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Batting titles

Baseball has inspired writers since the earliest days of the game. Here are nine great works of fiction and nonfiction: a literary all-star team.

April 02, 2006|David L. Ulin

"You Know Me Al" by Ring Lardner (1916). Lardner's deftly satiric novel, originally serialized in the Saturday Evening Post, comes constructed as a series of letters from a rookie pitcher to his best friend back home, offering a rare contemporaneous -- and utterly unsentimental -- glimpse of baseball in the dead-ball era before 1920.

"The Natural" by Bernard Malamud (1952). Inspired by the 1949 shooting of Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Eddie Waitkus, Malamud's first novel tells the story of Roy Hobbs, a player whose chance at redemption falls prey to corruption and greed. Forget the movie with its happy ending; this is an anti-myth about the dark side of the American dream.

"The Long Season" by Jim Brosnan (1960). Ten years before Jim Bouton's infamous "Ball Four," Brosnan published the first (and still best) baseball diary, a candid, smart and slyly funny look at his experiences during the 1959 season as a relief pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals and the Cincinnati Reds.

"Can't Anybody Here Play This Game?" by Jimmy Breslin (1963). The 1962 New York Mets were the most woeful team in baseball history, losing 120 games. In his second book, Breslin tells the often-ridiculous story of that season, from the on-the-field misadventures of Marvelous Marv Throneberry to the off-the-field ramblings of the Old Professor, Casey Stengel.

"The Glory of Their Times" by Lawrence S. Ritter (1966). Ritter essentially invented the field of baseball scholarship with this oral history, gathering the memories of early major leaguers like Rube Marquard, Edd Roush and Goose Goslin in their own words to develop a comprehensive group portrait of the first half-century of the game.

"The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop." by Robert Coover (1968). Less a book about baseball than an inquiry into obsession and imagination, Coover's densely lyrical novel involves a man who uses dice to play out the seasons of his own fantasy league -- until the fantasy takes over, blurring the lines between his inner and outer worlds.

"Five Seasons" by Roger Angell (1977). Angell is best known for "The Summer Game," in which he revolutionized baseball writing by bringing an essayist's eye to the ballpark. This collection, though, is even better, tracking the sport through the mid-1970s and opening with one of Angell's signature efforts -- an evocative meditation on the ball itself.

"The Celebrant" by Eric Rolfe Greenberg (1983). Greenberg's only novel is a historical pastiche about a young Jewish immigrant in turn-of-the-20th-century New York and his devotion to Giant pitcher Christy Mathewson, a dedication that borders on the religious, framing fanhood as an act of faith.

"Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy" by Jules Tygiel (1983). An extensively researched work of social history, Tygiel's book puts the integration of major league baseball in context, using the broader lens of American culture to portray Robinson as a civil rights pioneer.


-- David L. Ulin

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