15 Best Books for Baseball-Starved Fans 

Winning reads to keep on deck until opening day.

baseball books

From the collection of Ken Schlager.

It’s an unfortunate byproduct of the coronavirus emergency: Just when baseball fans need their game the most, it’s in mothball status. Next best thing? Curl up with a great baseball book. Here are 15 favorite reads, listed roughly in order of their original publication dates. (These are all nonfiction. There’s a world of wonderful baseball fiction—deserving its own list). Confession: I’m a lifelong Yankee fan, so this collection skews heavily toward the Bronx.

Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?

Jimmy Breslin

Viking Press, 1963

As a groundbreaking newspaper columnist, Breslin was renowned for getting to the heart of his subjects,and for often finding humor there. He managed both tasks in this chronicle of the 1962 New York Mets, the worst team in baseball history. An entertaining tale filled with errant throws and wild pitches—none on Breslin’s part.

The Glory of Their Times

Lawrence S. Ritter

Macmillan & Co., 1966

It’s been almost 60 years since Ritter traveled the country with a hefty Wollensak tape recorder, interviewing more than two dozen stars of baseball’s early years—players with colorful names like Rube Marquard, Smoky Joe Wood, Lefty O’Doul and New Jersey’s own Goose Goslin. Their first-person accounts of playing with and against the likes of Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson are priceless. Maybe the best baseball book ever.

Ball Four

Jim Bouton

World Publishing, 1970

In the age of social media, it’s hard to believe that Bouton was virtually blacklisted by his fellow players for this classic memoir, baseball’s first widely read tell-all book. Bouton, who for an eye blink was an ace pitcher for the Yankees, threw baseball a curve by revealing clubhouse secrets—most infamously, the extent of Yankee teammate Mickey Mantle’s drinking—and berating team ownership for shortsighted management policies and salary inequities.

The Boys of Summer

Roger Kahn

Harper & Row, 1972

The glory days of Jackie Robinson and his fellow Brooklyn Dodgers of the early 1950s are brought vividly to life in this nostalgic and detailed account. The author, who grew up in Brooklyn and covered the Dodgers for the old Herald Tribune, captures the joys and heartbreaks of the powerful team that broke baseball’s color barrier but rarely broke through against the Yankees, their frequent World Series rival.

Why Time Begins on Opening Day

Thomas Boswell

Doubleday, 1984

Longtime Washington Post baseball writer Boswell could spin a phrase like today’s pitchers can spin a baseball. This collection of his columns dazzles and informs, making us long for the days before the data-crunchers took over the sport. The title seems especially fitting at this moment when normal life is in limbo.

Summer of ’49

David Halberstam

William Morrow, 1989

A Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who covered the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War, Halberstam wrote several classic sports books. This one dissects the 1949 pennant chase between the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. Other Halberstam essentials: October 1964, about the 1964 World Series; and The Teammates: A Portrait of Friendship, about members of the post-war Red Sox.

The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg

Nicholas Dawidoff

Vintage/Random House, 1994

Moe Berg was a thoroughly mediocre baseball player, but also a Princeton-educated, multilingual genius who, post-career-, served the U.S. on a perilous spy mission to Europe. His assignment: Discover whether Nazi Germany had developed an atomic weapon. This is a fascinating book about one of the sport’s oddest and most enigmatic players—and it’s much better than the movie it inspired.

I Was Right on Time

Buck O’Neil with Steve Wulf and David Conrads

Fireside/Simon & Schuster, 1996

A beloved Negro Leagues player and major league scout and coach, O’Neil applies all his folksy charm to stories from his years playing with and against such legendary stars as Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell. Although not a standout player himself, O’Neil achieved post-career fame as a key figure in Ken Burns’s nine-part 1994 TV documentary, Baseball.

Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life

Richard Ben Cramer

Simon & Schuster, 2000

Joe DiMaggio was perhaps the most private superstar America ever produced—even while wooing and winning Marilyn Monroe. In seeking out the real Yankee Clipper, Pulitzer prize–winning journalist Cramer reveals a less-than-heroic icon in a myth-busting, warts-and-all portrait that some Yankee fans still find too upsetting to swallow.

Bottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption, and Baseball’s Longest Game

Dan Barry

Harper, 2001

Author and journalist Barry, a longtime Maplewood resident, reports on the longest baseball game in professional history. What began as a seemingly insignificant game on April 18, 1981, between two minor-league teams in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, turned into an eight-hour marathon. Barry finds beauty and poetry in the intricate details of the game without end (actually, it ended in a tie) and looks ahead to the fate of its participants, including future Hall of Famers Wade Boggs (of the Pawtucket Red Sox) and Cal Ripken (of the Rochester Red Wings).

Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy

Jane Leavy

HarperCollins, 2002

Like Joe DiMaggio, Sandy Koufax was an exceedingly private figure; unlike DiMaggio, he has few blemishes to haunt his fans, even under journalist Leavy’s intense scrutiny. Her book is a rare close-up of a man who, for five seasons (1962–66), was arguably baseball’s best pitcher ever.

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game

Michael Lewis

W. W. Norton, 2003

Author Lewis refuted much of baseball’s traditional wisdom in this eye-opening bestseller about—stop the presses—the 2002 Oakland A’s. Lewis set out to demonstrate how a team on a tight budget could outsmart vastly richer teams. A terrific read, the book helped validate the application of deep statistics and glorified the job of general manager as never before.

Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero

David Maraniss

Simon & Schuster, 2006

From his achievements on the field to his tragic death on a humanitarian mission in 1972, Roberto Clemente is one of baseball’s most saintly figures.Maraniss adds to Clemente’s iconic stature, painting the 18-year Pittsburgh Pirate outfielder as immensely talented, brave, noble and perhaps underappreciated.

The Yankee Years

Joe Torre and Tom Verducci

Doubleday, 2009

Torre and Verducci, a Glen Ridge resident, take us on the emotional rollercoaster that was Torre’s 12-year tenure in the Yankee dugout. The book does much to explain Torre’s success managing both the Yankees and his relationship with tempestuous owner George Steinbrenner, who had fired 17 managers in the previous 18 years.

Billy Martin: Baseball’s Flawed Genius

Bill Pennington

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015

New York Times sportswriter Pennington digs into Martin’s shantytown youth to find the roots of his otherworldly competitiveness and combativeness—qualities that made him overachieve as both player and manager. The resulting portrait, intimate and detailed, is framed in some of baseball’s most memorable moments.

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