Sunday, July 5, 2020

Review: The New Baseball Bible (2017)

By Dan Schlossberg

How much work went into this book?

That's the initial reaction to picking up a copy of "The New Baseball Bible." It's close to 400 pages, quite jammed with baseball history.

All right, it's not all original work this time. This concept started wtih "The Baseball Catalog," which was published in 1980. It's gone through almost a dozen revisions as well as a few name changes over the years. It's apparently difficult to argue with success. Not all of the author's work has centered on this format, but he's certainly gotten the hang of it.

This is grouped into 21 different categories, and each of them is given enough room to breathe. There are sections on rules, umpires, ballparks, players, managers, trades, moments, fans ... you get the idea.

Let's take managers as an example. The chapter has such articles dedicated to player/managers, greats in the field, strategy, and coaches. Filling out the pages are little items from baseball history. In this case, there are stories and quotes about people like Leo Durocher and John McGraw, odd moments of strategy (walking a batter with the bases loaded), and so forth.

You multiply that by 21, and you've got a book - a very big book, all about baseball. Thankfully, there's a good index in the back to help those looking for specifics. I've been working on a book these days on sports history, and this gave me some nice little items.

To overgeneralize, some of the information in the major articles may be known to an older fan who has lived through some of the history of the game. But there's certainly enough here that is presented in other ways to keep a reader entertained.

I found a few cases where the editing could have been just a little sharper, with a few items duplicated. I suppose in a book like this, that's to be expected.

"The New Baseball Bible" certainly was worth a good first look. I didn't go through it all, but I'll get to it. In the meantime, it has found an audience, which is nice. Now it will go in my bookcase, whenever something comes up that needs checking. That works for me nicely.

Four stars

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Friday, June 26, 2020

Review: Gods at Play (2020)

By Tom Callahan

You hear the phrase "I couldn't put it down" when it comes to books. That's more rare than you'd think. Even the good ones call for a break by the reader every once in a while.

Sometimes, though, a book comes along that hits the reader's sweet spot - a book that you enjoy from beginning to end, and are a little sorry that it has ended.

For me, at least, "Gods at Play" by Tom Callahan was such a book.

Callahan bumped into sports journalism almost by accident, as he impressed a sports editor with a bit of knowledge about an incoming Bullets' player named Earl Monroe. Callahan worked up the ladder from there, serving as a newspaper reporter and columnist and serving as Time magazine's sports writer.  He's done a few good books along the way, too.

Those jobs gave him a lot of access to sports stars over the years, particularly in the early days when the players and coaches weren't kept at an arm's length from the media whenever possible. Here he is now, 50 years, telling stories about what the ride was like.

What's more, all of the stories are good ones.

Admittedly, I'm a sucker for tales of sportswriters on the road. They usually center on the adventures of some bright, interesting people who wrote nonfiction for a living - except, of course, when it came to their expense accounts. I should add that memoirs like these from sportswriters used to have a bunch of tales that involved alcohol consumption that haven't gotten less funny as time as gone on and drinking has become a little less, um, glamorous. Thankfully. In this case, Callahan opens the entire book with a story about John Drebinger of the New York Times - and it's a classic. The book had me right there.

From there, we're off on a journey with some of the greats of the business. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Oscar Robertson. Roberto Clemente. Pete Rose. Johnny Bench. Muhammad Ali. Paul Brown. Bill Walsh. Arthur Ashe. Tiger Woods. Secretariat. Joe Montana. Wayne Gretzky. Larry Bird. Mike Tyson. If you are going to write about the biggest sports starts of the second half of the 20th century, that's not a bad way to start. The B List of those included here has some good names too. They are grouped mostly by sports, although tangents are allowed in such exercises.

There are a few excerpts of his work included here, but Callahan only includes one long complete story of his. It's a terrific story about Jerry Smith, a tight end of the Washington Redskins who died of AIDS in 1986, and about how his teammates felt about him. Wonderful work. The chapter on basketball player Bob Cousy fascinates as well; he's still a good, thoughtful man into his 90s.

Admittedly, some of the names and stories might qualify as ancient history to those who are still waiting to have their first adult beverage in an establishment. But I think everything holds up well enough to still be current and enjoyable today.

