The best fictional sports books
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

The best fictional sports books

Sports are full of drama, intensity and sometimes moments of comedy. They don’t need to be fictionalized to tell great stories, but off course, they can be. There have been a ton of great sports movies, but don’t forget about the written word. People tend to focus on the non-fictions sports books, but there are plenty of fiction tomes on the shelves as well. Here are some of our favorite fictional sports books.

 
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"The Art of Fielding"

"The Art of Fielding"
Little, Brown and Company

A lot of sports novels are of the light, beach-reading variety. They are for kids or written by the likes of John Grisham. “The Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbach, though, was a well-received work of literature. Harbach’s debut novel tells the story of Henry Skrimshander, a young, promising shortstop playing college baseball. It’s coming of age meets sports.

 
2 of 17

"A Fan's Notes"

"A Fan's Notes"
Harper and Row

Frederick Exley dubbed his novel “a fictional memoir,” and it is labeled as fiction. The book, which was released in 1968, is a riff on Exley’s life growing up as a sports fan in the 1950s. It’s a dark story at times, viewing sports fandom through a critical lens of toxicity. To this day, “A Fan’s Notes” has a cult following.

 
3 of 17

"North Dallas Forty"

"North Dallas Forty"
New American Library

Peter Gent played basketball in college, and then, like Antonio Gates many years later, Gent jumped to the NFL, even though he never played college football. Gent played for the Cowboys from 1964-1968, but the story gets even better for him from there. After he retired, Gent wrote his debut novel, which was “North Dallas Forty.” The book was then turned into a successful movie starring Nick Nolte. Not too shabby.

 
4 of 17

"The Natural"

"The Natural"
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Everybody knows the movie “The Natural.” It starred Robert Redford as Roy Hobbs, a baseball prodigy with a possibly magical bat. The end of the film is particularly iconic in sports circles. That film came out in 1984, many years after Bernard Malamud’s debut novel was released in 1952. The story was inspired by an actual baseball player, Eddie Waitkus, but he doesn’t have the cultural cache of Hobbs.

 
5 of 17

"The Great American Novel"

"The Great American Novel"
Holt, Rinehart, and Winston

Talk about a bold name for a book. You can pull this bit of ironic titling when you’re Philip Roth, who is actually a legendary novelist. Did you know he wrote a novel about sports? He did indeed, in 1973. “The Great American Novel” is about the Patriot League, an imagined baseball league that has been overrun by communists.

 
6 of 17

"Fat City"

"Fat City"
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Leonard Gardner wrote only one novel, but he made a mark with it. “Fat City” tells the story of down-and-out boxers trying to make ends meet in Stockton, California. It’s considered one of the most-famed novels about boxing and was turned into a film directed by none other than John Huston.

 
7 of 17

"The Universal Baseball Association Inc., J. Henry Waugh Prop."

"The Universal Baseball Association Inc., J. Henry Waugh Prop."
Random House

The title is a bit of a mouthful, and the plot of the book could also be considered a turnoff for many. After all, the action revolves around an imaginary baseball game created by the titular Waugh. And yet the book perseveres as a classic. Many consider it the best book about baseball ever. The novel is considered a dark comedy, as Waugh watches his imaginary, and real world, begin to fall apart.

 
8 of 17

"You Know Me Al"

"You Know Me Al"
Sports Publishing

Ring Lardner is one of the most famous sportswriters ever. He was even a character in “Eight Men Out” and got namedropped in “The Catcher in the Rye.” Lardner also wrote one of the first sports novels way back in 1916. “You Know Me Al” is an epistolary novel, which means it consists of a series of letters, primarily written by baseball pitcher Jack Keefe to his friend from his hometown, Al Blanchard.

 
9 of 17

"Red or Dead"

"Red or Dead"
Melville House Books

At 736 pages, David Peace’s “Red of Dead” is a bit of a doorstop. It’s also considered maybe the best novel about soccer ever written. The book is a fictional account of legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly’s time with the Reds. British soccer fans loved it, and it also got shortlisted for England’s Goldsmiths Prize.

 
10 of 17

"Lord of Misrule"

"Lord of Misrule"
McPherson

Talk about a successful sports novel. Jaimy Gordon’s tale of life at a dilapidated horse track won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2010. That’s an award people like Jonathan Franzen and Colson Whitehead win. Many people commented on Gordon’s particular command of language, as this is a distinct work of prose.

 
11 of 17

"Bang the Drum Slowly"

"Bang the Drum Slowly"
Albert A. Knopf

Mark Harris wrote four novels about the pitcher Henry Wiggen, of which “Bang the Drum Slowly” is second. It’s also considered to be the best of the bunch. Sports Illustrated named it one of the 100 best sports books ever, and it was also turned into a movie starring Robert De Niro. You can check out the full four-book story if you like, but if you have time for only one, “Bang the Drum Slowly” is the choice.

 
12 of 17

"Stephen Florida"

"Stephen Florida"
Coffee House Press

This is one of the most recent novels on the list, but “Stephen Florida” got a lot of positive reviews when it came out in 2017. It’s considered one of those books that are “about sports” but is really just a work of literary fiction within the realm of sports. “Stephen Florida” is a dark tome about college wrestling, and the title character can be a lot for some to handle.

 
13 of 17

"Beartown"

"Beartown"
Washington Square Press

How about a little hockey in the mix? Fredrik Backman’s New York Times bestseller got a lot of comparisons to “Friday Night Lights,” as it also focuses on youth sports in a small town. Beartown is a small community struggling, but its junior hockey team has found a lot of success. Can the team handle the pressure of representing an entire town? It’s a classic sports story but also a story of community.

 
14 of 17

"The Throwback Special"

"The Throwback Special"
W.W. Norton and Company

Every fall, a group of 22 men reunite to intricately recreate the play where Washington quarterback Joe Theismann had his leg broken. Chris Bachelder’s novel delves into the lives of these men, what’s going on in their lives and what drives them to come together every year to recreate the infamous moment when Theismann’s leg snapped.

 
15 of 17

"Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk"

"Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk"
HarperCollins

It’s a mild stretch to include “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” in a list of sports novels, but it still is close enough to fit. Largely, it’s a satirical war novel, but the events of the story all take place as Lynn, a veteran, is preparing to take part in the Dallas Cowboys’ halftime show on Thanksgiving as a lauded member of the military. While the book was well received, the Ang Lee adaptation film seemed to just come and go without making a big splash.

 
16 of 17

"Barracuda"

"Barracuda"
Penguin Random House

Hey, how about a sports novel out of Australia? While “Barracuda” didn’t make as much of an impact as Christos Tsiolkas’ book “The Slap,” which got turned into a terrible NBC show, it was well-received by critics and reader. The story centers on a promising young diver who sees his life fall apart after he realizes that his prodigious talent may not get him far enough in life to achieve the dreams he has.

 
17 of 17

"Shoeless Joe"

"Shoeless Joe"
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

You probably know this story better by the name used for the movie based on the book, “Field of Dreams.” While some deride that movie as maudlin, a lot of people love it, so it seemed only fair to include “Shoeless Joe” on this list of sports novels. W.P. Kinsella’s magical realist story features a farmer who…well, you’ve seen the movie. You know the story. The only difference is that the book features J.D. Salinger as the reclusive author.

Chris Morgan is a sports and pop culture writer and the author of the books The Comic Galaxy of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and The Ash Heap of History. You can follow him on Twitter @ChrisXMorgan.

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