Sports books have traditionally been regarded as literature with an asterisk. Oh, every now and again critics have blown pipe smoke in the direction of a sports book, a fine example being Roger Kahn's The Boys of Summer, mostly to remind us that it wasn't really a sports book. Baseball novels from Serious Writers—Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, Mark Harris, et al.—are accepted in literary circles because we know that baseball is only a vehicle enabling these writers to explore issues of much deeper significance and even metaphysical importance. Something like that, anyway. And though he returns to baseball with a disturbing regularity, and has published three collections of essays about the game, Roger Angell passes muster in the book world, too, because he still writes baseball avocationally (for the ultraserious New Yorker) rather than vocationally.
Now, there is some justification for the low esteem accorded sports books, which we shall consider a catchall classification that includes both nonfiction and fiction (the vast majority of which are baseball novels). Judged collectively, sports books have contributed to literature essentially what Twinkies have contributed to gastronomy. Classics like Harris's Bang the Drum Slowly trilogy are oases in the vast desert of boring juvenile fiction, nostalgic drivel and graceless as-told-to sports bios—or as Corlies Smith, the editorial director at Houghton Mifflin, calls them, "the Mom, apple-pie and Wheaties genre." Smith, by the way, is the man who first published both Joe Garagiola (Baseball Is a Funny Game) and Thomas Pynchon (V), whatever the significance of that might be.
Further, sports books in general haven't traditionally been big money-makers for publishers, who tend to consider them "mid-list"—books that sell modestly well with a minimum of promotional effort. The commercial success of Jim Brosnan's The Long Season, Jim Bouton's Ball Four and Jerry Kramer's and Dick Schaap's Instant Replay were grand and glorious accidents rather than the results of careful publishing strategy.
But, suddenly, something strange has happened to
The New York Times
best-seller list: It has become positively sweaty with sports books. And not sports books by literary heavyweights like Norman Mailer, or guaranteed chart busters like James Michener. No, these are sports books by actual sports personalities, and, lo and behold, by actual sportswriters, so long the hashslingers of the book world. The large bookstore chains have spotted the trend, too, and have reacted by giving certain sports books what is known in the industry as "power-aisle treatment."
"Over the last couple years there has been something totally inexplicable going on with sports books," says Peter Guzzardi, a senior editor at Bantam. "To some extent we know that the baby-boomers, who are definitely sports fans, are reaching the disposable-income point. They're likely to pop for a hardcover sports book, not the case a few years ago."
And pop they do. Consider:
?A Season on the Brink, a behind-the-scenes account of Indiana University's 1985-86 basketball season written by
The Washington Post's John Feinstein, has become one of the publishing world's alltime success stories. Macmillan, has sold about 440,000 hardcover copies, hogging the No. 1 spot on the Times best-seller list for an almost unbelievable 14 weeks earlier this year. "Who'd Feinstein pass?" asked Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson one day. " Bill Cosby," he was informed. Thompson shook his head in disbelief.
"The sales of Brink were absolutely unbelievable, absolutely incredible," says Peter Gethers, vice president and editorial director at Villard Books, who turned down the Feinstein proposal when it was first brought to him by the writer's agent, Esther Newberg. "It's like picking up Tommy John and having him make the All-Star team. It's like picking up Terry Leach and having him go 10 and oh." Publishers are even using sports metaphors these days.
?Football, with the rare exception of an Instant Replay or George Plimpton's Paper Lion, was once considered something of an incomplete pass in the publishing world. No more.
McMahon!, the lively collaboration of Chicago Bear quarterback Jim McMahon and
columnist Bob Verdi, was another stunning surprise last year, selling more than 300,000 hardcover copies for Warner Books. Ditka: An Autobiography was less of a national phenomenon than
McMahon!, but it still sold more than 100,000 copies for Bonus Books, a Chicago publisher.
Another quarterback bio, Snake, made the best-seller list briefly, even though Kenny Stabler has been out of the game for three years. Both of John Madden's books written with
New York Times
columnist Dave Anderson—Hey, Wait a Minute, I Wrote a Book! and One Knee Equals Two Feet—were runaway best-sellers for Villard. Food for thought from Gethers: " Random House's best-selling authors are probably Michener, [Robert] Ludlum and [Gore] Vidal. But John Madden is certainly at the next rung."