Compiling a list of the 100 greatest non-fiction sports books ever written is no easy task. Deciding what to include and what to leave out has involved many hours of research, and countless changes of the order in which the final hundred are ranked. Unlike the Sports Illustrated list from 2002 and other US-based lists, our selection features a lot more UK and Irish writers, which is why football is the sport to feature most often.
Whether you agree or disagree with our list – and no doubt one or other of your favourites hasn’t made the cut – we are sure you will discover some gems here that you may not otherwise have come across.
100. The Austerity Olympics – Janie Hampton 🏅
The 1948 London Olympics were a world away from the heavily sponsored juggernaut that the modern Games have become. The ’48 Olympics were held in the shell of a bombed out London, and provided a balm to the world in the post-war years. Hampton takes us back to a simpler time when the Olympic spirit was more than just a slogan.
99. This is esports – Paul Chaloner 🎮
Esports is one of the fastest growing sports in the world, with ever increasing numbers of players and spectators. Chaloner proves to be a knowledgeable and entertaining guide to the world of electronic sports through the years.
98. Looking For a Fight – David Matthews 🥊
Finding it hard to crack the closed-off world of boxing, journalist David Matthews decides to try and get into good enough shape to have one pro fight himself. Despite being overweight and somewhat unhealthy, the 30-something writer enlists the help of trainers to try and pull off the impossible. This entertaining book tells the story of his journey.
97. How to Be a Footballer – Peter Crouch ⚽
England international Peter Crouch has always been an unorthodox player, and the man famous for his robot dance goal celebrations doesn’t take himself too seriously in this light-hearted autobiography. Crouch comes across as a likeable character, and his book is packed full of entertaining anecdotes.
96. Ali: A Life – Jonathan Eig 🥊
Some figures in sport lend themselves to the printed page, none more so than the great Muhammad Ali. Books about the legendary boxer feature no fewer than four times on this list, and Jonathan Eig’s exhaustive biography of the man certainly earns its place here. Interviews with more than 500 of Ali’s associates allow the author to paint a vivid picture of his subject.
95. The Hand of God: The Life of Diego Maradona – Jimmy Burns ⚽
If you are looking for a book to celebrate the life of the sadly-departed Diego Maradona then this is the gold standard. Burns used his knowledge of Argentina and access to Maradona’s inner circle to create a comprehensive picture of the life of one of football’s greatest superstars.
94. Inside Edge – Christine Brennan ⛸️
Christine Brennan takes us behind the glitz and glamour of ice-skating to explore the reality of life on the circuit. She looks at skaters from past and present, their backgrounds, and the dedication and sacrifice it takes to succeed at the highest level of the sport.
93. The Breaks of the Game – David Halberstam 🏀
This book follows the Portland Trailblazers over the course of the 1979-80 season in the NBA. However, rather than focusing entirely on one team, Halberstam looks at the history of the league as a whole and draws comparisons between professional basketball and American society and culture of the time.
92. My Losing Season – Pat Conroy 🏀
Pat Conroy’s memoir revolves around his final season as a college basketball player with The Citadel in the late ’60s. The story of his last year as a player in a hyper-macho environment is interspersed with flashbacks to his difficult upbringing as a child.
91. All Played Out (One Night in Turin) – Pete Davies ⚽
The Italia ’90 World Cup marked the point in time when England was starting to fall in love with football again, and the tournament is vividly captured in this book. Davies gets interviews with all the big names in the England set-up to create an entertaining time capsule of this memorable competition.
90. Among the Thugs – Bill Buford ⚽
American writer Bill Buford spent some time with various gangs of football hooligans in the early 1990s. His account of his experiences and the violence he experiences is shocking at times, but the writer admits that he finds something pleasurable about the lust for combat as he becomes drawn into that world.
89. The Great Romantic: Cricket and the Golden Age of Neville Cardus – Duncan Hamilton 🏏
Neville Cardus was a cricket journalist writing in the early part of the twentieth century, and his prose was of such an exalted standard that it changed the way people thought about sports writers. Duncan Hamilton has penned a biography which reveals the person behind the typewriter, while celebrating the work of one of the great British sports writers.
88. The Breath of Sadness – Ian Ridley 🏏
This is not always an easy book to read, and doubtless it was an extremely difficult one for football journalist Ian Ridley to write. After losing his wife to cancer, he deals with his grief by attending county cricket matches around the country, each of which brings back bitter-sweet memories of the times they spent together.
