‘The Last Folk Hero: The Life and Myth of Bo Jackson’ by Jeff Pearlman (2022)

Some books you just know are going to be great. Every sports book by Jeff Pearlman is a must-read for me ever since first picking up ‘The Bad Guys Won’ years ago. Pearlman writes as only a great storyteller can – witty, funny, informative, and always insightful. Ever since watching ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary You Don’t Know Bo I have wanted to find a great book on Bo Jackson. Combine great writer and great subject and you get a book even better than expectations. It is quite simply a joy, as entertaining and enjoyable a sports book as you will find.

For those of us too young to have seen him play, Bo Jackson is a figure who is shrouded by mystery. An athlete of near unlimited potential, college football superstar whose pro-career in both baseball and football lives on more in memories and snippets than in medals and trophies.

Pearlman has captured Bo through the eyes of those who witnessed his sporting feats. Through extensive research and interviewing hundreds of people he brings to life Bo’s various triumphs and failures as well as capturing the lingering sense of what might have been. Pearlman leans in on the semi-mythological nature of Bo’s lingering fame – the fact that so many of his most outlandish moments came before the age when everything was recorded. While we video of so many of Bo’s enough remarkable feats to athleticism, the highlights of the book are those that only a lucky few saw and decades later still recall with awe.

The Last Folk Hero also captures Bo’s status as a pop culture icon. The level of fame he reached outstripped his achievements as a pro and his less charismatic personality. His uniqueness as an athlete capable of moments of unrivalled athletic ability created an aura and enthusiasm that

Bo himself remains something of a mystery. Unlike some bio’s this isn’t a forensic investigation of who Bo is a person. Instead it’s a retelling of the legend of Bo Jackson the athlete, the pop culture sensation, the icon. The parts of Bo we do see present a balanced view of a man living an extraordinary life. Pearlman captures moments of great heart and humanity as well as moments of arrogance and ego.

This is such an entertaining read I cannot recommend it highly enough. It captures something wonderful about why we watch sport and why mere mortals want to see feats of seemingly superhuman athleticism. Read it, enjoy it and fire up YouTube along the way.

🏅⚾🏈’Path Lit by Lightning: The Life of Jim Thorpe’ by David Maraniss (2022)

How comprehensive should a biography be? How much detail is needed and desired to get a full picture of someone’s life and impact? I fall on what I’d call the Robert Caro side of the fence – if someone’s life is worthy of study and is told by the right biographer, more detail can only enrich the book. David Maraniss is unquestionably a master biographer who ranks up there with Caro as a perfectionist who turns extensive painstaking research into exceptional biographies. When Pride Still Mattered, Maraniss’ biography of the great Vince Lombardi is, for me, the gold standard of the sporting biography.

In Path Lit by Lightning, Maraniss has turned his pen to Jim Thorpe, arguably the legendary figure in American sports history. Olympic decathlon gold medalist, All-American college football star, Hall of Fame pro-footballer, you’d be forgiven for forgetting he also played Major League Baseball. He was a man so talented that he would help to launch the NFL and make those who piggybacked on his talent, like Carlisle coach Pop Warner, famous in the process.

Thorpe’s life however was far from straight forward. He suffered the indignities common to his fellow Sac and Fox Nation members, dealt with the deep racism of his time, and was unfairly stripped of his Olympic medals for the crime of playing minor league baseball. After his stint at Carlisle industrial school, Thorpe spent most of his life shuttling from from town to town to join various teams in different sports or to escape one failed business ventures after another past. He endured, and his legacy has survived even more so.

Like the best biographies, Path Lit by Lightning is also the story of the era in which Thorpe lived. It captures many of the challenges faced by Native Americans, even the most famous of them all. It is a damning history of the sports establishment of the time, the industrial school approach towards Native Americans and the hypocrisy of the Olympic movement.

Maraniss 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 he would enjoy today. Path Lit by Lightning is a fantastic edition to any sports library, an immersive, readable, book on a fascinating, complex and talented sportsman.

