Baseball book reviews
The Baseball Book Reviews page presents reviews of some of the best baseball books available. Baseball has an impressive body of literature and the list below is by no means comprehensive (I can only get through so much); there are plenty more baseball books available than what is listed below.
The reviews below reflect the views of the author and in no way represent the views of the Cheltenham Baseball Club.
If you have feedback or comments, or your own reviews, send them to firstname.lastname@example.org
The books below are fairly much all geared towards adult readers.
20 baseball book reviews
Moneyball by Michael Lewis
Seen the movie? Well, it was a book before Brad Pitt got there. Lewis does a fantastic job on unveiling the inside of the world of sabermetrics: the analysis of baseball, especially through the use of statistics, and its foremost practioner Bill James (who the movie all but ignores).
But it is more than just a book about ERA and batting averages, it shows how Billy Beane, the General Manager of the ‘light on for cash’ Oakland A’s turned the tradition-bound world of baseball scouting on its head in his quest to stock a championship team.
Not always a ‘light’ read, it does get into the subject matter in much more depth than the film does; but a super-interesting book.
Ya Gotta Have Wa by Robert Whiting
A book on the surface about Japanese baseball, but acts as a larger metaphor for the country of Japan as a whole. Not just a great baseball book, but a great book, full stop. The ‘wa’ in the title refers to the ‘harmony’ of a team so important to performance in Nippon Pro Ball.
The book looks at the history of baseball in the country, and the particularly disciplined way the Japanese play the game (Americans call it ‘workball’), and examines the constant ways US imports and Japanese baseball have managed to upset each other since US players began making the trek East.
Whiting is a good writer, and despite being somewhat overly critical, and in parts patronising, towards the Japanese way of doing things, the book makes for compulsive reading. A 5 star classic.
Cobb by Al Stump
Simply, not only a great baseball book, but probably one of the best biographies ever written. Stump does an absolutely magnificent job of detailing the genius of one of the game’s very best players (Cobb still holds the all-time highest MLB career batting average at .366),while not pulling any punches in detailing the unlikeable, flawed, complex character he was. Uncompromising on the field, Cobb was a notoriously hard player in a very tough era.
At 420 pages it’s not a short book, but it is compelling reading as Cobb provides such naturally interesting material: his father was reputedly shot dead by his mother while climbing through their bedroom window; he was a notorious ‘spiker’ when running the basepaths; and, an openly racist man (in an openly racist era), he once notoriously jumped into the stands during a game and mercilessly beat up a black man he felt was disrespecting him.
A superbly written book and an absolute must for any baseball library.
Eight Men Out by Eliot Asinof
“Say it ain’t so”; the story of the most infamous team in baseball history; the 1919 Chicago White Sox. Asinof’s book, a superb effort of historical detective work, goes into impressive detail around how eight of the ‘Black Sox’, including baseball legend ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson, conspired with gamblers to throw the ’19 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds, despite being overwhelming favourites.
While doubt remains to this day about the varying levels of guilt and participation of the eight involved, especially that of Jackson, there is no doubt that the series was fixed, and a lifetime ban resulted for all eight players. Great book and an excellent movie.
Babe by Robert Creamer
As the generally-accepted best player the game has seen, there are quite a few books on Ruth, with Creamer’s ‘Babe’ considered to be the most definitive.
A fantastically written book, it traces the hard early life of ‘The Sultan of Swat’ from his youth playing baseball in an orphanage, to his early playing days as a pitcher (yes, a pitcher) with Boston, to his glory days with the World Champ Yankees teams of the 20s and 30s.
A marvellous book.
The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn
Looks at a slice of classic Americana; the Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s, Kahn’s childhood team, and goes into detail on some of the famous Dodgers names.
Kahn relates visits he had with players from that era, particularly Jackie Robinson. A somewhat overly nostalgic look at the era, none-the-less, an excellent book.
Ball Four by Jim Bouton
An acknowledged classic of baseball literature, Ball Four was the first book to lift the lid on the behind the scenes world of Major League Baseball.
Written in 1970, while Bouton was trying to reignite his playing career with the ill-fated Seattle Pilots, compared to what’s on offer these days the book seems fairly tame in terms of subject matter, but at the time baseball books religiously kept to the totally harmless white-bread offerings (of the type most AFL players still serve up).