87. When the World Stops Watching – Damian Lawlor 🏅
Irish sports writer Damien Lawlor speaks to 14 retired athletes from different sports to see how they are coping after leaving the sports they have given so much to. Their stories vary from those who found the transition relatively easy, to others who have really struggled to let go of what has defined them for so long.
86. The Game of Our Lives: The Meaning and Making of English Football – David Goldblatt ⚽
One of many books on this list to have won the British Sports Book of the Year award, The Game of Our Lives looks at the place of football in English society. Goldblatt is the pre-eminent historian when it comes to the sport in Britain and this book deserves a place in the library of any thinking football fan.
85. Coming Back to Me: The Autobiography of Marcus Trescothick – Marcus Trescothick & Peter Hayter 🏏
Coming Back to Me is one of the few sporting autobiographies to have claimed the title of British Sports Book of the Year. Trescothick enjoyed a stellar career as an England international cricketer, but here he is open about the crippling depression which caused him to cut short that career.
84. Beyond a Boundary – C.L.R. James 🏏
Widely regarded as being one of the best books about cricket, Trinidadian writer James investigates the links between the game and society in the West Indies and the U.K. He argues that what happens within the boundaries of a cricket field influence society beyond, and vice-versa.
83. Out of Their League – Dave Meggyesy 🏈
Dave Meggyesy played linebacker for the St Louis Cardinals for much of the 1960s, and released this book a couple of years after he retired. Out of Their League covers controversial issues like racism, drug abuse and the extreme violence prevalent in the NFL in those years.
82. A Lot of Hard Yakka: Cricketing Life on the County Circuit – Simon Hughes 🏏
Before becoming a respected sports journalist, Simon Hughes spent 13 years as a county cricketer in England. This often hilarious autobiographical account of his time on the circuit reveals the distinctly unglamorous life of a poorly-paid player at county level.
81. Heaven is a Playground – Rick Telander 🏀
Written in 1976, Heaven is a Playground follows street basketball stars in Brooklyn. The playground can lead to the promised land of college basketball for some, while others remain stuck in the limbo of pick-up neighbourhood games.
80. The Unforgettable Season – G.H. Fleming ⚾
The season in question was the 1908 National League Baseball season, which went down to the wire with three teams in contention til the death. Fleming borrows liberally from newspaper reports of the time, whose florid styles add an element of unintentional humour to what is already an engrossing read.
79. Unbreakable – Richard Askwith 🏇
The sub-title ‘The Woman Who Defied the Nazis in the World’s Most Dangerous Horse Race’ tells you a lot of what you need to know about this book. This is an inspiring tale of the Czech Countess who refused to let poverty, Nazi occupation or gender discrimination get in the way of living out her dreams.
78. Living on the Volcano – Michael Calvin ⚽
Reading this book may make you think twice before hurling abuse at the manager of your favourite team. Calvin tracks more than 20 professional football managers as they try to steer their sides to success while dealing with the enormous pressures heaped on their shoulders. Arsene Wenger gave the book its title, comparing the manager’s lot to “living on a volcano: any day may be your last.”
77. Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success – Phil Jackson & Hugh Delehanty 🏀
Phil Jackson was one of the most successful coaches in the history of American sports, winning eleven titles with the Chicago Bulls and the L.A. Lakers. This book looks at the philosophy of his coaching methods, and the influences that shaped him over the course of his life.
76. Pocket Money – Gordon Burn 🔴
Snooker’s only appearance on the list of greatest sports books comes courtesy of award-winning novelist Gordon Burn. Snooker was booming by the mid-eighties, and Burns travelled with the snooker roadshow for a year, obtaining exclusive interviews with all the main players like Alex Higgins, Steve Davis and Jimmy White.
75. The Jordan Rules – Sam Smith 🏀
Fans of the excellent ‘The Last Dance‘ documentary series will be interested in the inside story of the Chicago Bulls first title season in 1990-91. Naturally, Michael Jordan is the star, but Smith interviewed his teammates and coaches too, to provide a fully-rounded account of that seminal season.
