Sweat words: The top 10 sports books

posted in: Beachside Writers, Blog, Books, Sports | 6

Since words are the raw material I use in writing and speaking, a lot of my posts are going to deal with writing, speaking, books, stories, imagination — you get the idea. I thought I’d mark the start of baseball season by listing my 10 favorite sports books, the best of which features the All-American game. Enough pre-game chatter. “Play ball!”

1. The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn. (1971). Kahn’s poetic book about the 1952-53 Brooklyn Dodgers is about the allure of sports and the inevitable — and often painful — letting go of sports. I bought the paperback, a tiny photo of Ebbets Field on the cover, for $1.57 as a high school senior and it’s still with me more than three decades later. As a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune, Kahn writes of his covering the Dodgers in two seasons that they lost the World Series to the Yankees, and, more significantly, of returning to interview the players nearly two decades later. In sports, two realities are always spinning like the rubber disks of an automatic pitching machine: the story everybody sees — the game on the field — and the story beneath. The Boys of Summer was the first book that taught me this important lesson. It’s the book that inspired me in the late 1980s to go back and interview members of my beloved 1967 Oregon State “Giant Killers” football team for a magazine story, knowing that mine was more than a story of football. Likewise, Boys is not so much a book about baseball but a book about people. About the passage of time. (“The older a man gets, the better a ball player he was when young, according to the watery eye of memory.”) About life. And possibilities. “It was late March and day rose brisk and uncertain, with gusts suggesting January and flashes of sun promising June,” the book begins. “In every way, a season of change had come.” In The Boys of Summer, such seasons beckon us back in time, yet leave us with a bittersweet lesson: We can’t stay.

2. Bowerman and the Men of Oregon by Kenny Moore (2006). No author I’ve read does a finer job than Moore of not only capturing the essence of the legendary track and field coach Bill Bowerman but of distance-running itself. Part of that is because he ran under Bowerman, finishing fourth in the 1972 Olympic Marathon in Munich; he lived on the landscape of which he writes and so understands it well. Part of that is because he is a gifted writer, his talents honed on the pages of Sports Illustrated. But part of it, too, is that Moore simply notices the nuances of the people, events and times around him like others do not. In that sense, he’s Chariots of Fire’s Aubrey Montague, the journalist-athlete who came to understand fellow runner Harold Abrahams perhaps better than Abrahams understood himself. Beyond the Bowerman basics — he coached 16 sub-four-minute milers at University of Oregon, was the “Father of Jogging” and invented the waffle-soled shoe that would help launch Nike — Moore understood the inner man. “Bowerman knew and loved and distrusted us as he had been known and loved and distrusted himself,” he writes. I admit substantial bias; as an Oregonian and a runner myself beginning in the late ’60s, I grew up in the distant shadows of the Bowerman mystique. But even accounting for that, Moore is Olympian in capturing an extraordinary man who left more of an imprint on distance-running than anyone who’s lived.

3. Beyond the Game: The Collected Sports Writing of Gary Smith (2000). Anyone who’s read Sports Illustrated over the years is familiar with Smith’s stuff; his articles are the long, deep shots to the nether-regions of the ball park that few hitters ever reach. His articles are the ones that avoid top-of-the-article summarizations, relying, instead, on teases that 12 pages and a couple of misty eyes later, you’re glad you dared to follow. “I’ve always had the feeling that the most compelling and significant story was the one occurring beyond the game — before it, after it, above it, or under it, deep in the furnace of the psyche,” he writes in his preface. “Conventional journalism couldn’t always carry me up to those rafters or down into those boiler rooms, so I had to break out of a few of my own little boxes, as well.” He has done so splendidly. Nobody I’ve read gets into the heads of his sports subjects better than Gary Smith; he’s part writer, part psycholgist. Nobody dares to push the limits like Gary Smith. Nobody uses repeated phrases with such effectiveness like Gary Smith. In a world of one-dimensional sportswriters, Smith gets to the depths you associate more closely with fine novelists. In “Damned Yankee,” about a former catcher haunted by the past, Smith uses one simple photograph to introduce a story that will take us beyond the pixels, into the heart, soul and mind of tortured John Malangone. Smith is part-jock, part-psycholgist — and all-writer.

4. Wait Till Next Year by Doris Kearns Goodwin (1997). The baseball-laced memoirs of the Pulitzer Prize winner’s childhood in 1950s New York are like summer ice cream. They take us all back to more innocent times. For someone who normally writes of headier things — her Pulitzer was for a biography, No Ordinary Time, on the Roosevelt years — Goodwin shifts seamlessly from politics to her childhood worship of the Brooklyn Dodgers: her keeping score, by radio to show her at-work father how the games had gone (back when baseball was played during the days) … her descriptions of each family’s allegiance to Dodgers, Yankees or Giants (“ … passed on from father to child, with the crucial moments in a team’s history repeated like the liturgy of a church service.”) … her relationship with her father, intricately tied to baseball. Delightful stuff, this. No book I’ve read so wonderfully captures childhood fandom like Goodwin’s.

