NEW YORK (Reuters) - Mark Kurlansky famously wrote about how cod changed the world, producing a best-seller that has changed his career and allowed him to choose his next topic the way an Oscar winner can chose his next role.
The result is an eclectic body of work in which Kurlansky uses specific subjects, like salt or the Basque people, to illustrate the broader impact they had on the world’s food, commerce, politics and history.
This time Kurlansky has applied that technique to baseball in his latest book, “The Eastern Stars: How Baseball Changed the Dominican Town of San Pedro de Macoris.”
As the photo on the cover suggests, it’s a story about baseball and how hope thrives in an impoverished town of about 300,000 people that has produced a remarkable 79 Major League Baseball players since 1962.
By comparison New York City — population 8 million and the most important city in the history of the sport — produced 129 major-leaguers in that time, according to the book.
Kurlansky takes the reader through histories of the town, the country and the Caribbean, weaving together the role of the sugar industry and race relations in the Americas while sprinkling in a few recipes.
Before becoming a best-selling author — his 1997 book “Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World” has sold nearly 1 million copies in the United States, his agent said — Kurlansky covered the Caribbean for the Chicago Tribune. That job led to 1992’s “A Continent of Islands: Searching for the Caribbean Destiny,” and the start of his publishing career.
“It bothers me that so many people go to the Caribbean and have no idea what it is,” said Kurlansky, 61, lamenting the all-inclusive style of tourism that keeps foreigners captive in compounds and aims to prevent them from mingling with locals.
“One idea that I had for a very long time is to take a town, a small town somewhere in the Caribbean, and write a book about this town. And then one day it dawned on me: How about a town that has produced 80 Major League Baseball players?”
Kurlansky traces the origins of the baseball phenomenon to the sugar mills of San Pedro de Macoris, which sponsored their own teams and created competitive baseball there long before other cities in the Dominican Republic. The town’s enduring poverty and young men’s hopes for a multimillion-dollar contract have kept many “macorisanos” devoted to the game.
Virtually all Dominicans were shut out of the major leagues until they started allowing black players in 1947. And many Dominican players were overshadowed by Cubans until 1962, when the United States imposed an embargo on Cuba and cut off a more traditional source of Caribbean talent.
Despite the book’s focus on baseball, the man who has explored the influence of salt and oysters couldn’t resist references to food, offering fish recipes from the San Pedro area. Kurlansky insists he is not a “foodie,” a type of connoisseur who some may see as a food snob.
“Food is interesting to me because it’s a way of understanding culture and societies and history. I would never write about food just as food. Just like I would never write about baseball just as baseball,” Kurlansky said from his Manhattan office, which is crammed full of books, a cello and his dog — diversions from his 12-hour writing shifts.
An upcoming book on the late Jewish baseball star Hank Greenberg will be his 20th book. He’s also working on a children’s book about overfishing, a collection of short stories about people’s obsession with food, and a semi-autobiographical young adult novel about a Vietnam war dissenter.
Editing by Mark Egan and Stacey Joyce