The Reading Life: The nine best baseball books
'You Know Me Al,' 'The Natural' and 'Can't Anybody Here Play This Game?' are in the starting lineup.
1958 photo of Chicago Cubs pitcher Jim Brosnan. Brosnan had off-season work at a Chicago ad agency and wrote "The Long Season" and "Pennant Race." (Associated Press / March 30, 2011)
On my list, you won't find perhaps the most celebrated baseball book of the last 50 years, Roger Kahn's "The Boys of Summer," because I don't like it very much. It's too sentimental, too sugary, when the Brooklyn Dodgers teams Kahn describes were anything but. You won't find Jim Bouton's "Ball Four" either, which doesn't hold a candle to Jim Brosnan's "The Long Season" (or, for that matter, to Brosnan's follow-up "Pennant Race"). These are omissions I don't regret, books whose reputation outstrips them, which don't do enough to enhance our understanding of the game.
But what about Arnold Hano's "A Day in the Bleachers," a pitch-by-pitch account of Game 1 of the 1954 World Series, the game in which Willie Mays made his miraculous catch? Or onetime White Sox, Browns and Indians owner Bill Veeck's "Veeck — As in Wreck," still the greatest, and most revealing, of all baseball memoirs? These are as fine as anything on my list, as is G.H. Fleming's "The Unforgettable Season," which tells the story of the 1908 National League pennant race (the year of Merkle's blunder and the last Chicago Cubs World Series championship) through a collage of contemporaneous news reports. Then, of course, there's Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams' "Game of Shadows," which blew the lid off Barry Bonds and baseball's steroid scandal and has been in the news again as the Bonds case goes to court.
Lists, however, can't help but breed other lists; it's in the nature of what they are. So here, without further emendation, is my original list, which I continue to stand by, albeit with some second thoughts.
"You Know Me Al" by Ring Lardner (1916). Lardner's deftly satiric novel, originally serialized in the Saturday Evening Post, comes constructed as a series of letters from a rookie pitcher to his best friend back home, offering a rare contemporaneous — and utterly unsentimental — glimpse of baseball in the dead-ball era before 1920.
"The Natural" by Bernard Malamud (1952). Inspired by the 1949 shooting of Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Eddie Waitkus, Malamud's first novel tells the story of Roy Hobbs, a player whose chance at redemption falls prey to corruption and greed. Forget the movie with its happy ending; this is an anti-myth about the dark side of the American dream.
"The Long Season" by Jim Brosnan (1960). Ten years before "Ball Four," Brosnan published the first (and still best) baseball diary, a candid, smart and slyly funny look at his experiences during the 1959 season as a relief pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals and the Cincinnati Reds.
"Can't Anybody Here Play This Game?" by Jimmy Breslin (1963). The 1962 New York Mets were the most woeful team in baseball history, losing 120 games. In his second book, Breslin tells the often-ridiculous story of that season, from the on-the-field misadventures of Marvelous Marv Throneberry to the off-the-field ramblings of the Old Professor, Casey Stengel.
"The Glory of Their Times" by Lawrence S. Ritter (1966). Ritter essentially invented the field of baseball scholarship with this oral history, gathering the memories of early major leaguers like Rube Marquard, Edd Roush and Goose Goslin in their own words to develop a comprehensive group portrait of the first half-century of the game.
"The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop." by Robert Coover (1968). Less a book about baseball than an inquiry into obsession and imagination, Coover's densely lyrical novel involves a man who uses dice to play out the seasons of his own fantasy league — until the fantasy takes over, blurring the lines between his inner and outer worlds.
"Five Seasons" by Roger Angell (1977). Angell is best known for "The Summer Game," in which he revolutionized baseball writing by bringing an essayist's eye to the ballpark. This collection, though, is even better, tracking the sport through the mid-1970s and opening with one of Angell's signature efforts — an evocative meditation on the ball itself.
"The Celebrant" by Eric Rolfe Greenberg (1983). Greenberg's only novel is a historical pastiche about a young Jewish immigrant in turn-of-the-20th-century New York and his devotion to Giants pitcher Christy Mathewson, a dedication that borders on the religious, framing fanhood as an act of faith.
"Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy" by Jules Tygiel (1983). An extensively researched work of social history, Tygiel's book puts the integration of major league baseball in context, using the broader lens of American culture to portray Robinson as a civil rights pioneer.