The Rotation: Your favorite baseball books

Andrew Weber-US PRESSWIRE

We ask our baseball experts about their most loved baseball tomes.

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The Rotation #7: favorite baseball book

by Steven Goldman

The Rotation is a weekly feature here at SB Nation MLB in which we put a question to our vast network of baseball scribes and bring you the answers.This week, we went with a favorite topic that never gets old, asking our staff, What is your favorite baseball book?

What is your favorite baseball book?

The Book: Playing the Percentages In Baseball (Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman, Andrew Dolphin)

"Normally, when I read nonfiction I find myself questioning the author. They say something factual and I flip to the endnote. They make a claim and I start looking for the angle they haven't considered. Sometimes, though, I read a book where the author is obviously smarter than I am and undeniably thorough. They anticipate my questions before I ask them, and their answers are always satisfactory. They erase my skepticism. I have no choice but to be enthusiastically swept along by the strength of their intellect and the thoughtfulness of their approach. I go in a critic and emerge a fan, and a better informed fan than I had been before.

Such was the case with The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball by Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman, and Andrew Dolphin. They take a simple set of statistical tools, explain them fully (but in a way that you can easily skip if you only care about the result), and then develop them into answers for nearly every question you might have about the game of baseball. And while 2007 may seem like ages ago, don't worry -- the research takes a wide view and it holds up.

How important are platoon splits? The Book will tell you. (Pretty important, but observed platoon splits in left-handed batters are "more real" than in righties) How should lineups be constructed? The Book will tell you. (The three hitter should be worse than the one, two, and four.) Do hot streaks exist? The Book will tell you. Read The Book." -- Ian Malinowski, DRays Bay

The Glory of Their Times (Lawrence Ritter)

"The Glory of Their Times. Not even a competition in my mind. It's the only book that I re-read every spring. I didn't discover Studs Terkel until later, so I thought the oral-history structure was innovative -- and I guess it still is when applied to baseball.

But the idea of a baseball team carousing on train after train, traveling for days just to stay in dingy hotels, was compelling. So were all the baseball stories, of course, but I'm almost more interested in the context. More than a couple players had to make a choice between their families and baseball because they were going to be disowned if they chased a baseball dream. How is that even possible?

Also, apparently Ty Cobb was a bit of a sourpuss. I had no idea ..."
-- Grant Brisbee, Baseball Nation

Crazy '08 (Cait Murphy)

"Murphy's Crazy ‘08 chronicles the thrilling pennant races of the 1908 season, which came down
to the final day of the season with three teams in each league having a shot at the title, the Cubs, Giants and Pirates in the National League, the White Sox, Tigers and Indians in the American, and also
gives a profile of the Cubs that is very different from the way you might view the franchise today:

"Modern fans have been schooled to see the Cubs as a franchise of charming failure, with a gift for finding ways not to win the biggest games. The fans of 1908 would have boggled at that description. Their Cubs are not lovable and they are not losers; the players would have kicked in the teeth of anyone who dared call them the 'Cubbies'."

Beyond baseball, Murphy intersperses descriptions of the unfolding of the season with narratives of other events that happened in 1908. Those are the stories that help us to understand why and how baseball absolutely captured the country -- at one point, the replay of the "Merkle Game" brought the business of the Democratic National Committee, busily running a presidential campaign, to a complete halt.

The book expands on this with mini-chapters entitled "Time-Out," describing what the city of Chicago was like in those days outside of the baseball arena, stories of serial killers and anarchists, giving
the reader of 105 years later a real flavor of what life in America in 1908 was like.

"Crazy '08" is not only fun, but brings to life an era in baseball and American history that is nearly forgotten today." -- Al Yellon, Bleed Cubbie Blue

The Universal Baseball Association, J. Henry Waugh, Prop. (Robert Coover)

"There are so many good baseball books that depending on when you asked this question I might give you a different answer, or try to convince you that Dr. Seuss's Green Eggs and Ham is actually a complex allegory regarding Tom Yawkey's refusal to integrate the Red Sox. For today, though, the book that is tops in my mind is The Universal Baseball Association, J. Henry Waugh, Prop. by Robert Coover. The novel, first published in 1968, anticipated fantasy baseball by more than a decade, with an extra emphasis on the fantasy part of the equation: Waugh, a bored and depressed accountant, has invented his own tabletop baseball game along the lines of Strat-O-Matic, except that he has invested his made-up players with elaborate backstories, personalities, and off-field lives. When Damon Rutherford, a second-generation pitcher, starts making like Stephen Strasburg, Waugh's paper league threatens to spill over into his real-world life.

