The discriminating shopper in search of readable sports books—admittedly, a rare commodity—will be pleased to learn that they are out there in abundance and variety this holiday season.
For lovers of football there are a number of volumes worth gift wrapping. Robert W. Peterson's Pigskin—The Early Years of Pro Football (Oxford University Press, $25) might well top the list. Peterson, author of Only the Hall Was White, a memorable history of the Negro baseball leagues, now turns to the gridiron, tracing the sometimes rocky course of play-for-pay football from its beginnings in the late 1880s to the 1958 championship game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants—"The Best Game Ever Played"—which made the NFL all the rage. This popularity was long in coming. After its founding in 1920, the 10-team league was for decades a second-class citizen in the sports world.
In an entirely different sort of book, All Madden—Hey, I'm Talking Pro Football (Harper Collins, $22), John Madden picks up the game pretty much where Peterson leaves off. With his co-author, New York Times columnist Dave Anderson, Madden recalls his coaching years with the Oakland Raiders in the 1960s and '70s and regales us with stories from his current career as a television commentator. Along his merry way he profiles some of his favorite players and tosses in philosophical tidbits, chief among which is his theory that players who enjoy themselves will trounce the sourpusses every time. Fun is obviously a big part of Madden's life. "I never feel like I'm really working," he writes. "I'm just having a good time doing what I did as a kid." His book, too, is fun.
A much more lavish gridiron volume is Football America—Celebrating Our National Passion (Turner Publishing Co., Inc., $39.95), with text by Phil Barber and Ray Didinger, both of the NFL. This book does not confine itself to the NFL but depicts every aspect of the game from sandlot ball to high school to the pros.
From the title one might assume that Catch (MacMurray & Beck, $28), by Nick Hartshorn, is about baseball or fishing. Actually, it's about conversation. Hartshorn, who writes for the Daily Sentinel of Grand Junction, Colo., traveled around the country and played catch with total strangers to learn more about the American way of life. After three months and 12,000 miles, he had recorded 30 ballplaying conversations. Only two of his talkers, broadcaster Bob Costas and filmmaker Spike Lee, qualify as celebrities. Costas, Hartshorn discovered, throws a good split-finger fastball. Lee, on the other hand, was so wild that Hartshorn spent much of his precious talk time chasing after the ball.
For basketball fans there is Going Bigtime: The Spectacular Rise of UMASS Basketball (Summerset Press, $23.95), by Marty Dobrow, who engagingly recounts hoop tribulations and triumphs at the University of Massachusetts. Dobrow's focal point is the turbulent season of 1995-96, in which the Minutemen reached the Final Four with the player of the year, junior Marcus Camby, and the coach of the year, John Calipari, only to lose both prematurely to the NBA.
If hockey is your sport, there are no fewer than four coffee-table books of interest: Full Spectrum: A Complete History of the Philadelphia Flyers Hockey Club (Triumph Books, $39.95), by veteran sportswriter and columnist Jay Greenberg; Legends of Hockey—The Official Book of the Hockey Hall of Fame (Triumph Books, $40), with a foreword by Bobby Hull; A Day in the Life of the National Hockey League (Collins Publishers, $35), by many contributing writers and photographers; and The Coolest Guys on Ice (Turner Publishing, Inc., $19.95), by Jeff Z. Klein and Karl-Eric Reif.
For lovers of outdoor sports there are Chris Bonington, Mountaineer (Sierra Club Books, $30), a memoir by the veteran British climber, and Flashes in the River (Willow Creek Press, $35), a gorgeous tribute to the art of fly-fishing by watercolorist Arthur Shilstone and essayist Ed Gray.
With shopping time running out, any one of these books is sure to prove a winner.