1. The Blind Side by Michael Lewis
If you’ve seen the movie, you know that this is the story of Michael Oher’s rise from homeless teen to first-round NFL draft pick, with a focus on the family that helped him. Lewis also intersperses insightful analysis of the changing nature of the game, noting the importance of the left tackle in doing the crucial work of protecting the quarterback’s blind side. The book is not nearly as much of a tearjerker as the movie is, but that makes it a tiny bit better.
Best enjoyed with: The Gatorade that rolls off the face of your teammate after the clock runs out, and you find yourself in a clutch of sweaty, happy teammates because YOU’RE GOING TO STATE.
2. Little Girls in Pretty Boxes by Joan Ryan
Perhaps the definitive examination of the machine that produces tiny girls who achieve remarkable feats of athleticism both on the ice and on a balance beam, the San Francisco Chronicle sports writer looks at the inner workings of what it takes to make a champion in the physically trying and emotionally crippling worlds of gymnastics and figure skating. Drawing upon interviews with sports psychologists and hundreds of former gymnasts and figure skaters, Ryan paints a picture of a training practice that robs children of their childhood, and stunts development, both physically and mentally. If you find yourself in wonder every year at the 16-year-old on your television set performing feats of mental and physical wonder, then this is a must-read.
Best enjoyed with: a contraband strawberry Nesquik, over in the corner by the locker room, sipped through a straw.
3. Shattering the Glass: The Remarkable History of Women in Basketball by Pamela Grundy & Susan Shackleford
If you’ve ever bemoaned the lack of a definitive, thoughtful and thorough analysis of the history of women’s basketball, look no further than this. A well-researched and understanding work, this book highlights both trailblazers and contemporary figures in the sport while tackling larger issues like the impact of homophobia and the resultant tensions between the traditional roles of women versus the demands of the sport. A must-read for any fan of basketball.
Best enjoyed with: Powerade, because Gatorade is for wusses.
4. The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn
A classic in the genre, Roger Kahn’s epic love letter to baseball is really an epic in three parts. From his childhood spent as a fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers to his time as a reporter covering them up to their 1955 World Series victory to his revisiting of the Dodgers’ greats like Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella in their dotage, Kahn’s exploration of his own life through the lens of baseball is not to be missed.
Best enjoyed with: a Brooklyn Brewery Penant Ale, the only choice.
5. Paper Lion by George Plimpton
What happens when a 36-year-old writer with no discernible athletic ability talks his way into an NFL training camp as a contender for quarterback? If you’re George Plimpton, the result is an entertaining report from inside the NFL, before Monday Night Football, ESPN, and around-the-clock coverage of football’s inner workings.
Best enjoyed with: a generous slug of whiskey in a heavy-bottomed glass, sipped while lowering your aging body into a hot bath after a vigorous game of touch football.
6. Dream Team by Jack McCallum
What happens when some of the best basketball players this country has ever seen unite on one team to play the game they love on an international stage? Sportswriter Jack McCallum dives deep into the 1992 Summer Olympics Dream Team, with an in-depth look at the gold-medal-winning basketball team that changed the game forever, from the squad’s formation to their Barcelona win.
Best enjoyed with: a bottomless kalimotxo, eaten with patatas bravas and a healthy dose of jingoism.
7. League of Denial by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru
The book that rocked the NFL, with a stunning PBS documentary to match, League of Denial takes on the most pervasive problem in the NFL today: traumatic brain injuries, concussions, and the great lengths the NFL has gone toward deceit.
Best enjoyed with: whatever tastes like the troubling moral quandary that is watching a sport you love knowing full well that the players are enduring irreparable brain damage.
8. Among the Thugs by Bill Buford
Bill Buford takes on the teeming masses of Manchester United fans in this look at the mechanics and psychology behind the group violence and destruction in the name of male bonding. This is an absorbing read, and another winner from Buford, who writes so very, very well.
Best enjoyed with: a lukewarm Stella Artois, served in a sloshy plastic cup, while being shoved about by your drunken peers.
9. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
This is a big, meaty novel, and an extremely impressive debut from Chad Harbach. The story of Henry Skrimshander, crackerjack shortstop, and his first year at Westish College during one of their best seasons is a meandering, character-driven story that deals with both our national pastime and the the bonds that you break and form over and over again when you’re on a team.
Best enjoyed with: a Leinenkugel Sunset Wheat, draft only, cold as ice, in the noonday sun.
10. Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand
The story of a small, knobby-kneed horse with crooked forelegs racing professionally, led by a jockey who’s blind in one eye, a boorish owner, and a trainer who cultivated a near mystical ability to communicate with horses. Laura Hillenbrand writes so well, that even if you’re not interested in horse racing in the slightest, you’ll be headed to the track after this.
Best enjoyed with: multiple Heinekens, drank in rapid succession while pressed against a metal gate with the sun beating down, the smell of manure in your nose.
11. Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream by H.G Bissinger
If you love Friday Night Lights and worship at a sensible and sassy altar you’ve created for Tami Taylor, then you will certainly want to read the book that started it all. H.G. Bissinger’s account of the Permian Panthers of Odessa, Texas, was the inspiration for the television show, and the source material is just as touching and poignant as the infinite sorrows of Matt Saracen.
Best enjoyed with: an ice-cold Lone Star, handed to you dripping wet out of a cooler while sitting in a lawn chair under the big skies of Texas Hill Country.
12. Welcome to Paradise, Now Go to Hell by Chas Smith
Exposing the seamy underbelly of the pro-surfing world, war journalist turned sportswriter Chris Smith looks at high-stakes, big-wave surfing in Oahu’s North Shore. If you’ve ever entertained the idea of leaving it all behind and selling coconut water from a beachside shack in Hawaii, this book will certainly make you think twice.
Best enjoyed with: the melted remnants of a guava shave ice, slurped out of the paper cone.
13. A Necessary Spectacle by Selena Roberts
On Sept. 20, 1973, tennis champion Billie Jean King entered the Houston Astrodome and beat Billy Riggs fair and square, in a televised Battle of the Sexes, proving that women were just as good — if not better— at tennis than men. On the surface, this seems like typical 1970s ratings fodder, but New York Times sports writer Selena Roberts takes a deep dive in to the political and cultural landscape surrounding this decision and looks at it in the context of Title IX and the rise of feminism in sports.
Best enjoyed with: a Pimm’s cup, flavored with a hint of misandry.
14. Moneyball by Michael Lewis
Billy Beane made a winning team out of a losing one using sabremetrics — the art of measuring baseball players’ ability using advanced statistics. The movie stars Brad Pitt as the rough-around-the-edges ballplayer turned manager, and the book takes you on a journey through Beane’s career, but also lights upon the early careers of baseball luminaries like Miguel Tejada and the Giambi brothers.
Best enjoyed with: peanuts, Cracker Jacks, garlic fries, sips of Diet Coke stolen from your sister’s cup while she’s in the bathroom.
15. Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
Extreme mountain climbing is a sport that involves great physical fitness, endurance, and a remarkable sense of hubris that few possess. Many try to summit Everest, and many make it, but the mountain has its fair share of disasters. Jon Krakauer tells a harrowing story of ego, ill-preparedness, and the power of nature in this story of the 1996 Mount Everest climbing season, which saw seven deaths, including the author’s guides.
Best enjoyed with: butter tea, made of water, tea, salt, yak butter, poured from a thermos by a sherpa. Whiskey. Anything that helps you deal with the fact that you’ve climbed Everest and are still alive.
16. The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood by Jane Leavy
It is a rare treat when an author gets to meet and then write about their idol. It’s a moment that we all dream of. If you want to know how to do it right, take a gander at Jane Leavy’s definitive biography of Mickey Mantle, America’s favorite Yankee, and the best switch-hitter in the game. Equal parts social history, memoir, and biography, Leavy’s examination of Mantle as the man and the myth is seen through the lens of her own experience and memories with the Mick.
Best enjoyed with: An ice-cold Coca-Cola, in the bottle. Use a straw if you’re fancy, but drink only one and then move straight onto cold Budweiser, while sitting in the bleachers.