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The best new baseball books

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The long, cold, crappy winter finally ended and now it's glorious baseball season. Right on cue, we're here again to help you pick out the best new baseball books. This year's crop includes three biographies and a great look at the mystique of fastball pitchers. Three are new books and one is a paperback reissue of one of last year's finest.

High Heat by Tim Wendel (DaCapo, 288 pages, $25). Baseball fans have long been fascinated with fastball pitchers. The best -- those who combine frightening speed with pinpoint control -- are often unhittable, but the sport's history is also full of speedballers whose control was erratic enough to make batting against them a genuine adventure. Wendel is a fine storyteller, and his cross-country travels to visit the places and players of fastball legend make for a captivating read. He hits the traditional candidates for "fastest ever" -- Walter Johnson, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson, Satchel Paige -- but he stretches out to include mythical fastballers, the aerodynamics of the pitch, and tales of how batters who've faced the flamethrowers have dealt with their fear. At the end of the book, Wendel creates his own Top Ten Fastball Pitcher rankings, but the real fun here is the trip through the country that precedes the list.

Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend by James S. Hirsch (Simon & Schuster, 628 pages, $30). One of the most complete players of all time finally gets a biography worthy of his talent. As Hirsch examines Willie Mays' nearly supernatural batting and fielding skills, the tone is at times a bit reverential, but considering Mays' accomplishments, it's understandable. Hirsch is excellent when he describes the mechanics of Mays' awe-inspiring play, and he's convincing when he says the outfielder was the savior of a Giants squad that had been headed south. Mays helped launch an era of fast, aggressive play at a time when the public was still adjusting to the major leagues' integration. His disciplined approach foresaw a more scientific era for both trainers and players; and his self-absorption and amphetamine use anticipated other, less attractive aspects of today's game. Mays was a hero to many, but a hero with a prickly personality, shaped, in part, by the racial atmosphere of his era. Hirsch's portrait of Mays is an admiring one, but it's balanced by recognition that Mays was a three-dimensional, fully human player whose faults were often ignored by those around him.

Roger Maris: Baseball's Reluctant Hero by Tom Clavin and Danny Peary (Simon & Schuster, 422 pages, $26.99). We haven't read this bio of Roger Maris yet, but the reviews have been so effusive in their praise, we feel safe recommending it. Lord knows Maris deserves being reconsidered. He'll forever be remembered as the player who broke Babe Ruth's supposedly shatterproof record of 60 homeruns in one season. In many fans' eyes, he's still the single-season champ, McGuire and Bonds' "records" being as much products of chemistry as of talent. Reviewers of this book admire the authors' serious research, and their portrait of a complex, very private man whose immense overall talents still remain underappreciated (incredibly, Maris is not in the Baseball Hall of Fame). The book condemns the reckless reporters who turned on Maris because of his aversion to being a media hero. It also deservedly lays into baseball commissioner Ford Frick, a former Babe Ruth ghostwriter who ordered that an asterisk be placed next to Maris' name in the record books because Maris' season was eight games longer than Ruth's -- despite Maris facing much tougher pitching than did Ruth. In the end, say several reviewers, the book is a great portrait of someone who garnered greatness despite great adversity.

Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend by Larry Tye.

On May 4, Random House will release the paperback of this fantastic biography. Satchel Paige, a superstar of the pre-integration Negro Leagues, was a devastating pitcher, a first-tier showman, and a mystery (he gave reporters many conflicting stories about when and where he was born, his marital status and more). Unfortunately, the universal method used by baseball to gauge players -- statistics -- are equally mysterious in the case of Paige and other "blackball" veterans, as the Negro Leagues did not keep meticulous records. What is known is that Paige started playing semi-pro ball in 1924, dominated blackball hitters for decades, as well as the white major leaguers he faced in off-season exhibitions -- and, while in his 40s, joined the major league Cleveland Indians and immediately helped boost them to the World Series. Tye's research is extraordinary and he knows how to tell a good story. Luckily for him, he had one of the greatest of baseball stories to tell: the tale of a larger-than-life man who kept pitching long after others had quit. "Age is a case of mind over matter," Paige often told reporters. "If you don't mind, it don't matter."


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