The best books on sport history from someone who is mad for history

Robert Colls Author Of This Sporting Life: Sport and Liberty in England, 1760-1960
By Robert Colls

Who am I?

One reason is that I belong to Europe's leading sports institute, the International Centre for Sport History and Culture at De Montfort University in England. The other reason is that I’m mad about all history, not just sports history. I am currently a Professor of History at De Montfort University, Leicester. Before that, I was a Professor of English History at Leicester University.

I wrote...

This Sporting Life: Sport and Liberty in England, 1760-1960

By Robert Colls,

Book cover of This Sporting Life: Sport and Liberty in England, 1760-1960

What is my book about?

Apart from a truly great cover (look right) this book gets down to what it was like, for instance, to ride with Minna Burnaby and The Quorn in 1910, or fight bare-knuckle with English champion Tom Sayers in a Hampshire field in 1860, or be young, female, sporty, and up to university in the 1920s. This Sporting Life also tells how sport ran through every part of people’s lives, showing them, in actions not words, how to belong and how to be free – the two great themes of the modern era.

The books I picked & why

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Harold Larwood

By Duncan Hamilton,

Book cover of Harold Larwood

Why this book?

Best start with a cracker. Harold Larwood was the best fast bowler England ever produced. Three times winner of the William Hill Prize, Duncan Hamilton has claim to be the best sports writer. In the famous ‘Bodyline’ tests with Australia in 1933, standing 5’ 7” and 11 stone wet-through, Larwood the Nottinghamshire coalminer intimidated Bradman, ‘The Don’, the world’s greatest batsman. Chapter one is called ‘Kicking Bradman Up the Arse’ but the writing, like the bowling, rises to the occasion: “At full speed, Larwood flowed like a bolt of pure silk”.

Pierce Egan's Book of Sports, and Mirror of Life

By Pierce Egan,

Book cover of Pierce Egan's Book of Sports, and Mirror of Life

Why this book?

Sub-titled ‘embracing The Turf, The Chase, The Ring and The Stage’ and published in 1832, this book gives you a real taste of what old-time ‘sport’ was all about. Anything amusing! Even better, because it was written by the first great sporting journalist, this is the book that takes you there. You can smell the stables and taste the claret. In the year of Rachael Blackmore, for instance, check out “The Gallant Spirited Race, at Knavesmire, in Yorks, 4 miles for 500 or 1000 guineas, between The Late Col Thornton’s Lady and Mr. Flint…a lasting moment of FEMALE INTREPIDITY”. Irresistible.

The Sweet Science

By A.J. Liebling,

Book cover of The Sweet Science

Why this book?

In a very British list, there has got to be something from the great American tradition. Liebling wrote for the elite New Yorker but as a New Yorker in every sense he liked to think of himself as a sort of Pierce Egan of the Bronx. So, in the heyday of American fighting, take a ringside seat at The Garden to see the fighter with a face like a worn penny, and see Jersey Joe Walcott take a fall like flour out of a chute.

Fever Pitch

By Nick Hornby,

Book cover of Fever Pitch

Why this book?

There has to be a football book in the list and it was a toss-up between this and the other This Sporting Life (1960), David Storey’s magnificent novel about northern rugby league. But Hornby edges it because he is writing about being a fan and god knows being a fan gets little enough attention in sport writing. Admittedly, it is about Arsenal but I’m just going to have to live with that because Highbury was a lovely ground and Hornby is smart enough to know that sport is about everything in life but money.

Sport and the British: A Modern History

By Richard Holt,

Book cover of Sport and the British: A Modern History

Why this book?

Before Holt, the history of the British and their relationship with sport was just a muddy field with some green patches near the press box. Then Holt came along to drain the land, roll the turf, and set the boundaries. Most of all, he explained how modern sport was invented in the leafy streets of the suburban South and the wastes and alleyways of the industrial North. An absolute classic. First published in 1990, a new edition is on its way.

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