This is the story of an All-American college running back growing up in the segregated South who never quite lives up to his potential once he hits the pros, then has trouble adjusting to life once his career ends.
11. A Well-Paid Slave: Curt Flood’s Fight for Free Agency in Professional Sports, by Brad Snyder. This is partly the story of former St. Louis Cardinals outfield Curt Flood, and it’s mostly the story of the baseball reserve clause and the challenges and attempts to bring free agency to baseball. And if you ever want to read the details of one of the stupidest-ever Supreme Court opinions, this is the place.
10. Breaks of the Game, by David Halberstam. Halberstam spends a year with the Portland Trailblazers back in the days before the NBA was the corporate culture it is now. There are the non-chartered flights, the buses, the personalities. John Feinstein’s made a career of writing these year-with books, but Halberstam wrote the best one of them all.
9. Tie. Going Long: The Wild Ten-Year Saga of the Renegade American Football League in the Words of Those Who Lived It, by Jeff Miller, and Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association, by Terry Pluto. These are the oral histories of the AFL and the ABA. Miller tells all about why the Oakland Raiders actually played their first couple of seasons in San Francisco, and about how they were a last-minute replacement for another team, and he tells us why the Denver Broncos uniforms were so ugly, and why the Boston Patriots had to play games on Friday nights. It takes us from the league’s formation through to the merger. Pluto’s tome is the humorous account of the ABA and its attempts to play in cities in fronts of tens of fans and with ball girls in bikinis. (Will Ferrell’s Semi-Pro was actually pretty accurate in capturing the mood and history of Pluto’s book.)
This is, technically, a children’s book. But this magical tale of parallel words dominated by baseball captures the mood and essence of baseball perhaps better than any adult book I’ve read.
6. Ball Four, by Jim Bouton. Jim Bouton was a former star pitcher for the New York Yankees who is, at this time, attempting to make a comeback as a knuckleball pitcher with the expansion Seattle Pilots, the team that, one year later, would become the Milwaukee Brewers. Bouton exposes the locker room, the pranks, the stupidities, the absurdities of baseball. He brings to life for all to see the original performance enhancing drug, amphetamines. Then there are the stories of married guys picking up girls on the road. It’s funny. It’s profane. It’s a damn good read.
5. Tie. Ted Williams: The Biography of an American Hero, by Leigh Montville, and Joe Dimaggio: The Hero’s Life, by Richard Ben Cramer. Two of baseballs best known, and best loved players were, actually, two of the biggest pricks to ever play the game. Williams lived to hit, and that was about it. He was hated, for most of his career, by Boston fans and Boston media. But he was a true war hero who flew fighter planes during World War II and Korea. Dimaggio was the better all-around player, but he spent a career dogged by injuries and jealousy. He was also one of the cheapest bastards ever to live. My favorite anecdote from the book is about how, instead of wasting money by washing his car, he would wait for it to rain then have one of his flunkies take it out for a drive. Both were great ballplayers, but they weren’t much as men. Kind of like Barry Bonds.
This started out as an April Fool’s lark in Sports Illustrated, with Plimpton filing a dispatch from spring training on New York Mets phenom Sidd Finch, a tall bizarre wunderkind who threw the fastest pitch ever recorded. Plimpton then expanded this tale into an enjoyable novel about Finch’s life in-and-out of baseball, and his inabilities to adjust to the life he was facing.
2. Eight Men Out: The Black Sox and the 1919 World Series, by Elliot Asinof. Sure, we’ve all heard the tale of the Chicago Black Sox and how they sullied the great American game by taking bribes and throwing the World Series. But Asinof gets inside what really happened, how Shoeless Joe didn’t try to throw the Series though he took the money. How some players approached the White Sox manager and told him what was happening, and how he didn’t care. How ChiSox owner Charles Cominskey was a cheap bastard who wouldn’t have had to worry about this if he had just followed through on his promises to his players.
1. Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy, by Jane Leavy. This is not only the best sports biography I’ve ever read, but it’s also one of the best biographies I’ve ever read. Leavy goes back in time to Koufax’s brilliant last season as a Dodger, and interweaves his past and his future around that year. Koufax was always uneasy with his stardom, and she had to write the book without ever actually meeting him, but he gave his okay to the project, and all those who worked and played and lived with Koufax were happy to talk about this reluctant star who quit the game when he could no longer take the pain.
-- John Royal
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