There are more good books written about baseball than any other American team sport—and that’s not just because baseball has been around the longest. “This ain’t a football game,” manager Earl Weaver once said. “We do this every day.” Through baseball books, we’ve come to understand the game and its history. The sport is catnip for writers: a game of contemplation and strategy that lends itself beautifully to numbers and analysis as well as poetry.
As longtime Washington Post writer Tom Boswell once wrote, “Conversation is the blood of baseball. It flows through the game, an invigorating system of anecdotes. Ballplayers are tale tellers who have polished their malarky and winnowed their wisdom… this passion for language and the telling detail is what makes baseball the writer’s game.”
There are, of course, inner-circle Hall of Fame baseball books. On any self-respecting list, you’ll find The Glory of Their Times, The Summer Game, Eight Men Out, The Natural, Veeck as in Wreck, Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?, Ball Four, The Boys of Summer, The Lords of the Realm, and Moneyball. Those titles appear here, of course, along with our pick of 100 indispensable books no baseball fan should be without. In no particular order…
Prophet of the Sandlots, by Mark Winegardner
Mark Winegardner’s book about Tony Lucadello, the successful baseball scout who scouted Mike Schmidt, is written in a clean, almost invisible prose style. Winegardner’s understated approach pays off when the story ends with an unexpected twist. Scouts, like trainers in boxing, often make rich characters, and Winegardner’s devotion to Lucadello pays off in one of the truest baseball stories you’ll ever read.
A Day In The Bleachers, by Arnold Hano
One of the first baseball books for adults, A Day in the Bleachers is really a long magazine article made into a tidy book. It’s about how Hano took the subway uptown to the Polo Grounds one day and bought a bleacher ticket for a World Series game. It just so happened to be one of the most famous games in World Series history because of an amazing play Willie Mays made in centerfield. Hano had a perfect view of the catch, and the even more remarkable throw. He’d been going to the Polo Grounds alone since he was four-years-old, and he was most at home in the bleachers. This is a gem.
Baseball: The Early Years, by Harold Seymour and Dorothy Seymour Mills
First of the seminal three-part history of the game by Harold Seymour and Dorothy Seymour Mills. Essential.
The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading & Bubblegum Book, by Brendan Boyd
Brand: Little Brown n Co (T)
There might be funnier books—we can always argue—but you’d be hard-pressed to find a book that is more overall fun than this one. Boyd and co-author Fred C. Harris bring an infectious irreverence to their love of baseball cards from the 1950s. The digressions, such as a listing great baseball nicknames like Bow Wow Arft, Turkeyfoot Brower, Noodles Zupo, and Oyster Burns, are priceless. This great big smile of a book is a must for any baseball fan.
Only the Ball Was White, by Robert Peterson
If you want to know the history of the Negro Leagues, you start with this book. Period.
Moneyball, by Michael Lewis
It’s rare when a book, of all things, has an impact on a sport, but Moneyball is that book. The term, for better and worse, stuck inside baseball as a shorthand for the analytics revolution. But the reason Lewis’ book is so compelling is because Billy Beane is a wonderful character. In a master storyteller’s hands, that’s a powerful thing.
Man on Spikes, by Eliot Asinof
Southern Illinois University Press
Eliot Asinof is best-known for Eight Men Out, his entertaining—if historically shaky—account of the Black Sox Scandal (he is less famous for once being married to Marlon Brando’s sister). But you don’t want to miss his 1955 novel about a minor league ball player. Asinof played minor league ball himself, and this novel is blunt, unsentimental, and modern in its depiction of professional sport. Writing in The New York Times, the great sports writer John Lardner called it “the first realistic baseball novel I can remember ever having read…it is the only novel, so far as I know, that gives a sharp, fair account—it’s an eloquent, moving account.”
The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron, by Howard Bryant
The definitive portrait of Hank Aaron, one of the greatest ballplayers ever, most famous for setting the all-time home run record. Aaron was hated and loved for surpassing Babe Ruth as the home run king—his performance, either way, obscured the man behind the athlete. “You what what the hardest thing is?” Aaron tells Bryant. “What nobody wants to understand—is me. People want their memories of me to be my memories of me. But you know what? They’re not.”
The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, by Josh Wilker
It’s no secret that baseball movies are almost universally terrible. The original Bad News Bears is the exception, but you wouldn’t be wrong to roll your eyes at the 1977 sequel, The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training. However, one person’s trash is another fan’s treasure, and nobody writes about the intersection of pop culture and personal history like Josh Wilker, who is always funny and often poignant.
21: The Story Of Roberto Clemente, by Wilfred Santiago
Not only was Roberto Clemente a fascinating man and a Hall of Fame player, but he had something even rarer than greatness: style. Sleek and lean with a powerful throwing arm, he was a beautiful fielder. Even the way he walked up the plate was stylish, which makes Clemente a good choice for a graphic novel. After Clemente’s command performance in the 1971 World Series, Roger Angell wrote: “And then, too, there was the shared experience, already permanently fixed in memory, of Robert Clemente playing a kind of baseball that none of us had ever seen before—throwing and running and hitting at something close to the level of absolute perfection, playing to win but also playing the game as if it were a form of punishment for everyone else on the field.” Santiago captures Clemente’s violence on the field, as well as his loneliness. It’s a beautiful evocation of an era and a life.
