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Sports books, like everything else, are expensive these days: $18.95 is a lot to pay for the pontifications of a 19-year-old athlete. He may be making $650,000 a year, but you're not. So it's a pleasure to report that three of the best baseball books ever written are now available at a fraction of their original cost. One, a novel, is a marvel of imagination; one is a triumph of passion and research; and one is an artistic achievement of style and substance. None loses a whit in paperback.

The novel, The Greatest Slump of All Time, by David Carkeet (Penguin, $5.95), is about a mythical National League West team that has been overwhelmed by depression since spring training but nevertheless finishes a winner. There's plenty of solid baseball here, but the main ingredient is hilarity, supplied by a roster ranging from ace pitcher Apples, who's relieved of his virginal inhibitions by a libidinous dental assistant, to manager Grammock, whose superstitions and risqué jokes drive his team batty.

What drives Invisible Men (Atheneum, $7.95) is author Donn Rogosin's crusade for recognition of the men who played in the Negro leagues before major league baseball abandoned its hypocritical stance on racial issues. Rogosin's research into this often deliberately ignored story leads him to the inescapable conclusion that the integration of baseball was brought about less by Rickey and Robinson than by the achievements and unremitting efforts of earlier black players and promoters.

Finally, the artistry and acumen of The Washington Post's Thomas Boswell have never been better exhibited than they are in Why Time Begins on Opening Day (Penguin, $5.95). Boswell covers every aspect of the game, and every other line is irresistibly quotable. Two samples: "The idea has taken shape seven different times that victory may not be worth the price if the price is Billy Martin," and "The curse of a [player's] public image is that, sooner or later, it starts showing up in the mirror."

Don't miss these three.