If you are based in north of England, it’s likely that you have never heard of Jim Bouton’s book Ball Four. After all, the 1970 book barely registered in the UK. That’s understandable given its subject – baseball – but over 50 years after its release, it remains one of the most influential sports books ever written. And regardless of whether you prefer cricket to baseball (as every self-respecting Yorkshire native should) or don’t hold any truck with sports at all, its impact on modern sports writing must be respected.
We won’t go into detail about all the ins and outs of Ball Four, except to say that Bouton, a former baseball pitcher, decided to release one of the first warts-and-all books about life as a sports professional. Today, it’s featured near the top of the rankings of the 100 best sports books of all time. But more importantly, it influenced many of the other titles on that list.
Sports writing can be formulaic
The point, as such, is that sports writing, particularly memoirs for the mass market, can be both niche and formulaic. We say the former as the marketing of a book by, for example, cricketer Michael Vaughan, will target fans of cricket, and perhaps English and Yorkshire cricket more specifically. And we say formulaic because it often follows a blueprint set out by countless others. That’s not a criticism in the traditional sense – fans might want to relive Freddie Flintoff’s memories of The Ashes or Wayne Rooney’s of a Champions League Final. But for the non-fan, it’s a hard sell.
And that’s where Ball Four comes in. It lifted back the veil on professional sports in America, much to the chagrin of Bouton’s fellow pros at the time. Not all athletes have been inspired to do the same, of course. But many have, and it has led to a refreshing richness in sports writing from athletes’ perspectives.
If you take, for instance, some of the very best football books. Ask an avid reader of sports books, and they’ll probably tell you that books on Tony Cascarino, Paul McGrath and Tony Adams are among the very best. Indeed, books based on that trio lists high on the top 100 books guide mentioned earlier. Aside from being about footballers, what qualities do they all share? Brutal honesty, for one. They deal with addiction, the price of fame and other issues that the well-crafted saccharine releases tend to avoid.
Magee’s tale will stay with you
Perhaps what we are trying to say here is this: If a non-fan picked up a copy of boxer Ricky Hatton’s War and Peace autobiography, they might be mildly entertained. It covers an interesting boxing career, and Hatton is what we might call an intriguing character. Yet, with all due respect to the Stockport fighter, the book is instantly forgettable. But if a non-boxing fan read The Lost Soul of Eamon Magee, which covers the sometimes harrowing life and times of Belfast boxer Magee, it’d stay with them. Magee’s time as a champion boxer is incidental to the thrust of the story.
In a sense, we are talking about the difference between story-telling and cashing in on fame. Again, we stress that the latter is not a criticism in and of itself. But the best sports books aren’t about reliving career highs and lows: they are about telling human stories that happen to tie in with sports careers.
It’s perfectly possible that we would still have the richness of honest sports books today should Bouton never have written his 1970 tale of the baseball leagues. Moreover, the line of correlation between it and the best releases of today isn’t a straight one. However, this was one of the first to say that the life of an athlete isn’t all rosy. Other stars from across the sporting spectrum have picked up that baton, and the legacy is a much more fascinating choice of works available today.
5 Recommended ‘Honest’ Sports Books to Read this Winter:
Open: An Autobiography – Andre Agassi
Beware of the Dog – Brian Moore
Full Time: The Secret Life of Tony Cascarino – Paul Kimmage
Beneath the Surface: My Story – Michael Phelps and Brian Cazeneuve
The Lost Soul of Eamon Magee – Paul Gibson