By Marty Appel
Here’s something for book collectors to ponder: would it make an interesting collection to have a copy of every baseball book to ever make The New York Times best seller list?
A bit of digging – trust me, it wasn’t easy – has led to the titles of 45 books to have made what is generally considered the gold standard of best seller lists. Interestingly, 17 of the 45 have come in this half-decade (I count 2000 as the start of the decade), six in 2005 alone, making it possible to say that the baseball book industry is very much alive and well.
A few notes on all of this before we get into the titles: making the best-seller list does not necessarily mean it’s a baseball classic. Among those not on the list are Lawrence Ritter’s “The Glory of Their Times”, Eliot Asinof’s “Eight Men Out”, Bob Creamer’s biographies of Babe Ruth and Casey Stengel, David Halbertam’s “Summer of ’49” and “October l964”, Pat Jordan’s “A False Spring”, Frank Graham’s, “A Quiet Hero,” James T. Farrell’s “My Baseball Diary,” and “The Ultimate Baseball Book”, which has been in print since 1979.
On the other hand, the list includes such “non-classics,” as “Me and My Dad,” by Paul O’Neill, and “Perfect I’m Not” by David Wells. Getting on the list has a lot to do with controversy, or, as with any “best seller” list, with what the competition at the moment is.
The list only records sales in a particular week, so a long and steady sales record without a burst would not get the book noticed by the compilers. Also, there are no measurements of overall sales, so a book could have made the list but might not have sold as many copies as a book with a long record of sales. Thus “The Glory of Their Times” undoubtedly outsold “Perfect I’m Not,” but there is no list for lifetime sales, and trust me, that one would be impossible to ascertain. Publishers are not quick to release sales figures and authors often mistrust the figures they release anyway.
The Times list began on October 6, 1935 as a monthly feature, turning weekly on August 9, 1942. It was a “top ten” at that point, and didn’t expand to a top 15 until 1978. The current list still features 15 in the Sunday Book Review section, and an expanded list up to 35 which is shown online, but not included in this account. (USA Today publishes a top 100, a mixture of fiction, non-fiction, paperback and hardcover, and the Amazon and Barnes & Noble online lists go into the millions).
By starting in 1935, a few possible best sellers failed to get attention, including Christy Mathewson’s “Pitching in a Pinch” (1912), Ring Lardner’s “You Know Me, Al” (1914) and John McGraw’s “My Thirty Years in Baseball” (1923).
The first baseball book to crack the list then was “The Babe Ruth Story”, an autobiography written “with” Bob Considine and published in 1948, the year Babe died. The book spent three weeks on the list, and would be the only pure baseball book to reach these heights until 1955 when the Jimmy Piersall autobiography, “Fear Strikes Out,” helped by a movie release of the same name, spent one week on the list.
In between those two, Grantland Rice’s memoir, “The Tumolt and the Shouting” would spend 26 weeks on the list (and later on, Howard Cosell’s “Cosell” would spend 21), but to me, those were not pure baseball books, and aren’t on my list.
The third book to hit the list was Jim Brosnan’s “The Long Season” in 1960 (one week), which was a really fine achievement given that Brosnan was not a famous player and his subject – a losing season in small market cities – hardly sexy. That the book made the list is a total tribute to his literary skills.
Also in 1960, Joe Garagiola’s enormously popular “Baseball is a Funny Game” had a 13-week stay on the list and would remain in print for decades as Joe’s national fame spread. And then in 1962, Bill Veeck’s still-beloved “Veeck as in Wreck” surpassed Garagiola’s mark with a 15-week run.
There wouldn’t be another baseball book on the list until 1970, meaning that for the first 35 years of the list, only 5 books cracked it. And then came “Ball Four.”
Jim Bouton’s revealing behind-the-scenes book which caused enormous controversy, but which remains a breakthrough sports book, spent 17 weeks on the list, the new record. The mark would be broken two years later with a book no one found controversial, only lovable – Roger Kahn’s brilliant, “The Boys of Summer.” That one is indeed a classic, and its run of 24 weeks – nearly half a year on the list – would stand until Sparky Lyle and Peter Golenbock combined for “The Bronx Zoo,” the story of the early George Steinbrenner championship years. “Bronx Zoo” was on the list for 29 weeks, and that mark stood for 11 years until broken by the book that still holds the record with an incredible 35 weeks on the list, that being “Men At Work,” the baseball book by political pundit George Will. Will’s record goes into 2006 with a 16 year run.