74. The Boys of Winter – Wayne Coffey 🏒
The Boys of Winter celebrates one of the most seismic American sporting triumphs of the 20th century. This is an account of the famous ‘Miracle on Ice’, when a bunch of scrappy blue-collar and mostly amateur American players took on and beat the hugely favoured Soviet ice hockey team in the final of the 1980 Winter Olympics.
73. The Last Shot – Darcy Frey 🏀
In tone and subject matter, The Last Shot is reminiscent of the award-winning Hoop Dreams documentary. Frey follows four neighbourhood ball players as they try to use their athletic ability to escape a life of poverty and deprivation and earn a priceless college scholarship.
72. Undisputed Truth – Mike Tyson & Larry Sloman 🥊
Mike Tyson transcended the sport of boxing to become a global superstar during his reign as heavyweight champion in the ’90s. This book takes a no-holds-barred look at the tumultuous ups and downs endured by Tyson, from childhood poverty to international fame.
71. Dust Bowl Girls – Lydia Reeder 🏀
In the midst of the Depression in the early 1930s, the players on a female college basketball team struggle to lift themselves out of the Dust Bowl through the sport. At a time when women’s sport was struggling for acceptance, this is a fascinating study of the lives of the women on the Oklahoma Presbyterian College team.
70. A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke – Ronald Reng ⚽
Author Ronald Reng has penned a heartfelt tribute to his friend, the professional goalkeeper Robert Enke, who sadly took his own life. Reng tries to unpick the reasons why someone who on the outside seemed to have it all would be driven to make such desperate decision.
69. Basil D’Oliveira: Cricket and Conspiracy: the Untold Story – Peter Oborne 🏏
Basil D’Oliveira was a black South African cricketer who defied the prejudices of his time to play for the England national team. This is a book which reads like a thriller rather than a biography, as it shines a light on the barriers and outright discrimination faced by people of colour in the 1960s and 70s.
68. Broken Dreams: Vanity, Greed and the Souring of British Football – Tom Bower ⚽
Tom Bower has written a number of exposés of public figures from different walks of life, and here he turns his attention to corruption in football. This is a book about the dark side of the beautiful game, where football is exploited for personal financial gain by powerful individuals within the sport.
67. In Black and White: The Untold Story of Joe Louis and Jesse Owens – Donald McRae 👟
Joe Louis and Jesse Owens are regarded as iconic figures in the history of American sports today, but Donald McRae sets out to discover more about the men rather that the myths. What he finds is that these great athletes suffered from the same human frailties and contradictions as anyone else.
66. The Ball is Round – David Goldblatt ⚽
In this book David Goldblatt presents a history of the world’s favourite game. Taking us back to the earliest incarnations of the game, he explores the great teams and players that have made football the most beloved sport on the planet. While on the one hand providing an education on the roots of the game, this is also a celebration of the sport at its finest.
65. King of the World – David Remnick 🥊
Another wonderful biography of the great Muhammad Ali, this time from Pulitzer Prize winning author David Remnick. King of the World paints a rich portrait of the man they called The Greatest, as well as the times in which he rose to glory.
64. A Social History of English Cricket – Derek Birley 🏏
Birley’s encyclopaedic tome covers the history of cricket from its modest beginnings to the global sport it has become. However, this is not a dry or boring work, but instead is entertaining and peppered with wit and humour as well as providing an education on the game.
63. Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times – Thomas Hauser 🥊
Muhammad Ali was such a momentous figure in the sporting landscape that he has proved to be a compelling subject for a number of excellent biographies. Here, Thomas Hauser has interviews more than 200 family members, friends, opponents and associates to provide a fully-rounded account of the life of the boxing icon.
62. The Sports Gene – David Epstein 🏅
This hugely influential work from David Epstein looks at the age old question of ‘nature versus nurture’ as it applies to the development of top-class athletes. Epstein examines the extent to which nationality, race and body type affect performance in different sports.
61. Into Thin Air – Jon Krakauer 🧗♀️
Climber Jon Krakauer was on an expedition to climb Mount Everest during an infamous disaster which took place in 1996. Fierce blizzards resulted in eight climbers losing their lives, and the author gives a first-hand account of his own experiences during what would become the deadliest ever season of climbing on the world’s highest peak.
