In the early 1900s editor Maxwell Perkins told anyone who would listen that Chicago sports columnist Ring Lardner was the most talented writer he knew, high praise given that Perkins's stable included Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe. It shouldn't have come as a shock, though. Many of the country's best writers have long been fascinated with sports, and that passion shows up in their prose. After all, when done right, sports-writing transcends bats and balls to display all the traits of great literature: incision, wit, force and vision, suffused with style and substance. Herewith the editors of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED's favorite sports books, compiled with love and reason, out of intense and sometimes unruly discussions. 55 titles are available in accessible formats through the Wisconsin Regional Library.
- The Sweet Science. By A.J. Liebling (1956).
Pound-for-pound the top boxing writer of all time, Liebling is at his bare-knuckled best here, bobbing and weaving between superb reporting and evocative prose. The fistic figures depicted in this timeless collection of New Yorker essays range from champs such as Rocky Marciano and Sugar Ray Robinson to endearing palookas and eccentric cornermen on the fringes of the squared circle. Liebling's writing is efficient yet stylish, acerbic yet soft and sympathetic. ("The sweet science, like an old rap or the memory of love, follows its victims everywhere.") He leavens these flourishes with an eye for detail worthy of Henry James. The one-two combination allows him to convey how boxing can at once be so repugnant and so alluring. RC 34565.
- The Boys of Summer. By Roger Kahn (1971).
A baseball book the same way Moby Dick is a fishing book, this account of the early-'50s Brooklyn Dodgers is, by turns, a novelistic tale of conflict and change, a tribute, a civic history, a piece of nostalgia and, finally, a tragedy, as the franchise's 1958 move to Los Angeles takes the soul of Brooklyn with it. Kahn writes eloquently about the memorable games and the Dodgers' penchant for choking-"Wait Till Next Year" is their motto-but the most poignant passages revisit the Boys in autumn. An auto accident has rendered catcher Roy Campanella a quadriplegic. Dignified trailblazer Jackie Robinson is mourning the death of his son. Sure-handed third baseman Billy Cox is tending bar. No book is better at showing how sports is not just games. [New York Times bestseller] RC 16430.
- Ball Four. By Jim Bouton (1970).
Though a declining knuckleballer, Bouton threw nothing but fastballs in his diary of the 1969 season. Pulling back the curtain on the seriocomic world of the big leagues, he writes honestly and hilariously about baseball's vices and virtues. At a time when the sport was still a secular religion, it was an act of heresy to portray players "pounding the Ol' Budweiser," "chasin' skirts" or "poppin' greenies." (And that was during games.) Bouton's most egregious act of sacrilege-his biting observations about former teammate Mickey Mantle-led to his banishment from the "Yankee family." But beyond the controversy, Ball Four was, finally, a love story. Bouton writes, "You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time." [New York Times bestseller] RC 17098.
- Friday Night Lights. By H. G. Bissinger (1990).
Schoolboy football knits together the West Texas town of Odessa in the late 1980s. But as Permian High grows into a dynasty, the locals' sense of proportion blows away like a tumbleweed. A brilliant look at how Friday-night lights can lead a town into darkness. [New York Times bestseller] RC 32152.
- You Know Me, Al: a busher's letters. By Ring Lardner (1914).
This collection of letters from a fictional (and grammatically challenged) pitcher named Jack Keefe, originally published in installments in THE SATURDAY EVENING POST, earned Lardner a spot in the pantheon of American humorists alongside Mark Twain and Will Rogers. BRJ 02072.
- A Season on the Brink: a year with Bob Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers. By John Feinstein (1986).
Bob Knight still curses the day he granted the author unfettered access to his program. Feinstein's year as an honorary Hoosier yielded an unsparing portrait of Indiana's combustible coach and spawned the best-selling sports book of all time.[New York Times bestseller][Made into a movie] RC 25987.
- Semi-Tough. By Dan Jenkins (1972).
