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The Top 15 Baseball Books of All Time: Part Two

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Earlier on BC: Part One – Books #15 through #6.

#5: The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (2003 Edition)
by Bill James

James's new abstract is a make-over of his original Historical Baseball Abstract, published in 1986. The biggest difference in the new version is the use of James's new all-inclusive statistic: Win Shares. James uses Win Shares to update his rankings of the all-time 100 greatest players at each position. I've heard from several people that they prefer the 1986 edition, at least in part because they're not sold on Win Shares. Still, I very much enjoy the new edition, and the '86 version is out of print.

James' position-by-position ranking of the all-time greatest players is fuel for some serious arguing.  Any attempt to re-examine history using statistics as a tool is going to seriously change our understanding of it.  Even among those who do favor statistics, James' arguments remain hotly debated to this day.  Was Darrell Evans really a Hall-of-Famer?  Was Jeff Bagwell really the fourth-best first baseman of all time?  Are Tinker, Evers, and Chance overrated simply because they were the subject of a poem?  You simply have to read this book to find out the answer, and deal with even more questions.

Whether you agree with James or not, you have to respect his opinion as well as the evidence he backs it up with. You'll love the historical research done on a great many aspects of the game's evolution, as well as Bill's great sense of humor.

#4: Total Ballclubs
by Donald Dewey & Nicholas Acocella

Total Ballclubs looks at every major league ballclub in history, even those who were only around for a couple of years (or a couple of months). It focuses mainly on the activity behind the scenes of these franchises, and as such it constitutes an invaluable resource of information about the off-field history of each major league franchise and league.

Dewey and Acocella have compiled an excellent history of each major league franchise.  Want to hear the story behind the rise (and fall) of all the big dynasties?  Looking to find out how the best (and worst) teams of all time were created?  This book is your answer, exhaustively researched with the background on every major move in the history of your favorite team, not to mention many more you never heard of.

This would rank even higher except that I have two significant problems with the book.  One, they provide no index. There are thousands of names, places and key phrases mentioned in a book like this, and it is infinitely tiresome to go flipping through several hundred pages looking for a single anecdote.

Two, there are no footnotes or endnotes. This is an even bigger problem, because it means that we have no idea where the authors are getting these quotes and this information. This is an even bigger headache for researchers, who are helpless to further explore the quotes and stories.

Even with those two caveats, I would recommend Total Ballclubs in a heartbeat to any baseball aficionado. The serious fans can start at the beginning and dive in, and the more casual fans can skip the history of big-league ball in Altoona and just read about their favorite clubs.

#3: Ball Four
by Jim Bouton & Leonard Schechter 

Ball Four was once SO popular that it has since generated something of a backlash. In the years after its release, it became a central part of the American sports experience, so much so that David Halberstam unleashed his hyperbole by declaring it, "A book deep in the American vein, so deep in fact it is by no means a sports book."

But if you pick up Ball Four as nothing more than a book (a sports book, despite what Halberstam says), I guarantee that you will not be disappointed. The book is famous for its shock and scandal, but it 2009 there is very little here that will take the reader aback (except, perhaps, for "beaver-shooting"). What makes the book such a thrill is its fresh view of baseball and its sense of humor. In a humorous way, Bouton is like a sane man in an insane world, and his observations are insightful even today.  It's this unique viewpoint and "outsider" perspective that made the book so popular while also contributing to the demonization of Bouton after the book was released.

