Solid Roster

The Season’s Best Baseball Books

From pinstripes to the penitentiary (where homers took time off your sentence), from knuckleballs to Mighty Casey, these eclectic baseball titles are all winners.

04.12.15 10:45 AM ET

While this year’s crop of baseball related books doesn’t have a biography like baseball titan Ted Williams’s (The Kid by Ben Bradlee Jr.) or a narrative about a game-changing development such as Michael Lewis’s Moneyball, there are a number of excellent titles paying due attention to deserving former players and managers, some uncovering unusual and just plain weird stories, and others further analyzing the minutiae of baseball metrics and inside baseball stuff for both the true devotee as well as the casual fan. The National Pastime, while losing a portion of the U.S. sports audience pie to the money-sucking colossus grandly referred to as America’s Game (a debatable rubric), aka the NFL, has blossomed into an international pastime since 2006 with the participation of 23 countries (including teams from the far-flung sandlots in China, Israel, and a real world series, The World Baseball Classic (the fourth tourney will held in 2017).

But whatever the ranking of hardball in the hierarchy of commercial rankings, the sport has always inspired and continues to inspire the best writing of any sport (see George Plimpton’s Small Ball Rule: the smaller the ball the better the book), from Bernard Malamud and Robert Coover to Mark Harris to Chad Harbach; from Red Smith to Roger Angell to Peter Gammons and Steve Buckley, baseball is a sport that is almost as much fun to read about as to watch.

Here’s this year’s rookie class:

Baseball writer, historian, statistician, and father of sabermetrics, Bill James publishes his annual baseball reference guide with comprehensive stats on every hit, pitch, and catch in Major League Baseball’s 2014 season—and includes player projections for 2015. Additionally, this compendium tracks Shifts Summary, Pitcher Career Fastball Velocity Trends, Career Defensive Runs Saved, League Stats Breakdown by Position, Rotation vs. Bullpen team charts showcasing the strengths and weaknesses of each team’s pitching staff, Home Run Robberies, and many more metrics.

In baseball literature, only John Updike’s paean to Ted Williams, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” might be as famous as Ernest Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat,” which every fan knows ends with

Oh, somewhere in this favoured land the sun is shining bright,
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout,
But there is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey has struck out.

In 1953, for the 50th anniversary of the World Series, cartoonist Willard Mullin illustrated Thayer’s poem, illustrations which were then used as premiums on drinking glasses. Thought to have been lost, they were recovered in 2002 and now have found their way into book form. This well-reproduced two-color edition also includes additional material— the “Fan’s Alphabet,” the poems “Iron Horse Lou” and “O Brooklyn, My Brooklyn,” a preface by Yogi Berra, and an illuminating essay by baseball historian Tim Wiles.

I don’t know about you but I don’t remember any media coverage of the fourth Women’s Baseball World Cup in Caracas, Venezuela, in 2010. Jennifer Ring, a professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Reno, and author of Stolen Bases: Why American Girls Don’t Play Baseball, charts the unobserved history of women in baseball via interviews with players, coaches, and administrators. Team USA’s roster included 20 women who had overcome the relentless pressure to switch to softball. Bing vividly describes the challenges as well as lack of support women hardball players overcome. By the way, the 2010 ladies came home from Venezuela with a bronze medal.

The Heart of the Order
by Theo Schell-Lambert.

In recent years there have only been a couple of well-crafted baseball novels (Harbach’s The Art of Fielding and Schuster’s The Might Have Been. Theo Schell-Lambert’s The Heart of the Order takes a novel narrative approach when minor leaguer Blake “Xandy” Alexander is hurt with a possibly career-ending injury. The novel’s conceit has Xandy listening to his team’s games on the radio with his laptop in hand. He ends up with a spate of sometimes clever, occasionally funny deliberations written as his journal entries. It’s an entertaining display of our once and future national pastime’s allure—with all its minutiae and arcana—for the contemplative mind.

Southpaw pitcher Masanori Murakami become the first Japanese Major Leaguer in 1964. Playing with the San Francisco Giants at the age of 19, he also ended up being the last one for 30 years—his contract ignited a squabble that ultimately prevented other Japanese players from joining the Majors for 30 years. Robert K. Fitts (Banzai Babe Ruth: Baseball, Espionage) an award-winning sportswriter with a good grasp of Japan’s baseball culture, clearly explicates the factors at play in this exotic baseball narrative—one that has become increasingly relevant as MLB extends it recruitment strategies internationally.

