Two things that I’ve always loved: baseball and reading. I’m not sure which came first—I might’ve started enjoying them both at the same time. Or, at least, around the same time. I know I’ve mentioned this before in one of my articles, but I can track down my first-ever baseball game because an Atlanta Falcons cornerback—at that moment a St. Louis Cardinals outfielder—hit a Grand Slam.
That was July 1, 1993.
The first book I ever read? And by book, I mean beyond children’s literature and not that dreaded YA (which I’m not even sure existed back then)? Probably James Patterson’s Along Came a Spider, the first in his ongoing Alex Cross series. Thinking back on it, I read that in the fifth grade, which was around 1997.
The difference: Brian Jordan’s Grand Slam didn’t hook me on baseball*. Patterson’s dark novel hooked me on reading.
*As for what did hook me on baseball: baseball cards I received once while hospitalized. My sisters can attest.
After reading Along Came a Spider, I got my hands on pretty much anything by Patterson, an author I no longer read. (Different discussion for a different day.)
Then I branched out to authors like Stephen King, Robert Crais, Jonathan Kellerman (briefly), Michael Connelly, Stephen White, and James Ellroy. Later I got into novels by Don Winslow and Craig Johnson.
Recently, I began reading John Connolly’s Charlie “Bird” Parker series. Over the past couple of years, I greatly enjoyed reading James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse series, and even though I loved the ending, was sad to see it go.
And I’m always looking for other authors: Emily St. John Mandel, Justin Cronin, Rachel Harrison, Jean Hanff Korelitz (though that novel, The Plot, thoroughly scarred my soul), Christopher Moore, etc. If you’re into comics, read Tom King and Scott Snyder.
At the start of the lockdown, I blogged about 95 books by 95 authors—couldn’t quite get that to 100. Some of those books appear on the lists below.
Eventually—and I’m guessing the Spring of 2010—I read James S. Hirsch’s biography on Willie Mays, Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend, and for the past dozen years, I’ve been quite into sports books. Taking a look at my bookshelves, and wherever else I may have stuffed books (to the obvious joy of my wife), I clearly have more baseball books than books about other sports.
With it being a slow offseason, I wanted to share my 15 favorite baseball books as well as five from the world of hockey, football, and basketball, as well as five other sports books.
If you have any other suggestions, leave them in the comments. I’m always on the lookout for something new to read.
15 Baseball Books
*The Natural by Bernard Malamud, 1952, 191 pages
Malamud compactly writes the story of Roy Hobbs, one-time wonder who falls off the map after getting shot only to return years later to lead the New York Knights to the precipice of glory. The novel, of course, is much darker than the movie, in which Robert Redford portrays Hobbs.
*The Might Have Been by Joseph M. Schuster, 2012, 368 pages
Edward Everett Yates very briefly reaches the Majors, and can never quite let go the urge to get back—to the complete detriment of his personal life. A brutally honest look at the life of baseball player who knows nothing other than the love of the game.
In Pursuit of Pennants: Baseball Operations from Deadball to Moneyball by Daniel R. Levitt and Mark Armour, 2015, 504 pages
This mammoth tome dives deep into the different eras of front offices. Perhaps most interesting were the chapters that discussed the early Royals years, from the team getting ready for its expansion draft up to when the team first began competing for the American League crown.
Three Nights in August: Strategy, Heartbreak, and Joy Inside the Mind of a Manager by Buzz Bissinger, 2005, 280 pages
Bissinger, best known as the author of Friday Night Lights, spends three nights with the Cardinals as they battle the Cubs in a summer series. Most poignant are the chapters where manager Tony La Russa and pitcher Matt Morris remember and reflect on pitcher Darryl Kile, who died in a Chicago hotel room in June of 2002.
October 1964 by David Halberstam, 1994, 382 pages
What an interesting World Series: the fading New York Yankees versus the upstart St. Louis Cardinals. After losing this Series, the Yankees would spend over a decade losing while the Cardinals would reach two more World Series in the 60s. Then there’s the intrigue involving an aging Branch Rickey, an unappreciated Johnny Keane, a hungry Leo Durocher, and middling owners of both clubs.
