In the cold dark of winter, a middle-aged man’s fancy turns to thoughts of summer, baseball, beer, and the best books about baseball. On the last hump day in January, the Top Ten Baseball books of all time, and a brief description:
- The Glory of Their Times, Lawrence S. Ritter
- Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James
- Total Baseball
- My Turn at Bat, Ted Williams
- Boys of Summer, Roger Kahn
- A Day in the Bleachers, Arnold Hano
- Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever, LeRoy “Satchel” Paige
- Ball Four, Jim Bouton
- Cobb: A Biography, Al Stump
- Playing for Keeps: A History of Early Baseball, Warren Goldstein
1. The Glory of Their Times, Lawrence S. Ritter
In 1961 after Ty Cobb died, Lawrence Ritter got the idea of sitting down and talking to other great, old-time baseball players before it was too late. In pursuit of that goal, he traveled over 75,000 miles recording his conversations with some of the best players to have ever played the game.The result of these conversations is the single best book about baseball ever written. Ritter helped to invent a genre of sports book, the recorded-conversation, that has been often copied but never with the same success. His conversations with the likes of Hank Greenberg, Sam Crawford, Goose Goslin, and Stan Coveleski are engaging, humorous, revealing, and always magical. As the players look back at their youth and the game that they played from the vantage point of old age their memories take on a lyrical quality that is at once a tribute to the game they loved and to a time in America long gone. (For a more complete review, click here.)
2. The Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James
I used to play a game with a friend of mine who is one of the biggest baseball fans I have ever met. The question was: what one book would you want with you if you were stranded on a desert island? It always came down to a choice between MacMillan’s Baseball Encyclopedia or this one, James’s Historical Abstract. When stats guru Bill James examines the history of baseball he creates a work that is much more than a stat book. Decade by decade he examines the players, the developments, and the growth of the game he knows so well. In 2001, James published an updated and revised version. I prefer the original.
3. Total Baseball
Once MacMillian’s Baseball Encyclopedia deservedly had the moniker of “the bible of baseball.” Total Baseball rightfully holds that title today. Utilizing advances in baseball research and statistical analysis, TB gives you 10 times more information than MacMillan’s, and dozen’s of great essays, something MacMillan’s never had at all. TB lets you compare players within their eras and within the history of the game. There is no better way to watch a game of baseball on TV than with a copy sitting on a table next to you. How does Randy Johnson stack up against Lefty Grove and Sandy Koufax? How does Alex Rodriquez compare to Honus Wagner?
4. My Turn at Bat, Ted Williams and John Underwood
In his career Ted Williams often felt victimized by members of the press, and, if truth be told he was. While DiMaggio in New York was afforded a free pass by an adoring press, Williams in Boston who actually saw combat in two wars was savaged at every turn. This is William’s chance to tell his side of the story. The last man to hit .400 discusses his neglected childhood in San Diego, being a fighter pilot in World War II and Korea, Boston and the Red Sox, fishing and, of course, hitting. 100 years from now, when the personal baggage between William’s and the media is long forgotten, Williams will be remembered with Jackie Robinson, Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Babe Ruth as one of the seven greatest players of the 20th century. When you factor in the seasons lost to not just one, but two wars, number 9 certainly deserves the title of “the greatest hitter to have ever lived.”
5. Boys of Summer, Roger Kahn
The definitive book about Brooklyn and the Dodgers, Kahn’s sentimental work weaves together his own autobiography into stories about and conversations with the men who once made Brooklyn the emotional center of the capital of baseball: Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella, Gil Hodges, and especially Jackie Robinson. There are scores of other books about the Dodgers and Jackie Robinson but this is by far the best. It is also one of the best books about the game of baseball. (For a more complete review, click here.)
6. A Day in the Bleachers, Arnold Hano
Other writers have attempted to analyze the game of baseball by analyzing the action, strategy, and play of a single game. The fact that Hano did it first, with so much sentimentality and grace, and that the game in question is Game 1 of the 1954 World Series has meant that every other attempt to follow Hano’s formula has been destined to failure. From to Willie May’s catch, to Dusty Rhodes’s home run, this is the best insider’s look at the game of baseball ever written. (For a more complete review, click here.)
7. Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever, Satchel Paige and David Lipton
Paige was somewhere between age 50 and 90 when he broke into the Major Leagues in 1948. Perhaps the greatest pitcher of all time, Paige never got a shot at the all-white Major Leagues until it was almost too late. Considering how well he fared as a senior citizen, we can only assume that in his prime he was as unhittable as the many legends about him claim. Paige discusses his considerable legend and adds to it, describing life in the Negro Leagues, the Jim Crow South, and barnstorming baseball before Jackie Robinson.
8. Ball Four, Jim Bouton
Bouton’s book was a controversial bestseller in 19. Profiling the drinking, womanizing, and shenanigans on and off the field of his teammates and fellow players in the early and mid-1960s, Bouton’s expose seems tame by today’s standards. In its time, though, it caused a great deal of embarrassment for Mickey Mantle, the Yankees, and Major League Baseball, so much so that Bouton, a pitcher, found himself blackballed and out of work. Still one of the top-ten books about baseball.
9. Cobb: A Biography, Al Stump
Ty Cobb has been called the greatest baseball player who ever lived, a racist, a killer, and the meanest man alive. Stump, who spent more harrowing days with the lonely and driven Cobb than seems possible, or even advisable, presents us with a complex portrait of a man who was indeed everything he has been called and more. On and off the field, Cobb has driven by demons of racism, hatred, personal tragedy and mental illness to be the best, at all costs. Stump profiles the life of the man who built a staggering baseball legacy and personal fortune, but in the end, died friendless and un-mourned. The best baseball biography ever written, period.
10. Playing for Keeps: A History of Early Baseball, Warren Goldstein
The origin of baseball in America, like the origin of all important things, is shrouded in myth. The very location of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, was predicated on the myth of Abner Doubleday inventing the game there. Mr. Goldstein delves beneath the myth into baseball’s very pre-history, to discover the historical origins of the game that has defined America more than any other. The result is a remarkable work that is beautifully written, entertaining, and difficult to put down. Goldstein’s achievement gives us a better understanding of the game, and reminds us of why we love it so much.