In the early 1900s editor Maxwell Perkins told anyone who would listen that Chicago sports columnist Ring Lardner was the most talented writer he knew, high praise given that Perkins's stable included Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe. It shouldn't have come as a shock, though. Many of the country's best writers have long been fascinated with sports, and that passion shows up in their prose. After all, when done right, sportswriting transcends bats and balls to display all the traits of great literature: incision, wit, force and vision, suffused with style and substance. Herewith the editors of SI's favorite sports books, compiled with love and reason, out of intense and sometimes unruly discussions.
1 The Sweet Science
BY A.J. LIEBLING (1956)
Pound-for-pound the top boxing writer of all time, Liebling is at his bare-knuckled best here, bobbing and weaving between superb reporting and evocative prose. The fistic figures depicted in this timeless collection of New Yorker essays range from champs such as Rocky Marciano and Sugar Ray Robinson to endearing palookas and eccentric cornermen on the fringes of the squared circle. Liebling's writing is efficient yet stylish, acerbic yet soft and sympathetic. ("The sweet science, like an old rap or the memory of love, follows its victims everywhere.") He leavens these flourishes with an eye for detail worthy of Henry James. The one-two combination allows him to convey how boxing can at once be so repugnant and so alluring.
2 The Boys of Summer
BY ROGER KAHN (1971)
A baseball book the same way Moby Dick is a fishing book, this account of the early-'50s Brooklyn Dodgers is, by turns, a novelistic tale of conflict and change, a tribute, a civic history, a piece of nostalgia and, finally, a tragedy, as the franchise's 1958 move to Los Angeles takes the soul of Brooklyn with it. Kahn writes eloquently about the memorable games and the Dodgers' penchant for choking—"Wait Till Next Year" is their motto—but the most poignant passages revisit the Boys in autumn. An auto accident has rendered catcher Roy Campanella a quadriplegic. Dignified trailblazer Jackie Robinson is mourning the death of his son. Sure-handed third baseman Billy Cox is tending bar. No book is better at showing how sports is not just games.[ New York Times best-seller]
3 Ball Four
BY JIM BOUTON (1970)
Though a declining knuckleballer, Bouton threw nothing but fastballs in his diary of the 1969 season. Pulling back the curtain on the seriocomic world of the big leagues, he writes honestly and hilariously about baseball's vices and virtues. At a time when the sport was still a secular religion, it was an act of heresy to portray players "pounding the Ol' Budweiser," "chasin' skirts" or "poppin' greenies." (And that was during games.) Bouton's most egregious act of sacrilege—his biting observations about former teammate Mickey Mantle—led to his banishment from the "Yankee family." But beyond the controversy, Ball Four was, finally, a love story. Bouton writes, "You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time."[ New York Times best-seller]
4 Friday Night Lights
BY H.G. BISSINGER (1990)
Schoolboy football knits together the West Texas town of Odessa in the late 1980s. But as Permian High grows into a dynasty, the locals' sense of proportion blows away like a tumbleweed. A brilliant look at how Friday-night lights can lead a town into darkness.[ New York Times best-seller]
5 You Know Me Al
BY RING LARDNER (1914)
This collection of letters from a fictional (and grammatically challenged) pitcher named Jack Keefe, originally published in installments in The Saturday Evening Post, earned Lardner a spot in the pantheon of American humorists alongside Mark Twain and Will Rogers.
6 A Season on the Brink
BY JOHN FEINSTEIN (1986)
Bob Knight still curses the day he granted the author unfettered access to his program. Feinstein's year as an honorary Hoosier yielded an unsparing portrait of Indiana's combustible coach and spawned the best-selling sports book of all time.[ New York Times best-seller][Made into a movie][Authors with other list-worthy books]
BY DAN JENKINS (1972)
Running back Billy Clyde Puckett of TCU and the Giants calls himself the "humminest sumbitch that ever carried a football." Puckett is also the funniest, and the dialogue in this raunchy novel still crackles. Also read Jenkins's golf novel, Dead Solid Perfect.[Out of print][ New York Times best-seller][Made into a movie][Authors with other list-worthy books]
8 Paper Lion
BY GEORGE PLIMPTON (1965)
No one today does what the fearless Plimpton once did with regularity. Here, in his first Walter Mitty-esque effort, the author of the equally brilliant Shadow Box and The Bogey Man infiltrates the Detroit training camp as a quarterback with no arm, no legs and no shot.[Out of print][ New York Times best-seller][Made into a movie][Authors with other list-worthy books]
9 The Game
BY KEN DRYDEN (1983)
Hall of fame Goalie Dryden was always different. A Cornell grad, he led Montreal to six Stanley Cups, then at 26 sat out a year to prepare for the bar exam. His book is different too: a well-crafted account of his career combined with a meditation on hockey's special place in Canadian culture.