Five Baseball Books You Owe It to Yourself to Read This Summer
It's July, nearly August, and these are the lazy days. Whether you’re sweating it out in your inadequately air-conditioned home, lying on the beach with a beer, or sitting in a cramped airplane seat en route to somewhere better, this is the time of year to log some heavy book-hours. (Or to rewatch all of Breaking Bad on your iPad, but let's stick with books.) Being that summer is baseball season, those books should be about baseball.
If you’ve done even your basic baseball-book homework, you’ve already read Ball Four, Jim Bouton’s no-holds-barred inside look at the sport, Moneyball, Michael Lewis's Billy Beane stats story (having watched the movie doesn't count), and The Natural, quite possibly the most magical, classic baseball novel that’s been written. Here are five other great summer baseball reads—new, old, fiction, nonfiction—that maybe you recognize, but haven’t yet made time for. Make the time, sportsfans.
The Great American Novel (1973)
By Philip Roth
The author of this raunchy baseball farce is the same serious Philip Roth whose most recent slew of short novels have been, well, angry and morbid, about topics like aging, death, humiliation and Polio. But his Great American Novel (ballsy title, eh?) is no downer. It’s the story of the bumbling Ruppert Mundys, a pro baseball squad from New Jersey with no home field. (Fun trivia: the Newark Bears, a very real team in the Can-Am league that plays today—you can get a $2 hot dog at their games—originally played in Ruppert Stadium; their bear mascot is named Ruppert.) The novel is as slapstick as they come, but in the best possible way. Characters have names like Word Smith (but call him Smitty), Gil Gamesh, John Baal, Hot Ptah, Mule Mokos, and Nickname Damur. The book has men disguised as women, virgins being forced to lose their virginity, drunk pitchers, a racist Ernest Hemingway, and a one-armed outfielder. It may be the perfect light, hilarious summer baseball novel.
READ IT IF: You loved the musical Damn Yankees or the movie Baseketball.
Wherever I Wind Up (2012)
By R.A. Dickey with Wayne Coffey
Nevermind who deserves the credit for just how good Dickey’s memoir is—yes, he had a talented co-writer in Wayne Coffey, as did Andre Agassi with the great J.R. Moehringer for Open, as did Jay-Z with journalist Dream Hampton for his book Decoded, as do most celebrities that put their story to paper. All that matters is that this baseball memoir is very good, with most of its strength coming from the sheer drama of Dickey’s story. Considering that his Cy Young win led to a slew of serious articles in places like The New Yorker, you might already know the basics about his missing ulnar collateral ligament and the child abuse Dickey suffered. But you haven’t heard the story directly from him. The narrative voice in this book is easygoing, honest, and intimate. And though it may smack, at times, of exaggerated humility (on the very first page, Dickey mopes, “I will never lead the league in strikeouts,” something he regretted writing when he later did just that), Dickey’s story is so likable and surprising it’s hard to believe it’s not fiction. A movie option can't be far off.
READ IT IF: You ever had a coach doubt you or an injury sideline you. Or both.
By Terry Francona with Dan Shaugnessy
Regardless of what you think about former Red Sox skipper Terry Francona, you can’t deny Tito’s accomplishments. His track record is formidable, his style unique. Now that he's returned from his brief stint as a commentator to take up a post as manager of the arguably overachieving Indians, it's the perfect time to read his recent autobiography, co-written by accomplished Boston Globe veteran Dan Shaugnessy, which focuses on his time with the Sox. Though the book is mostly through Francona’s eyes, a whole host of players and experts also get to sound off about how Francona did things the Tito way over on Yawkey Way.
READ IT IF: You read or saw Moneyball, dreamt of being a baseball manager, or have your own axe to grind with Boston's bumbling ownership group.
The Art of Fielding (2011)
By Chad Harbach
There's a good chance that if you haven't already read this novel, it's to make a statement about all the praise that has been heaped on it. Well, you’re not doing yourself any favors: Harbach’s novel is every bit deserving of its hype, and might end up with a Malamud-like place as one of the best baseball novels ever. Although it’s true that The Art of Fielding is also a book about college, and ambition, and the rewards of routine and discipline, and many other lessons, it is also truly about baseball. It’s so interested in baseball, in fact, that it is named after a fictional Zen baseball guide written by a famous shortstop that the shortstop protagonist, Henry Skrimshander, treats as his Bible. Henry and his Westish College teammates, from wizened catcher Mike Schwartz to spacey intellectual Owen Dunne to studly, pompous pitcher Adam Starblind, are very real, fully imagined, and hard to forget. It’s difficult to write a novel that is both critically acclaimed and commercially successful—you usually can only get one—but this pulled it off, and for good reason. It's accessible, breezy, a pleasure to read.
READ IT IF: You played a varsity sport in college—or, more likely, just wished you had.
The Boys of Summer (1972)
By Roger Kahn
Certainly the most “classic” of these five, Roger Kahn’s story of covering the Jackie Robinson-era Dodgers is a true baseball travelogue, and Kahn is a sportswriter’s sportswriter. It’s a book that had to have influenced, say, Scott Raab’s 2011 book The Whore of Akron. Whereas that very entertaining book was an angry Cleveland fan’s bitter remembrance of watching LeBron James fail to deliver on his promise, Kahn’s book is the happier version (even though the team was unsuccessful) of a hometown fan’s years of fandom. But his book isn’t just about his own love of this squad—it's about the men who grew up and got to play for it. Ebbets Field looms larger than life in The Boys of Summer, and so does the wonder and magic of deep, proud, top-to-bottom knowledge of a single baseball team.
READ IT IF: You feel close ties to Brooklyn—old, baseball-mad Brooklyn, not artisanal, hipster Brooklyn.
The Universal Baseball Association Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. By Robert Coover (1968)
Remember Strat-o-Matic? Maybe you played it in the bunk at summer camp? It was the real-life precursor to fantasy baseball, complete with drafts and cards for each player; Robert Coover’s novel about the fictional UBA is something of a paean to Strat. The protagonist, accountant J. Henry Waugh, created the UBA and plays it alone in his apartment with a dice and a drink—and sometimes, as its commissioner and master, he makes bad things happen to the UBA players. The novel, written in 1968, went out of print but was reissued by Overlook Press in 2011.
Faithful By Stephen King (2004) Yes, Stephen King wrote a baseball memoir about his Red Sox fandom (with fellow superfan Stewart O’Nan). And it’s pretty good. King and O’Nan might waste a lot of their time on sentimentality, but much like Bill Simmons in Now I Can Die in Peace, they gripe because they care, and they care a great deal. It’s hard not to enjoy their account of being lifelong Sox fans if you are one too. And hey, if you’re a Sox hater, maybe you can still enjoy the book by laughing at it is as you go.