Whether or not you’re an avid follower of Major League Baseball (MLB), what you must accept about the game is its reflection of (and in) American society and popular culture. Not only is the MLB now one of the power four of the biggest money-spinning sports in the U.S., it’s also a sport that’s been heavily a part of U.S. politics.
Few nostalgic and patriotic Americans could forget that MLB professionals helped create the most powerful labor union in the States to date. Baseball teams have also been a display of strength for small, underdog towns and cities while providing platforms for players, coaches, and owners alike to take center stage. Some of the best baseball books of all time are those that manage to encapsulate the power of baseball in American society, giving their readers plenty of pause for contemplation–and celebration. The titles below offer a fascinating outlook on our wider society, from immigration and race, to urbanization and politics.
Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life (2000), by Richard Ben Cramer
The Hero’s Life documents DiMaggio’s exceptional baseball feats and his enchanting marriage to Hollywood superstar Marilyn Monroe. DiMaggio remains an idol for Yankees fans to this very day. Even though they are tipped to be one of the favorites to win this year’s World Series, boy, could they do with DiMaggio’s ballplaying skills at bat and in center field today. The book details DiMaggio’s early life, raised by his Sicilian immigrant father, who worked in San Francisco as a fisherman. From such humble beginnings, DiMaggio’s rise to the top of MLB was quite spectacular, becoming one of the biggest names in American sport, attracting the attention of celebrities, showgirls, mobsters, and sports journalists alike.
Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos, and the Color Line (2007), by Adrian Burgos, Jr.
More than a decade ago, writer Adrian Burgos, Jr., helped to shine a spotlight on the impact of Latin American players in U.S. professional baseball. Few historians in the baseball world document the impact of Cuban and Puerto Rican players quite like Burgos, Jr., who delved deep to discover the racial hurdles that Latin American players had to overcome to succeed in the major league. Burgos discovered that some Latin American players managed to “pass” as white players, while some black players managed to “pass” as Latin American players, based on which racial group was accepted in certain towns and cities.
Eight Men Out: The Black Sox and the 1919 World Series (1965), by Eliot Asinof
If you’ve never heard about the fixing scandal between some of America’s most prolific gamblers and a clutch of Chicago White Sox players prior to the 1919 World Series, be sure to give Eliot Asinof’s account a read. Asinof describes the drama as if he was present at the time, just as the controversy began to unfold. The lengths to which some of the White Sox players went to throw in the towel and lose the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds is remarkable. We’re not just talking substance use and “corked” bats either. Asinof details the moment the fix was rumbled by a local newspaper reporter and the incredible trial of the players in 1921 that saw them banished from the major leagues forever.
Babe: The Legend Comes to Life (1974), by Robert Creamer
Although Joe DiMaggio might have been more “box office” than Babe Ruth, Ruth was certainly the most prized player in the history of American baseball. That remains very much the case today. Back when Sports Illustrated was a print magazine, when it meant something to the sporting world, veteran reporter Robert Creamer was tasked with telling the story of the emergence of a Boston Red Sox legend. Ruth’s career spanned 22 seasons in MLB (1914-1935), and Creamer doesn’t just document the good times during the “Roaring Twenties.” Creamer also outlines Ruth’s struggles towards the back end of his career with the New York Yankees and the Boston Braves, with his career coming to a disappointing end and without a chance to stick around in baseball after retiring from playing.
Stolen Season: A Journey Through America and Baseball’s Minor Leagues (1991), by David Lamb
Former political reporter David Lamb opted to take a summer away from the world of politics and instead spent his time indulging in one of his other passions in life: minor league baseball. Following a 16,000-mile round trip across the States, Lamb documented his journey from west to east, analyzing the social and cultural importance of minor league baseball to smaller towns and cities that live for the thrill of the game. Partway through Lamb’s tour, he meets his baseball idol, Eddie Mathews, a former Atlanta Braves great. Mathews met Lamb whilst coaching the Braves’ AA team in North Carolina.
Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game (2003), by Michael Lewis
The “Moneyball” concept in baseball is one of the most fascinating in all professional sport. The use of statistics and player data hadn’t been explored by any of the MLB teams prior to Billy Beane’s innovation with the Oakland Athletics. Michael Lewis shines a spotlight on the As who won 20 back-to-back games in the 2002 season, which caught the eye of many in MLB, especially considering Oakland had arguably the smallest payroll budget in the entire major league. Beane’s appreciation for statistics helped the As cherry-pick players that were undervalued by their competitors and who could perform when the going got tough. So amazing were the As achievements that a Hollywood movie was made about them in 2011.
Fear Strikes Out (1955), by Jim Piersall and Al Hirshberg
Arguably one of the most hard-hitting of all baseball books, Fear Strikes Out documents the early professional years of baseballer Jim Piersall, who played as an outfielder for the Red Sox. Piersall suffered a mental breakdown at the tender age of 22, having struggled to cope with the fame that came with life on the field. The book documents his fascinating and uplifting recovery, with the aid of his wife, his medical team, and his Red Sox team-mates. Piersall overcame the odds to enjoy a hugely successful 17-year career in MLB.