What makes a great baseball book? Essentially, my test is, "Was this book so good that I've read it more than once?" Now, this might lead to some idiosyncratic choices, but it's not like there's a science to this.
Most of the books below are in print, which means you can buy them at your local bookstore or order them from Webstores like Barnes & Noble or Amazon.com. The books that aren't in print are generally common enough that they can be acquired without too much trouble or money from used-book dealers, and Alibris is a great place to start. Greg Spira has put together a wonderful page of advice on buying baseball books.
And now, in alphabetical order, here are 10 essential baseball books, with representative or memorable passages.
Babe: The Legend Comes to Life, Robert Creamer (in print)
There are two players who have meant more to the game than any others: Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson. Creamer's bio of Ruth is generally accurate, evenhanded and extraordinarily well-written. (Creamer's book on Casey Stengel, Stengel: His Life and Times, is also in print and worth your time. Oh, and I should also mention two biographies of Robinson, David Falkner's Great Time Coming and Arnold Rampersad's Jackie Robinson: A Biography, both of which are very good.)
He understood clearly what he was doing when he batted, despite his habit of saying, "I just keep swinging," when people asked him the secret of hitting home runs. Once, seriously discussing his batting, he said, "I swing as hard as I can, and I try to swing right through the ball. In boxing, your fist usually stops when you hit a man, but it's possible to hit so hard that your fist doesn't stop. I try to follow through the same way. The harder you grip the bat, the more you can swing it through the ball, and the farther the ball will go. I swing big, with everything I've got. I hit big or I miss big. I like to live as big as I can."
And because the Babe was so big, here's another passage ...
He liked seeing children the best. He enjoyed them. He was comfortable with them. "He's just a big kid" was a common description of him, and perhaps the only time he was truly at ease was when he was with children. With them there were no rules, no authority, no need to apologize, to explain, to explode, to drink, to f---, to prove himself over and over. Without thinking about it, he knew who they were and they knew who he was. They got along. Like a child, he did not like to wait or plan for the right moment. He did not like to wait for anything. "It might rain tomorrow," he would say.
Ball Four, Jim Bouton (in print)
The funniest non-fiction baseball book, and there's not really any competition. No self-respecting baseball fan should go through life without reading Ball Four at least three times.
A young girl asked one of the guys in the bullpen if he was married. "Yeah, he said, "but I'm not a fanatic about it."
The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James (in print)
Sounds like a revised version of Bill's earlier classic, the first Historical Baseball Abstract, which was first published nearly 20 years ago. But the new Historical Abstract is essentially a new book, in which Bill presents Win Shares (his new method for evaluating a player's value) and rates the 100 best players at each position.
... I know I'm not going to convince very many of you. The '61 Yankees have been listed among the greatest teams of all time since June of 1961. I'm not going to be able to take them off the list. Pigs don't speak Latin, anthrax is not a toy, I ain't dating Julia, and the '61 Yankees were not a great team. It's my book; that's my opinion.
Bums: An Oral History of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Peter Golenbock (out of print, but easily found)
OK, so Golenbock is notoriously loose with facts, and his take on Walter O'Malley isn't what you'd call balanced. But the stories of Rickey and Robinson and all the rest are wonderful, and this might be the first book to give voice to a team's fans. Bums was the first adult baseball book I read, and it -- along with my first Bill James Baseball Abstract (the annual, not the Historical book) -- made me a fan of baseball rather than just my favorite team.
It was a sad year, even though they had played good ball in '49. We had expected to win the pennant. We figured we would. We always knew we were better than anybody in the National League, but always it came to that last link in autumn, when the Yankees would come in and take all the marbles.
You said to yourself, "What the hell is the matter with them? Why can't we beat these guys? What do they have, the magic touch? The evil eye on us?" There was no explaining it. It just seems you played your heart out all year, and then they'd come up against the Yankees, and bam, they'd win the Series.
-- Dodgers fan Bill Reddy
The Glory of Their Times, ed. Lawrence Ritter (in print)
Many aficionados regard The Glory of Their Times as the greatest baseball book. It was essentially the first of the oral-history genre and remains the best, a wonderful portrait of baseball in the first 20 years of this century as told by the men who were there.
