A quick scan of my Goodreads profile will reveal a clear trend — I read a lot of sports books. That should come as no surprise, as I hope to be a sports journalist and have goals of writing books in the future. Reading about sports was as formative to my fan experience as watching the actual games, whether that was John Feinstein novels or Sports Illustrated Kids issues.
To follow up on my Book Pantheon, which created a figurative top shelf of my favorite books, I will continue the exercise with a sports-specific Sports Book Pantheon. Like that post, I’ll first lay out the criteria that helped me sift down the hundreds of sports books I’ve read into an elite group of 16. The books that made the cut are…
- Engaging — The writing style brings the action of the court or field to life, weaving nuanced analysis with fast-paced and page-turning action.
- Enriching — The book provides an insider perspective and explains the less obvious parts of the game, in turn making the viewing experience even better.
- Distinctive- Each book adds something unique to the world of sports literature, whether it’s stories that haven’t been told, insider knowledge, or unparalleled ambition (such as The Book of Basketball).
I also tried to diversify the books within the pantheon. If I could only continue reading 16 sports books, or could only use 16 books to better understand sports, these are my proud selections.
- The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown — I wrote a college essay on this book, which also made it to my all-around Pantheon. Based on the story of the Washington rowing team progressing all the way to the 1936, Boys in the Boat does a stellar job of breathing life into this history and encapsulating the spirit of athletics and teamwork.
- Friday Night Lights by H.G. Bissinger – I’d say that this is likely the most pop-culture relevant sports book written now that it’s a TV show, movie, and has countless look-alikes in the sports literature world, and it’s for good reason – Friday Night Lights has an excellent premise and executes perfectly. The key themes resonate off the football field as well, and some of the speeches are simply legendary.
- A Civil War: Army vs. Navy – A Year Inside College Football’s Purest Rivalry by John Feinstein – John Feinstein was my favorite sports author when I was growing up (I met him once!) and his signature style in his books is throwing himself into a subject for a season and delving into all of its nuances and stories. The Army-Navy football rivalry is his most compelling subject, one in which the intersection of the military and sports make for an enthralling read.
- The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to The Sports Guy by Bill Simmons – The Book of Basketball is way too good for a sports book. The gargantuan book, which includes a pyramid ofthe top 100 players, rankings of the top teams, and a ton of insight and humor from the entertaining Bill Simmons, doesn’t trade quantity for quality and teaches about the history of the league in an exciting and relatable way. Simmons said the experience was so overwhelming that he’d never do it again, but sports fans should be thankful that he did.
- Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN by James Andrew Miller – This oral history of ESPN parallels the rise of the sports industry and is one of the most important sports books on shelves (it’s even on the syllabus for Northwestern’s History of Sports Media class). The interviews are candid, controversial, all-encompassing and interesting, with the most recent edition of the book going all the way into the mid-2010’s. A lengthy but breezy read.
- The Cubs Way by Tom Verducci – Verducci has staked a claim to being the best active sportswriter, and his topic, the 2016 Cubs’ World Series run, is a Hollywood-worthy, historic tale that deserves to be told by the best. Written just weeks after the Cubs won it all, The Cubs Way weaves history, inside information, and drama into the title chase, making Verducci’s endeavor from magazine to literature a wildly successful one.
- Moneyball by Michael Lewis – Hands down, Moneyball has made the biggest impact of any sports book on sports itself. Moneyball, a quick read at just under 300 pages, profiles the Oakland Athletics and their general manager, Billy Beane, as they try to compete with the best in the majors despite their miniscule payroll. Their answer – looking to the numbers and sabermetrics to challenge conventional wisdom and get the most bang for their buck. Moneyball did not invent the movement, but it brought it to the forefront of the sports conversation, and sports, from baseball to football to basketball, hasn’t looked the same since.
- Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, Its Chaotic Founding, Its Apocalyptic Weather, Its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World-Class Metropolis by Sam Anderson – Boom Town looks at Oklahoma City through two tracks: its wild history as a “boom town”, and its current day state as a basketball boom town with the trio of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. This book shines through its use of geographic identity as a backdrop to sports (or possibly, the other way around) and teaches a lot from both spheres.
- Paper Lion by George Plimpton – One of the formative books of the sports literature genre, Paper Lion is pretty much a diary of a sportswriter who reports to the Detroit Lions’ training camp as a backup quarterback. A Few Seconds of Panic by Stefan Fatsis gives a more modern look at the placekicker position, but Plimpton’s book is amazing from just how much access and insight he gains through his experience (he suits up and plays in a scrimmage), and the less jaded nature of the NFL in the 1960s.
- Last Shot: A Final Four Mystery by John Feinstein – Despite the prominence of the sports genre in film, there’s not much to devour in the sports fiction genre. Feinstein’s Sports Reporters series is for a younger audience, but the first installment about blackmail in the Final Four is a fun read by a guy who knows the sport and championship stage as well as anyone.
- Hard Courts by John Feinstein – Another Feinstein book that delves into the intricacies of the oft-overlooked, Hard Courts chronicles a season of men’s and women’s professional tennis in the 1990s. The contrast against team sports is jarring, and each of the athletes brings drama and skill to the court. I read this and felt like I knew tennis well.
- How Bad Do You Want It?: Mastering the Psychology of Mind Over Muscle by Matt Fitzgerald – This is the lone entry of a sports psychology book in the list. Fitzgerald pulls from a variety of endurance-based sports and sheds light on the mental side of the game. It was extremely valuable to me as a distance runner in high school and as a fan of professional sports.
- Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty by Jeff Pearlman – Pearlman, who was my professional source for my senior year paper on Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, has a fun, sensational style that thrives at bringing out the side us fans don’t see of professional dynasties like the Lakers and the Cowboys. He does the wild stories of the Showtime Lakers justice, and his storytelling has flavor.
- Running for My Life by Lopez Lomong – Sports memoirs aren’t usually the notable, lauded books in the sports literature genre, but this book, at just around 200 pages, is incredible. Running for My Life is the autobiography of Lopez Lomong, one of the boys of Sudan who ran to his freedom and later won entry into the United States through a writing contest. Fast-forward several years and he was a torchbearer and track athlete at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
- Blind Side by Michael Lewis – The follow-up to Moneyball doesn’t unearth a transcendent sports trend as its predecessor did in its focus on the left tackle, but it does a phenomenal job as a narrative of the life of Ravens tackle and Super Bowl champion Michael Oher. The movie is great, but the book adds a lot of nuance that is lost in the Hollywood translation.
- The New Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football by Paul Zimmerman – The greatest testament to this book is that it was written in the early 80’s and still doesn’t feel outdated, despite the emergence of seemingly a whole new sport having evolved. Dr. Z tells it like it is and combines incredible access with insight. I learned a great deal as a football fan reading from the famed SI writer.
Honorable Mention: A Season on the Brink by John Feinstein; Take Your Eye Off the Ball: How to Watch Football by Knowing Where to Look by Pat Kirwan; Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance by W. Timothy Gallwey; Boys Among Men: How the Prep-to-Pro Generation Redefined the NBA and Sparked a Basketball Revolution; The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football by Jeff Benedict
I want to end on a quick word on how I choose which sports books to read beyond just my favorites. One of my professional goals is to write a couple sports books myself, and the best way to learn is to read the best (and since I don’t have unlimited time, I don’t just pick every book off the shelf). As a reader, I love breadth in my sports books: ones that teach me something I do not know and have access, ones that tackle a specific sport-related subject like stadiums or race, stories that defined eras, etc. Books that are authored by prominent sports journalists like Feinstein or Verducci are pretty sure bets, as are ones that resonate in the sports community (not only by notoriety, but by substance). I read a lot of articles about sports about the current goings-on, so when I pick up a sports book, I hope it changes not just my knowledge of the games, but how I see them in the future.