Perfect, Once Removed: When Baseball Was All the World to Me
By Phillip Hoose
Walker, 176 pp., $19.95
Just Kick It: Tales of An Underdog, Over-Age, Out-of-Place Semi-Pro Football Player
By Mark St. Amant
Scribner, 248 pp., $23
A Home on the Field: How One Championship Team Inspires Hope for the Revival of Small Town America
By Paul Cuadros
Rayo, 288 pp., $22.95
The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game
By Michael Lewis
Norton, 299 pp., $24.95
Records are made to be broken -- except for some of them. As Don Larsen has said of the perfect game he threw against the Brooklyn Dodgers during the 1956 World Series, "The best anybody can do is tie me."
The Don Larsen who emerges in Phillip Hoose's "Perfect, Once Removed: When Baseball Was All the World to Me" is a more modest gentleman than that remark might suggest. The party animal of whom one of his managers said "The only thing Larsen fears is sleep" now seems inclined to understate the significance of his singular achievement. "It was a good day for me," he says. "Everybody's entitled to a good day."
Hoose was a nerdy 9-year-old when his second cousin had that good day. How nerdy? Phillip's nickname at school was "moron." But his stock rose exponentially when the school principal barged into his classroom on that October afternoon 50 years ago and breathlessly said "Something very special has happened . . . Phil's cousin has pitched the first perfect game in the history of the World Series."
Larsen was a good cousin. Everybody should have such a cousin. In "Perfect, Once Removed" Hoose says that and much more.
"Just Kick It" also involves a nerdy author. Mark St. Amant had initially intended to just hang around the Boston Panthers, an allegedly semi-pro football team that might more accurately be characterized as "semi-organized," so he could write a book about them. Then he told some of the players that he'd played soccer in college. Soon St. Amant, a small white man, was kicking extra points and field goals for a team otherwise made up of large black men.
This arrangement was advantageous to the Panthers because the team had never before had a real kicker, even one who'd never played football. On the rare occasions after they'd scored touchdowns, they'd opted for two-point plays and failed. St. Amant helped them win some games. The benefit for St. Amant was access. One of his teammates tells him, "Mark, there are two people that black folk don't talk to about personal stuff: the white man, and writers. And you're both." But wearing the uniform changes everything. After brawls and over beers, St. Amant's teammates tell him what he needs to know for a book that transcends the macho posturing of the game and records the education of a Beacon Hill resident who acknowledges that before joining the Panthers, he'd never have dreamed of entering some of the neighborhoods where he became a kicker.
"A Home on the Field" concerns the game the rest of the world calls football and recounts the story of a high school soccer team that wins a state championship in the third year of its existence. Paul Cuadros, coach and author, starts the team so that the sons of the Latino immigrants who have moved to Siler City, N.C., to work in the region's poultry-processing plants will have the opportunity to play in an organized league.
The story of the ascent of the Jets would be dramatic enough, but Cuadros also explores the tensions that arise in a community suddenly swelling with Hispanic workers and their families. He acknowledges the contradictions inherent in a system where the corporations recruit Latino workers and the border patrol tries to intercept them on their way to the jobs so they can be sent back -- and recruited again. Some of his players miss chunks of the season because they are visiting sick relatives back in Mexico, and returning to practice requires several tries and a lot of thirsty hiking. Others find that no matter how well they play in high school, they will not be eligible for college scholarships, since their parents do not possess the requisite papers.
"A Home on the Field" probably ought to be required reading for anybody who favors the construction of a wall along the country's southern border.
Michael Lewis's "The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game" presents two stories that seem bound to intersect in the football career of a young man named Michael Oher. The first concerns Oher himself, an enormous and enormously disadvantaged black teenager who lives by his wits in a Memphis housing project until he is adopted by a wealthy, white family of evangelical Christians, at which point he becomes a hot football property. The second story is the tale of how the position of left tackle -- the position the 6-foot-6, 330-pound Oher was apparently born to play -- has become one of the most lucrative jobs in pro sports. Should that juxtaposition not seem sufficiently ambitious, Lewis also takes on such matters as the magnificently corrupt state of college football and the feckless efforts of the NCAA to convince itself that the game is just young scholars taking a break from the library for some good, clean fun on a Saturday afternoon.
No short review can do this remarkable book justice, and no reader with even a passing interest in the current state of our games should fail to read it.