Anyone who reads this space consistently will find that I make a lot of references to baseball books in my writing. Most of these are in fact books that I own. I’m proud to say I have a pretty decent personal baseball library that I’ve been accumulating since childhood. For whatever reason, baseball is a sport that lends itself to wonderful, poetic writing (along with boxing and horse racing I’ve heard) and today, I offer five essentials, the five baseball books I’d want to bring to a desert island were I ever stranded there:
1. The Boys of Summer, by Roger Kahn
This is actually the latest book that I’m reading, and I’m only about 100 pages in, though already it’s wonderful. Kahn offers an autobiographical look at the Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s, drawn from his days as a young beat writer for that team. Lots of former players are interviewed, including Jackie Robinson and Duke Snider.
2. Summer of ’49, by David Halberstam
This takes somewhat of a similar approach to Boys of Summer, with lots of interviews of former players, though this time, it’s the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees of the 1949 pennant race who are chronicled. A Harvard graduate and former Vietnam correspondent, Halberstam offered a book full of depth and insight. He ends with a nice quote from Ted Williams, though on an interesting side note, Joe DiMaggio refused to participate in the book.
3. The Glory of their Times, by Lawrence Ritter
Possibly the very best baseball book out there. The book is an oral history of the early days of baseball, comprised of interviews with about 20 ballplayers whose careers spanned the beginning to middle of the 20th century. One of those books that also provided a public service, it’s no surprise that the original tapes Ritter made interviewing the players are now in the Hall of Fame. In fact, a number of the players profiled here later were inducted into the Hall, possibly because the book brought awareness to their careers. Ritter later wrote another great book, The Lost Ballparks, about demolished fields.
4. Ball Four, by Jim Bouton
This one broke ground when it came out. A diary of the 1969 season by Bouton, an acerbic relief pitcher, the book exposed players as drunks, amphetamine users and philanderers. Though comparatively tame today, the book violated the unwritten code of clubhouse privacy and shook baseball. The San Diego Padres burned a copy of the book before a game, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn had a meeting with Bouton in an attempt to coerce a retraction, and Pete Rose taunted “Fuck you Shakespeare” from his dugout. Incidentally, the book is also funny, intelligent and just vulgar enough to be charming.
5. Baseball, by Ken Burns and Geoffrey C. Ward
This was released in conjunction with Burns’ epic 1994 documentary of the same name and is basically a written account of what aired on PBS. Filled with pictures, oral histories, essays and anecdotes, this is probably the finest chronicle of baseball history among the several that I own. I hope Burns offers an updated version at some point.
I could recommend a whole slew of other titles, though I’ll keep this short today.