The Essential Baseball Library

Notes Toward . . .

AN ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL,

EVER-CHANGING,

ANNOTATED

BASEBALL LIBRARY

Here you’ll find a thorough, annotated list of “2 Guys-Approved” books for your Essential Baseball Library. Have fun scrolling through this wonderful, ten-thousand word beast. What have I missed? Or gotten wrong? Please share your thoughts, comments, and suggestions in the comment section (scroll all the way down for it, bizarrely) and I’ll check it out. We intend to add a book review feature to this blog, so review copies are welcome (with no promises). In addition, if you’d like to become a guest reviewer for 2 Guys, please raise your hand.

I love reading about baseball. Always have. In fact, it was baseball that turned me into a reader, as I am blessed to have grown up in an age before ESPN came along and dumbed-down everything in its path. Think about it. I’m 51 years old. Like kids everywhere, I woke up and wanted to find out who won the game — so I went to the newspaper. Believe me, if I could have plopped in a chair and hit the remote, I gladly would have. The first writer I loved was not P.D. Eastman or Dr. Seuss, it was Dick Young. I realize that it didn’t end well in NY for Mr. Young (who coined the phrase “The Lords of Baseball,” btw), but he was a very important writer for me at an impressionable age.

I used to love the way Yaz held the bat — and imitated his upright style in many a Whiffle ball game.

My father once quipped that the first word I learned how to read must have been “Yastrzemski,” the 1967 Triple Crown Winner, because he was in the papers all the time when I was just learning how to decode language. It was all there if you want to make a reader: high interest subject matter and strong visuals supporting the text. Anyway, I usually go to my baseball reading during  the depths of winter, when I miss the game the most. As a side project, I spent the last few weeks annotating a starter list of Essential Baseball Reading. I’ve read many of these titles, others wait on my nightstand, and still others I’ve only recently discovered. Most of these recommendations are personal, others come from . . . the universe. I’d like to read them all before I’m done. I should add that many books I’ve enjoyed didn’t make this list, as they struck me as more ephemeral in nature, or only middling in quality, though I might be wrong about that. To further confuse  you, books are separated into loose categories — GENERAL, FICTION, STATS/ANALYSIS, BIOGRAPHY/MEMOIR, SEASONS, BOOKS BY PLAYERS, ANTHOLOGIES/COLLECTED ESSAYS, and ANNUALS — plus a special section on BOOKS ABOUT THE METS — all  alphabetized by author.

Key: * asterisk signals that I’ve read it; and + that it’s in my possession.

GENERAL

3 Nights in August: Strategy, Heartbreak, and Joy Inside the Mind of a Manager by Buzz Bissinger *

Okay, up front: I respect Tony La Russa (third all-time in wins for a manager, behind Connie Mack and John McGraw), but find him wildly irritating. He’s hard to like. And Bissinger is his perfect match, a writer one must respect but also . . . a smug blowhard at times. That said, it’s an unusual, intimate, up-close look into the heart and mind of an inscrutable but legendary manager destined for the Hall of Fame. “Granted complete access to La Russa and the team, Bissinger has studied closely, but he betrays a weakness for platitude and for odd turns of phrase, as when he ascribes to one hitter ‘the slightest oregano of arrogance.’” — The New Yorker.

Diamonds in the Rough: The Untold History of Baseball by John Bowman and Joel Zoss

“Altogether wonderful . . . . I challenge any fan to read Diamonds in the Roughand not come away with a hundred gems he did not own before. Erudite, properly skeptical, and unfailingly lively — in short, a hit. I rise to my feet in admiration and gnash my teeth that I did not write it.”— John Thorn. “One of the greatest baseball books of all time.” — Allen Barra, New York Observer.

Chasing Steinbrenner: Pursuing the Pennant in Boston and Toronto by Rob Bradford *

I was attracted to the idea of this book, its tight focus on GM’s Epstein and Ricciardi (Mets fans, take note), in their attempts to compete with the big, bad New York Yankees. Overall it’s a little scattered, but earns its way on base by offering up some good behind-the-scenes stuff, particularly the recruitment wars for Jose Contreras.

The Dickson Baseball Dictionary by Paul Dickson. *

Yeah, you want this reference book on your shelf. “This grand book is truly a baseball lover’s dream come true. From the first to the last page, it provides an enjoyable experience for readers to treasure. Of special note are the handsome presentation, adequate type size, and editorial care taken with photos and layout that makes the book accessible without compromising comprehensiveness. An essential guide to America’s pastime.” — Library Journal.

Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ’70s by Dan Epstein *

This book had me after a glance at the cover, the great shot of Oscar Gamble’s ‘fro. And of course, this was my most impressionable decade, since I graduated high school in ’79. Maybe not essential, strictly speaking, but good fun. “Epstein fires up the time machine for a journey back to 1970s baseball, out of which came the designated hitter, the free agent, Astroturf, cookie-cutter stadiums, World Series night games, and such ill-fated experiments as the three-ball walk (oof!), orange baseballs (look out!), and the swapping of wives between Yankee pitchers Fritz Peterson and Mike Kekich (don’t ask).” — Booklist.

The Mental Game of Baseball: A Guide to Peak Performance by H.A. Dorfman and Karl Kuehl *

I read this when I was playing in a men’s hardball league (CDMSBL) — and it didn’t help my game a bit. Dorfman was the game’s first “mental skills” coach, and earned two World Series rings for his work with the Oakland A’s and Florida Marlins. “This is the most helpful book I’ve ever read. I, along with several of my teammates refer to Mental Game of Baseball as the ‘Baseball Bible.'” — Al Leiter.

The Last Nine Innings by Charles Euchner *

I have a special affection for this sub-category of baseball writing, which puts it all in the nutshell of One Game. There’s several fine books that fit into that description. Euchner packs everything he knows about the inner workings of baseball — supported by hundreds of interviews — into the exploration of a single game: Game Seven of the 2001 World Series. And guess what? The Yankees lost. “This is a different book, in a very good way.” — Washington Post.

Game of Shadows: Barry Bonds, BALCO, and the Steroids Scandal That Rocked Professional Sports by Mark Fainura-Wada and Lance Williams

I suppose this issue has to be represented in The Essential Baseball Library, and this is probably the book to do it. I have not read it, but was struck by how many comments about this book, while highly complimentary of the writing and research, mentioned how sad and disappointing it was to read. “Superb…. Important and disturbing.” — San Francisco Chronicle. “A testament to baseball’s failure.” — Newsweek. “Necessary reading for anyone concerned with the steroids era in baseball” — The New York Times.

Little League Confidential: One Coach’s Completely Unauthorized Tale of Surival by Bill Geist *

Anyone who has coached Little League will enjoy it. That’s a “2 Guys” guarantee! “This Little League coach’s account of his woes, travails and soul storms in the course of one season is side-splitting. Geist, a CBS News correspondent, lives in Ridgewood, N.J., where he has shepherded preadolescents on the diamond for nine years and, to his amazement, has survived . . . He writes of the games, with pitchers flinging balls three feet over the batters’ heads, outfielders aiming for third base but throwing to first and a few tyros who are actually good. For anyone in need of a good laugh.” — Publishers Weekly.