Running back Billy Clyde Puckett of TCU and the Giants calls himself the "humminest sumbitch that ever carried a football." Puckett is also the funniest, and the dialogue in this raunchy novel still crackles. Also read Jenkins's golf novel, Dead Solid Perfect. [New York Times bestseller][Made into a movie] RC 52159.
- Paper Lion. By George Plimpton (1965).
No one today does what the fearless Plimpton once did with regularity. Here, in his first Walter Mitty-esque effort, the author of the equally brilliant Shadow Box and The Bogey Man infiltrates the Detroit training camp as a quarterback with no arm, no legs and no shot. [New York Times bestseller][Made into a movie] RC 32938.
- The Game: a thoughtful and provocative look at a life in hockey. By Ken Dryden (1983).
Hall of fame Goalie Dryden was always different. A Cornell grad, he led Montreal to six Stanley Cups, then at 26 sat out a year to prepare for the bar exam. His book is different too: a well-crafted account of his career combined with a meditation on hockey's special place in Canadian culture. RC 20824.
- Fever Pitch. By Nick Hornby (1991)
How can the rest of the world summon such passion for soccer? You'll understand after reading Hornby's deeply personal and wonderfully witty account of an otherwise normal bloke who develops a full-blown obsession with Arsenal, the English Premier League soccer team. [Made into a baseball movie about the Boston Red Sox] DV 633.
- A River Runs Through It, and Other Stories. By Norman MacLean (1976).
One publisher rejected this novella because "the stories have trees in them"-thereby missing the forest. The tale of two brothers headed in different directions also has fly-fishing and family drama, presented in prose as crisp and clear as a Montana mountain stream.[New York Times bestseller][Made into a movie] RC 53083.
- Seabiscuit, the True Story of Three Men, a Great Racehorse, and the Will to Win. By Laura Hillenbrand (2001).
People who've never been to the racetrack love this book, and it's easy to see why. Hillenbrand has an irresistible story to tell, about a homely hay burner who came to dominate the Depression-era sports pages, taking a colorful crew of humans along for the ride. [New York Times bestseller] RC 51968.
- Bang the Drum Slowly. By Mark Harris (1956).
Second of a quartet of baseball novels featuring star southpaw Henry Wiggen of the New York Mammoths, and a book that is in equal measures sober and silly. In this installment Wiggen's roommate and catcher, Bruce Pearson, is dying of cancer. [Made into a movie] BRA 17278; RCW 1208.
- The Breaks of the Game. By David Halberstam (1981).
The Pulitzer Prize winner (for his Vietnam War coverage) focuses on the 1979-80 Trail Blazers. Like A Season on the Brink, Breaks proves that a down year can make for high drama. Halberstam's baseball books, Summer of '49 and October 1964, are also excellent. [New York Times bestseller] RC 17338.
- The Summer Game. By Roger Angell (1972).
This collection of 21 New Yorker pieces, with gems on the woeful early Mets as well as the "flowering and deflowering of New England" during the Red Sox' 1967 Impossible Dream season, cemented Angell's place as the game's greatest essayist. [New York Times bestseller] RC 06196.
- The Long Season. By Jim Brosnan (1960).
In 1959 Brosnan, a burnt-out reliever for the Cardinals and the Reds, kept a journal chronicling such things as the insecurity of superstars and the behavior of stewardesses on team flights. The result: a well-rendered inside glimpse that groomed the mound for Ball Four. [New York Times bestseller] BRA 09487.
- Instant Replay. By Jerry Kramer and Dick Schaap (1968).
After a publishing exec implored him to find the "football Brosnan" (see above), Schaap corralled Kramer, a literate lineman for Lombardi's Green Bay Packers. The book climaxes with Bart Starr's sneaking behind Kramer's block to win the Ice Bowl against the Cowboys. [New York Times bestseller] RCW 73.
- Everybody's All-American. By Frank DeFord (1981).
In this novel DeFord captures the romance and pageantry of 1950s football at North Carolina, then shows how star halfback Gavin Grey and his beauty-queen wife struggle after the cheering stops. DeFord's 1975 biography, Big Bill Tilden, is also highly recommended. [Made into a movie] RC 18058.
