Five Books to Help You Enjoy Baseball This Summer, Even If Your Team Already Sucks
Whether your franchise is in full-on tank-mode, or just facing an uphill-battle back into contention, these books will keep your love affair with America’s pastime alive.
Baseball and literature have a long and intertwined history, with great writing often going with the game as well as a box of Cracker Jacks and a hot dog. From Roger Angell’s magisterial essays to John Updike’s “Hub Kid Bids Adieu,” baseball has captured the imaginations — and the pens — of many literary luminaries. Listed below are five of my favorites, perfect for a summer evening when your team isn’t hitting well or a winter night when there’s no game to watch at all.
Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty- Charles Leerhsen
Few players in sports history have a worse reputation than Ty Cobb, the Georgia Peach. Even those who don’t follow baseball closely have heard that Cobb was a violent and virulent racist, hated by both his teammates and his opponents. Yet according to Charles Leerhsen, in his new biography of Cobb, most of what we know about him is myth, invented by his biographer Al Stump in order to sell books. Leerhsen therefore takes it upon himself to set the record straight, focusing on what made Cobb such an exciting and revelatory player, the sport’s first superstar. He also looks at various stories about Cobb’s racism and violence, then shows why there’s no reason to believe many of them, exposing Stump’s fabrications for the lies they are. Also, this book is stuffed with hilarious anecdotes about dead ball-era baseball that bring that period alive for modern readers, highlighting just what a bizarre time in sports that was. Reading this biography, Cobb does not emerge as a lovable figure, but his reputation is at least salvaged from slander, allowing him to reclaim his place as one of the greatest and most inimitable figures in American sports.
56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports- Kostya Kennedy
No record in sports is more iconic, and tantalizingly unbreakable than Joe DiMaggio’s streak of fifty-six games with a base hit. In theory, there is nothing keeping any modern player from breaking it — no modern rules or changes in the way game is played precluding hitting as consistently as DiMaggio did in 1941 — except for its sheer difficulty to approach. Kennedy, in this tremendously well researched and written book, delivers the definitive book on DiMaggio’s streak, capturing that summer in all its splendor and mystery. At times, I was left to wonder just how he was able to get enough information to make each chapter as detailed as it was, giving the reader a feel for all that was happening in DiMaggio’s head, the Yankees’ clubhouse, and America at large during that summer when DiMaggio hit safely without fail in fifty-six straight games.
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Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ‘70s- Dan Epstein
In the 1970s, baseball went through a stylistic revolution as more black players entered the league than ever before and the changes that had come to American society came to affect the national pastime in a new and exciting way. Players became more individualistic, leading to a number of characters like Mark Fidrych and Bill Lee who became as known for their eccentricities as their skills. On top of that, the 1970s featured several great and idiosyncratic teams such as the Oakland A’s Mustache Gang who won three consecutive World Series, the Big Red Machine who won the Series in 1975 and ’76, and the New York Yankees of 1977 and ’78 who overcame an absurd amount of internal turmoil to win the team’s first two championships under the ownership of George Steinbrenner. In Big Hair and Plastic Grass, Dan Epstein entertainingly tells the stories of all these unique individuals and teams along with so many more, making this a hilarious romp through one of the sport’s oddest and most important decades.
Summer of ’49- David Halberstam
After writing several great books about American history, Summer of ’49 was Halberstam’s first book about baseball. In it, he recounts the pennant race between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees, which came down to the final game of the season. This season was the arrival of a new Yankee dynasty led by Casey Stengel, who won his first of seven World Series with the Yankees that year, and Halberstam showcases both the continuity that new dynasty had with the past and what made this new Stengel-led one different from the ones that had come before in previous decades. The book is also peppered with mini biographies of every principal from both teams, giving the reader a great understanding of who these players and managers were, what drove them, and made them all so unique. What sets it apart though is Halberstam’s evocation of a postwar America that was on the verge of massive change and the role baseball played in the American psyche during that time. Anything David Halberstam wrote is worth reading, and Summer of ’49 is no exception.
A Well Paid Slave: Curt Flood’s Fight For Free Agency in Professional Sports- Brad Snyder
In a time where it is not unusual for players to sign contracts worth over a hundred million dollars with the team of their choosing, it is often difficult to imagine that this was not always the case, and that earning the ability to do so was a hard fought battle not easily won. The fight for free agency is superbly recounted in A Well Paid Slave, a biography of Curt Flood that pays special attention to his struggle to gain the ability to define his own destiny after being traded to the Philadelphia Phillies near the end of his career. Flood insisted that not having a say in his own career made him a slave in spite of his $90,000 salary, and few after reading this book would struggle to disagree as this book makes clear the need for athletes, as labor, to earn their fair share and determine the course of their lives and careers. Brad Snyder, a professor of law at Georgetown University, is also uniquely qualified to ably details the court cases that were filed in the aftermath of Flood’s trade without losing the reader in a ton of hard to understand jargon. A Well Paid Slave chronicles one of the most important stories in American sports that has unjustly been forgotten by many, and remains as relevant as ever. Few athletes of the twentieth century have left a larger, or more important, legacy than Curt Flood and this book shows why he is a name that all sports fans should know and honor.
Micah Wimmer is a senior writer whose primary interests are sports, literature, and popular music. He’s also the host of Grandstand Central’s newest podcast ‘Pros & Prose’ — the book club for sports fans. You can follow him here.
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