10 Best Baseball Books of All Time

In honor of baseball starting up again, here is a post from 01/26/11. Enjoy!

In the cold dark of winter, a middle-aged man’s fancy turns to thoughts of summer, baseball, beer, and the best books about baseball. On the last hump day in January, the Top Ten Baseball books of all time, and a brief description:

  1. The Glory of Their Times, Lawrence S. Ritter
  2. Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James
  3. Total Baseball
  4. My Turn at Bat, Ted Williams
  5. Boys of Summer, Roger Kahn
  6. A Day in the Bleachers, Arnold Hano
  7. Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever, LeRoy “Satchel” Paige
  8. Ball Four, Jim Bouton
  9. Cobb: A Biography, Al Stump
  10. Playing for Keeps: A History of Early Baseball, Warren Goldstein

1. The Glory of Their Times, Lawrence S. Ritter
In 1961 after Ty Cobb died, Lawrence Ritter got the idea of sitting down and talking to other great, old-time baseball players before it was too late. In pursuit of that goal, he traveled over 75,000 miles recording his conversations with some of the best players to have ever played the game.The result of these conversations is the single best book about baseball ever written. Ritter helped to invent a genre of sports book, the recorded-conversation, that has been often copied but never with the same success. His conversations with the likes of Hank Greenberg, Sam Crawford, Goose Goslin, and Stan Coveleski are engaging, humorous, revealing, and always magical. As the players look back at their youth and the game that they played from the vantage point of old age their memories take on a lyrical quality that is at once a tribute to the game they loved and to a time in America long gone. (For a more complete review,click here.)

2. The Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James
I used to play a game with a friend of mine who is one of the biggest baseball fans I have ever met. The question was: what one book would you want with you if you were stranded on a desert island? It always came down to a choice between MacMillan’s Baseball Encyclopedia or this one, James’sHistorical Abstract. When stats guru Bill James examines the history of baseball he creates a work that is much more than a stat book. Decade by decade he examines the players, the developments, and the growth of the game he knows so well. In 2001, James published an updated and revised version. I prefer the original.

3. Total Baseball
Once MacMillian’s Baseball Encyclopedia deservedly had the moniker of “the bible of baseball.” Total Baseball rightfully holds that title today. Utilizing advances in baseball research and statistical analysis,TB gives you 10 times more information than MacMillan’s, and dozen’s of great essays, something MacMillan’s never had at all. TB lets you compare players within their eras and within the history of the game. There is no better way to watch a game of baseball on TV than with a copy sitting on a table next to you. How does Randy Johnson stack up against Lefty Grove and Sandy Koufax? How does Alex Rodriquez compare to Honus Wagner?

4. My Turn at Bat, Ted Williams and John Underwood
In his career Ted Williams often felt victimized by members of the press, and, if truth be told he was. While DiMaggio in New York was afforded a free pass by an adoring press, Williams in Boston who actually saw combat in two wars was savaged at every turn. This is William’s chance to tell his side of the story. The last man to hit .400 discusses his neglected childhood in San Diego, being a fighter pilot in World War II and Korea, Boston and the Red Sox, fishing and, of course, hitting. 100 years from now, when the personal baggage between William’s and the media is long forgotten, Williams will be remembered with Jackie Robinson, Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Babe Ruth as one of the seven greatest players of the 20th century. When you factor in the seasons lost to not just one, but two wars, number 9 certainly deserves the title of “the greatest hitter to have ever lived.”

5. Boys of Summer, Roger Kahn
The definitive book about Brooklyn and the Dodgers, Kahn’s sentimental work weaves together his own autobiography into stories about and conversations with the men who once made Brooklyn the emotional center of the capital of baseball: Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella, Gil Hodges, and especially Jackie Robinson. There are scores of other books about the Dodgers and Jackie Robinson but this is by far the best. It is also one of the best books about the game of baseball. (For a more complete review, click here.)

6. A Day in the Bleachers, Arnold Hano
Other writers have attempted to analyze the game of baseball by analyzing the action, strategy, and play of a single game. The fact that Hano did it first, with so much sentimentality and grace, and that the game in question is Game 1 of the 1954 World Series has meant that every other attempt to follow Hano’s formula has been destined to failure. From to Willie May’s catch, to Dusty Rhodes’s home run, this is the best insider’s look at the game of baseball ever written. (For a more complete review, click here.)

7. Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever, Satchel Paige and David Lipton
Paige was somewhere between age 50 and 90 when he broke into the Major Leagues in 1948. Perhaps the greatest pitcher of all time, Paige never got a shot at the all-white Major Leagues until it was almost too late. Considering how well he fared as a senior citizen, we can only assume that in his prime he was as unhittable as the many legends about him claim. Paige discusses his considerable legend and adds to it, describing life in the Negro Leagues, the Jim Crow South, and barnstorming baseball before Jackie Robinson.

8. Ball Four, Jim Bouton
Bouton’s book was a controversial bestseller in 19. Profiling the drinking, womanizing, and shenanigans on and off the field of his teammates and fellow players in the early and mid-1960s, Bouton’s expose seems tame by today’s standards. In its time, though, it caused a great deal of embarrassment for Mickey Mantle, the Yankees, and Major League Baseball, so much so that Bouton, a pitcher, found himself blackballed and out of work. Still one of the top-ten books about baseball.

9. Cobb: A Biography, Al Stump
Ty Cobb has been called the greatest baseball player who ever lived, a racist, a killer, and the meanest man alive. Stump, who spent more harrowing days with the lonely and driven Cobb than seems possible, or even advisable, presents us with a complex portrait of a man who was indeed everything he has been called and more. On and off the field, Cobb has driven by demons of racism, hatred, personal tragedy and mental illness to be the best, at all costs. Stump profiles the life of the man who built a staggering baseball legacy and personal fortune, but in the end, died friendless and un-mourned. The best baseball biography ever written, period.

10. Playing for Keeps: A History of Early Baseball, Warren Goldstein
The origin of baseball in America, like the origin of all important things, is shrouded in myth. The very location of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, was predicated on the myth of Abner Doubleday inventing the game there. Mr. Goldstein delves beneath the myth into baseball’s very pre-history, to discover the historical origins of the game that has defined America more than any other. The result is a remarkable work that is beautifully written, entertaining, and difficult to put down. Goldstein’s achievement gives us a better understanding of the game, and reminds us of why we love it so much.

Poetry Review: “How to Be a Poet” by Wendell Berry

Throwback Thursday: Previously published here on April 12, 2012. 

Wendell Berry is a writer and an activist. He has written novels, short-stories, essays and books of non-fiction on subjects as varied as farming, economics, politics, and Christianity. Yet in the end, he is a lyric poet.

I have certainly not read all of his prose work, but enough to suggest that it is this lyrical/poetical nature of his that informs his thinking about and interests in subjects like peace and justice, Christian spirituality, and living close to the land.

Berry is ultimately a poet-farmer, a poet-economist, a poet-activist, a poet-philosopher, and a poet-theologian. In short, he is the kind of writer and thinker the world has too few of.

On a beautiful Easter Saturday, a Wendell Berry poem seems like just the thing.



How to Be a Poet

(to remind myself)

Make a place to sit down.   
Sit down. Be quiet.   
You must depend upon   
affection, reading, knowledge,   
skill—more of each   
than you have—inspiration,   
work, growing older, patience,   
for patience joins time   
to eternity. Any readers   
who like your poems,   
doubt their judgment.   
Breathe with unconditional breath   
the unconditioned air.   
Shun electric wire.   
Communicate slowly. Live   
a three-dimensioned life;   
stay away from screens.   
Stay away from anything   
that obscures the place it is in.   
There are no unsacred places;   
there are only sacred places   
and desecrated places.   
Accept what comes from silence.   
Make the best you can of it.   
Of the little words that come   
out of the silence, like prayers   
prayed back to the one who prays,   
make a poem that does not disturb   
the silence from which it came.
     Source: Poetry (January 2001).


Listening with a pencil and my ear, these are the lines I marked:

Of the little words that come   
out of the silence, like prayers   
prayed back to the one who prays,   
make a poem that does not disturb   
the silence from which it came.

I like a number of lines in this poem. Yet in the end the poem builds to this long, final line. When I first read this poem I found the last stanza clumsy. Yet I read it again out-loud and came to like it very much. Over time I have come to love it. Silence as holy. Poetry as prayer. The poet as mystic.

