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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

(Some of the) Best Baseball Books

Ball Four by Jim Bouton -- Probably the funniest book ever written about professional baseball. Bouton once pitched for the Yankees but then hurt his arm, an injury that most assumed would end his career. It probably should have, but Bouton made a comeback as a knuckleball pitcher. This book is, in part, about that comeback, but it also recounts his days with the Yankees. It's more than funny, though. It's an eye-opening look into the daily lives of some of the biggest stars of all time (e.g., Mickey Mantle). Some of the tales Bouton tells got him into hot water with baseball's powers that be (e.g., Baseball Commissioner, Bowie Kuhn, tried to force Bouton to say that all the stories were fictional) and his former teammates (e.g., Mickey Mantle didn't speak to Bouton for years although they eventually patched things up). Yankee Sparky Lyle's book, The Bronx Zoo, is similar but not nearly as humorous.

My Turn at Bat: The Story of My Life by Ted Williams -- My college roommate and I "fought" almost every night over who would get to read this book (the alternative was Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago or studying for Advanced Accounting -- guess what won). It's a window into professional baseball back in the day when teams traveled by train and there was often longer breaks between series. One thing that you learn is that Williams was just as proud of his accomplishments as a fisherman as he was of his accomplishments as a baseball player (e.g., he earned the triple crown of fishing).

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis -- A behind-the-scenes account of how Oakland A's General Manager, Billy Beane, uses statistical analyses pioneered by Bill James (e.g., Bill James Baseball Abstract, 1977-1988) to find undervalued baseball talent in an extremely competitive market. Lewis is a great storyteller (his book, The Big Short, is one of the best, funniest and disturbing books on the subprime mortgage debacle of a couple years back -- he also wrote "The Blindside," which was a bestselling book that was turned into an Academy Award winning movie starring Sandra Bullock), and he weaves stories about Beane, James and others into a compelling account, so compelling, in fact, that it's being turned into a movie starring Brad Pitt. This isn't the first book about the A's. George Will's, Men At Work: The Craft of Baseball, looks at the A's as well (in particular, A's manager at the time, Tony LaRussa -- currently head coach of the St. Louis Cardinals).

Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella -- The novel behind the movie, Field of Dreams (and in this one Shoeless Joe bats left-handed and the mysterious author is J.D. Salinger). The movie was great; the book is just as good, probably better. It is often compared to Bernard Malmud's, The Natural, which, of course, was also made into a movie. I like Shoeless Joe more; Kinsella clearly understands the game better than Malmud. Moreover, I think The Natural is one of those few cases when the movie is actually better than the book.

Sadaharu Oh: A Zen Way of Baseball by Sadaharu Oh -- A great story about one of the greatest home run hitters of all time. It recounts how Oh drew on the martial art, Akido, to improve his concentration and focus his strength. Prior to doing so, Oh was a mediocre hitter who had never hit over .300. Afterward, he was unbelievable. The book contains a number of anecdotes about Oh's surprising strength and balance.

Eight Men Out: The Black Sox and the 1919 World Series by Eliot Asinof -- As the subtitle indicates, this book is about the 1919 World Series when some of the members of the Chicago White Sox threw the World Series. It is somewhat dated in that subsequent to its publication additional information concerning Shoeless Joe Jackson was found (e.g., his grand jury testimony -- not what was reported in the newspapers the next day) that supports the contention of some that although he knew what some of his teammates were doing, he didn't help throw the series (see e.g., Shoeless Joe and Ragtime BaseballSay it Ain't So, Joe: The True Story of Shoeless Joe Jackson, and Wrong Man Out). In fact, an article in the September 2009 issue of Chicago Lawyer magazine ("Black Sox: 'It ain't so, kid, it just ain't so'") argues that Asinof's book, which seems to affirm Jackson's guilt, was based on inaccurate information and inserted fictional characters into the book. Here's an interesting piece of trivia: It is likely that no kid ever said to Jackson as he was leaving the courthouse, "Say it Ain't So, Joe." Instead, it was probably a literary invention by an over imaginative reporter. Nevertheless, the book's a good yarn and the inspiration behind the film of the same name.

Other books of note: The late evolutionary biologist, Steven J. Gould, was a huge baseball fan and often penned essays on the topic. Several of these were included in his anthology, Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville: A Lifelong Passion for Baseball. Theologians William Herzog and Christopher Evans are big baseball fans as well, and they've gathered together a series of articles on baseball in their edited volume, The Faith of 50 Million: Baseball, Religion and American Culture. Then there's the book, Baseball and Philosophy: Thinking Outside the Batter's Box edited by Eric Bronson, for those who like to mix a little Aristotle, Kant and Socrates with their Bonds, Mays and Aarons.  Finally, there is The Physics of Baseball by Robert Adair, which my son once used for one of his science projects. It's and fun to read, which is probably why it's in its 3rd edition.

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