Without implying comparison, I am reminded of Melville's Moby Dick. Is it a book about whaling in the nineteenth century? Indeed it is. It probably contains more information on the subject than any learned treatise written before or since. Nevertheless, any schoolboy knows that Moby Dick is not really about whaling. It is about man's hopes, his struggles, his triumphs, and his failures. It is about trying to attain the unattainable -- and sometimes making it. And, on its own terms, that is also what this book is about.
-- Ritter in the Preface
Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, Michael Lewis (in print)
Even in new, stressful situations, the quality at the center of Scott Hatteberg -- his compulsion to make himself at home in the game, to slow the game down, to make it come to him, to make it his game -- was apparent. He was one of those people whose personality was inextricable from his performance. No: whose personality was necessary for his performance. The funny thing is that pro baseball took one look at that personality and decided it needed to be beaten out of him.
Nice Guys Finish Last, Leo Durocher w/Ed Linn (out of print for the moment, but easily found)
The problem with most autobiographies is that they're ghost-written to such an extent that, while the events are retold competently enough, little of the subject's personality is evident. The beauty of Nice Guys Finish Last is that Durocher's personality is always on display, thanks to the skill of collaborator Ed Linn. And Durocher was in the major leagues as a player, coach and manager for about 45 years, so he's got plenty to say. (Linn's collaborations with Bill Veeck, Veeck as in Wreck and The Hustler's Handbook, are also considered essential works by most collectors. And fun, too!)
What do you say about Ernie Banks? Well, you say: He had bad knees but he did the best he could under the circumstances. You say: He was at the end of the road and I guess he knew it as well as anyone else. But he gave you all he had when he was playing, and he was a great player in his time. You say: It was too bad the Cubs didn't have nine Ernie Bankses. Know what I mean? Praise him.
The only thing true about it is that he was a great player in his time. Unfortunately, his time wasn't my time. Even more unfortunately, there was not a thing I could do about it. He couldn't run, he couldn't field; toward the end, he couldn't even hit. There are some players who instinctively do the right thing on the base paths. Ernie had an unfailing instinct for doing the wrong thing. But I had to play him. Had to play the man or there would have been a revolution in the street.
Game Time: A Baseball Companion, Roger Angell (in print)
If you don't feel like tracking down Angell's four prior collections of his baseball pieces from The New Yorker -- The Summer Game, Five Seasons, Late Innings and Season Ticket -- then this retrospective is the next best thing (however, at least two of those earlier collections have just recently been republished). Warning: If big words give you the creeps, stay away.
Game Six, Game Six ... what can we say of it without seeming to diminish it by recapitulation or dull it with detail? Those of us who were there will remember it, surely, as long as we have any baseball memory, and those who wanted to be there and were not will be sorry always. Crispin Crispian: for Red Sox fans, this was Agincourt. The game also went out to to sixty-two million television viewers, a good many millions of whom missed their bedtime. Three days of heavy rains had postponed things; the outfield grass was a lush, Amazon green, but there was a clear sky at last and a welcoming moon--a giant autumn squash that rose above the right-field Fenway bleachers during batting practice.
-- Angell on the 1975 World Series
The Pitch That Killed, Mike Sowell (in print)
A wonderful account of the 1920 American League campaign, which included the breaking of the Black Sox scandal, Babe Ruth's first truly historic season, and the fatal beaning of Indians shortstop Ray Chapman. Out of print, but you can still find the paperback edition floating around in some bookstores.
Tomorrow we ought to win pretty easily. I can't hit this man Mays, but the rest of the team sure can.
-- Ray Chapman on August 15, 1920
Total Baseball, ed. John Thorn, et al (in print) and The Baseball Encyclopedia eds. Pete Palmer and Gary Gillette (in print)
In the face of predictions that the Internet and high production costs had permanently killed off the massive baseball encyclopedia, this spring two of the old classics are both back, and in a big way. The new Baseball Encyclopedia is incredibly cheap (in a good way) in a paperback edition that can be purchased only from Barnes & Noble. The new Total Baseball is a hardcover and thus more expensive, but can still be purchased for quite a reasonable price from Amazon. Both are excellent, and which one you prefer is mostly a matter of taste.
