Baseball Books, The Elixir of Life

A lot of people are bemused by my favourite genre of book. While more pretentious folk discuss Dickens’ novels and the poetry of Keats, attempting to decode messages that are not really there, I prefer baseball books.

Sure, I have read Shakespeare plays and endured the banal dross on our nations A-Level English Literature course. I have read all major football titles by authors such as Nick Hornby and Gabriele Marcotti. However, the only type of book I really enjoy is one about baseball.

Why are there so many baseball books?

It is difficult to quantify such things, but baseball may have been bestowed with more quality prose than any other sport on our planet. In newspaper columns, non-fiction books and online, baseball always has a story to tell. Accordingly, some of history’s finest wordsmiths have focused on the grand old game, falling in love with its poignant sense of tradition and artistry.

The game of baseball entails much more than one guy hurling a ball at another guy, who attempts to whack it into orbit. On the contrary, there are intricate storylines, nuanced backdrops and heritage dripping from every pore. In order to appreciate it all, books are a vital resource.

The need for baseball books is further amplified when you live in Britain, thousands of miles away from the day-to-day grapevine. We do not tend to learn about Bill Veeck sending a dwarf to bat during our daily commute, nor are we exposed to documentaries teaching about Babe Ruth’s Called Shot at Wrigley Field or the tragedy of Tony Conigliaro.

Therefore, we are forced to go hunting in pursuit of baseball history, and there is no greater medium through which to learn than the book. I’m not talking technological, lifeless, eBook type stuff, either. We need to hold a book, smell the history and consume its contents wholly.

My first baseball books in the UK

I still remember my first baseball book. After casually watching twice-weekly broadcasts of games on British terrestrial television, becoming gradually more enthralled with each episode to the point where I craved baseball, it felt like a natural step to begin reading about its rules and history.

It was difficult. In 2005, I was an 11-year old attempting to find baseball books in Britain. An interview with author Craig W Thomas on the Channel Five baseball show finally gave me a title to chase: his Roads to Redemption baseball guide aimed towards a British audience.

So it was that I travelled into Birkenhead town centre and began rooting through the sports section at Waterstones bookshop. After a prolonged search, I somehow found what I was looking for.

It took me four months to read Roads to Redemption for the first time because I tried to commit every word to eternal memory. In one section, which provided a potted history of baseball, I remember being simultaneously perplexed and amused by some of the names, with actual people named Three Finger Brown and Nap Lajoie playing this great game.

The book also contained a guide to each of the thirty big league teams, with a brief synopsis of team histories, ballparks, players and achievements. It was my first in-depth and prolonged exposure to the glorious history of America’s National Pastime. It was also a gateway to heavier substances.

How I became addicted to reading baseball books

Soon, I read Faithful, which chronicled the historic 2004 Red Sox season. To me, Stephen King was, and will always remain, just a baseball writer! I do not think I have ever enjoyed a book more than his diary collaboration with Stewart O’Nan. For the first time in my life, I literally could not put a book down.

I naturally progressed to read extensively about Boston baseball history, with works by Dan Shaughnessy, Peter Gammons and Tony Massarotti warming up many a winter night.

When reading the incisive, achingly beautiful prose of such writers, it is difficult to be unmoved. Soon, I began imitating these literary heroes in my writing, using words and phrases and tempo discovered in their books. From an early age, I wanted to be like Roger Kahn or Jerome Holtzman or Grantland Rice. I wanted to write about baseball with regularity and panache. I wanted to cover sunny weekend games at Fenway Park, smoking a Cuban and punching thunderously at a typewriter.

Such dreams are difficult for a Brit, but I’m trying my best.

Early in my literary baseball adventure, I discovered Moneyball, which in my eyes was a true epic. Michael Lewis, its accomplished author, took the reader inside the clubhouse, the draft war room and even inside Billy Beane’s magic computer. We had rarely seen anything like it.

At the time, we all became fascinated by sabermetrics and fantasy baseball. We longed to be in control, overlooking a baseball organisation like a suave general manager. It was magical. Now, when I hear the term being used incorrectly by arrogant football writers – the majority of whom think Arsenal and Liverpool, among the world’s richest clubs, play Moneyball – or by movie critics who see it only as a cinematic presentation, the pang of sadness is immense.

My claim to owning Britain’s largest baseball library

The years have progressed, and so too has my baseball library. I cannot recall a time in the past eleven years when I have not had a bookmark in a baseball book of some kind. At the time of writing, I own 168 baseball books. I was recently forced to purchase a new bookcase to house them all.

The subjects range from ballpark guides to biographies of great players; from diaries of seasons to general histories. I have all the classics, such as Ball Four and The Curse of the BambinoThe Boys of Summer and FantasylandGame of Shadows and Bill James’ Historical Baseball AbstractEight Men Out and Living on the Black. I have the autobiographies of Jackie Robinson, David Ortiz, Bill Lee, David Wells, Mike Lowell, John Schuerholz and Johnny Damon. I even have Why I Hate the Yankees by Kevin O’Connell and Josh Pahigian.

The perception of many snooty elitists says that you cannot learn anything from a book that was not written by a classical novelist. Quite frankly, I think that is bullshit. The existence of baseball books has gifted me a lot in life. If I did not pick up that first baseball book, I likely would have fallen into the trap of never reading as a child. In time, reading these books has not only taught me all I know about baseball, but also everything I know about writing. My vocabulary and writing style is derived entirely from these books.

I encourage everybody to pick up a book about something they are deeply interested in and dig deeper and deeper into that subject’s bibliography. Better still, pick up a baseball book. I guarantee you will be squirming with delight after just one chapter.

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