A Day in The Bleachers by Arnold Hano
In 1954 Arnold Hano, Sport magazine staff writer and one of the stellar names of the real golden age of American sportswriting in the 1950s, decided to go to a World Series game. He went to the Polo Grounds in New York, bought a ticket to the opening games of the World Series between the New York Giants and Cleveland Indians — it was actually possible, and affordable, to do things like this back then — and had the spectacular good fortune to have a bird’s eye view of Willie Mays’ catch off Vic Wertz in the Polo Ground’s cavernous centerfield. When the game was over, Hano wrote, “A delicious languor stole over me. I felt — with all the tiredness and gnawing in my stomach, wonderfully, savagely happy.” That feeling, as is preserved in amber, is still there for readers 55 years later.
(First editions of this book regularly sell for $250-$300, but several reprints, including a 2004 edition, are in stock on Amazon.com)
Eight Men Out: The Black Sox and the 1919 World Series by Eliot Asinof
The greatest sad baseball story ever told. Nothing written in the last 46 years has changed the essential story, or told it better: the penurious and hypocritical Chicago White Sox owner. Charles Comiskey, drove his players — most notably “Shoeless Joe” Jackson, the player with the third highest career batting average in major league history — into the arms of gamblers, including Arnold Rothstein, who, as Jay Gatsby said about his literary counterpart Meyer Wolfsheim, “Just saw the opportunity.” Shoeless Joe, Comiskey, even the first Commissioner of Baseball, Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis – no one comes off innocent in Asinof’s account. In a lovely elegiac ending, Asinof quotes Nelson Algren’s poem,
“For Shoeless Joe is gone, long gone, ...
And the bleacher shadows behind him.”
(Originally published in 1963, the paperback edition with introduction by Stephen Jay Gould is available in stores and online.)
You Know Me Al by Ring Lardner
In a letter to a friend, Virginia Woolf — who wouldn’t have known a declaration of ball four from the Balfour Declaration — wrote, “Mr. Lardner has talents of a remarkable order. With the surest touch, the sharpest insight, he lets Jack Keefe, the baseball player, cut his own outline, fill in his own depths, until the figure of the foolish, boastful, innocent athlete lives before us.” The Keefe character, in fact, is drawn from the author’s experiences while covering those doomed 1919 White Sox. Wilfrid Sheed, in his introduction to the 1984 Vintage edition (still easily found) wrote of Lardner’s protagonist, “Two things you know for sure about him: He will never give up and he will never die.”
All My Octobers — My Memories of 12 World Series When the Yankees Ruled Baseball by Mickey Mantle with Mickey Herskowitz
Mickey Mantle talked about his life and career with several writers, but none better than the Texas-based journalist Mickey Herskowitz. What is remarkable about this book, originally published in1994, is how clear-headed and sober Mantle’s recollections were at a time in his life when he was dying of liver cancer caused by years of alcoholism. (He died the year after the book was published.) Mantle, who knew he didn’t have long to live when he wrote this, comes across with humor and courage: “I can’t do my career over, and I can’t get back the seasons I may have lost. But I am taking a fresh swing at life now, and I am taking it cold sober.”
(2006 reprint from Harper Paperbacks available on line.)
The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn
Ask several dozen baseball writers — and I have — for their list of the greatest baseball books of all time and The Boys of Summer will be highest on every list. Kahn picked a great subject, the Jackie Robinson-era Brooklyn Dodgers, who won that team’s only World Series in 1955; a great title, from Dylan Thomas; and the right tone, autumnal, in recording the history of baseball’s most fabled team: “White teacher and black policeman nodded and moved separately from the place where Ebbets Field had stood... Sweet Moses, white or black, who will remember?”
(The original 1971 edition sells for $500 or more, but the 2006 Harper Perennial edition is easy to find.)
The October Heroes – Great World Series Games Remembered by the Men Who Played Them by Donald Honig
Donald Honig (Baseball Between The Lines and The 100 Greatest Baseball Players of All Time) may be baseball’s greatest oral historian. As he writes in the introduction to this great collections of interviews with World Series heroes, “Every World Series in itself is a tale with beginning, middle and end, and because there must be a winner, there must be a hero.” Where else are you going to find Honus Wagner, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and Sandy Koufax between the same covers? And it’s not just a book about heroes: Freddy Lindstrom, recalling the ground ball that bounced over his head in the 1924 World Series, “I didn’t do anything but just stand there. It was very easy. Anybody could have done it.” “It’s possible,” says Lindstrom, “that if it hadn’t been for that ball bouncing over my head... a lot of people would have forgotten I existed.”
(Available from online booksellers)
The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract by Bill James
My own review of this book in the Wall Street Journal — “The most important baseball book in the last 20 years” — would be hyperbolic if it wasn’t an understatement. I could have said 25 or more. You’ll want to read this decade-by-decade account of baseball history from cover to cover, but if you can’t get through the nearly 1,000 pages all in one sitting, keep it by your sofa and dip into it during the World Series commercials. (And that should give you time to reread most of it as well.) You may have no more understanding of baseball statistics than I do — this RBI thing still throws me — but you will have no problem appreciating the lucid authority of James’ prose.
In the section on “The Best World Series of the 1950s,” James writes, “The 1952 World Series [between the Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers] was a seven-game series with six great games. If you’re interested, let’s wallow in the details for a while...” We are, we have and we will again.
(Originally published in 2001, Simon and Schuster; the 2003 revised edition from Free Press is available from Amazon.com)
Birmingham native Allen Barra writes about sports, film, literature and more for numerous publications, including the Village Voice, The Wall Street Journal and BookForum, where this story first appeared. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.