Callahan really did have quite a ride in the business, as "Gods at Play" shows. Not everyone will love it like I did, but most will enjoy it thoroughly.

Five stars

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Friday, June 19, 2020

Review: Kooks and Degenerates on Ice (2020)

By Thomas L. Whalen

Fifty years?

Fifty years.

It's been a half-century as of 2020 since Bobby Orr did a Superman impression for the Boston Bruins, flying through the air just after scoring the Stanley Cup-winning goal in the final against the St. Louis Blues (pictured here). It was voted the greatest moment in NHL history a short time ago, and it probably hasn't been topped.

What's more, if you'll excuse the personal side of the picture, it's the team that turned me into a hockey fan. I had always been a Celtics fan from a distance of a few hundred miles as a kid, thanks to family ties, but knew nothing about hockey except from seeing the odd game on television out of New York. This crew pulled me in, and I'm still watching the game today.

The Boston Bruins of 1969-70 stole quite a few hearts and minds that year. Orr was the centerpiece of the team, but Phil Esposito was a superstar as well and the supporting cast had a ton of excellent players who knew how to fill their roles. Personality? Check. Toughness? Check. In a different era, that team probably would have won at least four Stanley Cups instead of the two it did capture (1970 and 1972). Circumstances didn't allow the group to stay together and fulfill its potential.

Author Thomas L. Whalen thought it was a good time to give those Bruins the once over. The resulting book is "Kooks and Degenerates on Ice," a line from a quote from backup goalie Eddie Johnston.

The Bruins had been the needy baby brother of the league for a good portion of the 1960s. Then Orr arrived as an 18-year-old sensation, and the Bruins completed one of the most one-sided trades in NHL history in picking up Esposito, Ken Hodge and Fred Stanfield. The other pieces came together soon enough, and the team needed to learn how to win in 1968-69 before preparing for takeoff a year later.

Whalen takes a mostly biographical approach to the task of looking back at that team. The regular season itself really gets little coverage here, with the stories of the key players reviewed. Then the book gets to the playoffs, which didn't offer too many dramatics. The Bruins won their last 10 games in racing through the Rangers, Blackhawks and Blues to the Cup.

Boston had enough to win again in 1972, but a number of forces combined to bring the Bruins back to the pack. The World Hockey Association came along and raided the team's roster for such players as Derek Sanderson, Gerry Cheevers and John McKenzie. Orr started to have severe knee problems a few years into his career, and after a while simply couldn't compensate for his injuries.  

Whalen certainly did some serious homework for this project. The bibliography is a long one, with a variety of sources from books, magazines and newspapers cited. It's tough to argue with what's been written. Still, it's a relatively short book, and there's not much here that you'd call fresh information considering the $36 price tag.

Part of the problem is that this team hasn't been exactly ignored by hockey writers over the years. Esposito and Orr have written books on their hockey lives; Esposito in particular set records for honesty on his less-than-straight-and-narrow ways in his autobiography. Others such as Sanderson have done the same. If you had an interest in the subject, you probably have scratched that itch by now.

The book also wanders to cover the rest of the world's activities, such as the shootings at Kent State, the breakup of the Beatles, and Senator Ted Kennedy's driving accident.  That doesn't include short biographies of opposing players like Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Brad Park, Jacques Plante, Tony Esposito and Glenn Hall. The Bruins' history also gets covered here. Eddie Shore's career gets quite a bit of unexpected coverage. It's not that the information is incorrect or boring; it just seems like padding to the main story about the Bruins.

It's probably worth noting that in the Kindle version I read, there were references to Wayne Gretsky and Gordy Howe. Let's hope the names were corrected for the printed version; they are correctly spelled in the index.

"Kooks and Degenerates on Ice" won't take you much time to read, at least, and it will provide an overview if you need a concise look at the subject of the 1969-70 Bruins. If you are looking for more than that, though - such as interviews with some of the principals as they look back for 50 years - you are liable to be disappointed.

Three stars

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Thursday, June 11, 2020

Review: Broph (2018)

By Gregg Inkpen

There aren't many "underground" sports legends these days. In a world with social media and cameras everywhere, no one who acts outrageously can be anonymous for long.

It wasn't always that way. Let's take the world of hockey, in which the low minors played almost a different sport than their major league counterparts. The stories still circulate about on-ice incidents, and about off-ice actions that involved fans. Life in the Eastern Hockey League and the North American Hockey League were something out of the Wild, Wild West. Play at that level was much like the movie "Slap Shot."

