Suddenly, there are a lot of holes in the world, few as deep as the one sports used to occupy.
The coronavirus outbreak has disrupted the rhythms and routines of life. And what has made this unprecedented moment more difficult to bear is that sports, the most popular diversions of all for so many of us, have disappeared just when we need them most.
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- The legacy and lesson of Tom Dempsey’s record-setting field goal | Bob Ford
There are many pleasant, if not entirely satisfactory, ways to fill the void. Watch an old game on YouTube. Play a video version of your favorite game. Or, best of all, read a sports book.
Perhaps because we make such visceral connections to the games we love, that genre has yielded an abundance of worthwhile reading in a variety of categories.
There are brilliant biographies of Vince Lombardi and Roberto Clemente; oral histories of two of the most colorful sports leagues ever, the ABA and AFL; novels by Bernard Malamud and Pete Gent; probing examinations of single seasons by Mark Bowden and John Feinstein; enduring classics by Jim Bouton and Buzz Bissinger; journalism by David Halberstam.
Here are some of the favorites of the people at The Inquirer who make their living writing about sports or editing the stories:
Beartown by Fredrik Backman: Why do you want to read a novel about a village in Sweden? Well, there is hockey. But so much more. Beartown is the story of a dying, isolated small town that has one source of pride, the local rink and its team. The parallels to small-town America and football are obvious. But this isn’t a sports book as much as a book about priorities, privilege, courage, consequences, and community. While celebrating this proud, quaint, obstinate place, the book also examines the underside of life in such a place, despair, small-mindedness, and tribalism. I don’t think I would want to live in Beartown, but I sure learned from and enjoyed my visit. Backman’s other books are excellent as well, the Beartown sequel Us Against You, and especially, non-sports-related but relevant to this time in America, A Man Called Ove.
Bringing The Heat by Mark Bowden: Before he wrote Black Hawk Down, Bowden was the Eagles beat writer for The Inquirer. Same thing, right? Bringing The Heat is an incredibly detailed, behind-the-scenes look at the characters who made up the Gang Green Eagles era through the lens of the 1992 season. Bowden details the life and tragic death of Jerome Brown, the battle between Buddy Ryan and Norman Braman, the intricacies of Randall Cunningham, the incompetence of new head coach Rich Kotite, the ministry of Reggie White, and characters such as “Arkansas” Fred Barnett and Mike Golic. It’s a lengthy read (nearly 500 pages), but you will be hooked right away as Bowden takes the reader to Brown’s front door and then inside the Eagles locker room at halftime of their playoff game in the Superdome. Maybe they should turn this into a movie, too.
K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches by Tyler Kepner: It has great stories from some of the best pitchers in MLB history, and it also has some tremendous Philadelphia-related baseball stories. Unlike Ken Burns, Kepner, a Philadelphia native, does not focus too heavily on Boston and New York at the expense of the other great baseball cities around the country. He even got Steve Carlton to talk. I loved this promotional quote from Orel Hershiser: “I’ve been a student of pitching for more than 40 years, and Tyler Kepner has captured the essence of the craft with fascinating stories and insights on every page.”
Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life by Richard Ben Cramer: His writing is both brilliant and sad. Brilliant because it goes beyond the locker rooms and ball fields to let us see the real DiMaggio. Sad because the person who was immortalized by Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” wasn’t as heroic as we thought.
Ball Four by Jim Bouton: Last year, after Jim Bouton died, I reread his Ball Four for the first time in decades. If the revelations about players’ boozing and pill-popping and sexcapades seem tame by today’s standards, Bouton’s account of his 1969 season with the Seattle Pilots and Houston Astros and his struggles to remain a big-league pitcher remains a groundbreaking classic. It’s hard to overstate what a game-changer this 1970 book was (and the impact it had on baseball-worshipping teens like this one). The former Yankees star demolished the All-American myths surrounding major leaguers, including idols such as Mickey Mantle, and exposed the venality of owners and management. He humanized the players, flaws and all, in a way that had rarely been done before, and he did so with great insight, humor, and storytelling skill. Some saw it as a betrayal of the national pastime, but, in rereading the book, one thing that stands out is the abiding love for the game that shines through Bouton’s narrative.
