ONE MAN’S SPORTS BOOK READING LIST (TOP TEN)January 28th, 2013
This is the fifth and final in a series of posts about my favorite sports books. Notice the dearth of fiction in this offering. Perhaps that’s the nature of sports books, that the best ones describe athletes, games and seasons that are real. But my No. 1 choice is fiction, and, man, you have to read this book.
Keep in mind that I am not necessarily proclaiming these the BEST sports books, though, obviously, I think they’re very, very good or they wouldn’t be on here.
10—The Boys of Summer, Roger Kahn, non-fiction, baseball
I re-read Kahn’s celebrated book a couple of years ago and found his writing more cloyingly sentimental than I remember. But this book is not about style. Its subject matter was so compelling to me personally—a tale of both learning to be a journalist and tracking down the men he had once covered (in Kahn’s case, the Brooklyn Dodgers of the late 1940s and early 1950s)—that it couldn’t help but be memorable.
9—Big Bill, Frank Deford, non-fiction, tennis
Had Bill Tilden, the greatest player of his time and a closet homosexual, been born in a different era, perhaps his life would not have turned out so sadly. Deford, the king of all Sports Illustrated writers—don’t let anyone tell you different—wrote a biography that was born piercingly honest yet sympathetic.
8—The Game They Played, Stanley Cohen, non-fiction, basketball
There is a whole generation—whoops, maybe two generations—of fans who don’t know anything about the college basketball fixing scandals of the 1950s. Cohen brings it all to light in a book that, in a way, serves as a useful companion to my No. 5 choice and as a thematic counterpoint to No. 6, a tale told mostly on the grassy campus of Princeton University. Here is a link to a video of Cohen talking at length about The Game They Played.
7—The Breaks of the Game, David Halberstam, non-fiction, basketball
It is axiomatic that Halberstam’s book is the best-reported and most complete analysis of one team (the Portland Trail Blazers) in the history of pro basketball … and maybe in the history of sports. Pro basketball couldn’t have thanked Halberstam enough for this account of the 1979-80 Bill Walton Blazers. At the time he wrote it, Halberstam had already won a Pulitzer Prize (for his Vietnam reporting), and the NBA was at its lowest point in cultural popularity. The writer was more famous than the game, and the fact that Halberstam took the NBA seriously was a big selling point for the league.
6—A Sense of Where You Are, John McPhee, non-fiction, basketball
Any hophead around my age (north of 60) knows of this seminal 1965 book, in which McPhee, a Pulitzer Prize winner and one of the gods of creative non-fiction (non-gonzo division), wrote about Bill Bradley when Bradley was a Princeton senior. I have a copy, which I’ve read several times, but couldn’t help buying another when I found it on a shelf in a used bookstore in Middlebury, Vermont, standing beside one of my own books. Trust me: Mine was not as well-written as this one by McPhee, which was his first of many.
5—Heaven is a Playground, Rick Telander, non-fiction, basketball
Speaking of hoopheads around my age … if you pooled the writers among us, I would suspect that Rick’s book about a summer spent playing (and coaching) pickup ball in Brooklyn would be the one we would want to have written. There have been countless books about inner-city hoops, but Ricky T’s is still at the top of the list. Here is Telander’s website devoted to the book. http://www.heavenisaplayground.com/
4—Friday Night Lights, Buzz Bissinger, non-fiction, football
Buzz is known for going off the rails a little bit, as in his memorable rant against Internet journalism. But his 1990 classic about Texas high school football is still the model for the I’m-moving-in-and-telling-the-truth-about-your-town-and-I-don’t-care-what-you-think-about-it book, and served up enough material (or suggestions for material) to furnish a movie and a TV series. Not incidentally, while a staff writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1987, Bissinger won a Pulitzer for his story on corruption in the Philadelphia court system, and his 1998 Vanity Fair article called “Shattered Glass” (made into a movie of the same name) is one of the most memorable pieces of magazine writing ever.
3—Ball Four, Jim Bouton, non-fiction, baseball
What qualities must be there for a book to be called “landmark?” I suppose it means that nothing like it had been written before, and that a specific genre would never the same after it was published. That is Bouton’s 1970 book in a nutshell. Ball Four was revelatory in so many ways, but what I remember about it was its humor, though the baseball establishment, predictably, found nothing funny about it. Its most interesting tidbits involve the Yankees, to the point that one almost forgets it was a diary about Bouton’s 1969 season spent with the Seattle Pilots during that franchise’s only year of existence.
Here is a clip of Bouton talking the importance of Ball Four to the advent of free agency and another in which he describes his favorite moment as a Yankee teammate of Mickey Mantle.
2—Out of My League, Shadow Box, Paper Lion, George Plimpton, non-fiction, baseball, boxing, football
All right, I cheated here by grouping three of Plimpton’s books together. But they were all of a piece—though in no way derivative of each other—and each one was a classic. The most underrated of his books, in my opinion, is Out of My League, Plimpton’s first foray into participatory journalism, in this case taking the mound at Yankee Stadium in 1960 to pitch against the American and National League all-star teams. Plimpton somehow gets Willie Mays out, believe it or not, but he makes you feel his flop sweat in this hilarious account of being in over your head.
1—Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ben Fountain, fiction, football
I took some liberties here since sports serves as only a backdrop in Fountain’s spectacular 2012 novel. It is a work of sheer brilliance, a controlled screed about the senselessness of war and the excesses of our sporting culture. Hint: It decimates the Dallas Cowboys. I’ll be reviewing it in full in a future blog.