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Inside Baseball

A lineup of baseball lit’s greatest hits

The Lineup: Ten Books That Changed Baseball by Paul Aron. McFarland & Co., 237 pages.

In the end, the ballplayer stands alone.

Over by a pool table in the VFW hall is Billy Cox, slick-fielding third baseman for the early 1950s Brooklyn Dodgers, now returned to his central Pennsylvania hometown. It’s the late 1960s or the early 1970s, and Newport, once the site of a tannery and an ironworks, has fallen on hard times. At the Veterans, Billy, now eking out a living as a bartender, is shooting pool by himself at two in the morning. He is often by himself, even when he is surrounded by others. Once a member of a glorious enterprise, the first racially integrated team in baseball, he now tries to ignore the other drinkers as they casually drop racial epithets and a woman who is screaming at and hitting her cheating husband. All he can do is focus in on the pool table. “Get the fuck down,” he says to an uncooperative billiard ball, as he blocks out his dreary surroundings.

It’s a bleak tableau, and for Roger Kahn, author of The Boys of Summer, in which this scene takes place, it’s rife with signifiers of decline. A proponent of the romantic/nostalgic school of baseball writing, Kahn measures everything against his Brooklyn upbringing and the two years (1952 and 1953) he spent covering the hometown Dodgers as a young man. His book, which first appeared in 1972, is split in two parts—the first of which recounts his childhood and early adulthood, the second of which finds him catching up with the key members of those Dodgers teams nearly two decades down the line—and its very structure is designed to evoke a then vs. now dichotomy which is inevitably unflattering to the latter. For Kahn, the descent from past to present can be found everywhere, whether in the diminished post-baseball life of his heroes, in the departure of the Dodgers for Los Angeles, in the vanishing of the glory days of journalism, or in the deterioration of both rural and urban settings that marked the post-industrializing present. (“New York has grown more dirty and more dark,” he writes. “When last [Clem] Labine snapped curves at Ebbets Field, the city was a cleaner, lighter place.”)

It’s a neat bit of mythologizing/antimythologizing and makes for compelling reading, but of course the story doesn’t end there, given the last three decades of Brooklyn’s development. (The current state of towns like Newport, Pennsylvania, is another story.) As Paul Aron notes in his new book, The Lineup: Ten Books that Changed Baseball, those same white people who cheered Jackie Robinson were more than happy to flee Kings County for Long Island and New Jersey, mirroring the departure of their once beloved team. Kahn may have celebrated the racial integration of the Dodgers but that same ethnic mixing outside of the ballpark led to a mass exodus that would only be reversed decades later, along similarly dubious lines. That reversal is now complete: In the 1950s, Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley asked the city to condemn a plot of land in Downtown Brooklyn to build a new stadium. The city refused. On that exact same site today sits Barclay’s Center, the home of the Brooklyn Nets, built on condemned land seized, over heavy public outcry, by eminent domain.

Aron’s book offers what its title claims, an in-depth look at ten of the most influential books in baseball history. It also makes a few larger claims that are less easily fulfilled. The first sentence of the book’s preface expands the mission of the title and outlines the book’s greater ambitions: “Here are ten books that changed America.” The idea is that baseball and the country that invented it are intimately tied up in ways that are difficult to untangle and that, as a corollary, the most influential books about baseball had an outsized effect on the country’s culture, institutions, and ways of doing business.

Perhaps. Cultural influence in any case is difficult to prove and Aron accordingly backtracks from his more grandiose claims. “To some extent, these books changed baseball, not America,” he writes just sentences later, quickly deflating his thesis, “or sometimes just reflected changes in baseball.” Aron’s book is more breezy survey than carefully argued study and for the most part he smartly confines his discussion to merely suggesting ways that baseball and baseball literature have interpenetrated the institutions of the larger culture. When he considers grander questions of influence—as when he wonders how much Kahn’s romanticization of Brooklyn has indirectly resulted in the more recent gentrification of the borough or when, in one of his bolder hypotheses he proposes that “what led to [Donald] Trump was Pete Rose”—he usually ends up on shaky ground, even if he never makes any claims to offering up any kind of definitive proof.

A running diary by washed-up knuckleballer Jim Bouton, Ball Four chronicles the pitcher’s day-to-day life through the 1969 season.

