Baseball: The Great American Literary Sport

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(Yeah, we know that everybody's talking about the Football World Cup and the Celtics/Lakers NBA Finals right now. Well, here at Litkicks we've never cared what anybody else was talking about, and baseball remains the greatest American literary sport. Here's an extensive roundup of the classic legacy by Alan Bisbort, author of Beatniks: A Guide To An American Subculture, who last played the game competitively when he was 14. Enjoy! -- Levi)

Baseball is the cruelest sport. How else to explain its tug upon the heartstrings and psyches of so many good writers?

Other sports, of course, have attracted their own forest-leveling share of books and even a few classics. Football, for example, spawned Fred Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, Kerouac’s Vanity of Duluoz (which, for some reason, is better upon rereading), Run to Daylight by Coach Vince Lombardi, I Am Third by Gale Sayers and Paper Lion by George Plimpton. Basketball has A Sense of Where You Are by John McPhee (about a young Bill Bradley) and more recently To Hate Like This Is to be Happy Forever by Will Blythe, about the rivalry between Duke and UNC men’s college basketball teams. Boxing has its own cottage writing industry, of course; Norman Mailer and A.J. Liebling being the heavyweight chroniclers of the “sweet science” (I never understood that nickname), while Nick Tosches’ Sonny Liston biography and Thom Jones’ collections of short stories, Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine and A Pugilist at Rest, at least deserving of a title shot. Soccer, known as football everywhere else, has spawned Among the Thugs, by Bill Buford (though this wasn’t so much about the sport as it was about the “hooligans” whose sociopathic off-field behavior recalls Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) and Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby. David Foster Wallace writes about tennis in Infinite Jest, and some consider Andre Agassi's intense autobiography Open to be a future classic. Fishing has hauled in some whoppers, too -- Trout Fishing In America, A River Runs Through it, The Old Man and the Sea, Far Tortuga -- but this is only if you count fishing as a sport.

But baseball seems to consistently engender the literary equivalent of a grand slam, a high hard one or, conversely, a mighty swing and a miss. Theories abound as to why baseball, more so than any other sport, lends itself so readily to literature. My own: Baseball crosses age, race, class, time and even gender lines. It’s a game every boy and girl at least tried to learn. It’s also played outdoors in the sunshine, and sometimes it’s played after the sun has faded from the sky (ask any parent trying to get a kid inside for dinner or bedtime on a midsummer eve). Is it too far-fetched to suggest that the paraphernalia and trappings of the game itself—bats, balls, bases, dirt infield, green outfield, bleachers—evokes something close to a national pastoral memory? That we were born knowing about Charlie Brown and his Peanuts gang’s hapless attempts to play the game?

Granted, writers can overdo the pathos and sentimentality, as witnessed by some room-clearing excesses in Ken Burns’ 1994 PBS documentary Baseball, any novel by W.P. Kinsella or any book about the “Curse of the Bambino” (put Curt Schilling’s bloody sock in it, Red Sox fans, will ya?). I myself once wrote an unpublishable poem entitled “In Remembrance of Saint Baseball”. Still, who can argue with the body of literature produced in homage to baseball?

If there was a Hall of Fame for baseball writing, two separate Cooperstowns could be filled, one for nonfiction and one for fiction. For every Ball Four-like chronicle of real events, there’s a novel like Bang the Drum Slowly or The Natural or The Great American Novel that contains such piercing truths that they seem more real than nonfiction. Another curious aspect of baseball literature is that the overwhelming majority of great works are about pitchers -- either seen through the eyes of pitchers or written by them. My theory again: pitchers orchestrate all the action on the field. When they aren’t pitching they’re sitting on their butts studying the hitters, umps, the outfield, fans -- in short, they are what Henry James called “those people on whom nothing is lost.”

