Book List

10 Inspiring Sports Books

An otherworldly existence brought hugely to life.

SWIMMING TO ANTARCTICA

An awesome study in immersion from long-distance swimmer Cox.

Pools never seemed enough for the author as a girl: too confining, without room to stretch her frame, no rhythm or tempo to the water. Cox had her first experience with wide-open water in bad weather before she reached her teens; she felt exultant, and the experience had the inevitability of a calling. Here, she recounts those early days in melodiously bright prose—at times a little too bright (“I loved gathering brilliantly colored leaves in fall, and building snow caves in the winter. But I knew that I wanted to be a great swimmer”), but mostly a satisfying counterpart to the punishing conditions. At first, the swims were long and hard, though Cox had an ace up her sleeve: as one doctor explained, “Your proportion of fat to muscle is perfectly balanced so you don't float or sink in the water; you're at one with the water.” She tore up the record book in terms of times and first crossings, meanwhile learning that it was not just about swimming, but also about logistics and contending with stuff in the water, like garbage, dead rats, the slipstream of tankers, and creatures of the deep. (Off the Cape of Good Hope, one of her tenders mentioned, “a twelve-foot bronze whaler shark came out of the kelp for you. He had his mouth open all the way.”) Cox’s early, unfeigned innocence—as she completed her record-shattering English Channel swim, she noted that she’d never been to France before—was slowly eclipsed by a determination to confront the iciest of waters. Her mile-long swim in 32-degree water off Antarctica was a (literally) mind-boggling investigation into extremes, but Cox wanted to do more than test limits of human endurance; she also aspired to serve as an ambassador of peace in her swims across international waters.

An otherworldly existence brought hugely to life.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 2004

ISBN: 0-375-41507-6

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2003

A fine baseball book and an expert social history.

56

JOE DIMAGGIO AND THE LAST MAGIC NUMBER IN SPORTS

Sports Illustrated senior editor Kennedy follows the days of Joe DiMaggio’s immortal hitting streak, evoking the mood of a long-gone America to which DiMaggio was a central figure.

“Baseball’s most resonant numbers keep falling,” he writes. “But Joe DiMaggio’s is still there: 56 consecutive games with a hit.” The streak began on May 15, 1941, and ended 57 games later when DiMaggio went hitless in Cleveland. A “biting strangeness” seemed to envelop America during these spring and summer months, as the country inched ever closer to war, and young men, including professional baseball players, entered the military in increasing numbers via the draft. As the streak unwound, DiMaggio offered not only escape from harsh reality but certainty in uncertain times. However, it was not easy being Italian in America at the time, and more than a few newspapers referred to DiMaggio as “the Wallopin’ Wop.” Always a hero to kids in Queens, once the streak seemed to stretch on forever, DiMaggio truly became “America’s Joe,” gaining uncommon celebrity and adulation. Kennedy creates a dynamic portrait of the young star as he tried to keep the streak alive. Elegant both on and off the field, DiMaggio remained somehow distanced and detached, and the author draws precise character sketches of those closest to him at that time: his wife Dorothy, pregnant with their first child, and his brother, and Red Sox rival, Dom. Kennedy also brings to life such characters as diminutive rookie Phil Rizzuto and DiMaggio’s closest friend, Lefty Gomez. DiMaggio emerges in these pages as a flawed hero, but a hero nonetheless. How unique was the streak? “Through the end of the 2010 season,” writes the author, “17,290 players were known to have appeared in the major leagues. Only one of them had ever hit in 56 straight games.”

A fine baseball book and an expert social history.

Pub Date: March 8, 2011

ISBN: 978-1-60320-177-3

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Sports Illustrated Books

Review Posted Online: Feb. 1, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2011

John Tarrant fought against a sporting establishment that held him hostage in what could have been one of the great...

THE GHOST RUNNER

THE TRAGEDY OF THE MAN THEY COULDN'T STOP

The lonely fight of a long-distance runner.