The only novels to ever make the list were Bernard Malamud’s “The Natural” at the time the Robert Redford movie was released, 32 years after it was published, and W.P. Kinsella’s “Shoeless Joe,” published in 1982, but a best-seller in 1989 when “Field of Dreams” was released on film.
Golenbock, with four trips to the list, is the champion, followed by Kahn, with three.
By decades, bestsellers have numbered 1 (1940s), 1 (1950s), 3 (1960s), 6 (1970s), 11 (1980s), 6 (1990s), and as noted, 17 (2000s), with this decade only half over. Among the big hits in recent years have been “Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy” by Jane Leavy (16 weeks), “Moneyball” by Michael Lewis (20 weeks), ”Three Nights in August” by Buzz Bissinger (20 weeks), and “The Teammates” by Halberstam, (13 weeks).
Marty Appel, former Yankees PR Director and Emmy award-winning TV Producer, is the author of 16 books including “Now Pitching for the Yankees,” and the Casey Award- winning “Slide, Kelly, Slide.” He can be reached at AppelPR@gmail.com
The complete list, including number of weeks on the list:
1948 The Babe Ruth Story (Babe Ruth/Bob Considine) (3 weeks)
1955 Fear Strikes Out (Jimmy Piersall/ Al Hirschberg) (1)
1960 The Long Season (Jim Brosnan) (1)
1960 Baseball Is a Funny Game (Joe Garagiola) (13)
1962 Veeck As in Wreck (Bill Veeck/Ed Linn) (15)
1970 Ball Four (Jim Bouton) (17)
1972 The Boys of Summer (Roger Kahn) (24)
1972 The Summer Game (Roger Angell) (5)
1975 Nice Guys Finish Last (Leo Durocher/Ed Linn) (1)
1977 A Season in the Sun (Roger Kahn) (1)
1979 The Bronx Zoo (Sparky Lyle/Peter Golenbock) (29)
1980 Number 1 (Billy Martin/Peter Golenbock) (8 into 1981)
1982 The Umpire Strikes Back (Ron Luciano/David Fisher) (18)
1982 Late Innings (Roger Angell) (6)
1984 Reggie (Reggie Jackson/Mike Lupica) (4)
1984 Bill James Historical Abstract (Bill James) (13, thru 1987)
1984 Strike Two (Ron Luciano/David Fisher) (1)
1984 The Natural (Bernard Malamud) (1)
1984 Balls (Graig Nettles/Peter Golenbock) (15)
1988 The Duke of Flatbush (Duke Snider/Bill Gilbert) (2)
1989 Pete Rose: My Story (Pete Rose/Roger Kahn) (2)
1989 Shoeless Joe (W.P. Kinsella) (4)
1991 Men At Work (George Will) (35)
1993 I Had A Hammer (Hank Aaron/Lonnie Wheeler) (5)
1991 My Favorite Summer (Mickey Mantle/Phil Pepe) (6)
1994 All My Octobers (Mickey Mantle/Mickey Herskowitz) (6)
1997 Wait Til Next Year (Doris Kearns Goodwin) (10)
1998 Bunts (George Will) (2)
2000 Fair Ball (Bob Costas) (10)
2000 Joe DiMaggio (Richard Ben Cramer) (9)
2002 When You Come to A Fork in the Road (Yogi Berra/David Kaplan) (7)
2002 Zimmer (Don Zimmer/Bill Madden) (3)
2004 Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy (Jane Leavy) (16 )
2006 Perfect I’m Not (David Wells/Chris Kreski) (5)
2003 The Teammates (David Halberstam) (13)
2003 Moneyball (Michael Lewis) (20)
2003 Me and My Dad (Paul O’Neill/Burton Rocks) (1)
2008 My Prison Without Bars (Pete Rose/Rick Hill) (5)
2004 Ted Williams (Leigh Montville) (1)
2005 Juiced (Jose Canseco) (8)
2005 Three Nights in August (Buzz Bissinger) (20)
2005 Idiot (Johnny Damon/Peter Golenbock) (2)
2005 Coach (Michael Lewis) (5)
2005 Luckiest Man (Jonathan Eig) (1)
2005 Praying for Gil Hodges (Thomas Oliphant) (1)