Sunday, December 17, 2006

Hurry Down The Chimney Tonight

I read a ton of crap every day, but I don't really read many books. Well, that's not quite accurate. My book-reading schedule is on a complete hiatus during the baseball season. When the season ends, the number of books I read (and movies I watch) go up dramatically. But, when I do read books, it's rare that I pick up any fiction. I don't really know why that is, and it's something I've tried to change (with some slight success so far this offseason). I don't know what the hell any of that has to do with what I wanted to write when I sat down to the keyboard, but I'm too lazy to hit ctrl+A and delete.

Needless to say, I've read a ton of baseball books. Some good, some bad. With our good friend St. Nicholas about to visit, here are some that you might want to put on your list, or buy for that baseball-loving friend who's semi-literate.

I'm a huge Bill James fan, and he's taught me more about how to think and scrutinize things than just about anyone I know. If you only know of him a abacus-weaving raving stathead, then you're missing the real BJ. He's an entertaining writer who uses numbers as adjectives, combining them with his words to paint interesting pictures of people and events. If you've never read anything by him, there are lots of places to go. I'd highly recommend his old yearly baseball abstracts (There are always a few kicking around on ebay) Though they're covering seasons I was barely alive for, the kinds of thinking and perspectives he uses are still entertaining, even if half the names are of guys you've barely heard of.

I'd also recommend his Historical Baseball Abstract. It's not a perfect book, but for a good intro the entirety of baseball history, it's not bad, giving you snapshots of events, decades and players. It's the kind of book that's fun to pick up and put down whenever you've got a few minutes. (Sounds perfect for a certain type of reading room in your house, huh?)

Another must-have is The Glory of Their Times. A few decades old, it's an oral history of the early days of baseball told by the players themselves. Walter Johnson gets mentioned frequently, and Washington's own Goose Goslin tells his story.

It seems to be out of print, but Lords of the Realm is essential to understanding the business side of baseball, and the development of the Players Association. It starts in the olden days, giving a history of the Reserve Clause and the numerous attempts to break it. And it does an amazing job of explaining how the relationship between the players and owners has changed dramatically to the point where they could let a baseball season be canceled. I really can't recommend this one highly enough.

Picking up where that left off, in Juicing the Game current WaPo Redskins beat writer Howard Bryant talks about the changes to the modern game, and the on-field and off-field forces that have dominated the news since the strike.

A pretty entertaining book, Fantasyland is the story of a newspaper reporter who decides to use his insider connections in an ill-fated attempt to win an experts league of fantasy baseball. It's part history of fantasy baseball and part character study of the uber-statheads who dominate the competition. The interactions he had with David Ortiz over whether he should play him or trade him still stick in my mind a few months after having read it.

Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Blunders is a good bathroom book -- the kind you don't need to read chronologically, with short capsules about some of the dumbest moves of all-time.

If you've never read Ball Four, just get it! You'll thank me later, after you're done laughing!

And now that you feel guilty for reading all this lite fluff, pull open any of these Roger Angell books. He's not just my favorite baseball writer, he's one of my favorite writers period. He elevates writing about a stupid little game to an art form. Many of his books are compilations of season recap articles he's written for the New Yorker and perfectly spin and encapsulate the period in which they were written. "Not So, Boston" is about a perfect a story as one could write about baseball.

For something a bit more recent, I'd also highly recommend the Best American Sports Writing series. When you find yourself captivated by a fishing story, you know the writer has done something amazing. And, although it's a few years old, the Best American Sports Writing of the Century is a wonderful pickup. It features some of the giants of the craft and stories from some of the most famous games, including an extensive section of amazing stories written on a tight deadline (including Red Smith's amazing story on the Shot Heard Round the World -- how's this for a lede? "Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.")

That should tide you over 'til April!

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