Non-fiction picks range from Bill James to Jackie Robinson

July 8, 2009

Related: Join us for Hardball Cooperative’s new online book club, starting with Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times.

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.

Best Worst
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

Best Books

D.G. Myers
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.

Bill Ballew
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.

Ron Kaplan
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.

Tim Morris
Jackie Robinson by Arnold Rampersad–Just an excellent, sympathetic, fully researched biography.

Bill Begley
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.

Elizabeth Finn
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.

James Bailey
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).

Worst Books

D.G. Myers
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.

Bill Ballew
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?).

James Bailey
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.

Ron Kaplan
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.

Bill Begley
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.

{ 4 trackbacks }

* Another list of “bests” « Ron Kaplan’s Baseball Bookshelf
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{ 15 comments }

Robert Rittner 07.08.09 at 10:48 am

I don’t agree with the critiques of Moneyball or Boys of Summer, although I have not read Kahn’s book in a long time and might feel differently should I read it now. But I have read and reread another nostalgic baseball book, The Glory of Their Times, more recently and have some audio tapes of it as well, and consider it a wonderful book. I recognize much in it that is irritating to a modern sensibility, but that does not deter from the magic of the stories even if they are often myths

I could add many fine baseball non-fiction books to the list. Certainly Posnanski’s The Soul of Baseball is on it. And I loved The Numbers Game by Alan Schwarz. Many of the more recent biographies are excellent including Jane Levy’s SandyKoufax and Leigh Montville’s Ted Williams. I also like Richard Cramer’s biography of Joe DiMaggio and do not think it is the hatchet job some critics claim it is. Cait Murphy’s Crazy 08 is also a fine read.

As for worst or least favorite book, I don’t have many, but one stands out. 3 Nights In August by Bissinger is one of the most dishonest books I have ever read. I concede there are some interesting bits and some of the inside info is fascinating, but it clearly has a not so hidden but never honestly stated agenda of dismissing sabermetric analysis. Due to that it establishes a series of straw men and dishonest characterizations of sabermetric analysis and then proceeds to demolish them with sentimental and nonsensical argument. A genuinely offensive book.

Robert Rittner 07.08.09 at 10:53 am

Oh yes. An older book, but one of my favorites, is Nine Innings by Daniel Okrent.

CharlieH 07.08.09 at 11:18 am

I’m really surprised to find no love at all for Roger Angell among this group…

James Bailey 07.08.09 at 11:28 am

I think Angell is defintely worth reading. As mentioned in the intro, there are just so many books out there it’s hard to mention them all.

Greg Andrew 07.08.09 at 12:23 pm

The chances of someone’s “most overhyped baseball book” being the same as their “worst” or “least favorite baseball book” is almost nil. So it’s hard to take some of these selections seriously, since it’s obvious that – in some cases – the selections for the least favorite book are being made in order to make a point, and the book selected in that category isn’t that writer’s “worst baseball book” at all, and probably isn’t even a serious candidate for that selection. Perhaps it would have been better to just go with the a “Most Overrated Baseball Book” header; 3 of the 4 selections (not Ron’s) would fit under that.

James Bailey 07.08.09 at 1:07 pm

To me, Moneyball fits both “most overhyped” and “least favorite.” I never finished reading it. It just got too repetitive and too much of a Billy Beane lovefest and I lost interest in it. I had nothing against Billy Beane, at least not when I started reading it.

Ron Thompson 07.08.09 at 1:07 pm

I would add to the list of recommended books:
Bill Veeck’s autobiography “Veeck–As In Wreck”, coauthored with Ed Linn, and its sequel “The Hustler’s Handbook”;

Leo Durocher’s autobiography “Nice Guys Finish Last”, also co-authored by Ed Linn;

Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four” about the 1969 Seattle Pilots;

“A Whole Different Ball Game” by Marvin Miller and “Lords of the Realm” by John Helyar, which tell the story of the business/labor side of the game since the founding of the MLBPA in 1965.

All of the annual “Bill James Baseball Abstract” books from 1982-88.

David Halberstam’s other baseball book “October, 1964″ about the St. Louis Cardinals and the year of the Civil Rights Act. In a week which witnessed the death of Robert S. McNamara, it’s fitting to remember David Halberstam, who coined the term “The Best And The Brightest”.

D G Myers 07.08.09 at 2:07 pm

I disagree with Robert Rittner’s memorial regard for The Boys of Summer, but I really disagree with calling The Glory of Their Times “another nostalgic baseball book.” It is, instead, an antihistamine for nostalgia. The twenty-two ballplayers interviewed for Lawrence S. Ritter’s book are matter-of-fact and unsentimental about their game and times. One thing Rittner is right about. The Glory of Their Times is a great book.

Dale Sams 07.08.09 at 2:10 pm

No love for “Eight Men Out”? Come on.

Jeff 07.08.09 at 3:24 pm

Mark another vote for Glory of Their Times as the best non-fiction book. Even though I have no doubt that some of the stories have been stretched over time, hearing them being told by the greatest players of the turn of the century and the dead-ball era has always entertained me.

I also really enjoyed Fantasyland by Sam Walker. It’s not the best book ever written (and far from it), but I wasn’t able to put the book down once I started reading it. I’ve played fantasy since I was 12, so I can relate to a lot of what is in the book.

How about The Seasons by Bill Gilbert? It’s a book that doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it deserves. A great chronicling of ten years in American history where baseball was often interwoven with the political and economic events of the time.

kevin 07.08.09 at 3:54 pm

You could take any Baseball Abstract and put it atop anything from Tom Boswell’s casket of baseball cliches and chestnuts.

Perry 07.08.09 at 4:15 pm

Ron Thompson pretty much nailed my list, except I’d put Angell’s collections in there, and I’d add Glory of Their Times, the Boswell collections, the Historical Abstract (both editions), and Cait Murphy’s recent “Crazy ’08.”

walter daniels 07.09.09 at 12:31 pm

Not much love for Ball Four- I read Bouton’s book as a youngster and I loved the bad boy nature and humanity of the ballplayers.
I liked Moneyball- why not dare question scouts- every year there are so many can’t miss prospects and a lot of them miss. Since Billy Beane was a “tools” guy who missed his insights are relevant.
I liked Fantasyland, also, not a classic but very readable and fun.

Tom Denten 07.09.09 at 3:51 pm

Veeck As in Wreck is a great autobiography. One of the best books I have read, period.

Tom 07.10.09 at 9:08 am

More love here for Roger Angell. A great writer. His autobiographical ‘Let Me Finish’ has moments so beautifully written it makes me wonder why I even bother trying to be a writer.

I love Halberstam (The Reckoning and Best And The Brightest are two of my favorite books of all time) but I once read an article picking apart all the careless mistakes he made in ‘Summer Of ’49.’

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