By Dan Schlossberg
As author or co-author of 36 baseball books, plus two more just assigned, I am an avid amateur collector. Books cost less than baseball cards, often last longer and usually take up less room.
Hundreds of books are published each year, covers are as colorful as the subjects and both teams and players merit much attention. The focus this year is clearly on baseball history.
For those of us who are traditionalists, that’s a good thing.
The 2014 collection features books on the Deadball Era, Continental League, Montreal Expos and mid-1950s, when Hank Aaron broke in and Walter O’Malley was ready to break out. Anniversaries on the list salute Wrigley Field (100 years), the Hall of Fame (75 years) and the bawdy Boston Red Sox ballclub that broke the Curse of the Bambino 10 years ago.
It’s a great year for biographies – from Brooks Robinson and Nolan Ryan to a slew of Derek Jeter tributes – and a good one for autobiographies, too. Wise guy Jerry Reuss, speedster Mookie Wilson and umpires Doug Harvey and Al Clark all have their day in the literary sun.
It wouldn’t be fair to rate the Clark book here because that would be self-serving. I was the co-author of Called Out But Safe: A Baseball Umpire’s Journey, a hardcover published by the University of Nebraska Press in May. It’s a story of professional success and personal failure about a man who experienced the Earthquake World Series, but a subsequent memorabilia scam sent him to federal prison for mail fraud.
The legal problems that plagued Pete Rose and Alex Rodriguez and preclude their Hall of Fame chances are also part of this year’s baseball library, along with more light-sided looks at the game.
This is the first of two parts covering the best baseball books of the year. The next installment will run in the Jan. 23, 2015, issue of SCD. Here’s how the books look from this perspective:
1. The Hall: A Celebration of Baseball’s Greats (Little, Brown, 612 pages, $35), foreword by Tom Brokaw.
Even though it does not include the six men inducted last summer, this hefty illustrated hardcover is by far the best bargain among this year’s books. It features full-page photos of each Hall of Famer, his plaque and a detailed biography, though statistics are surprisingly omitted. Each position is preceded by essays from a living incumbent, including Hank Aaron writing about outfielders and Cal Ripken Jr. covering shortstops.
2. Jeter Unfiltered (Gallery Books, 256 pages, $28), by Derek Jeter.
The first book from Jeter Publishing is the only authorized autobiography of the long-time Yankees captain, who retired after the 2014 season. The lavishly illustrated hardcover features exclusive Christopher Anderson photos of the final season, taking readers from spring training to the shortstop’s 40th birthday and his tearful goodbye to both New York and baseball. Rarely does a single player merit an entire “yearbook,” but Derek Jeter is an exception. Fans of baseball history will love it, but fans of the Yankees and their iconic infielder will be thrilled.
3. Derek Jeter #2: Thanks for the Memories (Skyhorse, 134 pages, $24.95), by David Fischer.
Great graphics permeate this hardcover, the most unusual of all the Jeter tributes. The author uses a montage of sidebars, stats and photographs to trace Jeter’s career from its humble beginnings through its celebrated finish. Many of the sidebars are quotes by or about Jeter.
4. Down to the Last Pitch: How the 1991 Minnesota Twins and Atlanta Braves Gave Us the Best World Series of All Time (DaCapo Press, 271 pages, $25.99), by Tim Wendel.
Hard to argue with a World Series that ended with a 1-0, 10-inning Game 7 involving two teams that had finished in last place the year before. Wendel not only writes of Lonnie Smith’s baserunning blunder, but also of Kent Hrbek’s skill at pushing Ron Gant off first base for an out. He talks about the foul ball that hit the head of the Commissioner’s daughter, how Jack Morris survived an acrimonious divorce to reach the apex of his career and why a better Braves bullpen would have changed the outcome. He nicely weaves later history with the events that shaped the ’91 Series and tells why it was Minnesota’s last hurrah.
5. The Fight of Their Lives: How Juan Marichal and John Roseboro Turned Baseball’s Ugliest Brawl into a Story of Forgiveness and Redemption (Lyons Press, 278 pages, $25.95), by John Rosengren.
Most baseball fights consist of players milling around and yelling, maybe with a little pushing and shoving. But the Dodgers-Giants rivalry, always heated, exploded when Marichal – thinking Roseboro threw too close to his ear in returning the ball to the mound – hit the catcher with his bat. The 1964 brawl and its aftermath are recalled in this exceptional hardcover, which reveals that the protagonists became friends while overcoming trying times in their personal lives.
6. Wrigley Field Year by Year: A Century at the Friendly Confines (Sports Publishing, 363 pages, $35), by Sam Pathy, foreword by John Thorn.
Like the Ken Burns documentary, this illustrated hardcover is divided into nine “innings,” each covering specific periods in the life of the 100-year-old ballpark. Within those chapters are year-by-year notes on the season, the first home game, the year’s best games and such special events as the unveiling of new uniforms, introduction of a new organist and planting of the outfield ivy. There are also pertinent quotes, news items and gorgeous pictures.
