In a way, every sporting event tells a story. However, most of us are ultimately more interested in watching athletes in action trying to win while doing cool stuff than reading about it. Fortunately, though, some people have taken to expanding the stories of the sports world. Over the years, literally hundreds of non-fiction books have been written about the world of sports. Whether they are the works of great writers or particularly impressive autobiographies (admittedly often handled with a ghostwriter or co-writer), here are the best non-fiction sports books of all-time.
If nothing else, Michael Lewis’ “Moneyball” is the most name-dropped sports book written in the last couple of decades, if not ever. Lewis tells the story of Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics, who use analytics and sabermetrics to find success with a limited payroll. Old-school types lampoon it. The statistically minded adore it. At this point, the tactics of “Moneyball” are no longer revolutionary. Also, Lewis tells the story in an excellent fashion, turning what could be a dry story into something fascinating.
Participatory journalism and stunt journalism have a long history, including in sports. George Plimpton’s “Paper Lion” is still the pinnacle. For the book, Plimpton “tried out” for the Detroit Lions in 1963 as the third-string quarterback. What he was really doing was cataloging what it’s like to be around an NFL team and to actually partake in its practices and drills. It was a brand-new kind of football book, and it’s still interesting even though the NFL has changed just a bit since then.
David Halberstam has a Pulitzer Prize, so he knows how to write. He took those prodigious skills and turned them toward an interest of his, namely basketball. Halberstam embedded himself with the 1979-80 Portland Trail Blazers, a team that had won the NBA title a few years prior. Of course, he was helped by being able to write about the always fascinating Bill Walton as part of the story.
In 1970, sports journalism liked to paper over the cracks and hide the more salacious aspects of the athletic life. In his biography “Ball Four,” Jim Bouton did none of that. He told the truth, he aired dirty laundry and he caused a ton of controversy. Apparently some athletes drank, did drugs and womanized! It seems quaint now, but Bouton’s book was truly revolutionary.
Yes, there is a movie “based” on Nick Hornby’s book. It stars Jimmy Fallon and Drew Barrymore and is about the Boston Red Sox. The movie is a by-the-numbers romantic comedy. The book has nothing to do with baseball. It’s written by a British author, and it’s about his fandom for Arsenal, the London soccer club. It’s not a romantic comedy, but it's about a talented writer examining a life of being emotionally invested in a sports team. Plus, no Jimmy Fallon!
Many individuals try and climb Mount Everest. It’s a tremendous accomplishment, especially back in the day, but it doesn’t always go smoothly. Jon Krakauer experienced it one of those days. In 1996, a blizzard on the worst’s tallest mountain created chaos and panic, and tragically eight people died. Krakauer was there, and he writes about it in harrowing detail.
You know who is a fan of Rick Telander’s book? That would be Barack Obama. Telander delves into the world of streetball in Flatbush, Brooklyn, in the summer of 1974. “Heaven is a Playground” turned local street legends into known basketball names and helped a culture around streetball different from traditional basketball to bloom.
Before it was a critically acclaimed TV show and before it was even a movie, “Friday Night Lights” was a book. This time, though, the people were real. High school football is a religion, maybe even a cult, in Texas. Buzz Bissinger’s look into a local football team, the kids involved and the town that puts its worth into the success of its high school squad was incredibly well-received and thought of. You don’t get a movie and a TV show otherwise.
The ABA was always stuck in the shadow of the NBA, but it took some big swings and created some iconic moments. It burnt out, but that made its story that much more interesting. Terry Pluto created a quasi-oral history of the short-lived sports league, in all its red-white-and-blue ball glory.
Ken Dryden is a Hall of Fame goalie, but he wasn’t your typical athlete. He retired young, got his law degree, became a politician in Canada and, of course, wrote a few books. One of them is his memoir “The Game,” which is considered maybe the best autobiography ever written by an athlete. It’s also probably the best book about hockey ever written.
What makes athletes elite? What makes them good enough to be professionals? David Epstein delved into that with his 2013 book “The Sports Gene.” With an analytical mind, Epstein looks deep into the science of how genetics and sports training impact athleticism. It addresses a lot of questions about what makes the world’s greatest athletes tick but doesn’t offer any easy solutions or revelations.
Andre Agassi was an immense talent but also a polarizing one. He seems well-aware of that, and his autobiography seemed to pull no punches. Agassi has no interest in writing a hagiography for himself or lauding the sport of tennis. In fact, one of the biggest takeaways from “Open” is how much Agassi came to loathe the sport that made him rich and famous.
There have been a lot of books about Muhammad Ali. That makes sense. The guy was a massive star, a great athlete and an important cultural figure. Interestingly, the best of the bunch may very well be the most recent. Jonathan Eig’s book came out in 2017, after Ali died in 2016. It was the first book published in the wake of the death of “The Greatest.” Fortunately, it did his life a service.
