Moneyball by Michael Lewis
Michael Lewis’s tome is ostensibly about the unlikely success of the Oakland A’s under the leadership of general manager Billy Beane, but it’s really about how people view and evaluate talent, and how players (or workers, or whoever) who don’t fit small, predefined boxes tend to be discarded and forgotten. Beane’s genius, as Lewis describes it, is to throw out accepted wisdom and subjectivism to evaluate players entirely on quantifiable, objective criteria. As such, like all good sports books, Moneyball is absorbing reading even for those who (like this particular writer) have little interest in baseball.
Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby
Nick Hornby is the patron saint of depicting millennial male angst, and we think that his debut book — a memoir based around his obsessive support for English soccer team Arsenal — remains his finest moment. As the Times said in its review, Fever Pitch “gives a credible explanation of why someone becomes a supporter,” depicting how a sporting allegiance can play a vital part in a fan’s life, and of how your team’s successes and failures can come to affect your own existence, bringing pain and (hopefully) some amount of pleasure. Again, it’s fascinating reading, both for fans (who’ll find themselves nodding compulsively as Hornby relates his experiences) and for those mystified by the appeal of sports in the first place.
Death in the Afternoon by Ernest Hemingway
Is bullfighting a sport? You may well argue (with plenty of justification) that it’s nothing of the sort — and, indeed, in the very first paragraph of the book, Hemingway acknowledges exactly this: “I suppose from a modern moral point of view… the bullfight is indefensible.” But, he argues, while he “should not try to defend it now,” he should also “tell honestly the things I have found true about it.” The result is some of his finest writing, using the bullfight as an exploration of human nature and courage in the face of adversity (and a large, very angry bull).
Loose Balls by Terry Pluto
The basketball equivalent of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, or perhaps Hollywood Babylon, this book tells the story of the ABA, the spin-off NBA rival league that operated from 1967-1976 and gave birth to the flashy, showy style that characterizes today’s game. The ABA gave basketball the slam dunk contest, the tricolor ball, and the three-point shot — and most memorably, it also brought together a cast of colorful characters and endearing lunatics, all of whose tales are told in their own words in Loose Balls via an oral history format that recalls Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me.
Back from the Brink by Paul McGrath
Sports autobiographies are generally dull, self-congratulatory affairs peppered with uninventive nicknames and chummy locker room stories. But if they’re the literary equivalent of a lukewarm post-match bath, reading Irish footballer Paul McGrath’s memoir is like being immersed in a tub of bleach. One of the most talented players his country has ever produced, McGrath played for UK super club Manchester United between 1982 and 1989, but his career was undermined by his raging alcoholism, and off the field he lived a life that would have made Charles Bukowski blanch. Every excruciating detail is included in Back from the Brink, from a harrowing upbringing as a biracial child in Dublin to the time he drank a pint of Domestos because he couldn’t find any vodka. And crucially, despite its publisher-friendly title, Back from the Brink doesn’t have any pretensions of being a tidy, happily-ever-after narrative — McGrath acknowledges that avoiding another drink is a constant battle, and one he may never win.
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami
Murakami probably would have called this The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner if that title hadn’t already been taken. In any case, its depiction of the appeal of running makes for fascinating reading for those of us to whom “fun run” has always seemed the most ridiculous of oxymorons. Although the book’s peppered with running jargon and tips for tackling long distances, it’s really about life in general, with running serving as an extended metaphor for perseverance and the ongoing search for meaning.
Little Girls in Pretty Boxes by Joan Ryan
Gymnastics is one of those things that most people tend to watch every four years when the Olympics are on, and even then, there’s always a sneaking suspicion that the impossibly flexible and apparently perpetually pre-pubescent girls pulling off the crazy maneuvers on the beam must have pretty fucked up lives behind the smiles and sequins. If Joan Ryan’s book (which also looks at the world of figure skating) is to be believed, then we don’t know the half of it. She depicts a brutally competitive and often abusive environment that chews up young girls and spits them out, often with injuries that’ll plague them for the rest of their lives. The book’s proven controversial, to say the least, but whether you’re of the view that Ryan has exposed an ongoing scandal or sensationalized a sport that brings happiness to many (and we have to say, we lean way towards the former view), Little Girls in Pretty Boxes makes for compelling reading.
My Losing Season by Pat Conroy
The simple equation of sports is that for everyone who triumphs, someone else has to lose. And the nature of our society means that the losers are generally forgotten — while the champions are up there on the podium dousing themselves in champagne, the runners-up skulk back to the locker room to stare emptily into space. Similarly, the majority of sports books tend to focus on the stories of people who’ve come out on top, even if they’ve gone through hell to do so. All this makes My Losing Season a refreshing if chastening read — it’s the story of being an average player on a shitty team, of knowing your dreams aren’t going to come true, of a disastrous season that marked the beginning of Conroy’s transition away from basketball toward the written word.
Garrincha by Ruy Castro
Brazil’s love affair with soccer is well-documented, and while pretty much every casual fan acknowledges Pelé as the country’s greatest-ever player, true aficionados like to argue in favor of one Manuel Francisco dos Santos, better known as Garrincha. Garrincha was born with a deformed spine and a left leg that was two inches shorter than the right, which bent inwards at an alarming angle. His childhood was chaotic — he grew up in almost unimaginable poverty in the city of Pau Grande, and lost his virginity to, um, a goat. He didn’t start playing professionally until the age of 20, but soon became a star known for his absurd talent, his appetite for women — and, like Paul McGrath, his disastrous drinking problem. His star burned bright and blazed out quickly — for a decade between 1955 and 1966 he was untouchable, making fools of defenders and leading Brazil to the 1962 World Cup, but barely 20 years later, he was dead in 1983 at the age of 49, a victim of liver cirrhosis. Castro’s book is beautifully written and exhaustively researched, a portrait of a man whose story seems to embody plenty of what’s good and bad about sports, and also of how his mad genius seemed to capture the flair and artistry of Brazilian football.
Anything by David Foster Wallace
While Flavorpill’s all-time favorite author never wrote an entire sports book, he penned some fantastic extended essays over the years, mostly about tennis (he was a standout junior in his youth). Our personal favorite is Tennis Player Michael Joyce’s Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Discipline, Joy, Grotesquerie and Human Completeness (originally published in Esquire under the less unwieldy title of “String Theory”), but pretty much all of Wallace’s sports writing is worth reading.