The best baseball books of all time

Those readers exclusively devoted to hockey, football, basketball, tiddlywinks, or other sports need not read this column, unless they’re looking for a gift for a baseball fanatic.

The Glory Of Their Times, by Lawrence S. Ritter
The best. After the death of Ty Cobb in the early 1960s, Mr. Ritter traveled the country, tracking down old ballplayers. He interviewed some of the all-time greats, including Rube Marquard, Sam Crawford, Joe Wood, Chief Myers, and Babe Herman – 26 ballplayers in all. Most of the interviews center on the 1900s and 1910s, covering some of the most intensely played baseball ever.

The interviews are beautifully edited into clear, coherent, fascinating narratives. Without this book, few of the thousands of details offered for our delectation would even exist. Harry Hooper, the Red Sox outfielder, describing the transformation of Babe Ruth from bumpkin to demigod, concludes, “I saw it all happen, from beginning to end … I still can’t believe what I saw.”

Every baseball fanatic should own this book.

Ball Four, by Jim Bouton
Jim Bouton was a flame-throwing right-hander with the New York Yankees in the early 1960s who blew out his arm. In 1969, Bouton developed a knuckleball, moved to the expansion Seattle Pilots, and became a relief pitcher. This book is a first-person diary and tell-all.

To teenage fans, this is a cool book because it uses a lot of curse words. Adults will realize that Jim Bouton is the type of guy who doesn’t give a rat’s ass what anyone thinks about him; making friends is a very low priority. He deals dirt on Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle and just about everyone else. This book feels like the most authentic account of what it feels like to be a major leaguer.

Currently, R.A. Dickey, another knuckleballer (for the New York Mets), is writing a memoir, which should be ready by spring training next year. Dickey has a degree in English. Let’s see if he can write one as good as Bouton’s.

The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, by Bill James
James revolutionized statistical analysis and has been employed as a numbers cruncher for the Boston Red Sox. What’s interesting about James is that he slices and dices information in unique ways. He tries to discern the essence of each decade of the game. He makes lists of the top 100 players by position and he explains each ranking.

It is an odd, wonderful format and it leaves room for James to indulge himself. While most ranked players get about half a page, James gives 20 times that amount to 1930s and ’40s catcher Ernie Lombardi and his exceedingly unusual career. James writes, “His knees were too low to the ground, and his center of gravity was four feet behind him. … As he got older he slowed down, becoming surely the slowest player ever to play major league baseball well.”

It is a great book, is 10 years old, and needs an update. How does James evaluate the steroid era compared to the rest of baseball history? We want to know.

Koppett’s Concise History Of Major League Baseball, by Leonard Koppett
Few people knew baseball as well as Leonard Koppett. A baseball journalist for half a century, Koppett had a brilliant mind; for a general history of the game, he knew what to emphasize and what to leave out. If you really want to know about the player revolt in 1890–91, the birth of the World Series, the Federal League, the beginning of the National League, the Black Sox Scandal, the impact of radio, and of TV, there is no better book for covering it all.

Juiced, by Jose Canseco
The megaphone exposing the steroid era; a scoundrel; another guy who doesn’t care much what others think of him; MVP; an outfielder who missed a fly ball and the ball then whacking him in the head and bouncing over the fence for a home run; another fella who dated Madonna – Jose Canseco was vilified when this book appeared. He is shunned by the fraternities of baseball. However, nothing he has written in this book has been conclusively refuted. No baseball book has ever had a larger effect on the sport.

Mint Condition, by Dave Jamieson
You think you have a valuable cache of baseball cards? Think again. This is the best book on the history of baseball cards, from quirky hobby to big business to bust.

Pitching in a Pinch, by Christy Mathewson
A first-person account of pitching in the dead-ball era from one of the best of all time. The writing is definitely 1912, but the nuggets are priceless.

Cobb: A Biography, by Al Stump
Salty, well written and colorful. The baseball demon rises before your eyes.

Babe: The Legend Comes to Life, by Robert Creamer
The best biography on The Babe.

The Summer Game, by Roger Angell
Covering the years 1962–1972, this New Yorker magazine writer is one of the best baseball writers ever.

Baseball Between The Numbers: Why Everything You Know About The Game Is Wrong, by Baseball Prospectus writers
A great introduction to the alphabet soup of statistical analysis that has revolutionized the evaluation of baseball talent.

Also: A False Spring, by Pat Jordan; The Long Season, by Jim Brosnan; and The Celebrant, by Eric Rolfe Greenberg, which is, up to now, the best baseball novel ever.
The kind folks at Books, Inc. on Chestnut Street have most of these books, and can order any one they don’t have for you in a nanosecond.

Steve Hermanos is the author of O, Gigantic Victory! Baseball Poems: The 2010 Championship Season. He is a real estate agent at 2200 Union Street. E-mail: