A little over a month ago the prospect of Major League Baseball’s opening day arriving on time looked bleak at best and the possibility of a long work stoppage loomed. Thankfully, everyone came to their senses and another baseball season has started.
It’s a long season, though. Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver once said, “This isn’t football, we do this every day.” Because of its length, a baseball season can be said to resemble a novel with its slowly unwinding plot complete with ups and downs and even the occasional longueurs. Maybe this is one reason why baseball has produced the best writing of any American sport. As the one-time Poet Laureate of the United States, Donald Hall said, “It is a game that grips us because we can see in it everything that we feel and desire.” The same could be said about why we read novels.
So with that in mind here are nine innings of classic baseball novels that can keep you company throughout the season.
9 Classic Baseball Novels
The second in a series of novels about the baseball career of Henry Wiggin, a pitcher for the fictional New York Mammoths. This story revolves around the friendship Wiggin strikes up with backup catcher, Bruce Pearson. Pearson, a naive southern boy barely holding on to his spot on the team, contracts a serious illness, and Wiggin conspires with his teammates to keep the news away from the team management so that Pearson can stay in the majors during a pennant race. The first novel in the series, The Southpaw, is also recommended.
The story of an American family, the Chances, in the 1950s-70s and their struggles through those turbulent decades. This novel is about much more than baseball although the love of the sport permeates this book throughout. The patriarch of the family is a promising minor league pitcher whose career is derailed by a devastating offseason mill accident. As his family grows and experiences their own triumphs and tragedies, Papa Chance is given a chance to return to the game he loves.
Underrated among Roth’s works, The Great American Novel has retired sportswriter, WordSmith, narrating an account of the demise of the third major league—the Patriot League—whose entire existence has since been erased from history. Due to wartime concessions, the 1943 Port Ruppert Mundys (complete with a one-legged catcher and a one-armed outfielder) are forced to play their entire schedule on the road, losing 134 of 154 games. When their manager dies in 1944, the team is taken over by the sinister Gil Gamesh, who had previously been banned from baseball for nefarious activities. Gamesh, a Communist double agent causes a scandal that leads to the arrest of a number of Mundy players, the end of the Patriot League, and even the renaming of the cities involved in the league.
An immigrant jeweler goes through a severe case of hero worship as his life intersects with baseball great Christy Mathewson and the New York Giants of John McGraw. The strength of this novel is its meticulous recreation of baseball and New York City in the early part of the 20th century. It has become a cult novel and a favorite of baseball fans. Greenberg has contributed to other books on baseball but, to date, has never published another novel.
On his way home from his father’s funeral and back to a broken marriage, reporter Sam Fowler steps off a train and is somehow transported to the year 1869. While trying to make sense of what has happened and trying to stay ahead of the authorities, Fowler hooks up with the Cincinnati Red Stockings, the first professional baseball team. While in the world of post-Civil War America, Sam falls in love, becomes baseball’s first concessionaire, battles street gangs, participates in a robbery, and meets Mark Twain, all while traveling and playing baseball with the Red Stockings.
Inspired by a real life incident involving Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Eddie Waitkus as well as the Arthurian legend of the Fisher King, Bernard Malamud’s The Natural tells the story of the comeback of baseball star Roy Hobbs from a tragic and mysterious shooting by a female fan. Made into a 1984 film starring Robert Redford, the ending of the movie was drastically changed from that of the book.
While working outdoors, farmer Ray Kinsella hears a disembodied voice telling him to build a baseball field in his cornfield in order to summon his hero, Shoeless Joe Jackson of the disgraced Chicago “Black Sox”. After building the field and seeing the former Black Sox players return to life to play on it, Kinsella hears another voice telling him to “ease his pain”, which he interprets as a call to contact reclusive writer J.D. Salinger. More messages follow, more ballplayers magically appear and Ray’s family comes together unexpectedly while outside forces threaten to take away Ray’s ballfield and farm.
Middle aged accountant, J. Henry Waugh has invented a table-top baseball game complete with fictional teams and players. As the novel opens, the Universal Baseball Association is in its 56th season and while Waugh had been experiencing some boredom with his invention, the emergence of rookie pitcher Damon Rutherford, son of a former UBA great, has rekindled his interest in the game. But just as Waugh’s enthusiasm is returning, Rutherford is struck down by a freak roll of the dice and with that, Waugh’s real and fantasy worlds are turned upside-down.
Subtitled, A Busher’s Letters, this 1916 epistolary novel chronicles the adventures of Jack Keefe, a marginal pitcher for the Chicago White Sox. Keefe is by turn a braggart, liar, and naif while displaying arrogance and ignorance in equal measure as he relates what life is like in the big leagues to his friend, Al in Bedford, Indiana. The humor starts out raucous but gets pretty dark by the end. Lardner kept writing Keefe short stories and in subsequent collections took him to Europe as a reluctant draftee in WWI and then back to the major leagues as a member of the infamous Black Sox.