By Marty Appel
Baseball’s place in American literature is not necessarily measured by book sales and a landing on best-seller lists. Indeed, many fine books about the game develop cult followings, strong word-of-mouth, and a treasured place in baseball libraries without being necessarily reflected in sales.
Still, we’re baseball people, and we love our league leaders. We comb the stats and categorize the numbers, and find a certain order, a certain rightness to looking at names and numbers in charts. It’s who we are as baseball fans.
And so comes the wonderful marriage over the years between baseball books and the New York Times best-seller list.
There are any number of best-seller lists in the country, most published on Sundays, but it is the hardcover list in the Times that tends to be the standard-bearer, the one publishers themselves turn to when designing the paperback and proudly adding “New York Times Bestseller!”
The Times began its list on October 6, 1935 as a monthly feature. It became weekly on August 9, 1942, well after Christy Mathewson might have made it with “Pitching in a Pinch” (1912), or Ring Lardner with “You Know Me, Al” (1914), or John McGraw with “My Thirty Years in Baseball” (1923).
The methodology in researching the list was to work with Deborah Hoffman at the Times, and provide her with all names of books that might have appeared. She would check the book against her file, and if there was a match, she would be able to provide the number of weeks on the list. It was not possible to do a computer search entering “baseball” and have all the best-sellers come back. It had to be checked one at a time, and yes, the possibility exists that one or two could have been missed. For example, Paul O’Neill’s “Me and My Dad”, published just this year in time for Father’s Day, spent a week on the list just at that time of year. It’s the sort of book that one might not think of years from now. But it was, indeed, the 35th baseball book to make the list.
It is important to note, of course, that making the list has a lot to do with what else is out there at the time, and not necessarily about total sales. An evergreen work of literature like Lawrence Ritter’s wonderful “The Glory of Their Times”, considered by many the best baseball book ever, never appeared on the list, but has sold more than 360,000 to date. However, it is still selling some 40 years later, still beloved, and in aggregate, surely one of the best-selling baseball books in history. But in no particular week was it able to crack the list.
The Baseball Encyclopedia, published by MacMillan, totaled nearly a million in sales through its nine editions, but never made the list.
The first baseball book to appear on the list was “The Babe Ruth Story”, by Ruth and Bob Considine, which checked in at number 14 on May 30, 1948, about 11 weeks before the Babe’s passing. So for the man who hit the first home run in Yankee Stadium and the first home run in an All-Star Game, the Babe had one more “first” before his death; he was the author of the first baseball book to make the Times best-seller list.
How much the dying Ruth cared about that fact, or about the book itself, is open to question. We do know from anecdotal tales, that he did attend a book party thrown by the publisher, and at the party Considine asked Ruth if he might sign a personalized copy.
“Sure,” said the Babe. “What’s your name again?”
“The Babe Ruth Story” spent three weeks on the list. We skip over 1954’s Grantland Rice memoir, “The Tumolt and the Shouting”, because that book, like others to follow, was all sports, not strictly baseball. It did spend 26 weeks on the list, and “Cosell,” an autobiography by the acerbic sportscaster Howard Cosell, spent 21 weeks in 1973. But neither was strictly baseball, and thus doesn’t make our cut.
So the next baseball book to hit the list after Ruth did not come until 1955, when the autobiography of Jimmy Piersall, “Fear Strikes Out”, written with Al Hirschberg, appeared on the list for a single week. The book, which dealt with Piersall’s mental illness while playing for the Red Sox, inspired a movie, but the movie publicity did not help propel this to the list; the movie was released in 1957.
Only two books, aided by the release of a movie, have ever hit the list. Bernard Malamud’s “The Natural” was first published in 1952, but did not make the list until Robert Redford starred in the movie in 1984. And W.P. Kinsella’s “Shoeless Joe”, from which Field of Dreams came to the cinema, made it in 1989, seven years after it was first published.
In any case, the 1940s gave us Ruth and the 1950s Piersall, not a very voluminous impression of baseball on the list. Only three books from the 1960s would hit – ex-pitcher Jim Brosnan’s acclaimed “The Long Season”, ex-catcher Joe Garagiola’s riotous “Baseball is a Funny Game”, and ex-owner Bill Veeck’s memoir, “Veeck as in Wreck”.
Baseball writing in the ‘70s was beckoned by the publication of Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four”, which would go on to 17 weeks on the hardcover list, breaking Veeck’s record of 15, and Garagiola’s of 13. Bouton’s book has been reissued under numerous publishers, and the author’s own estimate on total sales of all editions is over three million. And while the Bouton book opened the door for baseball writing with a higher octane level of publicity, and led to Leo Durocher/Ed Linn’s “Nice Guys Finish Last” (1975) and Sparky Lyle/Peter Golenbock’s “Bronx Zoo” (1979, 220,000 sold), there was also a welcome place for Roger Kahn’s classic “The Boys of Summer”, (1972). With 140,000 hardcover sales during it’s record 24-week best-seller run, (which would continue to grew to more than 2.5 million, including1.9 in trade paperback, covering a remarkable 85 editions), the book was the first not written by a baseball insider, but rather, by an observer of the game, to crack the list.
