There are two games that define the National Football League: the New York Jets monster upset of the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III—which brought the upstart American Football League into equal footing with the established NFL—and another New York—Baltimore championship clash that occurred 50 years ago this December. In sudden-death overtime, the Colts defeated the New York football Giants 23—17 at Yankee Stadium. It was not just the excitement of the game that transfixed the nation that cold winter Sunday, it was the nation embracing television as a member of the family and propelling professional football into the hearts of American sports fans.
“It's a game that caused a seismic shift in American sports,” says David Hirshey, senior v-p/executive editor at HarperCollins. “This is the game that helped football replace baseball as the national pastime. It was also a more innocent time in American history—pre-Vietnam and Watergate. The confluence of the two made for an irresistible story line.”
“This is the game that put pro-football on the map,” says Robert J Brugger, acquisitions editor at the Johns Hopkins University Press in Baltimore. “The drama was so thick, and the TV audience so enraptured, that the game has lingered in people's imaginations for 50 years. For those who witnessed it, it was like being there at the dawning of an age. Baseball, the so-called national pastime, was seen as getting slow and sleepy. Sports Illustrated, the bible of the sporting press, immediately called it 'the best game ever played,' and the moniker stuck. This wasn't just a football game; it was the crossroads moment for the changing of America's athletic culture, and the moment when we began to cast off all else on Sunday afternoons but pro football on the television set.”
Publishers have seized the moment to focus on this historical sports anniversary. PW counted no less than six titles that center, in one way or another, on that championship game of 50 years ago. The Glory Game: How the 1958 NFL Championship Changed Football Forever by former Giants great Frank Gifford with Peter Richmond will be published by HarperCollins in November. “This is the football version of The Boys of Summer,” says its editor, David Hirshey. “It is the only book told by one of the game's stars. The Glory Game sacks the cliché that history is always written by the winners.” HarperCollins plans a 100,000-copy first printing and major national promotion.
The Best Game Ever by Mark Bowden was published by Atlantic Monthly Press this past May. Why so soon? “I knew the other books were coming,” says Morgan Entrekin, president/publisher of Grove Atlantic. “I was confident that Mark would write the best book, and I wanted to get separation from the others. The manuscript was ready—delivered in January. And I thought it might be a good book for Father's Day. In fact, the book was on the extended New York Times bestseller list in the weeks leading up to Father's Day, and went to #11 the week before.” Grove Atlantic went out with a 75,000-first printing and plans to send Bowden on the road again as the game anniversary approaches.
One Sunday in December: The 1958 NFL Championship Game and How It Changed Professional Football by Lou Sahadi (Sept.) is the Lyons Press entry. “Lou Sahadi is a gifted sportswriter with great NFL connections,” says Tom McCarthy, executive editor at Lyons. “His book on Johnny Unitas is considered a classic. It was impossible to turn down the combination of Sahadi, who writes not just about the game but the era and the cities of Baltimore and New York in the '50s.” One Sunday in December has a 35,000-copy first printing and Lyons will promote the book with national media coverage.
The Year That Changed the Game: The Memorable Months That Shaped Pro Football by Jonathan Rand (Oct.) uses the 1958 game as a starting point in the evolution/revolution of professional football. “Though this book offers a thorough account of the 1958 championship game,” says Kevin Cuddihy, acquisitions editor at Potomac Books, “it employs the game as the starting point of a fascinating time line rather than as the book's raison d'être. Anyone who absorbs the events of this entire 13-month period should be amazed by how many developments within such a short period of time resulted in phenomenal changes in the NFL that are still making the league thrive today.” Potomac plans a 10,000-copy first printing and will promote in the New York, Baltimore and Kansas City areas.
Giants Among Men: How Robustelli, Huff, Gifford, and the Giants Made New York a Football Town and Changed the NFL by Jack Cavanaugh (Oct.) concentrates on the great personalities of the 1950s Giants. “The most obvious thing that makes this book different,” says Mark Tavani, senior editor at Ballantine, “is that in no way does it focus solely on that game. Giants Among Men is about a team that was, by and large, together for six consecutive seasons. The championship game falls right in the middle of those six years. So there's plenty more going here concerning a team that was exceptionally talented, exceedingly bright and easy for fans to like.” Random plans a 40,000-copy first printing and heavy New York City—area publicity.
There’s Gold in Them Thar Olympic Book Deals
Go for the gold” has recently taken on a whole new meaning with the recent conclusion of the summer Olympics. Michael Phelps had barely dried off when he landed a seven-figure book deal with the Free Press. Dara Torres, the 41-year-old swimmer, quickly reached a $3-million, two-book deal with Doubleday Broadway, with the first book scheduled for a 2009 release. Olympic basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski reunited with Rick Wolff at Grand Central/Business Plus for a basketball/business book. And publishers are apparently still hot on the trail of gymnast Nastia Liukin.