60. Angry White Pyjamas: An Oxford Poet Trains with the Tokyo Riot Police – Robert Twigger 🥋
In an attempt to get fit for the first time in his life, Englishman Abroad Robert Twigger decides to take up martial arts in his temporary home of Japan. He embarks upon the brutal training regime required of the Tokyo Riot Police, and what results is an account not only of his experiences but of life in Japan as a whole.
59. Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life – William Finnegan 🏄♂️
This ode to surfing won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for biographies, as New Yorker writer William Finnegan shares his obsessive love of the sport. It’s not necessary to have any affinity with surfing to appreciate the captivating hold it has over the author from childhood to his later years.
58. Born to Run – Christopher McDougall 👟
One of the top-selling books on our list, Born to Run sees injury-prone runner McDougall set out to uncover the running secrets of the Tarahumara Indian tribe. This is an uplifting and inspiring tale, and one that will make you want to dig out your running shoes from the back of the closet.
57. Summer of ’49 – David Halberstam ⚾
Often sport can provide relief and escape from darker events, and so it proved when a nation turned its attention to baseball after the horrors of the second world war. This sepia-tinted account of the 1949 pennant race takes us back to a more innocent sporting era to provide a riveting account of that epic season.
56. Eight Men Out – Eliot Asinof ⚾
Eight Men Out deals with the famous Black Sox Scandal of 1919, when members of the Chicago White Sox were supposedly bribed to throw games in the World Series. While questions have been raised about points made by Asinof in his book since its publication in 1963, it remains a compelling piece of work.
55. Little Girls in Pretty Boxes – Joan Ryan ⛸️
Joan Ryan is a San Francisco-based sports reporter, who decided to challenge the way that top female Olympic figure skaters and gymnasts are trained. In her book, she argues that the intense training young girls are subjected to has a long-term negative impact upon their health, which shouldn’t be masked by the picture of poise and elegance that they put forward in competition.
54. A Season on the Brink – John Feinstein 🏀
Bob Knight is one of the most successful – and often controversial – coaches in the history of College Basketball. John Feinstein’s bestseller documents the 1985-86 season of the Indiana University team, complete with unprecedented access to their combustible coach.
53. Full Time: The Secret Life of Tony Cascarino – Paul Kimmage ⚽
Paul Kimmage is one of Ireland’s foremost sports writers, and in Tony Cascarino he found a subject worthy of his attention. Cascarino may have been a rough-and-tumble target man on the pitch, but off it Kimmage paints a picture of a complex and layered character.
52. Tom Simpson: Bird on the Wire – Andy McGrath 🚴♀️
Tom Simpson was a legendary figure in British cycling, but one who met an untimely death on a mountain stage in the 1967 Tour de France. Alcohol and drugs were later found in his system, and McGrath’s biography delves deep into the personality of a complex and layered man.
51. Night Games: Sex, Power and a Journey into the Dark Heart of Sport – Anna Krien 🏉
Night Games won both the Sports Book of the Year and the True Crime Book of the Year on its release in 2014. Anna Krien takes a look at the toxic culture which still exists in Australian Rules Football and follows a rape trial featuring high-profile players.
50. Doped: The Real Life Story of the 1960s Racehorse Doping Gang – Jamie Reid 🏇
Doped is a true story written in the form of a gripping thriller as it investigates one of British horse racing’s greatest scandals. Set in the 1950s and 60s, it follows the Flying Squad as they try to unravel the ring of corruption which involved the fixing of horse races at the time.
49. Unbroken – Laura Hillenbrand 👟
A monster best-seller which inspired a movie of the same name, Unbroken is the inspirational story of Olympic Athlete Louis Zamperini. As an airman in WW2 Zamperini was captured by the Japanese, and his experiences in a brutal prisoner of war camp are a tribute to his extraordinary powers of resilience.
48. Playing the Enemy – John Carlin 🏉
This was the book that inspired the Clint Eastwood-helmed movie Invictus. It is the story of how newly elected president Nelson Mandela brought the nation of South Africa together via the medium of rugby. A sport which was long-associated with the white supremacist regimes in the country became a unifying force as South Africa hosted the 1995 Rugby World Cup.
47. Football in Sun and Shadow – Eduardo Galeano ⚽
This book traverses the globe to tell the story of football in a witty and entertaining manner, from China to England to South America and beyond. Many of the game’s big names make an appearance on these pages, alongside stories of heartache and joy connected to the global game.
