"Books on Baseball"
by James K. White
April 11, 2007
Not more than five minutes after the World Series ends serious baseball fans start to think about the next season. For these fans pro football is just a time-filling interlude between the real thing. To pass the long winter without baseball what's a fan to do? Read about America's greatest game, of course. What to read? That's what this piece is about. There are thousands of books on baseball, more than any other sport. Some think there are more baseball books than books on all other American sports combined. An exaggeration, perhaps, but not by much, as any trip to the sports section of a bookstore will attest. My library has 100 or so baseball books, a mere drop in the bucket. The following is based largely, but not exclusively, on them.
A. THE HISTORY OF BASEBALL
Baseball historians do not agree about the origins of baseball, its history in the United States, or even when the "first" game was played. No matter, you can get a full picture from any one of the numerous books on the history of baseball. After all, it's "our game - the American game." But don't quote me, quote Walt Whitman, who said this in 1846.
 Harold Seymour is perhaps the dean of baseball historians. His three volume work, the first of which was published in 1960, is a comprehensive place to start (and even finish). The books, all of which have been reprinted, and all of which are in paperback, are: Baseball: The Early History, Baseball: The Golden Age and Baseball: The People's Game.  Ken Burns filmed a multi-episode history of baseball for PBS and, in 1996, a companion book, Baseball: An Illustrated History, co-written with Geoffrey Ward, was published. This weighty tome goes "inning by inning" with the first inning titled "OUR GAME: Beginnings to 1900," the second "SOMETHING LIKE A WAR: 1900-1910," and so on chronologically. This book has so many wonderful photographs it could be in the photography section. Lou Gehrig in his Columbia College uniform, a baby-faced Ted Williams in his rookie year, Sandy Koufax in mid wind-up, the Babe following through on a long one, and Jackie Robinson stealing home in the World Series (Berra is the catcher) are some of my favorites.
 Daniel Okrent edited a book he calls The Ultimate Baseball Book. The title is a bit pretentious, he admits, but my copy (a 1981 paperback) does have a shiny gold cover. This book also goes inning by inning, generally chronologically by decade, and also has terrific photos. Okrent has "the first game of baseball" being played on June 19, 1846, at the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, NJ, with Alexander Cartwright's New York Knickerbockers losing to the New York Nine. That works for me. So much for Abner Doubleday, Cooperstown, and 1839.  A new history, by George Vecsey, published in 2006 and called Baseball: A History, is, unlike the others just mentioned, a short book. I breezed through it in a just few hours. It focuses on seminal events, for example, Jackie Robinson in 1947, free agency, and the recent drug scandals. It has a useful, informative, and interesting chapter ("Same Game, Yuppified") listing the way the game has changed down the years. The beauty and charm of baseball is that, while there have been changes, some significant, the essence of the game, all its important features, has remained the same for well over a century now. Vecsey, by the way, doesn't limit himself to sports. He wrote Coal Miner's Daughter and was a screenwriter on the superb movie of Loretta Lynn's life, same name.
 Paul Dickson compiled an alphabetical list of some 5,000 baseball terms in his 1989 book, The Dickson Baseball Dictionary. What, only 5,000? It's useful and informative, a good reference tool. Do you know the infield fly rule? It's on pages 218-219.  Starting in 1969 Macmillan has published The Baseball Encyclopedia. Its subtitle is "The Complete and Definitive Record of Major League Baseball" (10th ed., 1996). It lives up to that bragging. An enormous volume, it has a vast array of information about teams, players, managers, trades, awards, achievements, and of course reams of statistics. The last edition, the 10th, was published in 1996, eons ago in baseball terms, so for the latest information there's a web site: www.baseball-reference.com. Like the Macmillan book it's stunningly comprehensive. Another encyclopedic reference book is John Thorn's Total Baseball. Reissued in 2004, it also has a vast array of information, statistics, articles, you name it.
 Statistics are such an important part of baseball, unlike any other sport, a baseball nut (and I say that in the most complimentary way) named Bill James has become famous writing about runs, hits, and errors, in various combinations and permutations. Some think his Historical Baseball Abstract and Baseball Handbook are a bit arcane. They're essential, though, if you really care about the numbers. I stick with box scores, complicated and hard to read as they are these days, and with a red-covered magazine, Who's Who in Baseball, published annually since 1912. It contains lifetime records of all active (the previous year) players. The 2007 edition came out around March 1.
