In the early 1900s editor Maxwell Perkins told anyone who would listen that Chicago sports columnist Ring Lardner was the most talented writer he knew, high praise given that Perkins’s stable included Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe. It shouldn’t have come as a shock, though. Many of the country’s best writers have long been fascinated with sports, and that passion shows up in their prose. After all, when done right, sports-writing transcends bats and balls to display all the traits of great literature: incision, wit, force and vision, suffused with style and substance. Herewith the editors of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED’s favorite sports books, compiled with love and reason, out of intense and sometimes unruly discussions.
1. Michael Jordan: The Life by Roland Lazenby
This was the book that made waves when it revealed that Jordan “considered himself a racist” at a young age, a revelation that was guaranteed to bolster sales — something that clearly worked, given the tome’s placement on this list. The biography, which has drawn rave reviews comparable to the way Jordan’s play was described in his prime, has been hailed as the best attempt yet at dissecting Jordan’s life and his legacy.
2. The Sweet Science by A.J. Liebling (1956)
Pound-for-pound the top boxing writer of all time, Liebling is at his bare-knuckled best here, bobbing and weaving between superb reporting and evocative prose. The fistic figures depicted in this timeless collection of New Yorker essays range from champs such as Rocky Marciano and Sugar Ray Robinson to endearing palookas and eccentric cornermen on the fringes of the squared circle.
3. Ball Four by Jim Bouton (1970)
Though a declining knuckleballer, Bouton threw nothing but fastballs in his diary of the 1969 season. Pulling back the curtain on the seriocomic world of the big leagues, he writes honestly and hilariously about baseball’s vices and virtues.
4. Friday Night Lights by H. G. Bissinger (1990)
Schoolboy football knits together the West Texas town of Odessa in the late 1980s. But as Permian High grows into a dynasty, the locals’ sense of proportion blows away like a tumbleweed. A brilliant look at how Friday-night lights can lead a town into darkness.
5. You Know Me, Al : a busher’s letters by Ring Lardner (1914)
This collection of letters from a fictional (and grammatically challenged) pitcher named Jack Keefe, originally published in installments in THE SATURDAY EVENING POST, earned Lardner a spot in the pantheon of American humorists alongside Mark Twain and Will Rogers.
6. THE BOYS IN THE BOAT by Daniel James Brown (Penguin)
The University of Washington’s eight-oar crew and its quest for gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
7. UNBROKEN by Laura Hillenbrand (Random House)
An Olympic runner’s story of survival as a prisoner of the Japanese in World War II; now a movie.
8. SLAYING THE TIGER by Shane Ryan (Ballantine)
A year of golf inside the ropes on the PGA Tour.
9. THE SECRET OF GOLF by Joe Posnanski (Simon & Schuster)
The story of the rivalry and the friendship between Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus.
10. HOW CHAMPIONS THINK by Bob Rotella with Bob Cullen (Simon & Schuster)
A sports psychologist and adviser to professional golfers and N.B.A. players discusses performance principles for competitive arenas.