There weren't many Paul Newmans involved in those games, but there was a man from those times who is still something of a legend. Author Gregg Inkpen tries to sort out the facts from fiction in his book, "Broph," about John Brophy. It's a self-published effort that probably could have used a little more editing, but it tells quite a life story along the way.

It's not exactly easy to sum up Brophy in a few paragraphs here. He came out of Nova Scotia and was one of those guys who loved hockey so much that he'd do anything to stay involved in it. "Anything," as defined in the minors of the day, meant be a tough guy. Brophy spent 18 years in minor hockey as a player, retiring at the age of 40 after running up almost 4,000 penalty minutes in the process.

The defenseman had his share of incidents along the way. He wasn't suspended after every game, but it sounds at times as if it wasn't a matter of a lack of trying. There are plenty of tales here about referees getting knocked down and coaches getting hit and chairs being thrown at fans. Quite clearly, Brophy was a man who certainly had some self-control problems in certain situations.

What do you do with a man like that when his playing days are over? Make him a coach. Of course. The ride continued for many more years behind the bench, with more problems with authority figures, among others. He tried to make sure his team was tough enough to encounter any foe in the physical sense, and usually succeeded.

And he won. Brophy won more than 1,000 games in his long career, using methods that dated back to the Eddie Shore era - who famously tied a rope around his goalie in practice so he wouldn't wander away from the net.

Brophy had one big chance to escape urban legend status. He somehow became the head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, in part because he got along with owner Harold Ballard. Brophy didn't win there, but nobody won in Toronto in the 1980s because the organization was under perpetual chaos under Ballard. After the inevitable firing, Brophy had an 11-year run with Hampton Roads of the ECHL - and never had a losing season.

Inkpen deserves great credit for tracking down information here. Plenty of people have stories about Brophy. If John Muckler ever writes an autobiography, he'd probably make sure than a third of it was about dealing with Brophy in the ECHL. He loved to talk about him. (Wayne Gretzky and Co. would get another third, and the rest of his life would finish it.)

The book tries to offer a balanced look at Brophy, and there are plenty of stories about how he wasn't always a maniac. He would help out a young player, quietly help out someone in financial need, or buy Thanksgiving turkeys for the underpaid staff. Fine. Even so, you'd probably need a psychologist to figure out Brophy's behavior - which in the day probably was no joking matter to most and today would even be less tolerated than it was.

I can tell you the portion of the book where Brophy lost me. There's a story from his coaching days in Canada where a child with disabilities turned up in the team locker room - just when Brophy was upset about something. Between obscenities, Brophy kicked the child's wheelchair, pushing him out of the locker room and into a wall. Then the coach trashed the weight machine and broke every stick in sight.

What sort of person does that? It's hard to say, but it would be interesting to know if someone had tried to figure out where all of the anger came from. A little more analysis from those around Brophy might have helped shape a better picture of hm.

"Broph" is not a pretty picture, then. The evidence is simply presented, and it's up to us to sort it out. It is easy to appreciate the work went into this, though. And if you like stories about old-time hockey, you'll find this entertaining.

Three stars

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Saturday, May 30, 2020

Review: Mr. Met (2020)

By Jay Horwitz

We've been lucky enough to receive the SNY feed of New York Mets broadcasts for the past several years. Some of the baseball hasn't been too good in that time, so announcers Gary Cohen, Ron Darling and Keith Hernandez often have spent air time singing the praises of Jay Horwitz, a member of the team's public relations department for almost 40 years and now in charge of alumni relations.

Horwitz has seen a great deal of Mets history, and he's managed to get along with everyone in his job and put a smiles on faces almost every step of the way. To do that with the New York media moves him into Presidential Medal of Freedom territory.

Since that honor probably isn't forthcoming (I think), an autobiography might be the next best thing. Thus, we have "Mr. Met" - a breezy and upbeat look back at the life of one of baseball's good guys.

Horwitz didn't start out life as someone who spend so much time in athletics. He was born blind with one eye but still loved the games. So, he did what he had to do. After college, Horwitz found work with some New York City area colleges as a sports information director. There he had a talent for finding stories that attracted the attention of the media, which is no small task when you are at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Horwitz passed along stories on everyone from a college hockey player in his 40s who doubled as a priest, and a world-class high jumper who was quite short.

