The World Series, with its prize and its pageantry and its insufferable San Francisco Giants, conspires to conceal an unpleasant fact: baseball season is ending. For Rockies fans, the season's end has been technically true for about a month, but spiritually true for many more. If baseball really is "religion without the mischief," then the gods of our temple were sacked by their betters back in May. To the extent there's any benefit from this, it's that we've had more time to reconcile ourselves to the existential crisis of Life Without Baseball. Silver linings and all that.
But in talking on Twitter the other night with ATF about the long offseason, he thought it'd be a good idea to have a Fanpost compiling a list of baseball books, for when hot stove chatter and Winter League box scores can't quite summon the game in our heads, "the only place," Giamatti said, "it truly endures." Since my contributions to Purple Row are roughly zero, I thought I'd oblige.
Below is a summary of my recent baseball reads, most of which come from the last couple of off-seasons. This isn't meant to be a comprehensive list or a list of must-reads. Instead, this is the start of a list, to which I hope you'll add, and the start of a discussion, to which I hope you'll contribute.
1. Out of My League by Dick Hayhurst. I really enjoyed this book, which you probably know by now is the second of Hayhurst's chronicles of being a professional ballplayer. This one concentrates on his arrival in AAA and, subsequently, the major leagues. It succeeds in being honest without being heavy, and depicting the difficulties of minor and major league life with grace rather than self-pity. Most of all, it reminds us that success is much rarer than failure, in life as well as in baseball. If for no other reason, I recommend it because the insight it offers is likely to make it the Ball Four of the modern baseball era. Which brings us to...
2. Ball Four, by Jim Bouton. This first-hand chronicle of life as a big leaguer (now 40 years ago) is more infamous for the scorn professional baseball heaped on it rather than its content. That's an interesting story in itself but, ultimately, it's unfortunate because it makes the book seem antiquated. It isn't. While there's plenty of talk of greenies, drinking and womanizing, for which the book is well known, it also captures the anxiety of life as a big leaguer in much the same way Hayhurst does. It's also pretty funny, like Hayhurst's book, and is written without bitterness or anger. Still, Bouton doesn't paper over the intense and unrelenting pressure felt by the major league player, a pressure few can really appreciate. "Baseball," as Stanley Coveleski said, "is a worrying thing."
3. The Glory of Their Times, by Lawrence Ritter. We may never have had that terrific quote from Coveleski without Lawrence Ritter, who was spurred by a desire to capture the stories of then-living players from the Dead Ball Era, whose stars enjoyed a peaceful anonymity in post-war America. To the delight of any blogger, Ritter wasn't a professional sportswriter or even a journalist. He was an economics professor at NYU -- and a passionate baseball fan. In the 1960s, he set out to find ballplayers from a bygone age, traveling tens of thousands of miles in the process. When he found them, he'd switch on a tape recorder and let them reminisce. Only later would he edit their stories into narrative form. The result is really terrific: Tommy Leach's story about losing the 1903 Series on account of Boston's Royal Rooters, Fred Snodgrass' tragic tale of dropping a fly ball in the final game of the 1912 Series, and Sam Crawford's stories of life as an amateur with friends in Nebraska, and as a professional with Cobb in Detroit. It's an easy read, and one you can pick up and put down at your lesiure. It's a fun experience to hear the greats of the American and National Leagues (Coveleski, Waner, Gosslin) tell their tales in more or less their own words. Al Bridwell tells his, as well. He was an NL lifer, until he "jumped" to a new league in 1914 and joined the St. Louis Terriers. That's a good story in itself, most recently told in...
4. The Battle that Forged Modern Baseball, by Dan Levitt. This book, devoted to the history of the Federal League (which included the Terriers), was my most recent read. I don't know what it is, but something about the Federal League has always interested me. Even though the league lasted only two years, it had an enormous effect on the major and minor leagues of "Organized Baseball," and Levitt does a good job of explaining the ambition of the project to create a third major league, and how its failure impacts the game up to today. Levitt's book is more of a business history, and I wish he would have spent more time talking about the on-field heroics of players and teams in the league, which were considerable. But if you enjoy the behind-the-scenes machinations of owners and players, it's well worth reading.
5. Baseball in the Garden of Eden, by John Thorn. While its influence was undeniable, the Federal League is simply a blip on the geologic scale of baseball, as Thorn reminds us in this book. Not surprisingly for MLB's official historian, Thorn has an encyclopedic command of the game's history, and this book, which starts at the very beginning, reads like an encyclopedia. But if its narrative is a little lacking, the stories of the game's misty, confused origins are still interesting. I read the book on a beach in Maui, so while it was hard to put myself in the stuffy urban thrall of Cartwright's New York City, I still appreciated Thorn's effort in trying to tell a comprehensive story of how we ended up with the game we have today. I only wish the book were as easy to swallow as the Mai Tais.
