I was in high school when I picked up a book called “No Cheering in the Press Box,” by Jerome Holtzman. It would be no exaggeration to say the book changed my life.
Holtzman, a Chicago baseball writer who became a baseball Hall of Famer, from 1971-73 recorded interviews with 18 sportswriters from the early 20th century, a golden era of the craft. The writers who recounted stories from their careers included Paul Gallico, Shirley Povich, Ford Frick, Red Smith and Jimmy Cannon. The book does for sportswriting what Lawrence Ritter’s “The Glory of Their Times” did for baseball, which is to bring alive the days of a bygone era through the words of men who were there.
Even writers with whom you may be unfamiliar have fascinating stories to tell. John Drebinger, for example, covered baseball for the New York Times for 37 years, writing the paper’s lead story for 203 consecutive World Series games. Drebinger’s first sports editor at the Times was a man named Colonel Bernard Thomson, who spoke with a British accent. (As the saying goes, you can’t make this stuff up.) Drebinger tells about drinking with Babe Ruth, ghostwriting for John McGraw and traveling with Rogers Hornsby.
After reading Holtzman’s book as a teenager, I started to fantasize about press boxes. I pictured sitting inside one at Yankee Stadium or perhaps Fenway Park or Wrigley Field, watching games and writing clever accounts that would be consumed by thousands of grateful newspaper readers.
My career did not exactly follow that trajectory, but I have had various newspaper jobs for the past 30 years. I don’t know if I would ever have found my career path if not for coming across Holtzman’s book in the public library.
A lot of sports journalists have similar stories to tell about books that inspired them. In the past few weeks I’ve polled a number of sports media types from Western New York and nationally, asking them to name their top three sports books of all time, with short explanations for each.
• “Semi-Tough” by Dan Jenkins. It’s cliche to say Jenkins’ football novel makes you embarrass yourself by laughing out loud on an airplane. I won’t do that. “Semi-Tough” made me laugh out loud on a bus to the rental-car center.
• “SportsWorld” by Robert Lipsyte. Nobody has grappled with the notion of whether sportswriting is a legitimate line of work more eloquently than Bob.
• “The Jocks” by Leonard Schecter. By the former New York Post writer. Angry, splenetic, capricious. And wonderful.
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• “Semi-Tough,” by Dan Jenkins. Still the funniest, most cutting, no-BS sportswriter I’ve ever read.
• “The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract,” by Bill James. A brilliant thinker … but people forget just how much of a clean, funny writer he is.
• “A False Spring,” by Pat Jordan. Every word Pat Jordan writes makes me wish I could write like Pat Jordan.
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• “A Hero’s Life,” by Richard Ben Cramer. So many interesting and revealing stories about Joe DiMaggio. It’s great reporting, and great writing. Once I heard a couple of other Yankees legends criticize the book, I knew I had to read it – and that I would love it.
• “Hager’s Comprehensive Investor’s Price Guide Rare Baseball Cards 1886 to Present”. It’s much, much more than just a price guide. Alan Hager’s opinionated prose on card collecting is direct, interesting and was in many ways prophetic.
• “The Greatest Goal,” Mike Leonetti. This is a children’s book about the famous 1972 hockey “Summit Series” between Canada and the Soviet Union. When I think about reading to my son once he was old enough to interact, I think of this book. I’ve always found the idea of my reading about this decades-old hockey series to an American toddler amusing.
Honorable mention: Roger Angell’s “Game Time.” His profile on Bob Gibson is one of my favorite pieces of sportswriting.
• “The City Game,” by Pete Axthelm. Took me into a place, the inner city of New York playgrounds, where urban legends spawned in a dark, unknown place. The parts about the Knicks and their NBA title were OK, but the tales of Herman “the Helicopter’’ Knowings and Earl “The Goat” Manigault were the things I gobbled up, rushing from one playground section to the next.
• “A Sense of Where You Are,” by John McPhee. I was just the right age when I read it, early high school, to dream about the transcendence of Bill Bradley, not realizing that half the appeal of this Princeton hoops star was the brilliant writing of one of the greatest American essayists.
• (tie) “Out of Their League,” by Dave Meggysey. The first true tale of the dehumanizing elements of big-time football. Rocked me. What I had felt deep inside.
• (tie) “North Dallas Forty,” by Pete Gent. Fiction from a former player, as engaging and tragic a look at NFL football as there has been. Plus, an athlete can write.
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• “Moneyball,” by Michael Lewis. Learn to appreciate the role of a general manager while also getting in at the starting point of analytics, where all sports are most certainly headed.