In the annals of these special books written by pitchers, the nod goes to Jim Bouton’s Ball Four, a funny, honest and touchingly human chronicle of his attempt to come back from an arm injury by learning a new pitch, the unpredictable knuckleball, which is also a perfect metaphor for his world view. A typical Bouton observation: “I’m afraid Mike’s problem is that he’s too intelligent and has had too much education. It’s like in the army. When a sergeant found out that a private had been to college, he immediately assumed he couldn’t be a good soldier. Right away it was ‘There’s your college boy for you,’ or ‘I wonder what our genius has to say about that?’ ... they don’t believe that my kind of guy can do the job, so when I am successful they’re surprised.” Ball Four starts in the minor leagues -- a comedown for the onetime Yankee star -- and ends with an expansion team, the Seattle Pilots. Bouton took a lot of heat from baseball’s establishment for this book. He even wrote a follow-up, I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally. At the time, the owners were trying to break the back of the players’ union by bringing in a fat-cat Wall Street lawyer named Bowie Kuhn as commissioner. (Kuhn turned out to be a corporate criminal who, as his breed does, scuttled off to Florida to avoid any taxes). Check out Curt Flood’s The Way It is to see how well the owners’ plans worked out. Flood details the slave-trader mentality of a team owners like beer magnate Auggie Busch, the owner of the St. Louis Cardinals and Kuhn’s biggest champion.

Another pitcher’s book is Jim Brosnan’s The Long Season, which the veteran sportswriter Jimmy Cannon, then of the New York Daily News, called “the greatest baseball book ever written.” Brosnan was the Samuel Pepys of baseball and Bouton’s literary mentor. His two books -- the other was Pennant Race -- were bestselling chronicles of his life as a relief pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds in good years and bad. For their time, Brosnan’s books were, like Bouton’s, painfully candid, which probably explains why they still seem fresh upon rereading today. Another reason for their timelessness is that Brosnan, when he played ball, was a mature man and a gifted prose stylist -- he later pursued a magazine journalism career -- rather than an overgrown boy. He saw through the silliness of the “Father Knows Best” mindset of the Ike Eisenhower era. Both Brosnan and Bouton saw that “fathers” like managers Johnny Keane and Joe Schultz, Commish Kuhn, Boss Busch, et. al., didn’t know diddly squat.

Finally, neither Brosnan’s nor Bouton’s books were ghostwritten or sanctioned by higher powers, which only added to their truthfulness. In fact, the overenthusiastic Bouton wrote 450,000 words -- 1,500 pages! -- for Ball Four, necessitating the energetic intercession of editor Leonard Schecter.

Besides pitchers, favorite utility players (books to browse at leisure) are Baseball Diamonds: Tales, Traces, Visions and Voodoo from a Native American Rite, edited by Kevin Kerrane and Richard Grossinger, and either of the two Fireside Books of Baseball. Kerrane and Grossinger go the furthest afield by gathering some truly esoteric works of literature, including baseball-themed poems by Beat-affiliated writers Tom Clark and Ron Loewinsohn. The Fireside books are more mainstream but the contents are wisely selected by editor Charles Einstein. All three of these books are thick with essays, reporting, short stories, novel excerpts, poetry, songs, cartoons, drawings, paintings and photographs. They cover the origins of the game, its unending human tragicomedy and even the racial divides that have plagued the national pastime. Dickson’s Baseball Dictionary by Paul Dickson traces the origins of the game’s patois, rewarding brief browsings with that perfect phrase by which you can justify your every failing -- e.g., “Honey, I didn’t fix the roof because I sustained a ‘Charley Horse’ while picking you some flowers” or “If you’re going to swing that lamp at me, just try for a Texas Leaguer, not the grand salami.” Conspicuously absent from my list is anything by Bill James and his Saber-tronics crowd. I appreciate what they do, but after a few minutes, reading analyses of baseball statistical data leaves me cold.

In addition to Bouton’s Ball Four and Brosnan’s The Long Season, here is my lineup. The order in each category is alphabetical and otherwise arbitrary.

