I’m headed to Yankee Stadium, one of my favorite places. For the next three days, I will be eating hot dogs and watching the New York Yankees play the defending American League champion Texas Rangers, hoping to see Yankee captain and future Hall-of-Famer Derek Jeter get his 3000th career base hit and become the first Yankee to reach that milestone.
Derek Jeter is my favorite baseball player on my favorite team. He has defined the current Yankee era, leading the team to 5 World Series championships with a level of professionalism and class that is all-to-often lacking in professional athletes today. For me and many Yankee fans, the defining Jeter moment was his game-saving head-first diving catch in the stands against the Red Sox in July 2004, which left him dazed and bloody. I went out and purchased a Jeter shirt the next day and have been proudly wearing it to the Stadium ever since. I will be wearing it this week to hopefully witness some Yankee history. (Note: Jeter got injured last night with a Grade 1 calf strain and probably won’t play!)
In honor of Derek Jeter and his great career, let’s talk baseball books. Here are my favorites. Let’s hear about yours.
- The Boys of Summer, Roger Kahn: My favorite of all baseball books perhaps because it is not just a great baseball book, but also a wonderfully evocative trip back in time to early 1950’s Brooklyn where and when my parents were married and started their life together by having a son (me) who would grow to love baseball and collect the memorabilia associated with the great Brooklyn Dodger team of that era (chronicled in The Boys of Summer), a team that would eventually win its only World Series championship in 1955 one month before my birth and then abandon Brooklyn for California two years later;
- Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball, George F. Will: Written by a great journalist and writer, this book delves into the preparation and attention to detail necessary to play the game at the highest level through interviews with some of the greats of the game about the essentials of hitting, pitching, fielding and managing;
- The Summer Game, Roger Angell: A collection of essays on baseball by one of America’s greatest sportswriters, which first appeared in The New Yorker from 1962-1972, the period of my introduction to and education in the game, when I consumed and memorized every statistic and nuance, and reluctantly came to grips with the reality that I would never make it to The Big Show;
- October 1964, David Halberstam: Against a political backdrop of JFK’s assassination, the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, the great historian (and baseball lover) recreates the World Series of 1964 in which the declining Yankee dynasty of Mantle, Maris and Ford passed the torch to the first great team to be dominated by young black athletes, the St Louis Cardinals of Gibson, Brock and Flood;
- Ball Four, Jim Bouton: The first of its kind and controversial when originally published, Ball Four is an insider’s diary of a season that takes an irreverent look behind the scenes and unmasks our heroes to reveal the real men beneath the facade, impossible to put down at the time I first read it;
- Summer of ’49, David Halberstam: Another insightful combination of history and baseball, set in post WWII America as Joe DiMaggio’s Yankees battle their historical rivals, the Boston Red Sox led by the great Ted Williams, for the 1949 American League pennant;
- The Great American Novel, Philip Roth: Combine one of the 20th century’s greatest American novelists with America’s pastime, add a little satire, and you’ve got a hilarious fictional window on mid-century America through the colorful prism of baseball’s only homeless team, the Rupert Mundy’s, and their collection of misfits;
- Moneyball, The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, Michael Lewis: A look behind the romance to the real business of baseball and how a small-market franchise puts together a team that can compete with the Big Boys by using modern analytic approaches to statistics; and
- The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood, Jane Leavy: The ultimate denouement for a middle-aged baby boomer baseball fan as the veneer is stripped away from my first baseball hero and the sad vulnerability of real life reveals itself.