(I’ve already thought of five more books that I’ve added to my original book. You can find my addendum at the end. I’ve enjoyed the comments and suggestions from readers. I’ll add several of them to my reading list)..
I had the pleasure of talking to Jim Bouton last Friday for a Sunday column about an upcoming Seattle Pilots reunion next Saturday. It will happen next Saturday, with about a dozen old Pilots, including Bouton, taking part in a public reunion at the Bellevue Hilton from noon until 3 ($20 at the door; $10 for kids), followed by a pre-game ceremony at the Mariners’ game that night against the Royals. The Royals are an appropriate opponent, because they were the other expansion team, besides the Pilots, in 1969.
Bouton has lived with Ball Four, his classic account of that 1969 Pilots’ season, for so long that he can recite the dialogue virtually verbatim, yet he’s still clearly tickled by the stories.
“I never get tired of Ball Four,” he said. “Mainly because I know the book so intimately, just thinking about it makes me smile.”
He’s not the only one. I was 12 when the book came out, and instantly became one of a legion of Ball Four zealots, captivated by the unvarnished look inside a clubhouse, and the ribald stories. Looking back at the book over the years, the anecdotes that once seemed so controversial are almost laughingly tame now. But the stories are still hysterical, and Ball Four remains the best inside look at a baseball team, and a baseball season, in existence.
“The stories are classic,” said Bouton. “That’s the thing — baseball players are great, great story tellers, because they’re sitting around all the time, in buses and bullpens, on benches and in clubhouses. They become great story tellers, and great pranksters. Here we have a living example of it all. ”
He added, “I think what makes Ball Four such an enduring book is the level of detail of day-to-day life, and the conversations. It has to be a player, No. 1., and it has to be a player keeping a diary. You can’t recreate the season at the end of year. It wouldn’t work to sit down with a writer, look at the box score, and answer, ‘How were you feeling that day?’ What players are willing to do that at any time? And now,particularly, when they’re making three to four million dollars a year?”
In other words, there might never be another Ball Four.
Here, for the heck of it, are my 10 favorite baseball books. I’d love to hear yours. I know I’ll leave out a few that will come to me later, so I reserve the right to revise this list.
10, The Summer Game, by Roger Angell. I happen to think Angell is the most elegant baseball writer in existence, and this compilation of his New Yorker essays is a seminar on how it’s possible to cover baseball and be literate, too.
9, The Boys of Summer, by Roger Kahn. This classic story of the old Brooklyn Dodgers, and Kahn’s journey of discovery, is as moving as ever.
8, The Numbers Game: Baseball’s Lifelong Fascination with Statistics, by Alan Schwarz. An illuminating history of statistical analysis in baseball, increasingly relevant as sabermeterics has a growing influence in team-building.
7, You Gotta Have Wa, by Robert Whiting. A fascinating look at Japanese baseball.
6, Love Me, Hate Me, by Jeff Pearlman. I thought this biography of Barry Bonds was brilliant, and helped me understand what made him tick. I admit, I had a vested interest in this, having covered Bonds for several years in San Francisco.
5, Game of Shadows, by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams. If you want to understand the steroids generation, you have to read Game of Shadows.
4, Bill James Baseball Abstracts, by Bill James. Pick a year, it doesn’t matter. These book, written in the early 1980s, opened up a whole new way of thinking about baseball for me and countless others that was truly revolutionary. And the writing is superb.
3, If I Never Get Back, by Darryl Brock. I’ve got to throw one piece of fiction in here. This time-travel novel is absolutely wonderful. The fact that Darryl happens to be a friend of mine is incidental. I’m not the only one who reveres this book.
2, Total Baseball by John Thorn et al. I love the Baseball Encyclopedia, too, but Total Baseball is absolutely overwhelming in its scope. There’s not much about baseball that’s not in this massive tome, including the stat line of everyone that ever played. But that’s only the start.
1, Ball Four by Jim Bouton. I can’t imagine what book would knock this out of the top spot.
First addendum (five more books I’ve decided should be on the list. But I don’t want to cut any, so I’ll make it a top 15. At least until I expand it to a top 20, top 25, and top 50).
5, Lords of the Realm, by John Helyr. A great history of the owners that gives tremendous insight into the labor battles over the years.
4, Moneyball, by Michael Lewis. The best inside looks at running a baseball team that’s ever been written.
3, The Brothers K, by David James Duncan, Just a wonderful novel about a Washington’s family’s history in the 1960s and ’70s, with a baseball backdrop.
2, The Thinking Man’s Guide To Baseball, by Leonard Koppett. This book was written in the 1960s, but Koppett was in a sabermetric mindset before the term had even been invented. Bill James himself has noted how influential this book was on his way of thinking about baseball.
1, Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy, by Jane Leavy. I can’t believe I left this off my original list. I only hung on every word — both times I read it.