Singled Out: The True Story of Glenn Burke, by Andrew Maraniss
Glenn Burke was the first openly gay big leaguer, and he suffered accordingly. We are fortunate that his story is in the hands of a writer as talented as Maraniss.
Weaver on Strategy, by Earl Weaver
Before Bill James and the analytics revolution, the principles of sabermetrics were put into practice by longtime Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver. A baseball lifer, Weaver was infamous for yelling at umpires and frightening his own players. Beyond the cartoon-like demeanor, however, was a brilliant strategist ahead of his time.
The Baseball 100, by Joe Posnaski
Joe Posnanski is a true believer—and if you’ve never read his charming book about Buck O’Neil, or the spirited account of the Big Red Machine, they are juicy baseball books. The essays in this collection originally appeared online at The Athletic, but they gain heft compiled together. You always learn something reading Posnanski; he makes you a smarter, more well-informed fan, but the surprise here is how much storytelling and emotion fuel these essays. It is a big, fat orgy of baseball goodness.
The Science of Hitting, by Ted Williams
Ted Williams wanted to be the greatest hitter that ever lived, and if he wasn’t, he’s certainly in the conversation. Here is the classic picture book breaking down his method.
The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers, by Bill James and Rob Neyer
Rob Neyer was Bill James’s protégé, but he was no imitator. Neyer is not only incredibly bright and funny, he’s got a knack for making numbers less intimidating to the average reader. When you put Neyer and James together on a project, you get baseball nirvana, like this excellent guide to pitching, pitches, and pitchers.
Willie’s Time, by Charles Einstein
Einstein was a longtime sports writer stationed in the Bay Area. His 1979 remembrance of Willie Mays’s career is spot-on. Split into sections by presidents (Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon), Einstein quotes liberally from other writers and adds his own observations, including an abundance of personal time with Mays. The best way to think of Willie’s Time is as a literary mix-tape, and a damn good one at that.
Long Gone, by Paul Hemphill
Before it was a charmed mid-’80s HBO movie with William Peterson and Virginia Madsen, Long Gone was a charmed novel by Paul Hemphill. Once known as the Jimmy Breslin of the South, Hemphill made his bones as a newspaperman in the ’60s, then became a freelance magazine and book writer, including an indispensable history of country music, The Nashville Sound. Hemphill flirted with playing minor league ball as a young man, which provided the foundation for this slim but tasty novel. You can tell why movie people loved it. Jack Nicholson was rumored to play the hero for years; instead, it was Peterson, who gave the character the same kind of spark Paul Newman had in Slap Shot. He had a lot to work with, and you see it all on the page in Hemphill’s novel.
God Almighty Hisself: The Life and Legacy of Dick Allen, by Mitchell Nathanson
University of Pennsylvania Press
Dick Allen was one of the great players of his generation though he didn’t enjoy a Hall of Fame career. He played in Philadelphia in the 1960s when it was exceedingly rough for Black players. The story of his career is fascinating. True, Allen wrote an engaging memoir, Crash, but we suggest Nathanson’s tremendous biography for an even fuller portrait of a legendary player.
The Curse of Rocky Colavito, by Terry Pluto
Gray & Company Publishers
Every baseball fan knows about the collective misery of the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox in the 20th Century, and thanks to Terry Pluto—who had his hand in a number of really good sports books—we have a detailed appreciation of Cleveland Indians’ misery. The Rocky Colavito trade signaled the demise of the Indians’ ’40s and ’50s success; it also catalyzed a series of events that would cast the team into the baseball cellar for the better part of three decades. That’s the conceit of Pluto’s breezy, informal, and affectionate history. Like its literary cousin, The Curse of the Bambino, Pluto’s book takes a symbolic moment—the trading of a beloved player—and uses it as the unwitting catalyst for the team’s subsequent misfortunes. The unwitting hero of the book—the heart and soul—is pitcher Herb Score. His story alone makes this worth reading.
Dollar Sign on the Muscle, by Kevin Kerrane
Createspace Independent Publishing Platform
If we had to pick the five best baseball books, this would be one of them. Just get it, that’s all.
Crazy ’08, by Cait Murphy
It’s not always easy to make a history book compelling as a dramatic narrative, even when Fred Merkle and his boner are at the heart of the tale. Some of them are loaded with information but dull to read, turgid and deadly boring. The opposite is true in Murphy’s riveting telling of the memorable 1908 season. Told with rigor and humor, this version of the ’08 season is hard to put down.
