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Turn the page: A Minor League book roundup

Ten titles to check out while waiting for the 2020 season to begin
Need some new books to read? Here are 10 suggestions from us and we're eager to hear yours as well.
April 28, 2020

This month, went to the movies, tuned into the television shows and watched worthwhile documentaries that spotlighted the quintessential qualities of Minor League Baseball, with fans chiming in on what else could've made the list and other deserving candidates. Now it's time to turn the page. On the field or in your living room,

This month, went to the movies, tuned into the television shows and watched worthwhile documentaries that spotlighted the quintessential qualities of Minor League Baseball, with fans chiming in on what else could've made the list and other deserving candidates. Now it's time to turn the page. 

On the field or in your living room, it's important to get a good read on the ball. 
In our fourth installment of a series on Minor League Baseball's presence in pop culture, here are 10 books that illuminate the ever-amorphous and endlessly interpretable Minors experience. We have rollicking memoirs, comprehensive historical overviews and handy reference guides. But the omissions were many, and we're eager for recommendations for our follow-up story. Feel free to email ([email protected]) or Twitter (@bensbiz) with your favorite Minor League reads. 

Bottom of the 33rd (Dan Barry, 2011, Harper Perennial)
In 1981, as a frigid Saturday night turned into Easter Sunday morning, the Triple-A Pawtucket Red Sox and visiting Rochester Red Wings found themselves locked in a seemingly eternal McCoy Field struggle. When play was finally suspended at 4:07 in the morning, 32 innings were in the books and the score was still tied, 2-2. The historic 33rd frame took place more than two months later, captivating a nation hungry for baseball in the wake of the 1981 Major League Baseball players' strike. Dan Barry, a New York Times writer and former Pawtucket resident, goes deep in his exploration of baseball's longest game (which featured a pair of future Hall of Famers -- Wade Boggs and Cal Ripken Jr.) He profiles players, coaches, fans and front-office members, weaving their stories into a detailed account of the interminable contest itself. "It was both sacred and absurd," said Barry. "A night of communion and a night of insanity." 
Almost Yankees (David Herman, 2019, University of Nebraska Press) 
Fortunately, fervent fans of the 1981 International League season have a place to turn after reading Bottom of the 33rd. David Herman's Almost Yankees takes a thorough burrow into the '81 Columbus Clippers, then the Triple-A affiliate of the New York Yankees. These Clippers were, per Herman, "King George [Steinbrenner's] super-talented collection of spare parts," a squad "stocked with an unusual blend of experience, talent and potential for a Triple-A team." And due to the MLB players' strike, these Clippers spent an anomalous two months as "the greatest baseball team on the planet." Herman has a personal connection to the team; he was an 11-year-old Columbus resident when that season began. Almost Yankees, featuring interviews with 28 of the team's 36 players, is a well-researched and well-written labor of love. 

Baseball's Great Experiment (Jules Tygiel, 1983, Oxford University Press)
Jackie Robinson's debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers was an epochal event, deserving of the near-mythological standing it has attained in American culture. But these heroics did not happen in a vacuum, and we should be wary of reducing the complex story of baseball's integration into a corporate-sponsored morality play. This is where Tygiel (a much-respected history professor who died in 2008 at age 59) comes in. Baseball's Great Experiment is an impeccably researched account of the events that happened in parallel with Robinson's exploits, as well as those after them. An in-depth account of Robinson's 1946 season with the International League's Montreal Royals is a particular highlight, and Tygiel masterfully goes on to write about icons of the era such as Satchel Paige, Larry Doby and Bill Veeck. The end result is an indispensable account of a painfully protracted, but ultimately triumphant period of baseball history. The "great experiment" had succeeded.

