George Plimpton famously held that the smaller the ball in a particular sport, the more formidable is the literature on that sport. The theory certainly holds true with baseball. So to mark the start of the baseball season and the 30th anniversary of Plimpton’s classic story “The Curious Case of Sidd Finch,” we offer suggestions of formidable literature – both fiction and non-fiction – for your baseball reading.
If I had to declare a single baseball book as my favorite, I would select Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer. In Kahn’s narrative about the aging Dodgers, once glorified as heroes of postwar Brooklyn, he captures the essence of a bygone era, the decline of the borough, and the collective sense of loss people felt when the Dodgers left for Los Angeles. Kahn fuses together his own nostalgic memories of the Dodgers with social history, arguing that although they weren’t the most successful team in baseball during the 1940s and 1950s, they were the most important. The integrated group of players, led by Jackie Robinson, were central to the civil rights movement. When I first read Kahn’s book as an undergraduate, he helped me better understand how sports shaped the movement. In his words, “without pretense or visible fear these men marched unevenly against the sin of bigotry.” As a young student of sport history, Kahn’s words helped me better understand the larger significance of baseball during the 1950s and inspired me to read more books that examine the relationship between sports and civil rights.
–Johnny Smith is a historian at Georgia Tech University and the author of The Sons of Westwood: John Wooden, UCLA, and the Dynasty That Changed College Basketball.
My favorite baseball book is You Gotta Have Wa by Robert Whiting. It’s quite amazing how many things from a book published in 1989 are still relevant today. The baseball portion of the book gives you an insight about how the game began in Japan and evolved into what we see today, as opposed to the way Americans see the game. Whiting also reveals a lot of interesting things about Japanese culture, the way Japanese see the outside world, and how they relate to non-Japanese. The book takes you beyond baseball, showing a bit of just what makes Japan tick. Having lived here for awhile, I find that a lot of it is still true today.
–Jason Coskrey is a Detroit Tigers fan transplanted to Tokyo. He covers Japanese baseball for The Japan Times.
While the academic in me thinks it should be a toss up between the scholarly work of Jules Tygiel and Adrian Burgos, Jr., the book that instantly comes to mind in terms of baseball non-fiction is Big League Batboy, Jerry Gibson’s memoir of serving the role for St. Louis during the 1967 and 1968 pennant-winning seasons. I was probably 8 years old when I first read the book. It had a permanent place of honor on my older brother’s shelf, and to the horror of my Red Sox-obsessed household, it made me a Cardinals fan for a few years. The details, from player superstitions to batting technique, made me one of the best-versed baseball fans on the block. My brother and I still talk about that book.
As for fiction, it’s another toss-up: Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella is a beautiful story, and hits me hard for so many reasons. The book is a gorgeous portrayal of the game, an homage to J.D. Salinger, and the foundation for one of the best baseball films of all time: Field of Dreams. But more recently, Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding has pulled up alongside. Harbach’s work is an epic piece of writing. Henry Skrimshander, the baseball hopeful starting his time at the “slightly decrepit” Westish College, wiggles his way into your soul (along with a cast of characters familiar to anyone on the academic scene) as you become immersed in Harbach’s attention to language, style, and structure. It’s a book for the ages.
–Amy Bass teaches history at The College of New Rochelle and is editor of the book In the Game: Race, Identity, and Sports in the Twentieth Century, which includes her essay on life as a Red Sox fan.
My favorite baseball book? So hard to choose. Recent favorites certainly include Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, which so brilliantly captures the agony and havoc created by “the mental game” in baseball and in life. I also love Darryl Brock’s If I Never Get Back, the time-travel historical novel that puts a contemporary San Francisco journalist with modern baseball knowledge on the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings and changes baseball history. But for an unforgettable story that captures the beauty of the game with an insight that should be obvious but is usually denied, it’s Peter Lefcourt’s The Dreyfus Affair. Two middle infielders on the fictional and World Series-bound Los Angeles Valley Vikings are the best double-play combination in baseball, exhibiting the poetry, ballet, and subliminal communication that makes us swoon or shout at the sight of a perfectly turned double play. Their connection turns out to be, or maybe turns into, love, which takes them both by surprise. Shortstop Randy Dreyfus, the all-American boy and former USC quarterback, with a picture perfect marriage and family, is at first mortified by his attraction to second baseman DJ Picket, who is black and gay (but not out), at peace with who he is and not looking for trouble. When their love blossoms and is ultimately exposed, American baseball fans (and particularly those who love the Vikings) are faced with an agonizing dilemma: is winning the World Series more important than clinging to the belief that all athletic heroes are straight? Lefcourt’s story is hilarious, and serious, and profound . . . and unfortunately, not yet out of date.
–Jennifer Ring is professor of political science at the University of Nevada-Reno. She is author of A Game of Their Own: Voices of Contemporary Women in Baseball.
Although I’ve been inspired by a great deal of baseball scholarship over the past 25 years by the likes of Adrian Burgos, Jr., Rob Ruck, Sam Regalado, and Jose Alamillo, the book that stays with me the most is Bernard Malamud’s novel, The Natural. First, if you haven’t read it, the book is nothing like the movie. It’s a fascinatingly weird [spoiler alert] baseball tragedy. I don’t really care for the sometimes-forced literary symbolism and female stereotypes, but the book is chock full of Brooklyn-based Yiddish folklore, and captures almost by accident the exhilarating and perverse symbiosis between players and fans in a 1950’s urban baseball landscape.
–John Bloom is professor of history at Shippensburg University and author of House of Cards: Baseball Card Collecting and Popular Culture.
It would be facile to call The Natural by Bernard Malamud a “baseball novel” – like calling Phillip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint a “Jewish novel,” or Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland a “cricket novel.” Like all good fiction, The Natural deals in the depths of emotion. The hero of the novel – a prodigy called Roy Hobbs – tackles complex human feelings like love, adoration, money, and loyalty. Had the protagonist been a rockstar who rose to heady heights and then grappled with fame and its attendant temptations, the novel might have still been a great work of literature.
Baseball is integral to The Natural‘s appeal. Bringing the novel to life are sparkling passages describing the play and the detailed examination of the pressures that a professional athlete is subject to. Yet so soulful is the writing, one doesn’t need to know the rules of baseball (or its history) to appreciate the story. Anyone who has had a hero will be able to rise and fall with Roy Hobbs.
–Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is editor of the ESPNcricinfo magazine The Cricket Monthly.