Posted by: Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan
Lynn: Batter Up! Baseball season is underway and to add to the fun for young fans, we have two wonderful new picture books. Leading off is You Never Heard of Willie Mays?! (Random/Schwartz & Wade 2013) by Jonah Winter. This is a book in motion from the dynamic cover to the exuberant text that seems to bounce right out off the pages. The tone is one enthusiastic hero-worshiping fan to another and what a story it is. Mays was one of the greatest players ever so this is a story that should be told. Admired as much for his sheer talent and skill as for his never-quit attitude, Mays literally played till he dropped. In a time when black players had just been allowed into the majors, Mays changed attitudes toward black players across the nation.
Widener’s terrific illustrations done in acrylic on chipboard have a feel of newsreel stop-action, capturing pivotal moments just as they happen. There is a wonderful sense of the time too with much shown subtly to the careful viewer. I love the action scenes like that first home run shot or Mays on the ground following The Throw, his eyes still intent on the trajectory of the ball. But my favorite scenes may be the Birmingham Black Barons team bus riding through the night or the small black boy copying the stance of Joltin’ Joe, the poster in the background. Across the page, two water fountains, labeled Whites and Colored with the unspoken emphasis of their condition – one cleaned and maintained and one ignored.
Winter’s text has a you-are-there excitement that, teamed with Widener’s illustrations, results in a total winner. There is so much to talk about like transcripts of radio broadcasts, statistics, historical information, and a glossary that I could go into extra innings. But Cindy is on deck.
Cindy: Baseball? Is it baseball season? It is all Stanley Cup playoffs at my Blackhawk-loving household. I’m trying to read baseball books while listening to my husband yell at the hockey refs. I sure miss college basketball season. I did manage to focus my attention on Miracle Mud: Lena Blackburne and the Secret Mud That Changed Baseball by David A. Kelly (Millbrook 2013). The eye-catching cover illustration by Oliver Dominguez with a closeup of a pitcher’s hand holding a baseball dripping with mud got my attention. Mud? Who knew? Well, true baseball fans probably know that that Major League Baseball teams use a baseball rubbing mud before each game, but even the hardcore fans will learn something about the history of this practice by reading Kelly’s picture book.
Lena Blackburne wanted to be a professional baseball player, but he just wasn’t good enough. He became a baseball coach and when an umpire complained to him about the soggy baseballs (in the early 1900s new balls were soaked in dirty water to get rid of the shine) but it was difficult to use soggy balls. A trip home to an old fishing hole provided a solution: ooey, gooey, gritty mud. He took some of the mud with him and tested it on the balls. It took off the shine, but wiped away without discoloring the balls and they weren’t soft. Blackburne became a mud farmer, collecting the mud from his secret spot and selling it to other teams.
An author’s note gives lots of other details. Lena started selling his mud in 1938 but originally only sold it to American League teams (he had played for the Chicago White Sox and remained a fan of their league). Rule 3.01 (c) of the MLB rules requires that umpires check the balls before each game to make sure they are regulation and are “properly rubbed so that the gloss is removed.” Kelly reports that about 72 balls are rubbed with Blackburne’s mud before each game today. The business has been willed and handed down through families since Blackburne retired and the July harvesting is still done at the secret location.
Common Core Connection
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.6.7 Integrate information presented in different media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively) as well as in words to develop a coherent understanding of a topic or issue.
It would be great to read this book aloud and then have students examine some of Kelly’s resources and compare them. He states in the online document available at Lerner Books’ Miracle Mud resource page that he started his search on the Internet, including sites like Wikipedia, but that to write the story he wanted the best sources possible and then he lists the places: online, print, and specialized libraries that he used in his research. Perhaps a teacher’s middle school classes could be challenged to compete against each other to find the widest variety of valid resources? The book does not have a source notes page or bibliography, which will require the students to do the legwork with the Lerner doc as a guide for places to try.