The Globe asked writers, fans – and one Blue Jays’ star pitcher – for their tips on books that analyze, criticize and celebrate the game.
R.A. Dickey: It might surprise you, but I’m not especially drawn to books of biography or autobiography about baseball players. I like books that use baseball as a vehicle to tell a story. My favourite baseball book is The Brothers K, by David James Duncan. It’s the story of coming of age for a whole family, a discovery of what makes a group of siblings who are raised identically very different as they set out out on their individual journeys. It’s about what makes people unique. Do they celebrate it? Are they embarrassed by it? It’s a book with a lot of spirituality in it, too, and a lot of redemption. It’s a sweet book.
R.A. Dickey, winner of the 2012 National League Cy Young Award, is a pitcher for the Toronto Blue Jays and the author of Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball.
Martin Levin: Jim Bouton’s Ball Four is a blow-by-blow (literally) account of his 1969 season with the Seattle Pilots, and an R-rated look into the world of ballplayers: the cursing (especially by the almost excessively colourful manager, Joe Schultz), the tomcatting, the clubhouse rivalries, the drugs, with a liberal dose of insider baseball. Uptight commissioner Bowie Kuhn declared Ball Four “detrimental to baseball” and, laughably, asked Bouton to state publicly that it was fiction, that he made it all up. This milestone on the way to the era of Deadspin.com and anything-goes sports journalism is hilarious, insightful and unsparing, perhaps most so of its author, a once-ace pitcher who was also chronicling his own dying star.
Former Globe Books editor Martin Levin adopted the religion of baseball at 6 on first seeing Chicago’s Wrigley Field.
Alison Jones: Stories of sports teams are those of their cities, and Jonathan Mahler’s Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City is a thrilling account of the most fabled team of them all in a most remarkable year in New York. At the book’s centre is the talented and tortured Yankees manager Billy Martin, his superstar Reggie Jackson and owner George Steinbrenner, who really, really wants to win his first World Series. The hot New York City summer makes a wild backdrop to the story; the July citywide blackout, the looting of impoverished neighbourhoods and the police and media’s pursuit of the Son of Sam killer. In a three-month period starting in August, the serial killer will be arrested, Ed Koch will become mayor and the Yankees will win the World Series. Mahler makes a convincing case a new era for the city begins.
Alison Jones is the publisher of Quill & Quire, the magazine of Canada’s book industry.
Guy Gavriel Kay: In any pantheon of baseball books, Lawrence Ritter’s masterpiece, The Glory of Their Times: The Story of the Early Days of Baseball Told by the Men Who Played It, has to sit high upon Olympus. Or Valhalla. Or wherever these things reside in the imagination. It is an oral history of the game’s early years, players interviewed late in their lives, looking back with amusement, bitterness, love, joy on their time in the game and the men they played with. It is vivid, anecdotal, informative as social history, and often very deeply moving. A not-to-be-missed book for anyone who loves the sport and is one of those sport books that is much more than that. We look back on our youth when we’re older, and such complex feelings emerge.
Guy Gavriel Kay is the author of 12 novels including, most recently, Under Heaven and River of Stars.
Jonah Keri: In his four decades owning professional baseball teams, Bill Veeck earned a reputation as a carnival barker, someone who pushed cheap beer and destroyed disco records to earn a buck. There’s no doubting the man’s commitment to unconventional marketing tactics, nor his ability to turn a mean phrase while doing so (“Look, we play the Star Spangled Banner before every game. You want us to pay income taxes too?”). But he also stood up for what was right. Veeck – As In Wreck is one of the funniest sports autobiographies you’ll ever read. It’s also moving, and chock full of valuable business lessons – something you wouldn’t expect from the clown prince of baseball owners.
Jonah Keri is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First, and an forthcoming book on the history of the Montreal Expos.
