LORDS OF THE REALM: THE REAL HISTORY OF BASEBALL By John Helyar Villard, 576 pp., $24.

THE CURSE OF ROCKY COLAVITO: A LOVING LOOK AT A THIRTY-YEAR SLUMP By Terry Pluto Simon & Schuster 300 pp., $22.50.

WE PLAYED THE GAME: 65 PLAYERS REMEMBER BASEBALL'S GREATEST ERA 1947-1964 Edited by Danny Perry Hyperion, 643 pp., $35.

BASEBALL'S GOLDEN AGE: THE PHOTOGRAPHS OF CHARLES M. CONLON By Neal and Constance McCabe Harry N. Abrams 198 pp., $29.95.

RUNS, HITS, AND AN ERA: THE PACIFIC COAST LEAGUE, 1903-58 By Paul J. Zingg and Mark D. Medeiros University of Illinois Press, 170 pp., $44.95 cloth $19.95 paper.

THE CINCINNATI REDS: MEMORIES AND MEMORABILIA OF THE BIG RED MACHINE Text by Bruch Chadwick Photography by David M. Spindel Abbeville, 156 pp., $29.95.

THE CHICAGO CUBS: MEMORIES AND MEMORABILIA OF THE WRIGLEY WONDERS Text by Bruce Chadwick Photography by David M. Spindel Abbeville, 156 pp., $29.95.

IF winter is the best time to talk baseball, and summer is the best time to play baseball, then spring just may be the best time to read about baseball.

This season is still too young for our favorite team to be out of the running; no, not just yet. Outside, moist earthy winds blow in new hopes as we limber up with a few tosses or take a hack or two at lollipop pitches from a buddy. But evening's dark and cold soon sends us back inside. Baseball instincts aroused, we seek information, background, and context to guide us as we prepare to follow our team's pennant quest.

Baseball has a long and rich history that adds meaning to today's games. A number of recent books look back in either anger or fondness at baseball's personalities, both in team boardrooms and on the field, and how they influenced the game.

Most fans today have realized that, in many respects, the sports section and business section of their newspaper might as well be merged. Baseball has always been big business, but never has it been so blatant about it. In Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball, John Helyar shows how the off-the-field game has changed. In some ways, today is a prosperous time: Attendance is up, expansion has brought baseball to new fans, new ballparks have spruced up older franchises, and sales of merchandise are booming. But warning signals abound, too: TV revenues are down and so is viewership among 12-to-17-year-olds; a recent poll identifying the 20 American athletes kids most admire named only one baseball player (Bo Jackson).

In labor-management terms, the pendulum has swung wildly in the direction of the players. Their average salaries were less than $10,000 per year in the 1960s and are more than $1 million per year today, thanks to the aggressive negotiating of Marvin Miller and the players association. In 1994, Helyar sums up, baseball players and owners resemble ``the final scene in George Orwell's Animal Farm. The pigs, who'd once led a barnyard rebellion against the oppressive farmers, now shared many of their traits and, at the end, were sharing a sumptuous meal with them. Wrote Orwell, `The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.' ''

As important as boardroom machinations are, most fans would rather read about players and their exploits. Most know about the Curse of the Bambino: The Boston Red Sox have never won a pennant since they sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in 1918. Now author Terry Pluto concocts a theory as to why the Cleveland Indians have fallen on hard times. The Curse of Rocky Colavito: A Loving Look at a Thirty-Year Slump points out that ever since the Indians traded their best and most popular player to the Detroit Tigers in April 1960, a series of mishaps have befallen the team, resulting in nearly uninterrupted ineptitude on the field.

Vignettes on what happened to other great Indians players, like star-pitcher Herb Score who was traded the day after ``the Rock,'' help build Pluto's case. He writes with plenty of authority and the passion of a native Clevelander who was robbed of part of his sports heritage by Indians General Manager Frank Lane, who made the detested trade.

The year 1947 saw Jackie Robinson break the color barrier. By 1964, the Yankees had won the last of a string of pennants that made them the dominant team of that era. To write We Played the Game: 65 Players Remember Baseball's Greatest Era, 1947-1964, Danny Peary traveled across the country collecting an oral history. Some of the players he interviewed were household names; others were journeymen. They all played before salaries took off for the stratosphere. In their own words, they tell what it was like to play in the big games and against the top players in an era before designated hitters, artificial turf, and ``wild card'' games.

``Most definitely, these men were of a different, much harder breed than the athletes who followed,'' Peary writes. ``As a group, they represented the last in the tradition of the hard-nosed, fundamentally sound, underpaid yet dedicated ballplayers....''

Amateur photographer Charles M. Conlon left a remarkable legacy of some 8,000 images of baseball players, made from 1904 to 1942. Baseball's Golden Age: The Photographs of Charles M. Conlon, assembled by Neal and Constance McCabe, a brother-and-sister team, finally gives Conlon his due as an outstanding documentary photographer. Conlon, a newspaper proofreader by profession, shot everything from rising stars to grizzled veterans, famous managers to visiting VIPs for the Spalding Guide and other publications, mostly without credit.

He captured Babe Ruth at many stages of his career, from a young Boston pitching prospect to riding high as New York's ``Sultan of Swat'' to a last farewell tour with the Red Sox. There's a close-up of Honus Wagner's huge hands and powerful forearms gripping a bat; a boyish John McGraw sitting cross-legged at the top of the dugout; and catcher Benny Bengough oozing good-natured charm as he doffs his mask. Conlon's reputation is sure to rise as a result of this memorable collection; he had a special ability to convey the dignity, humor, and pathos of baseball men at work.

Not all the history was being made in the major leagues. When the Giants and Dodgers moved to California in 1958, minor-league baseball had been flourishing there for more than half a century. Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams are just two of many major-league stars who played for pay first out West. Runs, Hits, and an Era: The Pacific Coast League, 1903-58, by Paul J. Zingg and Mark D. Medeiros, records the exploits of teams like the San Francisco Seals, the Hollywood Stars, and the Oakland Oaks when, for a West Coast fan, they were the only game in town.

Although many fans enjoy baseball in general, and at any level, most center their affections on a particular club. The Cincinnati Reds: Memories and Memorabilia of the Big Red Machine and The Chicago Cubs: Memories and Memorabilia of the Wrigley Wonders are the fifth and sixth in a series of picture books on major league teams with text by Bruce Chadwick and photography by David M. Spindel. Here are team histories illustrated by all the emblemed mugs, jerseys, caps, helmets, ticket stubs, cards, game programs, pins, and pennants that help fans identify with their heroes.

Each book concludes with the team's all-time records and biographies of some of its most-renowned players. Readers are likely to stumble across former players they haven't thought about in years. Wally Post and Don Kessinger, where are you now?

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