IT is late on a lockdown Saturday and I am fully immersed in the travails of a garrulous, indiscreet pitcher for the Seattle Pilots and then the Houston Astros in the 1969 baseball season. As a denizen of Glasgow, I am familiar with the baseball bat though, curiously, the baseball has always been less common on the city’s mean streets. The answer to why I am reading a baseball memoir is simple. If one was to search for the origins of the tell-all sports biography, to hunt for the work that allowed more than a peek into a locker room, then Ball Four by Jim Bouton is an excellent place to start and finish.

Bouton reveals drugs use, sexual crimes and misdemeanours, inordinate drinking and reduces Hall of Fame reputations to tatters. He was hated, ostracised and vilified for his work. The book sold millions of copies and has been listed in Time magazine’s 100 greatest non-fiction works of the 20th century.

It is a loud, sometimes uncouth testimony to the allure of the sports book and what they can tell us about life far from the roar of the crowd. It sits, nervously fidgeting, among the more sober great works of American sports literature and unconsciously influenced a genre that has taken hold in sports writing, that of telling the story without any recourse to glamour or false piety.

Ball Four was followed in Britain by Only a Game? by Eamon Dunphy, the chronicle of life as a player with Millwall. It is the best football memoir. (Note: all opinions are mine but it is my ball and I’m setting the rules). Dunphy changed the tone of the player biography in this country. Slowly, British publishers realised that not only could sports books be lucrative but that they could say something of substance.

It was a concept American editors and publishers grasped long before Bouton reached for a pen. Sportswriting was viewed as something frivolous among many editors and critics in Britain. It was never so in the USA. The best writers – or, at least, many of them – were on the sports desks. Ring Lardner, Red Smith, AJ Leibling, Budd Schuberg and Gay Talese could write well on anything. They wrote with beauty, wit and insight on sport.

They did not consider sports desks as “the toy department”, the description once lazily used by uninterested British editors. They knew, too, that they were working in an area where the best practitioners of the art had found stories and personalities that demanded to be investigated.

In fiction in Britain, Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby, The Thistle and the Grail by Robin Jenkins and This Sporting Life by David Storey stand as the exceptions in a genre that has largely been neglected by writers and publishers.

The American story is different. Many great American writers have written about sport or referenced it heavily in novels: Philip Roth’s the Great American Novel has a baseball team at the centre of its narrative, Bernard Malamud’s The Natural is about a baseball player, the hero in John Updike’s Rabbit series is a former basketball player, Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe series begins with The Sportswriter, Don de Lillo’s underworld opens with a historic smack of a baseball (one performed by a lad from Tollcross in Glasgow, but that’s another story), The Thrill of the Grass by WP Kinsella uses baseball to play on themes on nostalgia, loss and regret.

But it is the American tradition, too, that big hitters should step into the ring and take on the blustering, temperamental and heavyweight subject of sport in non-fiction. Thus Norman Mailer wrote The Fight about Ali v Foreman in the jungle, Updike collected a series of essays on golf and David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, produced his best non-fiction work in King of the World, an autobiography of Muhammad Ali.

There is no raising of eyebrows in the United States when literary or political journalists take on a sporting project. Remnick, for example, wrote the definitive book on the collapse of the Soviet Union (Lenin’s Tomb), a perceptive portrait of the young Barack Obama (The Bridge) but knew Ali was a subject that deserved to be mined further. Similarly, Dave Marannis moved from writing the best biography of Bill Clinton (First in Class) to conjuring up one of the best biographies in any genre in When Pride Still Mattered, a life of Vince Lombardi, the coach of the Green Bay Packers.

The books that make the podium:

Athletics: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami; The Dirtiest Race in History, Richard Moore; Endurance: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Emil Zatopek, Rick Broadbent

Ali (there has to be specific section for Muhammad): King of the World, David Remnick; Ghosts of Manila, Mark Kram; Ali, Jonathan Eig.

Boxing: McIlvanney on Boxing, Hugh McIlvanney; The Sweet Science, AJ Liebling; Dark Trade, Duncan McRae.

Baseball: The Summer of 49, David Halberstam; The Boys of Summer, Roger Kahn; Joe Di Maggio, Richard Creamer.

Basketball: Playing for Keeps, David Halberstam; Eleven Rings, Phil Jackson; When the Game Was Ours, Jackie MacMullan.

Cricket: Beyond a Boundary, CL James; Rain Men, Marcus Berkmann; The Mystery Spinner, Gideon Haigh.

Cycling: We Were Young and Carefree, Laurent Fignon; In Search of Robert Millar, Richard Moore; Seven Deadly Sins, David Walsh.

Football (American): Johnny Unitas, Tom Callahan; When Pride Still Mattered, David Marannis; The Blind Side, Michael Lewis.

Football: Only a Game, Eamon Dunphy; Brilliant Orange, David Winner; All Played Out, Pete Davies. 

Golf: In Search of Tiger, Tom Callahan; Four-Iron in the Soul, Lawrence Donegan; Preferred Lies, Andrew Greig.

Horseracing: Secretariat, William Nack; Seabiscuit, Laura Hillenbrand; Calling the Horses, Peter O’Sullevan.

Motorport: The Death of Ayrton Senna, Richard Williams; Winning is Not Enough, Jackie Stewart; Crashed and Burned, Tommy Byrne.

Mountaineering: Into the Silence, Wade Davis; Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer; Touching the Void, Joe Simpson.

Rugby: The Grudge, Tom English; The Jersey, Peter Bills; How We Beat The All Blacks, John Reason.

Swimming/Surfing: Haunts of the Black Masseur, Charles Sprawson; Barbarian Days, William Finnegan; This Is Me, Ian Thorpe.

Tennis: Levels of the Game, John McPhee; Strokes of Genius, Jon Wertheim; Open, Andre Agassi.

Miscellaneous: The Boys in the Boat, Daniel James Brown (rowing); Pocket Money, Gordon Burn (snooker); Godforsaken Sea, Derek Lundy (sailing).