Spirit of ‘67: The Cardiac Kids, El Birdos, and the World Series that Captivated America by Thomas J. Whalen, 2017, 240 pages
For the second time in the decade, the Cardinals are in the World Series, this time against the surprising Boston Red Sox. This World Series is probably the most boring of the three for the 60s Cardinals, but Whalen brings out the best of it.
The Year of the Pitcher: Bob Gibson, Denny McClain, and the End of Baseball’s Golden Age by Sridhar Pappu, 2017, 400 pages
Bob Gibson had a 1.12 ERA in 1968 while Denny McClain won 31 games, and yet it was Tigers lefty Mickey Lolich who stole the show and won World Series MVP as the Tigers upset the Cardinals in seven games. This book, like October 1964, also spends quite a bit of time on race relations in the world of baseball, including riots in Detroit and how the Cardinals brass ostracized Curt Flood after a missed fly-ball proved costly. Another plot of this book: the rise of the MLBPA under Marvin Miller.
Smart Baseball: The Story Behind the Old Stats That Are Ruining the Game, The New Ones That Are Running It, and The Right Way to Think About Baseball by Keith Law, 2017, 304 pages
When writing articles, I still go back to my dog-eared copy of Law’s 2017 book about baseball stats—what ones to use, how they compare and complement each other, etc. It’s the one baseball book I always keep nearby.
The Baseball 100 by Joe Posnanski, 2021, 869 pages
Posnanski’s tome has incredible insight and shares wonderful stories about those who made his list of the top 100 baseball players ever, from Ichiro all the way to...well, get the book. It’s definitely worth the read.
The Team that Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates by Bruce Markusen, 2006, 256 pages
This is the most recent baseball book I’ve read, and it tells the story about a close group of ballplayers that upset the Baltimore Orioles for the 1971 World Series. In September of that year, the Pirates took the field with the first-ever all-African-American and Latino starting lineup in Major League history.
The Machine: A Hot Team, a Legendary Season, and a Heart-stopping World Series: The Story of the 1975 Cincinnati Reds by Joe Posnanski, 2009, 302 pages
Posnanski again! I enjoy reading books about incredible teams, and this one is no different, as it follows the unstoppable Reds during their first of two consecutive championship seasons.
Glory Days in Tribe Town: The Cleveland Indians and Jacobs Field, 1994-1997 by Terry Pluto, 2014, 333 pages
Another book about another great team from Ohio, but this team, sadly, never won the World Series, falling short in both 1995 and 1997. Still, teams to this day (especially the Braves) strive to follow in the mid-90s Cleveland footsteps, locking up the youngsters for years and for the (relatively) cheap.
Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend by James S. Hirsch, 2010, 628 pages
Willie Mays, as several of my grade- and middle-school teachers can attest, is my favorite all-time player, even though I was born about 16 years after he retired. Hirsch’s book gave me new appreciation for Mays both for the challenges he faced on and off the field. One of my favorite parts of this book is when Horace Stoneham, the old owner of the New York Giants, could’ve kept the team in New York if he sold Mays to the Cardinals, but figured sales would plummet even more if he did that, so he kept the player and moved the team to San Francisco.
The Summer of Beer and Whiskey: How Brewers, Barkeeps, Rowdies, Immigrants, and a Wild Pennant Fight Made Baseball America’s Game by Edward Achorn, 2013, 336 pages
Very early baseball looks nothing like the baseball of today, and this book shows that even the business world of baseball was incredibly different. I’m not really even sure how to describe this book except to say that the league’s origin is just so weird.
The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created by Jane Leavy, 2018, 656 pages
Leavy writes about the life and career of Babe Ruth over the course of an offseason as Babe, the titular Big Fella, barnstorms across the country with teammate Lou Gehrig. On one page, both the towns of Lawrence, Kansas, and Chillicothe, Missouri, are mentioned. That occurs in one of the most interesting chapters (they’re all interesting; it’s a great book) that discusses Babe’s rumored heritage and goes into how the league’s owners later all colluded against him becoming a manager because they knew he’d break down the color barrier. Quite the book about sports’ first superstar.
