Baseball Books for Those of us Not In Love w/ Football
by Weston Cutter
(Clearly, all the following was written a long time ago)(in a galaxy…)(no.)
It’s Sunday, September 16th, at 2:33 in the afternoon on the east coast and my beloved Minnesota Twins will almost certainly end the day at least fifteen games behind the Cleveland Indians, at least five and a half behind the Detroit Tigers. Even as I write that, I can hear protests in my own head: but we have last year’s AL MVP, Batting Title Champ, and Cy Young winner! We have a six-time (consecutive!) Gold Glove winner ranging in centerfield.
And yet: we will not be part of the October magic of the World Series.
Minnesota’s baseball fate will, of course, be shared by all but two teams. We’re not a dynasty team, nor are we famous or beloved for any losing streak or any (even if recently broken) curse. Baseball is, weirdly, a great illustration of that Thoreau line about quiet desperation: aside from a few exceptional teams, both leagues are full of groups of men out for glory who end up settling, just about every year, for anything but.
I know: this isn’t the venue to bemoan my team’s fate. And no book could come close to seeing my guys head into the fall classic victorious, to seeing the Twins pick up another World Series title. That said, if you think you might get some hope from reading about a game—just a game!—that somehow can make its fans both more ecstatic and miserable than almost anything else, any of the following six books are, I’ve found, a good source of tonic for what otherwise is, almost always, a bitter autumn.
The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn
This is the grandaddy of all baseball books: Kahn’s account of the Brooklyn Dodgers in the early 1950’s, the story of the team that broke the color barrier and was absolutely, fanatically adored by its fans. Kahn was, during the time that he’s writing of, the Dodgers beat writer for the New York Herald Tribune, and his book’s immeasurably enriched by the fact that he was, clearly, both friends with and a fan of the men he wrote of for his job. The book’s a two-part monster, starting with an account of the glory years leading up to the Dodgers’ 1955 World Series title, and finishing with an account of the players from that team in 1971, in middle age and, for the most part, far from the diamond.
I don’t know if it’s the first, but Kahn’s classic has to be one of the best accounts of the father-son baseball bond. For those who have lived with and through this sort of bond with their own son or father, Kahn’s book should be great, recognizable reading; for those without any experience, it’s good insight into how the game, simple and straightforward as any could hope, can actually be a matter of blood and family, of youth and adulthood.
And yes, absolutely: the book’s old, and covers players and teams even older. Totally ignoring the argument that there was something more essential and pure about baseball when it was played by men who neither used blood-doping drugs nor played just for the money, its inarguable that baseball is more than a little dominated by its traditions, and Kahn’s book does great honor to both the traditions and the men who lived them.
Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning by Jonathan Mahler
Mahler’s book is not only one of the best book in recent memory, but it’s hands-down one of the all-time best baseball books. It’s as good as it is because it’s not exclusively about baseball. Set in 1977 New York, the book takes a wide view of the life in that city, at that pivotal moment. For those of us whose relationship to New York doesn’t go back further than, say, the mid-to-late80’s, when the city was on the rebound and raking in money and getting safer and richer than its (arguably) ever been, it’s a fascinating glimpse. In the late 70’s, the city was very much on the brink of all sorts of disaster and ruin, and Mahler’s contention is that 1977 was the key moment in the life of the city: the summer of Sam, the riots in Brooklyn, the fires in the Bronx, the contentious mayoral campaign. And, of course, the Yankees.
It’s sort of unfair that so much good baseball writing focuses on the Yankees, a team that’s so easy to hate. Yet in 1977 it was a strange ballclub with a fate up for grabs between the monumentally clashing egos of manager Billy Martin and slugger Reggie Jackson. Again, time plays weird tricks on the reader: it’s almost impossible to imagine Reggie Jackson dodging debris thrown at him in right field by surly fans—can you imagine what would happen if Bonds got pelted? But of course Jackson did suffer the tempestuous fans in Yankee Stadium.
Mahler’s wonderfully analytic tone is perfect for his project: it’s as if his eye is simply staring, unblinking, into this strange, recent past and reporting. Any number of baseball stories get tainted by the author’s obvious fandom, and Mahler’s authorial distance is weirdly reassuring. I know this book’s now a TV series, but I haven’t seen any episodes. If the show’s even one tenth faithful to the book, it’s got to be incredible.
Summer of ‘49 by David Halberstam
Maybe it’s me, but it’s easier to enjoy reading stories about the old Yankees back when they were more mythic and less fixated on money. Like any team, they were always most focused on winning, for which they had an almost eerie talent. In 1949 Joe Dimaggio was showing signs of wear and his team suffered from his diminishment. At the same time, Ted Williams and the Red Sox were growing dominant.
The titanic rivalry between these two teams is fantastic to read about—maybe better to read now that the Red Sox have finally won a championship and broken their curse. Halberstam’s prose is tender and rhapsodic: here, clearly, was an author writing not simply about baseball but about love. Though one might wish he were writing of different teams, it’s hard not to love his prose simply because he so clearly believes the myth of baseball, believes in the legend and glory of it. Every few pages there’s an insider story, some memorable, incredible detail described—Ted Williams calling his own homer to a teammate as he heads to the plate was the one that stuck out most for me.
