

August 08, 1999

AWAY GAMES
The Life and Times of a Latin Ball Player
By Marcos Breton
Photographs by Jose Luis Villegas, Simon & Schuster, $23

On a superficial level this book describes the transformation of
Miguel Tejada from a Dominican street urchin to the star
shortstop of the Oakland Athletics. But as compelling as
Tejada's story is, it's merely symbolic, because Breton, a
senior writer for The Sacramento Bee, has a much more profound
tale to tell: the complicated and not entirely happy history of
Hispanic ballplayers in the major leagues.

Without diminishing the pioneering importance of Jackie
Robinson, Breton points out that dark-skinned Latinos, some of
whom were black, played in the grandes ligas decades before
Robinson's historic debut in 1947. At least two of these
Spanish-speaking players, Jacinto (Jack) Calvo and Jose Acosta,
appeared in both the big leagues and the Negro leagues. They
were never credited with breaking the color barrier because, as
Breton writes, "they had to not only deny who they were but
outright lie about it so they could play."

After Robinson, however, black Latinos became the game's most
populous immigrants. Breton's prose may on occasion seem a
trifle overwrought, but there is rich material here.

CASTRO'S CURVEBALL
By Tim Wendel, Ballantine Books, $23.95

One hispanic who was either rejected or entirely overlooked by
big league scouts in the 1940s was a righthanded pitcher and
left-wing activist named Fidel Castro. But in this sprightly
work of fiction, Wendel, who earlier wrote a nonfiction book
about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, credits the Cuban
leader with a wicked curveball that entices at least one scout
and one minor league catcher. The problem they face: How do they
lure him from overturning a government to overpowering big
league hitters? Make a guess.

THE PRIDE OF HAVANA
A History of Cuban Baseball
By Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria, Oxford University Press, $35

There may be more here, in more than 400 pages, than you want to
know about Cuba's national pastime, but Yale scholar Echevarria,
who teaches Spanish comparative literature, has written a
fascinating and definitive history of the subject. As early as
page 6 he tells us in no uncertain terms that Fidel (Cubans
always call him Fidel, the author explains, never Castro) was
never scouted by any major league team and that his curveball
wasn't worth a damn.

COLOR PHOTO: SIMON & SCHUSTER COLOR PHOTO: BALLANTINE BOOKS COLOR PHOTO: OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS

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