Prose Bowl

Legends, scandals and one very cold swimmer: SI's best books of 2004
December 27, 2004

TED WILLIAMS: THE BIOGRAPHY OF AN AMERICAN HERO

by Leigh Montville

Doubleday, $24.95

Did we need someone to take another swing at the Splinter's well-chronicled life? (Library shelves groan with at least 10 Williams bios.) This exquisite, exhaustively researched effort by The Boston Globe columnist and former SI senior writer is proof that we did. An unabashed Williams fan, Montville is inspired--but not blinded--by love for his subject, and he recounts his childhood hero's on- and off-field exploits in intimate detail. The result is a sometimes painfully vivid colorization of the familiar sepia-toned images of Williams as baseball star, war hero and fishing ace. One of Montville's 400 interviewees told him that writing a book about Williams would be like "reaching down to the bottom of the ice chest, where you touch all the dirt and the strange things." Nevertheless, he delivers a singularly warm and revealing sports bio.

RAMMER JAMMER YELLOW HAMMER

by Warren St. John

Crown, $24

Think you are a college football fan? Do you throw up with anxiety every time your team plays? Do you believe your team's greatest alltime coach had "Godlike qualities"? Would you purchase a $300,000 RV just so you could follow your team to any stadium in the continental U.S.? Would you haul your wife out of her hospital bed, or skip your daughter's wedding, to see a game? In this unique and often hilarious take on fandom, St. John hitches a wild RV ride through the South to investigate a bizarre and delightful fever he shares with countless Alabamians: a full-throttle addiction to the Crimson Tide.

SWIMMING TO ANTARCTICA

by Lynne Cox

Knopf, $24.95

Cox describes her thoughts upon hitting the water for a one-mile swim off the coast of Antarctica: "All I could think about was moving forward." The same drive infuses her gripping memoir of a career spent one-upping herself. In an understated style as clear as polar sunlight, Cox re-creates her epic swims and brilliantly conveys what it feels like to push across Antarctica, the English Channel and the Bering Strait.

STATE OF GRACE

by Robert Timberg

Free Press, $26

Hardly anyone remembers sandlot football from the 1950s. But what's to remember about a bunch of blue-collar Brooklyn teens smashmouthing it up with their counterparts from Queens? In this moving memoir Timberg reveals that he, like many of his teammates, was given the courage to strive for a more fulfilling life by his time spent on the sandlots.

THE SECOND MARK

by Joy Goodwin

Simon & Schuster, $25

The judging scandal at the 2002 Winter Olympics provides the backdrop for Goodwin's look into the sometimes beautiful, sometimes hideous world of pairs skating. Key here are the stories of the three pairs (from Russia, Canada and China) who won medals in Salt Lake City. Goodwin explores how skating is perceived in their respective homelands. Then, against those disparate backdrops, she brings the skaters, coaches and parents to life, and we root for them all as we learn of the hardships they overcame to reach the top.

UNFORGIVABLE BLACKNESS: THE RISE AND FALL OF JACK JOHNSON

by Geoffrey C. Ward

Knopf, $26.95

Imagine a fighter with the fists of Joe Louis, the charisma of Muhammad Ali and the cunning of Don King: That was Jack Johnson, the heavyweight champ from 1908 to '15. In this richly detailed work Ward brings to life a complex man whose flouting of racial norms--he married three white women--infuriated whites and blacks alike.

THE LAST SEASON: A TEAM IN SEARCH OF ITS SOUL

by Phil Jackson

Penguin Press, $24.95

No one had a better seat for the birth of the Shaq-Kobe feud than Jackson, and the retired Lakers coach, who has always fancied himself an amateur psychologist, is candid in describing both his men. O'Neal can be petty and "juvenile," while Bryant is "narcissistic" and a "callous gun for hire."

NAMATH: A BIOGRAPHY

by Mark Kriegel

Viking Books, $27.95

You can taste the Scotch and smell the perfume in this rich portrayal of the ultimate playboy, but Kriegel's burrowing reveals the physical and emotional anguish Namath endured. Life after football isn't always pretty for Broadway Joe; Kriegel shows Namath is all the more fascinating for being flawed.

HOW SOCCER EXPLAINS THE WORLD

by Franklin Foer

Harper Collins, $24.95

Mixing reporting, geopolitical analysis and anthropology, Foer explains the inexorable power of futbol. His far-flung adventure introduces us to fascinating characters, including the diehards who rally behind FC Barcelona to assert Catalàn independence and the Scottish fans of Rangers and Celtic, whose mutual hatred has as much to do with religion as sport.

THE MATCH

by Bruce Schoenfeld

Amistad, $24.95

Though Althea Gibson was the first black tennis player to win a major title (in 1956), she spent much of her later life poor and forgotten. Eschewing conventional biography, Schoenfeld focuses on the partnership between Gibson, the Harlem-raised daughter of a South Carolina sharecropper, and Angela Buxton, a Jew from a wealthy London family. The pair formed a championship doubles team and a five-decade friendship.

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If the Yankees call me, I'll go with them --28-INCH TALL NELSON DE LA ROSA, THE BEAT, PAGE 41

COLOR ILLUSTRATIONILLUSTRATION BY STEVE BRODNER COLOR PHOTODOUBLEDAY (WILLIAMS COVER) COLOR PHOTOCROWN PUBLISHERS (RAMMER JAMMER COVER) COLOR PHOTOKNOPF (ANTARCTICA COVER, UNFORGIVABLE BLACKNESS COVER) COLOR PHOTOFREE PRESS (STATE OF GRACE COVER) COLOR PHOTOSIMON & SCHUSTER (SECOND MARK COVER) COLOR PHOTOTHE PENGUIN PRESS (THE LAST SEASON COVER) COLOR PHOTOVIKING BOOKS (NAMATH COVER) COLOR PHOTOHARPER COLLINS (SOCCER COVER) COLOR PHOTOAMISTAD (THE MATCH COVER)

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