FanPost

Winter Reading List: Some Good Baseball Books

(Bumped from FanPosts.)

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Last year I posted something similar, asking what good baseball books could warm us in the barren winter months. I've gotten around to reading many people's suggestions (and some I'd read before), and I thought I'd post a bunch of comment-sized reviews. More to the point, I'll ask you bookworms out there to do something similar in the comments section if you're moved to recommend a book to the community. If you'd rather just list some good ones -- or want to concur or disagree with my list -- do that.

It's always rewarding, I think, to step away periodically from the nearsightedness of the "news." To that end, here are some baseball books.

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In no order at all.

Pure Baseball by Keith Hernandez and Mike Bryan

This claims to be -- and IS -- a pitch-by-pitch account of a couple of ballgames from the mid-nineties. If you've ever done a "close reading" of a Shakespeare sonnet, that's just what this feels like. Keith spends loads of time talking about what a hitter expects in this and that situation, this or that count, where he'll look, what he'll consider, how he'll swing. He also breaks down defensive alignments, the mechanics of relay throws, hit-and-run situations, managerial decisions, etc. etc. It might as well be called "a billion little things about baseball." It's great --  put me in a close-reading high for weeks afterward, where I continually tried to consider more and more as I watched games.

The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn

I thought going in that this would be my favorite book of all time, but to be honest it didn't grab me. It's fantastic having a little flesh and blood attached to the myth of Robinson, but I wasn't taken in by the coming-of-age Roger Kahn stuff. I may have just been in the wrong place/mood.

The Historical Baseball Abstract by Bill James

It's my favorite book on baseball and an important book in my life. Like Tom Paine's "Common Sense" or some shit, you can feel that fresh thinking is happening here, and that what Bill James needs to say is clear as hell to him, and that he says it in a clear as hell manner. It's interesting to me that the godfather of sabermetrics possesses so obstinately disorganized a mind. On the other hand, it makes sense. Who but a scientist (of sorts) could be so totally unwilling to generalize, so totally reverent toward the wonderful anomalies that  mock our hopes to "grasp" baseball's history? James can't bring himself to say things he's unsure of, ever. Thus, the fertile, beguiling Abstract, and it's disjointed, highly personal stabs at the truth.

The Neyer/James Guide to Pitching by Rob Neyer and Bill James

It begins with enlightening essays on the main pitches -- not really from a mechanics standpoint, but from an anecdotal/historical one. They want to know who developed each pitch, and characteristically get caught up in the historical quirks and then try (and generally fail) to track down the originator. Then, they tell the stories of a few pitchers who had interesting careers, and finally there's the meat of the book: a huge alphabetical compendium of thousands of pitchers and which pitches they threw.  Unless you're a nut, you don't really need to own this, but you should get it from the library.

The Bad Guys Won by Jeff Pearlman

Super-fun account of Mets, booze, and broads. Set in 1986.

The Soul of Baseball: A Trip through Buck O'Neil's America by Joe Posnanski

I didn't read the whole thing, because you get the idea quite quickly. Basically, ex-Negro Leagues player and manager Buck O'Neil was an uncommonly awesome dude who lived a very rich and frustrating life and came out of it loving everything and everyone, like Gandhi. It's a bit sappy, and I found Posnanski's writing to be a tad cute, but then again most of those sappy lessons are truer than any of us young bucks know, and O'Neil insisted on the naked truth of those lessons. Still, I felt like Posnanski could have somehow introduced some variation in the tone to keep me hooked. 

Babe: The Legend Comes to Life by Robert Creamer

Creamer doesn't do a great job poking holes in the Ruth myth, then again maybe the myth was true. Ruth was loud, fat, drunken, hilarious, bawdy, amoral, and joyful, and Creamer is quite happy he existed. The writing is lively enough -- a bit old fashioned -- and the broad outlines are all there, and it isn't long. You also learn a lot about the era.

What Ever Happened to the Hall of Fame? by Bill James

I discovered reading this that I don't really care at all about the politics of the Hall of Fame. The museum itself, in Cooperstown, is beautiful, and it will forever be the case that the truly great ballplayers are given pride of place and the mediocre ballplayers, well, whatever. The take away from the book is that it's ALWAYS been the case that questionable ballplayers have gotten in, and that anyone who thinks that only consensus first-balloters are worthy misunderstands the institution's history.

The Book by Tango, Lichtman, and Dolphin

If you are interested in sabermetrics, you have to read it, own it, and study it. Basically, it tackles all the big baseball questions from a managerial, in-game point of view. When is it smart to bunt? Should I play the hot hand? How do I order my line up? etc. etc. It attempts to answer these questions via exceedingly well-constructed studies drawing on loads of data and tempered with common sense. There's a lot of math in the background, but if you're a skipper it's very clear what's skippable, and they state conclusions simply and succinctly. Best of all, they aren't afraid of nuance.

