Walt Whitman once said of baseball, “I see great things in baseball. It’s our game – the American game.” So true, so true. Here at the American Writers Museum, we love baseball too. We also love writing. And we especially love baseball writing! Which is why April 17 we are celebrating the beginning of baseball season with a night of baseball writing featuring current writers reading from their own works as well as the works of other writers who inspired them. One of these writers, Dan Epstein, wrote about some of his favorite baseball books by players-turned-writers.
Jim Bouton, Ball Four
Bouton’s controversial 1970 best-seller Ball Four (and its underrated sequel, I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally) irrevocably changed the way baseball fans viewed their diamond heroes and the way the sports media covered them — and its shockwaves were also felt in the arena of ballplayer memoirs. Before Ball Four, books written by baseball players were usually dull, bromide-packed affairs that revealed little about the authors’ lives, careers or personalities that you couldn’t have easily gleaned from the back of their baseball cards. But the success of Bouton’s books allowed other ballplayers to freely share their own experiences and opinions without fear of ostracism, resulting in some of the most fascinating and memorable baseball books ever written.
Dock Ellis, Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball
While most ballplayers usually turn to an author with sports writing experience to help them with their memoirs, Dock Ellis — who is best known today for pitching a no-hitter while under the influence of LSD — collaborated with poet Donald Hall on 1976’s Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball, a richly detailed account of a man whose personality, passion and intellect often made for an uneasy fit within the buttoned-down (and buttoned-up) world of baseball.
Sparky Lyle, The Bronx Zoo: The Astonishing Inside Story of the 1978 World Champion New York Yankees
While Ellis’s book provides an interesting snapshot of Billy Martin’s first tenure as Yankee manager, pitcher Sparky Lyle’s 1979 memoir The Bronx Zoo: The Astonishing Inside Story of the 1978 World Champion New York Yankees (co-authored with sports journalist Peter Golenbock) is far and away the best and funniest player’s-eye view of the quasi-Shakespearean circus that was the Yankee clubhouse in the late 1970s.
Bill Lee, The Wrong Stuff
Lefty hurler Bill “Spaceman” Lee, a former Boston Red Sox teammate of Lyle’s — and a proud hater of everything that the Yankees stood for — teamed up with Richard Lally in 1984 for The Wrong Stuff, a hilarious book that poked merciless fun at nearly every stuffed shirt the outspoken had Lee encountered over the course of his checkered career, with Red Sox skipper Don Zimmer and MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn particularly singled out for needling.
Dick Allen, Crash: The Life and Times of Dick Allen
Dick Allen, a MVP slugger whose own outspokenness had been less well-received by the media than Lee’s (in part because he happened to be African-American), finally set the record straight about his own career with the brutally honest Crash: The Life and Times of Dick Allen, which he co-wrote with Tim Whitaker.
Norm Miller, To All My Fans…from Norm Who?
Written much later, but also of note in the post-Ball Four landscape, is To All My Fans…from Norm Who?, a delightful memoir self-published in 2009 by utility man Norm Miller, who was Bouton’s roommate with the Houston Astros and who lockered with Hank Aaron during the home run king’s final chapters with the Atlanta Braves.
Joe Pepitone, Joe, You Coulda Made Us Proud
My favorite post-Ball Four baseball memoir was written by Joe Pepitone — who, ironically, was one of Bouton’s harshest critics. Written with Barry Steinbeck, Joe, You Coulda Made Us Proud digs deep into the hard-swinging ballplayer’s endless conflicts with teammates and managers, and the wild times he pursued off the field as a means to numb the pain from his troubled upbringing in a rough Italian section of Brooklyn. Joe, You Coulda Made Us Proud reads like an unholy three-way cross between Ball Four, Nicholas Pileggi’s Wise Guy, and Penthouse Letters; first published in 1975, it still sears the eyeballs and stirs the imagination like no other baseball memoir ever written.
Dan Epstein is a pop culture historian and avid baseball fan. He is a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone, among other publications and is the author of multiple books including Big Hair and Plastic Grass and Stars and Strikes.
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