501 Baseball Books Fans Must Read before They Die

501 Baseball Books Fans Must Read before They Die

by Ron Kaplan


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501 Baseball Books Fans Must Read before They Die by Ron Kaplan

Propounding his “small ball theory” of sports literature, George Plimpton proposed that “the smaller the ball, the more formidable the literature.” Of course he had the relatively small baseball in mind, because its literature is formidable—vast and varied, instructive, often wildly entertaining, and occasionally brilliant. From this bewildering array of baseball books, Ron Kaplan has chosen 501 of the best, making it easier for fans to find just the books to suit them (or to know what they’re missing).


From biography, history, fiction, and instruction to books about ballparks, business, and rules, anyone who loves to read about baseball will find in this book a companionable guide, far more fun than a reference work has any right to be.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803240735
Publisher: UNP - Nebraska Paperback
Publication date: 04/01/2013
Pages: 420
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Ron Kaplan is a sports and features writer and editor for the New Jersey Jewish News. His book reviews, author interviews, and articles have appeared in publications such as the Huffington Post, Baseball America, and Mental Floss, and he hosts a blog on baseball literature.

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Books in this category fall into a few subdivisions. Some will deconstruct a single game or small group of games from the point of view of a player, manager, executive, or journalist who will discuss the wherefores and whys of their philosophies. These are heavy on strategy and sometimes go into depth on the background of a particular play, piece of equipment, or other minutiae. Others will consider the same general topics, but over a greater period of time.

1. The Baseball Book, by Bill James. New York: Villard, 1992.

The Baseball Book series, published from 1990 — 92, was, in a sense, the precursor to the Bill James Historical Baseball Abstracts. It's as though he's constantly tinkering, trying to find just the right way to express his ever-active mind. It's that curiosity that keeps him from falling into a rut and dragging his loyal readers down with him.

The format for The Baseball Books changed slightly from year to year; the 1992 edition features data — both statistical and otherwise — about each team "in a box," a device James would use for each decade in his Historical Abstracts. No matter the publication — save for those that are solely statistical in nature — he conveys the information with charm and a bit of impishness. The introduction to the 1992 edition contains one word: "Hi." The foreword: "Ahem." Maybe that's a downside of being so prolific; you run out of stuff to put in your prefatory material.

The team section is followed by player rankings for each position and statistical category. Each year, James would include capsule biographies for players, managers, executives, and others whom the author believes had a significant impact on the game. Unfortunately, he did one letter per volume, so he only got through C.

Other categories: Auto/Bio/Mem, History, Pop Culture

2. The Baseball Economist: The Real Game Exposed, by J. C. Bradbury. New York: Dutton/Penguin, 2007.

The "economy" here does not just mean money, although that is the topic of several of these thought-provoking essays by Bradbury, an associate professor at Kennesaw State University and the University of the South.

He mixes things up with discussions about the game on the field and in the accounting office, as management tries to figure out what a player is worth; whether it's better for teams to take a Moneyball approach based on statistics or rely on their scouts; which is the true "golden age" of baseball and why; whether steroids really made that much of a difference; and which components of the overwhelming array of analytics provide the best information when it comes to evaluating athletes.

Books like these confound many readers who prefer not to know about such things, arguing that it detracts from their enjoyment. And, yes, Bradbury does throw around concepts like multiple-regression analysis that can make the eyes glaze over. Yet others (myself included) think you can never have too much information; it's all in the way it's presented and what the reader chooses to do with it. Like serving a new dish, it has to be palatable otherwise you lose your audience. Fortunately, Bradbury takes the time to explain his ideas into easily digestible nuggets.

Other categories: Business, History, Statistics

3. The Baseball Fan's Companion: How to Watch a Game Like an Expert, by Nick Bakalar. New York: Macmillan, 1996.

The phrase is "play ball," not "work ball." Baseball is a game; it's supposed to be fun (although there are those curmudgeonly types who would disagree). This means that books like The Baseball Fan's Companion should not strive to be taken too seriously, and fortunately, that's exactly Bakalar's route.

