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Top 25 baseball books of 2018

Sports Collectors Digest columnist Dan Schlossberg shares his choices for the top 25 baseball books released during 2018 for the enjoyment of baseball fans.

By Dan Schlossberg

Rogers Hornsby, the legendary Hall of Famer, was once asked how he would spend the offseason. “I’ll look out the window and wait for spring,” he said.

Had he not been so concerned about protecting his famous eyes, he might have recommended reading some good baseball books.

For those of us who are baseball purists, feeling sorry for ourselves until pitchers and catchers report, there’s no better way to spend the winter.

That’s especially true this year, with several hundred tomes of all sizes, prices, and varieties. Subjects range from Babe Ruth’s foibles to Sid Bream’s slide, with a healthy mix of controversy and even comic book art added to the equation.

Ruth, dead for 70 years, comes back to life in five separate books, though great players and great teams of more recent vintage also get their just due.

Here’s how the best of the 2018 books look:

1. Ballparks: A Journey Through the Fields of the Past, Present, and Future (Chartwell Books, 312 pp., $24.99), by Eric Enders.

Hundreds of ballparks, current and past, live again in this handsome oversized hardcover, filled with everything from Federal League and minor league fields to the domed ballparks of the 21st century. A book to be treasured forever, it goes inside the Green Monster, outside Wrigley, and back to the birth of the Houston Colt .45s. It also includes photos of a Satchel Paige no-hitter in the minors, a Beatles concert, and the 15 “home games” the Dodgers played at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City. Each park merits an information box that includes location, first and last games, and notable features.

2. The Hometown Team: Four Decades of Red Sox Photography (Sports Publishing, 296 pp., $35), photos by Steve Babineau, writing by Mike Shalin, forewords by Dennis Eckersley and Dwight Evans.

Even if red weren’t my favorite color, I would still display this handsome hardcover on the living room coffee table. It captures the full flavor of Fenway, from the frenzied fans to the heroes they worship, over a 40-year span that includes three championships and contributions from a half-dozen Hall of Famers. It’s also controversial, as it rates the team’s franchise players in the post-Williams era. Mike Shalin’s writing provides a perfect complement to the phenomenal photos of long-time team photographer Steve Babineau.

3. The Comic Book Story of Baseball: The Heroes, Hustlers, and History-Making Swings (And Misses) of America’s National Pastime (Ten Speed Press, 172 pp., $18.99), by Alex Irvine, art by Tomm Coker and C.P. Smith.

Numerous historical errors prevent this lavishly-illustrated paperback from finishing at the top of this list. With large elements of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not format, it covers everything from Shoeless Joe to two Hammerin’ Hanks but has the wrong year for Aaron topping Ruth (1974) and for Gen. Jimmie Doolittle’s bombing of Tokyo. It also refers to Davey Johnson as a third baseman. Before the next printing, a historian needs to fix it.

4. Baseball Cop (Hatchette Books, 294 pp., $36.50), by Eddie Dominguez with Christian Red and Terry Thompson.

The author was a founding member of Major League Baseball’s Department of Investigations [DOI], a five-man group created to clear the game of drug scandals after the release of the Mitchell Report. During his six-year tenure, the former Boston detective investigated gambling, fraud, cover-ups, signing abuses, and human trafficking in addition to player use of performing-enhancing substances. This hardcover recounts those efforts, exposes inept and inefficient performances by league and team executives, and provides inside information on Biogenesis, the Braves’ signing scandal, and the Alex Rodriguez suspension. But there’s not a word about Barry Bonds, whose claim on single-season and lifetime home run crowns is shrouded in suspicion.

5. The Immaculate Inning: Unassisted Triple Plays, 40/40 Seasons, and the Stories Behind Baseball’s Rarest Feats (Lyons Press, 278 pp., $27.95), by Joe Cox, foreword by Jessica Mendoza.

As a fan of oddities and ironies, I love this book. Its 30 chapters cover everything from four-homer games to 30-win seasons, 40/40 campaigns, triple crowns for both batters and pitchers, four-strikeout innings, two slams in a game, and instances of position players pitching – a growing trend in 2018. Each is prefaced by number of instances, first instance, and most recent.

6. The Story of Baseball in 100 Photographs (Time, Inc. Books, 224 pp., $30), by the editors of Sports Illustrated, written by Bill Syken, introduction by Kostya Kennedy.

Another fine book for coffee table display, this oversized hardcover features enormous photos, most in color, by Sports Illustrated’s best contributors. Organized by eras, it covers everything from Shoeless Joe to Joe DiMaggio, going right up the 2018 debut of Shohei Ohtani. My favorite picture shows the 1967 Reds in their vest-type uniforms at spring training. Loved those unis.

7. The Bill James Handbook 2019 (ACTA, 622 pp., $30), by Baseball Info Solutions.

Easily the best baseball reference in print, this invaluable paperback features stats on every player, manager, and team including 2018 results and 2019 projections. It answers such questions as what current pitcher can win 300 games and whose career path points toward Cooperstown. This is the only book on this list that has no pictures but doesn’t need any.

