Sports writing is among some of the most intriguing ever – not only due to finding out some best-kept secrets to succeeding in the game, but also finding out about the players who helped shape the game into its present state today. Baseball has indeed been around for more than a century, and its popularity is not dying out any time soon – so if you are interested in the game, you owe it to yourself to read up on the best literature that surrounds it.
There are numerous reasons whey baseball has inspired so many great works of literature, but chief among them has to be the leisurely pacing of the game that lends itself to great fictional and memoir writing. It also has a strong connection to summer and spring traditions, which also mirror the history of America itself and induce nostalgia in generations of readers and fans.
However, you might have no idea where to begin, since there are so many good books to go for. There are numerous options to select from, ranging from historical ones, to biographies, memoirs, and so on. In fact, there are enough books to last you quite some time and get you through extra innings, and we are here to highlight some of the best baseball book picks of all time. Without further ado, here are the 13 best books.
“Play Hungry: The Making of a Baseball Player” by Pete Rose
Pete Rose, one of the most famous players in the country in the 1960s to 1980s, worked his way on establishing an entire bunch of records in the game. Also known as “Charlie Hustle”, he had the record of the most at-bats (14,053), most games played (3.562) and most hits (4,256), and so on.
After a long career spanning more than 20 years, and a coaching career that lasted even shorter than that, his time in the game ended in 1989 after it was revealed that he had gambled on a game.
This subject is not ignored either, as he discusses it in two pages in the book. However, this is not his first book, as the gambling revelation led him to become permanently banned and made ineligible for a Cooperstown induction.
In this book, he chooses to focus on the stories from the Golden Age of baseball, and his commitment to playing the game in ‘the right way’ when he was a player.
‘The Boys of Summer’ by Roger Kahn (1972)
Baseball plays an important role in the lives of players and their families, but it also provides a lot of importance to the identity of a town or city.
That is fully demonstrated in the Dodgers, whose continued success in the Golden Age of baseball meant a lot to Brooklyn – and this book highlights all of that.The book is quite oversentimental, but that is easily understandable due to the subject matter.
However, it goes beyond that; it is both an elegy and a memoir, acting as a classic literary monument to ‘Dem Bums’, as well as remaining a testimonial to the emotional hole that the team left when they left for Los Angeles.
“Breaking into Baseball: Women and the National Pastime” by Jean Hastings Ardell (2005)
The long, illustrious history of America’s favorite pastime might make you think that women were never involved in it – but this book breaks all those stereotypes, as many women have increasingly taken up the sport throughout history.
Though it is a fairly recent phenomenon, starting with the 1988 documentary film by Kelly Candaele A League of Their Own, it has gone a long way to inspire more girls and women to take up the sport. The film itself is based on her mother, Helen Callaghan, who played five seasons in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, and successfully won the batting title back in 1945. The documentary has spawned several works of literature and movies as well.
Literature regarding women’s participation in baseball is wide, but this book is among the most compelling on the subject. The author looks at the multiple facets of women’s participation – whether in the form of players (both amateur and pro), sportswriters, umpires, front office executives, fans, or what are known in baseball circles as “Baseball Annies” (the groupies).
In all this, she managed to track these women, many of whom are hardly remembered in the annals of baseball history, and she includes interviews with some interesting women.
In addition, it also includes 24 illustrations and a forward by one of the most famous women in the sport, Ila Borders.
“Eight Men Out: The Black Sox and the 1919 World Series” by Eliot Asinof (1963)
The 1919 World Series is among the most infamous in the history of the sport, as evidenced by the fixing of matches by eight Chicago White Sox players and various gamblers, and the scandal even eclipsed the steroid use and use of corked bats.
Employing a style that makes you feel as though you were there seeing everything unfold, Eliot Asinof takes you on a journey of the controversy as it unfolded. Starting with the White Sox players resorting to the world of match fixing due to their anger at their mistreatment and low pay, and seeing an opportunity to earn some extra cash by throwing the series against their main rivals, the Cincinnati Reds.
The book also takes you to a behind the scenes view on the meetings between gamblers and players, the differences between different players, the way the players made fouls while trying to cover up for their disappointing performances, the journalists who discovered the match fixing, the indictment the players went through, the trial of 1921, and the controversy behind some players and their status in the game itself.
In fact, the repercussions of the scandal led to the creation of the Commissioner position, with the aim of redeeming the image of the sport throughout the 1920s.
“Ball Four” by Jim Bouton (1970)
Jim Bouton is another of the greatest players of the sport, with much of his playing career being a part of the New York Yankees as a pitching ace. Here, he goes on a quest to ‘expose’ the lives of managers, players and coaches, who were often seen as ‘larger than life’ figures by sportswriters and fans – and he gives an insider account of these people whom he regularly interacted with.
Through reflecting the rebellious spirit of the 1960s and 1970s, he reveals in the book that players engaged in numerous vices like ‘beaver shooting’ and popping pills, as well as other activities though this all came at a cost – various leading sportswriters branded him as a traitor.
By the standards of today Jim Bouton’s revelations seem tame, but it still remains a fascinating look to the world of 1960s baseball.
“Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?: The Improbable Saga of the New York Mets’ First Year” by Jimmy Breslin (1963)
1962 was quite an interesting year for baseball – it was the first time that ten teams were playing in the National League, and the Mets came in tenth. Also known as the “Amazing Mets”, the team lost 120 games and won only 40 for the manager Casey Stengel, and they were comprised of young cast-offs from other teams as well as game veterans.
The batting average of the team was among the worst in the season, coming at .240, and the team was under pressure to succeed because many New York baseball fans hated the Yankees as well. However, this eventually turned them into the lovable losers, and the results were highly entertaining.
