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501 baseball books fans must read before they die

4 december 2013

The first thing I do when I get a book like Ron Kaplan's 501 Baseball Books Fans Must Read Before They Die is make a smaller list of my own: what baseball books do I want to re-read before I die?

The second thing I do is leaf through to see how many of the 501 I have already read. In this case, 82, giving me 419 baseball books to read before I die. Of course, by the time I read those 419, there will be at least 501 new ones published. Maybe I can argue with Death that I deserve time to read the new 501 too, and so live forever.

An awful lot of Kaplan's 501, though, are books that you don't really sit down and read through. They are compendia of facts, books of statistics, anthologies, collections of anecdotes. I counted myself as having "read" Total Baseball, for instance, but it doesn't have much of a plot. For that matter, nobody should even refer to Total Baseball ever again; even Kaplan is forced to admit that the tome, though awesome in its late-1980s context, has been superseded by online resources like baseball-reference.com, and will never be updated. So if you've never opened Total Baseball, you can scratch one off your personal 501.

When I drew up my own bucket list of re-reads, I decided on nine titles (everything about baseball must travel in multiples of nine). They'd be Ted Williams's My Turn at Bat, Kirbe Higbe's The High Hard One, Jim Bouton's Ball Four, Eric Rolfe Greenberg's The Celebrant, John Holway's Voices from the Great Black Baseball Leagues, Lawrence Ritter's The Glory of Their Times, Michael Humphreys's Wizardry, Mike Sowell's The Pitch That Killed, and Charles Alexander's John McGraw. That's an eclectic and idiosyncratic mix: three memoirs, a novel, two oral histories, a stats book, a history, and a biography. I was a little amazed to find that only three of my nine made Kaplan's list of five hundred and one: The Celebrant, Ball Four, and The Pitch That Killed. It seems to me that The Glory of Their Times was meant to be among the 501, but got overlooked in production somehow; several other entries refer to it.

Now, there's no accounting for taste, as Kaplan acknowledges, and anyway lists like his are meant to start discussion rather than end it: among other things, he doesn't offer a counter-list of "101 Baseball Books That Life Is Too Short to Read" or anything like that, so for all I know he'd cheerfully endorse my missing six titles. The only books I'd call serious omissions are Holway's oral histories of the Negro Leagues. Kaplan cites several other books about Negro-League baseball, but Holway's seem to me foundational in a way nobody else's are or can ever be again.

Compared to that, any discrepancies between a list I'd make and the one Kaplan's compiled really are subjective. He prefers the memoirs of Hank Greenberg and Bob Feller to those of Williams or Higbe, and they're all good books; I have no beef there.

Of course, who am I even to review this book: there are 419 books listed that I've never gotten to! In my defense, as I've noted, many of them are grab-bag or coffee-table books, a lot of them meant for the reference shelf instead of the reading couch. Many seem ephemeral. There's a bias toward the recent and the in-print: actually that makes sense, because baseball is so tradition-bound that it would be easy to fall into a trap of "in my day, baseball books were much better than they are now." Kaplan's list ranges into the early 2010s and won't look dated for quite a while.

There are sections here on life-writing, ballparks, business, fiction, history, instruction, the minors, international ball, pop culture, reference, stats, umpires & rules, and books for kids. Several past and present members of the Sport Literature Association are represented, including Dan Nathan, Pete Peterson, Allen Hye, Dave McGimpsey, and Kathy Sullivan. Yay, SLA!

Kaplan, Ron. 501 Baseball Books Fans Must Read Before They Die. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013.