I know a guy who cried while watching the recent halftime ceremony at Soldier Field commemorating the retirement of Mike Ditka’s number. Why do athletes move us so? Simple: they’re the superheroes of our time, and just like Batman or Iron Man, in an instant we go from seeing them as infallible to criminal…or even worse, as human. For the sports fan in your life who just can’t get enough behind-the-scenes info or fresh takes on pro sports, check out these works of nonfiction, ranging from classics to new arrivals.
Ball Four: The Final Pitch, by Jim Bouton
Any baseball fan would be tantalized by a memoir that caused the baseball commissioner to proclaim it “detrimental to baseball,” before trying to coerce the author into signing a statement declaring the book fictional. That was the effect Ball Four had when it came out, detailing (before scandalous sports tell-alls were common) all the dirt that went on off the field, including drinking, drugging, and cheating. This edition comes with a new epilogue from Bouton, who pitched for the New York Yankees, Seattle Pilots, Houston Astros, and Atlanta Braves between 1962 and 1978.
Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, by Christopher McDougall
McDougall’s memoir starts off with a question: “Why does my foot hurt?” and from there on out turns into a multi-pronged look at the world of running, beginning with the everyday (McDougall’s running hobby) and expanding far and wide, taking fascinating glimpses at ultramarathoners (people who run multiple marathons back to back—urgh), and the zenlike Tarahumara Indians of Mexico, whom ultramarathoners try to emulate. McDougall even examines how running has evolved with mankind. It’s a great book for a runner, obviously, but is interesting even for those who hate the sport (if you hate running, nobody is more fun to hate than ultramarathoners.)
Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile, by Nate Jackson
Football took a major hit this year (get it?) with the Frontline investigation on the tragic results that can come from too many tackle-related concussions, and the NFL’s Big Tobacco–like denial of any knowledge of such problems. On the other hand, this story was a bit like a pebble thrown at Goliath, considering the recent NPR story discussing the fact that Monday Night Football is such a huge ratings event, even a game between the two worst players in the league would out-earn viewers on any other show. While Jackson may not go down in the record books as a player, he’s received praise for this plainspoken look at the grind of life in professional football.
Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN, by James Andrew Miller, Tom Shales
Technically Tom Shales didn’t write this as his own memoir, but he gives voice to those who built the juggernaut that is ESPN. If you enjoyed Shales’ treatment of “Saturday Night Live” on Live from New York, consider this the sports version of that oral history. Shales conducted more than 500 interviews with sports mainstays like Robin Roberts, Keith Olbermann, Hannah Storm, Mike Ditka, and Bob Knight on how a local network originally titled “ESP,” launched in 1979, became a multibillion-dollar corporation. Just like Live from New York, it’s an engaging, fun, and fast read.
Veeck—As in Wreck: The Autobiography of Bill Veeck, by Bill Veeck
Even though spring feels like it’s a long way away, the next time you go to a pro baseball game, look around. A lot of what consists of the modern game experience was the brainchild of Bill Veeck, the one-legged Chicago White Sox owner who strived to make the game a spectacle, from smaller details like putting names on the backs of uniforms to game-day promotions to stunts like putting in a 3’7” player for exactly one at-bat in a 1951 game (he walked, because the pitcher couldn’t locate the strike zone). A fun purchase for an old-timer, a baseball obsessive, or even lovers of great business memoirs.
I Am Third, by Gale Sayers
If we’re talking tear-jerkers that get the guys, there’s Old Yeller and then there’s Brian’s Song, the story about Chicago Bear Brian Piccolo who passed away after a struggle with cancer, and his friend and teammate Gale Sayers, who supported and mourned him. it’s a sports story, it’s a friend story, it’s a love story. If it’s not on the shelf of your favorite Bears fan/black history appreciator/dude who is in touch with his feelings, put it there.
A Drive Into the Gap, by Kevin Guilfoile
Gift guides for dads and boyfriends and bros always seem to include things like shavers and brandy and speaker systems, i.e., rather macho impersonal items. This small memoir by Kevin Guilfoile (who is a friend of mine) is a beautiful stocking stuffer for the sports fan in your life who still tears up over Field of Dreams. A story about the mysterious fate of Roberto Clemente’s 3,000th-hit bat is blended into a bittersweet tale about a father and son, with the result being an elegant little paperback that’s perfect for appreciators of long-form nonfiction.
What’s your favorite sports book?