With "Bill Veeck, Baseball's Greatest Maverick" (Walker & Co., 432 pages, $28), Paul Dickson, author of several superb baseball books, has done more than write the best baseball biography so far this decade. He's also written an important piece of baseball history.
Born in 1914 in Chicago, Bill Veeck learned baseball from his father, William Sr., who became president of the Chicago Cubs. Bill Jr. sold popcorn at Wrigley Field and suggested planting ivy on the brick outfield walls. During World War II, he lost his right leg to an artillery shell. Veeck simply accepted a wooden leg, cutting holes in it to serve as an ashtray, and went on to own the Cleveland Indians, St. Louis Browns and Chicago White Sox.
(Veeck's son Mike is well known in the Twin Cities as co-founder and co-owner of the St. Paul Saints.)
Veeck pricked the stuffed shirts of baseball's establishment with stunts that the fans loved, most famously sending Eddie Gaedel, a dwarf, to bat in a major-league game in 1951. He did far more: He made Larry Doby the first black player in the American League and gave the near-mythical Negro League star Satchel Paige, who was at least 41 years old, his chance to pitch in the majors. And he talked Harry Caray into singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the seventh-inning stretch, thus creating an instant baseball tradition.
"Veeck," writes Dickson, "loved the game of baseball, both on the field and outside the lines. He would do anything to accomplish what he believed would make it better, no matter how outrageous. Increasing the fan's happiness and having fun were his sacraments."
"Bill Veeck" is a book to match the man -- hearty, irreverent and outrageously entertaining.
"Summer of '68: The Season that Changed Baseball - and America - Forever," by Tim Wendel
(Da Capo, 288 pages, $25)
Tim Wendel is one of the best baseball book writers around (consider "High Heat," his history of the fastball, and "The New Face of Baseball," about the rise of Latin players), and in "Summer of '68" he has a great subject: the last season for "real" pennant races before the leagues split into divisions and playoffs determined who went to the World Series. Ironically, there wasn't much of a race that year, with the St. Louis Cardinals leading the National League by nine games and the Detroit Tigers the American by 11.
It was also the year of the pitcher -- the Cardinals' Bob Gibson had the microscopic ERA of 1.12 and the Tigers' Denny McLain won 31 games. Wendel does a fine job relating the tensions that were coursing through baseball, set against the backdrop of national and international turmoil. "In 1968 the gods were angry: it's been called 'the year that rocked the world' and it rarely showed any mercy."
"Baseball Prospectus 2012: The Essential Guide to the 2012 Baseball Season," edited by King Kaufman and Cecilia M. Tan (Wiley and Sons, 546 pages, $24.95)
Lots of books claim to be indispensable, but "Baseball Prospectus 2012" is the one book you'll want to bring with you to read between innings. Compiled by the best and brightest baseball minds, it will give you information and statistics that you might have been able to find and figure on your own if you did nothing else with your life but follow baseball.
So it pains me to report that their outlook on the Minnesota Twins is cloudy, at best. According to BP, "The net effect of all those injuries [in 2011] was a loss of nearly 10 wins." And "the question facing the Twins right now isn't can they bounce back, but how long they will stay down. The answer depends heavily on [Joe] Mauer and [Justin] Morneau returning to health, productivity and their original positions."
"Baseball Fantography, A Celebration in Snapshots and Stories From the Fans," by Andy Strasberg (Abrams Image, 192 pages, $19.95)
With this collection of baseball photographs taken entirely by fans over nine decades, with captions written by the amateur photographers, you'll see the players as you've never seen them before. Compiled by former San Diego Padres executive Andy Strasberg, the photographs include a candid shot of the San Diego chicken being hugged by Padres pitcher Randy Jones, a smiling Roger Maris proudly holding up what looks like a 20-pound bass he just caught, Roberto Clemente casting a suspicious eye at the photographer as he signs an autograph, and even Ethan Allen, a Philadelphia Philly from the 1930s, snapping a picture back at a fan.
Allen Barra's next book, "Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays: The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age," is forthcoming with Crown.