Quick Index: Teams | Leagues | Managers | Postseason
You Are Here > smileyleague.org > Ben's Book Reviews

In Association with Amazon.com

Ball Four

Veeck as in Wreck

I Never Had it Made

I Was Right on Time

The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract

The Bill James Guide to Baseball Managers

Win Shares

The Hidden Game of Baseball

Baseball Dynasties

Why Time Begins on Opening Day

Beyond the Sixth Game

The Catcher Was a Spy

The Glory of Their Times

You Gotta Have Wa

Baseball & Billions

The Natural

The Curious Case of Sidd Finch

You Know Me, Al

Shoeless Joe

The Universal Baseball Association

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon

The Mental Art of Pitching

Branch Rickey's Little Blue Book

The Science of Hitting

Castro's Curveball

The Brothers K

The Duke of Havana

Willie Mays: My Life in and out of Baseball

Slouching Towards Fargo


Defining what "the best baseball book ever" is is a difficult task -- so much so that you really need to break it down.

Best First-Person Narrative/Reminiscence About Life in the Game -- "Ball Four" would certainly be right up there. You're also encouraged to check out "Veeck as in Wreck," "I Never Had it Made" by Jackie Robinson, and "I Was Right on Time" by Buck O'Neill, as those are the only other ones off the top of my head that are in the same league.

Best Analysis of the Game (Statistical) -- You have to start with the Bill James Abstracts, grabbing the Historical Abstract and the Guide to Managers as well.

And then there's Bill James' latest revelation, Win Shares. At some level, the ultimate goal of sabermetric and/or statistical analysis is to be able to say, definitely, that a particular player was "worth" X points in a given year, or better still, that he won Y games for his team. And if anybody's gonna be able to massage the numbers to find that elusive value, it's Bill James. Now, cards on the table -- I'm a librarian, not a statistician. So a lot of James' efforts in Win Shares are lost on me as well as, I suspect, numerous other readers. (Although, for the record, I did get an 790 on my SAT math and an 800 on the GRE math section. All that means is that I hadn't yet forgotten how to do calculus...)

The methods he puts forth here seem utterly revolutionary to me, and yet simple -- once someone else shows them to you. And, like a lot of other ideas in their nascent stages, there's still some shaking out to be done. James even enumerates some directions he'd like to see further research go in. In time, others may come up with newer, better ways to evaluate contributions on the field. But I have a sneaking suspicion that 15 years from now, after we've all had the chance to dissect and evaluate this work, the discussions on "how to evaluate on-the-field contributions" will begin: "Okay, we need to tweak Win Shares by ..."

One other thing: while this is a work of statistical analysis, don't forget that James is also a rippingly good writer. You're almost guaranteed to laugh out loud about once every three pages. It's kinda like Bill Cosby told us all on Saturday mornings, years ago: you'll have fun, and if you're not careful, you might learn something.

Palmer & Thorn's "The Hidden Game of Baseball" is strong, although I'm not sure I follow their methodology. And Rob Neyer's "Baseball Dynasties" was an enjoyable read, but not on a topic I particularly cared about.

Best Analysis of the Game (Anecdotal/Journalistic) -- Roger Angell and Roger Kahn are amazing writers, but I think I enjoy Thomas Boswell more; "Why Time Begins on Opening Day" is a must read, every spring. Gammons' "Beyond the Sixth Game" is an interesting read as well. The Moe Berg biography "The Catcher Was a Spy", Ritter's "The Glory of their Times" and Robert Whiting's "You Gotta Have Wa" should be in here somewhere, too.

Best Analysis of the Game (Economic) -- "Baseball & Billions" by Andrew Zimbalist, although there have recently been quite a few that I haven't gotten around to.

Best Work of Fiction About the Game -- Hmmm... Malamud's "The Natural"? "The Curious Case of Sidd Finch" by George Plimpton? Actually, come to think of it, Ring Lardner's "You Know Me Al" stories have been published together, and that might be the easy winner here, since he's still accurate, 80 some odd years later.

