Read All About It: Some Sports-Book Suggestions for the Summer
While we are waiting for our favorite sports to figure out their plans to return to action, I have been thinking about suggesting some favorite books.
It is, after all, the time when recommendations for beach reading come out. Here’s hoping your beach is open and safe.
I still want to see how sports deal with the inevitable ``somebody tested positive’’ issue after they open before I will feel good about the return of games.
Here’s another issue with making book recommendations, especially for an old crank who tends to read books long after they are published. I prefer paperbacks to hard cover; I find them easier to handle. And because I’m a slow reader, I like to choose carefully with my limited ability to consume books.
Last caveat: You don’t really need me to tell you about books you’ve already read. But since that’s different for everybody, I’m going for a mix of the obvious, the obscure and the undiscovered. Also, I’m going to include some books I remember enjoying long ago, books that I would like to re-read.
Oh, gee: One more. I know TMG is primarily a college football site. But baseball and golf occupy the largest amounts of space on my sports bookshelf. I believe that’s because there’s more good writing about baseball and golf than about other sports. But I am open to suggestions.
On with it:
Let’s start with a couple that you might not be aware of. . .
I recently ran across a biography, Titanic Thompson, The Man Who Bet on Everything, a remarkable gambler, hustler, golfer who led a marvelous life. Beyond making and winning ridiculous wagers, Thompson had these Zelig-like brushes with the famous and notorious. He arranged a celebrated golf match between Ray Floyd and a then-unknown youngster, Lee Trevino. He was very much involved in the poker game that led to the murder of Arnold Rothstein, who fixed the World Series. Nicely told by Kevin Cook, who also wrote Tommy’s Honour.
And then there’s First Off the Tee, a history of Presidents and their golf games, from William Howard Taft to George W. Bush. The book was written in 2003, before Obama and Trump, by Don Van Natta Jr. You may have seen his marvelous ESPN documentary, Banned for Life, about Joe Jackson, Pete Rose and baseball gambling.
Here’s a must-read for college football fans. In The Opening Kickoff: The Tumultuous Birth of a Football Nation, BTN anchor Dave Revsine details how college football first became a wildly popular sport in the late 1800s. Princeton, Yale and Harvard led the charge. And then it just meant more at Michigan, Wisconsin and Chicago. Yes, it was a very different game. But the passion, innovation and chicanery remain the same.
To people who didn't watch 1960s football, Vince Lombardi is a name on a trophy and a black-and-white photo of a thick-lensed guy in a fedora standing on a sideline. But Lombardi’s story is fascinating, from member of Fordham’s Seven Blocks of Granite to a long apprenticeship as an assistant at Army when Army was a college-football power to the New York Giants to building a Nick-Saban-worthy juggernaut in Green Bay. And David Maraniss’ When Pride Still Mattered tells it exceptionally well.
You can argue about who is the greatest NFL quarterback of all-time. What you can’t argue about: Johnny Unitas invented that term. Johnny U: The Life and Times of John Unitas, by Tom Callahan, tells the story of the man who was the best QB in the golden age of NFL football.
Quick now: Can you name the Heisman Trophy winner who scored the winning touchdown in the Greatest NFL Game Ever Played? Probably not, because Alan Ameche was a fullback from Wisconsin overshadowed by many of his Baltimore Colts teammates. Heart problems took Ameche too soon, at 55, but not before he made a post-football fortune in business. In other words, a remarkable life. Well told in Alan Ameche: The Story of ``The Horse’’ by my late friend Dan Manoyan. (Yes, actor Don Ameche was a distant cousin. And yes, Ameche's widow married another Heisman Trophy winner.)
And of course, This is B1G, by my friend Ed Sherman, is the definitive history of the Big Ten Conference. It's not just a fine comprehensive read; it's also suitable for weight-lifting.
I love in-their-own-words interviews with old-time ballplayers. I just find them—and the game—fascinating. Which is why I wrote a novel about the 1908 Cubs, The Run Don’t Count: The Life and Times of Frank Chance and his 1908 Chicago Cubs. Two big influences are a pair of books containing interviews with long-gone players. The Glory of Their Times and My Greatest Day in Baseball. Glory, by Lawrence Ritter, is word-for-word pure gold. Greatest Day, a collection of as told-to-famous sportswriters of yore, was memorable enough that Jerome Holtzman—the Dean, as we used to call him—helped re-issue it.
Some other baseball classics I hope to re-read. . . Veeck as in Wreck, a memoir/biography from Bill Veeck Jr., the legendary maverick owner; The Universal Baseball Association, a novel by Robert Coover about ultimate APBA, and The Great American Novel, Philip Roth’s out-of-left-field look at what used to be call America’s national pastime.
For baseball biographies, Charles Leerhsen does the important job of setting a befuddling record straight in Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty. The story of the misinformation about Cobb is as interesting as the story of Cobb’s remarkable life. . . . The Jane Leavy biographies of Mickey Mantle, Sandy Koufax and Babe Ruth are also top-shelf musts. I expect you already know that.
And last but not least, Let’s Play Two, the biography of Ernie Banks by Ron Rapoport, my former Sun-Times colleague. Rap does a nice job of painting the Banks enigma, the mystery man behind the ever-sunny exterior. Also a lot of nice background on the Cubs teams that Ernie played for.
Beyond First Off the Tee, here are some books that every golfer should check out. . . Hogan, Curt Sampson’s engaging biography of Ben Hogan. . . The Match, by Mark Frost, a fine yarn about a 1956 match pitting Hogan and Byron Nelson against top amateurs Ken Venturi and Harvie Ward. It includes some great lore about Monterey Peninsula golf. . . Golf in the Kingdom, an almost biblical classic. . . . And anything that Dan Jenkins writes. And anything that John Updike wrote about golf.
The Breaks of the Game, David Halberstam’s classic about the 1979-80 Portland Trailblazers, lays out the blueprint for how these kinds of books should be written. Also, The Jordan Rules, by my friend Sam Smith, who greatly admired Halberstam’s The Breaks of the Game.
I read Net Worth: Exploding the Myths of Pro Hockey, by David Cruise and Alison Griffiths, so long ago that it’s high on the re-read list. It was published nearly 30 years ago, so it’s definitely formative history. But it’s like a Ken Burn documentary on the printed page, a riveting look at the early days of professional hockey and the characters who oversaw it.
If you like sports history with an extra bit of drama, please check out my 1908 Cubs novel, The Run Don’t Count: The Life and Times of Frank Chance and his 1908 Chicago Cubs. As Harry Caray used to say, Father's Day is coming tra-la, tra-la. . . Excerpts and other information at facebook/therundontcount. It’s available in paperback and Kindle at Amazon.com.