And here’s the pitch: baseball books are obtainable, reasonably priced, and — at least to a thin but affluent and motivated slice of the populace — sought after. Besides, a book collector should have some baseball books; baseball and books go together. For baseball is the sports equivalent of reading: done at a deliberate pace, offering the potential of delights in unexpected places, and primarily of another era. Also, more than any other American sport, baseball has inspired some great writing.
Unfortunately, it’s also true that no small number of trees have been felled and turned into baseball books that would have been better spent becoming baseball bats. I know this from experience. I once housed some 350 titles and I read more than my share, a good many while on the research trail while writing my own modest contribution to the canon. What I learned is that if you want to collect a lot of titles you can do so and not spend a great deal (I got there on a writer’s salary). Instead, however, I suggest quality over quantity.
Here’s a lineup of heavy hitters:
Babe: The Legend Comes to Life by Robert Creamer (1974). Remains the standard. Here I mean both subject and biography. It’s that good.
The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn (1972). Seems every public intellectual of a certain vintage grew up a Brooklyn Dodgers fan. Quite possibly they read this book instead.
Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy by Jules Tygiel (1983). Just because the story’s been told often doesn’t make it any less worthy of understanding.
Only the Ball Was White by Robert Peterson (1970). So many unheralded greats in one book.
Red Smith on Baseball (2000). Red Smith on tiddlywinks also would be good.
Baseball in ’41: A Celebration of the Best Baseball Season Ever by Creamer. When baseball truly was America’s national pastime (1991).
Summer of ’49 by David Halberstam (1991). Ditto comment on Baseball in ’41.
Men At Work by George Will (1990). Whatever your politics, or your view of bowties, this is a good book.
Dollar Sign on the Muscle by Kevin Kerrane (1984). Won’t see this appear on many top-ten lists but this book about a time when scouting was an art not a science is worth consideration.
Baseball: the Early Years and the Golden Age by Harold Seymour (1971). You should have at least something by Seymour and his writing partner Dorothy (now Dorothy Jane Mills).
The Pitch That Killed by Mike Sowell (1989). Good golly this is a great book. And about a time when the matter at hand was about more than just a game.
Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella (1982). Attractive, dreamy blue cover, inspired the Kevin Costner vehicle Field of Dreams, worth reading once a season.
The Natural by Bernard Malamud (1952). Psst: At the end of the book the lights don’t explode.
The Great American Novel by Philip Roth (1973). The most decorated living American writer on the silly side of baseball — see what I mean?
You Know Me Al by Ring Lardner (1916). You’ll cough up your crackerjack.
Universal Baseball Association, Inc. by Robert Coover (1968). Even a cheap paperback is worth having around.
Finally, a few tips:
• Stay away from over-sized pictorial anthologies. People will look at them and say, “oooh-ahhh” but no one wants to buy them. They cost more to acquire and ship than they’re worth.
• With a few exceptions (Shoeless Joe), you don’t have to worry much about first editions — few old-time baseball books had more than one edition to begin with. Those stellar books worth having that did have several runs (Michael Lewis’s Moneyball comes to mind) are so plentiful that you can go from first (edition) to third without breaking a sweat in value. An exception: If you come across an original The Bill James Baseball Abstract — here I’m referring to a tome he self-published in 1977, not the mid-1980s books that made his name — don’t pass it up.
Lastly, if you get good at this game you might carry a few hard-to-find biographies that you can flip to a researcher sometime (Harry Hooper: An American Baseball Life by Paul Zingg, for example) or some old-time “Baseball Joe” books by Lester Chadwick published in the 1910s or some Burt Standish Frank Merriwell books from circa 1900.
Otherwise, spend a couple hundred and you’re in — as easy as a sunny afternoon in the bleachers.
Check out the Baseball Rare book room.