Ball Four by Jim Bouton: Another vote for Ball Four. The Yankees were my heroes as a kid, and even more so when I learned they were real people. Bouton’s irreverent point of view helped make me an irreverent sportswriter and then an irreverent Daily News headline writer.
The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created by Jane Leavy: They said it couldn’t be done, but Leavy has provided baseball fans with a new understanding of the most transformative figure in American sports history. She gives us the most in-depth look yet into Ruth’s Dickensian childhood, his marriages, finances, and legacy without ignoring his innate baseball genius.
Going Long: The Wild 10-Year Saga of the American Football League in the Words of Those Who Lived It by Jeff Miller: A sensational and thorough oral history of the AFL, which defied all expectations by successfully challenging the NFL. Miller interviewed the upstart league’s stars, owners, and publicists, plus the referees, newspaper columnists, and broadcasters who helped make it so spectacularly colorful.
The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams by Ben Bradlee Jr.: One of baseball’s most talented, bizarre, and enigmatic figures, Williams is exposed in all his glory and failings in this exhaustively researched biography. From the Mexican heritage Williams fought to disguise, to the season he hit .406, to the strange episode that followed the Boston superstar’s death, Bradlee weaves a relentlessly entertaining tale.
Bang the Drum Slowly by Mark Harris: A near-perfect novel about friendship, intelligence, death, and most especially baseball. Harris avoids the clichés and, within the framework of a long baseball season, creates a portrait of the ways a group of men interacts with time and sport, with friendship and each other.
The Natural by Bernard Malamud: Not bad for a debut novel. Malamud took the story of Phillies first baseman Eddie Waitkus, who was shot in 1949 by an obsessed female fan, and spun the mystical comeback tale of Roy Hobbs. There are overtones of temptation, fall, and aftermath that stretch back to the Garden of Eden, Lancelot and Guinevere, and a bunch of other stuff the scholars will prattle on about. If you’re in this for entertainment purposes only, it’s just a great read, written ridiculously well. Roy doesn’t hit a home run and get the right girl in the end, however. Hollywood does an injustice to Malamud’s overall lesson about life in the 1984 movie.
North Dallas Forty by Peter Gent: Former Cowboys receiver Gent wrote a tragic-comic novel about American society as it frayed and came apart in the late 1960s, comparing the violence and hypocrisy inherent to the NFL with what was similarly taking place in the wider world. It was a thinly disguised roman a clef with characters based almost identically on coach Tom Landry, quarterback Don Meredith, and Gent himself, as the star receiver. Upon the book’s release, Meredith famously said, “If I’d known Gent was as good as he says he was, I would have thrown to him more.” When the book was made into the 1979 movie, most of the tragedy and societal commentary was deleted, and what remained was mostly a frat house hoot in which players smoked dope, chased after sex, and ultimately were eaten up by the system. Gent’s ending, like the whole book, is much darker than simply getting cut.
Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella: Kinsella originally titled the book Dream Field, but publisher Houghton Mifflin thought that, like Iowa, was a little flat. In any case, Kinsella imagined a fantasy in which dead baseball players could come back and play again in a country ballyard built on the edge of a good, old American cornfield. (Kinsella is Canadian, by the way.) Kinsella’s hero, Ray Kinsella, seeks to ease the pain of Shoeless Joe Jackson, the backwoods boy banned in the 1919 Black Sox Scandal, and also that of reclusive author J.D. Salinger, whom he enlists to help solve the mystery of whatever the hell is going on. It’s some tale, and better than 1989’s Field of Dreams, because you don’t have to watch Kevin Costner try to act. The movie made the Salinger character a black man instead and changed his name to Terence Mann, because the producers worried Salinger wasn’t reclusive enough to keep from suing their butts. If you like the book, then please also read The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, by Kinsella. It is another incredible fantasy lovingly built around baseball, and it might be even better than Shoeless Joe.
