Sparky Lyle in . . . The Nagging Question

June 15, 2007

  Cheers for Mark Harris, Part 2

My favorite baseball book is The Southpaw, but it wasn’t always that way. For a while there, before I knew of Henry Wiggen, the tale of a different lefty topped the list. And I still owe a big debt to him.

Sparky Lyle got me writing.

His diary-style recounting of the tumultuous 1978 season, The Bronx Zoo (written with the help of Peter Golenbock), came out in 1979 when I was 11. I bought it that summer, when my brother and I were in New York City for our annual visit to see our dad. The cover featured a picture of a baseball festooned with a walrus mustache. The mustache bulged up above the otherwise flat surface of the cover, like the raised letters on the front of a Harlequin Romance. I practically went into cardiac arrest from laughing while reading the book on the busride home.

My brother and I had always seemed to find a way to laugh our asses off on that 8-hour ride. In earlier years we’d done it by filling in all the blank spaces in Mad Libs with swear words, or coming up with obscenity-laced versions of common acronyms such as FBI and CIA (this latter riff beginning with the two of us inventing “blue” versions for the UFP acronym on my brother’s official United Federation of Planets Star Trek T-shirt). I don’t remember anything particularly funny from the homeward busrides in the years after the Bronx Zoo hilarity, however, which suggests that Lyle’s descriptions of clubhouse pranks and dugout fueds provided our last Greyhound hurrah. By the summer of 1979 my brother had become a teenager, while I was still a kid, the two-year gap between us never wider, and so by then in most settings he reacted to my pestering demands for his attention by, first, totally ignoring me, then if that didn’t work fixing me with a brief glowering stare, and finally if I still kept at it unleashing a spring-loaded backhand punch to my upper arm. But I guess the regular rules were-up to and including that summer but not beyond it-suspended for our busride home from seeing our father. In that moment of suspension between parents it was the two of us against the world, laughing.

And in that last laughing busride we had Lyle’s book open between us, painting a graphic picture of grown men acting like children: bickering, playing baseball, cursing, playing baseball, getting in fistfights, playing baseball, and, in the most memorable running gag, perpetrated repeatedly by the book’s narrator upon a string of teammates, sitting bare-assed and ruinously on birthday cakes. All this must have been reassuring to me. If they haven’t grown up, maybe I don’t have to grow up, I thought. Baseball can go on, laughing my ass off can go on, feeling like I’m part of a team can go on. All these things had buoyed my childhood, and though I didn’t consciously note their imminent departure from my life, the fact is they were all on the brink of diminishing, and on some level I must have sensed this. So I seized on Lyle’s book, which is another way of saying I loved it.

And when the following year’s little league season came around, my final little league season, I decided to emulate Sparky Lyle. My father had recently given me a diary and had implored me to write something in it every day. The cover of the diary was denim. It had gnomes on it. In fact, it was called a Gnome Gnotebook. It took all my strength not to beat my own ass for owning it. But the evening after my team’s first little league practice of the year I ignored the gnomes and began to write, hoping that my increasingly mundane life would instantly burst into side-splitting hijinx. A few years later, during my college years and in a tantrum of frustration at still not being able get down on the page anything close to resembling what was inside me, I tossed all my writing notebooks (including the Gnotebook) into a dumpster. But I still remember the sentence that started my lifelong attempt to write down my life. I was trying to be sardonic and weathered, a crusty self-deprecating veteran. I guess I was probably trying to sound like Sparky Lyle. And I was trying to tell the truth.

“I couldn’t lay my glove on anything today, much less my bat,” I wrote.

My ten most favorite baseball books:
The Southpaw, by Mark Harris
Hang Tough, Paul Mather
, by Alfred Slote
Bill James’ Historical Abstract
Bang the Drum Slowly
, by Mark Harris
The Donald Honig Reader
Five Seasons
, by Roger Angell
The Bronx Zoo
, by Sparky Lyle with Peter Golenbock
The Great American Baseball Card Flipping Trading and Bubble Gum Book
, by Fred C. Harris and Brendan C. Boyd
The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., by Robert Coover

On to The Nagging Question:

What is your favorite baseball book?