What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?, by Richard Ben Cramer
When Richard Ben Cramer called the Boston Red Sox PR department and told them he wanted to get in touch with Ted Williams for a magazine profile, they laughed. Good luck. Williams was possibly the greatest hitter that ever played, but he hated the press. That was all Cramer needed to track Williams down and ingratiate himself to the Legend. The result is one of the best magazine profiles you’ll ever read. Years later, Cramer added a generous and illuminating epilogue for this slim but incredible volume. There are stellar biographies of Williams by Leigh Montville and Ben Bradlee Jr., but everything you ever need to know about Teddy Ballgame can be found in Cramer’s tour de force.
Sayonara Home Run!, by John Gall and Gary Engel
Just an absolutely beautiful book about Japanese baseball card culture. Graphically, it’s a necessary addition to any self-respecting fan’s library.
Fathers Playing Catch with Sons, by Donald Hall
Farrar, Strauss & Giroux-3PL
Hall, the fourteenth American Poet Laureate, might be best-known to baseball fans as a featured talking head in Ken Burns’s Baseball. He also wrote this smart and droll collection of essays about the game, including an insightful critical analysis of baseball writing, or what he liked to call “proseball”: “Neither football nor basketball provokes nearly so much writing… but even when the style is ghastly, full of booted grounders and bases on balls, often stories are magnificent… Writers are as different as athletes, who perpetually divide themselves into those who feel natural in what they do, born to their skills, and those who pride themselves on the difficulty with which they learned those skills… Roger Angell writes as if he practiced, Thomas Boswell as if he didn’t, Peter Gammons as if he didn’t need to.”
Baseball’s Great Experiment, by Jules Tygiel
The definitive work of scholarship about Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier in baseball. This book is as essential as it is comprehensive.
Flip Flop Fly Ball, by Craig Robinson
Craig Robinson is an artist from England who fell in love with baseball and created a brilliant series of infographics online. Those graphics eventually made their way into an art book that is as brilliant as it is unique. Beyond clever. Nothing else like it. You need it.
The Hidden Game of Baseball, by John Thorn and Pete Palmer
University of Chicago Press
While Bill James rightfully gets much credit for bringing statistics and analytical thinking to baseball culture, this book by Thorn and Palmer has long held a place as one of the sabermetric bibles. (Thorn and Palmer were also behind the colossally excellent Total Baseball.) The book begins with a series of quotes about how modern players are spoiled and not nearly as tough as they were in the old days. The quotes, ever-present in our sports discourse, were taken from as long ago as the 19th century, proving that some things in sports never change.
Neil Leifer: Ballet in the Dirt: The Golden Age of Baseball, edited by Eric Knoll
Leave it to the Taschen to create a sumptuous picture book. This is a visual feast for any baseball lover. Leifer, one of the greatest of all sports photographers, takes us back to indelible Los Angeles Dodgers/San Francisco Giants games of the ’60s with Sandy Koufax and Willie Mays, all the. way through the vicious New York Yankees vs. Boston Red Sox games of the late ’70s. This book is ridiculously gorgeous.
Nine Innings, by Daniel Okrent
Here’s a neat conceit: write an entire book using the narrative structure of a single game—in this case, a regular season game in June between the Milwaukee Brewers and the Baltimore Orioles—to tell the story of two organizations and the human stories behind the players, coaches, and front office. Often imitated, never matched.
Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever, by LeRoy (Satchel) Paige
Satchel Paige wasn’t just one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history, he was one of the greatest characters, too. Larry Tye wrote an admirable biography in 2010 that did a nimble job of separating fact from the myth. You can’t always tell them apart in Paige’s account, but who cares? Like the old saying goes: Print the Legend.
The Glory of Their Times, by Lawrence S. Ritter
Lawrence Ritter’s oral history is on the short list of quintessential baseball books. It’s a series of interviews with old-timey players, and it set the standard for the sports oral histories that followed. The audio version—from Ritter’s original interviews—is incredible. While you’re at it, you might as well pick-up No Cheering in the Press Box, Jerome Holtzman’s oral history of old sports writers. Hard to read one without the other.
Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy, by Jane Leavy
Sandy Koufax had one of the most remarkable careers in baseball history. He was lousy for six seasons, and for the next six, he was the greatest pitcher in the game. He retired at 30 before injuries crippled him for life, then hovered around the game, the epitome of class and excellence. He’s what Joe DiMaggio wasn’t—as Jane Leavy captures vividly in this stellar biography.
Hot Stove League, by Lee Allen
Published in 1955, four years before Allen became the historian for the Baseball Hall of Fame, this collection of essays is one of the most enjoyable ever published. Allen writes in a straightforward, unpretentious style that’s still a pleasure to read.
A Whole Different Ball Game, by Marvin Miller
After Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson, Marvin Miller might be the most influential man in baseball history. As the head of the baseball players union from the late ’60s to the early ’80s, Miller, an attorney that previously worked with the steelworkers union, took on the baseball establishment. He outfoxed the owners, let them screw themselves through their own hubris, and ushered the game into the modern era, as we learn in this characteristically smart and caustic telling.
Bull City Summer: A Season At The Ballpark, by Howard L. Craft
The intimate, regional world of minor league baseball is lovingly depicted in words and pictures in this oversized coffee table book. The essays are of varying quality, but what will keep you spellbound are the photographs—lush, evocative, and human.
