Friday, February 08, 2008

My baseball bookshelf

Often after I've read a baseball book, I'll share a few thoughts about it in my blog. But because I often have so much to say, and I try to read as many baseball books as possible, I decided to write an actual review of each baseball book I read in this space to help give my readers an idea of what's out there, good and bad.
My first review will be the book I just finished, Weaver on Strategy by Earl Weaver with Terry Pluto. That will come later. But first, here's a quick look at my baseball bookshelf. I value my shelf very much, except that my baseball-only shelf has started to spill over elsewhere. But I love them all. So here is, in no particular order, my personal baseball library:

Total Ballclubs: The Ultimate Look at Baseball Teams by Donald Dewey & Nicholas Acocella. This is one of the best baseball books I've ever read, and it's also one of the foremost references I've ever come across. It focuses more on the behind-the-scenes activity among owners, executives, and the public, dealing with every single major league baseball team. It's a great source of historical reference and fabulous anecdotes. I used this book extensively for my blog series on the history of expansion teams.

I have two problems with the book: the first is that there is no index. Granted, it would be a gigantic index for a book of this sort, but without one it can be an impossible task to find a certain reference or story page-by-page. My more substantive complaint, but one that's more understandable, is the lack of any footnotes or more specific citing of sources. There is a general bibliography, which is quite helpful, but I find it difficult as a writer to judge the veracity of a statement or story if I don't know where it came from, especially if it's a particularly controversial statement or a direct quote. But as I said, this is understandable in a book released for a commercial audience that doesn't want a 200-page index/bibliography/footnotes section.

Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups and Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Blunders both by Rob Neyer.

Rob Neyer is my favorite baseball columnist and is one of the people who fed the flames of my obsession with new baseball knowledge. He's like Bill James in the sense that his writing is usually based on firm logical ground, but is still accessible and often humorous. The book of lineups is great fun for fans of trivia, but it's nearly five years old now and so a lot of the entries would have changed considerably since then. The book of blunders is more timeless and, since it's just a series of anecdotes and logical examination is a quick and fun read that you can pick up several times. I don't always agree with Rob, but it's always interesting to hear his side of things, not to mention very enlightening.

Baseball's Great Experiment by Jules Tygiel.
This is, to my understanding, the definite account of the breaking of the color line by Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey in 1947. I've read Tygiel's work before and enjoy his ability to take historical fact and animate it with a lively narrative without compromising its content or his underlying theme. Tygiel covers all the bases, making this an essential read for anyone interested in baseball history.
A side note: I paid a fair amount of money at a New York City used bookstore to get my edition, thinking it was out of print. Since then, I've seen it several other places at bargain prices. Oopsie.

Shades of Glory: The Negro Leagues and the Story of African-American Baseball by Lawrence D. Rogan. Sponsored by the National Baseball Hall of Fame and National Geographic.

This is the standard, colorless, cover-the-bases history of the Negro Leagues. That's probably too harsh a statement; there is a good deal of valuable information here and it is based firmly in fact. But the information is not presented in a compelling way at all, which is odd, since the stories themselves are so compelling. Shades of Glory may be larger and have the official seal of approval, but my recommendation goes to Only the Ball Was White, which we'll get to in a minute.

If at First . . .A Season with the Mets by Keith Hernandez and Mike Bryan
I don't usually go in for player autobiographies, unless there's something particularly noteworthy about them. Here's why: they're usually written mid-career after a particularly steallar season and don't have anything really substantive to say, apart from some funny stories. Case in point: Hernandez wrote this book as a diary of his 1985 season with the New York Mets, a year they almost made the postseason. A much more interesting (and lucrative) book would be about the 1986 Mets, who did win the World Series in historic fashion. So Hernandez jumped the gun by a year.
None the less, my Dad got this book used and loaned it to me. And I did enjoy it. Hernandez does come off as a bit of a jerk at times, but what he says makes sense, and he and Bryan do a good job of constructing an interesting narrative from what was an interesting season. It was particularly interesting to hear Hernandez's take on his trade from the Cardinals and his feelings about Whitey Herzog.

