A great way to start the baseball season: Reading

by Gary Shelton on March 30, 2016 · 3 comments

in general, Tampa Bay Rays

Wednesday, 6 a.m.

It was never planned. It was never thought out.

Every year, though, like clockwork, my nature would pull me toward it. Baseball would get close, and I would remember the boys. Bouton and Schultz and Barber and Brabender and Marshall and Piniella and Bell and Gosger. The pages of Ball Four were something special to me, literature out of my time.

For years, I started every spring out that way, pouring over the stories, laughing about this or that, imagining how uncomfortable a commissioner became. Later, in one of his comebacks, Bouton and I sat by a hotel pool and talked about knuckleballs and knuckleheads, about the book he dared not write because, this time, he wanted to be taken seriously.

I'm a reader. Since I was a kid and read "The Boy Who Batted 1.000," I have been. But I haven't read Ball Four in a couple of years, to be honest. The characters are all retired now, and there have been so many copycats to Bouton's work that it no longer seems to be on the edge. But it was taken from my time, and I will always love the book because of it.

It wasn't heroic, and it wasn't dramatic. It didn't make the players out to be superheroes, drinking milk and visiting sick children. It was just fun. It was the story of teams — of the Pilots and the Astros – and the characters of both.

Tuesday night, I pulled it off of my crowded (ridiculously so) bookshelf, and once again, I began to flip through the pages. And I loved it all over again.

That's the magic of the written word. You can grow tired of a movie. You can be worn out by a magazine article. But books are eternal, and they touch us in the same spot that baseball does. With the Rays opening this weekend, it seemed like a perfect time.

So here goes: With the baseball season upcoming, a list of the 20 most essential baseball books for you to read.

1. Ball Four (Jim Bouton): I gave this away, didn't I? But I was graduating from high school when it came out, and I picked it for my first college literary review. I got a B, and I was convinced that if I had picked The Catcher in the Rye or the Godfather, I would have gotten an A. But that was the point. It was

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about something as silly, and as serious, as baseball. I loved the other two books, too, but neither of them have stuck with me as fiercely as Ball Four did. Still does.

2. Bang the Drum Slowly (Mark Harris): What a wonderful book. Written by Harris through the eyes of a veteran pitcher about his dying catcher. It starred a young Robert DeNiro in the screen version. Harris wrote four books, and all of them were good (The Southpaw, in particular). But the part about the catcher gave this one life that the others lacked).

3. Shoeless Joe (W.P. Kinsella): In the movies, this one came to life as Field of Dreams. The book is better, from the faith of the wife to the faith of the husband in the voices he heard. Yeah, I got a catch in my throat over that one, too.

4. The Long Season (Jim Brosnan): Because I was young and stupid, I didn't realize that Bouton was walking in Brosnan's familiar footsteps. He had it right, too. But an older pitcher didn't have quite the same relevance to me.

5. Eight Men Out (Eliot Asinof): For years, my favorite trivia question was this: What do O.J. Simpson, Lizzie Borden and the Chicago Black Sox have in common. They were all found not guilty in court. Asinof did a wonderful job of capturing the time, the cheapness of the ownership, and the conduct with the gamblers. He leaves it to others to debate the innocence of Shoeless Joe Jackson and Buck Weaver (Jackson took the money, and no one knows what he would have done if he had come to bat with the score tied in a crucial game). Magnificent.

6. The Natural (Bernard Malamud): For years, I was angry at the movie because it didn't reflect the books dark ending. But you know? It's probably a better movie with the stadium lights going off like fireworks and joy all around. I forgive Robert Redford, which I am sure has been on his mind.

7. The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant (Douglass Wallop). You know it as Damn Yankees, complete with Mr. Applegate and Lola. But as prose, it works even better. It must. A lot of people refer to the New York franchise as the “damn Yankees'' to this day.

8. The Boys of Summer (Roger Kahn): One generation older than mine, it was still a magnificent book that was wonderfully written. Kahn is amazing, and some like some of his other books better. But he's never had a better painting on his canvas than this one.

9. Cobb: A Biography (Al Stump): The remarkable thing about this book is that it was Stump's second effort on Cobb's life story. The first one came 23 years earlier when he wrote My Life in Baseball: The True Record. After Cobb's death, however, Stump felt guilty about the spin he had put on Stump's story and re-wrote, presenting all of Cobb's flaws. If you can forgive his first book, you'll like his second.

10. The Summer Game (Roger Angell): Some like Five Seasons better, but I'm partial to first books and first albums (remember albums). Angell captures the time when the Yankees were in decline, when California was fully established and Montreal was trying to make a go of it.

11. I Never Had it Made (John Dutton): The first of several books on Jackie Robinson. I had trouble deciding between this one and 1947: When All Hell Broke Loose in Baseball. It is possible to see Robinson as a hero, or as a lonely man charged with a monumental task, or both.

12. Babe: The Legend Comes to Life (Robert Creamer): Again, there are a lot of Babe Ruth books. It comes with being the most important figure in the history of the game. But Creamer's treatment of Ruth is deft.

13. Veeck as in Wreck (Ed Linn): I dare you not to smile when reading about the exploits of baseball's great marketer. Definitely the perfect guy to elbow a stodgy game in the ribs.

14. Can't Anybody Here Play This Game? (Jimmy Breslin): There have been worse baseball teams than the first year of the Mets. But that it came in New York, littered with Casey Stengel's witticisms, made it a perfect blend of men and moments.

15. The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings (William Brashler): In hindsight, it's hard to love a book that is based on the old days of the Negro Leagues. But Bingo Long is truly a funny novel about stars who have struck out on their own to barnstorm.

16. The Long Season (Paul Hemphill): Stuck in the Florida-Georgia leagues, this novel is by Hemphill, a fine writer. In some ways, this novel is a precursor to Bull Durham.

17. Joe DiMaggio: The Hero's Life (Ben Cramer): The most humanizing of books on DiMaggio, who was more than a famous streak or a famous husband.

18. Summer of '49 (David Halberstam): A wonderful story-teller who writes of one of the greatest seasons in baseball.

19. The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood (Jane Levy): I'm a sucker for Mickey books. He was my hero growing up, and I once attended an old Fantasy Camp where he was the headliner. I found him crude, playful, often besotted. It was hard to be mad at the Mick, which I supposed served him well for most of his life.

20. The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Card Book (Brendan Boyd): Did you love baseball cards. This is a great book for you then, with witty little snippets out of your boyhood. Before watching a game, what could be better?

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Cecil March 30, 2016 at 9:20 am

Thanks again for a list, Gary! Just as I’m trying to make a dent in your top sports movies, now I have baseball books! A couple are on both, The Natural and Bang the Drum Slowly, so maybe I can read and watch…

Cecil

Reply

Gary Shelton March 30, 2016 at 10:10 am

Field of Dreams, Bingo Long are, too. And there are movies based on Babe’s book. Just be sure you keep reading here.

Reply

Gary Shelton March 30, 2016 at 10:11 am

There is movie based on the Babe book. And Field of Dreams and the Natural and Bingo Long and Damn Yankees and Bang the Drum Slowly. Just keep reading here, ok?

Reply

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