Although baseball has gone into hiatus for another winter, baseball book season never ends. In fact, winter is both the best time to buy and best time to read the year’s best books.
Forget watching football, basketball, or hockey and curl up by the fire with a good baseball book. In 2016, as in recent years, there’s certainly no shortage of choices.
Fans of the Chicago Cubs, celebrating their first world championship since 1908, have a half-dozen choices, with Sports Illustrated, LIFE Magazine, the Chicago Sun-Times, and the Chicago Tribune joining veteran local journalist Al Yellon with illustrated tributes – with three different covers on the Sports Illustrated title.
Fans of earlier baseball history also have a wide selection.
Ralph Kiner, the long-time Mets broadcaster, is the subject of two books while fellow Hall of Famers Tom Glavine and Jim Palmer have new autobiographies. Just in time for the Cubs world championship comes a book on the last Cubs dynasty – more than a century ago – as well as a quickie keepsake on the 2016 World Series.
In addition, this year’s subjects range from home runs to knuckleballs, women in baseball, dynasties, defectors, the Players League, and the game-changing sale of Babe Ruth. Essays by television analysts Tim Kurkjian and Brian Kenny also command more than a cursory look. So do books on the Braves, Dodgers, and Cardinals.
But the best book of the year, like the 2016 World Series and the election that followed, was a total surprise.
Keeping in mind the potential discounts of amazon.com and Barnes & Noble, here’s a quick look at the year’s Top 25:
1. Baseball’s Game Changers: Icons, Record Breakers, Scandals, Sensational Series, and More (Lyons Press, 228 pages, $24.95) by George Castle.
Fans who love the quirky and unexpected will love this lavishly illustrated paperback, which pairs full-color pictures with matching descriptions. Bill Veeck and George Steinbrenner get their due, along with expansion, free agency, the DH, interleague play, and the evolution of baseball rules. This is a clever and handsome keepsake.
2. Immortal Moments in Cardinals History (Reedy Press, 214 pages, $39.95), by Robert L. Tiemann, introduction and contributions by Ron Jacober.
This oversized hardcover, organized chronologically, features major and minor Cardinals milestones from Mark Whiten to Mark McGwire, with even enough room for the unlikeliest no-hitter: a 1-0 Jose Jimenez road win over Randy Johnson.
3. 500 Ballparks: From Wooden Seats to Retro Classics, 2nd edition (Firefly Books, 400 pages, $39.95), by Eric and Wendy Pastore.
The numbers alone suggest the value of this illustrated reference: 1,000 illustrations, 500 past and present parks, plus stats, dimensions and descriptions of each. Even spring training, minor-league, and Negro League facilities are included in this invaluable resource.
4. The Last Chicago Cubs Dynasty: Before the Curse (Rowman & Littlefield, 201 pages, $36), by Hal Bock, foreword by Joe Mantegna.
Early in the 20th century, the Cubs were not only the best team in baseball but a budding dynasty. They thrived during the Dead Ball Era, finishing at or near the top of the National League and winning the 1908 World Series. Former AP writer Hal Bock has produced the best baseball history of the year – in a perfect year for the subject.
5. The Selling of the Babe: The Deal That Changed Baseball (Thomas Dunne Books, 304 pages, $27.99), by Glenn Stout.
The first half of this well-researched hardcover tracks Ruth’s early career as a Red Sox pitcher who could hit, while the second half emphasizes his impact on the Yankees and the game in general. In between, the author explains the genesis of the deal that created The Curse of the Bambino. It’s a fun look inside the game at the dawn of the Lively Ball Era.
6. Fifty Moments That Defined Major League Baseball (Rowman & Littlefield, 231 pages, $38), by Rocco Constantino.
Different historians would have different takes on the choices the author makes but all the game’s big names are included. Why Hank Aaron’s first home run instead of his last? And why Pascual Perez for starting a riot? His main claim to fame was getting lost en route to the ballpark, picking up the nickname “Perimeter” Perez, and watching replacement Phil Niekro throw a no-hitter.
7. Chicago Cubs: 2016 World Series Champions (McClelland & Stewart, 160 pages, $17.99), written and designed by Major League Baseball.
This handsome tribute book captures the excitement of a world championship more than a century in the making – but not cemented until the 10th inning of the final game. The close-up color photography makes this quickie book a keeper.