As with the best novels, Coover's story can be taken on many levels. It can be chilling, like a Rod Serling tale of a mind becoming slowly untethered. On another, it speaks to the way baseball gets its hooks into us, not foremost as a sport, but as a soap opera. Or it could be about the hazards of an emotionally unfulfilling life. Perhaps it's all of the above. Regardless, the book will haunt you, particularly around drafting time." - Steven Goldman, sbnation.com/mlb

The Bill James Baseball Abstracts (Bill James)

I was going to answer The Bullpen Gospels by Dirk Hayhurst, because it is great, but the real answer is any of the Bill James Baseball Abstracts. The Golden Age of anything is when you are in your teens. Music, comics, baseball... basically everything was best when you were in your teens. I was in my teens when Bill James started coming out with the Baseball Abstracts. It was a whole different world back then. There were no personal computers, no internet. On-Base Percentage was a new and strange stat. You never saw batting splits vs. left-handed and right-handed pitchers. Sabermetrics was a new thing and it really rocked. There was so much to learn.

It wasn't just the numbers that made the Abstracts so good. Bill James wrote better than anyone. He changed me from a baseball fan, to a baseball FAN. I'm not sure how my parents and my friends put up with me talking about him all the time, I'm sure it was very annoying. There are a lot of people that I owe for my baseball fandom, players, managers, TV and radio commentators, but, by far, Bill James is the biggest reason I'm a baseball fan. -- Tom Dakers, Bluebird Banter

More Strange But True Baseball Stories (Howard Liss)

"Baseball books have been such a big part of my life for so long that it's difficult for me to choose just one; I have long toyed with the idea of writing an entire book about the baseball books that have been important in my life, which is a really great idea except that nobody wants to read it. But I digress. I could easily write about Ball Four or The Glory of Their Times or The Ultimate Baseball Book, all of which helped make me what I am today. I could also write about the 1984 Baseball Abstract or Bums: An Oral History of the Brooklyn Dodgers, which really made me what I am today

But instead I'm going even farther back, all the way to the early 1970s and my very first baseball book: Howard Liss's More Strange But True Baseball Stories, No. 16 in Random House's Major League Library series. Reading this review, you might get the impression that Liss was writing for adults, but he wasn't; he was writing for kids, and this kid ate up the strange baseball stories within. The cover, featuring a baseball player waiting to catch a ball dropped from the Washington Monument, promised not just drama, but strange drama ... and the book delivers.

I probably would have become the same person without More Strange But True Baseball Stories. But I read that one again and again, until the pages were falling out. Eventually I wanted more, and I got it." -- Rob Neyer, Baseball Nation

Cardboard Gods (Josh Wilker)

"I took a hiatus from reading baseball books in graduate school when it became apparent that I'd rather stay up all night reading for leisure instead of finishing projects. For that reason, Wilker's book sat on my shelf unread for nearly a year. When I finally got back into reading, his was the first book that I grabbed, and it was the best book I read that year.

Set in the 1970s, Cardboard Gods is a memoir of Wilker's childhood, and is a mix of personal stproes, popular culture, and baseball (especially the cards). This would be an easy book to mess up, as it's an ambitious theme, but Wilker's lyrical writing and honesty make every passage thoroughly engaging. There are so many facets to his memoir -- his youth, a relationship with baseball cards, his hippie parents, and brotherly love -- that are so well-detailed that it's impossible to read it without feeling a connection with the characters.

By the end, you'll probably feel that you know Wilker better than you know your friends, maybe even your family. You'll also find that you probably want to hear more from him, which you can by reading his blog. He's also working on another book, which I'd wager will be the best book I read in the year it's released, as well." -- Cee Angi, SBNation.com/mlb Designated Columnist

Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Legends (Rob Neyer)

"Though there are plenty of favorite baseball books on my shelves, like the classics (Ball Four) and the Astros-centric (Larry Dierker's excellent This Ain't Brain Surgery), the one that immediately leapt to mind as my absolute favorite is one written by one of our own.

Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Legends: The Truth, the Lies and Everything Else hits all the things I love about learning and baseball. As an amateur historian, I'm fascinated by learning the real story behind so many famous moments in baseball history. As a reporter who talks to people about sporting events, I'm fascinated by how people's perception changes both over time and in the moment. Rob's book tickled both of those fancies while also letting me be a kid, marveling over the ones he proved to be true." -- David Coleman, The Crawfish Boxes

The Great American Novel (Philip Roth)

"If you ask me what is my favorite baseball book, my answer would probably vary depending on when you asked me and my mood on that day. At this particular moment, I'd have to go with The Great American Novel by Philip Roth. It's a satire about the "Patriot League," a third major league that purportedly existed in the early days of baseball, alongside the American League and the National League. Populated with greats like outfielder Luke Gofannon and Babylonian-American pitcher Gil Gamesh, the Patriot League's history is ultimately covered up and erased from America's collective consciousness. The plot largely involves the travails of the Port Ruppert Mundys in 1943, who have to play every game on the road after leasing their New Jersey stadium to the government as part of the war effort. The novel, first published in 1973, is still in print. It's a weird romp, but one that I enjoyed greatly, and I think it would be embraced by folks who are fans of the history of the game." -- Adam Morris, Lone Star Ball

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