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.
After all, it is Sports Illustrated’s Great Baseball Writing. A volume of the best baseball writing from arguably North America’s best sports magazine between 1954 and 2004. Of course it’s going to be good.
“It’s a measure of the quality of this collection that the weakest piece in it is by Robert Frost;” says Michael Lewis of Moneyball fame in the book’s introduction. “It’s a measure of its honesty that the editors left out pieces by William Saroyan and Ted Williams in favour of better ones by writers you may never have heard of.”
The content really is fantastic. Leigh Montville writes about the last days of old Tiger Stadium in Detroit. The mystery of Billy Martin is tackled by Frank DeFord. Peter Gammons talks about the fans of Boston’s love and support of Bill Buckner after his disastrous misplay in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series.
On and on the book explores every corner of baseball, from famous names like Mickey Mantle and Stan Musial to the magic of a triple to a Japanese-American revolutionizing the way that the game is played in Hiroshima, a city devastated by the Second World War.
Of course, it’s still subject to the great Achilles’ Heel of its weekly magazine source: some of these articles get dated, and fast.
For example, right now, there is a recent Sports Illustrated – cover-dated May 17 - sitting on my coffee table with Shaquille O’Neal staring at the reader with the headline “Good old Shaq: Can He Deliver a Ring to the King?”. Pretty awkward when LeBron James, Shaq and the rest of the Cleveland Cavaliers were eliminated from the National Basketball Association playoffs on May 14.
That kind of automatic obsolescence is the nature of a weekly publication schedule, but it makes for some uncomfortable reading in a book that collects those articles years later.
Chapters like Steven Cannella’s “Against the Grain” (March 25, 2002) don’t hold up well as it explains the influence of the maple bat and how “the ball jumped off it with more zip”.
Maybe maple bats do help batters. Maybe Cannella was reporting on what he felt was a real factor in the power surge. I’m not sure. Unfortunately, the piece comes across as a ham-handed attempt at explaining the steroid-fuelled surge in home runs in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Reading Tampa Bay Devil Rays catcher John Flaherty say that “People talk about the ball being juiced. I’ve been saying for a while now that the wood is so much better than it was when I came up,” makes me cringe because I can’t help but think that the ball and bat have nothing to do with the rise of the long ball.
Similarly, Tom Verducci’s “600 and Counting” (August 19, 2002) looks at the mysterious spike in Barry Bonds’ home run numbers. Verducci, one of the best writers in baseball, breaks Bonds’ career into three stages with the final level being explained away quickly:
“[I]n Stage 3 Bonds has crept closer to home plate, enabling him to pull pitches on the outside half of the plate with power rather than hitting line drives to the leftfield gap.”
Sure, Bonds probably did adjust his batting stance at different times in his career, but there’s also a lot of circumstantial evidence that suggests that he used performance enhancing drugs during that same period. The Steroid Era has left me so cynical that I can’t help but believe the latter over the former and that Verducci was naive.
Then again, that’s probably the point. After all, this is a book dedicated to the entirety of the baseball experience from 1954 to 2004. The ignorance of fans and sports journalists about steroids between the mid-1990s and mid-2000s is certainly a part of that history.
All in all, Sports Illustrated’s Great Baseball Writing is an excellent read. Just be prepared for some rather uncomfortable articles that seem ridiculous in light of the Mitchell Report and other investigations into steroid use in professional baseball. Some of the articles just do not hold up in the face of more cynical examination.