A summer without baseball is cruel and unusual, and probably unconstitutional too. More to the point, it is unthinkable. Therefore, PKM’s Alan Bisbort and Benito Vila choose not to think about it. Instead, we think of the present suspended state of the game as a really long rain delay. So, while we wait it out, we have culled some cool baseball books and movies to tide us over until we can once again hear those two magic words: Play ball!
By Alan Bisbort and Benito Vila
Baseball, like April, can be cruel. Especially when April comes and then goes and there is still no baseball. And the chances that there will be any baseball soon are as slim as any of the rest of us being able to see, much less hit, an Aroldis Chapman fastball.
If there is a silver lining to this current plague—and we realize that’s a big “IF”—it is that people are reading books and streaming old movies. And though we have no baseball to watch, we have been blessed with a backlog of great baseball books and movies.
Of all the professional sports, in fact, baseball has the richest literary legacy. Sure, other sports have attracted forest-leveling shares of books and even a few classics. Football, for example, spawned Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes and Jack Kerouac’s Vanity of Duluoz. Soccer, known as football everywhere else, has spawned one major work, Among the Thugs by Bill Buford, about the “hooligans” whose off-field behavior recalls the mosh pit days of the LA punk scene. Boxing has its own cottage industry of prose, Norman Mailer and A.J. Liebling being the heavyweight chroniclers of the “sweet science” (never understood that nickname), while Nick Tosches’ Sonny Liston biography and Thom Jones’ collections of short stories, Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine and A Pugilist at Rest, at least deserving of a title shot.
Why has the so-called national pastime attracted such a literary legacy? Our theory: Baseball crosses age, race, class, time and gender lines. It’s a game every boy and girl at least tried to learn. It’s also played outdoors in the sunshine, and sometimes it’s played after the sun has faded from the sky (ask any parent trying to get a kid inside for dinner or bedtime on a midsummer eve). Is it too far-fetched to suggest that the paraphernalia and trappings of the game itself—bats, balls, bases, dirt infield, green outfield, bleachers—evokes something close to a national pastoral memory? That we were born knowing about Charlie Brown and his Peanuts gang’s hapless attempts to play the game?
Another curious aspect of baseball literature is that most of the best works are about pitchers—either seen through their eyes or written by them. Our theory: pitchers orchestrate all the action on the field. When they aren’t pitching, they’re sitting in the dugout studying the hitters, umps, outfield, fans—in short, they are what Henry James called “those people on whom nothing is lost.”
In the annals of books by pitchers, top honors go to Jim Bouton for Ball Four (1970), a funny, honest and human chronicle of his attempt to come back from an arm injury by learning a new pitch, the unpredictable knuckleball, which was also a perfect metaphor for his world view. Ball Four starts in the minor leagues—a comedown for the onetime Yankee star—and ends with an expansion team, the Seattle Pilots. Bouton took a lot of heat from baseball’s establishment for this book and even wrote a follow-up, I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally (1972). At the time, the owners were trying to break the back of the players’ union by bringing in a fat-cat Wall Street lawyer named Bowie Kuhn as commissioner. (Kuhn turned out to be a corporate criminal and, like his breed, scuttled off to Florida to avoid taxes and criminal charges). Check out Curt Flood’s The Way It is (1971) to see how well the owners’ plans worked out. Flood details the slave-trader mentality of team owners like beer magnate Auggie Busch, the owner of the St. Louis Cardinals and Kuhn’s biggest champion.
Another top pitcher’s book is Jim Brosnan’s The Long Season (1960). Brosnan was the Samuel Pepys of baseball and Bouton’s literary mentor. His two books—the other was Pennant Race (1962)—were bestselling chronicles of his life as a relief pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds in good years and bad. For their time, Brosnan’s books were, like Bouton’s, painfully candid, which probably explains why they still seem fresh upon rereading today. Another reason for their timelessness is that Brosnan, when he played ball, was a mature man and a gifted prose stylist—he later pursued a journalism career—not an overgrown boy.
