Smile Politely

Spring Reading for Fans of Batted Balls

I spend my days editing and acquiring sports non-fiction books. I also often spend my nights reading sports non-fiction books, which makes for a lot of sports reading — probably too much. In light of the arrival of both spring and the baseball season, I’m sharing some recent baseball reads that you may find of interest.

(This exercise also allows me to neglect writing about the St. Louis Cardinals, who as of Thursday afternoon had lost four of their previous five games in relinquishing the N.L. Central lead to the streaking Scrubs, winners of nine of eleven.)

THE LONG BALL, Tom Adelman

Adelman is one of my favorite baseball authors, even though he’s just two books into his career. His take on the seasons of the 1975 World Series teams, the Red Sox and Reds, is a spectacularly researched effort written in a captivating past-present tense. The ’75 Reds, at the height of their Big Red Machine days, featured a plethora of engaging personalities, from Joe Morgan and Johnny Bench to Pete Rose and skipper Sparky Anderson. They were an offensive juggernaut with a relatively baby-faced pitching staff. Their counterpart in the Series, Boston, featured Carlton Fisk (whose famous home run came in the twelfth inning of Game 6), a trio of young’uns in the outfield (Jim Rice, Fred Lynn and Dwight Evans) and a staff anchored by an aging Luis Tiant and Bill “Spaceman” Lee. Adelman tracks each team’s fortunes throughout the regular season — revealing along the way the character as well as the characters of each team — prior to a memorable collision of two talented clubs in what many call the best World Series ever played.

THE BAD GUYS WON, Jeff Pearlman

The long-winded subtitle tells you just about all you need to know about Pearlman’s book on the Mets: “A Season of Brawling, Boozing, Bimbo Chasing, and Championship Baseball with Straw, Doc, Mookie, Nails, the Kid, and the Rest of the 1986 Mets, the Rowdiest Team Ever to Put on a New York Uniform—and Maybe the Best.” Pearlman has proven he has a knack for getting people to talk, and this book is worth the price of admission just to read the opening narrative on the Mets’ wild plane ride home from Houston after winning the NLCS. Let’s just say it’s hard to imagine David Wright, Carlos Delgado, Johan Santana and John Maine throwing down in a similar fashion. (On a side note, TSN has nearly completed its simming of the 1986 season, and Deadspin’s Will Leitch has the Cardinals on the brink of upsetting the Mets.)

RULING OVER MONARCHS, GIANTS & STARS, by Bob Motley and Byron Motley

Bob Motley is the only living umpire from the old Negro Leagues, and his storytelling about his days calling balls and strikes in the waning days of the Black league is entertaining, thoughtful and, at times, surely imbued with the sense of exaggeration that is common of oral histories. Motley was no normal ump; he would slide into the splits when calling a runner safe at second on a steal attempt, and leap into the air and pump his fist in ruling a runner out at first. Showmanship was inherent to the Negro game, and Motley ensured that even the umpires got in on the act. But his own personality does not dominate his book. Instead, Motley recalls (with a flair for the dramatic) the performances of Negro Leaguers like Satchel Paige, Ernie Banks, Hank Aaron and others, as well as some humorous anecdotes from life on the road. (As you can imagine, traveling through the segregated south on a non-air-conditioned bus full of black men could produce a few worthwhile tales.) Motley also tried — and failed — to become the majors’ first black umpire, making it as far as Triple-A before smacking into his glass ceiling. Overall, this is a unique perspective on Black baseball, or as Ken Burns says, “an important step in revealing what has been for most Americans a ‘hidden history.’” (Full disclosure: I edited this sucker, so I’m biased.)


If you play fantasy baseball, then Sam Walker’s account of joining the nation’s elite league of baseball wonks is a must read. The Wall Street Journal writer blew his entire book advance on a crack team of researchers in the hopes of defeating the likes of famed fantasy baseball stathead Ron Shandler and Baseball Prospectus writer Joe Sheehan in the Tout Wars fantasy league. Combining subjective evidence with Sabermetric studies, Walker failed mightily in winning a championship, but did succeed in recording what is surely the best-written ode to fantasy sports obsession.

BASEBALL BETWEEN THE NUMBERS, Baseball Prospectus staff

Speaking of the SABR guys, their book, subtitled “Why Everything You Know About the Game Is Wrong,” is a good introduction to some of the more advanced metrics that are tossed around by the Rob Neyers of the world. If you don’t have much patience for or desire to understand such newfangled stats, then this book will be about as much fun to read as the seams on a Joel Zumaya fastball coming straight at your noggin. But if charts and line graphs don’t pester you, and you care to ponder such questions as “What if Rickey Henderson had Pete Incaviglia’s legs?” or “Is Mike Matheny a catching genius?” or “Whatever happened to Todd Van Poppel?”, then this book is for you. Moneyball haters take note: there’s even a chapter titled “Why doesn’t Billy Beane’s shit work in the playoffs?”


I didn’t watch a single episode of the last year’s ESPN mini-series of the same name. But while it was on, I did read the book the show was based on. Mahler’s text on New York City’s wildest summer of recent vintage, 1977, may be a bit thin on detail for those seeking a truly vital recounting of events. I’m more interested in a casual observation of the times, however, so I found the book — which recounts the Yankees’ pennant race, the city’s mayoral race, a monumental blackout, a massive riot in “the ghetto,” the opening of Studio 54 and the Son of Sam slayings — to be an ideal sampling of the chaos.

If you have other suggestions for baseball literature that you’ve recently enjoyed, then please share some recommendations in the comments section.

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