You know that terrible feeling you have when you hear that long-married friends are getting divorced? I have felt something like that many times in the last few years when personal acquaintances or writers I’ve read with great pleasure announce their terminal disenchantment with baseball—Major League Baseball, that is, which I have followed passionately since 1954, when I was six years old. At that time, I was living in Pomona, California, with my mother, my grandmother, and my younger brother. Mom and Grandma weren’t remotely baseball fans (though Mom later became a devout convert, thanks not least to Vin Scully), and Rick was still too young (soon he was a fellow lover of the game). But the world has changed a lot since then, for better and for worse, and baseball has changed with it—to the extent that many formerly devoted fans have soured on it, while many younger people have never connected with it in the first place.
Let’s suppose that you haven’t quite gotten to the point where you’ve simply stopped paying attention. You know the MLB playoffs start today, and that eventually (!) we will reach the World Series. You’re frustrated with a lot that’s going on, but you still care. For fellow fans like you, here’s a small selection of books to read as the playoffs proceed—books that will help you remember why you have loved the game for much of your life. (I have deliberately excluded classics such as Lawrence S. Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times, which you may well have read more than once, as I have.)
First up is The Boston Braves, by Harold Kaese, a volume in the wonderful series of team histories published by Putnam’s in days of yore. This particular installment, published in 1948, covers the history of the franchise from its founding in the nineteenth century through the 1947 season. Ironically, the Braves won the National League pennant in 1948 (losing the Series to the Cleveland Indians in six games). Their final season in Boston was 1952, after which they moved to Milwaukee (and then, starting in 1966, to Atlanta, where they are still playing today).
Reading this breezy history of the Boston Braves will not cure all that ails you as you contemplate the State of the Game today. But it will offer a sense of historical perspective, and there are some very good stories along the way: above all, the saga of the “Miracle Braves” of 1914, who came back from an atrocious start to win the National League pennant and then sweep the heavily favored Philadelphia A’s in the World Series. I hope this book will prompt you to read others in the Putnam’s slate of team histories. (I acquired my copy decades ago when the main branch of the Pasadena Public Library made the lamentable decision to get rid of their volumes in this series; my dear friend Bill Tunilla and I bought several books in the lineup for practically nothing.)
Next up, Frederick J. Lieb’s The Story of the World Series, in the “New Revised Edition” of 1965 (the first edition had appeared in 1949). Lieb was ubiquitous when I was growing up, a sportswriter based in New York during his heyday, and I read a lot by him. The chapters in this volume are short; read one a night (“When Matty the Great Was Supreme,” “Fred Snodgrass Makes His Costly Muff,” “Everything Happens to the Dodgers,” “Babe Calls His Shot,” and much more, culminating in “The Yankees Lose Two in a Row,” in 1963 and 1964). Here you get a sense of the evolution of the game as it appeared from the perspective of a veteran reporter, unaware of the great changes that would soon begin.
Finally, Charles C. Alexander’s John McGraw, published in 1988. McGraw was an excellent player and one of the greatest managers ever. His career bridged the “brawling” era of pre-modern baseball, the “Dead Ball” era of the early twentieth century, and the game as it evolved thereafter, recognizably in continuity with Major League Baseball as I first knew it in the 1950s. Alexander’s book is roughly 325 pages long, not counting the notes, bibliography, and index. The print is tiny. But this book will repay your patient attention. McGraw was a fascinating figure, a man of contradictions, small in stature but larger than life.
I hope you’ll check these books out. And who knows? Maybe they will send you to more volumes of baseball history, which will tide you through the Hot Stove months to spring training for the 2023 season.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.
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