The 60th-anniversary season of Jackie Robinson's historic entry into Major League Baseball is an ideal time for a thorough look back. For one, his widow, Rachel Robinson, is still around for go-to insight, and plenty of Jackie's teammates have stories, too.
Jonathan Eig does more than let contemporaries reflect in "Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson's First Season" (Simon & Schuster, $26). He shines light on the widespread impact felt during that simmering 1947 season and "the whole new ballgame" that flowed after Robinson became the first black big leaguer. Eig, following up on his definitive best-seller "Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig," comes through again with astonishing depth.
Extensive interviews with Rachel Robinson and former players, plus targeted research, are woven with stories that include the "uprising" of fellow Brooklyn Dodgers opposed to integration, among them South Carolina's Kirby Higbe, "who claimed to have developed his strong arm as a child by throwing rocks at black children," and Dodgers radio broadcaster Red Barber's description of Brooklyn's newest player: "Jackie is very definitely brunette."
Eig intricately covers an incident involving catcher-turned-TV personality Joe Garagiola, who for decades has fought a racist label after an apparently misunderstood argument with Robinson during a game.
Eig also finds fault with Robinson's own paranoia and hatred, overlooked in many other accounts of the most significant baseball player of the 20th century.
Peter Golenbock's "7: The Mickey Mantle Novel" (The Lyons Press, $24.95) is completely different. This is Mantle's fictionalized explanation of himself dispatched from heaven, and Golenbock's first novel tagged onto a career of teaming with athletes for autobiographies and compiling team history books. Golenbock, a self-described Mantle hero worshipper, knew Mantle well and has the delivery down pat. That means there is R-rated material throughout, including rants on "Ball Four" author Jim Bouton, boozing and carousing with Billy Martin and his real feelings about Joe DiMaggio. A raucously interesting ride for Mantle fans, but a little more research might have allowed for a similar nonfiction narrative.
"Once Upon a Game: Baseball's Greatest Memories" (Houghton Mifflin, $19.95) is Baseball America columnist Alan Schwarz's compilation of personal reflections on the pastime. Contributors include Boston Red Sox manager Terry Francona writing about what it was like to manage Michael Jordan in the minors, former New York Mets first baseman Keith Hernandez on wacky Game 6 of the 1986 World Series and Mets pitcher Pedro Martinez on riding a team bus from Salt Lake City to Great Falls, Mont., in the Pioneer League. It makes for exceptionally sweet, but very light spring-summer reading.
"Crazy '08" by Cait Murphy (Smithsonian Books, $24.95) comes a year before Chicago Cubs fans celebrate the 100th anniversary of their last World Series victory. And what fun. Murphy, an assistant managing editor at Fortune magazine, captures a strangely exciting season in which "a cast of cranks, rogues, boneheads and magnates created the greatest year in baseball history." Stars are Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson and Cubs heroes "Three Fingers" Brown and the double-play combination of Tinkers to Evers to Chance taking advantage of the infamous "Fred Merkle game" against the backdrop of a world near war.
A pair of unusually creative biographies work across culture, eras and oceans. Joe Posnanski grabs the heart of the game with his passionate "The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O'Neil's America" (William Morrow, $24.95). Before O'Neil died, the Kansas City sports columnist spent more than a year traveling with the former Negro Leaguer.
Shizuka Ijuin's "Hideki Matsui: Sportsmanship, Modesty and the Art of the Home Run" (Ballantine, $19.95) is as much about "a philosophy of life" and quiet hospital visits to ailing boys as an account of Matsui's successful transformation from Japanese icon to New York Yankees slugger.