What’s the best baseball book written by a player? Let’s review twelve of them just in time for Christmas, when you may want to hunker down with a baseball book.
Pitching In a Pinch (1912)
The first great ballplayer book was Pitching in a Pinch (1912), by Christy Mathewson, superstar hurler for the Giants. In this light read, Matty reveals several items about his manager, in this case the great John McGraw.
Far easier to read and predictably less controversial than later books, Pitching in a Pinch succeeds best at revealing the strategies of baseball’s greatest deadball era pitching star. Unfortunately, Mathewson’s success as an author failed to inspire other players, and no great work was done by a ballplayer-author for decades.
Fear Strikes Out (1955)
It took mental illness to make Boston center fielder Jimmy Piersall’s Fear Strikes Out (1955) a success. The book and the subsequent film starring Anthony Perkins, which chronicle Piersall’s mental breakdowns in professional baseball, are compelling. Piersall’s book was published while Jimmy was still active, and it brought him much notoriety, both positive and negative. It wasn’t common for someone to discuss mental illness in the 1950s, but Piersall does so candidly.
The Long Season (1960)
To chronicle a baseball season it helps if you have plenty of time to observe. That’s why a relief pitcher is perfectly suited for the task. Jim Brosnan was an intellectual, he didn’t even take up baseball until he was 14 years old in Cincinnati. He sprouted into a strong, tall thrower and made his way to the Cubs and later the Cardinals in the late 1950s. His book The Long Season is a diary of his 1959 season when he played for both the Cards and the Reds. It’s Ball Four before Ball Four, and it’s better written. Brosnan tackles more important issues than Bouton does in his diary a decade later, and his book (and later works) are excellent.
Books written by Negro League players
Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever (1962) by legendary pitcher Satchel Paige is the best book written about the negro leagues by a player who was there. Paige is the biggest icon of all the icons in black baseball history, and he chronicles all of his exploits, including his famous teammates, as well as the barnstorming he did with and against white professional ballplayers.
In 1997, former negro leaguer and major league coach Buck O’Neil wrote his autobiography titled I Was Right On Time, which deserves a place with Paige’s as one of the seminal works regarding black baseball. Buck’s book was published in the aftermath of O’Neil’s appearance in Ken Burns’ documentary Baseball. In that film, O’Neil served as the conscience and the soul of negro leagues baseball. Buck lived many more years and spread love and joy every where he went. His biography is not controversial, but it’s uplifting.
My Turn At Bat (1969)
The greatest player to pen a great baseball book is Ted Williams in his exacting book titled My Turn At Bat (1969), which came out as he was embarking on his ill-fated career as manager of the Washington Senators.
Williams is revealing in his analysis of his spirited mother and his absent father, and of his days growing up in California. He hits all the marks: his quick rise as a young prospect, his teammates in Boston, the 1946 World Series, his many batting titles, and the mixed feelings he felt through his relationship with the fans and sportswriters of Boston.
But the best parts of My Turn At Bat are Ted’s accounts of his two tours in the U.S. Marines as a pilot in World War II and the Korea War. No other major league player dedicated as much of his career to service in the military and had so many amazing tales to tell about his time overseas. Williams was a lot of things, and hero was one of them.
Ball Four (1970)
The 1970s were the golden era of baseball books, starting with Bouton’s Ball Four, which should be required reading for all baseball fans.
Bouton was a pitcher for the Yankees in the early 1960s, known for his tenacity on the mound, which earned him the nickname “Bulldog.” He was witness to the last gasps of the great Yankee dynasty, the final glory days of Mickey Mantle. Bouton’s book is actually a diary of his 1969 season, which he spent mostly with the expansion Seattle Pilots, in their love season of existence. But in the book, Bouton goes back over his baseball career and boldly shares intimate stories of Mantle and other teammates, both flattering and not.