⚾’Sho-Time: The Inside Story of Shohei Ohtani and the Greatest Baseball Season Ever Played’ by Jeff Fletcher (2022)

There is something that is intensely appealing about sportsmen and women who are world class at such different things to be able to play two sports or two wildly different positions at a high professional level. Like a goalkeeper taking free kicks in soccer, a pitcher who can bat with the best of the sluggers thrills the inner child in every sports fan. Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels, the Japanese player who can bat and pitch at an All-Star level is therefore a player I can’t help but love.

Sho-time tells the story of Ohtani’s life and career so far tracing his early days in Japan, his injury troubles and his remarkable 2021 season. The book faces two challenges in telling Ohtani’s story – he rarely speaks about himself and he is still only 28 and therefore has many years ahead of him. Fletcher overcomes these obstacles by having exceptional access to the Angels front office and details the story behind his signing and the competition to get him with interesting insider information.

Fletcher also expands the books scope to examine broad topics which Ohtani personifies – the history of dual position players, the changing nature of the game, and the broader link between Japan and Major League Baseball. These aspects of the book were particularly interesting to me.

The definitive book on Ohtani will be written when his career is over and the impact of his remarkable talent is clearer. For now, Sho-time is a very enjoyable look at the origins and initial impact of this singular player.

🏈’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 biography of Washington which demonstrates how that achievement, impressive as it was, barely scratches the surface of Washington’s remarkable talent.

Washington grew up in LA and was a phenom at both football and baseball. He became a legendary tailback at UCLA (at a time when there were only 25 black players in college football) as well as a leading baseball player for the Bruins. Many believed he was an even better ball player than his teammate Jackie Robinson, including Robinson himself, and could easily have been the first, and almost was the second, player to integrate baseball. He was 27 and injured by the time the LA Rams signed him in 1946, but given his talent, had he been able to play sooner, he may have gone down in history as one of the the greatest professional footballers of all time. He was also a movie star appearing in a number of movies both before and after his time in pro football.

Most remarkable is just how talented Washington was. His performances, combined with a winning personality, gave him a huge following and fanbase at UCLA and beyond. His superiority and popularity was so great that the the racism he faced could only hold him back but not fully defeat him. The absurdity of the best player in the sport having to play in minor leagues was a major factor in the NFL finally lifting its unofficial ban on black players. His example helped embolden other US sports to follow suit and integrate.

Dan Taylor has written a comprehensive and excellent biography shining a light on remarkable talent and the impact Washington had as well as the challenges and racism he overcame. It brilliantly captures the American sporting landscape of the late 30’s, 40’s and 50’s and the difficulties of black athletes at the time. Walking Alone is well researched, well written and an enjoyable engaging read.

🏈🕵️’Spies on the Sideline: The High Stakes World of NFL Espionage’ by Kevin Bryant (2022)

Two of the qualities that are most noticeable in sports books are the depth of research carried out and the passion of the author for the subject. On both of these qualities Spies on the Sideline scores incredibly highly. The book is a detailed, well-researched look at how NFL teams gather information through both conventional and unorthodox means. Bryant is a former Special Agent with decades of experience collecting and safeguarding information for the Department of Defense. He has combined his professional experience with a passion for American football into a very interesting book.

The book presents the myriad ways in which NFL teams seek to gain intel and seek to prevent other teams from doing the same. Bryant recounts countless anecdotes gleamed from a tremendous volume of research as to just how far teams, coaches, owners and others are willing to go to get even a tiny edge to win football games. Most fascinating is how far back many of the stories go, showing the determination to win at all costs existed long before NFL became a multi-billion dollar business. Stories about the Bears v Packers rivalry, Al Davies’ many antics, and the Patriots under Belichick (obviously) are plentiful in particular.

While the book provides a fascinating insight into what modern scouting and analysis entails, unsurprisingly it is at its most interesting when discussing the less legitimate ways teams gather information. As well as telling countless stories, Bryant analyses and brings his own expertise and that of industry professionals in highlighting the steps taken by teams to counter intelligence gathering efforts.

