An Introduction and Manifesto
Jerry: How's the book [for the book club] coming?
George: Oh, pretty good.
Jerry: So, what is it about?
George: It's about Holly Golightly
Jerry: Holly Golightly
George: She's quite a character.
Jerry: Yes . . . You haven't read a page, have you?
Jerry: Big surprise.
George: I couldn't. If it's not about sports, I find it very hard to concentrate.
Jerry: You're not very bright, are you?
I realize it's probably poor form to start an introductory book column with an exchange from Seinfeld, but that scene captures the prevailing attitude of sports books and their readers. They're devoured by jersey-wearing meatheads whose grandest literary experience was browsing the New York Times' sports page. The books, meanwhile, are filled with game narratives or glossy remembrances about winning the big one—bonus points if the author/coach ties that victory into winning the game of life—and the value of teamwork.
As someone who loves sports books and collects them (both of which threw my college professor girlfriend for a loop when she examined my bookcase for the first time, though I'm sure the detailed figurines of Tom Seaver and Pete Maravich didn't help), I can attest that isn't the case. Yes, there are poorly written sports books that feature the aforementioned characteristics, and as a book reviewer and fearless library patron I've read my share. But the most satisfying books about sports do more than follow a template of clichés; they shatter them.
Look at Buzz Bissinger's Friday Night Lights, his glorious account of how a high school football team in Texas is both the lifeblood and noose of that small town. Will Leitch's God Save the Fan is a scathingly funny collection of essays about fandom and how certain institutions (ESPN, LeBron James, idol worship) need to be reconsidered. I’m hard pressed to find reporting as layered as Mark Bowden's in Bringing the Heat (about the 1992 Philadelphia Eagles) or find two biographers as insightful as David Maraniss (Vince Lombardi, Roberto Clemente) or Mark Kriegel (Joe Namath, Maravich).
Good, revealing sports writing should be treasured because athletes, coaches, and team executives can be so guarded (especially in this media-savvy age) and the established writing style can be so dry. Really, what’s the difference between the wrap-ups of a town council meeting and a basketball game aside from jumping ability and cheerleaders? You get an outline of what happened, quotes from the key individuals, and a look ahead. Good non-fiction books go beyond what was initially reported. Sports are such a giant part of our lives—from the ubiquitous presence of Shaquille O'Neal and Tiger Woods to cheering at our kids' games—that these books are forever relevant. You don’t have to love baseball to enjoy Bill Geist's Little League Confidential—his splendid book about the perils of coaching suburban little league—or Sam Walker's Fantasyland, where the author, a baseball writer for the Wall Street Journal, gets a little too invested in a fantasy baseball league.
This column is going to showcase excellent sports writing and related mania from a longtime reader of the genre; someone whose childhood consisted of reading the hefty Baseball Encyclopedia like it contained the secret of life. Sports writing was one of my first forays into reading and writing, opening my mind to a range of pleasures. And it still does. It's my hope that I can expose you to a world of great writing that you may have neglected for far too long.
By the way, if you decide to have a discussion on Bang the Drum Slowly or A False Spring, please invite me. I'll be sure to leave my beer helmet at home, and I won't wipe my hands on your curtains.
Books mentioned in this column:
Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream by H.G. Bissinger (Da Capo Press)
God Save the Fan: How Steroid Hypocrites, Soul-Sucking Suits, and a Worldwide Leader Not Named Bush Have Taken the Fun Out of Sports by Will Leitch (Harper Paperbacks)
Bringing the Heat by Mark Bowden (Atlantic Monthly Press)
Little League Confidential: One Coach’s Completely Unauthorized Tale of Survival by Bill Geist (Dell)
Fantasyland: A Sportswriter’s Obsessive Bid to Win the World’s Most Ruthless Fantasy Baseball League by Sam Walker (Penguin)
Baseball Encyclopedia by by Joseph Reichler
Bang the Drum Slowly by Mark Harris (Bison Books)
A False Spring by Pat Jordan (University of Nebraska Press)
Pete Croatto’s essays, criticism, and humor writing have appeared in MAD, Publishers Weekly, BookPage, and The (Newark) Star-Ledger. He also reviews movies for ICON and FilmCritic.com, and maintains a movie blog. Pete currently lives in central New Jersey with three bookshelves made by his dad and an overused library card.