The best books that place baseball in historical context

The Books I Picked & Why

How Baseball Happened: Outrageous Lies Exposed! The True Story Revealed

By Thomas W. Gilbert

How Baseball Happened: Outrageous Lies Exposed! The True Story Revealed

Why this book?

Gilbert is both a shrewd historian and a wonderful writer, and in this deeply researched volume, he details how and, convincingly, why the rise of the emerging urban bourgeoisie, extant political currents, and the expansion of railroads took the game of baseball from a game played in New York City and Brooklyn to the most popular sport among both players and spectators from one side of the continent to the other (and beyond).


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Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game

By John Thorn

Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game

Why this book?

John Thorn—the official historian of Major League Baseball—is a living encyclopedia, and this is his definitive tome on the game’s nineteenth-century beginnings, from the amateur era to the rise of the first professional leagues. This and Gilbert’s book might be viewed as companion pieces—indeed, Thorn wrote the introduction to How Baseball Happened—and both dispel the ridiculous myth that the game was invented in Cooperstown, New York by a young man who would grow up to be a Civil War hero, but Thorn goes deep on the fascinating story of who created that myth, and why, which is a tale so odd it’s nearly novelistic.


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Crazy '08: How a Cast of Cranks, Rogues, Boneheads, and Magnates Created the Greatest Year in Baseball History

By Cait N. Murphy

Crazy '08: How a Cast of Cranks, Rogues, Boneheads, and Magnates Created the Greatest Year in Baseball History

Why this book?

We move into the twentieth century with Murphy’s book, a chronicle of a strange and thrilling season smack in the heart of the Deadball Era, when the two leagues we know today—the National and American—had solidified, their champions meeting each autumn in the still-new World Series. Crazy ’08 focuses on the pennant races that year, especially the National League race, between the Chicago Cubs, New York Giants, and Pittsburgh Pirates, which reached its fevered crescendo with a game that featured what’s known as “Merkle’s Boner.” But the book’s broader concern is the atmosphere of political corruption, racial strife, crime, and social upheaval which surrounded baseball. Murphy’s research is deep, but the book reads like journalism because she’s got a storyteller’s heart.


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Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy

By Jane Leavy

Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy

Why this book?

Jane Leavy has written three of the best baseball biographies ever published, but if I had to recommend just one, this is it (but you should definitely also seek out her books on Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle). Her ostensible subject here is the greatest left-handed pitcher of all time—“the left arm of God”—his story told in parallel with the unfolding of his perfect game against the Cubs on September 9, 1965, but she’s also writing with great insight about the 1960s, race, celebrity, labor rights, and American Judaism. The book is a marvel, all the more impressive when viewed in light of Koufax’ notorious aversion to public revelation. But Leavy is a titan, and only she could have written it.


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The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron

By Howard Bryant

The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron

Why this book?

Henry Aaron’s career spanned the Negro Leagues, the Civil Rights movement, baseball’s expansion era, the turbulent ’60s, and the freaky ’70s, all while dealing with intractable racism, especially as he neared Babe Ruth’s home run record. Aaron’s autobiography, I Had a Hammer, is certainly worth reading, but author and NPR correspondent Howard Bryant is the right man to put Aaron’s life and career in historical perspective. The Last Hero is an intelligent and incisive social history of the second half of the twentieth century, as well as a stirring account of a heroic baseball life. Incidentally, Bryant’s next book is a biography of Rickey Henderson, which promises more of this goodness. I can’t wait.


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