Monday, May 11, 2009

The 15 Greatest Baseball Books

I recently had a reader ask for my list of the best baseball books ever written. Keeping in mind that there are many important books that I haven't read, I was still excited to be able to share some of my favorites. Summer reading season is approaching, and what better way is there to show your commitment to baseball than to haul a 600-page statistical tome to the beach. Sure, the people around you reading 150-page light romance novels may think you're a big geek. But as someone who likes to write lists of his favorite baseball books, I've come to terms with my geekiness.

The reason that this is a Top 15 list is that I started with a Top 10 list but couldn't bear to exclude any more books. Even so, I'm going to include a small list of "recommended reading" for some books that still didn't make the cut.
Before I get into specific books, I want to talk about a few staples of the baseball library that don't really belong on the list, for various reasons:
  • Baseball Encyclopedias. Baseball encyclopedias used to be an essential part of any fan's library. But with the emergence of the internet -- especially and the online baseball eden known as -- fans can get most of the stats in the encyclopedias for free online. There's also a Sabermetric Baseball Encyclopedia developed by Lee Sinins and sold as a computer program. I bought my last real baseball encyclopedia in 2003 (picking up the last edition of the Total Baseball series), but recently bought Sinins' program, which offers more options than your average website.
  • Annuals, or Season Previews: These are often fantastic and invaluable sources of information. But if I included them on the Top 15 list, they'd take up 5 spots. And an annual's value obviously isn't as timeless as that of any other book. Some exceptions would be the Bill James Baseball Abstracts published in the late 70's and early 80's. Now, the premier baseball annuals are those published by Baseball Prospectus every February. You can also get a great deal of info and analysis from The Hardball Times, which published two books this off-season: a recap of the 2008 season and a preview of the 2009 season.
  • Magazines/Journals/Periodicals: I'll admit that my experience with baseball as a scholarly enterprise is new, so I have very little experience with journals. I do keep some old periodicals, not just for nostalgia but also if there's a particularly interesting article in it. And I do have a few newspapers from notable days in baseball history, as well.
And with that said, on to the books!

15. Eight Men Out
by Eliot Asinof

This book has earned its status as one of the most celebrated sports books of all time. Asinof does an admirable job of playing the detective and bringing a fascinating group of people from different places into one coherent timeline.

Even 90 years after the fact, there are still many aspects of the Black Sox scandal that are quite controversial. Some challenge Asinof's account, which is valid in some instances, but I would point out that Asinof is pretty honest about the murkiness of certain parts of the story.
This was turned into an excellent film by John Sayles that does a fairly good job of representing Asinof's book. The key to the film is not just the tight screenplay but an impressive list of actors, including John Cusack, Charlie Sheen, D.B. Sweeney, Bill Irwin, Studs Terkel, Sayles himself, Christopher Lloyd, Michael Lerner and an excellent David Strathairn.

14. The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination with Statistics
by Alan Schwarz

Schwarz says that he wrote this book because he had always wanted to read it. His effort shows in his ability to take the pioneers of baseball statistics and examine their passion for the game as well as their understanding of it. Schwarz looks at great baseball insiders (and outsiders) and illustrates how their work paved the way for future generations and changed the way we view the game.
Schwarz's readable style makes some pretty abstract concepts accessible to the reader. Casual baseball fans shouldn't shy away from this book. If you're uncomfortable with ultra-modern stats but know your way around the back of a baseball card, you can understand this book.
The only drawback is that sometimes Schwarz is a little too casual in his approach. His efforts to humanize his subjects results in a sentence like this, which opens up Chapter 4:
"The Georgian Bay off Lake Huron lay peaceful and still, tall trees standing sentry over the scene's verdant tranquility."
Alan Schwarz may not be Wordsworth, but he is a good author. Check out the book.

