I always like to read a baseball book around this time of year. So I just ordered Ron Darling’s new one, The Complete Game: Reflections on Baseball, Pitching, and Life on the Mound. Here in upstate New York, we’re in the mud stage, where the fields are not quite ready, but hope is in the air. We can feel it coming, outside, playing that game we love.
To make any kind of all-time “Top Ten” list of books is ridiculous, because I keep coming across potentially great books that I haven’t read (yet!). Or read so long ago that my memory is unreliable. Ball Four? It’s been more than 30 years. It was funny, right? But why let that stop the fun? So those caveats aside, here’s a list of ten favorite baseball books, in no particular order.
THE GLORY OF THEIR TIMES: THE STORY OF BASEBALL TOLD BY THE MEN WHO PLAYED IT
A no-brainer, my all-time favorite. No other book touches closer to the heart of the game. From an Amazon review: “An oral history of the game in the first two decades of the century, Glory sends out its impressive roster of players to tell their own stories, and what stories they tell–the story of their times as well as of their game; the scorecard includes Rube Marquard, Babe Herman, Stan Coveleski, Smoky Joe Wood, and Wahoo Sam Crawford. A delight from cover to cover, Glory is the next best thing to having been there in the days when the ball may have been dead, but the personalities were anything but.”
A DAY IN THE BLEACHERS
by Arnold Hano
A few years ago, I took a men’s team down to Texas for a hardball tournament for ages 38 and up. I was GM, manager, and player. One of the players gave me this book as a gift. Hano captures one glorious day, September 28, 1954, when he attended the first game of the 1954 World Series. At age 84, Hano recently recalled: “When I subwayed home six hours later in a state of delicious languor, I decided to write about my day. The book I wrote, A Day in the Bleachers, does not deal just with the game. Oh, it does that too — the famous catch by Willie Mays takes up nine pages — but mainly it is about my day. I banter with a Brooklyn Dodger fan nearby (she carried a flag proclaiming her allegiance). I mutter incantations of hope during the not-quite 10 innings of strife. I wince at Cleveland pitcher Bob Feller’s valiant attempt to get himself in shape by doing push-ups in centerfield during batting practice, his backside too high. I marvel as Alvin Dark of the Giants intercepts a ground ball with his bare hand in the eighth inning. And I recall one final picture that day, umpire Larry Napp running down the right field foul line, indicating that a ball struck by New York’s Dusty Rhodes was indeed a game-winning home run. Immediately, all I had seen began to percolate in my brain. I had a book to write.”
THE UNIVERSAL BASEBALL ASSOCIATION, INC.
by Robert Coover
I like this line from a July 7, 1968 review in The New York Times: “Conversely, not to read it because you don’t like baseball is like not reading Balzac because you don’t like boarding houses. Baseball provides as good a frame for dramatic encounter as any. The bat and ball are excuses.” Coover was an experimental writer, an innovator, and this is possibly the most creative, imaginative of all the baseball books I’ve read. In brief, with pen and paper and three dice, a man, Henry Waugh, creates his own world, peopled with vivid characters — in this case, the Universal Baseball Association, Inc. Genius. The book had added appeal to me, personally, because as a boy I filled notebooks with imaginary games I played by rolling dice — very much like Henry Waugh did in the novel.
THE BOYS OF SUMMER
by Roger Kahn
A classic. I read this one as a teenager and it was one of the first books — of any kind — that blew me away. Even moreso, I suppose, because the Dodgers were my mother’s favorite team before they broke her heart and moved to Los Angeles. Kahn, too, rooted for the Brooklyn Dodgers as a child. He later covered them in the 1950s as a beat writer. According to a review in the blog, Curled Up with a Good Book, “In The Boys of Summer, Kahn reflects on the Dodgers and his own boyhood following the team. He visits with the Dodger greats to find out about their life after baseball and their own reflections on the team. What makes this arguably the seminal sports book, the book against which all other books in this genre should be judged, is Kahn’s ability to both paint a lyrical, moving account of his heroes and allow us to share intimate times on and off the field with icons such as Pee Wee Reese, Gil Hodges, and Duke Snyder . . . This is a book that belongs on every sports lover’s bookshelf. It is a literary masterpiece that masquerades as a sports memoir.”
THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL
by Phillip Roth
Published in 1973, this satiric book involves another fictional baseball league, the Patriot League, and could be the funniest take on baseball. If you haven’t read it, you must. The set up for the story takes Roth about 40 pages before he gets on firm ground, and then the story rolls and the laughter ripples. From a review in The New York Times: “The ballplayers of Roth’s fable, though they bear the names of deities, are anything but images of perfection. The Mundys consist of 50-year-old veterans who have tottered out of retirement, a French-Canadian refugee from the Japanese League, adolescent boys, an alcoholic ex-con (“the Babe Ruth of the Big House” when he played for Sing Sing), a peg-legged catcher, a one-armed outfielder, a midget relief pitcher and so on. Named for their founder, the legendary Glorious Mundy, they are the sacrifices implicit in his credo (“baseball is this country’s religion”), and their season of shame, relieved only by an 11-game winning streak powered by a secret diet of synthetic Wheaties concocted by a teen-age genius, culminated in a 31-0 loss to the pennant- winning Tri-City Tycoons on the final day of the season.”
THE SOUL OF BASEBALL: A ROAD TRIP THROUGH BUCK O’NEIL’S AMERICA
Buck O’Neil, a former star from the Negro Leagues, teams up with the great Joe Posnanski — one of my favorite bloggers and sports writers working today — and together they tour the country for various public relations events and ballgames. While Posnanski documents the journey, recounting Buck’s baseball memories along the way, it is the spirit of Buck O’Neil that shines through: his hopefulness, his zest for life, his grace, his humility, his soul. I found this book poignant and uplifting. A joy. For a nice interview with Joe Posnanski, click here. Said Leigh Montville: “This book is flat-out terrific. If Gandhi had played baseball, he would have been Buck O’Neill.”
I haven’t read this book in a long time, my memory of it is vague, and it may not be a fashionable pick due to the Hollywoodization of the film adaptation. But I remember being struck by Kinsella’s magic realism, his richly imaginative take on the baseball novel — Kinsella, for me, took the typical baseball story and brought it to a whole new place; and in doing so, opened up my own thinking about baseball and books and the realm of what was possible. Of course, even non-readers know the movie, The Field of Dreams, the at-times smarmy film starring Kevin Costner. At his best, Kinsella is lyrical and deep, writing not only about baseball but also love and memory, fathers and sons, dreams and truth. Many writers tend to go a overboard when talking about baseball — the prose too purple, too much religion in it — and Kinsella shares those faults. But there are other times when he absolutely nails it. An important book for me, since it came out in 1982, right around the time in my life when I first dreamed of becoming a writer.
Absolutely the right book at the right time. Lewis is a great nonfiction writer. His research (thanks to incredible access to Oakland A’s GM, Billy Beane) is thorough, he organizes his information beautifully, and much like Malcolm Gladwell, Lewis has a knack for conveying complicated ideas in a clear, accessible, entertaining manner. That is, he’s a hell of a writer — but not in a way that you’d necessarily notice at first, since it’s not so much about style as it is about substance. Here’s what Tom Wolfe had to say: “What does it take to turn a subject like baseball statistics into a true-life thriller not even a baseball-loathing bibliophobe could put down? Answer: saturation reporting, conceptual thinking of a high order, a rich sense of humor, and talent to burn. In short, Michael Lewis. Moneyball is his grandest tour de force yet.” Word is that they are going to make a movie based on Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt. Really. Fun fact: Lewis is married to Tabitha Soren, former MTV reporter.
