Most of the baseball books I've read (such as the one I reviewed most recently, The Baseball Codes) are about the *game* of baseball. Kurlansky's is different. Unlike your average book about the sport, in The Eastern Stars you'll rarely find the phrase, "The count was 3 and 2, with 2 outs." Instead, this book is about the cultural history of baseball in a place and economic system that is foreign to most of us. It's fascinating -- assuming that you are as attracted as I am to anthropology, or "how one item can impact an entire society."
Kurlansky is no stranger to this kind of writing, as his previous books (such as Salt: A World History) demonstrate. But I hadn't realized until I read The Eastern Stars that he has a long journalistic history in the Dominican Republic, and the depth of his knowledge really shows. This isn't someone who flew in for a few weeks worth of interviews; Kurlansky is well aware of the frequency with which the power goes out in the Dominican Republic, and people's dependence on motorbikes (I once saw five people on a two-person motorbike -- plus a guitar). In fact, if you're interested in the Dominican Republic without any reference to baseball, this would be an excellent overview. I certainly wish I'd read his chapter on the country's history before I spent a week in the country in the mid 90s. (I stayed with friends, cooking on a gas stove powered with rum. It was a very long way from any resort hotel.) There are points where I began to suspect that the author was trying to decide if his book should be about the history/impact of sugar (to accompany Salt) rather than baseball, because he paints such a vivid picture of the last century in the sugar industry.
But the crux of this book is baseball, and the tiny Dominican town called San Pedro de Macoris -- where 79 major leaguers originated between 1962 and 2008, one out of every six of the Dominicans who made it to the major league. You know their names: Sammy Sosa, George Bell, Julio Franco, Robinson Cano. What you may not realize is the distance those men traveled, from raging poverty to the very foreign United States (most spoke no English when they arrived, leading Kurlansky to share several entertaining anecdotes about how the boys managed to order food). Baseball was and is the path out of a dead-end existence, and young boys play baseball constantly -- even though many have no baseballs, only socks filled with whatever is available. Much of the town's ecosystem has been tuned to the purpose, such as the buscons who run baseball academies to train young and talented boys (and get a percentage of the signing bonus, when there is one).
Mostly, Kurlansky does his best to look for, "What makes this town so special?" -- and I really enjoyed his search for the answer. He applies an excellent journalistic sense to "America's pasttime" (even if there are more non-U.S. players every year) that explains why MLB looks for talent outside our country, how the Dominican government influenced baseball (including one season in which they paid Negro League players handsomely to compete, since Trujillo was bound for HIS team to win), and where the failing sugar industry fits into all this.
If you seek a fun, fluffy book full of baseball anecdotes, this may not be the book you're looking for. However, if you want a picture of baseball's social impact and a keyhole view into the lives of several of your favorite players... well, this is a truly excellent book.