8. The Presidents and the Pastime: The History of Baseball & the White House (University of Nebraska, 472 pp., $29.95), by Curt Smith.

For more than a century, presidents have shown varying degrees of interest in baseball, often throwing out the first pitch on Opening Day or showcase games. Richard Nixon, an ardent fan, arbitrated a labor dispute involving umpires, Harry Truman threw out balls with each arm, and Jimmy Carter still attends Braves games. The Hall of Fame even has a phantom “lifetime pass” given to Nixon by the second-edition Washington Senators just before they became the Texas Rangers. Historian Curt Smith, who hit previous home runs with books on baseball broadcasters, is the perfect author too – he served as a presidential speechwriter.

9. The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created (Harper, 621 pp., $32.50), by Jane Leavy.

After terrific tomes on Sandy Koufax and Mickey Mantle, Leavy tackles Ruth, a man whose life was shrouded by legend – as the author learned during some 250 interviews. This enormous and detailed biography reveals the reasons behind Ruth’s behavior, including rejection by divorced parents during his youth, and highlights such little-known aspects of his career as a three-week barnstorming tour following his 60-homer season in 1927. It’s a great winter read.

10. Manager of Giants: The Tactics, Temper, and True Record of John McGraw (McFarland, 247 pp., $39.95), by Lou Hernandez.

During his 31-year tenure as manager of the New York Giants, McGraw was truly “Little Napoleon,” a combative type whose tactics parlayed fisticuffs with uncanny managerial skills. The first to deploy pinch-hitters and relief pitchers on a regular basis, he also served as his own general manager, making deals to help the Giants. As the book clearly shows, McGraw was a walking enigma: a win-at-all-costs street brawler whose road roommate was soft-spoken, college-educated pitcher Christy Mathewson. I loved this well-researched book.

11. Tom Yawkey: Patriarch of the Boston Red Sox (University of Nebraska, 560 pp., $36.95), by Bill Nowlin.

This enormous biography traces the story of the man who owned the Red Sox for 34 years, only to hand the reins to his wife Jane upon his passing. Boston-based historian Bill Nowlin, author of numerous previous books, recreates the life and times of the fun-loving Yawkey, one of the last individual team owners. Though his teams never won a World Series, he was beloved by players, fans, and even the writers who covered him.

12. Baseball’s Greatest Controversies: Rhubarbs, Hoaxes, Blown Calls, Ruthian Myths, Managers’ Miscues, and Front-Office Flops (McFarland, 206 pp., $19.99), by John G. Robertson.

Too numerous to include in a relatively-thin paperback, baseball is a game of controversy – from Merkle’s boner, the Black Sox Scandal, and Ruth’s called shot to the designated hitter, the split season, and the pine tar game. Somehow, though, the infamous “Infield Fly” ruling of Sam Holbrook in the very first NL wild-card qualifying game (Atlanta v. St. Louis in 2012) didn’t make the cut.

13. Try Not to Suck: The Exceptional, Extraordinary Baseball Life of Joe Maddon (Triumph, $25.95), by Bill Chastain and Jesse Rogers, foreword by Ben Zobrist.

Joe Maddon must be doing something right – he’s not only won pennants in both leagues but even ended the 108-year championship drought of the Cubs. How he did it – through humor, innovation, and maximizing his bench – is the subject of this detailed profile by two writers who covered him in both Tampa Bay and Chicago.

14. Power Ball: Anatomy of a Modern Baseball Game (Harper, 301 pp., $27.99), by Rob Neyer.

I loved this hardcover because it reads like a blog, with a breezy style that takes a welcome breather from the analytics-driven reports of so many others. Neyer recounts a nine-inning game from late in the 2017 season and examines how players and managers succeeded or failed – and why the Astros catapulted from worst to first in the American League West. Oakland won, 9-8, but the score hardly matters. The read is the thing and it’s a good one.

15. Astroball: The New Way to Win It All (Crown Archetype, 254 pp., $27), by Ben Reiter.

The veteran Sports Illustrated writer tells how Houston’s front office revamped the team, suffering through several losing seasons while stocking the farms with blue-chip draftees and finally completing the puzzle through trade negotiations. The behind-the-scenes look at the Justin Verlander deal are an integral part of this well-written but easy-to-read success story.

16. I’m Keith Hernandez (Little, Brown, 341 pp., $28), by Keith Hernandez.

Noteworthy for many reasons, this hardcover memoir was written without the help of a ghostwriter. More unusual is the author’s frank admission of cocaine abuse, his comments about appearing on Seinfeld, and his behind-the-scenes work as a broadcaster. The 1979 co-MVP of the National League, Hernandez also offers often-controversial opinions on expansion, player salaries, and strategy.

17. America’s Game: A History of Major League Baseball Through World War II (Rowman & Littlefield, 485 pp., $45), by Bryan Soderholm-Difatte.