Neither Brosnan’s nor Bouton’s books were ghostwritten or sanctioned by Major League Baseball, which only added to their truthfulness. In fact, the overenthusiastic Bouton wrote 450,000 words—1,500 pages!—for Ball Four, necessitating the intercession of editor Leonard Schecter. In addition to Bouton’s Ball Four and Brosnan’s The Long Season, here is our suggested lineup.
Moneyball by Michael Lewis (2003). Billy Beane was a baseball player with great promise who never lived up to the hype on the field. His competitive edge, however, exhibited itself when he became general manager of the Oakland Athletics and assembled competitive teams year after year by being smarter than anyone else in the game. For example, when no one else wanted Kevin Youklis, Beane saw his promise based entirely on the high number of pitches he saw in each at bat in the minor leagues, dubbing “Youk” the “Greek god of walks.” Beane’s iconoclasm and eccentricity comes through in this brilliant book, as do the humanity of players with unusual life stories, like the side-arming relief pitcher Chad Bradford who was incapable of throwing anything but strikes.
One Shot at Forever: A Small Town, an Unlikely Coach, and a Magical Baseball Season by Chris Ballard (2012). In 1971, Lynn Sweet, an English teacher with no coaching experience, led a rural, small-town Illinois high school baseball team to the state final. A popular teacher, and a pain-in-the-ass to the school’s administration, Sweet took over a losing team wearing hand-me-down uniforms. He encouraged his players to stand out. He allowed them to wear peace signs on their caps. He helped them get around their rigid Eisenhower-era parents. In One Shot at Forever, Chris Ballard, a Sports Illustrated writer, recounts how Sweet and his players overcame their circumstances, on and off the field, and created an unimagined sense of accomplishment for themselves and their community. This is a parable-in-a-sport, game-as-metaphor sort of book. It will make you want to drink beer, go fishing and have a catch with your girlfriend.
The Bullpen Gospels: Major League Dreams of a Minor League Veteran by Dirk Hayhurst (2010). There’s more to pro baseball life than playing in the major leagues. Drafted out of Kent State in 2003, Dirk Hayhurst spent the better part of six seasons pitching in the minor leagues, riding buses, sleeping in seedy motels and struggling to succeed. Each off-season brought him home to Ohio, back to the family he wanted to be free of and back to the locals who weren’t always cheering him on. An infrequently used long-reliever, coming in from the bullpen to pitch when the game was no longer close, Hayhurst––like Jim Bouton before him––became an astute observer of the odd world ballplayers live in. The Bullpen Gospels is full of the idiotic things grown men do to other grown men when they’re bored, things that involve spiders, testicles, socks, hookers and impeccable timing. Against long odds, Hayhurst was called up to the majors in 2008 and was soon out of the pro game, making his journey there all that more poignant.
The Game: One Man, Nine Innings, A Love Affair with Baseball by Robert Benson (2001). This is an adventure in artful storytelling as teacher Robert Benson shapes a set of personal reflections of being a baseball fan into the framework of a single nine-inning baseball game. Benson sets the scene early on––Nashville, Tennessee, April 18, 2000; a weekday match up between two AAA teams––and connects his experiences as a son, student, husband and father to the action on the field. Using excerpts taken from the writings of former Major League Baseball commissioner and Yale University president A. Bartlett Giamatti to transition between innings, the sap runs a bit thick at times. But in describing the fun he has in teaching his son and daughter to play, it’s impossible not to want to join in.
The Summer Game by Roger Angell(1972). This is the first installment of Angell’s four-decade chronicle of the game. Angell was a fixture at The New Yorker (his stepfather was E.B. White) and a throwback to William Shawn’s school of elegiac prose (he’s still alive and will be 100 in September). A typical Angell line, randomly chosen: “But sometimes, of course, what is happening on the field seems to speak to something deeper within us; we stop cheering and look on in uneasy silence, for the man out there is no longer just another great athlete, an idealized hero. But only a man—only ourself.” Too much of this can turn to treacle, as it does in many of Angell’s later stories. As for the day in-day out coverage of the human side of the game, I always preferred the Washington Post’s Tom Boswell whose columns were compiled in two good books, How Life Imitates the World Series (1982) and Why Time Begins on Opening Day (1984).