Best-Ever Baseball Books: Nonfiction

  • Moneyball by Michael Lewis. Billy Beane was a baseball player with great promise who never really lived up to the hype on the field. His competitive edge, however, exhibited itself when he became general manager of the Oakland Athletics and assembled competitive teams year after year after year by being smarter than anyone else in the game. For example, when no one else wanted Kevin Youklis, Beane saw his promise based entirely on the high number of pitches he saw in each at bat in the minor leagues, dubbing “Youk” the “Greek god of walks.” Beane’s iconoclasm and eccentricity comes through in this brilliant book, as do the humanity of players with unusual life stories, like the side-arming relief pitcher Chad Bradford who seemed incapable, like a machine, of throwing anything but strikes.
  • The Summer Game by Roger Angell: This is the first installment of Angell’s two-decade chronicle of the game. Angell was a fixture at The New Yorker (his stepfather was E.B. White) and a throwback to William Shawn’s school of elegiac prose. A typical line, randomly chosen: “But sometimes, of course, what is happening on the field seems to speak to something deeper within us; we stop cheering and look on in uneasy silence, for the man out there is no longer just another great athlete, an idealized hero. But only a man -- only ourself.” Too much of this sort of elegy-spinning can turn to treacle, as it does in many of Angell’s later stories. As for the day in-day out coverage of the human side of the game, I always preferred the Washington Post’s Tom Boswell whose columns were compiled in two good books, How Life Imitates the World Series and Why Time Begins on Opening Day.
  • Babe: The Legend Comes to Life by Robert Creamer: A wonderfully written story of a legend and his times, and a completely new concept -- treating a sports figure as a cultural icon on the order of a writer or politician. The George Herman Ruth who emerges in this biography is a man who perfectly mirrors his times. America cut loose in the 1920s, the so-called Jazz Age, and the Babe’s prodigious appetites -- for food, drink, public adulation -- were ready-made for such frivolous feasting. He, like the nation, paid the tab in the next decade.
  • The Way It is by Curt Flood: Though today’s pro athletes owe this man a tithing, you wil never hear a peep from these venal creeps. The Flood who emerges from this book is an almost painfully sensitive person, an artist blessed and cursed with an athlete’s body. In addition to dissecting the business of the game, Flood offers some nice portraits of teammates like Bob Gibson and Tim McCarver.
  • Black Diamonds: Life in the Negro Leagues, by John Holway: The best book on a subject that still awaits its masterpiece; until that time, this will have to do, augmented by the chapters from Ken Burns’ and Geoffrey C. Ward’s widely remaindered companion volume to their PBS documentary. It can be argued that the Negro Leagues were single handedly responsible for keeping the Major Leagues on its toes. Maybe most white folks didn’t see how brilliant Josh Gibson was, but guys like Branch Rickey were paying attention.
  • Baseball My Way by Joe Morgan: The best instructional manual around, by the best second baseman the modern game has known, now a broadcaster in the booth who rubs many the wrong way but is smarter than anyone else around. There were more visible and comical players on the Big Red Machine of Cincinnati -- Pete Rose, Johnny Bench -- but Morgan’s quiet intensity was positively frightening to behold. Especially when he played my team, the Phillies. Curse you, Red Morgan.
  • Nine Innings by Daniel Okrent: A brilliant concept -- a book-length explication of a random game between the Orioles and Brewers -- that works brilliantly. Each chapter covers one inning in the life of this game, with brilliant digressions about such marginal but lovable players as Lenn Sakata, Rick Dempsey and Stormin’ Gorman Thomas.
  • Veeck as in Wreck by Bill Veeck: They don’t make team owners any more like Bill Veeck, a Renaissance man with the heart of a clown and the soul of a favorite eccentric uncle. Veeck was a master showman, an itinerant team owner (Browns, Indians, Cubs, White Sox) who believed that the fans came first and foremost and that baseball was not only a sport but an entertaining spectacle. He had a wooden leg, drank beer like water and hung out with the Bleacher Bums. His books were filled with inscrutable observations such as “If big league baseball was not that strong a wine, then victory was not that mad a music.”
  • Eight Men Out by Eliot Asinof: This is the tale of the 1919 Black Sox scandal, an epic event that could have broken the back of professional sports. Eight Men Out doesn’t moralize, which is its strength. Rather, it shows how the greed of the underworld combined with the desperation of the underpaid can turn even a pastoral game played by boys into something not unlike Les Miserables.
  • The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn: This book explains why the Brooklyn Dodgers fans’ hearts are still broken. Like Ebbets Field, where their passion play once took place, it’s a monument to decency and unerring wisdom of the human heart. Born and raised on Brooklyn baseball, Kahn can’t help but make this story autobiographical, but he also writes the biography of a team (The Dodgers of Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, Gil Hodges) and a time, the 1950s.
  • Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy by Jane Leavy. Sandy Koufax has always seemed like the ultimate Zen enigma of baseball. In his short career, he was all but flawless, as great a pitcher as has ever played the game. But then ... he retired and, despite a low-key attempt at being a TV commentator, essentially disappeared for decades. This weaves the tale of his greatest moments on the field with his less than happy childhood as a shy Jewish kid from a Brooklyn broken home.

