Like a lot of boys my age, my interest in baseball began in 1961, largely due to the furor over Mick and Rog's pursuit of the Babe's record of 60 spuds in a single season. In those days there was only one ball game a week on the tube, every Saturday morning, and it was always a Yankees game, in black and white, which is all moot anyway since nobody in my neighbourhood (35th & Fraser in Vancouver) owned a TV.
Since there was no TV coverage available to me and the Sun newspaper coverage of baseball was minimal, it was a struggle to get a regular baseball fix. The Fraser Street Library had only two titles which I read about a dozen times each: The Eddie Mathews Story and The Life and Times of Casey Stengel. To this day I grimace at recollections of how Mathew's father nailed Eddie's baseball shoe to a plank in the ground so Eddie couldn't bail out, then threw baseballs at his shoulder to teach 10-year-old Eddie to not flinch at inside pitches.
Fortunately, I discovered one of my curmudgeonly old neighbours had boxes and boxes of Baseball Digest softcovers (15 cents each; 20 cents in Canada) dating back to the 40s. A deal was struck, each time I mowed his lawn or toted his trash cans to the curb or went to the store for cigarettes for him I could take home a couple of these books. (Yes, in those days kids were allowed to purchase cigarettes -- and his preference was '38-cents-a-deck, Buckingham rag ends').
I wish I still had those digests, but I don`t, they are gone the way of my treasured Topps baseball card collection. What I do have is close to 300 other baseball titles and another 400 magazines and programmes from every major league baseball team that I`ve hoarded over the past 50 years (not to mention my collection of 150 National Lampoon and Mad magazines). Last weekend, I began culling through these books and magazines in an attempt to create some storage space in my garage. So far, I haven`t been able to part with any of them, but it hasn't been a total waste of time, I've managed to put together a short list of a few of my favourites.
This list of six I would suggest be required reading for any ball fan ...
1) Ball Four (1970 Jim Bouton) ... the first book to blow away the shroud of media secrecy that `protected` fans from knowing what really went on behind the scenes with players and management. Bouton tells all, and in the process gets himself forever blackballed from professional baseball. Imagine, Mantle telling an autograph-seeking kid to 'take a hike' or Tony Kubek and Phil Linz fake-kissing on the team bus.
2) Moneyball (2004 Michael Lewis) ... now a movie starring Brad Pitt, relates how the GM of a small market Oakland As team was able to win the AL West three times in four years (and revolutionize the drafting strategy and monetary value of players in the process) despite struggling with one of the smallest budgets in all of pro sports.
3) October 1964 (1994 David Halberstam) ... on the surface its about the 1964 World Series, a little deeper it also is a chronicle of the two most successful franchises in baseball (Yanks and the Cards), at its core its a commentary about the civil unrest of the turbulent 60s.
4) Baseball Babylon (1992 Dan Gutman) ... shocking, bizarre tales dating back to the Black Sox scandal: murderers, racists, drug addicts, spies; inside dirt on DiMaggio, Pepitone, Boggs, Canseco and almost everyone in between. Chapters entitled Sex, Suicides, Murders, Drugs, Booze, Gambling, Mental Problems, Fights and Espionage.
5) Bleachers (1988 Lonnie Wheeler) ... a daily log of the exploits of the infamous Wrigley Field Bleacher Bums during the 1987 baseball season as the Cubs briefly flirt with a NL pennant.
6) Fair Ball (2000 Bob Costas) ... Costas shares his views on what is wrong with the game today and he even suggests ways to fix it. Sure, Costas is a smarmy nerd, but he does offer some good insights and its obvious he has a true love for the game. (How else could you describe someone, who as a kid memorized each of the pitchers of Mantles 536 dingers?)
And there you have it, six books, offering six different perspectives (spanning 40 years) as seen through the eyes of a player, a general manager, a historian, a smut peddlar, a fan, and a media personality.