Babe: The Legend Comes to Life by Robert Creamer (1974). A wonderfully written story of a legend and his times, and a completely new concept—treating a sports figure as a cultural icon on the order of a writer or politician. The George Herman Ruth who emerges in this biography is a man who perfectly mirrors his times. America cut loose in the 1920s, the so-called Jazz Age, and the Babe’s prodigious appetites—for food, drink, public adulation—were ready-made for such frivolous feasting. He, like the nation, paid the tab in the next decade.
Baseball My Way by Joe Morgan (1976). The best instructional manual around, by the best second baseman the modern game has known, now a broadcaster in the booth who rubs many the wrong way. There were more visible and comical players on the Big Red Machine of Cincinnati—Pete Rose, Johnny Bench—but Morgan’s quiet intensity was positively frightening to behold. Especially when he played against your favorite team. Curse you, Red Morgan.
Nine Innings by Daniel Okrent (1985): A brilliant concept—a book-length explication of a random game between the Baltimore Orioles and Milwaukee Brewers—that works brilliantly. Each chapter covers one inning in the life of this game, with brilliant digressions about such marginal but lovable players as Lenn Sakata, Rick Dempsey and Stormin’ Gorman Thomas.
Veeck as in Wreck by Bill Veeck (1962). They don’t make team owners like they used to Veeck was a Renaissance man with the heart of a clown and the soul of an eccentric uncle. Bill Veeck was a master showman, an itinerant team owner (Browns, Indians, Cubs, White Sox) who believed that fans came first and that baseball was not only a sport but an entertaining spectacle. He had a wooden leg, drank beer like water and hung out with the Bleacher Bums. His book is filled with inscrutable observations, such as “If big league baseball was not that strong a wine, then victory was not that mad a music.”
Eight Men Out by Eliot Asinof (1963): This is the powerfully told tale of the 1919 Black Sox scandal, an epic event that could have broken the back of professional sports. Eight Men Out doesn’t moralize. Rather, it shows how the greed of the underworld combined with the desperation of the underpaid can turn even a pastoral game played by boys into something not unlike Les Miserables.
The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn (1972): This book explains why the Brooklyn Dodgers fans’ hearts are still broken. Like Ebbets Field, where their passion play once took place, it’s a monument to decency and unerring wisdom of the human heart. Born and raised on Brooklyn baseball, Kahn can’t help but make this story autobiographical, but he also writes the biography of a team (The Dodgers of Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, Gil Hodges) and a time, the 1950s.
Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy by Jane Leavy (2002). Sandy Koufax has always seemed like the ultimate Zen enigma of baseball. In his short career, he was all but flawless, as great a pitcher as has ever played the game. But then…he retired and, despite a low-key attempt at being a TV commentator, essentially disappeared for decades. This weaves the tale of his greatest moments on the field with his less than happy childhood as a shy Jewish kid from a Brooklyn broken home.
Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings by Bill Brashler (1973): Though fiction, this novel accurately depicts life on the Negro League barnstorming circuit during the bleakest days of segregated baseball. The book is dedicated to Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, and Cool Papa Bell, three of the best players in history, who also appear in the story. John Badham actually made a decent movie out of this in 1976, starring James Earl Jones and Richard Pryor. It’s the most truth portrait of a barnstorming team in the days of segregated baseball.
The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. by Robert Coover (1968): A proto-Rotisserie League set in Dante’s Inferno, Coover’s book is disturbing in all the right ways. Henry Waugh is an Everyman whose real life is falling asunder, and so each night he retreats into a fantasy baseball game he’d originally invented to kill some time. As he begins to invest his emotions upon every outcome, the game takes over his life like a psychological kudzu and, well, you can guess the rest.
Bang the Drum Slowly, by Mark Harris (1956): The story of a smart pitcher and his dumb, ill-fated catcher, this novel will draw tears from even the hardest-hearted fans. Any of Harris’s baseball novels are worth reading—The Southpaw, Ticket for a Steamstitch—but this one will make you cry. The closing pages of Bang the Drum Slowly rank right up there with The Great Gatsby. It’s one of the few great baseball books made into a good movie (see below).
