Thursday, July 29, 2010

10 Favorite Sports Books, Part I

From True/Slant on June 4, 2010:

It’s not a summer reading list, really, but sports books are light fare, generally speaking. I mean, if you pick one of these up, it’s hardly the same as re-reading Proust or even cracking the spine of “Team of Rivals,” but still, these are some of the best sports books ever written. (I have a bookcase nearly full of sports themed books, so I could have made a list of 20 or 25.) These are my favorites, the ones that stayed with me the most and that I refer to most often. In short, each one changed the lens through which I view sports. Any of these would be the perfect date for a few days on the beach:

10. Paper Lion – George Plimpton.
A truly inside look at an NFL training camp. Admittedly, it is the Detroit Lions training camp but … Plimpton is wry and self-deprecating, candid about the moments when he feels most like an interloper among professional athletes, a stranger in a strange land, play-acting at training. The best parts are the stories he relays about the players hanging out together in the evenings — guys like Dick Lebeau, Night Train Lane, and Joe Schmidt. And also the parts about his helmet, which fit his head like a vise, took some wrangling to get on and off, bent his ears this way and that, and left furrowed grooves in his head, the process of which was so unpleasant that he put it on and left it on for the entirety of practice every day.
(Click here for the 2003 NPR story about this book.)

9. Rammer, Jammer, Yellow Hammer – Warren St. John.
This book makes the list because it sits at one of the most interesting intersections in America – at the crossroads where fans meet the big business of sports. St. John took off, traveling in an RV caravan of rabid Crimson Tide fans, chronicling the University of Alabama football season, the people he met along the way, and his insights into the mind of a deranged fan – his own. It’s been at least five years since I read this and I could give a rat’s butt about ‘Bama football, but the book stays with me because St. John explores the very essence of what it means to be a fan. And why on God’s green earth, people who are otherwise sane, curl up into a fetal position after “their team” loses a heartbreaking game? It’s a great read for sports fans. And the people who love them.
(Click here for St. John’s introduction.)

8. Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning – Jonathan Mahler.
I almost disqualified this book because of the ESPN mini-series loosely based on it, but thought better of it, because the book is to the television version as Derek Jeter is to Frankie Crosetti. And the book is about so much more than baseball. It’s about New York in the late 1970’s, about ConEdison, crime, labor relations, race relations, New York politics, and just the weirdness that was the 1970’s. Mahler weaves it all together with the Yankees season, the power struggle within the Yankees locker room between Reggie Jackson and Thurman Munson, and the parallel power struggle between Billy Martin and Georgie Steinbrenner.
(Click here for the NYT review.)

7. The Miracle of St. Anthony – Adrian Wojnarowski.
I’m a sucker for stories about overcoming great odds. It is perhaps a distinctly American soft spot, but so be it. Any tale that amounts to the Little Engine That Could sucks me in. This is one of those stories. If you pick it up, the first familiar name you’ll see is coach Bob Hurley. If you are a Duke fan or a Duke hater, yes, that’s the same Hurley — coach Bob Hurley is the father of Bobby Hurley of the 1991 and 1992 Blue Devil championship teams. But this isn’t the story of Bobby or Duke. It is, however, the story of a compelling group of young men who play basketball for St. Anthony, a tiny Catholic school in the embattled city of Jersey City. Sr. Maria Felicia Brodowski and Sr. Mary Alan Barzczewski, who run the school, change lives. They are teamed with coach Hurley who runs the most demanding, most successful, most life-altering basketball program in the nation.
(Click here for an excerpt.)

6. Veeck as in Wreck – Bill Veeck with Ed Linn.
This is a book that I think of more often than any other on this list. The ultimate showman, Veeck usually operated on a shoe-string budget, so if he couldn’t give his fans the best talent money could buy, he was determined that his fans would have a great experience at the ballpark. The financial inequities of baseball — I guess MLB hasn’t changed much. His teams were entertaining, he listened to his fans and, every once in a while, he actually won. He also tweaked a lot of stuffed shirts and sacred cows along the way that that is always, always a good thing. Sure, Veeck is best known as the guy who sent Eddie Gaedel (a 3′ 7″ midget) to bat when he was owner of the St. Louis Browns, but he should be remembered as the most creative sports owner of all time. Mostly, I wish I could sit down to a few beers with Veeck and just allow him to talk, stream of conscious style, about his life in baseball. Short of that, this book is the next best thing. Beer, optional.
(Click here for an excerpt.)

Part II in the next post ... it was so monstro I had to break it up.

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