For a baseball fan, this is the hardest time of year. Pitchers and catchers have reported to spring training, the games have yet to start and the anticipation is agonizing. It’s almost here, but it’s still not here.
Someone once asked Cardinals great Rogers Hornsby what he did in the offseason. “I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.”
As someone who doesn’t get 1% of the joy out of other sports as I do out of baseball, I can relate to Mr. Hornsby. Luckily, I love to read and baseball books and biographies hold me off until April. I’ve read dozens of books on the greatest game and its players, but here are my top five favorites. This probably won’t be the last top five baseball book list as it won’t be easy to make the cuts.
October 1964 by David Halberstam
Halberstam chronicles the seasons and eventual World Series collision of the New York Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals. The Yankees are old and ending their run of five straight World Series appearences. Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra are nearing the end of their careers, but are still good enough to make their way to an American League pennant. Halberstam also writes of the hushed racism still in the game as the Yankees could have embraced a more diverse clubhouse, but chose instead to put a cap on blacks players with one, Elston Howard.
In the National League, the Cardinals are young, diverse and heading into a great decade of baseball. A mid-season trade to get a young raw player named Lou Brock helps turn the team’s season around. Halberstam puts the reader in the clubhouse alongside the personalities of Bob Gibson, Tim McCarver and backup catcher Bob Uecker. For readers who despise the greatness of the Yankees, it’s great to read about the team’s demise which would lead to an eventual last-place finish in 1966 while watching the Cardinals organization make all the right moves.
The Yankee Years by Joe Torre and Tom Verducci
This book is modern baseball, unfortunately and fortunately. Joe Torre and Tom Verducci go deep into the manager’s tenure as the New York Yankees’ skipper to tell the stories behind the stories. The most shocking moments come from the egotistical players like Alex Rodriguez, Roger Clemens and Gary Sheffield. But there’s also the nod to Derek Jeter and what he’s gone through and seen since joining the club in 1995. Torre uncovers the forgotten stories of Yankees who have come and gone in the minds of fans like Kevin Brown, Randy Johnson, Jared Wright and Chad Curtis.
It’s the good, the bad and the ugly of the last 15 years of baseball told from just one dugout, but certainly the most popular dugout.
Moneyball by Michael Lewis
You don’t have to agree with it, but it should be read. Not since Jim Bouton’s Ball Four has a book turned the baseball world upside down simply based on theory. The experts who used the new way of putting value in a player based on statistics praised the book while the old school men who graded players on their own instincts declared it blasphemous. One thing if for sure: I have not looked at the game the same since I read Moneyball.
Using general manager Billy Beane as the focus, Lewis shows how small-market teams compete against the likes of the Yankees, Mets, Red Sox and other large-market teams. They don’t have the cash flow those teams have, so they need to find a different way of finding the best players. It’s much more than just on-base percentage. Lewis shows how Beane finds players every other team has looked over. That same player no one wanted tends to find his way to the big league club. Moneyball is the LSD of baseball books: you’ll never look at the game the same again.
The Bad Guys Won! by Jeff Pearlman
From spring training through the regular season to a wild championship series and World Series, it’s amazing the 1986 New York Mets lived through the season without either killing each other or overdosing on drugs and alcohol. Finding out about all the shenanigans that went on from the incredibly diverse clubhouse adds more exclamation to the fact that the team won 108 games and the World Series.
From Daryl Strawberry’s egotism and drug use, to Gary Carter and his will to take the credit, to manager Davey Johnson’s ability to look the other way, to the dominance and hidden demons inside Dwight Gooden, author Jeff Pearlman takes the reader on a wild ride that is the ultimate page turner of baseball books.
The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America by Joe Posnanski
Buck O’Neil is arguably the greatest ambassador the game has ever seen. Joe Posnanski followed O’Neil for a summer while the former Negro League star made various appearances as a motivational speaker or just at the ballpark. The author has the ability to let the reader see just how uplifting and powerful O’Neil can be to the average person, not just baseball fans. From O’Neil’s optimism on life, no one would be able to tell he suffered through terrible racism and segregation as a Negro Leaguer or later in life as a coach in the major leagues.
Of my top five, The Soul of Baseball is great, not just for baseball fans, but anyone who enjoys an uplifting read. You don’t have to love baseball to enjoy this book.