Instant Replay: The Green Bay Diary of Jerry Kramer (with Dick Schaap): An unvarnished and riveting look at a football season, from training camp to the end of the 1967 season, through the eyes of the Hall of Fame guard. Kramer describes his crucial block in the NFL championship game — the “Ice Bowl” — which preceded the second annual AFL-NFL Championship Game, which, of course, came to be known as Super Bowl II. The narration of a 10-year veteran in his penultimate season lends an authentic air unmatched by most first-person books and all such sports diaries, an air that Schaap jealously guards. You can feel the hate and the love as Kramer depicts legendary Packers coach Vince Lombardi as a benevolent ogre who holds the lives of a legendary group of men in his cold and callused hands. Remarkably, NFL life 53 years ago bears a striking resemblance to NFL life today: the fear of losing your job, the pregame terrors and insecurities, and the utter brutality of preparation, execution, and perseverance. For instance, in this era of concussion vigilance, it is disconcerting to read about two frontline Packers getting knocked out — in the first preseason game.
Golden Days: West’s Lakers, Steph’s Warriors, and the California Dreamers Who Reinvented Basketball by Jack McCallum: A look into the mind and the machinations of “The Logo.” Jerry West’s silhouette as a player represents the NBA; only he and LeBron James averaged at least 27.0 points and 6.7 assists, and there was no three-point shot when West played. But West’s genius as a player is overshadowed by his genius as an executive. He built the Showtime Lakers, drafted Kobe Bryant and added Shaquille O’Neal, and cemented the Oaktown marriage between the Splash Brothers — Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson (son of Mychal Thompson, whom West had also acquired, for the Lakers). West also helped bring Kevin Durant into the fold. Golden Days is written by McCallum, who joined Sports Illustrated in 1981, the year Kevin McHale joined Larry Bird in Boston. McCallum then spent the next 27 years refining a wonderful storytelling voice. In his career, which included a stop at the Evening Bulletin in Philadelphia, McCallum chronicled Bird, Magic, Julius Erving, Michael Jordan, Shaq, and Kobe, and even witnessed the passing of the torch to some high school kid from Akron, Ohio.
Moonshine by Alec Wilkinson: This 1985 book isn’t a sports book, except it is, since it helps you understand the ethos of bootleggers who turned into early stock car drivers. Just a great read, only 153 pages, about a true American character who chased moonshiners. Has the best first paragraph I’ve ever read, 88 words that guarantee you’ll never stop reading. Actually, another sports connection: The subject of the book, North Carolina liquor agent Garland Bunting, was such a character he was cast as the announcer in Bull Durham.
Season on the Brink by John Feinstein: Still holds up as the best of the fly-on-the-wall sports books. And it was no hit piece on Bobby Knight. Feinstein, by the way, is still writing great sports books such as the just-released The Back Roads to March with stops at the Palestra.
The Boys of Summer, by Roger Kahn: Best sports book ever because it wasn’t really about sports at all, about a kid growing up in Brooklyn who ended up covering the Dodgers for a great paper of its time, the New York Herald-Tribune. Then Kahn went to find those heroes of summer a couple of decades later, scattered around the country, immersed in real life. A classic, start to finish.
Eight Men Out: The Black Sox and the 1919 World Series by Eliot Asinof: Read it in the spring of 1990 when I was in eighth grade, and it coincided with two seminal moments from my baseball-loving childhood: my realization that, no, I wasn’t good enough to play beyond high school; and Pete Rose’s lifetime ban from the game. The latter brought comparisons to the Black Sox affair and sparked my interest in the book (and later the movie). For me, the heroes of the story were the newspaper writers whose reporting helped to unearth the truth about the White Sox’s fixing of the World Series. It sounds corny to say, but it was probably the impetus for my wanting to become a sportswriter.
