By Dan Schlossberg
If the current wave of baseball books serve as an accurate barometer, nostalgia is still king.
The game itself has changed dramatically, but the focus remains on the “good old days” when leagues had eight teams each and winners went directly to the World Series without passing “GO” or collecting $200.
Among the best books published this year were two on Ted Williams and one each on Ty Cobb, Hank Greenberg and the DiMaggios – superstars long before the advent of World War II.
For book collectors with a wary eye on the purchasing budget, finding the best books and the best deals will be challenging this winter. But reading them will warm the heart of the purist who agrees with Roger Hornsby’s offseason recipe: “I’ll look out the window and wait til spring.”
With apologies to the growing number of eBooks, which are not included here, here’s a look at how the nonfiction print volumes of 2013 stack up:
1. American Jews in America’s Game (University of Nebraska, 544 pages, $34.95), by Larry Ruttman, foreword by Bud Selig.
Even though the author inadvertently omitted this columnist, this hefty hardcover pays tribute to the Jewish players, owners, media members and umpires who devoted their lives to the game. The well-researched and well-written volume features detailed biographies of Hall of Famers Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg, plus Ron Blomberg (the first DH), labor leaders Marvin Miller and Donald Fehr and the current commissioner of baseball, plus many more.
2. Baseball’s Greatest (Time Home Entertainment, 288 pages, $32.95), edited by Bill Syken.
This oversized hardcover exudes the brilliant writing and lavish photography of Sports Illustrated, plus the opinions of its staff on the best hitters, pitchers, managers, teams, ballparks and more. Food for thought and fodder for arguments, this book will find a prominent spot on any fan’s coffee table.
3. Inside the Baseball Hall of Fame (Simon & Schuster, 209 pages, $35), foreword by Brooks Robinson.
An updated, more compact version of a previous book called Treasures of the Hall of Fame, this beautifully-illustrated volume, assembled by the Hall of Fame’s staff, has artifacts and descriptions on every page. A microcosm of the enormous Cooperstown collection, its pages have bats, balls, uniforms, photographs and even contracts, trophies and a pair of shoes worn by Shoeless Joe Jackson. Readers can pick it up and read it backward without missing a beat.
4. Willard Mullin’s Golden Age of Baseball: Drawings 1934-1972 (Fantagraphics, 240 pages, $35), by Willard Mullin, Hal Bock and Michael Powers.
Growing up in the 1950s meant seeing copies of The Sporting News adorned by cover cartoons by Willard Mullin. Called “the perfect artist” by colleague Bill Gallo, Mullin had an uncanny knack for packing portraits with panels of information, telling stories with each drawing. Coupled with commentary by long-term AP baseball writer Hal Bock, this handsome hardcover is certain to enliven coffee-table conversation.
5. The Cracker Jack Collection: Baseball’s Prized Players (Peter E. Randall, 177 pages, $30), by Tom and Ellen Zappala.
Unlike Willard Mullin, who worked mostly in black and white, this glossy hardcover features color images of old cards produced to enhance sales of Cracker Jack. Hundreds of player cards and profiles are included, along with a history of Cracker Jack. The authors not only group players by position but also pick their Cracker Jack All-Stars. A great way to learn baseball history, the book contains cards popular before World War I.
6. The Kid: the Immortal Life of Ted Williams (Little, Brown, 856 pages, $35), by Ben Bradlee Jr.
It took 10 years and 600 interviews for Bradlee to compose this epic biography, easily the best of the 2013 season, and one of the best produced in the 21st century. The long-time Boston resident and newsman makes an important contribution to current baseball literature with this classic tale of a talented but troubled man, his life and his unorthodox family.
7. Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes (New American Library, 400 pages, $26.95), by John Rosengren.
The game’s first Jewish superstar, the humble Greenberg let his bat speak for him. No previous player had MVP seasons at two different positions. A survivor of prejudice before Jackie Robinson, Greenberg was not only a hero during his 12-year career but also during a four-year wartime stint in the U.S. Army. John Rosengren’s thorough research, coupled with his skillful writing, makes his new book stand almost as tall as the 6’4” Greenberg.
8. DiMaggios: Three Brothers, Their Passion for Baseball, Their Pursuit of the American Dream (Ecco, 336 pages, $25.99), by Tom Clavin.
