North of the 400

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The Best Sports Books of the Decade

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The 2000’s were a pretty good time for sports books.

In the late 90’s, there was a real kick in detailed biographies of sports legends – I personally blame David Maraniss – which resulted in some really great books in the early part of the decade. But as the 2000’s progressed, the trend shifted towards bloggers putting out collections; some (like Will Leitch’s book God Save the Fan) were better then others, but it seemed that the majority of books coming out were reflective in nature, written as a response to something rather then an interest.

For example, look at all the books that came out in the wake of the 2004 World Series. And look at all the ones that hold up only five years later (only Bill Simmons’ collection of columns and a quickie reissue of Golenbeck’s Fenway come to mind).

Still, there was a lot of good reading. My personal top 10 follows.

10: Sunday Money – Jeff MacGregor (2005)

I think a good case could be made that Nascar was the breakout sport of the decade. And right as it made a charge at the mainstream, Jeff MacGregor and his wife followed it on the road for an entire season. With prose reminiscent of Tom Wolfe and Richard Ben Cramer, he documents everything about Nascar; the unruly fans along pit road, the white-knuckle driving around the track and the higher ups determined to push their sport into the stratosphere. It’s also got one of my favourite descriptions of anything ever: the appeal of Dale Earhart summed up as  “He drove the way I feel”. Brilliant.

9: Namath – Mark Kriegel (2000)

You’ll never look at Broadway Joe the same way again. In a bio that illuminates the iconic quarterback in a new way, as somebody who is flawed, eager to please and maybe a little insecure. This was the first of two great bios written by Krigel – the other, Pistol, is no slouch either.

8: Moneyball – Michael Lewis (2003)

Who would have thought that Lewis – at the time, best known for Liar’s Poker, a memoir of his time on Wall Street – could stake a claim as the best sportswriter of the decade? With Moneyball, Lewis brought sabremetrics to the mainstream – he showed how Billy Beane could field winning teams on a shoestring budget and how Bill James writings had influenced a generation of baseball people. In turn, his book popularized this way of thinking in ways Lewis likely never imagined; the explosion of sites like Baseball Prospectus, the embrace of statistics throughout baseball (even ESPN shows On Base Percentage during at bats now) and teams like the Yankees and Red Sox incorporating these methods to their recruiting strategies.

7:  The Book of Basketball – Bill Simmons (2009)

A sprawling, huge tome that tries to find out what it is exactly that makes some teams better then others, tries to sort generations of players out into a clear order of who’s best and compares Bill Walton to Tupac Shakur. The best part is how clearly Simmons succeeds in this task. Simmons’ best writing always seems to be about his reactions to events, and this book shines in those places – about watching the Celtics with his dad, about remembering Len Bias and on his meeting with Walton. Plus, his bibliography at the back is a great reference point for anybody looking to buy another basketball book.

6: The Bad Guys Won! – Jeff Pearlman (2004)

1986 was a wild year for baseball, and as Jeff Pearlman so keenly documents, it was won by maybe the wildest team ever. The 1986 Mets were a wild, talented team. This book documents some players pushing themselves to the limit, some trying to recapture their potential and at least one who unironically used the word bitchin’. They destroyed baseball teams and airplanes and got arrested and basically had a great time while doing it all. It’s easily the most fun baseball book in a long time.

5: Facing Ali – Stephen Brunt (2004)

Brunt did something different here. He examined Muhammad Ali by examining those he fought. 15 chapters, 15 opponents then range the gamut from contenders to tomato cans and all of them are fascinating stories. And in doing so, Brunt manages to create a composite of Ali that’s more detailed and fascinating then anything else written about the boxer this decade.

4: George Plimpton on Sports – George Plimpton (2005)

This collection, released shortly after the death of Plimpton, encompasses the bulk of his sportswriting, almost all of which was done in his first-person participation style (participatory journalism, he called it). Plimpton will always be remembered for writing Paper Lion, but as this collection shows, he did much more then that: highlights include the story of Sidd Finch, a profile on Eddie Shore and his essay on the gods of sports from the easily overlooked ESPN: Saints, Sinners and Saviors.

3: God Save the Fan – Will Leitch (2008)

A loosely-connected series of essays about almost everything in sports (hockey is ignored by Leitch), basically intertwined by a) about what’s wrong with sports and b) what fans can do to reclaim sports. I thought he perhaps a little unfairly blames ESPN for a lot of the problems with sports and sports media, but then I’ve never actually watched ESPN. Even if this book wasn’t hilarious (it is), it’d still be worth a read just for the point it so clearly makes: support your team. Get lost in sports, it’s a distraction from the details of life. Don’t let so-called experts get in the way.

2: FreeDarko presents The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac – Various (2008)

When one remembers that Free Darko used to have a column on McSweeney’s, the postmodern lit magazine/website edited by Dave Eggers, suddenly they seem to make a lot more sense. Here Free Darko’s staff expertly and ingeniously breaks down a select group of then-current NBA players. They assign spirit animals, break down their game to a periodic table-ish style chart and explain why people should care about each player. For some, the reasons are simple; for others, they go deeper. The little bits at the end of each chapter are great too.

1: Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life – Richard Ben Cramer (2000)

Cramer examines every facet of Joe DiMaggio. Between his accomplishments on the field, his romance to Marilyn Monroe and his clear grasp of what his legacy was worth in cash, no athlete was likely as fascinating as DiMaggio. This book was more then just a biography, it was a strongly researched inquiry into what exactly a hero is in American society. DiMaggio was a hero and never let himself enter a world where he wasn’t. This was not only the best sports book of the decade, but one of the best ever.

Other highlights: The Miracle of St. Anthony – Adrian Wojnarowski, The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty – Buster Olney, Can I Keep My Jersey – Paul Shirley, Baseball Between the Numbers – The Baseball Prospectus Staff

Haven’t read, want to: The Rebel League – Ed Willes, Red: A Biography of Red Smith- Ira Berkow, The Show – Roland Lazenby, The Assist – Neil Swidey, Men With Balls – Drew Magary

Written by M.

December 16, 2009 at 9:57 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Hated Simmons’ The Book of Basketball. Liked Olney, loved Moneyball, had Lamar Odom recommend me The Bad Guys Won. Did you read Cait Murphy’s Crazy ’08? Or Fifty-Nine in ’84 (Achorn)? Or Baseball and Philosophy (a humorous, irreverant book edited by Eric Bronson)?

    What about Game of Shadows? Or the Jane Leavy biography of Sandy Koufax? Or Phil Jackson’s The Last Season?


    July 30, 2013 at 12:59 am

    • It’s been nearly four years since I wrote that post, so I’ve read Game of Shadows since then, it’s a pretty good piece of investigative journalism. And I just filed a review for Crazy 08 to The Good Point so that’ll be up soonish.

      Still haven’t read Leavy’s biography of Koufax, though. It’s on the pile, along with Marty Appel’s book on Thurman Munson, David Maraniss’ biography of Roberto Clemente and Dave Bidini’s book about baseball in Italy (been on a baseball kick lately).


      July 30, 2013 at 9:04 am

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