Discover more from Jeff Pearlman's Journalism Yang Yang
The Yang Slinger: Vol I
My Top 50 all-time sports books, five questions with Jonathan Eig, an embarrassing story from my career, a college scribe worth watching and random thoughts on this week's journalism scene ...
Soooooo … welcome to the official launch of my weekly (every Monday) Substack, where I’ll try and entertain and inform and engage in relation to the wacky world of journalism.
Some quick thoughts:
I’m not charging for this. It’s 100-percent free. But if you’d subscribe (again, no charge), I’d be honored.
This is a work in progress. So any thoughts/suggestions always appreciated.
I’ve been fortunate to make my living doing this job. Never, ever let people talk you out of journalism. It’s a wonderful profession—and, I believe, a worthwhile one. Especially these days.
Here we go …
My 50 all-time favorite sports books …
To be clear, I haven’t read 1/1,000th of the sports books that exist somewhere on earth. So if you’re angry that I’ve omitted Ed Ott’s autobiography, “Ed Ott: The Ottobiography,” well, that’s because:
A. I never owned it.
B. Ed Ott doesn’t have an ottobiography.
That said, I have gone through hundreds upon hundreds of literary efforts pertaining to sports. And while I’m far from the world’s greatest authority, I did read the entirety of “Super Joe: The Life and Legend of Joe Charboneau.”
And enjoyed it.
Let the rankings begin …
A False Spring, by Pat Jordan: This isn’t a sports book. It’s art. Jordan—one of the best writers of my lifetime—chronicles his career as a minor-league baseball hotshot gone bad. For more, listen to Pat’s appearance on my podcast, Two Writers Slinging Yang.
Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life, by Richard Ben Cramer: Not just the best sports biography ever written. Maybe on the short list for best all-time biography ever written. Cramer is my gold standard for digging deep inside a subject’s mind and bringing forth the unflinching truth.
Strong Boy: The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan, America’s First Sports Hero, by Christopher Klein: Read this a couple of years ago, had zero expectations—and was blown … the … fuck … away. Beautiful writing+dogged research=masterpiece. This is a masterpiece. (Chris appeared on my pod, too)
The Bronx Zoo: The Astonishing Inside Story of the 1978 World Champion New York Yankees, by Sparky Lyle and Peter Golenbock: My first love—and it actually holds up. I know people insist ‘Ball Four’ is the standard bearer for athlete tell-alls, but I’m a ‘Bronx Zoo’ guy. A million laughs. (Peter appeared on my podcast, too)
Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig, by Jonathan Eig: I mean, it’s just a friggin’ perfect biography. Jon is a close pal, so I know how much he put into this work. It paid off. (Jon appeared on my podcast, too)
The Baseball 100, by Joe Posnanski: The newest book to make this list. Joe’s attention to detail is rivaled by none, and this 10,000-pound work of art is impossible to put down. (Joe appeared on my podcast a few weeks ago)
Namath: A Biography, by Mark Kriegel: To know Mark is to love Mark. To know Mark is to also appreciate the self-loathing depths of a writer who measures every single word. ‘Namath’ is a master class is bringing your all to a subject. (Mark appeared on my podcast, too)
The Courting of Marcus Dupree, by Willie Morris: Morris, who died 22 years ago, opened so many eyes with this oft-beautiful, oft-ugly, always-rich deep dive into college football recruiting.
West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life, by Jerry West with Jonathan Coleman: There’s nothing better than honesty—and West is nothing if not honest. The majority of sports autobiographies entail an athlete explaining his greatness. Here, West picks apart his flaws.
Friday Night Lights, by Buzz Bissinger: I mean, come on. Fuck the TV show, fuck the movie. The book is perfection.
Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association, by Terry Pluto: When I’m trying to sound intelligent, I insist to people that oral histories don’t really interest me. Truth be told, I sorta love ‘em. And Pluto’s work is the greatest of the great. This book inspired my USFL chronicling more than any other work.
When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi, by David Maraniss: David is as good a researcher-writer as anyone in the business, and this book rates 100 on the 1-to-100 difficulty scale. Brilliance from first page to last. (David appeared on my podcast, too)
The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron, by Howard Bryant: There is nothing about Howard—person and journalist—I don’t admire. The guy just brings it, works his ass off, takes no shit and produces. I thought I knew a lot about Hank Aaron. Turns out I knew nothing. (Howard was my podcast’s first-ever guest).