 Baseball people can be witty, sometimes inadvertently, and sometimes wise, which is why David Plaut put out in 1992 a miniature book, Baseball Wit and Wisdom. He cites, for example, the now well-worn Jacques Barzun piece of advice: "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball."  Baseball Anecdotes, a 1989 collection compiled by Daniel Okrent and Steve Wulf, will have you laughing out loud in places, as will the collected sayings of baseball's prime philosopher, Mr. Lawrence Peter Berra in The Yogi Book, issued in 1998. It's said Yogi really said some of the things they say he said, so when you come to a fork in the road....
More than any other sport (a common theme, in case you missed it) baseball has attracted a long list of distinguished writers, many of whom are otherwise engaged in writing novels and such. There are numerous anthologies of their work. These include fiction as well as nonfiction. There is terrific stuff here, such as John Updike's marvelous New Yorker piece on Ted Williams' last at bat, Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu, and Bart Giamatti's The Green Fields of the Mind. I have four anthologies: Fielder's Choice, 1979, Jerome Holtzman editor; The Baseball Reader, 1980, Charles Einstein editor; The Armchair Book of Baseball, 1985, John Thorn editor; and What Baseball Means to Me, 2002, Curt Smith editor. The Updike piece is in the Einstein book, the Giamatti piece in the Thorn book, and both are in a new anthology (not read), published in 2002 by Nicholas Davidoff, Baseball: A Literary Anthology. The Smith book has 120 or so essays, from ballplayers past and present, from sportswriters and broadcasters, non-sports writers and broadcasters, US Presidents and other politicians, entertainers, a judge, a football coach, a hockey player, and a Cardinal, not Stan the Man but Edward Cardinal Egan.
C. THE BUSINESS OF BASEBALL
Justice Holmes got it all wrong in 1922: professional baseball is BIG BUSINESS and always has been, from its inception in the mid-19th century to the day you're reading this.  John Helyar, author of the best-selling business book Barbarians at the Gate, turned his attention to the business of baseball in his 1995 book, Lords of the Realm. It's about the team owners and it does not paint a pretty picture. Former MLB commissioners Bowie Kuhn and Fay Vincent wrote books about their experiences, including their jousting with the Lords: Hard Ball (1997) and The Last Commissioner (2002), respectively. Also not a pretty picture.  Michael Lewis followed up his popular Wall Street exposé Liar's Poker with his runaway best seller Moneyball (2003). He looks at the business of baseball through a different lens, focusing on new ideas about scouting, trades, and measuring a player's performance. There's a moral to his story: don't deal with the shrewd Billy Beane.  As far as I know only one Lord has described what the exclusive owner's club is like. That would be the imaginative showman, dreamer, and gadfly Bill Veeck. He's the guy who sent the midget up to bat. His 1962 autobiography, Veeck As In Wreck, will have you laughing out loud at his antics and crying with him as he describes his lonely, mostly losing battles with his fellow Neanderthal (as he gleefully characterizes them) owners. This is one of my favorite books of any kind.
D. PENNANT RACES
The baseball pennant race, a fixture of our youth, was not just the best thing about baseball, it was the best thing in all of American sport. The geniuses who run baseball did away with this slow-to-build but heart-stopping, down-to-the-wire, winner-take-all feature when they divided the two leagues into divisions in 1969. The addition of the wild card team in 1995 was the final nail in the pennant race coffin. The best races spring back to life in Dave Anderson's 1994 aptly named book, Pennant Races. The Red Sox "Impossible Dream" AL pennant came true in 1967 when the Sox won a gripping four team scramble on the last day of the season. It's in here. And, if you don't already know about "the shot heard 'round the world" you will after reading Anderson's account of the 1951 Dodger-Giant race for the NL pennant, won by the Jints in the bottom of the ninth of the third and final playoff game. It's the greatest race of them all!
E. BIOGRAPHIES AND SUCH
There are hundreds (thousands?) of books by and about the "Lives of the Players." I have 10 by and about Ted Williams and there are plenty more about The Splendid Splinter I don't have. Do you have a favorite player? Perhaps he wrote an autobiography. If not, likely there is a biography.  A good place to start is Lawrence Ritter's 1966 classic The Glory of Their Times. In this book, on everyone's list of the best baseball books, Ritter writes about players from the early days of baseball and long since retired. Their stories are fascinating, utterly fascinating.  More in this mini-biography vein are Anthony Connor's 1982 Voices From Cooperstown and Donald Honig's 1995 Baseball When the Grass Was Real.  In his 1990 book Men At Work, George Will focuses on three players, two of whom - Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn - go into the Baseball Hall of Fame this summer, while David Halberstam writes about four men, two long since in the Hall (Bobby Doerr and Ted Williams) in his 2003 The Teammates, a sweet and sentimental paean to baseball friendships down the years.
