Literary Fiction

The Top Six Baseball Novels

Greg Zimmerman

Staff Writer

Greg Zimmerman blogs about contemporary literary fiction at The New Dork Review of Books and holds down a full-time gig as a trade magazine editor. Follow him on Twitter: @NewDorkReview.

Hope springs eternal! Happy Opening Day! Baseball’s summer-long march to the Fall Classic begins today, and to celebrate and get you in the spirit, here’s a list of six great baseball novels.

6. The Natural, by Bernard Malamud — You’re probably more familiar with the 1984 Robert Redford vehicle than the 1952 novel, which have very, very different endings. Still, the comeback story of Roy Hobbs is highly recommended reading. (Or viewing, either movie or when parodied in a fantastic episode of The Simpsons — “Mattingly, shave those sideburns.”)

5. The Might Have Been, by Joe Schuster — The new kid on the baseball-novel block, this debut is about an injured ball player trying to come to grips with, well, what might have been. It was just published in late March, and reviews so far have been mostly positive.

4. Play for a Kingdom, by Thomas Dyja — This inventive, under-the-radar Civil War/baseball novel features a Union company from Brooklyn that takes on a Confederate company from Alabama in a daily baseball game during a semi-stalemate at the 1864 Battle of the Wilderness. Dyja is a gifted story-teller, so I highly recommend this novel for both Civil War and baseball buffs.

3. The Great American Novel, by Philip Roth — You’re not going to believe this, but yes, back in the 1970s, American Literary Giant Philip Roth wrote a slapstick baseball novel. On a character-by-character basis, the novel chronicles a 1943 baseball team called the Rupert Mundys. The team includes a chronically drunk first baseman, a midget relief pitcher, and a one-armed center fielder. Much of it is hilarious. Some of it’s just silly.

2. The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach — Last year’s hit debut tells the story of Henry Skrimshander, a talented, but hard-working college shortstop who suddenly loses the ability to throw the ball to first. In no other baseball novel I’ve ever read are the baseball “action” scenes rendered more authentically than here. Even with a ton of other subplots, this is a baseball fan’s baseball novel.

1. The Brothers K, by David James Duncan — Not only my favorite baseball book of all time, this story of the Camus family traversing the mid-20th century, is one of my Top Three Favorite Novels of all time, period. Here, baseball is a metaphor for life throughout the novel, and like Harbach above, it’s very clear that Duncan is himself a huge baseball fan and a student of its history. If you only read one of these six, make it this one.

So, what are your favorite baseball novels (or books — had to leave off non-fiction from this list, lest it be 204 books long)?