Baseball culture at the time was very insular; what went on in the locker room (and on the road, away from the wives) was not meant for outsiders.  Bouton put a huge dent in that notion by injecting his book with a refreshing honesty.  After years of being told that Mickey Mantle was an all-American boy who drank his milk and ate his Wheaties, the public was finally let in on the truth.  And they did not enjoy the revelation that they'd been lied to for years upon years by a generation of sportswriters who might as well have been on the company payroll.  It's easier to understand this perspective when you consider that Ball Four was published in 1970, when a lot of other venerated American institutions were being challenged by both outsiders and insiders.  One year later, another insider in the American establishment would publish a much more devastating expose, collectively known as the Pentagon Papers.  Now, nothing written in a baseball book could ever be as groundbreaking as the information Daniel Ellsberg leaked to the press.  But the situations are similar.  Viewed in this light, Bouton's book wasn't just an expose, it was seen by many people (if not the author himself, exactly) as another shot fired in the culture wars.  Halberstam's quote might seem hyperbolic today, but at the time, this book was seen as far more than just a collection of humorous anecdotes.

To me, though, that's the best way to enjoy the book.  The culture wars of the 1970s have died down, but Ball Four survives as a humorous and insightful personal memoir.

#2: Moneyball:  The Art of Winning an Unfair Game
by Michael Lewis

If Jim Bouton stuck a firecracker up the ass of the baseball establishment, then Michael Lewis at least gave it a scorching hot-foot. Moneyball didn't ignite a culture war as heated as the Ball Four fracas, but it came close. And just like Ball Four, readers in the years to come will read the book and wonder what all the damn fuss was about.

Upon its release, though, Moneyball was very controversial. Lewis, allowed access behind the scenes of the Oakland A's front office for an entire season, brought to light the revolutionary, iconoclastic and wildly successful tactics utilized by General Manager Billy Beane to build the A's into a perennial contender on a tight budget.

The basic plot of the book is Beane (and his staff) looking for cheap talent, or, in financial jargon, "undervalued assets." They soon realized that the most undervalued asset was a player's ability to get on base, or to not make an out. That sounds very simple, and indeed it is the most important thing a hitter can do. Even more amazing, though, is how ignorant most baseball teams were to this very basic fact.

Lewis used the book as a chance to explore the great dichotomy between, on one hand, the A's: believers in OBP, stats and revolutionary thinkers such as Bill James, Pete Palmer and John Thorn, George Lindsay, Allen Roth, and Eric Walker. And on the other hand, you have the baseball establishment:  beholden to tradition, subjective analysis, the "five-tool player," the power of "intangibles," and the nobility of scouting.

It's no surprise that Lewis angered so many people, since his quest was to annihilate the basic conventional wisdom of baseball. Using the work of sabermetricians such as Bill James to back him up, Lewis supported the A's philosophy that, for example: OBP and home runs are underrated; a pitchers wins and losses are overrated; fielding is completely misunderstood; traditional scouting methods are incredibly flawed, and perhaps most importantly, that the concept of "intangibles" and "makeup" aren't quite as important as the beat reporters claim.

The hot-foot thus set off was immediately effective. Players, managers, announcers and executives rushed to fervently denounce Billy Beane, Moneyball, the A's and everything they stood for. (Oddly enough, Michael Lewis himself remained relatively uninvolved in the debate, due to a mistaken notion that Beane himself had written the book.)

It seemed as though there might be a baseball civil war approaching, and there were certainly many on the stats-friendly side who fought fire with fire. But the venom of the establishment turned out to be the last gasp of baseball's flat-earth movement. With a new generation of sportswriters and analysts given voice by the internet, the argument for statistical analysis won the battle — if you could even call it a battle.

Because most of the theories put forth in Moneyball were essentially accurate and effective, they became adopted to a certain degree by almost every major league franchise. In fact, the arguments within Moneyball itself are fast becoming dated. On-base percentage is no longer underrated, pitchers don't get nearly as much credit for wins nor blame for losses as they used to, and the discipline of baseball scouting has incorporated (for the most part) statistical analysis, marrying the objective with the subjective, resulting in a much more effective hybrid model.