F. THE TEAMS
Every team has had books written about it, and that includes the woeful St. Louis Browns. Leading the pack in this field are the Yankees, Dodgers, and Red Sox. A close fourth, for reasons difficult to fathom given the dismal history of almost unremitting failure: the Cubs. If you have time for just one book make it Roger Kahn's bittersweet The Boys of Summer. It's about the great Dodger teams of Robinson, Reese, Snider, Campanella, et al., and what happened to these heroes of Flatbush after their playing days were over. This one may be on top of the "best baseball books" list. For a book with a happier ending, read Dan Shaughnessy's 2005 Reversing the Curse, written about the 2004 Red Sox, who won the World Series after 86 years and some heart-breaking near misses. Shaughnessy coined the term "Curse of the Bambino" in his 1990 book by that name, so he's the right guy to bury the Babe's ghost once and for all, which he does artfully, and happily.
Surely you have a favorite ballpark. Perhaps your home town major or minor league one. Perhaps one long gone under the wrecker's ball. There are many books, perhaps too many given the duplication involved, on baseball parks, fields, and stadiums. I have three, the 1993 Diamonds by Michael Gershman, the 2000 Take Me Out to the Ballpark by Josh Leventhal (there's an updated edition, 2006), and Ira Rosen's 2001 Blue Skies Green Fields. All have photos, all tell you when the park was built, its years of service, its capacity over the years, and its quirky playing field dimensions, another area where baseball is unique in sports. All have varying degrees of facts and figures, firsts and feats, milestones and records, anecdotes and quotes. Take Me Out has features the others don't, a bibliography for example, and sections on scoreboards, ballpark food, Negro League parks, and minor league parks. Regarding the latter, it cites Yale Field, opened 1927, capacity currently 6,200, as "one of the oldest active ballparks in all of baseball." When Yale Field was built, to accommodate Yale man, former President, and big (in every way) baseball fan William Howard Taft a double seat was included. It's been "renovated" out of existence, a shame that. There are other later-issued books, but for the most up-to-date info on the newest parks, check out www.ballparksofbaseball.com, which also covers all the existing and long gone parks and future parks as well. Yes, future parks, the next one of which will be the Nationals' not yet named park opening April 2008 in our Nation's Capital. For New Yorkers out there your two new parks, Yankee Stadium II in the Bronx and the Mets' Citi Field in Queens, are both scheduled to be ready by opening day 2009.
H. THE NEGRO LEAGUES
Hard as it is to imagine today with memories of so many great black players fresh in mind but, by tacit though iron-clad agreement among the racist (there's no way to sugar coat this) owners, blacks were barred from the majors until, in 1947, Jackie Robinson "broke the color barrier" with Brooklyn. Before then, blacks played in the various Negro Leagues, where the players were major league caliber but almost everything else was sub par. Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Robinson, to name just three stars, all played in the Negro Leagues before coming to the majors. Once the flood gates opened to blacks the Negro Leagues struggled and steadily declined. All were defunct by 1955. There is a flood of literature on this hot subject. For starters read Mark Ribowsky's 1995 A Complete History of the Negro Leagues and Robert Peterson's 1970 Only the Ball Was White. Getting to the majors didn't end the travail of black players, as Hank Aaron's compelling 1992 autobiography, I Had a Hammer, infuriatingly demonstrates.
I. JACK ROOSEVELT ROBINSON
Jackie Robinson, a proud man and a fierce competitor, is such an important figure in American history his fame has to some degree masked what a superb player (and, in fact, all-around athlete) he was. He's on my "Short List" of the greatest players, and mine is a very short Short List. You might start your reading, as I did, with his 1972 autobiography, I Never Had It Made. This is a must read. I also suggest, among the many books about this amazing man: Jules Tygiel's 1983 Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy; David Falkner's 1995 Great Time Coming; Arnold Rampersad's exhaustive 1997 biography, Jackie Robinson; and Rachel Robinson's 1998 Jackie Robinson: An Intimate Portrait. Finally, I'm looking forward to the publication sometime soon of Scott Simon's book, Jackie Robinson and the Integration of Baseball.