6. The Summer Game, by Roger Angell. If Thorn is baseball's brain, Angell is its heart. A writer by trade, The Summer Game is a compendium of his essays on the game from the late 50s to the early 70s. This is one of my favorite baseball books, and one that I go back to often. Angell knows his stuff and isn't afraid to dive into the details, even though those details are relatively superficial compared to our era of advanced metrics. But Angell succeeds where most baseball writers fail, namely, in the ability to write lyrically about the game without the prose becoming too purple. His essays on the Mets' early futility are worth it alone. The Summer Game is a great introduction to Angell's style.
7. Bottom of the 33rd, by Dan Barry. But if purple prose is your thing, boy, do I have a book for you. Bottom of the 33rd tells the story of the 1981 AAA game between Pawtucket and Rochester, which went (wait for it) 33 innings, the longest recorded professional game in history. Two hall of famers played in that game (Ripken and Boggs), but most of the participants never sniffed the majors for any considerable time, if at all. The game started at 8:25 and was stopped in the 32nd, just after 4:00 in the morning. It resumed three days later in the 33rd inning. It ended that inning, as well, when Steve Grilli (Jason's dad) surrendered the winning run in the bottom half of the frame. This would've been a great magazine article or essay, but Barry wrenches every last bit of emotional value out of the game. We hear the stories of the never-ran players, the never-ran coaches, the never-ran umpires, all who persisted out of love of the game. It was all a little contrived for my taste and, by the end, I myself felt like a player who... well, that joke writes itself.
8. Nine Innings, by Dan Okrent. Thankfully, Dan Okrent (one of the fathers of fantasy baseball) wrote a book about a single ballgame that's not the least bit overwrought. This is another one of my favorites. Okrent tells the story of a game played in June 1982 between the Orioles and the Brewers (who were still in the AL). The setup is a nondescript game played on a nice day in Milwaukee. The reveal, though, is that a nondescript game is anything but. Okrent takes us through the minds of the players, managers and owners (namely, one Allen H. Selig), giving us their backgrounds and motivations, and showing how those motivations can affect the course of a game, and a series, and a season. Unlike Barry's book, which concentrates way too heavily on life stories, Okrent set out to write a book on how baseball is played. He discusses pitch selection, baserunning, hitters' counts--in other words, all of the intricate pieces that go into the misleading inaction of a ballgame. It's a book that you'll think back on a lot during one of the silences between pitches at the park.
9. The Extra 2%, by Jonah Keri. If Okrent's analytic take on a ballgame is an approximate prequel to Michael Lewis' Moneyball, then The Extra 2% is an approximate successor. The story is of how the Rays' new owners applied lessons of High Finance to evaluating talent, developing players, and otherwise running a major league club. Given the title and the era, I expected a book on SABRmetrics ala Moneyball, but the story of the Extra 2% is a little broader. It devotes a great deal of attention to the dysfunctional history of the Rays, not surprisingly, but there's still plenty of discussion of how new thinking improved the club (not that any clubs need new thinking). Most notably, the Rays deliberately developed into a strong defensive team, and also strengthened their bullpen, on the theory that stopping the other team from scoring is as important as scoring runs oneself. Just as the Moneyball A's were about getting runners on and plating them, the 2% Rays are about keeping the other team's hitters off the bases. While both strategies have their downsides, Keri does a great job describing the transformative effect these new strategies had on a team that was once an afterthought of Expansion.
10. Under the March Sun, by Charles Fountain. If you've ignored family, friends, work, and holidays to tear through the first nine books cover to cover, then let me be the first to say, "Welcome to March!" Now that you have free time, you can pack a bag to Scottsdale and take along Fountain's book to read between games. Fountain's prose won't stir your soul, but he sets out the history of Spring Training in a comprehensive and serviceable way. Fountain explains how the idea for a warm weather preseason camp evolved into Big Business, with communities competing across counties, then across states, for the opportunity to host teams and rake in the dough that comes with them. As Fountain notes, however, the dough is often elusive, and heightened competition has made the possibility of profit even more uncertain. He has a great narrative on the rise and fall of Dodgertown in Florida, and another great one on HoHoKam in Mesa. In the end, you're left with a better understanding of how Spring Training is a great deal more than warm sunshine and baseball.
For now, though, I'll gladly settle for warm sunshine and baseball. They're already feeling far away.