It’s rapturous writing, and for that alone it’s worth the price of the book. Halberstam’s prose is engaging and comfortably meandering, pulling stories from every corner of the ballfields and many different teams, coaches, and scouts. The story he’s written feels wonderfully told, something that might come in over a radio late at night, or something you might hear from a grandfather-type. In the back of the book Halberstam addressed the fact that in writing the book he got to live many of his friends’ dream: talking to his childhood heroes about the game that so ensorcled him, and I bring it up here just because it’s refreshing and heartening to read an author write so clearly about something he so adores, such a source of fun. It does feel like a book written with glee by someone who realizes he’s the luckiest fan alive.
October 1964 by David Halberstam
It’d be unfair to have to choose between these two Halberstam books, though they’re hugely different in all sorts of ways. The smooth, enjoyable writing remains, and the Yankees feature in this book as well. This book, though, is about the king in decline, the crumbling dynasty: the Yankees in 1964 were on their way out, about to enter a protracted decade-long tailspin that, Halberstam argues well, they brought on themselves largely through racism.
Race in baseball is not at all complicated: old stuffy white guys wanted things to stay the same forever, and those old men fought tooth and nail to keep things that way. The Yankees and the Red Sox were the last two teams to sign a single black player, and both those teams did so, eventually, out of something like exhaustion and desperation.
What’s great is that this, then, is a book about how the Yankees, those proud old bastards of the sport, get just wailed on by the younger, blacker, better-organized St. Louis Cardinals. By the end of the book it’s almost impossible not to get wound up—like, to the point of cheering— reading about Bob Gibson, Curt Flood, Lou Brock and the rest as the Cardinals come from behind and overtake the Phillies in the National League and then, wonderfully, take down the Yankees in seven games. It’s a great and fun book—maybe the most accessible baseball writing around.
The Ticket Out: Darryl Strawberry and the Boys of Crenshaw by Michael Sokolove.
This book’s not strictly about baseball, or, maybe better, it’s about baseball as idea and myth and metaphor. It’s the story of the 1979 Crenshaw High School baseball team and where those players have ended up. The most famous of those players is Darryl Strawberry, the ranging, lanky outfielder for the ‘86 Champion Mets, though Strawberry actually ends up moving through this book like a ghost or cautionary tale.
Crenshaw’s a high school in what might generously be called an economically challenged area of Los Angeles, and many of the team’s players shared similar stories and backgrounds: an unstable home life, missing or unkind fathers. For sure, all the players’ families didn’t have enough money, and so the Ticket Out of the title turned out to be dizzyingly apt: these kids were playing for their lives. Which makes it, in the end, a phenomenally difficult book to read. Most of the players didn’t make it out, whatever that even means. Several of them played in the big leagues—which is a plenty big feat—but none besides Strawberry ever saw the fame and money toward which they all presumed to be striving.
Sokolove’s voice is astoundingly well-tuned for the subject at hand. This is easily the most personal book on this list, simply because Sokolove, unlike Halberstam or Mahler, makes himself present—he’s in the text, he relates how he and the former high school stars speak and relate. And somehow, as if by magic, Sokolove ends up drawing the reader’s empathy by being our stand-in, by asking the questions we’d all likely ask any of the men involved. It’d be unfair to both Sokolove and Adrian Nicole LeBlanc to compare this too closely to her absolutely astounding Random Family, but if you liked hers and you don’t hate baseball you’ll likely enjoy his.
The Long Ball by Tom Adelman
Adelman’s book is one of those strange books that employ the author’s imagination in more ways than might be comfortable. In short: the book, though focused on the 1975 baseball season, is in present tense. Not only that, but Adelman, through research that you’ve got to imagine is a few steps further even than the mere term ‘comprehensive,’ writes scenes and stories in which not only he wasn’t there, but in which no one other than the principal was: Casey Stengel’s thoughts before listening to a game on the radio, or an insight by Catfish Hunter.
If you aren’t bothered by that sort of writing, or if you can find your way past it, the book almost explodes in an absolute kaleidoscope of detail surrounding the baseball season that year. Of course, according to Adelman, 1975 was a pivotal year (as Halberstam would argue ‘49 and ‘64, as Roger Kahn would almost certainly claim the early-50’s were), and there are plenty of details to back him up: it was the year Stengel died, and, very significantly for those of us who came of age when player loyalty was to money instead of club, the last year without free agency for players.
Adelman, in his fervor to paint a complete picture, can sometimes jar the reader with his jumps from team to team, from city to city. He repays the readers’ patience, though, with sneakily interesting anecdotes and asides about the children of baseball greats (Ken Griffey, Jr and Barry Bonds) and future superstars (Mark McGwire and Doc Gooden). That said, his jump-cuts and expansive vision keep the reader both deeply involved and slightly anxious—mimicking, I’d guess, how it felt in 1975 to keep track of the game.