In sports publishing, stories about the men of an alphabet soup of professional leagues—the MLB, NBA, NFL, NHL, and more—proliferate. But the coming months also bring books showcasing female athletic prowess and perspective, and editors say the number and the seriousness of these titles represent a marked shift in this category.
“People are tired of the same old stories,” says Ashley Runyon, who recently left Red Lightning Books to take a position as trade director at University Press of Kentucky. “Now we’re telling stories about people who have been marginalized or overlooked.”
New books, many of them by female authors, center the experiences of women in sports. The titles are a “microcosm of the explosion of interest in women’s narratives and liberation in both fiction and nonfiction,” says Marya Pasciuto, assistant editor at Dutton and Plume. “This expansion would have been unfathomable a few years ago, and now that people have started sharing these stories, the floodgate can’t be closed.”
A new spin
Plume is publishing debut author Hannah Ross’s Revolutions (June), a history of women’s cycling that traces the sport’s feminist roots from the late 19th century, when the bicycle spelled new freedom for many, through the present, when women activists use cycling as a vehicle for change. Still, a century after cycling went mainstream, the sport remains “too narrow and exclusive” a boy’s club, as Ross, an amateur cyclist and publicity director at London’s Profile Books, writes in the prologue.
It’s an issue Pasciuto has seen in sports publishing, too, though she says she feels a heartening kinship “when I read a proposal and can see in it my own frustrations” as a woman in an industry that’s largely made up of other women. The forthcoming publication of Revolutions and other such titles, she says, “fits into a cultural moment that gives more weight and respect” to stories that have been largely ignored or outright forgotten. “Even a few years ago, books like this were considered too niche and academic, but the more stories you put in this space, the more you gather wider attention.”
The short-lived All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (1943–1954) enjoyed renewed attention with the 1992 release of the movie A League of Their Own. As Amazon readies a TV series based on Penny Marshall’s largely fictionalized version of the Rockford Peaches women’s pro baseball team, publishers are releasing books that probe the league’s
In May, University of Nebraska will publish Isabel “Lefty” Alvarez by Kat D. Williams, a history professor at Marshall University and the author of 2017’s The All-American Girls After the AAGPBL. Williams interviewed Alvarez, a Cuban immigrant she calls a “sport-identified” woman, several times between 2007 and 2011, and the book, she writes in the preface, “looks beyond the synthesized Hollywood story of women in the AAGPBL to understand how the AAGPBL affected those who played in it.”
Still, Williams acknowledges a debt to Marshall’s movie and “her determination to bring these women out of the shadows,” as she wrote in a 2019 opinion piece for the Rockford Register Star. Cartoonist Anika Orrock, too, cites the film in the introduction to the recently released The Incredible Women of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (Chronicle).
Orrock presents a history of the league through her midcentury-style illustrations and the players’ own words. Dolly Niemiec, who played second and third base for several teams from 1948–1952, recalls her introduction to pro ball: “I knew nothing of girls playing baseball. I thought I was the only one in the whole world,” she says in the book. “One morning, my father was reading the Sunday paper and he called me from the other room. ‘Dolly!’ he said, ‘There’s tryouts this afternoon for girls’ baseball!’ I said, ‘Girls’ baseball?!’ ”
Women in write field
Diane K. Shah began her journalism career in the late 1960s and by 1979 was Newsweek’s #2 sportswriter, and one of the first women to report from a men’s locker room. Two years later, she became the first female sports columnist for a U.S. daily, the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. In A Farewell to Arms, Legs, and Jockstraps (Red Lightning, May), which PW’s starred review called an “earnest and witty memoir [that] serves as an astute look into the world of sports journalism,” she outlines her experiences in a milieu where “sexism was rampant, she recalls, and overt racism par for the course.”
Shah graduated from Indiana University, whose press distributes Red Lightning, and Runyon says the book hits a core objective for the imprint, presenting stories of pioneering women from what she refers to as “flyover country”—doubly overlooked, due to location and gender.
As publishers pay more attention to women’s contributions to sports, the kinds of stories being put out into the world are evolving. The anthology Losers (Penguin Books, Aug.), edited by Mary Pilon and Louisa Thomas, takes on the uneasy subject of what it means to not win. Contributors include Seattle Times features editor Stefanie Loh, formerly the paper’s assistant sports editor, and Carla Correa, New York Times Metro Desk senior staff editor, formerly of ESPN. (For PW’s q&a with Pilon and Thomas, see “Farewell to the Bromance.”)
Jessica Luther and Kavitha A. Davidson, in Loving Sports When They Don’t Love You Back (Univ. of Texas, Sept.), explore the ethics and heartbreak of rooting for the home team amid issues of racism, sexism, transphobia, domestic violence, doping, chronic injury, and financial corruption. “It’s difficult in sports to separate these issues from the athlete or the team because of the emotional connection of fandom, which we formulate early in our lives,” Davidson says. “But there are conversations to be had about these things that resonate well beyond sports.” (For PW’s q&a with Luther and Davidson, see “Tough Love.”)