The Old Ball Game by Frank DeFord.
DeFord is one of the most respected baseball writers out there, and I enjoyed this book quite a bit. It takes a look at the relationship, both baseball and personal, of New York Giants manager John McGraw and star pitcher Christy Mathewson. DeFord not only takes us into the thrilling days of turn-of-the-century baseball, but he does a good job of examining a deep friendship between two men who otherwise seemed polar opposites. I keep finding stories in baseball that I think would make a great movie, and this is one of them.

Veeck - As in Wreck by Bill Veeck.
Speaking of which, how in the name of hell has no one made a movie about Bill Veeck? Well, I call dibs on this one; just as soon as I get out to Hollywood and become famous.
Veeck is like all great storytellers; not everything he says is completely accurate, but you don't really care. This outsider's view of inside baseball is invaluable for what it says about the game. And Veeck himself is an endless supplier of interesting anecdotes. The most interesting is one (which has been largely dismissed) that, in the years before Jackie Robinson, Veeck planned to buy the dreadful Philadelphia Phillies franchise and stock it with Negro League players. Veeck claims that he had every intention of doing it, but out of respect, he did run the idea by Kenesaw Mountain Landis. The Phillies were sold to someone else. Now, several historians have poked holes in that story, but even if it isn't true, it's really interesting to imagine "What if?"

Sandy Koufax by Jane Leavy.
When I was a kid, there was an old VHS tape of the history of the Dodgers that my brother and I would rent over and over again. As a result, I memorized the words to Danny Kaye's "D-O-D-G-E-R-S" song and grew to like Sandy Koufax.
I respected his dominance as a pitcher. I respected his quiet demeanor, as I was a pretty shy child myself. And I appreciated his personal dignity. I learned more about that after I grew up; how Koufax refused to pitch on Yom Kippur, how he and Don Drysdale held out the Dodgers for more money, and how he somehow find the bravery to quit baseball at age 30 to save his arm.
Jane Leavy's book isn't a "baseball" book per se, it focuses more on Koufax's life than on counting his strikeouts. But the great part about the book is that Koufax's life story is told concurrently with a play-by-play account of what many people call the best game ever pitched: Sept. 9, 1965, Dodgers .vs. Cubs. Koufax threw a perfect game and K'ed 14 to beat Bob Hendley -- who threw a one-hitter -- 1-0.

Faithful by Steven King & Stewart O'Nan.
Your review of Faithful usually depends on where your rooting interests lie. I was never particularly a fan of the Red Sox, but I've always hated the Yankees, so we kind of drifted together. And I, like nearly every other non-Yankee or Cardinals fan, was rooting for them passionately in 2004. King and O'Nan are good writers, and their book gives you a sense of the ups and downs of the season. The drawback here is that the writers suffer the same problem as a lot of beat writers and columnists -- they can't see the forest for the trees. Yesterday's moron is tomorrow's genius with one swing of the bat. They're total front-runners, but then most fans are. And it really is a thrill to read their entries as the Sox go into their epic comeback.

A Well-Paid Slave: Curt Flood's Fight for Free Agency in Professional Sports by Brad Snyder
This was a notable book, since Flood's case and its ramifications weren't in the popular consciousness as much as they should have been. Snyder does a good job of examining Flood's case as a person and a ballplayer and documenting the monumental trial that finished his career and took years off his life. He lost. But because Curt Flood stepped forward and took the vitriolic ridicule of America, it made it easier for the next guy to step forward.

Game of Shadows by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams
This is the book about Barry Bonds and BALCO, that did more to shed light on the PED problem in baseball than the Mitchell Report could even dream to. With a book so full of potential lawsuits, the authors had to make their case a tight one, and they succeeded. As a work of investigative reporters, it is quite remarkable. To a baseball fan, it's depressing.

