Yesterday we looked at the best (and worst) baseball novels of all time. Today we turn our attention to non-fiction. It’s no surprise that there seems to be less of a consensus here. After all, there are dozens of non-fiction baseball books released by major publishers for every baseball novel that makes it to the shelves. Books of statistics, books about statistics, books by former players, books about former players–there are so many titles to choose from it would be impossible to read more than a small fraction of them.
So what we have here is really more of a “favorite” and “least favorite” list than a “best” and “worst.” Once again we have our panel comprised of several baseball book aficionados as well as a handful of Hardball Cooperative regulars weighing in. Our distinguished ringers are Ron Kaplan, editor of Ron Kaplan’s Baseball Bookshelf and sports and features editor for the New Jersey Jewish News; Tim Morris, editor of Guide to Baseball Fiction and Professor and Associate Chair for Graduate Studies in the English Department at the University of Texas at Arlington; and D.G. Myers, editor of A Commonplace Blog and Literary Historian and Professor in the English Department at Texas A&M University. From HC we have Bill Ballew, Bill Begley, Elizabeth Finn, and James Bailey.
As with the novels, we welcome your comments/suggestions. Obviously it’s impossible for us to include every worthy book here, so feel free to mention one of your own favorites and maybe someone else will be inspired to check it out.
|James Bailey||Summer of ’49 by David Halberstam||Moneyball by Michael Lewis|
|Bill Ballew||Seasons In Hell by Mike Shropshire||Moneyball by Michael Lewis|
|Bill Begley||Heart of the Order by Thomas Boswell||Over-written scorebooks|
|Elizabeth Finn||The Bad Guys Won! by Jeff Pearlman|
|Ron Kaplan||Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Legends: The Truth, the Lies and Everything Else||A Great Day in Cooperstown: The Miraculous and Unlikely Beginning of the Baseball Hall of Fame by Jim Reisler|
|Tim Morris||Jackie Robinson by Arnold Rampersad|
|D.G. Myers||The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract||The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn|
The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (1988; new ed., 2001). He has been called “Bill James, statistics guru,” so often that it’s surprising he doesn’t sign himself B.J.S. Guru. Calling him this is like playing the sun field without dark glasses. It’s ignorant. It’s stupid. And it’s just not good baseball. James considers himself a sabermetrician, an empirical interpreter of statistical data, rather than a statistician. He typically launches an inquiry by citing a baseball assertion widely accepted as true (a .300 average is the mark of a good hitter, a good fielder commits few errors), and then submitting it to withering examination, using statistics as his probe. “Sabermetrics,” he says, “is a field of knowledge which is drawn from attempts to figure out whether or not those things people say are true.” Most things baseball men have said over the decades have turned out to be untrue. Again and again James has demonstrated their falsity. By doing so, he has succeeded–at least among serious students of the game–in challenging baseball’s prevailing wisdom. Almost singlehandedly he changed the way ballplayers are evaluated. What is little appreciated about him is that, first and foremost, he is a writer. Here he is, for example, on Pete Rose: “Sportswriters worshipped him. This was the guy, the one guy, who played the game the way it was supposed to be played, the human training film. More glowing, ecstatic prose was written about Pete Rose than about Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, John Elway, Mark McGwire, and Twinkie Teletubbie combined. When Pete Rose was discovered to have feet of clay, the sportswriters who had lionized him turned on him like a pack of vultures.” Everything James hates about the conventional approach to baseball is contained in this paragraph–the substitution of personal qualities for actual achievement, the change of opinion based on irrelevant information–and everything that James is trying to do as a baseball writer is there too. He wants to take a Brillo pad to the glowing prose and rub it down to the truth.
Seasons In Hell by Mike Shropshire–After the Washington Senators Part II became the Texas Rangers, beat writer Mike Shropshire encountered life with managers Billy Martin and Whitey Herzog, who tried to make a traveling circus into a winning baseball team. Even with the likes of American League MVP Jeff Burroughs and a host of other serviceable players, the Rangers failed to emerge from the pack and win the West. Shropshire survived the massive egos of Martin and Herzog with an incredible sense of humor that dovetails perfectly with a masterful, if unheralded, book.
Honorable Mention: Ball Four by Jim Bouton, Cobb by Al Stump, If They Don’t Win It’s a Shame by Dave Rosenbaum, Joy in Mudville by Greg Mitchell.
Very difficult to pick. So many topics–histories, biographies, team profiles, fun books, serious books, and all totally subjective–this would have to be more of a “favorite” than a “best.” Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Legends: The Truth, the Lies and Everything Else.
Jackie Robinson by Arnold Rampersad–Just an excellent, sympathetic, fully researched biography.
I understand the need for historical perspective, but prefer the fables – the “Babe” and the called shot, Merkel’s boner and Ty Cobb’s sharpened spikes – to the sometimes tedious chronicles of great players, teams and/or eras of baseball. Instead, I much prefer the brief snippets, the quick inside looks at the people and the quirks and the oddities that make this such a human and changing and interesting game, one filled with personality and personalities. Collections like Heart of the Order by Thomas Boswell–and all the collections of his Washington Post columns and features over the years–still hold a prominent spot in my library, and get read over and over again. They offer a smorgasbord of characters and hone in as much on the people as the statistical amalgamations. There is a heartbeat to his writing and the genre–the short story or takeout piece–takes a writer capable of delving into a subject quickly, neatly and concisely. That, in and of itself, is and art. And, for my book, Boswell is a consummate artist.