He mixes his primer with bits and pieces that make no pretense of being a textbook as he delivers his lessons in almost a stream of consciousness. Bakalar follows only the loosest organization in his discussions of such items as offense, defense, pitching, and rules. (The least-enforced rule: opposing players shall not fraternize on the field while in uniform. Yeah, right.)

Of particular interest are several diagrams mapping out defensive positioning for specific situations and a too-short section on baseball chatter, in which the author offers a detailed "translation" of what a broadcaster might say and what it actually means in terms a rank beginner can follow.

Other categories: History, Pop Culture, Reference

4. The Beauty of Short Hops: How Chance and Circumstances Confound theMoneyball Approach to Baseball, by Sheldon Hirsch and Alan Hirsch. Jefferson NC: McFarland, 2011.

There are several books that propound the concepts of sabermetrics and the Moneyball approach to the game, but few titles actually come out against the theories that became so popular after the publication of Michael Lewis's book in 2003.

This father-and-son writing team takes a more old-fashioned approach. They want to show that not everything comes down to slide rules and computer printouts. That is, all the planning in the world can't foresee the little quirks of fate that make sports (and life) so interesting. Statistics, they claim, can be tweaked to support your purposes and desires. As evidence, they offer a number of games from 2009 that were full of bad hops, balls deflected by birds in flight, and base-running blunders. Lewis and Billy Beane, the Oakland A's general manager on whom Moneyball is based, certainly couldn't have accounted for such circumstances in their equations.

But this is the beauty, according to the Hirsches, who write from the point of view of the fans who watch the game, as opposed to general managers with a business plan on how to put together a ball club, whether as a front-office professional or as an ersatz GM drafting a fantasy team.

Who's the audience for this book? It's certainly not a scholarly treatise, but it is a reminder of what baseball has always been and should be again, at least according to the authors: a game played by human beings, warts and all.

5. The Bill James Baseball Abstract, by Bill James. New York: Villard, 1985.

There have always been books on statistics and books of commentary, but before James came along, the two sides of the same baseball coin were rarely presented in one volume. James — who created the first of his annual Abstracts while working as a night watchman at a pork-and-beans company and sold them by mail order through advertisements in the Sporting News — used a newly developed system of "runs created" to prove who the best players really were. The first Abstracts were self-published from 1977 — 81, but once word about his theories and amusing presentation spread to a wider audience, James produced his work through established publishing houses from 1982 — 88. As word about his theories and amusing presentation spread, he signed on with Ballantine Books to distribute the Abstracts throughout the 1980s, after which he went on to author more diverse publications, in addition to consulting for the Boston Red Sox and other baseball outlets. Subsequent annual editions would concentrate on a specific theme — the 1982 edition looked at the effects of aging on production, for example — in addition to team analysis.

His seminal work has earned him a place in baseball lore and American pop culture: James has been profiled on 60 Minutes, and he also appeared as a guest voice on The Simpsons.

Other categories: History, Pop Culture, Statistics

6. The Book on the Book: A Landmark Inquiry into Which Strategies in the Modern Game Actually Work, by Bill Felber. New York: Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's Press, 2005.

7. The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, by Tom M. Tango, Mitchel G. Lichtman, and Andrew E. Dolphin. Dulles VA: Potomac, 2007.

"The book," as it has been traditionally regarded, is not really a physical book at all. Rather, it is a tradition, a time-honored way of doing things in a given discipline that's been accepted since time immemorial.

You'll often hear announcers say a manager is "going against the book," or, in other words, bucking long-held beliefs in an attempt to disrupt the opponent. When it works, the manager is a genius; when it doesn't, the announcers will either give him credit for trying something new or point to his faux pas as proof that the old system still works.

These two titles seek to break the mold, incorporating the ever-expanding universe of sabermetrics in an attempt to discern trends that should bring about a change in the standard approach. At the same time, they both take a broad overview of the game, asking questions about the personnel makeup of a team or deciding what a player is worth, either for trade value or at the negotiating table.