And now for some other sports books.
|Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL||Jeff Pearlman||2018||384|
|The Ones Who Hit the Hardest: The Steelers, the Cowboys, the ‘70s, and the Fight for America’s Soul||Chad Millman and Shawn Coyne||2010||325|
|Saban: The Making of a Coach||Monte Burke||2015||352|
|The Perfect Pass: American Genius and the Reinvention of Football||S.C. Gwynne||2016||304|
|League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions, and the Battle for Truth||Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru||2013||399|
The Perfect Pass is about the creation of the Air Raid offense by Hal Mumme and his trusted disciple, Mike Leach, who recently passed away. It follows Mumme’s rollercoaster career from college to high school back to college and eventually the SEC with Kentucky with Leach mostly at his side.
|:07 Seconds or Less: My Season on the Bench with the Runnin’ and Gunnin’ Phoenix Suns||Jack McCallum||2006||315|
|Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of 1980s||Jeff Pearlman||2014||496|
|Dream Team: How Michael, Magic, Larry, Charles, and the Greatest Team of All Time Conquered the World and Changed the Game of Basketball Forever||Jack McCallum||2012||352|
|Marvin “Bad News” Barnes: The Turbulent Life of an Original Basketball Renegade||Mike Carey||2016||224|
|Basketball (and Other Things): A Collection of Questions Asked, Answered, Illustrated||Shea Serrano||2017||240|
Serrano’s basketball is probably the funniest sports book I’ve ever read. Dude’s a great writer. The term “controlled chaos” comes to mind when I think about anything he’s ever written.
|The “Down Goes Brown” History of the NHL: The World’s Most Beautiful Sport, the World’s Most Ridiculous League||Sean McIndoe||2018||272|
|Scotty: A Hockey Life Like No Other||Ken Dryden||2019||400|
|The Rebel League: The Short and Unruly Life of the World Hockey Association||Ed Willes||2004||288|
|Fabric of the Game: The Stories Behind the NHL’s Names, Logos, and Uniforms||Chris Creamer and Todd Radom||2020||280|
|The Russian Five: A Story of Espionage, Defection, Bribery and Courage||Keith Gave||2018||320|
My brother-in-law gave me Fabric of the Game for a recent birthday, and that book is incredible. It dives into the history behind team names, logos, and color schemes of past and current NHL teams. That’s a part of a team’s history readers don’t normally get in a regular sports book. Hopefully one day such a book exists for teams of other leagues.
Other Sports Books
|Boot Sale: Inside the Strange and Secret World of Football’s Transfer Window||Nige Tassell||2019||304|
|The Master: The Long Run and Beautiful Game of Roger Federer||Christopher Clarey||2021||432|
|Pep Confidential: The Inside Story of Pep Guardiola’s First Season at Bayern Munich||Martí Perarnau Grau||2014||488|
|The Murder of Sonny Liston: Las Vegas, Heroin, and Heavyweights||Shaun Assael||2016||352|
|Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League||Ian Plenderleith||2014||368|
Assael’s book is more an investigation of Sonny Liston’s all-too-brief life and the early days of Las Vegas than it is a look at Liston’s murder. Still, Liston led a fascinating life full of dangerous characters, and this book examines the intersection of boxing, drugs, and the mafia in a fledgling Sin City.
There you go. That’s 15 books about baseball plus another 20 about other sports. Hopefully this list helps at least someone get through the baseball offseason.
The next baseball book on my list: The Slide: Leyland, Bonds, and the Star-Crossed Pittsburgh Pirates, which looks at the team’s last season with Bonds and then the Pirates’ journey through the wilderness since then.
And no, I have no idea why I’m reading so much about the Pirates lately. I’d love a good book about the Royals, but alas, none exist.