Christmas Books Still to Read

“You sure got a lot of books, Daddy.”

This was the assessment of my five-year old daughter upon surveying my Christmas haul at approximately 11:03 a.m. on Christmas morning. I think she was somewhat mystified by the narrow range of gifts I received. Aside from a long-sleeve T-shirt, a candy cane, and a homemade reindeer figurine (or perhaps a squirrel, it was hard to tell), I mostly accumulated a large stack of books, as my daughter accurately pointed out. In comparison, she received a wide variety of things including a set of gel pens, a Rubik’s Cube, and a black and purple witch costume, a slightly unorthodox present, to be sure, but one she has made great use of over the ensuing weeks.

I appreciated my daughter’s concern about my homogenous collection of gifts, but I assured her I was quite happy. There is nothing like a stack of books to lovingly caress, gaze upon, and eventually read as the new year unfolds. The fact that I’m launching a sports book blog this year made the stack of books especially fortuitous.

My List of Books

As my daughter took full advantage of the one-day waiver to our “no chocolate for breakfast” family rule, I surveyed the set of books I received. Here is the list:

  • Three-Ring Circus by Jeff Pearlman
  • NBA 75: The Definitive History by Dave Zarum
  • Big Fella by Jane Leavy
  • The Glory of Their Times by Lawrence Ritter
  • How Baseball Happened by Thomas Gilbert
  • Ballpark by Paul Goldberger
  • The Machine by Joe Posnanski
  • A Fan’s Guide to Baseball Analytics by Anthony Castrovince

Now, it is clear from this list where my strongest loyalties lie: the worlds of baseball and basketball. These are the sports I played most often during childhood (with tennis a close third) and they were the sports that most captured my imagination. From an early age I was drawn into the history, romance, and statistics of baseball, the artistry and energy of basketball. I followed each season religiously and absorbed the history of the great teams and players from past years. I considered it a mark of pride as a child that I could recite World Series champions or NBA Finals winners for every season beginning in 1980. I am now trying to pass this knowledge to my daughter so she can carry on the family tradition (my wife just rolls her eyes).

Three-Ring Circus

One of the teams I rooted for as a child was the Los Angeles Lakers. Growing up in Oregon, most of my friends were fans of the Trailblazers. I remember my middle school even having Trailblazer Days where students and teachers were encouraged to wear team gear as a show of support. Naturally, I wore Lakers attire, to the consternation of my homeroom teacher.

Given this childhood loyalty to the Lakers (and my continued interest in the franchise), I was thrilled to receive Jeff Pearlman’s Three-Ring Circus as one of my Christmas books. I greatly enjoyed two of his previous books: Showtime, about the 1980s Lakers, and Sweetness, his biography of Walter Payton. Pearlman is a skillful writer and a savvy reporter able to unearth behind-the-scenes information that breathes life into a story. Having already finished Three-Ring Circus, I can safely say that it was on par with his previous books. It was probably most revealing in its treatment of early-career Kobe Bryant. Pearlman recounts many tales of an arrogant, selfish, aloof, and immature young man, which may be surprising to some who remember the largely positive image of Kobe—devoted father, creative artist, women’s basketball supporter—that appeared in many media stories at the time of his 2020 death. I suspect the unflattering description of Kobe will cause some readers to love Pearlman’s book, and other readers to hate it. I’ll look forward to writing more about it in due course.

NBA 75

The other basketball book I received, NBA 75, was larger than I expected, not quite a coffee table book, but decidedly bigger than your average hardback volume. I’m a sucker for these kinds of historical retrospectives. The book includes an essay and some wonderful photography for each year of the 75-year history of the NBA. The book may not include any groundbreaking revelations, but I’m hoping it provides a bit of fun as I leaf through each page later this year.