Best-Ever Baseball Books: Fiction

  • Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings by Bill Brashler: Though fiction, this novel accurately depicts life on the Negro League barnstorming circuit during the bleakest days of segregated baseball. The book is dedicated to Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, and Cool Papa Bell, three of the best players in history, who also appear in the story. John Badham actually made a pretty decent movie out of this, starring James Earl Jones and Richard Pryor, in 1976. It’s probably the most truthful portrait of a barnstorming team in the days of segregated baseball.
  • The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. by Robert Coover: A proto-Rotisserie League set in Dante’s Inferno, Coover’s book is disturbing in all the right ways. Henry Waugh is a paunchy Everyman whose real life is falling asunder, so each night he retreats into a fantasy baseball game he’d originally invented to kill some time. As he begins to invest his emotions upon every outcome, the game takes over his life like a psychological kudzu and, well, you can guess the rest.
  • Bang the Drum Slowly, by Mark Harris: The story of a smart pitcher and his dumb, ill-fated catcher, this novel will draw tears from even the hardest-hearted Yankees fans. Any of Harris’s baseball novels are worth reading -- The Southpaw, Ticket for a Steamstitch -- but this one will make you cry. The closing pages of Bang the Drum Slowly rank right up there with The Great Gatsby in my personal literary ballpark. "From here on in, I rag nobody.” It’s one of the few great baseball books made into a good movie, starring Robert DeNiro and Michael Moriarty.
  • A False Spring by Pat Jordan: A minor league pitcher confronts the weighty issues of existence and gets the hell beat out of him by Elrod Hendricks in the bargain. Jordan bases this remarkable novel on his own experience as a promising pitcher in the Braves organization. The title refers to the collapse of that promise, as the cruel arm of fate tosses him some unhittable curveballs, all of this beneath the impossibly huge skies of McCook, Nebraska.
  • The Great American Novel by Philip Roth: Roth goes all Portnoy on the National Pastime in this often hilarious but ultimately terribly sad cautionary tale. He follows a motley and hapless team called the (yes) Ruppert Mundys during their barnstorming days of World War II when all the able bodied men were “over there.” I don’t often read, or quote, dust jacket copy, but this pretty much sums it up: “The Great American Novel might best be described as a mock epic saga, a counter-myth, which among other things, laughingly lays into the self-congratulatory legends of manliness, brotherhood and community upon which generations of Americans have been raised.” Even the title of the novel is a mockery ... inside an enigma ... inside a conundrum, etc.
  • You Know Me, Al: A Busher’s Letters by Ring Lardner, Jr.: Until the Black Sox scandal, Lardner was baseball’s biggest, most perceptive fan. These fictional letters, first serialized in Chicago newspapers in the second decade of the 20th century have his patented ear and eye, among the greatest in literature. Written in the form of letters from rookie pitcher Jack Keefe to his pal Al back in Indiana, this novel is his finest. Keefe was an American original, noted critic Jonathan Yardley -- who wrote a superb biography of Lardner -- whose “expression of the vernacular ... had a lasting effect on the way American writers describe American talk.” Lardner published an entertaining sequel to this book called Alibi Ike.
  • The Natural by Bernard Malamud: Even though Malamud was swinging for the metaphysical fences with this novel -- attempting, as he did in all of his fiction, to pit good against evil -- he got enough of the idiom and the action right to have come damn close to the perfect morality play. A bat called Wonderboy carved from a tree cloven by a thunderbolt?
  • Pride of the Bimbos by John Sayles: This is a minor classic about growing up painfully shy, with baseball not just a solace but a sort of inviolable sanctuary. The inner language and curious rituals of the game have rarely been captured this well (“Humbabe!" "Little help!" "Choke!" "No stick!" And so on). Sayles had the potential to be a great writer but instead became a merely good film director. Choke!
  • The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant by Douglas Wallop: Inspiration for Broadway’s Damn Yankees, this old yarn hits all the right diehard fan buttons. Joe Hardy arrives out for nowhere, two years after Malamud’s Roy Hobbs did the same thing in The Natural. Only Wallop’s book has a happy ending. That is, Joe Hardy -- er, Boyd -- is reunited with his long-suffering wife, but more importantly, the damn Yankees lose the pennant to the pitiful Washington Senators.

