Before we talk about what’s new with baseball books — the author turns wearily to his nightstand — it’s worth admiring how many of these damn things there are. If baseball has been shoved down the batting order of American sports, you wouldn’t know from your Amazon recs. This new season, like every new season, has brought a fresh stack of baseball books. Let’s do an experiment. Let’s take just the histories and memoirs published in 2014. No Boys of Summer. No Ron Shandler fantasy guides. And let’s see if it’s possible to construct a full, decade-by-decade history of baseball: a Ken Burns documentary on a Kindle. Follow along.
A new century dawns. By which I mean the 20th century. For wisdom about the aughts, I’ll turn to the new biography of Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley (born: 1903). For the teens: Rick Huhn’s The Chalmers Race: Ty Cobb, Napoleon Lajoie, and the Controversial 1910 Batting Title That Became a National Obsession is the kind of baseball book that springs from awesomely nerdy specificity. Too awesomely nerdy? Well, there’s pundit George F. Will’s tribute to Wrigley Field (opened: 1914).
The 1920s were the childhood years of the subjects of William C. Kashatus’s Jackie & Campy (a book that will necessarily involve Walter O’Malley). From the ’30s, there’s a new book about Babe Ruth’s called shot, because of course there is.
The ’40s mark a return to specificity: A Summer to Remember: Bill Veeck, Lou Boudreau, Bob Feller and the 1948 Cleveland Indians. Same with the ’50s: 1954: The Year Willie Mays and the First Generation of Black Superstars Changed Major League Baseball Forever (another book that will necessarily involve Walter O’Malley).
The ’60s are easy. When I find a book called Rick Dempsey’s Caught Stealing, and when I learn it’s by the That Thing You Do! actor Johnathon Schaech, that’s my baseball book for the ’60s. That it comes with a blurb from David Duchovny is just a bonus.
Let’s keep the ’70s warming in the bullpen for a second. Let’s pick a baseball book for the ’80s. Now, I might be inclined toward Kostya Kennedy’s Pete Rose, whose subject got chucked by Bart Giamatti in 1989. But I like my ’80s ballplayers happy and innocent and at least semi-aware of their status as kitsch icons. Luckily, I’ve got an alternative. I can read the memoirs of Mookie Wilson.
The ’90s return us to eerie specificity:
Down to the Last Pitch: How the 1991 Minnesota Twins and Atlanta Braves Gave Us the Best World Series of All Time. For those keeping score, in the teens baseball was an obsession, in the ’40s it was memorable, in the ’50s it changed forever, and in the ’90s it achieved a greatness it had never known. The subtitle has done more for the language than Casey Stengel ever did.
That’s 11 new baseball books, and we’ve just reached the 21st century. For the 2000s, I turn to Grantlander Jonah Keri for his tragicomic Expos history, Up, Up, & Away. The 2010s go to retired Yankee Mariano Rivera, author of The Closer and literary tormentor of Robby Cano. If you don’t want to take Rivera’s word for it, there’s another new book about what it was like to bat against him.
But it’s the ’70s that allow us to appreciate the baseball book’s Ultimate Zone Rating. For the ’70s, we don’t have to settle for reading about a decade. We can drill down to a single year. Take 1976, the year of Jimmy Carter, Entebbe, and Taxi Driver. My obvious first pick is Dan Epstein’s Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of ’76. It comes with a prequel: Mark Armour’s The Great Eight: The 1975 Cincinnati Reds. That team, incidentally, is also covered in Kostya Kennedy’s Pete Rose.
But back to ’76. That season, the National League playoffs were umpired by Doug Harvey, the author, of course, of a new baseball book: They Called Me God: The Best Umpire Who Ever Lived. But let’s say I don’t want to read about the god of umps. I want to read about a flawed, questing, human ump — the Jimmy Carter of umps. In 1976, over in the American League, there was a rookie ump named Al Clark, who would later be booted from baseball for fudging his travel expenses.
Here is all you need to know about baseball books in 2014. As of May 1, Al Clark has a memoir out, too.
The baseball book is a happy anachronism, summoned into our world like the ghosts in Field of Dreams. The question is this: Are there any good baseball books left to write?
“I think I was lucky in that I didn’t know better,” said Jonathan Eig, author of Luckiest Man, a biography of Lou Gehrig. “I didn’t realize how used-up most of the subjects were. If it had occurred to me that every baseball biography had been done, I might have just avoided the subject entirely.”
A few years ago, Eig sat with authors Howard Bryant and Jane Leavy at a book fair and looked at a list of Baseball Hall of Famers on Bryant’s iPad. They were searching for a player without a biography who deserved one. They didn’t find any. Eig’s new book is about birth control.
