(Editor’s Note: We do plenty of reviews of nonfiction sports books on this site. However, the fictional side of the literature has been ignored. When we received this story for consideration for publication, we thought it might be a chance to show the other side of the coin. So here it is.)
By Del Leonard Jones
Baseball more than any sport inspires wonderful writing, says Tim Wiles, former director of research and the public services librarian for the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library.
“There are dozens of great baseball novels, if not hundreds,” Wiles says, and the game also has inspired a mountain of short fiction, poetry and essays. Baseball contributes in Ruthian ways to many non-baseball novels, including The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Earnest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger. Salinger even appears in the W.P. Kinsella novel Shoeless Joe.
Justin McGuire, host of the Baseball by the Book podcast, agrees that good baseball fiction abounds and cites authors Robert Coover, Phillip Roth, Bernard Malamud and Don DeLillo.
“It’s noteworthy that in 2020, two women published excellent baseball novels,” McGuire says and he recommends The Cactus League, by Emily Nemens and The Resisters,” by Gish Jen, a novel that examines baseball in a dystopian future when most baseball novels travel to the past. McGuire’s favorite is The Southpaw, which takes a more grounded approach than books that mythologize the game, such as The Natural and Shoeless Joe. The Southpaw is funny, filled with drama, and treats baseball as a sport rather than a symbol, McGuire says.
“Baseball is the literary sport,” Wiles says. “Beats the heck out of all the other team sports combined.”
One dedicated reader begs to differ. There have been 15 unassisted triple plays in Major League Baseball but Brina Gonzalez, voted the No. 44 best book reviewer by the 20 million members of the Goodreads website, suggests that great baseball novels may be more rare.
“Why craft fictional stories when you have the myth of Babe Ruth’s called shot?” says Gonzalez, who has loved baseball since she was a child. She has reviewed 116 baseball books on Goodreads, mostly nonfiction. “The 1951 shot heard round the world was either heart breaking or euphoric depending on which team you rooted for.”
Baseball novels have often been noticed by Hollywood. Bang The Drum Slowly, published in 1956, was made into a TV show starring Paul Newman, then into a 1973 movie starring Robert De Niro. The Natural, published in 1952, became a Robert Redford film success in 1984.
That inspired Kevin Costner’s Field of Dreams in 1989 from the 1980 novel Shoeless Joe. John Grisham’s 2012 novel Calico Joe is in development with George Clooney expected to direct. Critically acclaimed The Art of Fielding is also being adapted into a movie.
There are 112 books on the Goodreads list of best baseball novels. The latest addition to the Top 10 is At The Bat: The Strikeout That Shamed America, a story I wrote that is built upon the 1888 poem Casey At The Bat. The novel’s appeal is an unlikely narrator, the umpire the fans want so badly to kill. As with baseball novel The Celebrant, At The Bat is an examination of the fall of the proud hero and the rise of the unexpectedly humble.
Among Wiles’ favorite baseball novels are The Brothers K, Heart of the Order, Season of the Owl, The Natural, and Man on Spikes. His most favorite is The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, by the Canadian W.P. Kinsella. “It’s a novel of magical realism, and everything I love about baseball is in it,” Wiles says.
Shoeless Joe is the favorite baseball novel of Gonzalez, but she says it is the rare author who can compete with the true stories of baseball.
Hopefully, that won’t stop novelists from trying. So far, two of the Top 10 have been written in the 21st century.
“Even as baseball recedes in the national imagination, authors are finding new ways to explore the topic,” McGuire says.
Here are the best baseball novels of all time as ranked by Goodreads readers.
- The Natural by Bernard Malamud (1952)
The concept is great, a player injured by a woman’s gunfire at 19 returns as a 35-year-old rookie phenom to take a hapless team to the top of the standings. Baseball scenes are written well, but Gonzalez is among those who say the movie is better than the book, which is full of dark characters. Unlike the movie, the book does not end with fireworks and Roy Hobbs’ shattering of the stadium lights with his bat Wonderboy.
- Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella (1980)
On the other hand, several great scenes from this book were left out of the movie Field of Dreams and readers tend to think the book is better. Many rank Shoeless Joe ahead of The Natural. A struggling Iowa farmer obeys the voice of Shoeless Joe Jackson of the 1919 Black Sox Scandal. “If you build it, he will come,” Ray Kinsella hears, and insanely plows under his corn field to build a diamond for the ghostly legends.
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (2011)
Critics say it is much like baseball: 500-plus pages about a college team that crawl toward extra innings. Literary critics, like true baseball fans, shrug and say it’s worth the time invested. It’s great art, though the reader might need a seventh-inning stretch. The perfect fielder at last makes a throwing error that hospitalizes his roommate. The most successful baseball novel in a long time because it crosses over to the connoisseurs of literary fiction.
- If I Never Get Back by Darryl Brock (1990)
Like Shoeless Joe, this is a time travel book except the narrator does the traveling. He steps off a train platform and from a sad life of divorce and into 1869. Just as At The Bat: The Strikeout That Shamed America pulls in Cap Anson and real-life reporter Nellie Bly, If I Never Get Back pulls in the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, Mark Twain and a love affair with a woman of the past. Both novels are complete with exhaustive research. Separated in history by 19 years, they reveal a post Civil War America and the changing game of baseball as it morphs into a professional sport.
- The Celebrant by Eric Rolfe Greenberg (1983)
Go back in time once more to the days of New York Giants pitcher Christy Mathewson and, toward the end, great prose about the 1919 Black Sox Scandal. As with Mighty Casey, this novel is much about the pitfalls of hero worship and the burdens of being a hero. Other historical baseball novels portray the life of Irish immigrants. This one revolves around a family of Jewish immigrant jewelers.
- Bang The Drum Slowly by Mark Harris (1956)
Harris is the only author of two books on this list, though Kinsella rightly deserves to be another. Bang The Drum Slowly is a sequel to The Southpaw in a four-book series. Pitcher Henry Wiggen (played by Michael Moriarty in the movie) returns and has a bromance with his slow-talking, disrespected catcher Bruce Pearson (Robert De Niro), who is diagnosed with terminal cancer. The two keep it a secret from teammates and the world. A heart-tugger.
- The Universal Baseball Association., Inc. by Robert Coover (1968)
True fantasy baseball. A reclusive accountant goes home each night to play a baseball dice game he invented. Perfect games are pitched and players killed by bean balls on a kitchen table where J. Henry Waugh is the god of fate. A change of pace among baseball novels, quite different than the others on this list.
- The Brothers K by David James Duncan (1992)
One more look back, but to the upheaval of the 1960s and the Vietnam War. Once again, a baseball player’s career is ended by an accident and he raises a family in tension. An examination of faith. The mother is a Seventh-day Adventist; one son obsesses over eastern religions. Then, there is baseball, the religion of many. An emotional story that runs down the same lane as The Art of Fielding.
- At The Bat: The Strikeout That Shamed America by Del Leonard Jones (2020)
Casey, though worshiped, is a flawed super-hero. The unknown umpire, though despised and on the spectrum, calls balls and strikes. Stir into the Mudville mix reporter Nellie Bly, Mouse Mathews (the winningest pitcher not in the Hall of Fame), the racist Cap Anson and Moses Fleetwood Walker, the last African-American to play Major League Baseball (1884) for a long, long time. Anyone who knows the poem knows the ending. Well, not exactly, and that’s where shame breaks across the plate and into the catcher’s glove.
- The Southpaw by Mark Harris (1953)
First of a four-book series, rookie pitcher Henry Wiggin takes the reader from high school to the World Series with Huckleberry Finn-like language and a confrontation of racism and segregation. A coming of age story, as are many of the novels above.
Del Leonard Jones wrote more than 300 cover stories at USA Today and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in beat reporting. At The Bat: The Strikeout That Shamed America is his second novel. His first, The Cremation of Sam McGee, was also built upon a 19th-century poem. He has written the leadership book Advice From the Top: 1001 Bits of Business Wisdom from the Great Leaders of the Recent Past. He can be reached here on LinkedIn.