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February 1, 2016 BOOKLIST
Find more Great Reads
These Jocks Itch to Have Their Say
With most athletes, the poetry is in the way they play—not the way they speak. Nothing kills the thrill of an overtime, come-from-behind win like a courtside interview in which the sweat-drenched victor assures the interviewer that the team came to play, gave 110 percent, and was lucky to be better than the other team on the day. (See the uncensored scene in Bull Durham where Kevin Costner’s Crash Davis lectures Tim Robbins’ Nuke LaLoosh on the fine art of the post-game interview.) Thankfully, there are some jocks, coaches, and owners who can put into words what they do on the field—even better, what they do off the field, in the locker room, and on the team bus. Read on for an all-star list of memoirs so vivid that you can practically smell the sweat and Ben-Gay.
Bad News for McEnroe: Blood, Sweat, and Backhands with John, Jimmy, Ilie, Ivan, Bjorn, and Vitas, by Bill Scanlon. 2004. o.p.
While few remember him now, Scanlon was a top-10 tennis pro in the 1980s who played and beat some of the best. As a participant in his sport’s golden age, he saw the game explode in popularity and commercial success—and with big money and big personalities came big changes. A fascinating insider’s view of an era when a sport was eclipsed by its stars.
Ball Four, by Jim Bouton. 1970. Wiley, paper, $15.95 (9780020306658).
Near the end of his career, the former starting pitcher for the New York Yankees tried to reinvent himself as a knuckle-balling middle reliever for the Seattle Pilots (a team that wouldn’t be back the following season). But what really caught the attention of the reading public were his uncensored recollections of bad-boy Yankees stars, players’ widespread abuse of amphetamines, and sexual high jinks. The tale-telling made him a pariah in baseball, but this remains one of the best-selling and most influential sports books of all time.
Bronx Zoo: The Astonishing Inside Story of the 1978 World Champion New York Yankees, by Sparky Lyle and Peter Golenbock. 1979. Triumph, paper, $14.95 (9781572437159).
After winning the Cy Young Award in 1977, Lyle, a left-handed reliever for the Yankees, was rewarded with a place on the bench—the perfect vantage point from which to observe the wild 1978 season. As he recounts fights, firings, pranks, and even baseball games, offering forthright assessments of Reggie Jackson, George Steinbrenner, and Billy Martin, Lyle seemingly can’t help but offer his honest opinion on all of it.
Bud, Sweat and Tees: Rich Beem’s Walk on the Wild Side of the PGA Tour, by Alan Shipnuck. 2003. Simon & Schuster, paper, $15 (9780743249003).
This one isn’t a memoir but it’s just too good to leave out. The story of former cell-phone salesman Beem, the unlikely winner of the 1999 Kemper Open (and, later, the PGA Championship), and his caddie Steve Duplantis, is an incredible saga of bad judgment and lack of discipline coming together to produce momentary perfection. Sports Illustrated writer Shipnuck recounts how the two met, tasted triumph (and quite a few beers), and then slowly let it all slip away.
The Long Season, by Jim Brosnan. 1960. Ivan R. Dee, paper, $16.95 (9781566634182).
When Brosnan, a relief pitcher of little fame, published his funny, candid account of the 1959 season, it was a game changer. Though he omitted the prurient details that would mark later sports books, his unvarnished record of the mundanities of a ballplayers’ existence was a revelation to the world at large. Fans were amazed that an athlete could write, and athletes were upset that he would write—yet, by his example, he encouraged some of them to write honestly as well.
Out of Their League, by Dave Meggyesy. 1970. Univ. of Nebraska/Bison, paper, $19.95 (9780803283145).
Meggyesy was a hard-working linebacker for the St. Louis Cardinals who surprised many when he abruptly ended a successful seven-year career. A year later, he shared his reasons in this memoir, which is both a chronicle of his growing disillusionment with the sport and a searing critique of the football factory. What Bouton’s Ball Four (1970) was for baseball, Out of Their League was for football—though this one is darker, angrier, and more political by far.
A Season on the Brink: A Year with Bob Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers, by John Feinstein. 1986. Simon & Schuster, paper, $16 (9781451650259).
Sometimes it takes an impartial observer to capture someone’s true personality. Granted unfettered access to the legendary, press-averse Indiana University basketball coach during the 1985–86 season, Washington Post reporter Feinstein took full advantage of the opportunity. The resulting portrait captures the dynamics of Knight’s interaction with his players so vividly that the reader feels like part of the team—like it or not. It’s a far more honest portrait than the subject’s self-serving Knight: My Story (2002).
Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile, by Nate Jackson. 2013. Harper, $26.99 (9780062108029).
Over six seasons with the Denver Broncos, Jackson lived his dream of being a professional player—fortunately for him, his dream didn’t necessarily require a bank-breaking contract, an adoring posse, or an endorsement deal. Jackson can really write, and his tale of highs and lows, of infrequent touchdowns and frequent injuries, with uncertainty about the future a looming constant, ranks this among the very best books about football.
Veeck as in Wreck, by Bill Veeck. 1962. Univ. of Chicago, paper, $18 (9780226852188).
All right, this one isn’t about an athlete, but, during his colorful career as a team owner and promoter in Major League Baseball, the freewheeling Veeck practically defined the word maverick, doing his best to stave off the inevitable corporatization of the sport. It’s a fine portrait of the days long past, when a single, strong-willed showman made sure the fans got maximum bang for their buck.
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