Recently, I have been perusing the fine work of John Feinstein’s book, “Where Nobody Knows Your Name.” In a word: brilliant.
This book’s focus is the minors, specifically triple-A. You know the players that are called “4A” because they major in the minors but are just meh in the majors? Those guys are this book and it is fascinating. You can imagine the heartache of making it juuuuuust a bit outside for a player, manager or even an umpire, which Feinstein follows all throughout 2012.
It’s highly recommended by this baseball homer, which got me thinking of the countless baseball books adorning store shelves today. There are so many stories, historical reviews, biographies, autobiographies, time pieces, editorials and straight-up rants. Each have a spot in baseball book lore, as well as personal bookshelves for readers like you, you, you, you and me. All of that got me thinking …
While I have a voracious appetite for a sweet musing about the great game, I haven’t read them all. But I knew I had a must for another version of The Hit List, and compiling it was a considerable amount of joy for yours truly. And, extremely difficult. Without further ado, an objective list of the nine best baseball books of all time (you know, one for each inning).
9. “Bang the Drum Slowly” by Mark Harris (1956). This riveting book centers around the narrator, pitcher Henry “Author” Wiggen, and Bruce Pearson, his tag-along catcher. (Think the Kevin Costner movie “For the Love of the Game” without the great soundtrack.) Together, the battery rumbles, stumbles and bumbles toward the World Series. However, the story — as great as it is — isn’t the benchmark of this amazing baseball book. It is Wiggen’s offbeat, campy, near idiosyncratic conversation. You close the final chapter of the book reading Wiggen’s noteworthy line of “From here on in, I rag nobody,” thinking “I must have a beer with this dude.” A story in its purest sense — one that takes you back in time and places you right on the plate with Wiggen. Oh, and the DeNiro movie ain’t that bad at all.
8. “Only the Ball was White: A History of Legendary Black Players” by Robert Peterson (1970). Please do yourself a favor. Before you think of calling yourself an amateur historian of this game, you must read this baseball book. Without a doubt, this is the most important book ever written about the Negro Leagues. As many current and past baseball writers have stated, a case would have never been made to enshrine true baseball greats like Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Smokey Joe Williams and Cool Papa Bell without the words written in these pages. There are 18 baseball players from the Negro Leagues who have made the trek to Cooperstown. And every single one owes a tip of the cap to Peterson for this book. It’s that convincing and that good.
7. “The Boys of Summer” by Roger Kahn (1972). This book is a must-have for any baseball book reader and baseball game lover. The story depicts the deep-seated sentiment of the Dodgers — the Brooklyn Dodgers. Arguably, no team has meant more to a city than they did to Brooklyn; yet, they left because, as a gaming philosopher once said, “That’s the way baseball go.” Kahn, obviously a Brooklyn sweetheart, pens a classic memoir (slash) soapbox to “Dem Bums,” as he writes without reservation about the pit left in the city when they left for Chavez Ravine, as well as the pit in everyone’s stomach who used to call the Dodgers their team. Pour a little on the curb when you read this.
6. “Eight Men Out: The Black Sox and the 1919 World Series” by Eliot Asinof (1963). When I get around to making a hit list for the best baseball movies, this heartbreaking one will be close to the top. (And this was close to the top of another hit list already.) By the way, the eight men in question were the 1919 Chicago White Sox: Happy, Eddie, Chick, Swede, Buck, Lefty and, most notably, Shoeless Joe Jackson. This is baseball. Kids dream about this game. Grown men cry over it. And these guys intentionally lost its prize game for cash. If you get angry reading that, try Asinof’s teeth-grinding description. No wonder the movie was so good. The fix was in and this guy shows you why.
5. “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” by Michael Lewis (2003). Before you ask, the book first then the movie. You will be sorely underwhelmed by Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill. The great game will be forever changed because this baseball book introduced to world to sabermetrics. More importantly, it gave all small-market teams one thing they had perpetually lost — hope. And now that everyone thinks they are Billy Beane, it all began with a fascinating journey in his shoes through Michael Lewis’ words. Say what you will — and countless of fans, executives and players have — this book made an indelible mark upon baseball and the way it is measured.
4. “Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant ‘Roids, Smash Hits and How Baseball Got Big” by Jose Canseco. While the man is a reality show cast-off, a water-cooler joke, and a Twitter sensation, Jose Canseco did for baseball what few commissioners have been able to do — make people wake up, shut up and start listening. From racism to corruption, and all those HGH things and steroids. This book’s importance on baseball cannot be mistaken. Yes, it was a cash grab (that worked). Yes, it was a tell-all (and he sure did). However, yes, this baseball book changed the game in a way no drug awareness campaign ever could. In short, everyone in the game knew. Only this guy talked. America listened. And so far, he was right.
3. “Ball Four” by Jim Bouton (1970). BTW, where do you think Jose Canseco got the brass ones to write that book? It surely wasn’t from steroids (or so we’ve heard). He got it from Jim Bouton, a pitcher for the Yankees in the ’60s. This book was basically his diary of the 1969 season, and when he left the Bronx, Bouton went scorched earth. Fun-and-yuks about “amphetamine-popping” and “beaver shooting” players made this book the deep-throat informant of baseball as so-called “protectors of the game” threw in a few death threats. Every introspective we have been afforded on this game — from “Juiced” to “Moneyball” — started with this riveting and vitriolic baseball book.
2. “Five Seasons: A Baseball Companion” by Roger Angell (1977). Check any best baseball books list you want if you think this one is a little lacking — “Five Seasons” is near the top of every one. Why? Read it. Roger Angell’s ability to bring the game to you is anything less of mesmerizing. Since 1944, Angell has been a contributor to the New Yorker, and earlier than that, he loved baseball. Angell is easily considered this nation’s greatest living baseball writer and this book proves it with a fantastic journey beginning in 1972 and ending in 1976. And this does include Hank Aaron’s (still) MLB record-breaking game to break Babe Ruth’s 715 home runs. Eloquent is an understatement. Buy it and you’ll see.
1. “The Natural” by Bernard Malamud (1952). I know, right? How in the world can a list about the best baseball books of all time be crowned with a book that wasn’t even a documentary, an expose, or even a tell-all? This was a novel. And Malamud’s first. The book about now mythical Roy Hobbs and his trusty steed “Wonderboy” romanticized America’s pastime in a way few books or movies ever have. Before there was Roy Firestone, who delighted in making people cry on ESPN, there was this book about Roy Hobbs, who seemingly arrives out of obscurity with a puzzling past and promising future at the age of 34. The pages, the book and this author champions age without limits, redemption without bounds and passion without reservation. Baseball legends have lived since the 1870s, perhaps none more memorable than one who never lived.