Top Five Sports Books

A long time ago, QT3 had a thread about people’s Top Five Science Fiction Novels. Since then, I’ve occasionally used that thread a resource to discover new authors. So I figure, why not a Top Five Sports Books thread? Here are my five:

Ball Four by Jim Bouton
I think this is the first book written about the day-to-day life of a sports player. Bouton is incredibly honest about every player and coach on the team, and was blackballed after publishing this book. He was also way ahead of the time in describing the use of performance enhancing drugs, in this case amphetamines.

Soul of Baseball by Joe Posnanski
Joe Posnanski is the Royals beat writer for the Kansas City Star, and is probably my favourite writer of this generation. Posnanski followed former Negro League player Buck O’Neill around the country for around a year as Buck proselytized about the Negro Leagues. Both Buck and Posnanski are great storytellers, and Buck himself is a great, uplifting character.

The Glory of Their Times by Lawrence Ritter
This is an oral history of the early days of baseball, say pre-1930s. I don’t remember much about the specifics of the book, but it was fascinating to read how different the game was in its early days. Players routinely made bets, spat epithets, and got in fights. It makes all of the alarm today about thuggish players seem hysterical.

Heaven is a Playground by Rick Telander
I like reading about baseball because it’s my favourite sport, but I like reading about basketball because it inevitably requires considering the racial and economic issues that surround the game. I am now reading Darcy Frey’s “Last Shot” about Stephon Marbury and Coney Island high-school basketball, which inspired this post. In any case, Telander spent a summer in New York coaching junior-high street players. He got a close perspective of how these players are recruited as young as junior high, and what basketball means in the inner city. In comparing Heaven is Playground, Hoop Dreams, and Last Shot, it seems that not much has changed in the inner city since 1970.

Breaks of the Game by David Halberstam
Halberstam followed the Portland Trailblazers during their 1979 season, three years after their championship. Jack Ramsay, Bill Walton, Kermit Washington, and Maurice Lucas are each featured. The NBA was still struggling to gain acceptance at the time, and Halberstam covers the NBA’s attempts at getting national TV coverage, and the racial dynamic of the league at the time. Again, I’m blanking on the details, but Halberstam is obviously a clear writer, and he could hardly have picked a better team to write about.

Just missing the cut would probably be Loose Balls by Terry Pluto, an oral history of the ABA; Foul! the Connie Hawkins story about a playground legend; and Bill Russell’s autobiography Second Wind. I have primarily read about basketball and baseball, so if anyone knows of any great football (or other sports) books, I’d be really interested.

The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop.

For a book written in 1968, it’s remarkably prescient. It’s well worth reading even if it’s not strictly a ‘sports novel’. Saying any more would ruin the fun.

SI did a Top 100 Sports Books of All Time a while back, although I wonder if top 100 is so broad a range as to become meaningless.

Certainly you should read Friday Night Lights. The movie or TV show do not count.

Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel is the funniest book about baseball I’ve ever read. Highly recommended.

Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch is also hilarious, recounting his lifelong obsession with soccer–err, I mean “football”.

Does Bringing Down the House count?

I haven’t read many sports books, but having lived in Brooklyn for much of my life, The Boys of Summer about the Brooklyn Dodgers in '52 & ‘53 is pure nostalgic awesome. As much a coming of age book, as a recount of the teams’ historic seasons.

That’s a great list. I’ll have to comb through it. It reminded me that I read Plimpton’s Paper Tiger. I kinda wish the idea of a professional writer playing with a pro team could be revisited by a writer with more athletic talent. Plimpton was so overmatched he couldn’t even hand the ball off for running plays.

I’m kinda leery of reading any books about New York baseball in the 50s since so many authors grew up then and lionize the time.

  1. The Glory Of Their Times, Lawrence Ritter.The greatest baseball book ever written, at least for a would-be historian, is still THE GLORY OF THEIR TIMES, by Lawrence Ritter. The story of the book is almost as wonderful as the book itself. Back in '62 or '63, baseball legend Ty Cobb passed away. Working on his master’s in History, Ritter was reading some reminiscing by some old ballplayers on the Georgia Peach, and realized a couple of things–first, those old-time ballplayers had some FANTASTIC stories, and second…they weren’t getting any younger.

Thinking it might make a decent Masters thesis, Ritter took the next two years driving around the country with his tape recorder, hunting for still-living superstars of the early days of major league baseball. He got a ton of great interviews, and in GLORY OF THEIR TIMES, each chapter is the stories of each individual player that Ritter talked to. Magical" just doesn’t do it justice. To hear Fred Snodgrass talk about dropping that pop fly that cost the Giants the 1912 World Series (“It hit my glove, and dammit…I just dropped the damned thing.”), to hear Smokey Joe Wood talk about suddenly not being able to throw anymore and changing to a hitter…to hear the incredibly funny and strange story about Charles “Victory” Faust…if you love baseball at all, it’ll take you away.

