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Reading between the lines

An all-star lineup of baseball books

Reading between the lines


By Todd Leopold
CNN

"Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America," French historian Jacques Barzun once famously wrote, "had better learn baseball." Fortunately, for those who want to know America's heart and mind, there are hundreds of books offering lessons on the sport.

Whether it's baseball's mathematical precision, the larger-than-life exploits of its players, or simply the crazy luck created by hitting a pitched horsehide-leather sphere, baseball has provided writers with a rich vein of stories and personalities. With the sport's All-Star break at hand, here are nine idiosyncratic choices for a literary all-star team.

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  • "The Natural" by Bernard Malamud. Malamud's 1952 tale revolves around Roy Hobbs, an aged slugger who appears seemingly out of nowhere one day to carry the dilapidated New York Knights towards a pennant. Hobbs is a superman of the baseball diamond: His home runs are titanic, his outfield play spectacular, his grace incomparable. But he also carries the wounds of a mysterious past. Moreover, he must maneuver through a gallery of characters -- a cynical sportswriter, a devious team owner, a femme fatale -- that threatens his goal to be "the best there ever was." "The Natural" unites ancient myth with modern baseball history, molding a character out of equal parts Babe Ruth, Shoeless Joe Jackson and your Greek tragic hero of choice. It's influenced just about every novel since.
  • An all-star lineup of baseball books

  • "Eight Men Out" by Eliot Asinof. If the sport of baseball has a shadow looming over its history, it is the 1919 Black Sox Scandal. That year, several Chicago White Sox players, angered at the low wages and poor treatment given them by team owner Charles Comiskey, arranged with a handful of gamblers and low-lifes to fix the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. The repercussions -- from the creation of the commissioner's office to a more profound loss of innocence -- continue to affect the sport today. Asinof's book is the most complete --and the most readable -- work of scholarship on the subject.
  • "Hoopla" by Harry Stein. As the Black Sox scandal pervades baseball history, it looms just as large in baseball literature. In this 1983 novel, Stein tells the Black Sox story through two characters: Luther Pond, a fictional New York sportswriter and columnist from the Ring Lardner/Walter Winchell school, and Buck Weaver, the real-life White Sox third baseman who was banned from the game for his alleged role in the fixing. As in real life, Weaver denies his participation in the scandal, while the fictional Pond believes nobody, trusts nobody, and mints his own celebrity out of his cynicism. The scandal, and the cutthroat world of 1920s sportswriting, left little room for heroes.
  • "The Celebrant" by Eric Rolfe Greenberg. In early 20th-century New York, an immigrant jeweler, Jackie Kapp, meets star Giant pitcher Christy Mathewson, and the two strike up an unlikely friendship. For a time, the friendship is golden: With the Kapp family making rings for the perennial National League champions, the fortunes of Mathewson and the jewelry business climb together. But tragedy soon intervenes. Mathewson develops health problems related to his exposure to gas in World War I, while a Kapp brother, a gambler, becomes embroiled in the Black Sox scandal. Greenberg's winning portrait of these times is enhanced by colorful details: "The '17 season," he writes, "was one of jingo excitement ... ballparks staged patriotic extravaganzas almost daily, interrupting proceedings in mid-inning to sell war bonds."
  • An all-star lineup of baseball books

  • "The Greatest Slump of All Time" by David Carkeet. Apples Bagwell, Buford Ellenbogen, Scrappy Hawthorn, Eddie Johnson, and Jaime Jan Orguyo van der Pijpers are not merely strange names: they're the strange names that make up a championship-level baseball team in Carkeet's overlooked 1984 novel. Unfortunately for them, their achievements on the baseball field don't translate to their off-the-field lives. Despite its winning ways, this is a baseball team suffering from depression. Carkeet, always a witty and humane writer, paints a rich picture of a disparate group realizing success in a game doesn't always mean success in life.
  • "The Glory of Their Times" by Lawrence S. Ritter. Today, we are overwhelmed with information about baseball -- cable TV, electronic scoreboards, and batting averages computed after each plate appearance keep us apprised moment by moment. But the world of baseball before talking pictures remains a hazy, black-and-white place. Ritter's oral history records the stories of 26 players who played between the turn of the century and World War II, giving their first-person impressions of Merkle's Boner, Snodgrass' Muff, and what life was like in those sepia-toned days before air travel and wild-card playoff teams. As a historical document, it's invaluable; as a repository of baseball stories, it's terrific fun.
  • "Veeck: As in Wreck" by Bill Veeck with Ed Linn. Speaking of baseball stories, few could tell one as well as Bill Veeck, the former owner who made the fans' entertainment as much a part of the game as home runs and called strikes. It was Veeck who allegedly planted the ivy on Wrigley Field's walls; it was Veeck who sponsored tribute days for mothers, ladies, retiring players and even a lucky fan or two. It was Veeck who came up with the idea of sending a midget, Eddie Gaedel, into a game to bat one summer's day. To detractors, Veeck was a hustler, and he never denied the charge: He even called his next book "The Hustler's Handbook." But shrewd marketing never matched up with love of the game so well. Baseball lost a giant when it lost Bill Veeck.
  • Anything by Bill James. In the 1980s, Bill James made statistical minutiae respectable with his "Baseball Abstract" and "Baseball Book" series, opening up the field for our current inundation. But what his legion of successors have missed is that James is also a mighty fine writer: his statistical examinations are merely a means to an end. His "Abstract" writings have been collected in "This Time Let's Not Eat the Bones," and his other books -- including "The Politics of Glory," a look at the Hall of Fame, and "The Bill James Book of Baseball Managers" -- provide hard-nosed commentary about what's been right with the game throughout its history, and how to solve some the dilemmas that remain.
  • "Ball Four" by Jim Bouton. To hear old-timers tell it, baseball was a game played by heroes and role models before Jim Bouton. After "Ball Four" appeared in 1970, everyone knew the truth -- players were as human as the rest of us, and woe to society for knowing the fact. Well, 30 years later Bouton's tales of his early years with the champion New York Yankees and diary of life with the appallingly bad Seattle Pilots have yet to destroy the game, despite the spate of tell-all memoirs that have followed. Besides, "Ball Four" is one of the funniest baseball books ever, as well as being the most honest: "You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball," Bouton concludes, "and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time."


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