A deep bench
Luther is also the author of Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape. It was among the first titles from Akashic’s Edge of Sports imprint, which launched in 2016 with a mission to showcase “undertold and untold stories where sports and politics collide,” says Dave Zirin, who heads the imprint. These stories have included memoirs by and biographies of women athletes, such as 2018’s Tigerbelle, coauthored by Wyomia Tyus and Elizabeth Terzakis. Tyus, a sprinter who took home Olympic gold in 1964 and 1968, relates her struggles to gain recognition as a black woman athlete before and after the Olympics.
In August, Akashic will release Little Wonder by journalist Sasha Abramsky (The House of Twenty Thousand Books), about pioneering tennis player Lottie Dod. She won her first of five Ladies’ Singles Championships at Wimbledon in 1887, at age 15, and remains the youngest person to take home that trophy. Dodd went on to master several other sports—she won Olympic silver in archery in 1908—and garnered tremendous fame but was largely forgotten by WWI and died in obscurity in 1960. The International Tennis Hall of Fame, to which she was inducted in 1983, praised her “advanced game,” which, it said, was anything but “lady-like.”
Another tennis player who has slipped from the popular consciousness, 1930s superstar Alice Marble, is the subject of The Divine Miss Marble (Dutton, July) by sportswriter Robert Weintraub, whose previous books include The Victory Season. Her life outside of tennis was the subject of much speculation: Did she have a husband who was killed in action during WWII? Did she spy for U.S. Army Intelligence? But in public, Marble made an indelible mark. She demanded equal pay earlier than most other women athletes, and helped integrate tennis through her vocal support of Althea Gibson.
Civil rights activist Effa Manley was a trailblazer of a different sort. From 1936–1948, as co-owner and later owner of the Newark Eagles, she was the only female owner in baseball’s Negro Leagues; in 2006, she was the first woman inducted to the Baseball Hall of Fame. 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the Negro Leagues, and in April Rowman & Littlefield is slated to reissue James Overmyer’s biography of Manley, Queen of the Negro Leagues.
Originally published by Scarecrow Press in 1993, the book now includes expanded first and last chapters and a new foreword by the president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. It joins other Rowman titles that director of publicity Deborah Orgel Hudson says address the “clamor for stories about lesser-known pioneers and social issues,” including Joanna Harper’s Sporting Gender: The History, Science, and Stories of Transgender and Intersex Athletes (2019) and the forthcoming Throw Like a Girl, Cheer Like a Boy (July), sociologist Robyn Ryle’s look at the intersection of gender, sexuality, race, and social justice in sports. According to the publisher, Queen of the Negro Leagues “highlights the ways in which sports often contribute to inequalities, but also how they can help make the world more accepting.”
In the zone
Anyone who remains skeptical of women’s interest in sports need only turn to Our Last Season (Penguin Press, Oct.), in which media professor and sports columnist Harvey Araton pays tribute to Michelle Musler, the New York Knicks superfan who sat not far from his courtside press seat at Madison Square Garden for 40 years. As Araton wrote in Musler’s New York Times obituary in 2018, “Because of her seat’s location and her longevity in occupying it, Ms. Musler became one of the team’s most identifiable fans not associated with the entertainment industry, well known to many courtside spectators, Knicks employees and reporters who covered the team.”
Araton’s book is an emotional consideration of a woman he calls in its first chapter “an esteemed Garden loyalist, and part of its greatest generation,” thereby solidifying her in the history of the arena and its basketball team.
It already seems that when the history of 21st-century sports is written, Serena Williams will claim pride of place. New Yorker tennis writer Gerald Marzorati, in the biography Seeing Serena (S&S, June), seeks to quantify the 23-time Grand Slam winner’s “broader presence in the culture,” he writes, “as a woman, as a black woman, as a striving woman from a striving family, as a powerful woman, as a sometimes angry woman, as a wealthy woman, as a fashion-conscious woman, as a woman who was a social-media ‘influencer,’ as a working woman with a baby.” The book follows Williams’s return to tennis in 2018 after giving birth to her daughter and reflects conversations the author had with coaches, other players, and journalists over the course of the 2019 tour season.
Editors agree that the breadth of sports stories being published—about contemporary legends, forgotten superstars, and the people who are passionate about them—is strengthening the category. “We have a huge outpouring of women and others who have historically been denied a platform in traditional media sharing their stories and presenting their worldview,” Pasciutto says. In other words, sports publishing has come a long way, baby.
Lela Nargi is a freelance journalist living in Brooklyn.
Below, more on sports books.
Tough Love: PW talks with Jessica Luther and Kavitha A. Davidson
In ‘Loving Sports When They Don’t Love You Back,’ Luther and Davidson take a wide-ranging look at the moral quandaries inherent in fandom.
Farewell to the Bromance: PW talks with Mary Pilon and Louisa Thomas
Pilon and Thomas edited the anthology ‘Losers,’ in which various writers delve into an unexpectedly winning topic.
Gold Watch: Sports Books 2020
With the Tokyo Olympics postponed until 2021, fans can read up on skateboarding, sport climbing, and surfing—three of the events slated to debut at the rescheduled games—and dive into books on perennially favorite sports.