There’s a lot of reading here, and not many pictures, but this hardcover does an admirable job of covering baseball up to and including the Second World War. There’s more Babe Ruth here than anything else but also significant chunks on the Deadball Era, the Federal League, the Black Sox Scandal, Bob Feller’s arrival, and how two wars influenced the game. True fans of baseball history will love it.

18. The Shift: The Next Evolution in Baseball Thinking (Triumph, 323 pp., $19.95), by Russell A. Carleton, foreword by Jeff Passan.

The year’s best book for analytics advocates, this paperback uses charts, graphs, and computer-generated statistics to explain how WAR, OPS, and other optics can help teams win. It also answers the most frequent and obvious question about a shifted infield: Why didn’t the batter just bunt? The author is a Baseball Prospectus writer.

19. The Cloudbuster Nine: The Untold Story of Ted Williams and the Baseball Team That Helped Win World War II (Sports Publishing, 351 pp., $26.99), by Anne R. Keene, foreword by ClaudiaWilliams.

This truly is an untold story. Who knew the retired Babe Ruth returned to both Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park as manager of a wartime fund-raising team called the Yanklands (a contraction of Yankees and Cleveland Indians)? Or that he would face Ted Williams, then on active duty with a powerful Navy team? Few baseball history books share that information and none in such great detail. The author’s father, batboy for the Navy team whose name serves as the title, kept a scrapbook that prompted this terrific tome.

20. Davey Johnson: My Wild Ride in Baseball and Beyond (Triumph, $26.95), by Davey Johnson with Erik Sherman, forewords by Howie Rose and Jim Palmer.

A controversial, contentious, but competitive player, Johnson also carried those qualities as a manager. Maybe working for Marge Schott and Peter Angelos had something to do with that. A computer geek who was ahead of his time, Johnson was successful in several cities, including New York, but also resigned one job on the same day he won a Manager of the Year award. Like Johnson’s career, the book is a revealing ride – especially the fights with Mike Lum and Eddie Mathews on the same day.

21. The Pitcher and The Dictator: Satchel Paige’s Unlikely Season in the Dominican Republic (University of Nebraska, 232 pp., $26.95), by Averall “Ace” Smith.

Records from the Negro Leagues were notoriously unreliable, which makes it even harder to reconstruct the year Satchel Paige spent in the Dominican Republic during the Great Depression. It’s about Paige, Josh Gibson, and Cool Papa Bell, among others, jumping the Pittsburgh Crawfords in 1937 to form a team backed by murderous Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo. But the promise of better money also came with a caveat: win or else. Kudos to Ace Smith for gathering and telling this story, which could easily be made into a movie.

22. Breaking Babe Ruth: Baseball’s Campaign Against Its Biggest Star (University of Missouri, 288 pp., $29.95), by Edmund F. Wehrle.

Curt Flood called himself “a well-paid slave” in his battle for free agency but Ruth deserved the title more, according to the history professor who crafted this hardcover. Ruth rescued baseball after the Black Sox Scandal but remained reluctant to conform with restrictions of any kind – especially economic ones. Baseball officials scowled at his excesses, rejecting his bids to make more money as a player and manage in the majors later.

23. The National Baseball Hall of Fame Almanac, 2018 edition (Baseball America, 572 pp., $24.95), edited by Matt Eddy and Kegan Lowe.

With six new Hall of Famers last year, plus annual changes in the Veterans Committees, this information-packed paperback is by far the best reference regarding all things Cooperstown. It not only has records and photos of more than 300 Hall of Famers but also rules for election plus annual voting results and position breakdowns. There’s even a fact sheet page full of Hall of Fame history. It’s a bargain at $25.

24. Brothers in Arms: Koufax, Kershaw, and the Dodgers’ Extraordinary Pitching Tradition (Triumph, 384 pp., $19.95), by Jon Weisman, foreword by Joe Davis.

Like the Braves of Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz vintage, the Dodgers have always depended upon superior pitching. The rich biographies, dating back to Rube Marquard, compensate for the fact that this paperback has no pictures. There’s a lot of the lefties whose names grace the title, plus such other Dodgers greats as Johnny Podres, Fernando Valenzuela, Orel Hershiser, and Zack Greinke. There are also well-crafted sections on Dodgers relievers and occasional sidebars on pitchers who had Fifteen Minutes of Fame (we’re talking about you, Jose Lima).

25. Alou: My Baseball Journey (University of Nebraska, 336 pp., $29.95), by Felipe Alou with Peter Kerasotis, foreword by Pedro Martinez.

As players, Felipe, Matty, and Jesus Alou once shared the same outfield and batted in the same inning for the San Francisco Giants. The first Dominican to play and manage in the majors, Felipe played with Willie Mays and Hank Aaron and fathered Moises Alou, also an All-Star outfielder. This is the tale of a kid born into poverty who gave up his dream of becoming a doctor to play ball – and play it well.

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 ballauthor@gmail.com.

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