Brushing Back Jim Crow (Bruce Adelson, 2007, University of Virginia Press)
A strong companion piece to Baseball's Great Experiment, Brushing Back Jim Crow also documents baseball's long and painful march toward full integration. Adelson's focus is on leagues, teams and players in the South, where segregation was explicitly codified via Jim Crow laws. First-person accounts from the players involved are plentiful, and Adelson proves adept at interweaving these personal narratives with the larger legal struggles going on in society at the time. Racial integration was a fraught process no matter where in the country it took place, but the South clung to the old ways with a particular ferocity. Brushing Back Jim Crow compellingly documents just what a struggle it was.
Pitchers of Beer: The Story of the Seattle Rainiers (Dan Raley, 2011, University of Nebraska Press)
Prior to Major League expansion, the best baseball to be found west of the Mississippi came courtesy of the Pacific Coast League. Pitchers of Beer tells the story of one of the circuit's most beloved franchises, the Seattle Rainiers. The titular alcoholic beverage plays a large role in the narrative, as it was suds magnate Emil Sick who bought the franchise in 1937 and turned it into a community institution. In telling the story of the Rainiers, Raley takes a largely chronological approach. His cast of characters includes not just notable locals, but baseball greats such as Rogers Hornsby (who managed the club) and Ron Santo (who served as a bat boy). Taken as a whole, the story of the Rainiers helps to illuminate the story of America at that time. As the book's promotional materials note, "[Pitchers of Beer] spans the end of the Great Depression, World War II, the rise of the airline industry, and the incursion of Major League Baseball (which ultimately spelled doom for the club)." The name still lives today, of course -- Tacoma's Pacific Coast League entry became the Rainiers in 1995 after signing an affiliation agreement with Seattle.
The Greatest Minor League: A History of the Pacific Coast League 1903-57 (Dennis Snelling, 2011, McFarland)
If Pitchers of Beer whets your whistle for PCL history, then Snelling's Greatest Minor League constitutes a full-bore bender. This thick, meticulously researched tome chronicles the league's halting turn-of-the-century beginnings, its long run as a de facto "third Major League" and its protracted and ultimately futile turf battle with Major League Baseball as that entity set its sights on westward expansion. There's a lot of information contained therein, supplemented by copious footnotes and appendices, but Snelling keeps the proceedings fun. Colorful trivia and interesting anecdotes abound. To wit: Did you know that, in 1905, Los Angeles and Oakland played a doubleheader that was completed in one hour and 40 minutes? Or that, in 1911, Vernon Tigers center fielder Walter Carlisle turned an unassisted triple play? Or that, the following season, Heine Heitmuller of the Los Angeles Angels won the batting title after dying of typhoid fever? Or that in 1917, Joe Mathes of the Angels made a throwing error in the midst of an earthquake that measured 6.8 on the Richter scale? I could go on, but you get the picture. PCL history is fun. 

Going for the Fences: the Minor League Home Run Book (Bob McConnell, 2009, SABR)
Mike Hessman maniacs and Buzz Arlett aficionados will love this quirky reference book, which, fittingly, goes deep. Bob McConnell, who passed away in 2012, was a founding member of the Society for American Baseball Research, whose particular area of expertise was the Minor Leagues. Going for the Fences is an unparalleled piece of research on, yes, Minor League long balls. The knowledge on display here is awe-inspiring. Did you know, for example, that Dixie Upright holds the record for most Minor League home runs by a player whose last name begins with "U"? Or that the most home runs by two Minor League teammates was the 106 bashed by Bill McNulty and Gorman Thomas on the 1974 Sacramento Solons? Those facts, and literally thousands of others, are contained therein.
Rickwood Field: A Century in America's Oldest Ballpark (Allen Barra, 2010, W.W. Norton Company)
Birmingham's Rickwood Field, built in 1910, currently holds the title of "America's Oldest Ballpark." As the home of the Double-A Barons -- and the Negro League Black Barons -- it hosted a staggering array of Hall of Fame players before eventually finding new life thanks to a group of volunteers dedicated to preserving its legacy. (These efforts led to the beloved annual tradition known as the Rickwood Classic in which the Barons return to their old home for a historically themed matinee game.) Barra's Rickwood Field is an informative and enthusiastically written history of the facility and Birmingham itself, beginning with the city's industrial "slag pile" baseball roots and continuing through the modern era. 
Stolen Season: A Journey Through America and Baseball's Minor Leagues (David Lamb, 1991, Random House)
After working for years as an international correspondent, journalist David Lamb got back in touch with his native land by taking a season-long tour of Minor League ballparks. Published in 1991, Stolen Season provides a snapshot of how the Minor Leagues operated just before the "ballpark boom" that resulted in our current environment of 360-degree concourses and HD videoboards. As such, it already reads as an elegy to a bygone era. The book, which began life as a National Geographic article, is a visual feast as well. Its images, from bygone facilities such as El Paso's Dudley Field, are -- by turns -- jarring, expansive and intimate. 
The 26th Man: One Minor League Pitcher's Pursuit of a Dream (Steve Fireovid and Mark Winegardner, 1991, University of Nebraska Press)
Fireovid was the very definition of a journeyman. The right-handed pitcher appeared in 31 Major League games with five teams over 12 seasons, but the vast majority of his time was spent toiling in the Minors. The 26th Man (the title refers to Fireovid's feeling of perpetually being on the cusp of a Major League roster) is an introspective journal of his 1990 season with the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians. By this point, Fireovid was 33 years old and finding it increasingly difficult to balance his diminishing big league dreams with the demands of raising a family and planning for a future without baseball. He's a likeable and relatable protagonist, and though he didn't play in the Majors in 1990, he did get one more cup of coffee -- as well as a one-night stand as the greatest pitcher in the world -- before hanging up his spikes. 

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.