WEEKEND EDITION

Sublime Summer Sports Books from an Unlikely Source (Hint: Lady, Gray)

| July 11, 2011 6:00 AM

The New York Times isn’t exactly known as a sports writing powerhouse. Slipped into the back of Business Day for most of the week, the Sports section tends to feel like an afterthought. A chore, even. And that’s not changing anytime soon: on the paper’s iPhone app, the section falls below Science. Enough said.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that only one of the several Times reporters who released a sports book recently actually covered sports for the paper. And even that one, Robert Lipsyte, describes the section he joined in 1957 as “mediocre at best, perhaps by design.”

But even if the Times fails to scratch your sports writing itch on a daily basis, you’d still be hard-pressed to find three better sports books for your summer reading list than these:

Author: Robert Lipsyte
Publisher: Ecco
Publication Date: May 2011

“An Accidental Sportswriter,” by Robert Lipsyte

Over two different stints, Lipsyte spent nearly 25 years writing about sports for the Times, much of it as a columnist and none of it preordained. Unlike, well, every other sportswriter in America, he didn’t obsessively follow sports as kid. In fact, he didn’t follow them at all. He also didn’t aspire to be a journalist — a 19-year-old Lipsyte ended up at the paper by way of a random classified ad. But the story of how he got there, the “accidental” part of his memoir’s title, is less important than what happened once he did.

Despite the access and megaphone afforded by the Times, Lipsyte never gave up his status as an outsider. In fact, as a columnist he turned it into a beat. Rather than write odes to champions, he criticized the country’s “Jock Culture” of hero-worshipping of athletes. Instead of adding to the hyperbolic coverage of the major sports, the stuff that leads SportsCenter, Lipsyte wrote about gay athletes, lacrosse on Native American reservations and the Black Power movement. Those stories make up the meat of “An Accidental Sportswriter: A Memoir,” the book weaving between Lipsyte’s life, the issues he holds dear and the paper that gave him a chance to combine the two.

Author: James S. Hirsch
Publisher: Scribner
Publication Date: In paperback March 2011

“Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend,” by James S. Hirsch

Here are three reasons to pick up a copy of Hirsch’s biography of the great Willie Mays, which was originally released in early 2010:

1. It’s now out in paperback, which means you won’t have to lug an anvil to the beach.

2. Last fall, the Giants won their first World Series title since Mays lead them to the title in 1954 — when they were known as the New York Giants.

3. It’s great.

“The Life of a Legend” is the first “authorized” biography of Mays, who is considered by many to be the best all-around baseball player in history. That means Mays gets half the proceeds. It also means Hirsch got unparalleled access, and his book contains tons of stories and insights that had never been made public before. Hirsch spent seven years convincing Mays to help him with the book. It was time well spent.

Author: Dan Barry
Publisher: Harper
Publication Date: April 2011

“Bottom of the 33rd,” by Dan Barry

Even casual Times readers are familiar with Dan Barry’s byline. After three years writing the “About New York” column, he’s now responsible for “This Land,” a series of touching off-the-beaten-track stories from around the country. A veteran of the Metro desk, Barry hasn’t covered sports much for the Times. It’s a shame.

“Bottom of the 33rd” is the story of the longest professional baseball game in history, a minor league contest that took place 30 years ago in Pawtucket, R.I. But it’s more than that, of course. The book reads like an epic Barry column — one killer detail after another for nearly 300 pages. It’s about the players on the field, some of whom went on to be stars. It’s about the few people left in the stands. It’s about the announcers and the town and the stadium, a sad sack of a thing built on a swamp. And it’s about baseball, meaningless and profound, in all its enduring glory.

A spoiler alert for Yankee fans: it’s about the Red Sox winning, too.

Max Linsky is the co-founder of Longform.org.

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