As I mentioned yesterday, my Top 10 sports books was so popular that I’ve decided to make similar lists a regular feature on this blog. I was challenged by a few people to come up with the ten best sports movies.
Like last week’s effort, I decided to limit myself. I chose to not include any documentaries – When We Were Kings, Ken Burns’ Baseball and half of ESPN’s 30-for-30 series would force aside some very worthy films – but it should be noted that most of these are based on real people or events.
So, roughly in order of preference, here we go:
Jerry Maguire – This movie stands apart from the other entries on the list because its protagonist isn’t about an athlete or a coach. In fact, there’s hardly any football in the entire film, even if one of the main characters is a professional football player. Instead, Jerry Maguire looks at the culture surrounding sports. Whether it’s Jay Mohr’s conniving agent or Cuba Gooding Jr.’s selfish prima donna wide receiver, this movie does a better job than most of exposing the greedy and egotistical culture that’s developed around modern sports.
The Replacements – Gene Hackman makes the first of two appearances on this list as Jimmy McGinty, the coach of the fictional Washington Sentinels. As the unnamed professional football league that the Sentinels are a part of goes on strike, the owners decide to hire scab players to replace their regular players. Just like every sports movie ever, McGinty puts together a group of ragtag athletes. His replacements are led by dreamboat quarterback Shane Falco (played by real-life dreamboat Keanu Reeves). Hilarity ensues as the Sentinels come together as a team. There’s lots of memorable scenes, including Falco’s big speech in the climactic game, and when the twin offensive linemen shoot a rivals car full of holes. My favourite, however, is the dance scene:
Mighty Ducks – Quack! Quack! Quack! Many of these selections spawned their own franchises. Slap Shot, Rocky, Friday Night Lights, all have sequels or spin-offs. But Mighty Ducks is the only one on this list that was so successful that it earned its own professional sports teams. Yeah, it’s a typical kids’ movie with Emilio Estevez teaching his group of misfit hockey players important life lessons while he learns from them. But it’s still a great movie, even if the flying V is a ridiculous strategy.
A League of Their Own – Based on the real life experiences of veterans of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, Penny Marshall’s dramedy sheds some light on a chapter of baseball history that is often overlooked. Tom Hanks excels as Jim Dugan, a thinly veiled stand-in for Boston Red Sox great Jimmie Foxx, the alcoholic and acerbic manager of the Rockford Peaches. Even terrible actresses like Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell can’t slow this movie down, and, of course, it gave birth to one of the best lines ever uttered about baseball:
Rocky – Critically acclaimed when it came out in 1976 – winning the Academy Award for Best Picture that year – Sylvester Stallone’s masterpiece is surprisingly resilient. Although some of the lustre was rubbed off thanks to too many sequels, watched by itself Rocky is incredible. Although a lot of Stallone’s iconic scenes have become cliché, his screenplay still stands as a classic. Fortunately, the sixth and final entry in the series, Rocky Balboa, added some polish to the series and capped one of the most iconic stories in film history.
Slap Shot – When I was travelling regularly with the University of Toronto Varsity Blues lacrosse team Slap Shot was a staple of every bus ride. Literally every other movie we’d watch was Slap Shot. Other films were just used to raise our appreciation of this Paul Newman vehicle, the best hockey movie ever made. Slap Shot is filled with hilarious vignettes of life as a professional hockey player, but to me it’s the interactions between the players on the Charlestown Chiefs that make this movie. Director George Roy Hill perfectly captures what the downtime is like on any high-level sports team.
Hoosiers – The story of the 1951-52 Hickory High basketball team and their journey to the Indiana state championship is loosely based on the 1954 Milan High School basketball team that managed the exact same feat, despite the school’s small enrolment of 191. Gene Hackman is excellent as Coach Dale, the controversial coach of the team. His lessons about consistency and focusing on fundamentals is inspiring and the movie eminently watchable. One of the best things about this movie, however, is how subtle some of the character work is. In particular, star player Jimmy Chitwood’s narrative is handled with great restraint.
