By Dan Schlossberg
The 2017 baseball season, and especially the World Series that followed, will be remembered as The Year of the Home Run.
But for armchair followers of the game, who enjoy a good baseball read as much as a well-struck ball, 2017 will be known as the Year of the Biography.
There are impressive volumes about Casey Stengel, Hank Greenberg, Lefty O’Doul, Leo Durocher, Lou Piniella, David (Big Papi) Ortiz, Mike Piazza, and even Lyman Bostock, whose budding career was cut short by an unintended bullet. Newly enshrined Hall of Famers Tim Raines and Pudge Rodriguez and a probable 2018 choice, Chipper Jones, are also featured in timely autobiographies.
Cal Ripken’s streak, Hank Greenberg’s best year, and the unlikely world championship of the Chicago Cubs are also among the top tomes of 2017.
The end of Chicago’s 108-year title drought triggered nearly a dozen volumes, including one about the real-life animal that sparked the Goat Curse of Wrigley Field and another about how the management team made good on its five-year plan.
Books of essays, cartoons, and analytics are worth a winter’s read as well as a pair of books on women who played professional baseball.
Here’s how the best of the books look:
1. St. Louis Browns: The Story of a Beloved Team (Reedy Press, 184 pp., $36), by Bill Borst, Bill Rogers, and Ed Wheatley of the St. Louis Browns Historical Society.
Bill Veeck, Satchel Paige, Eddie Gaedel, and the now-defunct AL team live again in this extremely handsome hardcover, easily the most attractive book of the year. The Browns, invariably bad, won only one (wartime) pennant but finished first in the field of stunts, promotions, and colorful uniforms. This coffee-table book’s designer will win many more honors.
2. The Ultimate Yankee Book (Page Street Publishing, 288 pp., $35), by Harvey Frommer.
This complete history, all in one package, includes player and manager bios, stadium info, and charts that range from the day-by-day 1961 record of Roger Maris to the listing of Yankee postseason appearances. The author even includes details on spring training sites, ballpark advertising signs, and most memorable quotations. The best part is the team timeline.
3. Casey Stengel: Baseball’s Greatest Character (Doubleday, 413 pp., $27.95) by Marty Appel.
The author of 18 previous baseball books, Appel hits a home run with this detailed biography of the former player and manager. Best known as the man whose platooning prowess produced 10 pennants in 12 years with the Yankees, Stengel is portrayed as a personality who loved to amuse others with both words and deeds. It’s fitting that his first team was nicknamed “the Lunatics.”
4. The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 368 pp., $36.99) by Jay Jaffe, foreword by Peter Gammons.
Certain to stir controversy, this hardcover shows how analytics can be applied to Hall of Fame selection. Jaffe explains who should be in, who should be thrown out, and who should win future enshrinement.
5. Smart Baseball: The Story Behind the Old Stats that are Ruining the Game, the New Ones that are Running It, and the Right Way to Think About Baseball (William Morrow, 293 pp., $34.99) by Keith Law.
Yet another author steered by sabermetrics, Law uses WAR (wins against replacement), OPS (on-base plus slugging), and ideas introduced in the 1984 volume The Hidden Game of Baseball. Among his conclusions: a single is worth more than a walk and a batter who produces three singles in four at-bats is more valuable than a player who hits one home run in four at-bats. More and more teams are using analytics in their player moves and game strategy.
6. The Big Chair: The Smooth Hops and Bad Bounces from the Inside World of the Acclaimed Los Angeles Dodgers General Manager (Putnam, 440 pp., $28) by Ned Colletti with Joseph A. Reaves.
In nine wild and crazy years as GM of the Dodgers, the author endured the divorce of the owners, bad behavior by Yasiel Puig and Manny Ramirez, and fan feedback from free agent signings, trade acquisitions, and failure to advance to the World Series. This is an entertaining read, written from a perspective the public rarely sees.