You Know Me Al, by Ring Lardner
The most famous baseball book of the first part of the 20th Century, Ring Lardner’s epistolary tale of a bush league player trying to make it with the Chicago White Sox might be from another time and place, but it remains a necessary—and funny!—part of the pantheon.
Red Smith on Baseball, by Red Smith
Red Smith is one of the few newspaper columnists who aged gracefully. His Strunk and White elegance and command of the language flourished at the New York Herald Tribune, and later at The New York Times. He was at his best writing about baseball. Take his column on the famous 1951 Brooklyn Dodgers-New York Giants playoff game that ended with the Giants winning the pennant on a Bobby Thomson home run: “Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.”
The Boys of Summer, by Roger Kahn
Roger Kahn’s memoir about his brief time covering the Brooklyn Dodgers as a reporter is blended with a series of profiles of the old team. It’s the original where-are-they-now angle. Written in the early ’70s, at the height of ’50s nostalgia, Kahn’s book is sentimental and overwrought. It’s also unapologetically ambitious, and unquestionably accomplished; the portraits of the aging ballplayers, culminating with a devastating chapter on Jackie Robinson, are first-rate.
The Lords of the Realm, by John Helyar
Helyar’s massive history of the baseball industry is exactly what you don’t expect from this kind of book—it’s a page-turner, written with the pacing of a great mystery novel. The lords of baseball do not come off well in this comprehensive look; Helyar lets them hang themselves, which they do without trying.
Veeck As In Wreck, by Bill Veeck
University of Chicago Press
Ed Linn, a longtime freelance sports writer, had a particular gift as a ghostwriter. He did fine books with Leo Durocher and Ted Williams, but his masterpiece is this collaboration with Bill Veeck, a unicorn in the annals of sports history—a team owner that was also an authentic American genius, not to mention an all-around good guy. One of the great talkers in baseball history, this book is one you need to have.
Cardboard Gods, by Josh Wilker
Josh Wilker was one of the brightest voices to emerge from the baseball blogosphere in the Aughts. His debut, a memoir told through his love of baseball cards, is not just clever or quirky; this oddity of a book is a true original.
Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life, by Richard Ben Cramer
Hell hath no fury like a reporter scorned. No matter how hard he tried, Richard Ben Cramer could not crack the icy Joe D. That made Cramer like every other writer that every approached the Yankee Clipper. But after DiMaggio died, some of his old friends, previously silent, opened up to Cramer. This portrait of DiMaggio is not pretty. Instead of the venerated icon, the personification of grace and class, Cramer paints a picture of a narrow, miserly, egotistical bore. Heroes have rarely died as hard.
Ball Four: The Final Pitch, by Jim Bouton
While nothing seems too shocking about Jim Bouton’s behind-the-scenes account of pro ball in the ’60s, the book caused a scandal when it was published. Bouton—who was featured as Elliott Gould’s friend Terry Lennox in Robert Altman’s neo-noir, The Long Goodbye—was the quintessential ’60s smart-ass. With an enormous assist from co-author Leonard Shecter, Ball Four is one of the most important books about baseball ever published. Also, it’s funny.
Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?, by Jimmy Breslin
In 1962, their first year of existence, the Mets were bad enough to be famous. Part of it was because their manager Casey Stengel was a writer’s dream come true. Part of it was that they were really bad—it’s not easy to lose 120 games and only win 40. Also, nobody much cared that they sucked. At least they weren’t the Yankees. The most celebrated account of the ’62 Mets is Jimmy Breslin’s terse classic. You gotta have it.
The Summer Game, by Roger Angell
When it comes to anthologies by Roger Angell, you can’t really go wrong no matter which one you pick. Angell, the son of New Yorker fiction editor Katharine White (E.B. White was his stepfather), didn’t start writing about baseball until he was middle-aged. His biannual missives on the game for The New Yorker became part of the fabric of the game for any literary fan. This collection, his first, covers the ’60s with the kind of fan-in-the-stands intelligence and gift for observation that’s made Angell perhaps the most well-loved of all baseball writers.
A False Spring, by Pat Jordan
This unsparing autopsy of the failed minor league career of a bonus baby pitcher is grim and hard to shake. It’s a baseball version of The Last Picture Show—or Leonard Gardner’s Fat City— and if Jordan is tough on his coaches and fellow players, he saves the harshest judgement for himself. It’s a self-lacerating, yet absorbing account of failure. Years later, Jordan made a comeback of sorts that resulted in a much funnier memoir, A Nice Tuesday.
Willard Mullin’s Golden Age Of Baseball Drawings 1934-1972
Leave it to the good folks at Fantagraphics to publish a volume of cartoons by Willard Mullins, who covered the game with wit and killer draftsmanship from the ’30s through the ’70s.
The Duke of Havana, by Steve Fainaru and Ray Sanchez
The story of how Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez escaped Cuba and came to play for the New York Yankees reads like a Graham Greene novel—one of his “entertainments”—with equal doses of Robert Stone and Carl Hiasson thrown in for good measure.