Heaven is a Playground, by Rick Telander: If you’re a basketball fanatic, and you think X is the best hoops book or Y is the best hoops book—you’re wrong. Telander’s book dates back almost (whoa) 50 years, when he plopped down in Brooklyn and absorbed the playground at Foster Park in Flatbush.
Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy, by Jane Leavy: Some athletes want the spotlight. Sandy Koufax did not. Amazingly, Jane was able to break through and produce this definitive work. (Jane appeared on my podcast, too)
I Am Third, by Gale Sayers with Al Silverman: Sayers’ autobiography spawned a made-for-TV movie that brought millions of Americans to tears. Believe it or not, the book is far better.
Babe: The Legend Comes to Life, By Robert Creamer: Long ago, Sports Illustrated referred to Creamer’s Ruthian Ruth Ruthie as the best sports biography of all time. It’s hard to debate that point. Not impossible, but hard.
Gods at Play: An Eyewitness Account of Great Moments in American Sports, by Tom Callahan: There’s no official list for Generation’s Most Underrated Scribes, but (were there) Callahan is on it. This memoir is an old-school sports storyteller’s delight. (Tom appeared on my podcast, too)
Ali: A Life, by Jonathan Eig: First, it’s got the world’s best cover. Second, everything between the front cover and back cover is marvelous. Jon tracks down everyone. And by everyone, I mean e-v-e-r-y-o-n-e.
The Boys of Summer, by Roger Kahn: For many, the gold standard of celebratory baseball chronicling.
Ted Williams: The Biography of an American Hero, by Leigh Montville: I once asked Leigh about writing on subjects such as Williams and Babe Ruth. “Haven’t there already been so many books on the subjects?” I wondered. I’ve never forgotten Leigh’s reply: “Sure. But there’s never been my book.” (Leigh appeared on my podcast, too)
Not a Game: The Incredible Rise and Unthinkable Fall of Allen Iverson, by Kent Babb: I had my experiences with Iverson, and he was a weird/rough/intriguing/bizarre nut to crack. Somehow, Kent was able to break through … without ever convincing A.I. to cooperate. (Kent appeared on my podcast, too)
Drama in the Bahamas: Muhammad Ali's Last Fight, by Dave Hannigan: So I’ve long been fascinated by the 1981 Ali-Trevor Berbick fight, because it was such a shit-show and never should have happened and came after what many people believe to be Ali’s last fight (a mugging at the hands of Larry Holmes). Hannigan’s book isn’t just about boxing. It’s about a man’s pathetic fall; about the grime of boxing; about flawed humanity.
All The Colors Came Out: A Father, a Daughter, and a Lifetime of Lessons, by Kate Fagan: OK, one can argue Kate’s memoir isn’t exactly a sports book. But it’s the memoir of a sports writer, about her father’s (a former basketball standout) battle with ALS. Plus, it’s just gorgeous. (Kate appeared on my podcast, too)
Summer of 49, by David Halberstam: The late, great Halberstam puts you on the field, in the dugout as well as any scribe who’s walked the planet.
Ball Four, by Jim Bouton: A confession: Not my favorite book. I like it—a lot. But through the years I’d argue there have been many excellent as-told-to sports bios that take you inside the life. So why does Bouton’s classic sit here at No. 26? Because he was an original.
Dream Team: How Michael, Magic, Larry, Charles, and the Greatest Team of All Time Conquered the World and Changed the Game of Basketball Forever, by Jack McCallum: Jack and I overlapped at Sports Illustrated for several years, and to read his writing is to hear him talk. Breezy, casual, smooth, comforting. This is a classic example of the perfect writer alligning with the perfect subject. (Jack appeared on my podcast, too)
Paper Lion: Confessions of a Last-String Quarterback, by George Plimpton: It’s just the most fun book ever. Plimpton, fairly unathletic writer from Ivy stock, suits up for training camp with the Detroit Lions.
Game of Shadows: Barry Bonds, BALCO, and the Steroids Scandal that Rocked Professional Sports, by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams: I should be mad, because ‘Game of Shadows’ came out a few weeks before my Bonds’ bio and buried me in the dollar store wilderness. But how can one truly be upset when he’s trumped by work this good? Truly, the better journalism won.