#13: The Pitch that Killed
by Mike Sowell

Perhaps no other season in baseball was as much of a turning point as 1920. Interest in the game was booming following the end of World War I, the spitball was about to be outlawed, Babe Ruth joined the Yankees and hit an earth-shattering 54 home runs, baseball hired its first commissioner, rumors about a crooked World Series would result in the banning of eight baseball players in the middle of the pennant race, and en executive decision to use cleaner, whiter, and fresher baseballs helped usher in an offensive renaissance. The latter change was largely the result of the titular killer pitch.
Sowell does a good job of bringing together all of these disparate trends into his story, which mainly follows the Indians through their season, which hinged around the tragic death of shortstop Ray Chapman. My only problem is that Sowell spends a great deal of time talking about game stories. A certain number of them are necessary, but there were 154 of them in the 1920 season, and it's hard to get excited about all of them.

#12: Mind Game: How the Boston Red Sox Got Smart, Won a World Series and Created a New Blueprint for Winning
by Steve Goldman & the Baseball Prospectus Team of Writers

This is the first book (not counting the annuals) written as a team effort by the staff of And in my opinion, it's still the best. The book consists of a series of essays and studies looking at different aspects of the 2004 Red Sox, including how they got where they were and what made them so good. It is pretty stat-heavy, though, so those uncomfortable with VORP and EQA might want to think twice before diving in.
However, my favorite chapter has very little to do with statistics at all. It argues that the racism that was endemic to the club for nearly 50 years was as much a factor in their failures as any "curse."

#11: Weaver on Strategy
by Earl Weaver with Terry Pluto

There are surprisingly few managing manifestos written by Hall-of-Fame managers. Perhaps it's because managers are paranoid about sharing secrets. This makes some sense, since it's not uncommon for a "retired" manager to become un-retired. So we should treasure what we have here: a guide to managerial strategy by one of the greatest. Weaver goes through everything, from how to run a Spring Training camp to how to argue with an umpire (he had some experience in that area).
I'm a bit biased here in that Weaver's views on managing are consistent with what modern performance analysis has told us. When Bill James came along in the 70's, or when Moneyball came along in the 00's, most baseball traditionalists said that these were impractical ideas thought up by outsiders and robots who didn't know the first thing about inside baseball. Of course, if those nay-sayers had done their homework (homework is for robots!), they would have realized that many of the theories these new statistical tools were telling us weren't new at all. Not only that, but some of their top champions, including Earl Weaver, were as "inside" baseball as you can be.
Weaver famously believed in pitching, defense and the three-run homer. More specifically, though, he liked players who could take a walk (Weaver's Orioles always drew their walks) and hit home runs (Weaver loved the homer in an era when it was falling out of style). He didn't reject incomplete players or those with a glaring weakness; he focused on what they could do and used an innovative approach to get as much as he could from each member of his roster. Also, Weaver wasn't afraid of the unorthodox (keeping the four-man rotation) or the downright heretical (he hated the hit-and-run and thought too much bunting was counter-productive). Any coach, fan, or analyst would do well to listen to what Earl has to say. Especially if you are a manager, whether it's in the Little League or the Major Leagues.

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

This book was first published in 1970, and yet it's still the best book I've come across to introduce new audiences to the Negro Leagues. Peterson effectively covers the main points of interest in the history of all-black baseball, from the injustices faced by "Fleet" Walker to the great energy and acumen of Andrew "Rube" Foster, to the amazing feats of Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, "Pop" Lloyd and Oscar Charleston.
There has been a great deal of research done in recent years to fill the historical gaps in Peterson's book. Our anecdotal and statistical knowledge has helped flesh out the existing knowledge of many unjustly forgotten stars. Even so, the books that have been released in the years since haven't surpassed Peterson's work in offering such a valuable and accessible view of this unheralded portion of baseball history.