Feeding the Monster by Seth Mnookin
Mnookin was given inner-office access to the Red Sox as they made their way from 2004 World Champions forward. It's a very interesting look at the inner workings of a baseball front office but is mainly, as you may expect, an account of the relationship between John Henry, Larry Lucchino, and Theo Epstein (and the court jester, Manny Ramirez). Neither Lucchino nor Epstein come out of the book smelling like daisies, but at least Lucchino isn't demonized as the bad guy like he was by those more sympathetic to Epstein. It's fascinating to see what was meant to be the most well-run machine in baseball grind to a halt for the same reasons baseball teams have suffered for years. Mnookin's work isn't as accessible to the average fan as something like Moneyball, but it's well worth reading.

Where's Harry? by Steve Stone with Barry Rozner
I grew up loving Harry Caray and Steve Stone. I loved watching Cubs games and grew to love the Cubs thanks in no small part to Harry and Steve. It was always comforting to come home from school, turn on the TV, and see the Cubs on.
This book tells a lot of funny stories and nice anecdotes about Harry Caray and Steve's time with him. Unfortunately, it's also the most obviously ghost-written book I've ever read. Yes, I know that a great deal of sports books are ghost-written, but most of them at least take someone's thoughts and stories and construct them into a readable narrative, or at least categorize them. But Where's Harry? is really just a list of Steve's old stories recorded in no particular order. It's still fun, but disappointing for a book with such potential.

Brushbacks and Knockdowns by Allen Barra.
This is Barra's second book of tackling controversial baseball arguments with new insights. Unfortunately, it's not nearly as good as his first one, which I don't have. Sigh.

Hank Aaron and the Home Run That Changed America by Tom Stanton.
This is another good read, that follows Aaron's quest to break Babe Ruth's all-time home run record and overcome a vehement minority who tried to threaten him into quitting. The book's title may be more than a bit of hyperbole, but it does address a lot of issues that we don't consider much anymore, such as the lives of black players with the Braves, the first major league franchise in the deep south in the 20th century.

Moneyball by Michael Lewis.
Heard of this one? I have to say that I'm new to the sabermetrics party; Moneyball was one of the first books I read (or, more accurately, devoured) leading me to my great interest in new baseball stats. And the resulting hoopla over the book was quite interesting (and may earn a book of its own someday). It's remarkable, though, to consider that right now, Moneyball just can't be considered controversial anymore. Its essential messages (undervaluing the market, open-mindedness to new baseball knowledge, skepticism of received wisdom) have been, more or less, accepted into even the most conservative havens of baseball wisdom. The book is a bit dated now and some of the statistical claims it makes have since been challenged, but it's still one of the best baseball books I've ever read.

A Whole Different Ball Game by Marvin Miller.
Well, I had to read this one, didn't I? Miller's recollections aren't exactly gripping, but they're historically important and still relevant today. The most enjoyable part is that one of Miller's main issues in the book is to rebut Bowie Kuhn's book, Hardball. Some feuds just never die.

Eight Men Out by Eliot Asinof.
So many years later and still one of the best baseball books ever written. Damn good movie, too.

The Pitch That Killed by Mike Sowell.
A surprisingly good book about the 1920 season and the turning point it represented in baseball history. 1920 marked not only the death of Ray Chapman from a pitch thrown by Carl Mays, it marked Babe Ruth's first season as a Yankee (and his record-shattering 54 home runs), and the breaking story of the Black Sox' fix of the 1919 World Series, resulting in their suspensions (later expulsions) and the hiring of baseball's first Commissioner. It also reflected a true feel-good story in a tight pennant race, with Chapman's team, the Indians (led by Tris Speaker) beating out the Yankees and the Black Sox-less White Sox to win the pennant and beat the Dodgers in the World Series.
This one is worth the read, but is hard to find. My main fault is that it's a bit too detailed. I love a play-by-play description of a ballgame, but a season is a long time, and it's hard to get that enthused about game recaps in May.
This one would also make a great movie, or -- since there are so many intertwining narratives -- a mini-series.