So, ex-Yankee Bouton’s book was hugely controversial for its time and made him quite unpopular in some baseball circles (it had him banned from Yankee stadium for years – a ban only relatively recently lifted after a very public plea to the Yankees from his daughter). Well worth a read.
The Rookie by Jim Morris and Joel Engel
An excellent read, it details the incredible journey of Jim Morris from a 35 year old high school teacher to Major League pitcher.
Morris makes a bet with his under-performing high school team that if they won the district championship, he would try out for the Majors. They won, he tried out.
In a made-for-the-movies storyline, as promised he turns up to a Tampa Bay Devil Rays tryout, throws consistently at 98 mph and gets signed. And in a classic Disney ending, three months later he makes his big league debut and Ks the first batter he faces.
Sounds corny? It is, and it’s true. Inspirational book and movie.
The 33 year old rookie by Chris Coste
Another great story in the tradition of ‘The Rookie’, and every bit as good, Coste’s book tells his own incredible story of an 11-year career in the minor leagues before finally breaking through in the majors with the Philadelphia Phillies at 33.
A great story and a brilliant insight into how pro-ball works in terms of the levels of minor leagues; how players go up and down, the heartbreak, the frustration of watching lesser talented players get promoted because their higher signing fee, and the classic ‘follow your dream’ byline with the movie-worthy ending. It’ll have you wondering how he never made it sooner, but it wouldn’t have been as good a story if he did.
If you have any inkling of wanting to play pro baseball in the States, or just want an insight into how it works, you must read this.
The Glory of their Times: The Story Of The Early Days Of Baseball Told By The Men Who Played It edited by Lawrence Ritter
A different book about a different era, Ritter’s book is a collection of the thoughts and stories of real old timers who played in the early 20th century.
Written in 1966, Ritter wanted to capture the stories of the early players who by the 60s were dying out, and interviewed 22 of them (with an additional 4 added in a later edition). The book presents some of the names you will know, such as Babe Ruth and Hank Greenberg, but many will be unknown to the casual baseball fan, some with classic turn-of-the-century names such as Fred Snodgrass and Specs Toporcer.
Not really a ‘casual read’ this book may not be for everyone, but if you like both baseball and history, it’s a must.
Summer of ’49 by David Halberstam
A great book about the classic 1949 season from the perspective of one of sport’s biggest rivalries – the Red Sox vs the Yankees – written by Pulitzer Prize winning author David Halberstam. More than just a book about baseball, it is a look at what many refer to as the ‘Golden Age’ in the USA, not only for baseball, but for the country itself, authored by a man who could really write.
Halberstam produced a painstakingly researched and presented book for which he interviewed every living member of both teams, except for the notoriously aloof and unreachable Joe DiMaggio. He presents excellently detailed information not only about the season but the men themselves, warts and all, and perhaps what we realise through this is that it’s not only modern players who can be selfish, egocentric, greedy me-first pains-in-the@ss – ballplayers of that era were just as ‘colourful’.
The book offers plenty of insights into the players and it’s in the detail of the stories that we get nuggets such as the time Ted Williams suffered a rare strike out at Fenway Park, only to complain back in the dugout that the home plate was out of whack. To humour him, his manager had it checked – Williams was right.
A fantastic book, not a casual read, but well worth it.
The Samurai Way of Baseball by Robert Whiting
Another book from Robert Whiting focusing on Japanese baseball, but this time looking at Japanese players in MLB. A super interesting read, it looks at a range of Japanese players from the ground breaking Hideo Nomo with the Dodgers up to current great Ichiro Suzuki with the Mariners.
In fact it’s the section on Ichiro which provides some of the best material. His dad was his primary coach, and Whiting provides us with some great insights into their relationship. Some great Ichiro / dad facts: his dad’s nickname at his company (of which he was the manager) was ‘3.30 Man’ because that’s the time he used to leave work every day to practise baseball with Ichiro. Ichiro is a natural right hander – dad turned him into a leftie so he would be a metre closer to first base.
Ichiro once read that beef was the best source of iron and protein, so he asked his parents to buy it – they did – everyday, in a country where beef prices (at least in the 90s) were notoriously steep. His dad would take him down to the local batting cage where he worked through dozens of rounds of machine-pitched balls everynight (again, lots of $ka-ching there). He finally worked through even the fastest machine available so the owner had to jerry-rig it to enable it to pitch even faster. Ichiro was also a pitcher in his youth and quite a gun arm; but you’d know that, wouldn’t you?