The first DiMaggio biography to give equal time to Vince and Dominic, this well-researched hardcover also details the public and private life of Joe, an intensely private man even after marrying Marilyn Monroe. Author Tom Clavin, the former Gil Hodges biographer, paints a vivid portrait of an American hero whose public image was quite contradictory to his reclusive personality.
9. The 34-Ton Bat (Little, Brown, 352 pages, $25), by Steve Rushin.
This hilarious hardcover proves again that baseball is even more interesting outside the white lines. A Sports Illustrated veteran, Rushin reveals that decaying urinals were a factor in a cross-country franchise shift, that the Washington Monument attracted baseball stuntmen even before it was finished and that 19th century stars tried but failed to throw a ball over the Egyptian Sphinx. Among nearly 400 topics touched are nachos, souvenirs and even songs – including baseball’s embrace of The Star Spangled Banner. A happy romp, this book traces baseball’s history through related objects.
10. The Rivalry Heard ’Round the World (Sports Publishing, 312 pages, $24.95), by Joe Konte, forewords by Bruce Jenkins and Steve Dilbeck.
Think the Yankees and Red Sox have a heated competition? When the Dodgers and Giants played in the same town, and even after their geographical separation in California, sparks flew frequently. More might have been said about the 1951 race that gave the book its name, but that’s because the California-based author caught his first Giants-Dodgers game in ’58. He devotes just 32 pages to the 58 years the teams played in New York.
11. Who’s on Worst? The Lousiest Players, Biggest Cheaters, Saddest Goats, and Other Antiheroes (Doubleday, 255 pages, $28.95), by Filip Bondy.
Proving once again that baseball is fun, on and off the field, this hardcover features “Bottom 10” lists that rank the worst hitters, pitchers, fielders, managers and owners, among others. But where else would Mario Mendoza, Marv Throneberry and John Rocker all be remembered in a single volume?
12. The Bill James Baseball Handbook 2014 (ACTA, 570 pages, $26.95), edited by Bill James and John Dewan.
By far the best baseball reference book of this or any year, this paperback is perfect for anyone who craves stats, analysis and predictions – not only for the year ahead but also for such mighty achievements as 3,000 hits, 700 home runs and 300 wins. (Justin Verlander heads the latter list at 30 percent probability). New this year are home run robberies and no-hitter summaries.
13. The National Baseball Hall of Fame Almanac 2013 Edition (Baseball America, 534 pages, $24.95).
The bargain book of the year, this hefty paperback presents biographies, records and photos of every Hall of Famer, shows year-by-year admissions and even includes rules for election and newly added artifacts. This is a must-have for every baseball historian.
14. The Victory Season: The End of World War II and the Birth of Baseball’s Golden Age (Little, Brown, 464 pages, $27.99), by Robert Weintraub.
Though volumes have been written about baseball during the war, this hardcover is the first to examine the impact the returning stars had on the game. In a no-holds-barred approach, the author talks about Leo Durocher’s womanizing, Bob Feller’s money-grubbing and the last year the color line was intact.
15. Mickey and Willie: Mantle and Mays, the Parallel Lives of Baseball’s Golden Age (Crown Publishing, 496 pages, $27), by Allen Barra.
Larger-than-life figures, Mantle and Mays were five-tool center fielders who surfaced in the same city in the same season and went on to Hall of Fame careers. Both had blemishes, however, from Mantle’s carousing to Willie’s disrespect for managers. Barra doesn’t miss a beat in this riveting hardcover, which also includes color pictures of the subjects on Sport magazine covers and baseball cards.
16. Put It In the Book! A Half-Century of Mets Mania (Triumph, 217 pages, $24.95), by Howie Rose with Phil Pepe.
A kid from Queens who became a broadcaster for his hometown team, Howie Rose had great mentors in Marv Albert and Marty Glickman, among others. Few micmen can match his voice, delivery, sense of humor or knowledge of the game – all of which makes this memoir more enjoyable. Rose rates the players, managers and games he liked best, but also explains the bumps in the road he encountered along the way.
17. Long Shot (Simon & Schuster, 374 pages, $27), by Mike Piazza with Lonnie Wheeler.
Always an articulate and sensitive player, Piazza is honest and outspoken in his this well-done hardcover. He addresses the gay allegations, admits his throwing arm was suspect and reveals himself as the man who got Mets’ fans to call Chipper Jones by his given name of Larry. The heavy-hitting catcher also discusses changing teams, his role in helping New York recover from 9/11 and his hopes for a Cooperstown plaque.