What The Lineup does offer—setting all this thesis-making aside—is an entertaining history of the literature of baseball, which is also a history of baseball, as well as a stealth history of the country. Working through Aron’s essays reveals different connecting threads and different ways of looking at sport as well as the larger American culture. One of the chief tensions in the book, as well as in sportswriting generally, is the divide between what Stanley Walker, editor at the New York Herald-Tribune during the first half of the twentieth century, called the “Gee Whiz” and the “Aw Nuts” schools of sports journalism. These distinctions began during the so-called Golden Age of Sportswriting in the 1920s and early 1930s when pioneering scribe Grantland Rice employed elevated rhetoric to transform athletes into larger-than-life figures, bringing both a newfound literary quality and a measure of propagandizing to the art of sportswriting. The founder of the “Aw Nuts” school, according to Robert Lipsyte, was W.O. McGeehan who, by contrast to Rice, was “celebrated for puncturing windbags” and who had “a drop of poison at the tip of the needle.”

Lipsyte himself was part of a second generation of deflators, along with such fellow gadflys as Leonard Shecter and Larry Merchant. Shecter, whose 1969 study The Jocks brought a new level of deheroizing to its portrait of the professional athlete as a boorish man of appetites, edited arguably the most influential sports tell-all of all time, Jim Bouton’s 1970 bestseller Ball Four. A running diary by washed-up knuckleballer Bouton, Ball Four chronicles the pitcher’s day-to-day life through the 1969 season, which he split between the expansion Seattle Pilots and the Houston Astros. At the end of every day, Bouton would record his observations into a tape recorder. Shecter then helped organize the material into a book and the result was among the more controversial baseball volumes to ever appear.

As Aron writes, when the book was published, much of the talk was about its frank sexuality; but despite revealing some of the bedroom hijinks and peeping tom behavior of professional ballplayers, it’s relatively reserved when it comes to the dirty stuff. What was really revealing about Bouton’s book was his portrayal of the less-than-glamorous aspects of big-league life, including amphetamine use, contract negotiations with greedy owners, and the boorish behavior of nearly everyone involved. The baseball establishment was in an uproar over the book, especially as it revealed the then-largely unspoken financial shenanigans that kept the game afloat. But it appealed to a younger generation of fans, reviving interest in a sport that was already losing ground to professional football. According to Aron, “The split over Ball Four mirrored the nation’s ideological split during the sixties,” with conservative writers hating the book and liberal writers and younger readers loving it. Roger Kahn, friend to ballplayers and eternal nostalgist, was, predictably, among the book’s detractors. Either way, Ball Four changed the sports memoir fundamentally. After its publication, baseball books could no longer play it coy; readers fully expected that they deliver the juicy goods.

The “Gee Whiz”/“Aw Nuts” divide grew out of the hothouse world of beat sportswriting, soon expanding to other forms of baseball writing. The books discussed in The Lineup feature a large generic sampling with historical studies rubbing up against memoir, books of statistical analysis alternating chapters with discussions of novels and short story collections. Although none of the books come directly out of the tradition of daily sports journalism, the same tensions between enthusiasm and deflation play out chapter by chapter. To read through Aron’s book is to follow a story of how the public’s view of baseball has changed over the years. Among the mythmakers: entrepreneur A.G. Spalding, whose 1911 history of baseball made a claim for the sport’s “democratic” qualities while simultaneously putting forth a union-busting agenda; Bernard Malamud, whose 1952 novel The Natural drew on reams of transnational mythology to elevate the ballplayer to legendary status; and Kahn, whose own brand of sentimentalizing updated Grantland Rice’s less sophisticated rosy and nostalgic craft. 

The deflators have their own legitimate reasons for discontent—the heroizing of athletes they know to be no better, and in some cases worse, than most people; the financial underpinnings of the game that enrich owners above all else; and, in the case of Bill James and other statheads, an objection to what they saw as fundamental misunderstandings about how to properly evaluate the game. But one of the primary reasons for discontent, whether explicitly stated or merely implied, is the game’s vexed racial history. The story of baseball, is, seen from one angle, the story of race in America, and many of the books discussed in The Lineup touch on this troubled question in one form or another.

One of the tragedies of MLB’s handling of integration was the way it destroyed a vibrant Black-centered baseball culture, poaching the best talent from the Negro League teams while cutting out the Black owners.

If the pivotal moment in the history of America’s game is the advent of integration, then few figures offer a more revealing vantage point on both sides of the historical divide than Satchel Paige. A veteran of the Negro Leagues, Paige also played extensively in Latin America as well as barnstorming with numerous semiprofessional teams around the United States. By his own estimate, he won around two thousand games and played for about 250 teams, not an impossibility given his penchant for playing a single game for a team and then moving directly on. Considered both one of the greatest right-handed pitchers of all time and a consummate showman, Paige drew huge crowds of both white and Black fans wherever he went, until finally getting a chance to join the newly integrated American League in 1948 at the age of forty-two (or possibly even older).

