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How Baseball Changed the Dominican Town of San Pedro de Macorís

A-The Eastern StarsThe author of the best-selling Salt: A World History (2002), Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World (1997), and 1968 ( 3.5 of 5 Stars May/June 2004), Mark Kurlansky turns his focus on the small island nation of the Dominican Republic. Having served as the Chicago Tribune’s correspondent in the Caribbean, Kurlansky is on intimate terms with this corner of the world, a connection reflected in his first book, A Continent of Islands: Searching for the Caribbean Destiny (1992).

The Topic: On the southern coast of the Dominican Republic lies a small city with an extraordinary claim to fame. Nestled among sugar cane fields, San Pedro de Macorís has produced, per capita, more major league baseball players than any other place in the world--a total of 79 between 1962 and 2008. Searching for an explanation in San Pedro’s history, Kurlansky describes the American sugar barons who sponsored teams and organized games as a distraction from the backbreaking labor of cutting cane in the early 1900s. When the United States severed ties with Cuba in 1959, big league scouts were compelled to seek Latino talent in other locales, and San Pedro’s sons, who had spent their youth swinging at rocks with sugar cane stalks, were happy to oblige.
Riverhead. 288 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 9781594487507

Denver Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Baseball is the only sport I follow professionally, so naturally I found the listings of Dominican players absorbing. But what I found more absorbing is Kurlansky’s selective, well-written chronicle of Dominican history." Steve Weinberg

Philadelphia Inquirer 4 of 5 Stars
"It’s history. And sociology. And anthropology. And religion. And recipes. And a study of race. And recipes. And, oh yes, a smattering of baseball. In short, a pastiche. But an enticing one." Bill Lyon

Providence Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"... a unique book recounting colonial conquests and today’s campaign to recruit, feed, train and deploy young men hungry for the gold they can make playing ball. ... Kurlansky’s book is accessible to those not versed in baseball, for he explains arcane features of game and culture." Anne Grant

Christian Science Monitor 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The Eastern Stars has fascinating moments, but its course is unsteady, its rhythm erratic. ... Even though Kurlansky profiles numerous Dominicans who became major-leaguers in the US and Japan, he fails to communicate the excitement of baseball." Carlo Wolff

Cleveland Plain Dealer 2.5 of 5 Stars
"This story almost begs a writer to zoom in on the human element--the young ballplayer who knows his family’s future depends on being signed, the shady buscones who recruit and train players, the scouts looking for the next Sosa, and the washouts returned home to a life of what might have been. ... He provides a thorough history of Dominican baseball, but the personal stories that could have made this book captivate are missing." James F. Sweeney

Los Angeles Times 1.5 of 5 Stars
"Kurlansky repeatedly runs aground in his foray into sportswriting. He gets so many of the simple, easily verifiable facts wrong so often that, after a while, it becomes impossible to trust his grasp of the larger narrative." Kevin Baxter

Critical Summary

Named after San Pedro’s home team, Estrellas Orientales, The Eastern Stars hit a home run with some critics and struck out with others. Kurlansky tackles his subject capably, explaining key baseball terms and concepts for readers unfamiliar with the game, but he doesn’t write with the passion and determined focus of a sportswriter. Critics who panned The Eastern Stars cited Kurlansky’s failure to humanize his story as well as a few holes in his own understanding of the game. However, as the study of a troubled, economically depressed community, Kurlansky’s book fares better. Based on solid research and framed in simple, forthright prose, his reflections on history, culture, religion, and racial relations--oh, and baseball--charmed critics who didn’t necessarily have their hearts set on a baseball book.