We’re living in a golden age of books about Indianapolis sports, with historians, journalists, and even novelists bringing “Naptown” athletics to life on the page consistently over the past decade. The range of voices present in these books is diverse both demographically and in terms of their subject matter — these ten books, although by no means comprising a comprehensive list, represent that diversity in bringing to light the city’s storied sports legacy.
Jeremy Beer, Oscar Charleston: The Life and Legend of Baseball’s Greatest Forgotten Player (2019)
In baseball history, few players are spoken of as reverently as Negro Leagues great Oscar Charleston (1896-1954), who grew up on Indianapolis’ West Side. Historians describe him as having the power of Babe Ruth, the speed of Lou Brock, and the glove of Willie Mays. Charleston was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1976, more than 20 years after his death. Given the limited records available from his early life, Beer does a remarkable job rendering Charleston’s life in full, taking him from his hardscrabble upbringing in Indianapolis through his 40-year baseball career. Charleston starred for both the Negro Leagues’ Indianapolis ABCs and Pittsburgh Crawfords, and he eventually served as manager for the Pittsburgh clubs of the 1930s on the way to his status in the eyes of many baseball scholars as one of the sport’s all-time greatest.
Brenda Robertson Stewart and Wanda Lou Willis (editors), Bedlam at the Brickyard (2010)
Hopefully this collection is the start of something new — a subgenre of Indianapolis-based sports fiction. Each of its 15 mysteries is set at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the Brickyard 400. Many of Indiana’s best mystery writers, including Marianne Halbert, Diana Catt, and editor Brenda Robertson Stewart contributed to the collection. For readers more interested in racing itself than genre fiction, the collection also includes a wealth of information about the history of the event.
Bill Polian, The Game Plan: The Art of Building a Winning Football Team (2014)
General manager Bill Polian was the architect of the Tony Dungy and Peyton Manning-led Indianapolis Colts team that brought the city its first (and only, so far) Super Bowl. Before that, he showcased his GM chops by constructing the four-time AFC champion Buffalo Bills of the early 1990s. Polian’s The Game Plan, written with veteran sportswriter Vic Carucci, is both a memoir of a football life and a guide to Polian’s sharp drafting and free agent instincts. Polian gives readers an inside look at how football executives get the job done while fighting salary cap rules that frequently splinter apart great teams before they can reach their full potential. He emphasizes how a championship roster needs both superstars like Manning and Reggie Wayne, as well as the glue guys and role players who can transform a good team into a great one.
Philip Hoose, Attucks!: Oscar Robertson and the Basketball Team That Awakened a City (2018)
“The Big O” is arguably the greatest athlete to hail from “Naptown.” Philip Hoose chronicles a key early chapter in his career, when in 1955 Robertson starred on the Crispus Attucks High School basketball team that won the Indiana state basketball championship. Hoose contextualizes the story of Crispus Attucks, an all-black secondary school opened on the city’s West Side during the 1920s, within the broader history of segregation in the state. Led by head coach Ray Crowe, Crispus Attucks had only been allowed to play in the state tournament since 1948 before becoming within a decade the first team from the city of Indianapolis — and the first all-black team in Indiana history — to win the championship. Crowe, Robertson, and the Crispus Attucks Tigers became a source of communal pride for the city’s African-American population, proving that the conventional wisdom about how “urban” teams froze under pressure in the state tournament were merely dog-whistles reflective of the time’s prejudices.
Josh Bleill, One Step at a Time: A Young Marine’s Story of Courage, Hope and a New Life in the NFL (2011)
Greenfield, Indiana native Josh Bleill decided in the aftermath of 9/11 that it was time to serve his country. Bleill joined the Marines and ended up in Iraq, where in 2006 he was severely wounded in the battle for Fallujah and lost both of his legs. After years of rehabilitation, Bleill found a new mission — serving as a community spokesperson for the Indianapolis Colts, and a liaison to the region’s armed services veterans. One Step at a Time details Bleill’s inspiring and unlikely journey to the NFL.
David Woods, Underdawgs: How Brad Stevens and the Butler Bulldogs Marched Their Way to the Brink of College Basketball’s National Championship (2010)
Think of David Woods’ Underdawgs as the exact opposite of John Feinstein’s iconic IU-focused Season on the Brink. When you read Season on the Brink, you empathize with the players that had to put up with Bobby Knight’s manipulations, and admire how the group came together despite them. When you read Underdawgs, you find yourself wanting to run through a brick wall for Brad Stevens. Woods’ book describes how the youthful, humble, and thoroughly pleasant Stevens brought mid-major Butler within an inch of winning the NCAA Tournament by instilling a John Wooden-like team mentality he called the “Butler Way,” focused on strong interpersonal relationships and introspective lesson-learning. Plus, unlike Knight, Stevens is actually a Hoosier.
Mark Montieth, Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis (2017)
Indianapolis Star reporter Mark Montieth’s account of the pre-NBA Pacers is both an excellent account of the revival of the professional game in the Hoosier State, and a great prism through which to learn about the beloved, renegade American Basketball Association. It more than covers the action on the hardwood, but more than that Reborn is one of the finest case studies of the professional sports business in print. Montieth gives an invaluable account of how a group of dedicated businessmen turned a mere $6,000 investment into a durable Indy institution.
Tamika Catchings, Catch a Star: Shining Through Adversity to Become a Champion (2016)
Tamika Catchings is one of the greatest players in WNBA history. Over the course of her fifteen-year career with the Indiana Fever, the 6’1 forward won the WNBA’s MVP Award, earned 10 bids to the league’s All-Star Game, and brought the Fever their first WNBA championship in 2012. Catchings has been permanently enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame, and she currently serves as the Fever’s general manager. Her Catch a Star is one of the most inspiring basketball memoirs you will ever read, a story of perseverance through struggles with hearing loss, the pressures of championship-level basketball, and the difficulties athletes face trying to return to form following serious injuries. Catch a Star belongs in the library of every budding young hoopster.
Tony Dungy, The One Year Uncommon Life Daily Challenge (2011)
Legendary Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy has written several books about his spiritual and personal journey, employing examples from both his coaching career with the Colts and his life outside of professional football. The One Year Uncommon Life Daily Challenge is the most unique among them because it is, in essence, a companion to the practice of everyday life. Over the course of a calendar year, it empowers readers to achieve their personal goals by setting out a series of challenges, meditations, and mental exercises that guide them toward a more fulfilling spiritual and social life.
Sigur E. Whitaker, Tony Hulman: The Man Who Saved the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (2014)
In 1945, a foods wholesaler from Terre Haute named Tony Hulman purchased the moribund Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which had been inactive throughout World War II and was soon slated to be the site of a housing project. Through a combination of thoughtful management and promotional guile, Hulman reinvigorated the venue and its premier event, the Indianapolis 500, returning it to its rightful place as the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” Whitaker’s fascinating biography of Hulman shows how the savior of Indy Car Racing was simultaneously backward-looking, steeping the event in time-tested traditions like the singing of “Back Home Again in Indiana,” and forward-looking, in his building up the United States Auto Club into a national governing body and circuit for open-wheel racing.