The task of whittling down a rather long list to compile Sports Biblio’s Notable Sports Books of 2017 was more involved than I expected it to be.
Why I’m surprised by this I don’t know, for this has been the case since I started this blog in 2015. But to put some thought and consideration into book projects that are years in the making requires more than just a few minutes, or even a few hours.
To settle on 15 books, and to come up with a couple of sentences to describe them, was even more challenging.
News, Views and Reviews About Sports Books, History and Culture
Also in This Issue: Library of Congress Sports Films; The Dean of American Sports Cartoonists; Bob Costas in Cooperstown; Nebraska Volleyball Pioneers; Farewell to ‘A Minor League Park With a Major League View;’ Podcast Potpourri; Remembering Tommy Nobis
This is a subjective list, to be sure, somewhat representative by sport, region of the world, historical and journalistic importance and other topics that are regularly examined at Sports Biblio.
There is some critical acclaim that also plays a role in these choices, but for the most part, I tried to pick books that are broader reflections of the societies, nations, peoples and cultures from which they come.
These selections, which are are in alphabetical order, are meant only to be a sampling of one year of sports books. I would have liked to have included many more here.
In closing out this year of the Sports Biblio Digest (the newsletter returns on Jan. 7, 2018), here are my notable sports books of 2017, plus a lot of other great things to read about sports books, history and culture. Enjoy, and Happy Holidays!
“Ali: A Life,” by Jonathan Eig (Houghton Mifflin): The first full-scale biography of Ali since his death in 2016, which focuses on his health decline in later years and is critical of the boxing legend’s personal shortcomings. Extensively reviewed (including by Joyce Carol Oates for The New York Times), and the subject of a forthcoming PBS documentary by Ken Burns.
“Coach Wooden and Me: Our 50-Year Friendship On and Off the Court,” by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Grand Central): The NBA’s all-time leading scorer, and prolific author in his retirement, pens a memoir of his relationship with his former UCLA coach that transcended sports and reflected post-1960s America, in all of its complex manifestations. Story: Los Angeles Times
“The Cubs Way: The Zen of Building the Best Team in Baseball and Breaking the Curse,” by Tom Verducci (Crown Archetype): In a quick turnaround for the start of the 2017 season, the longtime Sports Illustrated baseball writer explores how the long-suffering franchise was rebuilt into a club that ended a 108-year-old World Series drought, and brings to life an electrifying 2016 playoff run that ended in extra innings in Game 7. Review: Wrigleyville Nation
“Dr. Z: The Lost Memoirs of an Irreverent Football Writer,” by Paul Zimmerman and Peter King (Triumph Books): Zimmerman elevated good writing and journalism about the National Football League as it was becoming the dominant spectator sport in America. Now disabled after strokes, he writes about the game and his own memorable life with the help of King, his longtime Sports Illustrated colleague, and his wife Linda.
“Fall of the House of FIFA: The Multimillion Dollar Corruption at the Heart of Global Soccer,” by David Conn (Nation Books): The longtime British journalist tackles, in alarming fashion, the story behind the breathtaking arrests of global soccer leaders in 2015. He traces the roots of this malfeasance to the mid-1970s, when international television and corporate interests altered FIFA forever. Review: The Globe and Mail
“Feeling Is the Thing That Happens in 1000th of a Second,” by Christian Ryan (riverrun): A passionate account of the sports photography of Patrick Eagar, whose stunning shots of The Ashes and the first Cricket World Cup in 1975 are some of the most acclaimed in the history of that sport, and what they mean in today’s world of turbo-charged cricket and digital photography. Review: The Cricket Monthly
“Footnotes: How Running Makes Us Human,” by Vybarr Cregan-Reid (Thomas Dunne Books): A British humanities professor takes a metaphysical, even spiritual approach to running, and treks around the world, employing neuroscience, evolutionary biology and even poetry to examine the simple human desire to run. Review: The Washington Post
“Game Change: The Life and Death of Steve Montador, and the Future of Hockey,” by Ken Dryden (Signal Books): The Hall of Fame goaltender, Canadian politician and author of “The Game” returns with a look at his sport in the wake of concussion-related injuries and fatalities, and issues an ominous warning if greater safety measures aren’t undertaken. Story: The Toronto Star
