The best novels about baseball

Terry McDermott Author Of Off Speed: Baseball, Pitching, and the Art of Deception
By Terry McDermott

Who am I?

I grew up in rural Iowa in the 1950s and 60s, a place far removed from most of the world. Our town had no movie theater, no library, no anything except for a truly excellent baseball field. So we played – day, night, with full teams or three brothers or all by yourself. We also were tasked by our father with caring for the diamond, which was the home park for the local semi-pro team, the Cascade Reds. When I left town – fled would be a better description – I took my love of baseball with me. I played baseball in Vietnam, watched games in Hiroshima, Japan, Seoul, Korea, LA, Chicago, Seattle, Kansas City, and St. Louis. I could go on like this for a long time, but I think you get the picture.

I wrote...

Off Speed: Baseball, Pitching, and the Art of Deception

By Terry McDermott,

Book cover of Off Speed: Baseball, Pitching, and the Art of Deception

What is my book about?

Off Speed: Baseball, Pitching and the Art of Deception is about one-third a history of the game, one-third a detailed examination of a single game – Felix Hernandez’s 2012 perfect game, and tucked in there somewhere a history of my personal fandom which means lots of Iowa, lots of fathers and sons and Seattle and Dave Niehaus and all kinds of other stuff. These are, of course, all mixed together so you have to read the parts you didn’t know you’d like to get to the parts you did. Tricky, huh?

The Books I Picked & Why

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It Looked Like For Ever

By Mark Harris,

Book cover of It Looked Like For Ever

Why this book?

This is the fourth and last of Mark Harris’s Henry Wiggen novels. All four novels are narrated in a charming colloquial voice by Wiggen, a star lefthanded starting pitcher for the New York Mammoths. The books trace the all-star career of Wiggin, from his rookie year through to the end of a long career. The time frame of the novels is the 1950s through the 1960s, moving beyond the innocence of the beginning (when players still had off-season jobs to pay the rent – Wiggen sold insurance) to a kind of melancholy at the end. The novel chronicles the end of Wiggen’s excellent career, an end Wiggen, as the wistful title suggests, never saw coming until too late. It’s funny, sad, and heartfelt.

Shoeless Joe

By W.P. Kinsella,

Book cover of Shoeless Joe

Why this book?

This novel is less well-known, and much more accomplished, than the movie based on it – Field of Dreams. Where the movie is sappy, the book is lyrical and warmly nostalgic for a time and place – rural Iowa in the 1970s. There is a clear magical realism vibe to the whole thing. The plot structure of the novel is a very shaggy dog involving a baseball field in a corn field, the kidnapping of a famous novelist and numerous dead people coming back to life. The book is big-hearted and much of the writing is luminous.

The Great American Novel

By Philip Roth,

Book cover of The Great American Novel

Why this book?

This is a minor work in Roth’s illustrious career, but it is pure Roth - hilarious and outrageous -  through and through. You can’t not love a novel that begins with an irreverent shot out to Moby Dick: Call me Smitty, is the novel’s first line, penned by a sportswriter and narrator Word Smith. Smitty’s story is the tragic career of the only Babylonian pitcher in major league history, a phenom named Gil Gamesh. (For those who are too far removed from your college classics courses, Gilgamesh is the great epic story of ancient Babylon.) Gil and his catcher concoct a plot to kill an umpire, Mike the Mouth, who never gives them an even break. The would-be murder weapon is a high fastball. Chaos ensues.

The Greatest Slump of All Time

By David Carkeet,

Book cover of The Greatest Slump of All Time

Why this book?

As a long-suffering fan of the Seattle Mariners, who have avoided success longer than any other North American sports team this century, how could I not love a novel whose central premise is what would happen if an elite professional sports team, the defending National League champs, fielded an entire line-up of players overwhelmed by clinical depression? This is the funniest sad book I’ve ever read. Well, maybe the second after Catch 22. All the characters play baseball, but the book is less about sport than it is about how humans survive a hostile world.

The Universal Baseball Association

By Robert Coover,

Book cover of The Universal Baseball Association

Why this book?

Coover’s prescient novel pre-dates the explosion of sports fantasy leagues by at least a decade, but places an imaginary league at the center of his story. Anyone who has ever played in fantasy leagues knows their power. The fantasy can take over your life, which is precisely what happens to J. Henry Waugh. The protagonist is a mild-mannered accountant by day, but the owner-operated-madman-in-charge of his self-created league at night. Eventually, it overwhelms his real life. This is a novel about the dangers of living inside your own head.