Fresh cut grass. Hot sun. Cold beer. It’s baseball season.
Or it almost is, anyway.
To celebrate the start of the MLB season – which we here at Lit To Lens are super excited about – we’ve looked to pop culture to remind us what we’ve missed in the five cold, dark, sad months since the 2016 season ended. What does that mean? We’ve pulled together a list of 10 books and movies for the baseball junkie.*
*Of course, I can only pimp for things I’ve seen and read. So no “The Pride of the Yankees” and probably others that you think should be on this list. Sorry Iron Horse fans.
Five Baseball Books You Need To Read
In America (never forget baseball is played differently all around the world!), numbers are king. And as teams make and spend greater sums of money on talent, finding more and better ways to dissect player ability can potentially uncover millions of dollars worth of value for teams. But baseball wasn’t always so analytically inclined. For years, players were paid based on their performance in a handful of simple statistics. However, as analysts learned more about the way the game is played, new and different statistics were accepted as better indicators of player value. And while ameteur analysts had developed and refined better statistical methods since the 1970s and 80s, it wasn’t until “Moneyball” that these advanced modes of analysis gained mainstream relevance. So if you want to know why baseball teams make the decisions they do, start with “Moneyball.”
Context often gets lost when we revisit books and movies beyond their initial period of release. Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four” was written in 1970 – before the Internet, when the most common access the common person had to the clubhouse was the newspaper. Bouton smashed that barrier with this work, a running diary of the 1969 baseball season, warts and all. Interested in the clubhouse dynamic? There’s plenty of pill popping in these pages. Care about extracurricular activities that baseball players might get into when the games end? There’s that too. It’s an essential athlete memoir that doubles as a pretty damn insightful baseball book.
Before she was a Pulitzer award winning historian, Goodwin was just a kid growing up in 1950s New York City. And a Brooklyn Dodgers fan. That’s important. In this memoir, she frames her childhood – including her relationship with her baseball loving father and often sick mother – against the backdrop of a run successful seasons put together by the Dodgers before they moved to Los Angeles in 1957. It’s a date that marks the end of an era for the Dodgers, as well as the end of Goodwin’s childhood.
From the writer of “Friday Night Lights” and noted wearer of leather, “Three Nights in August” was one of the first non “Calico Joe” baseball books I read as a kid. In this book, Bissinger gets access to damn near everything St. Louis Cardinals for a three-game series against the rival Chicago Cubs. He digs into the mind of Cardinals manager, Tony La Russa, one of baseball’s greatest tactical minds, turning a baseball game into a chess match in the process. I haven’t revisited this since I first read it, so I fear it may be a little dated by today’s analytical standards. Though, if nothing else, it’s an unprecedented look into when and why decisions are made during a baseball game. Turns out a sport many people find “boring,” requires hundreds of small decisions before each pitch that can often have monumental consequences.
I met Tom Dunkel a few years ago at one of the many book fairs held annually in Washington D.C. He had just published “Color Blind,” which I had never heard of, and was between conversations. I jumped in, fell in love with the idea of his book, which tells the story of an integrated barnstorming North Dakota-based baseball team in the mid-1930s (a decade before Jackie Robinson first played in the big leagues), and bought it just like that. It’s an incredibly well-researched and detailed work that appeals to more than just those who love the game of baseball – the social mechanics of the time, place, and people plays a large role in the narrative.
Five Baseball Movies You Need To Watch
As far as I am concerned, this is the finest piece of baseball pop culture to have ever been produced. “Major League” tells the story of a fictionalized Cleveland Indians season, in which the team’s owner has devised a plot to tank and subsequently move the team to Florida. She fills the team with a bunch of nobodies and washed-up scrubs. But they won’t go down without a fight. Funny, wacky, and just true enough to life, “Major League” is a must watch for anyone who actively gives two shits about baseball.
Listen, I can’t help it that the indispensable baseball movies are also bonafide classics. This is the world we live in. It doesn’t discount the truth that “The Sandlot” may be the best baseball movie of them all – why else did Hollywood essentially stop making baseball movies after 1993? You know the story. You still think about Wendy Peppercorn. You still daydream about stealing home like Benny the Jet. I know you do. You can’t convince me otherwise.
Kevin Costner is the king of baseball movies. Between this, “Bull Durham,” and “For Love of the Game,” Costner is no stranger to lacing up the spikes and “having a catch.” To me, “Field of Dreams” is the best of them (though “Bull Durham” is absolutely worth watching). There’s something about baseball and fathers and sons that keeps this from falling overboard into melodramatic fantasy and instead grounds it with a powerful sense of grief and loss. Yes, you are going to cry. Apologies to “A League of Their Own,” but there is crying in baseball.
It’s a little much, perhaps, but nonetheless it’s an important and influential baseball flick (and possibly the subject of a future Lit To Lens podcast?). Built on the shoulders of myth, “The Natural” tells the story of the fictional Roy Hobbes – “The best there ever was.” Seriously injured early in his playing career, Hobbes (as played by Robert Redford) breaks into the big leagues at nearly 40 and finds himself tied up in a dirty, corrupt system. Unlike in the novel, in the movie it all works out in the end.
I’ll branch away from the classics for my last choice, “No No: A Documentary.” On June 12, 1970, Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis threw a no-hitter, striking out six San Diego Padres and walking eight. In 1984 he claimed he did this while under the influence of LSD – at some points of the game, he says, he thought the home plate umpire was Richard Nixon. His claims have been impossible to verify, but they give you a pretty good idea of Ellis as a person: brash, cocky, a little irresponsible. The documentary, though promising the story of the LSD no-no, extends into a larger story about Dock Ellis, from young kid through his up-then-down playing career and onto his work helping addicts in his last years. Ellis was a fascinating guy and excellent documentary material who did so much more for the game of baseball (both as a player and a champion for African Americans in the sport) than pitch nine innings of no-hit ball while high.