Before digging down into the books, a brief observation on the growth of sports books and changes in the nature of these books in recent years.
For decades, sports books chronicling teams and athletes shared a common trait of being less than critical of their subjects. Perhaps that was the result of the writers who wrote most of these books. Sports teams and players were covered by sports writers who often bonded with their subjects because of the many days and hours spent with the team and the players over the course of a season.
Newspapers and radio and television organizations covering teams assigned reporters to cover an individual team. The writers and teams blended as one unit creating the fact that writers often overlooked the foibles of their subjects and wrote mostly of their accomplishments, not their shortcomings. Many sports biographies were ghost-written by the same sports writers who covered the teams. In reality, they were puff-pieces about the players.
Times change, and writers became far more investigative and critical in their work. In addition, many writers who were not veterans of day-to-day sports coverage elect to write about athletes independent of that daily reporting. They held no loyalty to their subject, they were loyal only to the truth. Sports figures themselves turned to writing and chronicled their respective games in tell-all fashion.
Baseball players Jim Brosnan and Jim Bouton wrote diaries of their seasons and many fellow players were indignant that a writer would pull back the curtain on athletes’ lives. But the public devoured the books.
My list of sports books is lengthy and requires some organization. Because there are so many, I have elected to separate baseball and football books using those two sports as individual categories. Before turning to those books I will offer an initial list of books covering a wide range of sports topics.
It’s really not a book about a specific sport or athlete. Instead, it is a book about an event, the 1960 Summer Olympics held in Italy.
As the title indicates, the Games that year were a confluence of global events and personalities that brought the Olympics to the world’s consciousness. These were the Cold War Olympics where the contest was viewed as a battle between democracy and communism. The Rome Olympics were also the Olympics where Black-American athletes like Muhammad Ali and Wilma Rudolph burst onto the world stage.
Maraniss captures it all in this outstanding history that foreshadows how the Olympics have grown to a multi-billion-dollar sports enterprise.
This is a unique biography because the subject of the biography had no speeches, papers, letters or interviews for the author to study.
The great Seabiscuit was a horse who rode to glory in the late 1930s. During his prime racing seasons, Seabiscuit received more news coverage than Franklin Roosevelt, Adolf Hitler or Benito Mussolini. He ran in match races, two horses on the track alone against each other and attendance at some of these events reached 100,000 spectators.
Like any great biography, this story captures the spirit of the times, the Great Depression and the lead up to World War II. Even if you have never bet on a horse race this is an extraordinary and enjoyable book.
Boxing has been the source of several great books written by authors ranging from Norman Mailer to A.J. Leibling.
For most of my adult life, boxing has been a sport where fan interest has been on the decline, but Eig’s biography of Ali is more than a boxing biography because Ali was more than a boxer. He was a hero to many beyond his accomplishments in the boxing ring. He was a fierce opponent of the Vietnam War and during his life spoke out on racial, political and cultural conflicts that swept America in the last half of the 20th century.
Jonathan Eig captures it all in this outstanding biography. Once again, great biography is great history.
Two authors perhaps better known for their writings in fields other than sports have also provided very personal sports chronicles that readers will find enjoyable.
FEVER PITCH by British novelist Nick Hornby is actually fiction. But it is so infused with Hornby’s personal affection for football (or soccer to Americans) that readers sometimes have difficulty separating fact from fiction. The novel was published in 1992 before the explosive growth of the English Premier League. It is the story of Hornby’s experience as a fan of the Arsenal Football Club from his childhood to his early 30s.
Each chapter of the novel pinpoints a match Hornby recalls and how that game impacted his life. The novel was the basis for two movies, one starring Colin Firth as the Hornby character, released in England in 1997. In 2005, a totally different version of the story starred Jimmy Fallon and Drew Barrymore.
The movie substituted the Boston Red Sox for Arsenal and was obviously set in the United States. Hornby, whose literary accomplishments include several fictional novels and screenplays participated in both projects.
Author Pat Conroy who died in 2016 left behind many accomplished works of fiction including The Great Santini, The Prince of Tides, The Lords of Discipline and The Water is Wide. He also was a skilled college basketball player.
MY LOSING SEASON is Conroy’s memoir of his senior year at The Citadel, a military college in South Carolina. While it is easy to write about teams roaring to championships, the team Conroy captained was not very good, their season record was 8-17. Conroy focuses on life at the school in 1966 when the college was a male-dominated, military-focused institution.
Throughout the story, there are flashbacks to Conroy’s youth, his Air Force father and military family. It is an honest story capturing both the joy and heartbreak of sports.
