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Play ball!: A new season of baseball books

"Outsider Baseball: The Weird World of Hardball on the Fringe, 1876-1950" by Scott Simkus (Chicago Review Press, March 2014). Credit: Chicago Review Press

Play ball! It's almost Opening Day, and spring baseball titles are blossoming; the chilly spring weather didn't slow the arrival of these hardy perennials. There's a lot to strike your fancy here: books on the 1954 and 1976 seasons; a biography of baseball's most polarizing player not named Alex Rodriguez; a memoir by one of my favorite all-time Mets; an account of one of the greatest World Series ever; and George Will's meditation on Wrigley Field, "A Nice Little Place on the North Side" (Crown Archetype, $25).

The strangest of the lot is surely Scott Simkus' "Outsider Baseball: The Weird World of Hardball on the Fringe, 1876-1950" (Chicago Review Press, $26.95). In this delightful train wreck of a book, unevenly written and laden with stats, charts and graphs, the obsessive author takes you into the world of semipro teams, independent clubs, minor league sides and barnstorming outfits. Think you know the history of the game? Simkus will open your eyes to whole new worlds.

The Western League, forerunner of the American League, featured a team called the Toledo Swamp Angels. It gets weirder: In 1926, a team fielded by the Ku Klux Klan beat the Hebrew Stars. Simkus chronicles forgotten teams like the Brooklyn Bushwicks; and Negro League greats such as Josh Gibson, who allegedly hit 800 home runs. Simkus questions such achievements -- the statistics are hard to verify -- and revels in contentious, speculative comparisons between outsider clubs and their major league brethren.

The subject of Pete Rose is nothing if not contentious. The all-time hits leader was banned from baseball in 1989 after an investigation into his gambling activities, which included betting on the Reds when he managed the team. In "Pete Rose: An American Dilemma" (Sports Illustrated Books, $26.95), Sports Illustrated writer Kostya Kennedy explores the life and legacy of one of the game's most controversial players. Kennedy does not apologize for Rose's flaws, which you would need three hands to tally. Rose is arrogant, brash and crude; he is also a serial liar. But he played the game with gusto and grit: "Charlie Hustle" truly gave it his all.

Kennedy asks you to weigh the lurid allegations against Rose, and the crooked company he kept. "What is the price of sin?" Kennedy asks. "Should forgiveness be granted only to the contrite? Does someone deserve harsher punishment for having let down his followers, for having fallen from especially great heights?" This challenging, sometimes overwritten book offers no easy answers.

Rose was an integral part of the Reds juggernaut that won back-to-back World Series titles in 1975 and 1976. In "Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of '76" (Thomas Dunne Books, $28.99, out April 29), Dan Epstein looks at baseball in the mid-'70s. The Chicago White Sox put its players in shorts. (Yes, they looked ridiculous.) The strict Yankees cracked down on the tonsorial trends of the time and made Oscar Gamble cut "the biggest, funkiest Afro ever seen on a major league diamond" down to size. But there were serious issues looming: The owners locked the players out during spring training as the issue of free agency was settled.

Daily News sportswriter Bill Madden tours another season of change in the fine "1954: The Year Willie Mays and the First Generation of Black Superstars Changed Major League Baseball Forever" (DaCapo, $25.99, out May6). It was a season of many firsts for African-American players. The Cubs' Ernie Banks and Gene Baker formed the game's first black double-play combination. In a July game against Milwaukee, the Brooklyn Dodgers fielded more black players than white. And National League MVP Mays made his iconic over-the-shoulder catch in the World Series.

The insanely dramatic 1991 World Series is the subject of Tim Wendel's nifty "Down to the Last Pitch: How the 1991 Minnesota Twins and Atlanta Braves Gave Us the Best World Series of All Time"

(DaCapo, $25.99). However, I'm nominating the 1986 series, won by the Mets, who came from behind to beat the Boston Red Sox in seven games. Mookie Wilson dinked a grounder between Bill Buckner's legs, sparking the victory. For frustrated Mets fans out there -- I am one -- Wilson's engaging memoir, "Mookie: Life, Baseball, and the '86 Mets" (Berkley, $26.95, written with Erik Sherman, out April 29), recalls a time when the blue and orange were baseball's best.

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