If you are already missing baseball, you have company. To help you through the gloom, I’ve gone back into the More to Come archives to gather my personal “Best Books about Baseball” list. Here you’ll find my top nine books — one for each inning — to help you through this spring. And there might even be some “free” extra-inning baseball at the end!
(NOTE: I’ve linked to my reviews, but they may be buried in a longer post containing information on multiple books. Look carefully and you’ll find the book in question.)
Okay, let’s play ball!
For the 1st and 2nd innings, we’ll have the top hitters from each team coming to the plate. So I’ll begin with some of the best: two baseball books which I included in the 2014 post Twelve Influential Books (And a Few More Thrown in for Fun).
How Life Imitates the World Series by Thomas Boswell – The longtime Washington Post sportswriter’s first book of baseball essays, published in 1982, is still his best. How can you not love a book where the leadoff hitter (also known as the first chapter) is entitled, This Ain’t a Football Game. We Do This Every Day.
The Last Best League by Jim Collins – No, this is not the same Jim Collins of the management bible Good to Great. This Collins is the former editor of Yankee magazine. His Last Best League is a wonderful, loving tribute to the Cape Cod Baseball League — with its small towns and wooden bats. The book is a delight to read on a summer night.
As we head into the 3rd inning, we may have worked our way down to the bottom of the batting order, but that still doesn’t mean that some light-hitting glove guy (perhaps your second baseman) can’t come up with a big hit every now and then. Take, for instance…
Infinite Baseball: Notes from a Philosopher at the Ballpark by Alva Noë — This short and entertaining work, written by a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, and a lifelong New York Mets fan, led me to go against my standing policy of rejecting books with jacket blurbs by George Will. Instead, I took a flyer on this set of 33 essays, most of them repurposed from National Public Radio’s discontinued science blog 13:7:Cosmos and Culture, and came away finding challenging and intriguing points-of-view on topics that every fan — philosopher or casual observer — would understand.
Here are three books about the changes in baseball that seem just right for the middle innings — the 4th, 5th, and 6th —when the sabermetric guys say you should head to the bullpen.
Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis — My review of this transformative book is actually of the movie that it spawned (a Best Picture nominee, no less). Brad Pitt and especially Jonah Hill were terrific. But I digress.
This is a 2003 book that changed how so many people think about baseball. It describes how the small-market Oakland A’s used advanced analytics to level up the playing field with the New York Yankees of the baseball world. Seventeen years later, every MLB team has a large analytics department, made up of very smart people. However, they don’t always match those smarts with strong ethics…I’m looking at you, Houston.
Two more recent books update the analytics revolution.
Big Data Baseball: Math, Miracles and the End of a 20 Year Losing Streak by Pittsburgh writer Travis Sawchik — This well-written book tells the story of how the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates, stumbling along in a 20-year losing streak, turned around their fortune as a baseball club. The Pirates did it using big-data strategies, undervalued players, a leadership team willing to try new things, and an organization-wide commitment to integration of old-style and new-style insights to make the playoffs.
The Only Rule Is It Has to Work by Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller — This is a story of what happens when two numbers guys — Lindbergh and Miller — get the chance to run an independent minor league team for a season. Both worked at Baseball Prospectus and were eager to see how their sabermetric theories might play out in real life. Both are good writers and they have a great story to tell. For part of the season, they move slowly in implementing their theories. But after they make the bold move to fire the player/manager who pushes back on many of their suggestions, changes come more quickly.
There’s the added bonus of having their team—the Sonoma Stompers—become the first professional team with an openly gay player.
During our 7th inning stretch, let’s take a look around the old ballpark.
Ballpark: Baseball in the American City by Paul Goldberger — Goldberger— Pulitzer Prize-winning architectural critic, Trustee emeritus of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and a personal friend — has written an elegant and engaging work on a subject that’s clearly as dear to his heart as it is to mine.
In slightly more than 300 pages, Paul takes the reader through a detailed, intriguing, often unexpected, and richly-illustrated history of the intersection of baseball parks, the American city, architecture, urbanism, business, sports, and culture. Always a clear and lively writer, Paul brings his vast knowledge of cities, architectural history, urbanism, and historic preservation to bear on a building type that differs from many other public buildings and landmarks found throughout the country.
The writing on the urban and rural natures of baseball is poetic without becoming sentimental. In his estimation, one of the most important points in building a good place to play the game is that the space be “so open, as to as allude, at least symbolically, to the notion that the outfield extends into infinity.” I join Paul in finding PNC Park in Pittsburgh to be one of the sport’s best new venues to watch a game and to see the city.
It is getting late here in the 8th inning. What happens when the game is over?
A Great and Glorious Game: Baseball Writings of A. Bartlett Giamatti edited by Kenneth Robson — This small collection of essays contains the gem:
“It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.”
Giamatti — an English Renaissance scholar, former president of Yale University, National League president, and the courageous commissioner of baseball who banned Pete Rose for life and then died of a heart attack 8 days later — was writing in the excerpt above about an earlier Red Sox loss on the last day of the season many years ago. But the “breaking your heart” line applies in all sorts of baseball situations.
And now…for the incredible 9th inning.
Bottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption, and Baseball’s Longest Game by Dan Barry — This book became one of my all-time favorites for a variety of reasons. Yes, it is about baseball’s longest game, a game that began at 8 p.m. after a 30 minute delay due to faulty lighting on April 18, 1981 — Holy Saturday — and was extended until 4 a.m. on Easter morning, April 19th, when the game was suspended after 32 innings and 8 hours with a 2-2 tie. Two months later, on June 23rd, the Rochester Red Wings and Pawtucket Red Sox resumed the game at the top of the 33rd. In 18 minutes it was all over, a 3-2 Pawtucket win.
Dan Barry’s book is full of the intersections of baseball and life, told against the backdrop of the holiest day of the Christian calendar. There are two future Hall-of-Famers in the lineups — Pawtucket’s Wade Boggs and Rochester’s Cal Ripken, Jr. (known in those days as J.R.). But since this is Triple A minor league baseball, the intriguing stories are about the men who have devoted their lives to baseball and yet — except for the occasional “cup of coffee” stint in the big leagues — won’t make it to the next level.
The game would have never achieved notoriety if the rule book that umpire Daniel Cregg was using wasn’t missing the section on an automatic curfew after 12:50 a.m. — a slip up in the International League offices that year. This book is full of such “you won’t believe this” stories. Among my many favorites are these three:
- Pawtucket pitcher Luis Aponte is permitted to head home after pitching three innings in relief, yet when he arrives his wife won’t let him in the door because she doesn’t believe his story as to why he was out until 3 a.m.
- Rochester outfielder Dallas Williams went 0 for 13 in the game — a “bad month.”
- Pawtucket’s Sam Bowen hit a ball so hard that it left the field…but the nasty wind blowing straight in blew it back into play and into the glove of the outfielder.
This is a book to savor.
10th Inning “Free Baseball” bonus.
The 1960 New Yorker essay “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu” by John Updike — As Washington Post writer Michah Pollack wrote recently, this was Updike’s “only true foray into sportswriting. He was one of 10,454 at Fenway Park on that chilly, overcast September day. He stayed to watch (Ted) Williams homer in his final at-bat. Then he left to write about it. He retired as a sportswriter, undefeated.”
Feel free to let me know your favorites. And let’s hope we get to “play ball” this year.
More to come…