What sports books should be on this holiday list?

I’m working up an e-mail to send to the North Pole, asking very kindly for three recently released sports books that I’d like to read through the holidays into the new year.

But which ones?

I am torn by my limitations, self-imposed due to budget and time considerations. Usually I wait until books come out in paperback, but there are so many compelling reads I’ve been jotting down that I cannot resist. As you can see, my tastes and these topics are wide-ranging, and I’m a big fan of serendipity.

So help me, please. Surprise me. Fascinate me. Tell me which of these are an immediate must-read, and why. I’ll be collecting responses and will post my final decisions this time next week.

If you’re buying sports books for someone you know, what would you tell them they can’t live without?

Better yet, tell me.

In no particular order, here’s my working list. Keep in mind these books have all been released very recently, generally in the second half of the year.

1. When the Garden Was Eden, by Harvey Araton. These great Knicks teams of the early 1970s helped me fall in love with basketball. One of my favorite sports books, Pete Axthelm’s The City Game, is all about them too.

2. Fenway 1912, by Glenn Stout. I’m not a Red Sox fan, but I am a hopeless sucker for well-written sports history. I also like reading about baseball in the dead cold of winter.

3. Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand, John Schulian. A new collection by a legendary sports columnist-turned Hollywood screenwriter. Alex Belth’s recent interview with him had me nearly in tears. Schulian’s comments on the state of journalism are spot-on. I love reading about the blend of this stuff so much. (And Alex Belth has been a splendid new discovery for me, as I blogged here yesterday.)

4. The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach. A novel that’s about baseball but not really about baseball. Or so I’m told. The New Yorker thought enough of it for a full review. So did NPR. Somebody else thinks it struck out. I’ve got to get cracking with a long-neglected regimen of fiction reading. Might this rekindle that fire?

5. America’s QB: Bart Starr and the Rise of the NFL, Keith Dunnavant. I’ve enjoyed this Birmingham-based college football writer’s work before, including The Fifty Year Seduction, an excellent history of the role of television since the early 1950s and that explains much of the current mess with record contracts and massive conference realignment.

6. Jewball, Neal Pollack. A novel set in the 1930s when Jews ruled basketball and those storm clouds were gathering over Europe. Bethlehem Shoals (aka Free Darko) wrote this review, I retweeted it and Neal Pollack tweeted me to say the book has a chapter on the All-American Redheads women’s barnstorming team. How he worked that in here I guess I won’t figure out until I read it. It’s self-published and digital only; and as I’m finally in the market for a tablet, I can’t automatically cross this off the list anymore.

7. Wonder Girl: The Magnificent Sporting Life of Babe Didrickson Zaharias, Don Van Natta, Jr. The New York Times journalist is the latest to try his hand at capturing the life of the greatest female athlete. The last book I read on the subject by Susan Cayleff was drenched in all the wrong kind of cultural feminist complaining and hand-wringing. Everything I’ve read about Van Natta’s account is one that treats her as a more fully human creature, and not just a helpless victim of a sexism of another time.

8. Howard Cosell: The Man, The Myth and the Transformation of American Sports, by Mark Ribowsky. David Remnick’s review in The New Yorker thinks this treatment has its flaws, but fleshes out all the controversies and complications of Cosell and his unforgettable career in sports journalism.

9. Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton, by Jeff Pearlman. The author has come under a lot of fire for his look at the dark side of the life of the late Chicago Bears great (and he responds here). I’ve always had mixed feelings about books like this, designed to tell the “truth” about the “real” man behind the legend. Pearlman’s style elsewhere is generally blunt; I fear this might be the case here but hope he is driven to show the full human being as much as he attempts to demystify.

10. Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN, by Andrew Miller and Tom Shales. The original version was published in May and the paperback has just come out. I was a bit surprised this was more of an oral history; was hoping it would be more of a narrative. Everyone I know who’s read it says it’s a must because of ESPN’s dominance in sports media and its influence in the sports world. I know I need to read this but I’m not feeling a rush right now.

Some more on holiday sports books from Grantland. Dan Shanoff of Quickish lists his best sports books of 2011 and looks ahead to 2012.

So what am I missing here? Which three books should I choose? Please let me know.

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One Comment

  1. Posted December 9, 2011 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    Wendy – a great list of books. I’ve only started The Art of Fielding, but am interested to see where the story takes me. I was inspired after reading its backstory in Vanity Fair. I did read the ESPN book and enjoyed it. But I wish I’d waited until the paperback came out with more anecdotes.

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