A False Spring by Pat Jordan (1975): A minor league pitcher confronts the weighty issues of existence and gets the hell beat out of him by Elrod Hendricks in the bargain. Jordan bases this remarkable novel on his own experience as a promising pitcher in the Braves organization. The title refers to the collapse of that promise, as the cruel arm of fate tosses him unhittable curveballs, all of this beneath the impossibly huge skies of McCook, Nebraska.
The Great American Novel by Philip Roth (1973). Roth goes Portnoy on the National Pastime in this often hilarious but ultimately terribly sad cautionary tale. He follows a motley and hapless team called the (yes) Ruppert Mundys during their barnstorming days of World War II when all the able-bodied men were “over there.” I don’t often read, or quote, dust jacket copy, but this pretty much sums it up: “The Great American Novel might best be described as a mock epic saga, a counter-myth, which among other things, laughingly lays into the self-congratulatory legends of manliness, brotherhood and community upon which generations of Americans have been raised.” Even the title of the novel is a mockery…inside an enigma…inside a conundrum, etc.
You Know Me, Al: A Busher’s Letters by Ring Lardner, Jr. Until the Black Sox scandal, Lardner was baseball’s biggest, most perceptive fan. These fictional letters, first serialized in Chicago newspapers in the second decade of the 20th century have his patented ear and eye. He had one of the greatest ears in literature. Written in the form of letters from rookie pitcher Jack Keefe to his pal Al back in Indiana, this novel is his finest. Keefe was an American original, noted critic Jonathan Yardley—who wrote a superb biography of Lardner—whose “expression of the vernacular…had had a lasting effect on the way American writers describe American talk.” Lardner published an entertaining sequel called Alibi Ike.
The Natural by Bernard Malamud (1952): Even though Malamud was swinging for the metaphysical fences with this novel—attempting, as he did in all of his fiction, to pit good and evil—he got enough of the idiom and the action right to have come damn close to the perfect morality play. A bat called Wonderboy carved from a tree cloven by a thunderbolt?
It should be noted that two of baseball’s most original characters have never been adequately captured on the page: Yogi Berra and Casey Stengel. While Berra, longtime Yankees catcher, equipped the language with enough malapropisms to carry it through to eternity (“You can see a lot just by looking”), Stengel was not without his classic moments. A typical moment occurred when writer Ed Rumill visited the Yankees/Mets manager and his wife. The Stengels’ dog took an instant liking to Rumill and wouldn’t leave him alone during the meal.
“Your dog seems to have fallen in love with me,” Rumill observed, to which Casey responded, “Oh, it’s not that. It’s just you’re eating out of her dish.” This quip is from Robert Creamer’s Stengel: His Life and Times, which isn’t as good as his Babe Ruth book. Berra himself published some slight but entertaining memoirs. A new biography, Yogi: A Life Behind the Mask by Jon Pessah, which covers a lot of the same ground, has just been published, as well as My Dad, Yogi by his son Dale, a former Major Leaguer whose career was cut short by cocaine addiction (which he covers in this book).
Those who hate baseball pity those who love baseball. The haters see the slow-paced, weepy sentimentality of the game eating brain cells. That’s especially true when it comes to baseball movies, with deranged baseball fans everywhere quoting passages of The Natural, A League of Their Own, Field of Dreams and Major League as if they were reading from some sort of bible. One of the characteristics of baseball movies is that they’re big on small scenes, with bits of dialogue and certain scenes being more memorable than the rest of the movie. That sort of filmmaking can be seen in Bull Durham when the players convene on the pitching mound to conclude they need a live rooster, and “We’re dealing with a lot of shit.”
That all said, baseball movies seem to have a knack for extending the myth-making that is so much a part of the game. For example, 42 makes the point that number the Brooklyn Dodgers issued to Jackie Robinson was intended to be an insult. Players of his day rarely wore numbers above 25. The way Chadwick Boseman, as Robinson, mutters at the jersey immediately conveys the slight. Here is a set of baseball movies that are better than a single scene, that have stories that are easy to disappear into and that are worth taking the time to watch.