If you think I’m snubbing W.P. Kinsella’s overwrought, overrated novels, you’re right. In closing, it should be noted that two of baseball’s most original characters have never been adequately captured on the page: Yogi Berra and Casey Stengel. While Berra, longtime Yankees catcher and guru, has equipped the language with enough brilliant malapropisms to carry it through to the end of the next century (“You can see a lot just by looking”), Stengel was not without his classic moments. A typical moment occurred one day when writer Ed Rumill visited the great Yankees/Mets manager and his wife. The Stengels’ dog took an instant liking to Rumill and wouldn’t leave him alone during the meal.

“Your dog seems to have fallen in love with me,” Rumill told his hosts, to which Casey matter of factly responded, “Oh, it’s not that. It’s just you’re eating out of her dish.” Just for your information that is from Robert Creamer’s Stengel: His Life and Times, which isn’t as good as his Babe Ruth book. Berra himself has published a couple of slight but entertaining memoirs. His The Yogi Book, subtitled “I Really Didn’t Say Everything I Said,” has just been reissued.

10 Responses to "Baseball: The Great American Literary Sport"

by Levi Asher on

Alan, I may as well also mention a current novel I recently received a review copy of (but haven't had a chance to check out) which seems to be getting some good notices: Diamond Ruby by Joe Wallace.

I also wrote a baseball novel myself once called Summer of the Mets. Nobody's ever read it, so nobody knows if it's a classic or not.

by Skip on

This is a really great list. When I was a teenager, reading and baseball were my two favorite hobbies so I've read many of these, but there are some things here I will definitely pick up.

One non-fiction recommendation that I still pick up from time to time is The Glory of Their Times by Lawrence Ritter.It's about the early days of baseball, in the form of 26 essays about individual players. I loved it instantly, and it's always seemed almost like reading Edith Hamilton's Mythology, but about baseball.

And as for fiction, Richard Ford's Independence Day isn't about the game itself, but baseball figures prominently as a way fathers and sons connect. Ford has his detractors, but I found this one affecting.

Great post, great list. The only thing I take issue with is calling Joe Morgan "smarter than anyone else around." I'll wait until he proves that once -- just once -- while his microphone is on. He's insufferable. In the Kentucky Derby of blowhards, it's a photo finish between him and McCarver.

by Alan on

John Williams, since I don't get cable TV, I don't hear Morgan much anymore. In his early days of broadcasting, though, I thought he was pretty refreshing. But you could not be more correct about Tim McCarver. I will forever love Deion Sanders for one and only one thing: The time he doused McCarver on camera with champagne after the Braves (finally!) won the World Series. And McCarver, proving to the world what a prickly pear he really is, actually tried to fight Sanders. Oh, if only they hadn't pulled Sanders off him...

by frsh on

Eduardo Galeano is an awesome poet that has written several books about "futbol". "Soccer: In sun and shadow" is a pretty good book of his that may help understand what all the fuss surrounding the World Cup is really about (or, why people outside the U.S. love "futbol" so much).

Don't get me wrong, I personally prefer baseball over soccer. Even basketball (I have an uncle who is a basketball coach) ranks higher than soccer in my list of preferred sports. But I happen to live in Latin America, and Galeano's stuff helps you understand why the majority of the world goes wild about soccer. And also all the poetry surrounding the most widely loved sport in the world.

by Hugo on

Delillo's Underworld?

Levi, I like your Summer of the Mets novel. I noticed it has mixed reviews at Amazon.com, but it averages 4.0 stars.

Levi: Thanks for the mention of Diamond Ruby, my new novel. I'm the author of several books on baseball history, but this is my first foray into fiction with a baseball theme. (It's set in the 1920s and was inspired by the true story of Jackie Mitchell, "the girl who struck out Babe Ruth.")

Also, great list of books, Alan. Reminds me I need to go back and reread some of the classics.

by Greg on

A very insightful post into the whys and hows and whats of baseball writing. I was surprised I didn't see David James Duncan's "The Brothers K," but you certainly did cover a lot of stuff I've never heard of. "Brothers K" is certainly one of my favorite novels of all time, besides the baseball connection, and it's also about religion, Vietnam, the 1960s, and so much more. It's worth the read if only for the first and last page.

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