7. Up, Up, & Away: The Kid, the Hawk, Rock, Vladi, Pedro, Le Grand Orange, Youppi!, the Crazy Business of Baseball, and the Ill-fated but Unforgettable Montreal Expos (Random House Canada, 416 pages, $32 ), by Jonah Keri.
Written by an unabashed Montreal fan, this hardcover follows the history of the ill-fated Expos franchise, a good team with a bad ballpark in a hockey town. The author makes a strong Cooperstown case for Tim Raines, recalls the first home and away games and covers Hall of Famers Gary Carter, Andre Dawson and Dick Williams, all of whom wore the team’s tri-colored hat. An expansion team that never reached the World Series but came close, the Expos had many memorable stars, from Rusty Staub to Vladimir Guerrero; all come to life here.
8. From the Babe to the Beards: the Boston Red Sox in the World Series (Sports Publishing, 289 pages, $35), by Bill Nowlin and Jim Prime.
This handsome oversized hardcover not only covers all 12 World Series that featured the Red Sox but any postseason playoffs that preceded those appearances. In addition to linescores that indicate winning and losing pitchers, home runs and date and place of games, profiles and pictures of prominent contributors provide great memories, especially for Red Sox Nation.
9. Mover & Shaker (University of Nebraska, 468 pages, $34.95), by Andy McCue.
After becoming a Brooklyn Dodgers executive in the 1940s, Walter O’Malley worked with Branch Rickey, dumped Leo Durocher and watched his club integrate the sport. His disgust with decaying Ebbets Field also made baseball a transcontinental game and ushered in the era of expansion. Written by a former president of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), this detailed biography traces O’Malley’s enormous influence over 30 years, including the tumultuous advent of free agency.
10. 1954: The Year Willie Mays and the First Generation of Black Superstars Changed Major League Baseball Forever (DaCapo, 290 pages, $25.99), by Bill Madden.
In the good old days of baseball, the two leagues had eight teams each and winners went directly to the World Series. There were no playoffs, designated hitters or California teams – but there were such future legends as Willie Mays, back from military service, and Hank Aaron, making his mark as a 20-year-old rookie. Though too young to remember much personally, the author does a masterful job of weaving interviews and information into a vivid portrait of a spectacular season 60 years ago.
11. Jackie & Campy (University of Nebraska, 234 pages, $24.95), by William C. Kashatus.
This hardcover makes the case that Roy Campanella would have been a better choice than Jackie Robinson as the man to break baseball’s color line. The good-humored catcher believed in passive rather than active resistance to prejudice and did not see eye-to-eye with the college-educated Robinson. This is a great read on the early days of integration in both baseball and society.
12. The National Baseball Hall of Fame Almanac 2014 (Baseball America, 542 pages, $21.95), edited by Will Longo.
A great companion volume to The Hall (see listing No. 1), this paperback not only includes the six newest Hall of Famers but also the individual records of 306 members – and full-page photos of each. Also included are elections results broken down by year and position, plus a page of tidbits about Cooperstown elections past and present. This is a must-have reference book.
13. Facing Mariano Rivera (Sports Publishing, 275 pages, $24.95), by David Fischer.
Opposing players, coaches and managers – grouped by position and listed alphabetically – offer personal observations of Rivera, who retired after the 2013 season. From the Luis Gonzalez bloop that won the 2001 World Series to the Vernon Wells walk-off that won a regular-season game five years later, Fischer has done a fine job putting together an All-Star team of interviewees. Pitchers are included, too. Each capsule interview is preceded by such information as teams and stats, including head-to-head results against Rivera.
14. Don’t Let Us Win Tonight: An Oral History of the 2004 Boston Red Sox’s Impossible Playoff Run (Triumph Books, 303 pages, $24.95), by Allan Wood and Bill Nowlin, foreword by Kevin Millar.
This book, which spans the entire 2004 postseason, consists almost entirely of quotes from the men involved. Don’t miss the chapter on ALCS Game 4, an elimination game that followed a 19-8 thrashing. It is baseball writing at its best.
15. Bill Giles & Baseball (Temple University Press, 328 pages, $35), by John B. Lord.
Like Walter O’Malley before him, Bill Giles was a major mover and shaker in Major League Baseball. The son of former National League President Warren Giles and long-time owner of the Phillies, he was instrumental in the restructuring of the game that began after the ouster of Commissioner Fay Vincent. This enlightening and informative hardcover covers the evolution of expansion, inter-league play, realignment, labor relations and broadcasting, not to mention Philadelphia baseball.
16. Turning the Black Sox White: The Misunderstood Legacy of Charles A. Comiskey (Sports Publishing, 368 pages, $24.95), by Tim Hornbaker, foreword by Bob Hoie.