The Mighty Oak, by Jeff W. Bens: The only work of fiction on this list. I had absolutely no expectations for a novel about the exploits of a sad, weathered hockey goon—and, man, Bens’ book is just engrossing, x 100,000. So well done. (Jeff appeared on my podcast, too)
Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube: Chasing Fear and Finding Home in the Great White North, by Blair Braverman: Sometimes a book will come along, and you think, “Meh, don’t care.” So you put it aside, put it aside. Then, one day, you’re bored and pooping and need something for toilet reading. That, bluntly, is how I got hooked on what must be the best dog sledding-themed memoir in modern history.
Four Kings: Leonard, Hagler, Hearns, Duran and the Last Great Era of Boxing, by George Kimball: George was such a terrific boxing writer, and this exceptional book peels back the layers on a magical era in the sport.
Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, by Michael Lewis: Kinda speaks for itself. Lewis is the king of this medium—and I’m not sure there’s a close second.
A Season on the Brink: A Year with Bob Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers, by John Feinstein: John has written 7,874,432 books. Every one I’ve read has been fantastic. But this was groundbreaking stuff, and exposed Bobby Knight for the foaming-from-the-mouth pitbull we all know and abhor. (John did my podcast, too)
Blood in the Cage: Mixed Martial Arts, Pat Miletich, and the Furious Rise of the UFC, by Jon Wertheim: I knew nothing about MMA before Jon’s book. By the end I needed a shower. Gritty, raw writing that reflects the sport. (Jon did my podcast, too)
The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball's Afterlife, by Brad Balukjian: Every so often someone takes an idea and you’re immediately jealous. For example—I’m gonna randomly open a pack of old baseball cards, then track down every player. Genius. (Brad did my podcast, too)
The Forever Boys: The Bittersweet World of Major League Baseball as Seen Through the Eyes of the Men Who Played One More Time, by Peter Golenbock: This gem came out in 1991, and followed the members of the St. Petersburg Pelicans of something called the Senior Professional Baseball Association. It’s romantic, it’s haunting, it’s splendid.
The United States Football League, 1982-1986, by Paul Reeths: Paul’s USFL book is better than my USFL book. There, I said it. Better research, more love, more knowledge. The one catch: You r-e-a-l-l-y have to dig the ol’ league, because Paul goes uber deep on subjects the average fan might not care about. But, for me, this is pure gold.
Drive: The Story of My Life, by Larry Bird with Bob Ryan: Ryan could write about flat soda and I’d buy the book. Teaming up with Bird for a gritty autobiography is a no-brainer.
Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, by Christopher McDougall: I love books that take you places you’ve never been. I was a (very bad) college runner, and everything in here shocked me.
QB: My Life Behind the Spiral, by Steve Young with Jeff Benedict: Like Sparky Lyle, Jim Bouton, Jerry West and Larry Bird, the key here is raw honesty. Young could’ve offered some blah rah-rah bullshit and still sold plenty of copies. Instead, he went real.
The Good Son: The Life of Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini, by Mark Kriegel: I’ll say it again—Mark is the best. He lived this book; delved hardcore in Mancini and the aftereffects of killing a man in the ring.
The Caddie Was a Reindeer: And Other Tales of Extreme Recreation, by Steve Rushin: I’m not a big collection guy, but this cobbling together of Rushin’s SI columns is one laugh after another laugh after another laugh. For my dough, the greatest sports writer of my era. (Steve did my podcast, too)
Giannis: The Improbable Rise of an NBA MVP, by Mirin Fader: Mirin and I are friends, and when she first told me this was the subject of her debut book … well, I wasn’t so sure. The guy is young, plays in a small market. What was there to write? Shows what I know. A beautiful ode to a man who has overcome about 12,471 barriers. (Mirin appeared on my podcast, too).
Just Win, Baby: Al Davis and His Raiders, by Glenn Dickey: I’d never heard of this book until I started researching Bo Jackson. Well, it’s a splended explanation of the inexplicable Al Davis, who far too often sliced his nose to spite his face. Dickey is one of those writers who deserve more of a legacy. Alas, we all ultimately come and go …
The Yucks: Two Years in Tampa with the Losingest Team in NFL History, by Jason Vuic: Writing about sports awfulness should be a joy ride, and Vuic’s book is all joy. It chronicles the first two seasons of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, when they won a grand total of two games. The names are familiar (Steve Spurrier, Lee Roy Selmon), the story uproarious.