by Charles Alexander
McGraw is one of the game’s great originals, a mercurial character whose career spanned the early decades of baseball, as it grew from its rough-neck, pugnatious roots into the national pasttime. Here’s a review from Amazon, written by Jeff Silverman: “Alexander’s marvelous biography of McGraw does what McGraw’s own My Thirty Years in Baseball couldn’t: it lets the volcano that was the man erupt in all its raw glory. A true baseball original, McGraw, as Alexander describes, ‘ate gunpowder every morning and washed it down with raw blood.’ He loved to win, but he hated losing more, and as manager of both the old Baltimore Orioles and New York Giants, he’s the only skipper in the game’s history to win almost 1,000 games more than he lost. McGraw was so outsized, flamboyant, fiery, and, at times, sentimental, that it would be easy to caricature him; Alexander’s remarkable achievement here is that he doesn’t (nor does he succumb to hero worship or bubble bursting). His triumph is letting McGraw stand on his own two spikes; the man — and the legend — have no problem standing up for themselves.”
Hands-down, my favorite baseball writer ever, but that claim places Mr. Angell in too small a box. Sentence for sentence, Roger Angell is one of the great American writers of the past 50 years, period. And I’ll punch anyone in the nose who doesn’t think so. I love the shape of his sentences, his language, insight, and humanity. But because his form is most often the essay, Angell really hasn’t written a great (great, great) full-length book. Don’t get me wrong, his collections are wonderful and I own them all. When I was writing Six Innings, it was all I could do to limit the amount that I stole from Angell, the master. I’ve written one fan letter in my life — and it went to Roger Angell. Still, I had to pick something from his work, so I went with Five Seasons, probably because it focuses on baseball in the middle 70′s — perhaps the last truly great era of the game. From The New York Times Book Review on Five Seasons: “A book for people who miss good writing, who miss clarity, lucidity, style and passion. It’s a book for all seasons.” Since 1956, Angell has worked as an editor for The New Yorker, where most of his eloquent writing has first appeared. His stepfather was E.B. White, not a bad writer himself.
AND THE LIFETIME AWARD GOES TO . . .
I’ve had a love/hate/love relationship with Bill James, but he may be the most influential baseball writer to ever put pencil to scorecard, purely in terms of changing the way we’ve come to know the game. His annual “Abstracts” — which often exposed the foggy thinking behind baseball’s most cherished “conventional wisdoms” — were must-buys for me throughout the 80′s. Over the years, James seemed to grow increasingly bitter and his writing got snarkier, more unpleasant. Despite his growing legion of fans, the baseball establishment appeared to reject and ignore his ideas. A rebel and provocateur, James loved the role of gadfly, of misunderstood outsider, yet at the same time seemed to pine for the game’s warm embrace. After years of writing in the wilderness, James finally gained full acceptance in 2003, when he was invited inside, hired into the progressive, sabermetrically-inclined front office of the Boston Red Sox. Smart club, those Sox. A wonderful baseball blogger named Rich Lederer did an outstanding series of articles called, “Abstracts from the Abstracts,” where he brilliantly details the importance of each book. Fantastic stuff. And for a quick sample of James, here’s a famous extract taken his 1988 Baseball Abstract. The brief piece is now widely known as “The Bill James Primer.”
AND FINALLY, A LITTLE BIT ABOUT . . .
One of the early influences for the format for Six Innings was a landmark book, titled Nine Innings: The Anatomy of a Baseball Game by Daniel Okrent — a man largely credited with inventing Fantasy Baseball. The format is essentially one game, a nothing game, June 10, 1982, Brewers vs. Orioles, including everything that happens on the field and, more importantly, inside the head of Mr. Okrent. Some folks consider this to be one of the most significant baseball books ever, in part because of Okrent’s analytical, Jamesian approach. It used to be out of print, and I’m glad to see that it’s made a comeback, hopefully with more success than Oil Can Boyd. Many other baseball books have taken that “one game” structure, including For the Love of the Game by Michael Shaara , The Last Nine Innings by Charles Euchner, and as I mentioned above, A Day in the Bleachers by Arnold Hano. With all those books in mind, and more, I knew that I was very much writing Six Innings within that tradition, and for that tradition, and that knowledge gave me the confidence to proceed.
I was tempted to make a long list of Honorable Mentions . . . but figured maybe you’d like to help. So, come on, which books did I forget to mention?