Ball Four by Jim Bouton.
This is one of the most famous baseball books ever and was, in its time, the best-selling. Bouton's book is of course tame by today's standards -- although in the 21st century you can still be shocked by "beaver-shooting." The great attention this book got has resulted in some backlash against Bouton, and some contrarian declarations that the book really isn't all that good.
I beg to differ. 30 years on, and I tore through it. It's not only a series of great (and f'ing HILARIOUS) stories, it's a great look into the real lives of ballplayers. And not the tabloid BS of sex and drugs, but the simple, human stuff, like what pitchers say to each other when they're out there shagging flies. Or how to act horny around your wives after a long road trip. You know, basic American stuff.
This one would not make a good movie and, apparently, did not make a good TV show, although Bouton's afterword about the dismal saga of making the show are fun.
I don't recommend the sequel -- I'm Glad You Didn't Take It Personally (and it's out of print, so I doubt you'll just happen across it). Bouton said most of what he had to say in Ball Four.

I Never Had It Made by Jackie Robinson.
I said before that I rarely player autobiographies, but for obvious reasons, this is different. Robinson's book is extremely compelling for a number of reasons that I can't fully list here. Just as important as his account of breaking into baseball are his stories about his son's difficult life and early death and his controversial role as a representative of the Republican Party during the 1960's.
Jackie certainly comes off as an imperfect human being in this book, and he's pretty honest and brutal about his own shortcomings. But you finish this book with a tremendous amount of respect for Robinson -- a respect you just don't have for any public figures anymore.

Only the Ball Was White by Robert Peterson.
Peterson's book is a bit outdated with what we know now, but everything in it is still spot-on, and it's a great and accessible introduction into the history of Negro League Baseball.

Josh Gibson by William Brashler.
There's not a widely distributed book about Gibson, so I had to go to Amazon for this one. It's not of the highest quality, but it's a good introduction into the life of one of the great forgotten heroes of baseball. I bought it because someday I want to write a play (or screenplay) about Gibson.

Maybe I'll Pitch Forever by Satchel Paige.
Paige is, like Bill Veeck, an excellent storyteller. And, like Veeck, don't hold Satch to everything he says. But, though he may have "worn the mask" as a public figure, I think Paige was one of the smartest men to play the game. Not to mention successful. Few people are as popular as Satch was; fewer still are smart enough to play into that image and exploit that popularity. Put Satch and Babe Ruth on that short list of baseball players.
Paige's book is interesting not as verbatim history, but for his stories. His stories of growing up poor in the South are especially interesting. And it's really eye-opening to read Satchell tell about his time as a misbehaving, angry teenager in Alabama. It gives credence to the poem about the raisin in the sun. If not for baseball, ol' Satch probably would have exploded.

October Men by Roger Kahn.
Kahn is a great reporter and does a very good job examining the Yankees' 1978 season (that's the season after The Bronx is Burning). It's the Bronx Zoo, so of course there's plenty to talk about.

Branch Rickey's Little Blue Book by Branch Rickey, John J. Monteleone, ed.
See this entry for my thoughts on this book.

Heroes of the Negro Leagues by Mark Chiarello & Jack Morelli
A great quick-reference book on the biggest stars of the Negro Leagues. It's amazingly handy for me, since I'm not as familiar with some of the more obscure Negro League stars, and now I have a picture and a quick reference to remedy that.

2007 Official Rules of Major League Baseball
At one point, I applied for one of those jobs as a game-logger/data entry tech for the MLB. Their requirements are, of course, pretty strict as far as knowing the rule book. I bought one and realized that damn, there are a lot of things I don't know. It's not often that the ball hits a rafter, goes into the bullpen, gets touched by a player, substituted for another ball, spat upon, and carried off by a pigeon. But if it does happen, and you don't know what to do, you're in deep sh*t.

