The Best Book Ever Written About Baseball

by Patrick on April 7, 2009

Baseball season is upon us.  Opening Day was yesterday, but as the Red Sox got rained out, I’m celebrating today instead.  There are no dearth of great books about baseball.  Whether it be statistical analysis, in-depth player profiles, legendary essays or famous novels, baseball has its share of literary history.  Which is why I make this next statement with the appropriate solemnity:  The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract is the greatest book ever written about the sport.  It may, in fact,  be the greatest book ever written about sports.

Photo Courtesy of Library of Congress Flickr Stream

Photo Courtesy of Library of Congress Flickr Stream

Is it a book of statistical analysis?  No, I would argue it isn’t.  There are arguments that involve statistics in it, but the book is so much more than this.  Take, for example, this essay about Ty Cobb, baseball’s original unredeemed hero.  It is about a photograph taken of Cobb and Christy Mathewson:

In photographs [make it a point to notice] Ty Cobb is often shown hiding one hand or both, twisting an arm behind his back or burying it in an article of excess clothing.  One photograph of him with which I am particularly taken shows him posing with Christy Mathewson in the dugout before the third game of the 1911 World Series.  Mathewson, as always, looks poised and confident, staring out toward right field.  Cobb is peeking out the corner of his eye at some unseen distraction — another photographer, probably — but what makes the photograph remarkable is that, to begin with, Cobb is wearing a suit that doesn’t look as if it could possibly have fit any of his relatives.  Cobb was a big man (he is usually listed at 6’2,” 180) yet his suit has got to be four sizes too large for him — it is hard to believe that a reputable haberdasher would have let him leave the store with it.  He is holding what looks like an expensive overcoat, and he appears to be dragging it on the ground.  His hat is jaunty and his smile is decidedly nervous.  He looks frankly a little bit crazy.

There was such a contradiction in that dugout.  Cobb was then a five-time American League batting champion, with more or less seven seasons under his belt–and yet he was also a twenty-four-year-old hick from Nowhere, Georgia, a little in awe of Matty, of the photographers, of the crowd.  He had no weapons, at that moment, to defend himself against his inadequacies–no spikes, no bat, no glove.  He was so crude that he must have felt that whenever they took those things from him, his shortcomings glowed like hot iron.  And whenever he saw them glowing, he got angry.  You can see it in his face, I think, that if he could just put on a uniform and go out on the field it would be such a relief to him, out where manners and taste and style were all defined by bases gained and bases lost.  And everyone else, for a change, would have to apologize to him.

This is, I think, one of the great snippets of prose ever written about the game.  James is one of baseball’s fairest writers, acknowledging Cobb’s racism, but also noting  that “Ty Cobb didn’t invent racism, someone taught it to him.”  When he analyzes the game, he tries to do so without prejudice.  You could do a lot worse today than to sit down with some of his writing and listen to a ballgame on the radio or watch it on TV or, like me, follow along on the internet.

Happy spring, everyone.  Play ball.