Summer Readings on Sports History

In her 1987 book On Boxing, Joyce Carol Oates conveys her own ambivalence about boxing, which she doesn’t consider a sport and doesn’t see as a metaphor for life. “Life is like boxing in many unsettling respects but boxing is only like boxing,” she writes. Perhaps because she comes out of a literary rather than journalistic style, Oates refuses to see the symbolic and iconographic elements of the sport as devoid of pain, suffering, alienation and desperation, unlike the long line of writers who have tried to write themselves into the spectacle of boxing, from Pierce Egan, with his florid interpretations of events, to Norman Mailer and Hugh McIlvanney. While the likes of McIlvanney can be enormously sentimental, and therefore elegiac, about the reasons many young men turn to fighting, for me Oates is more contextually aware. A young person’s life chances would have to be pretty challenging for them to consider a career in professional boxing. What makes them make such a punishing and ultimately violent choice about their own future? What does that tell us about their place in wider society? And what does it say about us that we like to watch such contests?

The best general book on sport that I still encourage everyone to read is Gary Imlach’s My Father and Other Working-Class Football Heroes. It is a brutal business trying to get to the heights of the English Premiership, with boys going into training at a very young age, for a job that most of them will never succeed in getting. Even when successful, the effect on family life can be difficult, with players treated as the property of clubs until very recently. This book, written by journalist Imlach about his father, a Scottish international who played for clubs in England, shows the end of that tradition. In my recent courses, I have asked students to read this book alongside the autobiography I Am Zlatan by Zlatan Ibrahimovic. His working-class upbringing is evident in the book, as is his lack of coping mechanisms for the kind of fame that he has won. When his child was very ill, for example, Zlatan took refuge by going home from the hospital and playing on the PlayStation. Working-class football heroes face different challenges now than Imlach’s father did, not least how to manage their money and time. Together these books provide micro-histories of wider changes in the industry.

–Jean Williams is author of A Contemporary History of Women’s Sport. She is senior research fellow at the International Centre for Sports History and Culture at De Montfort University

No books shaped my life more than the first two boxing biographies by Randy Roberts Jack Dempsey: The Manassa Mauler and Papa Jack: Jack Johnson and the Era of White Hopes. I read them in the spring of 1999, when I was applying to Ph.D. programs and interested in the history of American sports. The books offered a model on how to write about sports and the past, weaving vivid stories with smart insights into these characters and their times. I can still picture some scenes from the books, like when Dempsey was a young brawler in saloons and mining camps. The books avoid both the simplicity of sports journalism and the dull hammer of much academic work on sports. So I went to Purdue to work under Randy, a truly great mentor.

The best popular book on sports history that I have ever read is Bill Russell’s memoir Second Wind: Memoirs of an Opinionated Man, written with Taylor Branch. The first time I picked it up, I was a young kid, and I remember reading about Russell’s grandfather, “The Old Man,” punching a mule in the head. I immediately recognized that this was like no other sports book I had ever encountered. The language is so elegant, the observations so trenchant. It has since informed the big questions I have tried to pursue: how race shapes American life, and why sports matter. I can’t say, though, that it compelled me to write my biography of Bill Russell. If anything, I almost didn’t want to write about Russell, because Second Wind was just too damn good.

–Aram Goudsouzian is author of King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution. He is chair of the History Department at the University of Memphis.

Every time I teach a university course on sports history, I cannot help it but be impressed again by Richard Holt’s path-breaking Sport and the British. This classic is still the best social and cultural history of modern sports in any country that I have ever come across: wonderfully structured, rich in insights and abundant in information, sharply argued and beautifully written. As one reviewer put it aptly: “a book that fizzes and sparkles like uncorked champagne.” Unfortunately, the book is out of print and not easy to find. It would be welcome if Oxford University Press reissued the paperback.

