Five Best Books on Pursuing Impossible Dreams

From a Wall Street Journal essay by Michael Loynd headlined “Five Best: Books on Pursuing Impossible Dreams”:

Cinderella Man
By Jeremy Schaap (2005)

1. An aging prizefighter, James J. Braddock finds himself broke and washed up during the Great Depression, unable to get a fight or enough work on the docks to feed his family, when he’s offered one last chance to step back into the ring as the likely next victim for a much-hyped heavyweight contender. Everyone knows Braddock will lose—except Braddock, who’s still clinging to old dreams of one day being the world heavyweight champion. When Braddock shocks the boxing community by knocking out the upstart in three rounds, fate presents a path to a heavyweight title shot. Jeremy Schaap crafts an inspirational page-turner of this 10-to-1 underdog as Braddock tries to defy the odds and pull his family out of poverty. If successful, he will square off against the superior heavyweight champion, Max Baer, whose hard-hitting punches have already killed two boxers. Better than Rocky because it really happened.

The Boys of Winter
By Wayne Coffey (2005)

2. As the Soviet Union’s iron curtain went up around Eastern Europe, pulling the West into a Cold War for global dominance, the Soviets’ Red Army hockey team exemplified the supremacy they wanted to project to the world. For 20 years they proved unbeatable, defeating NHL all-star teams, while the U.S., a decade from its victory in the space race, appeared to be unraveling from the failure of Vietnam, the shame of Watergate and a bad economy choked by stagflation. “The Boys of Winter” is the incredible story of a ragtag team of college hockey players and their determined coach, Herb Brooks, who sought to reclaim America’s swagger by achieving what no one believed possible: defeating the invincible Red Army team. This was every bit a Cold War battle between the two superpowers, waged on the ice at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics. Wayne Coffey tells a riveting tale of the behind-the-scenes struggles leading up to that against-all-odds moment that gave Americans a renewed sense of confidence and a reason to dream big again. As the sports announcer Al Michaels shouted in the game’s waning seconds, “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”

Shoeless Joe
By W.P. Kinsella (1982)

3. Ray hears a mysterious voice in his cornfield calling him to plow over his crop and build a baseball field: “If you build it, he will come.” Risking bankruptcy and losing his farm, Ray feels compelled to take this insane leap of faith, which he believes will give his late father’s fallen hero, Shoeless Joe Jackson, a chance to redeem himself from the Black Sox scandal of 1919 that banned him from the game for life. When the ghosts of Shoeless Joe and his seven disgraced teammates appear on Ray’s ballfield, the voice sends Ray on another crazy quest across the country to ease the pain of a reclusive writer, then still another task of redemption as Ray’s farm moves closer to being auctioned off. An ode to the spirituality of baseball, this magical fable is about the harrowing leaps we must sometimes take to chase our dreams, about trusting our gut, healing old wounds, and about the bond between a father and son that will leave you wanting to hug those you love.

The Natural
By Bernard Malamud (1952)

4. At an age when most professional ballplayers retire, 34-year-old Roy Hobbs becomes the oldest rookie for the New York Knights, still determined to become “the best there ever was.” Fifteen years earlier, an ill-advised love affair derailed his dream with a bullet to the gut. Now recovered, the athlete has one last shot to make good on his God-given talent—if he can persuade the manager to play him. After weeks of warming the bench, Roy gets a chance to pinch hit; a crushing swing of his homemade bat, Wonderboy, literally tears the cover off the ball and puts him on track to become the legend he always believed he could be. Bernard Malamud’s classic tale, set during baseball’s golden era of the 1930s, is both an inspiring story of believing in yourself and a cautionary tale of the temptations that can thwart the pursuit of our dreams.

The Boys in the Boat
By Daniel James Brown (2013)

5. Daniel James Brown’s moving story about team building and overcoming impossible odds centers on intercollegiate rowing and an abandoned teen from Washington state, Joe Rantz, who must fend for himself during the Great Depression. Given an opportunity to attend college if he can make the University of Washington’s crew team, Joe must learn to let down his walls and trust his teammates if they are ever to have a chance at representing the U.S. at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. A fascinating look at what it takes to succeed at the highest levels of rowing, this gripping underdog story pits these poor boys from the Pacific Coast against the elite powerhouses of the Ivy League and ultimately against Hitler’s Olympic crew team. More than a story about believing in yourself, “The Boys in the Boat” is about believing in others and surrendering yourself to the greater good to achieve something beyond what any individual can do.

Michael Loynd is chairman of the St. Louis Olympic Committee, a member of the International Society of Olympic Historians, and a sports attorney and lecturer. He is the author of All Things Irish: A Novel.

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