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Puerto Rican-born Yankee catcher Jorge Posada is one of the Pinstripes’ “Core Four” (along with Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, and Mariano Rivera). As a player in the modern strife-filled era for 17 years, he represents the first part of the first wave of recently retired players to recall his ball-playing career as well as the sociological context for his accomplishments that shaped the Yankee teams of which he was a part. Plus there apparently is some commercial gold folded into the pinstripes.

Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty
by Charles Leerhsen.

This season brings two books on Ty Cobb, arguably the greatest baseball player ever: His lifetime batting average is still the highest of all time, and he was an MVP, Triple Crown-winner, and 12-time batting champion. He was in the inaugural class of Baseball Hall of Famers, alongside baseball titans Honus Wagner, Babe Ruth, Christy Mathewson, and Walter Johnson. Both these books take revisionist positions on the “The Georgia Peach’s” reputation as a rude, nasty racist hated by other players and the press. Charles Leerhsen traveled to Georgia and Detroit to research the real story of Cobb and among other discoveries found a father who was a progressive on race, for his time. Tim Hornbaker claims his is an unbiased biography offering the full and true story of Cobb’s life and career, correcting the conventional wisdom on Cobb, promulgated by the 1994 film Cobb.

Hall of Famer Gil Hodges was a key player on the competitive Brooklyn Dodgers and subsequently guided the 1969 “Miracle Mets” to a World Series championship. He was admired as a player and a sage veteran, and Mort Zachter (Dough: A Memoir) engages with hands-on interviews with a wide swath of Hodges’s Marine buddies, friends, family, former teammates, players, and other managers who knew him, providing a picture of the whole man whose life as well as his playing career were worthy of Hall of Fame accolades.

In baseball folklore, a handful of managers rise to the level of celebrity and fame and more significantly as raconteurs and the transmitters of the game’s stories—Earl Weaver, Casey Stengel, Leo Durocher, Walter Alston, Sparky Anderson.

Billy Martin was a major league lifer, first as a player and then for the last 16 years of his career as a manager. The question of his “genius” is less interesting than the fact that he was hired and fired by the Yankees’s George Steinbrenner five times (a total of nine times in his career). He was certainly the most entertaining, headline-generating manager of his era with his brawling and carousing off the field and his tempestuous dirt kicking fits on the field. New York Times writer Pennington’s intriguing profile covers Martin’s 61-year life from beginning (humble roots, broken home) to an end where the author ruminates on Martin’s unacknowledged alcoholism and how it might play out in today’s rehabilitation climate.

Tommy Lasorda: My Way
by Colin Gunderson, foreword by Joe Torre.

The ebullient and chatty former skipper of the Los Angeles Dodgers (“I bleed Dodger blue”) was a sportswriter’s go-to guy during his successful Dodgers tenure—he won the World Series twice, won four National League pennants and eight division titles. This authorized hagiography by longtime Dodgers press coordinator Colin Gunderson fills in whatever blanks about Tommy that haven’t already been revealed as well some well-worn Lasorda anecdotes.

It would seem de rigueur that professional sports coaches have a coherent strategy for success and, of course, many cash in on this expectation, hitting the rubber chicken circuit as motivational speakers to hungry corporations and fans. Mike Matheny, whose 13-year playing career as a Major League catcher was shortened by a series of concussions and whose only previous managing experience was a Little League team, was chosen to succeed Tony La Russa as manager of the St. Louis Cardinals in 2012. While a relative youngster among MLB managers, he led his team to the postseason three times in his first three years (it doesn’t hurt that he has super catcher Yadier Molina). However he has also developed an “old school tough love” philosophy as a Little League coach, codifying it in a letter to the parents of players that reportedly stirred some Internet excitement. And now there’s this book. Chapter titles such as “The Coach Is Always Right, Even When He’s Wrong” and “Let Your Catcher Call the Game” should give you a sense of Matheny’s point of view.