When Paige signed with Bill Veeck’s Cleveland Indians, though, he went from playing in front of Black or multiracial crowds to playing in front of largely white ones. One of the tragedies of MLB’s handling of integration was the way it essentially destroyed a vibrant Black-centered baseball culture, poaching the best talent from the Negro League teams while cutting out the Black owners and shutting out the Black fans. As Rob Ruck points out in his book Raceball: How the Major Leagues Colonized the Black and Latin Game, it didn’t have to be that way. “Why couldn’t the major leagues have accepted [Negro League teams] the Homestead Grays, Newark Eagles, Kansas City Monarchs, and New York Cubans as franchises?” he wondered, arguing for a more inclusive form of integration. “Did Major League Baseball owners really need to insist on such a limited and heavy-handed integration of the game they turned around and sold as a model for American democracy?”

In picking Satchel Paige’s 1948 book Pitchin’ Man over Jackie Robinson’s memoir of the same year, My Own Story, as a representative book from the moment of baseball’s integration, Aron has these concerns very much in mind. In addition to the fact that Robinson’s memoir plays it far too coy in its discussion of racism (his 1972 book I Never Had It Made is another story), Paige’s book offers a vibrant picture of Negro League baseball, a store of material not available to Robinson, who only played a single season in the Negro Leagues. Paige’s book is rife with tall tales and accounts of great baseball, played in the characteristic Negro League style that largely privileged speed over power. Paige was a legendary storyteller whose teammates, white and Black, would crowd around him as he held court, and Pitchin’ Man, which he cowrote with Hal Lebovitz, captures this mode of oral entertainment with its mix of, as Aron describes it, “cockiness, folksiness, humor, and genuinely awesome achievement that comprised Paige’s image,” as well as some questionable use of dialect. (Paige was occasionally accused of deliberately embodying certain racial stereotypes.)

If Pitchin’ Man brings to life a bygone era of African American culture, it also, along with Paige’s second 1962 memoir, Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever, reveals the psychic cost that came from Black players joining the white leagues. In the more recent book, for example, Paige recounts being turned away from the hotel where his St. Louis Browns team was staying in still-segregated West Virginia. Enraged and humiliated, he nearly left town before finally reconsidering and taking a cab to rejoin his teammates at the ballpark. Nor were Black players universally welcomed on their own teams. As Roger Kahn relates, when the Dodgers were getting ready to call up Jackie Robinson in 1947, Dixie Walker, the team’s right fielder, circulated a petition among his teammates threatening a boycott if Robinson were to join the team. His efforts stalled when team leader and fellow Southerner Pee Wee Reese refused to sign. Walker was traded the following year. Kahn also reports a later conversation between pitcher Preacher Roe and third basemen Billy Cox, the latter nearing the end of his career and just a few years from returning home, where he would bartend in Pennsylvania. When Cox’s starting job was threatened by the promotion of Black infielder Jim Gilliam, the two white players let slip the full extent of their racial resentment in front of Kahn.

These racial reckonings feel like long ago, both because of the phasing out of legal segregation in the United States and because the ethnic makeup of baseball has changed so much in the years since. The number of Black players in the Major Leagues peaked at 18.7 percent in 1981 and has since declined to less than half that, as MLB has disinvested in Black communities in favor of a cheaper labor pool in Latin America. Accordingly, the most recent books that Aron discusses move away from questions of race and chart instead an increasingly apocalyptic trend in baseball, with the rise of sabermetrics, fantasy, and legalized gambling abstracting the game in new and largely unsettling ways.

Among the figures most responsible for these trends is Bill James, a pioneering baseball statistician and historian. James, the subject of the seventh chapter in The Lineup, is a classic deflator. In 1977, he self-published the first of what would be an annual publication called the Baseball Abstract. This first edition featured sixty-eight pages of in-depth analysis, offering, as James put it, “eighteen categories of statistical information that you just can’t find anywhere else,” and established his career-long project of rethinking traditional ways of looking at a ballplayer’s value. In contrast to such standard statistics as batting average, fielding percentage, and runs batted in, James developed new formulas like range factor and (later) win shares that more accurately evaluated a player’s achievement. His Abstracts, which appeared annually (and from 1982 on were published by Ballantine Books), were not dry recitations of stats but rather rich compendiums of humor, offbeat digressions, and unexpected revelations, and proved highly influential in establishing sabermetrics as an exciting area of baseball study. James was no absolutist, though. As Aron puts it in his discussion of the Abstract, James “was less interested in coming up with definitive answers than in raising and exploring the issues.”

It’s a short step from the abstractions of increasingly complex statistical models to the further abstractions of fantasy baseball and daily sports betting.