- The Natural. By Bernard Malamud (1952).
The movie was a Mawkish Rocky-in-flannels, but the novel is a darker, more subtle tale of phenom Roy Hobbs, who loses his prime years to a youthful indiscretion, then gets a second chance. TIME called the novel (which ends differently from the film) "preposterously readable."[New York Times bestseller][Made into a movie] RC 58059.
- North Dallas Forty. By Peter Gent (1973).
Gent was a Cowboys receiver from 1964 to '68, so his darkly funny novel about a league rife with drugs and depravity left fans guessing. (Is Seth Maxwell really Dandy Don Meredith?) Also recommended: The Franchise, Gent's still-darker take on the NFL. [New York Times bestseller][Made into a movie] RC 32552.
- When Pride Still Mattered. By David Maraniss (1999).
Pulitzer Prize winner Maraniss turns his attention to pro football's most acclaimed coach, Vince Lombardi, and skillfully reveals the complex man behind the legend. SPORTS ILLUSTRATED's review said it "may be the best sports biography ever published." [New York Times bestseller] RC 49258.
- Babe: The Legend Comes to Life. By Robert Creamer (1974).
This biography, which broke new ground with its voluminous research and unsentimental gaze at an American folk hero, is still considered the final word when it comes to separating Ruth fact from fiction, such as his alleged called shot in the 1932 World Series. RC 49636.
- A Fan's Notes: a Fictional Memoir. By Frederick Exley (1968).
The protagonist of this sad but stirring fictional memoir finds refuge from his troubled life by focusing on his football hero, Frank Gifford. A NEWSDAY reviewer called the tale of demons and Giants "the best novel written in the English language since The Great Gatsby." BR 08495.
- Joe DiMaggio: The Hero's Life. By Richard Ben Cramer (2000).
Cramer takes DiMaggio from his boyhood in San Francisco to the hospital room in Florida where, as he lies dying, a trusted adviser slips the 1936 World Series ring from his finger. Brilliant, stylish and a riveting study in the degrading effects of adulation. [New York Times bestseller] RC 50881.
- Veeck as in Wreck: the Autobiography of Bill Veeck. By Bill Veeck and Ed Linn (1962).
Baseball is a lot less fun without promo-meister Veeck, who recounts the eureka moments behind the exploding scoreboard, the pinch-hitting midget and the contortionist first base coach. He always gave fans what they wanted, even if that was, in one case, a fire-eating pelican. [New York Times bestseller] RC 54214.
- The Worst Journey in the World. By Apsley Cherry-Garrard (1922).
"Polar exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised," writes Cherry-Garrard, who recounts his experiences on Robert Falcon Scott's tragic 1910 Antarctic expedition with eloquence and objectivity. NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC named this "the best adventure story of all time." RC 58594
- A False Spring. By Pat Jordan (1975).
An honest and deeply affecting memoir By a now established journalist describing his brief, bittersweet pitching career, starting in 1959 as a $50,000 bonus baby with the Milwaukee Braves and ending after four mostly dismal minor league seasons. RC 08333.
- Life on the Run. By Bill Bradley (1976).
What's the big deal about three weeks in the life of the New York Knicks as chronicled By their star forward? Plenty, when the author is a Princeton grad, a Rhodes scholar and a future U.S. senator who writes with uncommon candor and intelligence. RCW 2044.
- The Red Smith Reader. By Red Smith (1982).
These columns by the man THE NEW YORK TIMES said "was to sports what Homer was to war" offer Smith on Willie Mays, Vince Lombardi and Leon Trotsky. On the Shot Heard Round the World: "Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again." RC 18268.
- End Zone. By Don Delillo (1972).
This shrewd and funny novel, set against a Cold War backdrop, explores the football-as-war metaphor through the life of a college running back. "I reject the notion of football as warfare," one angst-ridden character says. "We don't need substitutes because we've got the real thing." RC 35693.
- Shoeless Joe. By W.P. Kinsella (1982).
