Book Review: 501 Baseball Books Fans Must Read Before They Die

501 Baseball Books Fans Must Read Before They Die
By Ron Kaplan
University of Nebraska Press, 2013
List Price: $24.95

501_Baseball_BooksBaseball fans love to generate bucket lists of places they’ll go and things they’ll do before they pass on. Visit the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., catch a game in Fenway Park, experience the College World Series in Omaha, or even go back in time in Birmingham, Ala., at one of historic Rickwood Field’s annual Rickwood Classics.

Ron Kaplan has compiled a bucket list for bibliophiles, “501 Baseball Books Fans Must Read Before They Die.” You can journey to anywhere in the baseball universe from the comfort of your favorite armchair and experience the game from the perspective of a player, manager, scout, beat reporter, umpire, or photographer.

Baseball book enthusiasts may be familiar with Kaplan from his website, Ron Kaplan’s Baseball Bookshelf (www.ronkaplansbaseballbookshelf.com), where he has been blogging about the sport’s literature and other related topics since 2006. With thousands of posts on countless hundreds of books (he also writes about movies and baseball paraphernalia on occasion), he has established himself as the go-to resource for reviews on books new and old alike.

Now Kaplan has combed through his collection—as well as the library at the Hall of Fame—to assemble a list that spans the full breadth of baseball’s literary offerings. The book is broken down by topic, with chapters covering analysis, biographies, ballparks, business, fiction, history, reference, and more. This isn’t simply a book of lists, however. For each selection Kaplan provides a synopsis and some commentary, making this book as entertaining as many of the books it references.

How does one narrow an estimated 10,000 baseball titles down to 501? Kaplan’s intent was never to determine the “best,” though he included most of the classics that appear on your standard “best of” lists, which pop up like daffodils every spring around the internet. He was more interested in variety, which is why he finds room for quirky titles such as “The Tao of Baseball,” breaking the sport down into its yin and yang; “Sandlot Peanuts,” a collection of comics by Charles M. Schulz; and “Flip Flop Fly Ball,” Craig Robinson’s trove of outside-the-box diagrams.

Not that I necessarily needed to add to my reading list, but after reading through Kaplan’s suggestions, I found room for Mark Winegardner’s “Prophet of the Sandlots: Journeys with a Major League Scout”; Michael Bishop’s novel “Brittle Innings”; Neil Isaacs’ “Innocence and Wonder: Baseball Through the Lives of Batboys”; and Josh Lewin’s “Getting in the Game: Inside Baseball’s Winter Meetings.”

Of course, as with any such list, there are omissions, the most obvious here being “The Glory of Their Times,” Lawrence Ritter’s pioneering oral history, the original recordings of which are housed in Cooperstown. It’s arguably the Babe Ruth of baseball books, and if one is to put any stock in Kaplan’s title, tongue-in-cheek though it may be, it should be included.

Other oversights are more subjective. Kaplan included two collections of W.P. Kinsella’s short stories in the Fiction chapter, but neither of his acclaimed novels, “Shoeless Joe” or “The Iowa Baseball Confederacy.” Arnold Hano’s “A Day in the Bleachers,” which captured Game 1 of the 1954 World Series from a fan’s point of view, is a classic, more popular now than when it was released in 1955. And here at Baseball America we could certainly make a case for “The Baseball Draft: The First 25 Years” among the Reference titles.

But everyone’s list would be different, and that’s half the fun, just flipping through to see what’s here. Check off which ones you’ve read, and jot down a list of ones you’d like to hunt down. Then get busy. If you average 10 a year, it will only take you 50 years to work your way through the list.

James Bailey reviews books for Baseball America. He can be contacted at jamesbailey@baseballamerica.com.

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