Now then. The book in print is amazing. I’ll go you one better and recommend you seek out the audiobook version instead though. Rather than have someone read the first-person reminisces in GLORY, Ritter instead gave his publisher the original tapes of his interviews. So, there you have Rube Marquard himself talking about stowing away aboard a train to Iowa for a pitching tryout, or Specs Toporcer talking about being a scoreboard boy for the Cardinals when they won the 1926 world series. The history that oozes from those recorded tracks is indescribable. Think ballplayers of that era are a bunch of ignorant louts? Wait’ll you hear “Wahoo” Sam Crawford, rocking chair creaking on a hardwood floor, pronounce Balzac “most satisfactory” before going on a 10-minute tirade about how big an asshole Ty Cobb was. Awesome stuff.

  1. October, 1964, David Halberstam. Halberstam’s best-known baseball book is probably Summer of '49, but this book is better. Comparing side by side in parallel fashion the seasons of the '64 Yankees and Cardinals, Halberstam makes some fascinating points about race in America at the time. The Yankees were very slow to integrate their team with blacks, and it was a decision that killed their “dynasty”; in '64 they played in their 30th World Series in 37 years; they wouldn’t make it back again until 1977. With the ‘64 Cardinals, Halberstam ably makes the point that with race, a few good men can make the difference. In a racially prejudiced town like St. Louis, having four smart, forward-thinking black men in Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Curt Flood, and Bill White on the team made all the difference; having white men like Kenny Boyer, Johnny Keane, Stan Musial, Tim McCarver, and Gussie Busch reinforced what racial equality was all about. There’s plenty about baseball here too–the Cardinals’ miracle '64 pennant run and then the see-saw 7-game World Series are retold in wonderfully suspenseful detail. Best of all, this book is funny, too. Too many books on race and sports are not.

  2. Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby. When I started reading this, I knew very little about the Premiership. When I was done, I had adopted a team (Come on Newcastle!) and had become an avid fan–such is the power of Hornby’s pointed observations in Pitch. When Hornby describes the final game at Anfield in the 1988-89 season that won Arsenal the First Division (and describes his reactions to it), it is the most perfect description of why sports fandom matters ever written, and it’ll probably have you in tears as well. (Liverpool fans can skip this chapter).

  3. Ball Four, Jim Bouton. Although this book caused a sensation when it came out with all its “lurid” details (it was somehow shocking to staid American sensibilities that the young men who play baseball curse, carouse, and drink), it reads pretty tame by today’s standards. Even so, Bouton is witty, engaging, and eminently likable, and the story of the one single season of the Seattle Pilots is worth the price of admission by itself. Now go pound some Budweiser!

  4. The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, by Bill James. Sure, parts of this book come off as dry, statistical reference, but James knows how to weave statistical analysis with great, lusty debate on the game, and manages to make even the stats part of his book fun. For example, at one point he details a minor league pitcher who hit a record-setting 55 batters in one season, got to the majors, and only hit 6 batters the next. The conclusion is obvious of course: big league hitters have faster reflexes. Gems like that are what make this book worthwhile. There are two kinds of people who argue about baseball–people who haven’t read this book, and people who have, and who win the arguments.

Off the top of my head my top 5 would be:

Ball Four
Eight Men Out
Great American Novel
Fever Pitch
A Season on the Brink

Although the last one, while I remember it being really good, is tainted by the fact that I’ve read a couple of Feinstein’s subsequent books (my dad keeps buying them) and they seemed pretty content-free. The golf book was non-stop observations about how all of the golfers were such great guys, all pulling for each other, yada yada yada – except for Jon Daly, who Feinstein slammed over and over as an alcoholic tool who was undeserving of his popularity. I have no vested interest in any golfer, but whether or not he’s right about Daly it came off as a mean-spirited hatchet job. Anyway, I subsequently wonder in retrospect if the Bob Knight book really was that good.

I’m eager now to read The Glory of Their Times and the Halberstam books mentioned above.

Oh, and the SI link above reminded me about “Into Thin Air”, which is a pretty thrilling read (thought I didn’t think of it as a sports book).

While I will second the nomination of Kahn’s The Boys of Summer I disagree about mono’s characterization of the book as a coming of age story or as nostalgic. I found it to be heartbreakingly clinical in Kahn’s refusal to romanticize the long overdue integration of blacks into MLB, and in his unflinching epilogues for many of the major players. If you love baseball, America, or good writing, this book is a must-read.

I’d trade all of this sepia-toned “crack of the bat” navel-gazing for the one essential sports book in this world:

I’d love that book, if there was a tiny bit of proof (for instance, one of St. Billy Beane’s teams winning something) in its premise. If I’m not interested in a Billy Beane fellating manual though, there’s much to be desired here.

There’s a book about tennis by John McPhee, Levels of the Game, about a US Open match between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner that is very good.

Jeez, I dunno. Making the playoffs several times on a miniscule payroll isn’t enough for you? It’s all about arbitrage.

“Hard Courts” is a pretty good book about the 1990 tennis season.