Michael Lewis is back! The man knows how to write a profile. The movie version of “The Blind Side” is a little saccharine and leans a bit too much on the white Christian folks saving the poor black kid. That being said, the book is a true story and one that looks beyond the life of Michael Oher. Yes, we do hear the story of Oher being adopted off the street and rising to be a star offensive tackle at Ole Miss, but it’s also a book about the evolution of the offensive tackle position in the NFL.
Seabiscuit isn’t the most successful racehorse ever — that honor has to go to Secretariat — but he may be the most beloved horse this side of Mr. Ed. To the extent that a horse can be an underdog, that’s what Seabiscuit was, and so was the crew that worked with the horse to lead it to such great success. Laura Hillenbrand’s book is also a tale of 1930s Depression Era America.
Bill Bradley would eventually write a successful autobiography, but well before that he was the subject of another non-fiction book. In fact, Bradley was still in college at Princeton when John McPhee wrote “A Sense of Where You Are.” Bradley was an interesting figure — he was a Rhodes Scholar with an NBA future — but he wasn’t famous before “A Sense of Where You Are.” The book made not only Bradley but also McPhee bigger names.
A 33-inning baseball game. Can you even imagine it? It’s the longest professional baseball game of all time, taking eight hours and 25 minutes to come to a conclusion. The Pawtucket Red Sox and Rochester Red Wings dueled it out in 1981, a game that featured some players, like Wade Boggs, we’d come to know and some players who would never find greater glory. That’s why author Dan Barry gave the book the subtitle: “Hope, Redemption, and Baseball’s Longest Game.” By the way, Pawtucket won 3-2.
You don’t need famous athletes to tell a great sports story. Pulitzer winner Madeleine Blais knew that. Her book “In These Girls, Hope is a Muscle” sees her following a girls high school basketball team for an entire season. These are just kids, but their stories can still be fascinating, gripping and powerful. The book became a best seller, as it proved capable of capturing hearts.
Since Roger Kahn’s 1972 classic came out, the book has gotten heaped with praise. Critics loved it, sports fans loved it, everybody loves “The Boys of Summer.” In fact, this book is the reason that phrase is even associated with baseball, as Kahn borrowed it from a Dylan Thomas poem. It’s about the Brooklyn Dodgers of old, a team that had moved to Los Angeles a year prior. Kahn tells the tale of not just the Dodgers winning the 1955 World Series but also of what happened to the players afterward.
Sports has always had a place for hustlers, for better or worse and John Bradshaw had an affinity for them. Some aren’t necessarily athletes, like legendary backgammon player Tim Holland. However, notable sports names like Minnesota Fats and Bobby Riggs, the latter of whom is best remembered for the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match now, are included in the story as well.
Hey, ESPN is as much a part of the sports fabric as any sport, and any athlete, at this point. It has an extensive and fascinating history, the kind that has been retold time and time again. James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales had constructed a well-received oral history of “Saturday Night Live,” so naturally they weren’t overwhelmed at the process of doing the same thing about the Worldwide Leader in Sports.
History has not been kind to Bobby Knight, and with good reason. He was a loathsome man from the beginning, and his kind of coaching is not accepted any longer. That being said, he had a ton of success as a head coach, especially at Indiana. His personality, as combustible as it was, also made for a high-pressure, intense situation, the kind that could potentially lead to a good book. John Feinstein followed Knight and the Hoosiers for the 1985-86 season through all the highs and lows. It’s also notable for just how much access Feinstein was able to get, not just to the team, but to Knight personally.
“Levels of the Game” is ostensibly about Arthur Ashe playing Clark Graebner in the semifinals of the 1968 U.S. Open, a tournament Ashe would go on to win as an amateur. That’s really just the jumping-off point for telling the story of both of these men, their backgrounds and how their lives, and their tennis, have been shaped by everything they had experienced. John McPhee, the man behind “A Sense of Where You Are,” also wrote this book.
Vince Lombardi is still admired to this day. The man who famously said, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing” inadvertently laid out an ethos that football coaches have been following for decades. Who was the man behind that quote, though, the man who patrolled the sidelines for the Green Bay Packers? That’s what David Maraniss, another Pulitzer Prize winner, set to find out with this book. He ended up with perhaps the best football biography ever.
Bill Veeck is one of the most interesting, and odd, men to ever work in sports. As an owner, he was willing to try anything, especially if it could make him a buck. When Eddie Gaedel became the shortest person to ever appear in an MLB game, that was Veeck’s idea. He let fans vote on strategy in one game. On the less silly side, Veeck also signed Larry Doby when he owned the Cleveland Indians, thereby integrating the American League. His autobiography has the delightful, and fitting, title of “Veeck as in Wreck.” However, his second book has just an apt of a title: “The Hustler’s Handbook.”