Popular Sports Books by Jewish Authors

Popular Sports Books by Jewish Authors

Atlanta Jewish Times featured sportswriter recommends a selection of sports-themed books written by Jewish authors.

Chanukah is right around the corner, so gift giving is likely at the top of mind for many AJT readers. Read on to find a selection of sports-themed books written by Jewish authors that could make for great gifts this season for the sports enthusiast in your family.

Baseball’s Best Ever: A Half Century of Covering Hall of Famers
By Ira Berkow (Publisher: Sports Publishing)
“Big-league baseball is subtle; cloaked in summer languor, moving with the slow, supple grace of a ballerina practicing backstage, yet taut and technical in its skills. To view a baseball game and appreciate it takes concentration.”

And thus begins Ira Berkow’s “Baseball’s Best Ever: A Half Century of Covering Hall of Famers,” a collection of articles and feature stories by the longtime New York Times sports columnist and former Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. “In Baseball’s Best Ever,” Berkow, however, does more than wax poetic about America’s pastime. The legacy sportswriter provides readers with some of his most memorable baseball articles that graced the pages of the national feature syndicate Newspaper Enterprise Association and, later, The New York Times.

That the stories actually encompass more than a half century of spectatorship (1967 to 2022) means readers of multiple generations can relate to the tales. While Berkow includes stories on long-deceased Hall of Famers (there are several pieces on Ted Williams, including one about his favorite passion—fishing), he doesn’t overlook the modern-day legacy players such as Derek Jeter, Frank Thomas, Mariano Rivera, Greg Maddux, and Cal Ripken Jr., to name a few.

“Baseball’s Best Ever” is not for stat-obsessed fans looking for more insight into the profound impact data analytics has had on the sport. There is relatively little space devoted to chronicling statistical achievements. Rather, Berkow, a master in narrative nonfiction, has selected columns that bring to life his morally complex characters, who, for better or worse in some cases, have left their imprint on mainstream culture.

Readers are reminded of how slugger Frank Thomas wasn’t satisfied making $7 million per year for the Chicago White Sox while his contemporary and divisional opponent, Kirby Puckett of the Minnesota Twins, graciously accepted that his team-friendly contract was never commensurate with his tremendous production. Did you know that Hall of Fame catcher Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez was called up to the big leagues on the day he was supposed to get married and had to postpone the wedding? You will after reading Berkow’s latest book, the 26th of his prolific writing career.

As a decades-long scribe for the Times and current NYC resident, Berkow may be a New Yorker through and through, but his latest book covers all corners of America with colorful vignettes on dozens of Hall of Famers, including the likes of Harmon Killebrew, Al Kaline, Rod Carew, Nolan Ryan, and Johnny Bench. Of course, Berkow also pays homage to the recently departed Hank Aaron and Phil Niekro by inserting past feature stories on their respective careers. Clearly, Berkow has gone to his fair share of Cooperstown Induction Weekends as he shares many anecdotes on being around the game’s titanic figures.

For a sport that is evolving fast—next summer we can no longer say “there’s no clock in baseball” —”Baseball’s Best Ever” provides a sweet look-back at how the national pastime continued to captivate America through decades of war, political turmoil, economic uncertainty, and natural disasters.

The Last Folk Hero: The Life and Myth of Bo Jackson
By Jeff Pearlman (Publisher: Mariner Books)
Jeff Pearlman, the author of “Showtime,” the genesis for HBO’s show, ‘Winning Time’ on the 1980s Lakers dynasty, conducted over 700 interviews for his latest work, “The Last Folk Hero: The Life and Myth of Bo Jackson.” Indeed, readers of this wildly entertaining Bo Jackson biography will be thankful that The New York Times bestselling author conducted such dogged research, as is his wont.

The Last Folk Hero: The Life and Myth of Bo Jackson By Jeff Pearlman (Publisher: Mariner Books)

For all of Jackson’s otherworldly athletic exploits—and there were quite a few for the Auburn Tigers, Kansas City Royals, Chicago White Sox, and Los Angeles Raiders—his multi-sport career was truncated early due to a devastating hip injury incurred during a January 1991 AFC divisional playoff game against the Cincinnati Bengals. Such transient professional stardom, according to Pearlman, accounts for many a sport historian and fan overlooking his immense impact on the playing fields. But it is important they don’t. In fact, there is a compelling case to be made that Jackson, an NFL Pro Bowler, MLB All-Star, Heisman Trophy winner, and high school track and field legend, is the greatest athlete who ever roamed the Earth. Put another way, who else could leap over a parked Volkswagen and run a 4.13 second, 40-yard dash?