The Life and Times of Hank Greenburg (1998). Hollywood has had success with baseball biopics that bring in fans and non-fans alike, films like 1998’s Cobb and 1942’s Pride of the Yankees (The Life of Lou Gehrig), which earned 10 Oscar nominations. The Life and Time of Hank Greenburg (1998) is an independent film, a labor of love for Aviva Kempner, who wrote, directed and produced the film. Greenburg was a standout Detroit Tiger first baseman, five-time American League All-Star and a two-time Most Valuable Player. He was the first professional baseball to be inducted into the Army during World War II, enlisting in 1941 at age 30, at the top of his game. He was also the country’s most prominent Jew and an inspiration to his religious community. In The Life and Time of Hank Greenburg, Kempner mixes historical footage and interviews with family members, sports figures, fellow ballplayers and fans to fashion a 90-minute collage of intolerant America and to bring to life the character of a man Jackie Robinson once described as, “Class. It stands out all over him.”
The Bad News Bears (1976). Ah, the days when Hollywood would end a “kids” film showing 11- and 12-year olds spraying each other with beer. Or when a drunken, blue-Cadillac-convertible-driving coach (Walter Matthau) would be considered cool. The screenplay earned its writer Bill Lancaster, who later created the script for John Carpenter’s The Thing, a Writer Guild of America award. The best parts of The Bad News Bears are the excesses of its adults and the brilliance of its kids, who come across mentally quicker and more streetwise than their guardians will ever be. [The soundtrack by Sam Peckinpah collaborator Jerry Fielding is based loosely on Georges Linzt’s opera Carmen, but don’t hold that bit of artistry against this rowdy comedy.]
Damn Yankees (1958). In 1954, New York Yankee-loathing novelist Douglass Wallop published his personal Faustian dream, The Year The Yankees Lost The Pennant, a book that led to the 1956 Tony-winning Broadway musical, Damn Yankees. The storyline has middle-aged real-estate agent Joe Boyd sell his soul to the Devil, who comes along disguised as a traveling salesman named Mr. Applegate. In the deal, Boyd becomes a baseball star named Joe Hardy and helps his hometown team, the lowly Washington Senators, take the American League pennant [a prize the Yankees won 29 times between 1921 and 1964]. The cast of the musical became the cast of the movie, except for Hollywood heartthrob Tab Hunter taking on the role of Joe Hardy. Much of the book, the musical and the movie revolve around the temptress Lola, Applegate’s assistant, who sold her soul so that she might be considered the most beautiful woman in the world. Played by Gwen Verdon, and choreographed by Bob Fosse (later, Veron’s husband), Lola is as naughty as a 1950s nice girl can be, especially when singing “Whatever Lola Wants”. This film is 1950s camp at its best, even if the cast and crew didn’t mean to for it to come off that way.
Bang the Drum Slowly (1973). The slow death of a character isn’t typically the stuff of a movie you-gotta-watch, but when the dying role is played by a largely unknown Robert DeNiro, the drama requires a closer look. Based on a 1956 Mark Harris novel of the same name (see above), Bang the Drum Slowly follows the friendship of a dim-witted catcher, DeNiro, and a star pitcher, Michael Moriarty, playing on a fictional New York pro team. The Hodgkin’s disease diagnosis is their secret, and when the catcher is due to be released the pitcher uses his star status to hold out on signing a new contract unless his buddy stays on the team. The season starts out in the dumps, but when the rest of the team learns what’s really happening things turn around. In the end, DeNiro dies and Moriarty is left to voice the novel’s compassionate last line, “From here on, I rag nobody.” Offering a lot more than its buddy-movie storyline, the film features the sort of mischief teammates make up, including a fleece-the-outsider, poker-like card game called “Tegwar” or “The Exciting Game Without Any Rules”.
