In my Back Page column in the September 1, 2015, issue of Booklist, I audaciously named the six greatest sports novels of all time. Now, as a follow-up, I will name—perhaps even more audaciously—the six greatest sports nonfiction books ever published. I have imposed one ground rule on myself: collections of magazine pieces are out of scope. This means, sadly, that A. J. Liebling’s The Sweet Science, a collection of New Yorker articles often cited as the best boxing book ever, is not on this list; nor is there anything by my favorite baseball writer, Roger Angell, most of whose sports books are also collections of New Yorker essays. I made no attempt to include as many different sports as possible, though, somewhat surprisingly, there is very little duplication: two baseball books followed by one each about basketball, soccer, boxing, and horse racing. Often in these sorts of lists a distinction is drawn between the author’s favorite books and the absolute best books on the topic. Well, here’s the thing: these six titles happen to be my six favorite sports books, but they are also, as my title states, the six greatest nonfiction sports books of all time. It just worked out that way. As Casey Stengel says, you could look it up.
Ball Four, by Jim Bouton. 1970.
Yes, this landmark memoir by former Yankee pitcher Bouton broke new ground by exposing major-league ballplayers for the silly, boozing, skirt-chasing little boys they so often are, but I happen to love the book just as much for its frame story: Bouton’s 1969 season spent mainly with the hapless Seattle Pilots, an expansion team of misfits that lasted only one miserable season until its despicable owners sold the franchise to Milwaukee (I had moved to Seattle in 1969, eagerly anticipating living in a major-league city for the first time in my life). Bouton’s stories of laughing at his own team’s ineptitude will warm the hearts of any disgruntled athlete on a third-rate team who has ever sat at the end of the bench and silently chuckled as his or her ball club tumbled to defeat yet again.
The Boys of Summer, by Roger Kahn. 1972.
Kahn’s look back at the beloved Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s—Robinson, Campanella, Snider, et al.—succeeds not only as a tribute to a legendary baseball team but also as a celebration of the game’s greatest decade, an era when New York was truly the center of the baseball world. The interviews Kahn conducted with the aging Dodgers mix nostalgia and melancholy in irresistible proportions.
The Breaks of the Game, by David Halberstam. 1981.
Halberstam followed the Portland Trailblazers throughout the 1979–80 NBA season and used the story of a once-champion team in decline to frame his account of professional basketball as a sport and as a reflection of American society in the 1970s. Really, though, the heart of the book is Halberstam’s look back at the championship Trailblazers of 1976–77. Coached by master tactician Jack Ramsay and led by center Bill Walton, the team relished unselfish play, and the Blazers’ balletic ability to move the ball is brilliantly evoked in Halberstam’s words.
The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, by Joe McGinnis. 1999.
McGinnis spent a year following the professional soccer team in Castel di Sangro, a tiny town in the Abruzzi region of Italy. His account of the team’s triumphs and disappointments offers both an eye-opening look at championship soccer and a revealing example of the complexities of a culture. There is an almost Henry James aspect to McGinnis’ European journey from innocence to experience. He wants the story of Castel di Sangro to be a Hoosiers-like fable, but he is forced to accept that the Abruzzi isn’t Hollywood.
Seabiscuit, by Laura Hillenbrand. 2001.
Seabiscuit, on the other hand, is such a great Hollywood story that it’s hard to understand why it took so long for an author to do the horse justice. A nondescript little bay, Seabiscuit was the ultimate underdog, and his triumphs on the racetrack gave hope to a nation of underdogs in the midst of the Depression. In the beginning, Hillenbrand’s book looked a little nondescript itself, at least as a commercial property, yet the combination of a great story told by a great storyteller made this biography of a horse into a smash bestseller beloved by millions of readers who have never placed a two-dollar show bet in their lives.
This Bloody Mary Is the Last Thing I Own, by Jonathan Rendall. 1998.
There are many, many fine books about boxing, but this one is the best of the lot. Rendall, who died somewhat mysteriously at age 48, spent most of his life gambling and writing, the former with little success, the latter with remarkable flashes of brilliance, which occur mainly in this memoir about his infatuation with and eventual alienation from boxing. The sport of kings, he concludes, is a business in which the fighters are a disposable commodity, quickly consumed and easily replaced. It’s a noir-filled story, of course, as the best boxing books usually are, but it’s also laced with black humor, as Rendall’s own story of gambling mishaps parallels the fighters he profiles.