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David Owen: The Brooklyn Dodgers, a Soccer War and a Rhinestone Cowboy – Great Sports Books for the Gift-Giving Season

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The 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers. The book "The Boys of Summer" by Roger Kahn details the Dodgers teams of the 1950s. Photo: nsnn.com

The gift-giving season is fast approaching; so in the spirit of “news you can use,” I have put together a Top Dozen list of great sporting reads.

To be clear, these are not, on the whole, new books, but since the internet became ubiquitous, you can track down just about any title with relative ease.

Some of them are not even wholly about sport.

What they have in common, besides some sort of sporting reference, is that I have found them absorbing and/or hugely enjoyable.

Any one of them is well worth curling up with during these long northern-hemisphere winter nights.

In no particular order:

1. The Soccer War by Ryszard Kapuściński (1990)

The Polish journalist, who died in 2007, is mainly known for his writing about Africa. And indeed that continent features heavily in this collection of pieces about his experiences as foreign correspondent for the Polish Press Agency.

The story that gives the collection its title, however, concerns a 100-hour war between Honduras and El Salvador sparked by the two Central American neighbors’ efforts to qualify for the 1970 World Cup. As an illustration of how, while sport itself might be trivial, its consequences can be of the utmost seriousness, you cannot beat it.

Typical sentence: “Luis Suarez said there was going to be a war, and I believed whatever Luis said.”

2. The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn (1972)

Classic, extended account of the 1950s Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team, so often pipped at the post by the New York Yankees, and what became of them.

Kahn interweaves reminiscences of his job reporting on the team with scenes from his home life to build an indelible picture of early post-war America which is tinged with both nostalgia and melancholy.

Typical sentence: “The team was broken up and with my father dead there was no one with whom I wanted to consider that tragedy, and because there was no-one I recognized that the breaking of a team was not like greater tragedy: incompleteness, unspoken words, unmade music, withheld love, the failure ever to sum up or say good-bye.”

3. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace (1997)

This collection of essays by one of the most intense and brilliant US writers of recent decades is on the list because of two relatively short pieces concerning tennis that I think taught me more about that tough, lonely and draining sport than anything I recall reading before or since.

In his early teens, Foster Wallace was, in his own words, a “near-great junior tennis player”. That meant he had thought about the game, and strategies for winning matches, a great deal. I doubt that any better, more penetrative writer has ever subjected the sport to this degree of analysis.

The collection’s title, I should point out, does not refer to tennis.

Typical sentence: “In late childhood I learned how to play tennis on the blacktop courts of a small public park carved from farmland that had been nitrogenized too often to farm anymore.”

4. Behind the Curtain – travels in eastern European football by Jonathan Wilson (2006)

A former colleague and present team-mate, Wilson has become prolific in his (early) middle age. This wryly sympathetic look at a much-abused region and its rich and inventive football culture remains my favorite among his books.

His account of his misadventures while attempting to file his report on an Azerbaijan versus England World Cup qualifier is a comic masterpiece. His footballing history of Argentina, Angels With Dirty Faces, came out in August.

Typical sentence: “I’m not saying that if I hadn’t gone to Bohinj in 1984 I’d now be writing a history of football in the Lake District, but there’s no question that those holidays made me far more aware of Communism, and particularly of Yugoslavia.”

5. The Meaning of Cricket by Jon Hotten (2016)

This is a new book, in which Hotten, another team-mate, distills half a lifetime of cricket wisdom into 220 hard-won, sometimes elegiac pages.

Beginning with a chapter explaining how, if you can lay cricket bat on ball even once, you are performing a minor miracle, is a clever move apt to endear him to his audience – well half of them at least. But what really struck me was how many of Hotten’s cricketing preoccupations and insecurities were also mine. A little gem.

Typical sentence: “My first memory of cricket is probably unreliable, an amalgam of sensory flashbacks from different moments, but I’m in the kitchen at home with my first proper bat, a Stuart Surridge that cost four quid from the sports shop in Fleet and that I could barely lift. The song playing on the radio is ‘Rhinestone Cowboy…”

6. The Meaning of Sport by Simon Barnes (2006)

Reflections, set down in 158 short, staccato passages, covering Barnes’s various assignments as a sportswriter between 2004 and 2006.