The Teammates by David Halberstam *

Easy, short, and told with warmth and affection by a true master. “As baseball legend Ted Williams lay dying in Florida, his old Boston Red Sox teammates Johnny Pesky and Dom DiMaggio piled into a car and drove 1,300 miles to see their friend. Another member of the close-knit group, Bobby Doerr, remained in Oregon to tend to his wife who had suffered a stroke. Besides providing a poignant travelogue of the elderly Pesky and DiMaggio’s trip, David Halberstam’s The Teammates goes back in time to profile the men as young ballplayers.” — Amazon.

A Day in the Bleachers by Arnold Hano *

This is simply a very, very special baseball document of one day. I love this book! “From the subway ride to the ballpark, through batting practice and warm-ups, to the game-winning home run, A Day in the Bleachers describes inning by inning the strategies, heroics, and ineluctable rhythms of the opening game of the 1954 World Series. Here are the spectacular exploits of the Indians and Giants, and of a young player named Willie Mays, who made the most-talked-about catch in baseball history.” — Amazon. “[An] absolute work of art.” — Huffington Post.

Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball by John Helyar

Helyar, co-author of Barbarians at the Gate, presents the history of player-owner labor relations. That is, he looks at the business of the game, while touching upon such legendary characters as Judge Landis, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Ty Cobb, Charlie Finley, Catfish Hunter, Andy Messersmith, Pete Rose, Bud Selig, and more. “The ultimate chronicle of the games behind the game.” — The New York Times Book Review. Note: I have not read this one, but one review cautioned that it “may be too legalistic for the casual fan.”

No Cheering in the Press Box by Jerome Holtzman

From what I can tell, this is one of those rare books that if you come across it in a used books store, grab it and count your lucky stars. Holtzman gathers together the reminiscenes and reflections from twenty-five sportswriters — including Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, Shirley Povich, and Ford Frick — and in this way documents “the Golden Age of Sports” between the two World Wars. “Earthy, gossipy, often hilarious.” — The New York Times.

The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn *

One of the first books that I ever loved. “Roger Kahn has achieved the near impossible in his The Boys of Summer by writing two splendid books in one, neither of which, strangely enough, is a sports book although baseball is the central theme of both. To Mr. Kahn, ‘people’ is the name of the game, and it’s a game he plays with brilliance, insight and thoughtfulness.” — Bill Veeck.

Good Enough to Dream, by Roger Kahn *

This is a book for anyone with a dream, baseball or otherwise. I read this one long ago, and still reflect on it today, since it captures that gray area between striving to realize one’s dream or allowing delusion to derail your life. A razor’s edge separates the failure from the superstar, the bloop double and the lazy pop out, the successful writer to the guy who can’t pay his mortgage.

The Head Game: Baseball Seen from the Pitcher’s Mound by Roger Kahn *

I love pitchers and the art of pitching most of all, and this book dedicates chapters to twirlers such as Hoss Radbourn, Christy Mathewson, Cy Young, Johnny Sain, Warren Spahn, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Bruce Sutter — and takes a few sideways strolls along the way, including a visit with Leo Mazzone. This immensely enjoyable book is “as lively and familiar and old-shoe as the game itself, even today.” — Los Angeles Times.

Dollar Sign on the Muscle: The World of Baseball Scouting, by Kevin Kerrane *

“The scouts who seek out major league prospects are like explorers, wandering the country’s amateur diamonds in the hope of finding a treasure—or a raw talent that can be turned into a treasure. A lot of what romance remains in baseball centers on this perennial quest, and Kerrane, an English professor at the University of Delaware, captures it in this wonderfully affectionate book.” — People. “Some of the best baseball tall tales you’ll ever read.”— Wall Street Journal. NOTE: Just read this, January, 2013, and think it’s arguably one of the ten best baseball books ever written. A treasure that grows richer with the passage of time. Click here to read some of my favorite lines from the book.

Baseball As I Have Known It by Fred Lieb

I haven’t read this one . . . yet! From Amazon’s description: “From Honus Wagner to Johnny Bench, Baseball As I Have Known It covers sixty-six seasons of America’s national sport. Fred Lieb, the dean of baseball writers, tells about its heroes, rogues, controversies, and grand plays. He broke in as a sportswriter in the Polo Grounds press box in 1911. In 1933, in the midst of the Depression, Lieb was fired from the New York Post and began a freelance career writing about his beloved sport. Baseball As I Have Known It, first published in 1977 when Lieb was eighty-nine years old, remains a vital record of a glorious bygone era. In superb style, he comments on changes in baseball over the decades and tells inside stories about great events and immortal players.”

Only the Ball Was White: A History of Legendary Black Players and All-Black Professional Teams by Robert Peterson

Originally published in 1970, this landmark book is widely considered the gold standard for history of the Negro Leagues. “A worthy and fascinating addition to anyone’s baseball library.” — The New York Times Book Review. “Filled with the fascination that comes from discovering an unknown, complex, forgotten continent.” — Newsweek. “Fascinating….One of the truly important sociological contributions to the growing literature of baseball.” — The Washington Post Book World.

The Glory of Their Times by Lawrence S. Ritter *

This is hands-down my favorite baseball book, a remarkable, joyous oral history of a pasttime gone by. A treasure that goes direct to the heart of the game. Features interviews with Fred Snodgrass, Sam Crawford, Hans Lobert, Rube Bressler, Chief Meyers, Davy Jones, Rube Marquard, Joe Wood, Lefty O’Doul, Jimmy Austin, Goose Goslin, and more. “It is quirky, charming, witty, and fun. What a love for baseball they all had!” — Library Journal. “Easily the best baseball book ever produced by anyone.” – Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy by Jules Tygiel +

“Examining the social and historical context of Robinson’s introduction into white organized baseball, both on and off the field, Tygiel also tells the often neglected stories of other African-American players — such as Satchel Paige, Roy Campanella, Willie Mays, and Hank Aaron — who helped transform our national pastime into an integrated game. Drawing on dozens of interviews with players and front office executives, contemporary newspaper accounts, and personal papers, Tygiel provides the most telling and insightful account of Jackie Robinson’s influence on American baseball and society.” — Amazon. “The effect of Mr. Tygiel’s lively narrative is to make us realize, or remind us in case we’ve forgotten, what a remarkable impact Rickey’s experiment had on baseball.” — The New York Times.

Weaver on Strategy by Earl Weaver & Terry Pluto *

Absolutely great baseball book, by one of the game’s most thoughtful, strategic managers. Very readable, and it includes an epilogue with Weaver’s famous “Ten Laws” of baseball. Law #4: “Your most precious possessions on offense are your twenty-seven outs.” Law #5: “If you play for one run, that’s all you’ll get.” And so on. Genius.

