by Sandy Brehl and Stephanie Lowden for The Storied Past
Sports lore everywhere boasts legends of athletic prowess and humorous anecdotes, but baseball’s field of intriguing characters and stories is unparalleled in depth.
Baseball books for young readers are not only a way to explore the sport, but also can introduce them to fascinating stories that consider important questions of racial diversity, gender equality, and the true meaning of the American Dream.
PAPER WISHES, by Lois Sepahban
(Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux/BYR, 2016. 192 pages. Ages 9-12.)
The subject of baseball plays a significant role in several books about Japanese American internment camps during the Second World War, including middle-grade novels and picture books. This recent release involves the heart-tugging struggles of ten-year-old Manami, whose little dog was snatched from her arms during her family’s sudden evacuation. The pain of loss, change, and guilt snatch away her voice, too. Her family, in particular her older brother, helps Manami and others adjust, using familiar experiences, including baseball. Manami’s point of view reveals life during the first year in camp, making a shameful period in American history feel immediate and personal.
BASEBALL SAVED US, by Ken Mochizuki, illus. by Dom Lee
(Lee & Low Books, 1993. 30 pages. Ages 6–11.)
The first-person narrator of Baseball Saved Us doesn’t understand why kids in his school are mean to him. Then, one day, his parents show up at school and tell him they must sell much of their belongings and that they are moving away—to a camp. But this is no summer camp. Mochizuki’s book tells the story of one of the most shameful periods in our history, when, during World War II Japanese Americans were rounded up and sent to camps because the government was afraid there were traitors among them.
The young narrator tells the story of how baseball helped get them through hardships at the camp and made them feel like Americans. The ingenuity of the adults is nothing short of amazing when they create the baseball field, bleachers, bats and balls out of almost nothing. Baseball Saved Us is a timeless story about a child struggling to fit in among his peers during a period in our history that should be a cautionary tale for all.
LET THEM PLAY, by Margot Theis Raven
(Sleeping Bear Press, 2005. 32 pages. Ages 7–10.)
This is a poignant, powerful story about a team of African-American boys who defied the odds and rode the support of their community to become the best Little League team in South Carolina in the summer of 1955. The Canon Street boys could not be declared the South Carolina State Champions or even compete in the finals because every other team refused to play them. In an exhibition game, they overwhelmed their opponents, but went home without a trophy or a fair opportunity to prove themselves on a level playing field.
The epilogue notes that the team reunited in 2002 at the World Championship Little League Opening Ceremonies, where they were presented with the 1955 State Championship banner.
SOMETHING TO PROVE: THE GREAT SATCHEL PAIGE VS. ROOKIE JOE DIMAGGIO, by Robert Skead, illus. by Floyd Cooper
(Carolrhoda Books, 2013. 29 pages. Ages 7–10.)
This story pairs iconic baseball players in a challenging episode of both their lives. When rookie DiMaggio needed to be tested against the best, he would have to prove he could hit against the undisputed best pitcher – who was pitching in the Negro League.
You don’t need to be a baseball fan to appreciate the intensity (and imbalance) of the challenge game. Both personalities shine through, as does Satchel’s talent. DiMaggio passed his test, and Paige was told he’d be signed in a minute as a top-salaried player, if only he were white. The final pages and author’s note provide further details on Paige’s eventual arrival in the major leagues and election to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
SILENT STAR; THE STORY OF DEAF MAJOR LEAGUER WILLIAM HOY, By Bill Wise; Illus. by Adam Gustavson
(Lee and Low, 2012. 40 pages. Ages 6–11.)
Baseball is a game of statistics. And as this book notes: “Of the tens of thousands of players . . . in major league baseball,” William Hoy (1862–1961) ranks in the top 25 in all-time career statistics: stolen bases, outfielder assists, double-plays by an outfielder.
Hoy has been inducted into the Ohio Baseball hall of Fame and the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame. In The Sporting News in 1961, Pat Harmon wrote, “His record was remarkable. In black and white, it stands with the best of all time.” But despite his stellar numbers, he is not yet in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
He was, however, among the first five people entered into the American Athletic Association of the Deaf’s Hall of Fame. Although born with the ability to hear, William nearly died of meningitis at the age of three. When he recovered, the high fever left him unable to hear well enough to understand speech, so he never developed the ability to speak intelligibly. At age ten, when he attended a school for the deaf, he learned to sign and finally made friends. Mostly, he played and loved baseball. He ate, slept, and dreamed baseball, even though the only deaf major leaguer at the time was a pitcher, and William was an outfielder.
