As the year comes to a close and people are shopping for Christmas presents for the sports book lovers in their lives / themselves, it’s a good time to look back at the year in sports books.
It’s been an incredibly strong year for sports books, especially biographies across a wide number of sports. Below I talk about my favourite books published this year and some recommended by you guys. Also included a list of some of those sports books I haven’t managed to read yet but have been highly recommended.
Let me know your own thoughts in the comments or on twitter. Happy reading.
This year saw two fantastic biographies of iconic figures who excelled in more than one sport. Bo Jackson and Jim Thorpe came from very different eras but both achieved remarkable cultural status as a result of their unique sporting success.
🏈⚾The Last Folk Hero: The Life and Myth of Bo Jackson by Jeff Pearlman. Through extensive research and interviewing hundreds of people Pearlman brings to life Bo’s various triumphs and failures as well as capturing the lingering sense of what might have been. This is such an entertaining read I cannot recommend it highly enough. Check out my review.
🏅⚾🏈Path Lit by Lightning: The Life of Jim Thorpe by David Maraniss. The great biographer has taken a subject who is vaguely known by most Americans and brought him to life in vivid, fascinating detail. Thorpe is presented as both a fabulous athlete and a real person grappling with fame without the financial reward modern superstars enjoy today. An immersive, readable, book on a fascinating, complex and talented sportsman. Check out my review.
🏅Gems you might have missed
Some books are less obvious and visible when not about a popular player or team. Here are two books I really loved this year that aren’t easily categorised but deserve a wide audience.
🚣♂️Flares Up: A Story Bigger than the Atlantic by Niamh McAnally. Flares Up is the story of two ordinary men taking on an extreme challenge to row across the Atlantic Ocean. As an account of an interesting challenge undertaken by two relatively ordinary men this is a very good book, but as an examination of life it is a special one. The honesty of the book results in it being an incredibly gripping reflection on fatherhood, on marriage, on motivation and on passion. On who we chose to spend our time with and why we chose to do so. I can’t recommend this highly enough for anyone looking for a gripping, moving, exciting read. Check out my review.
🏅Unsung: Not All Heroes Wear Kits by Alexis James. Very interesting look at some of the behind the scenes roles that allow elite sport to take place. Captures the enthusiasm, passion and professionalism of some very fascinating people. From kit designers to athletics starters and makers of artificial snow, each chapter is fascinating by itself. Together they show just how much dedication and sacrifice is required by those outside the limelight to allow great sporting moments to happen. Unsung is a really well written and enjoyable book. Highly recommend it.
Another year with plenty of great football books. My personal favourites this year were:
⚽ Scheisse! We’re Going Up! The Unexpected Rise of Berlin’s Rebel Football Club by Kit Holden. Scheisse is an absolutely brilliant book. It tells the history and uniqueness of Union Berlin through the eyes of its fans. It captures the very essence of why sport matters, the importance of recognizing that clubs are more than simply entities to be commercialized, and the often overlooked fact that change, while inevitable, does not have to mean the loss of that which was special about what already existed. Check out my full review here
⚽ 1999: Manchester United, the Treble and All That by Matt Dickinson. Recounts Man Utd’s remarkable season in 1998/99 and the thrilling Champions League victory. Dickenson covered the team as a beat reporter that season and has spoken to most of the players again for the book. A really enjoyable read that gets behind-the-scenes and packed with plenty of great anecdotes.
⚽ Fit and Proper People: The Lies and Fall of OWNAFC by Martin Calladine and James Cave. OwnaFC promised to allow football fans the chance to become part owners of a club and have a genuine say in running it for a small up front cost. Sounds too good to be true, because it was. The OwnaFC fraud, and the story of how the authors tried to expose it, frame a broader reflection on the concept of owning a community institution like a football club and the failings of the powers that be, both sporting and political, to protect the interests of fans. This is a brilliant, important book on the value of clubs to their fans + community and the dangers posed by the variety of people seeking to exploit fans.
⚽ Messi vs. Ronaldo: One Rivalry, Two Goats, and the Era That Remade the World’s Game by Jonathan Clegg & Joshua Robinson. Above all this book is exceptionally readable. While many of the broad strokes will be familiar to long time football fans, there is enough insight and new reporting here to interest anybody. Highly recommended for anyone looking to relive their glory days during and after their swansong World Cup. Check out my review.
Other 2022 football books well worth checking out:
⚽How Not to Run a Football Club: Protests, Boycotts, Court Cases and the Story of How Blackpool Fans Fought to Save Their Club by Nathan Fogg
⚽USA 94: The World Cup that Changed the Game by Matthew Evans. Read my review here.
⚽How to Win the World Cup: Secrets and Insights from International Football’s Top Managers by Chris Evans. Read my review here.