The Southpaw, by Mark Harris
The first in Harris’s quartet of novels about pitcher Henry Wiggen is also our favorite.
Bat Boy, by Matthew McCough
This is a jewel of a memoir—intelligent, funny, restrained—about a boyhood dream come true: being a batboy for a major league team. In this case, the Yankees, of all teams. McGough’s time with the Bronx Bombers pre-dated their Derek Jeter glory days; all the better to capture the less than glittery underside to the day-to-day reality of a professional locker room.
Koppett’s Concise History of Major League Baseball, by Leonard Koppett
Leonard Koppett was the one of the only newspaper sports writers in the late ’50s and ’60s to embrace analytics. His clean, unfussy prose, unfailing intelligence, and a genial evenhandedness makes him the ideal tour guide through baseball history.
Seasons in Hell, by Mike Shropshire
Is this the funniest baseball book ever written? We can argue, but it sure is in the running.
Nice Guys Finish Last, by Leo Durocher
University of Chicago Press
In talking about a rival team, Leo Durocher once said, “Take a look at them. All nice guys. They’ll finish last. Nice guys. Finish last… Give me some scratching, diving, hungry ballplayers who come to kill you. Now, [Eddie] Stanky’s the nicest gentleman who ever drew a breath, but when the bell rings you’re his mortal enemy. That’s the kind of guy I want playing for me.” Durocher, as uncouth as he was dynamic, makes for a good narrator, and this book—co-authored by Ed Linn—is endlessly entertaining.
A Well-Paid Slave, by Brad Snyder
Curt Flood was not baseball’s first free agent, nor did his lawsuit against MLB directly result in free agency, but he was the most prominent player ever to challenge the game’s arcane reserve clause, which bound players to a team in perpetuity. The fight cost him his career—at a time when he was one of the highest-paid players in the game—and his well-being. Flood was a broken, complicated man, and Snyder captures the darkness and insecurity that co-existed with Flood’s tremendous courage and sense of moral injustice. A terrific biography.
The Catcher Was a Spy, by Nicholas Dawidoff
Every so often, a writer of great ability finds an irresistible story, delivers on the promise, and creates something memorable. Such is the case with Dawidoff’s fascinating biography of Moe Berg.
The Cooperstown Casebook, by Jay Jaffe
Bill James once wrote a book about the Hall of Fame, and it is good. Nobody, however, has done more work on the Hall—who’s in, and who hopes to be—than Jaffe. Comprehensive, informative, intensely-researched, and often hilarious, Jaffe is the ideal tour guide for all things that relate to the Hall of Fame. ’Nuff said.
We Played the Game, edited by Danny Peary
This is a stellar oral history edited by Danny Peary, who had a hand in a bunch of good baseball books, especially Cult Baseball Players. This volume has excellent material on the first era of Black and Latinx major leaguers such as Monte Irvin, Don Newcombe, Vic Power, and Minnie Minoso. Here’s pitcher Jim “Mudcat” Grant talking about Larry Doby, the first Black man to play in the American League: “The most I ever learned about the game was from him. He taught me everything I know from how to dress and mix colors to how to become part of the community. Larry made sure he went out into his community and spoke to people. He knew people by name from everywhere from Kansas City to Washington D.C. Larry would say we’re going to some barbershop in Cleveland or restaurant in Chicago or some friend’s apartment in Detroit. When I first went to Washington D.C., he introduced me to Adam Clayton Powell. He introduced me to Sarah Vaughn, Miles Davis, Count Basie, and Billie Holiday. I had listened to their music on 78s and here was Larry casually introducing me to them. We’d sit down and talk about everything under the sun—all day long.”
The Chicago Cubs: Story of a Curse, by Rich Cohen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Rich Cohen’s books are an entertaining blend of reportage, personal memoir, and critical/cultural analysis. Also, he’s reliably funny, no small accomplishment. Cohen is in fine form as he addresses the previously unimaginable: the Cubs as World Champs. Sure, it took them extra innings of the 7th game of the World Series to reach baseball nirvana, but as Cohen tenderly reminds us, with the Cubs, nothing ever comes easily.
The Long Season, by Jim Brosnan
Proof that jocks can write, if given half a chance. Relief pitcher Jim Brosnan’s journal of the 1959 season is a landmark publication in the history of baseball literature. As sportswriter John Schulian wrote: “Brosnan used The Long Season to take readers onto the field, but he didn’t stop there. His tour continued on into the dugouts, clubhouses, planes, trains, and hotel rooms where baseball players lived out their lives, from February until October. He laid bare strengths and weaknesses, triumphs and indignities, good times and bad, his own as well as his teammates’. Granted, he realized his era wasn’t ready for the vulgarity that is a staple of baseball conversation. And he steered clear of the sexual shenanigans we have come to realize are part of big league recreation. And yet Brosnan’s readers—not just baseball fans but thinking people interested in the human condition—got the picture.”