• “The GM,” by Tom Callahan. Any football fan would tear through this fascinating book on the highs and lows of a football life, told through former New York Giants GM Ernie Accorsi.
• “The Majors,” by John Feinstein. I can only take a bit of Feinstein as he’s so tangential, but this inside-the-ropes tour of the PGA Tour is one that will give you great respect for the individual battles of a pro golfer.
My real answer is “The Drunkard’s Walk, How Randomness Rules our Lives,” by Leanord Mlodinow. This wouldn’t be considered a sports book, but I would consider it required reading in understanding probabilities and deconstructing sports narratives, to help you form your own opinion and know when to stray away from the herd.
• “Winning Sounds Like This: A Season with the Women’s Basketball Team at Gallaudet, the World’s Only Deaf University,” by Wayne Coffey. The “season inside” book has been replicated in many forms, but never as artfully as Coffey’s time with Gallaudet. Few sports teams will stay with you like these young women do, thanks to Coffey’s storytelling.
• “Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich,” by Mark Kriegel. Kriegel is the best sports biographer of this generation, and the definitive bio of Pistol Pete and his father, Press, is the best of Kriegel’s run of New York Times best-sellers.
• “My Losing Season,” by Pat Conroy. The basis for the movie “The Great Santini,” a brutally honest and moving account of Conroy’s young athletic life with an overbearing father…
Formerly of New York Post
• “Foul!” by David Wolf. Wolf’s research revealed how Connie Hawkins (and Roger Brown and others) were unjustly blackballed by the NBA for associating with point shaver Jack Molinas. Should be mandatory reading for aspiring journalists and investigative reporters.
• “Ball Four,” by Jim Bouton, was the first behind the scenes look at professional sports (baseball) from a participant who outed Mickey Mantle and other teammates. Len Schechter, one of my all-time favorite sportswriters, was the editor and co-writer.
• “Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich,” by Mark Kriegel, told me everything I didn’t know about the game’s greatest showman. Though we became semi-friends during his 10-year NBA career, liking and loathing the same people, I never became Pistol’s confidant.
• “The Great American Novel,” by Philip Roth. Inspired weirdness from a great American author. The Port Ruppert Mundys are the worst team in baseball history – and that’s the least strange thing about them.
• “Semi-Tough,” by Dan Jenkins. Hilarious, profane, profound. A peerless comic novel.
“The Glory of Their Times,” by Lawrence Ritter. Essential oral history for baseball nuts. It’s all there in the subtitle: “The story of the early days of baseball told by the men who played it.”
• “The Best American Sports Writing of The Century,” edited by David Halberstam. A masters-class in narrative sports writing. Halberstam is one of my journalism heroes and a subject in one of the greatest books ever written about journalists in action – “Once Upon A Distance War,” by William Prochnau.
• “Friday Night Lights,” by H.G. Bissinger. This book changed the way I looked at football, and perhaps even how I view sports in this country as well.
• “You Gotta Play Hurt,” by Dan Jenkins. Might be the funniest sports book I’ve ever read; a Roman à clef about Jenkins’ time as a very famous Sports Illustrated writer, featuring editors always trying to mess up his copy.
TMQ columnist, ESPN.com
• “The Meaning of Sports,” by Michael Mandelbaum. Analyzes why the United States is the world’s most athletics-obsessed nation. Mandelbaum, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and also a sports nut, normally writes about foreign policy. It’s good when intellectuals pay attention to sports.
• “Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball,” by George Will. And it’s good when sophisticated thinkers pay attention to sports. Will’s descriptions of behind-the-scenes life in MLB may seem a little dated today, now that cameras are everywhere in sports. At the time this book was published it was very fresh.
• “The King of Sports: Football’s Impact on America,” by Gregg Easterbrook. Won’t tell no lies, I think this book is important. Spells out how football can be reformed to make the sport just as exciting as popular as today, but no longer notorious.
CHRIS “BULLDOG’’ PARKER
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• “The Art Of Fielding,” by Chad Harbach. A 2011 novel that I plowed through in a couple days. As I neared the end I started regretting that I’d be done soon. There is a paragraph in it that I have bookmarked about growing old and how the simplest things can make you really wistful. Beautiful.
• “Stolen Season: A Journey Through America And Baseball’s Minor Leagues,” by David Lamb. The author writes of covering dangerous unrest in the Middle East and wanting to do something very different when he came home. He buys a Winnebago, takes leave from his job and sets out on a trip you’d love to take.
• “Summer Of ’49,” David Halberstam. Just a classic about a great time in baseball.
