As we head into the summer months, at least here in the northern half of the globe, there is normally a chance to slow down, take it easy and, perhaps, browse our local bookshop (or, probably more likely, our Kindle app) for something to read during our downtime. Somewhat sporadically over the last few years, I have written blog posts recommending some sports-centric books suitable for beach/cabin/cafe/holiday reading (see the 2014 list here, the 2015 list here, and the 2016 list here). Some books have a sport heritage component to them, some do not, though they were popular sports books that over the past year or so I enjoyed reading and would recommend (which also means that they were not necessarily published in the last year, but that I happened to read them over the past year). That said, there are a number of other sites that I would also recommend (most notably, the frequent and well-written reviews from our friends at the Sport in American History blog comes to mind.
In any event, here are a few 2018 recommendations for your summer sports reading:
Part memoir, part ethnography, the author spends a year becoming a professional “horseplayer” and meeting other gamblers along the way. I think horse racing inspires entertaining books, particularly when focused on contemporary rather than historical horse racing, because it is such a niche – and, in many ways, antiquated – sport. Whereas knowing and gambling on horses in the US was once a major leisure pastime, now it attracts an incredibly quirky group of people – each with their own system of handicapping the races. McLelland provides a very engaging narrative about the culture of a track, the people it attracts, and his own highs and lows on the road to becoming a professional handicapper.
This was probably my favourite sports book I read in the past year. Marzorati’s memoir of taking up tennis in retirement, obsessing over it, acquiring skills and milestones and victories and setbacks and, ultimately, something resembling contentment was, for me at least, inspiring. Part of this is that I recently took up tennis as well and, though I am not in retirement, I am also not in great physical shape (and certainly not at the level of Marzorati). In many ways, this book has taught me that there is still time to learn, to try, and to achieve no matter the stage in life.
On a recent episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s Rethinking History podcast, he discussed an academic paper which concluded that a hockey coach who’s team is down a goal should pull their goalie with nearly six minutes to play in the game. While “pulling the goalie” is a common tactic in hockey, it is normally done with fewer than two minutes remaining in the game. Gladwell used this point to discuss, among other things, the idea of approval in decision-making (a coach who pulled the goalie with six minutes left would, almost certainly, not be a coach for very long despite the fact it might actually be the statistically correct move). The idea of trying tactics that are statistically defensible but completely fly in the face of a sport’s culture and norms is the focus of this entertaining and often funny book by the hosts of the excellent Effectively Wild baseball podcast. Given almost complete control of the on-field tactics of a minor league baseball team, Lindbergh and Miller quickly learn that what might be right on paper is not always going to be accepted by players and managers on the field.
Though likely a bit dated, given that it was from the late 1980s/early 1990s, it is nevertheless a disturbing though compelling account of hooligan culture in England. Although there is an entire subgenera of memoirs from hooligans, this one is unique in that it was written by an American who didn’t grow up in football/soccer culture but who slowly went from being revolted by what he saw to being a participant in the mayhem.
Pete Rose is either viewed as a hero – the “hit king” who topped Ty Cobb’s record – or a villain – the man who sullied the American Pastime through gambling on games he managed. Kennedy’s memoir is a nuanced account of Rose, a remarkable player who was a deeply flawed (though never particularly mean) character. Kennedy doesn’t particularly make the case for or against Rose as much as asking those on either side to take a closer look.