Histories of Baseball

Histories of baseball, like military histories and writings about the U.S. founders, attract substantial popular audiences. That’s a great opportunity for scholars, but it also forces them to compete with writers who are more concerned with providing juicy anecdotes or igniting debates and controversy than with offering historical context. This challenge may be particularly keen for sports historians, who face an avalanche of books written by (or ghostwritten for) athletes with tremendous name recognition, a widespread resistance to integrating a beloved leisure activity into the “real world,” and an academic environment in which sports are still not always seen as an appropriate subject for rigorous scholarship. Given the absence of female authors on this list, it’s worth considering whether these challenges are exacerbated for women writing about sports played predominantly by men.

Yet there is an abundance of well-researched, thoughtful, and exciting writing about baseball history being produced by both traditional academic scholars and writers from other backgrounds. In making this list, I focused on books that concentrated primarily on the United States, but included a range of subjects, historical eras, and genres. What all these books have in common is a commitment to contextualizing the game rather than just examining what was happening on the field or in the players’ private lives.

These books offer opportunities to gain new insights into the factors that fueled the development of the game as a popular form of recreation and as a multibillion dollar global industry. They also provide distinct perspectives on broader national issues including racial and ethnic segregation and integration, constructions of gender, struggles between labor and management, and the expanding role of consumer cultures in Americans’ lives.

Places to Start

Charles C. Alexander, Our Game: An American Baseball History (1991)

Surveys of baseball history tend to be either too anecdotal, too detailed, or too long. Alexander gets the balance right in Our Game, providing a one-volume history that establishes a solid framework for understanding how, when, and why the game and the business of baseball changed from the 1840s through the 1980s.

John Thorn, Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game (2011)

For decades, baseball’s origins have remained shrouded by the twin myths of Abner Doubleday and Alexander Cartwright creating the game. Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball, focuses less on debunking these myths than on explaining their construction. In doing so, he excavates the self-conscious process through which major league executives solidified their business’ status as the National Pastime.

Digging In

Adrian Burgos, Jr., Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos, and the Color Line (2007)

The history of Latinos in American baseball has been understudied and oversimplified, but Burgos offers a valuable corrective in Playing America’s Game. He moves the discussion of race in baseball beyond black and white to include “brown, red, [and] yellow” and expands the focus of his study past the major leagues and the United States to examine a multi-racial professional circuit that extended into the Caribbean. The resulting book incorporates baseball into a broader consideration of the cultural and social histories of race, ethnicity, and masculinity in Pan-American cultures of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Jules Tygiel, Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy (1983)

There are several excellent biographies of the man who broke baseball’s color barrier, but Tygiel’s concise and well-contextualized effort is the place to start. Tygiel moves beyond the “great men” myth and the more disturbing (and inaccurate) idea that Dodgers’ general manager Branch Rickey was the primary force behind desegregation to provide a more complex explanation of the forces that drove black men from the game during the late 1800s and that forced the door back open in 1946-47.

Donald Dewey and Nick Acocella, The Black Prince of Baseball: Hal Chase and the Mythology of Baseball (2004)

Biographies of professional baseball players generally either strive to celebrate the career (and sometimes the life) of the subject, or to offer insights into the psychological and environmental factors that shaped him. Dewey and Accocella take a more historical approach, portraying Hal Chase, a fine first baseman and legendary rapscallion, as a compelling representative of the baseball industry during the Deadball Era (1900-1920).

New Moves

David Vaught, The Farmers’ Game: Baseball in Rural America (2013)

Historians have mostly characterized baseball as an urban game filled with pastoral imagery. Vaught’s collection of essays push past the longstanding focus on major league and other forms of urban baseball to consider the relationship between the game and rural America. He argues that the rural values of the game are real rather than mythological, and that the game has long aligned with the values and interests of American farmers. From early nineteenth-century games in Cooperstown, NY to vintage baseball played in early twenty-first century Texas, Vaught reorients baseball history to incorporate the cultures of rural America.

Neil Lanctot, Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution (2004)

The name of this book is misleading, since Lanctot focuses primarily on the Negro National League of the 1930s and 1940s. This narrower perspective allows him to provide deeply researched analysis that illuminates the successes and failures of Negro League baseball. Lanctot addresses the experiences of black players, umpires, and fans, but he particularly excels in explaining the business decisions made by executives within one of the largest predominantly black-owned industries in the Depression and World War II- era United States.

Charles P. Korr, The End of Baseball as We Knew It: The Players Union, 1960-81 (2002)

One of the most glaring needs within the historiography of baseball is a readable, scholarly one-volume history of labor relations within the industry. Until that book appears, a good option for readers interested in the struggles between baseball players and management is Korr’s book on the pivotal period between 1966 and 1981. Korr is the first historian to have access to the papers of the players’ union, the Major League Baseball Players Association, and his book does an admirable job of explaining the transformative conflicts of this era.

Voices and Lives

Lawrence S. Ritter, The Glory of Their Times: The Story of the Early Days of Baseball Told by the Men Who Played It (1966)

Columbia professor Ritter pioneered the use of oral history in the study of baseball. He traveled the country with a reel-to-reel recorder interviewing major leaguers who played from the turn of the century through the 1940s. Glory provides the raw material of these interviews with only light editing. Other authors have followed Ritter’s approach, and many have borrowed from his research, but none have provided such direct access to the voices and stories of men who played professionally during the early twentieth century.

Eric Rolfe Greenberg, The Celebrant (1983)

The Celebrant is not among the best-known novels to emerge from the intersection of baseball and literary fiction over the past century, but it is beloved by baseball scholars and writers. Greenberg imagines the relationships between three Jewish immigrant brothers and Christy Mathewson, the New York Giants pitcher who was the first universally admired major league star and an icon of Protestant culture. Greenberg explores the nature of baseball fandom while meticulously chronicling the details of early twentieth-century ballgames, and brings those two strands together in the novel’s culminating event: the 1919 World Series tainted by allegations of game fixing against eight Chicago players known as the “Black Sox.”

Paul Ringel is an associate professor of history at High Point University. He is the author of Commercializing Childhood, and his current project is Why We Root: Boston’s Royal Rooters and the Rise of the Modern American Sports Fan.