7. The Plan: Epstein, Maddon, and the Audacious Blueprint for a Cubs Dynasty (Triumph, 290 pp., $24.95) by David Kaplan, foreword by Anthony Rizzo.
From the moment the Ricketts family bought the Cubs from the Tribune Company in 2009, a rebuilding plan began. It took five years but the arrival of youthful executive Theo Epstein from Boston, ace pitcher Jake Arrieta from Baltimore, and manager Joe Maddon from Tampa Bay laid the foundation for the 2016 team that ended a 108-year drought between world championships. Chicago sportscaster David Kaplan traces the roots of that remarkable comeback.
8. Chipper Jones Ballplayer (Dutton, 369 pp., $27) by Chipper Jones with Carroll Rogers Walton.
En route to a likely 2018 date in Cooperstown, endured seven knee surgeries, several position changes, and personal issues that hampered his life off the field. But he also established himself as one the best switch-hitters in baseball history while spending his entire 19-year career with the Braves. In a terrific tell-all autobiography, Jones recounts his highs and lows.
9. The Bill James Baseball Handbook (ACTA, 620 pp., $29.95), by Bill James and Baseball Info Solutions.
An invaluable paperback reference, this book predicts player performances, future Hall of Famers, and the minuscule odds that any pitcher will crack the 300-win club. It also contains complete career records of every active player, career targets, and much more.
10. Hank Greenberg in 1938: Hatred and Home Runs in the Shadow of War (Sports Publishing, 235 pp., $24.99) by Ron Kaplan.
The first Jewish superstar, Greenberg endured epithets and prejudice but managed to win MVP awards at two different positions before wartime service sliced four years off his career. In his fourth book, Kaplan captures the man and his battles well.
11. The National Baseball Hall of Fame Almanac (Baseball America, 560 pp., $24.95), edited by Will Lingo.
The bios, stats, and photos of 317 Hall of Famers, plus year-by-year election results, rules for election, and lists of first-time electees, members who spent their career with one club, and other need-to-know info are contained in this extremely useful and practical paperback.
12. Banned: Baseball’s Blacklist of All-Stars and Also-Rans (Diversion Books, 152 pp., $12.99), by Hal Bock.
Proving that good things often come in small packages, this easy-to-read paperback should entertain readers but serve as a warning to players to behave. Bock, a former AP writer, not only talks about the Black Sox Scandal and the outlaw Mexican League but also Pete Rose, Alex Rodriguez, Steve Howe, and even owners Marge Schott, George Steinbrenner, and William Cox. Maybe John Rocker will crack the next edition.
13. Dinner With DiMaggio: Memories of an American Hero (Simon & Schuster, 350 pp., $26), by Dr. Rock Positano and John Positano, foreword by Francis Ford Coppola.
Written by a doctor who never saw DiMaggio play but became his closest confidant, this hardcover is packed with pieces previously unknown – including the short-lived Marilyn Monroe marriage.
14. The Streak: Lou Gehrig, Cal Ripken, and Baseball’s Most Historic Record (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 299 pp., $26) by John Eisenberg.
In his fifth book, Eisenberg depicts the difficulties of playing every day, using Gehrig and Ripken as prime examples but also pointing out such players as Dale Murphy, Steve Garvey, and Billy Williams. Readers will learn much about Ripken that they didn’t know before.
15. Lou: 50 Years of Kicking Dirt, Playing Hard, and Winning Big in the Sweet Spot of Baseball (Harper, 352 pp., $15.39), by Lou Piniella with Bill Madden.
From Rookie of the Year to general manager, Piniella was so successful that he became a serious candidate for the Baseball Hall of Fame. Known for his titanic temper, he was popular with players and press, as Madden knows from his years of coverage at The Daily News.
16. Distilled (HarperCollins, 348 pp., $27.99) by Charles Bronfman with Howard Green.
This is the story of the Jewish Canadian who took baseball outside the United States when he bought the expansion Montreal franchise that started play in 1962. An unusual tale for a baseball book, it examines the game from the unique perspective of the club owner.
17. Incredible Baseball Stories: Amazing Tales from the Diamond (Skyhorse, 231 pp., $17.99), edited by Ken Samelson.
This delightful paperback spans the spectrum of baseball history with stories by Albert Spalding, Christy Mathewson, and John McGraw, pieces about Ty Cobb and the Black Sox, and more recent tales about Hank Aaron and Bobby Cox. It’s a great read for a snowy afternoon or long plane ride.
18. It Happens Every Spring: DiMaggio, Mays, the Splendid Splinter, and a Lifetime at the Ballpark (Triumph, 450 pp., $19.95) by Ira Berkow.
The author of 25 books, Berkow is a Pulitzer Prize winner whose best work appears in this paperback sampler. The essays range from Rickey Henderson to Pete Rose and Cal Ripken Jr. with a substantial nod to the Black Sox, Casey Stengel, the Pine Tar Game, and even Oscar Madison of The Odd Couple.
19. Fly the W: Photos and Stories from The Daily Herald (Triumph, 160 pp., $26.95), foreword by Len Casper.
The players and playoffs of the 2016 Cubs season are captured in a short but sensational hardcover filled with full-page color photos. It’s the best of many Cubs tributes.
20. Baseball Meat Market: The Stories Behind the Best and Worst Trades in History (Page Street Publishing, 240 pp., $22.99), by Shawn Krest.
Far more than a listing of baseball’s biggest deals, this hardcover tells the stories behind the swaps. It’s hard to imagine Bobby Cox asking, “Who the hell is John Smoltz?” but Braves fans had the same reactions after the 1987 swap. Unable to cover every major deal, the author does a good job picking a relative handful, from the 17-man swap to the breakup of the Marlins. The mechanics of the Mark Teixeira trade, the multiple maneuvers of Whitey Herzog, and the trades of Miguel Cabrera, Mike Piazza, and Alex Rodriguez are here – along with the one-sided Jay Buhner deal that became a Seinfeld joke.
21. Electric October: Seven World Series Games, Six Lives, Five Minutes of Fame that Lasted Forever (Henry Holt, 291 pp., $30) by Kevin Cook.
Few fans remember that Ralph Branca, goat of the 1951 playoffs, pitched the opener of the 1947 World Series. Or that Yogi Berra hit the first pinch-homer in Fall Classic history. But they remember that Cookie Lavagetto ruined a no-hitter in the ninth, defensive replacement Al Gionfriddo deprived Joe DiMaggio, and Jackie Robinson became the first black man to play in the Series. Author Kevin Cook brings back great memories.
22. Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic: Reggie, Rollie, Catfish, and Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s (HMH, 386 pp., $28) by Jason Turbow.
Oakland’s owner was outspoken and abrasive but successful: his teams won five straight divisional titles, sandwiched around three world championships in succession. This book remembers those teams and players and leaves readers wondering why Finley did not follow Jackson, Fingers, and Hunter to Cooperstown.
23. Papi: My Story (HMH, 262 pp., $28) by David Ortiz with Michael Holley.
There’s a 2022 Hall of Fame plaque waiting for Big Papi, a giant of a man who overcame boyhood poverty to become the top star on a world championship team. Ortiz addresses his early problems in Minnesota, the creeping allegations of steroids abuse, his friendships with Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez, the injuries that forced him to consider early retirement, and the bombing of the Boston Marathon. Fans will find a few surprises in the well-crafted hardcover.
24. The Year of the Pitcher: Bob Gibson, Denny McLain, and the End of Baseball’s Golden Age (HMH, 381 pp., $28) by Sridhar Pappu.
This book is about a year, 1968, that was tumultuous for both baseball and the country. Civil rights, Vietnam, and the second Kennedy assassination made front-page headlines while Bob Gibson, Denny McLain, and Don Drysdale dominated the tabloid sports pages. The author, a columnist for The New York Times, weaves that fabric well.