Honorable Mention: Charles Alexander's bios of John McGraw, Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby (scholarly but readable), Eliott Asinof's Eight Men Out (on the Black Sox), Jim Brosnan's The Long Season (pre-Ball Four, a humorous pitcher's diary absent the potty mouth), Charles Einstein's Willie's Time (American history through the lens of Say Hey's long career), Kevin Kerrane's Dollar Sign on the Muscle (overview of scouts and scouting), Roger Kahn's The Boys of Summer (Brooklyn Dodgers in the early 1950s, and 15-odd years later), G.H. Fleming's The Unforgettable Season (newspaper accounts of the 1908 National League campaign, highlighted by Merkle's Boner), Arnold Hano's A Day in the Bleachers (Game 1 of the 1954 World Series, as seen from the cheap seats), Pat Jordan's A False Spring (trials of a minor-league pitcher), Leigh Montville's Ted Williams: The Biography of an American Hero (certainly among the best baseball biographies ever), Dan Okrent's and Harris Lewine's The Ultimate Baseball Book (still the best photo-centric baseball book), Henry Thomas' Walter Johnson: Baseball's Big Train (bio of the game's greatest pitcher, written beautifully by his grandson), Jules Tygiel's The Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson & His Legacy, Mark Winegardner's Prophet of the Sandlots (profile of veteran scout Tony Lucadello), Craig Wright's The Diamond Appraised (sabermetrics made fun).
Marc Okkonen's Baseball Uniforms of the 20th Century and Paul Dickson's Dickson Baseball Dictionary are both essential reference works, and they're both more fun than they have a right to be.
These aren't the only baseball books worth reading. Once you get through all of these, let me know and I'll give you more.
And finally, though I'm no literary critic, I would like to quickly offer a list of my five favorite baseball novels. . .
The Celebrant, Eric Rolfe Greenberg (in print)
Well-crafted story of how the lives of a family of New York jewelers intersect with Christy Mathewson in the early part of the century. Good baseball scenes and realistic depictions of Mathewson dealing with both the benefits and burdens of fame and hero worship.
The Great American Novel, Philip Roth (in print)
To quote my friend Jim Baker, "It's all there." All what? All of the more interesting pieces of baseball lore, from Eddie Gaedel to the Black Sox to sabermetrics to war-time baseball to ... well, you'll just have to trust me. They're all there, in fictionalized form of course. Plus Red Scare politics, ancient mythology, literature, anti-Semitism, racism ... The only novel of which I remember the opening line ... "Call me Smitty."
The Southpaw, Mark Harris (in print)
Perhaps the funniest baseball novel, The Southpaw is the first, and best, of Harris' four books seen through the eyes of Henry Wiggen, the pitcher played by Michael Moriarty in Bang the Drum Slowly.
The Universal Baseball Association, Inc.: J. Henry Waugh, Prop., Robert Coover (in print)
If you've spent way too many hours rolling dice playing games like Strat-0-Matic or APBA, you'll relate to this one, about a nebbishy accountant whose imaginary baseball league eventually consumes his "real" life.
You Know Me Al, Ring Lardner (in print)
In which the reader learns what it might have been like to be a somewhat stupid yet somewhat talented pitcher with the Chicago White Sox in the teens. Lardner actually covered the White Sox as a beat reporter before switching to more advanced literary pursuits, and the fictional Jack Keefe's letters to his friend Al are filled with references to actual baseball luminaries of the time. Truer than The Southpaw, and almost as funny.
Just missed: Eliot Asinof's Man on Spikes, Kevin Baker's Sometimes You See It Coming, David Carkeet's The Greatest Slump of All Time, Jerome Charyn's The Seventh Babe, David James Duncan's The Brothers K, Donald Hays' The Dixie Association, W.P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe, Bernard Malamud's The Natural, George Plimpton's The Curious Case of Sidd Finch, Harry Stein's Hoopla, and Mark Winegardner's The Veracruz Blues.