  1. 1.  running a bookstore has allowed me to stockpile a large collection of volumes on baseball, mostly player biographies. i would have to say my favorite so far has been ‘maybe i’ll pitch forever’ by satchel paige. i have an old library copy on my shelf, and a signed copy stowed away.

    honorable mentions:

    i always enjoyed those little yellow reference paperbacks that came out every year on pitchers and such, i can’t remember what they are called.

    ‘baseball town’ by bob whittemore, mainly because it’s a history of the minor league clubs of my hometown.

    ‘the science of hitting’ by ted williams. it’s scary how much this guy thought about hitting. i read ‘my turn at bat’ as well, but didn’t enjot it nearly as much.

  2. 2.  Fiction: The Southpaw
    Nonfiction: The Glory of Their Times

  3. 3.  I love Bronx Zoo, as well as the book that turned me on to it – The New York Yankees Haters Handbook.

    I think my favorite baseball book, though, was Philip Roth’s “The Great American Novel,” about a fictional team (the Ruppert Mundys) in a fictional third major league that was condemned to play a whole season on the road.

  4. 4.  Just to add, the thing I remember most about “Bronx Zoo” was an extended discussion on the relative merits of bullpens around the American League. His favorite was Anaheim, becuase the visiting manager could not see into the visiting bullpen, and the locals where typically willing to pass hot dogs down to the relievers.

  5. 5.  I will give you a top eleven:

    Ritter, The Glory of Their Times
    Honig, Baseball When the Grass Was Real
    Kahn, The Boys of Summer
    Flood, The Way It Is
    Veeck and Linn, Veeck as in Wreck
    D’Antonio, Invincible Summer
    Fainaru and Sanchez, The Duke of Havana
    James, The Historical Baseball Abstract (1985 edition)
    Di Salvatore, A Clever Base Ballist
    Bouton, Ball Four
    Lewis, Moneyball

    As you can see, I was never much for baseball fiction.

  6. 6.  When I was a kid, I really liked “Ball Four” and Jay Johnstone’s book “Temporary Insanity.”

    I don’t know what my favorite is now, but I read “The Greatest Slump of All Time” by David Carkeet a few months ago and enjoyed it. It’s not like any other baseball book I’ve heard of.

  7. 7.  Fiction: The Great American Novel by Phil Roth
    Non-Fiction: Ball 4 by Jim Bouton, but I haven’t read it since I was a kid.

  8. 8.  6 My favorite when I was a kid was definitely “Temporary Insanity.” I must have read that thing seven or eight times, despite being too young to really have known who Johnstone was.

  9. 9.  Johnstone wrote a sequel (I didn’t remember the title, but Amazon says it’s “Over the Edge”) that I remember as being OK but a little disappointing.

  10. 10.  I read mostly non-fiction but one of my favorite novels of any kind is “Summerland” by Michael Chabon. It’s about baseball and American mythology. It features fairies, a werefox and a sasquatch, all of whom play baseball. But mostly it’s about an eleven year old boy learning to deal with pain and loss.

  11. 11.  The answer autobiographical: Veeck as in Wreck
    The answer historical: Eight Men Out
    The answer fictional: The Iowa Baseball Confederacy
    The answer cliched-yet-nevertheless-true: Ball Four
    The answer analytical: Bill James’ Historical Baseball Abstract
    The answer personal: The Thinking Fan’s Guide to Baseball

  12. 12.  Glad to see that I wasn’t the only one who liked “Temporary Insanity.”

    Current faves

    “The Wrong Stuff” – Bill Lee and Dick Lally
    I just saw the Spaceman with Oil Can Boyd and some other ex-Sox in a charity softball game against some local PD. He signed my 22 year old paperback and we talked about Jim Willoughby.