When ideas fail, baseball books drift back to the same place where they’ve been anchored for two decades: the 1950s. Baseball books are instant replay for baby boomers. “There has to be a book every year about Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Ted Williams, or some combination thereof,” said Robert Weintraub, author of The Victory Season, which was published last year. “I’m guilty of that myself.”
The ’50s is farmland already tilled by literary HOFers like David Halberstam and Roger Kahn, by Jane Leavy and Richard Ben Cramer. Each go-round leaves fewer available plots. Leavy did Mantle in 2010. James S. Hirsch did Mays the same year. So it was inevitable that in 2013, Allen Barra would do them both, in the dual biography Mickey and Willie. If an author finds his mandate getting too small, he compensates by going big. Last year, Ben Bradlee Jr.’s biography of Ted Williams came in at a whopping 784 pages.
There’s a funny thing about the boomers trudging to the shelves. The overfamiliarity of the old ballplayers isn’t a turnoff; it’s the sell. “What you want if you’re a reader is to pull back a curtain on a time you remember well,” explained literary agent David Black.
Baseball-book readers will revisit Mantle and Mays and Williams for the umpteenth time because they’re completists. Houghton Mifflin’s Eamon Dolan, who edited 3 Nights in August, Buzz Bissinger’s book about Tony La Russa, is reminded of people who buy those giant World War II tomes. “The game is like warfare in that it has infinite secrets,” said Dolan. “You never know them all, but you’ll know more if you keep reading.” Merkle’s Boner becomes the Battle of Stalingrad. We open each new book with the hope that some undiscovered scrap of data, some new authorial emphasis, will change the way we understand history.
Baseball books are published either in the spring or at World Series time. (The latter slot gets the book on Christmas and Hanukkah lists.) There are no book clubs or secret mechanisms to sell baseball books that don’t also work for football books.
Do baseball books sell? It’s like asking a sabermetrician, “Do first basemen hit for power?” Yes, but it depends. This year, four baseball books have reached the top 25 of the New York Times hardcover nonfiction list — five if you count Bill Bryson’s One Summer, which contains an 80-page chapter on Babe Ruth. But three of those books are by Bryson and George Will and John Feinstein (author of a new book about the minor leagues). Those authors always hit the best-seller list. Over the same period, the Times list also has included Phil Jackson’s memoir and John Calipari’s NCAA manifesto, as well as books about the Lakers, John Wooden, Lance Armstrong, a ballerina, and an American rowing team at the 1936 Olympics. At the very least, it shows that baseball doesn’t have a greater claim to best-sellerdom than other sports.
It’s hard even to pin down what the baseball book is in 2014. Most concern national teams. “Dodgers, Red Sox, Yankees, Cubs, Cardinals,” said Black. “Maybe the Atlanta Braves.” Of course, a writer like Michael Lewis can elevate the Oakland A’s, a team that doesn’t seem to have any fans, into a best seller.
The narrowcasting of the web has made the obscure piece of history more sellable than ever. See Ryan Swanson’s When Baseball Went White, a study of how Reconstruction changed the game. “I haven’t written a book and I’m not in publishing, so I don’t want to seem cynical,” said Craig Calcaterra, who blogs at HardballTalk. “But it seems clear to me that the platform or audience is identified first, and then let’s go find someone who can write the book.” Calcaterra, incidentally, is working on a book proposal.
In 2014, baseball book proposals nearly always list the same “comps” — the classic books they hope to approach in sales. If they’re full-blown historicals, their comps are Halberstam (October 1964) or Leavy (Sandy Koufax). If they’re semi-historicals, it’s Jonathan Mahler’s Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning. If they’re fresh reportage, the comp is, of course, Moneyball.
Each proposal carries an inevitable disclaimer: “Well, it’s not just a book about baseball … ” This is the right idea, a sign of a free-ranging authorial mind, but it has become its own sort of cliché. It would be more surprising if an author bragged, “This book is only about baseball.”
In any case, being about “more than just baseball” isn’t a guarantee of anything. “You don’t want to speak ill of David Halberstam,” said Jonathan Mahler, “but you read his baseball books and they’re kind of just like baseball books. They’re very well written and they’re incredibly well researched and filled with detail. They’re great books. But they’re really books about baseball. He didn’t try to set them against the backdrop of America.
“It’s a funny little paradox,” Mahler continued. “Sports kind of do exist in a little bubble. Sports are just kind of sports. Even if they do become part of their historical moment, inevitably.”