My sports bookshelves contain books in a wide range of sports. Sports fiction, golf, hockey, basketball, and soccer all can be found in the library.
But the dominant books are football and baseball. These are the two sports that dominate American life. The football season now runs through early February with the Super Bowl and a few short weeks later Spring Training begins in Arizona and Florida.
Yes, college basketball gives us March Madness but baseball and football are still the dominant sports in America.
Football books in America were changed greatly by the writing of George Plimpton, whose book based upon his experience in the Detroit Lion training camp of 1963 first appeared in Sports Illustrated as a two-part article.
PAPER LION was published in 1966 and was an expanded version of the original articles. Plimpton wrote several books about his exploits as a pretend athlete. Without much skill or ability, he convinced the Detroit Lions to allow him to participate in training camp and actually played in the team scrimmage.
Eventually, NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle barred Plimpton from participating in actual exhibition games. The book was one of the first to travel inside professional sports and delve into the personalities of players and coaches in a more exhaustive manner. PAPER LION would later be made into a film that starred Alan Alda and several Lion players.
One of them, Alex Karras would go on to have a second career in television and movies including the role of Mongo in the Mel Brooks western farce, Blazing Saddles.
Other football books that have made the transition to movies include FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS and THE BLIND SIDE.
Michael Lewis wrote THE BLIND SIDE in 2006 following Moneyball, his best-selling book on the sabermetric revolution in baseball. Lewis is an investigative and financial writer whose subjects run the gamut from the world of investing to the world of sports.
THE BLIND SIDE is really two books, the first focusing on changes in professional football brought about by multi-talented players in the mold of Lawrence Taylor whose speed and athleticism changed defensive strategy in the NFL. These changes became necessary as a response to the new style of offense brought to football by the creators of the “West-Coast” offense built upon speed and short-passing.
The second portion of THE BLIND SIDE focuses on the life of Michael Oher, a young man born in poverty who became an NFL first-round draft choice as a left tackle, a position that was completely re-shaped in the modern pass-focused NFL. Left tackle is important because most quarterbacks throw right-handed and players rushing the quarterback from his left side are attacking from the blind or unseen side.
Oher’s growth and development as a player is both a poignant and inspirational story.
When H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger set out to write FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, he certainly could never predict that he was creating a cottage industry that would focus on high school football.
Bissinger’s story of the 1988 Permian Panther high school football squad was the biography of Odessa, Texas, a community that like many in Texas lives for high school football. There is high school football and then there is Texas high school football. Bissinger captures the political and racial culture of the Odessa community as well as tensions that follow the players through their season.
The book was written in 1990 and in its wake it produced a movie version that starred Billy Bob Thornton and a television series that ran for five seasons and won numerous awards. The football focus has spawned a wide range of reality football-themed shows on several television networks.
Two shows, Last Chance U and QB 1, both focus on football at levels other than professional and major college. Last Chance U has focused on junior college football programs and recently completed its fourth season. QB 1 focuses on high school quarterbacks during their final high school season.
Both shows are informative and enjoyable highlighting for viewers the lives of athletes, both good and bad.
Most football fans center their attention on the NFL and the major college powerhouses such as Alabama, Ohio State, and Notre Dame along with major conferences including the Big 10, Southeastern Conference and Pacific 10.
But there is a vast world of football existing in America involving players and teams who rarely receive the weekly prime-time coverage of the pros and major college. In 2000, Austin Murphy, a longtime Sports Illustrated writer decided to spend a football season with the St. Johns Johnnies, a Division III NCAA football program that the average fan has never heard of. Division III football is unlike its Division I counterpart.
There are no athletic scholarships, no bowl games and no cross-country road trips. Most teams never cut players from their squads. St. John, located in Minnesota was also unique because of their coach, John Gagliardi, who upon his retirement in 2012 was the winningest college coach in football.
Gagliardi had a unique coaching philosophy. He avoided the term “coach,” limited practices to 90 minutes and did not allow tackling during practice. He did not have a playbook and did not have weight lifting programs for his players, but he did win four national championships. And St. Johns’ championships were not the result of media polls, they came after national championship play-offs.
Murphy spent one season with the Johnnies, living with the coaches, teams, and players. The result was THE SWEET SEASON, an endearing and warm book that reminds readers that behind the glitter there is still a game, played by players and coaches simply because they love the game.
This was in many ways a groundbreaking biography of a football legend. Vince Lombardi changed professional football with a coaching philosophy that focused on simplicity and execution rather than innovation.
His tactics were instrumental as his Green Bay Packer teams won the first two Super Bowls. Maraniss goes far beyond the sports aspect of Lombardi’s life, he dives deeply into the coach’s political views focusing on issues of race and culture.
