I am not much of a fan of "Things To Do Before Before You Die" lists or books, but I do like the opportunity to find out about some overlooked baseball books. And even the most well-read fan will find plenty of future reading material in Ron Kaplan's first book, "501 Baseball Books Fans Must Read Before They Die" (University of Nebraska Press; PDF excerpt here).
Kaplan does not claim that these are the best 501 baseball books: "That's too subjective." It's also a bit of a cop-out. I'm assuming that Kaplan's Top 25 Baseball Books are mentioned here, so why not also include a list of books that every well-rounded baseball library should have?
Actually, Kaplan may have secretly included such a list. For some entries, he mentions other books by the same author or mentions other categories under which the book could be placed. One category - "Classic" - is not among the book's fifteen categories. Perhaps an early draft of this book had a Classics section.
Kaplan's various categories include Analysis, Business, Fiction, International, Minor Leagues, For Young Readers, and the catch-all category of Pop Culture. He writes 3-4 short paragraphs about each book - some more famous titles receive an entire page - describing its contents and offering a critical eye towards its contents. He doesn't praise every book he has included; he finds fault, for example, with some of the author's opinions on assimilation in a biography of Chief Bender.
There is some blurring of the lines between categories. Baseball Prospectus' Baseball Between The Numbers is included in Statistics, but it could just as easily fall under "Analysis". (I like that Bill James's books can be found under Analysis, History, and Reference but not Statistics.) And then there are books that seem to be in the wrong section: Should Bob Costas's Fair Game (which Kaplan actually describes as "mostly a rant") belong in Analysis?
Kaplan chooses from a century of fiction, from Ring Lardner to Chad Harbach (whose The Art Of Fielding I reviewed here). Kaplan includes the obvious choices - Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Robert Coover, Mark Harris - but also includes a few books that are new to me and seem worth checking out, including Michael Bishop's Brittle Innings and Lane Strauss's Extra Innings: A Story For The Aged (about a game between Detroit and Cleveland that has been going on since 1947!).
Kaplan also reminded me to pull two unread books off my shelves: Darryl Brock's If I Never Get Back (a man is transported back to 1869, when the Reds became baseball's first professional team) and Thomas Dyja's Play For A Kingdom (set during the US Civil War). And he shines a light on an overlooked gem in my collection: Baseball Diamonds: Tales, Traces, Visions, And Voodoo From A Native American Rite, a collection of fiction, essays, poems edited by Kevin Kerrane and Richard Grossinger.
The For Younger Readers section offers books from a wide range of cultures, including the American South, Latin America, and Japan. ... In Analysis, Kaplan includes the Bill James collection, This Time Let's Not Eat The Bones, which is out of print, but well worth tracking down. It includes stuff from his Abstracts, but also pieces he published in Esquire magazine. ... In Autobiographies, he includes Jim Bouton's legendary Ball Four, but he also includes two other bios that deserve a wider audience: Jim Brosnan's The Long Season and Pat Jordan's The False Spring. (Jordan's book has been on my mental to-read list for years.)
Female authors seem under-represented in Kaplan's collection, but that may simply be because a small percentage of published baseball books are written by women. Kaplan mentions Alison Gordon's Foul Balls, about the hostility she faced as a reporter in the early 1980s, Jane Leavy's The Last Boy (Mickey Mantle), and Cait Murphy's Crazy '08.
Kaplan also cites two books that attempt to explain the game to women, and he clearly understands the problems with such books: "I think I would almost be insulted by a book that would try to explain the game based on my demographic (unless I was a child, perhaps). On the other hand, I'm all for anything that brings more fans to the baseball table." However, it's questionable whether a light-hearted book that includes what Kaplan describes as "a few sections that seem to appeal mostly to pre-feminist women" (shopping sprees and calorie counting at the ball park) will create any long-time or serious fans.
Even in a list of 500+ books, readers will note some surprising omissions. I have two: Field of Schemes: How The Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money Into Private Profit, by Joanna Cagan and Neil deMause, belongs in the Business chapter, and former professional umpire Pamela Postema's You've Got To Have Balls To Make It In This League should have been among the Umpiring/Rules selections. (Note: Postema is mentioned (though her book is not) in the description of Breaking Into Baseball: Women And The National Pastime, by Jean Hastings Ardell.) I was also surprised to find only four books listed under Minor Leagues.
Does Kaplan expect us to read all of the books he mentions? If you sat down and read one book every two weeks, you'd need close to 20 years to get through the list. (And at the end, there would be a reasonably short list of newer books published during those two decades!) Instead of considering Kaplan's list as a job, consider it a generous, well-researched, and entertaining list of suggestions of what to read next.