Finally, brief descriptions of several other personal favorites:
Mike Sowell, The Pitch That Killed
Of the tens of millions of major league pitches thrown, only one has killed a batter. Sowell’s book tells the story of Indians shortstop Ray Chapman and the surly Yankees pitcher, Carl Mays, who threw the fatal pitch that collided with Chapman’s head. In the process, he touches on the Black Sox gambling scandal, the rise of Mays’ more likeable teammate, Babe Ruth, and social mobility (Chapman, a Kentucky farmer’s son and card-carrying member of the United Mine Workers married the daughter of a self-made millionaire; he was succeeded by Joe Sewell, a former pre-med student at the University of Alabama). Oh, and the last third of the book reminds us that the grieving Indians went on to win the World Series.
Brad Snyder, Beyond the Shadow of the Senators
The Negro Leagues continue to draw more and more attention from historians and others who follow baseball. (Just this spring Baseball-Reference.com introduced a new section on Negro League statistics that drew on years of painstaking research.) But while many know of the Kansas City Monarchs (the team of Satchel Paige and, briefly, Jackie Robinson, and the city that houses the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum), attorney Brad Snyder makes a strong (if overlong) case that the Homestead Grays — who played in the nation’s capital and overshadowed the city’s hapless American League team, the Senators — provide the best introduction to the pre-integration history of African-Americans in baseball, at least for the late 1930s and early 1940s.
Roger Kahn, The Boys of Summer
It’s hard for those of us in flyover country to get too excited about a topic as overcovered as East Coast baseball, especially as covered by someone who uses phrases like “transpontine madness,” but if you’re going to read one book about one New York baseball team, it should be Kahn’s memoir of growing up a fan of the Jackie Robinson-era Brooklyn Dodgers. Here’s Kahn’s classic opening paragraph:
At a point in life when one is through with boyhood, but has not yet discovered how to be a man, it was my fortune to travel with the most marvelously appealing of teams. During the early 1950s the Jackie Robinson Brooklyn Dodgers were outspoken, opinionated, bigoted, tolerant, black, white, open, passionate: in short, a fascinating mix of vigorous men. They were not, however, the most successful team in baseball. (xi)
Charles Einstein, ed., The Fireside Books of Baseball / The New Baseball Reader
The volumes in Einstein’s Fireside series, later excerpted in the Reader (itself revised in 1992), were anthologies of the best baseball writing from the 19th and 20th centuries. Including examples of everything from spot reporting to long-form essays (my favorite: Richard Donovan’s 1953 profile of Satchel Paige, then in his fifth and final full major league season as a 47-year old reliever with the lowly St. Louis Browns), novels (Bang the Drum Slowly) to short stories (Ring Lardner’s “Alibi Ike”!), Einstein demonstrated that baseball has long been the most literary American sport. (John Updike, Thomas Wolfe, and Philip Roth also make appearances contributions.) There’s also lots of poetry in these books, if you can find them — if you can’t, check out this essay from the Poetry Foundation.
Daniel Okrent, Nine Innings
An editor for numerous national publications (and one of the inventors of fantasy baseball), Okrent decided in 1980 that he wanted to write a book on “the anatomy of a baseball game.” Not of “the game,” but a single game. One played on June 10, 1982 at Milwaukee County Stadium between the host Brewers (then still in the American League and destined to lose the ’82 World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals) and the Baltimore Orioles (a year away from winning the Series — the last they’ve won). Amazingly, the story of one midseason baseball game turns out to make for a compelling 260 pages, dissecting baseball tactics and strategy, media coverage, marketing, the aftermath of a baseball strike, and much more.