So Many Ways to Lose: The Amazin’ True Story of the New York Mets - the Best Worst Team in Sports, by Devin Gordon: I’m very well-versed in New York Mets books, and Devin’s ode to the team’s routine shortcomings is the best of the bunch. Come for the sadness, stay for the Mackey Sasser material. (Devin appeared on my podcast, too).
Golfing on the Roof of the World: In Pursuit of Gross National Happiness, by Rick Lipsey: So Rick and I worked together in the SI office back in the day, and about a year ago he casually mentioned that he’d written a book about becoming Bhutan's golf pro. Well, it’s amazing. And cinematic.
Breakout: From Prison to the Big Leagues, by Ron LeFlore with Jim Hawkins: This is a quirky one to explain. So, I haven’t read ‘Breakout’ in years—but it really, really, really did something to me as a teen. It opened my eyes, opened my mind, showed me a life I’d have never understood. LeFlore’s rise from incarceration to the Majors remains one of the all-time most imporbable treks.
The $1 league: The Rise and Fall of the USFL, by Jim Byrne: Probably the most important book of my childhood. I read it, then read it again. Byrne, who worked for the USFL as a PR guy, was willing to risk friendships to explain how it all fell apart. A very insightful read in regards to sports business.
The Five with … Jonathan Eig
Every week this page will feature a rapid-fire five-question Q&A with a journalist. First up is the great Jonathan Eig, author of five books, including, “Ali” and “Luckiest Man.” You can follow Sir Eig on Twitter here …
1: What's your least-favorite part of the book-writing process?: End notes, for sure. But I’m also tortured, in a totally different way, by the opening sentence. Too many options! None good enough! Oh, and then there’s the whole big issue of disappointing some of the people I interviewed, knowing they’re not going to like everything in the book. Telling myself it’s part of the job doesn’t help.
2: What's your favorite part of the book-writing process?: . That point, near the end, when you finally see the finish line and you think, as long I don’t get run over by a bus, I’m actually going to finish this … and I might even have time to come up with a better opening sentence.
3. Five words you use way too often: If I knew that I wouldn’t use them so much.
4. Tell us a joke: Two snowmen are standing on a hill. One says to the other: “Do you smell carrots?”
Gotta do a Jewish one, too. Two Jews, Jake and Milt, walk by a church with a sign that says anyone who converts gets $1,000. Jake goes in. When he come back out, Milt says, “Did you get the $1,000?” Jake says, “Don’t you people ever think about anything but money?"
5. Rank in order (favorite to least): Coke Zero, Edgar Martinez, Harry Houdini, staplers, a day of microfilm, Twitter, Brad Pitt, really having to pee, moldy eggplant, Mike Pence, people who insist you refer to them as "Doctor," Milk Duds, Matt Suhey: Harry Houdini, day of microfilm, staplers, Milk Duds, Brad Pitt, Edgar Martinez, Matt Suhey, gotta pee, Coke Zero, Dr. Phil et al, moldy eggplant and Mike Pence in a tie for final spot.
The story of one of my myriad career fuckups …
Back in 1993 I was 23 and extremely dumb. I lacked social skills, thought I was the world’s greatest writer, listened to no one, walked with a strut. Within the confines of The Tennessean’s Living Dept. (our features section), I was … well, I wouldn’t say I was a leper. But I was the annoying little brother many colleagues surely wished death upon.
One of my closer friends in the section was Sheila Jones, the department receptionist whose desk was adjacent to mind. Sheila and I were an odd couple—she probably had 10-to-15 years from me; talked real slow; was a short African-American woman with a husband and three kids; born and raised in the south. Somehow, she took a liking to me. I genuinely loved her.
Anyhow, Sheila and I used to talk mild shit. Nothing big, just slight trash talk about this and that. Well, one day I was the last one to leave the department late into the evening. And, before taking off, I sat at Sheila’s desk, pulled up her keyboard and typed in something like “I see you, bitch.” In the context of our relationship, it seemed fitting. I’m sorta scratching my head now, wondering how that’s possible. But at the time, well … uh … yeah.
Fast forward to the following morning. I’m in my apartment, and the phone rings. It’s Sheila. “Jeff, you didn’t type something about me being a bitch on my computer, did you?”
Uh … why?