If you are looking for a book that taps into the humorous side of that season, then this is your best bet.
“Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos, and the Color Line” by Adrian Burgos Jr. (2007)
Another group of people that have been relegated to the bottom of baseball history are the Latino players, even though the reality was that they have put in immense contributions to the game and its development. In fact, they were a major part of professional baseball leagues, including the Negro Leagues, even dating back to the 1870s when the game was still in its development stages.
Through the inclusion of archive materials from Cuba, Puerto Rico and the United States, as well as interviews with major Negro League and other league players, the author reveals the negotiation skills of Latino players throughout baseball history. Some of them ‘passed’ the discrimination stages and were taken as white players, while some black players ‘passed’ for Latinos – all this depended on which place and time the players found themselves in.
The book eventually shows the arbitrary nature of ‘race’, as it was subject to changing conditions, and celebrates the achievements of various Latino players that many have forgotten.
In addition, some major teams were willing to accept Latino players, eventually laying the foundation of the eventual 1947 signing of Jackie Robinson by Branch Dickle, the manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, which officially dismantled the color barriers.
“Babe: The Legend Comes to Life” by Robert Creamer (1974)
You cannot talk about famous players in baseball history and leave out Babe Ruth, who was among the most influential and successful players in the sport. Robert Creamer tackles the man himself through his experience as a sportswriter for the Sports Illustrated, and gives a fascinating look into Babe Ruth’s history.
He takes a look at the early days of the man from his youth at an orphanage in Baltimore, his early days as the ace pitcher of the Red Sox, his outsize personality and glory days as an ace run-hitting slugger for the Yankees, and his humiliation with the Brooklyn Dodgers and Boston Braves.
Throughout the book, you will discover that it is among the best biographies about a baseball player, and eventually laid the groundwork for his equally interesting bio of Casey Stengel in 1984.
“The Teammates: A Portrait of a Friendship” by David Halberstam (2003)
In 2001, Johnny Pesky and Dominic DiMaggio decided to take a Florida-bound trip lasting 1,300 miles. The aim was to visit an old friend and their former teammate in the Boston Red Sox, Ted Williams, when they find out he was dying.
The author takes us on a journey with these three men, even going back to their days in the uniform, when they formed a lifelong bond that would last more than six decades, and even including an additional player that wasn’t able to join them on the road trip, Bobby Doerr.
Halberstam himself is among the most famous journalists of the 20th Century, with his work spanning books about athletes and sports to political journalism. This book, in particular, is among the best he has ever written, as he tells an emotionally-moving story through these four men; recalling their years in the game, and their transformation into old men who experience the problems of old age.
”The Lords of the Realm” by John Helyar (1995)
You might be curious about the labor laws regarding baseball – this is the perfect book for you. The history is both insightful and colorful, detailing the labor-management relations in the sport until the infamous strike of 1994 – but you will never feel as though you are reading an economics book.
There are plenty of interesting anecdotes, as well as profiles of different agents, owners and players. In particular, we get to learn the story of league player Danny Garcia, who jumped into the Mexican League back in 1946, and ended up suing various people when the owners of big league teams blacklisted him through using the maligned reserve clause. This case eventually resulted in an out of court settlement.
You will also learn about the player’s union, and how they managed to turn this clause and bring on free agency to the players. That also includes the Pete Rose scandal that we mentioned earlier, and the reveal of various owners as greedy – with the exception of Bill Veeck.
“Good Enough to Dream” by Roger Khan (1985)
Regardless of the specific team you decide to support, this book will leave you rooting for the success of the New York-Penn league’s Utica Blue Sox team in 1983. Khan succeeded in buying the team, which was then a lowly participant in the minor league – and he puts these players in a humorous, endearing and loving light.
He not only writes on these players, but everyone else who came along with them – fans, staff, umpires, and so on, and elaborates on the troubles he faced in his ownership. These included letting certain players go, and even includes some instances when he personally had to keep the sanitation up for the toilets and bathrooms.
The team itself was not even considered as a farm team for any major franchises in the league, so Khan was stuck with free agents, and with most people believing that the team could never become a major force. However, the players themselves were determined to get out of the minor league, even though many dismissed them as rejects, all because of their love for the game.
“Dollar Sign on the Muscle: The World of Baseball Scouting” by Kevin Kerrane (1984, update 2013)
The player cannot succeed in their game alone: a scout has to be there to guide them through. It is therefore safe to say that scouts can break or make a player’s career, and this book seeks to take us into their world.
If you are curious about the life of a baseball scout, this book answers those questions. It takes you through the daily life of a scout, how they do their evaluations of players, as well as the fascinating initial scouting reports they made on certain players.
At the end of the day, it takes you through the game from the perspective of a scout, who seeks to unearth diamonds in the rough and unlock the potential of players, even as they transverse the country seeking new talent.
“Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy” by Jules Tygiel (1997)
The breaking of the color barrier to baseball in 1947 was a historical record, but it was more than just through the efforts of Branch Rickey or Jackie Robinson himself. Jules Tygiel, a historian, seeks to uncover a larger network of people who supported African American presence in major baseball leagues, as well as their ties to the Civil Rights Movement.
Many of these people were players themselves, such as John Wright and Roy Partlow, but they never came close to starring in major leagues. However, their work played a key role in the integration of baseball and other sports such as basketball and football, changing cultural attitudes, and raising awareness of the ignorance of white Americans regarding racism in sports.
It further aims to ask even more questions about the status of race in sports today, through reminding us that racism still exists and that players of color still suffer discrimination on some level. If you are interested in finding out the relationship between athletics and race, give this book a read.