#9: Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Blunders
by Rob Neyer

This is the second of the three "Big Books" released by Neyer so far. Rob Neyer's column on has long been a favorite of those interested in performance analysis, not just for his sharp understanding of the subject but because of his great wit and gift for storytelling. He combines all three in this book.
Most fans will be familiar with most or all of these stories, and thus we're interested to hear Neyer's take on what was (or was not) a real blunder. Neyer defines a "blunder" as not just a mistake, but a mistake of choice (not just an on-field error or mental mess-up) where the poor consequences should have been evident from the beginning. For example: nobody really expected Curt Schilling to be a Hall-of-Famer, so we can't really pin the "blunder" label on the teams that traded him. But trading a 30-year-old Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas? That's a blunder.
Most of these stories are stories of front office executives or managers with a big, glowing "What Were They Thinking" sign hanging over their heads. Since blunders require forethought and decision-making, they're rarely made by players on the field. Unless, of course, you're caught stealing to end the World Series.

#8: Bang the Drum Slowly
by Mark Harris

This is the only fiction book on the entire list. There's not a whole lot of baseball fiction out there, but there are some pretty notably books, namely: The Natural by Bernard Malamud, Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella and The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant by Douglas Wallop. I confess that I've read neither Malamud's nor Kinsella's book (I liked Wallop's book, which was the basis for Damn Yankees, but it didn't make the cut). I have very little inclination to read sentamentalist baseball literature.I don't intend to make "sentamentalist" sound like an insult; that genre just isn't my cup of tea. That's also why you won't find The Boys of Summer mentioned here, despite it's presence on nearly every other comparable list.
Keeping that in mind, you should be doubly surprised to see Mark Harris' book about a catcher dying of cancer on my list. It's hard to describe why this appealed to me so much. I think it's mainly because of the narrator, Henry Wiggin. Wiggin, nicknamed "Author" by his teammates, is the ace pitcher for the New York Mammoths. He's a very unique character in baseball fiction; he has an incredibly dry sense of humor as well as a very strong sense of detachment. This makes him a great observer of other people, in particular ballplayers, coaches and managers. And Harris gives Wiggin plenty to see and comment on (TEGWAR!).
And yet, Wiggin's closest friend on the team is quiet, slow-witted backup catcher Bruce Pearson. Pearson is a laid-back southern boy; he's not very intelligent, but he cares very much about hunting, fishing, his parents, and a prostitute that he keeps proposing to. Wiggin's relationship to Bruce (which is the heart of the book's development) is amazing. He sacrifices a great deal to make sure that the team doesn't find out about the cancer. As a player, Bruce is a scrub; if the team knew about the disease, he'd be replaced. The title refers to an Old West song, the poignancy of which is not lost on Wiggin, or the reader.
This was made into a TV film in 1956 starring Paul Newman, and then remade as a theatrical release in 1973 starring Michael Moriarty as Wiggin and Robert DeNiro as Pearson. The film is good enough, but it loses a lot when we don't have Wiggin's voice guiding us through.
(Having expressed my personal dislike for baseball fiction I should note, as a postscript, that I haven't read the classic works of famed baseball scribes Ring Lardner and Damon Runyon. I'm looking to remedy that soon.)

#7: Cobb: A Biography
by Al Stump

My brother and I are both especially fascinated by Ty Cobb. We're intrigued by the player and the man, but more so the man. So we both felt that, going into this book, nothing could possibly make us think worse of Ty Cobb than we already did.
We were wrong.
The book is the story of Stump's attempt to ghost-write Cobb's autobiography in the superstar's fading years. Stump's time with Cobb is beyond description. He basically claims (without exaggeration) that Cobb was a psychopath, and Stump had a higher opinion of Cobb than most.
Famed baseball writer Roger Kahn, author of The Boys of Summer, says that the book is "[t]he most powerful baseball biography I have read." I absolutely agree. The only reason I don't rate this book any higher is that it's hard to issue a glowing recommendation for a book that was in many respects very unpleasant to read.