A brief, failed career in boxing earned John Tarrant (1932–1975) £17. In the middle of the 20th century, that paltry sum meant that he was no longer an amateur in the minds of the world’s sporting hierarchy. Documentary filmmaker Jones uncovers Tarrant’s star-crossed fight against those authorities in his quest to pursue competitive long-distance running, his true love. Tarrant was obsessive. He doggedly and even admirably fought capricious and seemingly vindictive British amateur sporting officialdom in his quest to have his amateurism restored—something they fully had the capacity to do. In many ways, Tarrant is a sympathetic figure. His lifelong struggle to run legally—his willingness to run unsanctioned in official races earned him fame and respect from fans and competitors alike and garnered him the nickname “The Ghost Runner”—was sandwiched around a childhood spent in a Dickensian children’s home and an early and tragic death from cancer. But his obsession also made him a lousy employee and a selfish husband and father. Except for a few occasions when he gets in his own way, Jones tells the story well, albeit in a British idiom that may occasionally ring odd to American readers. His book serves not only to uncover Tarrant’s largely forgotten story, but also to remind readers that the amateur model of sport was oftentimes a hypocritical morass that victimized poor and working-class athletes while protecting a privileged class of sportsmen.

John Tarrant fought against a sporting establishment that held him hostage in what could have been one of the great international ultra-distance-running careers. Jones restores his legend while revealing his very human frailties.

Pub Date: March 13, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-60598-413-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Pegasus

Review Posted Online: Dec. 23, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2013

THE X FACTOR

A QUEST FOR EXCELLENCE

The adroit author (Open Net, 1987, etc.), Paris Review editor, and amateur jock who plays with the pros suits up once again to pitch horseshoes with George Bush and, incidentally, to pursue the elusive factor that makes champions out of mortals. Originally concocted a few years ago as a Whittle Communications advertising-supported giveaway, the text has been updated to acknowledge the Bush defeat in 1992, ``perhaps diminishing him as an avatar of the X Factor'' but not at all reducing the homage the author (a Democrat) pays his horseshoe opponent as A Swell Guy. Defeated once by then-president-elect Bush, Plimpton, before a return match, seeks the athletes' grail, the sovereign ingredient that produces winners. The teachings of an occasional Wall Street mogul like Henry Kravis and of a lot of sports figures, from Red Auerbach and Bill Russell to the sainted Vince Lombardi, are trotted out to raise the reader's diastolic and systolic pressures and to pump up the eager acolyte. Even as he essays his version of the usually plebeian self-help manual, the patrician persona of Plimpton, scion of the upper crust, is maintained. How could it be otherwise, with tales of the local yacht club tennis tournament and his grandparents' tennis court (where, at age eight, he was heckled by a parrot)? The coaches' pep talks and the country club locker room badinage may or may not aid the hoi polloi aching to enter ``the zone'' where no move is false- -it didn't help the author in his Camp David rematch with President Bush; he lost again. Win or lose, Plimpton writes with self-effacing humor and at least as much wit as wisdom; America's most famous professional dilettante doesn't demand to be taken too seriously.

Pub Date: March 13, 1995

ISBN: 0-393-03484-4

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1995

THE SPORTSMAN

UNEXPECTED LESSONS FROM AN AROUND-THE-WORLD SPORTS ODYSSEY

Freethinking NFL linebacker opens up about his adventures tackling the globe for two seasons on the Travel Channel.

The gridiron just isn’t big enough to hold Jones, a decade-plus NFL veteran. Despite that remarkable feat, the debut author has had to continually fend off critics who say his varied outside interests distract from his game—among them, the design and manufacture of his signature bowties. The criticism reached its apex a couple of years ago when the author started secretly shooting episodes of Dhani Tackles the Globe during the off-season. His reality show took him around the world and placed him in sporting arenas and cultures totally alien to him. Far from hindering his day job, Jones writes, butting heads with opponents as daunting as Singaporean dragonboat racers, Senegalese strongmen and latter-day Vikings has made him a much better football player. Beyond that, he insists, it made him a better human being. With co-writer Grotenstein, Jones offers a thought-provoking adventure story that’s part travelogue, part sports journal and even part fitness manual. The pages turn quickly in anticipation of the next stop on Jones' itinerary. Breaking down stereotypes is fun and fulfilling, but Jones spends an equal amount of time slaying his own demons, both physical and mental. A cathartic, inspiring tale that promises much more to come. 

 

Pub Date: June 7, 2011

ISBN: 978-1-60961-111-8

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Rodale

Review Posted Online: May 4, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2011

Destined to take its place among the classics of baseball literature.

BOTTOM OF THE 33RD

HOPE, REDEMPTION, AND BASEBALL'S LONGEST GAME

New York Times columnist Barry (City Lights: Stories About New York, 2007, etc.) delivers an all-angle take on the longest, and surely the strangest, game in baseball history.

