Why Sports Books Strike Out

But underneath, I’m vulnerable and miserable, just like you. I listen to Colin almost daily, and I like the guy.

On the other hand, Cowherd wants to be taken seriously by the professionals in his audience — the attorneys, stock brokers and doctors he collectively refers to as “Career Guy.” With his quick-hit observations, he wants to be taken seriously as the Malcolm Gladwell of the sports world.

Then came Andre Agassi’s Open, in which the tennis star singlehandedly transformed the genre of sports books by telling us far more about his wounded psyche than any reader would have dared to ask.

Fans of 1960s and 1970s baseball will love the inside stories of basebrawling with the likes of Juan Marichal, Willie Mays, Leo Durocher and Tommy Lasorda. First, they can’t read. My fear is they all died.

Next up, Colin Cowherd, host of ESPN Radio’s national morning show. There are two problems with that strategy.

The best thing Tiger Woods ever did, post-divorce, didn’t happen on a golf course. But he still makes for great radio, because in between all that, he brings perspectives on sports that are engaging and thought-provoking.

So why are sports books, of which these two are emblematic, so maudlin and self-serving today? A quick trip down memory lane is in order. When I was a kid, a staple of baseball games was the old guy sitting alone, nursing a beer, not bothering anybody, keeping score in a weathered scorebook. The book is a masterpiece, and like most masterpieces, it is widely — and poorly — imitated.

Where does all this leave us? With sports figures turned first into entertainers, Kardashians in jock straps and then into candidates for Dr. Forty years ago, Jim Bouton, Roger Kahn and Roy Blount, Jr. Second, they’ve already heard the opinions expressed in the book on the radio.

The book is cleverly disguised as wisdom, as if Cowherd were begging “Career Guy” to accept him as an intellectual equal. It came down to his refraining from writing a tatty tell-all about his fifteen girlfriends. He tends to suffocate you with his admiration for his own intelligence and his compulsion to point out that he’s the smartest guy in any room. Today, they’ve turned into entertainment figures — Kardashians in jock straps, if you will. His book details his rapid ascent from poverty and minor league ball to the pinnacle of umpiring success — including deification in the baseball hall of fame. They told inside stories of competitive greatness, with a little bit of humor, sociology and male bonding thrown in.

Athletes once were sportsmen and sportswomen. His restraint was admirable, certainly compared with Hank Haney, his former swing coach, who wrote a book gleefully exposing all of his boss’s character flaws.

Once upon a time, sports books were revelatory. I make a fortune.

. But today, I’m finding neither greatness nor goodness in most of the sports books I encounter. In fact, it ushered in the current era of sports books, which are all about the soggy, tortured souls of competitors. I think those guys are the target audience for this book.

The problem is just how many baseball fans of this era are still alive and buying books. As Carly Simon sang, back when Bouton, Kahn, and Blount were writing the greatest sports books of all time, “Sometimes I wish…often I wish…that I never, ever, ever, ever knew…some of those secrets of yours.”

Harvey was the greatest baseball umpire of all time; if you don’t believe it, just ask him and he’ll tell you. Why did Peter Golenbeck, a deeply accomplished sports book author, find it edifying for the reader to include the complete catalogue raisonné of every one of Harvey’s resentments? God only knows, and I mean the real God, not Doug Harvey.

Pity me, these books, by the likes of Doctor Jay, Doc Gooden, Jimmy Connors and other greats, seem to be saying: I’m the greatest in the world at what I do. Disloyalty is a character flaw, too.

I love sports books so much that I once posted a list of seventy great ones on Amazon (why, I don’t know). Phil’s couch. And who really needs to read a book about that?

One thing that lives on, at least in Harvey’s memory and now in hardcover, is a startlingly clear recollection of everyone who so much as looked at him the wrong way. At the end of the day, though, the book is less about fresh insight for the reader and an unending undercurrent of praise for the author’s own verbal acuity. On the one hand, Colin wants to sell a lot of books to the regular Joes who make up the overwhelming majority of his radio audience. Probably not that many. launched an entirely new approach to sports books with Ball Four, The Boys of Summer, and Thirty Tons A Day, which took us inside the locker rooms and the private lives of the players in ways that the prior approach to sports writing — pure hagiography — never did. A guy as smart as Colin could have done a lot better.

Today, most sports books are a disaster, devoted to self-justification, special pleading and settling scores. So sports books were raunchy and revelatory for the next four decades.

The problem is that his book falls between two stools, or two audiences, more accurately. Hey, Hank: Take a look in the mirror. That’s why the whole genre of sports book writing appears to have played out. The two latest embarrassments: They Call Me God: The Greatest Umpire of All Time, by Doug Harvey with Peter Golenbeck, who surely should have known better, and You Heard Me, by ESPN broadcaster Colin Cowherd, who clearly did not