#6: Veeck -- as in "Wreck"
by Bill Veeck & Ed Linn

In a sport that's teeming with eccentrics and compelling characters, Bill Veeck still manages to stand out. He's most famous for his wild publicity stunts, but he was also an innovator, an iconoclast and a winner.
Veeck is one of the game's great storytellers. Part of that reputation is that he tended to favor entertainment value rather over accuracy. But he's no bald-faced liar -- at least no more than any other baseball legend writing autobiography.
The most controversial (and fascinating) story in Veeck's book is his claim that, when baseball was still segregated, he tried to buy the hapless Philadelphia Phillies with the intention of stocking them with Negro League All-Stars. Veeck claims that he made the mistake of telling Commissioner Landis, and soon after that the team was sold right out from under him. However, there's never been any shred of proof uncovered to back up this story. Is Veeck telling the truth? I don't really know. But it's a great story.
Even more than storytelling, Veeck's greatest skill was as a crowd-pleaser, whether that crowd was in the bleacher seats, in the press box or in the courtroom. The only people he never pleased -- the ones that utterly detested him -- were his fellow owners. And the stories of his dealings with fellow owners are quite fascinating.
So come for the stories -- stories about his pennant-winning Go-Go White Sox, his integration of the American League and the subsequent World Championship won as owner of the Indians in 1948, and best of all, stories about the terrible St. Louis Browns, including the midget Eddie Gaedel, the tightrope walker and "Grandstand Manager" night.

#5: The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (2003 Edition)
by Bill James
James's new abstract is a make-over of his original Historical Baseball Abstract, published in 1986. The biggest difference in the new version is the use of James's new all-inclusive statistic: Win Shares. James uses Win Shares to update his rankings of the all-time 100 greatest players at each position. I've heard from several people that they prefer the 1986 edition, at least in part because they're not sold on Win Shares. Still, I very much enjoy the new edition, and the '86 version is out of print.
James' position-by-position ranking of the all-time greatest players is fuel for some serious arguing. Any attempt to re-examine history using statistics as a tool is going to seriously change our understanding of it. Even among those who do favor statistics, James' arguments remain hotly debated to this day. Was Darrell Evans really a Hall-of-Famer? Was Jeff Bagwell really the fourth-best first baseman of all time? Are Tinker, Evers, and Chance overrated simply because they were the subject of a poem? You simply have to read this book to find out the answer, and deal with even more questions.
Whether you agree with James or not, you have to respect his opinion as well as the evidence he backs it up with. You'll love the historical research done on a great many aspects of the game's evolution, as well as Bill's great sense of humor.

#4: Total Ballclubs
by Donald Dewey & Nicholas Acocella

Total Ballclubs looks at every major league ballclub in history, even those who were only around for a couple of years (or a couple of months). It focuses mainly on the activity behind the scenes of these franchises, and as such it constitutes an invaluable resource of information about the off-field history of each major league franchise and league.
Dewey and Acocella have compiled an excellent history of each major league franchise. Want to hear the story behind the rise (and fall) of all the big dynasties? Looking to find out how the best (and worst) teams of all time were created? This book is your answer, exhaustively researched with the background on every major move in the history of your favorite team, not to mention many more you never heard of.This would rank even higher except that I have two significant problems with the book. One, they provide no index. There are thousands of names, places and key phrases mentioned in a book like this, and it is infinitely tiresome to go flipping through several hundred pages looking for a single anecdote.
Two, there are no footnotes or endnotes. This is an even bigger problem, because it means that we have no idea where the authors are getting these quotes and this information. This is an even bigger headache for researchers, who are helpless to further explore the quotes and stories.Even with those two caveats, I would recommend Total Ballclubs in a heartbeat to any baseball aficionado. The serious fans can start at the beginning and dive in, and the more casual fans can skip the history of big-league ball in Altoona and just read about their favorite clubs.

