Smile Politely

Summer Reading for Sports Enthusiasts

I’ve long debated an angle for my next Cardinals-related column. While the acquisitions of C.C. Sabathia by the Brewers and Rich Harden by the Cubs could provide an opportunity to express a desire for the Cardinals to pick up a shut-’em-down reliever and big bat, I’ll take a pass this week. I’ll even avoid talking about the implosion of Mark Mulder’s shoulder, yet again, and the surprise promotion of one of St. Louis’ prized pitching prospects, Jamie Garcia. For by this time next week I’ll have a better read on all of the above.

In the meantime, there are always books to read while wasting away warm summer afternoons. So, let’s discuss some you may have a hard time putting down.

ROAD SWING, by Steve Rushin

The concept is simple enough: A man drives a car around the country, stopping every so often to embrace a piece of sporting culture. The execution is exemplary: Steve Rushin has an encyclopedic knowledge of sports and a way with words when it comes to making the mundane (the Bowling Hall of Fame) seem just as engaging as the insane (stalking Larry Bird in French Lick, Ind.). Rushin’s cross-country trip, which happened in parts of 1997 and 1998, is the sporting equivalent of Travels with Charley, minus the pooch and the camper. He checks in with luminaries like the Vols’ Peyton Manning, visits the disgraceful resting site of Jim Thorpe, pokes fun at plenty of names (from towns to teams to people), and advises us to steer clear of the concession stands at the since-demolished Kingdome. While Rushin’s wit at times breathes heavy, his narrative is entertaining for the sporting sorts who think of summer and long for a road trip.

A WALK IN THE WOODS, by Bill Bryson

Speaking of travelogues, if you haven’t strolled through the Appalachians with Bill Bryson yet, you best get busy. Bryson’s humorous diary of his attempt to hike The Trail in the late 1990s with an overweight, often-unbearable companion (again, not a dog) is surely one of the more enjoyable odes to American wilderness penned since Thoreau’s Walden. While not quite so philosophical as Thoreau, Bryson’s walk in the woods is still Green before Gore, an environmentalist’s lament about the disappearing beauty and disparaging health of the American landscape. Yet the book also manages to interject more than its fair share of humor, such as Bryson’s ongoing paranoia of being killed by bear, blizzard or redneck.

EVERYTHING THEY HAD, by David Halberstam

Those looking for a quick and easy introduction to Halberstam’s sports writing can pick up a copy of this career-spanning collection of his shorter works. The passing of the legendary journalist in early 2007 sadly sparked this chronicle, which dabbles in a disparate array of subjects: rowing at Harvard, horse betting in Warsaw, dinner with Teddy Ballgame, a mid-’70s eulogy to the NFL and talk of fishing. While collectively these works reveal the craftsman and superb judge of character that Halberstam was, this book serves merely as a primer to his many authored books. Of the sports variety, I love October 1964 personal reasons, and consider The Breaks of the Game possibly his best effort.

THE BLIND SIDE, Michael Lewis

If you loved Lewis’ Moneyball and are wondering if his follow-up is worth the dime, I’ll assure you it’s even better than its predecessor. Where Moneyball tackles the economics of building a baseball team, The Blind Side looks at the evolving landscape of professional football through the odd story of Michael Oher, a giant of a kid from the poorest community in Memphis. Remarkably, Oher, a 16 year-old black boy, is scooped up by a loving, loaded, white family and given a fresh slate in high school. His challenge to rebuild himself as a menacing left tackle and a competent student is at the core of Lewis’ narrative, which touches upon issues of college recruiting, the NCAA’s meddling, Christianity, our educational system, racial lines and, of course, tossing around the old pigskin. Read it this summer as a superb primer for the upcoming football season, and then tell all your friends you knew about Michael Oher before he was a first-round NFL draft pick.


We close with yet another travelogue of sorts. This book, which I edited, chronicles one man’s quest to chase despair from his life via a coast-to-coast bicycle ride. Bill Hancock, then the head of the NCAA men’s Final Four, lost his son in an airplane accident. The toll weighed on him for weeks, sending the instantly likeable and often chipper chairperson spiraling into a depression. His answer was to dare himself to a feat even he didn’t think doable — to bike from the Californian coast to Georgia’s ocean shore. The relatively untrained cyclist drew a line across America where her hips are skinniest and set off on the 2,700-plus mile journey. By the time he had dipped his front wheel in the Atlantic, Hancock had cleansed his lungs with the fresh air of America’s back roads, met more than a few unfriendly dogs and drivers, discovered yet even more kindly folks and made peace with the passing of his son. His story is spiritual but not heavy-handed, entertaining and at times riveting, much like the country he traversed.

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