You Gotta Have Wa, by Robert Whiting *

Just read this in November ’12, and found it richly entertaining. Plus fast and easy, the way I like my women — I mean, BOOKS! “The ‘wa’ one must have is the group harmony that is the essence of Japanese ‘besoboru,’ or baseball. (Japanese baseball fans view individualism as the fatal flaw in the American game.) This interesting comparative study of the sport as it is played on both sides of the Pacific concentrates on the American stars who have gone to play in Japan.” — Publishers Weekly.

Men At Work: The Craft of Baseball by George Will +

Too important not to mention, though it is George Will. “The author tends to retell well-known baseball history a little too often, but as a sports journalist, he shows himself to be a master at enticing players into particularly enlightening discussions.” — Publishers Weekly.

FICTION

If I Never Get Back, by Darryl Brock +

I just ordered this one. “A grand adventure and joyful embrace of baseball the way it ought to be played … If I Never Get Back should be required reading for players and owners as well as fans.” — The Washington Times.

The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J Henry Waugh, Prop. by Robert Coover *

As a former dice-roller and game-maker-upper as a small boy, I connected with this inventive novel. “Coover made baseball on the page seem three-dimensional, exulting in what he called the game’s ‘almost perfect balance between offense and defense.’ He captured what Philip Roth, in a 1973 New York Times essay on baseball, called ‘its longueurs and thrills, its spaciousness, its suspensefulness, its heroics, its nuances, its lingo, its’characters,’ its peculiarly hypnotic tedium’. . . The genius of the novel is in how Coover revels in the sun-bright vitality of the world Waugh has created, full of drink and lust and dirty limericks and doubles down the line — and yet brings Waugh face to face with its darkest truths.” — The New York Times Book Review.

The Celebrant by Eric Greenberg +

“An oft-overlooked novel that blends fact and fiction to create a charming turn-of-the-century tale about the intertwined lives of New York Giants pitcher Christy Mathewson and the family of a young Jewish immigrant who makes his World Series rings.” — Sports Illustrated.

Bang the Drum Slowly by Mark Harris *

I absolutely loved this book, can’t believe it took my so long to get around to it. “Bang the Drum Slowly makes wonderful reading — whether one hates baseball or loves it. It is awfully funny in parts, and laughter is rare enough on anybody’s bookshelf.” — New York Times. 

The Southpaw by Mark Harris +

“Cheers to Mark Harris, who gives us by far the best ‘serious’ baseball novel published.”— San Francisco Chronicle.

Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella *

This is the terrific book that begat the movie, Field of Dreams. “Like Ring Lardner and Bernard Malamud before him, Kinsella spins baseball as backdrop and metaphor, and, like his predecessors, uses the game to tell us a little something more about who we are and what we need.” — Amazon.com.

The Iowa Baseball Confederacy by W.P. Kinsella *

Back in the 80’s, I went through a Kinsella phase and read everything. I love his magic realism. “Whether or not you like baseball, read the Bible, play a musical instrument, like Indian folklore, time travel, or the Chicago Cubs, you will like The Iowa Baseball Confederacy.” — USA Today.

You Know Me Al: A Busher’s Letters by Ring W. Lardner +

This one is on my shelf, waiting for its moment. “The publication of You Know Me Al brought instant fame to Ring Lardner (1885-1933), one of the great American humorists of this century. Considered the satirist’s greatest work, the book is a collection of letters from one Jack Keefe, a baseball “busher,” to his longtime friend, Al Blanchard, in their midwestern hometown.” — University of Illinois Press.

The Natural by Bernard Malamud

No, I haven’t gotten to this one, but I did see the movie! Roy Hobbs wants to be the best there ever was, and pays a price for his hubris. “A brilliant and unusually fine novel.” — The New York Times.

The Great American Novel by Phillip Roth *

I loved this brilliant, laugh-out-loud take on baseball’s alternate universe — farcical, heroic, satiric, inventive, hilarious. “Roth invents baseball anew, as pure slapstick…. An awesome performance.” — The New Republic.

The Kid from Tomkinsville by John Tunis +

I missed Tunis as a kid, but baseball fans of a certain grayness swear by his books. From Amazon: “John R. Tunis (1889-1975) was a novelist and sportswriter best remembered for his series of novels about the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1940s and ’50s.”

 

STATS, ANALYSIS


Baseball Between the Numbers by The Baseball Prospectus Team of Experts *

The arrogance of the subtitle — “Why Everything You Know About the Game Is Wrong” — underscores my love/hate relationship with Baseball Prospectus and their self-proclaimed “team of experts.” Sometimes you just want to punch the whole lot of them in the face. However, though at times condescending and smug, they’ve also taught me a lot about how to think critically about the game I love — and in doing so, to learn to love it even more. So thank you, Baseball Prospectus, ya big jerk!

The Fielding Bible Volume III by John Dewan

I generally dislike and distrust fielding statistics — there’s a lot of noise, but the signal is weak — though I recognize that they’ve come a long way over the past 20 years, and represent the cutting edge in sabermetric thought. In this regard, I suppose I’m more like Walt Whitman, wandering outside and gazing in wonder at the incomprehensible stars above. That said: Dewan has done a lot of valuable work in this field. If these came out more often, I’d push them into the ANNUALS section.

The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract by Bill James *

“True to form, James’s new Historical Baseball Abstract is filled with often fascinating and frequently quirky evaluations and insights regarding the history of baseball. Starting with the 1870s, James explores, decade by decade, how and where the game was played and who played it. He discusses nicknames, top minor-league teams, and the most admirable superstars, among other matters. At the close of the initial 13 chapters, the author highlights each ten-year period “in a box,” with a player or two tagged as the best-looking, the ugliest, the fastest, the slowest, and so forth. The last half of the book presents James’s evaluations of the top 100 or more players at each position” — Library Journal.

Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame? by Bill James *

“Once again, typical James: informative, insightful, amusing, and utterly persuasive. It will, I should add, be absolutely infuriating to the remaining baseball Luddites who don’t realize what a genius Bill James is.” — Daniel Okrent.

Moneyball by Michael Lewis *

Maybe you’ve heard of this one? It got a little play a while back. There are issues here, and Lewis doesn’t let the facts get in the way of a good story, but he sure knows how to put together a book. People magazine called it, “[The] most influential book on sports ever written. If you’re a baseball fan, Moneyball is a must.”

9 Innings: The Anatomy of a Baseball Game by Daniel Okrent *

As the author of a book titled 6 Innings, let me state outright that I owe Okrent a large debt of gratitude, because I certainly had his book on my shelf when I wrote mine. Here, Okrent writes deeply — with detail, and digression — about a single Major League game between the Milwaukee Brewers and Baltimore Orioles on June 10, 1982. (I wrote about a fictionalized Little League game.) “An astounding piece of sports journalism.” —  St. Louis Dispatch.