From there, it was on to the Mets' job - as he got hired after knocking a large container of orange juice into the lap of general manager Frank Cashen. From there, we're off on a tour of Mets history over four decades. The big seasons (World Series trips) and special events (9/11) get plenty of coverage, as do some of his favorite personalities - like John Franco and David Wright. The author probably spends the most time reviewing the time spent by the various managers used by the Mets over the years. Heck, Horwitz even has plenty of nice things to say about Art Howe, whose tenure in New York wasn't exactly memorable or successful.

That sort of tone more or less runs through the book. There are no scores settled here. Horwitz only makes fun of himself during the 250 or so pages. Several Mets figures apparently supplied quotes for the book, and all of them are quick to praise Horwitz' work over the years. That feels sort of funny to read in an autobiography, and I'm not sure it's all necessary.

The book also quotes several newspaper stories about a particular time and place, occasionally but not always including references to Horwitz. Again, this feels a little like padding. Why not hear about it from the point of view of the author?

"Mr. Met" is obviously written by a devoted Mets fan with a target audience of devoted Mets fans. If you fit into that demographic, the book will be a pleasant read for you - and you'll understand why Horwitz is a beloved figure in Mets lore. Just don't expect any inside stories about what happened during difficult situations in team history from someone who still bleeds orange and blue.

Three stars

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Sunday, May 24, 2020

Review: Three Seconds in Munich (2019)

By David A.F. Sweet

The publication of a book like "Three Seconds in Munich" brings up something of a quandary for a book reader - and, more specifically, a book reviewer - that can be a bit rare.

There's a "haven't I been here before feeling" to reading this.

Back in 2012, Mike Brewster and Taps Gallagher wrote a book about the 1972 Olympic basketball final between the United States and Soviet Union. It was called "Stolen Glory."

I went back to my review of it, now posted on Amazon.com, and looked it over. Some of the remarks for that book probably could apply nicely to "Three Seconds in Munich." I don't really want to do a compare and contrast approach of the two books, partly because 2012 was a long time ago so I'm not sure about how the details might match up.

The subject is still an interesting one. You probably could call this the Soviet equivalent of the "Miracle on Ice," the 1980 hockey win by the United States over the Soviet Union at the Olympics. The twist with the 1972 story is that it came with a great deal of controversy, to the point where no one - even the winners - probably feel too good about what actually happened in the game.

America had taken a 51-50 lead on Doug Collins' two free throws with three seconds left when the USSR inbounded the ball and the game apparently ended. But wait, it hadn't. They tried again to end it, not much happened, and the game apparently ended. But wait, it hadn't. So they tried again. This time, the Soviets completed a long pass for a lay-up, and the game ended for real with a different winner. The USA team was understandably upset, and it has noted never to accept the silver medals in protest. In fact, the members are still upset, more than 45 years later.

I remember watching the game, and the ending really was a mess. Buzzers were going off at odd times, and rules were forgotten or not enforced properly along the way. The referees allowed matters to get out of hand, and chaos followed. Certainly, the language barriers involved didn't help.  basketball official R. William Jones should have kept his nose of the whole situation, especially when he seemed to be rooting for the Soviets in order to made the event more competitive because of more than 30 years of American domination. The best solution probably would have been to declare it "no contest," like they do in boxing, and give out gold medals to both sides. But that wasn't done too often in the Cold War era.

There's little doubt that Sweet is on the side of the Americans here. In his recap of events during the game, he points out all of the times that the USA was apparently a victim. It can feel a little heavy-handed in spots, as if he is more of an advocate than an observer. Sweet also has a chapter called "Was the Fix In?" While the book brings up a few pieces of information, some of it interesting and some of it at least subject to interpretation, you'd think an arranged outcome would have been a bit neater in nature.

Sweet deserves credit for tracking down some of the American participants, and getting good stories. The opening tale from Tom Burleson on his experience during the terrorist attack in Munich is fascinating reading, and there are quotes from others about the Games and the basketball final. A few Soviet players also are heard here, which is nice.

