Baseball is wonderful in that it affords the spectator time to think. It is no accident that, therefore, as a result, the sport has provided some of sport’s best literature.
Here I have narrowed the vast amount of works available down to my favourite twenty baseball books of all time. Of course, there will be some that aren’t to everyone’s taste and some that you might well feel are missing. That is the fun of lists. Indeed, I could not stand “The Boys of Summer” by Roger Kahn which is often regarded as one of the greats of the genre.
What I hope is that I can point you in the direction of some fantastic reading and that there will be some books you were just not aware of before. They are in no particular order. This is not a power ranking. Choosing absolute favourites would be impossible when so many gave me so much pleasure. Enjoy the list.
Moneyball (2003) – Michael Lewis
Probably the best known baseball book of the last twenty years. At the time, much of what was written about was extremely revealing. Of course, times change and methodology moves on. So what? If you have seen the film, forget it and go into this with a completely open mind. Lewis’ great gift is making you feel as if you are actually in the room drafting.
Ball Four (1970) – Jim Bouton
A revelatory diary of a season on the Yankees. Until then, players were often seen as heroes and role models. This peeled back the curtain and showed how normal they actually were. It was not popular around the league at the time, leading to some regarding Bouton as a traitor. Just great.
October 1964 (1995) – David Halberstam
Anything written by Halberstam is worth your time. He also wrote about the Portland Trailblazers of the late 70s, Michael Jordan and Bill Belichick amongst others. His strength is being able to articulate and put into historical context the sports and the times when they were being played. This is about the ’64 World Series between the Yankees and the Cardinals me the vastly different makeups of their teams. The Cardinals had an array of talented black players whilst the Yankees were still of the old school.
Babe (1974) – Robert Creamer
Writing a biography of baseball’s most larger than life character must have been a daunting task. Creamer charts the whole of Ruth’s career, warts and all. This has to be one of the finest biographies of a sportsman ever written. Creamer’s book on Casey Stengel is also fantastic.
Summer of ’49 (1989) – David Halberstam
Impossible not to include two books by Halberstam. This chronicles the pennant race between the Yankees and the Red Sox and focuses on their two biggest stars, DiMggio and Williams.
The Long Season – (1960) Jim Brosnan
Brosnan was an unheralded reliever and his diary of the 1959 season revealed much of the less glamorous side to being a professional baseball player. Less well-known than Ball Four, this is every bit it’s equal.
Joe DiMaggio (2000) – Richard Ben Cramer
Some biographies fall into the obvious trap of becoming eulogies to their subject matter. Whilst paying tribute to DiMaggio’s obvious qualities as a player, Cramer paints a picture of a less than salubrious character off the diamond. In fact you come away convinced that Smokin’ Joe was a bit of an asshole.
Veeck as in Wreck (1962) – Bill Veeck with Ed Linn
This is one of my most enjoyable sports books ever. Veeck was a maverick, a complete one-off. He owned three different teams at various times and was more of a fan than we sometimes imagine owners to be. Some of the stories about his wacky promotion nights are absolutely glorious.
Eight Men Out (1965) – Eliot Asinof
About Shoeless Joe Jackson the 1919 Black Sox. This tells the tale as if you are there. You hear about the unhappiness of the players with owners that drove them to fix the World Series and go right through to the courtroom where they were found guilty. Terrific.
The Bronx Zoo (1979) – Sparky Lyle
Another tell all book from within a clubhouse that was not particularly well received from those within the game or on his team, tellingly Lyle was on the Texas Rangers the following year. The subject is the 1978 Yankees and all the larger than life characters they had on the team including George Steinbrenner.
The Glory of their Times (1966) – Lawrence Ritter
Often regarded as baseball’s best ever book, Ritter interviews many of the players from the early part of the 20th Century. We hear about their careers, how the game changed, their teammates, the owners, the fans, everything. Just wonderful.
Play Ball (1993) – John Feinstein
Feinstein is one of the best known sportswriters of our time, his works covering multiple sports over the last thirty years. This is one of his less well-known books but is well worth seeking out. He visits many teams during the 1992 season and in his typically easy reading style we get to meet many of the game’s stars shortly before the disastrous strike of 1994.
Can’t Anybody Here Play this Game? (1963) – Jimmy Breslin
Pulitzer Prize-winning New York newspaper columnist provides a funny, affectionate, and insightful look at the first season of the “Amazing Mets,” an expansion team with a roster of comprised mostly of has-been veterans and young cast-offs from other teams. That year – 1962 – the National League expanded to ten teams and the Mets came in tenth, winning 40 games and losing 120 games for manager Casey Stengel. This is just so much fun and has a bit of a feel of the movie Major League about it.
The Bullpen Gospels (2000) – Dirk Hayhurst
Not all superb baseball writing has to be about the stars and the Major Leagues. Hayhurst’s account of his struggles in the minors, his self doubt and the meaning of life really is wonderfully self-reverential and inward looking. Just buy it, you will thank me.
Only the Ball was White (1970) – Robert Peterson
There have been many books about the Negro Leagues but this was the original and, to me, the best. Written in the 1960s, Peterson gets to interview many of the stars of the league. If you enjoy this, I can also thoroughly recommend “Baseball’s Great Experiment” (1983) by Jules Tygiel.
Red Smith on Baseball (2001) – Red Smith
Smith is often revered as basbeall’s greatest ever writer. This awesome collection of more than 150 of his articles over forty years is some of the best literature of any kind you will come across. One of those books that you can dip in and out of and then do it again and again and again.
The Summer Game (1972) – Roger Angell
Roger Angell used to write baseball essays in the New Yorker. This is a collection of them covering such topics as the great players of the era, the decline of the Yankee Empire, baseball in Montreal and the pleasures and perils of the Astrodome. Angell is an expert observer of the baseball world but his essays are as much about American culture as the sport itself.
Clemente (2006) – David Maraniss
Roberto Clemente was baseball’s first Latino super-star. But his athletic accomplishments didn’t stop the racism he faced on and off the field, including among teammates, fans, and especially many sportswriters. Like Jackie Robinson, he used his celebrity to speak out on social issues. As with Maraniss’ work on Vince Lombardi this is supremely well researched and as through a biography as you could imagine.
Dollar Sign on the Muscle (1984) – Kevin Kerrane
Baseball scouts make or break players’ careers. This superb book takes you inside their world, where we learn about their daily lives and how they evaluate players. We also learn about original scouting reports of some of the greatest players of all time, often being not as favourable as you might assume.
Seasons in Hell (2004) – Mike Shropshire
As frequently happens, interesting subject matter occurs when things go wrong. The 1973 Texas Rangers were damn awful and that’s what makes this account of their ineptitude so great. Baseball in the 1970s was particularly colourful and some of the players’ antics so vastly different to what they could even dream of getting away with now. Hilarious.