Still sad about the Phillies falling short in the World Series but no better season to remind me how gripping the game can be. Three baseball books really stood out for me this year.
⚾💉Playing Through the Pain: Ken Caminiti and the Steroids Confession That Changed Baseball Forever by Dan Good. A brilliant account of Caminiti’s compelling, tragic life – a wonderful, heart-breaking, unputdownable book. Made me question how we should consider the lives and legacies of athletes who take PED. Full review here.
⚾ Rickey: The Life and Legend of an American Original by Howard Bryant. Definitive biography of Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson, baseball’s epic leadoff hitter and base-stealer. A simply fantastic book.
⚾ Charlie Murphy: The Iconoclastic Showman Behind the Chicago Cubs by Jason Cannon. Story of the the ebullient and mercurial owner of this historic franchise from 1905 through 1914 during which the Cubs won two World Series. A fascinating biography of Murphy and baseball in the early 1900s.
Other 2002 baseball books well worth checking out:
⚾Sho-Time: The Inside Story of Shohei Ohtani and the Greatest Baseball Season Ever Played by Jeff Fletcher. Check out my review.
⚾The Saga of Sudden Sam: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of Sam McDowell by Sam McDowell with Martin Gitlin. Check out my full review.
It was an exceptionally strong year for basketball books this year. I’ve picked three favourites but plenty of great books that just missed the cut.
🏀 The Great Nowitzki: Basketball and the Meaning of Life by Thomas Pletzinger. Pletzinger, a German novelist and sportswriter, traveled with the Mavericks superstar Dirk Nowitzki for seven years, seeking the secret of his success and longevity. This is a special book. A really great read that captures the uniqueness of Nowitzki, his impact on basketball & Dallas and the sacrifice & dedication required to play at the top level for so long. It works not just as biography but as a story of sporting fame and fandom. Of the symbiotic relationship between a superstar and his city, country and the broad range of people touched by his feats of sporting greatness. A masterpiece of sports biography. Check out my review.
🏀Blood in the Garden: The Flagrant History of the 1990s New York Knicks by Chris Herring. Tells the story of the Knicks from the arrival of former Lakers coach Pat Riley in 1991 to the departure of coach Jeff Van Gundy in 2001. Herring brings the central cast of players, coaches, and executives to life in vivid detail but also builds the wider picture of a club, an organization and a wider league. The book strikes a perfect balance of insight, anecdote, game action, and narrative. Check out my review.
🏀Barkley: A Biography by Timothy Bella. As one of the more iconic figures in basketball both during and after his career, Charles Barkley has fascinated, entertained, annoyed and informed generations of basketball fans. This book is packed full of interesting anecdotes and insight and delicately balances the dual aims of being short enough to remain entertaining while also being long enough to capture the fullness of Barkley’s life. Check out my review.
Other 2022 basketball books well worth checking out:
🏀The Rise: Kobe Bryant and the Pursuit of Immortality by Mike Sielski. Reviewed here.
🏀Coach K: The Rise and Reign of Mike Krzyzewski by Ian O’Connor. Reviewed here.
🏀The Last Enforcer by Charles Oakley (with Frank Isola)
🏀Muggsy: Life from a Kid in the Projects to the Godfather of Small Ball by Muggsy Bogues (with Jacob Utitti)
🏈 NFL / American Football
🏈Walking Alone: The Untold Journey of Football Pioneer Kenny Washington by Dan Taylor. Kenny Washington is most famous for breaking the unofficial colour barrier in the NFL as the first black player to play in the league in 13 years. Walking Alone is a comprehensive and excellent biography shining a light on remarkable talent and the impact Washington had. Read my full review here.
🏈 Hometown Victory: A Coach’s Story of Football, Fate, and Coming Home’ by Keanon Lowe with Justin Spitzman. The story of a remarkable young coach who channeled his own grief into helping an underfunded, disadvantaged, high-school football team to find hope and purpose on the playing field and in life. A very enjoyable, inspiring book. Check out my full review here.
🏈Seventeen and Oh: Miami, 1972, and the NFL’s Only Perfect Season by Marshall Jon Fisher. Fifty years on from the Miami Dolphins historic perfect season, Fisher has recounted the story of the season, the players, the coach, the city and the country. Seventeen and Oh is a very enjoyable, entertaining read – sports writing at its very finest. Highly recommend it for any NFL fan. Check out my full review here.
Other American Football books well worth checking out:
🏈 Freezing Cold Takes: NFL: Football Media’s Most Inaccurate Predictions—and the Fascinating Stories Behind Them by Fred Segal. Reviewed here.
🏈 The Rise of the Black Quarterback: What it Means for America by Jason Reid
🏈 Spies on the Sideline by Kevin Bryant.