The same richness as Field of Dreams, the movie it inspired, but on a wider canvas. The novel has plot twists and fascinating characters not in the screenplay, most notably author J.D. Salinger and Eddie (Kid) Scissons, who claims to be the oldest living Cub. [New York Times bestseller][Made into a movie] RC 18921.
- Into Thin Air: a Personal Account of the Mount Everest disaster. By Jon Krakauer (1997).
An accomplished climber, the author was sent to Mount Everest by OUTSIDE magazine to report on the growing commercialization of the world's most famous peak. What he came back with was a suspenseful account of a catastrophic season in which 12 climbers were killed. [New York Times bestseller][Made into a movie] RC 44525.
- Eight Men Out: the Black Sox and the 1919 World Series. By Eliot Asinof (1963).
The final word on the controversial 1919 Black Sox scandal, a critical event in sports history. Former minor leaguer Asinof persuasively argues that the only participant worthy of exoneration is not Shoeless Joe Jackson but third baseman Buck Weaver. [Made into a movie]. RCW 1013.
- Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy. By Jules Tygiel (1983).
In what the New York Times called a "rich, intelligent cultural history," Tygiel portrays not only Jackie Robinson's breakthrough 1947 season with the Dodgers but also the arduous 12-year march toward integration by all teams in the major leagues. RC 19932.
- The Bronx Zoo. By Sparky Lyle and Peter Golenbock (1979).
After this book Lyle was no longer known as just a Cy Young Award-winning reliever; he was the guy who liked to sit bare-assed on teammates' birthday cakes. His hilarious as-told-to proves that a talented team can feud and ego-trip its way to the World Series. [New York Times bestseller] BRA 16757; RC 13971.
- The Professional. By W. C. Heinz (1958).
Hemingway called this dialogue-driven portrayal of the month-long run-up to a championship middleweight bout "the only good novel I've ever read about a fighter." Young Elmore Leonard was so inspired by it that he sent his first (and last) fan letter to Heinz. RC 60300.
- The Glory of Their Times: the Story of the Early Days of Baseball Told by the Men Who Played It. By Lawrence Ritter (1966).
Ritter spent six years tracking down professional baseball players from the early 1900s, then stepped aside to let them tell their remarkable stories in their own words. Virtually all of these men are gone now, but thanks to Ritter they'll never be forgotten. BRA 01609; RC 48889.
- Lords of the Realm: the real history of baseball. By John Helyar (1994).
Helyar, a Wall Street Journal reporter and co-author of the best-selling Barbarians at the Gate, turns a critical eye to the businessmen who have run baseball for the past century. He delivers a withering analysis of the owners' inability to manage themselves or the game. RC 39457.
- The Universal Baseball Association, Inc. J. Henry Waugh, prop. By Robert Coover (1968).
The protagonist in this mind-bending novel, J. Henry Waugh, invents a baseball board game, only to become so obsessed with the tabletop world he creates that he begins to lose his grip on reality-especially after one of his players dies from a beanball. BRA 04516.
- Days of Grace: a Memoir. By Arthur Ashe with Arnold Rampersad (1993).
This autobiography, completed shortly before Ashe died of AIDS, recounts the groundbreaking career of the Wimbledon champion turned social activist. After reading Days in prison, Mike Tyson had Ashe's face tattooed on his left biceps. [New York Times bestseller] RC 35939.
- They Call Me Coach. By John Wooden with Jack Tobin (1972).
Wooden's story is refreshingly free of the tedious "coach as CEO" lectures now so common in the genre. The book includes the Wooden Pyramid of Success, a guide for life and basketball that has been posted in many coaches' offices. RCW 947.
- Cosell. By Howard Cosell (1973).
"Arrogant, Pompous, obnoxious, vain, cruel, persecuting, distasteful, verbose, a show-off," Cosell writes. "I have been called all of these. Of course, I am." In his first book Cosell told it like it was and blew cigar smoke in the face of the sports establishment. [New York Times bestseller] BRJ 02414; RC 06977.
