Whether you’re a sports fan or just a history buff, looking back at sporting events has produced some of the world’s finest journalism. But it could be argued that no outside observers’ perspective can compare to being inside the heads of those who scored that game-winning point, series-winning run, or tournament-winning goal (or coached any teams that did). Which is why, with so many of our favorite sports still on pause as their leagues figure out how to resume competition, we realized getting lost in a good sports memoir could be the next best thing to spending hours watching a game itself. But with so many sports memoirs ghostwritten or scribbled in a hurry as a valedictory rite of passage, which ones are actually up to snuff?
To find out, we asked 17 experts — including sportswriters, broadcasters, and professors — for their recommendations. While their responses included memoirs written by many athletes who are household names, we also learned about stories told by others that the spotlight may have missed, and a few written by coaches or superfans with perspectives that are just as gripping as those of athletes who actually took the field. Read on for their picks, which we’ve organized by sport. In the tradition of our other reading lists, we’ve named any books with two or more recommendations as best overall. But we’ve also included titles emphatically recommended by just one person, for those who may want to dive further into any category.
Best tennis memoirs
Best overall tennis memoir
Three people raved about this memoir, which journalist Jonathan Eig, the author of Ali: A Life, says “may be the all-time best-written memoir by a major athlete.” All who recommended it praised the book’s “shockingly” candid nature, pointing out Agassi’s honesty is especially rare for an athlete who was one of the most popular of his generation. “Few autobiographies have dared to show athletes so naked,” writer Sam Diss, the head of content at London-based soccer magazine Mundial, says, adding that Agassi is “not writing this book to stick the boot into old foes or people who screwed him out of money.” Instead, Diss says he’s “passed over, gone clear, and reveals his trauma and grudges with equal parts pain and catharsis, in a way that doesn’t feel point-scoring, but freeing.”
More recommended tennis memoirs
According to Dr. Amira Rose Davis, a Penn State professor of history and African-American studies who also co-hosts the feminist sports podcast Burn It All Down, “the long history of black women in sport” is often obscured in sportswriting. But memoirs by black female athletes, which allow them to “narrate their own careers,” can “push us all to consider whose voices we are missing when we tell sports stories.” One of those women is tennis champion Althea Gibson, who wrote two memoirs that Davis recommends. “Gibson broke the color line at Wimbledon and was the first African-American Grand Slam champion,” she tells us. The first, I Always Wanted to Be Somebody, chronicles Gibson’s journey from childhood to the majors, while the follow-up, So Much to Live For, chronicles Gibson’s transition from the game to a golf career and beyond. Davis considers both essential reading, but notes that the details of Gibson’s post-career struggles in the latter work are especially poignant, and “serve as a reminder that being the queen of the tennis court is all well is good” but, as Gibson writes, “you can’t eat a crown.”
Editor’s note: These two books are now out of print and therefore priced higher than others on this list.
Another historic player, Arthur Ashe, remains the only black male tennis player to win Wimbledon (among other major titles). Marshall Jon Fisher, author of A Terrible Splendor says Ashe’s memoir has been one of his favorites since he was 12 years old. “Ashe told his life story in the context of a diary of one year on the tennis tour — Wimbledon 1973 to Wimbledon 1974,” Fisher tells us. “If only he’d known he would finally win the hallowed tournament in ’75, he might have waited a year. But then we wouldn’t have the same searching, melancholy masterpiece.”
This 1978 memoir of playing the world tennis circuit in the late 1950s and early 1960s is a “hilarious and poignant gem,” Fisher tells us. “In those days, the tour was more collegial, as well as more attainable for a cast of colorful characters more interested in seeking life experience than in becoming multimillion-dollar ground-stroke machines.” And lucky for readers, Forbes jotted down observations while he toured that “should entertain tennis fans forever,” according to Fisher.
Best baseball memoirs
Best overall baseball memoirs
Three people told us about pitcher Jim Bouton’s book about his career with the New York Yankees and other teams in the ’60s. According to writer Daniel Okrent (who is credited with inventing the scoring system for fantasy baseball), it is “the memoir that broke the mold, earning Bouton the enmity of his fellow players and the applause of generations of fans” for its honest details of legendary players’ drunkenness, womanizing, and prodigious drug use (including some tales that, Okrent admits, “are less hilarious today”). Mark Kram, Jr., the author most recently of Smokin’ Joe: The Life of Joe Frazier, calls it a “bawdy tell-all” and an “instant sports literary classic.” Bouton was known for his wild knuckleballs, and Eig says that he “tossed the perfect knuckleball with this.”
This memoir by the one-time owner of the Cleveland Indians, St. Louis Browns, and Chicago White Sox was recommended to us by both Kram and former Grantland editor Rafe Bartholomew. “Baseball owners were a hidebound and altogether humorless bunch until Bill Veeck crashed the party,” according to Kram, who tells us that, “with a wooden leg, Veeck lugged home from the South Pacific in World War II, sent a dwarf to the plate, gave us the exploding scoreboard, and cooked up countless other promotional stunts that imbued a gray game with jump and color.” Kram says that Veeck’s memoir is “full of colorful tales and big ideas,” adding that he was fortunate enough to spend time with Veeck on a few occasions and that he “emerges in his book just as he was in person. One can almost hear his gravelly chuckle.”
More recommended baseball memoirs
Pitcher Jim Brosnan’s memoir focuses on his time playing for the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds in 1959. Okrent says that the memoir about Brosnan’s “unexceptional season with two unexceptional teams remains the most honest — and, I suspect, most accurate — account of the daily life of a ballplayer that we’ve ever seen.” It wasn’t meant to be a book filled with shocking revelations, according to Okrent, but is now thought of as one thanks to Brosnan’s inclusion of the Cardinals’ trainer “distributing an early form of steroids and amphetamines to the players.”
This bittersweet memoir tells the story of Pat Jordan’s promising, yet unfulfilled career as a pitcher. According to Kram, it’s a “hall-of-fame, lyrical memoir of youth ascendant and the hard luck that spares only the fortunate few.” Jordan began his career as a highly regarded schoolboy pitcher in 1950s Connecticut before, as Kram tells it, “signing with the Milwaukee Braves and spending three years toiling in bush league outposts such as McCook, Davenport, Waycross, Eau Claire and Palatka.” Then, 13 years after the Braves handed him his unconditional release, he revisited that period to write this — and later become “one of our preeminent sports journalists.”
Dirk Hayhurst succeeded where Pat Jordan did not, according to Kram, who notes he actually pitched in the big leagues (albeit briefly). Kram calls this, his second memoir, a “small gem,” noting it unfolds around and during his 2008 season with the San Diego Padres and offers a “candid account of the obstacles that he faced during his climb to the highest league, including conflicts with his eccentric grandmother, alliances and tensions with teammates, and the jitters he overcame when he finally got the call and discovered he was indeed out of his league.”