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Friday, April 15, 2011

Ah, spring! when sporting minds turn to baseball—and books about baseball

Every April prompts high hopes for the home team, high expectations for the new roster of baseball books, and hearty harrumphs for pundits calling critical balls and strikes.

David Ulin in the Los Angeles Times kicks off the season by revising his list of “The Nine Best Baseball Books”—notoriously excluding Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer and Jim Bouton’s Ball Four—but happily including Ring Lardner’s You Know Me Al, Bernard Malamud’s The Natural, Jim Brosnan’s The Long Season, Jimmy Breslin’s Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?, and Roger Angell’s Five Seasons. On Open Page Chauncey Mabe is baffled that Ulin’s list fails to include any of Mark Harris’s four baseball novels, which he asserts “together constitute a neglected classic of literary Americana.”

Leonard Cassuto, co-editor of the recently published Cambridge Companion to Baseball, sounds off in The Chronicle that “no one should doubt that baseball is America’s most literary sport.”
The game has a natural affinity to narrative: Each contest unfolds like a measured story, and the gaps in the action leave room for embroidery of all kinds. And embroidery there has been, with the romance of baseball proclaimed—against evidence that baseball is a big business, and often a venal one.
Likewise, in “Baseball in literature, baseball as literature,” their chapter in the Cambridge Companion to Baseball, Stephen Partridge and Timothy Morris note, “It’s hard to read an American classic without finding some mention of baseball.” Even Jay Gatsby, the ultimate American dreamer, may have had ties to the fixing of the 1919 World Series. Partridge and Morris uncover many little-known gems, including Lucy Kennedy’s 1950 novel The Sunlit Field, which recreates pre–Civil War baseball in Brooklyn and features a cameo appearance by Walt Whitman.

The connection between baseball and American culture gets its most sustained celebration every June at the Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, hosted by the Baseball Hall of Fame and the State University of New York at Oneonta. In February McFarland & Company published a collection of the best presentations from 2009 and 2010 including the intriguingly entitled “Plié Ball! Baseball in American Dance,” “On the Brink: Babe Ruth in Dennis Lehane’s The Given Day,” and “The Golem, the Rabbi, and ‘That Long-Sought Hebrew Star’: Jews in 1920s Baseball.”

And what’s spring without a controversy? Baseball statistician extraordinaire Bill James stirred up an opening-day fracas when he excerpted a piece from his new book, Solid Fool’s Gold: Detours on the Way to Conventional Wisdom, on Slate. “Shakespeare and Verlander” asked “why are we so good at developing athletes and so lousy at developing writers?” “The population of Topeka, Kansas,” James observes “is roughly the same” size as London’s population in Shakespeare’s time. So where, James asks, are the distinguished writers of Topeka? Dean Robinson, Alan Jacobs, and Ross Douthat were among the legion quick to challenge the wisdom of James’s assumptions (including the question of which player belongs in the title with Shakespeare—certainly not Verlander).

Also of Interest
Related LOA Title: Baseball: A Literary Anthology (includes pieces by Roger Angell, Jim Bouton, Jimmy Breslin, Jim Brosnan, Mark Harris, Roger Kahn, Ring Lardner, Bernard Malamud, Buster Olney, and many more)


  1. I have to plump for Josh Wilker's memoir Cardboard GodS, which just came out in paperback. It's more about the 1970s and family than about baseball, but at the same time it's definitely about baseball and the way it threads through the life of a fan. It's a wonderful book.

  2. Without a doubt, I would enjoy an anthology of Mark Harris's baseball novels.


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