Tuesday April 6th, 2010

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

achornTime to dust off the baseball books. The Yankees haven’t won and the Mets haven’t lost, so you know it’s very early days. But they’re playing ball and all is right with the world. As usual, the season brings several new books on the subject. First among them might be Fifty-Nine in ‘84 by Edward Achorn, about a pitcher named Old Hoss Radbourn who won 59 games for the Providence Grays in 1884. That record is literally unbreakable, as pitchers only start 32 or 33 games a year now. Achorn tells the story of Radbourn’s remarkable, grueling feat, but the book is really about the strange, violent (for one thing, it was played barehanded) sport that baseball was in the decades after the Civil War. Like any good account of the game’s early days, Achorn’s focuses on several eccentricities, like the existence of two strike zones, “one between the shoulders and belt, and one between the belt and knees. A batter stated his preference when he came to the plate — the zone that played to his strengths as a hitter — and the umpire adjusted accordingly.” Or the scheme that color-coded uniforms by position, to make players more easily identifiable to fans.

Other new releases include James Hirsch’s new biography of Willie Mays and Billy Lombardo’s The Man With Two Arms, a novel about an ambidextrous pitcher (a concept not quite as crazy as it sounds). The Austin American-Statesman rounds up a few other new titles.

If you’re looking for backlist material, there’s plenty I can recommend, though I don’t go for in the faux-profound bloviating done by many baseball writers. I prefer journalistic narratives, and the two best of recent years are Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, which everyone probably knows, and Cait Murphy’s Crazy ‘08: How a Cast of Cranks, Rogues, Boneheads, and Magnates Created the Greatest Year in Baseball History, which everyone should know (I shared an excerpt from it here). If you’re in the mood for a sampler, there’s Baseball: A Literary Anthology edited by Nicholas Dawidoff or .

For true baseball nerds, though, there’s nothing better than reference books. My three favorites: The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract; Peter Morris’ A Game of Inches, a two-volume look at the sport’s history that I wrote about here; and Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Lineups.

Last but not least, one of my favorites novels, The Brothers K by David James Duncan, is the story of an American family whose patriarch is a minor league pitcher making an extraordinary comeback from a severe thumb injury. It’s a long novel that covers family, religion, politics, and other subjects, but baseball is one of its load-bearing walls.