J. BASEBALL ON THE RADIO
We in the Yale Class of 1962 grew up at a time when wonderful baseball radio announcers blanketed the dial. Are you from Detroit? Ernie Harwell. Philadelphia? By Saam. Pittsburgh? Bob Prince. I grew up in New Haven listening to Cowboy Curt Gowdy call Red Sox games (mostly losses those days) on WTIC Hartford; Red Barber and the young Vin Scully (not the Yale professor emeritus), the Dodgers; and Mel Allen, the Yankees. When the East Coast games were over, with my portable under the bedcovers to fool my parents (not likely), KMOX St. Louis came in loud and clear. So I got to hear my personal favorite, the always loud but not always so clear, Harry Caray ("Musial swings. There's a long drive. It might be. It could be. It is!"). Curt Smith's 2005 Voices of Summer ranks the announcers. Scully is his #1. But for a broader historical view, read Smith's 1987 Voices of the Game. Smith covers all the greats, from 1921 onward, including of course the long-time voice of the New York Giants Russ Hodges who, on September 3, 1951, screamed from the Polo Grounds: "The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! Bobby Thomson hits it into the lower deck of the leftfield stands. The Giants win the pennant...!" It's the greatest sports call of all.
K. BASEBALL IN JAPAN
Currently Japanese players are joining the majors in increasing numbers, the latest wave of (millionaire) immigrants. Historically, though, it has been the other way around. What was it like for Americans to play over there? Roger Whiting tells you in his 1989 book You Gotta Have Wa. It's an informative, sometimes amusing tour of Japanese culture and the attitude towards foreigners. In his 1984 biography of Japan's greatest home run hitter, Sadaharu Oh, A Zen Way of Baseball, David Falkner describes Oh, with his 868 lifetime home runs, as a modest fellow, in temperament more like the diffident Stan Musial, whose impossible corkscrew swing he copied, than the larger-than-life Babe Ruth, the man with whom Oh is usually compared.
L. YALE AND BASEBALL
One Yale man, Walter Camp, is the father of American football. Could another be the father of American baseball? In a July 14, 2005, lecture at the Smithsonian Institution noted baseball historian John Thorn -contemptuously dismissing Doubleday's paternity as a long-discredited myth - suggests a quadrumvirate of candidates for that august title. One father, he suggests, is Daniel Lucius Adams, Class of 1835. Adams played New York baseball in the 1840's and '50's, perhaps in that "first game" in 1846. Thorn credits him with two seminal innovations: starting the shortstop position and - most important - setting the bases 90' apart, thus creating the elegant "diamond" unchanged since then.
 I previously mentioned the charming Yale Field. Albie Booth, better know as the Little Boy Blue of Yale football, played there. His grand slam beat Harvard in 1932, 4-2. So did Yale first baseman, later President, George H. W. Bush, Class of 1948. Bush met Babe Ruth at the Field in 1948, just before the Babe's death. Yale Field figures prominently in Sam Rubin's 2003 paperback book of photos, Baseball in New Haven.  Another Yale man, William Howard Taft, Class of 1878, started the presidential tradition of throwing out the first ball on opening day. It was April 14, 1910, in Washington. The ball was caught by the greatest pitcher of all time, Washington's Big Train, Walter Johnson. There's a photo of Taft's pitch in Ken Burns' book mentioned above (pages 106-107). In contrast to most of the Presidents who followed him, Taft's form is excellent.
 In May 1981 an NCAA playoff game at Yale Field had Yale's Ron Darling hooking up with St. Johns' Frank Viola. Darling, a real life version of Frank Merriwell that day, threw 11 no-hit innings, still the NCAA record, only to lose the no-hitter and game in the 12th, 1-0. Roger Angell, the baseball writer for the New Yorker, was there, sitting with New Haven Mayor Dick Lee and former pitching star and Yale baseball coach Smokey Joe Wood, then 94. Wood was the pitching hero of the 1912 World Series. That's right, 1912! Angell's magazine piece, "The Web of the Game," is a marvelous look back at Wood's life and career interspersed with comments about the exciting game the three were watching that day. The article also appears in one of Angell's many books, Game Time, published in 2003.