An excellent book.
A False Spring by Pat Jordan
A fascinating book detailing how Pat Jordan, a ‘can’t miss’ junior pitching phenom in the 50s, does exactly that; misses.
Jordan was a junior pitching gun growing up in a classic slice of Americana – 1950s east coast USA. As he compiles an impressive junior pitching record (4 consecutive no-hitters at the age of 12) we follow along as all his and his families’ efforts are channeled into him achieving the professional career his brother missed out on.
He signs with the Milwaukee Braves for the huge sum (in those days) of $50,000. The book then plots the next four years of non-achievement and disillusionment with the system, as Jordan loses his fastball, his control, his nerve and finally his career without pitching a single ball in the Majors. But, in some good news, he picks up a writing career, luckily for us, and the book is well worth a read.
A great exploration of dashed hopes and unlived-up-to expectations, it makes a good companion piece to books such as Josh Hamilton’s ‘Beyond Belief’ and Chris Coste’s ’33-year old Rookie’ to illustrate the point that, hey, you don’t always break out of the minors; there ain’t for the most of us a fairy tale ending; and careers aren’t always where you look for them.
Beyond Belief by Josh Hamilton with Tim Keown
Another one of those books you really should read if only for the life-lessons it imparts. Hamilton’s story, as the title promises, is almost beyond belief. How could a junior phenomenon and all-American apple pie kid with a strong family life, sign a $4 million bonus with the Rays and then p!ss it away, along with his career and most of his family and friends, on drugs, booze and tatts (and bad ones too, check out his forearm)? Read the book and find out.
Tim Keown has done a reasonable job putting Hamilton’s own story (told in the first person by Josh) into a workable easy-to-read style that is not too taxing on the vocabulary, though the book could have been an all-time classic if Hamilton had given it over to a more accomplished author than himself – hopefully, one day he might. Anyhow, the story is certainly worth telling, and seeing how he is performing these days, it was well worth the battle. Though, on some days it must have been all but impossible for him to see light at the end of the tunnel.
After a car accident saw him injure his back and affect his playing performance, he fell in with the wrong type of company for an impressionable young guy with a few million in the bank. Apart from some gifts for family members, he literally blew it all on tattoos, drugs and booze. He is quite frank in telling the story – images of him buying crack at 2am in a trailer park and then smoking it in his grandmother’s spare room are at the same time distressing, sad and pathetic, yet amazingly readable.
However, you get the feeling he’s not quite telling us everything – again, perhaps when his career’s all said and done, he just might. Having said that (twice), it is well worth a read; it is an amazingly interesting story, jaw-dropping in parts and quite inspirational.
Jackie Robinson: A Biography by Arnold Rampersad
Some people you have to read about because of their unquestionable influence; Jackie Robinson is one of those people – not necessarily the best, but arguably the most important player to have played in the Majors, and this book is better than many of the plenty on offer.
Robinson famously shattered baseball’s colour line when he started with the Brooklyn Dodgers at 2nd base in 1947. Professional baseball had existed in some form or another in the US for 60-70 years before Robinson and had notoriously held out among other professional sports in steadfastly and openly not allowing black players into its ranks. Robinson broke through largely due to the efforts of legendary Dodgers executive Branch Rickey (the ‘father’ of the farm system); however, when he did get there it was not easy.
These were the days when white players and blacks had to stay at separate hotels on the road; some of his own team mates on the Dodgers did not want him there (some refused to play with him and requested a transfer); he was called every possible combination of name imaginable by both the crowd and the players, and he played through it all.
Robinson’s influence on the game cannot be overstated, and he wasn’t just a token political figurehead, the guy could play, carving out an All-Star 10-year career with the Dodgers. MLB retired his number 42 at all clubs in 1997 in tribute to the man, and there is a Jackie Robinson Day in MLB on April 15 every year where each and every player wears the number 42. Respect.
This is an excellent book; Rampersad was in fact chosen by Robinson’s widow, Rachel, to write the book and he had unprecedented access to his private papers. As such, we get closer to the man who, perhaps along with Babe Ruth, is the most influential to have ever played the game.
Game of Shadows by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams
A story that, unlike most of the books on this list, is not uplifting or motivating, but quite the opposite – a bit depressing in many ways. Game of Shadows takes an in-depth look at the scourge of steroids in pro-baseball focusing on Barry Bonds and the BALCO case.
