Sunday, April 23, 2017

Review: Arnie (2017)

By Tom Callahan

The year 2016 was a tough one for sports icons. We lost Muhammad Ali, one of the best boxers ever and a man who influenced world culture. We lost Gordie Howe, a simple, down-to-earth guy who, depending on your standards, is one of the finalists as the greatest hockey player.

And we lost Arnie. You didn't need to be a golfer to know that we're talking about Arnold Palmer, one of the most important players in the sport's history.

That's the guy Tom Callahan, a veteran golf writer, profiles in his book, "Arnie."

Palmer might be an example of the "right man at the right place" school of history. He turned professional in the middle of the 1950s, when Americans had more leisure time and were using it to play more golf. It was also when television started to influence American culture, and Palmer was perfect for that. You can tell by the photographs out of that era that Palmer was "cool" - Steve McQueen with a driver.

Palmer loved to compete, and was never afraid to take risks in search of victory. Sometimes it didn't work, and you could see his expression turn briefly sad. But when it paid off, the smile lit up the golf course. The crowds noticed that, of course, and loved to follow him. They turned into an army - "Arnie's Army."

Palmer had a great run of about 10 years in which he was winning major championships or in contention for them. His biggest problem was that Jack Nicklaus came along in the early 1960s, and Nicklaus could play. He turned out to be the best ever. (Almost the same thing happened with Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods.)

For a few years, Palmer and Nicklaus had what the other wanted - Palmer wanted to be as good as Nicklaus on the course; Nicklaus wanted to be as beloved as Palmer was with the public. That made the relationship a little frosty for a while, but they were both smart enough to figure out that they had a lot more in common than they had differences. Palmer spent a lot of time making money and making friends, and he admits that probably hurt his golf game. But, as the book mentions, on a personal level it was a good trade.

Palmer was very good at making money, but he was better at making friends. Yes, he was "Arnold Palmer," but was friendly to everyone in sight. Arnie answered his mail, signed endless autographs, chatted with young players, sat through countless interviews, and at the end no doubt posed for hundreds of selfies. And he seemed to remember everyone along the way.

Here's a story from the book that shows what he was all about. Two soldiers from Vietnam, Jeff and Wally, sent a note to Palmer asking if he could send them some sand wedges and balls so that they could practice bunker shots. Palmer sent them right away and enclosed a personal letter. Months later, they both returned home safely. One went to the Western Open in Chicago and found a way to thank him in person for the gesture: "I'm one of the guys you sent sand wedges to in Vietnam." Palmer's response: "Are you Jeff or Wally?" He remembered their names. Unbelievable. But that was Arnie.

Callahan arranges the chapters by year, and the story is in somewhat chronological order. But it's more of a jumping off point for anecdotes about Palmer and his accomplices over the years. There are times when when it's easy to wonder in the text, "How did we get here?" But Callahan gets back to Arnie soon enough, and tells another story about him.

The pages of "Arnie" go by quickly (it's 250 pages of text, plus a long appendix), and you are sure to laugh a little and cry a little along the way.  This isn't a definitive biography, but it sure shows why so many people loved him. That makes it worthwhile.

Four stars

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Friday, April 7, 2017

Review: Leo Durocher (2017)

By Paul Dickson

The Buffalo News is publishing my review of this one, which you can find clicking here.

The short version - author Paul Dickson works hard to separate fact from fiction concerning the baseball manager's life. It's not easy, considering Durocher himself created some of the confusion. Durocher doesn't come off as a particularly likeable person here, but it's hard to look away when he's at his best and at his worst.

Four stars

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Review: Son of Bum (2017)

By Wade Phillips with Vic Carucci

The word that comes to mind when reading "Son of Bum" is ... curious.

Let's start with the basics. Wade Phillips might be the most well-known assistant coach in football these days. That's sort of like being a well-known spy, another profession not known for publicity-seekers. (Although there have been a few coaches who don't shy away from cameras.)