Bouton was the first ballplayer to reveal the true stories of what goes on in a major league clubhouse: the fighting, the drinking, the insubordination, the woman-chasing. Written in the midst of a cultural change in America where “the “\squares” were being replaced by “the hairs,” Ball Four is more than a baseball book, it’s American history and commentary. It’s also extremely well-written and funny.
Ball Four is a treasure, and it’s typically taken the #1 spot in most lists of the greatest baseball books of all-time.
Perry and Durocher
Like Christy Mathewson in Pitching In a Pinch, pitcher Gaylord Perry wrote his book mid-career with Me and the Spitter (1974), a blunt confession. Perry doesn’t hold back from discussing his many pitching techniques, both legal and illegal. Asked once about her father’s famous pitch, Perry’s daughter said, “It was a slider.”
Perry’s memoir was followed a year later by the classic Nice Guys Finish Last (1975) by baseball lifer Leo Durocher. In his book, Leo takes the reader from the days of Babe Ruth to the Astrodome and polyester uniforms. Few people have had such an interesting view of baseball history as Durocher, who was once threatened by Ruth, suspended from the game for cavorting with gamblers, and married to a Hollywood starlet. His decades in baseball ranged from the end of the deadball era to the introduction of the designated hitter. He was eyewitness to several historic moments in the national pastime.
Lyle, Nettles, and the crazy Yankees
Relief pitcher Sparky Lyle’s book The Bronx Zoo was published in 1979, a diary of the Yankees’ championship 1978 season. This excellent book serves as sort of a love triangle between Billy Martin, owner George Steinbrenner, and Reggie Jackson. With a biting wit, Lyle is clever and hilarious on the page.
In 1984, while he was embarking on his first season in the uniform of the San Diego Padres, Graig Nettles’ book Balls, (with Peter Golenbock), hit the shelves. The book is a diary of the tumultuous 1983 season, the last for Nettles in a Yankee uniform. Golenbock previously worked with Sparky Lyle on his fabulous Yankee tell-all. The Nettles book is the better of the two: funnier, more revelatory, more damning. For years, George Steinbrenner refused to welcome Nettles back for Old Timers’ Games at Yankee Stadium because of his book.
The success of Lyle and Nettles spawned dozens of copycat authors in the 1980s and subsequent decades, but none of the ballplayers-turned-writers were able to reach their level of success.
Jose Canseco and Juiced (2006)
The best baseball books written in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s were by observers and historians of the game. But in 2006, Jose Canseco’s bombshell, Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant ‘Roids, Smash Hits & How Baseball Got Big shocked the sports world. Canseco’s book isn’t as skillfully crafted as others on this list (by far), but the impact it had on the game is unmatched.
Canseco crudely reveals the cheaters and anti-heroes of baseball’s steroids era, including his own misdeeds. His motivation for the book was revenge, so you might want to take some of his stories with a grain of salt, but much of what the former slugger has written has been confirmed. For his book, Jose Canseco was blackballed by Major League Baseball.
Ranking Baseball Books written by Baseball Players
Here’s a ranking of the books mentioned in this article:
- Ball Four by Jim Bouton (1970)
- Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever by Satchel Paige (1962)
- Me and the Spitter by Gaylord Perry (1974)
- Balls by Graig Nettles (1984)
- The Long Season by Jim Brosnan (1960)
- Juiced by Jose Canseco (2006)
- Nice Guys Finish Last by Leo Durocher (1975)
- My Turn At Bat by Ted Williams (1969)
- Fear Strikes Out by Jimmy Piersall (1955)
- Pitching in a Pinch by Christy Mathewson (1912)
- The Bronx Zoo by Sparky Lyle (1979)
- I Was Right On Time by Buck O’Neil (1997)
Another recommendation: Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball. Also worth a read is The Wrong Stuff by eccentric left-hander Bill Lee. As a rule, books by left-handers are better than books by right-handers.
Share your thoughts on this list in the comments below, or tell me which books written by ballplayer, you like.