Honus Wagner: the name doesn't conjure the immediate haloed recognition that the names Babe Ruth, Satchel Paige, Shoeless Joe, or Jackie Robinson do. If the average kid has heard of him, it is probably because of that fabulously valuable baseball card - the card that Honus himself had pulled from circulation because it came in packs of Piedmont cigarettes and he didn't want his young fans to think that he approved of cigarette smoking.
Right there we know we are reading about a principled athlete, a public figure conscious of his status as a role model, and we can always use more of those.
But, as we learn from Jane Yolen's heartfelt, admiring text and Jim Burke's powerful oil-on-board paintings, Honus Wagner was not only a conscientious celebrity, but also an extraordinary ballplayer, leading the league in batting EIGHT years during the years 1900 to 1911. He has a base-stealing record - three in one inning! - that still stands, and he was one of the first five players inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Yolen's bio, unlike some sports biographies that focus on a single event or character trait in an athlete's life, gives us Mr. Wagner's story from birth, through an astonishing twenty-one seasons of major-league ball, on to his retirement and Hall of Fame induction. She paints a portrait of the original lovable lug, a bow-legged coalminer's boy with long arms whose youthful strength came from loading coal.
The illustrations are notable not only for their muscular energy - one two-page spread gives us three views of Wagner's wide-legged batting style - but also for a subject-appropriate palette of sandy browns and muddy greens. Faces are often turned away or shadowed by ball caps, lending emphasis to the action. And the composition is masterful: large areas of plain or textured color give these paintings a strong feeling of space and movement.
Great sports biographies are gold in the school library, and this is absolutely one of them.