18. Francona: The Red Sox Years (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 368 pages, $28), by Terry Francona and Dan Shaughnessy.
Although he found success in all three of his managerial stops, Francona found peaks and valleys in Boston. He won two world titles, ending an 86-year drought for the franchise, but also battled with Manny Ramirez, the media, team executives and even the Red Sox medical staff – scalded by Francona in this revealing hardcover. The book also sheds light on the discord on the club that ultimately led to Francona’s ouster. After a year in television, he returned to win AL Manager of the Year honors with the 2013 Cleveland Indians.
19. Frantic Frank Lane: Baseball’s Ultimate Wheeler-Dealer (McFarland, 216 pages, $29.95), by Bob Vanderberg.
In the days before free agency and multi-year contracts, teams traded players as routinely as kids traded baseball cards. And Frank Lane traded more often than anyone else. A shrewd general manager who loved to gamble, he made a virtual chess piece of Minnie Minoso. He swapped home run champ Rocky Colavito for batting king Harvey Kuenn. He even swapped managers (Joe Gordon for Jimmie Dykes) while still with the Indians. This long-overdue paperback goes behind the scenes with one of baseball’s most colorful and controversial personalities.
20. Mr. Wrigley’s Ball Club: Chicago and the Cubs During the Jazz Age (University of Nebraska Press, 512 pages, $34.95), by Robert Ehrgott.
Even though many baseball legends wore Cubs uniforms during the ’20s and ’30s, the spotlight was often focused on owner William Wrigley. An innovator who was willing to spend money and promote his product, he made deals to improve his team and his ballpark, creating an atmosphere that kept the stands filled. This well-researched hardcover recalls radio days, Ladies Days and hard-drinking heroes who made the 1920s roar.
21. Facing Ted Williams: Players from the Golden Age of Baseball Recall the Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived (Sports Publishing, 306 pages, $24.95), edited by Dave Heller, foreword by Wade Boggs.
Judging by the comments from his peers collected in this volume, Ted Williams was regarded by many as the greatest hitter who ever lived. Although most of this hardcover contains stats and comments from pitchers who faced Williams, there’s also a question-and-answer section with respondents categorized by position.
22. 501 Baseball Books Fans Must Read before They Die (University of Nebraska Press, 406 pages, $24.95), by Ron Kaplan.
With hundreds of baseball books published every year, Kaplan completed a tough task in narrowing his list to 501. Although some of the books in this paperback roundup might have made the cut, Kaplan was gracious enough to include a couple of Dan Schlossberg titles. Way to go, Ron!
23. Baseball’s Most Notorious Personalities: A Gallery of Rogues (Scarecrow Press, 244 pages, $45), by Jonathan Weeks.
Books make strange bedfellows. Where else would John Rocker, Kevin Mitchell, Jeffrey Maier, Ty Cobb, Billy Martin, Marge Schott and Juan Marichal wind up in the same volume? Because of its long seasons and long history, baseball has more than its share of unsavory characters. Many of them live again in this creative and colorful hardcover.
24. Becoming Mr. October (Doubleday, 304 pages, $26.95), by Reggie Jackson with Kevin Baker.
The first big-money free agent, Reggie Jackson was recruited for the N.Y. Yankees by owner George Steinbrenner against the wishes of manager Billy Martin. Clashes ensued, yielding the “Bronx Zoo” nickname for the ballclub, as the outspoken slugger openly despised the bigoted manager. Reggie’s bat quieted skeptics in the 1977 World Series but relief was only temporary; he had to prove himself again the next season. In this hardback memoir, Reggie recalls two tumultuous seasons – so tumultuous that he almost hung up his spikes.
25. The Farmers’ Game: Baseball in Rural America (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 232 pages, $29.95), by David Vaught.
The roots of America’s pastime thrive in rich farm earth, according to this Texas history professor. The game certainly had rural origins, even by those who consider the Abner Doubleday founding a myth, and plenty of stars (Bob Feller, Gaylord Perry, etc.) who jumped from farm life to the big leagues. u
This is the first part of a two-part feature on the best baseball books of 2013. The second part will run in the Jan. 24 issue of SCD.
Long-time SCD columnist Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, N.J., is the baseball editor of Latino Sports, host of Braves Banter and contributor to USA Today Sports Weekly. He’s the co-author of the upcoming Al Clark autobiography, Called Out But Safe: A Baseball Umpire’s Journey. Dan’s e-mail is email@example.com.