    “The Long Season” – “Ball Four” is often listed as a seminal book, but this was 10 years older, written without a ghost and Brosnan liked his martinis.

    “The Bill James Guide To Managers” – I keep referring to this as I do research on Billy Southworth.

    Ask me again in another month.

  13. 13.  My favorite baseball book is The Bronx Zoo. Billy Martin ‘Number One’ (also with Peter Golenbock) is probably number two.

    Things I remember from The Bronx Zoo (which I read with joy at age 10):

    -Lyle talking about Lou Pinella twirling his hair in his fingers and smelling it

    -Lyle slamming parents who let their kids wear ‘Boston sucks’ shirts and and asking if an endorsement of oral sex on a t-shirt was good parenting

    -Lyle describing the normally humble Ron Guidry talking about how he was going to set the strikeout record before facing the hapless Mariners (or was it the Blue Jays?) and getting shelled in the start.

    -Lyle talking about Rawly Eastwick’s snakebitten season. I grew up a little reading about Eastwick’s troubles with injuries, confidence, and just plain getting an opportunity. I had never really considered the effects of all of the above on the athletes I followed but have always considered them after reading the Bronx Zoo.

    -Lyle crediting the ’78 Red Sox with being the second best team in baseball and trashing the ’78 Dodgers and their ‘Dodger Blue’ spirit. I believe he said Dodgers SS Bill Russell couldn’t field a groundball with a shovel.

    Man did I love that book.

  14. 14.  I agree with many of the selections here. The one that hasn’t been mentioned here that I love is Pat Jordan’s A False Spring.

  15. 15.  One thing that I forgot to mention: I am planning on studying the 1977 season at some point in the near future. I already read the pertinent portions of The Wrong Stuff and Reggie Jacson’s book as well as some TSN stories over the past couple of months. So the Bronx Zoo is on my list of rereads. I do recall liking it as a kid.

  16. 16.  Bill James, “The Baseball Book 1990”. I learned more from that book than any baseball book I had read up to that point in my life.

  17. 17.  I will offer up a couple more that haven’t been chosen. Any Kinsella fictional piece really connects with me. Part of this does stem from me growing up in Iowa and having a fondness for Iowa’s writers workshop members.
    If you like Field of Dreams or not, Shoeless Joe is a great read.

    I haven’t read it in nearly 20 years, but I can remember loving the “Best Team that Money Can Buy” by Steve Jacobson. It was an expose on the 1977 Yankees.

    I also loved this book titled “How I would pitch to Babe Ruth” by Tom Seaver. Seaver discussed his strategy on how he would have pitched against the greatest hitters of all-time. I’m sure it was more of a book that connects with a 10 year-old than being a literary classic, though.

    The Ultimate Baseball Book is a spectacular history of the game.

  18. 18.  I remember not really being interested in reading much until I started reading sports books. It was cheesy books like “The Strikeout King” I think this was about a Canadian pitcher–old book from ’50s that I read in late ’70s. Also books that did 10+ pages on different players–one I especially remember was about the best pitchers ever, Lefty Grove, Walter Johnson, Cy Young, etc. One of the first autobiographies I read was “It Pays to Steal” Maury Wills, as a Texas Ranger fan, I knew Maury was Bump’s dad so I had to read the book. “The Bronx Zoo” was another one–it really opened my eyes to a different side of baseball beyond the cards. I really haven’t read many baseball books since high school, but I remember enjoying(and actually dug it out tonight) “Good Enough to Dream” by Roger Kahn. I think it was be put in my large pile of read again books if I find the time.

  19. 19.  I surely do remember laughin my ass off, but the only things I remember about the book’s contents are the cake-sitting in general, and one horrific image: Lyle opening his locker to find a cake topped with a big steaming dump, courtesy Ron Swoboda.