Felber's Book on the Book is a direct slap at the establishment. He divides his content into the game on and off the field. In the former, he doesn't attack the old so much as he offers new ways to interpret what he believes are misconceptions. The most interesting of these chapters is his assessment of general managers. After all, while the man in the dugout has to play with the cards he's dealt, the GM is the dealer.

Tango's The Book is an offshoot of his website (Tangotiger.net) where he, his coauthors, and their visitors discuss such matters as linear weights, base-out states, and run values. The print edition offers more than 140 charts and tables to illustrate their points. It takes a bit of effort to get through this one but, hey, Rome wasn't built in a day.

For those of you who are not on board the sabermetric train, I can practically hear your eyes rolling at all this. I was like you once. But after reading through these essays, I can say that they can change perceptions. Even if you don't want to become an expert on that side of the equation, these books can lead you to a new appreciation for the thought processes that go into making decisions. Such tactics are becoming increasingly in vogue as a younger generation of managers and GMs who have been brought up on this data nudge the old-timers aside.

Other categories: Business, History, Statistics

8. Bullpen Diaries: Mariano Rivera, Bronx Dreams, Pinstripe Legends, and the Future of the New York Yankees, by Charley Rosen. New York: HarperCollins, 2011.

No dynasty lasts forever. This is especially true in the world of sports, which has a tremendous turnover rate. Sure, you can sign stud free agents and make a few key trades here and there, but the building process must come from within, and you have to give your young players a chance to develop before shipping them off to another team. Rosen, a veteran journalist and longtime Yankees fan, follows the team in an unusual fashion by concentrating solely on the production of the relief corps during each contest of the 2010 season, grading the pitchers on each game's performance from spring training though the AL Championship Series against the Texas Rangers.

Mariano Rivera, who holds the all-time record for career saves, began his Yankee career on the same minor league teams as Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, and Andy Pettitte. Now it's time for the new regime to step in, but according to Bullpen Diaries, it will be difficult to find someone to fill his shoes. One quickly notices how strategy has changed over the years and how many pitchers it takes to get through a game (even more if it goes into extra innings).

Rosen's style is somewhat repetitive, but he keeps things lively with plenty of filler, including historical trivia and interviews with the pitchers and other players, as well as a roundup of what was going on in the rest of the Majors and the Minor Leagues.

He wraps up Diaries with an assessment of what the Yankees have to do to move forward, including the unenviable task of finding a replacement for their future Hall of Fame closer.

Other category: History

9. Clearing the Bases: The Greatest Baseball Debates of the Last Century, by Allen Barra. New York: Thomas Dunne, 2002.

Almost as much as watching the game on the field, hardy baseball fans love a good argument: "who's better" (both team and individual player editions) and "what if" are perennial topics of discourse.

Barra, a sports columnist who has written for the Wall Street Journal and Salon.com, among other publications, brings up several compelling points in Clearing the Bases. Some are quantifiable, while others — such as why pitchers can't throw complete games anymore, or who is the greatest living player (asked at a time when Joe DiMaggio, who insisted on being introduced with that distinction, had recently died), or why the Mets couldn't maintain their winning ways in the mid-1980s — are not.

Some might disagree with his conclusions, but then that's just part of the greater theme, isn't it?

Also by the author: Barra followed up Clearing the Bases with Brushbacks and Knockdowns: The Greatest Baseball Debates of Two Centuries (2004). Guess he remembered a few additional items, such as "Sultan of Swat vs. Splendid Splinter: If Ted is the Greatest Hitter, Why is Babe the Greatest Player?"

10. Fair Ball: A Fan's Case for Baseball, by Bob Costas. New York: Broadway, 2000.

After the strike of 1994 — 95, the hot topic among baseball books was how to repair the game. Several experts — players, journalists, and broadcasters, among others — believed they had the answers to get the national pastime back on track.

Add Bob Costas to the list. His contribution is mostly a rant on the business and organization of the game. Among his suggestions is a new postseason system, even though he declared himself against a radical realignment that occasionally rears its ugly head and snaps at traditionalists. (Who knows — by the time you read this, it may have come to pass.)

