In honor of our upcoming event on baseball and new forms of journalism at Boston College, I offer a hastily put together list of my top 10 favorite baseball books:
The Catcher was a Spy by Nicholas Dawidoff, I’m Glad You Didn’t Take it Personally by Jim Bouton, Juiced by Jose Canseco, Going the Other Way by Billy Bean, Men at Work by George Will, Moneyball by Michael Lews and a lot of more famous books I haven’t read but could pretend I have by listing them here.
10. Away Games by Marcos Bretón and José Luis Villegas
Wonderful/terrible scenes of Miguel Tejada’s life growing up in the Dominican Republic. Narrative is a little jumbled as it moves back and forth between Tejada’s story and the history of Latin baseball, but it excels both in terms of baseball journalism and social analysis.
9. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
For a few minutes after reading it I wanted to be too cool for it, so I tried to dismiss it as “basically just if Don Delillo fictionalized his own version of Ball Four.” Then I realized that would be one of my favorite possible books. So, this is one of my favorite books.
8. Bigger than the Game by Michael Weinreb
Not just about baseball, but if I didn’t put this on I’d have to list Bo Knows Bo, which is not a reasonable thing to do. Weinreb tells you stories from the 80s, many of which involve Bo, and all of which 30ish year old sports fan already know all about. And yet he makes these stories sort of collide and connect in new ways that bring them totally new (and way more fun) meanings.
7. 90% of the Game is Half Mental by Emma Span
Imagine if Lena Dunham were half as needy, twice as witty and wrote about baseball.
6. The Kid Who Could Only Hit Homers by Matt Christopher
I read this when I was seven, so don’t quote me, but I think it’s about a kid who can’t hit, but then a fake Babe Ruth may or may not appear to him in a vision, then he becomes so good that he either hits a home run or gets IBB’d every time. So if you thought something was missing from the Game of Shadows version of the Barry Bonds affair, here’s a theory at least.
5. Ball Four by Jim Bouton
A very famous, very great book. For all of its tell-all, look-what-Mickey Mantle-did! appeal, the best parts are when Bouton brings to life unusual, unfamous characters like Norm Miller or George Bamberger.
4. The Bill James Historical Abstract by Bill James
3. You Know Me Al by Ring Lardner
A comic short story collection of and about the 1910s. Reading it is sort of a hybrid experience of studying baseball history and following a narrative. Parts remain funny and certain character traits still seem witty and insightful, but mostly its just fun because the narrator in your head keeps reverting to an old-timey radio guy voice.
2. The Bill James Baseball Abstract 1987 by Bill James
All of the annual abstracts are wonderful, but this one is my favorite, primarily for the “Rookie” study. In it, James breaks a lot of new, analytical ground on things such as how a player’s age impacts his future value. But what’s most impressive and interesting is his direct, unapologetic look at the way race impacts a player’s development over the course of his career. James grapples, displaying admirable nuance and clarity, with the fact that white players lose their speed faster than black players, as evidenced by a simple but persuasive empirical analysis. He complicates the simple race-genetics argument in a way you probably wouldn’t expect from a baseball preview book written almost 30 years ago.
1. You Gotta Have Wa by Robert Whiting
It’s maybe a little prone to cultural essentialism, but Whiting’s account of baseball in Japan is equally illuminating and entertaining. It’s about the late 80s so both Japan and America have changed, but nonetheless this book remains the best example I know of using sport to explain the difficulties of intercultural communication.