You couldn’t make this up—a baseball team made up of convicted felons competing to reduce their sentences. The Wyoming State Penitentiary All Stars had a 12-man roster that included three rapists, a forger, five thieves, and three killers. They played their first game in the summer of 1912. Winning meant time off their sentences, individual errors that led to a loss meant a death sentence. Lest you find this system of punishment barbaric, you might consider the frontier justice the book describes: “Desperadoes caught in the act of robbery, rape or murder in the town were not only hanged but sometimes actually skinned. Various items were made from the hides of these unfortunate lawbreakers, sold as souvenirs, and used as a warning to other would-be felons.” The All Stars played only four games (vs. Wyoming Supply Company Juniors, one of the best local teams), but their story attracted national attention: The Washington Post’s story was headlined, “Slayer Scores Home Runs,” noting convicted murderer George Seng’s accomplishments.

New York Daily News sports columnist Filip Bondy’s eighth book transforms a minor albeit amusing baseball play into an artful narrative, replete with a great cast of characters including Billy Martin, George Steinbrenner, Rush Limbaugh (as the Royals promotions director), Joe McCarthy, and attack dog lawyer Roy Cohn. On July 24, 1983, during a game between the Yankees and the Kansas City Royals, Billy Martin pointed out an illegal amount of (grip-enhancing) pine tar on Royals third baseman George Brett’s bat. The umpires wiped out the go-ahead home run and mayhem ensued. Brett wildly charged out of the dugout—probably the most iconic baseball tantrum recorded. The game was suspended, to be resumed weeks later. Hall of Famer Brett, Goose Gossage, Willie Randolph, Ron Guidry, Sparky Lyle, David Cone, John Schuerholz and others weigh in on a fracas that occurred three decades before steroids and nine-digit salaries.

Something of a collectable, this tome collects pictures of the covers of each issue of Baseball’s “Who’s Who” since the 1912 edition (Ty Cobb on the cover), tying each to a summary of the previous season.

Jane Leavy has already written the definitive biography of intensely private southpaw Koufax, the youngest person elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame, the first pitcher to throw four no-hitters and win three Cy Young Awards. He was also the first player to observe Jewish Holy Days during a World Series. In this, the second volume of a trilogy on the Dodgers in the Koufax era (1958-1966), Endsley details Koufax’s crucial contributions to the transplanted Brooklynites’ struggle to return to pennant contention. The early ’60s were heady and hopeful times and Endsley paints them vividly and ably, contextualizing what was still a fundamentally conservative sport even as the times they were a changin’.

The Martinez Family lived in Manoguayabo in the Dominican Republic, where eight-time All Star, three-time Cy Young Award winner Pedro Martinez fueled his desire to emulate his older brother’s pitching prowess and one day play on the same team in Las Grandes Ligas. It’s a sweet family story; young adult story writer Matt Tavares has imbued it with a warmth and hopefulness and, by showing the early makings of a baseball legend, he makes it much more than just another profile of a Hall of Famer.

Pedro
by Pedro Martinez and Michael Silverman.

The Boston Herald’s Michael Silverman puts to good use his years covering the Red Sox and their diminutive future Hall of Fame pitcher Pedro Martinez, constructing a balanced account of Martinez’s voyage from the impoverishment (the proverbial hardscrabble upbringing) of the Dominican through his 18 Major League seasons as a fiery competitor into his status as one of the sport’s revered senior statesmen and now a MLB Network analyst on a number of programs.

There is lots of mojo—and endless discussion—surrounding the 60 foot, 6 inch journey of a sphere constructed of two strips of white horsehide or cowhide tightly stitched together over a surface area nine inches in circumference and almost three inches in diameter and weighing five ounces. But of all baseball’s mysteries surrounding the hurling of a baseball, the pitch known as the knuckleball is the most baffling. Charlie Hough, a former practitioner, observed, “It took me a day to learn [the knuckleball] and a lifetime to learn how to throw it for a strike.” Following its amusing history all the way back to Chicago White Sox pitcher Ed Cicotte, Freedman also interviews the small contemporary coterie of hurlers who have found success with this pitch—Hall of Famer Phil Niekro, former All-Stars Wilbur Wood and Tim Wakefield, and 2011 Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey.

