Casey Awards Honor Baseball’s Best Books

The paparazzi may not camp out front as the nominees parade into the Casey Awards banquet, but to those filing through the doors, the Cincinnati event rivals anything Hollywood can stage.

They come not to fawn over the Best Director or Best Supporting Actress, but instead to recognize the best baseball book released in the previous year.

For 30 years, the editorial staff at tiny Spitball magazine has been honoring authors whose work has made the greatest contribution to baseball literature. But while they take the nominating and judging process seriously, the awards banquet is all about fun. The menu is strictly ballpark fare, with hot dogs and beer in plentiful supply. Instead of a gold-plated statuette, the winner is honored with a gold-lettered bat, a blue Louisville Slugger commissioned specifically for the occasion. And while there's always a spot on the program for the acceptance speech, tradition demands they leave plenty of time for the annual trivia contest, based, of course, on recent baseball books.

Casey Award Winners
1983: The Celebrant, Eric Rolfe Greenberg
1984: Bums: An Oral History of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Peter Golenbock
1985: Good Enough to Dream, Roger Kahn
1986: The Bill James Historical Abstract, Bill James
1987: Diamonds Are Forever: Artists and Writers on Baseball, Peter H. Gordon
1988: Blackball Stars, John Holway
1989: The Pitch that Killed, Mike Sowell
1990: Baseball: The People's Game, Harold Seymour
1991: To Everything a Season: Shibe Park and Urban Philadelphia, 1909-1976, Bruce Kuklick
1992: The Negro Baseball Leagues: A Photographic History,
Phil Dixon
1993: Diamonds: The Evolution of the Ballpark, Michael Gershman
1994: Lords of the Realm, John Helyar
1995: Walter Johnson: Baseball's Big Train, Henry W. Thomas
1996: Slide, Kelly, Slide, Marty Appel
1997: Play for a Kingdom, Thomas Dyja
1998: Judge and Jury, David Pietrusza
1999: Slouching Toward Fargo, Neal Karlen
2000: Cy Young: A Baseball Life, Reed Browning
2001: The Final Season, Tom Stanton
2002: Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston, Howard Bryant
2003: Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, Michael Lewis
2004: Ted Williams: The Life of an American Hero, Leigh Montville
2005: Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig, Jonathan Eig
2006: Game of Inches: The Stories Behind the Innovations that Shaped Baseball, Peter Morris
2007: The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip through Buck O'Neil's America, Joe Posnanski
2008: We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball, Kadir Nelson
2009: Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend, Larry Tye
2010: The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron, Howard Bryant
2011: 56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports, Kostya Kennedy
2012: Bill Veeck: Baseball's Greatest Maverick, Paul Dickson

The 2012 award went to Paul Dickson for "Bill Veeck: Baseball's Greatest Maverick," a biography of the colorful owner and executive who found himself continually butting heads with baseball's establishment. The outspoken Veeck generated a huge catalog of source material, including several memoirs that likely would have received plenty of support for such a prize had the Casey Awards existed back in the 1960s.

Dickson had come close once before, making the list of 10 finalists in 1989 with "The Dickson Baseball Dictionary," which is now in its third edition. That made the award, and the big night, that much sweeter.

"The banquet was splendid," Dickson says. "Of course, I had visions of a formal affair with linen tablecloths and finger bowls but it was much more fun than that—a Ruthian supply of hot dogs fueling a room packed with very savvy baseball lovers who were also baseball book lovers."

For Mike Shannon, co-founder of Spitball, which bills itself as "The Literary Baseball Magazine," the event has surpassed anything he could have imagined back in 1983, when he and W.J. Harrison concocted the award.

"We wanted to do something to promote Spitball magazine," Shannon says. "We tried a couple of poetry readings and quickly realized that wasn't going to attract much attention."

So they came up with the idea to recognize the best baseball book of each year. The first award went to Eric Rolfe Greenberg for "The Celebrant," a novel that brilliantly drops a Christy Mathewson fan into the otherwise very real world of John McGraw's Giants. While it is still regarded today as one of the best pieces of baseball fiction ever written, its Casey Award hardly made a ripple.

It took a front-page story in the Wall Street Journal the following year to put the award on the map. Its popularity has grown steadily since, with authors and publishers eagerly submitting their works for consideration.

The nominating process is simple: Shannon and the Spitball staff welcome every single baseball book published within the calendar year. Anything that makes its way to their offices.

"I'm not going to lie to you and tell you that I read every book cover to cover that comes into the Spitball office," Shannon says. "Some can be ruled out right away. Team-specific histories in particular, there have just been so many."

Originality counts. A lot. If a subject has been done to death, you can be sure the Spitball staff knows it—better than the publishers in many cases. They receive well over 100 books annually. In a typical year 30-35 stand out as worthy of a second look, though only 10 will make the short list.

When the finalists are identified, the books are turned over to a three-person panel for judging. The judges, all volunteers who typically serve only once, have 10 weeks to read and rank. They do so independently while Shannon and his cohorts eagerly await their votes.

There has never been a unanimous winner. Kostya Kennedy's "56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports" came closest in 2011, garnering two firsts and a second. (Dickson pulled two firsts and a third this year.)

Mike Shannon (l) and Paul Dickson

Mike Shannon (l) and Paul Dickson at this year’s Casey Awards Dinner

Ron Kaplan, author of the recently released "501 Baseball Books Fans Must Read before They Die," served as a judge in 2010, a strong year for biographies in which Howard Bryant's "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron" won the Casey Award over other excellent works on Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, among others.

"I was looking for something different," Kaplan says. "There have been plenty of books about Mantle, a bit lesser extent for Mays. Aaron never received his due in the same way and I enjoyed Bryant's style. Who knows, when it comes to critiquing. Perhaps if I had read them in a different order after having a better night's sleep or a better breakfast, I might have put them in a different order."

And as Shannon is quick to point out, a different three-judge panel could very well emerge with a different winner. That's part of the fun. After all, if Trout versus Cabrera can rage all winter, each side armed with reams of statistics, how can picking a book be any more scientific?