Though Jackson was a superhero streaking across the landscape of American sports and popular culture as the first athlete to concurrently star in two major American pro sports leagues, relatively little of his private life was ever chronicled. Further complicating matters, because he assumed this larger-than-life Paul Bunyan persona, there’s an untold number of tall tales about Bo Jackson (Pearlman confirms some while debunking others), including the story that during the 1991 flight that nearly killed every member of the Chicago White Sox, he was in the cockpit trying to help land the aircraft safely. A “folk hero” indeed.

Pearlman, a former Sports Illustrated scribe hailed as a “master storyteller” by NPR.org, also gets waist-deep into the significant challenges Jackson endured growing up in an impoverished, single-parent Alabama household. While nearly everything on the athletic fields was a breeze, the same couldn’t be said for the classroom, where Jackson struggled with a stutter that was largely ignored by teachers. Years later, as an undergrad at Auburn University, Jackson faced intense racism from coaches and fellow students—even while he was establishing himself as arguably the school’s most accomplished athlete. And then as a budding two-sport professional, Bo was often ridiculed by journalists and fans alike who thought a dual MLB and NFL career was merely a fantasy.

For younger readers who never saw Jackson bolt across the gridiron or scale outfield fences, “The Last Folk Hero” is an important sports biography that pays homage to a former celebrity athlete who, since retiring from the California Angels after the 1994 season, has largely eschewed public attention. Meanwhile, even the most diehard Bo Jackson fans will learn new things about the book’s mythical subject — who knew Jackson had a bit part as a prison guard in the 1994 flick “The Chamber”? — after reading over 400 pages of endlessly fascinating anecdotes.

Path Lit by Lightning: The Life of Jim Thorpe
By David Maraniss (Publisher: Simon & Schuster)
David Maraniss, associate editor at The Washington Post, has authored some magnificent biographies, most notably those of Bill Clinton, Vince Lombardi, and Roberto Clemente. His latest biographical masterpiece, “Path Lit by Lightning: The Life of Jim Thorpe,” recounts the heroic, and at times tragic, story of an American icon often criminally overlooked in the annals of sports history.

Path Lit by Lightning: The Life of Jim Thorpe By David Maraniss (Publisher: Simon & Schuster)

Born in 1887, in the Indian Territory of what later became Oklahoma, Thorpe emerged as the world’s most versatile athlete by earning gold medals in the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics; becoming an All-American football player at the Carlisle Indian School en route to headlining the first class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame; and playing in the major leagues for John McGraw’s New York Giants. For good measure, he was also a supremely talented ballroom dancer, swimmer, and ice skater.

Yet, as Maraniss deftly illustrates in this exhaustively researched tome, Thorpe’s life wasn’t only one marked by glory and adulation. His twin brother, Charlie, died of typhoid at age nine. As a proud member of the Sac and Fox nation, Thorpe was, for many years as a student at Carlisle, the victim of the racist assimilationist ideology, “Kill the Indian, save the man.”

Later, as a young man, he was eventually stripped of the aforementioned Olympic gold medals when it was revealed that he had competed in the Olympics while playing minor league baseball; his longtime Carlisle football coach, the legendary Pop Warner, notoriously refused to come to his defense. In Thorpe’s day, star athletes did not make a fortune and he was certainly no exception. In his later years, Thorpe was at times destitute while battling alcoholism and going through failed marriages before ultimately succumbing to a heart attack at the age of 64 in his trailer home in Lomita, Calif.

Maraniss’s masterful storytelling skills not only manifest themselves in his riveting descriptions of Thorpe’s athletic feats, whether they be on the gridiron, ballfield, or track, but also in his vivid account of the federal government forcefully relocating members of the Sac and Fox community to accommodate the white Oklahoma frontiersmen’s insatiable quest for geographical expansion. Even though Thorpe entered adulthood over a century ago, Maraniss unearthed never-before-seen primary sources to poignantly chronicle the injustices faced by Thorpe and his people.

Undoubtedly, “Path Lit by Lightning” highlights some uncomfortable truths about turn-of-the-century America, particularly in the section on Thorpe’s stay at the Carlisle Indian School, where, according to Maraniss, “the focus was more on forced acculturation than on education and the methods were crude, cruel, and dehumanizing.”

Because it tackles such a wide range of weighty subjects, “Path Lit by Lightning” is not a sports biography in the traditional sense. Surely, it contains an in-depth narrative detailing Thorpe’s unparalleled athleticism but perhaps more importantly, a brutally honest account of how a coming-of-age America was often much less noble than the book’s protagonist.

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