As the nation’s oldest major professional sports league, Major League Baseball (MLB) carries the weight of a long history. The many “good” aspects of its history (things like playing the National Anthem before games, doffing one’s cap after a curtain call) earn the title of tradition, while some of the “bad” aspects of its history (gambling, drug use) rarely get mentioned in polite company. MLB’s history shines with colorful characters who embody both the good and the bad aspects, and some of these ex-players and managers have written entertaining accounts of their sojourns through America’s Pastime.
Among these many books, Jim Bouton’s Ball Four distinguishes itself as my favorite. Although it’s gone through many editions and revisions, the book’s essence remains constant. You can find the latest edition under the modified title of Ball Four: The Final Pitch. A dominant pitcher as a young man in the 1960s, Bouton ran into arm trouble, and ran afoul of an MLB establishment that frowned upon free spirits. To salvage his career he learned how to throw the knuckleball, that most befuddling of pitches that, when executed properly, can make even the most fearsome batters seem silly.
Plenty of great baseball books show the game from a perspective akin to a fastball hurled straight down the middle. They don’t take chances. They don’t name names. I prefer baseball books that read like Ball Four, the ones that dip and dance like a well-thrown knuckler. I like to peak into the dirty corners of this great game and check out what’s hiding there. As we ramp up for the 2011 MLB season, you might find yourself desiring a baseball book that comes from left field, something else in the vein of what Jim Bouton gave us all those years ago. Here’s a short list of titles to check out once you’ve read Ball Four:
- Going The Other Way: Lessons From A Life In And Out Of Major-League Baseball / Billy Bean. Former MLB outfielder Bean’s sometimes funny, sometimes sad account of being gay, and in the closet, while playing a professional sport.
- Haunted Baseball: Ghosts, Curses, Legends, And Eerie Events / Mickey Bradley and Dan Gordon. A sport as old as baseball is bound to attract a lot of supernatural legends, curses, and stories, and this book details many of them!
- Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant ‘Roids, Smash Hits, And How Baseball Got Big / Jose Canseco. Say what you want about the bluster of Mr. Canseco, but many of the claims he makes in this tell-all about MLB’s PED culture have been born out as truth.
- Moneyball: The Art Of Winning An Unfair Game / Michael Lewis. Lewis’ account of how one MLB general manager beats the system using unconventional methods of talent analysis takes the reader deep inside the nuts and bolts of the game.
- You Gotta Have Wa / Robert Whiting. Not a book about MLB per se, but a wild ride through the world of Japanese professional baseball in the 1980s.
If you can judge the cultural impact of a professional sport by the literature it generates, then MLB hits a grand slam. Over one hundred years of tradition resonates like the crack of a bat striking a 95 MPH fastball on a warm spring day. The anecdotes and information in these books will stay with you, and conjure sensations as vivid as the smell of a freshly cut infield.