Book Review: “The Last Kind Words Saloon” by Larry McMurtry

Last Kind Words Saloon

Book: The Last Kind Words Saloon, by Larry McMurtry

Style: Western-Mythish

Plot: Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and other historical western characters like Buffalo Bill Cody and Charles Goodnight interact with fictional characters in a mythic West.

Lines from the Opening Paragraphs:

    A hat came skipping down the main street of Long Grass, propelled only by the wind, which was sharp for March. The had was brown felt and had a narrow brim.
“I believe that’s Doc Featherston’s hat,” Wyatt said. “He may have lost track of it while setting a limb.”
“Or, he might be over at the Orchid fornicating and let it blow out the window,” Doc Holliday suggested.
“Doubt it… only rich dentists such as yourself can afford the Orchid these days,” Wyatt said.
Doc drew his pistol and aimed at the hat but didn’t shoot.
“Why would a grown many want to be a dentist anyway?” Wyatt inquired.
“Well, for one thing, the cost of equipment is low,” Doc told him. “All you need is a pair of pliers and maybe a chisel for difficult cases.”
At the mention of a chisel Wyatt turned pale–he had always been squeamish.
“I am sorry I brought it up,” he said. “Are we going to sit here and let the good doctor’s hat blow clean away?”
A crow flew over. Dock shot at it twice, but missed.
Wyatt walked out in the street and picked up the hat.


Larry McMurtry is pound-for-pound the best writer to ever try his hand at the Western. In Lonesome Dove, he wrote a great American novel. In his other Westerns he has consistently written novels that are both literary and enjoyable, something few contemporary novelist ever manage to achieve.

His themes of loss and natural beauty are as haunting and beautiful as the changing western landscapes that he writes about. His characters, embodied in Gus & Call in Lonesome Dove, are at once both realistic and transcendent

The first thing that must be said though about The Last Kind Words Saloon is that it is not Lonesome Dove, or any of his other Westerns. In his prologue, McMurtry calls it a “ballad in prose.”

Historical and fictional characters move about a changing stage like characters in Waiting for Godot. The famous gun battle at the OK-Corral amounts to less than a few paragraphs and happens “off stage.” In the end, the best description for what The Last Kind Words Saloon is that it is an existential play about loss and change.

As I have said here before, I do not finish a lot novels, even novels I love or find compelling and beautifully written. I generally get about two-thirds of the way through and figure I have the gist of the book and a good feeling for what the writer is trying to do. In the plotless world of contemporary novels, this has never seemed like a failing. While I often feel the need to finish a mystery novel, I usually feel like I can easily abandon most any other novel anyplace before the last page.

And yet somehow I managed to finish The Last Kind Words Saloon. What is more, I have been thinking about it quite often in the days since I finished it. In the end, I suppose that those are the two most important things this reviewer can say about this or any novel.


Book Review: Homage to Robert Frost by Joseph Brodsky, Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott

Throwback Thursday: This is the fourth book review in the series “Poets on Poetry.” Reviews of books in this series can be found atPoets on Poetry.” This review was first posted here August 24, 2011.

Robert Frost is the most American of all American poets. He is American in subject, sound, and sensibility. It is his great strength and his greatest weakness. While Whitman’s propheticness transcended his American-ness, Frost can make no such claim to a transcendent universality. In the end he remains Poet Americanus.

That is what makes this volume of essays by three great, non-American poets, so interesting. For American poets, Frost resides in our very bones, like the sounds of  rivers, and highways, and wind in trees, and the voices of American birds and American words spoken in coffee shops and local bars and across fences at harvest time.

Joseph Brodsky, Seamus Heaney, and Derek Walcott are three of the finest contemporary world poets. The essays that form Homage to Robert Frost have their root in a seminar that was done on Frost at College International de Philosophie in Paris. In Paris – the most self-consciously unAmerican of all cities – three non-American poets discussed Frost and his poetry. The result is wonderful.

While American readers and poets always approach Frost from the inside… Brodsky, Heaney, and Walcott, by necessity, come to Frost from without. This enables them to hear him in a way an American reader cannot. This, ultimately, is the greatest value of Homage to Robert Frost.

