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.”
Best basketball memoirs
Best overall basketball memoirs
Seven people recommended basketball memoirs, with two directing us to this one by NBA great and former U.S. senator from New Jersey, Bill Bradley. Both Bartholomew and Mike Tollin, an executive producer of ESPN’s The Last Dance, recommend the 240-page book that chronicles just 20 days in the life of Bradley’s time as a professional basketball player. Tollin, who told us he first learned about Bradley’s prowess by reading John McPhee’s famous 1965 profile of Bradley’s college basketball career at Princeton, says that reading the memoir “gave me an even greater appreciation for his humanity, and rare insight.”
“This classic deserves a much wider audience,” Eig tells us (Bartholomew is also a fan, as is Barack Obama, who called it the “best basketball book I’ve ever read.”) At the time he wrote it, Rick Telander was a faded football prospect who spent his time freelance writing and playing pickup basketball games in New York City. The memoir tracks his time observing and playing games at Flatbush’s Foster Park in the mid-1970s, and Telander rotates between observer, player, and team coach, reflecting throughout on the darker reality his fellow players from low-income neighborhoods would return to once the sun went down. “I remember Telander’s beautiful sentences, which feature his keen eye for detail, and his effortless blend of sociology and sport,” Eig says.
More recommended basketball memoirs
New York Times basketball and culture writer Sopan Deb recommends this 1980 memoir by legendary Boston Celtics center Bill Russell (who is regarded as the NBA’s first black superstar). “Second Wind, in which he famously refers to Boston as a ‘flea market’ of racism, is an honest accounting by one of the most important athletes in the history of mankind,” Deb says.
Editor’s note: Due to this book’s recent popularity and the fact that it hasn’t been reissued (yet), we’re seeing it priced higher than others on this list.
Northwestern University’s director of sports journalism, J.A. Adande (who also appears on ESPN as a contributor), told us this is not only his favorite sports memoir, but that Abdul-Jabbar’s “fascinating perspectives” on race, religion, love, and America itself from the 1950s through the 1980s make it one of his favorite books ever. According to Adande, even though Abdul-Jabbar is one of the greatest players of all time, “basketball feels almost like an afterthought” in this book, or “something he pursued because he was tall and suited for it, but not something he felt as passionately about as, say, jazz.” Adande notes that Abdul-Jabbar has gone on to write dozens of books and essays on timely topics, and that “you can see the genesis of those in Giant Steps.”
Sports journalist and broadcaster Taylor Rooks told us about this memoir written by Tim Grover, a basketball trainer. But she assures he’s not just any trainer: “Tim Grover is the legendary trainer to athletes like Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, and Dwyane Wade.” The book, according to Rooks, focuses on the mental practices Grover taught these athletes (and others) to ensure they didn’t just have good seasons, but good careers. “It’s full of anecdotes and stories that make you feel closer to the players we all grew up watching,” she says, adding that it includes a favorite quote: “The only difference between feedback and criticism is the way you hear it.”
“My sports life has been consumed by two seminal NBA dynasties: the Michael Jordan Bulls and the Kobe-Shaq-Gasol Lakers,” sports and culture writer Dave Schilling says, adding that “those teams have one thing in common: head coach Phil Jackson.” According to him, anything Jackson wrote would have been a must-read given his shepherding of some of the greatest basketball players of all time, but Eleven Rings, which Schilling describes as memoir–cum–self-help book, goes the extra mile. “It gives an insight into how Jackson motivated his teams, which included a collection of massive egos, some of whom were not prone to taking orders,” he says. “It’s sort of a classic ‘Dad Lit’ book where the author delivers meme-able motivational insights.”
Best football memoirs
Best overall football memoir
Four folks recommended books about American football, with three specifically highlighting George Plimpton’s memoir of his weeks-long athletic career (Plimpton, of course, is best known for helping to start the Paris Review). Diss describes the book as “the perfect encapsulation of a classic conversation starter: How long could you last in a match at professional level?” Spoiler alert: The answer, Diss points out (without giving the story away), is not long. “But Plimpton’s eloquence and brio propels this dive into American football in a way that’s both very funny and dredges up a newfound respect for even the lowliest pro athlete,” he explains. Okrent is also a fan, telling us “Plimpton’s weeks in uniform in the Detroit Lions’ training camp may have been a stunt, but the book is a gem. However bad Plimpton was as an NFL quarterback, he was that good as a writer — a truly winning combination.”
Another recommended football memoir
According to Rooks, this memoir, written by “one of the more polarizing figures in sports, forces us to ask many questions, especially ‘When does a person who did bad things qualify for the public’s forgiveness?’” Finally Free, Rooks says, tackles Vick’s search for that answer as he goes through his many controversies. “It stuck with me,” she says, “because it speaks to the idea that the bad things that happen to us shape us just as much as the good.”
Best soccer memoirs
Best overall soccer memoir
While High Fidelity author Nick Hornby spent even less time playing professional sports than George Plimpton (a.k.a. no time at all), Fever Pitch was recommended to us as the ultimate fan’s memoir by three people, two of whom say they weren’t really fans of soccer before picking it up. The book “reads like a letter from a friend,” according to Diss, who describes the plot as “a fan in conversation with himself, in a doomed romance with his club, and asking what it all means to have those men chasing after a ball and those people standing there in the freezing cold and rain watching them do so.” Schilling says Fever Pitch was his entrée into the world of obsessive soccer fandom, telling us the prose “played right into my young-adult-male belief in intellectual and emotional purity. If you are going to love something — Arsenal, the Smiths, comic books, sketch comedy — you better love it to the point that it damages your ability to function in society or hold a job.” Sports journalist Sarah Baicker adds that you “probably don’t even have to care about sports to love the book, but if you do, as I do, you’ll recognize yourself in Hornby’s fandom.”
Another recommended soccer memoir
Wambach’s autobiography came recommended to us by sports reporter and commentator Kate Fagan. According to Fagan, the former star forward of the U.S. women’s national team “isn’t here to build her brand or make you love her, she’s here to be honest about her life, about her drinking, and about the inside workings about the peaks and valleys of being a professional athlete.” For that reason, she says that “if you want to really understand the grind of an athlete — read this.”
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