Greek Tragedy in the Bottom of the Ninth: On Baseball’s High Literary Drama


The best books have layers, meanings upon meanings. It’s true for novels, it’s true for nonfiction, and it’s true for sports books, too.

Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit isn’t a book about a horse; it’s a book about a beleaguered nation climbing out of the grips of the Great Depression and finding hope in a horse. Buzz Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights isn’t about a high school football team in rural Texas; it’s about what adults will do to win—not just in rural Texas, but everywhere. And John Feinstein’s A Season on the Brink isn’t about a lunatic coach, screaming at his players on a basketball court in Indiana; it’s about what that lunatic coach, Bobby Knight, says about us.

These lessons—find the deeper meaning—are ingrained in any author and they were certainly in my mind as I set out to write my latest book, Charlie Hustle: The Rise and Fall of Pete Rose, and the Last Glory Days of Baseball. I didn’t just want to write a biography of Pete Rose, one of baseball’s greatest legends and most notorious figures. I wanted to find the layers in Pete’s epic story and then, if possible, get Pete to talk about them. Get Pete to see the layers, too.

The latter part of this plan wasn’t going to be easy to pull off. Pete isn’t known for quiet self-reflection; he’s known for sliding headfirst into bases, setting baseball’s all-time hit record, gambling on the sport with bookies in the shadows, lying about it, and being banished forever as a result. More problematic perhaps: Pete had never agreed to be interviewed for a book, unless he had editorial control—and I was not offering that here. All I could offer Pete was a chance, maybe one last chance, to reckon with the past.

To my surprise, he agreed to speak with me, and soon it was Pete calling or texting me to talk. “You wanna work right now?” he’d ask. It was like he could feel the urgency of the moment. He was old now. “I’m eighty fucking years old,” he told me once. “Where’d the time go?”

He didn’t know. He couldn’t say. He thought about dying all the time—every day, Pete’s friends told me—and soon I could see all the layers in Pete’s story. He wasn’t just a baseball player. He was Icarus in red stirrup socks and cleats, and he was falling, falling, falling…

Of course, if you find Charlie Hustle in a bookstore, it’ll probably be in the sports section along with every other book about baseball, and not on a shelf labeled “sweeping human narratives and Greek tragedies.” But I don’t mind. Nothing paints a portrait of America quite like a baseball story. There are some classics in this section, on this shelf, and I’ve penciled in a lineup of nine great nonfiction baseball books.

For the most part, these are not biographies, but narratives. Real stories. Some of them changed or formed the genre—and all of them found the layers.

They tell a tale that’s bigger than the game.

*

David Halberstam, October 1964

David Halberstam didn’t invent the genre of baseball narrative, but he might have perfected it, and several of his books deserve to be on this list, including Summer of ’49 and The Teammates: A Portrait of Friendship.

But my favorite baseball book by David Halberstam is October 1964. This book, first published thirty years ago, tells the story of a collision of sorts in the 1964 World Series: the old guard New York Yankees, led by an aging Mickey Mantle, taking on a younger St. Louis Cardinal team, led Black stars like Bob Gibson, Curt Flood, and Lou Brock. Halberstam hoped that the book would be about “both sports and history.” And it is. He succeeded. But it’s more than that. It’s a great story.

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game - Lewis, Michael

Michael Lewis, Moneyball: The Art of Winning and Unfair Game

The casual reader might see this book and think of Hollywood, Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill, and the film by the same name. And that’s fair. Moneyball, the film, is quietly a great movie. But don’t watch it until you read Michael Lewis’s 2003 book on which it was based.

Lewis crafts a compelling narrative out of almost nothing—one man’s quest to build a competitive baseball team in Oakland, California. “I wrote this book,” Lewis wrote in his opening line, “because I fell in love with a story.” As a reader, you’ll fall in love with it, too. Decades later, Lewis’s book is now also prophetic. Moneyball captured how baseball was about to change, maybe forever.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City - Mahler, Jonathan

Jonathan Mahler, Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City

As the subtitle of Mahler’s 2005 book suggests, Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning is about far more than just baseball. It paints a picture of New York City in 1977 and Mahler weaves into this narrative a sprawling cast of familiar characters, including future mayor Ed Koch, future governor Mario Cuomo, and the serial killer known as the Son of Sam.

But the 1977 baseball season is the beating heart of Mahler’s book—the reason why it exists, the reason why it works—and readers will keep turning the pages because of one protagonist most of all: Yankee slugger Reggie Jackson, trying to make it in New York.

