Almanac Books: Best Sports Books I Read This Year

 

Almanac Books: Best Sports Books I Read This Year

 

My sports reading was the most prolific category for the year but confined to just three sports – golf, Aussie Rules football and Gideon Haigh.

 

Australian Rules Football

 

 

 

 

Neil Balme: A Tale of Two Men – Anson Cameron

 

A book devoured in a few sittings (the most reliable indicator) and gifted/lent to several family and friends (the DRS of quality). Sitting with Citrus Bob at the Perth Test we both had it top of the pile. He perceptively observed that Anson’s “outside the beltway” perspective made it a rarity among sports books in centring on the man’s character more than his deeds. Full of delightful vignettes like Graeme Richmond dragging a murder victim across the tram tracks from his pub to the department store opposite. As a Croweater I appreciated Balme’s impact on South Australian footy in the 80’s where he toughened Norwood into worthy rivals for Oatey’s Sturt and Kerley’s Glenelg. A hard man on the field, Balme found the lightest touch off it to motivate and inspire young men as coach and footy whisperer.  Rasputin in a rain coat.  Dunno how the book sold, but listening to Balme interviewed I wished he was less self effacing and more of a salesman. It deserved a wide audience as much for the man management and character insights. There is a organisational management book in Balme if the intuitive genius could be dragged out of him.

 

1964: A Game, A Season, A State – Mike Sexton

 

As a Swan Districts supporter I’ve become intrigued by how Hayden Bunton Jnr dragged the club from 2 wins in 1960 to successive flags in 61/62/63.  After talking to a few old Swans players I thought there might be some parallels in Neil Kerley’s similar deeds with South Adelaide in 1964 (my first grand final attended as a 9yo).  It does but the book grabbed me for being much more. A chronicle of a simpler time in both football and community. Every club gets a chapter – my perennially underachieving West Torrens and the 2 new teams – Swish’s Central Districts and McAlmanac’s Woodville. The first Magarey Medal telecast with bookie’s board score tallies and radio reporters scouring the suburbs to find the surprise winner. An exceptional social history that had me reliving my childhood. I’ve bought a lot of Mike’s books for my hard to impress 92yo dad. He gave Mike high praise for his biography of footy genius and all round scoundrel Jack Broadstock. Dad has always detested Broadstock for costing West Torrens a flag. Dad has believed for 70 years that he threw the game in the interests of a substantial wager, but Mike’s book persuaded him that Jack was carrying an injury. He loved the book – while detesting the subject. High praise for any author. You can find all Mike’s books at http://sportswords.com.au

 

 

 

 

Collingwood: A Love Story – Paul Daley

 

 

The Last Quarter: A Trilogy – Martin Flanagan Omnibus

 

Two older books I found bower birding second hand shops. Now hard to find – but if anybody can it’s John Butler at everybodyknowsbooks.com.au in Ballarat.  Every Collingwood supporter wrote a love story in 2023, but a deeper more profound one was forged between Doc Seddon and his dashing team mate Paddy Rowan in the mud and terror of the Flanders trenches in 1918. My grandfather was a returned soldier from WW1 so it’s history holds a special place for me. Daley’s book is a love story, a war story and a social history seamlessly intertwined. Another book I loved while detesting the subject.  The Flanagan omnibus was a rare treat. Combining the books about Carlton under Barassi in 1970 with his year with the Bulldogs in 1993; supplemented with extensive journalistic reflections about the links between war and football (the interview with a young Nathan Buckley both perceptive and profound); and finally his reflections on writing about Tom Wills and the origins of the game (Greg De Moore’s biography of Wills is my favourite footy book).  If you can find any of Flanagan’s writing – together or apart – grab them – it’s sport explaining society shaping sport.

