Five Best Books About Baseball

From a Wall Street Journal story by Ryan McGee headlined “Five Best: Baseball Biographies”:

Dodger Dogs to Fenway Franks
By Bob Wood (1988)

1. In the summer of 1985 Bob Wood, a junior-high-school teacher, hit the road in a Toyota Tercel with the goal of visiting and rating all 26 Major League Baseball ballparks, from his homebase Seattle Kingdome to Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. He covered 15,000 miles in 60 days. The sunroof was always open and the drink cooler was perpetually plugged into the cigarette lighter.

Mr. Wood’s pilgrimage was guided by Rand McNally and set to the soundtrack of a Springsteen-Seger mixtape. All he lacked was a bald eagle gliding in through the passenger’s side window to ride shotgun. “In the right frame of mind, nirvana can be reached, even without crossing the legs or burning incense. Incense, however, is not out of the question, and with cruise control the lotus position at 65mph is quite possible.” Whether chatting with stadium ushers, comparing grilled hot dogs to boiled, marveling at the rise of the Jumbotron or wincing at the proliferation of plastic grass, four decades later Mr. Wood still inspires one to take a sabbatical and go to a ballgame . . . or 26.

The Teammates
By David Halberstam (2003)

2. The steepest challenge of aging isn’t physical. What catches us all off guard is the reality of our end when it is no longer unimaginable. What does mortality feel like for the once immortal? As Ted Williams, the greatest hitter to ever grip a bat, lay dying in Florida in 2001, his former Red Sox teammates traveled south to say goodbye. By the Splendid Splinter’s bedside, they weren’t living legends, but old men reuniting.

A half century after their time together at Fenway Park, David Halberstam witnesses the muscle memory and rejuvenation that comes through genuine love. “Ted was suddenly in charge again. It was fascinating to watch him become stronger by the minute with the arrival of his friends. He had to take charge, of course, because that was the natural order of things and that was what his friends wanted.” The hard-hearted like to tell us that we all die alone. The men whom Williams always called “my guys” proved that doesn’t have to be true.

The Big Bam
By Leigh Montville (2006)

3. “Anybody who doesn’t like this life is crazy,” Babe Ruth said when his Yankees teammates finally found him at 5 a.m. in a Philadelphia watering hole. It was a rare road off-day and the slugger was enjoying it a little too much. The King of Crash sat in an armchair throne, a woman on each knee pouring champagne over his head. Hours later, one of the Philadelphia A’s asked Ruth how he felt headed into their afternoon matchup. The Bambino said he felt fine. The rival scoffed. “You don’t look fine.”

Leigh Montville writes: “Ruth hit two homers in a Yankees win. He felt fine.” There is a library of Ruth biographies. Mr. Montville acknowledges that Robert Creamer’s “Babe: The Legend Comes to Life” (1974) is the 1927 Yankees of Ruth books. But “The Big Bam” (a preferred nickname of his teammates, who never called him Babe) trots alongside Ruth from a Baltimore fog-shrouded childhood through a Paul Bunyan career and ultimately a sad descent toward death. Anybody who doesn’t like the story of this life is even crazier.

Joe DiMaggio
By Richard Ben Cramer (2000)

4. “Don’t deify the hero!” Richard Ben Cramer once shouted those words at a much younger me, a teacher’s warning issued as we collaborated on a documentary script about the Nascar superhero Dale Earnhardt. Cramer pointed to his DiMaggio biography on my office bookshelf. It is the 550-page result of what happens when one of the most dogged journalists of the 20th century, who pulled back the curtain on presidential elections and earned a Pulitzer for his work in the Middle East, turns his investigative and storytelling talents toward not merely a baseball player, but the one who insisted that his entrance into any event be prefaced by his introduction as “Baseball’s Greatest Living Player.”

He was also baseball’s most guarded player, whether earning MVPs, divorcing Marilyn Monroe or selling Mr. Coffee machines. Writes Cramer: “No one knew, as he did, what it cost to live the hero’s life. And no one knew, as he did, precisely what that it was worth.”

We Would Have Played Forever
By Robert Gaunt (1997)

5. During the years that bookended World War II, more than 50 minor leagues covered the U.S. like a dartboard. Each confederation of teams produced its own folk heroes, legendary in their region but largely unknown elsewhere. The Class D Coastal Plain League electrified the villages of my homeland of eastern North Carolina. Sluggers named Pepper, Pappy and Turkey faced pitchers dubbed Deacon, Monk and at least a dozen Reds, in bandbox sandy-soiled ballparks that hosted the likes of the Snow Hill Billies and Goldsboro Goldbugs.

With textile-mill lint in their hair and tobacco packed in their mouths, these mostly local athletes got a taste of pro ball in their own backyards until the CPL was shuttered in 1952. Sitting on the front porch of his Rocky Mount, N.C., farmhouse watching the sunset, shortstop Skeeter Webb—not the Detroit Tigers World Series champion shortstop Skeeter Webb, but the Rocky Mount Leafs shortstop—confesses to the author, “if they would have let us, we would have played forever.”

Selected by Ryan McGee, the author of ‘Welcome to the Circus of Baseball.’
Five Best Books About Baseball

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