You Can’t Write It: Unscripted Stories From Sport

A tribute to the fascinating tales birthed from the sporting world, where the truth is often far stranger than fiction…

Authors pour everything into their work, toiling away for years to create a story that’s exciting and engaging. Many people are often involved in the process, aiding in the task of taking an idea conceived in an author’s head to completion, where a tangible, finished product can be picked up from the shelf of a local bookstore. Although often arduous to craft an intriguing tale, sourcing from real life is a trick of the trade where you can come upon stories that boggle the mind. This is the case with sports, where truth is often far stranger than fiction.

Each year the American public is drawn to major sporting events like the Super Bowl, which attracts one hundred million pairs of eyes to the television, either rooting for their team or hoping their NFL picks from sites like Oddschecker were accurate. It shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, though. Professional sports contain some of the most beloved plot types found in films and literature. Every league has a rags-to-riches story, every game has an underdog overcoming adversity, and someone always lives happily ever after (or at least until the next season). Games can be nail-biting, keeping fans guessing right until the last second. They can’t be ruined by spoilers either, since they’re happening live. This means that those watching are experiencing it with the athletes, riding the highs and lows of the journey in real time. 

Modern television and online coverage will spend hours, days, or even weeks analyzing the game tapes. Delving deep into the technical elements of particular plays, techniques, and key events. This can help fans better understand what happened, as they may miss much of it during in the heat of the moment. Sometimes, though, there are behind the scenes stories that don’t see the light of day until some time later. When careers are over and there’s nothing to lose from spilling the beans and upsetting people.  

These usually come out in books, often as biographies or autobiographies. They often delve much deeper into the thoughts, feelings, and emotions of sport’s biggest personalities, revealing much about the relationship between powerful figures. Here are some of those books. 

To Hell and Back: An Autobiography by Niki Lauda

Former Austrian Formula 1 pilot Niki Lauda sadly passed away in May of 2019 at seventy years old. However, he came very close to death forty-three years earlier, when he crashed his Ferrari during the 1976 race at the Nurburgring in Germany. His car burst into flames after impact and Lauda received such severe injuries that he was given the last rites. Yet, just over a month later, he was back in a Formula 1 car, racing at his team’s home Grand Prix at Monza. Although he displayed extreme bravery and courage, few realized just how horrific his ordeal had been.  

The 2013 film Rush went a long way in helping the public understand, but Lauda’s own autobiography allowed readers to hear it from the horse’s mouth. He describes in painstaking detail every step he went through during his recovery, delving into his unrivaled character that gave him the strength and courage to overcome his accident and get back into a race car despite having no eyelids.  The majority of the book was written in 1986, but was updated recently to cover more recent events, including the success he had as a consultant for the present-day Mercedes team. 

Pocket Money by Gordon Burn

Snooker reached the height of its popularity during the 1980s. Football in the United Kingdom was suffering from declines in match attendance and television audiences. This gave room for snooker to have a moment in the limelight, regularly attracting larger viewing figures across the decade. In 1985, 18.5 million Brits watched the World Championship final that saw Steve Davis lose to Dennis Taylor in a nail-biting game. The following year, Gordon Burn became a fly on the wall, following the biggest names in snooker as they traveled across the world to Hong Kong and through Britain. He got to see first-hand what made the players tick and how the different sporting personalities interacted with each other. Burn is better known for his work as a writer of true crime, and it’s clear that documenting a year-long snooker season is not where his experience lies. Nonetheless, he captures in great detail the greatness of players like Alex Higgins and the dinginess of hotels in the 1980s post-industrial towns in northern England.  

Ball Four by Jim Bouton

NPR describes Jim Bouton’s Ball Four as “the book that changed baseball.” It is a true warts-and-all memoir that describes the highs and lows of professional baseball in the 1960s.  The book tells the story of Bouton’s 1969 season where he played for the New York Yankees. He lost a lot of friends in the sport after the book was published as he revealed many secrets of the locker room, including many negative and controversial traits and actions of his teammates It wasn’t all negative, though. Bouton helped to paint a picture of the camaraderie between players as they try to help each other overcome the emotional torment that a season of more than one hundred baseball games can have on a player. 

The Damned Utd by David Peace

Unlike the other books on this list, The Damned Utd is a work of fiction written by author David Peace that he claims is “based on fact”. Although only released in 2006, it depicts the story of Brian Clough during his short tenure as manager of the English football club, Leeds United in 1974. The book tells the story from Clough’s point of view who struggles to make his mark on a team of players who are still loyal to their old boss. Peace uses documented facts to create the main elements of the plot but then fills in the blanks with rumors and his own speculation. In doing so, he creates an image of Clough as a troubled and vengeful character, something that has received a lot of criticism from those close to him. 

A former Leeds United player, Johnny Giles, disagreed with the way that he had been portrayed and filed a court claim for libel. He won the case, and the book’s publisher agreed to make some minor changes to the wording. Despite these controversies, The Damned Utd has been described by The New York Times as “probably the best novel” about sport. It was also later turned into a movie in 2009, with Michael Sheen playing Brian Clough.

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