Tag Archive for W.P. Kinsella

The Similarity Between Reading and Baseball

I have written exactly one piece of fan mail in my life, to the baseball writer, Roger Angell. I’m sorry, that tag does him a disservice; Angell is a writer, period, a great one, a crafter of sublime sentences, a keen observer, a man who feels things and captures living moments. His writing goes deep into baseball and beyond it. Angell’s more than a great writer; I suspect he’s a great man.

I had written Six Innings and wanted him, an important stranger, to have a copy of my book. I wanted him to love it, of course, to recognize me as a fellow traveler, but writers don’t have much say over how the world responds. You release the work into the wild and hope it finds food, shelter, a home, and thrives. Six Innings went on to earn an ALA Notable. And almost as good, Mr. Angell wrote a kind, handwritten letter in return.

Lately I had been thinking about “the ideal reader,” and decided, perhaps cleverly, that my ideal reader would be someone who wasn’t afraid of being bored. That’s been my concern of late, because so many children’s books these days are high concept and plot-driven, because we hear over and over again that boys don’t read, and if they do open a book they will sit still only for wall-to-wall action. And I guess I sometimes fret that I don’t deliver that kind of pleasure. In truth, I only infrequently read that kind of book. So, yes, please, if I may order one to go, I’d like a reader who will hang with me during the slow parts.

And I heard in that wish an echo. And realized, once again, that the notion was not entirely my own. Authentic, yes; original, not exactly.

I remembered something I heard Mr. Angell say at a public reading on March 1, 1989, at Peter Norton Symphony Space in New York. The program was a special evening in Selected Shorts history, dedicated to great writing about baseball, created by Roger Angell along with his friend, A Bartlett Giamatti, who was soon to assume his duties as Commissioner of Baseball. I remember the reading vividly. Years later I tracked down the CD compilation and now revisit selections each Spring. Some of my favorite stories from that night include John Updike’s, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” W.P. Kinsella’s “The Thrill of the Grass,” T.C. Boyle’s hilarious “The Hector Quesadilla Story,” and Giamatti’s classic, “The Green Fields of the Mind.”

I recalled, most especially, the night’s opening remarks made by Angell. So I got out the CD, listened and listened again while scribbling on a yellow legal pad, until I could transcribe the brief exchange I’d remembered. As far as I know, there isn’t a transcription available on the net, so here you have one brief moment — an exchange that struck me, and has stuck with me, for more than 20 years. Angell makes a simple comparision, doesn’t extend it much, doesn’t labor over it, gets in and out, yet it made me laugh and it still gets me thinking today.

For here we are: Baseball season, pitchers and Molinas, is almost upon us. The massive spectacle of the Super Bowl has come and gone. It’s time for quieter pleasures. During my workday this past week, I arranged indoor practices for my 12-year-old Travel Team. Sent out emails, talked to the uniform guy about new jerseys. And today in my capacity as a Board Member for my local Little League, I ordered more than $4,000 worth of baseballs and assorted equipment.

All I really want to do is get out that old glove one more time. That simplest pleasure of all, a game of catch.

Well, here’s Angell and Giamatti, as they set the stage back in 1989:

A. Bartlett Giamatti:

“Why does baseball appeal to writers so much?”

Roger Angell:

The similarities between reading and baseball are evident to all of us, and may account for the enormous flood of baseball writing that goes on and on, and so much of it very high quality.

Baseball after all is a linear game. It’s the only one that is linear in the sense that one thing happens, and something else happens, and there’s a pause, and there’s a time for writers to think about it, and keep score, and take notes.

A Bartlett Giamatti:

It’s always occurred to me that intellectuals like baseball because it goes slowly enough so they can understand it.

Roger Angell:

Well, certainly I would hate to try to write intensely moving paragraphs about basketball, which is a swirling and beautiful sport of an entirely different nature, with a different feel to it. But one of the things about baseball which is like reading, in addition to the obvious things like chapters and, ah, is that if you think about both baseball and reading, they are occupations for people who are not afraid of being bored. But — you can laugh, but — also it really is one of the great pleasures of baseball. If you sit there in the early innings, there’s that wonderful time when you wait and see what kind of game this is going to be. Every game is so different from the other, and you need those early chapters, sometimes very slow moving, in order to lead up to the end of the book, the end of the game. Not dissimilar.

Fan Mail Wednesday #49 (Tuesday Edition)

Get out your old Kool & The Gang records, people, and let’s bust a move — it’s Fan Mail Wednesday!

But first, let’s just take a moment to be awed by the amazing fact that I receive any fan mail at all. And not so much that it’s me, James Preller, getting the mail (though that’s astonishing enough). But that a book can be written, and later read, and that somebody out there can be moved to reach out to that author, to say kind words. I’m humbled every time I get a letter. So thank you all. When I started this series with Fan Mail Wednesday #1, I wondered, What if the letters just stop? What if I don’t get enough to sustain it? But somehow, some way, that hasn’t happened . . . yet.