    Lately my fave baseball book is 86 Years: The Story of the Boston Red Sox — it’s a kids’ picture book about the 2004 Sox, written in a written in a “Casey at the Bat” sort of cadence. My 20-month-old daughter loves it, probably because her dad always gets so impassioned and even choked up at certain key points in the story…

    Also gotta mention:

    O Holy Cow, the Rizzuto found-poetry book, is priceless.

    Bill Lee’s book, The Wrong Stuff.

    Roger Angell’s The Summer Game

  20. 20.  All this excellent commentary has me itching to head off to the library. Some of the books mentioned are unfamiliar to me, some are favorites (The Wrong Stuff, Glory of Their Times, O Holy Cow). I was also a huge fan of Seaver’s How I Would Pitch to Babe Ruth. Haven’t thought about that book in a long time.

    Was I the only Alfred Slote reader here?

  21. 21.  Outside of those mentioned: “Pure Baseball” by Keith Hernandez.

    My off-the-wall favorite is Warren Cromartie’s “Slugging it out in Japan.”

    Another good one: “Sadaharu Oh: A Zen Way of Baseball” by David Falkner.

    Coover’s book is one of the best pieces of fiction I’ve ever read, period.

  22. 22.  I’ve read every baseball book Roger Angell has put out, and loved them, probably because they connect with my own memories of those seasons.

    As a kid, I loved the John R. Tunis books about baseball, maybe in part because the team he wrote about was named the Dodgers. Reviews from a UT-Arlington person here:

    “Eight Men Out” was excellent.
    “How Life Imitates the World Series” by Tom Boswell is fun.

  23. 23.  A few of my favorites in non-fiction are
    “The Golden Game: The Story of California Baseball” by Kevin Nelson
    “The Pacific Coast League” by Bill O’Neal
    “It’s Gone! …No, Wait a Minute…” by Ken Levine
    I will also mention “If I Never Get Back” by Darryl Brock. It’s historical fiction following the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings. The fiction part didn’t do much for me but the research is amazing. All the players and game accounts from that season are accurate and seeing how the game was played back then was fascinating.

  24. 24.  Alfred Slote reader here! I can still remember the solid color of each oversized paperback: red for “Hang Tough, Paul Mather,” blue for “Jake” (“To answer your question, Jake, you scored.”), yellow for “The Biggest Victory,” and so on. Great stuff.

    Other tops would be “Ball Four,” anything by W.P. Kinsella (his short story collection “The Thrill of the Grass” is marvelous) or Roger Angell, and “The Man Who Brought The Dodgers Back to Brooklyn” by David Ritz. I had it as a kid, lost it in a move, and (in the pre-Amazon era) spent years trying to find another copy before succeeding. In my search, I ran across more than one used bookseller who had one, but wouldn’t sell it, because it was his personal copy.

  25. 25.  20 You sure aren’t.

    The first book that popped into my head was Slote’s Jake. I remember it quite fondly. Hang Tough… was another great one.

    I’m a bit surprised that no one mentioned Ron Luciano’s The Umpire Strikes Back.

    The Bill James Baseball Abstract opened my eyes, and I was absolutely bug-eyed reading Moneyball.

  26. 26.  Scouting/Analysis:
    Kerrane: Dollar Sign on the Muscle
    Lewis: Moneyball
    James: Historical Abstract

    Base Ball:
    DiSalvatore: A Clever Base-Ballist
    Nemec: The Beer and Whisky League
    Ryczek: When Johnny Came Sliding Home, Blackguards & Red Stockings

    Bouton: Ball 4
    Whiting: You Gotta Have Wa
    Okrent: Nine Innings
    Anything by Roger Angell

    Vescey: Joy in Mudville
    Pearlman: The Bad Guys Won
    Klapisch: The Worst Team Money Can Buy

    Hang on, still writing …

  27. 27.  While certainly not the best book on baseball ever written, I have never enjoyed a book more than the giant coffee table book by Branch Rickey that my grandfather owns. I believe it is called “The American Diamond.” It was written in the 60’s I believe and has an extensive section wherein Mr. Rickey puts together his all-time team. At one point he mentions that Willie Mays might someday be be added to his all-time list, but that the jury was still out on him.