 Yale man Theo Epstein, Class of 1995, became baseball's youngest general manager ever, in 2002, at the tender age of 29. He was the GM when, in 2004, his Red Sox won the World Series. Epstein has a way to go to catch another Yale man, New Haven native George Weiss, GM of the Yankees and the architect of seven championship teams from 1949-1960. Still another Yale man, Tom Yawkey, Class of 1925, was not so blessed. He owned the Red Sox for 44 years, 1933 until his death in 1976, and never once won the Big One. But did you know two of our classmates have owned World Series winners? As Dave Barry would write, I am not making this up. Give up? See the Conclusion, below.
 Does a curve ball really curve? If so, why? Yale physics professor Robert Adair addresses these and other "science of baseball" questions and problems in his 1990 book, The Physics of Baseball. This one has gone to multiple printings, which might surprise you given its subject.
 It's startling one person could, in a lifetime, hold two of the best jobs in America, President of Yale and Commissioner of Major League Baseball. Bart Giamatti, Class of 1960, did. Sadly, it was a short life. He died suddenly in 1989, age 51. I earlier mentioned his "Green Fields" essay. This and his other equally poetic and charming baseball writings are collected in a small volume, A Great and Glorious Game, put together by Ken Robson with David Halberstam in 1998. The shortness of Giamatti's life was due no doubt in part to his chain smoking and also, I hope I'm not being too unkind here, in part to Pete Rose, whose clash with Commissioner Giamatti over Rose's betting on baseball while managing the Reds is the subject of a 1997 book by James Reston, Jr., Collision At Home Plate. Giamatti died shortly after banning Rose from baseball for life. For baseball's Charlie Hustle could this be a fate worse than death?
 One time pitcher Jim Bouton's hilarious, racy Ball Four describes life on the 1969 Yankees, not always in ways flattering to his teammates. This book is almost as popular as the Kahn book, and for good reason: it's a breezy, brash look inside the game and the men (sometimes boys) who play it.  An active pitcher, Jim Brosnan, kept a diary of the 1959 season when he played for the Cards and Reds. Then, in 1960, his book, The Long Season, came out. Imagine that, a ballplayer writing a book! It puts you on the field, in the dugout, and in the locker room, as does his 1962 book, Pennant Race, his diary of the 1961 pennant-winning Reds. Some say his playing career was cut short - he was out of baseball by 1963 - by the Lords, displeased with his literary look inside their fiefdom. Imagine that!
 The previously mentioned Roger Angell has published numerous baseball books, compilations of his insightful New Yorker articles. Two early books, evocative of seasons long past that remain etched in memory, are my favorites: The Summer Game (1972) and Five Seasons (1977).  This article does not cover fiction. But I do want to mention one novel, Mark Harris' The Southpaw. It's a baseball book and a coming of age book and I'm guessing all the baseball fans among us have read it.  Feisty Leo Durocher was a member of one of baseball's most famous clubs, the 1934 Cardinals Gas House Gang. He was even a feistier manager, from 1939 to 1973 with time off in between for bad behavior. His 1975 autobiography, Nice Guys Finish Last, written with Ed Linn, chronicles one of baseball's longest and most colorful careers - he was a teammate of Ruth and Gehrig at the start and managed Willie Mays along the way - enough said. Leo's not nice, but his book is still well worth reading.
 I left for last baseball's saddest episode, the 1919 Black Sox scandal, when eight players on the AL champion White Sox took money from gamblers to throw the World Series that year to the Cincinnati Reds. The definitive book on this miserable event is Eliot Asinof's 1981 book, Eight Men Out. It dramatically describes the sickening story where no one is a hero, not the cheating players, not the miserly Sox owner Charles Comiskey, not the impossibly priggish Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who banned all eight players from professional baseball for life, and of course not the disgustingly sleazy gamblers who fixed the Series. It makes you want to cry out, SAY IT AIN'T SO! Alas, it was so.
Now, are you ready for some baseball books? The games have already begun, so fit in a good read now and then too. If you have comments, or suggestions about books I should have mentioned but didn't, let me know. My e-mail address is email@example.com. As for the two Y62 owners of World Series champions, they are Ruly Carpenter, owner of the 1980 Phils when they won their first and only title, and Florida Marlins owner Jeff Loria, whose team won the Series in 2003. Can any Yale class - any college class anywhere - top THAT?
COPYRIGHT ©2007 JAMES K. WHITE
Jim's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.