Spring has sprung, and with it every sports season I care about. So it’s time to talk sports books. A sports book can be difficult to get right – for every candid confession about life as a professional athlete (like McEnroe’s tales of getting drunk in nightclubs before big games, or Jim Bouton playing pranks on team mates in Ball Four), there’s a thousand books of self serving garbage (can you imagine reading about why Ashley Cole quit Arsenal because they offered him “just” £55,000 a week?)*.
So if you’re after some decent recommendations on sports books, here are my top 5.
What do you think? Any absolute howlers on here? Any sure-fire solid-gold classics that haven’t made the list?
Let me know in the comments!
The Sweet Science by A.J. Liebling
Oh man. Now this is writing. Liebling was a writer for the New Yorker covering low down topics for high-falutin’ readers, and when it came to boxing he was at his finest. The Sweet Science is a collection of his essays from back when Marciano was taking on all comers and Sugar Ray Robinson was on the comeback trail.
Think of any book on boxing you can, and I’m positive the Sweet Science will knock it into a cocked hat. Take his description of Marciano when the bell rings:
Marciano “resembled a Great Dane who has heard the word ‘bone.’ “
See what I mean? There’s nothing out there like it – even Mailer’s The Fight loses by unanimous decision when faced with this kind of writing. Undisputed is the word for it.
Liebling talks about the fights, the training camps, the cabbies he talks to on the way there, the meals he eats before the bell rings (he was also the New Yorker’s food critic – nice work if you can get it, right?), and what the fight crowd thinks. He brings the whole stinking world to life on paper, and makes you jealous that you weren’t there to see it with him.
Yep, open this thing on any page and you’ve writing that’ll make your mouth water.
Slaying the Tiger by Shane Ryan
Here we go. In Slaying the Tiger, Ryan tried to look at a crop of new young golfing superstars who might overthrow the old guard, but instead ended up showing us just how human these superstars really are.
Ryan is fearless in what he writes, has an ear for a story, and has a healthy disrespect for authority. It makes for one of the most entertaining sports books I’ve read in years.
Take this bit on 2018 Masters winner Patrick Reed:
“If you ever challenged him on something he answered it every single time”, Bahnsen said. “In one practice round I hit a drive down the middle, about 275 yards, and felt good about it. Patrick said, ‘Man, that’s a good drive’, and then got down on two knees and hit his ball 10 yards past me. From his knees.”
Oh man! It must be completely draining to be Patrick Reed’s friend, right? Ryan has a way of picking out the right quotes – ones that don’t just sum up their talent, but their character too, getting beyond the cliches and platitudes that professional athletes usually speak in.
Brilliant – and not just for the golfers out there.
Oh, one last thing. Because of the libel laws in the UK, Ryan had to edit out all of the really juicy bits, so he renamed it Chasing the Legends. Make sure you get a second hand version from the US, or somewhere else, called Slaying the Tiger. You’ll thank me for it.
A Dog in a Hat – An American Bike Racer’s Story of Mud, Drugs, Blood, Betrayal, and Beauty in Belgium by Joe Parkin
In a Dog in a Hat, Joe Parkin lays bare the life of an anonymous pro in all it’s gory details. From the long hours of unforgiving training, the team mates, the bribes, the drugs, the torture of racing for hours without a chance of winning, and the feeling of immortality after a long day on the drops.
The best bit of this is how he makes it all sound like punk rock:
At some point in the season, our team was invited to a stage race in France, but out team had made an agreement to race a big kermis in Brugge. my buddy Cocquyt decided that we should all go as hard as we possibly could from the gun in the kermis, team time trial style, and then peel off at the end of the 11-kilometer lap, laughing at all the guys we had tortured as we took off for the other race.
Of course we coughed up blood for the entire trip to France, but it was strangely worth it, as if we had smashed our guitars, poured beer on the audience, and walked off stage before the end of the first song.”
When it comes to books on bike racers, this one finishes ahead of all others. Nothing else is in the photo.
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami
Maybe the strangest book on this list but still deserving of its place here. Murakami isn’t an elite athlete, or even writing about elite athletes – he’s a guy who can write, writing about why he enjoys running. It’s a weird combination of memoir, meditation, travelogue and training guide.
It’s all very cleverly done – when he’s running an ultra marathon and had to talk his legs into moving had me laughing out loud. But for me it boiled down to this:
“Running is both exercise and a metaphor. Running day after day, piling up the races, bit by bit I raise the bar, and by clearing each level I elevate myself. At least that’s why I’ve put in the effort day after day: to raise my own level. I’m no great runner, by any means. I’m at an ordinary – or perhaps more like mediocre – level. But that’s not the point. The point is whether or not I improved over yesterday. In long-distance running the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be.”
Yep, not all sport is about being the best. For some of us, it’s just about being a bit better.
The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn
I know I keep on reminding you about this book every chance I get, but I do it with good reason: It’s one of the best books you’ll ever read. The Boys of Summer is the story of the Dodgers during the 40’s and 50’s – when the Dodgers fielded one of the most romantic teams in history: Pee Wee Reese at shortstop, Jackie Robinson and Gil Hodges in the infield, Campanella behind the plate, with Snider and Furillo patrolling the outfield. This team had it all – it’s no wonder a young Kahn fell in love with them.
But this is no mere tale of a championship winning team – Kahn gets to the heart of what it means to be a sports fan. Even when your team is the underdog. In fact, especially, when your team is the underdog:
“You may glory in a team triumphant, but you fall in love with a team in defeat. Losing after great striving is the story of man, who was born to sorrow, whose sweetest songs tell of saddest thought, and who, if he is a hero, does nothing in life as becomingly as leaving it.”
This thing is crammed with great writing.
So what do you think? Agree or disagree? Have you read any of them – what did you think? Absolute tosh, or about right? What would be in your top 5 sport books?
Let me know in the comments!
*the less said about the time I went into my local book store and put all of Lance Armstrong’s books in the fiction section the better.
Interested in more top 5 lists – well here you go: