Anthologies of a given year’s best sports writing have been published since at least World War II. Irving T. Marsh and Edward Ehre picked out their selections as the year’s best starting in 1944, and the series lasted for 36 years. The Sporting News took over the series for a few years in the Eighties, but then it stopped for a while.
Luckily, another publisher started to publish a similar anthology in 1991. Glenn Stout was given the title of series editor, and it’s safe to say after 24 volumes that the series is in very good hands. Each year, Stout picks a guest editor to make the final selections for the book, and the publication’s arrival in October is always a welcome event.
In the current edition, “The Best American Sports Writing 2014” is edited by Chrstopher McDougall, who is best known for his book, “Born to Run.” That story was about a legendary Mexican tribe whose long distance running abilities read almost like fiction, but was very much a nonfiction story. Five years after publication, “Born to Run” remains a favorite book of many runners.
Each guest editor has the chance to put a little bit of his own personality in the selections, and McDougall’s picks reveal a little about him and a little about the changing business of sports journalism. There are quite a few very worthy stories from websites, something that would have been unimaginable in 1991. McDougall also does not have a single newspaper represented in the book, and there are no stories from Sports Illustrated. Without examining the contents of the previous 23 editions, I would guess that combination is a first.
McDougall tends to lean toward feature stories that cover about 20 pages in length in the book, and covers subjects that don’t come up in the daily newspaper very often. There are, as usual, plenty of highlights:
• The New Yorker checks in with a story on the state of Formula One auto racing that might be the best story I’ve ever read on that particular subject. The magazine is also represented by a story of a ill-fated attempt to climb Mount Everest.
• Care to catch up with some personalities from the past? Profiles of such people as Bobby Riggs, Don King, and Dick Trickle work extremely well. Stories about more current subjects include Serena Williams, Mike Rice and a Minnesota State football coach whose life took a very unexpected turn for the worse.
• Non-traditional sports - wrestling, surfing, fishing, and running - pop up. There’s even a story on the man considered to be the best backgammon player in the world; Matvey Natanzon offers a local connection in that he emigrated to Buffalo from Russia through Israel as a child.
• The last couple of anthologies have had stories on football and concussions, and 2014’s collection has one as well. This year’s story centers the big question of whether parents should let their children play football. We’re going to be hearing a lot about that in the years to come.
If there’s a small complaint to be made here, it’s that a few of the selections only barely touch on sports. It’s quite obvious that a ton of work went into investigating the lives of Aaron Hernandez and Anthony Smith, two football players who became involved in murder charges. The same is true about a mixed martial arts fighter who staged his own death when his problems mounted. It’s easy to at least wonder if they should be in some other anthology - no matter how well they are done.
Still, the batting average of stories that will interest sports fans who enjoy a good story well told is extremely good here, as usual. “The Best American Sports Writing 2014” is a worthwhile trip to some corners of the world that you might not otherwise explore. If it serves as an introduction to the series, past and future, all the better.
Budd Bailey is a copy editor in the Buffalo News sports department
The Best American Sports Writing 2014
Christopher McDougall, Editor
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
388 pages, $14.95