James eventually grew discontented by the misuse of statistics, which he saw as being employed in increasingly trivial ways. His distaste, though, was perhaps misplaced. If anything, the types of statistical analysis James pioneered ended up being used in largely consequential ways and had a notable influence well beyond the baseball diamond. Aron’s chapter on James is one of his more successful in supporting his thesis and he convincingly illustrates how James’s way of thinking would soon become commonplace in the worlds of finance and politics. Under the influence of James and other statisticians—or at least in conjunction with their pioneering studies—pollsters and financial analysts began creating and relying on increasingly sophisticated evaluative and predictive models. In the early 1980s, for example, when James’s influence was beginning to be widely felt, a focus on quantitative analysis began to transform the way financial professionals thought about markets. Later, Nate Silver and other statisticians would apply the lessons they learned from baseball to election forecasting and forge a similar transformation in the way they applied data to political analysis. In his discussion of James’s influence, Aron takes a largely neutral view of these aftereffects, but he does end his chapter with a disquieting quote from Moneyball author Michael Lewis. “If gross miscalculations of a person’s value could occur on a baseball field, before a live audience of thirty thousand” Lewis writes, “what did that say about the measurement of performance in other lines of work? If professional baseball players could be over- or undervalued, who couldn’t?” Who indeed? It’s but a small step, it turns outs, from the sabermetric revolution to a more generalized atmosphere of surveillance in which everything and everyone is subject to data-driven evaluation.

It’s an even shorter step from the abstractions of increasingly complex statistical models to the further abstractions of fantasy baseball and daily sports betting. In his discussion of Glen Waggoner’s book Rotisserie League Baseball (which first appeared nationally in 1984 and which, like James’s Abstracts, would become an annual publication), Aron ties the development of fantasy baseball to the diminishment of traditional ties between fan and team, largely the result of free agency. With team loyalties no longer the definitive factor in a fan’s rooting habits, viewers were primed to engage with the game in fresh ways. Thanks to fantasy sports, they could express their frustration with greedy owners and the constant team-swapping of players by controlling their own virtual baseball world. Decontextualizing and reconstituting their fandom along individual lines was, for many baseball followers, a far more satisfying way to enjoy the game. The cost, though, was increasing abstraction, which, as in the rise of brain-reeling statistical models, tended to dehumanize players and render the already alienated relationship between athlete and fan further distant.

This sense of decontextualizing only increased with the rise of daily fantasy betting sites like DraftKings and Fan Duel. Draft Kings, which was founded in 2012 and signed an official agreement with Major League Baseball in 2015, took fantasy to a new level, both in terms of engagement and monetary payment. Rather than drafting a team at the start of each season, DraftKings allowed you to choose your roster on a daily basis, encouraging a new level of virtual obsession. The payoffs were immediate and, at least in theory, potentially sizable. As Aron puts it, in daily fantasy, “long-term allegiances to a player, let alone a team or a city, matter no more than the corporate allegiance of a gig worker who drives for both Uber and Lyft.” This isn’t necessarily a terrible fate—there’s something to be said for disentangling from traditional brand loyalty—but supporting a ball club is obviously about much more than corporate identity, no matter how decontextualized our engagement with the sport has become.

So what then do we want from a baseball book in the sport’s current analytic-obsessed, racially-unbalanced era? There would seem to be little need or appetite for the romantic boosterism that played in previous eras, although many otherwise fine writers seem unable to shake it from their system. Joe Posnanski’s The Baseball 100 project, for example, trades in a rather off-putting brand of sentimentality, particularly around the idea of fathers and sons, which threatens to choke out its otherwise excellent series of player portraits and scores of juicy tidbits. On a more deflationary front, much work has been done on racial questions in recent years with standout books from the first two decades of the century including Howard Bryant’s Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston, Mitchell Nathanson’s God Almighty Hisself: The Life and Legacy of Dick Allen, and Rob Ruck’s aforementioned Raceball.

But what about books that address the diminished state of the game? Cheating, seen as a sort of existential menace to baseball after the revelations about the 2017 Houston Astros, has been the subject of several recent books, which, like Andy Martino’s Cheated: The Inside Story of the Astros Scandal and a Colorful History of Sign Stealing, often take too self-righteous a tone and overstate the threat of high-tech sign-stealing to the game. The domination of analytics and its effect on the financial landscape of the game has likewise been the subject of several notable articles and books, but rarely with a full understanding of the devastating effect these developments have had on the sport. Kyle Paoletta’s 2019 article on this site, “Against the Statheads,” stands out in its withering assessment of this true existential threat and represents a good starting point for further study. For now, though, any baseball writing that doesn’t take on an interventionist role, turning its deflationary methods on new targets that include analytics, daily sports betting, and the sport’s lack of investment in Black communities, risks irrelevance. Perhaps later, the “gee whiz” school of writing can regain some of its past currency, but by the time MLB moves ahead on its threat to install robot umpires, it’ll probably be too late.