Can't Anyone Here Play this Game? by Jimmy Breslin

If you're a Met fan, and you are, you'll tear through this 80 page book in about an hour and tell all your friends about all the rad shit Casey Stengal kept saying. It's about the woeful 1962 Mets and is written with comic, hard-boiled prose. It's AWESOME.

Ball Four by Jim Bouton

This is probably my second favorite baseball book, behind the Abstract. It's the diary-like account of a season where Bouton tries to reinvent himself as a knuckleballer with the Seattle Pilots. It's got booze and broads and all that, but the surprising thing is that it's really well written. Bouton's observations are fresh, hilarious, and smart -- there's stuff about the 60s culture wars, amphetamine abuse, coaches not knowing shit, soreness, contract disputes, etc. But mostly it's fun because it paints a good picture of a clubhouse over a 162-game stretch, a bunch of grown men having to act like they're sad all the time because their club sucks.

You Know Me, Al by Ring Lardner

Written in 1916 by a bona fide legend of comedy writing, the book is a bit tiresome. It's a bunch of fictional letters from a cocky White Sox rook to his friend back home, and it's all pretty one note. Thought I was gonna love it. Others do.

Big League Baseball Puzzlers by Forker and Hoffman

Awesome. It runs through lots of highly unusual situations in baseball and asks what the official call should be, giving examples from real wacky games. More fun, it poses hypotheticals: Could a pitcher get a win and a save in the same game? (Normally no, but yes.*) Is it possible for a batter to get three bases on a foul ball? (Yes.) According to the scorer, what are the 8 ways to reach 1st base? Great for a car trip.

Moneyball by Michael Lewis

I came to this book late, and consequently couldn't get through it. Maybe I should really give it a fair shot, but I felt like 1) I already knew the stats stuff, and 2) Lewis's telling of the Billy Beane story is a bit pat. I didn't really give it a chance though, so maybe I'm wrong.

The Rules of Baseball by David Nemec

Actually, this is an anecdotal romp through baseball history using, very cleverly, the rule-book as the narrative framework. Basically, it starts off with a rule -- whether it be about equipment, the strike zone, baserunning, ground rules, whatever -- and discusses the origin of the rule, showing how invariably it was created to correct for some mischief that players were making, to plug up some loophole that was being exploited, or consciously to shift the competitive balance from era to era. Nemec shakes off baseball's aura of inevitability, and all the stories he tells are great. You learn the rules too. I'm giving this a "must have" rating.

Baseball Between the Numbers: Why Everything You Know About the Game is Wrong by Baseball Prospectus

I dunno, I found this to be a sort of "Bill James/Tom Tango for Dummies." The substance is ok, but the writing is very cute. Also, that subtitle makes me want to vomit.

The Summer Game by Roger Angell

Beautiful, and for the Met fan you'll find that some of his best writing is about the 1960s Mets. Angell is E.B. White's step son and has been writing for The New Yorker for more than 60 years (honest.) He writes with precisely the easy, self-deprecatory erudition that the magazine was all about in its heyday, and his baseball writing is particularly supple and observant. He isn't stooping down to the game, either: he's a real fan and has a great eye. Best, he isn't afraid to turn the ballplayers into characters, using slight exaggerations, like Dickens would, to make their style, their stance, their baserunning, their fielding intensely memorable. It might be a bit literary for some, but I can't imagine anyone here not eating up the 60s Mets stuff.

The Ticket Out: Darrell Strawberry and the Boys from Crenshaw by Michael Sokolove

My dad borrowed this from me, took it back to Chicago, and lost it. He LOVED it, though, so I'll give it a mention.

The Sweet Science by A.J. Liebling

Not about baseball, but I have to give this a mention, too. This is by far the best sports book I've ever read by fucking far. Liebling is God.

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So.... agree, disagree, what have I missed, what are your favorites?

*How to get a win and a save in the same game: On July 22, 1986, the Mets played an extra-inning game where they had Roger McDowell and Jesse Orosco alternate innings, occupying a spot in the outfield when one or the other wasn't pitching. The Mets took the lead in the top of the 14th, and McDowell, who pitched the 13th, stood to be the winning pitcher. As it happened, Orosco pitched a scoreless bottom half to get the save. But suppose he looked shaky, put a couple men on, and Davey Johnson elected to bring McDowell back in to close it out. In that case, McDowell would have been the first pitcher in history to get a win and a save in the same game. GRISSION.

This FanPost was contributed by a member of the community and was not subject to any vetting or approval process. It does not necessarily reflect the opinions, reasoning skills, or attention to grammar and usage rules held by the editors of this site.

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