Best Sports Books of 21st Century - Issue 9
Including some general musings on sports book awards
I’m always fascinated by the announcement of sports book awards each year and the strangeness of some of the choices. Not being involved in the industry I have no insight into how or why particular books are chosen (or how judges are chosen, shortlists chosen etc).
This week I saw that the UK based Sports Book Awards (in association with the Sunday Times) announced it’s list of the best sports books of the 21st Century (although only previous winners of one of these awards or its predecessor awards were eligible). The list includes one very disappointing book (Sir Alex Ferguson’s second autobiography) which I just refuse to believe can possibly be considered great (let alone even good). I’d love to know how anyone considered it among the 20 best books in a single year let alone over a 20 year period.
This bemusement prompted me to post my own take on the best books since 2000 - which ended up with more twitter likes than the original list! My list is recreated here for your reading pleasure and please comment, tweet or mail me with your alternative takes!
As promised, here is my alternative list of my 20 BEST Sports Books of the 21st Century so far (in no particular order):
1. In Sunshine or in Shadow: How Boxing Brought Hope in the Troubles by Donald McRae @donaldgmcrae - a wonderful look at boxing in Northern Ireland during the Troubles.
2. Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s by Jeff Pearlman @jeffpearlman. The best account of any great sports team's rise and reign that you'll read.
3. The Miracle of St. Anthony: A Season with Coach Bob Hurley and Basketball's Most Improbable Dynasty by @wojespn. Before he was a famous NBA insider , Woj wrote one of the all-time great sports books about a legendary high school basketball coach.
4. The Perfect Mile by @nealbascomb. The story of the battle to break the 4 minute mile - narrative sports history at it's absolute finest.
5. Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football by @dwinnera. A masterpiece of sports writing that made me think about football, it's evolution and it's relationship to society in a whole new light.
6. The Education of a Coach by David Halberstam. The late great Halberstam might be the best writer to every write about sport. A masterful look at Bill Belichick's evolution as a coach and the men who influenced him.
7. Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis. The most influential sports book ever written helped to popularise the use of data analytics. Like all Lewis' books its also a fantastic read.
8. A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke by Ronald Reng. Compassionate, thoughtful and emotional bio of the late German goalkeeper and his mental health struggles. Captures a side of sporting life all too often left in the shadows.
9. Open: An Autobiography by @AndreAgassi. Simply the best sporting autobiography ever written. Devastatingly honest.
10. Bundini: Don't Believe the Hype by @Todd_Snyder22. The story of Ali's famous hype man and a perfect combination of writer and subject.
11. Game of Shadows: Barry Bonds, BALCO, and the Steroids Scandal that Rocked Professional Sports by @markfwespn and @LanceWCIR. One of the most significant sports books in exposing drug cheats. A great book.
12. The Great Nowitzki: Basketball and the Meaning of Life by Thomas Pletzinger @tpletzinger . A brilliant biography of the German basketball legend. Captured the intensity of what it takes and what it means to both become, and stay, great.
13. Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics by Jonathan Wilson @jonawils. The first great popular book on tactical evolution of the modern game.
14. The Perfect Pass: American Genius and the Reinvention of Football by S. C. Gwynne. The origin and evolution of passing in American Football - a fascinating, brilliant book.
15. The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance by @DavidEpstein. A brilliant, immensely readable, exploration of athletic success and the question of nature vs nurture.
16. Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand. No book better places its subject in its time and place. A pleasure to read.
17. Across the River: Life, Death, and Football in an American City by @kentbabb. A remarkable book about a remarkable coach.
18. Full Time: The Secret Life Of Tony Cascarino by Paul Kimmage @PaulKimmage. No book has ever been better on the insecurity and mental toil of life in professional sports (apart from maybe Rough Ride!)
19. Garrincha: The Triumph and Tragedy of Brazil's Forgotten Footballing Hero by Ruy Castro (tr. @adowniebrazil). A wonderful biography of the legendary Brazilian winger.
20. Four Kings: Leonard, Hagler, Hearns, Duran and the Last Great Era of Boxing by George Kimball. The late great Kimball was one of the finest boxing writers of all time.
A lot of close calls made and at least 20 other books got serious consideration. Also 1999 was a hilariously good year with Playing for Keeps, the Miracle of Castel di Sangro, Addicted and Hand of God all likely to make the list had they been published a year later.
Some general musings on Sports Book Awards
I thought it would be fun to look at the world of sports book awards more generally. In the UK there are two competing awards:
The Sports Book Awards - previously the Telegraph Sports Book Awards. This contains a range of categories including different sports and types of book. Details at https://sportsbookawards.com/
William Hill Sports Book Awards - This is a solo award given to one book, but has a big longlist each year. Details at https://news.williamhill.com/sport/sports-book-of-the-year/
In Ireland, there was a William Hill Irish Sports Book of the year award which was discontinued but the An Post Irish Book Awards do include a separate sports category each year. In the USA, there was the PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing which seems to have been discontinued after ESPN pulled their sponsorship in 2019. There are also a few sport specific awards I could track down - The Cricket Society award and the Casey Award for best baseball book. And that seems to be it. What an underappreciated genre of book writing this is!
I’m fascinated by the how the awards work but it’s never entirely clear (unless its just a public vote). The Sports Book Awards for example have circa 70 people and organisations in their ‘judging academy’. Tracking down the history of that award is remarkably difficult with the website having limited details, the wiki page badly incomplete, the changing sponsorship over time and the articles in the Telegraph being behind a paywall. For a prize that is boasting about being 20 years old, its remarkably hard to find out who won the awards in each of the last 20 years!
Some of the more interesting things I’ve spotted looking back at the history of sports book awards are:
For a brief 4 year period in the mid 2000s, the British Book Awards had a Sports Book of the Year category. Each year the prize was won by an autobiography of a still active player - the category of book guaranteed to be appallingly bad but to sell well. After Stevie Gerrard, Freddie Flintoff and Gazza all won, the award was rightly discontinued!
One of the most disappointing books I’ve ever read won best overall book at the Sports Book Awards last year. Former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger’s book is so bad it is the only negative review I have ever published. I just typically don’t review a book if I didn’t like it but this was such a rubbish cynical money grab I couldn’t not write about it. And it WON best overall sports book - the twitter reaction from anybody who had ever read the book was pretty funny.
The Sports Book Awards have never had a boxing category and doesn’t seem to have ever been won by a boxing book which is remarkable given what great boxing books there are. Rhonda Rousey, when at the peak of her MMA fame, did win multiple awards for her book though.
I’ve only found one sports book that has won a major non-fiction book award and that is Pulitzer Prize winning (and William Hill Sports Book of the Year winning) Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan. This was agonizingly close to making my own top 20 list (below) so it definitely deserves the acclaim. A pity no other sports book has made the leap to mainstream literary respectability!
Thanks for reading. Let me know your thoughts, opinions, any improvements I can make etc. Catch me on Twitter. More books next week!
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