A great popular book on sports I recently read is also a real page-turner. You don’t need to be a fan of professional cycling to appreciate Tyler Hamilton’s The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France. Of course, the book’s main achievement is that it lifted the lid once and for all on the systematic doping regime behind US Postal Service team’s domination of the Tour de France with Lance Armstrong at the helm. This is the courageous memoir of a man willing to reveal the dirty truth about his sport through the story of his entire career as an athlete. Even when considering that every doper is a cheat, including Hamilton himself, one cannot but admire the honesty with which he faced up to his past. And, of course, in coming clean, he played a crucial role in the downfall of one of cycling’s greatest idols.

–Kay Schiller is senior lecturer in history at Durham University. He is co-author of The 1972 Munich Olympics and the Making of Modern Germany.

There are a few books that inspired me to become a sports historian. When I was an undergraduate at Michigan State University, I took a course in American sports history. We read Jules Tygiel’s Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy, and Randy Roberts’ Papa Jack: Jack Johnson and the Era of White Hopes. After reading these books I discovered that sports are not only a legitimate academic subject, but that sports provides an important lens to examine race in America. For the first time, I began seriously contemplating the prospect of becoming an historian myself, specializing in both race and sports, and the work of Tygiel and Roberts made me realize how I might contribute to the field. In many ways, these two books were groundbreaking when they were published in 1983, marking the beginning of a historiographical era where increasing studies examined African American experiences in sports. Looking back, Tygiel and Roberts legitimized the study of sports within history departments, paving the way for me to enter the field more than 25 years later.

–Johnny Smith is a historian at Georgia Tech and the author of The Sons of Westwood: John Wooden, UCLA, and the Dynasty That Changed College Basketball.

The first sports history book I ever read was Fields of Praise: The Official History of the Welsh Rugby Union, 1881-1981, by Dai Smith and Gareth Williams. Published back in 1980 to mark the centenary of the Welsh Rugby Union, this is a classic of British sports history and is highly readable. It is steeped in a deep knowledge of the social and cultural history of the Welsh nation, and is utterly convincing in stressing the centrality of rugby. It’s somewhat dated now and shows its age. For instance, there’s no discussion of women’s rugby or consideration of LGBT issues. But it has yet to be bettered. My copy sits on the shelf and serves as a reminder of my journey as a historian. One day I hope to write a book as good as this.

A more recent, academic book that I recommend is Come Out Swinging: The Changing World of Boxing in Gleason’s Gym, by Lucia Trimbur. I picked this up on a whim in Foyle’s bookshop in London, but it has proven to be my most valuable book choice in years. This is scholarship that is committed, immensely readable, and breathtakingly important. Often we think of sports history as telling us things about the past, as it presents a particular sport. But here, Lucia throws up a critical mirror to contemporary America and shows us just what kind of toll is exerted by neoliberal economic changes. As soon as I read this, I knew my scholarship would never be the same again.

-Daryl Leeworthy teaches history at the University of Huddersfield and is author of Fields of Play: The Sporting Heritage of Wales.

I’ve been teaching Buzz Bissinger’s now-classic Friday Night Lights for a long, long time. It tells an important tale about the role of sports in American life, and it is an immensely teachable text. The racial politics, the socio-economic struggles of the town, the power relationships within the team and the school and the community, the boom and bust of oil in America – it’s all there for the reaping. Beneath it all is the belief that with victory, everything is going to be all right.

My favorite academic book on sports wasn’t written by an academic. In Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties, Mike Marqusee uses Ali as a window into the turbulent 1960s, profiling other important figures of the time, from Malcolm X to Sam Cooke. Marqusee’s book shows how sport is about everything, and everything – in a way – is about sports. From pan-African ideologies to the rising militancy of Black Power, his take on the most famous athlete the world has ever seen is not only useful to me as a teacher, but also inspirational to me as a writer, reminding me always why we do what we do when we write about the history of sports.

–Amy Bass teaches history at the College of New Rochelle and is author of the book Not the Triumph But the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete.

