Talking Baseball

Your weekday baseball fix. Some days.

Posted by Ben K. on Monday, March 15, 2004

Reading Baseball

Back in January, when the four of us started this blog, I wrote my first post on the rich tradition of baseball writing. After that introduction to my take on baseball writing, I have focused primarily on statistical analysis over the past two months. But in my mind, no sport has a more lyrical volume of incredibly descriptive prose writing than baseball. Whether it be writings on a Major League season or an author spending a summer on the bus with a Minor League farm team, the works produced are always top-notch writing. There's just something about baseball that lends itself to the printed page.

This past week, I've been working on an application a competition sponsored by my college's library that has reminded me of the vast oeuvre of baseball literature. The contest calls for students to submit an annotated bibliography of books they have collected. Additionally, the library asks for a short essay detailing influences on the collection and how, why, when and where the books were acquired. Before spring break, I decided to submit a bibliography of the baseball books I have collected over the years of my life being a baseball fan. As I was compiling the bibliography and paging through the books today, I decided I could turn this project into a post as well.

So this is my list of the top baseball books. In my opinion, the books presented here are required for any baseball library. Some of them are fiction, some of them are statistical books, and some of them are coffee-table books. Included in this list is a description of each book along with a link to a place where you can buy the book. Unfortunately, not all of the books are in print any longer.

1. Baseball: A Literary Anthology, edited by Nicholas Dawidoff — This anthology is the place to start if you're building a baseball library, and it's required reading if you already have an extensive collection of baseball works. Seventy-three different authors are represented in the collection, and they aren't all just sports journalists. It includes poems such as the classic "Casey at the Bat," an excerpt from the musical Damn Yankees, memoirs from players, sports writing about famous games or incredible seasons, and a wealth of fiction writing too. The anthology traverses all ages of baseball, starting with verses from the early 1900s and ending with Buster Olney's humorous look at Jason Grimsley's crawl through a vent system to steal Albert Belle's corked bats. It even has the lyrics to one of my favorite baseball songs: Dave Frishberg's "Van Lingle Mungo." My good friend Sabeel got this for me for a birthday a few years ago, and it really is the cornerstone to any baseball library. (Buy it here.)

2. The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, by W.P. Kinsella — This is the best baseball book you don't have. Everyone's read Kinsella's masterpiece, Shoeless Joe, starring Kevin Costner, Ray Liotta, and Darth Vader (or at least, you've seen the movie). But I think this book is even better than Shoeless Joe. In Kinsella's tale, Gideon Clarke is the only person around who knows of a literally endless game between a team from the Iowa Baseball Confederacy and the Chicago Cubs that occurred in 1908. While no one believes Clarke that the game happened, during the course of the book, he is transported back in time to watch the 2000-inning game and view the flood that literally wiped the game out. This book captures the magical realism of baseball and fantasy, and I strongly recommend it to any fan of baseball, Kinsella, or just good fiction. (Buy it here.)

3. Baseball: An Illustrated History, by Ken Burns and Geoffrey C. Ward — Released in conjunction with Burns' nine-part, PBS documentary on baseball, this book makes up for some of the shortcomings of the series, including expanding the focus of the work beyond the east coast. In a way, this is one of the most complete histories of baseball out there, and the pictures work nicely to bring the legends and past alive. Ward, an award winning historian, presents the hazy origins of baseball and details the evolution of the game up to its current incarnation (circa the mid 1990s). Complete with anecdotes from players, managers, owners, and fans, this book is not afraid at challenging the social conceptions of baseball either. Ward and Burns make sure to include a look at the controversial past of segregation in baseball. For a fan looking for a perfect historical book or one interested in learning about the game's deep roots, this is the best choice (and it's pretty cheap too, at less than $30).(Buy it here.)

4. 2004 Baseball Prospectus: Statistics, Analysis, and Insight for the Information Age, by The BP Team of Experts on Baseball Talent — If you're confused about all of this sabermetric stuff we talk about or want to access the stats without going to a Web site, this is definitely the book to use. The Baseball Prospecuts team presents a funny look at statistics that can be hard to understand. They have profiles of all players on a major league roster plus many of the top draft picks and prospects. Each team is presented with a detailed analysis of their season, catcher ratings, and a very handy Japanese League statistical translation. Plus, if you have this book, you can pretend to be a General Manager. It's a safe bet that most of the GMs will have the Prospectus on a shelf in their bookcase. (Buy it here.)

5. The Natural, by Bernard Malamud — Here's another baseball tale that's been turned into a movie, starring Robert Redford. The book though is, of course, much better. Malamud is one of America's best story tellers from the 20th century, and in this tale of Roy Hobbs and his bat Wonderboy is one of the most famous pieces of baseball storytelling. Hobbs was a 19-year-old phenom whose career path was abruptly interrupted by a bullet. By the end of his 30s, Hobbs and his magical bat return. The ending of this book is way more emotional than the slow-motion ball hitting shattering the lights, and Malamud clearly means to evoke some of the story of Joe Jackson and the Black Sox scandal. (Buy it here.)

