BASEBALL literature, like baseball itself, has Hall of Fame years - surely 1916, when Ring Lardner's ``You Know Me, Al'' appeared; or 1966, when Lawrence Ritter gave us ``The Glory of Their Times.'' Other years' publications are more like 1945, when the war-ravaged major leagues crowned the Tigers and Cubs league champions, two teams so undistinguished that when it came to assessing their chances in the World Series, Chicago sportswriter Warren Brown concluded that neither team could win. This year's lineup of new books is a little like 1945: We have an ordinary lot of books; none is really the best.
Nevertheless, there is some enjoyable reading in the mix. You might want to start your baseball reading this year with Sixty-One by Tony Kubek and Terry Pluto (Macmillan, New York, 269 pp., $19.95). This is a unique book for an ex-player. The former Yankee shortstop talks hardly at all about his own career and accomplishments; he talks instead about his teammates on the 1961 Yankees and the remarkable season they had.
Kubek writes mostly - and most affectionately - about Roger Maris, as Maris stoically pursues Babe Ruth's home run record while the world roots against him.
It is a very human Roger Maris that emerges from these pages, and we see now what so many of us were blind to in 1961 - that Maris was no ogre, desecrating the memory of the hallowed Ruth. He was just a shy, taciturn young man from North Dakota, who accomplished what was almost beyond comprehension, and accomplished it in a swirl of attention and antipathy that was equally beyond comprehension. Maris, who died in 1985, is worthy of his achievement and deserving of our applause, however belated.
Kubek's book also reminds us that being a fan was simpler in 1961. All you needed was a program, and a patient father who loved to explain the game.
FOR those fast-track 1980s people who need more out of life, there's How to Watch Baseball by Steve Fiffer (Facts on File, New York, 204 pp., $16.95). A book dedicated to the proposition that you're somehow being cheated if you go to a game and don't steal a sign or know to the hundreth of a second how long it takes a pitcher to get the ball from the stretch position to the catcher's mitt.
There's nothing wrong with this, of course, just as there is nothing wrong with a parent's showing flashcards to a three-month-old child so that the child might get a faster start in life. It just all seems a might excessive and unnecessary.
What Fiffer has here is ably enough done. It is just that it's all very obvious to anyone who ever played Little League baseball or paid attention to the more astute analysts on television - men like Tony Kubek or Tim McCarver.
AH yes, Tim McCarver, the philosopher-sage of the New York Mets telecasts. It figured that a baseball man who actually read books would one day write one, though you would have also predicted that with all of McCarver's on-air erudition he would have come up with a more artful title than Oh, Baby, I Love It! (with Ray Robinson, Villard Books, New York, 245 pp., $16.95).
As he is in the broadcast booth, McCarver is fresh and unpredictable in his book. He quotes E.B. White, Vincent van Gogh, and John Updike, but he's equally facile with locker-room bawdiness. He's forthright and unsparing with his opinions. And a well-turned phrase is as dear to McCarver as a well-turned double play as he addresses everything from fear and pressure to his disgust at ballplayers' predilection for fast food.
There is lot of familiar ground covered here, but covered with a perspective and energy that make the book worthwhile.
NOT so, unfortunately for Kiner's Korner, the memoir of Tim McCarver's colleague in the Mets booth, Ralph Kiner (with Joe Gergen, Arbor House, New York, 239 pp., $16.95).
Kiner is entertaining enough - if a little overbearing - when he's talking about his own adventures as a player. But that constitutes only about a quarter of the book. The balance is given over to a plodding, year-by-year history of the Mets. And, except for the very beginning, when the team's ineptitude was matched only by its appeal - and the surprising first World Series triumph in 1969 - there isn't a whole lot of interest in the Mets history.
It's surely dull history delivered as it is here, heavy on the details of injuries and trades and bereft of all human involvement and perspective. This one is strictly for the Mets crazies. And Mets fans are going to be a busy lot, because in addition to this pair there are books by outfielder Len Dykstra and catcher Gary Carter, as well as last year's books by star pitcher Dwight Gooden, first baseman Keith Hernandez, and manager Davey Johnson.
To be a member of the Mets these days and not have a book in the bookstores must be rather like making a Little League team but being told that, alas, there aren't any uniforms left.
FINALLY, one of the delicious dalliances of this game is to haunt the record books and the legends and argue for years about whether Mays was better than DiMaggio, or whether Nolan Ryan's celebrated fastball might not look like a change-up were it matched against Walter Johnson's. Every fan has an all-time all-star team; no two lists are alike. In Players' Choice (Facts on File, New York, 226 pp., $16.95), Eugene and Roger McCaffrey give us the players' own lists.
The results are hardly surprising; the players are in as much disagreement as the fans. In fact, in the tabulated consensus they couldn't even choose between Mays and DiMaggio - both men made the all-time outfield together with Ted Williams and Babe Ruth.
This is a fun book to have around. It doesn't stop at the best nine ballplayers. It solicits opinions on the best umpire, ballpark, spitball, and myriad other ancillary, yet somehow essential, questions.
There is, unfortunately, no question that asks the players for their favorite baseball book. But there may be something of a hint as to the players' feelings on baseball writings in their answer to ``what baseball writer understood the game best?'' NONE OF THEM finished a strong third, right behind Red Smith and Dick Young.