“Leo Durocher: Baseball’s Prodigal Son,” by Paul Dickson (Bloomsbury USA): The prolific baseball author takes a thorough and detached view of the combative manager, whose life off the field was just as voluble. Although detested by many in the game during his long career in uniform, the complex Durocher was praised for his support of integration, which his biographer amply describes. Review: History News Network
“No Hunger in Paradise: The Players. The Journey. The Dream,” by Michael Calvin (Century): An unsparing look at the procurement and development of youth soccer prospects, closing a trilogy by the author about the contemporary, globalized game. Aspiring players face long odds of being scouted in the first place, and often find themselves discarded without remorse by a brutal industry. Review: When Saturday Comes
“The Pride of the Yankees: Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper and the Making of a Classic,” by Richard Sandomir (Hachette): The longtime sports media for The New York Times goes behind the scenes in telling how the famous 1942 Hollywood film came to be. The screenplay was written by Paul Gallico, the legendary New York sportswriter, and the film was released three years after Gehrig’s death. His widow was a driving force, and didn’t want Babe Ruth to play himself in the picture. Story: Newsday
“Smart Baseball,” by Keith Law (William Morrow & Co.): The veteran baseball number analyst offers another provocative way to look at the game, taking on some of the sacred cows of long-revered statistics (such as the RBI), and how more revised mathematical evaluations are truer tests of a player’s worth, especially when evaluating Hall of Fame potential. Accessible to both “sabermetricians” and more traditional fans. Story: The Hardball Times
“Tom Simpson: Bird on the Wire,” by Andy McGrath (Bloomsbury Sport): A biography of the cycling icon, 50 years after his death during the Tour de France, portrays the British rider as a charismatic, impulsive character whose popularity endured even after an autopsy revealed extensive drugs in his system. Winner of the 2017 William Hill Sports Book of the Year.
“Under the Lights and in the Dark: Untold Stories of Women’s Soccer,” by Gwendolyn Oxenham (Icon Books): A global journey into the women’s club and country game in the U.S., Brazil, Denmark, Russia and beyond, describing how female players fight for resources, media attention and the respect enjoyed by their richer, more famous male counterparts. Although playing in obscurity, Oxenham’s subjects are revealed to be just as determined to crash those eternal barriers. Review: Equalizer Soccer
“The Year of the Pitcher: Bob Gibson, Denny McLain, and the End of Baseball’s Golden Age,” by Sridhar Pappu (Houghton Mifflin): In 1968, the year before Major League Baseball expansion, two hurlers did amazing things on the mound. While McLain’s Detroit Tigers beat Gibson’s St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series, the game was about to change in many ways during a turbulent time in American history. Review: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Honors for ‘Field of Dreams’
The Library of Congress has announced its Class of 2017 for the National Film Registry. These are films deemed to be of significant historical, cultural and aesthetic value, and this year’s collection includes the 1989 release of “Field of Dreams.” It’s the ninth sports film to be included in the 725-film registry, which was created in 1990 and includes films made between 1905-2000.
While the imaginative boundaries of “Field of Dreams”—inspired by W.P. Kinsella’s novel “Shoeless Joe”—are vast and metaphorical, and it has spawned a sizable flock of tourists to its Dubuque, Iowa setting, I didn’t think it was all that great of a movie. Yes, it gave us the resonant lines “If You Build It, They Will Come” and “Ease His Pain” but it also gave us the mystifyingly improbable cross country journey of Kevin Costner and James Earl Jones in a VW van.
Here are the other sports films that are already in the LOC, and if there’s a glaring admission, I think it would be “Pride of the Yankees.”
But I’m not a critic, and I’m not really griping, especially with the inclusion of a documentary of the legendary 1910 John Jeffries-Jack Johnson fight and “They Call It Pro Football,” which helped put NFL Films (and the NFL) on the map:
- “Hoop Dreams” (2005);
- “Hoosiers” (1986”);
- Jeffries-Johnson Heavyweight Fight (1910);
- “Knute Rockne, All-American” (1940);
- “A League of Their Own” (1992);
- “Raging Bull” (1980);
- “Rocky” (1976);
- “They Call It Pro Football” (1966).
More Than a Few Good Reads
- Sports Illustrated media writer Richard Deitsch has his rolled out his exhaustive list of best newspaper, magazine and web journalism for 2017, sports and otherwise, and the sports selections include Rod Carew’s heart transplant, courtesy of a deceased NFL player. There’s more than enough good reading here to tide you over for the holidays, with plenty of leftovers to start off 2018;
- Bob Costas is going to Cooperstown, and not to commentate. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame this week as the Ford C. Frick recipient, which goes to media contributors. While he’s called just about every major North American sport, and many obscure ones as NBC’s Olympics host, his passion for baseball is palpable. It’s still a treat to hear him call the handful of games he does each summer on the MLB Network, especially when he’s teamed up with John Smoltz. I also enjoyed Costas’ 1990s TV talk show “Later,” which went far beyond sports;
- Abdul-Jabbar writes at The Guardian that if the NFL is considered the sport that best reflects the American present, then the NBA represents its future;
- Even conservative media is wondering about the long-term health of the NFL, after a gruesome injury to Ryan Shazier of the Pittsburgh Steelers last week. I saw the play and wish I could unsee it, and I’m sure parents of young boys may have made the decision right there never to let their sons step onto a gridiron;
- The injuries suffered this season are staggering even by NFL standards. At Bleacher Report, Dan Pompei delves in the murky world of how teams not only deal with banged-up players in the training room, but work to prevent information about them from helping their opponents;
- When Georgia plays Oklahoma in the College Football Playoff semifinal on Jan. 1, it will be the first Rose Bowl appearance for the Bulldogs in 75 years. One of the stars who took part in that 1942 national championship win for UGA is Charley Trippi, who turned 96 this week and who is ecstatic to see his old school make a return to Pasadena;
- It was 40 years ago this week that the University of Evansville basketball team—players and coaches—perished in an airplane crash, and they’re still remembered fondly in a hoops-crazed southern Indiana town; a new documentary has been released to coincide with the anniversary;
- The golden age of sports cartooning was in the middle of the 20th century, before the arrival of television and the emergence of high-quality photography. One of its best-known figures is Murray Olderman, who sketched for newspapers and was nationally syndicated during that time. Now 95, he’s the author of a recent book, “The Draw of Sport,” which he discussed in a Q & A published this week at The Classical;
- One of the best things I’ve read in a long time, from Justin Klugh of The Good Phight Phillies blog, a farewell to Campbell’s Field in Camden, N.J., which overlooks the Delaware River and downtown Philadelphia. Built only in 2001, “a minor league park with a major league view” will soon be demolished for sports facilities at a nearby branch of Rutgers University;
- The powerhouse University of Nebraska volleyball team reached the NCAA finals again on Saturday. In a sport dominated by California and West Coast colleges, the Cornhuskers can trace their prowess to a group of local pioneers who formed the first varsity squad 50 years ago, right before Title IX would revolutionize women’s sports in the U.S.
Now Hear This
- Leading off this issue’s podcast parade is The Final Word, from Australia, and the exceptional bowlers on display at The Ashes, with the special guest the Aussie fast bowler standout Jason Gillespie;
- At Sports’ Forgotten Heroes, the most recent topic is Ernie DiGregorio, the second installment of a deep look with author Tim Wendel (“Buffalo, Home of the Braves”) about the 1970s NBA franchise now known as the Los Angeles Clippers;
- On the PosCast, Joe Posnanski and Michael Schur hash over the addition of Giancarlo Stanton to the New York Yankees;
- More with Bob Costas on a recent The Ringer podcast, discussing all kinds of sports and other topics with Bill Simmons;
- Terry Bradshaw’s career as a sports and media personality is the subject of the latest New Books in Sports podcast, with Bob D’Angelo interviewing author Brett Abrams (“Terry Bradshaw: From Super Bowl Champion to Television Personality.”). I just finished reading the book this week and will be writing more about it shortly;
- Rick Reilly and Jeff Pearlman, members of the Sports Illustrated alumni, chat about golfing with Trump, Mark Cuban, and a whole lot more;
- If you like a strident dose of feminism with sports, then Burn It All Down practically has the corner on this market. Not my brand of feminism, to be sure, and my only attempt at a listen resulted in a primal scream after a few minutes. But if you like what you hear they’re asking for Patreon donations to improve production capabilities;
- Nicholas Quah, who writes a very authoritative newsletter on the podcasting industry, raved earlier this year about the 30 for 30 Podcasts, which just began their second season. I’ve seen a number of good reviews though I haven’t gotten around to listening. Adding this to a growing list of podcasts, sports and otherwise, to check out more seriously in the new year.
Tommy Nobis, 74, was a hard-nosed linebacker from the University of Texas who led a national championship team and was the No. 1 pick in the 1966 NFL draft. He played 11 seasons for the Atlanta Falcons, which probably is why he’s not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
After his career, Nobis settled into a humble life of community service in metro Atlanta, starting a non-profit vocational center for developmentally disabled adults that carries his name.
As Mike Luck, my former sports department colleague from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, wrote in this remembrance, Nobis didn’t play on many winning teams here, but “Mr. Falcon” was so much more than a football idol to kids like him (and me), who grew up watching him play: “Nobis never let any of us down.”
The Sports Biblio Digest is an e-mail newsletter delivered each Sunday. It contains commentary and links about sports books and history. You can subscribe here and search the archives. This is Digest issue No. 108, published Dec. 17, 2017. The Digest is a companion to the Sports Biblio website.
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