What Else Is Out There?
When it comes to sports books, legends and winners matter. That’s why you see the same line-up of athletes and teams at your bookstore. Some subjects are evergreen. Books on the Yankees, Celtics, and Muhammad Ali will always have shelf space. Other topics arise when appropriate. During their title runs a few years back, everyone from David Halberstam to Stephen King was writing about the Patriots or the Red Sox.
I understand why this happens. Publishers need to make money and books on the 1960s Packers or Jackie Robinson are a proven revenue source. A lengthy oral history of the Seattle Mariners? Not so much.
As a service to the publishing industry and bored sports readers everywhere, I’ve come up with three topics for books that would enchant readers and sell big. To make things easier, I’ve even recommended authors. My requests: a credit on the acknowledgements page and a generous slice of in-store sales.
And free copies of these books, of course.
1.) The United States Football League: The springtime football league, which played games from 1983 to 1985, was a legitimate rival to the National Football League. It featured a big-time TV contract and a talented corps of players (many of whom later migrated to the NFL). But despite iffy attendance and lackluster TV ratings, New Jersey Generals owner Donald Trump (yes, that one) was determined to compete directly with the NFL in the fall.
Such logic proved fatal, culminating in a famed antirust suit where the USFL (led by Trump) claimed that the NFL had a football monopoly. The judge ruled in favor of the USFL, which was rewarded one dollar.
My rigorous Amazon research shows that a book about USFL, Jim Byrne's The One Dollar League, was published in 1987. The league folded in 1986. Now is the time for another book. Enough years have passed to examine the USFL’s impact on professional football and for interview subjects to offer complete candor.
The best part, as shown in the excellent ESPN documentary “Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?,” is that plenty of sources would talk about the league’s short, but memorable history. Big personalities loom: Trump, Burt Reynolds (who co-owned the Tampa Bay Bandits), perpetual underdog quarterback Doug Flutie, and enigmatic, highly-paid running machine Herschel Walker.
Plus, the USFL is coming back! Well, at least, according to this weird, cryptic website I found.
Recommended author: Terry Pluto, who chronicled the history of another maverick, dearly departed sports league, the American Basketball Association, in Loose Balls. It’s perhaps the best oral history I’ve ever read. If the hoops-minded Pluto doesn’t want to wander outside his comfort zone, then venerable football reporter Peter King and his expansive Rolodex would be an ideal candidate.
2.) Rick Barry: In Bill Simmons’s The Book of Basketball, the Sports Guy calls the Golden State Warriors legend, a staggeringly talented white hoopster, “his own worst enemy.” Simmons believes that Barry, petulant and unforgiving, refused to shoot after teammates failed to rush to his aid during a melee in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals. (The Warriors lost the game; Barry has denied tanking.) He jumped from the NBA to the ABA in 1967 for no real reason than to play for his father-in-law, Bruce Hale. In doing so, Barry violated his contract with Golden State and destroyed a championship contender. Oh, and Barry was frequently viewed as a racist, not the best quality for a line of work featuring lots and lots of black people.
In 1983, long before he became ESPN’s cranky old man, Tony Kornheiser wrote a marvelous profile for Sports Illustrated on Barry, who was just three years removed from his last professional game. Though one of the best players of all-time, the young retiree had no legacy. Barry didn’t just burn every bridge—he also annihilated every available road and tunnel. By the time he realized what had happened, it was too late. “It bothers me,” Barry said, “that I’m not even liked.”
Barry was right. Among the other quotes Kornheiser collected:
Ken Macker, the Warriors’ executive vice-president: “You’ll never find a bunch of players sitting around talking about the good old days with Rick. His teammates and his opponents generally and thoroughly detested him.”
Billy Paultz, Barry’s friend and teammate: “If you got to know Rick you’d have realized what a good guy he was. But around the league they thought of him as the most arrogant guy ever. I couldn’t believe it. Half the players disliked Rick. The other half hated him.”
Bill Russell, Barry’s broadcast partner at CBS. In an infamous moment on live TV, Barry joked about Russell’s “watermelon smile.” “When asked about him [Barry], Russell’s immediate reaction was his trademark, a rich, high-pitched cackle,” Kornheiser writes. “For half a minute.”
Jim Harrington, the supervising producer during Barry’s stint at CBS: “Time and time again his whole approach to the game—and to life—was negative. He was an extremely disliked individual. We’d be in a limousine together and people would pound on the windows trying to punch him in the face.”
No novelist could craft such a lost soul, and Barry’s story can only have grown more poignant and involved over the last 28 years. (Plus, the public needs to be reminded of Barry’s basketball skills: He’s the only player to lead the ABA, NBA, and NCAA in scoring. A gifted passer and rebounder, you could say he was Larry Bird without the goodwill and constant availability of a three-point line.)
Recommended author: Mark Kriegel, author of Namath: A Biography and Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich, who has a skill for profiling athletes with glorious athletic lives and shattered personal ones.
3.) The National: A daily newspaper in the United States devoted to sports, The National seemed like a can’t-miss proposition. It featured the financial backing of “Mexican media magnate” Emilio Azcarraga and a roster of talented writers, including Mike Lupica and Charles P. Pierce. Frank Deford, the legendary Sports Illustrated scribe, served as the editor. But plagued by printing, circulation, and cash problems, the acclaimed paper folded on June 13, 1991, less than eighteen months after its debut.
The National lost over $100 million in its brief existence.
In his stellar history of Sports Illustrated, The Franchise, Michael MacCambridge touches on the high-profile fiasco, focusing mostly on how difficult it was for Deford to leave the hallowed halls of SI for this glorious opportunity. MacCambridge does offer a tantalizing glimpse of The National’s gross financial incompetence that begs for more coverage.
The newspaper used a discount phone service that required reporters to dial thirty-one digits to make an outside phone call. The handling of finances was so strained that Deford once had to step in to prevent a fistfight between two department heads. And in the fall of 1990, when business manager Dan Correa was fired, he left the office with his desk locked. When the bottom drawer was pried open, Televisa executives found over $2 million in unpaid invoices. “He did the same thing with bills for The National that we used to do with our phone bills in college,” said one National staffer. “Hey—I don’t see it, I don’t gotta pay it!”
Recommended author: Seth Mnookin detailed the embarrassing Jayson Blair debacle at The New York Times (Hard News) and evaluated the winning ways of the Red Sox (Feeding the Monster). Writing this book is practically a job requirement for the skilled reporter.
Books mentioned in this column: