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9 Classic Sports Biographies Every Fan Should Read

by: Howard Cosmell On  Tuesday, May 31, 2011

It can be really hard to find a good book about your favorite athlete.

In the past, someone would write a book about what they loved with nothing more than a hope that, just maybe, their book would find an audience. Today, giant bookstores figure out what kinds of books people buy the most, then find authors to pump out books on those subjects. The result, of course, is that bookstores are chock full of books that sound interesting but aren’t really any good.

This is especially true about sports books. For every carefully researched thought-provoking book about a beloved sports icon there are five hastily commissioned “memoirs” of whoever just had a good season and/or is about to become a free agent. Hell, there’s one of these on bookstore shelves right now about Albert Pujols. It was written by his agent.

Anyway, the point is, if you want to find a good biography about your sports heroes, you have a dig a little. Lucky for you, I’ve already done some digging and put together this list of 9 Classic Sports Biographies Every Fan Should Read. I would never claim this list is in any way definitive, but I think it’s a solid start for the serious sports fan. Feel free to make your own recommendations in the comments section below.

9. They Call Me Coach, by John Wooden

John Wooden was one of the most successful coaches of all time, in any sport. He coached the UCLA Men’s Basketball team to 10 championships in 12 years, including an unprecedented 7 in a row. What’s really great about They Call Me Coach is that, unlike most books written by coaches today, he doesn’t sound like he’s auditioning for public speaking gigs at corporate retreats by comparing his teams to corporations and the job of a coach to that of a CEO. Instead, he offers up his heartfelt philosophy about life and basketball for anyone who cares to listen.

8. Days of Grace, by Arthur Ashe

Arthur Ashe wasn’t special just because he won 3 Grand Slam events in his career, or because he was the first tennis player of African decent to win a major tournament. What made Arthur Ashe special was the way he won throughout his career—with a kind of class and sportsmanship that helped break down racial barriers in the stuffy upper crust world that used to be professional tennis. His grace and class carried over into his work as an anti-apartheid activist in the 1970s and 80s. He finished his memoir, Days of Grace just a week before dying of AIDS in 1993. Mike Tyson read the book while in prison and was so moved that he got a tattoo of Ashe on his left bicep.

7. When Pride Still Mattered: Lombardi, by David Maraniss

There is no figure in the history of pro football more mythical than Vince Lombardi. Hell, they named the Superbowl trophy after him. So you would think that writing a biography about the real Lombardi—the one who, despite being an extremely devout Catholic, hardly had the demeanor of a saint—might be difficult. But David Maraniss is able to present a fantastic, nuanced picture of a very complex man who became a legend.

6. The Game, by Ken Dryden

Ken Dryden is a member of Canadian Parliament. He graduated from Cornell University with a BA in history in 1969, and from McGill University with a degree in law in 1974. Of course, he also won the Stanley Cup as goaltender for the Montreal Canadiens in 1973, 1976, 1977, 1978, and 1979. So, I guess you could say Ken Dryden is not your typical professional athlete. It should be no surprise, then, that his hockey memoir, The Game, is not your typical sports biography. It is so good, in fact, that Sports Illustrated places it at #9 on their list of the 100 greatest sports books of all time.

5. Out of Their League, by Dave Meggysey

St. Louis Cardinals linebacker Dave Meggysey never really fit in during his years in the NFL, but until he published his memoir in 1970 no one knew the half of it. He shocked NFL players, officials, and fans alike with his insider’s account of the brutality, drug use, and blatant racism that went on behind closed doors. And he is credited with being one of the first people to talk about the “dehumanizing” experience of the modern professional athlete, whose entire life’s work can be bought and sold on a whim.

4. Seabiscuit: An American Legend, by Laura Hillenbrand

Coming in at #4 is the only biography on this list that’s not about a human being. It is also the only biography on this list to has inspired a wildly popular film of the same name. But behind the popularity of the film is a true story about a horse that really did come out of nowhere during the Great Depression to captivate the sporting world. Book critics heaped loads of praise upon author Laura Hillenbrand for her remarkable ability to recreate the drama of historical events without having been a witness—which of course is what makes this book so enthralling, even for those who don’t know the first thing about “The Sport of Kings.”

3. Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times, by Thomas Hauser

This book presents an oral history of Muhammad Ali’s life told through the stories and perspectives of over 150 different observers, including those who knew Ali best—like his father, his cornermen, and the man who introduced him to boxing, police officer Joe Martin. At least one other excellent Muhammad Ali has been published, buy this one is considered to have been the first definitive work about the life of one of the most important sports figures of the 20th century.

2. Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy, by Jane Leavy

Sandy Koufax played for the LA Dodgers in the mid 60s and may be the best pitcher in the history of baseball. At worst, he’s probably in the top 5. But what really made him so important was that he became a hero for people during a time of great tumult and strife. After all, the 60s was the decade of the Civil Rights movement and protests against the war in Vietnam. Of course, being proudly Jewish, Koufax was most of all a hero to other Jewish people who had never really had one of their own to look up to in the sporting world. But, as this book recounts, there was something about the pride he took in his identity and success that made everyone look up to him.

1. Babe: The Legend Comes to Life, by Robert W. Creamer

He’s the best player in the history of America’s Pastime and the subject of countless legends. To say the least, writing an accurate history of George Herman Ruth’s life is a herculean task. That’s why no one had been able to do until Robert Creamer did it in 1974. Creamer breaks new ground by cutting through the folksy aura surrounding the Great Bambino to separate once and for all fact from fiction. For example, did the Babe really “call his shot” in the 1932 World Series? Read the book and find out.




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