Total Baseball, 2003 Ed.
This was the last baseball encyclopedia I bought, because the things are freakin' expensive. It was also the last one published by Total Baseball. Some of the staff moved on to ESPN, who are I think the only people still publishing a strict baseball encyclopedia. But they come wrapped in plastic, so I can't look inside and see if I like it without plunking down enough money for the Starz/Cinemax Combo Package PLUS! This one is still accurate through 2003, and it lists Win Shares and some other saber-head stats, so I hold onto it. And there is a great satisfaction in owning a baseball book that weighs as much as a large cat. I may not be manly enough to play baseball, but watch me carry this bad boy around . . .

Baseball Prospectus Annual 2006 & 2007
I ordered the 2008 annual; it ships in a week. Baseball Prospectus really is the best spot for baseball analysis on the web. I know it's become pretty hip among this generation of sabermetricians, but it still has the substance to back it all up. The Annuals are my favorite part of the off-season. I don't just get them for the PECOTA predictions (those are fun, but not my lifeline) but also for the prose. Everything that's in there is pretty on-target, or at least is well-justified.

The Hardball Times Annual 2006 & 2007
THT is releasing two publications this off-season: one is a 2007 season report and the other is a 2008 season preview. If I had more disposable income, I would buy them both, but I don't, so I doubt I'll get either one. The prose in THT isn't as smooth as it is at BP, but there's a greater sense of creativity and exploration in what they're doing that makes them different and well worthwhile. They also use a wide variety or graphs and visual aids to add to their articles, which can be very illuminating.

The Brushback Report
Selected articles from The, a website of satirical sports headlines and articles, a la The Onion. Hilarious reading.

The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, Revised Ed. by Bill James
I've heard some people insist that if you're going to read James' Historical Abstract, that you should read the original. Some people aren't too fond of Bill's Win Shares, his catch-all stat to measure a player's full contribution, and Win Shares are a centerpiece of his new book.
I don't really care. The book is a great read, with a lot of great articles about players, eras, and methods of analysis.

This Time Let's Not Eat the Bones by Bill James
This book was an attempt to sell James to people who are scared of numbers. It's notes and selections from his annual abstracts discussing all sorts of baseball things. Many of them are humorous and interesting. And it's a lot cheaper than trying to buy up all the original abstracts.

Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame? by Bill James
James' look at the Hall and the realities behind what gets people elected, how people are honored, and what makes us under- or over-rate someone. It's a great read, even if you don't agree with all of James' points. And yes, he does go too far with the whole Drysdale-Gibson thing.

The Juice by Will Carroll and William Carroll
This is by far the best book about PED use in baseball yet written. Carroll looks at all angles of the issue without having to resort to moral posturing or grandstanding. Required reading for anyone who actually has to discuss these things for a living -- you know who you are.

Juicing the Game by Howard Bryant
This book also purports to be the story of the steroid era. It's not. It's a general history of baseball over the past 15-20 years. Steroids play into it somewhat, but only vaguely. The good news is that this book contains a lot of facts, but the bad news is that it's horribly organized, poorly edited, and not at all what it purports to be.

Coming Apart at the Seams by Jack Sands & Peter Gammons
This book, detailing everything that was wrong with baseball, was written right before the 1994 strike. So both authors have earned an "I told you so." It's dated now, but I should note that when I read this book about five or six years ago, it was the first time I had ever heard of collusion. Didn't I feel like a fool? And why doesn't every schoolboy know about the collusion scandal, just like they remember the '94 strike? Good questions, both.

Baseball Between the Numbers by the Baseball Prospectus Staff
I know it's more of a marketing point, but I hate when a book tells me that "everything I know is wrong." Well, after reading the book, I found out that most of the things I knew were right. This book breaks very little new ground, but it does explore and solidify a lot of basic questions about baseball. I'd recommend it as a great introduction to sabermetrics if it weren't for all the numbers and such.

It Ain't Over Til It's Over by the Baseball Prospectus Staff
An interesting read, but it's hard to see where the BP "team of experts" can contribute a lot to mythology, when one of their reasons for being is to apply rational thought to mythology. Don't get me wrong, they tell a lot of good stories and look at some old stories with new eyes, but it's not really a must-read.

