Friday, October 6, 2017

Review: Dennis Maruk (2017)

By Dennis Maruk with Ken Reid

Nineteen players have scored 60 goals in an NHL season. There's little doubt about who are the two most anonymous members of that club.

Even Dennis Maruk, who is one of the answers to that question, knows he belongs there. He also knows that Bernie Nicholls is the other surprising answer. They may not be household names, but they are linked with named like Gretzky, Hull, Lemieux, Bossy and Lemieux.

That 60-goal season might be the reason why Maruk wrote this self-title autobiography. Fans of hockey from the 1970s and 1980s might want to know a bit more about him.

The NHL struggled at times during the 1970s, and Maruk was part of the ride by playing on some bad teams. He was the last of the California Seals (Oakland) in the NHL, and moved on to be a Cleveland Baron, was shipped to Minnesota, was traded to Washington - where he did his best work for his best teams - and then returned to Minnesota. The forward only came reasonably close to a Stanley Cup once, reaching the semifinals before running into a powerful New York Islanders team that was in the midst of a dynasty.

He was one of those guys who did what it took to score, and was very successful at it for a couple of years. Maruk had that 60-goal season in 1981-82, and had 50 the other year before. But he dropped to 31 in 1982-83, and never got about 22 after that. Still, Maruk finished with 356 goals, and that's not a bad career's work.

This book is broken into 60 chapters, which is an interesting gimmick. But in a story that takes relatively very little time to tell, I'm not sure it works so well. Maruk mentions what should be big moments in his life throughout the book, but is quick to say that he remembers absolutely no details from them. He even did a little searching of YouTube, but didn't find much. Mix that in with a lack of stories about good teams and players, and it takes less than two hours to get through this.

Since retiring from hockey, Maruk has been a little lost. He has had a series of jobs in and out of hockey over the quarter-century plus. At one point, Maruk announced to his wife in Minnesota - who had a good professional situation of her own there - that he had taken a job in Louisiana and they'd be moving. Period, end of discussion. That didn't go over too well. It led to a divorce, and puts the reader squarely in the ex-wife's corner.

To be fair, Maruk had bigger problems than that during his pro-hockey days, to the point where he came close to suicide. He's better now, and you hope he will stay on the right track for the rest of his days.

Dennis Maruk's story might have made for an interesting television feature or magazine articles, as he's a reminder that a midlife career change doesn't always turn out to be seamless. The book version probably won't work for most.

Two stars

Learn more about this book. 

Be notified of new posts on this site via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Review: Gratoony the Loony (2017)

By Gilles Gratton and Greg Oliver

A great many "characters" have passed through the portals of professional hockey. Gilles Gratton not only is one of them, he can lay a claim to being the biggest character of them all.

Gratton spent some time in the World Hockey Association and the National Hockey League in the 1970s. Not surprisingly, he was a goalie - a position that is filled with unconventional actors. Gratton wasn't a bad goalie, but his skills always took a back seat to his antics and comments.

It took a while for Gratton to get his thoughts down on paper - maybe too long, since few might remember him at this point - but he finally has done so. "Gratoony the Loony" is that autobiography.

Gratton does a little explaining about his life and his actions in this quite short book. Tellingly, it doesn't sound like he had a particularly happy childhood,with parents who were frequently indifferent. Gratton sort of fell into hockey; it's probably difficult not to give the sport at least a try if you are growing up in Canada. Besides, his brother Norm was good enough to be an NHL player. Gilles turned out to be pretty good at goaltending - good enough to climb the ladder, even if he wasn't particularly enthusiastic about playing it.

Gratton's fame came through his actions. He famously skated naked in an arena during a practice, which he says now was came on something of a dare as a way to obtain a dozen sticks for youth hockey. He refused to play in one NHL game by claiming the moon was lined up incorrectly in the sky, which he now says was his way of protesting the firing of coach Billy Harris. Some other, R-rated stories pop up here which probably cross the line of funny-or-sick to the sick side. The goalie sounds like he was drunk or high for most of his career.