Best Work of Fiction About Something Other than the Game with Baseball as Subtext -- "Shoeless Joe" by WP Kinsella. Duh. Close runner-up is "The Universal Baseball Association Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop." by Robert Coover, followed just as closely by (no, really) Stephen King's "The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon". Philip Roth's "The Great American Novel" does not appear anywhere on this list.

Best Instructional Manual About the Game -- Sadaharu Oh's autobiography/hitting guide is just fascinating, as well as an interesting glimpse into baseball on the other side of the Pacific. (Did you know that when he went into a slump, he studied with Ueshiba Sensei, the guy that created Aikido? Neat, huh?) I wasn't impressed with Harvey Dorfman's "The Mental Art of Pitching" as much as everybody else seems to have been, although, like anything else, if it works for you, run with it. Mike Marshall, the Dodgers' reliever and Ph.D. in Exercise Physiology, has his pitching guide online (http://www.drmikemarshall.com/TextBook.html), for what that's worth. "Branch Rickey's Little Blue Book" is a nice guide to what corporate philosophy should be, for what *that's* worth. For my money though, I'll probably take Ted Williams' "The Science of Hitting".

Other book reviews:

Castro's Curveball (Tim Wendel) -- If the name sounds familiar, it should; Wendel is a writer for Baseball Weekly, among other publications. Castro's Curveball is a neat read; Wendel does a really good job getting inside a ballplayer's head, when he's on the field and when he's caught up in other stuff. It's not a don't-miss book, but I enjoyed it immensely. Oh, and look for a surprise cameo, one which amused the heck out of me. In short, it'll while away a few pleasant hours on the beach one summer afternoon.

The Brothers K by David James Duncan -- Not really a re-telling of The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky, although you can be forgiven for thinking it. The father is one of the great minor-league pitchers of all time, and his inability to make the major leagues (for one reason and another) is told through the eyes of his four sons: a draft-dodger, a soldier in Vietnam, a student of Hinduism, and the one who stays home and tends to the family. Another book that uses baseball as a metaphor for life. I really got into it, though it's a long book. Thoughtfully, the narrative is broken into segments, so you can savor it for a short while, put it down, and return to it a couple days later. Marvelous book, well worth the time.

The Duke of Havana by Steve Fainaru & Ray Sanchez (no, not the Royals' shortstop) -- It purports to be the biography of Orlando Hernandez, but really, it's about Cuban baseball players and their relationship to Cuba and Fidel Castro. So, while you get a great deal of biographical information about El Duque (including him coming clean about the "rickety raft" he came to the US on), the story here is bigger than that. The authors are both journalists, and at times, you get the impression that the book is actually a series of articles, rather than a combined narrative. (For example, they'll explain the same thing in great detail in two or three different places in the book, which, if you've already read the explanation twice, can be a bit distracting.) Still, though, I came away from the book very favorable towards El Duque. Even so, Castro isn't depicted as being as monstrous as others make him out to be. Glad I read it, but equally glad I borrowed a copy of it from the library.

And one quick note about the autobiography, Willie Mays: My Life in and out of Baseball. Most first person narratives about the game are pretty self-serving. With this one, it really feels more like a conversation between you as a fan of the game (as represented by Charles Einstein) and Willie. Good conversations are hard to find, and good book-length conversations harder still. But this one is just that, and well worth the time.

Slouching Toward Fargo by Neal Karlen -- One of my favorite book reviews of all time is the discussion of DH Lawrence's scandalous (for the time) novel Lady Chatterly's Lover in ... Field and Stream. No, really. It includes perhaps the most absolutely delightful missing-of-the-point in the history of literary criticism: "This fictional account of the day-by-day life of an English gamekeeper is still of considerable interest to outdoor-minded readers, as it contains many passages on pheasant raising, the apprehending of poachers, ways to control vermin, and other chores and duties of the professional gamekeeper. Unfortunately, one is obliged to wade through many pages of extraneous material in order to discover and savor these sidelights on the management of a Midlands shooting estate, and in this reviewer's opinion this book cannot take the place of J.R. Miller's Practical Gamekeeping."

Well. Lest I miss the point just as badly, we should begin by saying that this is, simply put, not a book about the Northern League, or the St. Paul Saints, or Darryl Strawberry, or Mike Veeck, or JD Drew, or Ila Borders. It's a book about Neal Karlen -- a worshiper of Hunter S. Thompson's Gonzo style of journalism, Karlen writes about his own redemption. The Northern League is just backdrop. Chances are you probably know as much about minor league baseball already as the reader would glean from this book. ("What's that?", you say, "Minor leaguers chase local women?" Neal Karlen, allow me to introduce you to Ms. Annie Savoy of Durham, NC.) In short, if you want to learn what it's like to be a free-lance reporter on the outs with Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, this is a can't-miss book. If you want to know what life is like in the low minor leagues, go watch Bull Durham again.

Moneyball by Michael Lewis -- One of the important things to realize, when writing a book review, is who your audience is. If you're writing about The DaVinci Code, for example, you need to consider whether the people reading it are art historians (who should read it for laughs), devout Catholics (who should DEFINITELY skip it), or people who enjoy a good mystery novel (who'll enjoy the plot twists and turns). (As a side note, if you happen to fall into multiple of these categories, read it, but be forewarned.)

With that in mind, we turn our attention to Moneyball by Michael Lewis.

The audience for this review is a small group of baseball fans: guys who play in a retro-Strat league, who already know a thing or two about baseball. Gentlemen, I put it to you that you pretty much already know everything that Lewis & Billy Beane have to say. You already know that, as an evaluative tool, batting average doesn't tell the whole story of a hitter's effectiveness. You already know that traditional fielding stats don't paint the complete picture of a defender's talents. Perhaps the only news item here might be that Billy Beane has a bit of an ego about him -- not all that different from a Wall Street broker. And in truth, Moneyball isn't even all that well-written.

One quick quibble about some of the logic that Beane & his assistant (Paul DePodesta) make. They argue that on-base percentage is 3 times more valuable than slugging percentage, based (according to Lewis) on the following thought experiment:

If a team somehow had a 1.000 on-base percentage, they'd score an infinite number of runs, because they'd never make an out. But if a team somehow had a 1.000 slugging percentage, they might *not* score an infinite number of runs, since you can get a 1.000 slugging percentage by hitting one home run, then making three outs. So, on-base percentage is more important than slugging percentage.

Uh ... um ... guys? The difference is that 1.000 is a maxed-out on-base percentage, while 1.000 is only 1/4 of the way to a maxed-out slugging percentage. If you compared apples to apples (i.e., a 1.000 on-base percentage to a 4.000 slugging percentage -- admittedly, neither is an attainable goal, but we'll follow their thought experiment) you'd have very different results.

So, if you've read any of Bill James' works, or Rob Neyer's, or Pete Palmer's, you can skip Moneyball pretty easily. You'll be missing an interesting story, but you already know most of it, anyway.

Coyote Moon by John A. Miller -- I have no idea what to make of this book. It'd be easy to dismiss it as "The Curious Case of Sidd Physicist", but that doesn't quite get there; it makes more of an impression than that. Put it this way: I finished this book at about 8:00 Saturday night (just as my flight was beginning its approach to St. Louis). Since then, there've probably been about 30 minutes of waking time when I haven't been thinking about it.

There are really two stories going on here. One involves a professor of physics at MIT who, upon the untimely death of a treasured colleague, re-examines his life (or, if you prefer, hits a late mid-life crisis). Within weeks, he's resigned at MIT, begun divorce proceedings with his wife of 40 years, left Boston, picked up a 30-something-year-old woman, and stumbled onto what might be an apocalytpic cult in the Mohave desert. That, for the record, is in the first 5 pages. Catch your breath.

Story 2 is about a baseball player named Henry Spencer trying to play his way onto the A's in spring training. Henry… Well, Henry's just odd. He thinks about stuff like prime numbers and Fibonacci sequences and the relation between integral and differential calculus. And he's all sorts of good at baseball, even though he never played the game, except in the Army. Not even in high school. In fact, he doesn't remember much about high school. Or anything else, for that matter. Like who his parents were. Or if his name's really "Henry Spencer".

The two stories do end up connecting, so it's not a displeasing book from a narrative standpoint. It's just that I was left wishing I understood what the heck was going on.

Quick Index: Teams | Leagues | Managers | Postseason