Cobb A Terrible BeautyWhat makes a good sports book? That makes it a “favorite” or even the “best?”

Those are subjective words, based on a matter of taste and interest. In gathering material for the books published in 2015 that I thought might fit these categories, I came up with another word instead.


What’s listed below are thumbnail sketches of 15 books I regard as among the most notable this year, but it’s hardly my judgment alone. The selections are based on critical reviews, and to a lesser degree, sales.

The list contains books that are on the bestseller lists, and those issued by small publishers that may never gain a large audience, but have, or figure to make, a strong impact among the readers they have.

More than anything, they’re books that sports fans and books lovers are talking about, so this is an incredibly subjective list. Please feel free to comment on what you think. Add or subtract from this list if you please, and explain why.

In future posts I will have additional lists of notable 2015 books according to sport (baseball, soccer, golf, etc.) or other subject matter (biography, history, and so on). The books listed below are about American sports, and they are arranged alphabetically, by the author’s last name.

Not a Game“Not a Game: The Incredible Rise and Unthinkable Fall of Allen Iverson,” by Kent Babb (Atria Books)

The turbulent life and career of the Philadelphia 76ers legend (excerpt) is profiled by Babb, a sportswriter for The Washington Post. Babb was interviewed about the book by FanDuel. More from Philly Mag and a controversial reaction from ESPN personality Stephen A. Smith. 

“Endzone: The Rise, Fall and Return of Michigan Football,” by John U. Bacon (St. Martin’s Press)

The author was completing this follow-up (excerpt) to “Three and Out,” his chronicle of the brief Michigan coaching tenure of Rich Rodriguez, when the Wolverines hired favorite son Jim Harbaugh to revive the program. “Endzone” deeply explores the most recent changes affecting the business of big-time college athletics. Reviews: M Live | M Go Blog

“The Domino Diaries: My Decade Boxing with Olympic Champions and Chasing Hemingway’s Ghost in the Last Days of Castro’s Cuba,” by Brin-Jonathan Butler (Picador)

Butler immersed himself in the world of Cuban boxing (excerpt) to draw this portrait of a nation teetering with anxiety as Fidel Castro’s rule came to a close. It’s less about boxing and more about the soul and culture of a people who revere boxing heroes who turned down the riches of America to stay home. Interviews/Reviews: Miami Herald | Globe and Mail | Sports Biblio

“Living on the Volcano: The Secrets of Surviving as a Football Manager,” by Michael Calvin (Random House UK)Living on the Valcano

The high-pressure world of managing in English professional soccer claims its victims in unforgiving and rapid order. The “volcano” reference comes from Arsène Wenger, the Frenchmen who has truly beaten the odds, managing Arsenal in the Premier League since 1997. “We all suffer,” he says, having endured it longer than most. Interviews/Reviews: The Independent | When Saturday Comes | Each Game As It Comes

“The Oval World: A Global History of Rugby,” by Tony Collins (Bloomsbury USA)

Published as the Rugby World Cup was being played, this is comprehensive and accessible history, stretching from the game’s origins in England in the early 1800s to its reach in the Southern Hemisphere and the modern worldwide television age. Chapters include women’s rugby and the sport in the United States and Canada. Review: The Independent

“Waterman: The Life and Times of Duke Kahanamoku,” by David Davis (University of Nebraska Press)

The biography of America’s first swimming superstar goes beyond his winning Olympic gold to describe how he became a water sports celebrity while maintaining his Hawaiian pride. Reviews/Interviews: L.A. Daily News | WSJ | KPCC | Surfing Magazine

Barbarian Days“Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life,” by William Finnegan (Penguin Press)

Now based in New York, the acclaimed author and magazine writer’s memoir (excerpt) traces his boyhood in Hawaii and work as a teacher around the world, and his obsession with surfing. Nominated for numerous awards, and the only sports book shortlisted by Publishers Weekly for best book of 2015. Reviews: NYTNYRBLAT 

“Billion Dollar Ball: A Journey Through the Big-Money Culture of College Football,” by Gilbert M. Gaul (Viking)

An investigative reporter’s account of the rapid increase of money in college athletics, where elite coaches earn seven figures and schools and conferences generate hundreds of millions of dollars in television revenues from the labor of unpaid athletes. Not a new subject, but some eye-popping numbers and practices are revealed as the NCAA comes under greater scrutiny. Reviews/Interviews: NYTWash PostVice Sports 

“The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch,” by Jonathan Gottschall (Penguin Press)

An English professor takes to the MMA ring in the wake of losing tenure, and writes about his rediscovered sense of masculinity as he approaches middle age. The author takes a pro-evolutionary stance with his observations about sports and athletic activity, especially along gender lines. Reviews/Interviews: Wash Post |  Buffalo News | Sam HarrisOnly a Game | Sports Biblio 

“The Top of His Game: The Best Sportswriting of W.C. Heinz,” edited by Bill Littlefield (Library of America)The Top of His Game

This is the second collection of an American sportswriting legend published by the Library of America, which began this series with the work of Red Smith in 2013. Reviews/Interviews: CS MonitorThe Classical | The Stacks  (Deadspin)

“Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty,” by Charles Leerhsen (Simon & Schuster)

A fresh look at a baseball icon (excerpt) reveals that Cobb’s notoriety as a dirty player, racist and misanthrope is undeserved.  Leerhsen laces his narrative with plenty of venom for previous biographers and a film starring Tommy Lee Jones. Reviews:  NY Journal of Books |  NYTSports Biblio 

“Fire in Babylon: How the West Indies Cricket Team Brought a People to Its Feet,” by Simon Lister (Yellow Jersey)

The story of how legendary players Clive James and Viv Richards led an all-black team from the Caribbean island nations to international prominence in the 1970s and 1980s, during the time of Bob Marley. Inspired by a 2011 documentary with the same title. Reviews/Interviews: The Guardian |  ESPNCricinfo  

“Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South,” by Andrew Maraniss (Vanderbilt University Press)

The first African-American to play basketball in the Southeastern Conference endured heavy verbal abuse  during the twilight of the Jim Crow era. But he became more disillusioned about the lack of racial progress on his own campus. Reviews/Interviews: Wash PostNPR | Nashville SceneSports Biblio 

Best Team Money Can Buy“The Best Team Money Can Buy: The Los Angeles Dodgers’ Wild Struggle to Build a Baseball Powerhouse,” by Molly Knight (Simon & Schuster)

Once the benefactor of steady (if authoritarian) ownership under Walter O’Malley, the Dodgers franchise unraveled under the disastrous co-ownership of Frank and Jamie McCourt. Knight writes about how the Dodgers were salvaged by Magic Johnson (excerpt) and his Guggenheim Partners group. Still at issue is a feud over local television availability that has blacked out the vast majority of cable subscribers in the second-largest media market in America.  Reviews: LATSABR 

“Junior Seau: The Life and Death of a Football Icon,” by Jim Trotter (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

When the late San Diego Chargers linebacker was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame, his daughter wasn’t allowed to speak on his behalf. She’s been critical of the league for its handling of concussion-related matters after her father took his own life in 2012. Seau was one of many former NFLers diagnosed with CTE and not the first to commit suicide due to what some medical researchers believe may be football-induced brain trauma. Excerpts/Reviews/Interviews: Yahoo! SportsS.D. Union-TribuneSI Audibles Podcast 


Sports Biblio notable sports books for 2015: