The Best Baseball Books of 2011

In March 2010, Little, Brown outbid seven other publishers for the rights to an unemployed author’s first book, paying $650,000 to publish Chad Harbach’s tale about a slick-fielding shortstop at a fictional Division III college in Wisconsin. It was a highly unusual transaction for a debut novel targeted at a male audience. The publisher was vindicated, however, by a constant flow of praise in the months leading up to the release of “The Art of Fielding,” certainly unprecedented among baseball novels. The book lived up to its hype, landing a coveted place on the New York Times’ 10 Best Books of 2011 list. It also tops ours, the only work of fiction to win a spot.

While 2010 saw a number of blockbusters on notables such as Henry Aaron, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Willie Mays, Old Hoss Radbourn, and George Steinbrenner, the biography field this year was smaller, with only Neil Lanctot’s account of Brooklyn Dodgers catcher Roy Campanella standing out. The rest of our selections ran the gamut from in-depth looks at the game in its formative years to Jonah Keri’s examination of one of baseball’s newest additions.

1. The Art of Fielding: A Novel, by Chad Harbach (Little, Brown)

Henry Skrimshander begins his career at Westish College as a project for team captain Mike Schwartz, who sees in him an opportunity to turn his downtrodden school into a winner. Fielding has always come naturally to the scrawny shortstop. It takes three years of grueling workouts to turn him into a prospect at the plate. With a crowd of scouts in attendance, Henry commits the first error of his college career, firing a throw wide of first base and flush into the face of his roommate, Owen Dunne, in the dugout. That errant toss sets the story into motion, swirling the worlds of Skrimshander, Schwartz, and Dunne, as well as the school president Guert Affenlight and his daughter Pella. Harbach burdens each character with real foibles and arms them with enough wit and depth to stumble through the maze that their lives have become. The bonds built among them tether them together, even when strained by acts of betrayal. Ultimately, this is a tale of five people coming to terms with who they are, woven around Skrimshander’s drive to be not just the best, but perfect—an unattainable goal that nearly destroys him.

2. Bottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption, and Baseball’s Longest Game, by Dan Barry (Harper Collins)

In the 30 years since Rochester and Pawtucket battled into the wee hours of a frigid Easter morning, the fascination with baseball’s longest game hasn’t waned. What began as a routine Saturday night affair, spilled into Sunday before eventually wrapping up two months later as a 3-2 Paw Sox win. Pawtucket’s McCoy Stadium was packed for the game’s almost anti-climactic conclusion, when the Red Sox needed only one inning to decide matters. The true witnesses to history, however, barely numbered in double digits. When the two weary clubs were mercifully shooed off the field at 4:09 Easter morning, just 19 fans remained in the grandstand. Dan Barry wasn’t among them. Which makes his gripping and lyrical retelling all the more amazing, as he seems to have been everywhere all at once for the entire length of the game. Even more, Barry captures the spirit of minor league baseball in the days before the corporate ownership groups dotted the landscape with miniature versions of big league cathedrals.

3. Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game, by John Thorn (Simon & Schuster)

Baseball’s origins have been debated almost since its infancy. For many years Abner Doubleday and later Alexander Cartwright were credited with inventing America’s pastime. John Thorn explores both men’s connections—and lack thereof—in this release. Major League Baseball’s official historian presents some alternate heroes, whose contributions to the early days of the sport have been overlooked for more than 150 years. The more he studied their era, the more puzzled he became by the motivation of those who were so intent on crediting others. Thorn’s focus shifted over time from simply digging up the evidence to document the origins of the game to understanding why the truth was so shrouded in the first place. The result is a fascinating tale that will help inform discussion of the sport’s founding in years to come.

4. Campy: The Two Lives of Roy Campanella, by Neil Lanctot (Simon & Schuster)

Biographer Neil Lanctot speculates that Roy Campanella fell asleep at the wheel shortly before his car slammed into a telephone pole early one morning in January 1958. The wreck did not take the Hall of Fame catcher’s life but did end his career, limiting him to a wheel chair the rest of his life. Most of “Campy” is devoted to his playing days, from his time in the Negro National League to his years in Brooklyn, where he played 10 seasons, capturing three Most Valuable Player awards. Lanctot faced several challenges in documenting Campanella’s life, such as the catcher’s habit of rounding off the truth for the sake of a good story and a lack of cooperation from surviving family members and certain teammates. In spite of those difficulties, “Campy” provides a balanced view of one of the first and most significant players to break baseball’s color barrier.