That's certainly in part due to the fact that he served as a head coach in a few different cities, including Buffalo and Dallas. Phillips also has a good reputation for putting solid defenses together wherever he's gone. And being a football coach, an occupation that keeps moving van companies in business, he's gone to a lot of places over the years.

But at the start of his football career, Wade was mostly known as the son of Bum Phillips. For the young readers out there, Bum put together some really good Houston Oilers teams in the late 1970s. The problem was that the Pittsburgh Steelers - the Steel Curtain Steelers - were always in the way.

Bum was loaded with personality, and he captivated the city of Houston with those teams. But that Phillips never could get over the hump, lost his job as a result, and moved to a much worse situation in New Orleans. Bum built up a decent team with the Saints, but eventually departed like most coaches do.

Wade is an entirely different personality. He received plenty of credit for his work in the Super Bowl win by the Denver Broncos in Feb. 2016, when he was the defensive coordinator. It was a nice reward for more than 30 years of good work in the NFL. Wade always came across as relatively serious, and someone who said what he meant without much flair. People like that don't often have books published.

The book is subtitled "Lessons My Dad Taught Me About Football and Life." That's true for most of the first half of the book. Bum frequently had Wade on his coaching staffs when the son was just getting started in the business. At times it seems as if Wade is more concerned with telling about his dad's approaches and experiences than his own. Since Bum wrote a book of his own in 2010, it's easy to wonder about how this might work. But Wade's affection for his dad certainly is evident right from the beginning, and certainly Dad would be proud of his son's reputation around the league at this point.

Once Bum leaves the NFL, Wade sticks to his own lifestory. It's covered relatively briskly, without spending too much time on individual games. The most interesting stories of the book probably center on switches in jobs over the years. Phillips has a lot to say about a pair of NFL owners with completely different personalities - Jerry Jones of the Cowboys and Ralph Wilson of the Bills. I'm fond of saying that teams usually lose for a reason, and Phillips' comments about what it was like to coach under Wilson back up that statement. Phillips' exit from Buffalo was a strange one for all concerned, and the Bills haven't been to the playoffs since he left almost two decades ago.

One game does get a little extra coverage in these pages, and it's that Super Bowl win. There are a few good stories from that day, and it's obvious what a personally satisfying moment that was for Phillips.

Otherwise, the veteran coach spends just a little time dealing with the X's and O's of the business. The terminology of pro football can be intimidating, even to those who follow the game fairly closely as fans, but there's little here that will stop an average football fan in his or her tracks. This is also a pretty quick read, which is appropriate.

I won't give this a rating, as coworker and friend Vic Carucci worked on the book with him. The two have put together a book that won't intimidate many, but will instead give a fairly good look at a straight shooter. Those seeking to learn about a man and a profession that usually is closed to the public will pick up some insight with "Son of Bum."

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Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Review: Casey Stengel (2017)

By Marty Appel

There's a lot to be said for being the right person at the right time at the right place.

Ask Casey Stengel.

That might sum up the life of Stengel. Marty Appel uses those words and many more in his new biography of the legendary baseball figure, "Casey Stengel - Baseball's Greatest Character."

Appel, also known as George Steinbrenner's first public relations director with the New York Yankees, is well-qualified to try to put a picture of Stengel together. He's written several books on baseball, and obviously has plenty of contacts through the Yankees' history and through baseball to make this work in an entertaining and comprehensive style.

Stengel's real name was Charles, but he was from Kansas City - and he picked up the name Casey (as in K.C.) along the way. Stengel always preferred baseball to school work, and dropped out of high school a little early to sign a professional contract. And why not? His starting salary was twice what his father was earning.

Stengel wasn't a bad player, reaching the majors and bouncing around through a few teams once he got there. It included six years in Brooklyn and three with the New York Giants; Casey liked playing on the big stage that New York offered. Stengel also displayed an ability to be entertaining. The sportswriters would call it "colorful" or say he was a "real character." Whatever you call it, Casey was the type of guy who once reacted to a greeting at the batter's box by taking off his cap - and having a sparrow fly off his head. You don't see that today.

