Baseball Books: A High-Velocity Spring Lineup

When the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres take to the field in Seoul, South Korea, on March 20, the 2024 Major League Baseball season will be officially underway. The more traditional Opening Day is set for March 28, the date when all 30 MLB clubs will be in action.

That makes late March—with apologies to Christmas devotees—the most wonderful time of the year. To extend the Christmas comparison, spring training (underway as I write this) is a kind of longform Christmas Eve, and opening day is the holiday itself. And instead of a mere 12 days involving various gifts and many kinds of birds, the baseball season lasts 162 games plus the postseason (and also offers several kinds of birds, including my beloved St. Louis Cardinals, the surging Baltimore Orioles, and the feisty Toronto Blue Jays).

Each year, as the baseball season nears, I like to dive into a book or two about baseball. My starting lineup this year includes Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball by Don Hall (mentioned last month), Joe Posnanski’s Why We Love Baseball: A History in 50 Moments (I somehow missed his last book, The Baseball 100, so that’s on my long list, too), and A Damn Near Perfect Game: Reclaiming America’s Pastime by Joe Kelly, in which one of fieriest pitchers in the game today offers up an equally fiery critique of many aspects of today’s game and a vision for how it might be improved.

While my three choices for this season are all nonfiction, I also love many, many baseball novels. Here are a few I believe to be home runs.

Pafko at the Wall by Don DeLillo

This novella first appeared in the pages of Harper’s Magazine in 1992 and later became the opening section of DeLillo’s 1997 novel, Underworld. It is centered on the 1951 game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants that ended with Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard Round the World” home run. No one writes about crowds and the individuals who make them up like DeLillo does, and his fictionalized look at the crowd gathered at the Polo Grounds that day is, I believe, a masterpiece.

The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. by Robert Coover

Published in 1968, this novel is a dark journey into the mind of a man who is nearly undone by a tragedy in a fantasy game of his own creation. Coover, who was born in Charles City, Iowa, clearly had religious themes and ideas on his mind—including the relationship between God and his creations—but the book also offers some exceptional writing about baseball as Henry Waugh’s fantasy players come to life on the page. This is no lightweight romp on the baseball diamond, but it is a book that has lingered in my mind since I first read it decades ago.

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

An errant throw by a spectacularly gifted collegiate shortstop has repercussions for a range of characters in Harbach’s beautiful 2011 novel. Famed New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani declared that the novel belonged in the same list as some of the greatest baseball novels ever written, including Bernard Malamud’s The Natural and Mark Harris’s The Southpaw. I think that’s a fair comparison (and I’m pleased to have sneaked them onto this list). I recommend this novel to anyone who loves both baseball and literature.

The Iowa Baseball Confederacy by W. P. Kinsella

It isn’t as famous as Shoeless Joe, which was adapted for the screen as Field of Dreams, but I love this novel. The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, published in 1986, shares the magical realism that animates Shoeless Joe and imagines a baseball game in a small Iowa town which neither the visiting Chicago Cubs nor the team from the apocryphal Iowa Baseball Confederacy could bring to an end. Kinsella makes beautiful use of the fact that baseball is not bound by a clock (the new pitch clock notwithstanding) and that, therefore, any game could conceivably last forever. A Native American character is central to the book, and I wonder how the portrayal of that character might read today, a question that just might spur me to reread the book by the Iowa Writers’ Workshop grad. (Speaking of the Workshop, the great America novelist Philip Roth, who taught in the program, also penned a fascinating and engaging baseball novel published in 1973, titled The Great American Novel. It’s far from his most famous work, but it is worth a look for fans of the game.)

Here’s hoping your favorite team has a great season this year—and that you find a baseball book or two to enjoy as the season unfolds.