46. Proud – Gareth Thomas & Michael Calvin 🏉
Rugby has traditionally been known for its macho – if not masochistic – culture, which is why the decision of Gareth Thomas to come out as a gay man made an impact beyond the sporting arena. The Welsh star became the most high-profile gay sportsman in the world, and this is the story of his life before and after opening up about his sexuality.
45. The Summer Game – Roger Angell ⚾
Considered by many to be the greatest ever baseball writer, this is a collection of essays by Roger Angell in the ’60s and early ’70s on the subject of all things baseball related. This beautifully written book harkens back to a glorious era for the sport when baseball truly was America’s Game.
44. Loose Balls – Terry Pluto 🏀
The American Basketball Association was a short-lived professional league which lasted from 1967 to ’76. In Loose Balls, Terry Pluto provides a platform for players, coaches, execs and journalists to recount their own experiences in the league. This is a funny and often eyebrow-raising insight into the league from those who knew it best.
43. Keane: The Autobiography – Eamon Dunphy ⚽
The collaboration between two of Irish football’s most controversial characters was never going to make for a dull read, and so it proved. In fact, Keane may have regretted just how honest this biography turned out, since his revelations about the infamous challenge on Alfe Inge Haaland would lead to a suspension from the game.
42. A Boy in The Water – Tom Gregory 🏊♂️
At the age of just 11, Tony Gregory became the youngest person ever to swim the English Channel. This book is the story of how he achieved that agonisingly difficult feat, as well as the maverick and somewhat eccentric coach who motivated him to take on the challenge.
41. The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France – Tyler Hamilton & Daniel Coyle 🚴♀️
Lance Armstrong’s book It’s Not About the Bike does not make this list, mainly because a lot of passages were found to be false following his admission of doping. He does feature prominently here though, in this tell-all autobiography from another cyclist who was found to have taken performance-enhancing drugs during his career.
40. Beware of the Dog: Rugby’s Hard Man Reveals All – Brian Moore 🏉
Too many rugby autobiographies are tedious affairs, unwilling to reveal too much, but this is definitely an exception to that rule. The man known as ‘Pitbull’ during his playing days gives a searingly honest account of life in the rugby trenches as well as opening up about his unconventional off-field pursuits.
39. Harold Larwood – Duncan Hamilton 🏏
Harold Larwood is an English cricketing legend, most famous for the ‘bodyline’ style of bowling he employed in the 1932-33 Ashes tour in Australia. With access to documents supplied by the Larwood family, Duncan Hamilton has written the definite biography of the great fast-bowler.
38. Wonder Girl – Don Van Natta Jr. 🏌️♂️
Female athletes are often under-represented in sporting literature, so it is a pleasure to discover this hugely entertaining biography of a little-known legend of women’s sport. Babe Didrikson was an Olympic medallist, a college basketball star and a supreme golfer, and this rollicking read takes us through her life and career.
37. Four Kings – George Kimball 🥊
The Four Kings of the Ring referred to in the title of this book are the legendary boxers Roberto Duran, Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler and Tommy Hearns. The fights between the four in the eighties reignited interest in the sport around the world, and award-winning boxing journalist George Kimball has crafted a remarkable book which documents those clashes.
36. Levels of the Game – John McPhee 🎾
This book takes the U.S. Open semi-final match between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner as its centrepiece, but is about much more than tennis. McPhee uses the clash between tennis players from different backgrounds and with opposing world views to look at society in general in 1960s America.
35. Four Iron in the Soul – Laurence Donegan 🏌️♂️
One of the funniest books on our list sees young journalist Laurence Donegan act as caddy for pro golfer Ross Drummond for a summer. In getting behind the ropes and onto the course, Donegan is able to impart to the reader a humorous tale of life on the professional golf circuit.
34. The Bad Guys Won – Jeff Pearlman ⚾
Back in the mid-eighties the New York Mets enjoyed a rare period of dominance over their pin-striped neighbours, the Yankees. As successful as they were on the field, they were equally raucous and ill-disciplined off it, and this often laugh-out-loud account of their various misdemeanours makes for a cracking read.
33. The Rodchenkov Affair: How I Brought Down Russia’s Secret Doping Empire – Grigory Rodchenkov 👟
Some readers will no doubt quibble about this books appearance on our list. After all, Rodchenkov was heavily involved in the state-sponsored doping plan before he turned whistle-blower. However, this Sports Book of the Year winner (2020) is well put together and played a role in bringing down Russia’s carefully constructed system of illegal substance use in sports.