Stengel played 14 years. Baseball-reference.com's list of comparable batters has him as a close match to Cleon Jones - who signed with the Mets when Stengel worked there. He had a habit of turning up at historic moments - like hitting the first home run in Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, or hitting the first home run in a World Series in Yankee Stadium.

After finishing his playing career, Stengel started to work off the field - and provided a laugh-out-loud moment in his book right away. He was named the president and manager of a minor-league team in Worcester. Soon he was offered a job as a manager in Toledo, but the franchise owner in Worcester didn't want to let him take it. So Casey the manager wrote a letter to Casey the president, resigning from the position. Casey the president wrote back with "I join the fans of Worcester in expressing our appreciation for your outstanding services rendered and wish you luck in your new position. We congratulate Toledo on getting your valuable services."

Stengel managed for several years in the majors, guiding Brooklyn and the Boston Braves in the 1930s and early 1940s. But he only had one team play above .500, so no one thought of him as a genius. But Stengel still landed the Yankees job in 1949, and promptly won five straight World Series title - which has never been matched. It's funny how smart he got when he had good players. Joe Torre had a similar experience in the Bronx, as he guided the great Yankee teams in the late 1990s after having little success as a manager beforehand.

Some loved Stengel, and some disliked him. The sports writers and the public generally loved him, though, building up good will. He could be unconventional as a manager, pinch-hitting for players in the second inning and making odd decisions with the pitching staff. But generally, they worked out pretty well.

Appel barely touches on one part of the Yankees' story in the 1950s, which is race. The Yankees didn't integrate the major league roster until 1955, well behind most other teams. That would seem to be a sign that Yankee scouts weren't in a hurry to add African Americans to the roster, although a couple of anecdotes indicates that Stengel didn't have any problems with an integrated roster.

Stengel took a year off after the Yankees ordered him to retire after the 1960 season, and then turned up as the manager of the New York Mets. The expansion team wanted some attention, and Stengel certainly could provide that. The Mets soon outdrew the rival and much better Yankees. But New York's Mets were a terrible baseball team in those early years, one of the worst in history. It's easy to wonder if Stengel was the right man for that job in a baseball sense, and if the Mets were mismanaged in their first few years of play. Those issues go generally unexplored here.

Appel did plenty of research, and comes up with some facts that must have taken some digging to find. He is helped in his task by using portions of an unpublished autobiography by Stengel's wife, Edna. Written in 1958, the tales from that do help illuminate Casey as a complete person - one who was drawn to the spotlight, unable to pull away in spite of his wife's wishes in that area. There are a few moments in the book where the story becomes a little choppy, but for the most part this is an easy lift to read.

Appel also obviously is very fond of Stengel as a character, and it's tough not to be. Any criticism of the subject is rather gentle, and quickly offset by warm words. For those who don't know why we still remember the legendary figure so well, "Casey Stengel" fills in the gaps well.

Four stars

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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Review: Lasting Impact (2016)

By Kostya Kennedy

Kostya Kennedy absolutely nails the key issue about concussions in football in his book, "Lasting Impact."

At the end, he writes, "The notion of football as a sport overwhelmingly played by the have-notes and consumed by the haves is not an easy notion to bear. Something will be deeply lost."

We all have read the stories about retired pro football players who are suffering from brain injuries later in life. Gale Sayers, the Hall of Fame running back, just added his name to the list recently. Are we headed to a time when the only people who will take the risk of playing football are those with the least to lose? In other words, is football going down a path that was pioneered by boxing? Because in terms of general interest, that has turned into a road to something approaching irrelevance.

We don't know yet. But Kennedy headed to high school in 2014 to see what the football landscape looked like at that level. He found a sport with plenty of positives going for it, but with the concussion lurking nearby like a thunderstorm in the distance.