Moneyball has therefore receded into the past. Performance analysts have gained their own platform for expression, and they've also moved past the errors and mistakes of the book. The establishment's fear of the sky falling has been put to rest; no one wants to replace scouts with computers, and there's still room for them to argue on behalf of intangibles. Not only that, but some of the ideas (and figures) mentioned in the book helped the Boston Red Sox end the Curse of the Bambino in 2004. After that, even the deep wounds started to heal.

I guess the greatest success of Moneyball is that it helped fuel the very movement of baseball analysis and research that made the book largely obsolete in less than ten years.

#1: Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball
by John Helyar 

If I took every I've learned from every baseball book I've ever read and combined it, it might add up to what I learned reading Lords of the Realm. The book is quite simply monumental; it's absolutely unequalled in the pantheon of baseball literature. In fact, the book is full of so many details and so many vibrant stories at the very heart of the business of baseball that you start wondering why the hell you hadn't heard any of this before.

Okay, that may be an exaggeration. Its details aren't all relevatory. Although the book is a history of baseball owners and executives since the game's inception, the vast majority of the book deals with the free agent era of the 1970s and 1980s. Those who lived through the era and read the papers religiously may be less surprised than I was by the stories Helyar uncovers. Even so, I bet they'd still be drawn in by Helyar's expertise at recreating the many conflicts of the baseball era, or the great insight offered by bringing these events together, each in its proper place.

The author has a great journalist's talent for telling a story. Despite the incredibly dense and detailed ground he has to cover, Helyar keeps it entertaining by making it the human story of those involved; the book is so full of hilarious, insightful, and pithy quotes that you simply can't keep track. His account of the free-for-all that ensued when Catfish Hunter was declared a free agent in 1974 is amazing reading.

But the most important section of this book, in my opinion, concerns the Collusion scandal of the mid-80s. It's the most important because it's the least-publicized and least-remembered. If the actions of the owners during the Collusion Era were subjected to even a fraction of the moralizing focused on individual players (and the player's union) now, it would change most any fan's perception of the game, and not for the better.

It's for stories like these that baseball books need to be written. And for that, we have Lords of the Realm to thank.

The ones that just missed the cut:
Clearing the Bases
by Allen Barra; Baseball Prospectus 2009 by The BP Team of Experts; The Juice by Will Carroll; Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame? by Bill James; The Bill James Guide to Baseball Managers by Bill James; Feeding the Monster by Seth Mnookin; I Was Right on Time by Buck O'Neil; The Glory of Their Times by Lawrence Ritter; I Never Had It Made by Jackie Robinson; Baseball's Great Experiment by Jules Tygiel, and many others.

If you have a favorite baseball book that I didn't mention, please let me know.  I have to get started reading some of the great baseball books that just came out this year . . .

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About Aaron Whitehead

  • My favorite baseball history book is “What Were They Thinking?: The Brainless Blunders that Changed Sports History,” by Kyle Garlett. The reason why I like it so much is because you do not have to be a sports fan to enjoy this book. Sure, it’s hard to avoid the sports – it’s right there in the subtitle. But there is enough entertainment to be found without already knowing what position Bill Bergey played for the 1978 Philadelphia Eagles.

  • Josh —
    Thanks for the suggestion. One big gap in my reading is that I haven’t read a Halberstam book, even though I’ve heard such good things about Teammates and Summer of ’39. I also want to read his political books, like The Best and the Brightest and The Fifties.
    I’ll check out your review and look for some other books I’ve missed.
    Suss —
    A very Moneyball-ish book is Seth Mnookin’s Feeding the Monster, where he shadows the Red Sox front office for a whole season. It’s not as brisk or readable as Moneyball, but there’s a lot of interesting stuff there (I think it was the ’05 season, maybe ’06).

  • Might I recommend Halberstam’s The Teammates (and also my review of it?). Good work here, Aaron. I’ve added a few of these books to my list of must reads, along with one Suss brought to my attention on the Teammates thread.

  • I would recommend Moneyball to anyone who is breathing oxygen and hasn’t read Moneyball yet. Or even if they have.