The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has suspended baseball, and the much of the world is on quarantine, but we can use this occasion to read a good book, and there are plenty of great baseball books out there.
One of the most amazing things about baseball is that, since the very beginning of the sport, it has been thoroughly, exhaustively documented, from game box scores and stats to record books and memoirs. Baseball is the national pastime, and it has evolved and transformed along with the rest of American culture and society.
Baseball has also been a never-ending source of dramas and controversies, it’s basically part of the game’s nature. For the last century and a half, the constant scrutiny and the spectacular, memorable narratives it has built have made for incredible books, whether they’re collections of stories, oral histories, scholarly texts or pure journalism.
In these times of uncertainty, as the sports world is shut down, social distancing is necessary and serious health concerns abound, we could all use a great read, especially if it’s about the game we love so dearly. It will remind us of its greatness, lift our spirits, and obtain valuable knowledge in the process.
The cannon of great baseball books is can vary by writer, these however, are five of our favorite baseball books – including some you might not have heard of – that you could read right now.
Black Baseball, 1858-1900, by James E. Brunson (McFarland, 2019)
The National Negro League was officially established in 1920, and it represents one of the most complicated eras in the history of baseball. It was home to some of the most impressive athletes to ever grace the diamond, but the very fact that institutional racism was so steeped in the country’s mindset that they were never allowed to participate in the Major Leagues and compete with stars like Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth, paints a dark portrait of the atrocious adversities African-Americans have endured since they first came to the continent.
But even before the birth of the Negro Leagues, there were black players involved in the sport, with their own tournaments, regional championships, and organizations. James Brunson makes a comprehensive chronology of black participation in the nation’s pastime, going as early as 1858, only a few years after the game was even invented.
Newton provides team rosters and team histories, player biographies, a list of umpires and games they officiated and information on team managers and team secretaries. It’s a masterpiece of documentation, but it also contains essays that give strong insights on the social, cultural, and political contexts that shaped black baseball and one particularly remarkable essay centered on the visual representations of black athletes in popular culture of the time. This is one for the ages.
You can get it on Amazon here.
The Incredible Women of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, by Anika Orrock (Chronicle Books, 2020)
The most recent book in this list, this illustrated history by author Anika Orrock is one of the most endearing, empowering documents of the extraordinary AAGPBL, a competition known by many for Penny Marshall’s film A League Of Their Own, as told by the great protagonists, the players. These athletes became a powerful symbol for women everywhere, as they tell stories of grit, resilience, and perseverance against all odds, and were also important to boost the morale of war-torn America in general.
Orrock’s stories and illustrations are funny, charming, and most importantly, visually engaging, but the best is always in the testimonies, as they go through headlines, rivalries, stats, and important moments of the league’s short but memorable trajectory. Her witty, accessible style makes this a perfect introductory book since it’s primarily aimed at children, especially girls. It’s meant to inspire and empower, and it fully delivers.
You can get it on Amazon here.
The Greatest Game Ever Pitched: Juan Marichal, Warren Spahn, and the Pitching Duel of the Century, by Jim Kaplan (Triumph Books, 2013)
You know this game; it was July 2nd, 1963, when two of the greatest pitchers of all-time faced off at vibrant Candlestick Park in a 16-inning duel that will never be emulated, not only due to the pitching circumstances of the era which greatly differ from today’s but by the size of the legends involved. Both Warren Spahn and Juan Marichal hurled more than 200 pitches each and shut down two of the most fearsome offensives in MLB. It took an arguably bigger legend, Willie Mays, to break the tie and cap off on of the most amazing baseball games ever played. The MLB’s defining pitching magnum opus.
Jim Kaplan’s retelling of the game, complete with an arsenal of reports and testimonies, and with the special collaboration of Warren Spahn’s son Gary, is beautifully detailed, but the book is much more than that. Kaplan uses that historic San Francisco night to go back to each pitcher lives, from the undeniable differences in their beginnings — one, an American white player and the other, an Afro-Latino — to the striking similarities in their personalities and their athletic philosophies, both pitchers having a legendary work ethic and determination.
This is a book about the lives of those excellent sportspeople who deliver their entire existence to the game we love, and the lessons we can take from them.
You can get it on Amazon here.
The Hidden Language of Baseball: How Signs and Sign-Stealing Have Influenced the Course of Our National Pastime, by Paul Dickson (University of Nebraska Press, 2019)
This book is quite timely since it covers perhaps the biggest baseball story of the last few months: Signs and sign-stealing. This off-season, the Astros came under fire for their use of technology to steal the signs from pitchers/catchers during their 2017 championship run. There’s an ongoing debate whether they should even vacate the title or not, and MLB is still in the process of investigating the 2018 Boston Red Sox, who also used electronic systems to steal signs in their big year.
In The Hidden Language of Baseball, Paul Dickson gives an extensive look at the importance of coded language in the game during its long history, and names a few examples of successful sign-stealing moments that resulted in crucial victories for those teams. He shows us that baseball is, first and foremost, a game of intelligence and wit, and that has always included a bit of cheating, and at the same time walks us through the evolution and the increased complexity of these sign systems. Baseball is war, and like every war, information is power.
Get it on Amazon here.
Ball Four, by Jim Bouton (Dell, 1970 — Rosetta Books, 2012 reissue — Audible, 2012)
This one is a baseball classic, and perhaps the single greatest first-person account in the history of American professional sports.
Jim Bouton was a pitcher with an interesting career; a knuckle-baller with some incredibly consistent seasons under his belt, Bouton was a champion in his first year and an All-Star in his second with the New York Yankees. As the years went by, however, he developed serious arm trouble and had a decline. During the ’69 season, he was sent to the Seattle Pilots and then to AAA, and then had to work his way back into the Big Leagues. Ball Four chronicles this process and shares amazing stories about the inner workings of teams and the relationships between players.
At the time of its release, Ball Four created a firestorm; Bouton’s tell-all was seen as an act of high treason by most of his colleagues, and organizations and hardcore fans attacked him for allegedly “breaking the sanctity of the clubhouse” as it exposed some questionable practices by certain athletes. However, the book was a commercial success and acclaimed particularly by journalists. It taught the world that, no matter the amount of journalistic or academic analysis baseball is subject to, it needs the primary sources, the testimonies of those inside the diamond, just like art, politics, and all other pillars of civilization do. It transcended the world of sports, showing the real human side of our baseball heroes, and giving us an inside look of the nature of the game as nobody else could.
Get it on Amazon here.
Get the Audiobook on Audible here.