Nicholson-Smith: My 15 favourite baseball books

With sports on pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ll be sharing some personal recommendations from our writers in the weeks ahead. Please feel free to share your own in the comments at the bottom of the page.

As a lifelong baseball fan and avid reader, I’ve always sought out baseball books of all kinds. From dugout strategy and player development to labour relations and baseball history, there’s so much ground to cover. And, for those in search of a diversion, baseball has inspired plenty of compelling fiction, too.

For anyone seeking some of the best insight you’ll find on the Blue Jays, be sure to read the fine books of Sportsnet colleagues Shi Davidi, Jeff Blair, Buck Martinez and Stephen Brunt. Looking a little more broadly, here are some of the best baseball books I’ve ever read.

STRATEGY

Weaver on Strategy
Earl Weaver with Terry Pluto, 1984

Decades after this book was first released, Weaver’s take on baseball holds up remarkably well. Though the longtime Orioles manager pre-dates most sabermetric analysis, his conclusions on sac bunts, home runs, walks, bullpens and rotations resemble those later reached by objective analysis (we’ll forgive his fondness for small sample sizes). Back in the 1980s, nobody embraced pitching, defence and the three-run homer quite like Weaver. Years later, his preferred style of play has become the norm. And not only was he ahead of his time — he had a playful way of challenging convention that makes this a fun read.

The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball
Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman & Andrew Dolphin, 2006

The Book confronts conventional baseball wisdom with one goal in mind: uncovering the objective truth about baseball decision making. If that means upending some long-held assumptions about the game along the way, so be it. While this book includes its share of graphs and numbers, the conclusions reached about in-game strategy and player evaluation are presented clearly and always backed by research.

Personally, this research changed the way I view batting orders and relief pitcher usage among many other concepts.

Moneyball
Michael Lewis, 2003

Before Moneyball was a movie (or a verb), it was a book. Anyone reading this knows the story already, but maybe you didn’t know that the storytelling is great – full of detail you don’t see in the movie – or that Lewis can be a really funny writer. What I’m saying is Moneyball’s worth your time – even if you’ve been been familiar with the concepts within this book for years.

The Only Rule Is It Has To Work
Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller, 2016

It’s one thing to develop a theory about how baseball should be played. Putting those beliefs into practice can be another challenge altogether, as Lindbergh and Miller found in their summer-long attempt to apply sabrmetric concepts to a real-life indy-league baseball team. Along the way, the two writers encounter all kinds of obstacles – both expected and unexpected – and each challenge adds to the intrigue for the reader. I found the writing to be funny and insightful, even when the two authors disagreed about the best course of action for the Sonoma Stompers.

HISTORY

Veeck as in Wreck
Bill Veeck with Ed Linn, 1962

As an extremely innovative, anti-establishment owner, Veeck makes Mark Cuban seem bland. While not exactly a page turner, this book does a fantastic job of recounting Veeck’s one-of-a-kind life in baseball with the Cleveland Indians, St. Louis Browns and Chicago White Sox.

Ball Four
Jim Bouton, 1970

At one point, Ball Four was considered rather controversial. Five decades later, Bouton’s exposé on what really happens in major-league baseball doesn’t necessarily seem all that racy, but it’s definitely funny. He’s a perceptive writer and skilled storyteller with plenty of tales to tell and a lively sense of humour. Plus, this inside look at life with the Seattle Pilots underscores how much the sport has changed over the last half century.

Men at Work
George F. Will, 1990

This ambitious book documents the role of the manager (Tony La Russa), pitcher (Orel Hershiser), hitter (Tony Gwynn) and fielder (Cal Ripken Jr.) to create a behind-the-scenes look at how the game was then played and practiced. Like most books from this era, Men at Work includes some dated sabermetric ideas, but it holds up thanks to Will’s extensive interviewing and research, and the stature of the main characters involved.

Nine Innings: The Anatomy of a Baseball Game
Daniel Okrent, 1985

On June 10, 1982, the Brewers and Orioles played an afternoon game at Milwaukee’s County Stadium. Sounds ordinary enough, and it is, until Daniel Okrent brings you behind the scenes of the action. Inning by inning, Okrent tells the story of the Brewers franchise and the players on the field. At first, you truly don’t care about the Brewers or about the outcome of the game. Why would you? But as the narrative unfolds, the stakes build and suddenly you’re invested in the outcome of a game that ended nearly 40 years ago.