The Wax Pack by Brad Balukjian: This is the new sports book that I’m looking forward to reading (aside from my own — shameless plug alert — The Big 50: Philadelphia Phillies). I don’t know the author, but I’m fascinated by the topic: open a pack of baseball cards from 1986 and set out on a nearly 12,000-mile journey to track down all the players in the pack. I’m in.
The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian: I read this book a few years ago, while I was in college at Penn State, a place where football is a pretty big deal, and it stuck with me. What I particularly loved about it was its balance. The authors would highlight stories that showed the bright sides of college football — the camaraderie it can create and the way it can give a kid from a poor community a chance to have a life he never would’ve had otherwise. Then, in the next section, it would take you behind the scenes of a scandal, usually one that was not particularly well-known but fascinating (read: Penn State’s is not included). It’s a book of nonfiction, but the stories transport you to campuses across the country and keep you hooked.
Two Strikes on Johnny by Matt Christopher: This is a kid’s book, about a Little League baseball player who was the hero of his blind younger brother, Michael. Michael never missed a game and on the way home Johnny would lie to him about line-drive doubles and diving catches he made. Johnny simply didn’t want to disappoint Michael. The exaggeration goes on and on until Johnny finally breaks down and tells the truth. He loves the game but just isn’t a star. I chose this because it is the first book I ever took out of the Olney branch of The Free Library of Philadelphia. It nurtured a love for sports and a lot of trips to Fifth and Tabor on hot summer days to read great sports stories. Recently, I bought an old copy of the book and hope my grandchildren will enjoy it, too.
Loose Balls by Terry Pluto: This is an old book, published in 1990, but for anybody who was an ABA fan like I was, this is really the definitive history of the league. Pluto introduces the subject and then quotes many of the players, coaches, broadcasters, owners, et al., allowing them to speak at length about their experiences. Remember Julius Erving with the Virginia Squires? Moses Malone with the Utah Stars? Bob Costas, the broadcaster for the Spirits of St. Louis? Wilt Chamberlain as coach of the San Diego Conquistadors? This was a league with incredibly talented players, many who would star in the NBA when the leagues merged. So many great stories about a league in which franchises often operated on shoestring budgets. So many innovations, including the three-point shot, the red, white and blue basketball, the introduction of the slam dunk contest at the ABA All-Star Game. Great teams like the Indiana Pacers, the Kentucky Colonels, the New York Nets. The league lasted nine seasons, from 1967 to 1976, and so many future NBA All-Stars got their professional start there. Guys such as George “Ice Man” Gervin, Artis Gilmore, Charlie Scott, Dan Issel, and Erving, just to name a few. A league with great history and even wackier stories, and Pluto catches it all in this book.
Any book by David Maraniss: He is a solid writer, but his research is just incredible. He is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and currently is an associate editor at the Washington Post. His biographies on Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are exceptional. But it’s his sports books that obviously grab my attention.
When Pride Still Mattered by Maraniss: This is the biography of Vince Lombardi. Just a masterpiece. It’s a really long read (544 pages). He doesn’t even get to Green Bay until around Page 325. But when you’ve finished the book, you feel like you know everything there was to know about Lombardi. It’s a great book if you have a lot of time on your hands.
Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero by Maraniss: Lets us know more about the man. How prideful he was, how giving he was, and what it was like living in Pittsburgh. Reading it, just like his Lombardi book, you truly appreciate all the work he put into it.
Rome 1960 by Maraniss: Thought you knew everything about the Olympics? The 1960 Olympics was trendsetting when it came to race and was the first Olympics in which steroids became an issue. Maraniss takes you on a ride for 478 pages, and it’s worth every page.