Friday Night Lights – Last week I wrote about the incredible book by H.G. Bissinger that inspired this movie. The film is also excellent and stays remarkably close to the source material. Billy Bob Thornton’s performance, in particular his speech about perfection, is magnificent. Director Peter Berg’s decision to use the soundtrack by Explosions in the Sky and moody, washed-out video creates an almost unbearable tension throughout the movie as the young football players of Permian High School struggle under the pressure of their small town’s expectations.
Any Given Sunday – Another artsy football movie, Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday follows a season with the fictional Miami Sharks. Although it relies heavily on pretentious cinematography – including silhouetted cheerleaders dancing in front of a lightning storm – the writing and acting are as tight as a drum. Al Pacino’s penultimate speech about life being a game of inches is, hands down, the best motivational speech in movie history. Stone handles the themes of mortality and morality with incredible aplomb, despite the heavy-handed camera work.
Bull Durham – Another classic baseball movie, Bull Durham is the first, and best, piece of the Kevin Costner baseball trilogy - sorry folks, For the Love of the Game isn’t as strong and Fields of Dreams is overly sentimental. Bull Durham, however, is just about perfect. From the characters on the team and their superstitions to Crash Davis’ words of wisdom, this film expresses the aura of baseball better than anything short of the game itself. There are few movies that can be watched again and again without losing any magic, and Bull Durham is in that select number.
As always, I'd love to know what your top 10 is, and why. Please, go ahead and comment below. Also, if there's a top 10 list you'd like me to write, shoot me an email or post a comment.
My friend Justin asked me to write a blog post of my top 10 essential sports books, and, well, who am I to deny my faithful readers?
Justin didn’t give me much of an outline beyond the fact that they should be non-fiction and that they’re books that would be essential for starting anyone looking to start a personal sports library.
I decided to interpret “essential” as a book that is timeless, has a broad scope that makes it accessible and, of course, features strong writing.
Variety was also a watchword when I put this together. When it comes to writing not all sports are created equal – coming up with a list of 10 baseball books is a snap, while naming even five essential hockey books can be tricky.
However, I did manage to get a decent spread of sports. Baseball, hockey, soccer, football, professional wrestling and other combat sports are all well represented.
I should also add that this list is designed to be taken as a whole. Many of these books are meant to dovetail with each other, provide contrast or compliment other entries.
They don’t need to be read in any particular order and none of them stand out as the best of the lot. But taken altogether all ten fit together nicely, giving the reader a reasonably broad understanding of sports and athletics, even if some specific sports are left out.
Of course, I’ll also point out that I’ve read all of these books (titles that have a link will take you to my earlier, full reviews of the book). Since I haven’t read every sports book ever there are, I’m sure, some gaps in my selections.
Now, in no particular order of preference:
The grand daddy of ‘em all, Ball Four is Jim Bouton’s memoir of a year as a major league pitcher with the Seattle Pilots and later the Houston Astros. This book is the first real, hard-hitting look at the world of baseball – or any sport for that matter. Incendiary when it was released in 1969, Bouton’s book remains funny and insightful. Context will help you enjoy it, but 75% of the book can stand on its own. Admitedly, some of its power has been lost to time, but definitely worth reading, particularly the sections on some of Bouton’s more famous colleagues like Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams.
Bullpen Gospels by Dirk Hayhurst
Another relief pitcher’s memoirs, Bullpen Gospels comes from a more sincere and self-deprecating perspective. Dirk Hayhurst’s book on his year in the San Diego Padres’ minor league system is less about baseball and more about finding himself and trying to make some sense of the mess that is his life. Bullpen Gospels’ introspective narrative gives the reader a glimpse inside the surprisingly fragile psyche of a professional athlete and stands in contrast with Bouton’s groundbreaking work. It’s amazing to see how things have changed in the 50 years between the two memoirs. That said, some things never change – like baseball players womanizing ways.
Living on the Black by John Feinstein
My third pick also features professional baseball pitchers, but manages to be completely different from the earlier entries. John Feinstein’s tome (it’s a hefty 508 pages) follows the 2007 seasons of soft-tossers Tom Glavine and Mike Mussina. Living on the Black discusses the history of the players association and explains the ongoing evolution of the pitcher. Reading this book gave me a much stronger understanding of the importance of every pitch and every at bat of baseball. This book comes as close to explaining the art of big league pitching as anyone can without actually suiting up.