The Numbers Game: Baseball’s Lifelong Fascination with Statistics by Alan Schwarz *

“The language of baseball is statistics, and Alan Schwarz gives us an unprecedented look at one of the world’s great romance languages. Schwarz deftly illuminates the history and relevance of baseball statistics and is at the tops of his game introducing the people behind the numbers.” — Tom Verducci, Sports Illustrated.

The Book: Playing the Percentages In Baseball by Tom M. Tango, Mitchell Lichtman, Andrew Dolphin, & Pete Palmer *

I finally picked this book up the other day, so now it waits on my night stand. Reviewing this list, I find that as a reader I’ve been weak on baseball fiction but pretty strong when it comes to analysis. Along those terms, this felt to me like a must-read. “I can heartily recommend . . . The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, by a trio of talented sabermatricians.” — Rob Neyer. Addendum: A lot of math here, and little that’s earth-shattering.

The Hidden Game of Baseball: A Revolutionary Approach to Baseball and Its Statistics, by John Thorn & Pete Palmer *

More for the historian than the current, everyday reader, this 1985 book takes an earnest approach to evaluating and ranking players according to (at the time) ground-breaking sabermetric measures. A great addition to your baseball library.

Fantasyland by Sam Walker *

I’m not sure how well this 2007 book has aged, but I loved it when it first came out. A delightful, humorous look at every aspect of Fantasy Baseball, a juggernaut that has changed the way most fans look at the sport. “In 2004, Sam Walker, a sports columnist for the Wall Street Journal, decided to explore this phenomenon by talking his way into Tout Wars, a league reserved for the nation’s top experts. The result is one of the most sheerly entertaining sports books in years and a matchless look into the heart and soul of our national pastime.” — Amazon.

The Diamond Appraised by Craig R. Wright and Tom House *

An out-of-print classic regarded for it’s blend of advanced statistical approach and, well, Tom House’s uniform-wearing, practical knowledge. Like many stat-based books (as opposed to, say, biographies), perhaps more of a landmark book (1987) than a compelling read today. Recommended for a certain kind of egghead, I suppose.

 

BIOGRAPHY, MEMOIR

Crash: The Life and Times of Dick Allen by Dick Allen & Tim Whitaker *

I dug this cool glimpse into the controversial, complicated mind of Dick Allen — one of baseball’s first Angry Black Men. “Allen was baseball’s enfant terrible in the 1960s and ’70s, characterized by the press as temperamental, undependable and generally unpleasant. In this autobiography, written with PhillySport magazine editor Whitaker, he gives his side of the story. — Publishers Weekly.

Ty Cobb by Charles Alexander

“Alexander has performed that magical feat of creating Ty Cobb, warts and all. A wonderful, wonderful book.” — Newsday. “Ty Cobb is a sociology of a time as well as a biography of the greatest and nastiest player of them all.” — Stephen Jay Gould, The New York Review of Books.

John McGraw by Charles C. Alexander *

McGraw is one of my all-time favorite baseball characters, and his long life in baseball makes for a wonderful lens through which to view and appreciate the sport. “McGraw’s career is a story of two baseball eras: its rowdy early days and the cool, corporate operations of post-World War I. McGraw’s constant umpire baiting, penchant for inspiring either hatred or loyalty, and bond with star pitcher Christy Mathewson through many championship years, reveal a fiery, dictatorial, and brilliant man. Highly recommended.” — Library Journal.

Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life by Richard Ben Cramer +

Wrote Daniel Okrent: “DiMaggio is rendered so vividly you almost want to look away.” Alas, I haven’t gotten to this one yet, as I have an aversion to pinstripes. By all reports, Cramer does a remarkable job here, giving the complete picture of an imperfect national celebrity — and a hell of a ballplayer, too. “An often brilliant and deeply disturbing look into the rise of one of the country’s modern-day giants.” — San Francisco Chronicle.

Stengel: His Life and Times by Robert Creamer +

“A superb book.” — Sports Illustrated. “Full of energy and surprises and laughter. . . . In Creamer’s wonderful portrait, the real man is even more likable than the legend.” — Washington Post.

Babe: The Legend Comes to Life by Robert Creamer

According to Sports Illustrated, this is “the best biography ever written about an American sports figure.” I can’t argue with that, having never read the book! Leigh Montville also has a highly-regarded one, The Big Bam. Take your pick.

The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg by Nicholas Dawidoff

I have not read this one, and found the reviews a little off-putting. “For all his renown as a big-league catcher, wartime spy, and Renaissance man, Moe Berg emerges from the pages of this book as very much a phantom. He played 13 seasons in the majors but was never more than a third-string catcher. He earned the Medal of Freedom by spying on the German’s A-bomb project for the OSS but was later dropped by the CIA as ineffectual. He could use his Princeton-trained intellect to associate with Nobel laureates, diplomats, and linguists, yet he never truly applied that intellect. Thus, readers are left with an intriguing plot and a cast of fascinating supporting characters but a disappearing protagonist.” — Booklist.

Nice Guys Finish Last by Leo Durocher & Ed Linn

As a fan, there are guys you caught late in the career, and guys you missed entirely. I’m glad I have honest-to-goodness memories of Leo the Lip as the old, grumpy manager of the Chicago Cubs. “Mr. Durocher has somehow managed to be involved with more than his fair share of baseball’s mythic moments and situations. .This is Leo Durocher talking straight as a low line drive, not Leo Durocher ghosted up for Little Leaguers to hero-worship and copy. If certain reputations lose out, the color and magic of baseball’s past comes out a winner.” — The New York Times.

Willie’s Time: Baseball’s Golden Age by Charles Einstein

The only player biography ever named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. “One can only recall lovingly the man and his joyous vitality—and this Einstein does brilliantly. He masterfully superimposes Mays’s career onto the political and social events that framed it.” — Library Journal. “Einstein documents the crucial role of baseball in the civil rights struggle, drawing a skillful and loving picture of Willie Mays as the archetypal athlete of our time.” — Los Angeles Times.

The Way It Is by Curt Flood & Richard Carter *

Here is baseball free agency — but first, the reserve clause, namely an owner’s perpetual contract rights over a player — put into the greater context of American political life and rapid social change, in this well-written, personal account by Curt Flood, who was very much a man of his times. This is a very great, and very cool baseball book. Essential, tough-minded, and swinging baseball history.

A False Spring by Pat Jordan *

I feel bad about not reading this one yet, like I’m some sort of failed person. That’s why walking into bookstores and libraries always makes me feel a little sad; so many books, so little time. Here is the story of a hard-throwing pitcher’s journey to the majors is derailed by a lack of consistency and control. “One of the most fabulous failure stories of our time.” — Kansas City Star. NOTE: Fixed that problem, read a review of it here.

