Baseball is the eternal game of childhood. It’s a world of green grass, lengthening daylight, and dreams - and a perfect subject for children’s books.
In his afterword to “There Goes Ted Williams: The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived’’ author-illustrator Matt Tavares notes, “Ted Williams was far from perfect. He had a terrible temper. He swore too much. He threw tantrums.’’ Like all our heroes, Ted Williams may have had feet of clay, but he stands in a class by himself for “his unparalleled dedication to perfecting the art of hitting a baseball.’’
Williams was an ordinary kid with an extraordinary dream - to be the best hitter baseball has ever known. And he pursued that dream with single-minded devotion. Other kids in his hometown of San Diego headed home for dinner and homework. “But not Ted Williams. Ted Williams can stay out as late as he wants. All by himself, he practices his swing.’’ A skinny kid, he did 100 push-ups on his fingertips, ate fattening food - and practiced. “He is always swinging something - a bat, or a stick, or a pillow, or a rolled-up newspaper.’’
When he was only 17. the Yankees offered him a contract - but his mother said New York was too far away. Instead he signed with a local minor-league team, and then after two seasons, signed his first big-league contract with the Boston Red Sox.
The rest is baseball history - and the stuff legends are made of. Every time he hit a home run, Williams would leap, strut, “almost floating, jumping up and down and clapping his hands and laughing all the way to home plate.’’ When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Williams enlisted in the Navy and became a fighter pilot. He came home and for the next seven years became the greatest hitter in baseball, winning two Most Valuable Player awards. Then, in l952 he went back to being a fighter pilot, where he experienced the greatest hit of his life -his F9F Panther fighter jet was hit in mid-air. Williams knew if he ejected from the plane he might break both his legs. He’d never play baseball again. Instead he crash-landed at 225 miles an hour and walked away. Back home in Boston, he hit nine home runs in a row. He didn’t retire until the age of 40 - and his last hit, in Fenway Park on Sept. 28, 1960, was, of course, a home run.
Tavares writes “There Goes Ted Williams’’ like a jazzy poem. There is musicality in every line, and in every full-color painting. The nostalgia of the paintings plays beautifully against the straight-up clarity of the prose. It’s full of the statistics and details so dear to the hearts of baseball lovers. Here is Williams, up to bat for the last time: “He stands upright, knees slightly bent, feet twenty seven inches apart, front foot twelve inches off the plate, back foot dug into the dirt, same as always.’’
I’ve become suspicious of rhyming picture books, as indeed what sane adult hasn’t? But Chris Van Dusen’s “Randy Riley’s Really Big Hit’’ won me over at first swing. Randy Riley is the geeky boy-genius at the heart of the book, and “he knew he stunk at baseball.’’ What he’s great at is science and robot building. So when he realizes a massive fireball is heading straight toward his hometown, all he has to do is construct a giant robot that can bat it back to outer space.
Van Dusen has created a world that I remember from my childhood - the furniture is all circa 1962, as are the hairdos, the houses, even the lamp resembles one from my den. So there’s a cool retro feel to this sci-fi rhyming book, along with some gloriously comic special effects. It’s just scary enough to be a page turner, and brings a whole new twist to kids and baseball.
Peter Johnson’s “The Amazing Adventures of John Smith, Jr. AKA Houdini’’ is not, strictly speaking, a baseball book, though the New England author, a well-respected prose poet, makes enough references to New England sports teams to win the heart of fans. It’s a book about writing, magic, family, and friendship, brilliantly captured in his middle-school hero’s voice. “My name is John Smith, Jr., but everyone calls me Houdini. If you can be patient, I’ll explain the Houdini part, but first you should know what it’s like to be named John Smith, Jr. . . . It’s like calling your dog Fido, or your cat Mittens . . .’’
Houdini lives in a run-down part of Providence. His best friends are an unlucky kid nicknamed Lucky and a hyper-moody friend named Jorge. There’s also his beloved brother Franklyn, who’s gone off to Iraq, and one-armed Old Man Jackson, who came back from Vietnam. “The Amazing Adventures of John Smith, Jr. AKA Houdini’’ is filled with marvelous minor characters, and side adventures. Johnson bites off his chapters, snapping them off like a magician riffling through a pack of cards. There’s one unfortunate misstep with revenge on a bully, but the novel is otherwise pitch-perfect: touching, hilarious - just right for days too rainy to play ball.
THERE GOES TED WILLIAMS: The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived By Matt Tavares
Candlewick, 40 pp., ages 5-10, $16.99
RANDY RILEY”S REALLY BIG HIT By Chris Van Dusen
Candlewick, 32 pp., ages 4-9, $15.99
THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF JOHN SMITH, JR. AKA HOUDINI By Peter Johnson
HarperCollins, 176 pp., ages 8-13, $15.99