Gems from the nonfiction shelf
History of black baseball Invisible Men - Life in Baseball's Negro Leagues, by Donn Rogasin. New York: Atheneum. 183 pp. $14.95.
Some of the best baseball players to ever round the bases came from the Negro baseball leagues, which flourished from 1920 to 1946. Yet white Americans barely knew they existed.
Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard, stars of the Negro leagues, were hitters on a par with Ruth and Gehrig. Satchel Paige ranks as one of the greatest pitchers of all time. Black players were ambitious, often looking for a way out of poverty. To other blacks, their jobs were prestigious, their ''barnstorming'' travel glamorous.
Yet in reality, it was never easy to be a baseball player in the Negro leagues. As one team member put it, ''We had to travel in the hardship way.'' In the segregated South, that meant standing at the back doors of sleazy cafes to buy sandwiches - and sometimes playing three games a day to make an extra buck.
Soon after World War II, when the major leagues began to recruit blacks, many of the best Negro-league stars were past their prime. At this time, Negro-league baseball folded as blacks flocked to see Jackie Robinson play integrated ball. ''Rather than a disillusioning spectacle, however, the integration of baseball was the Negro league's finest moment,'' the author says. ''It represented all that the Negro leagues stood for, all they believed in.'' A jaunt to Labrador's wilds
Against Straight Lines, by Robert Perkins. Boston: Little, Brown & Co. 191 pp. $15.95.
After Robert Perkins hiked and canoed his way alone across the top of Labrador in 1979, the ordinary world never looked the same to him. ''Now I have two other eyes to see the land through,'' he says, ''and to see myself.''
To read ''Against Straight Lines'' is to walk silently with the young artist over tundra, to fish in quiet coves, and to watch caribou as impassively as they watch back.
Perkins seems to invite us to look into his book at any level: journal-travelogue, stream of consciousness, memoir - or a combination of the three. Sometimes he is profound: ''If it were possible, I'd become a pure verb.'' And whimsical: ''If I could think of a use for mosquitoes, I'd be a rich man.'' He is well-read enough to draw on snatches of Keats, Camus, and Kant as he portages. His sense of humor inspires him to carry half a pink plastic flamingo - all he has room for in his backpack - to put in front of his tent each night.
A comfortable chair, a couple of leisure hours, and this book are all you'll need to follow Robert Perkins to Labrador. Mob boss's underworld view
Man of Honor, by Joseph Bonanno with Sergio Lalli. New York: Simon & Shuster. 416 pp. $17.95.
''My name is Joseph Bonanno. . . . I've been described as a gangster. . . .''
With these words, the retired ''father'' of the Bonanno crime family flings down a sort of verbal gauntlet of values and judgments. He offers a rationale of life in the underworld, based on the old Sicilian code he calls the ''tradition.'' The tradition, says Bonanno, is loyalty among a network of friends who help and protect each other.
Bonanno professes to have a ''clear conscience'' about his career in the rackets, which he declares not immoral - just illegal. He admits there was murder and mayhem in the organization, but considers that only a necessary part of the code.
At odds with Mussolini's fascism, Bonanno gave up his youthful dream of becoming a sea captain in Sicily. He immigrated to the United States and, unlike most newcomers, chose to follow the ''tradition'' into a life of gambling and bootlegging.
This book is not necessarily to be avoided. If learning is knowledge, then an understanding of the underworld and its power is an education in itself. Here the knowledge just happens to be imparted by a mob boss who knows whereof he speaks. Entertainer recalls past era
Bricktop, by Bricktop with James Haskins. New York: Atheneum. 239 pp. $15.95.
She was born Ada Beatrice Queen Victoria Louise Virginia Smith. But from Paris to Rome to New York, cafe society knew her as ''Bricktop.''
Now, in a frank autobiography, this red-haired daughter of a slave recalls her career as entertainer-cabaret hostess over six decades. And there's a lot to tell. ''Bricky'' was the darling of the international set who frequented her club in Paris in the '20s and '30s.
Cole Porter was a loyal, lifetime friend, and she taught Edward, Prince of Wales, to dance the ''Black Bottom.'' Bricktop ''mothered'' F. Scott Fitzgerald, but she didn't cotton to Ernest Hemingway, and Picasso was ''just another customer.'' The spunky, freckle-faced entertainer thinks she was popular with celebrities such as these because she considered all her guests ''just people.'' Travels with a naturalist
Ark on the Move, by Gerald Durrell. New York: Coward-McCann Inc. 141 pp. $14. 95.
You might say that Gerald Durrell is professor of the ''first mini-university of captive breeding.'' That's what naturalist Durrell calls his wildlife trust on the island of Jersey, where he collects, studies, and breeds endangered species of animal life. From that home base he takes trips to many countries to gather information on animals and bring back specimens.
''Ark on the Move'' is a free-flowing account of such a trip to four islands in the Indian Ocean -- Mauritius, Rodriguez, Round Island, and Madagascar. Everywhere he went, Durrell saw examples of ecological folly already affecting plant and animan life. Dwindling forests destroyed by man devastate animals and birds, which vie for sparse food and shelter. He observed exotic butterflies with designs ''like fine tapestries'' on their wings, and photographed rare, woolly ruffed lemurs at play.
''Ark on the Move'' contains over 50 color photographs. It is meant to be read once and thumbed through often.