#3: Ball Four
by Jim Bouton & Leonard Schechter

Ball Four was once SO popular that it has since generated something of a backlash. In the years after its release, it became a central part of the American sports experience, so much so that David Halberstam unleashed his hyperbole by declaring it, "A book deep in the American vein, so deep in fact it is by no means a sports book."
But if you pick up Ball Four as nothing more than a book (a sports book, despite what Halberstam says), I guarantee that you will not be disappointed. The book is famous for its shock and scandal, but it 2009 there is very little here that will take the reader aback (except, perhaps, for "beaver-shooting"). What makes the book such a thrill is its fresh view of baseball and its sense of humor. In a humorous way, Bouton is like a sane man in an insane world, and his observations are insightful even today. It's this unique viewpoint and "outsider" perspective that made the book so popular while also contributing to the demonization of Bouton after the book was released.
Baseball culture at the time was very insular; what went on in the locker room (and on the road, away from the wives) was not meant for outsiders. Bouton put a huge dent in that notion by injecting his book with a refreshing honesty. After years of being told that Mickey Mantle was an all-American boy who drank his milk and ate his Wheaties, the public was finally let in on the truth. And they did not enjoy the revelation that they'd been lied to for years upon years by a generation of sportswriters who might as well have been on the company payroll.
It's easier to understand this perspective when you consider that Ball Four was published in 1970, when a lot of other venerated American institutions were being challenged by both outsiders and insiders. One year later, another insider in the American establishment would publish a much more devastating expose, collectively known as the Pentagon Papers. Now, nothing written in a baseball book could ever be as groundbreaking as the information Daniel Ellsberg leaked to the press. But the situations are similar. Viewed in this light, Bouton's book wasn't just an expose, it was seen by many people (if not the author himself, exactly) as another shot fired in the culture wars. Halberstam's quote might seem hyperbolic today, but at the time, this book was seen as far more than just a collection of humorous anecdotes.
To me, though, that's the best way to enjoy the book. The culture wars of the 1970's have died down, but Ball Four survives as a humorous and insightful personal memoir.

#2: Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game
by Michael Lewis

If Jim Bouton stuck a firecracker up the ass of the baseball establishment, then Michael Lewis at least gave it a scorching hot-foot. Moneyball didn't ignite a culture war as heated as the Ball Four fracas, but it came close. And just like Ball Four, readers in the years to come will read the book and wonder what all the damn fuss was about.
Upon its release, though, Moneyball was very controversial. Lewis, allowed access behind the scenes of the Oakland A's front office for an entire season, brought to light the revolutionary, iconoclastic and wildly successful tactics utilized by General Manager Billy Beane to build the A's into a perennial contender on a tight budget. The basic plot of the book is Beane (and his staff) looking for cheap talent, or, in financial jargon, "undervalued assets." They soon realized that the most undervalued asset was a player's ability to get on base, or to not make an out. That sounds very simple, and indeed it is the most important thing a hitter can do. Even more amazing, though, is how ignorant most baseball teams were to this very basic fact.
Lewis used the book as a chance to explore the great dichotomy between, on one hand, the A's: believers in OBP, stats and revolutionary thinkers such as Bill James, Pete Palmer and John Thorn, George Lindsay, Allen Roth and Eric Walker. And on the other hand, you have the baseball establishment: beholden to tradition, subjective analysis, the "five-tool player," the power of "intangibles," and the nobility of scouting.
It's no surprise that Lewis angered so many people, since his quest was to annihilate the basic conventional wisdom of baseball. Using the work of sabermetricians such as Bill James to back him up, Lewis supported the A's philosophy that, for example: OBP and home runs are underrated; a pitchers wins and losses are overrated; fielding is completely misunderstood; traditional scouting methods are incredibly flawed, and perhaps most importantly, that the concept of "intangibles" and "makeup" aren't quite as important as the beat reporters claim.
The hot-foot thus set off was immediately effective. Players, managers, announcers and executives rushed to fervently denounce Billy Beane, Moneyball, the A's and everything they stood for. (Oddly enough, Michael Lewis himself remained relatively uninvolved in the debate, due to a mistaken notion that Beane himself had written the book.)
It seemed as though there might be a baseball civil war approaching, and there were certainly many on the stats-friendly side who fought fire with fire. But the venom of the establishment turned out to be the last gasp of baseball's flat-earth movement. With a new generation of sportswriters and analysts given voice by the internet, the argument for statistical analysis won the battle -- if you could even call it a battle.
Because most of the theories put forth in Moneyball were essentially accurate and effective, they became adopted to a certain degree by almost every major league franchise. In fact, the arguments within Moneyball itself are fast becoming dated. On-base percentage is no longer underrated, pitchers don't get nearly as much credit for wins nor blame for losses as they used to, and the discipline of baseball scouting has incorporated (for the most part) statistical analysis, marrying the objective with the subjective, resulting in a much more effective hybrid model.
Moneyball has therefore receded into the past. Performance analysts have gained their own platform for expression, and they've also moved past the errors and mistakes of the book. The establishment's fear of the sky falling has been put to rest; no one wants to replace scouts with computers, and there's still room for them to argue on behalf of intangibles. Not only that, but some of the ideas (and figures) mentioned in the book helped the Boston Red Sox end the Curse of the Bambino in 2004. After that, even the deep wounds started to heal.
I guess the greatest success of Moneyball is that it helped fuel the very movement of baseball analysis and research that made the book largely obsolete in less than ten years.

