Sports books can grow tiresome. There’s an entire industry of flash publishing that seeks to cash in on the most current stars, teams and events. But for my money, I tend to gravitate toward books that are more timeless in nature, with at least some literary quality or depth of reporting.
Here are the top five overall sports books I’d recommend this minute, not limited to books currently in publication.
1. Cobb: A Biography, by Al Stump. Quite possibly the best sports biography ever written. A disturbing look at an athlete that would put many of today’s sports bad boys to shame.
2. A Season on the Brink, by John Feinstein. Still breathtaking, even 22 years later. I read it on the eve of taking my first full-time reporting job, which included covering Bob Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers, and was amazed at not only the intensity of the coach, but of the writing in this fantastic book.
3. Sports Illustrated: Fifty Years of Great Writing. I have to include one sportswriting compilation in here, and this is my favorite. I particularly enjoy the great Kentucky Derby writing included here — pieces from John Steinbeck, William Faulkner and Bill Nack’s marvelous piece on the death of Secretariat.
4. Paper Lion, by George Plimpton. He goes to training camp and tries out as a quarterback for the Detroit Lions. And writes about it excruciatingly well. This one is a classic.
5. Pafko at the Wall, by Don DeLillo. This novella was first published by Harper’s Magazine in 1992, then as a novella in 2001. In between, it was incorporated, with some changes to the origianl, as the Prologue to DeLillo’s novel Underworld, which I’d rate among the five best published in my lifetime. It’s a fictionalized account of Bobby Thompson’s “Shot Heard Round the World” home run in 1951. It collects all of the prominent personalities that were present and is, despite its brevity, perhaps my favorite piece of sports writing. It’s a true example of the ability of fiction to transcend the limits of real life and actually leave you more enlightened about an event than, possibly, if you’d even been there.
I’ll be back with a few other lists — sports fiction, sportswriting collections, and a list of books only incidentally connected to sports, but must-reads anyway.