Ball Four: The Final Pitch - Bouton, Jim

Jim Bouton, Ball Four: The Final Pitch

There are scant few truly great baseball memoirs written by players. Jim Bouton’s 1970 memoir is the rare exception. Bouton, a pitcher who had briefly tasted success with the New York Yankees in the 1960s, decided to let fans behind the curtain in Ball Four and let them see what baseball was really like. He wrote about sex, women, drinking, and drugs—and he wrote it in the language that the players themselves used. “My book,” Bouton boasted in 1970, “has a ‘X’ rating.”

The result was a narrative that was both ahead of its time and timeless—a feat much harder to pull off than throwing a knuckleball. And it clearly cut too close to the truth. Fellow players ostracized Bouton for the rest of his abbreviated baseball career. “Fuck you, Shakespeare,” Pete Rose told him once. Bouton had revealed too much.

The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O'Neil's America - Posnanski, Joe

Joe Posnanski, The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America

Longtime baseball writer Joe Posnanski has found success with books that package the game’s greatest players or moments into one place. Fans looking to understand baseball history—or relive it, with a fun read—should pick up The Baseball 100 or Why We Love Baseball: A History.

But sometimes the best prism into a story is smaller, or maybe just one person, and Posnanski found the perfect person through which to tell the story of baseball in this beautiful, moving book. Buck O’Neil, one of the game’s greatest ambassadors, was wrongly denied entrance into Hall of Fame while was still alive, in my opinion. But at least he was celebrated. And thanks in part to Posnanski’s book, O’Neil’s story will live forever.

Bottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption, and Baseball's Longest Game - Barry, Dan

Dan Barry, Bottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption, and Baseball’s Longest Game

If anyone knows how to craft a narrative, it’s Dan Barry of the New York Times, and he found narrative gold in an unlikely game that took place in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, on April 18, 1981. What started out as any other minor-league game becomes the longest game in baseball history—thirty-three innings. But the game is just the stage; the people at the stadium are the real story, including two future Hall of Famers: Cal Ripken Jr. and Wade Boggs.

“Does Ripken have what it takes to last?” Barry writes. “Does Boggs? How about that father and son in the stands? And the anxious bat boy?” We don’t know. But Barry will tell us. The game will last all night.

The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron - Bryant, Howard

Howard Bryant, The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron

Baseball biography is its own category, deserving of its own list. But a great place to start is this sweeping biography of Henry Aaron, the man who passed Babe Ruth in 1974 to claim baseball’s home run record. It was one of baseball’s greatest moments, but one that also revealed hard truths about America’s worst problems. Some fans were upset because Aaron was Black.

“The racial divide in America was apparent,” Bryant writes, “even during his victorious trip around the bases.” In this retelling of Aaron’s story, he’s more than just a ballplayer; he’s living proof of how America is changing.

What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?: A Remembrance - Cramer, Richard Ben

Richard Ben Cramer, What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?: A Remembrance

In 1986, Esquire dispatched Richard Ben Cramer to write a profile of baseball legend Ted Williams for the magazine’s “American Man” issue. Cramer said later that his charge was to write something that could “fit between the ads in an issue the size of a small phone book”—a charge that few writers can imagine today in a shrinking media landscape.

But Cramer didn’t waste the pages. He didn’t waste a word. He got access to Ted Williams and wrote one of the greatest sports stories of the twentieth century. It’s more novella than book—Simon & Schuster only published it in book form after Williams’ death in 2002. But it deserves to be mentioned here for its mastery. In less than fifteen thousand words, Cramer captures the madness of one of America’s most elusive heroes in a way that endures long after both Williams and Cramer have passed.

The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball's Afterlife - Balukjian, Brad

Brad Balukjian, The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife

This quirky little book is part baseball, part road trip, part nostalgia, and part memoir. Balukjian is one of the main characters in this tale as he opens a pack of 1986 Topps baseball cards and embarks on a quest to find the fourteen ballplayers whose cards just happen to be inside. It’s a genius idea; writers everywhere wish they had thought of it first.

But the book succeeds because of its sweetness and its vulnerability. Along the way, we meet players in the afterlife—men long forgotten and now living far away from the fields where they once found glory—and like any great protagonist, Balukjian changes. He evolves on this journey. He learns to stop thinking about life in absolute terms—”all or nothing, home runs or strikeouts.” “Most of life,” Balukjian realizes, “is just a line drive to left.”

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Charlie Hustle: The Rise and Fall of Pete Rose, and the Last Glory Days of Baseball - O'Brien, Keith

Charlie Hustle: The Rise and Fall of Pete Rose, and the Last Glory Days of Baseball by Keith O’Brien is available via Pantheon.



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