Baseball book reviews

Here are some of the baseball books we find ourselves consulting time after time. They cover rules, stats, history, fandom, MLB economics, quotes, trivia — you name it. All are recommended and worthy of your consideration.

Along with each review, there's a link to a reliable on-line book seller. If you want one of the books, consider using that link. We figure that if absolutely everyone we know visits our site, finds this page, and buys two copies of every book, we could earn about $1.98 in commissions. And that'll sure help with the college tuitions.

The Baseball Fan's Companion: How to Master the Subtleties of the World's Most Complex Team Sport and Learn to Watch the Game Like an Expert by Nick Bakalar

When there's a runner on first base, just an instant before the pitch is delivered, look at the shortstop. You'll see him turn to his left, and hold his glove in front of his face. If you've got good seats, you might see him open his mouth. And all of this is in a split second.

What's going on? Is he yawning? Scratching his nose? Why doesn't he do it when no runners are on?

For those of us who never played baseball seriously, it's not just that we don't know the answer — it's that we never would have noticed the curious behavior in the first place.

The Baseball Fan's Companion is a book that bridges the gap between watching the game like a fan and watching it like a player. What is each player's job in each defensive situation? (Everyone has one, and it changes on every pitch: as Bakalar points out, there's no defensive assignment called "stand and watch"). How do pitchers try to out-think hitters, and vice versa? What are the nuances of the steal? (By the clock, everyone who steals second base should be out by a tenth of a second -- but, of course, that's not the case). Even the perpetually perplexing issues are covered: what exactly is a balk?

Bakalar covers the strategy and tactics of the game in an easy, approachable style. The book is full of amusing sidebars as well. One favorite: the least-observed rules in baseball (it's illegal, for example, for the first baseman to speak to a runner from the opposing team — but just try telling that to Doug Mientkiewicz!). By the time you've finished the book, you'll have a completely different understanding of the game, and your next trip to the ballpark will be much more enjoyable.

Oh, and the glove-in-the-face thing? The shortstop is waiting to see what pitch is called, figuring out whether he or the second baseman should cover second, and signalling to the second baseman: mouth open, or mouth closed. And he's hiding the signal from the batter, to keep him from deducing anything about the pitch. Wow!

If you only get one baseball book, get this one.

Official Rules of Major League Baseball

It's dull, it's dry, it's formal — and you should have a copy.

Despite the old-fashioned language ("batter-runner," "without liability to be put out") and the formal section, subsection, sub-subsection layout, the Rules are surprisingly readable. Maybe it's because so often, as you wade through the "well, sure, I knew that" and "of course, that's obvious" sections, you come across little gems. Ok, what exactly is the rule for a fair ball that gets stuck in the ivy on the outfield fence?

The rules are annotated, where they get particularly tortuous, with examples and approved rulings. So now when a relief pitcher induces a fielder's choice at second, you'll know to charge a run by the runner at first to the previous pitcher, even though they didn't face each other. You were wondering about that, right?

A small volume — pocket-sized, for some sizes of pockets — it will travel easily to the ballpark with you, to be pulled out in those situations when everyone around you is looking at each other and yelling "Out? How could he be out? He's not out!"

Especially indispensable if you're going to score the game.

Total Baseball: The Official Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball by Thorn et al.

"We could look it up!" You'll never have a baseball question go unanswered again with Total Baseball. This book is as thick as a Louisville Slugger, and it is packed with all of the baseball information you will ever want to know (or at least close to it, for you extreme baseball fans).

Besides giving every statistic of every player, pitcher, and manager who made it to the big time, it lists leaders for each era in categories ranging from the conventional (most hits) to the why-would-I-ever-need-to-know-this (most pitcher fielding runs). If you're not a budding sabermatrician but still love baseball history, you can learn about the origins of each team and read the recounts of All-Star and playoff games.

So, if you have any baseball questions, this is the book to buy. And imagine how much you'll impress your friends when you're talking about a player your team might be trading for. Your buddies say "He swings a good bat." You say "Well, he only has a career TPI of negative 2, so I don't think he's worth the money."

Great Baseball Feats, Facts, and Firsts by David Nemec

Let's be frank: this is a book to keep in the bathroom. Something to dip into at random for a few moments, only to emerge with some new tidbit to astound the next person you run into. "Say, did you know that..."

This is really two books in one, with the chapters interleaved. Nemec covers baseball history chronologically — from its 19th century origins to the present — calling out highlights along the way. He analyzes rule changes, points out pitching and hitting milestones, covers the expansion of the leagues and the coming and going of ballparks and owners. There's a capsule of every World Series, and the author's selections for the most notable teams in each era.

The second book within the book is a look at the game by position and by feat. For example, there are chapters for shorstops' records, for home run records, for relief pitching, for longevity — for everything, or so it seems. And Nemec doesn't just hit the highlights, he covers such unenviable records as most consecutive walks by a pitcher (it stands at 7).

So, what was so remarkable about the home run apiece by Kent Hrbek, Tim Laudner, and Gary Gaetti on September 20, 1981? It was the major league debut for all three Twins (and Gaetti's first ML at-bat). Thanks to Great Baseball Feats for that and a thousand other morsels of baseball lore!

The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract by Bill James

By Mr. Sabermetrician himself. Complete review to follow.

Fair Ball by Bob Costas

What's broken in the business of baseball, and one man's ideas on how to fix it. Complete review to follow.

Take Me Out to the Ballpark: An Illustrated Guide to Baseball Parks Past & Present by Josh Leventhal

An illustrated tour of baseball stadiums old and new. Complete review to follow.