How lucky am I?

Dear Mr. Preller:

My name is Braden. I am a sixth grade student from McCants Middle School in Anderson, SC. We had an author project in class and I came across your book, Six Innngs. I couldn’t put it down until I was done reading it. I love that book!

I did some research and saw on your blog that you did not start out wanting to be an author.  I read that you wanted to play baseball for the New York Mets. I like baseball too. I play on the USSSA baseball team called the Anderson Alley Cats. We play tournament ball and travel all over the state. We are fortunate to be number one in the state of South Carolina right now. We are hoping to finish out the season in the number one spot and go to the USSSA Little League World Series in Charleston, SC.

I like your style of writing. It is intense  and moves fast from topic to topic. My favorite part of the book was the last pitch. It had me guess what was going to happen and thinking of all the outcomes. You can tell that you have a love of baseball in your stories. Do you have plans to write other baseball stories?

I also saw on your blog the suggestions for books. I can’t wait to read Mudville by Kurtis Scaletta. That looks like it would be a good one too. Is the style of the author similar to yours? If so, I know it will keep me wanting more.

I hope to read more of your books, and I also hope that you will write more about baseball. I will definitely buy them!



I replied:


Thanks for writing. I loved getting positive feedback from a real ballplayer like yourself. Yes, you’re right, I do love baseball, and from many different perspectives — childhood memories, times shared with my mother, as a player, a coach, a father, a fan, a reader and a writer.

I once did a book signing for Six Innings, soon after it was published. I expected to see a lot of kids like you, boys who loved playing ball. So I was a little surprised to see many kids who were clearly not athletes. Of course, I quickly realized: They were readers. And also: These kids loved the game, but the game, alas, did not love them back. I always think of those kids, the ones who were never quite good enough, who struggled and failed and faced terrible disappointment, but who loved the game just as much (if not more) than any star on the field. You are fortunate that you are such a good player, that you have that gift. You give to the game through hours of hard work and effort, and to you the game gives back. It’s nice when that works out — and it’s how I feel, too. Blessed.

Since you asked, I have no immediate plans to write another baseball book. But . . . I do have an idea for another baseball story. It’s stuck with me for the past few years, and my mind wanders over it from time to time, almost absently,  like a pitcher’s fingertips across the stitches of a ball as he bends in to look for the catcher’s sign. I’ve got a slim file, filled with bits of dialogue, phrases, small moments and false starts. I want to do something along the lines of Magic Realism, where the story is very realistic, down to earth, but then something utterly impossible happens and you go with it. W.P. Kinsella writes books like that (I recommend Shoeless Joe); and, of course, Gabriel Garcia Marquez is the master of that genre, but he’s someone you might want to wait a few years before tackling.

Anyway, here’s a brief passage from my notebook, which I’ve never before shown to anyone. It’s about a boy’s first game at a real ballpark, and the magic of that event,  a dream come true:


“There it is, the stadium,” my father pointed. I followed the line of his finger. Wow, there is was, huge and magnificient. My first real ballpark.

I was going to eat three hot dogs.

We parked the car. “H-12,” my father murmured, noting a sign on a nearby light pole. “Remember that, Slugger. We parked in area H-12.”

I promised to remember. And of course I would. I’d remember everything.

If you beat the crowds, and waited by the player’s entrance, you could sometimes get lucky, my brothers said. So we waited with a group of other die-hard fans, clutching Sharpies and baseballs, eager for autographs.

The team bus arrived, large and splendid, and one by one the players filed past. They weren’t in uniforms, but still you could tell by the way they walked, by a certain glint in their eyes, they had something special. An athlete’s swagger.

A few signed autographs. Most strode on by, bigger things on their minds. A short, squat man — older, grizzled with stubbled gray hair — grabbed the ball from my hand. He signed it, “Luke Standahl.”

“He’s the manager,” my father whispered into my ear. But I knew that already. Mr. Standahl walked a few steps, then turned and threw me the ball. I snatched it with one hand. His eyes narrowed. “Southpaw,” he murmured, then spit. “I’ve been around this game fifty years, and you look like a ballplayer to me.”

“I am,” I replied.

“We’ll see about that,” he muttered, and spat again.


Do you think anybody would want to read a story like that?

Listen, Braden, good luck with the Anderson Alley Cats. I hope you do well, make it all the way to the World Series. I’ll be rooting for you. And in the meantime, I agree, Mudville by Kurtis Scaletta sounds like a pretty cool book — with a little magic in it, too.

My best, and thanks again for writing,


My Ten All-Time Favorite Baseball Books

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.


by Lawrence S. Ritter

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.”


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.”


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.


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.”


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.”


by Joe Posnanski

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.”


by W.P. Kinsella

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.


by Michael Lewis

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.”


Roger Angell

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.



Bill James

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.




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?