05.08.13

The Idiot’s Guide to Writing a Baseball Book

Pick a year. Any year. Declare it the best season in baseball history. And, Luke Epplin says, you've got yourself a book deal. There are just a few more steps to follow.

Let’s say you’re a young baseball beat writer itching to land a book contract. You cover a team that few book editors in New York care about—the White Sox (not the Cubs) or the Twins (no explanation necessary)—and have never fit in among the trendy sabermetrics crowd. Ghostwriting is not your thing, and you find that all the great dynasties have already been exhaustively dissected by brand-name authors. What’s an ambitious writer to do?

Never fear, there’s still a surefire path for securing a book deal. Simply pick a year—any year, really—and make a case for why that baseball season stands out from all others. Follow one of the templates below and you’ll ink a deal in no time.

Declare Your Chosen Year the Best in Baseball History

Does your chosen year include any combination of the following: record-breaking performances, tight pennant races, controversy, a World Series that went the distance, a slew of future Hall of Famers in their prime? If so, then your year was not merely great; it was the best ever—an assertion that you must trumpet in your book’s subtitle and defend vigorously in the opening chapter. (You can drop it entirely afterward.)

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A man looks at plaques of Hall of Fame players at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, July 24, 2010. (Mike Groll/AP)

Models: Right from the start in Crazy ’08: How a Cast of Cranks, Rogues, Boneheads, and Magnates Created the Greatest Year in Baseball History, Cait Murphy throws down the gauntlet, proclaiming that anyone who argues against 1908 as baseball’s greatest season is, quite simply, “wrong.” Equating baseball seasons to serialized Charles Dickens novels, Murphy contends that in 1908 “there are simply more chapters, more incidents, more characters, more surprises, and more drama than in any other.” In other words, 1908 is the Bleak House of baseball seasons; the rest are Martin Chuzzlewit in comparison.

Not so fast, declares Reed Browning in his book Baseball’s Greatest Season, 1924. For him, Murphy’s claim holds water if only the regular season is taken into account. But after a nail-biting pennant drive in which six teams remained in contention with two games left, the 1908 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and Detroit Tigers turned out to be, in Murphy’s own words, a “damp squib,” with the Cubs emerging victorious in the fifth game before the sparest crowd in World Series history. For a season to be the greatest ever, Browning insists that “it must be exciting across its stretch and exciting to the end. And that’s the treat that 1924 offers.” The 1924 World Series not only stretched to seven games, with the Washington Senators winning their only championship over the mighty New York Giants, but, Browning claims, it actually saved baseball from the bribery scandals that continued to plague the sport. Rule of thumb: any season that saves baseball is a contender for “best ever” status.

For as great as the 1908 and 1924 seasons were, neither featured record-breaking individual achievements—at least, nothing comparable to Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s assault on Roger Maris’s single-season homerun mark. That chase was so riveting that it prompted color commentator Tim McCarver to gush in The Perfect Season: Why 1998 Was Baseball’s Greatest Year that “the year 1998 wasn’t just the greatest in baseball history; it was the greatest any sport has ever enjoyed.” It should be noted that McCarver published this book in the afterglow of that giddy season, before innocent sports fans even knew what the initials “HGH” stood for. Following the 2005 congressional hearing on steroid use in which McGwire refused to speak in the past tense and Sosa mysteriously unlearned English, it’s a good bet that McCarver has since rethought his choice.

In contrast, Robert W. Creamer most likely never second-guessed his selection. In Baseball in ’41: A Celebration of the Best Baseball Season Ever—in the Year America Went to War, Creamer argues that Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak and Ted Williams’s quest to hit .400 transcended baseball, providing much-needed solace to a nation on the verge of war. To prove his point, Creamer called up a pair of friends, both nicknamed Bud, and told them that he was planning to write about the 1941 season. On cue, each Bud affirmed that the greatness of 1941 would never be surpassed. Another rule of thumb: two Buds can’t be wrong.

Tip: When selecting your best-ever year, make sure at least a decade has passed. Otherwise, you’ll have to live with statements such as this from McCarver’s book: “Just as [McGwire and Sosa] were showing everybody what was right about baseball, almost every other sport (basketball, football, boxing, swimming, even cycling, for heaven’s sake) had its image tarnished by work stoppages, drug scandals, or ear-biting incidents.”

Years to Consider: 1951, 1978, 1991, 2011.

Does your chosen year include any combination of the following: record-breaking performances, tight pennant races, controversy, a World Series that went the distance, a slew of future Hall of Famers in their prime?

Group Together a Bunch of Years, Dub Them a Golden Era

This has been a favored approach for writers who came of age in the post–World War II era. For them, choosing only one year for best-ever status proved impossible; the entire postwar era merited consideration. After all, they were the greatest generation, so the sport’s golden era surely must have overlapped with their athletic primes. 

Models: The reasons why the postwar era was golden are remarkably similar in such books as Roger Kahn’s The Era, 1947–1957: When the Yankees, the Giants, and the Dodgers Ruled the World and J. Ronald Oakley’s Baseball’s Last Golden Age, 1946–1960: The National Pastime in a Time of Glory and Change: African-Americans finally broke into the majors; no other sport could yet challenge baseball’s preeminence; attendance rose sharply and television expanded the sport’s audience; and players became more educated about their labor rights. The only thing these writers seem not to agree on is the precise year the golden era ended, and which New York team boasted the most obnoxious fans.