Big Fella

The rest of the books are an assortment of baseball titles I have been meaning to read. Big Fella is the third installment in Jane Leavy’s series of baseball biographies. I thought her book on Sandy Koufax was well done and I’m looking forward to reading her volume on Mickey Mantle, which I have on my shelf. Babe Ruth is perhaps Leavy’s most challenging subject so far. What does one say about arguably the most famous baseball player of all time? What new information will Leavy unearth? Interestingly, while I feel I know a lot about the Babe simply by being a baseball fan and reading a certain amount of historical content over the years, I have never read a full-length biography and don’t really know the details of Ruth’s story. I can think of few better ways to change this fact than to read Leavy’s biography.

The Glory of Their Times

Another of the books is Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times. I began reading this a few weeks ago, and not without trepidation. A book that captures the golden age of baseball through an oral history of the players who played, it invariably appears near the top of most “best of” baseball book lists. I was afraid I might be slightly underwhelmed by the book and left in the awkward position of having to place it on the Display Shelf rather than the Showcase Shelf. Part of the problem is my mixed feelings about oral history books. They can too easily feel disjointed and lack coherency. Their value clearly lies in the primary source material they contain, but unless that material is deeply compelling on its own, the book can fall flat without a skilled writer weaving together the primary sources, providing background and context, and pushing forward the narrative. I’m pleased to report that my early thoughts on Ritter’s book are favorable. There is certainly a chance it lives up to Red Barber’s assessment (“the single best baseball book of all time,” Barber says on the front cover of many editions). I’ll report back when I’m finished.

A Fan’s Guide to Baseball Analytics

Another book I’m eager to start is A Fan’s Guide to Baseball Analytics by Anthony Castrovince. I’m curious to see if he can avoid dumbing down the material while still presenting it in an accessible way. I also want to see how the book serves as a marker in the ongoing history of sabermetrics. The analytics revolution in baseball (not to mention in other sports) has fundamentally changed how front offices evaluate players, assemble teams, and dole out contracts. As analytical methods and advanced statistics in baseball have slowly become more mainstream over the last 15 years, the game itself has also changed, as has the fan’s experience of watching a game. Some baseball writers lament the fact that the game is now stagnant and unappealing to many potential viewers. The game was originally designed for pitchers to pitch to contact, for batters to put the ball in play, and for fielders to be active throughout an inning. Now, the game features fewer and fewer base hits, lots of strikeouts, and entire innings where fielders do very little. Pitchers increasingly maximize velocity while pitching fewer and fewer innings and hitters prioritize upper-cut swings, knowing a large number of strikeouts is an acceptable trade-off if the result is more home runs.

I don’t think Castrovince’s book will address the more philosophical questions of how analytics has impacted gameplay. Still, such questions are always in the background of any book written on advanced statistics, even one whose primary purpose is making those statistics more accessible to the average fan. What is intriguing to me is what happens when writers like Castrovince succeed in their goal of helping fans understand the language of sabermetrics. Will those fans, having come to understand and accept advanced statistics, more readily embrace the current gameplay in baseball as a necessary byproduct? Or will fans be convinced that advanced statistics will push baseball to greater heights in the future despite the occasional problems with gameplay?

How Baseball Happened and Ballpark

Two of the remaining books in my Christmas stack appeared on my radar while listening to the SABR podcast (one of my current favorites). Thomas Gilbert’s book, How Baseball Happened, promises to take readers back to the nineteenth-century origins of baseball in the United States. By debunking many of the accepted stories about how the game developed (and there are quite a few to debunk), he hopes to give readers a more accurate and insightful understanding of how baseball became our national pastime. Paul Goldberger’s Ballpark is one part history and one part architecture. A recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in Criticism, Goldberger sets out to show, among other things, how ballparks bring together both urban and rural elements, and in so doing, represent not only something about baseball, but about the American ethos as well.

The Machine

Finally, I’m looking forward to Joe Posnanski’s The Machine because I know Posnanski is a gifted storyteller with a deep love for baseball. His relatively recent project for The Athletic where he ranked and wrote about the top 100 baseball players of all time was one of the best things I read in 2020. Even though I don’t have a special interest in the Cincinnati Reds, I’m fairly certain I will enjoy The Machine.

Happy Reading for 2021

All in all, it was not a bad haul for Christmas. If all goes well, I’ll have a review of each book on the blog by the time the year is out.

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