It seemed inevitable that such a player would have problems with management somewhere, and Gratton was no exception. He spent a year with the Rangers, headed down to the minors, and then was released. He's been looking for "enlightenment" since then, and the concluding chapters talk about that. Gratton once saw a stranger and said he was destined to have three kids with her. He was wrong - he only had two. A discussion of some of his past lives comes up, as does stories about how his body can go to sleep while his mind stays awake. He works for an auction house that specializes in hockey memorabilia - a little ironic for a guy who hated to play hockey.

Coauthor Greg Oliver rounds up some other quotes from teammates, etc. about Gratton, filling out the book a little bit. They all seem to like him, even though I'm sure his attitude probably left them shaking their heads a bit.

Those old enough to remember Gratton's time in hockey might enjoy reading "Gratoony the Loony" in order to see what the fuss was all about. Otherwise, it's difficult to recommend it.

Two stars

Learn more about this book.

Be notified of new posts on this site via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Review: Alley-Oop to Aliyah (2017)

By David A. Goldstein

Those who follow college basketball relatively closely realize that the NBA isn't the only post-graduate course for players. Each year, several Americans leave their native country to test their hoop skills in the pro leagues of other countries. Not only does it offer a good paycheck (not by NBA standards, of course, but it can beat working for a living), but it's a relatively cheap way to see the world.

Once the players get there, though, life can turn, well, interesting. The cultural differences can be striking and difficult, depending on the location. And certainly one of the most interesting places to play is Israel.

That's the focus of David A. Goldstein's book, "Alley-Oop to Aliyah." If many stories in life are centered on some form of a "stranger in a strange land," this certainly qualifies.

On one level, this seems like an odd fit. An African American basketball player that walks down the street in Tel Aviv is likely to stand out from the crowd, pardon the obvious pun. On the other hand, Israel is a modern country, thus reducing the adjustments needed by travelers. The people are very friendly, and they generally speak English.

Goldstein covers the subject thoroughly here, including some areas that might not come immediately to mind when thinking about it initially. A surprisingly amount of players who play for at least a few years in Israel end up moving there. Some have gotten married and raised a family there, and a few have converted to Judaism. Goldstein tracked down a couple of dozen Americans who played or play in Israel. They are generally success stories, although it's fair to note that the ones who hang around obviously like the situation and the country.

The presence of the foreigners has raised some questions for Israeli basketball. Do these players raise the quality of play for all, or do they take jobs away from native-born players? A little of both, probably. Maccabi Tel Aviv dominates the league, as it has the most money. (Think of the New York Yankees' payroll and record of success on steroids, proportionately.)  The players say it takes a little time to get used to the strict security measures, but they feel safe once they do. The African Americans generally add they haven't noticed too much overt racism, although it has been difficult for them to move into prime coaching jobs there after their playing days are over.

There are a couple of drawbacks to the story as presented here. Most of the interviews for the book appear to have taken place some years ago. I'm not sure if there's a story to that - it can be tough to find a publisher for anything these days - but it is odd to read lines like "he said in a 2009 interview." And readers should keep a bookmark on the appendix, which has brief bios of the profiled players. My enjoyment of the book increased once I did that. It's an interesting group, but most basketball fans only will have heard of a few of them before reading this.

"Alley-Oop to Aliyah" isn't a long book, but may be more information than a casual fan would want. A long magazine article might satisfy the curiosity of those readers. But for the ones who seek a full story, the book ought to work for them nicely.

Three stars.

Learn more about this book.

Be notified of new posts on this site via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Review: The Boxing Kings (2017)

By Paul Beston

The heavyweight division of boxing has had mostly American champions over the history of the sport. The tradition started by John L. Sullivan in the 19th century, and continued through such greats as Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali. There were a few "foreign" boxers on the list in the 20th century, such as Max Schmeling and Ingemar Johansson.

It was a heck of a run, and it certainly played a role in the growing of boxing as a spectator sport in the United States. That run is mostly over.

It's not a bad time, then, for a review of the subject. Paul Beston jumps all in with his fine book, "The Boxing Kings."

Organized boxing came out of a different time. The first set of rules go back as far as 1743, although they were updated in the 19th century. Eventually the heavyweight champion was known as the guy who could honestly say "I can lick any man in the house," no matter what house he was in. Eventually, Sullivan earned that title.