Tip: Not coincidentally, baseball’s golden era coincided with the dominance of New York City’s three clubs and concluded when the Giants and Dodgers departed for the West Coast and the Yankees’ grip on the American League loosened. So if you’re seeking to write about a second golden age in baseball, ask yourself this: did several Midwestern teams win the World Series during your proposed era? If so, then it probably wasn’t golden.

Years to Consider: Pretty much any period when the Yankees were dominant.

Connect the Chosen Year to Your Childhood, Layer Thickly With Nostalgia

Want to tap into the eclipsing nostalgia of your rapidly aging generation? Simply select a season from your formative years and recast that glorious summer as a coming-of-age narrative. There’s no need to make a case for best-ever status; you should aim instead for a “remember when” vibe, sprinkled with sepia-toned anecdotes from your vanished childhood. Make sure to reference music, film, and hairstyles of the time.

Models: The gold standard is David Halberstam’s Summer of ’49, a book so sure of itself that it doesn’t even need a subtitle. (Note: your book will need a subtitle.) Like most of Halberstam’s work, it reads like an anecdote-jammed social history until the concluding author’s note, when Halberstam reveals that the 1949 season resonates with him because it helped him cope with his father’s untimely death that year. It’s only then that readers realize that this otherwise impersonal re-creation of the heated pennant race between Joe DiMaggio’s Yankees and Ted Williams’s Red Sox provided a way for Halberstam to work through certain deep-seated emotions that had never left him.

All the sap that Halberstam suppressed seeps unabashedly into Mike Lupica’s Summer of ’98: When Homers Flew, Records Fell, and Baseball Reclaimed America. In it, Lupica links the 1961 season, when he was 9 years old and enthralled by the Roger Maris–Mickey Mantle homerun race, to the 1998 season, when his middle son was 8 years old and equally mesmerized by the macho feats of McGwire and Sosa. As he notes: “More than anything, this is a book about my father and my sons, a golden thread stretching from 1961 to 1998, from Maris to McGwire, from the notes my father left me on the floor of my room to the ones I left for my sons.” This sentence is a master’s class in itself, bundling all the clichés of the genre: the bond between fathers and sons across generations, wistfulness, hero worship, the passing of time. Budding writers would do well to take notes.

Tip: Include at least one scene of a father-son backyard game of catch. Marvel at how young your father seems in your memory; then mention how innocent you once were.

Years to Consider: Follow baseball historian Lawrence Ritter’s advice: “From an emotional standpoint ... each individual fan has his own ‘Golden Age.’ It’s the period when that fan was between 8 and 16 years old.” 

Link Your Chosen Season with Larger Social Changes

Even book editors who know next to nothing about sports believe that baseball somehow is a reflection of the American spirit. Pretty much every writer from Mark Twain onward has recited this little chestnut, so why not use it to your advantage by picking a tumultuous year in U.S. history and drawing connections, no matter how tenuous, between larger social changes and that particular baseball season. For such books, remember that a momentous highlight or an iconic player is never merely that; rather, they are emblematic of whatever happens to be going on in the country at large. 

Models: Take Robert Weintraub’s The Victory Season: The End of World War II and the Birth of Baseball’s Golden Age. A chronicle of the 1946 season, Weintraub’s book culminates in a gripping World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Boston Red Sox. In the deciding seventh game, with Cardinals’ outfielder Enos “Country” Slaughter on first base, Harry Walker slapped a single into left-center. Already running on the pitch, Slaughter charged into third, ignored his coach’s stop signal, and made a mad dash to home. Red Sox centerfield Johnny Pesky nabbed the relay, double-clutched the ball, and threw late to the plate. It was a thrilling end to an evenly matched series, but Weintraub goes much further than that, turning Slaughter’s “Mad Dash” into the epitome of the entire postwar era:

Then one man, whose very name evoked God and country and war, had taken matters into his own hands, seized upon a calculated risk, and saw it pay off in spades. He had ignored tradition and conventional wisdom, cast off advice and resistance from outside forces, and changed history with one moment of valor and gusto.

Fans across the country had a strong, unified reaction: How we long to do the same! And much of the story of the coming two decades, during which Pax Americana reigned supreme, was that of people undertaking Mad Dashes of their own.

Tip: Don’t aim for subtlety. Make the connection explicit in the subtitle (see, for instance, Tim Wendel’s book Summer of ’68: The Season That Changed Baseball, and America, Forever) and then hammer away at it every chance you get.

Years to Consider: 1917, 1969–73, 2001

So that’s all you need, more or less, to compose a winning book proposal: decide on a year, make a couple of lofty assertions, string together a handful of anecdotes about the era’s star players, tie in a few historical figures and events, and then coast through to the World Series. Oh, and if it weren’t abundantly clear, don’t skimp on the subtitle—if yours doesn’t include some combination of the words “best,” “golden,” “forever,” “greatest,” “last,” “incredible,” or “America,” then you're not quite ready for the big leagues.