“There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.” It would be hyperbole to claim that not reading these 15 great sports classics would be a crime. Having said that, if one is to claim the mantle of a true sports fan, one must not merely be enslaved by the television and, thus, must experience sports through other mediums. Great sports literature is a fine option.
This list includes great works of non-fiction and fiction alike. It spans time from recent works (such as the explosive League of Denial) to Depression-era pieces (such as Seabiscuit). And, finally, it crisscrosses many sports from baseball classics (like Shoeless Joe) to soccer memoirs (Fever Pitch). This list is by no means all encompassing, though it does attempt to be inclusionary and pinpoint some of the most important pieces of sports literature over the past century.
The world of sports must be experienced in person if is to be truly understood. Indeed, former athletes, whether amateur or professional, generally tend to have a more nuanced understanding of the tactics and skills of his or her sport. Sports were meant to be played; this is a truism. However, that does not mean that one cannot, at times, take a step back and attempt to gain a fuller appreciation of the entire realm of sports. Great sports writing offers us this chance.
Harold Kushner, a prominent Rabbi, once stated that, “I think of life as a good book. The further you get into it, the more it begins to make sense.” If you get the chance to read any one of these immense pieces of writing, I hope you find them as illuminating and insightful as I did.
15 The Blind Side (Michael Lewis)
Eventually adapted into an Academy Award-winning film, The Blind Side is not Lewis’s most influential work (see Moneyball) or even his most important (see Flashboys about high-frequency trading on Wall Street), but it is undoubtedly his most emotionally riveting tale crafted to date. Lewis begins with a thorough, nuanced examination on the evolution of NFL offensive strategy since Lawrence Taylor started roaming the field and the nightmares of quarterbacks. Lewis’s main point concerns the increased importance of the left tackle position. Enter Michael Oher, who doesn’t know his own name or birthday, let alone the identity of his biological father. Oher is eventually taken in by Lewis’s former schoolmate Sean Tuohy and his wife Leigh Anne (played by Sandra Bullock in the film). While you’ve likely seen the movie, the book is well worth the read.
14 Paper Lion (George Plimpton)
Have you ever wondered how you, the average Joe, would fare in a professional sports league? Plimpton, in two daring experiments, attempted to answer that eternal question that haunts most true fans. In 1960, Plimpton wrote Out of My League, which recounted his experiences pitching to major league batters, and he followed that up with Paper Lion, which detailed his time spent at the 1963 Detroit Lions training camp. While the coaches were informed of Plimpton’s lack of athletic prowess, the players would only discover it after their supposed third-string QB couldn’t handle a snap.
“Ah, well you don’t have to be a Rhodes Scholar to figure that one out. You’re in training camp and you’re all pretty good football players, and George comes along, and he’s sort of emaciated looking, you know he’s not too physical of a specimen. And he couldn’t throw the ball more than 15 yards.”
The book was also one of the first to depict player and coach’s colourful personalities off the field.
13 Semi-Tough (Dan Jenkins)
Later adapted for the screen, Semi-Tough is in the conversation for the most hilarious sports book ever written. The story follows the superstar half-back Billy Clyde Puckett, who is tasked with taking down the Jets in the Super Bowl and keeping notes for a book about the game by his publisher. Jenkins, one of the greatest writers ever employed at Sports Illustrated (and Playboy), weaves an epic tale filled with booze, bar room brawls, fast women and football. Though many would criticize the film adaptation for not staying true to the novel, Jenkins, in his characteristic wit, stated it “wasn’t a horrible movie in my opinion.”
12 Friday Night Lights (H.G. Bissinger)
The inspiration behind the famous movie by the same name, Bissinger’s novel takes us to the West Texas town of Odessa in order to examine the intertwined relationship between high school football and small town culture. Both the film and the novel follow the Permian Panthers, whose pursuit of glory captures the soul of the entire town. The book is both a condemnation and celebration of the small town culture that puts its young athletes on a pressure-filled pedestal.
The New York Times Book Review described it as "a biting indictment of the sports craziness that grips . . . most of American society, while at the same time providing a moving evocation of its powerful allure." Deep in the heart of Texas, this author discovers something important about the nation.
11 End Zone (Don DeLillo)
If you want to understand what desegregation meant for football, you could do no better than Delillo’s second novel. The story follows Gary Harkness and his experiences on his West Texas football team during the school’s first integrated year. But the story is more than that, deconstructing the (false) notion that sport and warfare are comparable.
“During a season of unprecedented success on the football field, [Harkness] becomes increasingly obsessed with the threat of nuclear war. Both frightened and fascinated by the prospect, he listens to his team-mates discussing match tactics in much the same terms as military generals might contemplate global conflict.”
Delillo beautifully flattens the oft-heard comparisons between war and football and helps us understand that a game is just a game. And war is hell.
10 Babe: The Legend Comes to Life (Robert Creamer)
Robert Creamer captured the Colossus of Clout in all his glory and greatness in this highly nuanced portrait of the American sports legend. Anything and everything you have ever wondered about the Great Bambino is detailed in this meticulously researched biography.
"Everything about [Ruth] reflected his sexuality -- the restless, roving energy; the aggressive skills; fastball pitching; home-run hitting; the speed with which he drove cars; the loud, rich voice; the insatiable appetite, the constant need to placate his mouth with food, a drink, a cigar, chewing gum, anything.”
Most importantly, Creamer finally gives us the real story about whether the Sultan of Swat really called that famous home run shot. But you’re going to have to read it to find out.
9 Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times (Thomas Hauser)
He floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee. He polarized an entire nation. He is one of the most iconic, legendary figures in all of sports and capturing his persona with mere words was a difficult feat. Hauser reaches this literary summit with his fascinating, insightful biography of Muhammad Ali. Through an extensive process of interviewing those who were closest to Ali, Hauser ensnares the essence of “The Greatest” there ever was.
