1. The Glory of Their Times by Lawrence Ritter: When this book was updated in 1985, a reviewer wrote, “This was the best baseball book published in 1966, it is the best baseball book of its kind now, and, if it is reissued in 10 years, it will be the best baseball book of 1995.” I don’t know how any baseball book can top this one. Ritter spent five years interviewing roughly two dozen former ballplayers from the Deadball Era and beyond. More than providing unique historical perspective, their stories are entertaining, funny, and inspiring to a writer like myself. There must be more of these stories out there.
2. Baseball by Ken Burns and Geoffrey Ward: I got this book for Christmas in 1994, a few months after watching the accompanying PBS special, and I still open it occasionally. I don’t know if I’ve read every word, but some of the stories I’ve read countless times. So much of my ethos and knowledge base as a writer and baseball historian comes from this book, which covers more than a century of the game’s history. I’ve even used the bibliography, a veritable who’s-who of great baseball books, to gauge how much of the sport’s essential literature I’ve gotten to.
3. Ball Four by Jim Bouton: Bouton wrote this diary of the 1969 season, and while many of the then-groundbreaking revelations seem tame by today’s standards (players in the book pop amphetamine pills and womanize), I still get great replay value from it. Bouton’s writing was fresh, honest, and entertaining in 1970, it doesn’t seem dated today, and it’s almost weird some of the book’s players have passed, like Greg Goosen whose death was announced Sunday.
4. Cardboard Gods by Josh Wilker: Wilker’s memoir is told through his childhood baseball cards, and as someone who collected almost obsessively as a child, it could well have been my life story. It helps that Wilker’s writing is vivid, humorous, and well-influenced. When I emailed Wilker in preparing a review of his book, he told me he drew inspiration from one of my favorite writers, Tobias Wolff.
5. Summer of ’49 by David Halberstam: Halberstam brought the approach of a Harvard graduate and Pulitzer Prize-winning Vietnam reporter to the story of the 1949 American League pennant race, interviewing almost every living member of that year’s Red Sox and Yankees when he wrote this book in the 1980s. Seemingly, only Joe DiMaggio stiffed Halberstam, though Ted Williams provided wonderful material.
6. The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn: I like The Boys of Summer a little less than Summer of ’49, because Halberstam was able to remove himself more from the work. But that’s also part of the magic with Kahn’s work, as much a memoir of his time as a young reporter covering the Brooklyn Dodgers as it is a chronicling years later of the players in retirement. Duke Snider’s death on Sunday reinforced the historical value of Kahn’s efforts, as did the deaths of fellow Brooklyn greats Pee Wee Reese, Gil Hodges, and Jackie Robinson.
7. The Lost Ballparks by Lawrence Ritter: While not on the same magnitude as Ritter’s first work here, this is a fun book which has been in my collection since childhood. It features the Polo Grounds, Ebbets Field, Shibe Park, and many more bygone parks, telling how they stood, when they were demolished, and what remains of them today. My grandparents own a ranch near Tracy, California, and I used to enjoy exploring some of the derelict old buildings on their property as a kid, wondering what remnants of the past I could find. That part of me finds books like this fascinating.
8. Baseball As I Have Known It by Fred Lieb: Lieb published this book in 1977, approaching his 90th birthday, recounting everything in his baseball writing career from its beginnings in 1911. There’s so much baseball history here that Lieb witnessed, from the death of Ray Chapman to the career of Babe Ruth to the illness and death of his friend, Lou Gehrig. This is another one-of-a-kind book from a writer with a unique life. The only sportswriter I can think of who worked longer was Shirley Povich who wrote for the Washington Post from 1923 to 1998.
9. Game of Shadows by Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada: Williams and Fainaru-Wada built this book out of their reporting for the San Francisco Chronicle on the BALCO steroid scandal which implicated Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, and Gary Sheffield among others. I don’t know of a more sober, comprehensive look at baseball’s biggest scandal in 20 years.
10. The Last Boy by Jane Leavy: I’ve been remiss on posting something here about this book, which I received a review copy of in the fall and finished last month. I should hopefully have a longer piece up in the next few weeks. For now, what I’ll say is Leavy set the standard for baseball biographies with this book, taking five years to interview more than 600 people connected to Mantle and craft an evenhanded look at the controversial Yankee center fielder.