Fear Strikes Out (1957). Three years before portraying Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Anthony Perkins, in his first starring role, becomes bi-polar baseball player Jimmy Piersall in this surprisingly candid biopic. Driven to excel by his relentless father (the always great Karl Malden), Piersall, while playing for the Boston Red Sox, has a nervous breakdown and ends up in a mental institution. The love-hate father-son bond is brilliantly conveyed by these two fine actors. Fear Strikes Out is based on Piersall’s 1955 memoir and is also the directorial debut for Richard Mulligan, director of To Kill a Mockingbird. A productive player and a fan favorite long after opening up about his condition, Piersall ran the bases backwards when he hit his 100th career home run in 1963. No one had done that before and no one has done it since.
Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (1976). “Barnstorming” was a way pro baseball players made extra cash prior to the mid-1950s, creating traveling-all star teams [with players like Hall of Famers Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Dizzy Dean and Bob Feller] that took on all comers in small towns across the country. It was also a way those white players matched up against Negro League players, who also formed barnstorming teams. This film is a tribute to those lawless baseball days and features a fictional Negro League team led by Billy Dee Williams, James Earl Jones and Richard Pryor. Based on the personal histories of Negro League standouts Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Willie Mays, Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings is a bit like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. It has a great cast, an uneven script and gets into a whole lot of complete silliness.
The Battered Bastards of Baseball (2014). This documentary chronicles the on and off-field exploits of the Portland Mavericks, a 1970s minor league baseball franchise owned by Hollywood character actor (and Bonanza deputy) Bing Russell, father of actor Kurt Russell. Bing’s grandchildren, Chapman Way and Mclain Way, found an official team picture “like no other”, capturing players drinking beer with their shirts open and untucked. After they asked their Uncle Kurt about the photograph, they tumbled into a rabbit hole of baseball lore. It turns out Kurt was one of the players and future film director Todd Field (In the Bedroom) was a batboy. The Battered Bastards of Baseball contains footage of the team’s legendary 1973 300-player, open try-out, which attracted every sort of imaginable player from across the country. It also features conversations with those who were there, including Jim Bouton who pitched for the Mavericks in 1975 and invented Big League Chew [gum] in their bullpen. Living up to their name, the Mavericks did not play the game straight and the film shows Bing bringing in new baseball fans by bucking every convention of club management.
Rhubarb (1951). Baseball players are more superstitious than perhaps any other subculture on the planet. They also tend to loathe cats, which makes the idiosyncratic Rhubarb all that much weirder. The premise here is simple, the owner of a baseball team dies and leaves everything to his cat, Rhubarb. The team publicist, Ray Milland (of Lost Weekend and Dial M for Murder fame), becomes Rhubarb’s caregiver. He convinces the players the cat is good luck, and the lineup starts to hit when they pet Rhubarb before they go to the plate. A “rhubarb” is baseball slang for an argument, and there are several of those in this film as team ownership, cat allergies and gambling debts all factor into the outcome of this screwball comedy. The story for Rhubarb comes from a 1946 novel by satirist H. Allen Smith, and the film’s producer, Arthur Lubin, produced the Francis, the Talking Mule movie series and also gave us TV’s Mister Ed. [Editor’s note: A PKM writer discovered Rhubarb on late night TV under the influence of the LSD and insisted it be included here. He wasn’t sure it was real until recently.]
Sugar (2008). A film portraying the strivings of a Dominican pitcher eager to make it in the major leagues sounds like An American Tail set on a baseball field. But Sugar is never that, it’s more of an in-your-face awakening to the racial inequality and inculcated prejudice immigrants confront in trying to fit in to American society. The baseball sequences hold the movie together and playing the game is where its star, Miguel “Sugar” Santos, succeeds, stumbles and finds peace. For the baseball culture curious, Sugar openly depicts what goes on behind the scenes at Caribbean baseball academies and in America’s minor league towns.
The Stratton Story (1949) – True story of Texas farm boy Monty Stratton, played by Jimmy Stewart, who becomes a star pitcher for the Chicago White Sox, who accidentally shoots his own leg in a hunting accident. With support from his wife (June Allyson of course) his leg is amputated and replaced with a wooden leg, and he returned to the minor leagues.
For those who crave live baseball in 2020, the Korean Baseball Organization has officially opened its season. You can view games via ESPN.