Winners: How Good Baseball Teams Become Great Ones (And It's Not What You Think) by Dayn Perry
Actually, it is what you think.

The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination with Statistics by Alan Schwarz
This is one of my favorite baseball books in recent years, because it tells a story that needed to be told in an interesting and pertinent way. There's a lot here to answer questions and pique your curiosity. The only slight fault is that Schwarz writes the book more as a reporter than a historian. Here are some of his "hooks;" chapter openers that would be more appropriate as the lead in a news story:

"Chapter 2. Ernie Lanigan could barely breathe. The young Philadelphia bank clerk had been frail since childhood, with lungs like damp balloons."

"Chapter 4. The Georgian Bay off Lake Huron lay peaceful and still, tall trees standing sentry over the scene's verdant tranquility."

"Chapter 6. The old widow was in her seventies, maybe even her eighties. She lived on Illinois Avenue ..."

Schwarz is a fine writer, but he has a tendency to mistake himself for either F. Scott Fitzgerald or a young newshound writing a human interest story.

The Baseball Economist by J.C. Bradbury
Let me say for the record that few things bore me like economics. Bradbury's book received almost universal praise, so it may just be that his book didn't tickle my fancy. But it didn't really tell me anything new about baseball or strictly explore its economics, it just discussed the game in economic terms, focusing on "incentives" and suchlike. If that's your bag, so be it. But it ain't mine.

Baseball Dynasties: The Greatest Teams of All Time by Rob Neyer and Eddie Epstein
This book is fodder for argument, and I started out insulted that my Atlanta Braves weren't there. But the book focused more on a team's high peak than its longevity, although it did try to combine the two, so that "one-year wonder" teams like the '84 Tigers missed the cut. Still, it's a very interesting read.

The Last Nine Innings by Charles Euchner
A very interesting examination of a variety of modern baseball issues in the context of Game 7 of the 2001 World Series. An excellent read.

The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball by Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman & Andrew Dolphin
If you don't have an appetite for numbers, stay FAR AWAY from this book. I can wrap my head around basic statistical analysis, but when you take 18 numbers and adjust for 5 variables consecutively over 4 pages of graphs, you've lost me (I made up those numbers, by the way). There are some interesting issues and conclusions here, but this book was written for extremely math-savvy people, not me.

Mind Game: How the Boston Red Sox Got Smart, Won a World Series, and Created a New Blueprint for Winning by the Baseball Prospectus Staff
This was the first book produced by BP apart from their annuals, and in my opinion it's still the best. They examine a variety of different issues concerning the Red Sox, new baseball knowledge, and how they went about constructing their 2004 World Championship team.

Past Time: Baseball as History by Jules Tygiel
This is a marvelous book by a marvelous writer. Past Time is a collection of essays about the development of baseball through the ages. It's a great insight, a wonderful read, and a great addition to the sport's lexicon.

The Baseball America 2007 Prospect Handbook
I am not a scout. I have enough trouble telling what pitch a guy is throwing, so my skills at studying prospects and arguing over their merits is nearly non-existent. I tend to go with the opinions of people I trust, and I trust the staff at Baseball America. Purchasing this book was a step toward familiarizing myself with the world of the minor and amateur leagues. It also makes me much better at analyzing trades. Money willing, I'll pick up the 2008 version, which is already out.

Lords of the Realm by John Helyar
It's possible that I learned more from this book than any other baseball book I've ever written. An absolutely invaluable and irreplaceable behind-the-scenes look at baseball, especially in the modern, unionized era. I'm just disappointed that Helyar didn't write more, especially about the early days. And I'd also love to read something about the 10 years since he published the book (I do have the paperback version, which includes an afterword about the '94 strike).

That's all I've got. There are several other baseball books that I enjoyed, but don't own (notably Buck O'Neil's autobiography, and the companion book to Ken Burns' Baseball documentary), and many more that I want to read but haven't had a chance to yet. If you have any suggestions for a great baseball book, I'll add it to the pile; I've already got about 20 or 30 written down that I want to read someday.

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