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The Top 15 Baseball Books of All Time: Part 1

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I recently had a reader ask for my list of the best baseball books ever written. Keeping in mind that there are many important books that I haven't read, I was still excited to be able to share some of my favorites. Summer reading season is approaching, and what better way is there to show your commitment to baseball than to haul a 600-page statisticial tome to the beach. Sure, the people around you reading 150-page light romance novels may think you're a big geek. But as someone who likes to write lists of his favorite baseball books, I've come to terms with my geekiness.
The reason that this is a Top 15 list is that I started with a Top 10 list but couldn't bear to exclude any more books. Even so, I'm going to include a small list of "recommended reading" for some books that still didn't make the cut.  And if your favorite book isn't on the list, drop me a comment and let me know about it.  Maybe I haven't had the chance to read it, and so I can add it to my list.  Or else we can debate its relative merits.

15. Eight Men Out
by Eliot Asinof

This book has earned its status as one of the most celebrated sports books of all time. Asinof does an admirable job of playing the detective and bringing a fascinating group of people from different places into one coherent timeline.
Even 90 years after the fact, there are still many aspects of the Black Sox scandal that are quite controversial. Some challenge Asinof's account, which is valid in some instances, but I would point out that Asinof is pretty honest about the murkiness of certain parts of the story.

This was turned into an excellent film by John Sayles that does a fairly good job of representing Asinof's book. The key to the film is not just the tight screenplay but an impressive list of actors, including John Cusack, Charlie Sheen, D.B. Sweeney, Bill Irwin, Studs Terkel, Sayles himself, Christopher Lloyd, Michael Lerner and an excellent David Strathairn.

14. The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination with Statistics
by Alan Schwarz

Schwarz says that he wrote this book because he had always wanted to read it. His effort shows in his ability to take the pioneers of baseball statistics and examine their passion for the game as well as their understanding of it. Schwarz looks at great baseball insiders (and outsiders) and illustrates how their work paved the way for future generations and changed the way we view the game.

Schwarz's readable style makes some pretty abstract concepts accessible to the reader. Casual baseball fans shouldn't shy away from this book. If you're uncomfortable with ultra-modern stats but know your way around the back of a baseball card, you can understand this book. 

The only drawback is that sometimes Schwarz is a little too casual in his approach. His efforts to humanize his subjects results in a sentence like this, which opens up Chapter 4: "The Georgian Bay off Lake Huron lay peaceful and still, tall trees standing sentry over the scene's verdant tranquility." Alan Schwarz may not be Wordsworth, but he is a good author. Check out the book.

#13: The Pitch that Killed
by Mike Sowell

Perhaps no other season in baseball was as much of a turning point as 1920. Interest in the game was booming following the end of World War I, the spitball was about to be outlawed, Babe Ruth joined the Yankees and hit an earth-shattering 54 home runs, baseball hired its first commissioner, rumors about a crooked World Series would result in the banning of eight baseball players in the middle of the pennant race, and en executive decision to use cleaner, whiter, and fresher baseballs helped usher in an offensive renaissance. The latter change was largely the result of the titular killer pitch.

Sowell does a good job of bringing together all of these disparate trends into his story, which mainly follows the Indians through their season, which hinged around the tragic death of shortstop Ray Chapman. My only problem is that Sowell spends a great deal of time talking about game stories. A certain number of them are necessary, but there were 154 of them in the 1920 season, and it's hard to get excited about all of them.

#12: Mind Game: How the Boston Red Sox Got Smart, Won a World Series and Created a New Blueprint for Winning
by Steve Goldman & the Baseball Prospectus Team of Writers

This is the first book (not counting the annuals) written as a team effort by the staff of BaseballProspectus,  and in my opinion it's still the best. The book consists of a series of essays and studies looking at different aspects of the 2004 Red Sox, including how they got where they were and what made them so good. It is pretty stat-heavy, though, so those uncomfortable with VORP and EQA might want to think twice before diving in.

However, my favorite chapter has very little to do with statistics at all. It argues that the racism that was endemic to the club for nearly 50 years was as much a factor in their failures as any "curse."

