Books That Knock It Out Of The Park Watching 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.
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Books That Knock It Out Of The Park

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Books That Knock It Out Of The Park

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Books That Knock It Out Of The Park

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Baseball season has passed its midpoint, the All-Star break. For folks that are out to the ballpark and for those who enjoy an armchair and some air-conditioning, we turn to Alan Schwarz; he's a sports reporter for The New York Times. And for our Three Book series, he has three must-reads about baseball.

Mr. ALAN SCHWARZ (Staff Reporter, The New York Times): 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.

"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. 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.

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 to smoke a pipe in the clubhouse. But in "The Long Season," he shined the spotlight on the inside of a Major League team, 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, quote, "strenuous exercise," unquote.

Reading "The Long Season" makes one realize just how much baseball in 50 years has changed, but how its overgrown adolescent players haven't much at all.

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 how the sport only awkwardly embraced its minority stars in the 1950s, and it's 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 that year, talked with me one spring training about the grand old game as a societal mirror. Baseball, he said, is the background music to America. Thank goodness, books like Halberstam's, Jim Brosnan's and Bill Veeck's live on to remind us.

NORRIS: And you'll find details on these books about baseball, plus book reviews and author readings in the book section of our Web site, npr.org.

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