Kahn’s ”A Season in the Sun”, (1977) and Roger Angell’s first collection of New Yorker magazine articles, “The Summer Game” (1972), were also mid-‘70s delights on the list. “The Bronx Zoo” held firm on the list for an amazing 29 weeks, breaking Kahn’s record, and setting a mark which would stand for 11 years.
Ten books would break through in the 1980s, including “The Natural” and “Shoeless Joe.” Two were by umpire Ron Luciano and David Fisher, “The Umpire Strikes Back” (18 weeks, 400,000 copies sold), and “Strike Two” (260,000 copies sold). Golenbock’s collaboration with Graig Nettles, “Balls”, found a place on the list, as did Angell’s “Late Innings”, Pete Rose’s collaboration with Roger Kahn, “Pete Rose: My Story”, Reggie Jackson’s autobiography written with Mike Lupica (“Reggie”), “Bill James Historical Abstract”, which came off and on the list over a period of three years for a total of 13 weeks, and Duke Snider’s autobiography, written with Bill Gilbert, “The Duke of Flatbush”. For Kahn, it marked his third appearance on the list. He’s the only baseball writer to accomplish that.
Five books made the list in the 1990s, the first of which, “Men At Work”, by George Will, stayed on the list for 35 weeks – nearly 9 months – breaking Lyle’s record and still the pace setter to this day. Eighteen of those weeks were spent at the number one position.
In addition to Will, the only books to crack the list in the ‘90s were “If I Had a Hammer” (Hank Aaron and Lonnie Wheeler), “All My Octobers” (Mickey Mantle and Phil Pepe), “Wait Til Next Year” (Doris Kearns Goodwin) and “Bunts” (George Will’s follow-up), which only spent two weeks on the list.
This new millennium seems to find a baseball hungry reading audience waiting on line for bookstores to open. With the decade only 4 years old, nine books have already hit, including O’Neills. The others have been Bob Costas’s “Fair Ball” (2000), Richard Ben Cramer’s “Joe DiMaggio” (2000), Yogi Berra and Dave Kaplan’s “When You Come to a Fork in the Road” (2001), “Zimmer” (2001) by Don Zimmer and Bill Madden, Jane Leavy’s “Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy” (2002), and this year’s “Perfect I’m Not” (David Wells and Chris Kreski), ”The Teammates” (David Halberstam) and “Moneyball” (Michael Lewis).
Among those that didn’t make the cut were the autobiographies by Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Whitey Ford, Bob Creamer’s wonderful biographies of Babe Ruth and Casey Stengel, Ray Robinson’s Lou Gehrig and Christy Mathewson bios, Halberstam’s earlier baseball books, “Summer of ‘49” and “October 1964”, the Putnam team histories from the ‘40s and ‘50s, Frank Graham’s and Paul Gallico’s Gehrig bios, Eliot Asinof’s “Eight Men Out”, Pat Jordan’s “A False Spring,” or Daniel Okrant’s and Harris Lewine’s “The Ultimate Baseball Book,” which has been in print and selling since 1979.
Tops by Weeks on List
35 Men At Work (Will, 1990)
29 The Bronx Zoo (Lyle, Golenbock, 1979)
24 The Boys of Summer (Kahn, 1972)
20 Moneyball (Lewis, 2003)
18 The Umpire Strikes Back (Luciano, Fisher 1982)
17 Ball Four (Bouton, Schecter 1970)
16 Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy (Leavy 2002)
15 Veeck As in Wreck (Veeck, Linn 1962)
15 Balls (Nettles, Golenbock 1983)
13 Baseball is a Funny Game (Garagiola, 1960)
13 Bill James Historical Abstract (James, 1984)
13 The Teammates (Halberstam, 2003)
10 Wait til Next Year (Goodwin, 1997)
10 Fair Ball (Costas, 2000)
9 weeks – Joe DiMaggio (2000), 7 weeks – When You Come to a Fork in the Road (2001), 6 weeks – All My Octobers (1994), Late Innings (1982), 5 weeks – Perfect I’m Not (2003), If I Had a Hammer (1991), The Summer Game (1972), 4 weeks – Shoeless Joe (1989), Reggie (1984), 3 weeks – The Babe Ruth Story (1948), Zimmer (2001), 2 weeks – Bunts (1998), Pete Rose: My Story (1989), The Duke of Flatbush (1988), 1 week – Me and My Dad (2003), The Natural (1984), Strike Two (1984), A Season in the Sun (1977), Nice Guys Finish Last (1975), The Long Season (1960), Fear Strikes Out (1955).