Friday Night Lights by Buzz Bissinger: Initially, I thought the book would be all about football. But I quickly learned that, while being fully embedded in Odessa, Texas, Bissinger captured the pride and unity that the small town exhibited while supporting Permian High School. The former Inquirer Pulitzer Prize winner also told a story of the intense pressure on the players to live up to the lofty expectations placed on them.
The Last Shot: City Streets, Basketball Dreams by Darcy Frey: Don’t laugh, but I actually read this entire book on a Valentine’s Day back in the mid-1990s as an intern for the Virginian-Pilot. Yes, the book was that good. And yes, my dating life might have been that boring at the time. However, I just couldn’t put this book down on that particular off-day. I learned a lot about the basketball scene in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn. It was much more than a game. It represented one of the only ways to avoid a life of poverty for many of the young guys there. These families had a lot going against them, including insufficient schooling that failed to prepare many for college. This book also introduced me to Stephon Marbury, who at an early age was identified as the Chosen One of Coney Island hoops. But one of the most eye-opening things about this book was that it exposed the slick world of college recruiting.
Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life by Richard Ben Cramer and Billy Martin: Baseball’s Flawed Genius by Bill Pennington: I grew up in Brooklyn as a Yankees fan and the son of a Yankees fan; thus my interest in DiMaggio and Martin. Both their playing careers ended before I was born, but Martin’s managerial stints — and I had forgotten how many there were — came during my peak years as a baseball fan. These are richly detailed biographies of two complex individuals.
Bury Me in My Jersey by Tom McAllister: Growing up in the Philadelphia suburbs, I lived the life of a Philly sports fan, many times saying, “Wait until next year!” So, when I came across this book, I immediately connected with McAllister’s firsthand account of being a rabid Eagles fan. Although he struggles with the early death of his father, McAllister still shares the pain and disappointment he suffers while clinging to the emotional highs and lows of an NFL season. He is like most of us here: living your life for Sundays, getting excited at a glimpse or two of a player on the street, enjoying a few too many drinks, chatting on online message boards, all while cheering on the Birds.
The Breaks of the Game by David Halberstam: This was probably the first serious, in-depth sports book I read. It was right up my alley. By 1979, the NBA was my sport, and his chronicling of the 1979-80 Portland Trail Blazers season had my attention from the first page. The detail, the depth, but most of all, the writing was what stood out. It was flawless, enticing, and made the NBA season move like a fast break. And it had a bunch of Philly ties, starting with Jack Ramsay and ending with the Blazers trading Lionel Hollins to the Sixers, who made the NBA Finals that season only to lose to the Magic Johnson-led Lakers. It was a good read that included the warts-and-all of an NBA season, filling in for me the gaps of a sport failing at the time and trying to rebound, as seen through the prism of the Blazers.
The Miracle of St. Anthony by Adrian Wojnarowski: Most season-inside books have an expiration date. This one doesn’t, and it shows just how great a writer Woj is and was — a skill he doesn’t get to show much now in his role at ESPN.
Rome 1960 by David Maraniss: A lot of people think Maraniss’ biography of Vince Lombardi, When Pride Still Mattered, is the best sports book ever written. I prefer this one. The subject matter was trickier to handle, the research more difficult to do.
Beyond the Game and Going Deep, both by Gary Smith: Either anthology of the writing in Sports Illustrated by the former Daily News sportswriter works for me. I pull one of these off my office shelves often when I need some inspiration.
The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown: This is a great book about the U.S. Olympic eight-oar rowing team that captured gold at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. It’s about much more than sports — the Depression, Nazi Germany, abandoned children, and a host of other themes. I felt like I was reading a book by Laura Hillenbrand (Seabiscuit and Unbroken), which is the highest compliment.
Soccer in Sun and Shadow by Eduardo Galeano: To many soccer fans, this is the gold standard for lyrical prose on the world’s game. It’s also a journey through the sport’s history from the original World Cup to the early 2000s. The author is a native of Uruguay and had colleagues translate his original Spanish-language text to equally vivid English. It’s the one non-reference book I keep at my desk in the office.