Why are there no great basketball books? Why are the best sports books usually about baseball, boxing, and golf?
Why did Barry Sanders really retire?
The first two are questions I think about, and the third would make the topic of a good book (a tome has yet to be written about Barry Sanders and the Wayne Fontes-era Lions — maybe it could be called “Barry & Cocaine Wayne: The Near-Triumph and Many Playoff Disappointments of Lions Football in the 1990s”).
But I digress. The purpose of this blog post is to lay out my choice for the 12 best books ever written about Detroit sports. It was going to be ten, and then I couldn’t bring myself to cut a few of my favorites.
Print this list and start reading them now. Trust me.
Sock It To ‘Em, Tigers by Mark Pattison, Dave Raglin
Many folks around Detroit still consider the summer of 1968 to be the mos thrilling in the history of the city. Less than a year removed from the riots that split Detroit at the seams, the Tigers captured the attention of fans and healed the city. It didn’t matter if you were black or white, young or old, living in the suburbs or the inner city, in ’68 you were captivated by the come-from-behind wins of the Tigers. In Sock It To ‘Em, Tigers several members of SABR (Society for American Baseball Research) turn their pens toward the ’68 champions, producing short but detailed biographies of every man on the roster and the coaching staff. There’s even biographies of Ernie Harwell and members of the front office. You may know all you think there is to know about Willie Horton and Al Kaline, but how much do you know about Joe Sparma and Jon Warden? This book will bring you back to that amazing season.
Gordie: A Hockey Legend by Roy MacSkimming
MacSkimming has written the best book about Mr. Hockey, a fantastic biography that traces Howe’s career from his childhood spent skating on ponds in Canada to his emergence as the toughest and greatest player in the National Hockey League.
Sleeper Cars and Flannel Uniforms by Elden Auker
In the 1930s the Detroit Tigers were a hell of a lot of fun to watch and to be a fan of. There was the unflappable Schoolboy Rowe, the consistently brilliant Charlie Gehringer, the fun-loving Goose Goslin, the intense Black Mike Cochrane, the fan favorite Gee Walker, and the many more. Elden Auker was a valuable pitcher on those teams that won consecutive pennants and the first World Series in franchise history. His book tells all the stories of that era, when ballplayers wore flannel uniforms and in fact did travel in sleeper cars. Highly recommended.
The Story of My Life by Hank Greenberg
A star on those 1930s Tiger teams was the “Hebrew Hammer”, Hank Greenberg, the first Jewish superstar in baseball. Years before Jackie Robinson faced prejudice as a black man, Detroit’s Greenberg broke down barriers for Jewish athletes despite being one of the most targeted players in the game. Read about the time he was spiked by the anti-Semitic Joe Kuhel of the White Sox, about Greenberg’s selfless service in World War II, his tremendous home run that clinched the 1945 pennant, and many more stories from his Hall of Fame career. But the beauty of this autobiography are the stories from Greenberg’s career after he hung up his spikes. Greenberg became the GM (and part-owner) of the Cleveland Indians and helped build them into a dynasty in the 1950s. Greenberg was the first former player to scale the heights of the front office and he also forged friendships with many of the most powerful and wealthiest people in the country. His life story is truly remarkable.
Even Big Guys Cry by Alex Karras with Herb Gluck
When Alex Karras decided to write this book in 1978 he did it the right way — he spilled everything onto the pages from his colorful and controversial career. The zaniest of all the Lions (at least on the defensive side), Karras recounts the fights, the fun, and the friends he made in the game. The book >
Ty Cobb by Charles C. Alexander
No list of Detroit sports books would be complete without a volume on the greatest player in baseball history (sorry Babe). Alexander is a noted historian who has written several books on baseball and teaches a class on baseball history at Ohio University. His biography is extremely detailed and it treats Cobb fairly, which can’t be said for all books about Ty.
Also recommended: Richard Bak’s Ty Cobb: His Tumultuous Life and Times, which offers many more photos and is every bit the equal to Alexander’s biography.
Heart of a Lion: The Weird and Woolly Life of Bobby Layne by Bob St. John
The best book written about Layne, about whom teammate Doak Walker said: “Bobby never lost a game, time just ran out on him.”
The Bird: The Life and Legacy of Mark Fidrych by Doug Wilson
For those of us who came of age in the 1970s, Mark Fidrych was a folk hero and a cartoon character and a baseball player all rolled into one. No one ever thrilled fans like Fidrych, who seemed like one of us when he was out there on the mound. Whether he was really talking to the baseball or not (he wasn’t), “The Bird” was a sight to see, and albeit for a short time, he was the greatest thing in baseball. Wilson has put together the definitive homage to one of the biggest cult heroes in baseball history.
The Glory of Their Times by Lawrence S. Ritter
The research that spawned this book is crucial because it preserved a history of The Deadball Era, the period from 1900 to 1920. In this book you’ll hear from Sam Crawford, who played right next to Ty Cobb in the Detroit outfield, and many others from that long ago time when you might see a triple steal, an inside-the-park home run, or a 1-0 pitching gem decided by a steal of home. This is one of the best sportsbooks ever written, and while it’s not precisely about Detroit, Wahoo Sam and other Tigers play a prominent role.
The Final Season: Fathers, Sons, and One Last Season in a Classic American Ballpark by Tom Stanton
Stanton is one of the most passionate and talented writers who chronicle Detroit sports. In this book he writes about the 1999 season, the final season of Tiger Stadium, and he does it in a clever way — through the lens of families who spent time at The Corner, especially father’s and sons. If you loved Tiger Stadium, you’ll love this book.
Cobb Would Have Caught It by Richard Bak
The preeminent authority on Detroit sports history, Bak has written several fine books, including Turkey Stearnes and the Detroit Stars, and his excellent biography of Ty Cobb, titled Peach. In this book he follows the pattern of Ritter’s Glory of Their Times, conducting interviews with almost all of the remaining living ballplayers from the 1920s and early 1930s. The result is a revealing account of that era in baseball that also tells us a lot about what the city of Detroit was like in that important period of growth and innovation.
Paper Lion by George Plimpton
If you’ve never read this book, run out and get it. Plimpton was one of the best writers of his generation and he pioneered the tactic of entrenching himself into his stories. In Paper Lion, Plimpton joins the Detroit Lions roster and puts on the pads, giving us a behind-the-scenes look at what it’s like to be an NFL player in the 1970s. This book is funny and the best on this list, which is saying a lot. Read it.