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8 Baseball Books to Read During the Offseason

Baseball may be over, but there is plenty to read during the offseason.

As a baseball fan, one good thing about the offseason is having time to get caught up on my reading — and I always have plenty of titles to choose from because there’s so much good baseball writing.

Below are some recommendations to help pass the time until pitchers and catchers report. I’ve tried to pick a wide range of titles, with a focus on less obvious selections, so no “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” or “Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game” or “Ball Four: The Final Pitch.”

I’ve arranged my list in alphabetical order. Keep in mind that I wasn’t wild about all of them, but they might suit you.

Let me add one other note. If you’re not an audiobook reader/listener, perhaps consider giving one a try. I find that if the author is the reader (which is not always the case in these selections), it can add nuance to a story.

Most titles are linked to bookshop.org, a website that helps support independent bookstores.

 

1. “The Arm: Inside the Billion-dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports”

 

This one isn’t exactly a deep cut, but given changes to baseball in 2023, it seems timely.

Jeff Passan is one of my favorite baseball writers, bar none, and “The Arm” (2016) remains a book I think about often. Here’s the opening:

“For 130 years, pitchers have thrown a baseball overhand, and for 130 years, doing so has hurt them. Starter or reliever, left-handed or right-handed, short or tall, skinny or fat, soft-tossing or hard-throwing, old or young — it matters not who you are, what color your skin is, what country you’re from. The ulnar collateral ligament (UCL), is a stretchy, triangular band in the elbow that holds together the upper and lower arms, players no favorites. If you throw a baseball, it can ruin you.”

In his survey, Passan focuses on two pitchers, Daniel Hudson and Todd Coffey, as they go through surgery and the rehab process, and he also talks with Dr. Frank Jobe along with a range of pitchers at various points in their careers as well as other baseball personnel. The book is part anatomy text, part player profiles, and part economic and social-cultural analysis, but it is always fascinating. Passan concludes that protecting pitchers’ arms should be a focus of the game. Following a season in which we were fixated on pitcher injuries, this New York Times best-seller merits a revisit.

 

2. “The Art of Fielding”

 

Chad Harbach’s debut novel takes place at Westish College — “that little school in the crook of the baseball glove that is Wisconsin” —  and it guts me every time I read it.

The story centers on a gifted shortstop, Henry Skrimshander, whose wild throw to first is the catalyst for a series of incidents that drive the book’s plot. “The Art of Fielding” is about love and death, anxiety and risk-taking, dreams and reality, and, of course, baseball.  In addition, there’s lots of Herman Melville imagery (look, Westish’s mascot is the Harpooners) and fine storytelling that is never sentimental.

“The Art of Fielding” made the New York Times’ list of best books published in 2011.  I’ve been waiting for Harbach’s second novel, but if he’s released one, I haven’t found it. So instead, every spring I re-read this one.

(Disclaimer: In 2017, Harbach was sued by Charles C. Green, who claimed that much of “The Art of Fielding” relied on a book he had published, but the case was dismissed.)

 

3. “Banana Ball: The Unbelievably True Story of the Savannah Bananas”

 

In this memoir, Savannah Bananas founder Jesse Cole takes the reader through his life story, and, by extension, that of the Bananas. “This is not a book about your grandpa’s favorite pastime,” Cole writes. “This is not about baseball. This is about the greatest show in sports. This is about Banana Ball and how it got started.”

His memoir (Cole says the book isn’t a memoir, but it is) shows how he grew from being a young pitcher who dreamed of making it to the majors to becoming the father of a barnstorming baseball phenomenon. “Banana Ball” may also be read as a leadership and business text as Cole describes starting a new business while also starting a family. (Actually, I considered using it as a textbook in a course I teach.)

Cole and co-author Dan Yaeger are unrelentingly positive in telling their story, which is a bit too rags-to-riches with a dash of serendipity for my taste, but it fits the Bananas’ narrative. Always a showman, Cole does not disappoint (which is what I would expect from a guy who owns seven banana-yellow tuxedos).

