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Book Report: Back to the past for baseball fans

Ken Burns documentaries are always fine, but none was finer than his nine-part series on baseball, which aired on PBS back in 1994.

The show blew me away because of all the archival footage used -- motion pictures of baseball games that were filmed before World War I made some of Burns earlier work, like "The Civil War" pale beside the excitement of those ancient newsreels about great games in the American sport. In short, the still photos of Matthew Brady couldn't compete with 20th century technology.

Back then Knopf issued a companion book to go along with the series. Now that Burns is back with yet another baseball documentary, "The Tenth Inning," Knopf has reissued the blockbuster book in paperback form.

"Baseball: An Illustrated History," by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns ($39.95 paper) is a wonder to behold. With an introduction by the estimable Roger Angell, and a new updated chapter provided by Kevin Baker it's a book you can't take your eyes off.

It opens with huge still photos of players from the early 20th century to the midget Eddie Gaedel going to bat for the St. Louis Browns to an incredibly young Ted Williams to color photos of modern day players like Mark McGwire testifying before Congress.

The text, of course, is fascinating as are all of the Ward and Burns outings. These guys go where no one has gone before to paraphrase a TV slogan. Here's a sample of a Pittsburgh Pirates scouting report: "A below average hitter with plus power. He uppercuts and needs instruction....potentially the best prospect on the club and in my opinion could go all the way....He is aggressive and plays hard. He is intelligent...not an easy chap to get close to but is very well-liked by those who succeed in penetrating the exterior shell. He is another who will run over you if you get in his way."

The player was signed for $2,000, not long after Mickey Mantle was signed for half that amount. He played a year for the Pirates farm team in Brunswick, Georgia, then quit to pursue other ambitions.

His name? Mario Cuomo, who became governor of New York..

Ward and Burns do a fine and fulfilling job on Negro baseball and even have a section on my father's favorite barnstorming team from his teenage days, Gilkerson's Union Giants. One of the many memorable photos in this section is a full-pager of Satchel Paige in a flyer's helmet standing next to his sleek one-engine monoplane he used to fly from one exhibition to another before the grand poobahs finally allowed this Negro phenom to play in the major leagues. The section, which is crammed with old-style photographs is both exhilarating and depressing and calls to mind Michael Lesey's haunting book, "Wisconsin Death Trip."

The new chapters held little interest for me, with its full color photographs of modern overpaid players whose illegal antics have lessened the impact of America's greatest game.

Nevertheless this huge book belongs on every baseball fan's reference shelf.

On the regional front there's a self-published book called "The Little Russians: An Ailing Father's Letters to His Children," by William F. Jack (Lulu Publishing, $27.95 paper). It's the story of St. Paul native Jack, who has led a checkered career as a grad student who owns a doctorate in Slavic languages, but spent much of his time working as a waiter at the Lexington on Grand Avenue. He has his share of adventures, gets married and rather late in life travels to Russia and adopts three Russian orphans.

Everything is going along rather smoothly, until he becomes ill, gets a divorce. Now, at age 64, he has published a hefty book to tell his kids the story of his life and theirs after he's gone and when they're old enough to understand.

When I read the prospectus, I thought, how depressing! I'm not one of the kids. Do I really want to read this? But read it I did and the book, which is written in epistolary style, is indeed touching and presents a new perspective a father's love for his children.

Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Phone him at 715-426-9554.