Opening Day: Baseball Fiction

celebrantSo with Spring Training underway and baseball games on TV and radio now, I thought it was good time to come out about a former reading obsession of mine, which was baseball writing and, mostly, baseball fiction.

My senior thesis at Bowling Green State University was called Huck Finn Plays Ball for Arcadia:  Social Criticism in American Baseball Literature.  (Italics added ironically).  The books were The Great American Novel by Philip Roth, The Universal Baseball Association, J. Henry Waugh Prop, by Robert Coover, The Natural by Bernard Malamud and Shoeless Joe by WP Kinsella. My wife now reminds me that Kinsella would be under “Canadian Baseball Literature” but that point literally escaped all of us at the same time.

There’s a lot of baseball fiction, more than other sports, and people have thought a lot about why.  Among the reasons is that baseball is a game with a lot of spaces that require imagination and therefore attract writers.  Another reason is that baseball was at one time (believe it or not) considered to be hardwired in American culture.  Until the 1960s it was the only significant professional team sport in the US.  And because baseball represented American culture, it became a prism through which to examine the society and a good way to demythologize the US and tear down myths.

So it wasn’t always easy to find these books.  Before Amazon.com, I was known to pore over used bookstores looking for baseball fiction.  The books were hard to find and there was no master list to pore over.

Because of this perceived scarcity, I rationed my baseball reading for the long, cold winter–between the World Series and Opening Day.

So, what are some of the great baseball books I’ve read.  To start with, in my movies post, I mentioned The Celebrant and If I Never Get Back as examples of great baseball books that I ran across.   A few others include…

Things Invisible to See by Nancy Willard.  A fantastic novel set in Michigan where a man bets with Death on a sandlot baseball team.

The Dixie Association–Robert Hays.  Hilarious novel about a minor-league team in Arkansas that is filled with misfits and worse.

The Conduct of the Game.  John Hough Jr.  An incredibly beautiful novel about an umpire.

The Thrill of the Grass  More Kinsella.  Frankly, as good as his writing was, it did devolve into sort of the same thing over and over again.  On the other hand, his writing celebrated baseball and this story collection is very good.

A non-fiction book that deserves mention is The Prophet of the Sandlots.  Written by Mark Winegardner, it is a bio of Tony Lucadello, perhaps the greatest baseball scout who ever lived.  This is a truly tragic story but it a great read.

Also, yet I know about Art of Fielding.  It was great as well, but the other books are all of a certain era of my life.

Obviously, there are many others.  I’ve sort of evolved out of this and I don’t read as much in this genre as I once did.  But, if you love the game, literature is a great enhancer.

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