According to my usual note on the inside front cover of the book, I first read Homage to Robert Frost in late fall of 1996. In the fall of 1996, we were no longer living in our little house in St. Paul but would have just moved into suburban Bloomington. I would still have been freelancing as a writer and editor of training materials and bible studies. During the days I would have been doing the at-home dad thing, and on some evenings I would have been working at a telemarketing job. I would have been reading Homage to Robert Frost during toddler nap times and while sitting in a cube waiting for inbound-sales calls to come in. As I have said elsewhere, the words of Brodsky, Heany and Walcott – and the the lines of Robert Frost – would have been helping me to keep my sanity, as poetry has always done for me.

Opening now the book, I read some lines I underlined and highlighted 15 years ago.

“When a European conceives of confronting nature, he walks out of his cottage or a little inn, filled with either friends or family, and goes for an evening stroll. If he encounters a tree, it’s a tree made familiar by history, to which its’ been a witness. This or that king sat underneath it, lay down this or that law – something of that sort. A tree stands there rustling, as it were, with allusions. Pleased and somewhat pensive, our man, refreshed bu unchanged by that encounter, returns to his in or cottage, finds his friends and family absolutely intact, and proceeds to have a good, merry time. Wheras when an American walks out of his house and encounters a tree it is a meeting of equals. Man and tree face each other in their respective primal power, free of references: neither has a past, and as to whose future is greater, it is a toss-up…. Our man returns to his cabin in a state of bewilderment, to say the least, if not in actual shock.” (cf. Brodsky’s essay “On Grief and Reason” paraphrasing Auden’s essay on Frost)

“With few exceptions, American poetry is essentially Virgilian, which is to say contemplative.” (cf. Brodsky’s essay “On Grief and Reason”)

“Frost believed… that individual venture and vision arose as a creative defense against emptiness, and that it was therefore possible that a relapse into emptiness would be the ultimate destiny of consciousness.” (cf. Heaney’s essay “Above the Brim”)

“Why is the favorite figure of American patriotism not paternal but avuncular? Because uncles are wiser than fathers.” (cf. Walcott’s essay “Road Taken”)

“Frost is an autocratic poet rather than a democratic poet.” (cf. Walcott’s essay “Road Taken”)

“… Yeats told Pound that A Boy’s Will was “the best poetry written in America for a long time.’ The judgement seems right.” (cf. Walcott’s essay “Road Taken”)

“For interior recitation, usually of complete poems, not only of lines or stanzas, Frost and Yeats, for their rhythms and design, are the most memorable poets of the century.” (cf. Walcott’s essay “Road Taken”)

“The poem does not obey linear time; it is, by its beligerance or its surrender, the enemy of time; and it is, when it is true, time’s conqueror, not time’s servant.” (cf. Walcott’s essay “Road Taken”)


As so often happens, Frost’s stature in American literature has diminished over time. It is more a “taking for granted” I think than a re-assessment. It is easy to take Frost for granted in the same way that it is easy to take for granted Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington. Sometimes it takes outsiders to remind us of what is most essential and best about America. Homage to Robert Frost accomplishes this beautifully,

Measuring Time in Birds

Screen Shot 2017-02-16 at 7.28.19 PM


The Vernal Equinox has been rung. Juncos have returned to our feeders here in the North Country.

Yesterday biking past a nearby pond I thought I heard the call of a Red-Winged Blackbird. But I spotted nothing. On the open water, I saw Mallard Ducks and Canadian Geese. So it may have been wishful thinking.

At the house we lived in before this one, just a few blocks south of here, there were two huge oak trees in our backyard. Each spring and fall a huge flock of Red-Winged Blackbirds would gather in them. The noise they made was so great that you could hear them through closed windows and doors. When I would open the sliding door to the deck so we could step out to see them, the sound washed over us and like a great wave of change.

Sometimes I feel like a could measure the best times in my life by birds.

The cacophonous Crows that filled the trees at Drumcliffe Churchyard. The Juncos Morgan and I would watch– when she was little– at Richardson Nature Center. Bobolinks cussing us out in a Southwestern Minnesota prairie. Magpies sitting on fence posts in Montana.  Great-Tailed Grackles watching Sue and I eat shrimp tacos in Padre Island, Texas.

For the most part I hesitate to call myself a bird-watcher. I am too poor at identifying them.

If I were to call myself anything, I would call myself one who has been blessed.