Whether you love him or are put off by his almost pseudoreligious reverence for the game, you have to admit Costas has some good ideas, such as returning some postseason games to afternoon broadcasts and starting the night games at an hour that makes them actually watchable for fans on the East Coast who have to go to work or school the following morning. If Major League Baseball is serious about trying to counter flagging interest, they might want to give some of these proposals real thought. After all, this book did spend ten weeks on the New York Times best-seller list.

Other categories: Commentary, New York Times Best Seller

11. The Game: One Man, Nine Innings: A Love Affair With Baseball, by Robert Benson. New York: Penguin, 2001.

There are several books that put a single game under the microscope, examining it for various themes the author deems important. Benson takes it back a notch, looking at a Minor League contest between the Iowa Cubs and the Nashville Sounds in April 2000, a game with ostensibly even less on the line than an early season Major League affair. On the other hand, this may be the kind of game that represents the nostalgic ideal of baseball — a pleasant way to pass a warm summer's evening with family and friends.

Benson's Game combines several perspectives: those of a writer, a father, and, of course, a baseball fan. One can imagine hanging with the author as he sits back during the course of nine innings to ruminate on myriad topics. With writing that is both spare and reverential, Benson compares the plays of the game with the ups and downs of everyday life. At one point he allows that the national pastime is a collection of the routine; few plays, he suggests, are memorable on a long-term basis.

The Game is categorized as a sports book, but it's one more in the metaphor-for-life conceit: sometimes you hit a home run, sometimes you make an error. As the game winds down, the author hopes his children will one day recall the important life lessons it offers: "I wish for them that they will remember that there will be days when the best that can be done is to move the runner ... that even the best of us ... strike out a fair amount" (161).

12. Inside Pitch: Life in Professional Baseball, by George Gmelch. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001.

Gmelch offers an excellent, if brief, overview of a ballplayer's life from cradle to grave, from auditioning before scouts in high school or college right up until the day he hangs up his spikes. The beauty is in its brutal honesty, so readers should beware lest their image of "the life" be shattered.

You can have all the talent in the world and still not make it to the Show due to factors outside your control, such as injury, organization indifference, or just plain bad luck. In fact, the majority of Minor Leaguers are just there so the high-priced upper-round draft picks have someone to play with. It's a sobering experience for a lot of these young men who were used to being the stars of their teams at every level. Some can't hack it; having been coddled since their tee-ball days, they're not used to hearing negatives or dealing with failure on any extended level.


Excerpted from "501 Baseball Books Fans Must Read before They Die"
by .
Copyright © 2013 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction xi

1 Analysis 1

2 Autobiography, Biography, and Memoir 21

3 Ballparks 101

4 Behind the Scenes 107

5 Business 115

6 Fiction 127

7 History 143

8 Instructionals 255

9 International 261

10 Minor Leagues 269

11 Pop Culture 273

12 Reference 343

13 Statistics 361

14 Umpires and Rules 369

15 For Young Readers 375

Index 383

What People are Saying About This

A.J. Jacobs

“I don’t know whether Ron Kaplan took any performance-enhancing drugs, but he has accomplished something amazing. His book is the ultimate guide to baseball literature. If you love baseball or books or any combination thereof, you should pick this up now.”—A. J. Jacobs, author of The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World

Peter Sagal

“This is a book guaranteed to make a baseball fan feel worse than I (a Red Sox fan) did on the last day of the 2011 season. You thought you had a decent baseball library, you thought you were a well-read fan . . . but no! You’re a rookie, and you haven’t read a fraction of all the memoirs, analyses, histories, and novels of baseball out there. But be of good cheer: a whole new world awaits, and Ron Kaplan has drawn you a treasure map.”—Peter Sagal, host of NPR’s Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me!

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501 Baseball Books Fans Must Read Before They Die 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If you are a baseball fan and love books about baseball - you need this book! You will find many you have read and need to be read again, or several "home runs" that need to be tracked down like a long fly ball.