 

Cricket

 

 

 

 

On The Ashes – Gideon Haigh

 

Walked past this a few times in the book store, assuming it was a collation of pieces about the 2023 Ashes Series. “Jeez they put that together quickly didn’t they?” Yeah nah. Thumbing it idly one day I found it was a collection of pen portraits/essays about Ashes cricketers on both sides from the 1870’s to today. Not just the famous. The obscure often more captivating. Tip Foster made 287 for England on debut at the SCG in 1903. 120 years later it remains the highest test debut innings and the largest at the ground.  He returned to his career as a stockbroker and never played outside England again, dying of diabetes at age 36.  The most consistent characteristic of the pre 1930 Australians is their inconsistency. We think of the Victorian era as being conservative and respectable. Beyond their remarkable cricketing deeds, Haigh chronicles their life misadventures. Charles Bannerman, Billy Midwinter, Harry Trott, Herbie Collins and Ted McDonald all succumbed to some mix of drink, mental illness or gambling. The manager of the 1893 Ashes tour complaining “it was impossible to keep some of them straight….one was altogether useless because of his drinking propensities”. In retrospect, Shane Warne was a saint.  The book trailed off for me from the 1980’s as players and contests became too familiar.  The veil lifted and modern sportsmen more exposed than a centrefold.  But Haigh can always find the telling anecdote and turn off phrase to keep me engaged.  If Sinatra could “sing the telephone book” melodically, Gideon could write it with wit and style.

 

Golf

 

 

 

To the Linksland – Michael Bamberger

 

This is a slim but rare book published in 1991, but fortunately it will be reprinted in 2024.  It is the story of his suspending his career as an American journalist to caddy on the then relatively primitive European golf tour and live in Scotland for 6 months playing some of the famous old courses. Its a voyage of personal discovery, alive with self effacing wit and observation. A young man finding himself and his place in life.

 

Bamberger has gone on to write several notable books – a biography of Tiger Woods and a history of the US Masters tournament.  He still writes regular columns on the Fireside Pit website. Always generous but never less than honest or constructively critical, in an era where journalists are now more fan boy than commentator.

 

I was fortunate to win the book via a golf podcast competition – the Duffers Literary Companion.  Hosts Stephen Proctor and Jim Hartsell are both excellent authors and their books are worth finding.  The episode where they interview Bamberger is a gem, harking back to the great days of newspapers pre-internet.  Sports writing was a serious profession – both Bamberger and Proctor worked for large publications alongside Pulitzer Prize winning political, national affairs, cultural and finance journalists. The competition and cross fertilisation was the environment for serious exploration and great writing.  They tell the story of having had a blind editor who would have the lead and feature articles for the next edition read aloud to him by the journalist before publication. “You’re not making me see it” he’d tell them before dismissing them to rewrite copy before deadline.

 

 

 

Tom Morris of St Andrews: the Collossus of Golf 1821-1908 – David Malcolm & Peter Crabtree

 

Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus dominated golf for 20 years. Bobby Jones and Ben Hogan for a decade.  Tom Morris Snr (Old Tom) for 50 years as a champion player (4 British Opens) designer and groundskeeper of great courses and progenitor of the greatest player of the 19th century.  Young Tom also won 4 Opens including 3 in a row from 1868-1870 so that he kept the championship belt in perpetuity and the tournament was not played in 1871 while they raised the money for a new trophy – the claret jug we know today.  Tragically Young Tom died age 24 from pneumonia and a broken heart following the death of his wife in childbirth.

 

Golf of a sort had been played on the “links” land – grassy waste dunes between pasture and the beach at St Andrews for 300 years before the birth of the professional games and organised contests in the mid 1800’s.  One of the joys of the book is how it the social history of Scotland and the town of St Andrews, the growth of the sport and the life of the Morris family are interwoven. Appropriate, because before the arrival of the railway in 1830 the main industry of the town was weaving flax for ship’s sails.  It was a family industry paid on a piece rate so the men could weave in the morning before taking recreation on the links, with women taking up the task, then cooking meals in the evening when men took up the loom again while they cooked.

 

The book is a serious history full of scholarly research from the newspapers, journals, letters and court records of the day.  But never dry.  Hecklers were those who stripped flax fibres from the plant for the weavers. Largely illiterate and with no radio or tv to entertain constantly darting hands and eyes, they paid clerics or schoolteachers to read to them as they worked.  Thus informally educated they would show off their new found learning with fiery questions and interjections at public meetings such that signs appeared in town halls “no hecklers or weavers allowed”.  Thus language develops.

 

The Morris family were weavers but with more players coming by train Tom Snr took up the nascent trade of golf professional. Largely making “feathery’ golf balls stitching goose feathers into leather pouches. Supplemented with money games financed by gambling or in “pro am” partnerships with wealthy English aristocrats who maintained estates in Scotland. 

