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A year-end guide to the best sports books

Cosell biography one of only a handful of memorable 2011 titles

Mark Ribowski's "Howard Cosell: The Man, the Myth, and the Transformation of American Sports," and Jeff Pearlman's "Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton."
Mark Ribowski's "Howard Cosell: The Man, the Myth, and the Transformation of American Sports," and Jeff Pearlman's "Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton."Read more

Howard Cosell was loud, arrogant, pompous, snobbish. He was also smart, daring, controversial and ahead of his time.

And now, 16 years after Cosell's death, Mark Ribowsky has written a fascinating biography, "Howard Cosell," subtitled "The Man, the Myth, and the Transformation of American Sports."

Hoo ha, the subtitle is just like the man himself, long-winded, bragadocious and narcissistic. And as much as I came to detest Cosell's nastiness, I admired his bold stance on issues, his willingness to be different and to embrace others who dared to be different.

If you're over 40, you will thoroughly enjoy Ribowsky's book, the stuff about Cosell's alliance with Muhammad Ali, the signature "Down Goes Frazier" moments, the feisty dialogue with "Dandy" Don Meredith on those memorable "Monday Night Football" telecasts.

If you're under 40, you will wonder how this homely guy with that pitiful toupee and adenoidal Brooklyn accent ever got a job in broadcasting and how he kept it for 20 years.

It is the best sports biography in a year littered with warts-and-all memoirs. If that sounds like praising with faint damns, so be it.

There's another revealing subtitle in "West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life." Who knew that Jerry West, whose silhouette is the logo for the NBA, was haunted all these years by a brutal childhood?

There is more torment than charm, but you can wade through the depressing segments to learn something about Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It's a revealing confession and you hope West finds peace and tranquility having opened himself up this way.

"Sweetness: the Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton" is another biography with some surprisingly bleak moments.

If you're looking for uplifting messages, you might try "Stan Musial: An American Life" by the talented George Vecsey. And if you're eager to discover what makes the mystifying Tim Tebow click, you should read "Through My Eyes," which is heavy on faith and family angles.

They have reissued "Moneyball" by Michael Lewis, in case you missed it the first time around. The book is five times better than that dreadful movie, but you will still come away wondering when Billy Beane's equations will pay off in Oakland. Faced with a low payroll budget, Beane rummaged through baseball's bargain bin to find players with high on-base percentages and pitchers who got a lot of ground-ball outs.

Ruben Amaro Jr. sneered at the theories when the book was published, but you can't help wondering whether it might help the Phillies (102 victories during the season and another flameout in the playoffs) to find a couple of high on-base percentage hitters and ground-ball inducing pitchers. Just asking.

John Feinstein is on our list with "One on One," a new take on the familiar ground of in-depth visits with sports icons like Tiger Woods and Bobby Knight. Do you think Knight sat still for a revisit to a season on the brink? Not a chance.

Best of the coffee-table books is "100 Yards of Glory," a rich history of NFL greatest moments, spliced together by Joe Garner and Bob Costas. It comes with a DVD.

After a dismal season, Eagles fans may want to seek solace in stories about Bart Starr's gutsy quarterback sneak to win the "Ice Bowl" game or the amazing circumstances of "The Immaculate Reception," the pass from Terry Bradshaw caroming off an Oakland defender and into the arms of Franco Harris.

Then again, maybe Eagles fans won't find much solace at all. The story about the 1960 championship game focuses more on Vince Lombardi's first and last playoff loss than a triumph for the aging, underdog Eagles. In two other episodes, the Eagles are the patsies in "great comeback" stories, a 38-28 loss to the 49ers in September 1989; and a 30-24 loss to the Giants in September 2006.

It was a lean year. A novel, "The Art of Fielding," survives as my favorite book of 2011.