Baseball in the Garden of Eden, by John Thorn
Everything you always wanted to know about the early days of the game, but were not afraid to ask. From Thorn, one of the most valuable historians the game has ever seen.
The Celebrant, by Eric Rolfe Greenberg
If historical baseball fiction sounds like a shaky proposition to you, you aren’t alone. But Eric Rolfe Greenberg pulls it off in this appealing, almost magical novel that features the great Giants pitcher Christy Mathewson. Set in New York in the early 1900s, it’s as unlikely as it is enchanting.
Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero, by David Maraniss
After his magnificent biography of Vince Lombardi—When Pride Still Mattered—it came as no surprise that Maraniss’s biography of Roberto Clemente was formidable. Maraniss is a great reporter, and the amount of detail he uncovers about the fateful plane trip that cost Clemente his life is heartbreaking and profound.
Stealing Home, by Eric Nusbaum
The not-so-pretty history of how the Dodgers came to Los Angeles and displaced a local community to build their new ballpark is told with rigor and nuance in Nusbaum’s deeply reported book.
The Diamond Appraised, by Craig R. Wright and Tom House
Brand: Simon and Schuster
This seminal sabermetrics book is co-authored by Wright, one of the OG sabermetricians, and Tom House, a pitching coach. The book is accessible, though probably strictly for die-hards. Still, as Bill James notes in his foreword: “Craig Wright and Tom House both believe that baseball could benefit from paying more attention to the facts and less to received wisdom, but they differ on which facts should be noted most carefully … This book is a baked Alaska—cold and delicious inside, hot and delicious outside, but what really makes it work is the contrast.”
The Last Boy, by Jane Leavy
The full scope of Mantle’s accomplishments and his fame, as well as his many struggles—with injuries, addiction, and more—are contained in Leavy’s marvelous biography.
The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, by Bill James
You could pick the original Historical Abstract or even James’ book about the Hall of Fame, and you can’t go wrong with either, but we settled on the New Historical Abstract as our favorite Bill James book. One of the most original thinkers and influential writers in baseball history.
Faith and Fear in Flushing, by Greg W. Prince
In their first decade of existence, the Mets went from endearing losers to unexpected champions. In the 1980s, they fell short of dynasty status, but were a real force, before they tumbled into madness (brilliantly captured in Bob Klapisch and John Harper’s 1993 account, The Worst Team Money Could Buy). Ever since, the Mets are known as losers again—the team that comes close, then blows it. (Okay, that’s how it is for a lot of teams, not just the Mets, but since the Mets are in New York, their collective misery is extra.) Nobody has written more eloquently about the plight of the Mets—and their fans—than Greg Prince. For more than fifteen years, Prince has delivered masterful essays on his fan site, Faith and Fear in Flushing, and this generous collection gives us a true impression of what it’s like to root for the Mets, warts and all.
Foul Ball!, by Alison Gordon
Gordon covered the Toronto Blue Jays from 1979-’83, and was good enough to leave behind this unvarnished account. Here is her unflattering portrait of future Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson: “On the fringe, I watched as he manipulated my colleagues, who practically tugged their forelocks in deference. He sighed at what he considered dumb questions while winking at the reporters who covered him daily, exempting them from his scorn. They ate it up. Then he would turn and snarl at the offender, asking him exactly what he meant by his question. He reduced the meek to jelly and enjoyed it.”
Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty, by Charles Leerhsen
Cobb gets the biography he deserves—a far cry from Al Stump’s popular, though dubious rendition. Leerhsen sets the record straight in this excellent read.
Why Time Begins on Opening Day, by Thomas Boswell
Sometimes, it seems that longtime Washington Post writer Thomas Boswell gets lost somewhere between Bill James and Roger Angell. But in the ’80s, Boswell was in their class, as you’ll see in the four kick-ass anthologies of his baseball writing. This one, his first, paints a picture of the game in the early-’80s: “In part, our attachment to the game stems from a persistent feeling that major-leaguers tend to give the best of themselves to the game, even at peril to other parts of their lives. One big-leaguer, known for his drinking as well as his fear that the bottle might be mastering him, once told me, defiantly and proudly, that in his whole career he had ‘never had one drink from the time I woke up until the game was over.’ Of course, sometimes this future Hall of Famer didn’t wake up until the afternoon. His point, ambiguous as it may have been, was that, as long as he could function, the game would get his best. Not because he owed it to the sport, but because he assumed that the baseball part of him was the best part, the piece he’d fight longest to hold.”
Babe: The Legend Comes to Life, by Robert W. Creamer
With all due respect to Leigh Montville’s excellent Ruth biography, Big Bam, we’ll give the Ruth bio nod to Creamer, whose portrait of Ruth was the definitive portrait for many years.
The Numbers Game, by Alan Schwarz
The story of baseball in this century has been the dominance of analytics. This holds true for all sports, really, but baseball lends itself to numbers naturally, and there’s a long history with statisticians and how they influenced the game. The evolution of the numbers game may sound like dry stuff, but Schwarz moves things along and finds rich characters, leaving the reader both entertained and a whole lot more knowledgable.
