Any list of favorite American novels is, of course, purely subjective. A list of books about sports is even more so. You start with your feelings about each sport, and in my case that means excluding works of merit about sports that don’t interest me. I’m told there are some excellent novels about football (by Peter Gent, Dan Jenkins and others), but I don’t care much about the sport and have never read one of these novels. The same is true of hockey and tennis. I don’t know of a good novel about basketball, a sport that I do love, and will never be convinced that golf is a sport. So here is my list, with all the usual apologies to works of equal value.
The Professional by W.C. Heinz
This is one of the finest novels about the blood sport of boxing. Heinz was a superb journalist, but in this novel he moves beyond journalism to some deeper understanding of the prizefighter: the loneliness, dignity and grace of the true professional.
The Circle Home by Edward Hoagland
This unjustly neglected novel captures the texture, odor, sound and language of the world of boxing in a way that no other novel does. That includes the novel by Heinz. Above all, it is a sad grieving study of failed ambition.
The Kid from Tompkinsville by John R. Tunis
This is a book for kids, but it transcends the genre while capturing the innocence of baseball in an era when even Ted Williams was called The Kid. One thing that strikes me about this short novel: Virtually every sportswriter I know remembers reading it as a boy.
You Know Me Al by Ring Lardner
This is really a collection of short stories, of course, connected by Lardner’s great skills and superb ear. But it is at once affectionate and subversive. Lardner was a great American writer and this collection — along with the short story “Champion” — shows why.
Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella
Another superb novel about baseball, in the era of the Black Sox scandals. Again, it reflects the traditional American literary theme of lost innocence. But it is, before anything else, a true novel, with a fierce narrative drive, rounded human characters, the shape of myth and a continual sense of surprise.