Maraniss is also not afraid to discuss Lombardi’s shortcomings as a husband and father. WHEN PRIDE STILL MATTERED was one of the first sports biographies to treat this subject with candor rather than platitudes. Lombardi was a great coach but Maraniss was not afraid to dive deeply into and write about his personal flaws.
In many ways, this biography created a new path for sports biographies. It is also one of the finest sports biographies you will ever read.
Concluding this list of books with those covering baseball is a difficult task. Baseball books dominate the shelves of bookstores.
Setting aside the debate about which sport is the most popular, baseball is the sport that receives more coverage both in print and in media. Perhaps that is because there are far more games in a baseball season than other sports and perhaps it is also because the game features some basic simplicity allowing for fans to weigh in on strategy, tactics, and players. Whatever the reason, there are a lot of baseball books published each year.
Therefore, I will focus on two books that provide fans with a wider window into the game and forever changed the way baseball was viewed. Additionally, I have chosen two biographies that focused on players whose impact on baseball extended outside the stadiums in which they starred.
Jim Brosnan and Jim Bouton are two baseball players who some fans might recognize. Both were pitchers, Brosnan was a relief pitcher for several National League teams in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He was viewed by his teammates as a quirky guy who read books and kept some in his baseball locker. Teammates nicknamed him “The Professor.”
During the 1959 season, he kept a diary which he published in 1960 titling the book, THE LONG SEASON.
The book was notable for his candid portrayal of players, the tensions on baseball teams that like America were confronting a new racial era, as well as the proclivities of players to drink and chase women. It was also unique because midway through the season Brosnan was traded from the St. Louis Cardinals to Cincinnati. The book was both praised and criticized by people in baseball.
Many people in the game felt that Brosnan’s candor was damaging. The major impact of Brosnan’s book was that it led to books by other sports figures that opened the door to locker rooms, playing fields and player personalities.
A decade later Jim Bouton who had pitched for the New York Yankees until arm trouble sidetracked his career as a starting pitcher wrote of his season with the Seattle Pilots and Houston Astros.
BALL FOUR took the baseball and sporting world by storm. Bouton wrote about his time with the NY Yankees and exposed many dark secrets about the team, its ownership, and its stars. He wrote openly and candidly about management mistreating players, the players abusing their bodies with drugs and alcohol and often playing games after late-night escapades. Baseball reacted with anger.
Commissioner Bowie Kuhn called the book “detrimental to baseball” and attempted to get Bouton to say the book was fiction. Many sportswriters denounced Bouton as well. But the book became a best-seller and may be one of the most important sports books written. It is the only sports-themed book on the New York Public Library 1996 list of Books of the Century.
Time Magazine listed BALL FOUR as one of its top 100 non-fiction books of all time.
Major league baseball is approaching its 150th season. The number of players to reach the major leagues is probably close to 20,000. Only one player has had his number retired by every team in baseball, even those for which he never played.
Jackie Robinson wore number 42 for the Brooklyn Dodgers and no baseball player will ever wear that number again except on Jackie Robinson Day, when every player in baseball wears a uniform with that number. Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball becoming the first African-American player to play in the major leagues.
Robinson’s story is the subject of many books. Those books could almost be a separate list for interested readers.
But JACKIE ROBINSON: A Biography by Arnold Rampersad is my choice for the best Robinson biography. Robinson was a complex man, who was an outstanding athlete in football, basketball, and baseball.
He was chosen to break the racial barrier because of his life experience and personality. Rampersad digs deeply into all aspects of Robinson’s life including his military career and court martial. The author was given access to Robinson’s personal papers and had the cooperation of Robinson’s wife and widow.
It is an exhaustive and thorough biography portraying a man of history and an American hero.
While his path to major league baseball was somewhat different, Roberto Clemente has been described by some as the Jackie Robinson of Hispanic baseball players.
To capture the true spirit of what Clement meant to baseball I once again recommend author David Maraniss and CLEMENTE: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero. Maraniss writes with exhaustive detail and sweeping grace to capture the life of a player who recognized that his responsibilities extended to life beyond the baseball diamond.
Clemente died in an airplane crash as he flew to bring aid to Nicaraguan earthquake victims. He was only 38 years old. Baseball waived the traditional five-year waiting period for Hall of Fame induction and Roberto Clemente became the first Latin American and Caribbean to enter the Hall of Fame.
Clemente was an elegant and graceful athlete whose tragic death deprived baseball fans of a post-baseball life. This biography captures both his life and the meaning of that life that endures decades after his death.