Thursday, August 8, 2013

501 Baseball Books - a review and author interview

I came to know of Ron Kaplan about four years ago, through his blog, Ron Kaplan's Baseball Bookshelf.   He has an interesting insight to books and to baseball in general.  Over the last two years we've been emailing back and forth.  I sometimes take him to task for a dropped or misspelled word or a formatting issue on his blog.  He is always gracious to accept my correction.

Earlier this spring he mentioned that he was writing a book, 501 Baseball Books Fans Must Read before They Die.  I offered to review it if he could snag me a copy.  His publisher sent one, straight from the printer's warehouse.

501 Books is more than just a list of titles.  It is a guide through the jungle of National Pastime tomes.  He takes a machete and artistically slices through them.  Not a hack and slash, he gives a synopsis of the titles that he's selected.

But, was he just gathering a mess of titles from his collection to please a publisher or was he being true to himself and to baseball?  I took a look to see if one of my favorite books was included.  I was pleased to find that Pat Jordan's A False Spring was included in the Autobiography, Biography, and Memoir section.  Ron gave a four paragraph synopsis, mentioned that it would also fit in with the Classic section and gave a few other titles by Pat Jordan.

The one thing that I wish was included was some form of a detachable checklist.  It would be handy to have the titles and authors with me when I go to the library or a bookstore instead of carrying around the 382 page book.

Ron at the Bergino Baseball Clubhouse
(lifted from his facebook timeline with permission)

I mentioned to Ron that it would be nice if I could do an interview with him.  He said yes.  Life got busy.  Then it was the All-Star game.  I thought, "What a great time to roll this out."  That date slipped.  I was set to send the questions off to Ron when I saw this.  A Q&A with Ron Kaplan by Ed Sherman of the Sherman Report.  It would be silly for me to ask similar questions so I opted to pose the questions that Ed didn't.

Q: Did you actually read every word in all 501 books? I understand that one doesn't actually read statistics...

A: No, I usually skip the copyright page and often the index goes neglected. But seriously, folks… No, I must admit, I didn't read every word (I wonder how many actually do?). In some cases, especially the anthologies, the classic stories tend to be repeated. My “method” to determine if I’m even interested in starting the book is usually to look at the table of contents, where appropriate; the photo section, if it’s stand-alone; and jump to the last chapter. I also like to read the “author’s note,” if there is one. I think this often gets overlooked, but it can offer some insight into the writer’s process, which I find very illuminating, especially if s/he admits the dialog is “based on” actual events.

Q: Do you own all of the books? How many baseball books are in your personal collection? How and where do you store them?

A: I own about 90 percent of the books that appear in 501. The others came from libraries and a few of the older titles, such as the Charles Comiskey “autobiography,” were available on-line.

I keep track of my collection on Library Thing, an on-line cataloguing site, but I've been a bit lax in staying current; I’m guessing I’m a couple of years behind so I would estimate I have about 2,200 books, plus several hundred more magazines and periodicals.

The majority of the books is in the attic, which is quite large but unfinished, followed by my basement office. With the exception of my wife’s office and the kitchen, every other room in the house has at least a couple of baseball books in it, including the bathrooms. There are even a few volumes in my daughter’s room. I know the environment in the attic and basement isn’t ideal for the health and welfare of the books, but I don’t have a whole lot of alternatives.

Q: Does your wife encourage you to obtain more books or does she wish that you'd donate them?

A: She definitely wants me to cull the herd. I've donated a couple of boxes – about 100 books – to the Yogi Berra Museum for a fund-raiser, but it’s amazing how difficult it is to actually get rid of them, from both an emotional perspective and the fact that the libraries just don’t want them. I've had to sneak over before they open to slip a few into the overnight return bins or leave a carton outside the entrance, which some passer-by might think of as suspicious.

Q: What is the first baseball book you remember reading as a child?

A: I don’t remember the title, but it would had to have been prior to the fifth grade and it was a kids’ biography of Babe Ruth. If I recall, it didn't have a dust jacket and the cover was red.

Q: When you read a baseball book, do you read it for pleasure or with a critic's eye? What are your reading habits? When or where do you read?

