‘Loveliest of trees, the cherry now,’ and spring means baseball is back. Great authors have always been drawn to the national pastime—it's a way to write about America, from The Natural to Moneyball. By Jimmy So. Leave a comment and tell us what we left out.
The Summer Games by Roger Angell
From spring to fall and from decade to decade, baseball changed in the mezzo years between 1962 and 1972—the hot summer when leagues were expanding, franchises were moving, owners were getting richer, players were getting bigger, and television was altering the game. The New Yorker writer’s pitch-perfect essays from the 1960s gave birth to modern baseball writing, the way that A.J. Liebling was the heavyweight of boxing literature. Read Angell, and you can practically feel the summer breeze blowing through the outfield bleachers. The smell of spring is in the air.
Moneyball by Michael Lewis
Quick. Name one book about baseball. Chances are you said Moneyball. You’ve at least seen the movie, or heard about it. How do you spend $41 million and compete against the New York Yankees’ $125 million payroll? What Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, had “was a willingness to rethink baseball: how it is managed, how it is played, who is best suited to play it, and why.” That’s not easy for a game synonymous with “tradition.” Alongside the mentions of on-base-percentages and sabermetrics is a very human story of (relatively) strapped underdogs up against flushed elites. Whether Beane’s sabermetrics works is almost beside the point—this is a story about the nature of competition.
The Natural by Bernard Malamud
The most divisive book on this list isn’t so much a baseball novel as it is a novel by a man who didn’t consider a book to be a book unless it can be used to procure a Pulitzer. There’s something about baseball that mesmerized post-war immigrants, and Malamud nailed it with the mythical tale of Roy Hobbs, a “natural” of such star magnetism that he gets shot by a woman for mysterious reasons, and then must climb out of the recovery abyss. One swing of his bat (the Excalibur-like “Wonderboy”) could mean redemption—or ruin. Baseball purists find this allegory dark and over-the-top. But Malamud, who didn’t let so much as a fly buzz by without writing about it as long as it passed through Brooklyn, showed us what Jews living blocks away from Ebbets Field must have felt: awe and hope in the shadow of an ugly new world.
Bang the Drum Slowly by Mark Harris
The four-part story of Henry Wiggen begins with The Southpaw, which was published a year after The Natural. It, too, has the tendency to knock big hitters out cold, since Harris likes the vernacular so much it can look as if he’s throwing nothing but fastballs that blow by you. But true to its title, Bang the Drum Slowly stays the flash of the high heat and centers on the poignant life of Bruce Pearson, Wiggen’s catcher and roommate, who’s dying slowly of cancer.
October 1964 by David Halberstam
The premier journalistic chronicler of the ‘60s was also one of the greatest reporters to have written on sports. (He was killed five years ago in a car crash on his way to interview the quarterback who led the New York Giants in “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”) It should come as no surprise, since to understand America you must take note of its sports, so deeply are they woven into the national psyche. Like Moneyball, the narrative of the 1964 World Series pitted the upstart underdogs St. Louis Cardinals against the Goliath New York Yankees, and Halberstam painted vivid portraits of every member of the teams, from Roger Maris and Micky Mantle to the determined young buck Lou Brock. This is how American men acted, thought, and felt.
You Know Me Al by Ring Lardner
Read this book out loud, or don’t read it at all. The Southpaw did not invent the colloquial baseball novel. Lardner did. And it is pitch-perfect. Virginia Woolf never saw a single baseball game, though from what I gather, she could probably toss a no-hitter, no sweat. But she read You Know Me Al, and called its letter-writing hero, the plainspoken bush-leaguer Jack Keefe, a character through whom “we gaze into the depths of society.” Never mind that the society she so wanted to gaze into was a foreign land populated by people she’d deem savage and subhuman—to Woolf, no one is sophisticated enough, except maybe Lardner.
Triumph & Tragedy in Mudville by Steven Jay Gould
The author of The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, which could stop a tank, not only by its size but also by its heavyweight science, adored baseball. (He was a lifelong Yankee fan, though I won’t hold it against him.) Witness a great mind applying the expertise of a world-class statistician to the love of the game, and find out why “nothing ever happened in baseball above and beyond the frequency predicted by coin-tossing models”—in fact, everything in the universe is governed by mathematical rules. He learned that from Bill James, the Boston Red Sox sabermetrics guru who inspired Billy Beane and laid the groundwork for the 2004 champions.
The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. by Robert Coover
Waugh, the accountant protagonist of the metanovelist Coover's strange fiction, might have gotten along with Gould. Each night after work, he becomes the god of something like a fantasy baseball league, tossing dice to dictate the plays of players like “bowlegged old Maggie Everts” or “Hatrack Hines.” The conceit might sound pretentious, but it works, and the fun this book offers must be read to be believed.
The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn
“I’ve seen the Brooklyn Dodgers / Play in Ebbets Field,” Tom Waits croaked, as if it was a privilege. It was. It’s more than that: it’s myth. To relive the legend, you need Kahn’s The Boys of Summer, the story of titans like Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, and Carl Erskine, gods in their glory days who would soon see the twilight. “I see the boys of summer in their ruin lay the gold tithings barren,” as Dylan Thomas said.
The Last Good Season by Michael Shapiro
And the twilight is meticulously depicted in The Last Good Season, which tells you everything you need to know about the tragedy of the Dodgers. (How could Brooklyn not have a team? It nearly killed poor Malamud.) The story is nothing short of a portrait of a city, charting the rise of the feared Robert Moses and the vanishing of the “chained bay waters Liberty” of Hart Crane and Walt Whitman’s old Brooklyn.
The Great American Novel by Philip Roth
Skim a synopsis of a Roth satire and you might think him only riotous, ludicrous and extravagant. But if you know Roth you know that even a story about the only homeless major-league team in American history—the Ruppert Mundys—would be very human. After all, even Alexander Portnoy wanted to be a ball player: “Oh, to be a center fielder, a center fielder—and nothing more!”
Ball Four by Jim Bouton
The forebear of tell-all books like Jose Canseco’s (baseball, hitherto something like a religious sect, was notoriously late to the expositional genre), Ball Four shocked the game when major-league pitcher Jim Bouton decided to let readers peek inside the dugout in 1970. Frequent doping—that’s the sin that was aired, and the one that still haunts the sport.
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
What if all baseball players were like Hamlet? Can you field a ball if you over think it? That’s the existential crisis that strikes Henry Skrimshander, the prodigious shortstop of the Division III Westish College Harpooners, who one day finds himself, suddenly and without reason or cause, unable to scoop up a routine grounder. No such affliction for Harbach—this first novel flows like Albert Pujols’s swing, and could very well represent the start of a new wave of baseball lit. Here’s to the future.