8. Baseball’s Most Baffling MVP Ballots (McFarland, 256 pages, $29.95), by Jeremy Lehrman.
Every year, the voting for baseball awards stirs as much controversy as the electoral college. How, for example, did Barry Bonds lose the MVP to Terry Pendleton in 1991 but beat him a year later, when Pendleton had a better year? And why did no member of the Mets ever win the award? This information-packed paperback, loaded with statistics, also features oddities and ironies associated with the prestigious prize. There’s also a year-by-year MVP list complete with comments.
9. The Bill James Handbook (ACTA Sports, 608 pages, $29.95), edited by Baseball Info Solutions.
The game’s best reference features the complete record of every player plus a wide array of projections, including what athletes might do next season and which pitchers – if any – could win 300 games. It is by far the best and easiest-to-use baseball reference book available today.
10. The National Baseball Hall of Fame Almanac (Baseball America, 550 pages, $24.95), edited by Will Lingo.
For records and profiles of Hall of Fame players, information on voting, and other data on the hallowed hall, nothing beats this annual paperback. The format features full-page photos on one side of each page opposite profiles plus records of more than 300 Hall of Famers. The 2017 version comes out early next spring.
11. Baseball’s Power Shift: How the Players Union, the Fans, and the Media Changed American Sports Culture (University of Nebraska, 287 pages, $29.95), by Krister Swanson.
Mistreatment of players by clubs was prevalent for a century before arbitrators ushered in the age of free agency in 1976. This impressive hardcover recalls The Players League and its aftermath, Bob Feller’s freedom foray, and the impact Marvin Miller had upon the union during the Bowie Kuhn era. It’s a must-read for fans curious about the swinging of the power pendulum from owners to players.
12. DiMag & Mick (Rowman & Littlefield, 296 pages, $24.95), by Tony Castro.
The timing couldn’t have been better: Joe DiMaggio, the gifted centerfielder of the Yankees, played his last season in the majors the same year that Mickey Mantle, his successor, played his first. The reserved Yankee Clipper and the fun-loving rookie were polar opposites who had one thing in common: an ability to hit, run, and field at historic levels. Tony Castro takes readers back to 1951 and a transition that was not always smooth.
13. Baseball’s Dynasties and the Players Who Built Them (Rowman & Littlefield, 393 pages, $40), by Jonathan Weeks.
Five of the 22 chapters are devoted to Yankees teams of different eras but the A’s and Dodgers are represented in two different cities. Honorable mentions are given to the recent Red Sox, who won three world titles from 2004-13, and Giants, who won it all three times in even-numbered years from 2010-2014. Each team section includes a half-dozen player biographies.
14. Greatness in the Shadows: Larry Doby and the Integration of the American League (University of Nebraska, 299 pages, $34.95), by Douglas M. Branson.
Like the second man on the moon, Larry Doby was a great pioneer whose brave achievement was ignored. The second black in baseball but the first in the American League, Doby answered Bill Veeck’s call in Cleveland shortly after Jackie Robinson broke the game’s color barrier in 1947. This book bulges with anecdotes involving Satchel Paige, Bob Feller, Lou Boudreau, Veeck, Doby, and dozens of others involved in the A.L.’s integration.
15. The Only Rule is It Has To Work: Our Wild Experiment Building a New Kind of Baseball Team (Henry Holt & Company, 368 pages, $30), by Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller.
What if a team turned over its reins to a pair of statheads certain that sabermetrics is the best way to run a ballclub? That’s what the independent Sonoma Stompers did after hearing the authors on their daily Effectively Wild podcast. This hardcover tells the often-hilarious tale of what happened when two writers took over a real-life team.
16. I’m Fascinated by Sacrifice Flies: Inside the Game We All Love (St. Martin’s Press, 232 pages, $26.99), by Tim Kurkjian, foreword by George F. Will.
By far the funniest book of the year, this compact hardcover is filled with anecdotes the author gathered in his jobs as sportswriter and sportscaster. Who knew that Trevor Hoffman yielded more home runs (87) than any pitcher who never started a game? Or that Greg Maddux had 999 career walks with four starts left and swore he wouldn’t reach 1,000 career walks? Or that Corky Miller’s real name is Corky?
17. Dingers: The 101 Most Memorable Home Runs in Baseball History (Sports Publishing, 320 pages, $24.99), by Joshua Shifrin and Tommy Shea.
