Sunday, 24 November 2013

Baseball Books, The Elixir of Life



My favourite type of book. 
 A lot of people are bemused by my favourite genre of book. Whilst more pretentious folk discuss Dickens' novels and the poetry of Keats, attempting to decode messages which aren't really there, I prefer baseball books. Sure, I've read a few Shakespeare plays and endured the banal dross on our nations A-Level English Literature course. Yes, I've read all major football titles, by authors such as Nick Hornby and Gabriele Marcotti. However, the only type of book I really enjoy is one about baseball.

It's difficult to quantify such things, but baseball may have been bestowed with more quality prose than any other sport on our planet. In newspaper columns, non-fiction books and online, baseball always has a story to tell. Accordingly, some of history's finest wordsmiths have focused on the grand old game, falling in love with its poignant sense of tradition and artistry. The game of baseball entails much more than one guy hurling a ball at another guy, who attempts to whack it into orbit. On the contrary, there are intricate storylines, nuances backdrops and history dripping from its every pore. In order to appreciate it all, books are a vital resource.

The need for baseball books is further amplified when you live in Britain, thousands of miles away from the day-to-day grapevine. We don't tend to learn about Bill Veeck sending a dwarf to bat during our daily commute; nor are we exposed to documentaries teaching about Babe Ruth's Called Shot at Wrigley Field or the tragedy of Tony Conigliaro. Therefore, we are forced to go hunting in pursuit of baseball history, and there is no greater medium through which to learn than the book. I'm not talking technological, lifeless, eBook type stuff, either. We need to hold a book, smell the history and consume its contents wholly.
The sweet scent of baseball history.

My first baseball book. 
I still remember my first baseball book. After casually watching twice-weekly broadcasts of games on British terrestrial TV, becoming gradually more enthralled with each episode to the point whereby I craved baseball, it felt like a natural step to begin reading about its rules and history. It was hard. In 2005, I was an eleven year old attempting to find baseball books in Britain. An interview with author Craig W Thomas on the Channel Five baseball show finally gave me a title to chase: his Roads to Redemption baseball guide aimed towards a British audience. So it was that I traveled into town and began rooting through the sports section at Waterstones book store. After a prolonged search, I somehow found what I was looking for.

It took me four months to read Roads to Redemption for the first time, because I tried to commit every word to eternal memory. In one section, which provided a potted history of baseball, I remember being simultaneously perplexed and amused by some of the names, with actual people named Three Finger Brown and Nap Lajoie playing this great game. The book also contained a guide to each of the thirty Major League teams, with a brief synopsis of team histories, ballparks, players and achievements. It was my first in-depth and prolonged exposure to the glorious history of America's National Pastime. It was also a gateway to heavier substances.

My baseball book collection. 
Soon, I read Faithful, which chronicled the historic 2004 Red Sox season. To me, Stephen King was, and will always remain, just a baseball writer! I don't think I've ever enjoyed a book more than his diary collaboration with Stewart O'Nan. For the first time in my life, I literally could not put a book down. At this time, I was a Red Sox fan (it's complicated, but forgive me the folly of youth), and naturally progressed to read extensively about Boston baseball history, with works by Dan Shaughnessy, Peter Gammons and Tony Massarotti warming up many a winter night.

When reading the incisive, achingly-beautiful prose of such writers, it's difficult to be unmoved. Soon, I began imitating these literary heroes in my writing, using words and phrases and tempo discovered in their books. From an early age, I wanted to be like Roger Kahn or Jerome Holtzman or Grantland Rice; I wanted to write about baseball with regularity and panache; I wanted to cover sunny weekend games at Fenway Park, smoking a Cuban and punching thunderously at a typewriter.

Such dreams are difficult for a Brit, but I'm trying my best.

Early in my literary baseball adventure, I discovered Moneyball which, in my eyes, was a true epic. Michael Lewis, it's accomplished author, took the reader inside the clubhouse, the draft war room, and even inside Billy Beane's magic computer. We had rarely seen anything like it. At the time, we all became fascinated by sabermetrics and fantasy baseball; we longed to be in control, overlooking a baseball organisation like a suave General Manager. It was magical. Now, when I hear the term being used incorrectly by arrogant football writers - the majority of whom think Arsenal and Liverpool, amongst the world's richest clubs, play Moneyball! - or by movie critics who see it only as a cinematic presentation, the pang of sadness is immense.

The years have progressed, and so too has my baseball library. I can't recall a time in the past nine years when I haven't had a bookmark in a baseball book of some kind. At the moment, I own 133 baseball books, and was recently forced to purchase a new bookcase to house them all. The subjects range from ballpark guides to biographies of great players; diaries of seasons to general histories. I have all the classics, such as Ball Four and The Curse of the Bambino; The Boys of Summer and Fantasyland; Game of Shadows and Bill James' Historical Baseball Abstract; Eight Men Out and Living on the Black. I have the autobiographies of Jackie Robinson, David Ortiz, Bill Lee, David Wells, Mike Lowell, John Schuerholz and Johnny Damon. I even have Why I Hate the Yankees by Kevin O'Connell and Josh Pahigian. The picture to the right shows my full collection.

It's immensely difficult to pick a favourite book or author; that would be akin to selecting a favourite child. However, if you are a newcomer to the world of baseball books, I'll list a few of the very best books which I have re-read four or five times over and which will bring joy to rookies and veterans alike:

  • Faithful – Stephen King & Stewart O'Nan
  • The Curse of the Bambino – Dan Shaughnessy
  • Ball Four – Jim Bouton
  • Why I Hate the Yankees – Kevin O'Connell & Josh Pahigian
  • Baseball – George Vecsey
  • The Boys of Summer – Roger Kahn
  • Baseball in Europe - Josh Chetwynd
  • Game Time – Roger Angell
  • Moneyball – Michael Lewis
  • Eight Men Out – Eliot Asinof
  • Reversing the Curse – Dan Shaughnessy
  • This Gracious Season – Josh Suchon
  • The Ultimate Baseball Road-trip – Kevin O'Connell & Josh Pahigian
  • British Baseball & the West Ham Club - Josh Chetwynd
  • At Fenway – Dan Shaughnessy
  • A Tale of Two Cities – Tony Massarotti & John Harper
  • Feeding the Monster – Seth Mnookin
  • Game of Shadows – Mark Fainaru-Wada & Lance Williams
  • Juiced – Jose Canseco
  • Fantasyland – Sam Walker
  • Idiot – Johnny Damon
  • Living on the Black – John Feinstein
  • Wrigleyworld – Kevin Kaduk
  • Roads to Redemption – Craig W Thomas
  • The book I'm currently reading. 
  • Ted Williams – Leigh Montville

The perception of many snooty elitists says that you can't learn anything from a book which isn't written by a classical novelist. I, quite frankly, think that is a load of bull. The existence of baseball books has gifted me a lot in life. If I didn't pick up that first baseball book, I likely would have fallen into the trap of never reading as a child. In time, reading these books has not only taught me all I know about baseball, but also everything I know about writing. My vocabulary and writing style is derived entirely from these books, and so is my dream of becoming a sports writer. The way I view things is that I've learnt from the very best. I've given myself a chance.

I encourage everybody to pick-up a book about something they're deeply interested in, and dig deeper and deeper into that subjects bibliography. Better still, pick-up a baseball book. I guarantee that you'll be squirming with delight after just one chapter.


A few more images of my baseball book collection have been included below:
A close-up.

I bought my first baseball book in 2005...

...I now have 133 books.

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