This annotated week in baseball history: Dec. 4-Dec. 10, 2011

As you might guess for someone who writes a baseball history column, I have an unreasonably large collection of baseball history books. Some of these—I’m going to be nice and not name names—aren’t even particularly good (some don’t even have a particularly good batting average when it comes to getting facts right) but I keep them all. This is because I live in fear that someday I will be writing a column and need a statistic or anecdote or something contained in a book I’ve read and since sent to Goodwill. So, instead of being trapped in that situation, I keep them all and Goodwill instead gets mediocre novels (and my slightly worn dress shirts).

Of course, everyone else doesn’t need to be such a completist when it comes to these books. As such, the following are my suggestions for the best of baseball history in book form. You can give them with confidence to a loved one, or to yourself when the time comes to use the Amazon.com gift cards. Some are better known and perhaps already widely owned, while others are slightly more obscure. Nonetheless, all merit a place on the shelf of a baseball fan.

Although it is something of a shameless plug, I would recommend The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2012 even without my own contribution. My own piece aside, I enjoyed James Holzhauer’s Diary of a Mad Sports Bettor, Max Marchi’s People Will Most Definitely Come and Rob Neyer’s GM in a Box: Theo Epstein but everything in there is, at the least, pretty good.

While we’re on the topic of works by those associated with THT, I cannot say enough nice things about Chris Jaffe’s Evaluating Baseball’s Managers. It is a frequently useful point of reference in my column writing, but as often as not I find that I go to look up some relatively minor point and end up lost in reading an interesting bit of history or analysis.

In particular I recommend the book to Red Sox fans since they can read to compare how new skipper Bobby Valentine will differ from the departed Terry Francona. Fans who read carefully will likely find themselves able to impress friends with predictions of Valentine’s tendencies as opposed to the ex-skipper.

Speaking of books in which it is easy to get lost, Jim Bouton’s Ball Four is an all-time classic. Though the book has since lost much of its then-revolutionary bite—these days it seems hard to believe the idea of portraying Mickey Mantle as a drinker was once controversial—it remains eminently readable. In fact, the book now functions best as a slice-of-life for the period in which it was written.

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Chris Jaffe can tell Red Sox’ fans what to expect from this man (Icon/SMI)

1969 was an interesting era for baseball, after integration and western expansion but before free agency and Bouton does an excellent job of capturing the game as it was then. Even more so, he manages to give a sense of America at the time covering issues from Vietnam to the Civil Rights Movement.

Like the movie version—half an hour too long, a bit taken with its own cleverness and weirdly insistent on using Ron Washington in the “Magical Negro” role—Moneyball the book is not without its flaws. Nonetheless, in its own way, it is every bit as influential as Ball Four. As big a Bill James fan as I am, nobody, not James, not Billy Beane nor Rob Neyer, did more to spread the ideas of sabermetrics than Michael Lewis.

Even more than spreading word of sabermetrics, Moneyball is worth reading because it might be the last of its kind. Someday a ballplayer might write another Ball Four, but the chance that another general manager grants a writer of Lewis’ quality essentially unfettered access to his front office for an extended period is so little as to be basically zero.

Though they played one of the more compelling World Series of the last 25 years, the 1997 Marlins are a team whose place in the popular consciousness is unenviable. They are either forgotten as a footnote in the midst of the late-1990s Yankee dynasty, or worse, mocked as a one-year wonder that couldn’t even win their own division or draw fans until October.

It should come as no surprise then, that Dave Rosenbaum’s If They Don’t Win, It’s a Shame: The Year the Marlins Bought the World Series is currently out of print. But that too is a shame because it is a hugely enjoyable chronicle of the Marlins’ season, from signing the free agents—like Alex Fernandez and Bobby Bonilla—that made a World Series wining team, to the dismantling of that team less than a year later. The book is not always complimentary; Jim Leyland and Kevin Brown come off especially badly, but it presents an interesting view of nearly every major figure (both player and executive) associated with the Marlins that season.

It can still be found from some re-sellers, and for a slightly more obscure pick this holiday season—and one particularly relevant as the Marlins begin their new life as the Miami Marlins and again seem willing to spend free agent dollars—I recommend it highly.

Finally, because I cannot help myself, I will suggest one novel to give the baseball history buff this season. Though I’ve not yet read Chad Harbach’s much-praised The Art of Fielding it will difficult for it to top The Celebrant, by Eric Rolfe Greenberg, as the best baseball novel. Just about lost to obscurity, The Celebrant mixes the fictional story of a family of Jewish immigrant jewelers with the real-life feats of Christy Mathewson and the New York Giants. The book is brilliantly written and will be a treat for anyone familiar with baseball’s early days—and probably inspire interest for those not.

One need not build a baseball book collection the size of mine—the exact number of which I am deliberately omitting—to have a strong selection. And of course, the best possible news for the baseball history fan is that there is always more history being made and within a few years this list will no doubt have some notable additions.

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Comments

  1. Bob Rittner said...

    Thank you for the recommendations. The list of terrific baseball books is, of course, endless. Among my favorites is “The Numbers Game” by Alan Schwarz, because in tracing the development of statistics from the game’s beginning, it helps clarify the context of today’s stress on sabermetric type analysis, demonstrating that the effort itself is not at all new even if the formulas (and not even all of them) often are.

  2. Joe Pilla said...

    Let me please chime in with a few obvious ones:

    Roger Kahn’s THE BOYS OF SUMMER is an MVP (Most Valuable Publication). Not only is it still the best book about the Brooklyn Dodgers, but, like Bouton’s BALL FOUR, it’s a keen take on its post-WW2 era, a time of momentous change.

    For diamond fiction, it’s hard to beat the Henry Wiggins books (of which BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY is the best known) by Mark Harris.

    Eliot Asinof’s EIGHT MEN OUT is a masterful recounting of what remains MLB’s most perilous time: the Black Sox scandal.

    Curt Smith’s VOICES OF THE GAME is a marvelous history of baseball broadcasters (and begs to be released in an edition which includes a CD of those memorable Voices).

    And, I would part with many another book in my library before I would surrender my copies of the hardcover collections of Roger Angell’s SPORTING LIFE pieces from THE NEW YORKER. Angell is as close as baseball comes to a Prose Poet Laureate.
    If I’d have to pick one, it would be FIVE SEASONS, which includes his peerless report on the 1975 World Series.

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