25. The Jewish Baseball Card Book (Jewish Major Leaguers, Inc. with The Jewish Baseball Museum, 194 pp., $49.95), by Bob Wechsler with Peter McDonald and Martin Abramowitz.
An oversized, full-color hardcover packed with images of Jewish ballplayers is a fitting climax to the eight sets produced previously by Jewish Major Leaguers. In addition to Hall of Famers Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax, the 44 Jewish players since the year 2000 – including recent World Series sluggers Alex Bregman and Joc Pederson – appear here in words and images. The producers secured needed reprint permissions from MLB, Topps, Upper Deck, and others to create one of the most unusual and most artistic books in recent memory.
26. Leo Durocher: Baseball’s Prodigal Son (Bloomsbury, 304 pp., $28) by Paul Dickson.
The author of 40 books, Dickson delivers a dynamic portrait of the combative and controversial Durocher, best-known as the fiery manager of four different teams. The author outlines in detail the reasons for the endless animosity between the hard-living Durocher and Commissioner Happy Chandler, who suspended him for a year and said the undisciplined manager gave him more trouble than all major-league players combined.
27. One Nation Under Baseball: How the 1960s Collided With the National Pastime (Nebraska, 256 pp., $29.95) by John Florio and Ouisie Shapiro, foreword by Bob Costas.
Vast social and political changes that convulsed the nation in the ’60s also changed the national pastime. The era that ended with Woodstock and the lunar landing followed civil rights protests and assassinations that changed the nation. At the same time, baseball was changing too, with the fall of the Yankees, the rise of the Mets, and the first rumblings of free agency.
28. The Draw of Sport (Fantagraphics, 200 pp., $24.99) by Murray Olderman.
Although this hardcover covers more than baseball, there are enough classic baseball cartoons to feature this volume here. Olderman favorites reprinted here include Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Stan Musial, Walter O’Malley, Nolan Ryan, and Warren Spahn.
29. The Pride of the Yankees: Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper, and the Making of a Classic (Hachette, 293 pp., $35) by Richard Sandomir.
Baseball movies are usually bombs but the Gehrig story was too touching to fail. In this well-researched hardcover, the author tells the story of the film, even revealing that The Sporting News felt compelled to protect its accuracy.
30. Home Team: The Turbulent History of the San Francisco Giants (Nebraska, 264 pp., $29.95) by Robert F. Garratt.
Even before the Giants dropped to the bottom of the standings this year, they had a roller-coaster ride almost as jarring as the 1989 World Series earthquake. Horace Stoneham imported Latino stars and the first Japanese player but also left the city with an albatross in wind-blown Candlestick Park. Fans stayed home and the team almost moved twice before the advent of AT&T Park. This hardcover covers that history, plus the problems of Alvin Dark and the achievements of the Hall of Famers who wore the orange and black.
31. They Call Me Pudge: My Life Playing the Game I Love (Triumph, 239 pp., $25.95) by Ivan Rodriguez with Jeff Sullivan, forewords by Nolan Ryan and Jim Leyland.
Like current Astros hero Jose Altuve, I-Rod was a two-way star who started young and succeeded despite his diminutive size. Playing for six teams in 21 seasons, he won league and playoffs MVP awards and later became the first Puerto Rican picked for the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. This book reveals Rodriguez as a dedicated team player and family man who has humble origins.
32. From the Dugouts to the Trenches: Baseball During the Great War (Nebraska, 280 pp., $32.95) by Jim Leeke.
American involvement in the First World War was short but baseball made multiple contributions. Often overlooked because so much time has passed, this important and scholarly work contains rare pictures from the Library of Congress.
33. Rock Solid: My Life in Baseball’s Fast Lane (Triumph, 253 pp., $25.95) by Tim Raines with Alan Maimon, foreword by Andre Dawson, introduction by Jonah Keri.