A: I find myself reading more often for reviewing purposes these days, either for my Baseball Bookshelf blog or other outlets. But that doesn't mean I don’t enjoy them (at least some of them). I speed-read as much as possible, but if it’s something I really like, I slow down and savor it. Sometimes I can get a bit impatient with the writing styles. But you have to take a step back and ask, who is the author writing for? There are books meant for a wider audience, not just baseball experts/lovers. Those tend to have a bit more “exposition” about concepts a hard-core fan understands and doesn't need or want further explanation. A lot of baseball fiction falls into this category, but I understand there’s really no way around it.

I also have fallen out of love with biographies or “scholarly” books where the author feels the need to include every single piece of research s/he has uncovered.

I have lousy habits. My wife and daughter don’t understand how I can read with the TV or radio on. As for when and where: anytime, anyplace. I rarely go anywhere without a book or magazine; I feel naked without paper.

Q: Are you a fan of electronic books or do you prefer the traditional bound book?

A: E-books certainly have their advantages, primarily storage and portability. We usually take driving vacations, so it’s no big deal to take a small box of books along. But for farther trips, I love the flexibility of an e-reader. Of course, there are some types of books that do not lend themselves to that kind of presentation, such as coffee-table editions or others that are heavy on photography or illustrations.

In a perfect world, give me the heft (and in the case of very old volumes, the smell) of a book.

One of the things I love about the Kindle is the ability to sample books. You save a lot of time and money that way. A drawback of the e-book phenomenon is that it’s such an inexpensive endeavor, a lot of people who otherwise wouldn't/couldn't (and in some cases shouldn't) write a book are taking a stab at it. There’s nothing that drives me crazier in the publishing area than books that are sloppily crafted. As you very well know, Mark, I’m not the best proofreader in the world, but some of the stuff I've come across makes me just sad all over when it comes to typos, poor construction, or improbable dialogue. I know authors are anxious to see their work in print -- actual or virtual – but they should really take the time and have someone else look over their stuff before they publish. In some cases, it reminds me of audition episodes for programs like American Idol. Friends and family have been telling these people they have lovely singing voices for years, but when they get on stage…

Q: Is there any book you'd like to see written (season, player, team, league, etc)?

A: I like to look at the calendar to see what big event in baseball history is on the horizon; anniversaries can make for good topics. I also love reading about the creative process so I enjoy books like Jerome Holtzman’s No Cheering in the Press Box; Extra Innings: Writing on Baseball, edited by Richard Peterson; and, most recently, Keepers of the Game, by Dennis D’Agostino.

Q: Tell me your thoughts about some baseball movies that were adapted from books. Were the books better?

A: There’s an excellent TV documentary about the adaptation of Field of Dreams from the original Kinsella novel Shoeless Joe where we learn how and why some things were changed, omitted, etc. For example, the writer Terrance Mann was a substitute for J.D. Salinger because the filmmakers were worried about litigation. Similarly, there were a lot of complaints about the ending of The Natural because the folks behind it wanted a happy Hollywood ending, which is not how Malamud concluded his novel. A lot of information gets cut because the running times would be too long otherwise. Eight Men Out really had to economize on the story, but Sayles still did a good job of presenting the Black Sox scandal. In general, though. I’m not a big fan of tinkering too much with the original. Were the books better? That makes for interesting debates. 

At the recent SABR convention I had the chance to speak at length with Eric Rolfe Greenberg, author of The Celebrant, which marks its 30th anniversary this year and is on most people’s Top Five list of baseball fiction. He spent many years in the entertainment industry and we talked about the possibility of turning his work into a feature film. I’d love to see that.

Going back for a minute to the previous question: Since I’m also a movie buff, I’d also be interested in some well-researched “behind-the-scenes” books about classic baseball flicks.

Q: What's your favorite flavor of ice cream?

A: Anything that is heavy on nuts and coconut. Been making my own lately because I like to keep it real and it’s hard to find good stuff without an abundance of additives.

I'd suggest that you pick up a copy of 501 Baseball Books Fans Must Read before They Die and see if your favorite books are included.  What's that?  You want to know where to get a copy?  amazon and Barnes & Noble have it.  Also, go to your local bookstore.  If they don't have it, ask them to get it.

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