As the publisher writes: “[this book] is a tribute to one of the most inspirational figures in baseball history. A talented player with a standout record, Hoy is a shining example that success in life should not be measured by differences but by drive and determination.” (For more, see this Silent Star – Teacher’s Guide.)
Hoy did not settle for dreams deferred. Perhaps his story is just waiting for a groundswell of growing awareness, a social media and a kids’ letter-writing campaign, to vote him into the national center in Cooperstown.
SATCHEL PAIGE, by Lesa Cline-Ransome, paintings by James E. Ransome
(Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2000. 40 pages. Ages 6–10.)
Young Leroy, Satchel, Paige got into trouble as a kid and was sent to a reform school for Negro boys. While there, Satchel learned how to play baseball. Lesa Cline-Ransome’s beautifully illustrated book tells the story of the major league’s first Black pitcher and first Black to be inducted into the Black Baseball Hall of Fame. It also tells the story of the Black Major League ball players and how they were treated differently than the white players, sometimes having to sleep on the baseball field because no hotel would accept them. This is one of those picture books that baseball fans of all ages will enjoy.
THE WAY HOME LOOKS NOW, by Wendy Wan-Long Shang
(Scholastic Press, 2015. 272 pages. Ages 8–12.)
When Peter’s brother, Nelson, is killed in a car accident, his family’s life is changed forever. Once a good student, Peter now forgets to put his name on papers and sometimes skips homework altogether. He doesn’t understand why his mother doesn’t cook anymore and sits in front of the TV all day. Peter decides it is his job to bring her out of her darkness but he has no idea how. He avoids his old friends and classmates, except for Sean. But all Sean wants to do is play baseball. Peter can’t bring himself to do that, because Nelson taught Peter everything he knew about baseball, and Nelson is gone. Baseball evokes too many memories.
One day, for just a brief moment, Peter and his mother share a memory about when they went to the Little League World Series. This leads Peter to make a decision. He will play baseball again. And he gets the surprise of his life when Ba, his father, volunteers to coach.
With protests over the Vietnam War in the background, this story about a grieving Asian-American family will resonate with middle-grade readers who are just becoming aware of their world community. And baseball fans will cheer (with a tear in the eye) when the timeless game becomes the instrument that helps to transform the family’s heartbreak into a journey of healing.
HATTIE’S WAR, by Hilda and Emily Demuth
(Crickhollow Books, 2012. 170 pages. Ages 8-13.)
In Milwaukee near the end of the American Civil War, Hattie Bigelow is an 11-year-old girl more interested in the emerging “gentleman’s” game of “base ball” than in sewing bees and other women’s activities in support of the Union war effort.
But when her good friend Charlie enlists as a drummer boy with the Thirty-Ninth Wisconsin, and her mother gets involved in supporting effort to build a local Soldier’s Home for returning veterans, Hattie tries to help. But must her backyard ball diamond be turned a garden to grow vegetables for the Soldiers’ Home? A long, costly war puts demands on friends and family, on neighbors and strangers—who all must work together to find “a more perfect union” when the battlefield conflict is finally over.
The book bears witness, from young Hattie’s perspective, to the challenges the returning veterans face, with their gamut of physical and mental sufferings, needs, and attitudes, and traces the beginnings of what would become the VA system. (For more, see this Hattie’s War – Teacher’s Guide.)
MIGHTY JACKIE, THE STRIKE-OUT QUEEN, by Marissa Moss, illus. by C.F. Payne
(Simon & Schuster, 2004. 32 pages. Ages 5–8.)
Of the growing number of books about girls and women playing baseball, this one is especially delightful as it tells the true story of a day in 1931 when 17-year-old Jackie Mitchell, a young woman pitcher for the Chattanooga Lookouts, faced famous sluggers Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in an exhibition game . . . and struck them out. With all the attention given to separate activities like the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, this story has an important message about the value of sheer ability, regardless of gender, proved on the field of play.
In an act of gross injustice, young Jackie was immediately banned from further play in the major or minor leagues. The commissioner announced the sport was “too strenuous” for women – a pronouncement that every reader should be able to see through for its real concern: that girls could be sometimes as good or better as male players.
Thanks for visiting The Storied Past. Your comments are welcome. And if you see good books or ideas worth sharing, please pass them on to friends, parents, librarians, teachers . . . and best of all, to young readers!