Searching for Bobby Orr by Stephen Brunt
Stephen Brunt’s biography of Bobby Orr – certainly the best defenceman of all time, and arguably the best hockey player ever – is marked by the fact that it was totally unauthorized. The seasoned Globe and Mail columnist had to dig deep for years to find anyone willing to speak to him about the very private Orr. All that hard work paid off as Brunt paints a rich portrait of a complicated man who revolutionized the sport of hockey on and off the ice. Searching for Bobby Orr is worth reading if just to be immersed in Brunt’s breathless description of Orr’s trademark end-to-end rushes. A must read for understanding the modern National Hockey League.
Hitman by Bret Hart
Although professional wrestling isn’t really a sport, there’s no denying the athleticism of the performers. Bret Hart’s upbringing as the most prominent member of the Hart family of wrestlers puts him in a unique position to describe the crazy lifestyle of the World Wrestling Federation. At the same time, Hart’s incredibly violent home life, coupled with his constant marital infidelity is engrossing and makes this the grittiest of all the entries on this list. This autobiography is, in a word, jarring. There is no book that is so open and honest about the sex and violence that pervades the lives of professional athletes.
A Fighter’s Heart by Sam Sheridan
The only sport that comes close to baseball’s massive catalogue of books is boxing. Unfortunately, the sweet science is only one corner of the world of combat sport. Therefore, I chose Sam Sheridan’s survey of all sports where athletes fight – from boxing to Brazilian Jiu Jitsiu to mixed martial arts and, yes, even cock fighting – to try and encompass one of the more literary sports. Sheridan tries valiantly to understand the role that organized combat has in society and what it is about prizefighting that attracts competitors and spectators alike. An intersting and thought-provoking read that provides insight into the fringes of professional sport.
How Soccer Explains the World by Franklin Foer
Like A Fighter’s Heart, Franklin Foer’s How Soccer Explains the World tries to figure out the role of sport in a greater socio-political context. Foer’s theories are a little over-simplistic and he’s not without his biases, but nonetheless it’s an excellent book that successfully draws connections between political movements, sectarianism and nationhood with soccer teams around the world. An excellent sports book for the non-fan, and enjoyable and informative for anyone who believes that sport is an integral part of society.
Friday Night Lights by Buzz Bissinger
You’ve probably seen the movie or the TV show, but as good as they are, they just don’t do justice to Buzz Bissinger’s original examination of high school football in the oil town of Odessa, Texas. Although he doesn’t draw conclusions like Sheridan or Foer, Bissinger goes into greater depth than the other two books. Dark, sure, but Friday Night Lights does an incredible job of showing, at least on a small scale, how important sports can be to a community. By the final chapter you might not feel like a Permian Panther, but you’ll definitely sympathize with these young men.
Moneyball by Michael Lewis
Possibly the most influential book on this list, Michael Lewis’ Moneyball is often misunderstood as being a kind of baseball strategy guide. Really, it’s all about Oakland Athletics’ general manager Billy Beane squeezing the potential out of undervalued properties – in this case, baseball players. It’s a philosophy that goes well beyond the world of baseball, and the book’s become popular in many business circles. There’s lots to learn from Lewis’ most popular book: the intricacies of baseball trades, the importance of walks and the rigidity of old school baseball. Stay ahead of the curve by picking it up before Brad Pitts’ film adaptation comes out.
Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby
Speaking of books being ruined by movie adaptations – please ignore the romantic comedy starring Jimmy Fallon and Drew Barrymore loosely based off of Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch. It’s barely related to the original. Few books capture the agony of cheering for a team that just never gets it together. You can sustitute any number of clubs for Hornby’s Arsenal. The Chicago Cubs, Detroit Lions and Toronto Maples Leafs will all do fine. This is what fandom is all about: not the highs of winning a championship but the agonizing lows where every bounce goes for the other side, where every home game gets rained on and every draft pick is a bust. Hornby captures that pain perfectly.