Eight Men Out, by Eliot Asinof
Another baseball shelf perennial, Asinof tells the story of how the 1919 Chicago White Sox threw the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds.
The Teammates: A Portrait of a Friendship, by David Halberstam
David Halberstam. a Pulitzer-Prize-Winning correspondent for The New York Times, loved sports and wrote about them often. It was a side hustle that became a kind of cottage industry. His best sports book (Breaks of the Game) is about basketball, but The Summer of ’49 and October, ’64 are well-told entertainments that are a standard part of most baseball libraries. Our favorite is this more intimate and modest study of four Boston Red Sox teammates: Ted Williams, Dom DiMaggio, Bobby Doerr, and Johnny Pesky. For a writer of Halberstam’s ambition, this smaller chamber piece was a pleasing turn.
You’re Missin’ a Great Game, by Whitey Herzog
Herzog was a baseball lifer—apprenticed under Casey Stengel, made a name for himself managing the Kansas City Royals in the ’70s, and became a star as the skipper for the Cardinals in the ’80s. This memoir is the prototypical cranky old manager bitching about how bad the game is today, but Herzog is such good company, you start to see the light.
Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball, by Donald Hall
Want to know what baseball was like from one of the all-time badasses during his unbridled prime? Look no further than Donald Hall’s fantastic encounters with Ellis—smart, funny, and volatile (also, it turns out, addicted to drugs and alcohol—he later sobered up). The ’70s was a different time, and this book captures that time—the feeling, the sensibility—better than most. Ellis was fortunate to have found Hall, and vice versa.
The Natural, by Bernard Malamud
The most famous baseball novel is without a doubt this piece of magic realism by Bernard Malamud. In the Reagan ’80s, it was adapted into a high-gloss, cornball epic, with old man Robert Redford hitting a dramatic home run so far that it exploded the stadium lights; in the book, the hero strikes out.
Away Games, by Marcos Bretón and José Luis Villegas
University of New Mexico Press
In this sleeper hit of a book, we see the unglamorous life of a young Latin player as he makes his way through the minor leagues. As it turns out, the authors of this expertly-reported and thoughtful book were fortunate that their subject—Miguel Tejada—became a major leaguer, and a damn good one too.
The Dickson Baseball Dictionary
On the short list of necessary reference books. No baseball library should be without it.
The Echoing Green, by Joshua Prager
Whadda ya hear, whadda ya say? Turns out the New York Giants were stealing signs at the Polo Grounds in 1951, the year they narrowly beat the Brooklyn Dodgers for the National League pennant. More than half a century later, Prager’s deep-dive uncovers one of the fabulous, previously-untold scandals in baseball history.
Juicing the Game, by Howard Bryant
Here is the most comprehensive look at the catastrophe that was the steroids era. Bryant’s sense of moral outrage—which was so vital in his excellent book about racism in Boston sports—is underplayed in this even-handed account of corporate arrogance, stupidity, and greed—you know, the American Pastime! While you’re on the topic, do yourself a favor and check out the very good Game of Shadows by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams.
Voices of the Game, by Curt Smith
Baseball is best on the radio, haven’t you heard? Which is what makes Smith’s chronicle of baseball announcers—okay, he covers TV announcers too—indispensable.
K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches, by Tyler Kepner
This book is ingenious and illuminating, but grounded in good old-fashioned reporting. You come away from it smarter, with a deeper appreciation for the game and pitchers in general. Kepner has been one of the best baseball writers in the country for a long time now, and this is a welcome addition to any baseball library.
Negro League Baseball, by Neil Lanctot
University of Pennsylvania Press
This comprehensive look at the business of the Negro Leagues is fantastic, massive in detail and scope, scrupulously written.
As They See ‘Em, by Bruce Weber
Being an umpire might be the toughest job on a baseball field—it’s certainly the most thankless. They are noticed when they screw up, and yet their jobs are incredibly difficult, as Bruce Weber explains in this expertly-written account. Revealing and humanizing, it leaves the reader with the impression that it takes a special breed to be an ump.
Jackie Robinson: A Biography, by Arnold Rampersad
Robinson gets the massive biography that he deserves in Rampersad’s impressive 1997 tome. “To see Robson’s career numbers,” Roger Kahn once wrote, “is to see Lincoln through Federal budgets and to miss the Emancipation Proclamation. Double plays, stolen bases, indeed the bat, the ball, the glove, were only artifacts with which Jackie Robinson made his country and you and me and all of us a shade more free.” The full scope of Robinson’s contribution is brought to life in Rampersad’s rich telling.
Once More Around the Park, by Roger Angell
We couldn’t just leave you with one Angell collection. This later anthology is a mash-up of greatest hits and newer additions, including an astute critique of baseball movies and why they are usually so awful. There are, however, exceptions: “Bull Durham is as fresh and funny and surprising about sex as it is about baseball, which is saying a lot. It’s certainly the first movie that ever suggested (and enjoyed) the fact that ballplayers are sexual animals, objects of vivid interest to women. They do beautiful things with their bodies, it says, and we watch them not just to see who’s going to win. This is the ongoing joke about the movie, and of course it holds up.”
