Origin Story

It was during the lethargic post-Christmas period in late 2020 that the idea first came to me. Surprising, perhaps, given that this is generally the week where my primary activities are eating the exact same meal of Christmas leftovers for several days straight and sitting around with no discernible purpose while awaiting New Year’s Eve. But this year, amidst my general torpor, a creative spark emerged as I pondered the following question. What if I tried to identify the classic books of the sports genre and then arrange them to fit on a single shelf of my living room bookcase?

I know I’m not the first person to ponder such a question, but I found it an enjoyable mental exercise. What would it mean for a sports book to be given classic status? How would I go about deciding which books were in and which books were out? Have I read enough sports books to populate such a bookshelf? If not, what books do I need to add to my reading list?

Putting the Books on the Shelves

As I pondered this initial question, an idea began to take hold. The idea was to arrange my entire collection of sports books onto specific shelves. I would start with a small shelf for my top-tier books, the true classics of the genre. I would then assemble a slightly larger shelf of second-tier books, those excellent volumes falling just below classic status. A generous third-tier shelf would follow, for the plethora of books not worthy of the upper tiers, but certainly undeserving of a dreaded shelf-less existence.

The idea began to develop further. I decided the shelves should be dynamic. I would start by arranging the books I’ve already read on their appropriate shelves, but I would rearrange them as I read more and more. As a new book earned a place on a particular shelf, it would knock down another book to a lower shelf. Perhaps it would even be possible for a book to issue a formal appeal against my initial judgment. Should the appeal be successful, the book would move up one shelf higher than its original position (imagine the controversy!). In short, my formula would be to read, rearrange, and repeat. When the dust settled at some hypothetical point in the future, I would have my ideal set of tiered bookshelves, representing the best of the sports genre.

Of course, this idea sounded slightly presumptuous. Rest assured, I am under no illusion that my project will produce a definitive set of shelves. For one thing, I will never have the capacity to read every worthy sports volume in publication or even to keep up with the new releases appearing each month. Moreover, my subjectivity may overwhelm the entire process, resulting in Sam Walker’s Fantasyland earning classic status while Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer languishes two tiers below. I can hear baseball purists beginning to grumble even as I write. But, here’s the thing: comprehensiveness and definitiveness would never be the goal. The Sports Shelf Project would simply be an exercise in reading, exploration, and curation intended to produce some enjoyment for myself, and perhaps for others as well.

An Outlet for Writing

This last part, providing some enjoyment for others, was central to the whole idea taking shape in my mind. The Sports Shelf Project wouldn’t just be about arranging and rearranging books on shelves (as fun as that may be). I would write about the books as well. Reviews and recommendations, yes, but also more personal reflections that related to one book or another. I would write, for instance, about how the cover of the 1993 edition of George Plimpton’s Out of My League is partly responsible for the book sitting on my bookshelf unread for twenty years. I would write about reading The Club, a history of the English Premier League, in a desperate attempt to learn something more about soccer…I mean, football…before moving to Oxfordshire, England in the summer of 2019.

I would also write about the time I kept falling asleep while reading Jane Leavy’s biography of Sandy Koufax, seemingly unable to keep myself awake past 10 p.m. during a two-week period in the fall of 2020. Far from an indictment of Leavy’s book, however, the experience would underscore Leavy’s skill as a writer and storyteller. Despite sometimes finishing only a page or two during each reading session–and sometimes going a few days between reading anything at all–I was unfailingly drawn back into the narrative each time I began anew. My piecemeal style could have ruined the reading experience, but Leavy proved herself quite capable of overcoming my constitutional weakness.

As I wrote about the books I was reading, I would also seek to involve others in the project. I would get input and reading recommendations from friends. I would discuss books with those who know more than I do about a particular topic. I would banter with people who thought my tiered bookshelves were completely misguided and query them about how they would rearrange things if given the opportunity. How would I do all of this? Well, I would start a blog.

Such an endeavor would provide both enjoyment and challenge. The blog would give me a platform to write, which I greatly enjoy, and would challenge me to keep reading in order to have content to write about. The blog would also provide a virtual space for my tiered bookshelves, an important consideration given the uncertain prospect of convincing my wife to clear out her own books from the living room bookcase in order for me to create a physical manifestation of my Sports Shelf idea.

