With Opening Day approaching, locally sourced baseball books are doing what baseball books seem to do best: looking back.
The most colorful of the current lot is a kids' book. You Never Heard of Willie Mays?! (Schwartz & Wade Books) is the follow-up to You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?!, also written by Pittsburgh-based children's author Jonah Winter. Again, a folksy narrator informs young fans about a star of yore, in this case the slugging centerfielder many regard as the greatest player ever.
Mays, an Alabama native who started out in the Negro Leagues, signed with the New York Giants in 1951, and it's easy to forget the racism he endured in segregated America. Winter's demotic prose reminds us of that aptly, even while focusing on Mays' winning personality and on-field majesty. Both aspects of the man are gorgeously captured in Terry Widener's flowing, hand-painted illustrations in rich, muted colors. It's a home run.
History imprint Arcadia Publishing mines the past with Forbes Field. The 127-page collection of mostly vintage photos, with supplemental text by locals David Finoli and Tom Aikens, traces that vanished local landmark from its 1909 construction to its afterlife as outfield-wall remnants. It's not all Honus Wagner and Bill Mazeroski, though, or even Babe Ruth's final three homers: Forbes also hosted the legendary Homestead Grays, great Pitt Panthers and mediocre Steelers gridiron squads, and Billy Conn bouts. Still, it's baseball geeks who'll most enjoy the book, right down to photos of obscure Pirates like Lee "Specs" Meadows, and half-forgotten greats like centerfielder Max Carey.
Meanwhile, though Abby Mendelson's novel The Oakland Quartet isn't a baseball book per se, the game's integral. The titular protagonists are a golden-gloved sandlot infield on the cusp of adulthood whose lives are shattered when they commit a terrible crime.
A veteran freelance writer, Mendelson teaches English at local universities, has published several sports books and contributes to local outlets (including City Paper). His self-published novel takes place in 1958 — in a now-lost, working-class-Irish Oakland where Pitt is barely a presence. It's a neighborhood of bosses and fixers, vandals and street scrappers, with cameos by the likes of Pirates great Pie Traynor and Mayor David Lawrence. Mendelson vibrantly evokes this milieu, with its rough, crude denizens, and the hand of fate resting on "lives that never got past that summer." Baseball, yes; nostalgia, no.