The best sports books that are about more than wins & losses

Stephen Amidon Author Of Something like the Gods: A Cultural History of the Athlete from Achilles to LeBron
By Stephen Amidon

Who am I?

I’m a novelist (Human Capital, The New City, and Security) with a lifelong passion for sports, from my boyhood days as a Yankees fan during their woebegone late Sixties years, to my career as the father of an All-ACC wide receiver.  In my youth, I was a workmanlike catcher, mediocre quarterback, and hard-working 800-meter runner who came this close to breaking two minutes.  These days, I mainly enjoy watching great moments in sports history on YouTube.  Through it all, I have always believed that sports are about much more than wins, losses, records, and titles.

I wrote...

Something like the Gods: A Cultural History of the Athlete from Achilles to LeBron

By Stephen Amidon,

Book cover of Something like the Gods: A Cultural History of the Athlete from Achilles to LeBron

What is my book about?

Why is the athlete so important to us? Few public figures can dominate the public imagination with such power and authority. Even in our cynical times, when celebrities can be debunked at the speed of light, many still look to athletes as models for our moral and emotional lives. An aging fastballer goes for a few last wins in his final season, and he becomes an exemplar for our daily struggles against time.

Drawing from art, literature, politics, and history, Something like the Gods explores the powerful grip the athlete has always held on the Western imagination. Amidon examines the archetype of the competitor as it evolved from antiquity to the present day, from athlete-warriors such as Achilles and Ulysses to global media icons like Ali, Jordan, and Tiger Woods.

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Soccer in Sun and Shadow

By Eduardo Galeano,

Book cover of Soccer in Sun and Shadow

Why this book?

Galeano was no ordinary sportswriter. He was also a radical journalist, revisionist historian, and clear-eyed social critic whose work redefined modern Latin America in the minds of readers worldwide. In Soccer in Sun and Shadow, the Uruguayan author explores the meaning of soccer far beyond yellow cards and defensive strategies. In a series of short chapters, some no more than a page, Galeano illuminates the Beautiful Game’s legends, known and forgotten, from Maradona and Pele to the match that ended with 44 penalty kicks but whose results no one can quite remember. He is at his best when writing about how players of color from the favelas of Latin American added flare and rhythm to a hitherto stodgy old European game. Lyrical and learned, loving and elegiac, Soccer in Sun and Shadow stands as perhaps the greatest book on sports ever written.  

Jim Brown: Last Man Standing

By Dave Zirin,

Book cover of Jim Brown: Last Man Standing

Why this book?

Zirin, the first sports columnist in the 150-year history of The Nation magazine, is arguably America’s best sportswriter, not just because of his fine prose style and encyclopedic knowledge of the contemporary sporting scene, but also due to his deep understanding of the connections between sports and politics. His biography of the legendary Brown, the most dominant player to ever carry a football, is no mere act of hagiography. While acknowledging Brown’s unrivaled achievements on the field as well as his role as a leader in the Black Power movement and his trailblazing work as a Hollywood icon, Zirin also presents a frank picture of the Cleveland Browns legend’s troubling behavior toward women and his recent opportunistic support of Trump. The result is a thought-provoking, no-holds-barred template that all sports biographies should strive to follow.  

Ball Four: The Final Pitch

By Jim Bouton,

Book cover of Ball Four: The Final Pitch

Why this book?

Before the 1970 publication of Bouton’s riotous tell-all account of his not-quite-stellar career as a major league pitcher, baseball players were largely depicted as clean-living exemplars of American Manhood.  That all changed with Ball Four. While ostensibly a diary of his 1969 season with the Seattle Pilots (who were later to become the Milwaukee Brewers) and the Houston Astros, Bouton’s tell-all autobiography also provides plenty of anecdotes from his years playing for the legendary New York Yankees. Bouton’s revelations of substance abuse (he ‘outed’ the great Mickey Mantle as an alcoholic), compulsive womanizing and rampant cheating were so scandalous that league commissioner Bowie Kuhn denounced the book as detrimental to the national pastime. The image of the all-American sports hero has never been the same. 

A Fan's Notes

By Frederick Exley,

Book cover of A Fan's Notes

Why this book?

Exley was an immensely talented but deeply troubled writer who was able to turn his lifelong obsession with New York Giants superstar Frank Gifford into one of the best novels of post-war America. Starting with his days attending the University of Southern California in the same class as golden boy tailback Gifford, Exley’s patently autobiographical protagonist unwisely measures his own tortured life against that of the football icon. The result is a poignant and hilarious story that provides the most penetrating account ever written of what it means to be a fan. “Life isn't all a goddam football game!” Exley’s hero cries at one point. “You won't always get the girl! Life is rejection and pain and loss.” Exley’s genius is to transform that loss into an undisputed literary victory.  

Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream

By H.G. Bissinger,

Book cover of Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream

Why this book?

Although most cultures test their young through sports, there is nothing on the planet that quite rivals American high school football as a rite of passage. Behind the boosterism and cheerleading rests a melancholy knowledge that, for most of the boys on the field (and many of the fans in the stands), life will never be better than it is on those cool autumn nights. Bissinger’s genius is to capture this combination of excitement and wistfulness in a moving, utterly engrossing account of the Permian Panthers of Odessa, Texas as they undergo their fifteen weeks of glory in pursuit of a Texas state high school championship.   Bissinger is particularly adept at showing how high school football can provide a jolt of hope to a run-down community. Friday Night Lights is so good that it spawned not only one of the best sports movies ever made, but also one of the all-time great television series. 

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