6. Eight Men Out, by Eliot Asinof, Introduction by Stephen Jay Gould — Asinof's account of the infamous 1919 Black Sox scandal is the best account of a single incident from baseball history. Writing in 1963, 44 years after the thrown World Series and 42 after the Black Sox trial, Asinof details the first meetings between the players and the gamblers, the exact plays that gave the World Series to the Reds, and the public outrage as the scandal broke. While the book is a historical account, Asinof's writing reads like fiction, and his work is an important retrospective on baseball's darkest day. (Buy it here.)

7. Boys of Summer, by Roger Kahn — Kahn is one of the most famous and prolific baseball journalists and writers of the past century. In this book, Kahn writes a memoir of sorts, detailing his childhood, living two blocks from Ebbets Field and watching the Bums from Brooklyn play (and stumble) year after year. But the book is also a tale of the baseball players on the Dodgers during Kahn's youth. He writes about the players' youths and childhoods; he writes about what it was like socially for the Dodgers during 1947 and the following seasons; and he writes about Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese, and the rest of the Dodgers as they enter middle age and leave their playing careers behind. Kahn's greatest contribution to the literary world of baseball was his ability to humanize the larger-than-life sports stars. (Buy it here.)

8. Wait Till Next Year, by Doris Kearns Goodwin — Goodwin, another award-winning historian, presents her memoir of growing up with the Brooklyn Dodgers. In this tale, the successes and failures of the Dodgers mirror though in her young life, and the book ends on a sad note as Goodwin's life changes radically the year the Dodgers leave Brooklyn for Los Angeles. This is another great tale of growing up with baseball. (Buy it here.)

9. You Gotta Have Wa, by Robert Whiting — In Japan, baseball fans are just as rabid as we Yankee and Red Sox (and other teams') fans are. But because of culturally differences between the two countries, the game itself and the entire concept of team is much stricter in Japan. Written before the recent influx of Japanese players into the American game, this book, written by an American living and writing in Japan, is an incredible glimpse into sports in another culture, and it helps fans understand why players are so reluctant to make the jump westward across the Pacific. (Buy it here.)

10. Fair Ball: A Fan's Case for Baseball, by Bob Costas — In my mind, Costas is the best baseball commentator out there. (If you even mention McCarver, I'll never talk to you again.) He's also a passionate St. Louis Cardinals fan and baseball fan in general. In this book, written in 2000, Costas presents his ways for saving the game. Discussing his plans for realignment, revenue sharing, and the fate of the Designated Hitter, reading this book makes you wish that Costas was the Commissioner implementing his ideas that would indeed improve our National Pastime. It's a shame that Selig never took his advice to heart. At this point, some of Costas' advice may seem outdated because some teams have continued to spend and the situation has not improved, but the overall framework still provides many ideas that would solve baseball's problems. (Buy it here.)

Honorable mentions:

The Way Baseball Works, by Dan Gutman with an introduction by the aforementioned Tim McCarver (unfortunately) — This book is just plain fun. Gutman goes behind the scenes of baseball, so to speak, and presents a look at how the game works. He shows the inside of a baseball glove and a baseball. He even gets into scientific analyses of why pitches break, how fielders judge pop-ups, and how hitters hit. The book ends with a look at situational ball and baseball strategies. Most importantly, he presents some of baseball tougher concepts in an easy-to-understand form. (Buy it here.)

The Physics of Baseball, by Robert K. Adair — Think of this as the really hard version of Gutman's book. In a fascinating experiment, Yale physics professor Adair came up with, as the title suggests, the physics of baseball. He presents complex equations on everything from wind effects on breaking pitches to the optimum distance a slugger could hit a baseball. It's fascinating, but the physics work is really hard. (Buy it here.)

Underworld, by Don DeLillo — Most people don't think of DeLillo as baseball writing, but this book is one of the greatest works of fiction from the past 10 years, and it's about a baseball. The story opens with a vivid account (partially told through fictional characters and partially through non-fictional ones) of Bobby Thomson's famous Shot Heard Round the World. The story that follows tracks one man's attempt to rescue the baseball as it remains forgotten in the annals of time (and someone's attic). Socially, the story traverses 40 years of American history. It's great. I really recommend this one. (Buy it here.)

Last Days of Summer, by Steve Kluger — Kluger's fictional tale, told through letters, newspaper clippings, box scores, and assorted other telegrams, is a fun baseball tale. It follows a 12-year-old kid with an attitude as he makes friends with a baseball superstar with a similar attitude. It's funny, sad, happy, and great. (Buy it here.)

Last, but not least, I would like to end with two more suggestions. For those of you out there who like to see the simple stats, I have the best book for you. Not available online, it's called Who's Who in Baseball. It's come out every year for the past 89, and it has profiles of all active players, along with detailed descriptions of when they served on the DL and for whom and to where they were traded. Finally, the Official Major League Baseball Rules Book is a nice addition to a baseball library as well. You can't play the game without knowing the rules.

So there you have it. Those are my suggestions for starting points for baseball literature. Since there's such a huge, rich collection of baseball writing, I'm sure all of you out there have your own favorites that I didn't include. If you send us an e-mail with the book title and a short description as to why you like the book and why you would recommend it to other people, I'll compile those for a post in the near future. For those of you who have yet to touch the literary world of baseball, I urge you to do so. It's easy to lose the lyricism and magical prose of baseball in the statistics, but part of what's made baseball America's Pastime is this vast body of baseball literature.

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