Koufax by Jane Leavy *

Damn, I never saw Koufax pitch — and I missed him by thismuch. Bummer. “This highly anticipated book affords a lucid examination of arguably major league baseball’s all-time greatest southpaw pitcher, from his bonus baby days with the world-champion Brooklyn Dodgers to his receipt of three Cy Young awards as the game’s top moundsman. But Leavy’s (Squeeze Play) story is far richer than simply a tale of the promising youngster who finally struck gold. Calling on her hundreds of interviews, she offers a richly drawn account of an often misunderstood yet greatly celebrated athlete.” — Library Journal.

Clemente by David Maraniss *

A complete, compelling look at baseball’s first Latin American superstar — the iconic Roberto Clemente, who died while delivering relief aid to the victims of a Nicaraguan earthquake. Overall, I felt the book was only okay, it never fully achieved liftoff for me, but the subject matter put it over the top. Clemente was important, and one of my childhood favorites.

Pitching in a Pinch: Baseball from the Inside by Christy Mathewson *

Originally published 100 years ago in 1912, this fabulous book brings alive baseball as it was in the early part of the 20th century. “One of baseball’s more enduring classics and earliest memoirs, Christy Mathewson’s primer, first published in 1912, has also become one of the game’s foremost anthropologies. Mathewson was one of baseball’s first immortals: he was a star on the field, winning 373 games between 1900 and 1916–all but one as a Giant; an educated gentleman off the field; and a legitimate war hero who died from the effects of being gassed in World War I.” — Amazon.com. Highly recommended.

Ted Williams by Leigh Montville

“Exceptional. Montville on Ted Williams is can’t-miss, one of America’s best sportswriters weighing in on one of the last century’s most intriguing figures. A great read.” — Chicago Tribune.  “Leigh Montville reaches a threshold even the mighty Williams could never touch:  perfection. The beauty of Montville’s work is that it is not a baseball book, per se, so much as the life and times of an oft perplexing, always fascinating man.” — Newsday.

Fear Strikes Out: The Jim Piersall Story by Jim Piersall & Al Hirshberg +

Jim Piersall, at age 22, had a breakdown in 1952 and virtually lost memory of seven months of his life. “The story of a man who became mentally `sick,’ and how, through competent medical care, the help of a sympathetic and most understanding wife, the patience and encouragement of manager, teammates and fans, and above all his own splendid courage, he made a complete recovery and resumed his baseball career. . . . How he overcame his fears is a dramatic, heart-warming story.” — Library Journal.

The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America by Joe Posnanski *

Easily one of the best baseball books I’ve ever read. Highly recommended. “For baseball fans, the book is a treasure trove of history, full of names that remind us of an older time–Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks–and stories that make us laugh, even as we wonder if baseball has changed too much ever to feel like it once did. Stirring, moving, and more than a little sad.” — American Library Association.

Cobb by Al Stump +

There’s a fascinating story behind this book. As a young writer, Stump collaborated with an old, dying Ty Cobb on a white-washed, sanitized version of his autobiography, My Life In Baseball: The True Record. Thirty years later, Stump got his revenge by telling the truth in this book. “[It] will stun readers with its brutal candor.” — Publishers Weekly.

Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend by Larry Tye +

“Through Paige’s hardscrabble years in Jim Crow Alabama to his time with the all-black Monarchs, one of the powerhouses in segregated colored ball, Tye dissects Satchel’s mastery of pitching, his accuracy, power and velocity, and signature pitch, the sizzler…. He became one of four black athletes signed up in the late 1940s, with the Cleveland Indians, three years after Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers (the two men were bitter rivals). This is the definitive biography of a black showman-athlete, and as Tye makes the case, one of the finest pitchers ever, who finally was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1971.” — Publishers Weekly.

Veeck as in Wreck by Bill Veeck & Ed Linn *

I thoroughly enjoyed this entertaining autobiography, a great baseball book about one of the game’s most legendary spirits. “It’s easy to lose sight of Veeck’s importance in the face of all his gimmicks, but as this book makes clear, he was a baseball visionary. Again and again he took on “the feudal barons of baseball,” arguing against their old-boy tactics while pushing them to open up the game.” — The Atlantic.

Cardboard Gods by Josh Wilker *

I read this brilliant little book about a year ago and quickly began loaning it out to friends. Wilker uses childhood baseball cards as an organizing device, while he writes a surprisingly poignant memoir about growing up baseball-crazy in the 1970’s. “A baseball-loving loner deciphers his complicated childhood through his old box of trading cards. . . . Wilker’s book is as nostalgically intoxicating as the gum that sweetened his card-collecting youth. [Grade:] A” — Entertainment Weekly.

SEASONS

The Long Ball by Tom Adelman *

A good, enjoyable book — though not a classic — about a great season, 1975, that culminated in one of the game’s greatest World Series. “Richly layered….An entertaining and informative portrait of two underappreciated teams in an unforgettable time.” — Boston Sunday Globe.

Eight Men Out: The Black Sox and the 1919 World Series by Eliot Asinof +

Again, alas, I have not read the book — but I did see the movie! Long live John Sayles. “The most thorough investigation of the Black Sox scandal on record … A vividly, excitingly written book.” — Chicago Tribune. “Dramatic detail … an admirable journalistic feat.” — The New York Times. “As thrilling as a cops and robbers tome.” — The Boston Globe.

Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?: The Improbable Saga of the New York Mets First Year by Jimmy Breslin *

Breslin writes affectionately, and hilariously, about NY’s lovable losers. “A magnificent account of the 1962 New York Mets; their first season in existence.” — New York Sun. Note Bill Veeck in the book’s introduction, “preserving for all time a remarkable tale of ineptitude, mediocrity, and abject failure.” Or more briefly, from Charles Salzberg of The New York Times: “Wonderful.”

Crazy ’08 by Cait Murphy +

“Fans knew they were seeing the end of a marvelous season when they watched the Cubs claim the National League pennant by defeating the New York Giants on October 8, 1908. But with the advantage of historical perspective, Murphy recognizes that the ’08 fans actually witnessed baseball’s decisive turn toward modernity. In a tale peopled with colorful characters–including the regal Christy Mathewson and the boozy Hal Chase–Murphy unfolds the formative events of this frenetic year.” — American Library Association.

The Summer of ’49 by David Halberstam *

Halberstam can flat-out write, and ’49 was an amazing season; it’s an unbeatable combination. “Baseball came of age in the summer of 1949. Postwar America looked to baseball for a sense of normalcy in its life; television began to have an impact on the sport; Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. Summer of ’49 is more than a collection of anecdotes. It is a study of all the elements and personalities that influenced baseball that year and beyond. Halberstam brings them together in such an enjoyable, interesting, and informative manner that a reader needn’t be a baseball fan to appreciate the book” — Library Journal.

Baseball in ’41 by Robert W. Creamer *

Creamer celebrates “the best season ever” and it’s hard to argue with his point of view, for that remarkable year contained Ted Williams’ .406 average as well as Joe DiMaggio’s still-unequaled 56 game hitting streak. Opined a reviewer for Library Journal: “All this is portrayed against the looming U.S. entry into World War II. The choice here for the season’s best baseball book. For all popular and serious sports collections.”