Of course, Cole narrates the audiobook — who better to tell his story? So if you want the full experience, I recommend giving this one a listen.

 

4. “The Cactus League”

 

It’s 2011, and Jason Goodyear, star outfielder for the Los Angeles Lions, has reported to spring training with the rest of the baseball world. However, this season, things take a turn. (Spoiler: He has a serious gambling problem.) Emily Nemens’ debut novel is less a cohesive narrative than a collection of stories told by eight people who are connected to Goodyear in a variety of ways (e.g., a coach, Goodyear’s wife, the team owner, the stadium organist, a concessions vendor).

An unnamed veteran sportswriter tries to keep all those narratives organized.

Here’s a passage from our grizzled beat writer:

“So to tell Jason Goodyear’s story will take a while, require not just Jason but a whole web of people who are touched by him, and a few who long to touch him, too. I know it sounds crazy, but when it gets down to tell the story of the league’s best outfielder, as much will happen in the parking lots as on the field, as much in backyards as in deep left. So, no, it’s not as easy as, He did this, he said that, then this happened. It’s more, He did this, he said that, and then the whole world unfurled.”

Interesting characters and plenty of plot twists keep the reader engaged — including the story of Tim Carver, a 27-year-old pitcher trying to make a comeback after Tommy John surgery.

Confession: This 2020 best-selling novel didn’t work for me — I prefer plot over pastiche — but it did for many people, and it might be your thing.

 

5. “How to Beat a Broken Game: The Rise of the Dodgers in a League on the Brink”

 

This book, published in 2022, never got the attention it deserved. Pedro Moura is a longtime sportswriter who spent several years covering the Los Angeles Dodgers for The Athletic. In “How to Beat a Broken Game,” he focuses on the 2020 World Series-winning Dodgers, combining the inside reporting that can only come from a knowledgeable beat reporter with a keen analysis of Major League Baseball.

Although he’s focused on the players and personnel that make the Dodgers work, he never loses sight of the larger issue that really interests him and the ways in which the winning Dodgers personify his concerns. Moura writes:

“The evidence attests that baseball is broken. The games become more of a bore every year, and the league’s early efforts to speed pace of play changed little. It is simpler to explain the problem than it is to suggest a solution. More than our pitiful attention spans, the prime culprit is the advent and spread of data into the consciousness of the executives running the sport and, more recently, the athletes playing it. Once they grasped what earned them money in the modern game, hitters adjusted their swings to pursue it. They started hitting balls harder and launching them into the air more often, accepting a corresponding increase in strikeouts. Pitchers were already throwing harder than ever, so hard they made it halfway through a game just over half the time. They changed their games to negate hitters’ gains, throwing fewer fastballs and throwing them high, where uppercut swings can’t reach. Strangely sticky concoctions enabled them to generate gratuitous spin.

The battle of extremes yields an imbalanced product devoid of action and drained of surprises.”

Each chapter focuses on a single player and Moura uses those players to illustrate his thesis. It’s compelling reading.

I read this one in paper before listening to the audiobook, which Moura narrates. He is, clearly, not a professional vocalist, but I found hearing him tell the story more compelling than the print version.

 

6. “90% of the Game is Half Mental: And Other Tales from the Edge of Baseball Fandom”

 

There is so much I love about Emma Span’s book. Consider the passage from the first chapter:

“Fandom, like religion, is largely an accident of birth, a matter of geography and parenting rather than temperament, nurture more than nature. It’s certainly possible to convert later in life, and plenty of people do, but it’s a difficult process that forces you to question some deeply held beliefs and risks alienating family and friends.”

Span explores being a fan as well as a journalist covering baseball teams and the differences between these perspectives. It’s a balancing that writers seldom address, but Span does it perfectly as she describes moving from being a highly knowledgeable fan (and all the complications that come with that) to blogging to covering the New York Mets and New York Yankees for the Village Voice.

Alas, nothing good can stay, and Span is fired, losing her press pass and changing her perspective yet again as she waits to see what’s next.