5. Fenway 1912: The Birth of a Ballpark, a Championship Season, and Fenway’s Remarkable First Year, by Glenn Stout (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

When the Red Sox broke ground on Fenway Park in the fall of 1911, no one envisioned it would still be in use a century later. So why has it endured? Glenn Stout cites the park’s ability to adapt and change. Indeed, modern Fenway looks almost nothing like the original, which opened to a standing-room only crowd of nearly 30,000 on April 20, 1912. Stout incorporates the stories of the men who built and maintained the new stadium as well as the wild, often warring, bunch that raced to a huge lead in the American League standings that first season. He masterfully intertwines their stories, reflecting the role the birth of the park played in the team’s success as Boston topped the New York Giants in one of the game’s greatest World Series.

6. Major League Baseball Profiles, 1871-1900, Vols. 1 and 2, compiled and edited by David Nemec (University of Nebraska Press)

Weighing in at over 1,200 pages, this two-volume set includes short biographies of every significant contributor to the game in the late 19th century. The first volume focuses on key players of the professional game’s first 30 years, broken down by position. The bios run anywhere from half a page to two pages and explore the player’s career, breaking down his game and providing perspective, whenever possible, on how he was viewed by his contemporaries. The second volume features the era’s Hall of Famers, as well as baseball’s colorful rogues, homicide victims, missing persons, and a wide variety of others. Many of these men were literally lost to researchers after their careers ended, others were simply forgotten. Here are their fascinating tales.

7. The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First, by Jonah Keri (Ballantine Books/ESPN Books)

Small-market team overcomes long odds to compete with the big spenders. If this sounds at all reminiscent of “Moneyball,” well, that might be by design. This, however, isn’t “Moneyball.” Jonah Keri wasn’t embedded in the Rays draft room or hanging out in the team’s video room during games. In fact, the Tampa Bay brass was reluctant to assist. Keri provides a broad view of the many challenges that confronted the Devil Rays, even aside from the obvious ones such as building a roster. He captures the entire arc of the organization’s history, hitting both the often-entertaining lows of the expansion era and the inspiring highs of recent seasons. Readers looking for the heavy sabermetrics of “Moneyball” may not get their fill here, though there are several chapters that discuss some non-traditional stats the Rays have put to good use, particularly to measure defense.

8. Flip Flop Fly Ball: An Infographic Baseball Adventure, by Craig Robinson (Bloomsbury)

While most fans find both left- and right-brain appeal in the sport, few are better at wedding them than Craig Robinson, who joins baseball and infographics to draw meaning out of a world of numbers and provide context for a boundless range of matters, many of which you never realized you were curious about—at least until you saw them sketched out in full color. Robinson’s writing, like his art, is irreverent and entertaining. An Englishman who found baseball later in life, he views the game from a different vantage point than the rest of us. As Rob Neyer puts it in the Foreword, “It’s not so odd to me that he sees things I don’t see; there are a lot of things I don’t see. What’s odd to me is that Craig sees things nobody else sees.”

9. The Way of Baseball: Finding Stillness at 95 MPH, by Shawn Green with Gordon McAlpine (Simon & Schuster)

Despite a predisposition toward Zen teachings, Shawn Green’s transcendence was unplanned, coming about only after he landed in his manager’s dog house early in his career. Reduced to taking swings off a tee due to philosophical differences with his batting coach, he soon found both peace and his stroke. The former big leaguer discusses such spiritual matters as ego, space and separation, and remaining rooted in the present. He also provides rare access to the inner thoughts of a major league star, dissecting his own swing and approach to hitting, and sharing some of the unique exercises he employed to regain or maintain his stroke. He proves refreshingly candid and objective about his game, his weaknesses, and his fears and disappointments. This memoir/philosophical guide may not convert his fans into followers of Buddha, but it will almost certainly spark some introspection.

10. Pitching in the Promised Land: A Story of the First and Only Season in the Israel Baseball League, by Aaron Pribble (University of Nebraska Press)

The Israel Baseball League lasted only one season, flaming out after financial woes plagued its 2007 campaign. Thanks to Aaron Pribble’s diligent journal-keeping, the league will not be forgotten. The tall lefthander, who led the circuit in ERA while pitching for the Tel Aviv Lightning, penned a memoir of his summertime adventure in the Mideast. Pribble, who holds a master’s degree in political science, recounts sight-seeing trips to Jerusalem and Masada, but most riveting is his trek with a teammate into the Palestinian-controlled West Bank, where they were greeted more often than not with smiles. These rare insights into life half a world away make his story unique among recent baseball titles.

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