So baseball books in 2014 are about the national teams, except when they’re not. They’re about more than baseball, except when they’re not. They sell or they don’t. If there’s a common thread, it’s that most baseball books are organized around heroism. The hero could be Willie or Mickey or Mookie; the brain trust of the Tampa Bay Rays; the drunken pros of Edward Achorn’s well-received The Summer of Beer and Whiskey. Heroism doesn’t mean puffery. It means a portrait of someone, perhaps deeply flawed, in whom readers come to believe.
“You gotta like somebody,” said Black. “Why did Jane Leavy on Mantle do better than Richard Ben Cramer on DiMaggio? It’s not because Richard Ben Cramer’s book wasn’t great. But with Mantle you were able to understand his flaws and ultimately you were able to embrace him. DiMaggio just seemed cold.”
The making of baseball books wasn’t always so self-conscious. I got the author Peter Golenbock on the phone the other day and asked if he knew how many baseball books he’d written.
“Let me look,” said Golenbock, gazing at his bookshelf in Florida. “Dynasty. The Bronx Zoo. Number 1. Guidry. Bums. The Forever Boys. Wrigleyville. The Spirit of St. Louis. Wild, High and Tight. Amazin’. Idiot. The Mickey Mantle novel. George. Then I’ve got They Called Me God with Doug Harvey. That’s 14. I’ve just done a book, Rage, with Bill Denehey, who used to pitch for the Mets. That’s 15. Of course, there was How to Win at Rotisserie Baseball. And Teammates. Teammates is no. 17.
“Are there any others?” Golenbock said. “I’m lookin’ … ” Actually, I think Peter Golenbock has written more baseball books, like Bats by Davey Johnson and Pete Rose on Hitting by Pete Rose. But let’s stipulate that Golenbock has written at least 17 baseball books.
“My very first best seller, my very first book, was called Dynasty,” said Golenbock. “That was the only book I was ever going to write. That was a labor of love. I was a lawyer for the publisher Prentice Hall. I was bored to tears. I went downstairs and talked the trade book editor, a man named Nick D’Incecco, into letting me write a book about the Yankees. He was a huge Yankees fan. If he were a Tigers fan, I wouldn’t have a career.”
For Dynasty, Golenbock spent a year mining the in-house archives at Yankee Stadium and another year talking to old ballplayers. “Billy Martin loved what I said about him in Dynasty,” said Golenbock. “The result was him calling me and saying, ‘Hey, you want to do a book about me?’ But Billy’s agent had another client, Sparky Lyle, who wanted to write a book. So Billy had to wait a year.”
“The Bronx Zoo” — the book Golenbock wrote with Lyle — “was one of those wonderful things where all the fates all came together at the right time. Sparky was a guy who was a fairly well-known pitcher in his own right. He and I got together with him having no idea of what the ramifications were going to be. It was the first time anyone talked about George Steinbrenner and his … peculiarities. For characters, we had Billy Martin, Reggie Jackson, and Thurman Munson. Sparky was a good storyteller and good reporter. We sold a hell of a lot of books.”
After The Bronx Zoo, Golenbock turned Martin’s life story into Number 1. “I had three books and three best sellers and a career,” he said.
Golenbock hawked his baseball books at now-vanished bazaars: the Sports Illustrated Book Club and Howard Cosell’s Speaking of Sports and Larry King’s overnight radio show. “When I first started out, there were literally tens of thousands of independent bookstores,” he said. “I could get a very nice contract to write a book about, say, the Chicago Cubs. But with Barnes & Noble coming along and knocking out so many of those bookstores, publishers these days only want national books. The days of my writing about any particular sports teams have disappeared, unfortunately.”
Well, almost. “I’ve just handed in my book Red Sox Nation,” said Golenbock, “which I first wrote in 2005. Triumph has had me update it to 2013.” Let’s call Red Sox Nation the 18th confirmed baseball book written by Peter Golenbock. “Everything I needed was on the computer,” said Golenbock. “Everything I needed! I didn’t have to take one step into the library. Newspaper, interviews, whatever I needed was there. I was just shocked.”
“Is there a point at which all the good baseball books are written and all the patience for them has been worn out?” asked Eamon Dolan. “No, I don’t think so.”
Nor do Dolan’s fellow editors, who seem bent on proving there’s no collusion in publishing. Pedro Martinez is signed to write a “lively, raw” memoir. Yahoo’s Jeff Passan is writing a history of Tommy John surgery. Novelist Kevin Baker is writing a history of New York City baseball. The Washington Post’s talented Michael Leahy has sold a book about the Los Angeles Dodgers of the ’60s.