    Mr. Rickey felt that Honus Wagner was the greatest baseball player of all time and that Christy Mathewson may have been the best pitcher ever.

    I must have read that book 50 times.

  28. 28.  mbtn, did you post in the past at NetShrine?

    I know Bill Ryczek a little. He’s in the local SABR chapter and I see him several times a year.

  29. 29.  One book I read and re-read several times was “From Dodger Dogs to Fenway Franks.” It was written by a schoolteacher who visited (by car) each major laegue park in one season by a school teacher on his summer break. The book pre-dates Camden Yards, and all of its copy-cats.

  30. 30.  Ennui — Not netshrine, but BTF where ‘Roadblock Jones’ posts ever more infrequently. We watched the Jays game at SABR in Toronto, if you’re who I think you were, I mean… are.

    I included the Ryczek books just because as far as I know they’re the best (only?) attempts to do a comprehensive history of the earliest baseball leagues. I have to say though that I wouldn’t have cared a thing for 19th century ball had I not read DiSalvatore’s book first. That opened up that whole world to me.

  31. 31.  That’s right, mbtn01. Jays vs Yanks.

  32. 32.  Two of my favorites that I haven’t seen mentioned: “Prophet of the Sandlots” and “The Catcher Was A Spy,” though you could argue that the latter wasn’t REALLY a baseball book.

  33. 33.  29 Dodger Dogs to Fenway Franks was another one I read until it fell apart. Aside from this guy being the first I’d ever heard of to visit all the parks in one season, I remember the personal details: his car being broken into early on, the highway diner with the old-fashioned soda fountain, how some clubs welcomed him and others seemed bizarrely determined to keep him out, etc. He obviously lost steam towards the end — there’s very little detail about the last few parks — but a marvelous read. Thanks for reminding me.

  34. 34.  “Ball Four” totally changed how I viewed baseball players. Haven’t read it in 35 years in fear that it wouldn’t live up to the pedestal I’ve put it on.
    The “Bill James Abstracts” totally changed how I viewed baseball. I can reread those anytime and still enjoy them.

    Looking forward to reading “Soul of Baseball” which I just got yesterday.

  35. 35.  No fan of George Will, but Men At Work is a remarkable book.

  36. 36.  Two books I loved that are not mentioned:

    Best book I recall reading as a kid was Joe Pepitone’s book “Joe, You Coulda Made Us Proud.” Damn that was good. Stories of him shagging like 5 women a night, into the wee small hours of the morning. One story had him and Mantle tag-teaming a chick, and then the two players broke into hysterical laughter when the woman took out her false teeth to give them blow jobs. They crippled in laughter. That one stays with you for a lifetime…..

    I really enjoyed “Fleet Walker’s Divided Heart” by David Zang. It’s about the first black major leaguer (no, it wasn’t Jackie Robinson) from the 1880s. I enjoyed this book not so much for its writing, but for its subject matter. This player was a fascinating man, and extremely bright. The racism he faced was unreal. He was even tried for killing a man, which resulted from another event of racial hatred. Very telling story.

  37. 37.  Boy, what a reading list I’m compiling here. Thanks to everyone for continuing to send in their top reads.

    35 George Will, huh? Alright, I guess if future Nazi sympathizer Knut Hamsun was able in his earlier years to write one of the greatest novels ever written (Hunger), I guess it’s possible that that weenie can write a good baseball book. Thanks for the tip, joyofsox.

  38. 38.  i have enjoyed reading many of the books listed by the other posters, including

    ball four (smoke ’em inside!)
    the glory of their times
    men at work
    the boys of summer

    i also enjoyed:

    the catcher in the wry (bob uecker)
    willie’s time
    the complete handbook of baseball (yearly from 1978 to 1982)
    bunts (george will)

    bunts had brett butler on the cover, and was a collection of short stories or articles about different players or situations. one i recall had the cincinnati reds’ plane hitting severe turbulence and pete rose turned to a teammate and said “we’re going down, and i have a .300 lifetime average. what have you got?”

    good stuff.