5. Sea Biscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand (2001). Great authors can make you care about a subject that initially had no more appeal to you than a fabric store. Thus, did I find Hillenbrand drawing me, a decidedly “un-equine-ee” guy, into a story a bout a 1930s race horse that, to a nation locked in a Depression, was looking for a hero. As an author who’s written a biography, I appreciate Hillenbrand’s indefatigable research. As a lover of words, I marveled at her descriptions: “Charles Howard had the feel of a gigantic onrushing machine: You had to either climb on or leap out of the way. He would sweep into a room, working a cigarette in his fingers, and people would trail him like pilot fish.” And as a lover of sports, I was mesmerized by a story of an out-of-nowhere horse who takes us along for an amazing ride.

6. Final Rounds by James Dodson (1996). A son takes his dying-of-cancer father to England and Scotland in the months before the man’s death. Golf’s cradle is the background for a book that’s as much about fathers and sons — and how adulthood doesn’t stop that relationship — as it is about clubs and golf courses. Writers of sports are often better at digging into the lives of others than their own, but Dodson proves a refreshing exception, daring to write of the father-son connection with candor. It’s a moving book, particularly sad at the end, but nevertheless reminds us to connect with our fathers while we still have the chance.

7. Golf in the Kingdom by Michael Murphy (1972). A weird-choice for a guy like me whose view of the universe is rooted in more traditional Judeo-Christian soil than the quirky stuff that grows the gorse of Murphy’s Burningbush in Fife. But something about Shivas irons, a mystical caddie-come-guru, beckoned me like an empty 10th tee at dusk. I just had to tee it up and play.
I wouldn’t put much real-life stock in Irons’ loopy philosophies, but as a book about the golf, it’s entertaining, insightful and intriguing. A spiritual masterpiece? Naw. But perhaps no author has gotten to the soul of golf like Murphy does through the imagination of his philospher-poet Irons.

8. The Tumult and the Shouting by Grantland Rice (1954). Sometimes failure leads us to riches we would have otherwise missed. In the spring of 1976, when, a month before graduation, I discovered I was one credit short, University of Oregon journalism professor Charles Duncan offered me grace: a one-credit class in the history of sportswriters.
Thus did I get to better understand Grantland Rice, he of the “Outlined against a blue-gray October sky …” lead about the 1924 Notre Dame team’s “marvelous backfield.” The book constitutes the last of the estimated 67 million words written by Rice; he completed this autobiography three weeks before his death in 1954, the year I was born. Like other sportswriters in the so-called “Golden Age of Sports,” Rice succumbs to hero worship at times. But, then, who wouldn’t at least be wide-eyed when writing about such folks as Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, Bobby Jones and Knute Rockne? It was Rice who, ahead of his times, defended the right of athletes to make a living as professionals, but also Rice who decried the warping influence of big money in sports. And Rice who, in 1948, as a eulogy for Babe Ruth, wrote the immortal words about keeping sports in perspective:

Upon the field of life
the darkness gathers far and wide,
the dream is done, the score is spun
that stands forever in the guide.
Nor victory, nor yet defeat
is chalked against the player’s name.
But down the roll, the final scroll,
shows only how he played the game.

9. ESPN College Football Encyclopedia, edited by Michael MacCambridge (2005). Every best-sports-book list should include at least one almanac, for numbers and trivia are to sports what the heart and lungs are to the body. If $1 was the least I paid for a book on this list (The Tumult and the Shouting, bought at a used book store), the $40 I shelled out for this encyclopedia was the most. And it was 20 percent off. But how could I resist? It is 1,629 pages long. Weighs 7 pounds and 1 ounce, the size of a small retaining-wall brick. But it was love at first skim: essays on college football. The result of every game — more than 111,000 — of every NCAA Division 1-A school. Fascinating factoids about each school. (Who knew that the Akron Zips were originally named after a popular pair of rubber overshoes, Zippers, made by B.F. Goodrich?) And it features a 16-page color centerfold showing the evolution of helmet designs for all major teams. It is the Swiss Army Knife of college football, a book with not only facts and visual flair, but also a slight attitude that says: Yes, we know it’s weird for a bunch of grown men to be debating who has the coolest college football uniforms, but who cares?
Therein lies the wonder of sports: You can be as trivial as you want to be.

10. Shorty at the State Tournament by C. Paul Jackson (1955). You remember a first book like you remember a first kiss: not necessarilly because it was the best or came from someone who you would wind up spending a lifetime with, but because it was the first. Context is everything. This is a book that reads like a sepiatone photo looks: old. And a touch schmaltzy, full of exclamations of “jeepers” and “doggone its.” But it was a book written for young people half a century ago. And, for all its mustiness, I found, skimming it once again, a certain pang for the days when “doggone it” was as bad as it got.

Also receiving votes: Last Days of Summer by Steve Kluger (1998), SportsWorld by Robert Lipsyte (1975), The Curse of the Bambino by Dan Shaughnessy (1990), Reversing the Curse by Dan Shaughnessy (2005), Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball by George Will (1990), The Legend of Bagger Vance by Steve Pressfield (1995), Golf: The Passion and the Challenge by Mark Mulvoy and Art Spander (1977) and Red Sox Journal: Year by Year & Day by Day with the Boston Red Sox since 1901 by John Snyder (2006).

6 Responses

  1. Paul Neville

    My top 10 — heck, my top 5 — would include David Halberstam’s “Summer of ’49” and Mark Harris’ “Bang the Drum Slowly.” Then there’s the critically praised “Paul Neville: The Legend Lives.”

    Paul Neville

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