One-Minute Book Reviews

October 24, 2007

Winners on the Field, Losers in Hardcover — Why Are So Many Books by Star Athletes So Awful? Quote of the Day (Jane Leavy)

Why do so many bad books come from good athletes? Jane Leavy, left, a former sportswriter for the Washington Post, says:

“Sports autobiography is a peculiar genre: ghostwritten fiction masquerading as fact. In the literature of sports, truth has always been easier to tell in fiction – Peter Gent’s North Dallas Forty and Dan Jenkins’s Semi-Tough are among the best examples. It wasn’t until Jim Brosnan’s The Long Season and Jim Bouton’s Ball Four that a semirealistic view of the baseball locker room emerged between hard covers. The authorized life stories of America’s greatest athletes form an oeuvre of mythology. What are myths if not as-told-to stories?”

Jane Leavy in Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy (HarperCollins, 2002) Sandy Koufax, the great pitcher for the Dodgers, earned a second fame when he refused to pitch the opening game of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur. Far more than many contemporary stars, he is a worthy hero for young athletes, and Leavy’s book is a good starting point for teenagers and others who want to know more about him.

Leavy is right that sports memoirs are a cesspool of journalism. But the reasons for it are changing in the era of what Joyce Carol Oates has called “pathography,” or biography that focuses on the pathological. Mickey Mantle and other vanished titans might have nodded in their memoirs to old idea that hypocrisy is the compliment that vice pays to virtue. But more recent stars, like Lawrence Taylor and Dennis Rodman, have used their books to flaunt their vices until you might welcome a little hypocrisy. The fashionable theme in sports memoirs today is, “Yo, virtue! You’re history.”

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


  1. Simply put, the problem is that, for the most part, these are athletes, not scholars and/or writers. Many such books are rushed to the press to take advantage of their “flavor of the month” status. For example, autobiographies of Johnny Damon, a member of the 2004 Red Sox which won the World Series for the first time since 1918, and Lenny Dykstra, of the 1986 NY Mets, are just two ballplayers who published their “stories” hot on the heels of their teams’ accomplishments.

    In addition to Leavy’s book on Sandy Koufax, another good book — coincidentally about a Jewish baseball player — is Hank Greenberg’s autobio, written with NY Times’ columnist Ira Berkow.

    Ron Kaplan

    Comment by ronkaplan — October 25, 2007 @ 12:44 pm | Reply

  2. Ron is right about the rush to print. Another problem is that even if these athletes find good ghostwriters — as they often do — because they’re at the height of their fame, they’re so in demand that they don’t have time for the interviews a substantial book requires.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — October 25, 2007 @ 1:07 pm | Reply

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