The first book devoted exclusively to the sport of baseball was The Base Ball Player’s Pocket Companion, published in Boston in 1859. Since then America’s love of baseball has continued to grow, establishing the sport as America’s pastime. Now baseball is also the most popular subject among collectors of rare books in sports. Because of the breadth of baseball literature, most collectors of rare baseball books narrow their focus to a specific aspect of the literature or sport.
The game of baseball has evolved considerably since its beginnings. Consider, for instance, that there were originally two sets of rules for baseball: one from Boston, and the other from New York. Thus books from baseball’s early history are often quite fascinating, detailing a sport that varies widely from the one we know today.
The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League began during World War II and operated from 1943 to 1954. The history of this league and its players don’t receive much attention today, but the league was quite popular at the time. Meanwhile, both the Negro Leagues and African-American players were frequently overlooked; few books exist about either before the 1970’s. One notable exception is Sol White’s Official Base Ball Guide (1907), sometimes called the “holy grail” of baseball book collecting because it’s so scarce. It’s both challenging and engaging to build a collection around these hidden histories in baseball.
As baseball’s popularity spread, smaller leagues began popping up all around the country. Although these leagues may not have boasted star players, they offered one means of local entertainment. Teams were sometimes formed around occupation or work location, as illustrated by the photograph of the New Almaden Quicksilver Mine Baseball Team.
Biographies and Autobiographies
In the early days, baseball players were frequently illiterate. Their autobiographies were therefore frequently ghostwritten. Both autobiographies and biographies were also “cleaned up”; they tended to be much more inaccurate than modern biographies, sanitizing the players’ lives to make them more acceptable to middle-class readers.
Likely the first novel primarily devoted to baseball was Noel Brooks’ Our Base Ball Club (1884). The genre has grown considerably. It includes dime novels, comic books, and modern first editions. Some collectors focus on a particular series, while others explore the limits of baseball fiction and collect a wider variety of examples.
With the establishment of official rules and leagues, the art of playing baseball became much more standardized. That certainly didn’t mean that opinions never differed on the right form and approach for skills like pitching, batting, and fielding.
If you love to “root for the home team,” it makes sense to build your baseball collection around them. You’ll likely find a wealth of programs, statistics, and score cards. Some items, such as the New York Giants’ Press Radio TV from 1956, include a list of players, schedules, and statistics. A collection built around a single baseball team also encompasses biographies and memoirs from team players.
Regardless of your area of expertise, it’s important to learn all you can about the rare books of baseball, and about your specialization. And that means one thing: getting the right bibliography! A terrific place to start is David Block’s Baseball Before We Knew It: A Search for the Roots of the Game (1995). In addition to offering a great print history of the game, it also has a bibliography of pre-1850 books that treat baseball in some way. For baseball fiction, you’ll want Andy McCue’s Baseball by the Books (1991). And a more general bibliography is Myron Smith’s Baseball: A Comprehensive Bibliography (1986). Smith has since published supplements to include later material.