My sports reading this year was a little off its usual pace. I blame too many books about the 2016 election (another one just arrived in the mail) and too many biographies (David Letterman isn't a rock star but it still had to be read). But enough sports books made their way to the top of the reading pile to feel comfortable enough doing a short best-of list for the year.
Trust me, the good sports books published in 2017 include a lot more than what I lay out here, but I didn't get to read as many of them as I would have liked. I also include a couple of books I did not read but plan to, as they come highly recommended. My early resolution for 2018: more sports, less election.
I've highlighted two strong choices that I've read, as well as a couple of related titles I haven't yet gotten to...and then a bonus choice that is more of a funny gift idea for the right person than it is a very good book. Onto the picks:
ALI, A LIFE by Jonathan Eig: If you read Eig's 2005 book Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig, you know this is a writer who does sports bios exceptionally well. He gets the details, which is pretty important.
In Ali, A Life, Eig may have outdone himself. I'm generally hesitant to call anything a must read but this book qualifies.
Ali died in June, 2016, decades removed from his best days as a fighter and personality. A whole generation grew up familiar only with the Ali of his later years, when Parkinson's Disease had impacted his movement in his speech. Many of them may have wondered what's all the fuss, why is this man The Greatest?
Eig's book should provide all the answers. It's not short, at 640 pages, but it never drags. Ali's life has been covered before and there's no shortage of books out there about him. This is the one to read.
A related book that's purchased, on the night stand, but not yet read: Sting Like A Bee, by Leigh Montville. Like Eig, Montville has a previous book about a Yankee great on his list. He wrote The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth. His look at Ali centers around a much more specific time frame, from 1966-1971 when Ali became a member of the Nation of Islam, started going by Muhammad Ali rather than Cassius Clay, declined to serve in the military and had his boxing titles taken away. If it is close to the quality of Montville's previous works, this will prove to be money well spent.
THE STREAK: LOU GEHRIG, CAL RIPKEN JR. AND BASEBALL'S MOST HISTORIC RECORD by John Eisenberg: The only real quibble here is with the title. Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak is probably baseball's most historic record and the one that will likely never be broken. But that is indeed just a quibble. This is a very good book.
Gehrig played in 2,130 straight games after famously replacing Wally Pipp in the lineup for the Yankees. Fifty-six years after it ended, Ripken Jr. topped that number and then some, adding 502 games to his streak before he finally missed one. That's more than 16 seasons without missing a game (and not so much as an inning for large portion of the streak).
The men and the eras they played in were different, therefore the streaks were as well. Eisenberg takes a good look at all three topics. Scheduling was different, travel was different, media attention was different.
This is a fun read. When you're done, you may have a different view of Gehrig's streak. Or Ripken's.
BONUS: A potentially good gift, but not a particularly good book:
ICE CAPADES: A MEMOIR OF FAST LIVING AND TOUGH HOCKEY by Sean Avery: My colleague Jack Dickey did a strong takedown of this book recently. He's pretty much spot on. This is not a great book or even a particularly good one. So why is it on this list? Well, that's simple. Hockey fans, Rangers fans and even any remaining Sean Avery fans (they did used to chant his name at the Garden, after all) who might be on your holiday list may have a different view and may enjoy it. Hockey fans are nothing if not loyal. Just be forewarned: They'll read a lot more about Sean Avery than they will about hockey.
Perhaps the money would be better spent on Game Change: The Life and Death of Steve Montador and the Future of Hockey by Ken Dryden. This comes recommended by a friend, though I've not had a chance to read it yet. Dryden, a Hockey Hall of Famer and Stanley Cup-winning goalie for the Montreal Canadiens, never met Montador and doesn't remember watching him play. Montador played in 571 NHL games for six different teams in a 10-year career. He died three years after his last game, at 35, and was found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The website hockeyfights.com said he had 89 fights, including his time in the minors.
It prompted Dryden, who has several other books to his credit, to take a look at why and how this happened. It's likely not as salacious as Avery's book but it is a safe bet it is more informative. I'm eager to find out.