The best books for sports fans

The Books I Picked & Why

Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation

By John Carlin

Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation

Why this book?

One of the many benefits of sports fandom I researched is its use in international affairs, nation-building, and the peace process. There is no better example of this than what has been called the “South African Miracle,” and in this great book, veteran English journalist Carlin, who was in the country for years covering its politics, shows how the late great Nelson Mandela, Nobel Peace Prize winner and South Africa’s first black President, used the intense fandom behind the nation’s beloved spectator sport, rugby, to ease the transition from apartheid to democracy and prevent an almost inevitable Civil War. The book was later the basis for the Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon movie Invictus.


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The Best Game Ever: Giants vs. Colts, 1958, and the Birth of the Modern NFL

By Mark Bowden

The Best Game Ever: Giants vs. Colts, 1958, and the Birth of the Modern NFL

Why this book?

I’m a big fan of bestselling author, journalist, and incredible researcher Mark Bowden, but this is easily his least well-known work. For those not up for the 1000+ pages of Guests of the Ayatollah or Killing Pablo (the basis for the Netflix series Narcos) or the staggering intensity of his true war tale Blackhawk Down, this is a more digestible choice. It simultaneously showcases three very different things about sports in America. First, how the NFL ascended to primacy using the new medium of television to surpass baseball and become the most popular sport. Secondly, how nationally televised sporting events became an integral part of our social fabric and the biggest broadcasts of any kind. Finally, for football fans, Bowden explains the seismic transition in the passing game, elevating the sport from an art to a science.


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Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer: A Road Trip Into the Heart of Fan Mania

By Warren St. John

Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer: A Road Trip Into the Heart of Fan Mania

Why this book?

Journalist and college football fan St. John takes us on a hilarious and eye-opening ride into the most passionate end of fandom. Through his entire season spent following his team on the road in an RV, St. John gives readers a deep immersion into the world of ultra-passionate fans, introducing characters who do things like skip their daughter’s wedding and risk missing heart transplant surgery to attend football games. We learn about NCAA licensed logo funeral caskets and such, while he paints an often funny and always vivid picture of the highly devoted sports fandom, all through the lens of a single legendary football program, the Alabama Crimson Tide.


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Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion's World Series of Poker

By James McManus

Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion's World Series of Poker

Why this book?

Some books seem almost too good to be true, and that’s the case when journalist McManus enters the World Series of Poker in order to use the first-person experience to anchor his book about Las Vegas poker culture. In almost impossible fashion he ends up at the final table – something unlikely to ever happen again - taking readers along for the exciting ride. He parallels the action with several other plotlines, including the mysterious and very Vegas-esque murder of tournament host Ted Binion, the progress of women competitors in the sport, and the rapid growth of poker. A classic of the genre, it also demonstrates why sports fans love an underdog, and how with sport’s uncertainty of outcome, truly anything can happen, making the Cinderella story vital to the nature of sports fandom.


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The Greatest Game Ever Played: Harry Vardon, Francis Ouimet, and the Birth of Modern Golf

By Mark Frost

The Greatest Game Ever Played: Harry Vardon, Francis Ouimet, and the Birth of Modern Golf

Why this book?

No one watches an NFL game and decides to put on a helmet and get knocked down, but once in a rare while, fans are so moved as spectators that they get off the couch and become participants. This increased activity is important to a largely sedentary nation with an obesity epidemic and there are several historical examples of this “participation effect,” when spectators become players, but none bigger than golf. Before this Cinderella story, golf was an elite niche sport and the vast majority of courses private. “Normal” people simply did not play. But when Francis Quimet, a 20-year-old caddie and son of a handyman reached the US Open final (then match play format), it electrified the public. This changed golf forever, sparking millions to take up the game and thousands of courses, overwhelmingly public, to be built. If not for the dramatic 1913 US Open, golf today might be as popular as dressage.


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