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

If I took every I've learned from every baseball book I've ever read and combined it, it might add up to what I learned reading Lords of the Realm. The book is quite simply monumental; it's absolutely unequalled in the pantheon of baseball literature. In fact, the book is full of so many details and so many vibrant stories at the very heart of the business of baseball that you start wondering why the hell you hadn't heard any of this before.
Okay, that may be an exaggeration. Its details aren't all revelatory. Although the book is a history of baseball owners and executives since the game's inception, the vast majority of the book deals with the free agent era of the 1970's and 1980's. Those who lived through the era and read the papers religiously may be less surprised than I was by the stories Helyar uncovers. Even so, I bet they'd still be drawn in by Helyar's expertise at recreating the many conflicts of the baseball era, or the great insight offered by bringing these events together, each in its proper place.
The author has a great journalist's talent for telling a story. Despite the incredibly dense and detailed ground he has to cover, Helyar keeps it entertaining by making it the human story of those involved; the book is so full of hilarious, insightful and pithy quotes that you simply can't keep track. His account of the free-for-all that ensued when Catfish Hunter was declared a free agent in 1974 is amazing reading.
But the most important section of this book, in my opinion, concerns the Collusion scandal of the mid-80's. It's the most important because it's the least-publicized and least-remembered. If the actions of the owners during the Collusion era were subjected to even a fraction of the moralizing focused on individual players (and the player's union) now, it would change most any fan's perception of the game, and not for the better.
It's for stories like these that baseball books need to be written. And for that, we have Lords of the Realm to thank.

Additional recommended reading:
Clearing the Bases by Allen Barra; Baseball Prospectus 2009 by The
BP Team of Experts; The Juice by Will Carroll; The Black Prince of Baseball by Dewey & Acocella; Game of Shadows by Mark Fainaru-Wada & Lance Williams; Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame? by Bill James; The Bill James Guide to Baseball Managers by Bill James; The Head Game by Roger Kahn; Sandy Koufax by Jane Leavy; Feeding the Monster by Seth Mnookin; I Was Right on Time by Buck O'Neil; Maybe I'll Pitcher Forever by "Satchel" Paige as told to David Lipman; Branch Rickey's Little Blue Book by Branch Rickey; The Glory of Their Times by Lawrence Ritter; I Never Had It Made by Jackie Robinson; The SABR Baseball List & Record Book by SABR; Baseball's Great Experiment by Jules Tygiel; Past Time by Jules Tygiel, and many more.

If you have a favorite baseball book that I didn't mention, please let me know. I have to get started reading some of the great baseball books that just came out this year . . .

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