October 1964 by David Halberstam

“Superb reporting…Incisive analysis…You know from the start that Halberstam is going to focus on a large human canvas…One of the many joys of this book is the humanity with which Halberstam explores the characters as well as the talents of the players, coaches and managers. These are not demigods of summer but flawed, believable human beings who on occasion can rise to peaks of heroism.” — Chicago Sun-Times.

Summer of ’49 by David Halberstam *

Summer of ’49 is more than a collection of anecdotes. It is a study of all the elements and personalities that influenced baseball that year and beyond. Halberstam brings them together in such an enjoyable, interesting, and informative manner that a reader needn’t be a baseball fan to appreciate the book.” — Library Journal.

The Pitch That Killed: The Story of Carl Mays, Ray Chapman, and the Pennant Race of 1920 by Mike Sowell

ESPN Magazine called this, “The best baseball book no one has read.” From Amazon: “Since major league baseball began in 1871, there have been roughly thirty million pitches thrown to batters. Only one of them killed a man. This is the story of Ray Chapman of the Cleveland Indians, a popular player struck in the head and killed in August 1920 by a pitch thrown by Carl Mays of the New York Yankees…. Mike Sowell’s brilliant book investigates the incident and probes deep into the backgrounds of the players involved and the events that led to one of baseball’s darkest moments.” ALSO NOTE: I did read and can recommend the very cool 2012 graphic novel on the same subject, Hit By Pitch by Molly Lawless.

The Last Good Season by Michael Shapiro

“The caveat about this book is that it is as much about political personalities and the social changes that post-WWII America confronted as it is about the ’56 Dodgers. Still, this is one terrific read. The Brooklyn Dodgers won their only world championship in 1955; in ’56 they lost the series to the Yankees; two years later, the team was in Los Angeles. “The move” is the thing that haunts the 1956 season. New Yorker writer Shapiro (The Shadow in the Sun; Solomon’s Sword) dissects Walter O’Malley absorbingly, in a meticulously dead-on portrait of a man still virulently hated in the borough of churches.” — Publishers Weekly.

Summer of ’68: The Season That Changed Baseball — and America — Forever by Tim Wendal *

This one’s on my Christmas list, though I doubt I can wait that long. The ’68 Series is truly the first one I remember watching every game on television, rooting for Gibson’s Cardinals. “[Wendel] charts the thrilling Series game by game. More intriguing, though, is the season’s unique backdrop: the ‘Year of the Pitcher’ in baseball and the national turmoil surrounding the sports world…An appealing mix of baseball and cultural history.” — Kirkus. Read my review here.

 

BOOKS BY PLAYERS

Ball Four by Jim Bouton *

An open, honest, controversial, funny book that blew the roof off the baseball world when it was first published in 1970. This is a classic. I remember first reading it at a young age and, lo, there were dirty parts!

The Long Season by Jim Brosnan *

A landmark book, written by Reds pitcher, Jim Brosnan — who could certainly write, too. “One of the best baseball books ever written. It is probably one of the best American diaries as well.” — The New York Times.

Pennant Race by Jim Brosnan *

A companion to The Long Season, Brosnan recounts the 1961 season when the Cincinnati Reds clinched the flag.

The Game from Where I Stand by Doug Glanville

This one has been on my reading list since I read the first, glowing reviews. Glanville, an Ivy League graduate, reveals the human side of the game. “Filled with sharp insights, keen humor, and great stories.” — The Philadelphia Inquirer.

The Wrong Stuff by Bill Lee & Richard Lally

The classic baseball renegade, Bill “The Spaceman” Lee lets it all hang out in this classic baseball memoir from one of it’s most colorful characters. “Still a great read after all these years.” — Jim Bouton.

The Science of Hitting by Ted Williams & John Underwood *

It’s Ted Freakin’ Williams, people, the Splender Splinter, Teddy Ballgame! And he’s talking about taking a round bat and hitting a round ball squarely with it. So stand up and pay attention. Forget the rest, Ted’s the best. This remains the classic handbook on the art (and science) of hitting.

The Way of Baseball by Shawn Green & Gordon McAlpine *

Shawn Green has given us something new, a baseball book that is thoughtful, reflective, and, yes, zen. I reviewed it in more length here. “Shawn Green takes us beyond the glamour of Major League Baseball and exposes what it’s like to be a professional athlete: the daily inner struggle to find peace and balance in our lives, and the pressure to perform. He puts ‘finding stillness’ into terms that transcend baseball and apply to everyday life. Ultimately, The Way of Baseball will appeal to an audience far beyond just baseball lovers.” — Carlos Delgado.

ANTHOLOGIES, COLLECTED ESSAYS

The Summer Game by Roger Angell *

Roger Angell is, to my mind, the single greatest baseball writer of all time, the only writer to whom I ever sent a fan letter, and The Summer Game marks his first collection on the sport. “This collection of essays takes you into the heart of baseball as it was in the 1960s, conveyed with humor and insight. . . . The key here is that Roger Angell is a stunning writer. He is also in many ways a highly cerebral one and yet utterly down to earth — a writer who can translate the nuances of the game with perfect clarity.” — The Wall Street Journal.

Five Seasons by Roger Angell *

Covers the baseball seasons from 1972 through 1976, and includes Angell’s brilliant essay of Game Six of the 1975 World Series. “No one writes better about baseball.” — Boston Globe.

Late Innings by Roger Angell *

Published in 1982, this book covers 1977 to 1981. “Although Mr. Angell’s specialty is baseball, he marvelously avoids the cliches and weary formulations that characterize baseball writing.” — The New York Times.

Season Ticket by Roger Angell *

Covers 1982-87. Something important happened for the Mets during that period, though I’m blanking on it right now.

How Life Imitates the World Series by Thomas Boswell *

Published in 1982, this book of 34 baseball essays — mostly player profiles — filled a void and fit in neatly between the Roger Angell collections and the new Bill James Abstracts that were beginning to find a greater readership. Smart and warm, Boswell, who wrote for The Washington Post, was one of the finest baseball writers of his time.

Why Time Begins on Opening Day by Thomas Boswell *

Again, Boswell was important for his time. Sharp, clever, attentive. He was better at ruminative essays than statistical analysis. He also invented and promoted a one-size-fits-all cumulative offensive statistic called “Total Average” which, while making valuable points, did not quite catch on. Ultimately, I’d bet a lot of folks around who loved basebll in the ’80s, respected, admired, and enjoyed Boswell’s work. Today’s sabermetricians may find Boswell dated, but in his prime he was one of the game’s leading voices.

Red Smith on Baseball by Red Smith *

Considered by some to be baseball’s greatest writing, Red Smith is a joy to encounter in print. Here’s one passage: “August Adolphus Busch Jr., the new president of the Cardinals, is a chubby gentleman called Gussie, about the size of a St. Louis brewer. He has horn-rimmed glasses, a zillion dollars and an air of pleased bewilderment. He rides to the hounds and travels by bus.” This magnificient collection book includes 175 classic columns across forty years (1941 to 1981) of wonderful, remarkable writing. “Smith turned the everyday drama that is the game into beautiful, enduring art.” — Publishers Weekly.

