Sports and Leisure

Beating the Odds

Lipman Pike: America’s First Homerun King
By Richard Michelson
Illustrated by Zachary Pullen
(Sleeping Bear Press, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 2011, $16.95)

Before professional baseball leagues formed in 1871, there were little boys who loved the game. One was Lipman Pike, the son of Dutch Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn. At thirteen, he began playing with a neighborhood league; at twenty-one, in 1866, the Philadelphia Athletics hired Pike at $20 per week. One of the first paid ballplayers, Pike became known for his fast running and heavy hitting abilities. He even awed crowds by beating a racehorse in a hundred-yard dash. When he retired from baseball, he opened a haberdashery in Brooklyn, much like the one his father had operated.

In Lipman Pike, Richard Michelson and illustrator Zachary Pullen tell Pike’s remarkable story. The picture-book biography opens in the Pike family’s shop, where Lipman and his brother enjoy dashing around to fill customers’ orders. Young Lip’s joy in movement soon blossoms into a passion for baseball. Despite his mother’s objections – she would have liked him to focus on his education – and the anti-Semitism he encounters outside New York, Lipman pursues the game seriously.

Although Lipman Pike is a picture book, it should also appeal to middle-grade readers. Older children will appreciate Michelson’s vivid, natural dialogue , which evokes nineteenth-century Brooklyn. Although Pullen’s figures are far from idealized –a pink nose here, a gaping mouth there – they make Pike’s eventual triumph all the more poignant. On the last double-page spread, surprise flickers in Pike’s eyes after he hits a homerun and before he takes off for first base. All he ever wanted is in that split second. Together, Michelson and Pullen capture the joy of overcoming obstacles to pursue a goal – a familiar theme that will never grow old as long as there are people who dream.

Dorothy A. Dahm

Fast as She Can

Fearless: The Story of Racing Legend Louise Smith
By Barb Rosenstock
Illustrated by Scott Dawson
(Dutton Children’s Books,New York, 2010, $16.99)

Who doesn’t remember that first, exhilarating time solo drive? In Fearless, Barb Rosenstock explores the career of auto-racing pioneer Louise Smith, one of the first women to race professionally in the 1940s and 50s. To Smith, driving fast represented an escape from the narrowly restricted social roles of her day. Behind the wheel, there was adventure – and freedom.

A short preface and epilogue provide some contextual information about Smith’s life and racing history, but Rosenstock’s text is lively and conversational as though one of Louise’s friends were telling the story to a young relative. Like any good storyteller, she employs repetition and other narrative devices to build suspense: “Fast! Faster! Flying! Free!” she writes whenever Louise soars ahead. Scott Dawson’s realistic paintings add drama and humor to the biography, capturing the thrill of the race track and Smith’s easy charm. (Parents and teachers will enjoy how Smith smiles disarmingly at her husband to win his support for her career.)

The biography’s most amusing episode – and most captivating image – has seven-year-old Louise Smith starting her father’s car and careening down a dirt road on her first drive. Eyes wide with glee, she grins broadly. The drive ends with a bang, but Louise is undaunted. Whether or not readers share her taste for acceleration, Fearless shows them the delights of taking risks on and off the track.

Dorothy A. Dahm

Sandlot Reveries

Henry Aaron’s Dream
By Matt Tavares
(Candlewick Press,Boston, 2010, $16.99)

Behind every great athlete – behind any success – is a dream. Without that yearning, the shoes and statistics mean nothing. In Henry Aaron’s Dream, writer and illustrator Matt Tavares explores baseball legend Hank Aaron’s path to the big leagues. Growing up African American inAlabama in the 1930s and 40s, Aaron faced poverty and segregation. His family couldn’t afford a baseball or bat, so the young batter improvised with broom handles and tin cans. But that didn’t daunt Aaron. He practiced diligently, progressing from the sandlot to the Negro Leagues to the minors and, finally, the majors.

Although Aaron won accolades and set records in the big leagues, Henry Aaron’s Dream focuses on his rise to the majors and the obstacles he faced. Tavares doesn’t shield readers from the nastiness of bigotry: he enumerates the abuse Aaron and other black players endured at the hands of white fans and fellow athletes. And although the book chronicles an individual’s career, Tavares discusses Aaron’s rise within the context of other African-Americans’ experiences. Of Aaron’s teammates in the Negro Leagues, Tavares writes, “Back when they were Henry’s age, they used to dream of making it to the major leagues, but…it was already too late for them. Big-league teams just weren’t looking for thirty-five-year-old rookies from the Negro Leagues.” Aaron’s triumph becomes all the more remarkable – and poignant.

