The 10 Greatest Sports Books Ever Written
It's no coincidence that some of the world's most prolific writers have been drawn to sports.
From Hemingway, to Plimpton, to Pat Conroy some of the greats of modern literature have been drawn to the natural drama and human tension of sports and athletics.
The following is a list of what I feel to be the ten greatest sports books ever written.
10. A Good Walk Spoiled: Days and Nights on the PGA Tour (John Feinstein, 1995)
Nobody writes about golf better than John Feinstein and of all his golf related work this is his best.
A candid look at the lives of some of the PGA Tour's greatest golfers from the early 90's, the book not only looks at what happens on the course but off the course as well.
Even those who find golf to be a bore will be engaged in the stories and lives of the men Feinstein profiles.
9. Heaven is a Playground (Rick Tellender, 1976)
Fresh out of journalism school a young (white) sportswriter decides to spend a summer on the playgrounds of Rucker Park.
Heaven is a Playground is great because it not only glamorizes the legends of New York's most famous basketball playground, but also their real life struggles off the court.
For Rucker legends like Fly Williams and Pee Wee Kirkland who found life a struggle, the playground was a place where they weren't just a stereotype but rather a legend.
The book was made into a horrible movie starring D.B Sweeney as Tellender, so skip the flick and pick up the book.
8. The Miracle of Castel di Sangro (Joe McGinnis, 1999)
If Rick Tellender found heaven on earth on a playground in Harlem, then Joe McGinnis found his own personal hell in a small village in Italy.
The award winning author of "Fatal Vision" developed a passion for Italian soccer after the 1994 World Cup and decided to travel to Italy for a year to chronicle one of sports greatest Cinderella stories.
Castel di Sangro's soccer team did the impossible from going to the lowest levels of Italian soccer to the nation's second highest level in less than a decade (in comparison this would be like a high school baseball team rising to the level of AAA baseball).
Expecting to find the story of a small upstart team that beat the odds, McGinniss rather finds himself surrounded by a team and town in complete control of the local La Costa Nostra.
Mob influence, the tragic (non mob related) death of the teams star player, and an ending that shatters McGinniss' faith in sports and the game he loves are all covered in this powerful read.
7. My Losing Season (Pat Conroy, 2002)
With books like "The Great Santini" and "The Prince of Tides" to his credit Pat Conroy is a giant in American literary circles.
"My Losing Season" focuses on his senior season as a starter at The Citadel and not only looks at life on the court but off the court as well.
The book not only takes a look at The Citadel's disappointing season, but also Conroy's run-in's with his hapless coach and the very militaristic, very-white bred, and very southern culture at the school.
By focusing on not just what happens on the floor, Conway paints a full picture of a time and place that few authors of any genre have attempted to explore.
6. Paper Lion (George Plimpton, 1966)
In the second half of the 20th century there were few literary giants more well known or well respected than George Plimpton.
Plimpton was the editor and publisher of the ultra serious "Paris Review" magazine, but he also had a very real love for sports.
In "Paper Lion", Plimpton goes to training camp with the Detroit Lions as a hopefull for a third string quarterback position.
While the book focuses on Plimpton's rather unsuccessful attempts at football, the real entertainment comes from his look inside the locker room.
Almost a half-decade before Jim Bouton wrote "Ball Four", Plimpton gave fans and readers one of the first real behind the scenes looks at the most sacred place in sports, and unlike Bouton because he was an outsider he got away with it.
5. The Boys of Summer (Roger Kahn, 1972)
The ultimate book for old school baseball fans.
Unlike most sports history books, Kahn's book isn't just a "and this happened next" book but rather both a historical account and almost a love story of the team he grew up with.
The book also looks at the impact that the Dodgers and the Brooklyn community had on various members of the team from the famous (Duke Snider and Jackie Robinson) to the lesser knowns (Andy Pofko).
Few books have ever treated their subjects with as much reverence as The Boys of Summer and the modern reader is left with a feeling that they somehow missed out on such a pure era of sports.
4. Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association (Terry Pluto, 1990)
Largely unknown to readers outside of northeastern Ohio, Terry Pluto is one of the best sportswriters in America.
Loose Balls is the gold standard for all sports related oral history books, in part because it's subject is so entertaining.
The ABA was a professional basketball league of the late 1960's and 70's that was viewed by many as an inferior product to the NBA.
However, with nothing to lose the ABA quickly became a haven for castoff's, rejects, and NBA stars looking to make a quick buck, and it also became the more entertaining league.
The book takes a first hand account from the men who played-in and covered the league and focuses on the Superstars (Julius Erving), the forgotten legends (Roger Brown), and the men like Warren Jabali (a black militant) and Wendall Laddner (well you have to read the book to fully get Laddner) who because of their eccentric behavior had no place in the NBA.
3. Ball Four (Jim Bouton, 1970)
When it was published "Ball Four" was so controversial that Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn wanted Jim Bouton to sign a letter that the book was pure fiction.
It wasn't, but rather what "Ball Four" is the best "behind the scenes" sports book ever written.
The overview of the book is that it is a diary of Bouton's season with the Seattle Pilots and Houston Astros.
However, the book is much more than a standard diary but rather a look at what baseball players and coaches are really like, a view that was largely overlooked even by sports writers at the time.
To view athletes as real human beings with faults like anybody else was unheard of at that time as Bouton openly talked about he and his teammates being sex fiends, hard drinkers, drug users, and racists (Bouton wasn't a racist or drug user but some of his teammates were).
However, aside from being a strictly serious book the read is also full of laughs and inside baseball knowledge that nobody had written about before or since.
2. Fever Pitch (Nick Hornby, 1992)
DISCLAIMER: This book bares little resemblance to the Jimmy Fallon-Drew Barrymore, Boston Red Sox flick from a few years ago.
This book rates so high on my list because it is so personal to me.
Nick Hornby is one of the most respected authors in both Britian and the U.S with books like "High Fidelity", "About a Boy", and "How to Be Good" all to his credit.
However, Hornby's secret is that he is not only a fan of the London soccer club Arsenal, but that he harbors a life-long unhealthy obsession with the team.
Hornby details his love affair with Arsenal from the time he was a young boy in suburban London, through his life as a failed author and school teacher.
The author fully knows that his obsession with his team has wrecked his personal and professional life and that he's thrown away all of this supporting a team was never good enough to win a Championship and never bad enough to be considered lovable losers (the same as say being a die hard Dodgers fan from 1990-2005).
Anytime somebody accuses you of having an unhealthy relationship with your favorite team (like say my love of the University of Louisville Cardinals) direct them to reading Fever Pitch because Hornby can detail your feelings on the subject better than you or I ever could.
1. Friday Night Lights: a Town, a Team, and a Dream (H.G Bissinger)
If your only exposure to Friday Night Lights is the movie, then you know only half of the story.
Friday Night Lights is the greatest sports book ever written because its author Buzz Bissinger not only tells a story, but leaves the reader feeling like he knows the subjects and the town of Odessa, Texas personally.
Bissinger took a year off of his life as a successful sportswriter in Philadelphia to write a book about the most storied high school football program in the nation, the Permian Panthers.
What Bissinger found on his year long voyage to west Texas was both disturbing and inspiring.
The Odessa the author found cared little about education, was openly racist, and treated "their Panthers" like God's until their careers were over at which time they were discarded with no real education or life skills to help them in the real world (in all fairness the same could be said for a chapter focusing on a rival team from Dallas).
However, the inspiration comes from the team itself. The erratic star quarterback who cares for his crippled mother; the Mexican-American tight end who also happens to be the class valedictorian; the star linebacker who would rather be a preacher than a football player; the party boy with a former football-god as a father; and the star running back who becomes "just another dumb nigger" when suffering a career ending injury.