Two sports history books that have influenced me the most are about boxing, which is strange because I don’t really like boxing. In The Manly Art: Bare-Knuckle Prize Fighting in America, Elliott Gorn provides a fascinating examination of nineteenth-century boxing history. He not only shares valuable, in-depth research in his book, but he also writes insightfully about the decline of Victorian ideologies. More recently, Teresa Runstedtler’s biographical monograph, Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner: Boxing in the Shadow of the Global Color Line breaks new ground by exploring the fighter as a transnational cultural figure. Runstedtler explores how Johnson’s racial politics were particularly meaningful in a world shaped by new imperialism before World War I.

Brian Ingrassia builds upon ground that Michael Oriard broke two decades ago in his outstanding study of early college football, The Rise of Gridiron University: Higher Education’s Uneasy Alliance with Big-Time Football. Like the two boxing books, Ingrassia addresses questions related to, but much larger than, his core topic. Exploring how American college and university leaders used the spectacle of college football to build institutions of higher learning in the early twentieth century, Ingrassia asks, “What role do universities play in American culture, and what is the place of academic knowledge in a democratic society?”

Finally, I have been greatly influenced by Rob Ruck’s Sandlot Seasons: Sport in Black Pittsburgh, and Adrian Burgos, Jr.’s Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos, and the Color Line. These books show how sports like baseball served as important resources for black communities living under Jim Crow. Ruck connects Pittsburgh’s African American sandlot baseball, basketball, and football teams to the city’s uniquely segregated geography and its industrial economy, while Burgos illustrates how Latinos in baseball subverted America’s dominant, black/white racial binary. His book should be a required corrective to anyone who has seen Chris Rock’s recent rant on “why black people don’t like baseball,” broadcast on HBO’s Real Sports, in which Rock fails to recognize Latino ball players of African descent as black.

–John Bloom is professor of history at Shippensburg University and author of There You Have It: The Life, Legacy, and Legend of Howard Cosell.

For pedagogical reasons, and because I always find it stimulating, Allen Guttmann’s From Ritual to Record: The Nature of Modern Sports is a book that I have read many times — and will continue to do so. Guttmann, of course, is “one of the towering figures in the field” of sport history and sport studies. His books cover a wide range of subjects, including sports spectators, women in sports, the erotic in sports, and sports and art. They are all well and concisely written, with a deep sense of history. Guttmann is an erudite, graceful writer. In From Ritual to Record, he establishes sophisticated paradigms that differentiate play, games, contests, and sports from one another; and he establishes seven characteristics that are emblematic of modern sports: secularism, equality, specialization, rationalization, bureaucratization, quantification, and record-keeping. His Max Weber-inspired modernization theory is not for everyone. That’s fine. Yet after all these years, From Ritual to Record still provides us with a way to consider what we are talking about when we talk about modern (and postmodern) sports.

As for non-academic books, several come to mind. Jim Bouton’s Ball Four, John Feinstein’s A Season on the Brink, Joyce Carol Oates’s On Boxing, H.G. Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights, and Darcy Frey’s The Last Shot. They are all winners. I’d happily re-read any of them. But if forced to pick one, right now, I’d go with Warren St. John’s Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer: A Road Trip into the Heart of Fan Mania. St. John, a former New York Times reporter and a lifelong, diehard University of Alabama football fan, tells engaging, frequently funny stories about people who take their sports as seriously as, well, anything else in their lives. Tailgating with Alabama football fans in a RV he purchased to be among his people, St. John explains, “My interest was not in the RV scene as an example of some eccentric, marginal freak show, but as a tinctured version of whatever it was that motivated me to listen to football games on a telephone, and whatever it is that drives interest in all the box scores in today’s newspapers—the almost universal fascination with sports.” It is a delightful, smart read about the contemporary sports world and the recent past.

–Daniel Nathan is chair of the American studies department at Skidmore College and past president of the North American Society for Sport History (NASSH). He is author of Saying It’s So: A Cultural History of the Black Sox Scandal.