In the end, after pondering the idea for a few days, I decided my post-Christmas project had merit. What else was I going to do with my free time during the winter months? The reading project is underway and the blog is now live. I’m happy to introduce you to The Sports Shelf Project: one man’s humble attempt to read, write, and think his way towards a shelf full of books representing the best of the sports genre.

The Sports Shelf Project Ranking System

As already mentioned, the project begins with an initial ranking of the books I have already read (as woeful a list as it may be). Here is a better description of which books might be included on each of the three shelves.

Tier 1: The Showcase Shelf. This is where the cream of the crop resides, the Hall of Fame books, the classics of the sports genre. These are the books you want others to see at eye level as they peruse (but certainly not touch) the volumes on your living room bookcase. “Ah yes, Allan Bloom’s translation of Plato’s Republic, Steinbeck’s East of Eden…ooh, and The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. Very nice indeed.” In my own living room, I’m allowed a single shelf for my classic sports books. It is not much space, but then again, Tier 1 is meant to be selective. These are the books that have stood the test of time and are always candidates for rereading. They are books that fully engage you, challenge you to think and ask questions, and leave you pondering what you have learned. 

Tier 2: The Display Shelf. The Display Shelf is like the Showcase Shelf, but without the same level of prestige (lower quality material, not fitted with a motion sensor alarm, that kind of thing). It holds a collection of all-star level books, prominently on display, but perhaps in a spare room or home office (or, in my case, in the corner of my daughter’s playroom—I take what I can get). These books fall just short of classic status, but nonetheless are of dependably high quality. The books are well-written, enjoyable, and often thought-provoking. They may not demand a second reading, but are always worthy of recommendation to others.

Tier 3: The Modular Shelf. The modular bookshelf is something you buy at Ikea for $29.99 plus tax. It is a cube-like workhorse that provides (mostly) dependable storage for your books without breaking the bank. It holds a large number of worthy books that may long for the Display Shelf, but which ultimately know their place. These books are eminently readable, entertaining, and informative. They may not leave you pondering existential questions, but they always bring about a certain level of satisfaction and contentment.

I considered adding additional tiers. There was Tier 4 (The Drab Brown Shelf) that sits, scratched up and wobbly, in the corner of the bedroom and houses worthwhile reads with moderate flaws—the B- books. There was Tier 5 (The Storage Container Shelf), really less a shelf and more a receptacle, which holds the books with just enough value to stave off a trip to Goodwill. In the end, however, I decided to keep things simple. There will be only three tiers. Tier 4 and Tier 5 books are out of luck.

Final Thoughts

With the ranking system in place, all that remains are a few final disclaimers.

First, it goes without saying that the first version of my shelf rankings will have glaring omissions in each tier. I decided, however, that if I waited to start a blog until I eliminated the glaring omissions, I would never get around to writing anything. So, we are stuck with the omissions for now, but I suspect they will add to the fun by inspiring discussion and providing excuses to read more books.

Second, the books on my shelf may be somewhat idiosyncratic, especially at first. I freely admit that the majority of my sports reading in the past has been in the fields of baseball and basketball. However, I do enjoy reading in many areas of the sporting world, from tennis and football (the American variety) to golf and football (the other variety). Part of the fun of this project is to explore books in some of the sports I’m less familiar with. Thus, despite the preponderance of baseball and basketball books, taking a broad approach with the blog (sports books rather than, say, baseball books) made sense.

Third, while I’m approaching this project with great enthusiasm, I won’t promise the kind of fanatical commitment of a more audacious individual. If I really wanted to do this right, I would probably quit my teaching job, clear my calendar of all other commitments for the coming year, and devote all of my time to reading sports books. I would devour multiple books each week, wake up early each morning to compile reading notes, and work past midnight updating the blog. The whole endeavor would grab headlines and become a direct-to-streaming biopic starring Chris Pratt.

Sadly, a more moderate approach will have to suffice. After all, I need time away from the blog to manage my Strat-O-Matic team, play Guess Who? with my daughter, and watch Netflix shows with my wife. One has to maintain some balance in life, after all. I’m sure there will be plenty of time for reading sports books and writing on the blog without an ultra-zealous approach.

Thank you for visiting The Sports Shelf Project. Stay tuned for my inaugural list of bookshelf rankings.

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