Alex Belth, of Bronx Banter, polled lots of bloggers and baseball writers to come up with a list of the best baseball books ever . I wasn't asked, but that doesn't mean I don't have an opinion. Here's my top ten.
- The Unforgettable Season, by GH Fleming. I'm not just being contradictory for the sake of it, though this book doesn't appear anywhere among the hundreds of votes Belth received. Fleming's book is an account of the 1908 season, which featured what is probably the greatest pennant race in baseball history. What makes this book special is that it is composed entirely of snippets from contemporary newspapers. It may sound a little dorky, but it is the most gripping baseball book I've ever read.
- The Great American Novel, by Philip Roth. This might not even make my top five list of Roth books, but, sorry to say, there's a lot more literary quality in your average Roth novel than the typical baseball book. It's well-nigh impossible to sum up the plot in a sentence or two, but it's entertaining and not nearly as pompous as the title might suggest.
- Koufax, by Jane Leavy. I have read a *lot* of baseball biographies. When I was in junior high, it's possible that I had read every baseball biography in print. No other bio could buy its way on to this list, and I could be convinced to put Leavy's book at the very top. She weaves Koufax's life story around an astonishingly detailed account of his perfect game. Like The Unforgettable Season, you won't put this one down. It's the only biography I can imagine reading for a second time.
- The Glory of Their Times, by Lawrence Ritter. If you care about baseball books, odds are you've read this one. It's a collection of oral histories from guys who played in 1910s and 1920s, , including some pretty big names. Many have imitated the format, and no other book has come close.
- Moneyball, by Michael Lewis. This isn't here because of Bill James or Sabermetrics or anything of the sort. It's a great story told by an impressive author. (If you read and like Moneyball, I recommend The Blind Side, Lewis's football book. Not as good, but still worth the read.) Setting aside the OBP caricature, Moneyball is an underdog story, with great chapters on the roundabout careers of guys like Chad Bradford and Scott Hatteberg.
- The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, by WP Kinsella. Everybody knows about Shoeless Joe / Field of Dreams, but this is the better book. It takes the dead-players-at-the-farm motif to its logical (well, not always logical) conclusions, and is a lot more nuanced than the feel good story of the Costner movie.
- A False Spring, by Pat Jordan. Jordan was a highly touted prospect who pitched in the minor leagues. This is his first memoir, and it was written back when people generally wrote memoirs about things that were actually interesting. Best of all, he's a fantastic writer with an impressive perspective on his years in baseball and where he went wrong.
- The Politics of Glory, by Bill James. (Alternate title: Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame?) I feel like this makes me a bad stathead, but I never got into the Abstracts. This book, though, is the perfect one for James to have written. There's so much wrong with the Hall--who's in, who's not, the voting process that keeps it that way--and James shows us just how bad it is. It's a cliche to remind you that Bill is so popular largely because he's such a good writer, but...it's true.
- If I Never Get Back, by Daryl Brock. Another novel. This one is about a guy who ends up getting sent back in time (yeah, yeah) and traveling with the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, the first professional team. It isn't of the same literary quality as some of the other books that are commonly touted as the best baseball novels, but it is easily as compelling. As a side note, I met Daryl Brock at a SABR convention a few years ago, and he was one of the nicest guys I've ever had a chance to pass the time with.
- The Long Season, Jim Brosnan. Written years before Ball Four, this is the first insider-expose of what baseball players are really like away from the cameras. I realize I'm going against the grain by leaving Bouton's book off the list altogether, but I think Brosnan's the better writer, and his book is a more remarkable achievement for its time (the early 60s) than Bouton's is for his (a decade later).
That's the top 10. A few honorable mentions:
- Ball Four. It's overrated, but still a heck of a read.
- The Pitch That Killed, by Mike Sowell. A few years ago, this book would've made the list for me. The title refers to the pitch with which Carl Mays hit Ben Ray Chapman in 1920. It's a good book, though I started reading it again a few months ago and it didn't seem nearly as vivid as it did the first time through.
- Only the Ball was White, by Robert Peterson. In high school, I was obsessed with the Negro Leagues; I've probably read everything that was published on the topic up through 1998 or so. That said, there's no really great read on the topic; much of what's out there is dry and informational. Others have superseded Peterson's work (this book is from the early 70s), but I think it remains the best single-volume introduction to the topic.
Those are mine. What are yours?