The best books that place baseball in historical context

Who am I?

I split my writing time between fiction and non-fiction, the latter usually baseball-themed, and I’ve published two books of baseball writing. My reading is similarly bifurcated; there’s always a baseball book on my nightstand. I’ve also got a background in history, and I genuinely enjoy deep research (it’s a great way to put off, you know, writing). Baseball is such fertile ground, so ripe for deep dives—the nexus of sport, culture, entertainment, economics, labour relations, etc. The best baseball books are more than boxscores and transactions, they place the game in its historical context. Books that manage to synthesize all of the above are some of my favourite reads.


I wrote...

The Only Way Is the Steady Way: Essays on Baseball, Ichiro, and How We Watch the Game

By Andrew Forbes,

Book cover of The Only Way Is the Steady Way: Essays on Baseball, Ichiro, and How We Watch the Game

What is my book about?

The Only Way Is the Steady Way is a baseball memoir in scorecards and baseball cards, a recollection of the game’s biggest stars and most outlandish personalities, and introspective letters to a legendary player. These essays examine the meaning of baseball across international borders and at all levels of the game—from Little League diamonds to big league ballparks. Parents learn unexpected lessons at t-ball, cheap souvenirs reveal their hidden significance, and baseball’s beating heart is exposed through sharply beautiful observations about the history of the game. Forbes locates peace, reassurance, and a way to measure the passage of time with home run bonanzas, old games on YouTube, and especially in the unique career of beloved outfielder Ichiro Suzuki.

The books I picked & why

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

By Thomas W. Gilbert,

Book cover of 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).

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

By Thomas W. Gilbert,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked How Baseball Happened as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The fascinating, true, story of baseball's amateur origins. "Explores the conditions and factors that begat the game in the 19th century and turned it into the national pastime....A delightful look at a young nation creating a pastime that was love from the first crack of the bat."-Paul Dickson, The Wall Street Journal

Baseball's true founders don't have plaques in Cooperstown. The founders were the hundreds of uncredited amateurs - ordinary people - who played without gloves, facemasks or performance incentives in the middle decades of the 19th century. Unlike today's pro athletes, they lived full lives outside of sports. They…


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

By John Thorn,

Book cover of 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.

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

By John Thorn,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Baseball in the Garden of Eden as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Now available in paperback, the “fresh and fascinating” (The Plain Dealer, Cleveland), “splendid and brilliant” (Philadelphia Daily News) history of the early game by the Official Historian of Major League Baseball.

Who really invented baseball? Forget Abner Doubleday at Cooperstown and Alexander Cartwright. Meet Daniel Lucius Adams, William Rufus Wheaton, and other fascinating figures buried beneath the falsehoods that have accrued around baseball’s origins. This is the true story of how organized baseball started, how gambling shaped the game from its earliest days, and how it became our national pastime and our national mirror.

Baseball in the Garden of Eden…


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

By Cait N. Murphy,

Book cover of 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.

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

By Cait N. Murphy,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Crazy '08 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the perspective of 2007, the unintentional irony of Chance's boast is manifest—these days, the question is when will the Cubs ever win a game they have to have. In October 1908, though, no one would have laughed: The Cubs were, without doubt, baseball's greatest team—the first dynasty of the 20th century.

Crazy '08 recounts the 1908 season—the year when Peerless Leader Frank Chance's men went toe to toe to toe with John McGraw and Christy Mathewson's New York Giants and Honus Wagner's Pittsburgh Pirates in the greatest pennant race the National League has ever seen. The American League has…


Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy

By Jane Leavy,

Book cover of 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.

Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy

By Jane Leavy,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Sandy Koufax as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“The incomparable and mysterious Sandy Koufax is revealed…. This is an absorbing book, beautifully written.” —Wall Street Journal

“Leavy has hit it out of the park…A lot more than a biography. It’s a consideration of how we create our heroes, and how this hero’s self perception distinguishes him from nearly every other great athlete in living memory… a remarkably rich portrait.” — Time

The instant New York Times bestseller about the baseball legend and famously reclusive Dodgers’ pitcher Sandy Koufax, from award-winning former Washington Post sportswriter Jane Leavy. Sandy Koufax reveals, for the first time, what drove the three-time Cy…


The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron

By Howard Bryant,

Book cover of 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.

The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron

By Howard Bryant,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Last Hero as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This definitive biography of Henry (Hank) Aaron—one of baseball's immortal figures—is a revelatory portrait of a complicated, private man who through sports became an enduring American icon.
 
“Beautifully written and culturally important.” —The Washington Post
 
“The epic baseball tale of the second half of the 20th century.” —Atlanta Journal Constitution
 
After his retirement in 1976, Aaron’s reputation only grew in magnitude. But his influence extended beyond statistics. Based on meticulous research and extensive interviews The Last Hero reveals how Aaron navigated the upheavals of his time—fighting against racism while at the same time benefiting from racial progress—and how he achieved…


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