32. The Lost Soul of Eamonn Magee – Paul D. Gibson 🥊
The sport of boxing is filled with tales of struggles against the odds, and Eamonn Magee’s achievement in claiming a world title against a backdrop of drugs, alcohol, gambling and violence is up there with any of them. Magee comes across as a dark and troubled soul and this is an unflinching look at a boxer you may come to admire rather than like.
31. The Game – Ken Dryden 🏒
Called the best book about ice hockey ever written, this is an autobiographical account of the life of an NHL goal-tender, on and off the ice. Ken Dryden played for the successful Montreal Canadiens team, and here he describes the pressures of playing at the highest level during the 1978-79 season.
30. The Boys of Summer – Roger Kahn ⚾
Roger Kahn’s book about the Brooklyn Dodgers is at heart a love letter to the sport of baseball. Written in 1972, Kahn evokes images of a sport which no longer exists in the same way in the modern era. While sometimes accused of over-sentimentality towards its subject, this is still rightly regarded as one of the best books ever written about baseball.
29. The Boys in the Boat – Daniel James Brown 🚣♂️
This ‘non-fiction novel’ is an account of the U.S. rowing team’s attempt to win gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Against a background of social unrest and the rise of the Nazi party, we learn about this disparate group of rowers who came from humble origins in Depression-era America to try to achieve their Olympic dreams.
28. Touching the Void – Joe Simpson 🧗♀️
The tale recounted in Touching the Void is one of the most astonishing examples of survival against the odds you will ever read. Joe Simpson’s account of his near-death experience when attempting to climb the west face of Siula Grande in the Andes is hair-raising stuff.
27. Back from the Brink – Paul McGrath & Vincent Hogan ⚽
A fearlessly honest autobiography from one of Ireland’s most beloved sports stars. McGrath doesn’t spare himself in his accounts of his battles with alcohol, which often led to a chaotic and out-of-control life. Footballing highlights are intercut with booze-sodden lows in this brutally candid recounting.
26. Football Against the Enemy – Simon Kuper ⚽
The ‘enemy’ described in this book takes on many forms, not least the racism and corruption which still infiltrates the beautiful game. Kuper travelled the world to write this award-winning book, uncovering how the game is viewed in different continents, and the way in which football can act as a proxy for war between antagonistic rivals.
25. True Blue: The Oxford Boat Race Mutiny – Dan Topolski & Patrick Robinson 🚣♂️
Described by rower Martin Cross as ‘one of the most entertaining sports books ever written’, this tells the story of the ‘mutiny’ of five members of the Oxford rowing crew in 1987. Toploski was the coach at the time, and is scathing in his account of the actions of those mutineers.
24. Brilliant Orange – David Winner ⚽
David Winner looks back over decades of Dutch football since the 1960s to examine just why this small nation has made such a large impression on the footballing world. He provides pen-portraits of famous Dutch players and teams over the years, as well as delving into Dutch society and culture as a whole.
23. Inverting the Pyramid – Jonathan Wilson ⚽
If you are only going to read one book on the history of tactics in football, then look no further than Jonathan Wilson’s classic. Going back to the earliest days of association football, he investigates how different nations have added to the game, and discovers just how tactical thinking has evolved over the decades.
22. Dark Trade: Lost in Boxing – Donald McRae 🥊
Donald McRae is one of the foremost boxing writers in Britain, and in this book he explores what it is which compels people to fight. The book is based on five years of interviewing top boxing professionals in the early 2000s, and allows us to peer into the dark heart of this most violent of sports.
21. The Fight – Norman Mailer 🥊
The ‘fight’ in the title is of course the momentous clash between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali which took place in Zaire – what became known as the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’. Mailer inserts himself into the narrative as he visits the fighters in training camps and attends the fight, allowing the reader to get a visceral sense of exactly what happened leading up to the big fight.
20. Addicted – Tony Adams & Ian Ridley ⚽
An antidote to the scores of bland footballing autobiographies released every year, ‘Addicted’ is a first hand account of the turmoils faced by one of England’s greatest players over the course of a career almost derailed by alcohol. Like Paul McGrath’s tome, there is nothing sentimental or self-aggrandising in Adams’ story.
