13 Great Baseball Books
Although many people may turn to the Internet and the slew of websites available online that focus on baseball, others may prefer flipping through a book devoted to America’s pastime. Here is a list of 13 books written about baseball. Pick up one, sit back, and enjoy. You can’t go wrong with any of them.
The Summer Game by Roger Angell (Bison Books): The author is a stepson of Hall-of-Fame essayist E.B. White, and his smooth-as-silk prose style and ability to get players reveal inside baseball insights and explain why the game is part of the American mind set a new standard for baseball writing. Angell, who is still going strong in his 90s, has published numerous subsequent books on baseball (and other subjects), and he manages to extract quotes from his interview subjects that reveal the inner game and the inner man.
You Know Me, Al by Ring Lardner(Book Jungle): This 1920s novel — in the form of a collection of letters from its fictional protagonist, bush-league pitcher Jack Keefe, to his hometown pal — is so plainspoken and understated that it took a literary genius like Virginia Woolf to recognize that Lardner was not only spinning a darkly comic look at the underside of the game, but also peering deep into the American soul. (Lardner’s pal, F. Scott Fitzgerald, shared Woolf’s sentiments.)
You can read it and laugh at its first-person narrator’s self-delusion, and then you can re-read it and recognize your own — but the laughter may catch in your throat. This book is still the best piece of fiction ever written about the game — by a great writer who has been almost totally forgotten.
*Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball by John Helyar (Ballantine Books): Absolutely essential reading for any fan who wants to understand the national pastime as ruthless business. Helyar spells out the ugly history of the owners’ exploitation of the source of their riches — the players. He concentrates on the era of collusion, the mid-1980s, to underscore the history of baseball’s labor relations, and it reads like a thriller.
The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn (Harper Perennial Modern Classics): This book is a homage to a lost era and a mythical team, the Brooklyn Dodgers of the late 1940s and 1950s. Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, Don Newcombe, and their teammates were more than a team — they were the collective identity of the borough of Brooklyn (itself shrouded in legend, part of that old, weird America described by critic Greil Marcus.
Kahn, who knew them all, chronicles their incredible triumphs (including integrating baseball and finally beating their arch-rival Yankees in 1955) and tragedies (such as Campanella’s career-ending injury and Robinson’s bitterness at racism).
Ball Four by Jim Bouton (John Wiley & Sons, Inc.): Although this book may or may not be the greatest baseball book, it certainly is the most important and influential. Bouton’s tell-all exposed big-league ballplayers as human beings, sins and all. Prior to that, sportswriters tended to treat the players much as fans did, holding them up as role models for the youth of America. Although Bouton was ostracized by the game, Ball Four was the unwitting progenitor of today’s scandal-seeking, 24/7 media hounds.
The Wrong Stuff by Bill Lee and Richard Lally (Random House): This book is the autobiography of Bill Lee, as told to Richard Lally, who also collaborated with Lee on a sequel, Have Glove, Will Travel. The first chronicles the big-league career of one of its most eccentric participants (translation: original thinkers), which ended in 1982, when he went AWOL from the Montreal Expos after defending a teammate mistreated by management.
The second book, subtitled, Adventures of a Baseball Vagabond, recounts Lee’s post big-league adventures, during which he became a nomadic, globe-trotting pitcher who played for teams from Canada to Russia.
The Bill James Historical Abstract by Bill James (Free Press): Although James, the founding father of advanced statistics, had been publishing his annual abstracts since the late 1970s, this epic work of scholarship, theory, and opinion, first published in 1985, demonstrated that players from different eras could be accurately compared.
James has revised it numerous times since, and in 2001 he introduced Win Shares, a fascinating new way to gauge talent. Plus, James was not only among the first sabermetricians (analysts who use advanced statistics), but he’s head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to writing sentences.
Baseball’s Great Experiment by Jules Tygiel (Oxford University Press): This epic book documents the integration of baseball by placing it in a vast historical context ranging from the schemes of Brooklyn Dodgers’ general manager Branch Rickey, to the fate of the once-mighty Negro Leagues, which were left out to dry once their prime talent was accepted by the Major Leagues. Tygiel paints vivid portraits of Rickey, Jackie Robinson, and other African-American players — Campanella, Joe Black, Don Newcombe — and their white teammates and managers, as well as black sportswriters and civil rights activists.
Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis (W.W. Norton & Company): The word moneyball has become part of the baseball dictionary since this book’s publication in 2003. Lewis recounts how GM Billy Beane of the revenue-starved Oakland A’s used the principles of undervalued assets to compete against big-money clubs like the Yankees and Dodgers.
It doesn’t sound like a page-turner, but Lewis’s ability to transform abstract concepts into a human drama of underdogs against top dogs — as well as his readily absorbable explanation of sabermetrics and business school concepts — makes it readable. It must’ve been, for it was a bestseller that later was made into a successful Hollywood film starring Brad Pitt.
Weaver on Strategy by Earl Weaver (Potomac Books): Weaver put many of the most cherished sabermetrics principles to practical use as an extremely successful manager of the Baltimore Orioles in the 1970s and 1980s. Weaver on Strategy, the last of his three books, discusses his philosophy of winning baseball, which comprised pitching, defense, and the three-run homer, as well as his insistence on focusing on a limited player’s strengths instead of his weaknesses (which far too many baseball men still do).
Babe: The Legend Comes to Life (Simon & Schuster) and Stengel: His Life and Times (University of Nebraska Press), both by Robert Creamer: These two books are magnificent baseball biographies. The former is considered the definitive accounting of Babe Ruth, and the latter reveals the man behind the clown’s makeup who was Casey Stengel, the greatest —and funniest — manager who ever lived.
Eight Men Out by Eliot Asinof (Holt Paperbacks): This book reconstructs the story of the Black Sox scandal and just who, what, when, where, and why eight members of the Chicago White Sox agreed with gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series to the underdog Cincinnati Reds. Subsequently, director John Sayles made a fine film adaptation of the book.