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The World of Baseball Books: Digging Deep into The National Pastime

It’s the time of year that fills me with a sense of possibility and new beginnings like no other. That’s right, Spring Training is right around the corner. I was six years old when I went to my first baseball game, got a giant Mets foam finger and a ball used in batting practice, and I’ve been obsessed with the game ever since.

I didn’t love reading as a kid, so I gravitated to Matt Christopher’s action-packed sports books like The Kid Who Only Hit Homers and Dan Gutman’s Baseball Card Adventures, about a young boy who travels through time to meet hall-of-famers like Honus Wagner, Jackie Robinson and Babe Ruth. I’ve continued to recommend these books to young patrons while working at a public library, as they remain excellent gateway reading for anyone who’s more excited about sports than books. Years later, baseball continued to be a jumping off point for my book choices. Bernard Malamud’s The Natural is the story of Roy Hobbs, an aging slugger with a mysterious past who rises to stardom with the fictional New York Knights. Like the iconic poem Casey at the Bat, Malamud’s debut novel casts a fearsome power hitter as a tragic hero and captures baseball’s unique ability to break your heart with one swing[1]. Continuing in the tradition of weaving the drama of baseball and everyday life, Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding is a work of literary fiction about Henry, a sure-handed college shortstop destined for stardom. My favorite elements of this story are the book within the book written by Henry’s favorite major-league shortstop[2] (also called The Art of Fielding) and the real life phenomenon often referred to as “the yips”[3], which serve as background for this coming-of-age story.

Despite my love for fiction, what I really crave are books about the history of the game. The first baseball non-fiction book I remember reading was a Sandy Koufax biography for a middle school book report. This was the first time I gave any thought beyond performance on the field, giving me greater insight to the psychology of the sport and a window to an era I knew little about. To understand the evolution of the game and how baseball is played today, there’s no better place to start than Michael Lewis’ Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. In the early 2000’s, the small-market Oakland Athletics spearheaded a new way of approaching the game by focusing on statistics over more traditional methods of player development and scouting. This paved the way to a fairytale season, and heralded the beginning of the ‘analytics revolution,’ changing the way teams were constructed and how the game was played. I strongly suggest this book for number-crunchers and fans of the underdog.

Another avenue to explore is the baseball memoir. Jim Bouton’s Ball Four is an influential and highly entertaining diary-style sports expose, written over the course of his 1969 season with the newly formed Seattle Pilots. Through candid anecdotes, Bouton details the ups and downs of a season, giving an intimate look at clubhouse dynamics and how personality quirks and petty disagreements can make or break careers. The book was controversial at the time of its release for its frank discussion of players’ drinking, drug use and cheating (breaking the rule of ‘what happens in the clubhouse stays in the clubhouse’), and for its unique candor  about issues of politics, race and class. While certainly dated, it is a fascinating glimpse of the game and country at a certain time and place, while “exposing the jockocratic values of society”[4].

Although there’s no shortage of baseball memoirs out there, die-hard fans will understand the urge to read the stories behind their team’s most magical moments. Mike Piazza’s Longshot will be a page turner for Mets or Dodgers fans of a certain age. I especially enjoyed reading about growing up and listening to heavy metal in the Philadelphia suburbs, his unlikely rise through the minor leagues as a player without a natural position, and his relationship with baseball legend godfather Tommy Lasorda. I’m Keith Hernandez: A Memoir is a playground for baseball nerds, delving deeply into the psychology of breaking out of a slump, controversial MVP voting, and grinding out the batting title against Pete Rose. Focusing on his time in the minors and with the Cardinals in the early 1970’s, it’s also a fascinating look at an era when players who once had to get jobs in the off-season started signing million dollar contracts. If you value hitting to all fields and good fundamentals (“fundies”, as Keith calls them), this book will be right up your alley[5].

While I love getting these intimate perspectives, my favorite sports writing places the game in its larger cultural context. David Halberstam’s October 1964 details how unevenly integrated the game was 17 years after the baseball color barrier was supposedly broken, with a Yankee team[6] whose ownership refused to integrate facing off against a Cardinals team with many black players. The book is leisurely paced, acquainting the reader with all-time greats Mickey Mantle, Bob Gibson, Whitey Ford and Lou Brock on and off the field, as well as lesser known executives and scouts. Halberstam’s Summer of ‘49 brings the same attention to detail to the Yankee-Red Sox rivalry three years removed from the league’s return from war. Like the best baseball books, Halberstam cares about people over the statistics, with the sport serving as a vehicle for reflecting on America’s history.

In a similar vein, Eric Nusbaum’s Stealing Home: Los Angeles, The Dodgers, and the Lives Caught In Between (read reviews here) tells the story of the building of Dodger Stadium, from a refreshingly broad historical perspective. Believing this is a story “too often told from the perspective of writers perched firmly on the East Coast and peering west as if through a pair of binoculars” (p. 5), Nusbaum centers his book on Los Angeles residents, particularly the recently settled migrants whose homes were eliminated with the development in Chavez Ravine. This story of why “Dodger Stadium should not exist” provides a history of Los Angeles and an interrogation of the role sports plays in our society, fascinating for lovers of the game and non-sports fans alike.

Whether your team wins or loses, there’s always more baseball to be played and endless stories to be discovered. The books I can’t wait to dig into next include a study of one of the game’s most iconic larger than life personalities (Jeff Pearlman’s The Last Folk Hero: The Life and Myth of Bo Jackson), stories from yesteryear by one of the game’s most colorful characters (Leo Durocher’s Nice Guys Finish Last), and thoughtful analysis of the sport’s continuing evolution (Keith Law’s The Inside Game: Bad Calls, Strange Moves, and What Baseball Behavior Teaches Us About Ourselves). For more contemporary perspectives on baseball’s social history, racial injustice, and the fight for labor rights in the game, I’m especially excited for Peter Dreier and Robert Elias’ Baseball Rebels:The Players, People, and Social Movements That Shook Up the Game and Changed America and Luke Epplin’s Our Team: The Epic Story of Four Men and the World Series That Changed Baseball (read reviews here).

For more books on baseball, check out Library of Congress’s LibGuide on Baseball Resources, browse in RUL’s catalog (refine your search with filters and find more titles with the virtual browse feature) and browse the library stacks, starting at the LC call number GV861. Play ball!


[1] The Natural was further cemented as an indelible piece of Americana with its 1984 film adaptation, and even served as inspiration for my favorite Simpsons episode!

[2] Named Aparicio Rodriguez, this imaginary hall of famer has been described as “a fictional combination of Luis Aparicio and Ozzie Smith” (

[3] One of the most famous examples of this was Cardinals’ pitcher Rick Ankiel, whose book, The Phenomenon explores the psychological underpinnings of the yips, as well as his experience with addiction and eventual return to the major leagues as an outfielder.

[4] Bouton apparently received an award with this description from a women’s group, a detail which is included in the book’s updated version (p. 410), covering the book’s initial reception, his career as a reporter and subsequent baseball comebacks, among other things. I actually first learned of Bouton from his small role in one of my favorite films, Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973), which he briefly discusses here as well. See my post about crime fiction for my discussion of the world of crime fiction and film.

[5] It also doesn’t hurt to like Seinfeld (the title of the book is a reference to Keith’s appearance on the show’s third season).

[6] The team included a young Jim Bouton.