Excellently written, it provides an intelligently presented and clearly well-researched counter-point in the steroids debate to the completely moronic ‘Juiced’ by Jose Canseco (see below). In fact, once you have read it, you’ll understand that the currently held home run record is in the wrong hands.
Not so much a book about baseball as such, but more about the BALCO controversy itself; it is very revealing and well worth a read if you want to educate yourself more on this scourge of the modern game. If you had any doubts about Bonds and steroids, this will dispel them.
If I never get back by Darryl Brock
This could easily be brushed off as just another time-travel book, but it’s much more than that. The lead character of the book, Sam, steps off a modern day train and finds himself back in 1869 where he meets up with and eventually becomes a part of baseball’s first professional team; the Cincinnati Red Stockings.
The book not only overlays the story on to the actual undefeated season the Stockings had in ’69 (as in, it actuallyhappened – not the time travel, the undefeated season), but in the way introduces in the most minute detail the game and the era as it was 150 years ago (i.e. very tough game, no gloves, and the batter called where he wanted the underarm pitch to be thrown!).
It weaves in the almost compulsory love story, contrasts modern and period attitudes to racism; has Sam being stalked by Irish Republicans; and takes us on an absolutely cracking tour of 1869 baseball nostalgia in a real education, at least for this reader, about how baseball used to be played. An absolutely ripping book; expected to dislike it and I loved it! Get it.
And 2 Overrated
The Natural by Bernard Malamud
This is consistently lauded as the best baseball book ever written (along with the one below), and while it wasn’t a bad read, I certainly don’t put it up there in the best ever category; but perhaps that’s more about me than it is about the book.
In one of the rare cases of the movie being superior to the book it’s based on, Robert Redford’s film ‘The Natural’ is just a much tighter telling of the same story with a better ending, and in fact probably the best baseball movie ever.
Bang the drum slowly by Mark Harris
Again, I may be considered an idiot for holding this opinion (wouldn’t be the first time), but this book just drags. Considered by many to be the best baseball book ever written, I have to humbly disagree.
The writing style is clunky (Harris’ dialogues are full of lines that don’t employ contractions), it’s very hard to read, seems dated, and takes an age to get going. It’s appropriately titled though as I found the writing style as soporific as a slowly beating drum.
The book is about a pitcher with the ‘New York Mammoths’ who learns his friend on the team, the catcher, is dying; the story being a metaphor for the human condition. Bang the Drum Slowly is constantly rated in baseball best seller lists among the top 10 of all time and I don’t know why. I am evidently missing something (again, not the first time). Maybe I need to try it again.
And one of the worst
Juiced by Jose Canseco
As Pauline Hanson was to the immigration debate, Jose Canseco is to the steroids debate. If you combine ‘stupid’ and ‘unnecessary’ into one book, you have Juiced.
Steroids apologist Canseco has put together a totally self-serving 230+ page diatribe about why he believes steroids are not only not cheating, but are a ‘smart choice’. Perhaps Jose needs to read something like ‘Beyond Belief’ by Josh Hamilton to see the types of paths that drugs lead to (yes, steroids and crack aren’t the same, but it’s all about life choices).
Giveaways as to the ‘class’ of the book lie in the fact that the front cover (of my edition) has his stats listed, plus the tagline ‘Wild times, rampant ‘roids, smash hits and how baseball got big’; while the back cover has a topless tattooed Canseco in muscle-pose with standard complimentary blurb, not by the NY Times mind, but by Jose ‘The Chemist’ himself – get the picture?
Dumb book; it’s only redeeming feature is that he at least has the cojones to tell all (he and Mark McGwire shooting up in the A’s clubhouse in detail is pretty revealing) at least from his perspective, though you get the distinct feeling it’s not for the purposes of enlightenment about steroids, but as an egocentric and misguided effort at massaging his guilt.
Stupid stupid book.
Book Websites: purchasing
The reviewed books are not always available in hard copy in Australian book stores; pop online and buy them at:
The Book Depository (free shipping): www.bookdepository.com
Angus & Robertson: www.angusrobertson.com.au
Book websites: lists
New York Times baseball reading list: http://www.nytimes.com/ref/books/baseball-books.html
Best Baseball Books: http://www.bestbaseballbooks.com