America's pastime has produced so many memorable stories. From on-field brawls to walk-off home runs, we all have incredible memories from the games themselves. But then, there are the games within the game. Relationships between managers and players, dugout antics, and off the field shenanigans are often the stories that go untold.
There's a purity to baseball that goes back a long time. While the rules of the game are straightforward, true fans of the sport understand how complex the strategies can be, both within the game itself and in managing a roster for a 162-game season.
Today, we take a look at the best baseball books ever written. From classics like Ball Four to more modern writing with Moneyball, rest assured, there's something for everyone.
We took a look at 3 main criteria:
1. These are all books that we really enjoyed.
2. We aimed to diversify the eras of the books.
3. Last, we wanted to include a couple fictional books so that the list wasn't entirely non-fiction.
"Moneyball" by Michael Lewis - This book explores the use of statistical analysis in baseball and how the Oakland Athletics and their general manager Billy Beane were able to build a competitive team on a small budget. Specific strategies included focusing on high on-base percentage rather than batting average, and acquiring players who excelled at particular skills but were undervalued by other teams. The book discusses how this analytical approach allowed the A's to compete successfully against richer rivals like the New York Yankees, despite Oakland's payroll being a fraction of its competitors.
2. The Boys of Summer
"The Boys of Summer" by Roger Kahn - This classic book (written in 1972) tells the story of the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1950s and the players who made up the team. Kahn, a sportswriter who covered the Dodgers in the early 1950s, recounts the story of the lives and careers of the players on those Dodgers teams, which included stars like Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, and Duke Snider. He describes the Dodgers' successes in the 1952 and 1953 World Series and analyzes the factors behind their only World Series Championship in 1955. Beyond baseball, the book examines the struggles and transitions the players faced when their playing careers ended, as most had to continue "normal" lives after being stars.
3. Ball Four
"Ball Four" by Jim Bouton - Written in 1970, this memoir by a former major league pitcher offers an inside look at life in the major leagues during the 1960s and 1970s. It provides an insider's look at the 1969 season, which Bouton spent with the Seattle Pilots and Houston Astros. Bouton kept a diary of that year, chronicling the season in detail. The book became very controversial because of Bouton's willingness to take readers behind-the-scenes and talk about things like drug use, womanizing, and emotional outbursts. This broke the unwritten rule of keeping private matters inside the clubhouse.
4. Eight Men Out
"Eight Men Out" by Eliot Asinof - Written in 1963, this book tells the story of the 1919 Black Sox scandal, in which eight members of the Chicago White Sox were accused of throwing the World Series. Prominent names included "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, Eddie Cicotte, and Lefty Williams. The book examines how the players were approached by gamblers and bookies and convinced to throw the series for substantial cash payments. Some players refused to participate in the fix. It also depicts the conspiracy unfolding during the series itself, as the accused players made intentional mistakes, poor plays, and suspicious pitching decisions to ensure the Reds victory. Asinof argues that the players were largely victims of circumstance and made scapegoats by White Sox ownership and MLB officials.
5. The Art of Fielding
"The Art of Fielding" by Chad Harbach - This 2011 novel tells the story of a college baseball team and the players and coaches who make up the team. The main character is Henry Skrimshander, a baseball prodigy playing shortstop for the fictional Westish College. His talent draws attention from major league scouts, but his baseball skills start to unravel after he makes an errant throw that injures his college teammate/roommate Owen Dunne. Intertwined with Henry's story are the lives of other characters like Westish College president, Guert Affenlight, his daughter Pella, and Owen. As Henry deals with the psychological effects of his throwing problems, the novel explores themes of talent vs. hard work, mentorship, perfectionism, and overcoming obstacles in pursuit of athletic goals.
6. The Natural
"The Natural" by Bernard Malamud - This classic novel, written in 1952, tells the story of a baseball player with great natural talent, but also with many personal demons to overcome. It follows Roy Hobbs, a baseball prodigy with a mysterious past who enters the major leagues in middle age after years in obscurity. With his natural athletic talent, Hobbs quickly becomes a baseball superstar for the fictional New York Knights team. However, his newfound fame and success begins to unravel as he becomes entangled with unscrupulous managers, a sinister woman, and his own flaws. Hobbs struggles to decide if he should accept a bribe to throw the season, while also dealing with the reemergence of figures from his mysterious past. 32 years after this was published, the book served as the basis for a movie by the same name featuring Robert Redford.
7. The Big Field
"The Big Field" by Mike Lupica - This book is a fiction story of a young baseball player who is talented and determined to make it to the big leagues. The story is set in a small town in America and follows 14-year-old Hutch, a talented young baseball player whose father was a local baseball legend before passing away. Taking place over the course of a single baseball season, Hutch aims to lead his team to the Little League World Series championship and deal with expectations due to his father's legacy. Over the course of the season, Hutch must learn to be a team player rather than just a star, understand the difference between confidence and cockiness, and grapple with the pressure to live up to his father's name.
8. The Extra 2%
"The Extra 2%" by Jonah Keri - We write about this book in detail on our list of best books about sports business. Written in 2011, the book examines how the Tamp Bay Rays' new ownership and management team implemented analytical, data-driven changes inspired by Wall Street after Stuart Sternberg bought the club in 2005. Somewhat similar to Moneyball, it details the Rays' shift towards sabermetrics, increased spending on scouting and player development, and experiments with defensive shifts, pitch selection, and other innovative strategies.
9. Only The Ball Was White
"Only The Ball Was White" by Robert Peterson - Written in 1970, this is a tremendous history of the Negro Leagues and features the legend, Pop Lloyd, who we wrote about previously. It shines a light on the Negro Leagues, as one of the few outlets for exceptionally talented black baseball players barred from the all-white major leagues. The book provides profiles and biographical sketches of many legendary Negro League players such as Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, and Buck O'Neil and documents the realities of segregation that black ballplayers faced not just in professional baseball but also in their everyday lives.
10. The Last Hero
"The Last Hero" by Howard Bryant - Henry "Hank" Aaron held the all-time record for home runs in a career until he was surpassed by Barry Bonds. The book chronicles Aaron's childhood in the segregated South, his time in the Negro Leagues, and his unassuming personality in contrast to his athletic feats. It documents Aaron's record-breaking 755 career home runs while facing death threats and racism as he approached breaking Babe Ruth's record. The biography explores Aaron's personal life, relationships with other stars like Willie Mays, and his often overshadowed generosity and activism. In my opinion, it cements Aaron's legacy as an all-time great who demonstrated courage, class, and championship play through adversity.
11. The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract
"The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract" by Bill James - This book has a hundred years of baseball history in it and is really the "go to" guide for baseball fans and historians. James provides rankings and profiles of the 100 greatest baseball players of all time, analyzing their careers and statistics. The book also includes essays by James on topics like baseball history, analysis methods, win shares, game theory, and other statistical concepts. James provides statistics-driven analysis of who were the best pitchers, fielders, home run hitters, and other player groups in various eras. If you're into baseball history and historical stats, this is a gem.
Did We Knock It Out of the Park?
John Willkom is the author of Amazon best-selling basketball books: Walk-On Warrior and No Fear In The Arena. John is an avid reader, sports fan, and father to two incredible little girls.
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