Just as there are double plays in baseball, there are two ways to talk about sports in literature. One is to discuss sports fiction itself, and the other is to discuss non-sports fiction that includes some athlete characters. This post will do both — the blog equivalent of a two-point conversion in football?
Heck, I’ll also mention literature that’s not sports-oriented and doesn’t have athletes in the cast, yet mentions sports in other ways — for instance, via a character who’s a sports fan. So this post will actually be sort of like basketball’s triangle offense or a hockey player’s three-goal hat trick.
I think you get the idea why the metaphors I overdid in the above paragraphs are not an Olympic event… 🙂
Among the non-sports novels with athlete characters are Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (which includes former college basketball player Patty Berglund), John Irving’s The World According to Garp (wrestler T.S. Garp), F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (golfer Jordan Baker, inspired by real-life golfer Edith Cummings), and Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Played With Fire (boxer Paolo Roberto, based on real-life boxer…Paolo Roberto).
Football is the most popular pro sport in the U.S. while soccer (aka football) is the most popular elsewhere, but baseball novels often first come to mind when thinking about sports fiction. Some of the most famous titles in this category include Bernard Malamud’s The Natural (a very literary baseball book), Douglass Wallop’s The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant (turned into the Broadway play Damn Yankees), and W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe (turned into the movie Field of Dreams, minus the novel’s J.D. Salinger presence).
Kinsella’s baseball novels also include the offbeat Magic Time and The Iowa Baseball Confederacy.
Among other notable baseball titles: William Brashler’s The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings (starring a 1930s team of African-American players competing before Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s racist color barrier), Darryl Brock’s If I Never Get Back (time-travel plot with a Mark Twain appearance), John Grisham’s Calico Joe (good but not as much of a page-turner as the author’s legal thrillers), and E.R. Greenberg’s The Celebrant (Jewish fan admires and befriends New York Giants pitching legend Christy Mathewson).
In addition, there are many lesser-known baseball novels aimed at kids and teens. One of my favorites way back when was Dick Friendlich’s Relief Pitcher — about a Major League infielder who is injured by a showboating rookie teammate, goes to the minors, returns to the Majors as a pitcher for another team, and ultimately takes the mound to face the showboater at a crucial pennant-race moment.
Another memory from my youth is “The Mighty Casey” — a terrific Twilight Zone episode, starring a robot pitcher, that was adapted into a print tale for Rod Serling’s Stories From The Twilight Zone collection.
There are nowhere near as many football novels as baseball ones, but perhaps the most famous gridiron fiction is Peter Gent’s North Dallas Forty.
Why is some sports literature so riveting and popular? That kind of fiction is almost inherently dramatic — teams win or lose, underdogs sometimes triumph, egos clash, athletes do great or bumbling things, and those with mediocre talent might work hard enough to excel while those with immense talent might coast. Also, athletes flourish for a while and then fade because of age or injury — which can make for poignant scenarios.
Sports also get mentioned in literary works that are not really about sports and don’t have athlete protagonists. Zadie Smith’s On Beauty refers to a “cricket-club tie” worn by Monty Kipps that serves as another reminder of how that conservative academic possesses many more talents than his more liberal but equally annoying academic rival Howard Belsey. Don DeLillo’s Underworld recounts New York Giants third baseman Bobby Thomson’s famous 1951 home run — a real-life event that helps place part of that novel in a certain era and has an impact on the book’s plot and fictional characters. Also in the 1950s, young Irish woman Eilis Lacey experiences “America’s pastime” (like many recent immigrants did before) when accompanying her U.S. boyfriend to a Brooklyn Dodgers game in Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn.
What are your favorite literary works about sports, your favorite literary works that are mostly not about sports but have athlete characters, or your favorite literary works that just mention sports?
If you’d also like to mention your favorite nonfiction sports books, please do! Among mine are David Maraniss’s When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi (about the legendary Green Bay Packers football coach), Richard Ben Cramer’s Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life (which depicts the Yankee great as anything but great as a person), Jane Leavy’s Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy (about the iconic Dodgers pitcher), Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer (about the Dodgers when in Brooklyn), George Plimpton’s Paper Lion (in which the author “plays” quarterback for the Detroit Lions), and Jim Bouton’s Ball Four (one of the first books to depict — in an often humorous way — pro athletes as warts-and-all human beings rather than whitewashed, mythic figures).
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