“They’re having an investiagtion in the department. Catherine [the editor] wants everyone to come in.”
I arrive at the office. It turns out Sheila has someone who’s been sorta stalking her. I am mortified. Beyond mortified. I’m told what’s going on—they suspect this stalker guy sent Sheila a threatening message; they’re going to find a way to fire him; etc.
I pull Sheila aside. “Sheila, it was me,” I tell her.
“Sheila, I’m so sorry. I meant nothing, you know that.”
“Jeff, I’m just relieved. I’m not mad.”
“Sheila, please don’t tell anyone. Please.”
“Jeff, you have to tell Catherine.”
She’s right. I knock on her door. I close the door behind me. “Catherine,” I say, “I sent the message.”
“I sent it. I meant it as a joke … we’re friends and …”
Catherine tees off on me. Rightly. I’m crying. Mortified. She sees this. “Jeff, you can write. You’re talented. But you need to grow up.”
This week’s college writer you should follow on Twitter …
Zachary Huber, author of this terrific piece for the Independent Florida Alligator. ESPN.com, usatoday.com and a bunch of other sites ran follow-up articles about the scandals within the women’s basketball program (involving former Gators coach Cameron Newbauer)—but Huber was the one who broke it all.
If I’m a local Gainesville reporter, I’m not thrilled knowing the student pub kicked my ass.
If I’m a newspaper seeking out young talent, Zachary is 100-percent on my radar.
He’s on Twitter here. Bravo, kid …
Random journalism musings for the week …
• Musing 1: Sage Steele: So I haven’t weighed in on this, largely because everyone weighed in on this. I know Sage a bit, but not overly well. She appeared on a parenting podcast my wife and I used to run, and was gracious with her time and warm with her thoughts. Sooooo … I was never anti-Sage Steele, even though I knew we were political opposites.
Her recent thoughts, however, truly bothered me. I think the biggest offense was her praise of Candace Owens, the professional conspiracy theorist who can be found in your nearby dictionary alongside, CRAVEN OPPORTUNIST. Hard for me to respect someone who “respects the hell” out of Candace Owens.
• Musing 2: In much better Candace news, I am loving Candace Buckner as the Washington Post’s newest sports columnist. Candace has long been one of the best writer/reporters in the business, and her rise is awesome to behold. This piece, on the waywardness of John Wall, had me at hello.
• Musing 3: I grew up religiously reading the sports section of the New York Times (primarily because it was the only part of the paper Mom allowed in the bathroom). Through the years it’s offered an all-star cadre of writers, from Buster Olney and Mike Freeman to Judy Batista and Tyler Kepner to Dave Anderson and William Rhoden. So it bums me out that the newspaper has seemed to pretty much give up on sports.
Sure, gems like Kepner and James Wagner remain. But the New York Times doesn’t even cover New York teams. I hate it.
• Musing 4: There is no upcoming sports book that has me as excited as Howard Bryant’s May 2022 release, “Rickey: The Life and Legend of an American Original.” Howard is a dogged reporter, Henderson is insanely kooky/strange/fun. It’s an A+ marriage of biographer and subject.
• Musing 5: The news media needs to stop both-siding the work and responsibility of the 1.6 Commission. Far too many stories involve quote-the-Democrat, then quote-the-Republican, presenting the issue of the U.S. Capitol attack as a he says/she says thingamajig. It’s not. The GOP has sought to normalize an insurrection and we, the press, have helped it succeed. On that day, if you remember, a nation sat horrified, watching the events unfold via TV/phone/laptop/iPad. It was an unambiguous blow to democracy, and an attempt to overthrow an election. As time has passed, however, the right has been allowed to define the day as a picnic in the park.
I learned the both-sides-isn’t-always-right lesson while writing my Barry Bonds biography, “Love Me, Hate Me.” I went in believing I needed an equal amount of Bonds supporters, Bonds detractors. By the end, however, I realized that if 90 percent of folks loathe Bonds and only 10 percent tolerate him, 90/10 is fair and balanced.
• Musing 6: There are many things day-to-day sports journalism can survive. The collapse of The Athletic would not be one of them. This Jessica Toonkel piece should have all of us a bit nervous. If the site dies, thousands of jobs die, too. Oy.
• Musing 7: I’m all in on @lesliejosephs defending her work …
Quote of the week …
“To appreciate the sun, you gotta know what rain is.”
— J. Cole