Boxing, with its cruel, brutal, beautiful nature, lends itself to great writing. My favourite boxing books this year were:
🥊The Duke: The Life and Lies of Tommy Morrison by Carlos Acevedo. Morrison may be best known to many as the guy who played Tommy Gunn in Rocky V. Ultimately, Morrison’s life and career would twist and turn is ways both unexpected and tragic. The Duke is above all an exceptional work of biography. Acevedo’s achievement is to tell the story in a way that is riveting but not lurid, gripping but not eulogizing. The Duke is unputdownable in a way non-fiction rarely is. It grips you and submerges you in a narrative that is riveting, comic, and ultimately tragic. Check out my review here.
🥊Muhammad Ali: Fifteen Rounds in the Wilderness by Dave Hannigan. A brilliant look at Ali’s post-boxing life. Captures both his unique fame and his charisma and courage in the face of declining health. The third of three great books on Ali by Dave Hannigan. Full review here.
🥊Fighting for Survival: My Journey Through Boxing Fame, Abuse, Murder, and Resurrection by Christy Martin with Ron Borges. A passionate, heartbreaking and compelling autobiography from the pioneering boxer. Much like Martin’s fighting style, ‘Fighting for Survival’ is powerful and holds nothing back. She writes as she fought – by laying all her cards on the table and scoring a knockout success. Full review here.
🥊 Warrior: A Champion’s Incredible Search for His Identity by Tris Dixon. A biography of boxer Matthew Saad Muhammad by the author of the excellent Damages. I’ve only just started this but I’m confident enough in it’s quality already to include it in the list.
Two cycling books really stood out for me this year (and are reviewed in more detail here).
🚴Jan Ullrich: The Best There Never Was by Daniel Friebe. Ullrich may be best remembered these days as the guy who kept finishing second, usually to Lance Armstrong, on the Tour de France. This is a comprehensive, gripping biography of a fascinating athlete. Friebe has gotten as close as possible to presenting a comprehensive portrait of an athlete and a man who, despite his flaws, has always been compelling and strangely likeable. The Best There Never Was is an exceptionally good biography and a very enjoyable read for any cycling fan.
🚴Le Fric: Family, Power and Money: The Business of the Tour de France by Alex Duff. An entertaining and comprehensive history of the Tour’s ownership, its business model, and the family that controls it. Le Fric is a fascinating work of history but it is also strong when reflecting on more modern changes to the Tour as a business and wider, so far largely unsuccessful, attempts to reform cycling’s structure more generally. An excellent addition to any fan’s cycling library.
⛳ ‘Phil: The Rip-Roaring (and Unauthorized!) Biography of Golf’s Most Colorful Superstar’ by Alan Shipnuck. Packed full of anecdotes which present two contrasting sides of Mickelson – money obsessed yet incredibly generous, trash talker yet supportive of new pros, self-obsessed yet capable of great empathy. Overall ‘Phil’ is a very entertaining and enjoyable read.✓
Books I haven’t managed to read yet but I’ve heard are great
Sadly even I can’t read every sports book I want to in the year. Here are a bunch of books that I haven’t gotten to yet but have heard great things about. Most are on the Christmas book wish list.
⚽ Johan Cruyff: Always on the Attack by Auke Kok. The first comprehensive English language bio of the legendary Dutchman since his death.
⚽ Two Brothers by Jonathan Wilson. A dual-biography of Jack and Bobby Charlton, World Cup winning brothers in the 1966 England team.
The Game: A Journey Into the Heart of Sport by Tadhg Coakley. A reflection on the importance of sport and its’ pervasive influence, good and bad, on humanity. Hugely positive reviews from readers whose taste I trust very much.
🏈 Moving the Chains: The Civil Rights Protest that Saved the Saints and Transformed New Orleans by Erin Grayson Sapp. The untold story of the backroom deal that gave rise to the New Orleans Saints.
⚽ When Two Worlds Collide: The Intercontinental Cup Years by Dan Williamson. Book on the annual match between Europe and South America’s champion football teams by the author of the excellent Blue and Gold Passion.
⚽ When the Circus Leaves Town by David Proudlove. A look at the what happens when football teams move. Most recommended by my twitter followers.
🏉 Unforgettable: Rugby, Dementia and the Fight of My Life by Steve Thompson. A lot of love for this book on my twitter feed.
🚴♂️God is Dead: The Rise and Fall of Frank Vandenbroucke by Andy McGrath. Story of the handsome mercurial Belgian cycling prodigy Frank Vandenbroucke who won a number of prestigious races but ultimately lived faster than he raced.
🏅Running and Jumping: Three Olympics, Two Men, One Rivalry by Steven Kedie. Fictional account of two athletes rivalry.
Hope the list has given you some good reading suggestions / Christmas present ideas. Let me know in the comments what your favourite 2022 sports books were. Happy reading!