Crash Bag, Vol. 57: Bully for JMJ

I got a haircut last night. Every three months, I get Karl Urban’s haircut from the new Star Trek movies and shave my beard into a mustache. After about a month, I get tired of maintaining the mustache and let it grow out until I look so disreputable I have to get it cut again. But before all that happened, I caught myself instinctively pulling my hair back into a ponytail. I’ve worn my hair in a ponytail before, but never in the past five years or so, because I’m an adult now and I know I’m never going to be a professional musician. I guess my question is–is the reflexive ponytail pull something that ever goes away? Or is it like how after that one time with the pig in my dorm room I’m going to start sweating every time I pass the deli counter at the supermarket?

@mattjedruch: “have you done a crashbag answer about baseball books before? I’d like to expand my library and wondered if you could help”

I’m sure I have, but there have been 56 Crash Bags before this, each between 2,500 and 5,000 words, and I’m not going back through them all to find them for you, so I’ll answer the question afresh if I’ve done it before. Two points up front: 1) Probably four of my five favorite sports books are about soccer. With one exception, I’m not sure there’s a baseball book that I absolutely love. 2) The overwhelming majority of the books I read are fiction, and as a result, I have never touched a lot of the baseball canon: The NaturalDollar Sign on the MuscleBall Four, either of the Hayhurst books–so if you’re reading this and I missed one, add it to the comments, because I don’t want Matt missing out on a worthwhile book just because I’ve got a crush on Simon Kuper. Also, baseball books are the topic of Episode 7 of David Temple’s excellent Stealing Home podcast (link here), so if you’re curious, check that out. Here goes.

  • The New Historical Baseball Abstract, by Bill James. This is the one book you need to have. This book has been next to my toilet for the past 12 years. Apart from Moneyball, it’s probably the most important mass-market book about baseball of the past 20 years because of the way it brought many of the statistical and philosophical concepts we rely on to the mainstream. That said, what I love most about James’ book is that it’s an exhaustively researched, consistently funny encyclopedia of folklore. The advantage of the way this book was written is that it’s a thousand-page book that’s composed of about 800 interesting digressions, from amusing anecdotes about Rabbit Maranville and Don Mossi to James posing and answering really interesting, creative ways. You can’t be serious about baseball and not own a copy of this book.
  • Moneyball, by Michael Lewis. Completely overrated, overwhelmingly misunderstood, nowhere near as good a book as The Blind Side or even Liar’s Poker. Probably necessary. Still a solid read, with some good peaks–I go back and read the draft chapter every so often.
  • Weaver on Strategy, by Terry Pluto. If I could have any manager from history to manage my baseball team, I’d have Weaver, and his book on his craft is really enlightening. It’s a short, easy read that offers a really interesting look inside the mind of the manager.
  • Summer of ’49, by David Halberstam. My dad read this chronicle of the Red Sox-Yankees pennant race to me as a bedtime story when I was six or seven, and because he was kind of unsure of how to handle how liberally this book quotes Ted Williams, I learned how to curse from this book.
  • The Great American Novel, by Philip Roth. It’s not often that you get legitimately good literary fiction about sports. I hear tell that Chad Harbach pulled this off with The Art of Fielding, but I haven’t gotten around to reading that yet. Also, it’s weird that we’re far enough along in time that we’re having novelists called Chad. But this book is as funny and weird as one would expect from Roth, and it’s worth a read, if only so I can ramp up the frequency of my Roland Agni references.
  • Two books that are interesting and well-written, but reach completely incorrect conclusions about the way baseball works: Men at Work, by George Will and Three Nights in August, by Buzz Bissinger. As much of an egomaniacal weirdo as Bissinger turned out to be, he’s a hell of a writer of nonfiction. If you haven’t read A Prayer for the City, you’re a worse person for it. These two books are about what you’d expect from monographs that lionize Tony La Russa, and in Men at Work in particular, you’ll get a lot of theories from ballplayers that seem plausible, but have been proven to be demonstrably false. For instance: Orel Hershiser  goes into that home runs-kill-rallies malarkey, and Tony Gwynn credits his high batting average in 1984 to his hitting behind stolen base threat Alan Wiggins. So, you know, don’t believe everything you read.

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