The title is true: Raines could run like the wind but also battled drug problems that delayed his entrance to Cooperstown. He starred with the now-defunct Montreal Expos but reached the World Series only after joining the Yankees late in his career. In this tell-all tome, Raines reveals how Dawson and Gary Carter took him under their wing and turned him into a perennial All-Star.
34. Piazza: Catcher, Slugger, Icon, Star (Sports Publishing, 264 pp., $24.99) by Greg W. Prince.
When the Mets acquired Piazza from the Marlins on May 22, 1998, they became instant contenders. A catcher who hit cleanup, the former Dodger standout hit more home runs than any other backstop and won a spot in the hearts of Mets fans and the Baseball Hall of Fame. Author Greg Prince, a Mets blogger, has obvious affection for the player and the team.
35. Making My Pitch: A Woman’s Baseball Odyssey (Nebraska, 264 pp., $26.95) by Ila Borders & Jean Ardell, foreword by Mike Veeck.
Except for a fictitious FOX show called “Pitch” that aired last season, professional baseball teams have not found, or even considered female players. But a lefthanded pitcher named Ila Borders changed all that when Mike Veeck signed her for the St. Paul Saints. She spent four years playing hardball against male opponents while becoming the first female of the modern era to win a game. Family struggles and personal issues – including the prejudice of men who thought baseball was not for girls – complicated her journey, as her hard-hitting, eye-opening book reveals.
36. Teammate: My Journey in Baseball and a World Series for the Ages (Hachette Books, 242 pp., $36.50), by David Ross with Don Yeager, foreword by Theo Epstein.
During a 15-year career with seven different teams, David Ross spent so much time on the bench that he learned not to take himself seriously. The popular backup catcher played for two world champions, polishing a reputation as a good team player, and parlayed his bright personality into broadcast work – his future forte unless he decides to manage. Offers will be forthcoming.
37. Macho Row: The 1993 Phillies and Baseball’s Unwritten Code (Nebraska, 384 pp., $27.95) by William C. Kashatus.
Rowdy and irreverent, the Phils flattened all comers, including the favored Braves in the NL playoffs, before falling to Toronto in the World Series. Most of the cast were characters, from John Kruk and Mitch (Wild Thing) Williams to Lenny Dykstra and Dutch Daulton. This hefty hardcover focuses on six key players and how their take-no-prisoners philosophy took them farther than anyone had expected.
38. Lefty O’Doul: Baseball’s Forgotten Ambassador (Nebraska, 384 pp., $27.95) by Dennis Snelling.
A sore-armed pitcher who became a hard-hitting outfielder, O’Doul left an indelible imprint in his hometown of San Francisco but also brought baseball to Japan, where it became the national pastime. Had he played longer, he’d probably be in Cooperstown.
39. Off Speed: Baseball, Pitching, and the Art of Deception (Pantheon, 193 pp., $23.95) by Terry McDermott.
This book focuses on a single game, the 2012 Felix Hernandez perfecto for Seattle against Tampa Bay, to show why curves, sliders, changeups, and other off-speed pitches are probably more practical than a steady diet of fastballs.
40. So You Think You’re a New York Yankees Fan? Stars, Stats, Records, and Memories for True Diehards (Sports Publishing, 186 pp., $14.99) by Howie Karpin.
Yankees fans will enjoy the quiz format of this crafty paperback, authored by long-time New York sports journalist and official scorer Howie Karpin. Questions get tougher as the book goes on but cover the myriad of great players, great seasons, and great events in team history.
41. Detroit Tigers: The Big Fifty (Triumph, 320 pp., $16.95) by Tom Gage, foreword by Alan Trammell.
In 36 years as a Detroit beat writer, the author often witnessed history, much of it shared in this compact paperback. He covers both good (Kirk Gibson, Jack Morris) and bad (trade of John Smoltz) with considerable research (Ty Cobb, Hal Newhouser). There’s lots to love here – especially the brilliant and breezy writing plus the attractive design.
