Books That Knock It Out Of The ParkWatching baseball and reading books have a lot in common. Both are made for the summer, require some investment of time and — the best part — involve a great deal of sitting. Alan Schwarz details his three favorite books on America's favorite game.
Alan Schwarz is a staff reporter for The New York Times. He turned 40 on July 3 and feels twice as old as he did just 20 years ago.
"Three Books ..." is a series in which we invite writers to recommend three great reads on a single theme.
When you get right down to it, watching baseball and reading books have a lot in common. Both are made for the summer, both require some investment of time and — the best part — both involve a great deal of sitting.
I detest the annual procession of baseball books that simply pine for the old days. My favorite books on baseball do examine the '50s and '60s, but in a much more entertaining way than pure, saccharine nostalgia.
'The Long Season'
The Long Season, by Jim Brosnan, paperback, 288 pages
When I say that my next book is a season-long diary of an iconoclastic pitcher from the 1960s, I bet you'll think I'm talking about Ball Four by Jim Bouton. Nope. As seminal as Bouton's book remains, Jim Brosnan's The Long Season was the first book ever truly written by a player himself.
Brosnan was a lowly middle reliever in 1959, and intellectual enough to read Dostoevsky on airplanes and smoke a pipe in the clubhouse. But in The Long Season, he shone the spotlight on the inside of a major league team, everything from exposing players' fears of getting cut to their road-trip high jinks, although with a greater sense of decorum than Bouton would 10 years later. (For example, sex was euphemized as "strenuous exercise.") Reading The Long Season makes one realize just how much baseball has changed in 50 years — and how much its overgrown adolescent players haven't.
'Veeck -- As in Wreck'
Veeck — As In Wreck, by Bill Veeck and Ed Linn, paperback, 400 pages
Veeck — As In Wreck, the autobiography of the late team owner and impresario Bill Veeck, instantly showcases just how much fun this silly sport can be. It was Veeck, of course, who introduced baseball fans to exploding scoreboards and giving out live lobsters at the turnstiles. Who can't love a guy who writes, "Nothing annoys me more than to be told [not] to do something ... because it is lacking in dignity"?
Veeck rollicks through his days of running the Cleveland Indians, the old St. Louis Browns and the Chicago White Sox, all the while introducing us to characters such as Satchel Paige, Hank Greenberg and, of course, his famous walk-drawing leadoff man, Eddie Gaedel. Veeck dedicated his life to the notion that the fan is king.
October 1964, by David Halberstam, paperback, 400 pages
Less inebriated, but no less enticing, is the story told by David Halberstam in October 1964. The book describes the racial overtones of the 1964 World Series between the progressively integrated St. Louis Cardinals and the lily-white New York Yankees. Caught between Jackie Robinson and baseball's current multiculturalism is the story of how the sport awkwardly embraced its minority stars in the 1950s, and it is telling that the culture clash in the '64 Series coincided with the height of the civil rights movement.
As only he could, Halberstam tells all the back stories of his tale's major players — Mickey Mantle, Bob Gibson, Roger Maris, Bill White — before ending with a World Series that showed where not just baseball was going, but the United States itself.
Lou Brock, one of the Cardinals' African-American stars whom Halberstam profiles, once talked with me about the grand old game as a societal mirror. "Baseball," he said, "is the background music to America." Thank goodness that books like Halberstam's, Jim Brosnan's and Bill Veeck's live on to remind us.
Three Books ... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Bridget Bentz.