19. The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game – Michael Lewis 🏈
The first of two books by American author Michael Lewis, The Blind Side features two main storylines. In one, Lewis examines how American Football tactics have evolved over the years, ever since the arrival to the game of Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor. The second story is that of Michael Oher, and his journey from childhood poverty to becoming a star college athlete.
18. Best American Sports Writing – Various 🏅
The Best American Sports Writing anthologies have been printed every year since 1991, featuring the best magazine articles from a who’s-who of American sports journalists. A must-read for any hard-core sports fan, as every edition always throws up some superb pieces. The 2020 edition is the 30th and final edition, and a fitting end to a wonderful series of books.
17. Tiger Woods – Jeff Benedict & Armen Keteyian 🏌️♂️
This New York Times best-seller focuses on the man rather than the myth of the world’s most famous golfer. The unauthorised biography provides a warts-and-all look at the personality and character flaws which defined Tiger Woods on and off the course.
16. The Miracle of Castel di Sangro – Joe McGinnis ⚽
Anyone yet to discover this gem of a book is in for a real treat. Best-selling American author McGinnis became captivated by the sport of soccer, and more specifically, by the remarkable rise of the obscure team of Castel di Sangro to Serie B in Italy. For a town of just 5,000 to reach such heights was rare indeed, and McGinnis has fashioned a loving snapshot of the time he spent there in the mid-1990s.
15. Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson – Geoffrey Ward 🥊
Boxing provides a rich source of material for sporting biographies, and Unforgivable Blackness is one of the best of the genre. Jack Johnson defied the racial prejudices of his time to become world champion, despite a system and much of the public willing him to fail.
14. A Good Walk Spoiled: Days and Nights on the PGA Tour – John Feinstein 🏌️♂️
This is a book about golf that takes into the locker rooms and the minds of the worlds top golfers. Feinstein trailed some of the globes best players during the PGA Tour in the early 90s, and in doing so revealed a vision of the golfing world which had never been brought to light before.
13. The Damned United – David Peace ⚽
A ‘fictionalised’ account of Brian Clough’s brief tenure as Leeds United manager in the 1970s, ‘The Damned United’ provoked some controversy upon publication due to blurring between fact and fiction, but also earned deserved critical and public approval. Although not strictly a factual history of events, the book is beautifully written and evocative of the times.
12. My Father and Other Working Class Heroes – Gary Imlach ⚽
TV sports presenter Gary Imlach has written a beautiful and occasionally heart-breaking tribute to his footballing father Stewart. We are taken back to a time when professional footballers earned less than factory workers as we learn about the ups and downs of Imlach Senior’s pro career in 1950s England.
11. Provided You Don’t Kiss Me: 20 Years with Brian Clough – Duncan Hamilton ⚽
Another book featuring Brian Clough – one of English football’s greatest ever characters – makes it to number eleven in our list. Duncan Hamilton was a local sports reporter in Nottingham during Forest’s glory years, and was able to gain fantastic access to the team and its iconoclastic manager, making this a loving and intimate portrait of the great man.
10. Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game – Michael Lewis ⚾
Published in 2004, Moneyball follows the Oakland A’s baseball team and their analytical approach to building a winning team, despite being at a financial disadvantage to their rivals. Lewis turns potentially dull subject matter into an engrossing read, and a movie based on the book starring Brad Pitt was released in 2011 to much acclaim.
9. Ball Four – Jim Bouton ⚾
Ball Four was one of the first sports books to give an honest, warts-and-all, account of life as a professional athlete. In fact, it was such a revealing glimpse into the world of Major League Baseball that it caused some upset among his fellow players and Bouton became something of a pariah within the sport for a period.
8. Only a Game? – Eamon Dunphy ⚽
Millwall footballer Eamon Dunphy’s diary about life as a journeyman pro in the lower leagues owes a debt to Bouton’s book from a couple of years earlier. Dunphy doesn’t pull his punches, and paints a distinctly unglamorous picture of life as a footballer in the 1970s.
7. A Rough Ride – Paul Kimmage 🚴♂️
Paul Kimmage was a domestique over the course of his relatively low-key pro cycling career, but has since become an internationally renowned journalist. Rough Ride lifted the lid on doping within the pelaton, and the journal format used here makes this a page-turner.