Add it up, and "Three Seconds in Munich" offers a good overview of what went on that night in the summer of 1972 in Munich.  For those who read "Stolen Glory," you probably don't need to read this version. But if you didn't, it should work pretty well.

Three stars

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Saturday, May 16, 2020

Review: Bouton (2020)

By Mitchell Nathanson

The stories from those who were baseball fans around a particular age in the fall of 1970 are remarkably similar. They were usually boys in high school or close to entering it. Their parents came around and asked what they wanted for Christmas or their birthday, and the answer came back, “I’d like a baseball book.”

But they didn’t want just any baseball book. They wanted a particular baseball book. The parents, who probably hadn’t been paying attention to the fuss caused by this particular baseball book, probably didn’t give it much thought as they headed to the book store to buy it. They probably were merely happy to see their boy showing interest in reading.

And that’s how a certain generation came to acquire “Ball Four” – Jim Bouton’s diary of the 1969 baseball season. Their parents didn’t know what was inside of those covers, but their kids did. The youngsters learned about drug use and Peeping Toms and office politics and the joys and frustrations of playing the game. Every assumption we used to have about the baseball life was essentially blown up, page by page.

What’s more, Bouton was the perfect man to perform the demolition – someone at the right place in the right time. Not only was he an outsider – someone who didn’t quite fit in with the rest of the group – but he was also smart and funny. “Ball Four” was frequently hilarious. It holds up today quite well on a number of levels.

Those kids, who are now on the verge of retirement, probably are a big part of the target audience of “Bouton,” a biography by Mitchell Nathanson. They will enjoy this thoroughly.

It’s always interesting to read stories about how baseball players were scouted and “recruited” in the days before the amateur draft began in 1965. Bouton was not a sensation in high school, but was persistent and worked his way toward prospect status. After spending a little time in college, he signed with the New York Yankees – who, in that era, more or less had their pick of players because everyone wanted to play with a perennial champion. Bouton surprised everyone by moving into the Yankees’ starting rotation.

Bouton was a 21-game winner in 1963 and pitched in the World Series, but he was already starting to feel pain when he threw. Oh oh. He scratched out one more good season in 1964, and then he and the Yankees, by coincidence, both disintegrated. Bouton hung around the Yankees organization for a few years without success, and his career was clearly going nowhere.

However, along the way, Bouton made friends with some of the sports writers covering the Yankees in that era – the ones that had noticed what was going on in the Sixties and had stopped writing the same old stories that had been part of sports journalism for a few decades. Bouton was the perfect subject for them – smart, funny, accessible, and aware.

You can see the roots of “Ball Four” taking shape here, and that section might be the most interesting part of the book. Bouton teamed up with Leonard Shecter, and decided to work on a diary of Bouton’s baseball year. Everything fell into place for the project. Bouton started the season with the first-year Seattle Pilots, a collection of has-beens and never-will-bes, and ended it with the Houston Astros, who were on the fringes of the pennant race. Bouton wrote down notes on what he saw, and read those thoughts into a tape recorder – and shipped everything to Shecter, who turned it into a book.

You may have heard what happened from there. The Baseball Establishment reacted with absolute horror, which did nothing but increase sales to those who wondered what all the fuss was about. A classic was born, and something of a folk hero was created.

The story wanders a bit from there, if only because Bouton’s life did the same. He’d get an idea in his head, and it would be hard to dislodge it until it was played out. The pitcher did return to the majors for a short time with Atlanta in 1978, when others would have given up on that dream long ago. Bouton went into sportscasting in New York City, where his free-spirited approach of ignoring the usual rules in the field helped pave the way for the revolution in that industry. Some business ventures didn’t work, some of them – like “Big League Chew’ bubble gum – were a fabulous success. Bouton always something new was just over the horizon.

Nathanson talked to many people who provide perspective on Bouton’s life … or, in a sense, lives. The families, including both of Bouton’s wives, are quite forthcoming about how everything happened. Professional associates also had plenty to say about him. Even when they didn’t particularly like what Bouton did, they agree that he certainly ranked as one of the most memorable characters in his life.

It’s hard to think that anyone who hasn’t read “Ball Four” will be too interested in this story from a distance. However, the book is still out there if you wish to find it, and it is still worth your time. For those who have memorized its contents, though, this book will be eagerly gobbled up by those anxious to read the rest of the story.  

Five stars 


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