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The Best Reads of Summer

Books on baseball are keeping me happily turning pages

If your summer needs a good book, you’ve come to the right place. With the official start of the season (the sun is standing still as I write) comes Bay Weekly’s annual Summer Reading Guide.
    All the good books our 17 dedicated readers recommend in this issue will have to wait for fall before I crack their covers — or sample them on my Kindle.
    This summer, I’m reading baseball.
    Under Walt Whitman’s blessing, baseball has developed a wonderful literature.
    Maybe that’s because so many of us — writers and readers alike — fell under the spell of game listening to stories told by great narrators, whose voices reached out to us over the radio in the endless summers of youth.
    You don’t have to go far to find baseball stories. Radio announcers still tell a great game most every day of summer. Your daily newspaper delivers stories to your breakfast table, especially if your paper is The Washington Post, which brings you Dave Sheinin and the estimable Thomas Boswell (whose 30-year-old book How Life Imitates Baseball is high on my reading list).
    That’s part of what a newspaper does: slip you literature along with your cereal, so that reading well is no bigger deal than pouring milk onto your Wheaties.
    So I was only slightly surprised to find former Mets pitcher Bob Ojeda’s fascinating memoir My Left Arm leading the Sports Section of my Memorial weekend New York Times Magazine.
    Ojeda is not the only pitcher on my summer reading list.
    Right up there is what may be the best-timed baseball book ever, R.A. Dickey’s Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest For Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball. Dickey is the former washed-up pitcher who, at 37, is having a miraculous comeback for the New York Mets with an 11-1 record and is likely to be the starting pitcher for the National League All-Stars on July 10. Orioles fans recall that when Dickey one-hit Baltimore last week (his second near-gem in a row), manager Buck Showalter confessed that he may have been guilty of giving Dickey the advice that turned his career around. It was a career in need of salvaging, spelled out in his raw memoir revealing a life lived with demons and sexual abuse as a child.
    Dickey’s book brings back memories of the first baseball book I ever read: Jim Piersall’s Fear Strikes Out (1955).
    Piersall played center field before the Mets were born (1962), which is a good thing, because those Mets could get a stranglehold on my reading.
    The Mets and the Cubs are the big rivals in Calico Joe (2012), a bittersweet baseball novel that’s made me reevaluate John Grisham. In my book, it’s got only one weakness. (What that is I won’t tell lest I spoil your pleasure; read it and we’ll talk.)
    Could my judgment be faulty? I adored Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding (2011), which was trashed in May’s The Atlantic. B.R. Myers’ slam was very catty, but there may be a grain of truth in it. Not enough, however, to revoke the pleasure I had in reading its tale of what baseball will do for people and people for baseball.
    My list of baseball novels is so long that I’m still likely to be doing my summer reading when the Nats and the Cardinals play off to represent the National League in this year’s autumnal World Series.
    (Yes, the Cardinals are my home team, so I’ll be reading another baseball biography: New York Times’ sports columnist George Vecsey’s Stan Musial: An American Life.)
    On my fiction list: Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel (1973). I’ve read five or six of Roth’s but missed this one until my summer of baseball. On the other hand, I’ve read no more than a well-formed sentence of Stephen King, who’s too scary for me. But sister baseball fan and Bay Weekly movie reviewer Diana Beechener has put three Kings on my list:
    • the novella Blockade Billy (2010), published in Forest Hill, Maryland, by Cemetery Dance Publications, a minor league specialty publisher;
    • the novel The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (1999), which Beechener tells me might be out of my horror league;
    • the short story Head Down, about King’s experiences coaching Little League. It’s at the top of my list.
    But I won’t get to it till I’ve finished reading the pair of kids’ novels written by Oriole iron man Cal Ripken Jr. with Baltimore Sun sports columnist Kevin Cowherd. I’m nearly through Super-Sized Slugger (2012), their second collaboration. Then I’ll go back to Hothead (2011). Both are good, though not great, stories of how baseball helps boys overcome their problems.
    At the same time, I’m reading a couple of books on aspects of the game. This will be husband Lambrecht’s and my second season to see the amazing Cape Cod League play ball. To get us primed, our host on the Cape, baseball devotee Don Foley, has sent us a copy of Jim Collins’ book The Last Best League (2004). It’s hard reading because I have to snatch it out of Lambrecht’s hands.
    Another devotee, Brian Hannigan, said Summer of ’68: The Season That Changed Baseball is the best baseball book he’s read. So far, it’s fuller of statistics and Big Ideas than I like. But I’m persevering on the strength of the suggestion baseball may have been the oasis of sanity in the desert of America’s madness that year. That would be another proof that — as Whitman may have said — baseball is America’s game.
    Let me know, Dear Reader, what I need to add to stretch my summer baseball reading list past the World Series.

Sandra Olivetti Martin
Editor and publisher; editor@bayweekly.com