Sunday books: New book examines best baseball books of all time; Author Q/A

There’s the famous line by George Plimpton: “The smaller the ball, the better the literature.”

That explains why there never has been a good book written about medicine balls.

The line might be a bit dated since there are many excellent books about football, basketball and even hockey. Plimpton never addressed the concept of pucks.

However, clearly no sport has generated more literature than baseball. Ron Kaplan examines the genre in his new book, 501 Baseball Books Fans Must Read Before They Die.

If you love baseball books as I do, then you’ll be interested in Kaplan’s book. He notes many little-known treasures.

Here is my Q/A with Kaplan:

Why did you decide to do a book on baseball books?

I host a blog (RonKaplansbaseballbookshelf.com) that considers just about anything you can physically keep on a bookshelf: books, of course, but also newspapers, movies, collectibles (bobbleheads, cards. etc.), TVs (if they’re small enough or you have a really big bookshelf), etc. Been doing this for more than five years and have gotten to know a few publishers.

I was asked to submit a proposal on “1,000 Baseball Books Fans Must Read…” by a medium-sized outfit. Shortly after I sent it along, the company was bought out by another publisher who decided they didn’t want the project. So here I am with a book proposal and I figured, why let it go to waste. There are a few houses that specialize in baseball and the first one I queried — University of Nebraska Press — accepted it.

How did you go about selecting the books to be included here?

A total matter of opinion. With the exception of a handful, these are books I really enjoyed and wanted to share. I’m willing to bet there are at least a few titles in 501 that no one has heard of before.

Aside from the old George Plimpton line, why have baseball books resonated more than books about other sports?

I think baseball is the most leisurely of sports. By that I mean, there’s an awful lot of down time — during at bats, pitching changes, side changes. There’s a lot of time to chat about the history of the game or statistics or other topics. For writers, there’s time to think. Arnold Hano wrote one of the best baseball books — A Day in the Bleachers— about a single game. It just happened to be the one in the 1954 World Series where Willie Mays made “The Catch.” How lucky was that?

You have some great history in here. What books stand out from pre-1960?

I’m all about the veterans, so I appreciate books about baseball during World War II. Robert Creamer published Baseball and Other Matters in 1941, an excellent look at America right before its entry. There’s also Playing for Their Nation: Baseball and the American Military during World War II by Steven Bullock. Joshua Prager deconstructed the Bobby Thomson’s famous home run on The Echoing Green. And of course, Eliot Asinof’s Eight Men Out.

Is there such a thing as the greatest baseball book of all time? Do you have a top 5?

That’s too subjective for me to answer. I don’t presume to list them in any order other than alphabetical with the various topics (history, biography, fiction, etc.). There are titles that always appear on a top five or top ten list in both fiction and non-fiction. I omitted a couple of perennials, such as The Boys of Summer and The Glory of Their Times. I like to say it’s because they always get mentioned, when in reality it might just have been a spaced-out moment.

My top five would include The Tao of Baseball by Go; A Thinking Man’s Guide to Baseball, by Leonard Koppett; Brittle Innings: A Novel, by Michael Bishop; Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Legends; and Mr. Deeds Goes to Yankee Stadium: Baseball Movies in the Tradition of Frank Capra, by Wes Gehring.

What are some of the new baseball books that have caught your attention this year?

I really enjoyed Allen Barra’s Mickey and Willie and Robert Weintraub’s The Victory Season as well as John Rosengren’s Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes. And while they’re not new, the Mickey Rawlings series of historical baseball mysteries by Troy Soos have been released this year. Highly recommended. There are a few I haven’t been able to get to yet, such as Howie Rose’s Put it in the Book and Joe Peta’s Trading Baseball and I know I’m forgetting some.

I get a fair amount of e-mail from readers who want to gently tell me that I didn’t include their favorite book, so I’m reading some of those. Just finished John Tunis’ Keystone Kids, what we might now call a “young adult” book, which was ahead of its time in terms of social consciousness.

Anything else?

I’ve done a couple of book events and am always fascinated by and grateful for the depth of knowledge of the audience. It’s not the same as an event with a player, where someone will say “I remember when you faced so-and-so.” These are thoughtful people who love baseball and love literature (and other media).

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