 

One was Colonel Fairlie from Prestwick near Glasgow on the west coast who got his servants to “cut out the links” with hoes and scythes in the dunes when English visitors came to his estate. In 1851 he engaged Tom to move his family from St Andrews (near Edinburgh in the east) and establish a proper course on his land where the first British Open was played in 1860.  But the tournament purse of 25 pounds paled against the 400 pounds for 3 day matches across several courses between Tom and his mentor Allan Robertson against the Dunn brothers of Musselburgh.  Hundreds making side bets followed the players with a referee on horse back to keep score and maintain some semblance of order.  Press reports gave the matches the same prominence as horse racing and prize fights.

 

Alongside his playing deeds Old Tom pioneered the science of turf maintenance. The first to use a push mower to cut greens; core and sand them to encourage growth, rake hazards and bunkers, and introduce yardage markers on a hole. He travelled extensively as his playing career diminished designing famous courses we still know today – Carnoustie and Muirfield on the Open roster in Scotland; Lahinch and Rosapenna in Ireland; and Royal North Devon in England – among dozens of others.

 

Citrus Bob and I settled on Anson’s biography of Neil Balme as our most enjoyable sporting read of the year, but I would place the Old Tom book as being the most rewarding.

 

Summarising these together made me realise that I read sports books for the context not the contest.  Sport writing at it’s best tells the story of a community and a time as much as a team or a player. Results are obvious but the stories behind them rarely are.  Good sports writing illuminates larger truths.

 

Over to you Almanackers – only two of these were published this year – so you will need to scour websites and second hand shops to find some of them.  Give us your best sporting reads of the year – old or new.

 

 

More from Peter Baulderstone can be read Here

 

 

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Comments

  1. Thanks for this, PB.

    A decent and varied compilation.

  2. Must get to the Balme book.

    Thanks

  3. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    1964 is a magnificent read of a period just slightly before my time (well, I was four) and as you point out PB, it is as much a social history as a footy book, I re-read the Centrals chapter today and it reminded me of how much detail Mike covers in this book.

    The Balme and Flanangan books go alright too. The Haigh Ashes book has been looking at me from my unread pile since Father’s Day – I must do something about that soon. (Nitpick alert, Kerls left the Bays long before Balme arrived at the Parade)

  4. Thanks PB – Balmey isn’t a salesman he’s actually shy in that regard – it was great to meet Anson and a amusing drive back from – Tanunda.I asked Anson about people just expecting you to give them a copy of your book ( referring to people asking me about my book ) Ansons reply was extremely colourful- Balmey goes geez now you have started him off with a few words added – yes I admit I enjoyed my mentions and you have inspired me to ring Michael to chase up a copy of his 64 book

  5. Thank you Peter for your uplifting articles, reads and tastes along with CB, your nemesis.
    I have Anson’s book and Gideon’s book to read but have read Martin Flanigan’s tome.
    Anson’s book on the hit man Balme will be interesting as I saw Balme, the wrecking bull at close quarters.
    Guess he was only following instructions but one thing I respect about the late great RDB is that he didn’t
    use hitmen.
    My recommendations also include Golden Boy by Christian Ryan, Rose Boys by Peter Rose and First Tests by Steve Cannane.
    Larrimah by Caroline Graham and Kylie Stevenson, Out of Darkness: A Memoir by Zoltan Terry, Dickens and Prince by Nick Hornby are other classics.
    The reading is much improved if accompanied by a Chamber’s Rutherglen Muscat.
    Bill Chambers was the doyen of Australian fortified wines and recently departed.

  6. Unfortunately. I have yet to read Balmey’s book so I would have to say my best read of 2023 would have to be “The Definate Rulebook” by Malcolm Ashwood (of course)

  7. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    I’ve (finally) just finished “On The Ashes” and agree with your assessment PB. Taught me plenty in a very digestible manner.

  8. Thanks Swish. Gideon’s “Cricket Et Al” Substack is a must read. Much more diverse than just cricket. Personal reflection, popular culture, geopolitics and history. (He’s hard line pro-Israel, which I find hard to take, but I daren’t wrangle with a man who cites the underpinnings of the Balfour Declaration with such certainty).
    Peter Lalor is writing more there lately. All good stuff.
    I pay the $10 a month subscription – dunno if the free version still gives you everything – but it seems churlish to quibble given the years of study and thought Gideon distils into every post.

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