Though he ends with an acknowledgement of failure, I doubt any other contemporary sports journalist could have carried this format off so successfully. It is Barnes’s sheer intelligence and effortlessly broad frame of reference that make the difference. The effect is of embarking on a mesmerizing mystery tour on which you never quite know where you are heading next, but are confident that every fresh turn will be somehow illuminating.

Typical sentence: “To tell the truth, I was never much good at telling one Australian batsman from another – it was just a succession of grim, unshaven jaws, chewing gum as if it were the flesh of an enemy, glowering behind the grills of grim green helmets and belting the ball vindictively, knowing that, if they failed, two more would spring up to take their place.”

7. The Blind Side – evolution of a game by Michael Lewis (2006)

My main reason for including this American football book by Moneyball author Lewis is the purple passage describing a four-and-a-bit second slab of action with which it begins.

The New York Giants’ Lawrence Taylor is about to hit Joe Theismann of the Washington Redskins. If there is a more riveting dissection and contextualisation of such a short passage of sporting action, I have yet to come across it.

Typical sentence: “From the snap of the ball to the snap of the first bone is closer to four seconds than to five.”

8. Put Me Back On My Bike – in search of Tom Simpson by William Fotheringham (2002)

A studious, pitch-perfect biography of the charismatic English cyclist who perished on Mont Ventoux in 1967.

Larded with fascinating, precise detail, such as the Nottinghamshire-raised Simpson’s obsession with diet, the book does not accept easy answers. The extended passage trying to pin down just why Simpson died is a model of open-minded, evidence-based journalistic inquiry.

Typical sentence: “Simpson should be remembered as an impulsive, intelligent, articulate and supremely charismatic man who had a single blind spot: his need to win at any cost.”

9. The Sportswriter by Richard Ford (1986)

I was unsure whether to include this or its sequel, Independence Day, which is a better, indeed a towering, book, but in which Ford’s main character, Frank Bascombe, has moved into real estate. Both are well worth your time.

Bascombe is a sort of everyman, negotiating the trials and tragedies of existence in late 20th-century USA with whatever poise and optimism he can muster. With its sometimes meandering sentences which mask a rapier-sharp mind, the book is not especially flattering about the craft of sportswriting.

Typical sentence: “A group of sportswriters together can narrow your view far beyond pessimism, since the worst of them tend to be cynics looking only for false drama in the germs of human defeat.”

10. Bookie, Gambler, Fixer, Spy – a journey to the heart of cricket’s underworld by Ed Hawkins (2012)

An authority on sports betting travels to India to discover just what it is – and, equally importantly, is not – possible to stake money on.

A model piece of extended investigative reporting by a writer with the contacts and know-how to shine a little light into a covert field. It took courage, unwavering focus and a limpid prose style to pull off.

Typical sentence: “There can be no doubt that an experienced fixer would know that it is not possible to bet on a no-ball.”

Finally, two wonderful older works that might take a little bit more effort to find.

11. The Great Fight of the French Fifteen by Denis Lalanne (1959)

A wonderfully vivid, colorfully-written account of the 1958 French rugby union tour to South Africa. The book underlines just how tough a sport this is and was, even before professionalism made players bigger, fitter and faster.

Lalanne offers the occasional glimpse into the conditions and attitudes spawned by the vile apartheid regime, such as when a French drop goal is greeted in a non-white section of the crowd by an uproar “as indescribable as the one they had made which drowned the South African national anthem before the kickoff.”

The dust-jacket of my copy of the book, translated by E.J.Boyd-Wilson, says it was the first French book to have its first English-language publication in New Zealand. One wonders if there was ever another.

Typical sentence: “There are two kinds of players: those who play pianos and those who shift them.”

12. My Life – and Arkle’s by Pat Taaffe (1972)

I generally approach sporting autobiographies with more of a sense of duty than of anticipation. Yet this slim volume by the great steeplechaser Arkle’s regular jockey was an unexpected pleasure to read.

Just 80 pages long, it is as if each word had to be wrung out of the old horseman like water from a flannel. But what he does say rings true and distinctive like a fine single malt.

I had come to the book while doing research for Foinavon, whom Taaffe also rode more often than most. His verdict? “If he had been a man, he’d have spent his days, hands in pockets, whistling through his teeth, scuffling the dust.”

By David Owen

Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz

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