Bryant’s passion for the subject shines through on every page. It results in a fascinating book that provides a unique angle on an aspect of professional football that typically goes undiscussed (until the next time the Patriots get caught!).

Spies on the Sidelines is published by Rowman & Littlefield on 13 July 2022.

🥊’Muhammad Ali: Fifteen Rounds in the Wilderness’ by Dave Hannigan (2022)

What more can be written about Muhammad Ali? Ali’s life has been documented time and again by great writers and filmmakers. However, one area that has always remained somewhat obscure is the period between the end of his boxing career and the moment in Atlanta when, fragile and shaking, he lit the Olympic flame reminding the world of his incomparable courage.

Fifteen Rounds in the Wilderness documents Ali’s public life during these 15 years in compelling detail. Hannigan presents a vast number of incidents and anecdotes captured at the time or remembered by the participants. The volume of research is impressive with countless local, national and international reports quoted and long forgotten small events highlighted. It’s these local, low-key events which tell us so much about Ali because even the most routine appearance was made significant and memorable simply by Ali’s presence and charisma.

A few common threads emerge in the book – friends taking financial advantage of Ali’s name, Ali going above and beyond to make an event special, strangers being invited into his inner sanctum and remembering it for the rest of their lives, people breaking down when seeing his limitations and, above all, Ali making people laugh and smile.

The stories individually range from funny to sad and from the mundane to the remarkable. Taken together they provide fascinating insight into Ali’s unique fame, his charisma, and his declining health. What emerges is a portrait of a man who, already an icon, was deeply aware of the impact of his presence on others. Ali knew that any interaction with him was a memorable experience. He was motivated to continue to live a very public life – to use his unique fame for some greater purpose, even if at times that purpose was unclear, undefinable, or unachievable. For these reason, despite his declining health, he refused to hide away and continued to live a very public life even while all of the very things he was famous for – his speed, his speech, his sharpness – deserted him.

I really loved this book. Each individual story works as an interesting insight but the combination of so many together is powerful, fascinating, funny and heartbreaking. It’s a brilliant addition to the ever growing library of books on Ali.

Hannigan has written two previous books on Ali. The Big Fight examines his fight in Dublin against Al ‘Blue’ Lewis and wonderfully captures his impact and aura during his prime. Drama in the Bahamas recounts Ali’s heartbreaking final fight against Trevor Burbank in the Bahamas and captures the tragedy of the last years of his boxing career. Fifteen Rounds in the Wilderness is another wonderful book which captures a very different, yet just as compelling, phase of Ali’s life.

Fifteen Rounds in the Wilderness is published by Pitch Publishing on 20 June 2022.

⚾’Playing Through the Pain: Ken Caminiti and the Steroids Confession That Changed Baseball Forever’ by Dan Good (2022)

What do we choose to remember about a sportsman like Ken Caminiti? Is he the tragic figure who died of a drug overdose having alienated those who loved him? Is he the drugs cheat who won an MVP on the back of taking steroids? Is he the guy who courageously lifted the lid on the steroid era and gave credibility to Jose Canseco’s omerta shattering revelations about the extent of PED in baseball? Or is he the handsome, charismatic, supremely talented player who played through injuries and pain to an almost unbelievable extent?

In Playing Through the Pain, Dan Good presents the many sides of the former Astros, Braves and Padres third baseman. Good avoids moralizing, instead presenting Caminiti through the eyes of the more than 400 people he interviewed. What emerges is a portrait of a deeply kind, compassionate but troubled and complicated man. Caminiti was immensely popular with fans, fellow players and almost everyone he met but he could never overcome childhood trauma and his own addictions.

The book is a comprehensive bio of Caminiti’s life and career. Throughout the book, the seeds of both his success and eventual demise are signposted and explored. I particularly enjoyed the account of his early playing days through college and the minor leagues with the trials, tribulations, insecurities, talents and friendships of that time of his life wonderfully explored. In particular, his willingness to play through pain, to insist he was fit when clearly injured and the trauma he put his body through tells us as much about Caminiti as any interview could.

