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A baseball fiction starting nine

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Baseball is the most literary of sports.

There are any number of possible reasons – the pastoral origins of the game, the gentle pace, the devotion to history, the lauded figures of the past – but it’s tough to argue that of all our shared athletic endeavors, baseball is the one that has inspired the most ink to be spilled.

Fictional exploration of the game has been going on for decades, with some of the most gifted writers of numerous generations choosing to introduce baseball into their pages. Some use it as a tertiary or tangential element, while others use it as a story’s centralizing, guiding force.

And so, in honor of the upcoming All-Star Game and the full-on onset of summer, here’s a list of a few works of baseball fiction. Some are well-known works, while others are more marginal. It’s far from an exhaustive list – there’s far more great stuff out there – but here’s a lineup’s worth to get you started.


The Great American Novel – Philip Roth

There are those who would deem this to be lesser Roth, but it might be my favorite work of his. It makes sense that a writer so fascinated with the American experience would turn his eye to baseball, although not even the National Pastime can escape his skewed sensibility.

This story of a third major league and its disastrous wartime demise and subsequent wiping from the history books (and Communism – can’t forget communism!) is a fascinating deconstruction of not just the game, but what the game meant in a cultural sense – and how that meaning was beginning to shift even half a century ago. It is weird and funny in all the ways that Roth can be weird and funny, all served with a biting satiric edge.

The Natural – Bernard Malamud

Most people are more familiar with the Robert Redford-starring movie at this point, but it’s the book that offers the more complex and challenging storytelling. The Roy Hobbs of Malamud’s book is a much darker character, one whose complicated motivations make him much more human than Redford’s aged (and practically Messianic) superstar.

Malamud makes Hobbs into a flawed and tragic figure, one whose brilliance on the diamond translates to little more than tragedy and pain off the field. It’s a nuanced look at the hero worship that baseball once inspired … one that asks whether we ever should have allowed those pedestals to be put in place. Fans of the film should also brace themselves for a considerably bleaker tone, as well as a decidedly different ending.

The Art of Fielding – Chad Harbach

Perhaps more than any other book on this list, this one grasps the fragile nature of excellence. It captures not only what it means to succeed, but also how mercurial that success can be … and how quickly it can disappear.

There’s also something refreshing about the form taken by our hero’s excellence. Too often, we focus on the bombastic power of the game – home runs and strikeouts, big bats and big arms. Here, greatness is represented by the gentle grace of the glove – the titular art of fielding. That simply shift creates a different sort of athletic hero, one whose brilliance could be undermined by a single errant throw. A beautiful meditation on the perils of athletic stardom – and a glimpse of what can happen when it all comes tumbling down.

Gods of Wood and Stone – Mark Di Ionno

The newest book on the list, published just last year, Di Ionno proves that the baseball literary tradition is still going strong. It’s another work that illustrates the depth of the game’s connection to the culture and what it means to either embrace it or remain deliberately ignorant of it.

Set in Cooperstown, we get tales of two men – one a Red Sox legend who is about to receive the highest honor that can bestowed upon a legend of the game; the other a living history blacksmith whose obsession with the past threatens to undo his present. As their paths drift toward a shared crossroads, both men are left to contemplate what it means to have their identity defined by what they do rather than who they are.

If I Never Get Back – Darryl Brock

I hadn’t thought about this book in a long time before I sat down to write this piece. That being said, it was probably the first piece of “adult” baseball fiction I ever read. Like several other books on this list, it introduces the element of the fantastic.

A reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, down on his luck and struggling with life, gets on a train. When he gets off, he’s over a century in the past. And when he encounters the Cincinnati Reds – the first-ever professional baseball team – and becomes part of the squad, he embarks on a marvelous adventure. Baseball and time travel! There’s romance and some Mark Twain as well. Seriously, can you think of a better beach read formula?

Summerland – Michael Chabon

There’s a whole lot of YA fiction out there about baseball – Matt Christopher’s work alone could fill a bookshelf or three – but very little of it transcends its genre and genuinely appeals to an adult audience. This book absolutely does that, with Chabon crafting a delightful tale accessible to all ages.

You’ve got your classic young boy hero’s journey, along with a wonderfully weird mélange of various mythos – there’s Native American legends and Norse mythology and some good old-fashioned American fakelore, all mixed together and ladled atop a foundation of pure love of the game. It’s a kid-friendly adventure story, yes, but it is also an exploration of the powerful hold baseball has on not just the young, but on all people. It’s a fast, fun read.

The House of Daniel – Harry Turtledove

Considering baseball’s general reverence for its own history, it’s no surprise that an alternative history writer like Harry Turtledove would take it on. Rather than magical realism, Turtledove goes full fantasy, creating an alternate America where magic is real – and so is baseball.

Set during a Great Depression in which magic users suffer the same lack of opportunities as everyone else, this book features a young man who joins the titular barnstorming baseball team as they make their way through the Dust Bowl and the American West during the 1930s. People are struggling, but so too are vampires and werewolves – it’s tough to make a living when zombies will work for free. It’s a breezy fun read that will entertain baseball fans and fantasy fans alike.

Shoeless Joe/The Iowa Baseball Confederacy – W.P. Kinsella

We’re going to close this out with a two-for-one, largely because I didn’t want to choose between two books that I hold very near and dear to my heart.

“Shoeless Joe” is the book that was adapted into the beloved film “Field of Dreams.” This story of fathers and sons, of regrets and redemptions, is a marvelous book. Anytime you wind up with J.D. Salinger and Joe Jackson in an Iowa cornfield, you’ve done something right. It’s an emotionally impactful and utterly beautiful book.

The idea of baseball being a universal balm to soothe and even heal the deep wounds of the past is a romantic one, to be sure. It’s also one that we can’t help but want to believe. That’s the joy of this book – that belief is front and center, brought to life through a magic that’s never fully explained (which is the best kind of magic).

On the flip side, far fewer people are familiar with “The Iowa Baseball Confederacy.” It’s a much different book, a more sprawling tale that takes a different approach to exploring baseball’s ability to connect us through memory.

The titular minor league is one that may or may not exist; one man has devoted his life to proving that his fully-formed memories are real and not a delusion passed from father to son. And when time opens up, giving him a chance to see for himself the fate of the league, he is dropped into the midst of an exhibition between the IBC All-Stars and the legendary 1908 Chicago Cubs. It’s the greatest game in the league’s history – so why was it also the last? And what happened afterward?

Pick one, the other or both – they’re phenomenal reads.


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