Monday, March 15

All Star!

Honus Wagner and the Most Famous Baseball Card Ever
by Jane Yolen
illustrated by Jim Burke
Philomel  2010

This picture book biography of the early baseball legend reads a little too much like a book report.

I've read this every day for a week now and can't quite figure out what isn't working for me.  Is it because the language and telling of the story feels flat?  Because I don't actually get a sense of what made Honus Wagner a great player, despite all the examples?  Is it because I expected more of a story behind the The Most Famous Baseball Card Ever?

The story of the Honus Wagner baseball card is that when Wagner realized the card was to be included with cigarette packages he demanded they be removed – think of the children! –  making the existing cards rare but not the rarest of collectables.  That much can be gleaned here in Yolen's telling (which, it must be noted, is only explained on one spread in the book, despite the card's promenance in the subtitle).  What isn't discussed is how a person could agree to appear on a card produced by the American Tobacco Company and not think it would be tied to the product.  Some believe the real issue was compensation, which would actually make Wagner not unlike his contemporaries.

Many have said in the past that Wagner, an all-around great player, was the greatest shortstop of all time.  But it's a funny thing about sports legends and their mythology: "greats" are not the same thing as "firsts," because they aren't as easily measurable.  Would the greatest shortstop of 1909 be as good at his position if he were on the field today?  This is the danger in idolization, where the myth can never be stripped because time has made it untouchable.  In the last 100 years there have been no less than 14 different athletes who have been dubbed "The World's Fastest Man," each new record stripping the title from all others based on measurable speed.  A runner's hall of fame might include all these men but there would be no disputing that, at the time of their achievement, they were the fastest runner documented.  Has the game of baseball, and the men who play it, changed so little in 100 years that one of its earliest participants can still hold the title of "greatest" in an area as subjective as a position on a team?

So I wonder if there is a risk in continuing to perpetrate the greatness of sports legends outside of what is factual.  In All Star! we're told Wagner played on five different teams in three states in order to make a living at baseball.  It's a throw-away bit of detail, but far more interesting that a lot of the information surrounding it.  Was this typical of a lot of players during that era, or was Wagner unique?  We don't learn that here, and this brief tidbit is left to stand in a way that suggests to a reader that this made him exceptional. Once again, the casual treatment of factual information in a picture book biography leaves open the possibility of misinformation. But he's an American legend, and we're not supposed to question (much less think about) the facts, right?

I guess my lasting impression of All Star! is that it feels very much like a journeyman effort from a well-respected author in the field of children's writing.  The story is flat, there's no real sense of what made Wagner tick beyond his love of the game, and opportunities to expand and explore what would make this biography unique are abandoned in favor of a tepid birth-to-just-before-death biography style of another century.

If I were being cynical I would say that, as the "prologue" to All Star! states, a Honus Wagner card was sold at auction in 2007 and a picture book author read about it in the paper and thought it might make for a good story.  That being the entire pitch, and the author being who she is within the industry, a publisher said "yes!" without further question and the final manuscript was tossed off after a week's worth of research.  If that isn't what happened here that's at least what it feels like.
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