Ratings spark controversy and this book doesn’t disappoint. How could the authors include two “home runs” negated by bad base-running (Joe Adcock, Robin Ventura) but omit the only pitcher – and first National Leaguer – to hit two grand-slams in a game (Tony Cloninger)? Not to mention the late-inning, one-and-done shots by Jack Reed and Rick Camp?
18. Dodgerland: Decadent Los Angeles and the 1977-78 Dodgers (University of Nebraska, 478 pages, $34.95), by Michael Fallon.
The author delves deep into the Dodgers teams and times of the late ‘70s, revealing that Don Sutton was nearly traded for Jim Rice and that Tommy John made the bold decision to undergo the first elbow ligament transplant. Not just baseball, this hefty hardcover tackles the times, from Charles Manson to Hugh Hefner, but also explores the explosive impact Tommy Lasorda had after replacing the quiet Walter Alston as Dodgers manager.
19. Frick*: Baseball’s Third Commissioner (McFarland, 324 pages, $29.95), by John P. Carvalho.
A sportswriter who covered Babe Ruth, Ford Frick resented Roger Maris for chasing Ruth’s 1927 record because the schedule had increased by eight games. So he threatened to add an asterisk next to the new Maris mark. That didn’t stick, but his decision to void the All-Star picks of ballot-stuffing Cincinnati fans was merited. As both National League president and Commissioner of Baseball, Frick made his presence felt.
20. Down on the Korner: Ralph Kiner and Kiner’s Korner (Carrel Books, 158 pages, $34.99), by Howie Arpin and Mark Rosenman, foreword by Tim McCarver.
Two long-time Mets fans teamed up to produce a compact but long-overdue book on Kiner and his post-game show. Even the celebrated Choo-Choo Coleman interview is covered, along with many of the host’s malaprops.
21. Kings of Queens: Life Beyond Baseball With the ‘86 Mets (Berkley Books, 334 pages, $27), by Erik Sherman, foreword by Davey Johnson.
Only a laid-back manager like Davey Johnson could have cultivated the characters in the clubhouse of the 1986 Mets into a world champion. But veterans Gary Carter and Keith Hernandez, acquired from other clubs, anchored a roster rife with potential rioters, from Darryl Strawberry and Doc Gooden to Lenny Dykstra and Kevin Mitchell.
This author found the major players and got them to reveal where they went after baseball.
22. The Games That Changed Baseball: Milestones in Major League History (McFarland, 276 pages, $35), by John G. Robertson and Andy Saunders.
The good news is that the authors did a great job picking and explaining their choices. The bad news is that many of the accompanying boxscores are split – even on the next page in places. The designers should have known better.
23. The Eighth Wonder of the World: The Life of Houston’s Iconic Astrodome (University of Nebraska, 272 pages, $27.95), by Robert C. Trumpbour and Kenneth Womack, foreword by Mickey Herskowitz.
The first domed stadium protected athletes from weather but exposed them to injurious artificial turf. Great for Nolan Ryan, it hampered Jim Wynn. It also led rivals to charge the Astros with “fixing” the air-conditioning so that the air blew out only when Houston batted. The building held political conventions, concerts, and rodeos too – all documented here.
24. Encyclopedia of Women and Baseball (McFarland, 448 pages, $39.95), edited by Leslie A. Heaphy and Mel Anthony May.
Female players, umpires, executives, and teams have long been overlooked in baseball circles. This hefty volume helps seal that gap. Even Jackie Mitchell, the girl who fanned Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, merits a long mention.
25. Skipper Supreme: Buck Showalter and the Baltimore Orioles (Sports Publishing, 180 pages, $24.99), by Todd Karpovich and Jeff Seidel, foreword by Jason La Canfora.
Even though he left star closer Zach Britton in the bullpen during the wild-card loss to Toronto, Buck Showalter overcame pitching shorts to push his team into the playoffs. Like Orioles Hall of Famer, Showalter succeeded as a major-league manager even though he never played in the majors. This large-type hardcover is a quick and fun read.
The remaining best baseball books of 2016 will be posted the first week of January.
Former AP sportswriter Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ is the author of 38 books and more than 25,000 articles about the game. The long-time SCD columnist is also baseball editor of Latino Sports and host of the weekly Braves Banter. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.