6. Paper Lion – George Plimpton 🏈
Ever wondered whether you could hack it as a professional athlete? In 1963 journalist George Plimpton took part in the Detroit Lions preseason training as a (complete) novice quarterback. In this often hilarious book he recounts his experiences as he tries to get to grips with the rigours of life in the big leagues.
5. Open – Andre Agassi 🎾
From his difficult childhood to hair loss and drug use, Agassi is indeed Open in this candid and revealing memoir. Probably the best sporting autobiography ever written, Open is a riveting read from start to finish, encompassing one of the great tennis careers in the process.
4. Seabiscuit: An American Legend – Laura Hillenbrand 🏇
Laura Hillenbrand takes us back to a time – America in the 1930s – when a racehorse could be the darling of the masses. Seabiscuit’s was the classic underdog story writ large, as an unlikely group of men set the thoroughbred on the path to fame and glory. It may be a non-fiction book, but in Hillenbrand’s hands this reads like a blockbusting novel.
3. Friday Night Lights – Buzz Bissinger 🏈
Bissinger’s superb work follows the Permian High School football team from Odessa, Texas in their pursuit of the state championship. By the end of the book not only will you find yourself rooting for the team, but also the players we encounter along the way. The residents of Odessa were less pleased with Friday Night Lights, however, as it casts the town in quite a negative light.
2. Fever Pitch – Nick Hornby ⚽
Hornby’s book about his life-long love affair with Arsenal became the template for a new style of fan-centred sports writing. It is a style that has been copied often, without ever being bettered. Arsenal’s long-awaited title win in 1989 forms the centrepiece of this autobiographical tale, told with great humour, wit and no little emotion.
1. The Sweet Science – A.J. Liebling 🥊
Our choice for the greatest sports book of all time goes to The Sweet Science, a collection of essays from the great New Yorker scribe, A.J. Liebling. Written in the 1950s, this book takes us back to an age that no longer exists, stories of boxing wise-guys and hard-men against a backdrop of grubby gyms and dive bars. This is an ageless book, which can be read and re-read countless times, and is a must for lovers of sports in general and boxing in particular.
Here are some Fun Facts about our list of the Top Sports Books:
- Biggest selling sports books: Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand is the top selling sports book, having sold 4 million copies to date. Born to Run has sold more than 3 million, Into Thin Air is next with 2.56 million, followed by Seabiscuit with 2.5 million. Both the John Feinstein books on this list (A Season on the Brink and A Good Walk Spoiled) have sold over 2 million copies, while Moneyball sold in excess of 1.7 million.
- Sports appearing most frequently: Football – 23 entries; Boxing – 12; Basketball – 9.
- Athlete featured most often: Muhammad Ali, in books by Thomas Hauer, Jonathan Eig, Norman Mailer and David Remnick.
- Sports books which have been made into movies: 13. (Unbroken; Seabiscuit; Moneyball; Paper Lion; Heaven is a Playground; Friday Night Lights; Playing the Enemy (Invictus); The Damned United; Fever Pitch; Eight Men Out; True Blue; A Season on the Brink; The Blind Side.) As you will discover, many of these feature on our list of the 100 Best Sports Movies.
- Authors to feature more than once: Laura Hillenbrand, Donald McRae, Eamon Dunphy, Duncan Hamilton, Michael Calvin, Ian Ridley, Paul Kimmage, John Feinstein, Michael Lewis and David Halberstam all wrote two books which appear on our list.
There are no bad books on this list, and what’s more, there are plenty of excellent sports books out there which didn’t quite make the cut.
Chances are that you don’t agree entirely with our list, but we hope that at least you will have discovered some new ideas for the next time you are looking for a good read.
*Having read around 30 of these books personally, I took advice from friends and colleagues about which titles should make the top 100. I also used lists from the following sources as a guide to the best sports books out there.
- The 35 Best Sports Books Ever Written – Esquire Magazine
- The 64 Best Sports Books of All Time – Mens Journal
- The 10 Best Sports Books – The Independent
- The Top 10 Sports Books – The Guardian
- Sports Book of the Year Awards List – Wikipedia
- The Top 100 Sports Books of All Time – S.I.
- The 10 Greatest Sports Books Ever Written – Bleacher Report
- The 50 Best Sports Books Ever Written – The Telegraph