Jared Bland: In my opinion – and with respect to Chad Harbach, Philip Roth and many others – Robert Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. is the greatest novel yet written about the game. J. Henry Waugh, a miserable accountant, spends his evenings lording over the Universal Baseball Association, a sort of proto-fantasy league of his own creation in which dice and statistical probability determine the action. Coover’s delirious prose swings from Waugh’s sad bachelordom to the exploits of the imaginary league’s players and managers, leaving the reader increasingly uncertain of what, exactly, is real. It’s an unpredictable book of menace, beauty and heartbreak – not unlike a wayward knuckleball.
Jared Bland is The Globe and Mail’s Books editor.
Cynthia Good: Although my parents had always followed baseball, my interest only began with the arrival of the Jays in 1977. But my interest heated up to passion when I began reading about the sport. My early favourite was Why Time Begins on Opening Day by Thomas Boswell. And for me time does begin with the baseball season. Boswell’s quiet enthusiasms, keen intelligence, quotable reflections and insightful humour provided me with a great baseball education and assured me that there is a strong relationship between baseball and books. Let me also give a shout-out to The Thrill of the Grass by Canadian W.P. Kinsella (full disclosure, I edited that book), a quiet collection of short stories that are deeply satisfying. Yes, baseball is the quiet game and the literary sport.
Cynthia Good is the director of the Creative Book Publishing Program at Humber College and the former president and publisher of Penguin Canada.
Jeff Blair: Bang The Drum Slowly, by Mark Harris. Michael Moriarty looked like a mannequin when he tried to throw a baseball in the movie adaptation, but the book remains my favourite piece of baseball literature. It’s a snapshot of life before steroids and million-dollar bench-players. It’s about liniment and double-headers, and the deft portrayal of the gentle relationship between the terminally ill Bruce Pearson and top-of-the-world Henry Wiggen offers a touch of character-based humanity not always found in sports literature.
Jeff Blair is a Globe and Mail sports columnist and the author of the forthcoming Full Count: Four Decades of Blue Jays Baseball.
David McGimpsey: Robert W. Creamer’s biography of Babe Ruth (Babe: The Legend Comes to Life) is a great book; not only the model of what a good sports biography should be but what a good historical biography should be and, as such, reminds me more of, say, David McCullough’s John Adams than, say, Third Base is My Home by Brooks Robinson as told to Jack Tobin. Given Ruth’s almost carnivalesque mythic stature, Creamer’s bio is an appreciably human portrait of a complex individual struggling with unlikely success in an era that would define America.
David McGimpsey’s most recent poetry collection, Li’l Bastard, was a finalist for the Governor-General’s Award. He is the author of Imagining Baseball: America’s Pastime and Popular Culture.
Shawna Richer: The first book on baseball by the New Yorker essayist Roger Angell elevates sports writing to poetry. It focuses on the game in the 1960s and 70s, and while I didn’t discover it until many years later, it set the bar impossibly high for all the sportswriting I would come to read, even now, more than four decades after it was first published. The Summer Game is about baseball, but it’s really about America and a time in sport, measured in gorgeous prose by more than the passing of years, long gone, impossible to reclaim.
Shawna Richer is The Globe and Mail’s Sports editor.
Mark Kingwell: Bernard Malamud’s The Natural and Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding are the perfect 4-6 middle infield for a starting lineup of great baseball novels. Malamud’s Roy Hobbs is an one-time phenom who must struggle with age and corruption to return to baseball’s pinnacle. Harbach’s Henry Skrimshander is another teenage natural, a brilliant shortstop whose errant throw sends a beloved teammate to the hospital, and Henry into a spiral of corrosive self-doubt. Malamud’s novel is naturalistic in style but rich in mythic and historical allusion; Harbach’s is a leisurely tragicomedy, like an extra-innings game on a summer afternoon. Both offer poignant meditations on our yearning for perfection, the mysterious dynamic of desire and action that is embodied by every crouched defender just before a pitch.
Mark Kingwell teaches philosophy at the University of Toronto. His most recent book is the essay collection Unruly Voices.