A player who became a manager before becoming an owner, Comiskey was condemned as the cause of the Black Sox Scandal. This well-researched hardcover debunks that myth and underlines the love he had for his team and the game.
17. Wild Pitches: Rumblings, Grumblings, and Reflections on the Game I Love (Triumph, 288 pages, $25.95), by Jayson Stark, foreword by Tim Kurkjian.
The best column in Baseball America is the zany end-of-issue compilation by Jayson Stark, who loves oddball occurrences, what-ifs and other musings of a brilliant but slightly skewed baseball mind. This hardcover doesn’t disappoint, with pieces on unlikely sluggers, Steve Bartman, Jamie Moyer and a myriad of such strange-but-true feats as Bengie Molina hitting a home run without scoring a run.
18. The Closer: My Story (Little, Brown, 280 pages, $28), by Mariano Rivera with Wayne Coffey.
A certain first-ballot Hall of Famer, Rivera saved more games (652) and finished more (952) than any other pitcher. A 13-time All-Star who played for five world champions, he won MVP honors in the All-Star Game, AL Championship Series and World Series. A soft-spoken, religious man who never heard of Babe Ruth before leaving his native Panama, Rivera’s rags-to-riches story makes riveting reading. He talks freely about the “Core Four,” Joe Torre and George Steinbrenner.
19. The Continental League (University of Nebraska, 240 pages, $24.95), by Russell D. Buhite.
Another Branch Rickey brainchild, the Continental League was the last challenge to the structure of the existing majors. Its formation, and the legal challenges involved, forced the majors to expand by absorbing virtually all of its proposed franchises. The author of this long-overdue review is a former Continental League insider most recently working as a Missouri history professor.
20. Mookie: Life, Baseball, and the ’86 Mets (Berkley, 266 pages, $26.95), by Mookie Wilson with Erik Sherman, foreword by Keith Hernandez.
Most remembered as the man whose roller to first got through Bill Buckner in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, Wilson had a long Mets career as a swift and solid center fielder. His insights on manager Davey Johnson and teammates Doc Gooden, Gary Carter, Darryl Strawberry, Lenny Dykstra and Hernandez make intriguing winter reading.
21. Blood Sport: Alex Rodriguez, Biogenesis, and the Quest to End Baseball’s Steroid Era (Dutton, 462 pages, $27.95), by Tim Elfrink and Gus Garcia-Roberts.
This is the untold story of runs, hits and some very big errors in judgement. It reveals how players graduated from greenie-filled locker rooms to chemical blends designed to enhance performance. It is the story of baseball executives who looked away, the Mitchell Report and the men who tried to mask their involvement in steroids. The authors, both investigative reporters, have uncovered a story sure to stain those involved.
22. Pete Rose: An American Dilemma (Sports Illustrated, 352 pages, $26.95), by Kostya Kennedy.
Even though he allegedly committed the cardinal sin of gambling on baseball, all he had to do was apologize. But Pete Rose always thought he was bigger than the game, an attitude that demolished his reputation, as well as he dream of Cooperstown enshrinement. This inside-baseball hardcover explores the questions of what he did, why he denied it and what the future might hold for the career hits king.
23. Miracle at Fenway: The Inside Story of the Boston Red Sox 2004 Championship Season (St. Martin’s Press, 320 pages $26.99), by Saul Wisnia, foreword by Dave Roberts.
The only team to rebound from a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-seven postseason series, the rowdy Red Sox of 2004 were known for long hair and powerful tandems on offense (David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez) and pitching (Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez). Led by a general manager barely old enough to shave and a new manager, the Sox started their unlikely run by swapping long-time icon Nomar Garciaparra in midseason. It was also the year Kevin Youkilis and Dave Roberts made their Boston bows, with Roberts recording a stolen base cited as one of the most memorable events in Red Sox history. Saul Wisnia’s writing is as good as his research.
24. The 50 Greatest Players in Boston Red Sox History (Down East Books, 358 pages, $24.95), by Robert W. Cohen.
Just as this column ranks the 50 best books of the year, Cohen creates controversy by ranking the best Red Sox. Each selection includes career highlights, memorable moments and noteworthy achievements. Twenty-five runners-up are also listed. While Ted Williams certainly deserves the top spot, observers might argue that Lefty Grove (No. 27) should be higher and Derek Lowe should not top Curt Schilling.
25. Before Wrigley Became Wrigley (Sports Publishing, 268 pages, $24.95), by Sean Deveney.
Perhaps the best in-depth look at the ill-fated Federal League, this book is full of surprises. Who knew, for example, that future Hall of Famer Walter Johnson actually signed a contract to jump to Chicago before his loyalty to Washington owner Clark Griffith persuaded him to reconsider?
Long-time SCD columnist Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, N.J., is baseball editor of Latino Sports, host of Braves Banter and contributor to USA Today Sports Weekly. The former AP sportswriter and author of 36 books is writing Fourteen Flags for Skyhorse Publishing. Dan’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org.