On a frigid evening in April 1981, 1,740 Pawtucket, R.I., Red Sox fans settled into their seats for a game with the Rochester Red Wings of the AAA International League. With the score tied 1-1 at the end of regulation, the teams played on. And on. On past 12:50 a.m., when the curfew provision, mysteriously missing from that year’s edition of the rule book, would have suspended the contest; on past the 21st inning, when each team maddeningly scored a run; on past the 29th and record-tying inning; on past 4:00 a.m., the bottom of the 32nd, when the league president was finally reached and ordered the umpires to suspend the contest. Wittily and gracefully, Barry works out his Easter themes of hope and redemption, providing, of course, an account of the game, but most memorably capturing the atmosphere of the city and the stories of the people who shared this weird moment in baseball’s long history: the players, two headed for the Hall of Fame, a few who would establish substantial major league careers, scrubs who would never make it, others only on their way to or back from the proverbial cup of coffee in the bigs; the dutiful umpires and the team managers, baseball lifers both; the hardy double-handful of fans who stayed the course, including a father and son bound by their promise never to leave a game; the clubhouse attendants, batboys and devoted player wives; the makeshift radio broadcasters and jaded newsmen sentenced to cover the game; the millionaire, blue-collar PawSox owner and the dismal team and decrepit stadium he inherited; the burned-out but still-defiant city of Pawtucket, where baseball would, indeed, eventually rise from the dead. When play resumed two months later, the entire baseball world descended upon the stadium, eager to participate in the historic game’s conclusion, prefiguring the enthusiastic attention Barry’s wonderful story richly inspires.

Destined to take its place among the classics of baseball literature.

Pub Date: April 12, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-06-201448-1

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Feb. 23, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2011

An intriguing ride through “all the wondrous quirks and oddities in human nature.”

THE SECRET LIVES OF SPORTS FANS

THE SCIENCE OF SPORTS OBSESSION

In this often heady blend of science, philosophy and sociology, Simons (Univ. of California Graduate School of Journalism; Darwin Slept Here: Discovery, Adventure, and Swimming Iguanas in Charles Darwin's South America, 2009) tries to get at the root of fandom, that sometimes appalling display of irrational behavior, which appears to be “a species-level design flaw.”

“[E]mpathy, action, language, pride, identity, self, reward, relationships, love, addiction, perception, pain and happiness,” writes the author—“all this stuff is frothing around on the inside trying to beat its way out of your body like an alien chestbuster.” In the course of his investigation, Simons touches on each of these and more: the hormonal changes sports provoke and the malignant force of the endocrine system; the part played by mirror neurons in empathy and in addiction and violence; the emotional push that keeps us coming back; the possibility that defeat can physically warp your brain; dopamine, the brain’s reward system, inciting passion or addiction; the human need for belonging and the deep meaning that comes in being part of the enterprise; the biological, cultural and individual motivations for going to war on the field or court. The book is mostly enjoyable not least of all since so much is nebulous and untethered but achingly real to any sports fan. Simons is open and patient to intelligent theories but skeptical and willing to trust in his own experiences. He is also a bit of a tempered hepcat—“Plato’s rigging the thing so that Socrates goes last and blows everyone away with his crazy philosophical skills”—informal amid all the lab work and theory building, yet diligently fashioning a window through which to witness the arch of human emotions and, surprisingly, the degree of choice and control we possess over those emotions.

An intriguing ride through “all the wondrous quirks and oddities in human nature.”

Pub Date: April 4, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-59020-864-9

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Overlook

Review Posted Online: Feb. 4, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2013

A must-read for Packer and Lombardi fans, and will interest most NFL fans as well.

THAT FIRST SEASON

HOW VINCE LOMBARDI TOOK THE WORST TEAM IN THE NFL AND SET IT ON THE PATH TO GLORY

The exciting chronicle of Vince Lombardi’s pivotal first season as head coach of the Green Bay Packers.

