My Ten Favorite Sports Books – From the Bird’s Nest
I like to read.
And, no, I don't just read books about sports. You're just as likely to find me reading books on entertainment, the Mafia, Stephen King, John Grisham....hey, I'm not a one trick pony.
But I do love sports books. And I've compiled a list of my favorites.
But I had to come up with some rules along the way First, novels are eliminated. I don't need to read fiction to come up with a great sports book. As a result, W. P. Kinsella's "Shoeless Joe," the book which spawned "Field of Dreams," is not on the list. Neither is "Semi-Tough" or "North Dallas Forty."
And, limiting it to just one book per author was really tough. I mean, really tough. How to you pick the best from Roger Kahn or John Feinstein? I managed, but it wasn't easy. If I hadn't, those two authors would have dominated the list.
And, I can't have just read ABOUT the book. It had to be a book I actually read. And, when compiling the list I realized there are still a lot of books I need to read.
So, that having been said...here we go with my top ten.
10. "Cosell"--Howard Cosell: I read all of the books he wrote. And, they all had one thing in common: They showed what a bombastic, pompous ass he was. And I loved him. It's not easy to be the most trusted and most hated sports figure at the same time, but Howard managed. Some of the darker side of "Monday Night Football" is not addressed, naturally, because Cosell was a part of it. But reading about the man who revolutionized sports journalism was worth every page...even if I had to shake my head from time to time because of the arrogance that permeated every page..
9. "October Men" --Roger Kahn. Yeah, I know "The Boys of Summer" is his best known work and considered to be one of the great baseball books ever. But this chronicle of the 1978 New York Yankees is a must read if you're a fan of The Bronx Bombers. George, Billy, Reggie, Thurman, Lemon...they're all part of the story and the book is hard to put down. Of course, there's the one game playoff with Boston and that Guidry guy as well. Of the Yankees' teams between 1975-1981, this team was the best. Don't believe me? Read the book.
8. "Slam Dunked" --Ron Gomez with Beryl Shipley. Look, it's really simple. You can't call yourself a fan of the Ragin' Cajuns without reading this book. Those who know about the basketball program that got the "Death Penalty" from the NCAA just figure it was because the Cajuns simply cheated to huge extremes and got caught. While the book tempers the actual wrongdoings, the anger because Shipley dared to recruit black players in the segregated South, and Gomez' and Shipley's view of the administration's seeming unwillingness to go to bat for the program will change some perceptions. The book isn't an easy read, especially the second half which details the allegations. But it's an important read.
7." Muhammad Ali:" His Life and Times--Thomas Hauser. Perhaps the most complex and, in many areas, misunderstood sports figures in history, this story is told through the eyes of more than 200 people who knew him or at least had an opinion about him. I really didn't have many sports heroes growing up. But this guy was one of them. I still shake my head when I consider he accomplished what he did in the ring despite having his prime years taken away from him. Watching him light the torch in Atlanta years ago gave me chills. Still does.
6. "Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won"-- Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim. Does defense really win championships? Is there really such a thing as momentum? Why is winning on the road, especially in basketball, so difficult? Are the Cubs jinxed? Do officials cheat? All of these subjects are tackled in this book, which uses a lot of data to back the findings. If you're a sports fan who has ever wondered about the above questions, you really need to read this
5. "Stolen Glory: The U. S. , the Soviet Union, and the Olympic Basketball Game That Never Ended" Mike Brewster and Taps Gallagher. Remember 1972? It was the Olympics of the Munich Massacre, Mark Spitz, Olga Korbut and Frank Shorter. But it was also the Olympics of the theft of the gold medal in basketball. It was a game won by the Americans...twice...but ultimately won by the Soviets. The ending was replayed until the outcome changed. If you recall the Games and how upset you were, read this. It'll anger you all over again."
4. "Praying for Gil Hodges: A Memoir of the 1955 World Series and One Family's Love of the Brooklyn Dodgers"--Thomas Oliphant. The aforementioned "The Boys of Summer" is the best known of the books about "Dem Bums." But this one is about more than baseball. Oliphant paints an unforgettable picture of the relationship between the borough and the baseball team. And, a young boy who shared his love of baseball with those around him. Finally, no more "wait til next year." For those who have ever considered baseball to be romantic, you HAVE to read this book.
3. "The Last Amateurs: Playing for Glory and Honor in Division I College Basketball"--John Feinstein. The toughest decision for me was which Feinstein book to select. "A Season on the Brink" and "The Punch" are certainly two of my favorites. But this book about a season in the Patriot League, which, at the time, didn't give basketball scholarships, is my favorite. No television lights. No glory. Just a bunch of teams with guys who played basketball because they loved basketball. I can't tell you how many times I've recommended this book. And, every person thanked me. You will, too.
2. "Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team and a Dream"--Buzz Bissinger. I went to Odessa, TX when Odessa Permian wasn't a football team; it was an obsession. This book captures what is, in some areas, Texas high school football is all about. You may have seen the movie or the TV series. But you haven't really seen Permian until you read this book. It isn't pleasant and I'm sure there were many in the Permian basin who tried to disavow what happened. But it did...and Odessa isn't the only place where it did.
1. "Ball Four": Jim Bouton. Why is this book at the top of the list? Because it revolutionized sports books. Until Bouton's chronicle about life as a pitcher with a sore arm trying to revive his career as a knuckleballer with the expansion Seattle Pilots (and, later in the season, the Houston Astros) in 1969, sports books never told the story of what it was really like to be a professional athlete. Bouton, who won 20 games twice for the New York Yankees in the early 60's, tells many Yankees' stories that the Yankees didn't want told: Drinking, amphetamines, infidelity, and a burred wedding ring are just some of the things in this expose that infuriated Major League Baseball. It so riled the establishment that then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn tried to get Bouton to call the book a work of fiction. But, it's also one of the funniest sports books every written, with anecdotes and lines that still are used in conversation today by those who have read the book. It's best to "pound some Budweiser" while you read it. For me, number one was an easy choice.
So there you have it. My top ten. It wasn't easy to select ten. I originally had a list of 22 and it was tough making cuts. I'm still not believing "Moneyball" or "The Blind Side" didn't make the cut. Neither did Jim Carroll's "The Basketball Diaries" which was more about growing up in New York City and the drug culture than it actually was about hoops. I recommend those as well.
Now I've got to get some of the books on YOUR list that I haven't read.