#11: Weaver on Strategy
by Earl Weaver with Terry Pluto

There are surprisingly few managing manifestos written by Hall-of-Fame managers. Perhaps it's because managers are paranoid about sharing secrets. This makes some sense, since it's not uncommon for a "retired" manager to become un-retired. So we should treasure what we have here: a guide to managerial strategy by one of the greatest. Weaver goes through everything, from how to run a Spring Training camp to how to argue with an umpire (he had some experience in that area).

I'm a bit biased here in that Weaver's views on managing are consistent with what modern performance analysis has told us. When Bill James came along in the 70's, or when Moneyball came along in the 00's, most baseball traditionalists said that these were impractical ideas thought up by outsiders and robots who didn't know the first thing about inside baseball. Of course, if those nay-sayers had done their homework (homework is for robots!), they would have realized that many of the theories these new statistical tools were telling us weren't new at all. Not only that, but some of their top champions, including Earl Weaver, were as "inside" baseball as you can be.

Weaver famously believed in pitching, defense and the three-run homer. More specifically, though, he liked players who could take a walk (Weaver's Orioles always drew their walks) and hit home runs (Weaver loved the homer in an era when it was falling out of style). He didn't reject incomplete players or those with a glaring weakness; he focused on what they could do and used an innovative approach to get as much as he could from each member of his roster. Also, Weaver wasn't afraid of the unorthodox (keeping the four-man rotation) or the downright heretical (he hated the hit-and-run and thought too much bunting was counter-productive). Any coach, fan, or analyst would do well to listen to what Earl has to say. Especially if you are a manager, whether it's in the Little League or the Major Leagues.

#10: Only the Ball Was White: A History of Legendary Black Players and All-Black Professional Teams
by Robert Peterson

This book was first published in 1970, and yet it's still the best book I've come across to introduce new audiences to the Negro Leagues. Peterson effectively covers the main points of interest in the history of all-black baseball, from the injustices faced by "Fleet" Walker to the great energy and acumen of Andrew "Rube" Foster, to the amazing feats of Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, "Pop" Lloyd and Oscar Charleston.

There has been a great deal of research done in recent years to fill the historical gaps in Peterson's book. Our anecdotal and statistical knowledge has helped flesh out the existing knowledge of many unjustly forgotten stars. Even so, the books that have been released in the years since haven't surpassed Peterson's work in offering such a valuable and accessible view of this unheralded portion of baseball history.

#9: Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Blunders
by Rob Neyer

This is the second of the three "Big Books" released by Neyer so far. Rob Neyer's column on ESPN.com has long been a favorite of those interested in performance analysis, not just for his sharp understanding of the subject but because of his great wit and gift for storytelling. He combines all three in this book.

Most fans will be familiar with most or all of these stories, and thus we're interested to hear Neyer's take on what was (or was not) a real blunder. Neyer defines a "blunder" as not just a mistake, but a mistake of choice (not just an on-field error or mental mess-up) where the poor consequences should have been evident from the beginning. For example: nobody really expected Curt Schilling to be a Hall-of-Famer, so we can't really pin the "blunder" label on the teams that traded him. But trading a 30-year-old Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas? That's a blunder.

Most of these stories are stories of front office executives or managers with a big, glowing "What Were They Thinking" sign hanging over their heads. Since blunders require forethought and decision-making, they're rarely made by players on the field. Unless, of course, you're caught stealing to end the World Series.

#8: Bang the Drum Slowly
by Mark Harris

This is the only fiction book I have listed here. There's not a whole lot of baseball fiction out there, but there are some pretty notably books, namely: The Natural by Bernard Malamud, Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella and The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant by Douglas Wallop. I confess that I've read neither Malamud's nor Kinsella's book (I liked Wallop's book, which was the basis for Damn Yankees, but it didn't make the cut). I have very little inclination to read sentamentalist baseball literature.  I don't intend to make "sentamentalist" sound like an insult; that genre just isn't my cup of tea. That's also why you won't find The Boys of Summer mentioned here, despite its presence on nearly every other comparable list.