Special Mentions: In a separate category that I won’t include here, there’s a great number of multiple-author anthologies that have warmed the cockles of many a baseball-loving heart. And Lord knows, we need hot cockles. The Fireside Books of Baseball (3 vols), edited by Charles Einstein, seem to be fondly remembered, though I’ve never laid eyes on them. Likewise, John Thorn’s Armchair Book of Baseball series brought together great baseball writing by a variety of authors.

BOOKS ABOUT THE NEW YORK METS 

(Unlike the other books on this list, some of these titles hold more limited appeal and are not necessarily “essential” for anyone other than a blue-and-orange-bleeding Mets fan.)

A Pitcher’s Story: Innings with Dave Cone by Roger Angell *

The game’s greatest essayist attempts something new — an entire book about one player. Angell is a splendid writer, of course, and Cone has always been one of baseball’s more articulate and interesting characters. Essentially a loose biography that spans Cone’s entire career. Yes, Cone is still a Met to me.

The Last Days of Shea by Dana Brand

This book takes a narrow slice of Mets history — from October 2006 to October 2008 — and brings us to the dismantling of a beloved ballpark (even if it did have really long bathroom lines). “The ‘communal experience’ of living and dying with your team is something fans experience everywhere., but there is something unique about Mets fans. The Last Days of Shea chronicles the ending of a ballpark but, even more importantly, it reveals the spirit and resoluteness of Mets fans as they bring their ‘ya gotta believe’ attitude to their new home.” — Ron Darling.

Mets Fan by Dana Brand

This collection of essays spans franchise history but focuses on the experience of being a fan of the New York Mets. Click here for a lovely New York Times obituary of Brand, once a popular Mets blogger as well as chairman of Hofstra University’s English Department.

The Complete Game: Reflections on Baseball and the Art of Pitching by Ron Darling *

I’m a fan of Ron Darling, so got this one when it first came out. He’s obviously intelligent, thoughtful, analytical about the game — but he also has a “regular guy in the clubhouse” quality that I like. In a starred 2010 review, Booklist: “It’s hard to recall a baseball book that offers as much information about the game—from a player’s perspective—as this one. Baseball generates dozens of books every year, from biographies to statistical abstracts. This is easily the best of the year so far.”

Wherever I Wind Up by R.A. Dickey & Wayne Coffey *

My 13-year-old son read this book, my 86-year-old mother read this book, and I read it, too. Aside: Back in the late ’90s, I hired co-author Wayne Coffey to write a book that I packaged for the NBA, The Kobe Bryant Story, and Wayne was not only a total professional, but a great, easy-going guy, too. “It’s a gripping memoir, a brutally honest account of family woes, childhood abuse and his failures as a husband and father. But it’s also a meditation on contemporary baseball that is insightful without throwing anyone under the bus, save the author himself. (And maybe Alex Rodriguez.) It might be the finest piece of nonfiction baseball writing since Ball Four.  Perhaps above all, it’s a classic epic quest, a flawed hero’s unlikely odyssey to the major leagues and to discovering the mystical pitch that helped him get there.” — Sports Illustrated.

Turning Two by Bud Harrelson with Phil Pepe *

A friend in publishing sent me the Advance Reading Copy (ARC), and I’ll get to it, promise. Harrelson is a bit of an enigma to me. He was beloved in my house as a player — Mom had a crush on “Little Buddy” — and who could deny the spunk of the famous Pete Rose fight. Time passes, though, and Harrelson replaced Davey Johnson as manager in 1990. Buddy lasted for 145 excruciating games, and seemed overmatched and out-of-touch every step of the way.  But he played on the ’69 team, and coached the ’86 team, so he was right in the middle of a lot of great Mets history. Addendum: Fun, light, easy, worth reading for Mets fans.

If At First: A Season with the Mets by Keith Hernandez & Mike Bryan *

The ’85 season was one of the most enjoyable in Mets history, and this book takes you through it all the way to St. Louis. Library Journal called a “candid, well-written anecdotal record of the 1985 season.”

Pure Baseball by Keith Hernandez & Mike Bryan *

Keith takes readers pitch by pitch through two 1993 MLB games involving the Phillies/Braves and Tigers/Yankees. “Mr. Hernandez’s opinions and pet-peeves — intentional walks, early-inning sacrifices, throwing fastballs to prevent stolen bases, large gaps in the outfield, pitchers who ‘nibble. nibble, nibble,” — are well thought out and clearly articulated. [He] is particularly strong in analyzing the cat-and-mouse game played between pitchers and hitters as the count shifts the odds back and forth.” — New York Times Book Review.

The Worst Team Money Can Buy by Bob Klapisch & John Harper *

I just read this book and totally enjoyed it. Recommended. Yes, it recounts a particularly abhorrent time in Mets history — Vince Coleman, Jeff Torborg, Bobby Bonilla, and the same clueless ownership we suffer from today — but it is really about the realities of being a beat reporter. “A critical perspective on one of baseball’s most interesting and turbulent franchises, and an equally interesting look at the relationship between beat writers and the team they cover.” — Bob Costas.

The New York Mets: The Whole Story by Leonard Koppett

Koppett is a famed baseball historian, and a member of the Hall of Fame Writer’s Wing who has written many fine books on baseball, including The Man in the Dugout, Koppett’s Concise History of Major League Baseball and The Thinking Fan’s Guide to Baseball. So my guess is this is a cut above the standard clip job these after-the-championship books generally are.

Screwball by Tug McGraw and Joseph Durso

Good luck finding a clean copy of this one, folks. Came out in 1975. From what little I can tell, Tug — one of the game’s more colorful, exuberant characters — recounts his year’s with the Mets. Our friend, Greg Prince (of the Faith and Fear in Flushing blog), speaks highly of it, and that’s good enough for me.

When the Bad Guys Won by Jeff Pearlman *

I stayed away for a long time because of the bad reviews, but grabbed a used copy and read it. Here’s Booklist: “[Pearlman] wants to tell you what terribly bad boys these Mets were. There is no boozing, drug use, or bimbo eruption that he does not describe, nor does he miss a single evil quote from one player about another. Doc Gooden’s and Darryl Strawberry’s silken and glorious talents are not examined nearly so much as their wastrel paths to drug and alcohol use are scrupulously detailed. Rampant sexism and underhanded racism were certainly part of the baseball scene in 1986, but must Pearlman revel in them with such glee?” On the other hand, PW opined: “Mets fans will enjoy this affectionate but critical look at this exciting season.”

