It's nearly autumn, and that means football. As an enthusiast of all sorts of different things--like Nilla Wafers, Naomi Novik books, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, just to name a few--it would not be right for me to disparage anyone else's interests. But can football lovers really call themselves "fans"? "Fan" is, of course, short for fanatic. Fanatic? When there are only sixteen games a year? That's not commitment. That's not obsession. (Oops, there's that word again.) Sometimes I think the only true fans are baseball fans, because who else keeps the faith for 162 games a year?
OK, maybe soap opera afficionados. But there's a reason that Annie Savoy talks about "The Church of Baseball." So on a day when the Twins are only a game out of first place--wait, a game and a half? $&@#ing bullpen--I give you my list of the five best baseball books.
1. The Iowa Baseball Confederacy by W.P. Kinsella. While Shoeless Joe gets most of the attention (and the film adaptation), Confederacy is the weirder and more moving of the two books. Concerning time travel, angels that take at-bats, and a 2,000-inning contest between the Iowa Baseball Confederacy All-Stars and the 1908 Chicago Cubs, the story features cameos by Theodore Roosevelt, Leonardo da Vinci (as the true inventor of baseball), and of course the immortal double play combo of Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance. Kinsella presents baseball as magic in and of itself--unbounded by a clock, with home runs sailing off towards infinity--and this book might just make you believe it.
2. You Know Me Al: A Busher's Letters by Ring Lardner. Holden Caulfield excluded Lardner from his list of phonies, and in Jack Keefe he found his literary model. Lardner tells his stories about Jack in the form of letters from the young pitcher to his old friend Al, and Keefe's vernacular has more than a little in common with the folksy way Holden tells his story. The difference is that Keefe lacks both the angst and the self-knowledge that Holden is cursed with, and the result is often hilarious, occasionally biting, and always charming. In the canon of early 20th-Century American writers, Lardner is too often overlooked.
3. The Catcher Was a Spy by Nicholas Dawidoff. The true story of Princeton graduate, pro baseball player, and OSS spy Moe Berg. That tag line alone ought to sell you on this book.
4. Five Seasons by Roger Angell. Angell writes about baseball for The New Yorker; he's also been called the best baseball writer ever. That's the sort of claim that never goes undisputed, but there's a lot of intelligence and compassion in this chronicle of the sport from 1972-1976.
5. Brittle Innings by Michael Bishop. What if Frankenstein's monster survived the Arctic and ended up in the United States? What if it were the South during World War II? What if he became a minor league baseball player? If that sounds wacky, it isn't; it's one of the quieter and subtler books on this list, and it may well be the best. (It's a tragedy that it happens to be the only one out of print.) Bishop is a humane and thoughtful writer, and this book is not to be missed.