by Chris Foss
Welcome to the first edition of a new, irregular feature I’ll be doing at The Tattered Pennant—the Sports Books Digest. I’ll briefly describe some top sports books out there that I think should interest you. If I had more time in my schedule, these are the ones I would want to read myself. If you’re like me and already thinking about Christmas shopping, some of these might be good early gifts for the sports fan in your life. (Don’t worry--I’ll be back with another edition of this column right around the big day for procrastinators.) Here’s this edition’s top picks:
Rafi Kohan, The Arena: Inside the Tailgating, Ticket-Scalping, Mascot-Racing, Dubiously Funded, and Possibly Haunted Monuments of American Sport (2017)
This book is for those who think sports is about more than just the games. To these fans, sports is also about place, community, and history. As the title indicates, Kohan travels to stadiums across America to learn about the biggest and most minute details of the country’s sporting landscape. His chapters are full of remarkable anecdotes on the forces pushing sports into the realm of entertainment, ranging from throughout sports history (he goes back to Roman times) all the way up to the present. Kohan enters the Black Hole in Oakland, puts on a hard hat to tour the remains of the Pontiac Silverdome in Michigan, and tends the ivy at Chicago’s Wrigley Field. Perhaps the most interesting section, however, is his profile of The Amazing Sladek, the daredevil who has beaten the odds to become the latest sensation in halftime entertainment. Be prepared, however: his book reads more like a series of short stories than an integrated narrative with an argument, and you might not always agree with his politics, which tend to lean toward the left (some may particularly find his critical treatment of the integration of the military with sports near the end of the book to be in poor taste).
Bill Mullins, Becoming Big League: Seattle, the Pilots, and Stadium Politics (2013)
Few people remember that Seattle had a major league baseball time before the Mariners. The short-lived (1969) Seattle Pilots barely got off the ground, then packed their bags for Milwaukee amid dealing with a woefully inadequate stadium and a lack of engagement by local ownership and politicians trying to woo voters either to support the club or a new facility. All of this was in spite of the city’s recent embrace of the 1962 World’s Fair, a successful event that convinced many locally and nationally that the Emerald City was no longer located in the sticks. Within a few years, however, the locals constructed the Kingdome and got both baseball and football to come to town. The building was hardly elegant, but the city did one better than its rivals to the south; in a similar situation in Portland, voters killed efforts in 1964 to construct a Delta Dome to attract top tier sports and never tried again. Mullins sometimes gets bogged down too much in detail, but in general provides a strong narrative of how the sausage gets made in terms of bringing a team to a city—and what can cause a city lose a team—that still resonates today.
Adam J. Criblez, Tall Tales and Short Shorts: Dr. J, Pistol Pete, and the Birth of the Modern NBA (2017)
This is a near-encyclopedic, authoritative history of what is often remembered as both a woeful era for the NBA and for America—the 1970s. Sprinkling his text with contemporary pop culture and political references, this nineteenth-century historian moves deftly from his major subject area in what is clearly a passion project—he even talks about how writing the book gave him an excuse to watch YouTube videos of classic games. But Criblez also provides an in-depth look at long-forgotten players, not just for the sake of navel-gazing, but providing clear links to the league’s future. This is especially clear in his discussion of Spencer Haywood, whose landmark Supreme Court victory in his fight to join the league with the Seattle Supersonics before his college class graduated set the stage for the subsequent era of high school and early college entries into the league. Profiles of Julius Erving, “Pistol” Pete Maravich, and the NBA merger with the American Basketball Association are also welcome features in this strong, engaging entry on the league’s disco days. The book is higher on facts and trivia than it is on analysis, but there’s a lot here that isn’t widely known. One of the most intriguing tidbits Criblez highlights is that it wasn’t the Philadelphia 76ers, but the Atlanta Hawks that Dr. J first suited up for, in three 1972 NBA exhibition games before the latest twist in the protracted NBA-ABA legal battle sent the Doctor back to the ABA.
Terry Frei, 77: Denver, The Broncos, and a Coming of Age
This book is a few years old, but no less diminished in its significance as both a history of a team and a political and cultural history of the Denver metropolitan area. Frei contends that the Broncos’ emergence as a Super Bowl team in 1977 portended the rise of the city to great heights both in sports and in terms of its overall development. Before the Broncos captured the AFC that year, they were generally mediocre, and the city plodded along largely on the back of military spending. Denver was also, for better or worse, gripped by a not-in-my-backyard mentality about development personified by the voters’ rejection of the 1976 Winter Olympics. Frei explores how those both changed thanks to great players like Tom Jackson (who went on to be one of ESPN’s top football analysts for over 30 years), Lyle Alzado, and Craig Morton. In their wake, Denver constructed state-of-the-art arenas for basketball, hockey, football, and baseball, embraced a new identity as a tourism/beer/skiing mecca, reinvested in infrastructure, and became a modern city. Frei captures it all, and with authority, having cut his teeth as the first-year beat writer for the team during its unlikely Super Bowl run.
Heather L. Dichter and Andrew L. Johns, eds., Diplomatic Games: Sport, Statecraft, and International Relations Since 1945
Fair warning: this book is heavy reading, as it is written by academics for academics. But it does pose an interesting question: do international sporting events such as the Olympics and the World Cup play a major role in diplomacy and international affairs? The contributors to this edited volume run the gamut in their search for an answer. Dichter looks at how, after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the East German hockey team actually had a more difficult time traveling to its games for a stretch. Kevin Witherspoon explores the U.S.-Soviet basketball rivalry from 1958 to 1975 (although it’s an arguably even more expansive story than that), and Nicholas Sarantakes examines President Jimmy Carter’s failed effort to create an alternative to the boycotted Moscow Olympics in 1980. Many other essays look at sports and diplomacy outside of the Cold War as it is traditionally defined, with sections on “the decolonizing world”, China, and even the relationship between diplomacy and surfing (which I know all of you readers have been eagerly awaiting). The Tattered Pennant editors’ Ph.D adviser, Thomas Zeiler, provides the concluding essay to a work showing that this is, indeed, a wide world of sports.
If you have a book you’d like me to blurb or to review, give us a holler by leaving feedback Write With Us!here or at the end of this article. We’d love to hear from you.
 Want to imagine a Dr. J-Pistol Pete duo? See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KmzpRCAfhLI