There are literally thousands of books about baseball: books about winning seasons and losing seasons, strategy and statistics, scandals and successes, and even a number of novels written by some of our greatest fiction writers. There are books written by or about players, former players, managers, owners, umpires, mascots, beat writers and fans.
Joe Posnanski, who has written about baseball for Sports Illustrated and now NBC Sports, says, "There are a lot of reasons why baseball has inspired so much good writing — the leisurely pace of the game that leaves room for stories, its connection to spring and summer, the way its story has mirrored American history — but I suspect the biggest reason is nostalgia. Baseball was America's first sporting love. It is the sport, more than any other, that has connected generations. There aren't many great basketball books about family. There isn't much poetry in football."
For every quick-to-publish autobiography about the player or the team of the moment that's swiftly read and immediately forgotten, there are dozens of books about every aspect of baseball that are as thoughtful and immersive as the sport itself. These ten books represent the best from all categories, and should be read by every baseball fan.
Boys of Summer, Roger Kahn
Boys of Summer is part memoir, part New York City history, part Brooklyn Dodgers oral history, part Jackie Robinson biography. His prose is lyrical and immersive and effortlessly transports the reader back into those years. He knows when to insert himself into the middle of the story, and when to pull back, and can paint both the visual and the emotional with words. Roger Kahn's baseball writing is the verbal equivalent of poetry in motion and it is the reason he is one of our greatest baseball writers.
Ball Four, Jim Bouton
Prior to Ball Four, every baseball player memoir or autobiography portrayed players as heroic, larger than life. Jim Bouton set out to chronicle what it was like to be a mid-career pitcher trying to find a place in the major leagues. In the process, he opened the door to the clubhouse and revealed all the secrets: the drinking, the womanizing, the physical pain players feel on a daily basis. He tells a now-legendary story about Mickey Mantle sleeping off a bender in the trainer's room, only to be called to pinch hit late in the game, where he promptly knocked the cover off the ball. Bouton meant it as a compliment, but neither the Yankees nor Mantle appreciated the tale. The baseball commissioner tried to get Bouton to sign a statement saying that the book was completely fictional. Pete Rose would yell, "Fuck you, Shakespeare!" from the dugout whenever Bouton came to bat after the book was published. (That alone should be enough to recommend it.)
The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O'Neil's America, Joe Posnanski
Buck O'Neil should be in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown and Buck O'Neil should have played in the major leagues. O'Neil was unable to accomplish either of those things, but still lived a tremendous life. Joe Posnanski followed O’Neil around for the 92nd year of his life and this book is the result, which accomplishes the seemingly impossible job of synthesizing the history of baseball and civil rights in America while also sharing stories about the life of a remarkable individual. Posnanski writes with economy, clarity and sincerity, and makes you feel like you’ve spent the day with Buck. You will walk into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, see his statue standing there, and shake your fist at the powers that be.
Wait Till Next Year, Doris Kearns Goodwin
You probably know Doris Kearns Goodwin for her work as a historian and political commentator. She was also a Brooklyn Dodgers fan from birth, and chronicles the ups and downs of that fandom in this saga of her post-war youth, when baseball was a very real presence in the lives of everyday New Yorkers. Goodwin’s tale of refusing to go back to the butcher shop inhabited by Giants fans after they beat the Dodgers in the 1951 post-season is priceless. The Dodgers leaving Brooklyn is a punchline in a joke for everyone except those who were old enough to live through it, and Goodwin’s loss of her mother the same year deepens and shadows her loss. Although this is one of a very few baseball memoirs written by women, it’s not remarkable because of that; it’s remarkable as a rich, expressive telling of a life where baseball was at the center of it.
