"Shoeless" Joe Jackson
I don't read football books on Super Bowl Sunday or basketball books during March Madness. But the World Series invokes one hundred years of tradition, so I always watch it with the sound off and with something to read pregame, postgame, and during rain delays. Here are seven World Series books I’ve read, reread, and will read again.
In 1954, Arnold Hano, a staff writer for Sport magazine and one of the stellar names of the golden age of American sports writing, decided to go to a World Series game. He went to the Polo Grounds, bought a ticket to the opening game between the New York Giants and Cleveland Indians—it was actually affordable back then—and had the good fortune to have a bird’s eye view of Willie Mays’s famous center field catch. When the game was over, Hano wrote, “A delicious languor stole over me. I felt—with all the tiredness and the gnawing in my stomach—wonderfully, savagely happy.” That feeling, as if preserved in amber, is still there for readers fifty-five years later.
The greatest sad baseball story ever told is that of the fixed 1919 World Series. Nothing written in the past forty-six years has told the tale better than Asinof's angry and eloquent book. The penurious and hypocritical Chicago White Sox owner Charles Comiskey drove his players—most notably “Shoeless” Joe Jackson—into the arms of gamblers, including Arnold Rothstein, who, as Jay Gatsby said about his literary counterpart Meyer Wolfsheim, “just saw the opportunity.” No one comes off as innocent in Asinof’s account, not Shoeless Joe, Comiskey, or even the first commissioner of baseball, Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis. In a lovely, elegiac ending, Asinof quotes Nelson Algren:
“For Shoeless Joe is gone, long gone . . .
And the bleacher shadows behind him.”
In a letter to a friend, Virginal Woolf, who wouldn’t have known a declaration of ball 4 from the Balfour Declaration, wrote, “Mr. Lardner has talents of a remarkable order. With the surest touch, the sharpest insight, he lets Jack Keefe . . . cut his own outline, fill in his own depths, until the figure of the foolish, boastful, innocent athlete lives before us.” In his introduction to the 1984 Vintage edition of this volume, Wilfrid Sheed wrote of Lardner’s protagonist (drawn from the author’s experiences while covering the 1919 White Sox), “Two things you know for sure about him: He will never give up and he will never die.”
Mickey Mantle talked about his life and career with several writers, but never better than with the Texas-based journalist Mickey Herskowitz. What is remarkable about this 1994 book is how clearheaded Mantle’s recollections were as he was dying of liver disease caused by years of alcoholism (he died the year after the book was published). Mantle, who knew he didn’t have long to live, comes across with humor and courage: “I can’t do my career over, and I can’t get back the seasons I may have lost. But I am taking a fresh swing at life now, and I am taking it cold sober.”
Ask writers for their list of the best baseball books of all time and The Boys of Summer will top every list. Kahn picked a great subject, the Jackie Robinson–era Brooklyn Dodgers, who won that team’s only World Series in 1955; a great title, from Dylan Thomas; and the right tone, autumnal, in recording the history of baseball’s most fabled team: “White teacher and black policeman nodded and moved separately form the place where Ebbets Field had stood. . . . Sweet Moses, white or black, who will remember?”
Donald Honig may be baseball’s greatest oral historian. As he writes in the introduction to this collections of interviews, “Every World Series in itself is a tale with beginning, middle, and end, and because there must be a winner, there must be a hero.” Where else are you going to hear Honus Wagner, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, and Sandy Koufax between the same covers? And it’s not just a book about heroes: Freddy Lindstrom, recalling the ground ball that bounced over his head in the 1924 World Series, says, “I didn’t do anything but just stand there. It was very easy. Anybody could have done it.” “It’s possible,” says Lindstrom, “that if it hadn’t been for that ball bouncing over my head . . . a lot of people would have forgotten I existed.”
You’ll want to read this decade-by-decade account of baseball history from cover to cover, but if you can’t get through the nearly thousand pages in one sitting, keep it near your television and dip in during the World Series commercials. (And that should give you time to reread most of it as well.) You may have no more understanding of baseball statistics than I do—this RBI thing still throws me—but you will have no problem appreciating the lucid authority of James’s prose. In the section “The Best World Series of the 1950s,” James writes, “The 1952 World Series was a seven-game series with six great games. If you’re interested, let’s wallow in the details for a while.” We are, we have, and we will again.
Allen Barra is a sports columnist for the Wall Street Journal and the Village Voice. His latest book, Yogi Berra, Eternal Yankee, was recently published by Norton.