Personally, I loved how Okrent’s writing and attention to detail could bring a game to life years later.

BARGAINING

Lords of the Realm
John Helyar, 1994

At first glance, reading about the history of baseball’s labour relations sounds less than appealing. The action takes place within board rooms and the timeline begins more than half a century ago, so many of the protagonists have long since disappeared from the public eye.

And yet John Helyar delivers an absolutely riveting book thanks to incredible access, compelling characters and high stakes. Lords of the Realm takes readers behind the scenes of the decisions that shaped baseball as we know it. The book reads like an epic, so be prepared for a long ride, but there’s a real payoff for anyone looking to deepen their appreciation for baseball history.

The Game
Jon Pessah, 2015

In many ways, The Game reads as a sequel to Lords of the Realm, picking up with the lead-up to the 1994 strike and moving ahead to the PED scandal that followed. Focused on Bud Selig, Don Fehr and George Steinbrenner, this book offers all kinds of information about the behind-the-scenes battles that took place in baseball during that era. As those stories unfold, Pessah creates unvarnished portraits of the three figures at the centre of things, exposing their shortcomings while also detailing their victories.

DEVELOPMENT

The Arm
Jeff Passan, 2016

So often, serious injuries sideline the game’s best pitchers, but until recently our collective understanding of the pitching arm has been limited. In this wide-ranging and captivating read, Passan sets out to find some answers about pitcher health. He covers all kinds of ground, following pitchers Daniel Hudson and Todd Coffey as they rehab from their second Tommy John surgeries, exploring training methods in Japan and following Jon Lester’s experience on the free agent market. The result is a well-researched book with some clear conclusions about keeping pitchers healthy.

The MVP Machine
Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik, 2019

By now, everyone knows that OBP and velocity help teams win games. So what happens when once-undervalued players are coveted everywhere and available nowhere? As Lindbergh and Sawchik document within The MVP Machine, teams are now looking inward and attempting to get more out of their own prospects than ever before. First, outsiders like Driveline’s Kyle Boddy and college coaches showed the potential of data-driven development. Soon enough, teams eager for an edge followed and the resulting changes mean player development in baseball will never look the same.

Homegrown
Alex Speier, 2019

The 2018 Red Sox had a near-perfect season: 108 regular-season wins; playoff victories over the Yankees and Astros; and a World Series win over the Dodgers. From afar it might have looked easy, but that championship was years in the making. Speier, a baseball writer for the Boston Globe, shows in detail how the Red Sox built that World Series from the ground up. And while Homegrown focuses entirely on the Red Sox, the successes and failures documented here apply to any team looking to build from within.

FICTION

The Dead Pull Hitter
Alison Gordon, 1988

This is the first in a series of mysteries from Gordon, the former Toronto Star baseball writer who was the first full-time female beat writer in MLB. In The Dead Pull Hitter, she creates a convincing world in which a murder disrupts the baseball season. Naturally, baseball journalist Kate Henry has to step up and solve it.

Maybe decades-old sports mysteries aren’t for you, but as a fan of both baseball and mysteries, I had to include this on my list of personal favourites.

Squeeze Play
Jane Leavy, 1990

Even though this is a work of fiction, you get an eye-opening glimpse at what baseball was like a generation ago from Leavy, a longtime sportswriter whose biographies on Sandy Koufax and Mickey Mantle also deserve to be mentioned here. With its assortment of boorish and over-the-top characters, Squeeze Play can read like a parody at times, but I guess that’s the point. Leavy creates the convincing impression of the baseball world as a boys’ club that was alternately dismissive of and hostile toward women.

When it was first published, the book was quite a sensation, drawing attention from then-president George H.W. Bush and talk shows nation-wide. Years later, it’s no longer making headlines, but it’s still full of lively writing and entertaining moments.

The Art of Fielding
Chad Harbach, 2011

While this is certainly a baseball-themed book, it succeeds because Harbach’s five primary characters are so compelling — not because of its relation to the sporting world. Set at fictional midwest college, The Art of Fielding tells the story of a top draft prospect and four others as they struggle with one another (and themselves) with baseball as backdrop.

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