The History and Literature of Baseball

Almost since my first semester at Bethel (Fall 2003), I’ve been enticing students with vague promises to develop new courses on two topics near and dear to my heart, World War II and the history of baseball. Lo and behold, the WWII course has finally been developed and approved and will premiere in January 2014. But the history of baseball course…

Not there yet. But I’m still convinced that it would make a terrific class, serving as a lens through which to look at American (and Latin American and Asian) history, and themes like labor-capital relations, race, immigration, gender, urban growth and decline, professionalization, globalization… Not to mention an excuse to watch some great movies and read some interesting literature.

So as a preview of a course that is not yet and may never be, and in honor of the Minnesota Twins opening their 2012 season today in Baltimore, a few of my favorite books about baseball:

Bill James, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract

The New Bill James Historical Abstract

A 2001 update of a mid-1980s cult classic by the founder of what’s called “sabermetrics” (after the acronym for the Society for American Baseball Research), the Historical Baseball Abstract consists of two parts. The first is an unapologetically unacademic history of the game, going decade by decade through such questions as “Who was the ugliest player?”, “Who was a better man than a player?”, “Who had the best uniforms?”, and “What was wrong and right with the game?” In his introduction, James criticizes academic historians for sucking the joy out of the game by writing “linear history”; instead of chronicling “what happened in baseball in 1913,” James’ “goal is to give you a sense of what it was like to be a baseball fan in 1913….” The second part consists of James’ rankings of the 100 best players at each position, as measured by a new statistic he invented: Win Shares. (see more on James’ book at my personal blog)

Charles C. Alexander, Our Game

But if you want a more “linear” baseball history written by a highly respected academic, this is your book. A well-published U.S. historian who mid-career turned to teaching and writing about the history of baseball, Alexander also published biographies of Ty Cobb, John McGraw, and Tris Speaker, and a book about the ill-fated Players’ League, founded by…

John M. Ward, Base-Ball

Ward, Base-Ball (1888)

The oldest book on this list (1888) is also the best book ever written by a then-active player. And what a player! John Montgomery “Monte” Ward is the only man in major league baseball history to have thrown a perfect game (in 1880, pitching the Providence Grays to a 5-0 win over the Buffalo Bisons) and stolen over 100 bases in a season (1887, as an MVP-caliber shortstop with the N.Y. Giants). This how-to guide includes surprisingly contemporary chapters on pitching, hitting, baserunning, fielding, and training, plus an introduction to the rules of the game (titled, um, “A Chapter for the Ladies”). But what makes it such an interesting document is the opening chapter: in which Ward not only quotes Herodotus and Jane Austen, but delves into the historical origins of baseball (he insists that it is “a fruit of the inventive genius of the American boy” rather than a foreign import) and assesses the relationship between baseball’s laborers and capitalists: “…in base-ball, as in other affairs, might often makes right…” Ward had by then founded the first baseball players’ union, the Brotherhood, which set up its own short-lived league two years after this book came out. (see more about Ward’s book at my personal blog)

Mike Sowell, The Pitch That Killed

Of the tens of millions of major league pitches thrown, only one has killed someone. Sowell’s book tells the story of Indians shortstop Ray Chapman and the surly Yankees pitcher, Carl Mays, who threw the fatal pitch that collided with Chapman’s head. In the process, he touches on the Black Sox gambling scandal, the rise of Mays’ more likeable teammate, Babe Ruth, and social mobility (Chapman, a Kentucky farmer’s son and card-carrying member of the United Mine Workers married the daughter of a self-made millionaire; he was succeeded by Joe Sewell, a former pre-med student at the University of Alabama). Oh, and the last third of the book reminds us that the grieving Indians went on to win the World Series.

Brad Snyder, Beyond the Shadow of the Senators

The Negro Leagues continue to draw more and more attention from historians and others who follow baseball. (Just this spring introduced a new section on Negro League statistics that drew on years of painstaking research.) But while many know of the Kansas City Monarchs (the team of Satchel Paige and, briefly, Jackie Robinson, and the city that houses the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum), attorney Brad Snyder makes a strong (if overlong) case that the Homestead Grays — who played in the nation’s capital and overshadowed the city’s hapless American League team, the Senators — provide the best introduction to the pre-integration history of African-Americans in baseball, at least for the late 1930s and early 1940s.

Roger Kahn, The Boys of Summer

Kahn, Boys of SummerIt’s hard for those of us in flyover country to get too excited about a topic as overcovered as East Coast baseball, especially as covered by someone who uses phrases like “transpontine madness,” but if you’re going to read one book about one New York baseball team, it should be Kahn’s memoir of growing up a fan of the Jackie Robinson-era Brooklyn Dodgers. Here’s Kahn’s classic opening paragraph:

At a point in life when one is through with boyhood, but has not yet discovered how to be a man, it was my fortune to travel with the most marvelously appealing of teams. During the early 1950s the Jackie Robinson Brooklyn Dodgers were outspoken, opinionated, bigoted, tolerant, black, white, open, passionate: in short, a fascinating mix of vigorous men. They were not, however, the most successful team in baseball. (xi)

Charles Einstein, ed., The Fireside Books of Baseball / The New Baseball Reader

The volumes in Einstein’s Fireside series, later excerpted in the Reader (itself revised in 1992), were anthologies of the best baseball writing from the 19th and 20th centuries. Including examples of everything from spot reporting to long-form essays (my favorite: Richard Donovan’s 1953 profile of Satchel Paige, then in his fifth and final full major league season as a 47-year old reliever with the lowly St. Louis Browns), novels (Bang the Drum Slowly) to short stories (Ring Lardner’s “Alibi Ike”!), Einstein demonstrated that baseball has long been the most literary American sport. (John Updike, Thomas Wolfe, and Philip Roth also make appearances contributions.) There’s also lots of poetry in these books, if you can find them — if you can’t, check out this essay from the Poetry Foundation. (H/T Craig Calcaterra)

Daniel Okrent, Nine Innings

An editor for numerous national publications (and one of the inventors of fantasy baseball), Okrent decided in 1980 that he wanted to write a book on “the anatomy of a baseball game.” Not of “the game,” but a single game. One played on June 10, 1982 at Milwaukee County Stadium between the host Brewers (then still in the American League and destined to lose the ’82 World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals) and the Baltimore Orioles (a year away from winning the Series — the last they’ve won). Amazingly, the story of one midseason baseball game turns out to make for a compelling 260 pages, dissecting baseball tactics and strategy, media coverage, marketing, the aftermath of a baseball strike, and much more.

– Chris Gehrz


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