Caminiti’s career also serves as a backdrop to a broader look at the remarkable era in baseball where it recovered from the 1994 strike and became global news through the steroid fueled home run bonanza before the sport finally, and in no small part thanks to Caminiti, had to reckon with the reality of PED use. (For more on this era, check out the excellent Juiced by Howard Bryant).

Caminiti’s openness about his use of PEDs with almost everyone he met, together with the breath of Good’s research, means there is ample detail on the decision to dope that would ultimately define Caminiti’s legacy. His motivation to dope appears to have been multifaceted – he wanted to recover from injury faster but also to get stronger, he wanted to be a better teammate but also to reap the financial rewards, he wanted to earn praise to help silence his constant inner doubts but also knew he was cheating. He cheated and he was wrong to do so but, in the wider context of his life, the decision begins to look more nuanced than simply ‘bad man does bad thing’. Good, through the quality of the book, forces us to assess doping as just one aspect of Caminiti’s complicated legacy.

The best biographies require a compelling subject and an excellent writer and on both counts this book is a home run. Caminiti is an endlessly fascinating figure, somehow representing both the darkness and the light, the beauty and the tragedy of top level sport. What elevates the book from good to great however is the quality of the writing – clear, evocative, memorable and effortlessly readable. It is unputdownable and as good as a biography as I have read in a long time. A wonderful, heart-breaking, compelling, fantastic book.

💉’Doping: A Sporting History’ by April Henning and Paul Dimeo (2022)

Sports doping is bad. Dopers are cheats. Harsh punishments are needed for athletes who cheat by doping. I suspect most readers of this review will agree with those broad sentiments.

Henning and Dimeo, two experienced academics, have a much more nuanced take and Doping: A Sporting History is their attempt to bring both evidence and compassion to the debate on how sports doping can be addressed. The book packs a huge amount in addressing broad issus such as what exactly doping is while outlining a broad history of high profile doping cases (which date back further than many likely realise). However, it’s main focus is on the formulation, development and implementation of anti-doping policy over time. Most interesting to me was the correlation between changes in policy and public sentiment around specific scandals – an anecdotal rather than scientific approach to making rules.

Their starting point is to recognise that the status quo isn’t working. As bans have gotten longer, and public shaming has gotten more intense, there is no indication that levels of doping in international sports has decreased. The book charts how anti-doping policy evolved (ad-hoc, limited evidence base, responsive to moral panics), how it has largely failed (just look at Russia) and how it treats athletes (daily monitoring, draconian punishments) and seeks to identify the beginnings of a new athlete-centric approach to anti-doping. One of the most powerful arguments is the point that the approach to anti-doping is based on the obviously flawed assumptions that athletes are fundamentally dishonest and liable to cheat while those administering tests are both honest and competent.

The main recommendation is for athletes to be consulted on, and to be integral to the formulation of, anti-doping policy. Henning and Dimeo call for anti-doping to function in a more reasonable and humane way based on an appropriate sense of what clean short should be. While I’m by nature a sceptic with little sympathy for sports dopers, by considering the issue with less emotion and an athlete focused mindset, they make a convincing argument that a more nuanced approach merits consideration.

While the authors clearly have deep expertise, Doping: A Sporting History is very accessible and of general interest to anyone with an interest in how doping in sport can and should be addressed.

Dopers are bad, but anti-doping policy needs to be more nuanced than a sound-bite

🥊’Fighting for Survival: My Journey Through Boxing Fame, Abuse, Murder, and Resurrection’ by Christy Martin with Ron Borges (2022)

Katie Taylor and Amanda Serrano recently made history as the first women to headline a fight card at Madison Square Garden. They put on an exhibition of courage, skill, and passion that made it one of the best fights I’ve ever seen. It’s no exaggeration to say that such an occasion would not have happened without trailblazers like Christy Martin who, among many other achievements, fought in the first ever women’s boxing match at the Garden.