  39. 39.  George Will is a Cubs fan. I now understand why the Cubs drought continues . . . God is punishing them because God hates yet another GW.

  40. 40.  Fiction: “Last Days of Summer” by Steve Kluger, about the relationship between the fictional third basemen for the New York Giants in the early 1940s and a 13 year old jewish kid from Brooklyn. The entire story is told through letters and press clippings. Very funny, moving stuff.

  41. 41.  Glad to read that people still use books. Love all of the books mentioned. Usually alternate a book of fiction, reading Richard Ford now, with a baseball book. So much to read and so little time.

    Halberstam. Rest in peace. W.C. Heinz. The genius who started it all, albeit writing about football and boxing.Just the best. Ring Lardner. And, as a special memorial, Christy Matheseon, the man who gave us the Black Sox scandal.

    For Mark Harris fans, the Nixon book seriously rocks. Harris wrote for Life. Followed the campaign for Governor of CA against Edmund Brown. Talks about unbiased reporters having to cover a candidate that he has some preconceived ideas about and how little it matters once the final piece is edited. Brilliant.

  42. 42.  I’m very late on this, but I have to recommend a book I’ve read cover-to-cover at least twice, maybe thrice. On a whim, I sometimes open it up at random and read a chapter or two. It is Lords of the Realm by John Helyar, a fascinating and through history of labor relations in baseball. The message? The “Lords” basically ran their own separate sweatshops for a century, and deserve most of what they got over the last four decades.

    I’m in no way a business mind, but that hardly matters. The larger-than-life personas of Charles O. Finley, Ted Turner, George Steinbrenner, and all the rest are fully on display. It’s almost certainly out of print (my ragged paperback copy is from 1994, I believe), but you owe it to yourself to find a used copy.

  43. Lawrence S. Ritter’s classic “The Glory of Their Times”. My favorite line from the book: “You couldn’t hit him on a Monday”, describing Brooklyn pitcher Dazzy Vance. Monday was wash day and the linen hanging on apartment balconies (imagine “The Honeymooners”) beyond the center field wall interfered with the batters view of his (Vance’s) release of the pitch. I hate Mondays. I will always hate Mondays. I hate Mondays now a little less because I am now unemployed. My Mother years ago died on a Monday.

  44. My favorite part of ‘Bronx Zoo’ was one of the times when Reggie Jackson was acting like the goddamned big baby he was, George and Billy went down to Reggie’s dad’s tiny store in New Jersey and tried to bring Marty Jackson back to the Big Apple to talk some sense into Reggie. If the WWE ran a home for dysfunctional families- the result would look just like the ’78 Yankees.

  45. My tastes run to baseball bios and autobios — especially of players from the ’60s and ’70s. Here are the three best:

    John Roseboro’s “Glory Days With the Dodgers (and Other Days With Others).” A surprisingly dark book, an honest account of his years as a rather unheralded bulwark of the great Dodgers teams of the ’60s.

    Maury Wills’ “On the Run: The Never Dull and Often Shocking Life of Maury Wills.” In spite of the self-defeating behavior he discusses in elaborate and unflinching detail in his book and that probably keeps him out, Maury Wills belongs in the HOF. There is NO question about it.

    Gaylord Perry’s “Me and the Spitter.” At times out-loud-laughing funny, Gaylord in his 1974 book confesses to having thrown the spitter in the early part of his career but claims to no longer throwing or needing to, because he’s so up in the hitters’ heads he doesn’t need to. Gaylord pitched a long time afterward and must have realized at some point that the mere illusion of the spitter wasn’t enough anymore to get guys out.

    One to avoid: Tommy John’s “TJ: My 26 Years In Baseball.” More a born-again testimony than a baseball memoir. Like getting Pat Boone when you want rock ‘n’ roll.

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