Keeping that in mind, you should be doubly surprised to see Mark Harris' book about a catcher dying of cancer on my list. It's hard to describe why this appealed to me so much. I think it's mainly because of the narrator, Henry Wiggin. Wiggin, nicknamed "Author" by his teammates, is the ace pitcher for the New York Mammoths. He's a very unique character in baseball fiction; he has an incredibly dry sense of humor as well as a very strong sense of detachment. This makes him a great observer of other people, in particular ballplayers, coaches and managers. And Harris gives Wiggin plenty to see and comment on (TEGWAR!).

And yet, Wiggin's closest friend on the team is quiet, slow-witted backup catcher Bruce Pearson. Pearson is a laid-back southern boy; he's not very intelligent, but he cares very much about hunting, fishing, his parents, and a prostitute that he keeps proposing to. Wiggin's relationship to Bruce (which is the heart of the book's development) is amazing. He sacrifices a great deal to make sure that the team doesn't find out about the cancer. As a player, Bruce is a scrub; if the team knew about the disease, he'd be replaced. The title refers to an Old West song, the poignance of which is not lost on Wiggin, or the reader.

This was made into a TV film in 1956 starring Paul Newman, and then remade as a theatrical release in 1973 starring Michael Moriarty as Wiggin and Robert DeNiro as Pearson. The film is good enough, but it loses a lot when we don't have Wiggin's voice guiding us through.

As a postscript, I should note that Mark Harris passed away on May 30, 2007 at age 84.  Bang the Drum Slowly was just one of a series of books written by Harris, including an entire series of baseball books centered around the character of Henry Wiggin.

(Having expressed my personal dislike for baseball fiction I should note, as a postscript, that I haven't read the classic works of famed baseball scribes Ring Lardner and Damon Runyon. I'm looking to remedy that soon.)

#7: Cobb: A Biography
by Al Stump

My brother and I are both especially fascinated by Ty Cobb. We're intrigued by the player and the man, but moreso the man. So we both felt that, going into this book, nothing could possibly make us think worse of Ty Cobb than we already did.

We were wrong.

The book is the story of Stump's attempt to ghost-write Cobb's autobiography in the superstar's fading years. Stump's time with Cobb is beyond description. He basically claims (without exaggeration) that Cobb was a psychopath, and Stump had a higher opinion of Cobb than most.

Famed baseball writer Roger Kahn, author of The Boys of Summer, says that the book is "[t]he most powerful baseball biography I have read." I absolutely agree. The only reason I don't rate this book any higher is that it's hard to issue a glowing recommendation for a book that was in many respects very unpleasant to read.

#6: Veeck — as in "Wreck"
by Bill Veeck & Ed Linn

In a sport that's teeming with eccentrics and compelling characters, Bill Veeck still manages to stand out. He's most famous for his wild publicity stunts, but he was also an innovator, an iconoclast and a winner.

Veeck is one of the game's great storytellers. Part of that reputation is that he tended to favor entertainment value over accuracy. But he's no bald-faced liar — at least no more than any other baseball legend writing his autobiography.
The most controversial (and fascinating) story in Veeck's book is his claim that, when baseball was still segregated, he tried to buy the hapless Philadelphia Phillies with the intention of stocking them with Negro League All-Stars. Veeck felt — justifiably so — that this team would rampage through the league and become a dynasty.  But his plan was thwarted, he claims, when he informed Commissioner Landis of his plans.  Soon after that, the team was sold right out from under him. To be sure, there's never been any shred of proof uncovered to back up this story. Is Veeck telling the truth? I don't really know. But it's a great story, isn't it?.

Even more than storytelling, Veeck's greatest skill was as a crowd-pleaser, whether that crowd was in the bleacher seats, in the press box or in the courtroom (Veeck testified on behalf of Curt Flood in 1972). The only people he never pleased — the ones that utterly detested him — were his fellow owners. And the stories of his dealings with those owners are quite fascinating.
So come for the stories — stories about his pennant-winning Go-Go White Sox, his integration of the American League and the subsequent World Championship won as owner of the Indians in 1948, and best of all, stories about the terrible St. Louis Browns, including the midget Eddie Gaedel, the professional tightrope walker and "Grandstand Manager" day.

I'll return soon with the Top 5 books, every one of which should be on a serious baseball fan's bookshelf.

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About Aaron Whitehead