Tavares’ illustrations play with perspective, adding dimension and nuance to the text. To show how Aaron tried to ignore the racism he encountered and focus on the game, Tavares provides a close-up of Aaron hitting the ball: the edge of the bat is out of the frame. In the background, the spectators’ faces are blurred. Readers can almost hear the crack of the bat. When segregation confines Aaron and two minor league teammates in a restaurant kitchen while the rest of the team enjoys a celebratory dinner, Tavares shows the three athletes joking with the kitchen staff. Circumstances were far from ideal, but Aaron made the best of them.

Henry Aaron’s Dream explores the hurt prejudice inflicts even while it invites kids to hold fast to the dreams. The biography also reminds readers that sports are not about records or salaries or outsize personalities, but boys and girls and their aspirations.

Dorothy A. Dahm

Batting for Respect

 

Jackie Robinson: Champion for Equality
By Michael Teitelbaum
(Sterling, New York, 2010, $5.95, Paperback)

The first African-American to play Major League Baseball, Jackie Robinson’s name is familiar even to people who don’t follow sports. During his nine-year career, Robinson accumulated honors, including Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player, and he led the Brooklyn Dodgers to the World Series six times. But integrating professional baseball was a trying and often lonely endeavor. On the field, Robinson endured taunts from fans and other athletes; off the field, he and his family received death threats. On the road, in the still segregated south, he couldn’t join his teammates at restaurants or hotels.

In Jackie Robinson: Champion for Equality, Michael Teitelbaum explores Robinson’s life in clear, accessible prose. Robinson, the son of sharecroppers, was a star athlete, earning letters in four sports in high school and college. Teitelbaum addresses Robinson’s first, painful encounters with prejudice, from the racial slurs he heard growing up in Pasedena, California to the segregation he experienced in the Army. (In 1944, Robinson was court-martialed for refusing to give up his seat on a military shuttle bus.) Teitelbaum chronicles Robinson’s ascent from the Negro Leagues to the Minors to the Brooklyn Dodgers. However, the first baseman’s achievements off the field were equally remarkable. Throughout his career, he volunteered for the Harlem YMCA, sharing his love of sports with underprivileged kids. After retirement, he entered the business world and threw himself into politics, campaigning for various candidates, the NAACP, and civil rights in general. Today, the Jackie Robinson Foundation helps poor and minority students attend college.

With period photos and images of newspaper clippings and other documents, Jackie Robinson is also an attractive book. Side panels educate readers about baseball and American history without disrupting Teitelbaum’s readable, often poignant narrative. The result is a splendid introduction to the Civil Rights movement, baseball history, and Robinson himself. “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives,” said Jackie Robinson. Teitelbaum’s book ensures that the first baseman will influence another generation of athletes and thinkers.

Dorothy A. Dahm

A Bumpy Ride through History

Driven: A Photobiography of Henry Ford
By Don Mitchell
(National Geographic Society, 2010, $18.95)

“Ford makes the world your playground” proclaims an advertisement from the early twentieth century. Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motor Company, didn’t invent the motor vehicle, but he gave the world the Model T, the first mass-produced economy car. In so doing, he made the automobile an essential part of American life. Driven explores the life of auto industrialist, whose fans included Helen Keller and Bonnie and Clyde.

Mitchell’s biography both celebrates Ford’s technological achievements and considers his personal contradictions. He describes Ford’s early efforts to build a lightweight, gas-powered vehicle, emphasizing the young inventor’s persistence. Mitchell follows Ford’s ascent from visionary to entrepreneur to industrialist. Neither lionizing nor demonizing the auto manufacturer, Mitchell lets readers ponder Ford’s contradictory nature. We learn how Ford loved his only son Edsel, but undermined the younger man once he assumed control of Ford Motors. Ford offered assembly line workers good wages and a shorter workday, but allowed his security guards to rough up union organizers during the Great Depression. And although Ford employed African Americans and people with disabilities when few other manufacturers would hire them, he published rapidly anti-Semitic tirades in the newspaper he purchased.

Beautifully illustrated with period photographs and early Ford blueprints, Driven takes young car enthusiasts on a fascinating ride through automobile history. Along the way, they’ll learn something about economics, social history, and human nature.

© Dorothy A. Dahm