Martin, nicknamed “The Coal Miner’s Daughter,” grew up in West Virginia, and began boxing after winning a ‘ToughMan’ amateur competition. She was eventually signed by Don King and became a regular on the undercard of Mike Tyson’s sell-out fights. After a particularly bloody fight with Ireland’s Deirdre Gogarty, she became a household name in the USA and began earning purses of over $100,000 per fight – vastly more than her contemporaries and more than many male fighters.

The bloody nose that launched her, and women’s boxing, into the mainstream

Behind the scenes however, Martin was struggling desperately. Facing rejection by her family for being gay, she had married her trainer, Jim Martin, who was abusive and manipulative. The book recounts countless examples of Martin’s constant emotional, and occasionally physical, abuse. As her career ended, she became addicted to cocaine as her husband found another way to control her. Christy would remain unable to bring herself to leave Jim Martin until he tried to kill her – a crime for which he is currently in prison and which provided her with the necessary catalyst to seek help.

As well as recounting her remarkable career, Fighting for Survival is Christy Martin’s chance to seize control of her own life narrative. She uses the book to explain the choices she made, many of which seem inexplicable when not placed firmly in the context of her abusive relationship. While the detail can be at times overwhelming, it is clearly important to Martin to be unequivocal in highlighting how Martin treated her. The book is also Christy’s attempt to provide a beacon of hope for other sufferers of abuse and those who may be struggling with their sexuality. Throughout the book she offers advice and compassion for those who might be struggling.

Fighting for Survival is a brutally honest book which can be difficult to read at times. I found the boxing story at it’s core completely fascinating and a YouTube binge of Martin’s fights is highly recommended. Martin also constantly found herself on the edge of a big headline, Forrest Gump style, as she was on the fight card on some boxing’s strangest nights – when Tyson bit Hollyfield’s ear, when Tommy Morrison tested positive for Aids and the night Tupac Shakur was shot after a Tyson fight amongst others. She also encountered many of the great and the good of boxing along the way.

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.

Fighting for Survival will be published on June 22nd by Rowman and Littlefield.

⚽🇩🇪’Scheisse! We’re Going Up! The Unexpected Rise of Berlin’s Rebel Football Club’ by Kit Holden (2022)

German football has been incredibly well served by the quality of the books about it either written or translated into English.  In particular, Uli Hesse, Raphael Honigstein and Ronald Reng have brought the story of German football to English readers in a number of excellent books. ‘Scheisse! We’re Going Up!’, Kit Holden’s upcoming book on the Union Berlin football club is another wonderful addition to that list.

Up-to-date Bundesliga fans will know that Union have been on a remarkable run of form the past three years, reaching 5th place in the Bundesliga having only reached the top flight in 2019. Union Berlin has fast become the football hipster’s latest club of choice (sorry St. Pauli) thanks to their rise to the Bundesliga, their forest-surrounded stadium in East Berlin, their romanticized history of resistance to the Stasi, their fan-developed stadium, and their viral Christmas Carol sessions (yes, seriously).

The story of Union however is much more than a football club. It’s not however the story of a romantic past of resistance to authoritarianism. Holden, like the club itself, is careful to burst the bubble that the club was a hotbed of anti-Communist activity during the dark days of the GDR- rather it was a relatively safe space for normal citizens to vent and sing and the rivalry with Dynamo, the Stasi’s ream, a cathartic way to express disapproval for the repressive East German regime.

The book instead is about community, belonging, the meaning of football clubs, and the challenge of keeping what works while facing the inevitability of change. It’s also about the city of Berlin and the challenges posed by both its unique history of partition and by its vibrant future.

Holden tells the history of the club and the city through interviews with a variety of fans and officials. It’s an inspired choice and the narrative weaves excellently between personal recollections and the over-arching story of both the city and the club’s past, present and future. The book is packed with stories and recollections of fans and their passion oozes out of every page. It wonderfully captures the essence of the club and what makes it special.

Scheisse is an absolutely brilliant book. 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 exists.

Yes, Scheisse means what you think it means.