“In the words of more than 200 of Ali's family members, opponents, friends, world leaders, and others who have known him best, the real Muhammad Ali emerges: deeply religious, mercurial, generous, a showman in and out of the ring.”
8 Fever Pitch (Nick Hornby)
The first published piece from renowned British author Nick Hornby, Fever Pitch follows the young author and his relationship with the game of football, specifically with the Arsenal Football Club. One reviewer wrote that, “Fever Pitch is the anatomy of that obsession, a knowing, bittersweet, and very funny autobiography in which the writer's life is measured not in years, but in seasons - not by the Gregorian calendar, but by the Gunners' fixture list. I've read no better account of what being a fan really means…”
Indeed, the novel is not so much about football, but about the author’s struggle to connect and relate with his seemingly emotionless father. It is a story about what it means to be a man, told through the lens of sport.
7 The Boys of Summer (Roger Kahn)
Taking its title from a line in a Dylan Thomas poem (“the boys of summer in their ruin”), Roger Kahn’s masterpiece follows the 1955 World Series title run by the Brooklyn Dodgers and subsequently tracks the lives of several players past the end of their baseball careers. While some literary reviewers criticized the work for being overly sentimental, Sports Illustrated’s panel of experts placed in second on their list of all-time great sports books. If you want to understand the passion many Americans once possessed for baseball and the hero-worship of many all-time greats, you could do no better than The Boys of Summer.
6 Seabiscuit (Laura Hillenbrand)
Seabiscuit captured the hearts and minds of countless Americans throughout the Great Depression. This singularly gifted horse galloped into the history books because it epitomized the struggles of every-day workers, trying and failing to succeed at this pitiless race of life.
“Competing in the cruelest years of the Depression, the rags-to-riches horse emerged as an American cultural icon, drawing an immense and fanatical following, inspiring an avalanche of merchandising, and establishing himself as the single biggest newsmaker of 1938- receiving more coverage than FDR, Hitler or any other public figure.”
Even for those not inclined to the study of history, Seabiscuit offers a riveting portrayal of just what it meant to survive during the darkest era in modern American history.
5 The Game (Ken Dryden)
Legendary goaltender Ken Dryden hands his readers backstage passes as he takes us behind the scenes and follows the peaks and valleys of the Montreal Canadiens throughout the 1978-79 season. Dryden offers insight into the unique pressures of being an NHL goaltender, particularly during the postseason. Montreal would go on to win the Cup that year and Dryden would score praise from a variety of literary icons, including Mordechai Richler, who called the book “possibly the best hockey book I have ever read.”
Dryden’s work was ranked ninth on Sports Illustrated’s greatest sports books of all time and is certainly a Canadian classic. Expect nothing less from a Cornell graduate who won six Stanley Cups, even after sitting out a season at the age of 26 in order to further pursue his education.
4 The Sweet Science (A.J. Liebling)
Liebling’s collection of essays from The New Yorker about boxing topped Sports Illustrated’s list of greatest sports books of all time in 2002. Liebling is not a sports reporter and approached the topic more from sociological perspective than anything else. His work serves as a reminder of boxing’s prominent role in American culture during the 1950s, standing in stark contrast to its diminished stature today. Liebling served as a war correspondent prior to writing this work and his interrogation skills stand out throughout as he interviews fans from all walks of life. Even if you are not a boxing fan (and given its current popularity you’re probably not), this is a worthwhile read.
3 League of Denial (Mark Fainaru-Wada & Steve Fainaru)
League of Denial is the most important investigative sports book to be published over the past decade and perhaps ever. It’s no wonder why the NFL went to such great lengths to discredit the work. The NFL’s first brain specialist, Joe Maroon, argues that “If only 10 per cent of mothers in America begin to conceive of football as a dangerous game, that is the end of football.”
The book poses such a great threat to the league because it exposes what no one (fans, players, owners, NFL executives) wants to admit: football destroys lives. Does this mean we’ll stop watching? Almost certainly not. But we must all enlighten ourselves about the havoc football wreaks when the cameras turn away and the lights, both literally and figuratively, are dimmed.
2 Shoeless Joe (W.P. Kinsella)
Magical realism & baseball are strange bedfellows, though Kinsella’s novel (eventually adapted into the renowned Field of Dreams) pulls this strange relationship off beautifully. Kinsella conceived of the project while attending an Iowan writer’s workshop; imagining what life would be like if Shoeless Joe Jackson came to reside in his town. Kinsella re-read J.D. Salinger’s entire literary canon, including his famous The Catcher in the Rye, in order to create a character based on the eccentric author. While Kinsella never actually met Salinger, the film adaptation eventually had to change Salinger’s character’s name out of fear of getting sued.
Kinsella half-jokingly stated that, “[The producers’] feeling was that probably only 15 per cent of the movie-goers would have any idea who Salinger was anyway.”
1 Eight Men Out (Eliot Asinof)
Eliot Asinof meticulously and succinctly deconstructs one of the most sordid affairs in sporting history: the 1919 Black Sox Scandal. The book is a riveting, behind-the-scenes look at the many facets that made this disgraceful scandal possible, from the greedy players and owner to the seedy, opportunistic mafia underworld.
“Mr. Asinof vividly describes the tense meetings, the hitches in the conniving, the actual plays in which the Series was thrown, the Grand Jury indictment, and the famous 1921 trial. Moving behind the scenes, he perceptively examines the motives and backgrounds of the players and the conditions that made the improbable fix all too possible.”
This is not just a simple tale of greed by one group of individuals, but an indictment of an entire nation that all too often thrives off of greed and stupidity.