Former Baltimore Sun sports columnist Eisenberg (The Great Match Race: When North Met South in America’s First Sports Spectacle, 2006, etc.) looks back at 1959, a year that witnessed one of the more momentous turnarounds in NFL history. In his first season as a head coach, Lombardi took the one of the worst football teams ever and led it to its first winning season in more than a decade. Having sunk to 1-10-1 under Scooter McLean the year before, the 1959 Packers were expected to win no more than three or four games, but Lombardi righted the ship, steering them to a 7-5 record that year and initiating their run to six championships during his nine-year tenure as head coach. How the stout, brash Brooklyn native was able to transform a directionless assemblage of players into a gridiron behemoth is as much the subject of Eisenberg’s exhaustively researched account as his thrilling description of each game. Relying on period articles and interviews with key players from the Lombardi dynasty, the author convincingly shows that the coach’s fierce work ethic, militaristic-style training camps, perfectionist tendencies, belief in fitness and ability to instill confidence in his players were as central to the team’s metamorphosis as his brilliance as a game-play strategist. Though his “sarcastic, critical” coaching style didn’t always endear him to the players, when they saw the results of his simple, run-centered offense and powerful zone defense, he soon won their trust.

A must-read for Packer and Lombardi fans, and will interest most NFL fans as well.

Pub Date: Oct. 15, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-618-90499-0

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2009

Expert portrayal of how women’s tennis played a socially progressive role in prodding a country to reconsider its sexism.

A NECESSARY SPECTACLE

BILLIE JEAN KING, BOBBY RIGGS, AND THE TENNIS MATCH THAT LEVELED THE GAME

From New York Times sportswriter Roberts, an astute and energized profile of women’s tennis as it evolved during the reign of Billie Jean King, and of all the players—women and men, on court and off—who played a part.

The year 1973 was one of those junctures when one act in particular, Roberts writes, overturned widespread notions, in this case that women were mentally weak, physically frail and emotionally delicate when under pressure. Bobby Riggs had recently dispatched the formidable Margaret Court in a tennis match, and he set his eyes on King, who, with a voice that spoke to any issues of the day, was a mainstream face of feminism, a celebrity with credibility. She was a maverick of the most impressive sort: challenging the posturings of amateurism, working to form the first women’s professional tour and a union, caretaking and advocating the Women’s Sports Foundation (which as recently as George W. Bush was challenged, to his dismay). King accepted Riggs’s offer to a match, knowing she and women’s sports had everything to lose, if much to gain. Riggs, a publicity hound, had his own agenda: to achieve economic parity for the senior tour and to be important again. He was no ingénue, having won the men’s singles, the doubles and the mixed doubles at Wimbledon in 1939, something King repeated in 1967. Roberts composes a sharp reconstruction of the match—King foiling Riggs’s finesse game—and goes on to elucidate how it reverberated through the world of women’s sports. As carefully as King did, she explores King’s sexuality and the social costs it would entail: “Any hint of her sexual confusion would have belied her image and would have injured the tour and her pocketbook.” King would see her work bear copious fruit, as she addressed her sexuality and the tennis establishment with equal verve.

Expert portrayal of how women’s tennis played a socially progressive role in prodding a country to reconsider its sexism.

Pub Date: Aug. 16, 2005

ISBN: 1-4000-5146-0

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2005

A refreshing chronicle of a fervent sportsman with his head and heart in all the right places.

A FATHER FIRST

HOW MY LIFE BECAME BIGGER THAN BASKETBALL

The smooth, composed memoir of a superstar NBA player juggling celebrity and fatherhood.

From the opening pages, Wade’s comforting narrative voice—assisted by co-author Rivas (co-author: Becoming Dr. Q, 2011, etc.)—draws readers in, as he provides recollections from his shy childhood in the 1980s, during which his drug-addicted mother shuffled him around the gang-addled streets of South Side Chicago. He was comforted by his loving grandmother and an obsession with basketball and Michael Jordan, as well as his older sister, Tragil, who shepherded her baby brother out of harm’s way. In school, Wade’s stepbrother dominated the varsity basketball games, but an early growth spurt and a string of expert coaches allowed Wade to shine and demonstrate his burgeoning abilities on the court. His star potential blossomed at Marquette University and eventually fostered NBA celebrity status as a guard for the Miami Heat. However, his marriage to high school sweetheart Siohvaughn Funches ended in a tumultuous 2007 divorce, and a custody battle for sons Zaire and Zion became ugly. The text seamlessly alternates between Wade’s rise to athletic fame and the aftermath of a 2011 decision to award him sole custody of his two sons, a legal decision eliciting both positive (stability for his boys) and negative ramifications (Funches’ vicious accusations and relentless interference). Wade capably demonstrates the power of hard work, faith, honest fatherhood and the dedication necessary to achieve happiness and harmony from hardscrabble beginnings.

A refreshing chronicle of a fervent sportsman with his head and heart in all the right places.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-06-213615-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 17, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2012

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