Summer means it’s time to pass the time by reading about our national pastime!
Written by Kyle Magin
Baseball is the best sport to watch while reading a book. Announcers don’t so much as breathe heavily unless a team is fighting to line up at the bat rack, so you don’t really miss anything by thumbing through pages except the swing, and it’ll get replayed within moments, anyway. With that in mind, find out more about the best sport there is to mostly ignore this summer with these five books about the national pastime.
The Arm – Jeff Passan- 2016
If you only read one baseball book this summer, make it Jeff Passan’s exceedingly excellent The Arm.
If you only read one medical book this summer, make it Jeff Passan’s remarkably researched The Arm.
If you only read one entry in the whole of humanity’s dalliance with the English language this summer, from Bill Shakespeare to Toni Morrison to Bill damn James, make it Jeff Passan’s is-this-a-book-about-baseball-or-a-book-about-the-human-condition-presented-under-the-guise-of-some-nerdy-treatise-on-human-arms, The Arm.
The first thing that strikes you about Passan’s book–officially a study of the mechanics of pitching attempting to find out why so many hurlers get hurt–is how ably he goes from 30,000 feet to ground-level.
At once Passan is chronicling the financial impact of pitching on the American sporting landscape–professional pitching arms command $1.5 billion in contracts, or more than triple the combined salaries of every starting NFL quarterback–before deftly homing in on the tale of a terrified teen undergoing his first UCL replacement (Tommy John surgery.) Passan’s could have well named his book The Head, because compounding pitchers’ tendency to physically break is a legitimate baked-in nutiness nearly everyone toeing the slab seems to suffer with. And, it’s no wonder their mental stability follows their physical frailty.
Pitchers aren’t really baseball players but rather specialists subjecting baseball to their craft–they are trained more rigorously via a development system that asks more of them than their counterparts, places more pressure on them to win games starting at an earlier level and threatens to replace them almost daily once they do sign a scholarship offer or contract. Passan ropes the American and Japanese youth development systems into a book that could serve as a comprehensive treatise on: the youth baseball industrial complex, biomechanics of the upper body, arm surgery, Tommy John, physical rehabilitation and television revenue. Make the time to pick it up.
The Only Rule is it Has to Work – Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller – 2016
In contrast to the weight of The Arm, The Only Rule is it Has to Work floats through its subject matter in an exuberant voice familiar to listeners of Baseball Prospectus’ daily Effectively Wild podcast, whose hosts, Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller, co-authored the book. It begins with Ben and Sam talking their way into running the independent league Stompers from Sonoma during a taping of their ‘cast.
The two SABRmatricians–high priests to the stat nerd community, internet famous in certain circles–think this is the perfect pulpit from which to preach their numbers-based gospel about success in baseball. Thing is, when given the keys to (mostly) build a club, they dive into the people side of baseball operations with aplomb, humanizing the stathead movement in the most delightful way possible. Ben and Sam are legitimately enthralled with clubhouse chemistry, helping their indy-league charges to earn promotions and sifting through spreadsheets to find bad body, weird delivery and graduates of BFE-West Virginia to add to their band of misfits.
What makes the book is their narrative style, though–totally vulnerable, frequently funny and definitely unsure of themselves. Shades of Thoreau in Walden color the book, however. Ben and Sam find some success running a club because of the connections they have and the nearly big league resources–pitch tracking and scouting software, plus a handful of enthusiastic volunteers recruited from their podcast and scouting help from a big league source–they can bring to bear in baseball’s hinterlands. So, take their abilities with a grain of salt, but do pick up the book and do stick around for a pretty memorable cameo by a baseball lifer who just won’t go away and one pretty memorable entry in baseball’s history book.
The Best Team Money Can Buy- Molly Knight- 2015
Molly Knight announced herself pretty audaciously last year as baseball’s best writer. Period. Full stop.
Knight dissects a few seasons of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ TV money-fattened clubhouse ending in 2014. She cuts through the bullshit to present larger than life figures such as aces Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, Cuban phenom-cum-headache Yasiel Puig and enigmas like Carl Crawford and Matt Kemp as humans, just as fragile as the rest of us, if richer than any of us.
Knight doesn’t take her eye off the ball on Puig, avoiding lazy judgements about his perceived showiness and instead homing in on what actually made him a bad teammate–his disrespect toward the veterans on his squad, his laughable inability to be punctual and his terrible choices in friends. Kershaw is treated less like an unapproachable megastar in the sport’s second-biggest media market and more like a young man blessed with unusual abilities and tough decisions regarding his financial future while trying to carry along a bloated, heaving roster of stars and guys who’re paid like they’re stars. Knight demystifies manager Don Mattingly’s sometimes perplexing decisions and peels back the layers on a baseball lifer who got in way over his head. Most refreshingly, Knight, you will notice, is the only non-male on this list. She analyzes the sport in a way no other author here does–as someone who learned it comprehensively without ever having dreams or designs on her subjects’ jobs. It’s a lens the sport’s fans could do to peer through more frequently.
Chrysanthemum at the Bat- Robert Whiting- 1977
An oldie but a goodie, I unearthed this breezy read at my university library in 2005 and have treasured it ever since. Whiting’s meditations on Americans playing baseball ‘The Samurai Way’ in the 1960s and ‘70s are a little condescending and no longer relevant, but his history of baseball and its development in Japan are world-class.
Whiting builds his book with plenty of reporting and anecdotes, concentrating on the game’s pre-WWII development, its post-WWII boom as it became the sole combative outlet for the Japanese people, the growth of players like Sadaharu Oh and the Japanese fan’s relationship with baseball. Whiting’s 1989 masterpiece–You Gotta Have Wa–is undoubtedly the better book, but for a good read on baseball’s Far Eastern origin story, and some really good anecdotes about Joe Pepitone getting knee-walking drunk during games, Chrysanthemum is indispensable.
The Art of Fielding- Chad Harbach- 2011
Harbach’s is the first ‘baseball’ book I’ve ever recommended to my mother. I scare-quote baseball because The Art of Fielding is a great American novel with baseball threading its seams together. Situated on the campus of a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin–the sort that dot the Upper Midwest like lakes–Fielding follows the story of a dreamer who only really tunes in when his ability to play an exceedingly masterful defensive shortstop for any team who will have him is contingent upon a task, and how his life and the life of everyone around him is upended by a memorable, painful case of the yips.
A good deal of Melville is referenced throughout a book featuring characters in May-December romances, homosexual romances, the throes of chemical romance, regular old romance and a little on-the-sly romance on the side. Seemingly every relationship in the book, functional and otherwise, unspools just as our shortstop sails and kicks everything coming his way. We’ll call it a sports book if that’s what it takes for you to pick it up.
Featured images: Careercontessa.com, Little Brown & Company, HarperCollins