THE SPORTS DOCTOR- Read all about it: Sports stories shorten summer blahs
With the Fourth of July come and gone, summer is in full swing. Assuming not everyone has yet taken a vacation, I've assembled a list of sports books to pack in the beach bag. There's something for everyone: high drama, trash, mystery, glamour– it's all in there.
For the sentimental, Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand won't disappoint. To be honest, with the exception of Rascal I usually avoid books about animals, especially dogs and horses, seeing as how they usually die (Where the Red Fern Grows– Lord help me) or are treated horribly (Black Beauty– oh, the cruelty). However, I make an exception for Seabiscuit.
This New York Times bestseller is more than just a fairytale story of a handicapped racehorse– it's a rare peek inside horseracing with its anorexic jockeys, snobbery, and injuries. Seabiscuit is remarkable historical nonfiction, a real page-turner and a classic underdog story. Best of all, there's no need for tears at the end.
In direct contrast to Seabiscuit, my next recommendation will take a strong stomach and an open mind, if not a cold heart. The first line of Death in the Afternoon Ernest Hemingway wrote is "At the first bullfight I ever went to, I expected to be horrified and perhaps sickened by what I had been told would happen to the horses." Whatever empathy Hemingway may have lacked for the bulls themselves, he more than made up for by writing with passion and arrogance.
Hemingway tries desperately to impart his love of the bullfight to his readers, expounding on the sport's elemental beauty and spirituality. He writes of the bullfighter that he is "performing a work of art and playing with death, bringing it closer, closer, closer to himself... He gives you the feeling of his immortality, and, as you watch it, it becomes yours."
The pictures are a bit graphic, and the attention to bullfighting minutiae can be a tad tiresome, but Death in the Afternoon is a passionate, beautifully written book about a sport most of us will never witness. Thanks to Hemingway's afición, we can appreciate that we will never have to.
People looking for a book with no animals or death but an awful lot of gossip and trash, will like Ball Four by Jim Bouton. This inventor of Big League Chew was once a major league pitcher, and oh! the tales he tells.
To quote from the book jacket, "Sportswriters called Bouton a Judas, a Benedict Arnold and a ‘social leper.'" Ball Four is Bouton's diary of the season he tried to knuckleball his way out of the skids. The cussing, the gestures, the drinking, the women– I can't even quote the book without compromising my virtue.
Fans who love Mickey Mantle may not want to read about how he'd push kids aside when they sought his autograph (p. 30). Folks who adore Carl Yastrzemski might want to skip page 289, unless they don't mind reading about how he gave– well, to put it nicely– less than 100 percent when things weren't going well. No player, no team is safe from Bouton's pen. With the addition of a new epilogue, even newcomers to baseball won't be disappointed.
Of course, for a real heartbreaker, there's nothing better than Friday Night Lights. Long before the movie or the television series, in 1987 H. G. "Buzz" Bissinger won a Pulitzer Prize, and the next year he traveled to Odessa, Texas, to chronicle Permian High School's 1988 football season. Personally, I've never read a better book on football, and Sports Illustrated ranks it the fourth-best sports book ever. (Incidentally, Ball Four is ranked number three.)
Be warned– you'll get attached to the boys, the coach, and the town. Boobie Miles' fall from grace is a dismal and crushing story, one told so well that he'll pop into your thoughts months, even years later. And as far as antagonists go, the Dallas-Carter football team ranks right up there with Robert Ford, the man who shot Jesse James. Read it. Now.
There are plenty of other books to recommend: Maiden Voyage by Tania Aebi is as close as most of us will get to sailing around the world single-handedly; Paper Lion, by the incomparable George Plimpton, will dispel any hopes you may have of playing with the big boys. And if you're looking for a real summer read, Game of Shadows by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams fits the bill.
All you need is a library card.