Faith and Fear in Flushing: An Intense Personal History of the New York Mets by Greg Prince +

Greg Prince is the co-blogger behind Faith and Fear in Flushing. He’s as devout a Mets fan as they come — and he’s a real writer, too. Here he gives a personal account of what it truly means to root, root, root for the home team. “If you love a Mets fan, like a Mets fan or just know a Mets fan, buy them this book. They will cherish it.” — Baseball Digest.

The Amazin’ Mets 1962-69 by William Ryczek

From Amazon: “Based on interviews with more than one hundred former players and extensive research by one of the more highly regarded baseball historians writing today, the book covers the era in unprecedented detail. Any Met fan from the 1960s will find some familiar stories along with some they’ve probably never read before. Presented in an easy-to-read, narrative style, this book traces the rapid ascent of the Mets and explores the reasons for their early failure and dramatic success.”

The Art of Pitching by Tom Seaver *

Seaver was always one of the most technically sound pitchers in baseball, an artist with a real emphasis on mechanics and mental preparation. In this solid instructional book, he teaches readers how to throw a 95 MPH fastball on the black. Well, not really, but it’s a good book. And, hey, it’s Tom Terrific.

The Magnificient Seasons: How the Jets, Mets, and Knicks Made Sports History and Uplifted a City and the Country by Art Shamsky & Barry Zeman *

I loved the idea of this book, since (born in ’61) I remember that year so vividly and have such strong feelings about that period in American life. So it was a great disappointment to read it, because Zeman simply didn’t serve Art well with the writing and organization. This review nails it: “While this book won’t win any awards for literary style or lack of cliche, Shamsky, who was himself a player with the Miracle Mets of 1969, has pulled together narrative, interview, and personal anecdote to describe the championship seasons, 1969-70, of New York’s football Jets, basketball Knicks, and the baseball Mets. What Shamsky and coauthor Zeman do really well is set these sports victories in the context of that wild and terrible time. Vietnam, the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., riots, social unrest, and Stonewall meant that those sweet sports triumphs glowed with a fierce luster.” — American Library Association.

New York Mets 50 Amazing Seasons: Complete Illustrated History by Matthew Silverman

From the back cover: “This fully illustrated celebration of Mets baseball takes you season by season from the earliest days of the franchise to today. Profiles of the team’s top 50 all-time players provide in-depth looks at the best of the best in orange and blue: Seaver and Koosman, Darryl and Dwight, and stars of today David Wright, Jose Reyes, and Johan Santana. Complete with stats, stories, photos, and memorabilia, New York Mets: The Complete Illustrated History is an entertaining and authoritative tribute to a half century of amazin’ accomplishments and miracle moments.”

Mets By the Numbers by Jon Springer and Matthew Silverman

Another that grew out of a popular Mets blog, this book, like the blog itself, uses uniform numbers as the organizing device through which to tell stories about the team and its players. Includes 75 b/w photos.


ANNUALS

For a long time, everybody just read print versions of The Sporting News and cobbled together their information that way. That’s how the pioneers in Rotisserie Baseball used to do it not that long ago, which is unthinkable today. In 1977, Bill James published the first, crude verison of his Baseball Astract series that ran until 1988. It can be argued that James became the most important baseball writer in history, because more than any other writer his statistical, questioning, probing, iconoclastic approach changed the way we perceived the game. Rich Lederer wrote an outstanding series of posts on these books, “Abstracts from the Abstracts,” and I highly recommend that you check them out. Another thing about Bill James: He could really write, and he was funny and sharp-witted. James would have killer sentences in those books, a trait we lost for a time until Baseball Prospectus appeared on the scene — but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Next came The Elias Baseball Analyst series, which I believe started publishing in 1985 through to 1993. At some point, I got a bit turned off by James’ acid pen — he seemed to grow bitter as the series progressed — so I began picking up the Elias books, which were clear rivals to the Abstracts. Elias was terrific at gathering stats, though the analysis was not as sharp. Now when I think of them, Elias kind of led fans down the dark alley of arcane info such as, oh, “He hit .340 on rainy Tuesday afternoons against left-handed relievers.” This is where I learned the lesson of Too Much Pointless Data, which still haunts many research-based writers today; they fall in love with the numbers, but lose sight of meaning. The final indictment on these books: I didn’t save them.

I began to complement my info by purchasing the The Scouting Notebook series by STATS and Sporting News, which were organized by team with individual write-ups on most every player: the previous season’s overall and “situational” stats, some brief editorial recap, plus the outlook for the next season. The series ran from sometime in the late 90’s to around 2005 — my info is fuzzy — under various permutations. The books were solid, but certainly missed the laser-like insights of the Abstracts. Essentially, the annuals moved away from the idiosyncracies of the Abstracts to a more corporate approach that served the burgeoning, billion-dollar fantasy market. For better and for worse.

Baseball Prospectus came along in 1996 to fill that hole and it’s still going strong. BP was founded by Gary Huckaby and favored a rigorous statistical-geek approach, making it the true successor to The Abstracts. Iconoclastic by nature, the folks are BP are credited for inventing numerous statistical tools, such as Value Over Replacement Player (VORP), Pitcher Abuse Points; Equivalent Average (EqA); Peripheral ERA (PERA); PECOTA, a player projection system; and more. If at times those new-fangled numbers make your head spin, you aren’t alone. The writing in BP deserves special mention, since it can be acidic, snarky, mean-spirited, brilliant, incisive, cutting, and hilarious. The problem as I see it with writers armed with boatloads of statistical data, is that they tend to take on a tone of certainty and dismissiveness — effusing disdain for those whom might see things otherwise. And guess what? They aren’t always right about everything.

The Hardball Times, founded by (2 Guys favorite) Aaron Gleeman and Matthew Namee in 2004, publishes a variety of books, the mainstay of which is The Hardball Times Baseball Annual. Like BP, it demonstrates a keen sense of advanced statistical awareness (PITCHf/x anyone?), though seems overall a touch friendlier, shaggy, and milder-going. These annuals — including stats, graphs, analysis and essays — have become an essential part of any passionate baseball fan’s library. As much as I appreciate stats, and the rebellious, anti-authoritarian mind at the core of every true statistician — “Why? How do we know?” — there’s a point for me when it’s all too much. I want to sit in the stands, hang out with a friend, drink a beer, shoot the shit, and root-root-root like hell.
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If you made it this far, dear reader, I admire your endurance. Thank you. I hope you’ve found some books to add to your list — I know I sure have. If you’d like to suggest adding a title to this list, just mention it in the comments section and we’ll take a look at it.

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6 comments

  1. [...] love reading baseball books — please check out our “Two Guys-Approved” Essential Baseball Library in the blue banner up top. I have a decent collection at home, though I haven’t particularly [...]

  2. [...] for(var i=0;i I direct readers to the link in the blue banner up top, “The Essential Baseball Library.” You will find a thorough, annotated list of “Two Guys-Approved” books for your [...]

  3. [...] In the (great, great, great) book I’m currently reading, Dollar Sign on the Muscle (see: The Essential Baseball Library for more details), Ruly Carpenter says the same thing a little differently: “There [...]

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