Baseball has inspired some of the best writing about sports. Think “Ball Four,” by Jim Bouton, “Moneyball,” by Michael Lewis, “The Boys of Summer,” by Roger Kahn, or Bernard Malamud’s classic novel, “The Natural.” This year’s crop of baseball books covers a wide swath — memoir, biography, history and more. We hear from Pete Rose and Yogi Berra’s son, from a philosopher and a former MLB commissioner. There’s enough here to get you through extra innings. So, okay, let’s play ball:
“Play Hungry: The Making of a Baseball Player,” by Pete Rose (Penguin Press)
In 23 seasons Pete Rose, a.k.a. “Charlie Hustle,” established a bunch of records— most hits (4,256), most games played (3,562), most at-bats (14,053), you get the idea. His baseball career ended in 1989 after revelations that he gambled on baseball, a subject he discusses for just two pages in a book billed as the star’s “love letter” to the game. This is not Rose’s first book since he was permanently banned from baseball and made ineligible for induction at Cooperstown. Here he focuses on stories from baseball’s Golden Age and on his dedication to playing the game “the right way.”
“Ten Innings at Wrigley: The Wildest Ballgame Ever, With Baseball on the Brink,” by Kevin Cook (Henry Holt)
Wrigley Field, despite money-grubbing improvements, rightfully stands with Fenway Park as a revered baseball venue. Among the most memorable games played there was the 1979 slugfest between the Phillies and the “lovable losing” Cubs. Kevin Cook recounts the contest — indeed a wild game — that was knotted 22-all in the ninth inning (no spoilers here) before ending with 45 runs scored. It’s a vivid tale of a dramatic contest just as the sport was about to enter an era that was more, well, money-grubbing.
“K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches,” by Tyler Kepner (Doubleday)
Kepner, the national baseball writer for the New York Times, has chosen a nifty conceit. He’s organized his history of the game around the 10 major types of pitches — slider, fastball, knuckleball, splitter, screwball, sinker, change-up, cutter, spitball, curveball. He relies on the testimony of hurlers with the most recorded strikeouts to elucidate the complicated and magical art of throwing a ball 60 feet 6 inches. The result is a fascinating tour of the sport as seen from the mound.
“Infinite Baseball: Notes from a Philosopher at the Ballpark,” by Alva Noë (Oxford)
This is an original, amusing tome that validates the “small ball” theory of writing — the smaller the ball, the better the writing. Noë, a baseball-loving philosopher, disagrees with the current preoccupation with numbers and Major League Baseball’s obsession with speeding up — thus shortening — the game. (There’s a full chapter called “In praise of being bored.”) In addition to some metaphysical reflections, Noë takes up the more administrative aspects of the sport — the role of umpires, the strike zone and the value of instant replay.
“Son of Havana: A Baseball Journey From Cuba to the Big Leagues and Back,” by Luis Tiant (Diversion), and “Last Seasons in Havana: The Castro Revolution and the End of Professional Baseball in Cuba,” by César Brioso (Nebraska)
Cuba has contributed a long list of beguiling and accomplished players to the Big Leagues, not the least being Luis “El Tiante” Tiant, the ’70s-era Red Sox pitching ace. “Son of Havana,” a lively memoir, recounts his colorful, bittersweet life on the mound and beyond. In “Last Seasons in Hvana,” journalist César Brioso focuses on the final three seasons of the Cuban League (1958-59 to 1960-61) and the last two seasons of the Havana Sugar Kings, a MLB AAA affiliate (1959 and 1960).
“For the Good of the Game: The Inside Story of the Surprising and Dramatic Transformation of Major League Baseball,” by Bud Selig (Morrow)
During his 22-year tenure as commissioner of baseball, Bud Selig dealt with a number of challenges, including the 1994 players union strike and the cancellation of that year’s World Series. During his time as commissioner, interleague play was implemented and instant replay was introduced. Selig is credited with increases in revenue and attendance, but the steroid scandal remains uppermost in his mind. Part memoir, part business book, part apologia, Selig’s testimony is a necessary addition to baseball history.
“Here’s the Pitch: The Amazing, True, New, and Improved Story of Baseball and Advertising,” by Roberta J. Newman (Nebraska)
Understanding baseball, the country’s oldest sport, is for some observers — see Jacques Barzun — essential for grasping American culture. Newman, a cultural historian, charts the synergy, beginning in the mid-19th century, between the nascent pastime and the neophyte advertising industry, offering a savvy critique of the connection.
“My Dad, Yogi: A Memoir of Family and Baseball,” by Dale Berra (Hachette)
Today, New York Yankee Hall of Famer Yogi Berra may be remembered more for his contributions to language than to sport. Here his son Dale, who had a 10-year MLB stint, reports on his father from a singularly intimate perspective. The younger Berra also talks about the drug problem that cut short his own career and how Yogi’s response saved his life. Dale Berra’s memoir both illuminates baseball history and adds to Yogi’s life story.
“Chumps to Champs: How the Worst Teams in Yankees History Led to the 90’s Dynasty,” by Bill Pennington (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
The title tells the story: The New York Yankees were shrouded in a “cloak of doom” from 1989 to 1992. Longtime New York Times reporter Bill Pennington traces the team’s resurrection with an insider’s baseball expertise, crediting general manager Gene Michael with exemplary talent evaluation, building a farm system that produced the core four of the next decade’s success — shortstop Derek Jeter, pitcher Andy Pettite, catcher Jorge Posada and Hall of Fame reliever Mariano Rivera.
“Let’s Play Two: The Legend of Mr. Cub, the Life of Ernie Banks,” by Ron Rapoport (Hachette), and “ Let’s Play Two: The Life and Times of Ernie Banks,” by Doug Wilson (Rowman & Littlefield)
Ernie Banks’s trademark phrase serves as the title of two new biographies of the 14-time all-star who spent 19 seasons with the Cubs. Banks’s story — rising from mean beginnings in the Jim Crow South to glory — is well told by Chicago sportswriter Ron Rapoport. His is an extensively researched portrayal of the public figure as well as the lesser-known, private Banks. Wilson, an experienced baseball biographer, located several friends from Banks’s childhood and high school years, as well as some Kansas City Monarchs with whom he played in the Negro Leagues. Choosing one bio over the other is a toss-up, so “let’s read two.”
“108 Stitches: Loose Threads, Ripping Yarns, and the Darndest Characters From My Time in the Game,” by Ron Darling (St. Martin’s)
Former big league starter Darling makes use of his Ivy League smarts to serve up a full menu of baseball lore harvested from a wide swath of characters — people from his playing career, Hall of Famers, MLB commissioners and more. Darling’s book is a rich presentation of the allure of the game and its culture as well as a showcase of his own charisma.
Robert Birnbaum is a writer and critic based in Boston.