42. Coulda Woulda Shoulda: Baseball Stories You Haven’t Heard Yet (ACTA Sports, 108 pp., $10.95) by Chris Williams.
A clever little paperback that will appeal to younger fans, this book ranges from the Hitless Wonders to the Designated Runner (Herb Washington), with a healthy sprinkling of Cubs stories from the last-place team of 1966 to the world champs of 2016. The Black Sox Scandal and Dick Allen’s career are covered too.
43. The Greatest 50 Players in Giants History (Sports Publishing, 329 pp., $25.99) by Robert W. Cohen.
Rankings always trigger discussion, especially since Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey are still active. Barry and Bobby Bonds are both included but Pablo Sandoval over Jack Clark? This hardcover history is certain to spark heated discussions.
44. Urban Shocker: Silent Hero of Baseball’s Golden Age (Nebraska, 352 pp., $32.95) by Steve Steinberg.
Overshadowed by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig with the Murderers Row Yankees, Shocker was a standout starting pitcher who succeeded while battling heart disease. Historian Steve Steinberg, who has written about the Yanks of the ’20s before, delivers a long-overdue living history.
45. My Cubs: A Love Story (Blue Rider Press, 149 pp., $23), by Scott Simon.
With banjo-playing Charlie Grimm at Thanksgiving dinner and Jack Brickhouse as a close family friend, Chicago native Scott Simon couldn’t help but love the Cubs. He even visited the Billy Goat tavern! This ode to his favorite team is personal and poetic, tracing a timeline that stretches from the Ernie Banks era right through the 2016 world championship season. The popular NPR host is the author of seven previous books.
46. The Chicago Cubs: History of a Curse (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 273 pp., $26), by Rich Cohen.
This columnist believes the Goat Curse of Wrigley Field started in 1945, when the team barred the pet goat of Billy Sianis even though it had its own World Series ticket. Rich Cohen, a Chicago native who is also a decorated writer, believes the curse lasted much longer – between the world titles of 1908 and 2016. In his new hardcover, he talks about the success of the team in the early 20th century but reveals that his father warned him not to become a Cubs fan because of the disappointment it would bring – later proven in the collapses of 1969 and 1984. The funniest part of the book? The author’s long rant on Dave Kingman, the moody all-or-nothing slugger.
47. Bloomer Girls: Women Baseball Pioneers (University of Illinois, 311 pp.), by Debra Shattuck.
Long before A League of Their Own, women were making their mark as baseball players. This paperback paints a vivid portrait of distaff players during the 19th century – long before any of them (or their mothers) got to vote. It’s a little-known facet of baseball history that finally has the spotlight it deserves.
48. Murphy’s Ticket: The Goofy Start and Glorious End of the Chicago Cubs Billy Goat Curse (Sleeping Bear Press, 34 pp., $16.99) by Brad Herzog, illustrated by David Leonard.
The shortest book of the year is also the most unusual. Part cartoon and part poetry, it is the alleged true story of the creature behind the Goat Curse of Wrigley Field.
49. The Life and Trials of Roger Clemens: Baseball’s Rocket Man and the Questionable Case Against Him (McFarland, 272 pp., $29.95) by Hansen Alexander.
Did he or didn’t he? When a player’s numbers get better as he ages, that indicates artificial enhancement. But the seven-time Cy Young Award winner swears he’s innocent. The author, an attorney, seems to agree.
50. They Wore Red Sox and Pinstripes (McFarland, 208 pp., $35) by Todd Stanley.
Babe Ruth might have been the most prominent man to play for both the Red Sox and Yankees but was hardly alone. Wade Boggs, Johnny Damon, Sparky Lyle, and many others all spent time with both rivals. Their stories are captured in this creative paperback.
[Editor’s Note: This article does not include the author’s own book, The New Baseball Bible: Notes, Nuggets, Lists & Legends from Our National Pastime, a 424-page paperback from Sports Publishing.]
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 Sports Collectors Digest columnist is also baseball editor of Latino Sports. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.