- The Last Shot: City Streets, Basketball Dreams. By Darcy Frey (1994).
If Coney Island means fun to you, then you don't know it like the students at Abraham Lincoln High School do. Frey follows the fortunes of the teenage Stephon Marbury and others who try to play their way out of the "ghetto school for the projects" with varying success. RC 42077.
- Arnold: The Education of a Bodybuilder. By Arnold Schwarzenegger and Douglas Kent Hall (1977).
The summer that Schwarzenegger turned 15 in Austria, he discovered bodybuilding and told his father, "I want to be the best-built man in the world. Then I want to go to America and be in movies." Ahhnuld's brazenness and passion make this an inspiring read. [New York Times bestseller] RC 57392.
- The Fight. By Norman Mailer (1975).
Mailer can come off as a self-important blowhard, but the Ali-Foreman Rumble in the Jungle provided such inherent drama that his heated prose-lionizing both combatants, but especially Ali-seems perfectly appropriate. BR 03005.
- Whatever Happened to Gorgeous George? By Joe Jares (1974).
An affectionate depiction of pro wrestling in the 1940s, '50s and '60s, when the sport had a more benign, vaudevillian flavor. Jares does a terrific riff on the masked men, ersatz Indian chiefs, "leaping lords" and other baddies who routinely smuggled "foreign objects" in their trunks. RC 08722.
- Annapurna, first conquest of an 8000-meter peak. By Maurice Herzog (1951).
Before Everest, there was Annapurna. Frenchman Herzog led the first summitting of an 8,000-meter peak, dictating his story because he had lost all his fingers to frostbite. NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ADVENTURE called this "the most influential mountaineering book of all time." [New York Times bestseller] RC 10283.
- The Great American Novel. By Philip Roth (1973).
Considering their players-a one-legged catcher, a one-armed centerfielder, a 14-year-old second baseman and a dwarf relief pitcher-perhaps it's not so surprising that the 1943 Patriot League team at the heart of this ribald satirical novel finishes 34-120. RC 42148.
- Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times. By Thomas Hauser (1991).
An oral history with more than 150 voices, some requisite (Angelo Dundee, Ferdie Pacheco) and some not (Jimmy Carter, Cheryl Tiegs). The interviews with Ali's father and with Joe Martin, the cop who introduced Ali to boxing, are particularly illuminating. [New York Times bestseller] RC 33353.
- The Complete Book of Running. By James Fixx (1977).
When Fixx took up running, he weighed 214 pounds and smoked two packs a day. When he wrote this cry to "change your life" (which spent II weeks at No. 1 on the best-seller list) in strong, clear prose, he was 60 pounds lighter, smoke-free and an inspiration to millions. [New York Times bestseller] RC 11777.
- Road Swing. By Steve Rushin (1998).
SPORTS ILLUSTRATED's Rushin logged 23,658 miles in a rented Nissan Pathfinder for this hilarious travelogue of sports destinations high (the Masters) and low (the Las Vegas restaurant that displays Andre Agassi's ponytail). A ball-sy Kerouac-ian journey, minus the mind-altering drugs. RC 50322.
- Golf in the Kingdom. By Michael Murphy (1972).
The enchanting first half of the book recounts Murphy's golf-and life-altering round with Scottish philosopher-poet Shivas Irons. The second half, in which Murphy floats his loopy metaphysical insights, will have some readers begging for a mulligan. BR 11383.
- No Cheering in the Press Box. By Jerome Holtzman (1973).
This oral history of 18 golden-age sportswriters shows that greats such as Cannon, Gallico and Smith could talk it as well as they wrote it. Cannon sums up their philosophy: "Sports-writing has survived because of the guys who don't cheer. They're the truth-tellers. Lies die." BRA 14920; RC 09525.
- Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education. By Murray Sperber (2000).
The author is the IU professor and Bobby Knight critic who took a leave due to threats from the General's loyalists, but this indictment of "Big-time U's" is Sperber's rightful legacy. He argues that large universities use sports to numb students to increasingly shoddy academics. RC 52838.