All seems sweetness and light with book publishers and Olympians. But there is also the shadow of the past, when Olympic books failed to sell. In fact, publishers have historically tended to avoid Olympic titles from fear of being stuck with them because of circumstances beyond their control. Call it the Olympic Curse.
“Yes,” says Rick Wolff, publisher/editor-in-chief of Business Plus, “traditionally that has been a real concern, as Olympic athletes seem to fade from the public eye very quickly. But our bestselling track record with Coach K [Leading with the Heart; Beyond Basketball], and his ongoing presence as the premier coach in college today, make us feel that we’re in pretty good shape.” Gold Standard, written by Krzyzewski and his daughter, Jamie K. Spatola, is scheduled for an April 2009 launch. “Coach K is very committed to this book,” adds Wolff. “He feels this is going to be a terrific inside look at one of his biggest accomplishments in his coaching career.”
“I know the Michael Phelps book comes out in December,” says David Drake, v-p, executive director of publicity, Broadway Books, “so that will be an interesting test case of how books by Olympians will fare. For my part, at least, I think the success of Olympian books will depend in large part on how interesting or inspirational the backstories of individual athletes prove to be. We believe, in Dara Torres, that we have a woman who has redefined our expectations about aging and who will inspire others to pursue their dreams—and believe they can accomplish them—no matter what age they are.”
The first Olympic book by an Olympian to hit the shelves for Christmas will be Phelps’s Built to Succeed. “We were excited about Michael Phelps because he seemed to transcend the Olympics,” says Dominick V. Anfuso, editor-in-chief of the Free Press, “an inspirational figure who really struck a beautiful note for America at a time when the country seemed to really need it. There is no politics involved, no war—just a fairly typical American young man who set some huge goals for himself, and who would not be denied. He captured the hearts and minds of Americans in a way that few ever have, and we believe that his story will inspire and motivate in a most engaging way.” Built to Succeed will have a 500,000-copy first printing.
Triumph Books also has a Phelps book. “We teamed up with USA Today,” says Triumph president Mitch Rogatz. “We felt their great photo archive and timely well-written features and stories could provide the market with an accessible, entertaining book celebrating all Phelps has accomplished.” Michael Phelps: World’s Greatest Olympian (Sept.) has a first printing of 50,000 copies.
Michael Phelps: The Untold Story of a Champion by Bob Schaller will be published by St. Martin’s/Griffin simultaneously in trade paperback and mass market editions later this fall. According to Matthew Shear, senior v-p/publisher of St. Martin’s paperback and reference group, Griffin chose to publish the book in two formats so that it could maximize distribution in all channels. Traditional bookstores have taken both formats, but by and large are supporting the trade paperback. The merchandise channel—airports, mass merchandisers, among others—are supporting the mass market edition. Griffin is printing 100,000 copies of the mass market edition and 35,000 of the trade paperback, which will be backed with national author publicity.
Boxing Books—A Dying Niche?
George Kimball, former Boston Herald sports columnist, says that covering boxing is “a bit like working the whorehouse beat for a newspaper—eventually you realize you’re dealing with a better class of people.”
Kimball is the author of Four Kings: Leonard, Hagler, Hearns, Duran and the Last Great Era of Boxing (with a foreword by Pete Hamill), which was just published by McBooks Press in Ithaca, N.Y. Alexander Skutt is the publisher of McBooks, and although both he and Kimball agree that boxing books are an important publishing niche, they disagree over the present state of the sport.
“McBooks has chosen to publish Four Kings at a time when the sport of boxing appears to be in decline,” says Skutt, “and books on the subject rarely make the bestseller lists. Still, I believe boxing books—even boxing books without Muhammad Ali as the subject—are due for a comeback. Bookstore shelves are sagging under the weight of an excess of books about baseball and golf. I’d place my bet on the future of boxing books.”
“I’m not sure that boxing is in decline as a sport,” disputes Kimball. “It certainly doesn’t occupy the same spot in the public consciousness it did, say, 70 years ago, when it was coequal with baseball and horse racing, but it isn’t threatened with extinction by any means.”
As for the Four Kings epoch, Kimball remembers it as a special time. “I think Leonard, Hagler, Hearns and Duran have a strong appeal to those of their generation. Twenty years later, as we look back on that nine-year rivalry, we’ve begun to realize how truly special it was.”