Opening Day for America

This Monday marks one of the most significant dates in the calendar year: Opening Day for Major League Baseball.

There is, of course, no greater sport than baseball—a fact that is one of those indisputable laws of the universe. It is incumbent upon those who disagree to determine where and why they are lacking—to correct their own, shall we say, error.

One of the many reasons why baseball is the greatest sport is that it is so quintessentially American, fittingly spreading to the rest of the world at roughly the rate of the spread of freedom and democracy—values likewise so quintessentially American. It is fitting that the 20th century, which Henry Luce termed “the American Century,” was also the Baseball Century.

Baseball is in the blood of America, part of our heart and soul. It tells us, teaches us, about this country and its history. It is also the most cerebral, the most thoughtful, of all sports.

Not coincidentally, then, baseball has given rise to many intellectual musings by authors and countless good books. Here at Grove City College, more than one of our professors has been known to hold forth on the subject.

In the spirit of the season, I have surveyed several of our faculty for their recommended list of must-read baseball books. As a contribution to the intellectual life of American culture, I have decided to share their responses:

Gary Smith, professor of history. Reed Browning’s Cy Young: A Baseball Life is a meticulously researched biography of the game’s most winning pitcher.The Faith of Fifty Million: Baseball, Religion, and American Culture analyzes baseball as a civil religion and sheds light on American character and attitudes. Benjamin Rader’s Baseball: A History of America’s Game is perhaps the best short overview of our national pastime, while Charles Alexander’s Breaking the Slump: Baseball in the Depression Era examines the problems baseball faced in the 1930s. Jules Tygiel’s highly acclaimed Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy explores Robinson’s pioneering role in integrating baseball.Steve Jacobson’s Carrying Jackie’s Torch chronicles the struggles of the black baseball players who followed Robinson, including Ernie Banks, Hank Aaron, and Lou Brock.

Jim Bibza, professor of religion. Moneyball by Michael Lewis is a must-read for anyone who wants to see how sabermetrics is utilized by today’s newer general managers; it goes a long way toward explaining how a small-market team such as the Oakland A’s can be so good so consistently. Game of Shadows by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, reporters for the San Francisco Chronicle, is the most detailed book on the Barry Bonds / BALCO steroid scandal. For superb in-depth articles on all 30 teams, with projections for 2007, nothing beats Baseball Prospectus 2007, by editors Chris Kahrl and Steven Goldman.  The 2006 book, Baseball Between the Numbers: Why Everything You Know About the Game is Wrong, by editor Jonah Keri, is fascinating. For those who would like to get a handle on the best minor-league prospects, the three best books, in my opinion, are Baseball America’s 2007 Prospect Handbook, John Sickels’ The Baseball Prospect Book 2007, and Deric McKamey’s 2007 Minor League Baseball Analyst.

Michael Coulter, professor of political science. George Will’s Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball is perhaps the best book of the 1990s on baseball. Will shows us that baseball—while beloved by children—is not merely a kids’ game. He demonstrates the work that must be done to become an excellent baseball player. He devotes a chapter each to managers, pitchers, batters and defenders with each chapter centered around a single figure. The best book of the current decade is Baseball Between the Numbers, edited by Jonah Keri. Each chapter poses a question about the game and then offers analyses of possible answers. The work helps to understand what makes for a winning team and which players contribute more to winning.

Bill Birmingham, professor of computer science. For fans, the first week of April is the greatest time of the year: no marks in the L column, all the pitchers look great, and the hitters—the hitters are going to have their greatest year yet! We rationalize all the problems at spring training as due to rookie mistakes and second-rate players trying to make the squad. Depending on the team, bliss lasts anywhere from two weeks to two months—the exception being Yankee fans: no matter how bad the dog days of summer get, Yankee fans get redemption in September (tough luck, Boston). For us Pirate fans, it may only be a matter of days until we realize it will be just like last year. Here’s a list of Birmingham favorites: George Will, Men at Work—an excellent writer writing about his excellent passion. David Halberstam, October 1964—Mantle, Brock, and Gibson; what more do you need? Darryl Brock, If I Never Get Back: a Novel—travel back to the 1860s and tour with the Cincinnati Red Stockings. With these Birmingham family favorites, enjoy another season of the greatest game ever played, the perfect blend of individual and team play, stamina, and intelligence. Pope Benedict XVI has opined that God listens to Mozart; of this, I have no doubt: I can only image how good it sounds on Heaven’s Organ between innings.

Finally, here are a few of my own, from the Kengor bookshelf: Al Stump’s biography of Ty Cobb, Cobb: A Biography, which needs to be read to be believed; Robert Creamer’s Baseball in ‘41; David Halberstam’s The Teammates; Philip J. Lowry’s Green Cathedral’s; Bob Smizik’s The Pittsburgh Pirates; Eliot Asinof’s Eight Men Out; Lawrence Ritter’s Lost Ballparks; William Hageman’s Honus: The Life and Times of a Baseball Hero. Also, I recommend just about any book on Ted Williams, who was John Wayne in real life. If Ted had pursued political office instead of baseball, his face undoubtedly would today be chiseled into Mt. Rushmore. The most up-to-date biography on Williams is Leigh Montville’s Ted Williams: The Biography of an American Hero.

This is good collection of fine books on the finest of all sports. Only baseball would be worthy of its own reading list. There is no better way to pass the time this summer than to read books and watch baseball, or, better, to read books about baseball—a way to pass the time that ought to be every American’s national pastime.