Play Ball: Sporting Insights

By Carole Reedy

Many books and articles have been written about famous athletes, but few are able to relay a story with the intensity, subtleness, and human insight that a finely tuned novel gives us. Most athletes have ghost writers or at least assistance from writers and editors who have the ability to translate the roller-coaster range of emotions and thought processes that define the physically demanding life of a professional athlete.

Here are a few selections that have the ability to transport us into this world of competition, pain, confusion, and satisfaction. It’s my guess that even readers who don’t thrive on sports would enjoy these books because they convey the human emotions that permeate each of our lives, and thus are, in essence, about all of us.

Open by Andre Agassi

I recently finished Open, which inspired this article as well as a desire to delve into other sports books. Although the story of Agassi’s confusion, painful physical and emotional state, love lives, friends, and family features his byline only, he received support that provides the book’s form and substance from Pulitzer Prize winner J. R. Moehringer.   Reading Open, I was constantly amazed by Agassi’s perseverance, troubled by his domineering father, intrigued by his choice of women, entertained by his comments about other tennis players, and, finally, content with how it all turned out for him after years of doubt and even agony. A must-read for tennis fans.

Ball Four by Jim Bouton

Ball Four’s publication in 1970 (by the former Major League pitcher) created a furious controversy. The book is essentially a chronicle of the 1969 season, but unlike other baseball memoirs, Bouton revealed not only the pain and camaraderie players often endure, but also the drug and alcohol abuse, previously unreported locker-room antics, idiosyncrasies of players and managers, and things never before discussed outside baseball’s chosen few. The baseball commissioner at the time, Bowie Kuhn, tried to convince Bouton to retract his statements, but time has given the book its due.

Despite the controversy, or perhaps because of it, in 1996 the book was named one of New York Public Library’s Books of the Century. It’s also is included in Time Magazine’s 100 greatest non-fiction books of all time. Critics call it an important document and readers say it helped them in everyday life just knowing the players were human. Pulitzer-Prize-winning writer David Halberstam describes it as “a book deep in the American vein, so deep in fact that it is by no means a sports book.”

Born to Run by Christopher McDougall

Popular with both obsessive and more casual runners, this engaging account explores and explains the phenomenon itself. From a study of the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico’s Copper Canyon, who can run miles without rest, to the science laboratories at Harvard University, the author is passionate about the art of running.

Books and New Yorker articles by Roger Angell (or anything with his byline)

Roger Angell is 95 years old and readers of The New Yorker magazine have seen his name on the masthead since 1944. In addition to film reviews, stories, casuals, and Notes and Comment pieces, Angell has written more than 100 Sporting Scene pieces, most about baseball. His books about baseball are the crème de la crème, and any fan of the sport should sit down and devour them. They are: The Summer Game, Five Seasons, Late Innings, Season Ticket, Once More Around the Park, A Pitcher’s Story, and Game Time.

Most of these books are either collections of essays or a résumé of several seasons of the Major League. For example, in Five Seasons, he recalls “the most important half-decade in the history of the game, 1972-76.” Right now on Amazon you can buy three of these books in a single volume. Entitled The Roger Angell Baseball Collection: The Summer Game, Five Seasons, and Season Ticket, it costs just $16.00 US. I highly recommend the compilation, which would also be a memorable gift for your favorite baseball fan.

If you want to know more about this grand old man, read his essay called This Old Man, which appeared in the February 17 and 24 issues, 2014, of The New Yorker. Angell is a hero to all baseball aficionados as well as to writers, editors, and avid readers everywhere.

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

Another controversial book, though from a different perspective, Into Thin Air was written in 1997 about the 1996 Mount Everest climb that claimed the lives of eight climbers who were stranded after a rogue storm. Doubts arose about the leader of the group, among other factors, after Krakauer’s version was published. This compelling read also gave pause to travelers who had previously viewed adventure travel as a romantic romp.

Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand

It’s the quintessential American story: the smallest, laziest, most awkward, and most-unlikely-to-succeed underdog eventually triumphs. In this case, it’s the rags to riches story of a horse (though nobody involved in horse racing ever dresses in rags!). Seabiscuit’s original owner sold him for a mere $8,000 US, and his new trainer and jockey drew the horse out of his lethargy. This is the story of those men and this horse, who in 1938 received more newspaper coverage than Adolph Hitler. It’s also about the journey to Seabiscuit’s success, in the face of a plethora of problems that were eventually overcome.

Alive by Piers Paul Read

It’s been many years since I read or even thought about this book, which relates the tragic 1972 plane crash in the Andes Mountains that resulted in the deaths of most of the 45 rugby team players. It is a story of survival, strength, and human character. Read’s book sold more than five million copies worldwide and was later made into a film.

Just a few sports topics were explored and recommended here. More to come in the future, in case your favorite went unmentioned this time.