It stands to reason that anyone who reads these rants more than once in very long while is some kind of a sports fan. It also makes sense to conclude that sports fans who read these rants have friends/relatives who are similarly sports fans. Now, with the Christmas/Chanukah season approaching and the tradition of gift exchange, I want to offer a sort of concierge service to the readers here. I have some reading recommendations for everyone and by extension these recommendations may resolve a gift buying quandary for some folks.
Usually, I provide recommended readings one at a time. Today, I want to offer you a smorgasbord of reading options. [Aside: This list can be a buying guide for you or it can give you some “hinting options” that you may drop to folks who will be getting a gift for you. This is functional multi-tasking.]
Personally, I enjoy a certain genre of sports books; I like to read about “the inner workings” of things that I enjoy – or enjoyed in times past. By “inner workings” I do not mean reading a newspaper feature called “Inside Baseball” or “From the Locker Room”. What I mean is a well-researched book about the inner workings of stuff like:
How did Sports Illustrated come to exist and how did it become so damned good before it crashed and burned?
Same question as it pertains to ESPN – except ESPN has not yet crashed and burned?
How did the AFL come into existence and how did it grow become a merger partner with the NFL?
Ditto the ABA…
As it happens, there are books that delve into those histories and give you those kinds of insights. I happened to go to my bookshelf to get a new book to read yesterday and noticed something on the shelf I have that is dedicated to:
Books I have read that I want to keep because I might read them again.
What caught my eye was that I had a bunch of books of this “inner workings” genre and all of them were good enough to keep – and possibly to read again.
So, in alphabetical order here are six recommendations. I enjoyed all of them and would not want to try to put them in any kind of rank order. I have included a link whereby you can order the book if you so choose. These are not sponsored links in any way; these are simply offered for your convenience. [By the way, if one of these recommendations appeals to you and no one gets it for you, these links will allow you to order it for yourself.]
1. End Zones & Border Wars by Ed Willes. Gregg Drinnan, former Sports Editor for the Kamloops Daily News, alerted me to this book and I am glad that he did. This is the story of the Canadian Football League’s attempted expansion into the US in the mid-1990s. In order to tell that story, the author has to tell you a lot about the precarious finances of the CFL at the time and about the owners of the teams that had led the league in such financial jeopardy. To be sure, the NFL has – and has had – its share of zany/blockheaded owners. Nevertheless, the antics and shenanigans of some of the CFL owners would make most NFL owners from today and from yesteryear blush. Before reading this book, I knew something about Bruce McNall (former owner of the Toronto Argonauts) and Nick Miletti (former owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers) but I had never heard of Murray Pezim or “the Gliebermans”. Each one of those folks can easily carry the label “piece of work”. This book is an easy and fun read; you could finish it over a rainy weekend if you wanted to.
2. ESPN The Uncensored History by Michael Freeman. The Introduction to this book presents a lengthy memo from Keith Olbermann to ESPN’s “On Air Staff” informing everyone of some legal entanglements they might find themselves in based on some business decisions taken by others at ESPN. Immediately, you recognize that the author has done a ton of research and there will be lots of information in the following pages. This is the story of how the idea of creating a 24/7 cable sports TV network grew to become “The Worldwide Leader…” Some of my favorite on-air personalities came off having feet of clay; some of the folks I did not find particularly entertaining came off as heroes/heroines. The book was written in 2001 so some recent events at ESPN are not included here, but it does give an interesting look into the first couple of decades of ESPN. I doubt you can read this in a weekend, but it is still definitely worth the time it will take.
3. Going Long by Jeff Miller. This is the history of the AFL – how it started, what it did to survive, how it grew and who made it all happen. The book is a compilation of interviews with players, owners, coaches and officials of the old AFL that Miller interweaves to tell a narrative. I cannot imagine how difficult it must have been to write the book in that way. Having said that, the book is as entertaining as it is informative. [Did you know that one of the original owners of the Oakland franchise wanted to call the team the Oakland Seňors?] The whole story is here from the players on the field to the machinations it took to sign those players to teams before the “other league” got them. Oh, and there is all the behind the scenes stuff about the merger of the two leagues and how league officials were traveling in disguise and using phony names to register at NYC hotels. Definitely worth reading…
4. Loose Balls by Terry Pluto. This is the history of the ABA from how they decided to use red, white and blue basketballs to the players’ accomplishments on and off the court to the chaotic way the teams were originally formed to how the world’s first slam dunk contest came to exist. Like Going Long, this is a verbal history where the author mixes and matches myriad interviews in order to tell an amazing narrative. The ABA had enough characters and chaos involved with its existence that it provided plenty of interesting events for the author to chronicle here. You may not recall that the ABA was where Larry Brown and Doug Moe began their pro basketball careers and where Pat Boone (Yes, THAT Pat Boone) was a franchise owner. If you like basketball, you will like this book.
5. The Franchise by Michael MacCambridge. This is the first book of this genre that I ever read. The book begins in 1954 when Time Inc decided that “sports” was sufficiently interesting to a sufficient number of people that “sports” merited a magazine of its own. That may sound simple, but the creation of Sports Illustrated was hardly simple. There have been great writing talents who plied their trade with that magazine and there were dedicated editors there too; those talents trumped all of the problems and obstacles that SI faced in its infancy. In this volume, you learn how people like Jim Murray, Dan Jenkins, George Plimpton, Frank DeFord and others came to the magazine and what they did to make it a great publication. I have read the book twice and will likely go back and read it again one of these days.
6. The National Forgotten League by Dan Daly. This book is the history of the NFL from 1920 to 1970. Today, many folks like to relate NFL happenings to records “since the merger with the AFL”. This book goes back to the pre-merger events and digging up information from back then was no easy task because pro football was not nearly as important as it is now. Finding newspaper/magazine/Internet coverage of the NFL today is trivially easy. Coverage of the Rochester Jeffersons and/or the Minneapolis RedJackets was not nearly so ubiquitous. Not only are the stories here entertaining, some can make you shake your head. For example, one team in the 1920s did not have numbers on its uniforms; it used letters to identify players. [By the way, before you read Going Long (from above),I recommend that you read this book as a lead-in.]
I hope that I just solved at least 10% of your Holiday shopping problems and it is only mid-November. You can wait until you finish reading one or more of these books to thank me.