He did it by spending time with the New Rochelle football team, located north of New York City. New Rochelle is a good-sized suburb with a mix of demographics roaming its school hallways.  The Huguenauts have had good success over the years, usually fielding winning teams thanks to a veteran coach who worries about X's and O's some of the time and his players' personal problems at others.

There are profiles of the coaches, administrators and players, naturally. Lou DiRienzo, the coach of the team, comes off pretty well. High school head coaches receive a little more exposure to real-world problems than those higher up the food chain in college and the pros; those guiding such teams are a little more isolated from the players on an everyday basis.

Every so often, Kennedy has to shift his focus to the real world - for example, the death of two high school football player relatively close to New Rochelle. And that doesn't include concussions that seem to be something close to a weekly occurrence in football these days.

Just to add an unexpected twist to the story, who enters the scene but Ray Rice - just after he was released by his NFL team after a video was released showing him striking his future wife in an elevator. Rice played for New Rochelle, and returned to his high school during the season in the middle of the controversy surrounding the situation and his fate in it. 

New Rochelle at least came through for Kennedy with a good season. But the author wisely doesn't get bogged down in too many details of a year that is in the past and won't be that interesting to most readers - even though it's easy to root for some of the people involved. Kennedy is more interested in focusing on how high school football can supply support, discipline, and bonding for kids. It does that in many cases, but it also leaves kids on the sidelines with headaches - and who knows what's ahead for them?

Kennedy wrote a pair of terrific books on Joe DiMaggio's streak and Pete Rose. This book isn't quite so obviously compelling because of the less-famous subject matter, but the author's smarts still come through nicely here.

By the end of "Lasting Impact," Kennedy still isn't sure whether he'd let a son of his play high school football. He writes that he had no agenda going in, and still didn't have one going out. Kennedy can see arguments on both sides.The romantic side of high school football is still appealing, but the risks of playing become more real all the time. It's tough to know what the right answer is in every case.

Four stars

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Thursday, March 16, 2017

Once There Were Giants (2017)

By Jerry Izenberg

Quick - name someone who is one of the heavyweight boxing champions of the world.

Me neither.

Somewhere along the line, heavyweight boxers stopped mattering. Maybe it's because most of the potential good ones are playing linebacker somewhere. Maybe it's because we became tired of the financial shenanigans in which the people not doing the work took money from the people doing the work - which has been going on since forever.

Maybe it's because the people running Ultimate Fighting and Mixed Martial Arts know more about marketing, especially in a world where they control the entire business. Maybe it's because people figured out there are easier ways to climb out of poverty.

Maybe it's a combination of all of the above.

In any case, it wasn't always like this. Once upon a time, the heavyweight champion was a major celebrity who was considered the toughest man on the planet. Come to think of it, it wasn't that long ago where that was the case - only a quarter of a century, a blink as these things go.

Veteran sportswriter Jerry Izenberg was around for the glory days of the heavyweight division. He apparently was at most of the big fights, and knew the champs and contenders personally. Izenberg empties out the memory book with "Once There Were Giants."

The author warms up for the assignment with a chapter on the history of the relationship between boxing and organized crime. The connection goes back to the start of the 20th century, according to Izenberg, but grew in importance in the 1930s and may have peaked in the 1950s. Fixing the results certainly happened, but the easiest way to influence the sport was through shady deals in management and curious matchmaking. In other words, connections were more important than victories in getting a title shot.

The last of the heavyweight champions to have obvious mob connections was Sonny Liston in the early 1960s. It speaks volumes that some people thought the heavyweight title dropped in class when it went from Liston to Muhammad Ali, who announced he had joined the Black Muslims right after beating Liston. Everyone seemed to be afraid of that group, even the syndicate.

The roll call of champions from there is pretty impressive. It includes Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Larry Holmes, and Mike Tyson. Even the contenders and the brief champions were at least interesting - Ken Norton, Leon Spinks, Earnie Shavers, Ron Lyle, etc. Once Tyson's career blew up, partly because of self-inflicted wounds, things haven't been the same. Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis haven't faced enough quality opponents for them to qualify as anything close to all-time greats.