Recent developments in international affairs have greatly increased this book’s value as a reference work (also see The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball by Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria)—though fans have long recognized Cuba as an incubator for Major League talent from the incomparable Minnie Minoso, Pedro Ramos, Tony Oliva, Jose Cardinal, Tony Perez, and Bert Campinaris to the current crop of stars that includes José Abreu, Yasiel Puig, Rusney Castillo, and Yoenis Céspedes. As Bjarkman points out, “Cuban national teams have reached the finals of 38 consecutive major world tournaments, won better than 90 percent of their international contests since 1939, repeatedly beaten U.S. all-stars at the avowed American national game, and reigned for more than half a century as undisputed champions of global baseball.” All of which suggests the possibility, if not the inevitability, of Major League Baseball someday establishing an outpost in the largest island in the Caribbean.

Major League Baseball and its fans have belatedly but surely recognized the travails and the achievements of African-American baseball players. Kadir Nelson’s We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball was a stunning tribute. Now award-winning graphic artist and baseball historian Cieradkowski delivers an illustrated anthology that not only celebrates Negro League greats like Josh Gibson and Leon Day but players like Shoeless Joe Jackson, Mickey Mantle, Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, and Joe DiMaggio before they became famous. And as frosting on this cake he found some people that most never knew played the game, including Frank Sinatra, who had his own ball club in ’40s Hollywood, and bank robber John Dillinger. It’s well researched and elegantly illustrated, using a vintage baseball-card-style.

No surprise that professional sports have always been about the money. But the exponential rise in player salaries, huge TV contracts, and an expanding array of analytical tools to evaluate talent and assess performance have made off-the-field matters a source of great interest to both rabid and casual fans alike. Michael Lewis’s Moneyball popularized baseball number-crunching around the office water cooler, and its success has inspired a slew of books addressing the strategies involved in constructing a winning organization.

The Hidden Game of Baseball: A Revolutionary Approach to Baseball and Its Statistics
by John Thorn, Pete Palmer, and David Reuther; foreword by Keith Law.

Credit should be given to John Thorn and Pete Palmer, who were using a novel battery of statistics way back in 1984, when the first edition of The Hidden Game of Baseball introduced sabermetric analysis of the sport. They essentially argued that subtle measurements—as opposed to the conventional (RBI, Batting Average, Wins/Losses) correlated more closely to winning baseball games. This updated edition adds a new introduction by the authors that traces the book’s influence over the past three decades. ESPN’s Keith Law’s essay also details The Hidden Game’s vital role in 1) the transformation of baseball coverage 2) team management and 3) the ongoing validity of Thorn and Palmer’s accessible analysis.

This is an interesting casebook in the business of building winning teams. The authors focus on the 1936 Yankees, the 1963 Dodgers, the 1975 Reds, and the 2010 Giants in assessing how a blend of scouting, racial integration, rigorous instruction, league expansion, free agency, and modernized management structures played out in constructing winners—arguing front office savvy was as important as on-the-field talent.

After 20 consecutive losing seasons, the Pittsburgh Pirates reversed their fortunes in 2013 when they adopted drastic big-data strategies. Now they look like a perennial playoff team. They also have the very personable Clint Hurdle (National League Manager of the Year Award in 2013), one of the finer baseball minds currently in the game.

After having fallen on hard times, in part because of their owner’s contentious divorce, the LA Dodgers were almost totally remade when new ownership took the team out of bankruptcy in the most expensive sale in sports history. Add blockbuster trades and the acquisition of the electrifying Cuban defector Yasiel Puig, throw in a remarkable stretch where the team went 42-8, and almost overnight the Dodgers were back on top, contending in the 2013 National League Championship playoffs. This is an insightful and juicy inside baseball take on the roller coaster 2013 Dodger campaign.

Currently much is being made of the possibility of labor strife when the current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) expires in 2016. This study examines how two titans of the baseball industry—MLB representing the owners and the Major League Baseball Players Association—wrestled for equity if not control of baseball revenues back in the mid-’90s—1994 was a pivotal year, for example, canceling a World Series for the first time in history, because of the strike by the players association. The Game is a poignant account of the power struggle between three men: MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, and player’s union leader Don Fehr. The uneasy alliance they forged has been said by some to have brought the national pastime back from the precipice of disaster and perhaps outright ruin.