This insightful collection of essays from 2010 is as fresh today as it was then. (Plus, Span’s description of waiting for Pedro Martinez to put on some pants is the stuff of legend.)

 

7. “Rickey: The Life and Legend of an American Original”

 

Howard Bryant is one of America’s best sportswriters, but he’s never better than when he focuses on baseball. With “Rickey,” his biography of Rickey Henderson, he explores the life of one of baseball’s finest (and most interesting) figures.

Here’s the opening, which foreshadows the major themes Bryant will explore:

“You could say that Rickey Henderson was destined to be a gift. The surviving details of Christmas 1958, all tangled and swirled in legend, conspired to make the simple fact that Rickey, of all people, being born on Christmas Day felt preordained. One story said it snowed so hard on the South Side that Thursday night in Chicago that just reaching the hospital was an ordeal. Another said Rickey was so unexpected, so calm and quiet in Bobbie Earl’s belly and not yet ready to join the world, that neither she nor his father, John Henley, had any reason to expect a Christmas birth. Even if the details were not exactly fact, the stories were true in their own way; Rickey was on his own schedule, and, as would be a defining characteristic of over a quarter-century of professional baseball, he was born with the element of surprise, capable of transforming the calm into the chaotic, always a step ahead of an unsuspecting world.”

It’s not just the biography of MLB’s all-time stolen base leader; rather, Bryant examines the culture that influenced Henderson’s life and game. He goes on to explore the ways in which Henderson would go on to influence other Black baseball players who would redefine the game.

Absolutely listen to the audiobook of this one. Bryant’s narration is superb.

 

8. “The Tao of the Backup Catcher: Playing Baseball for the Love of the Game”

 

I reviewed Tim Brown’s book, co-written with Erik Kratz, this year, but if there’s anything baseball-related that I’ve returned to during the season, it’s this book. So it feels worth mentioning again.

“The Tao of the Backup Catcher” gave me respect for a position I had overlooked. Kratz’s story is one of dedication and endurance as he (and his family) find themselves on a baseball odyssey.

As Brown explains:

“The backup catcher is, most often, the guy who was not quite good enough to be the starting catcher. But there are lots of those. The minor leagues are full of those. So are construction sites and insurance firms and high school coaching staffs and wherever glory days are warmed and served with cold beer. He is, then, also the guy who can be trusted with the fragile parts of a team, a season, and a culture. When it is darkest, he laughs. When it is easiest, he shows up an hour earlier. When the wins come and the championships follow, he stands to the side. When the season is lost and the sun seems two feet closer than it should be and nobody really wants to be doing this, he plays more.

Then he’s gone. Because backup catchers also strain to hit .210, because if they hit .250 they wouldn’t be backup catchers.”

The section that still haunts me involves Kratz, who hoped desperately in spring training to make the Milwaukee Brewers, being told by Mike Moustakas that he must leave a team meeting because he knows Kratz will be cut. Everything about it was gutting.

Ultimately, the book is a philosophical treatise that ought not to be missed.

So, those are a few recommendations.

What am I going to be reading this offseason? “Beep: Inside the Unseen World of Baseball for the Blind,” ”Making It Home: Life Lessons from a Season of Little League,” and ”Winning Fixes Everything: How Baseball’s Brightest Minds Created Sports’ Biggest Mess.”

I’m always looking for new things to read (and listen to), so please share any recommendations you’ve got in the comments.

Renee Dechert

Renee Dechert writes about baseball and fandom, often with a focus on the Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks. (She's also an English professor, but the baseball is more interesting.) Follow her on Twitter (@ReneeDechert) or Bluesky (@ReneeDechert.bsky.social).

One response to “8 Baseball Books to Read During the Offseason”

  1. Eric Vickrey says:

    Excellent list!

    Might I humbly suggest my new book, Runnin’ Redbirds: The World Champion 1982 St. Louis Cardinals, which was just published by McFarland.

    Also, I just finished reading Jeff Pearlman’s book, The Last Folk Hero: The Life and Myth of Bo Jackson, and it is outstanding (as are all of Pearlman’s books).

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