“Six months out of every year,” laments Joe Hardy’s wife Meg in the musical Damn Yankees, “I might as well be made of stone.” It is a feeling all too true for the wives of many baseball junkies. We love the game, we love watching the game, we love debating the game, and we love reading about the game. That is why Ron Kaplan’s new compendium, 501 BASEBALL BOOKS FANS MUST READ BEFORE THEY DIE, which arrives just in time for Opening Day, is already a great joy of the 2013 baseball season.
"Ron Kaplan’s book is a giver as well as a keeper. Get one for yourself, and buy one for every person you know who loves the game and the books that herald its greatness."
Any lover of baseball appreciates numbers, and Kaplan has some important numbers on his side when making the case for the books that appear on his list. The Hall of Fame in Cooperstown boasts a library of more than 10,000 volumes, and Kaplan has 2,000 of them in his personal collection. There is no doubt that even a list as large as 500 books may omit someone’s personal favorite. He makes no claim that the books he has selected are the best. Instead, he hopes that his list will provide an entry into the world of baseball literature as well as connecting subjects not normally associated with the game. Books are divided by subjects selected by Kaplan himself and include a brief but comprehensive summary providing substantial information for readers. One of the joys of reading the list comes from discovering previously unknown baseball books. When you sit down to read it, keep a paper and pencil handy to allow you to jot down titles for the new books you will discover and certainly want to read.
The categories are indicative of the variety of books Kaplan considers. Some are obvious and include reference, biographies, memoirs and history. But categories such as pop culture, business and international may surprise readers. It is not important how the books are grouped; finding the various titles is really all that matters.
Given Kaplan’s massive undertaking and his clear statement that his choices are personal, I am reluctant to take issue with his selections. But any book about baseball certainly understands that it will provoke a “hot-stove” discussion. The fiction section here fails to include SHOELESS JOE by W.P. Kinsella, the novel that spawned the movie Field of Dreams. Kaplan includes at least two Kinsella short story collections, but the absence of SHOELESS JOE left me shaking my head. Equally disappointing was not including any of the books by John Tunis in the section discussing books for young readers. Tunis wrote masterful baseball novels that often covered the game of life in addition to the game of baseball. Certainly, THE KID COMES BACK, focusing on soldiers returning from war, merited a mention.
I know that pointing out a few omissions is a cheap shot, and I apologize. But fans who argue the relative merits and abilities of Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, Ken Griffey and dozens of other ballplayers across the generations will certainly understand that 501 BASEBALL BOOKS FANS MUST READ BEFORE THEY DIE was written to stimulate discussion among those whose love of baseball is equaled only by their love of reading about baseball. Ron Kaplan’s book is a giver as well as a keeper. Get one for yourself, and buy one for every person you know who loves the game and the books that herald its greatness.
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on April 12, 2013