The book: “501 Baseball Books Fans Must Read Before They Die”
The author: Ron Kaplan
The vital stats: University of Nebraska Press, 405 pages, $24.95
Find it: At Barnes & Noble, Powells, the author’s blog , a site for the book with essential info, or the publisher’s website
The pitch: On our day-by-day, tear-off baseball desk calendar, we came across a sheet that asked us to match the writers to their works. There was “The Celebrant,” “Damn Yankees,” “Eight Men Out” and “Shoeless Joe” on one side. On the other: W.P. Kinsella, George Abbott and Douglass Wallop, Eliot Asinof and Eric Rolfe Greenberg.
In Kaplan’s list of “501,” three of the four are included. Kaplan admits he mistakenly misremembered to include Kinsella’s “Shoeless Joe” — the only baseball book his wife can ever recall reading, he said. It was a simple mistake. He thought it was already in there because it was so obvious.
We also thought it would be obvious to find the Abbot-Wallop entry of “Damn Yankees” — but we couldn’t because that’s the name of the Broadway play. It was based on the book “The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant” and Kaplan has that duly noted on pages 141-142.
“Giving the original novel an extra kick is the dust jacket drawn by Willard Mullin, renown for his Dodger Bum caricatures for the New York tabloids,” Kaplan writes.
And as it would turn out, there is a book of his work coming out later this summer == “Willard Mullin’s Golden Age Of Baseball Drawings 1934-1972” (due in August).
Again, thanks for the reference. Otherwise, we’d be lost.
It leads us to circle back to the interview we did with Kaplan to start this series, explaining the nuts and bolts of how his book came together apart from how the reader can find it to be useful.
An 23-page index, for starters, is essential since the books are neither listed by a ranking, only alphabetically under 14 subjects headings such as autobiographies, business, fiction, instructional, pop culture, reference, statistics and even those for young readers — the place where most of us began on this quest. We’d also actually like to revisit it to see if can track down those books we once checked out at the library and might now find them at abebooks.com, alibris.com or biblio.com, or at least see if someone else knows about them via librarything.com (thanks to Kaplan for that tip).
Kaplan said the first book he remembers reading as a kid was a biography of Babe Ruth. The rest of history. We’re still trying to track down Arthur Mann’s “The Jackie Robinson Story” written in 1951, with updated version as late as 1963. This is thanks to Kaplan’s jogging our own memory with that listing.
The key here, aside from the chapter organization, is all the succinct reviews done in a constructive way to let you decide it they’re really worth pursuing. Even then, Kaplan told us it didn’t irk him to include a book like Jose Canseco’s “Juiced” on his list because he thought it was important and “opened people’s eyes.”
In the same breath, he admitted to including books he didn’t necessary like, like the 2011 novel “The Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbach, which Kaplan said he thought was “so overhyped and people were falling over themselves to praise it, after he received this six-figure advance for it. When I read it, it was OK, but it was hardly ‘The Natural.'”
In his “501” book, Kaplan re-asks the questions about the worthiness of including Harbach’s book and finally says it “is a must-read, if only to lay these questions to rest.”
That’s the kind of commentary you’ll come to appreciate in this book, a true revision of others before him that have tried to catalog such a massive collection of literature (like Andy McCue’s 1991 “Baseball by the Books: A History and Complete Bibliography of Baseball Fiction,” which could use an refreshed sequel).
Writes Kaplan: “This one is quite personal for me. It was the first expensive gift book I ever received, a present from my late sister when I was a kid. At the time I was entranced by the beautiful photos and artwork by LeRoy Neiman, but in retrospect, there were some pretty good writers who contributed to the project as well,” essays by Roger Angel, Al Barlick, Joseph Reichler, Charles Maher, Frank Slocum, Milton Gross and Roy Blount Jr. It’s wrapped up by Dick Young with a piece “They Call That a Hit in Detroit,” about the thankless job of the official scorer.
The beauty is that, with all books, you can revisit them with a new set of eyes, see what context they hold for you decade after decade. There are plenty of those books in our own collection that may seem to be ordinary, but hold a special memory. One of them was Rob Neyer’s “Big Book of Baseball,” which reminded us many of the stories handed down over the years have often been distorted and really need fact checking.
“Living in these days of Retrosheet, you can’t conflate contributions anymore,” Kaplan said.
Same goes for books as you try to remember them.
Because of this book, we spot Christy Mathewson’s 1912 biography, “Pitching in a Pinch: Baseball From the Inside,” which Penguin Classics just re-released in 178 pages for $15. We bought it. Because we are now aware of it and its importance in the history of the game.
Inspired now, we may even pursue another copy of “Shoeless Joe,” in hopes it makes Kaplan’s revised edition someway. Along with anything written by Dirk Hayhurst, please.
Leave a spot, for sure, for “501.”
More to know:
== Daily news on who’s saying what about “501” on Kaplan’s blogspot just for discussion of this book
== One of those who wrote a blurb endorsing “501” is A.J. Jacobs, the author of such books as “The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World,” “Drop Dead Healthy” and “The Year of Living Biblically.”
== Much thanks to SABR for reprinting our interview with Kaplan
== A review on TheJoyofSox blog
== The Minor League Baseball official site has nine books it felt was left out for no good reason