Five Seasons, Roger Angell
Angell writes with the kind of deft elegance that reminds you that baseball is often called "the thinking man’s game." His ability to sketch a broad picture and then narrow down on the tiniest detail as a metaphor for the game, the play, or the season is why he is another one of baseball's great writers. Five Seasons focuses on the 1972-1976 seasons, but his storytelling makes them come alive; his description of watching the great Boston Red Sox pitcher Luis Tiant makes you feel like you are sitting in the bleachers at Fenway, watching Tiant's incredibly slow wind up and delivery, so slow you think you can see the red stitches of the baseball against the green of the infield.
A Great and Glorious Game, A. Bartlett Giamatti
This book compiles the baseball writing of A. Bartlett Giamatti, who you probably know as the author of the famous quote, "Baseball breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart," from his essay "Green Fields of the Mind." Dr. Giamatti was a Renaissance scholar who later became the President of Yale University, before leaving academia to become the President of the National League and later, the Commissioner of Baseball for a brief five months in 1989, before his death. His background meant that he was an unusually erudite commissioner, with the result that even a statement released to the press regarding Pete Rose's banishment from baseball for gambling and betting on baseball is remarkably literary in nature: "The banishment for life of Pete Rose from baseball is the sad end of a sorry episode. One of the game's greatest players has engaged in a variety of acts which have stained the game, and he must now live with the consequences of those acts."
Moneyball, Michael Lewis
Moneyball probably holds the title as the baseball book most people talk about without ever actually having read it. That's unfortunate, because Moneyball is a great book, not just a great baseball book. It's smart, funny and easy to understand. Lewis didn't set out to write a book for baseball geeks; he set out to write a book that was about business which happened to also be about baseball. If you haven't read Moneyball and have only heard about it because of Brad Pitt being in the movie and Joe Morgan complaining about it during various baseball broadcasts since forever, do yourself a favor and read it this summer.
Pafko at the Wall, Don DeLillo
The short story that prompted the massive tome of DeLillo’s Underworld, Pafko At The Wall is a detective story hidden inside a historical construct, retelling the moment of "The Shot Heard Round The World" through the eyes of those who were there, from Frank Sinatra and Jackie Gleason, to J. Edgar Hoover and the kids who skipped school and jumped the turnstiles into the ballpark. You can smell the hot dogs, taste the mustard on your thumb, feel the peanut shells being pulverized into the ground at your feet. You can hear the game coming through AM radios on Bronx rooftops and see it on black and white TV's on the counters of corner stores around the corner from the Polo Grounds. DeLillo turns the historic utterance, declaration, cry of "The Giants win the pennant" into the key refrain of a psalm.
Cardboard Gods, Josh Wilker
The subtitle of Josh Wilker's novel is, "An All-American Tale Told Through Baseball Cards" and the flap copy calls it "a baseball-haunted memoir." It is the story of a family, and two brothers, and Carl Yastrzemski, and will be fascinating and exceptional to anyone who isn’t a baseball fan, who hasn’t fallen asleep with a West Coast road game on the radio, who hasn’t lived and died by a baseball team’s wins and losses. But if you have, the story of Wilker’s childhood, using baseball cards as touchstones and talismans, and baseball as a connector and a lifeline, will make so much sense you will wonder why no one has done this before.
The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination with Statistics, Alan Schwarz
"The Numbers Game" is less about statistics as it is a leisurely, enjoyable sojourn through the lives and the brains of the people who invented the statistics, and the evolution of statistics over the years. He starts at the beginning with Henry Chadwick, the first statistician, a tobacconist good with numbers who loved the game and relied on the newspaper’s box score to allow him to keep up with the game. He loved the game so much he devised the first scorecard (which is pretty much the same one we use now) which allowed the boxscore to be expanded and for games to be scored and reported in a consistent manner, and ends with John Dewan and STATS Inc. Along the way, you’ll also meet Al Munro Elias (yes, the same Elias of Elias Sports Bureau), Allan Roth (hired by Branch Rickey, President and GM of the Brooklyn Dodgers at the time) and a young Bill James. It's an engrossing and relatable book, and the logical companion to Moneyball.