9 sports books that offer something for every fan

Whether an exhaustive new profile of Babe Ruth, the reflections of basketball great Bob Cousy, or a retrospective of the heyday of women’s bike racing, there’s plenty to choose from in this grab bag of books.

1. The Last Pass: Cousy, Russell, the Celtics, and What Matters in the End, by Gary M. Pomerantz

“The Last Pass” surely stands as one of the most intriguing sports books in recent memory, and maybe of all time. After all, it bares the soul of one superstar athlete, Bob Cousy, as he reflects, at age 90, on his career with the Boston Celtics, and especially on his relationship with the team’s other great star, Bill Russell. Cousy and Russell enjoyed excellent chemistry on the court, as evidenced by the team’s many championship banners. Cousy, however, has regrets that he didn’t do more during the volatile civil rights era to publicly support Russell during his rocky encounters with discrimination. The depth of Cousy’s thinking on this subject is striking, as are his many highly personal thoughts on life both in and out of basketball. Author Gary Pomerantz seems to have captured them all in vivid detail by interviewing Cousy 53 times over two and a half years. 

2. Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created, by Jane Leavy

Surely, baseball fans must be thinking, there’s no need for another biography of Babe Ruth, who has been the subject of so many books. New York Times bestselling author Jane Leavy felt otherwise and has written one of the most exhaustive portraits to date of Ruth, this on the heels of heralded biographies of fellow baseball greats Sandy Koufax and Mickey Mantle. Two aspects where Leavy’s tremendous research really pays off is in examining Ruth’s early childhood and in analyzing his partnership with agent Christy Walsh, who helped Babe achieve maximum fame while also serving as a surrogate father. Also receiving special attention is a 21-day barnstorming tour Ruth took after his record-setting 60-home-run 1927 season, when he joined with Lou Gehrig in what Walsh promoted as a “Symphony of Swat.”

3. We Want Fish Sticks: The Bizarre and Infamous Rebranding of the New York Islanders, by Nicholas Hirshon 

Has a sports book ever had a more unusual title than “We Want Fish Sticks”? Probably not. The inspiration for it is the mocking chant that opposing fans once used to taunt the NHL’s New York Islanders. They were making fun of the franchise’s ill-fated decision to rebrand itself in the mid-1990s, dropping a distinctive logo with a map of Long Island for a cartoonish fisherman who reminded people of the Gorton’s frozen seafood mascot. The switch was made after the fortunes of the Islanders, who won four straight Stanley Cup championships in the early 1980s, had sunk so low as to set off alarm bells. This is the story of the three desperate years in the 1990s when the club tried to redefine itself under an owner who wound up in prison for bank and wire fraud.  

4. Women on the Move: The Forgotten Era of Women’s Bicycle Racing, by Roger Gilles

It may be hard to imagine, but the heyday of women’s bike racing in the United States occurred at the turn of the last century – from 1895 to 1902, to be precise. That was long before professional team sports hit their stride and at a time when a bicycle craze swept the country. The period is thoroughly chronicled in “Women on the Move,” which recounts how racing on tracks in indoor arenas captivated the public, shed stereotypes of female fragility, and produced America’s first women sports stars – Tillie Anderson, Lizzie Glaw, and Dottie Farnsworth. Sadly, the enterprise came to a halt after two of these stars died, Farnsworth following a cycling accident while performing for a circus and Glaw from illness shortly after she retired from racing.

5. Down the Fairway, by Robert T. Jones, Jr. and O.B. Keeler 

The cover of “Down the Fairway” shows Bobby Jones completing the swing that took him to golfing greatness during the 1920s and ‘30s. What makes this book unusual, though, is that it was written by Jones in 1927 at the tender age of 24, along with sports journalist O.B. Keeler. A classic, it was republished in 2001 and now is enjoying a third time in print. The publisher, Lyons Press, calls it "part memoir, part golf instructional book, [and] part golf history." Jones penned it after becoming the first golfer to win the US and British Open championships in the same year (1926), when he may have thought he’d reached the pinnacle of his career. As it turned out, four years later, he improved on that by becoming the first and only player to win all four major tournaments to complete a Grand Slam in one calendar year. From there, he returned to his law practice in Atlanta and founded the Augusta National Golf Club, the home of the Masters in Georgia.  

6. The League That Didn’t Exist: A History of the All-America Football Conference, 1946-1949, by Gary Webster 

Over the years, a number of upstart leagues envisioned competing against the National Football League. Some never even played a game, and only one, the All-America Football Conference, survived more than two seasons. During its first three seasons (1946, ’47, and ’48), the league managed to draw more fans than an NFL that was busy finding its postwar footing. Judging the story of the AAFC from the title, “The League That Didn’t Exist,” is rather misleading. Things, of course, did collapse after the AAFC’s fourth season, but its memory lives on in the form of two AAFC teams the NFL absorbed in 1950, the Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers.

7. The Greatest Hockey Stories Ever Told, edited by Bryant Urstadt 

Hockey may be the least-written-about of the major team sports, but this anthology manages to mine 16 stories that even a casual fan can enjoy. It starts off, as one might anticipate, with a retrospective of the 1980 US men’s Olympic team Miracle on Ice and wraps up with part of the screenplay from the funny take on minor-league hockey, “Slap Shot,” written by Nancy Dowd. In between are pieces by two literary heavyweights: Pulitzer Prize winner William Faulkner, who wrote about attending a 1955 NHL game for Sports Illustrated, and George Plimpton, the editor of The Paris Review, whose experience suiting up for the Boston Bruins to play goalie in an exhibition was the basis of his book, “Open Net.” 

8. The Cost of These Dreams: Sports Stories and Other Serious Business, by Wright Thompson

“The Cost of These Dreams” is clearly aimed at sports fans who enjoy long-form profiles, such as those Wright Thompson, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, contributes to its pages. In this collection of articles, he demonstrates his storytelling talents by probing the personalities of some of the biggest names in sports, both past and present, including Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Ted Williams, and Bear Bryant. 

9. Now Taking the Field: Baseball’s All-Time Dream Teams for All 30 Franchises, by Tom Stone 

Author Tom Stone says he started writing the book in 1983, at the age of 10. That, of course, requires a bit of explaining. What he’s referring to is the time that even young baseball fans spend in rating players, often those on their favorite teams. Stone, however, is far more ambitious than that and culls together the dream lineups for all 30 major league teams, which accounts for the doorstop, more-than-600-page size of the book. He realizes that baseball inspires a steady stream of such ranking books. His fuses to some degree the latest performing metrics with more traditional stats, and he also goes so far as to pick separate starting lineups against right-handed and left-handed pitching. 

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