“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” – Jackie Robinson
It was just six days prior to the start of the 1947 season when baseball—and the world and culture in which the sport exists—would be forever changed. Jackie Robinson, baseball phenom and the first professional African American to play in the major leagues, was called up from a Brooklyn Dodgers minor league team to start at first base on Opening Day.
Robinson had spent the few years prior scaling the heights of semi-professional and professional baseball, from the Negro League’s Kansas City Monarchs to the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers AAA minor league club. During his rise, Robinson encountered vicious racism and endured ridicule, discrimination, and even death threats, all the while letting his outstanding level of play shine and respond in the face of vitriol and anger.
Though Robinson failed to get a hit in his major league debut, he walked and scored a run en route to a 5-3 win that opened the doors for African Americans—and minorities in general—in professional baseball and beyond. Robinson’s 10-year career with the Dodgers included a host of honors including the Rookie of the Year award, 6 consecutive All-Star appearances, and the 1955 World Series championship.
Robinson was inducted into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962, and in 2004 the MLB designated April 15 Jackie Robinson Day in honor of Robinson’s legacy and achievement in breaking the color barrier in America’s national pastime.
To celebrate Jackie Robinson and his lasting impact on race relations and the game of baseball, here are five baseball books that, much like Robinson, forged their own path into the hearts and minds of baseball fans the world over.
Boys of Summer
Author Roger Kahn’s 1972 book is part personal memoir on Kahn’s connection to the game, part history of New York City, and part recap of the Dodger’s 1955 World Series run. Kahn devotes much of the book to team’s players—including Robinson himself—and how their comportment and comradery led to a championship run season. But perhaps Kahn’s best play with Boys of Summer is how he continues to follow a handful of players following the 1955 season, well into the nadir of their careers to explore the lasting impact of that faithful season on their relationships and lives.
Most people know W.P. Kinsella’s 1982 novel Shoeless Joe as the basis for the film Field of Dreams starring Kevin Costner. And while the film is a perfectly fine adaptation of the story, Kinsella’s novel and use of precise, poetic language and description paints such a vivid picture of Ray Kinsella—the novel’s main character—and his journey to build a baseball field in the middle of an Iowa cornfield as a conduit for the spirits of some of baseball’s most legendary players from the 1919 Black Sox. Kinsella writes with a wistful, almost childlike innocence about the game, and his infectious enthusiasm for his subject effortlessly draws the reader into the heart of the story.
The Great American Novel
Philip Roth’s 1973 satirical farce about the fictional Port Ruppert Mundys is perhaps one of the more quirky baseball novels, though readers will be handsomely rewarded for their efforts. Roth’s somewhat crooked, askew tale of a New Jersey baseball team whose stadium is leased by the United States War Department as a military facility and is thus forced to become a permanent road team is chock-full of dark humor, political send-ups, commentary on the game of baseball, and more. But what else could one expect from Roth, whose numerous novels and stories push readers to think, question, and explore who they are and how they’re situated in the world.
Baseball fans know full-well horror author Stephen King’s allegiance to the Boston Red Sox, but Faithful, a 2004 book King co-authored with fellow writer Stewart O’Nan, provides some fascinating insights into King’s fandom that will delight baseball die-hards and novices alike. The book contains mostly emails, missives, and other written correspondences between King and O’Nan during the Red Sox storied 2004 World Series season. With O’Nan acting as something of a play-by-play announcer and King taking the color commentary, the book is a clever, insightful look at two Red Sox fans reveling in the long-awaited success for their team.
The Art of Fielding
Chad Harbach’s novel about a college baseball shortstop and the fictional team for which he plays set the literary world on fire upon its publication in 2011. The Art of Fielding centers on Henry Skrimshander and his exploits during a record-setting season with the Harpooners, the team of a small, private college on the Wisconsin shore of Lake Michigan. Baseball aside, the novel explores the relationships, mentors, conflicts, and accomplishments between teammates as they march toward a championship season that impacts each of the characters for years to come.