Home Games: Two Baseball Wives Speak Out, by Bobbie Bouton and Nancy Marshall
This is a candid and troubling portrait of what it’s like to be the wife of a ball player, written by Bobbie Bouton and Nancy Marshall after both women are divorced their husbands, pitchers Jim Bouton and Mike Marshall. This book is often overlooked. While it is not especially artful, it is fascinating and worth your time.
The Bad Guys Won, by Jeff Pearlman
The New York Mets were the best team in baseball in 1986, and they knew it. They were douchebags and they knew it. And they didn’t care either. The team got into fights with other teams all season long, and they fought with themselves. It was a team of All-Star veterans and young superstars in the Gordon Gekko “Greed Is Good” ’80s—the perfect team for that moment in time. They are revealed in all their crude glory in Pearlman’s deeply-reported telling.
Fenway 1912, by Glenn Stout
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Along with Wrigley Field in Chicago, Fenway Park is not just a ballpark, but a national monument. The story of its origins take us back to when the Red Sox were a powerhouse. We’re in capable hands with Stout, who has written extensively about Boston baseball, especially in the first half of the 20th century. Stout has that enviable gift to make history fresh, visceral, and dramatically engaging, while adhering to the facts not myth.
The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty, by Buster Olney
The early Joe Torre-Derek Jeter years were splendid for the Yankees—the last team to win back-to-back titles (they won three straight, four out of five). Olney covered the Yankees for The New York Times during those years. He was an excellent beat writer—a sharp-eyed narrator with a visceral sense of the drama, and a clean, crisp writing style. This all comes together beautifully in his telling of the last baseball dynasty.
Making My Pitch: A Woman’s Baseball Odyssey, by Ila Jane Borders
University of Nebraska Press
Ila Jane Borders was the first woman to start and win men’s professional games. She tells her unlikely tale with plainspoken frankness, making this book a real find. As baseball historian Dorothy Seymour Mills wrote, Border’s story “will make readers wonder how much longer the baseball establishment can afford to disregard the skilled women players who should long ago have been recruited for the Minors and the Majors.”
The Pitch That Killed, by Mike Sowell
Sowell has written a riveting history about the only Major League player to be killed by a pitched ball. This is a story of what led to the tragedy, and how its aftermath defined the game in the third decade of the 20th century. A baseball classic.
Twilight of the Long-ball Gods, by John Schulian
John Schulian was an elegant stylist as a sports columnist in the ’70s and ’80s, and he also wrote surpassingly well for national magazines such as Sports Illustrated and GQ. His collected baseball stories, columns as well as longer magazine profiles, relish those away from the spotlight—semi-pro players and minor leaguers alike. There’s a wonderful essay on the Hollywood Stars of the old Pacific Coast League, and best of all, a masterful portrait of Negro League legend Josh Gibson.
Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig, by Jonathan Eig
With due respect to Ray Robinson’s fine biography, Iron Horse, Eig’s narrative is the best, most comprehensive telling of one of the game’s most dramatic lives.
Pride Of The Bimbos, by John Sayles
Before he was a filmmaker, John Sayles was a novelist, and a damn good one. This is his first novel, about a team of softball players in the Deep South led by their shortstop Pogo Burns, a former big-city detective tracked down by a pimp he once did wrong. This satire of masculinity is of its time, but worth revisiting.
Shoeless Joe, by W.P. Kinsella
Kinsella’s novel is the basis for the ultimate baseball tearjerker, Field of Dreams, but don’t hold that against it. What turned maudlin onscreen is novel, funny, and enchanting on the page.
You Gotta Have Wa, by Robert Whiting
The definitive look at Japanese baseball. Whiting has published many books about baseball in Japan, and this one, a fascinating study of sport, culture, and tradition, is his best.
Baseball Lives, by Mike Bryan
Here’s a really interesting look inside baseball: a sharp series of portraits of players and executives, but also a traveling secretary, equipment manager, groundskeeper, and public address announcer. Dennis Eckersley, then nearing the end of his Hall of Fame career, talked candidly with Bryan about the prospect of retirement: “I wish I was a little happier in this game. What is so great about this shit? You get the money, and then you’re used to the money. You start making half a million a year, next thing you know you need half a million a year. And the heat is on! Used to be neat to just be a big-league ballplayer, but that wore off. I’m still proud, but I don’t want people to bother me about it. I wish my personality with people was better. I find myself becoming short with people. Going to the store. Getting gas. If you’re not happy with when you’re doing lousy, then not happy when you’re doing well, when the hell are you going to be happy? This game will humble you in a heartbeat.”
The Wrong Stuff, by Bill Lee
Bill Lee was a flake and a hard-ass ballplayer. He is famous for being funny, and he is funny, he’s just not that funny. Still, the life and times of Bill Lee are to be savored, and this book deserves a place on your bookshelf.
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