Last fall, Tim Tebow, the Denver Broncos quarterback, went on an impressive run—dare I say a miraculous one? (Others did, at the time.) Getting his first start in the sixth game of the season (Denver was 1–4), he led the Broncos to a division title and an astounding win in the playoffs against the Steelers before being knocked out by New England the next week.
Tebow, well-known as a devout Christian since his college days at Florida, became a controversial figure, thanking God for his good fortune on the field. His book, published last May, became a bestseller (see p. 24), and plenty of Christian houses are offering more titles that seek out the magic combination of faith-plus-sports. And the Jeremy Lin story—a sudden and improbable rise to prominence, not unlike Tebow’s—is generating a flurry of hopeful titles, many connected to Lin’s professed faith (see sidebar).
Lest these conflations of two American religions suck all the oxygen out of the category, there are several books this season that take more of a lunch-bucket approach—books on teams, dynasties, and quirky reports from behind the scenes by unlikely, and perhaps all the more astute, commentators. There are a few literary heavyweights as well.
First up from Ecco Press is Damn Yankees, in which two dozen “Major League Writers” (according to the subtitle) opine about baseball’s enduring New York dynasty. The book boasts a stacked lineup of writers, including Colum McCann, Jane Leavy, Roy Blount Jr., Pete Dexter, and Bill James among others with original pieces, edited by Sports Illustrated editor Rob Fleder (Apr.).
St. Martin’s has its own deep roster of sports books (no fewer than 15 titles across imprints). They include a remembrance of the popular manager Sparky Anderson in Sparky and Me by Daniel Ewald (Thomas Dunne, May); The Last Natural: Bryce Harper’s Big Gamble in Sin City and the Greatest Amateur Season Ever by Rob Miech, about last year’s #1 pick in the amateur baseball draft (chosen by the Nationals), whose raw skills are being compared to Mickey Mantle’s (Thomas Dunne, June); and novelist and essayist Jay Atkinson’s Memoirs of a Rugby-Playing Man, which, according to the publisher, is “written in the style of Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (Thomas Dunne, Apr.). Atkinson’s book Ice Time, about high school hockey in Massachusetts, was a 2001 PW Book of the Year.
But SMP isn’t the only publisher with a big stake in sports. The University of Nebraska has quietly built an extraordinary list of sport books, often placing games and heroes in historical context. Among the press’s nine spring offerings are Banzai Babe Ruth: Baseball, Espionage, and Assassination During the 1934 Tour of Japan by Rob Fitts, which tells the story of how the tour planted the seed of baseball in Japan just as political convulsion and a coup d’état were about to launch the country—and the world—toward war. Chris Lamb’s pioneering study, Conspiracy of Silence: Sportswriters and the Long Campaign to Desegregate Baseball (Apr.), reveals how the efforts of the black and socialist/communist press in America were instrumental in breaking the color barrier in 1947.
The epicenter of sports publishing might very well be Chicago, where Triumph Books, with an assist from Chicago Review Press, covers all the bases (both are distributed by IPG). Among Triumph’s two dozen sports titles are the 100 Things Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die series, which includes books this spring for Phillies, Yankees, Cubs, and Texas Rangers fans. There are also biographies of Yankee manager Joe Girardi; the embattled and ultimately imprisoned Willie Mays Aikens; the late, great Harmon Killebrew; and an autobiography from the loquacious Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd. From Chicago Review Press is The Upset: Jack Fleck’s Incredible Victory over Ben Hogan at the U.S. Open by Al Barkow. Fleck, the oldest living U.S. Open champ, a veteran of the D-Day invasion, beat his idol, Hogan, in an 18-hole playoff to win the ’55 Open. Also in the golf category, IPG client Elliott & Thompson is publishing The 100 Greatest Golfers by Andy Farrell, with a foreword by Padraig Harrington (May).
Since it is March, there is madness, and Taylor Publishing has just the book: The Big Dance: The Story of the NCAA Basketball Tournament by Barry Wilner and Ken Rappoport (Feb.). Since much of the country has filled out a bracket, this history of the tournament might make for nice distraction from the sounds of brackets crumbling.
Sports is not all fun and games, of course. Two university presses weigh in with serious tomes. SUNY Press is publishing After Artest: The NBA and the Assault on Blackness by David J. Leonard (May). The hardcover is priced at $85, but SUNY is also doing a more trade-friendly paperback, at $29.95. Leonard, who has written a book on black cinema and also writes (on occasion with Dave Zirin) in the Nation, details the league’s response to the 2004 brawl in the Palace of Auburn Hills, where NBA players fought with fans. And the University of Illinois, in the spirit of Howard Zinn, is publishing A People’s History of Baseball by Mitchell J. Nathanson, a study of the power relations in the game between owners, media, and players.
As for quirky behind-the-scenes books, Dirk Hayhurst’s follow-up to his bestselling Bullpen Gospels is coming from Kensington/Citadel. In Out of My League: A Rookie’s Survival in the Bigs, the former major league pitcher chronicles his first year in the majors after six years in the minor leagues. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry. You will definitely laugh along with Mark Titus, an Ohio State basketball walk-on, now a blogger with a large following. His Don’t Put Me In, Coach: My Incredible NCAA Journey from the End of the Bench to the End of the Bench—the title says it all.
And why not a knuckleballer? R.A. Dickey (who offers our Why I Write this issue, below) talks about life from the perspective of a guy who throws the ball slowly. He’s also an English major and is, according to his publisher, Blue Rider, “sustained by his faith,” as perhaps all knuckleballers are. Wherever I Wind Up will be out by opening day.
If there is a reigning wise man in American sports, one with tenure and perspective (and the gentle radio voice heard on NPR), it is Frank Deford, who tells of his half-century covering American games and gamesmen in Over Time, beginning with his days at Princeton, where he “discovered” a great ball player on campus, Bill Bradley, through his time at Sports Illustrated and beyond (Atlantic Monthly, May).