If you love baseball and have an academic bent as well, allow me to recommend The Cambridge Companion to Baseball, a new publication from Cambridge University Press.
You may remember Total Baseball: The Ultimate Baseball Encyclopedia, John Thorn’s and Pete Palmer’s ultimate baseball reference book. Total Baseball was primarily filled with numbers and statistics, of course—numbers that we could stay up late into the night reading. But I always enjoyed the first part of the book, too, which comprised thirty to forty essays on a variety of subjects related to baseball.
The Cambridge book is a little bit like the first part of Total Baseball, only more academic in nature (and shorter, too. The Cambridge book is just 241 pages and a good size for carrying around). It contains chapters on the rules and history of baseball (including a nice chronology—something I wish John Thorn had included in his most recent book) and also has a number of chapters that delve into the history of the game from other perspectives: the Negro Leagues, Japan, and Latin America, for instance, as well as baseball during the wars and its financial development.
Then there are the more academic essays, such as “Baseball in literature, baseball as literature,” and “Baseball at the movies.” I tend to be an academic kind of guy (I sometimes even read the footnotes), so I enjoyed these two chapters. I particularly thought the “Movies” chapter was well done. I found only one chapter—”The baseball fan”—mind-numbingly obtuse. I couldn’t get through all the academic jargon and wound up just moving on to the next essay.
Which is the strength and weakness of The Cambridge Companion to Baseball. The articles are well edited but the writing can be uneven, and sometimes you’re just not interested in a particular subject. The good news is that you can skip them because each essay stands alone. Some of these essays can serve as good reference material, or they might get you to think differently about certain social aspects of the game.
If you’re a baseball analyst, you won’t find much of value here. I was disappointed that the book had nothing concrete to say about sabermetrics or economics. It’s the “social science” angle that seems to animate the editors, and the essays cover that aspect of baseball and society well.