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• “Bob Feller: Ace of the Greatest Generation,” by John Sickels. I grew up in Ohio as a huge Indians fan and remember my dad and grandfather telling me stories about Bob Feller. His journey was unique, from growing up in the middle of nowhere, to giving up part of his career to serve in the military.
• “Iron Horse: Lou Gehrig in his Time,” by Ray Robinson. When I attended Ohio University, they actually offered two different courses in the History of Baseball. This was required reading for the course, but it’s stuck around in my collection because it’s such an incredible story.
• “Moneyball,” by Michael Lewis. If you look at what the majority of pro sports teams do in their scouting departments, I think a lot of it is at least loosely tied to the concepts the Oakland A’s put into action.
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• “Gretzky: An Autobiography.” The book is about Wayne Gretzky’s first 10 years in the NHL. It was the first book I absolutely couldn’t put down.
• “The Big Show: Inside ESPN’s SportsCenter.” I still remember the exact moment when I decided to be a sports broadcaster. I was watching SportsCenter in the mid-’90s. Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick were the hosts that day and I made it my goal to get into this business right then and there.
• Any Washington Capitals media guide from the late-1980s to mid-1990s. I’m from the Washington, D.C., suburb of Bowie, Md. and I’ve been in love with the game of hockey since I can remember, so much so that I would spend hours just reading Caps media guides cover to cover.
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• “Friday Night Lights” by H.G. Bissinger. I read the book years before the movie came out and truly learned how passionate (see: crazy) people are about high school football in Texas.
• “Knight: My Story,” by Bob Knight with Bob Hammel. I’ve always been fascinated with the polarization of Bobby Knight as both a coach and person and this autobiography captures many of the reasons why, along with some terrific stories along the way.
• “Where Else Would You Rather Be?” by Marv Levy. As a Buffalonian and Bills fan, Marv’s book really brought me back to the Bills glory years and also gives a great glimpse into his incredible life.
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• “Ball Four,” Jim Bouton’s baseball expose. What an eye-opener for me. I went from young innocent baseball fan to, “I guess these guys aren’t all heroes after all,” after reading Ball Four.
• “A Season on the Brink,” by John Feinstein. I thoroughly enjoyed this book except for the ending when Syracuse loses to Indiana. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a Bob Knight fan. Any Orange fan will tell how that championship game loss to the Hoosiers still feels like a kick in the gut.
• “The Bronx Zoo,” by Sparky Lyle and Peter Golenbock. I am not a Yankee fan but those Yankees teams were extremely entertaining, from George Steinbrenner on down.
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• “Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter,” by Frank Deford. Sports features have always been compelling to me and Deford is one of the best of all time.
• “Moneyball” by Michael Lewis. Uber-trendy but a great read for stat-heads and curious minds.
• “Maniac McGee” by Jerry Spinelli. Yes, the children’s book. Blends sports and athleticism with societal issues, which is something readers can empathize with regardless of age.
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• “The Baseball Life of Sandy Koufax,” by George Vecsey.
• “The Bronx Zoo,” by Sparky Lyle and Peter Golenbock.
• “Gordie Howe,” by Stan Fischler.
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• “I Am Third,” by Gale Sayers. Sayers’ story and book that of course inspired the movie “Brian’s Song.” I read it at a very young age and it left an everlasting impression about not only the power of sports, but more importantly being the right kind of person, friend, and teammate in the midst of the harsh realities of life.
• “Bobby Orr: My Story.” Probably not one of the greatest sports books ever, but a more recent autobiography from a guy who revolutionized a position and a sport. I grew up in New England and he was the guy who influenced me to start playing hockey, and eventually get into sportscasting.
• “The Birth of the New NFL,” by Larry Felser. Having worked here in Buffalo since 1997, I certainly had a sense of Ralph Wilson’s accomplishments as an NFL owner, but I thought Larry’s book shed more and much needed light on the early impact he made as a force behind the merger for those of my generation ... cementing his Hall of Fame legacy. I always had a fondness, admiration, and appreciation for Larry and the way he would help young sports journalists of all types during stories despite competitive interests.
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• “Ball Four,” by Jim Bouton. For a very young baseball fan (at the time I read it), the book was hilarious and eye-opening.
• “Season on the Brink,” by John Feinstein. Love or hate Bobby Knight, he is a fascinating individual and any behind-the-scenes access was appealing to me.
• “Loose Balls,” by Terry Pluto. Having attended some New York Nets games and watching Dr. J while growing up on Long Island, I was interested to read so many stories about the old ABA.