The Bad Guys Won! by Jeff Pearlman–A bawdy behind-the-scenes look at the 1986 Mets, the word expose is somewhat fitting but too cheap for the job Pearlman does. Making the team both villianous and charming, he offers insight into what history likes to filter as a heartwarming story of victory and strips it bare. Neither a Mets fan nor a hater, I came away from the book appreciating the team for their humanity and actually rooting for them!
Also: Living on The Black: Two Pitchers, Two Teams, One Season to Remember by John Feinstein–I’m a big Mike Mussina fan, so this book is a little bit heartbreaking, considering his monumental struggles in 2007. Feinstein does a great job of chronicling both aging pitchers as they make their way in a hopefully post-steroids baseball season. His unapologetic but gentle insight into both pitchers is phenomenal.
Maybe I’ve come to take the Bill James Handbook for granted over the years, because it would feel a little cheap to go with that for “best” or “favorite,” though it is certainly my most well-used and never rests further than arm’s reach from my desk. I could place the Baseball America Almanacs and Prospect Handbooks in that class as well. My office is a mess of baseball reference books. The older ones are neatly lined on the shelves, with the Baseball Guides dating back into the 1930s. Those aren’t really what we had in mind when we summoned the panel, though. Of the more standard narrative books, I like Summer of ’49 by David Halberstam best. He follows the American League pennant chase, bringing the rival Red Sox and Yankees to life with so many stories of the individual players that collectively spell out the differences between the clubs: The driven Yankees, who counted on their World Series checks to make up for their under-market salaries, and the laid-back Red Sox, who were well compensated by owner Tom Yawkey. Halberstam does a great job of telling the story without overwriting or getting in the way. The game was different back then, and though we all may love it now, it’s fun to go back in time and imagine how things were when our parents (grandparents?) were growing up. Halberstam was hardly the first to compile the tales of earlier generations of ballplayers, but I like his focus, and here we are 60 years later (and 20 years after the book was published), with the Sox and Yankees fighting for first place once more. The only drawback is the Bryan Adams song that runs through my head every time I pick up the book. (“I got my first real six string …” Yeah, it’s 20 years off, but try to tune it out next time you read Summer of ’49).
The Boys of Summer (1972) by Roger Kahn. If revenge is a dish best served cold, nostalgia is the leftover salmon from three weeks ago, floating in a suspicious white goo in a Tupperware container back in the refrigerator. In short, don’t open it. Kahn covered “the Jackie Robinson Brooklyn Dodgers” for the old New York Herald Tribune, and this 400-page memoir progresses from his own boyhood in the borough, including family photos of the six-year-old author with a bat on his shoulder, through character sketches of the best players on the team, and on to their lives after baseball. Robinson is the hero (yah!); Walter O’Malley is the villain (boo!). That pretty much covers the emotional range of the book, by the way. I grew up in Southern California, a huge Dodgers fan. My grandfather (olav hashalom) was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, even though he lived in Indiana. When The Boys of Summer first came out, I was excited. I knew I was in trouble by the second paragraph: “During four consecutive years [the Dodgers] entered autumn full of hope and found catastrophe. [Listen to me grunt as I heave the bulky phrases to the top shelf.] Twice they lost pennants in the concluding inning of the concluding game of a season. [What? You couldn’t afford the word last?] . . . These narrow setbacks did not proceed, as some suggested, from failings of courage or character. The Dodgers were simply unfortunate—it is the dreamstuff that luck plays everyone the same [huh?]—and, not to become obsessively technical [because, after all, I am not writing for those who really know anything about baseball], they lacked the kind of pitching that makes victory sure. [Sure? Sure?] In the next decade, a weaker Dodger team, rallying around Sandy Koufax, won the World Series twice.” In a book that goes through spasms of ecstasy when talking about Ebbets Field, it never once occurs to Kahn that the team’s park might have had anything to do with their successes and failures. Unfair? Maybe. But Kahn is more interested in fine writing than in directing fresh thought at the team he claims to have loved.
Moneyball by Michael Lewis–The most overhyped baseball book of our generation, Lewis can’t get out of his own way due to his love affair for anything uttered by Billy Beane.
Honorable Mention: My Story by Pete Rose and Roger Kahn (Or was that a work of fiction?).
Moneyball is one of those love-it-or-hate-it books. I’m in the “hate it” camp with Bill. It was 300 pages of Michael Lewis kissing Billy Beane’s ass. Now they want to make a movie out of it? Maybe they can just film Billy Beane patting himself on the back for two hours. I realize that many readers love the book for what it represents–the small-market club sticking it to the big-money teams–but I prefer my front office guys a little humbler.
There are a lot of books that have a lot of problems. For example, A Great Day in Cooperstown: The Miraculous and Unlikely Beginning of the Baseball Hall of Fame, by Jim Reisler.
Look, everyone knows that baseball is a math major’s wet dream. No number is impervious, no minutiae too miniscule to escape statistical analysis. Seriously, do you want to know what Edwin Encarnacion hits against lefthanders name Pete on Tuesdays in July? Somewhere, someone has that trend breakdown. And that is great. Really. Boring, but great.
Baseball is a human game–it is engineered with imperfections, and so the perfect foil for imperfect beings–and while a statistical breakdown of trends can be fascinating, a glut of spreadsheet columns has all the pulse of a statue. I’ve read them, recognized the effort and genius it takes to compile and analyze the content in them, and used them when working. But, with all due respect to Bill James and the like, if I wanted to read columns of numbers, I would have majored in accounting. Gimme a heartbeat over a calculator any day.