By Sean Callahan
Wednesday, August 25, 2010; C04
1.Fifty-nine in '84 (Harper, $25.99) is an astonishing book about 19th-century baseball. At first glance, it seems the kind of work a man might dedicate to the commissioner of his fantasy baseball league. But Edward Achorn instead dedicated the book to his wife, Valerie. That's because "Fifty-nine in '84" is a romantic book, equal parts heroic quest, tragic tale and doomed love story. Achorn tells the tale of Charlie Radbourn's 1884 season, when the Hall of Fame pitcher won a record 59 games for the Providence Grays. In that year's pennant race, the Grays relied almost exclusively on Radbourn during the season's second half. He was a tough man playing a hard, barehanded game in which a misplayed ball could result in the amputation of fingers. Achorn calls Radbourn a "whiskey-slugging son of a butcher" and speculates that he was the first in history to flip the bird in a photograph. During one stretch, the pitcher started and completed 22 consecutive games. In the season's pivotal series, he pitched every inning and won all four games without allowing an earned run. The tragedy of Radbourn's heroics was that, once that season ended, he never possessed the same dominance again. Off the field, however, Radbourn's pitching performance may have won him the heart of Carrie Stanhope, a woman who, Achorn argues in the most gentlemanly way possible, was a prostitute or perhaps a madam in Providence. The pair eventually married, but Achorn makes the case that they were star-crossed lovers from the start.
2.High Heat (Da Capo, $25) also delves into baseball's past as Tim Wendel chronicles his quest to explore the "mysterious, downright mystical" fastball. In this book of delightful digressions, he tells the tale of many hard-luck fastball pitchers who flamed out early, like Houston Astros power pitcher J.R. Richard, who suffered a stroke at the peak of his career. But the heart of the book is a comparison between Steve Dalkowski, a flamethrower from the 1950s and '60s who often walked as many batters as he struck out, and Nolan Ryan, a power pitcher who struggled early in his career before finding the magic that led to a major league record seven no-hitters. Wendel ponders why Ryan succeeded while Dalkowski, who was the model for "Nuke" LaLoosh, the goofy fireballer in the movie "Bull Durham," and so many others failed. Though a good fastball is coveted, few of those who develop one have the mix of speed and control necessary to excel in the majors. Of the 102 pitchers taken in the top five of baseball's draft between 1965 and 2008, only Kevin Brown has won more than 200 games. Wendel concludes that what truly separates the greats with the gift of a fastball "is the ability to harness and to honor it."
3.The Eastern Stars (Riverhead, $25.95) tells the story of one poor small port city in the Dominican Republic, San Pedro de Macorís, and how it has produced 79 major leaguers, a list that includes Robinson Canó, Sammy Sosa and Alfonso Soriano. Mark Kurlansky, author of "Cod" and "Salt," wrote this ambitious book, which at times feels too much like three separate projects cobbled together. First, there's the history of the Dominican Republic's sugar industry, which dominated the country in the early 1900s, when World War I destroyed beet sugar production in Europe. Then there's the story of San Pedro's hard-luck baseball team, the Estrellas Orientales (the "Eastern Stars" of the book's title). And, at the book's sweet spot, there is the growth of the Dominican Republic as a cradle of shortstops. Major league teams such as the Atlanta Braves have established baseball academies in the Dominican Republic that hone the baseball skills of about 50 prospects at a time and serve as feeder programs for the minor leagues in the United States. In the end, though, the sport doesn't get the attention it deserves in these pages. Kurlansky's meditations on baseball might have been better as a digression in a book about the history of sugar.
Callahan is an editor at Crain Communications and the author of "A Is for Ara" and four other children's books.