For thirty years, Glenn Stout, the founding editor of The Best American Sports Writing series, has read–or at least started to read—a seemingly endless pile of articles searching for the most exceptional sports stories of the year. That hunt seemingly ended when the publishing company was purchased and the new owners canceled that series as long as several others.
That’s when Triumph Books, the Chicago-based publisher decided to recreate the series and this October, with Stout editing again, the first in the new series, The Year’s Best Sports Writing 2021 was released.
Longform sports writing for those who are not in-the-know (as I was before talking to Stout) aren’t typical play-by-play game descriptions but instead are in-depth profiles and feature articles offering fascinating views into a variety of sports-related subjects. For example, when I tell Stout, in a phone conversation from his home on Lake Champlain in northwestern Vermont that I particularly enjoyed “Twelve Minutes and a Life” by Mitchell S. Jackson in this year’s anthology, he gave a laugh as it turns out I wasn’t alone. The article, which ran in the June 18, 2020, issue of Runner’s World, won both the 2021 Pulitzer Prize and the National Magazine Award for Feature Writing recounted the killing of Ahmaud Arbery from differing aspects including the beginnings of jogging in the 1960s and how it evolved into a mostly White national sport.
That certainly proves the caliber of the writing included in this year’s book which also features such articles as “The Confederate Flag Is Finally Gone at NASCAR Races, and I Won’t Miss It for a Second” by Ryan McGee, first published in ESPN, June 10, 2020, “Their Son’s Heart Saved His Life. So He Rode 1,426 Miles to Meet Them” by A.C. Shilton, first published in Bicycling, January 24, 2020, and “This Woman Surfed the Biggest Wave of the Year” by Maggie Mertens, first published in The Atlantic, September 12, 2020.
But as time consuming as reading—and often re-reading sports stories—is, Stout has also found time to write, edit, or ghostwrite over 100 books such as his 2009 Young Woman and the Sea; How Gertrude Ederle Conquered the English Channel and Changed the World, now to be made into a motion picture and his latest Tiger Girl and the Candy Kid: America’s Original Gangster Couple, a true crime book about a Bonnie and Clyde-like Jazz Age couple only with a more compelling storyline and, according to Stout and the photos I’ve seen, much better looking. There’s also Fenway 1912: The Birth of a Ballpark, a Championship Season, and Fenway’s Remarkable First Year and The Complete Story of Chicago Cubs Baseball.
Interestingly, though Stout played a variety of sports, he studied poetry at Bard’s College and worked at the Boston Public Library after graduating. That may be one of the reasons he looks at sports writing as literature, discarding stories he’s given to read once he begins to lose interest (a sign, one of his writing teachers told him, indicating the writer had also lost interest or didn’t know what to say) or finds the author indulging in tropes, those overused themes or cliches that show a lack of originality.
Life is too short, it seems, to read bad writing. But if Stout likes what he’s reading, he may read it again right away and if not, is likely to get back to it at some point in time.
It’s this discernment that makes The Year’s Best Sports Writing 2021 so compelling.
This article previously ran in the Northwest Indiana Times.