The old question is, why baseball books? Versus football, basketball, rowing, etc. George Plimpton proposed the Small Ball Theory of literature (the smaller the ball, the better the writing). A more obvious explanation is that baseball comes with a handy collection of “story beats” for writers. Every at-bat is a beat. Every inning is a beat. By the time we get to a game, it can yield a whole book (Dan Okrent’s 9 Innings, Dan Barry’s Bottom of the 33rd). Ditto the three-game series (Bissinger’s 3 Nights in August).
Why baseball books have such a loyal audience amounts to a line on an actuarial table. It was the ’50s — that decade again — that saw the first great boom in baseball-book buying. In 1955, John Lowell Pratt, head of A.S. Barnes publishing house, told the Boston Herald that sales of sports books had tripled — A.S. Barnes now had 350 “active” titles in print. Back then, baseball was closer to the top of the order in American sports. The boom in televised baseball, not to mention the abundance of leisure time to play it, had goosed the market.
“It was always a big event for both when a father could take his son to a baseball game,” Pratt told the Herald. “Now they can watch the game together on TV, or the boy can play on a Little League team with his Dad, or even his mother, in on the cheering. In a great many new cases, they’re all fans now, and when a boy starts buying sports books, or receiving them as gifts, he’s soon taking pride building up his own sports library.” Those child book collectors of the ’50s are the same ones buying The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams today.
A more interesting question is how baseball books will age. Someday, if we keep up our Obamacare, we’ll live long enough to become those nostalgia-hungry readers. Our childhood dynasties will fade from view, our favorite players will abdicate their chairs on MLB Tonight, and the networks will finally stop showing Jeter’s relay throw against the A’s. Which is to say, we’ll forget something that was once familiar, and we’ll want to draw back the curtain via a book. (Or a Kindle. Or Google Glass.)
The nostalgia clock for baseball books is nearly as precise as the one that governs a player’s arbitration years. October 1964 was published 30 years after its titular season. Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning had a 28-year time lapse. The Boys of Summer, 27.
That means we’re now ready for books about the years between 1984 and 1987. That’s handy — author turns wearily to nightstand — because in my stack I’ve got Nolan Ryan: The Making of a Pitcher, Mookie’s memoir, the autobiography of ex-Dodger Jerry Reuss …
The ultimate test of the baseball book may be 10 years hence, when the ostensible subject will be the mid-’90s. Can the steroid era be turned into nostalgia?
“No doubt that in 20 years, baseball fans will wax nostalgic about the ’90s,”said HarperCollins senior vice-president David Hirshey, who published Leavy’s biographies. “Although with the exception of someone like Cal Ripken, there is no Mantle or Mays to get misty-eyed over … If down the road, McGwire or Sosa were ever to write a true come-clean memoir, I think readers would be drawn to those books.”
McGwire and Sosa will be de-villainized, by their word processors or ours. “There’s going to be such a revision,” said Craig Calcaterra. In a recent talk at a bookstore, Calcaterra found that college students weaned on ’90s baseball don’t view that decade as the fall of the national pastime. It was their childhood. “They see it in very much the same terms that we saw Gaylord Perry,” he said. “‘Oh, look at that. Wasn’t it quirky that that happened?’ The sport always overtakes the tut-tutting of people in the media.”
The element of baseball books that will never time out is inside dope. Ball Four. Moneyball. Francona. The hidden game of baseball, to borrow the title of the book by John Thorn and Pete Palmer that — what’s that? Really? — will be reissued in 2015.
“A lot of pieces in the last year have been about baseball through a catcher’s eyes,” said David Black. “David Waldstein did it for the Times, and Tyler Kepner did it for Yadi Molina the other day. I said to Tyler, ‘Boy, did it beg a whole bunch of questions.’ I want a whole game through Yadi’s eyes, beginning to end. I want to be with him as he’s studying the hitters. Is he looking at tape or is he not looking at tape? What is he thinking? What is he thinking versus the guy he’s got on the mound?”
It sounds like a great baseball book. “Then you start to look at, what’s the model?” said Black. “Is it Dan Okrent’s book from way back when? … Who buys it? Well, a baseball guy buys it. Someone who really loves the game. But if it’s a beautiful writer, then what you’re getting is the texture of the game, and it rises above straight reportage.”
“The answer to your question,” Black continued, “are there books to be found? Hell, yes, there are books to be found. You just gotta dig.”
All right, bums, which of youse wants a book deal?
Illustration by Justin Renteria.