Izenberg has plenty of good stories about the greats and near-greats. For example, the author writes that Frazier was something of a one-trick pony for most of his career in the form of a great left hook. However, Frazier had a surprise for Ali in their legendary third fight. He had been discreetly working on developing a punch with his right hand. Frazier shocked Ali with that new skill, and it turned the fight into a classic.

There's some good material here. Izenberg knows his boxing, and his version of events generally feel authentic. He also has some funny lines along the way, and that does wonders for making the story more fun.

On the minus side, this is a mighty quick read - and would have been even quicker without the tales of organized crime that don't feel like it's a good fit with the story. Izenberg also could have used a little more cleaning in his editing. A few facts and incidents get repeated along the way.

"Once There Were Giants" comes across as an entertaining enough package - maybe not a book you'll save forever, but enjoyable along the way. I'm in the sweet spot for the target audience, naturally. The catch comes for those who are too young to remember the principals here. They probably won't be interested enough to pick this up in the first place. But their dads might.

Four stars

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Monday, February 27, 2017

Review: One Nation Under Baseball (2017)

By John Florio and Ouisie Shapiro

Now, here's an interesting subject.

You have have heard that America sort of blew up in the 1960s in any number of ways. All sorts of changes came to the country, and they were packed into the decade. It was hard to keep up with the way the rules seemed to change by the hour.

In contract, the game of baseball remained relatively unchanged. People who had come from 1895 in a time machine still would have recognized it in 1965 - nine innings, three outs, and so on.

For some, that was good. They could go to the ballpark and see decades of tradition on display. Heck, most of the players weren't allowed to wear long hair, so every day was turn back the clock day in that sense.

But there were all sorts of changes taking place in the game, even if they might have been relatively subtle. Looking at the decade in that sense is the premise of "One Nation Under Baseball."

After an excellent introduction by Bob Costas about how important and interesting those changes were, authors John Florio and Ouisie Shapiro jump right into a fascinating anecdote from pitcher Jim Grant. He was in Detroit in 1960 on a road trip when he got a call from aides of Senator John F. Kennedy, telling him that the Presidential nominee wanted to have breakfast with him the next morning. It took some convincing, but Grant did make it down to the hotel restaurant for breakfast. The two men had a frank conversation about civil rights, and Grant was impressed that Kennedy bothered to seek him out.

And away we go through the 1960s, covering a variety of topics and presenting some stories. Some are familiar, but several are pretty fresh because of interviews done just for the book - even from the perspective of about 50 years later. That helps make it at least interesting.

Even so, this bogs down a bit in relatively short order. The baseball stories will at least interest those picking it up, but the book goes in a variety of other directions. Before we know it, we're reading about a New York City newspaper strike, or the Beatles, or Muhammad Ali, or New York major John Lindsay. In addition, some times the stories don't match the overall theme of changes in society changing baseball. There's a portion of the book on the 1969 New York Mets, who pulled off one of the great surprises in baseball history by coming from nowhere to win a World Series. Forests have been sacrificed to tell that story, but it doesn't seem like a particularly good fit in this book. Denny McLain's 31-win season gets a look here, but it's hard to figure out where that fits in with the narrative. At least we can guess why he never came close to repeating that big season (arm issues were bothering him by the end of 1968).

What's more, I'm not sure all of the anecdotes go anywhere. We see how the road to free agency started, and how the sport became more color-blind, but there isn't much analysis given along the way. I would guess that most people picking this up might not want to read a sociologist's view of baseball, but this went a little too far in the other direction. Even a final chapter summing up what had happened would have been good.

The bibliography here is very impressive, and it's almost surprising that the authors got this down to only 200 or so pages of text. "One Nation Under Baseball" will at least interest those who want to learn more about the Sixties, but they might be disappointed that there's not more to the story.

(Footnote: I found out after writing this that Shapiro was one of the interviewed people in the fine HBO documentary on the Boston Red Sox of 2003 - revised after 2004.)

Three stars

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