Beston goes through the famous title bouts and the other champions. What's great about boxing is that much of it has been recorded on film over the years. A big fight was a large enough event to lure primitive cameras along, because people would pay to see it after the fact. Therefore, we can take a look back and see what Jess Willard and Jack Johnson looked like about 100 years after they were in their prime boxing days.  The author obviously did that, and brings a trained eye to the analysis of the fights.

The major stars receive much of the coverage here, and deservedly so. Still, all of the heavyweight champions receive a mention here, including those who seemed to have the title for about an hour. And almost every bout is mentioned. The classic fights - Ali-Frazier, Tunney-Dempsey,  Louis-Schmeling, etc. - are covered in much more detail, and Beston comes up with some new material that will surprise even some veteran fans.


Beston is the managing editor of City Journal, and has written for several newspapers, magazines and websites. He obviously knows his stuff, and that shows up on every page here.

Boxing's popularity in the United States has declined in recent years, probably in part of the lack of a heavyweight champion from this part of the world. There are other factors as well, such as the rise of Mixed Martial Arts and an improved standard of living that has made boxing less attractive to potential athletes. Can you name any of the current heavyweight champions? (The fact that there are more than one at a given moment is part of the problem.)

"The Boxing Kings," then, takes us back to a time when boxing mattered. It's funny how time has flown. Mike Tyson hasn't been a big factor in boxing for more than a quarter of a century, and Evander Holyfield's prime checks in at about 20 years ago. That may limit the audience for a book like this - and the $36 list price may not help in that sense either - but those looking for information on the subject will find this an excellent source of material.

Four stars

Learn more about this book.

Be notified of new posts on this site via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Review: Dr. Z (2017)

By Paul Zimmerman

Sportswriters always liked to tell stories about Paul Zimmerman, the legendary football reporter for Sports Illustrated who was known for his fanatic and complete dedication to his job. Here's one of them, told during Super Bowl week one year, which gets the point across. If it's not true, it should be.

Zimmerman was working for the New York Post one fall Saturday, and was assigned to cover some small college game. He wanted to see a big college game that started at 4 p.m. or so on television. Zimmerman liked to chart games as they went along, and he almost physically needed to be watching the game from the start - missing a play or two was unacceptable.

Zimmerman covered the first game, and shortly before its conclusion dashed down to the field to interview the coach and a star player or two briefly. Then he got in the car, drove to a nearby hotel, and got a room on the sixth floor of a hotel - arriving at 3:55 p.m.

Zimmerman grabbed his notebook, sat down, flipped on the TV ... and saw nothing. The television wasn't working. He called the front desk. "This is Paul Zimmerman in 612. My television set is not working. If I don't get a new room in the next five minutes, I will throw the television in this room from the balcony into the swimming pool below."

He got the room, and saw the kickoff.

Zimmerman's distinct literary voice has been quieted for the past nine years. He suffered a series of strokes in 2008, and cannot read, write or speak. Yes, some things just aren't fair.

Before the stroke, Zimmerman had taken a sabbatical and was hard at work on his memoirs. There wasn't much rhyme or reason to what he got down on paper, but he figured he would get to that. Fate had other plans.

But now friend and coworker Peter King of Sports Illustrated has taken those words, and organized them a bit. He also has added some columns written by Zimmerman for Sports Illustrated, and the result is an unexpected (because of the physical problems) surprise of the season: "Dr. Z - The Lost Memoirs of an Irreverent Football Writer."

The book is broken into 14 chapters, the various parts of Zimmerman's life. By far the longest is his personal all-time team in pro football, which is great fun to read. Zimmerman liked nothing better to look at film of old games and great players, and came up with ratings. The ratings are about a decade old at this point, and it would be interesting to see what he might do with the subject now. For example, has Tom Brady replaced Joe Montana as the greatest quarterback of the modern era? (John Unitas still wins the old school division.) Montana, by the way, is the subject of a fascinating feature story by Zimmerman, reprinted here from Sports Illustrated.

Football drives the book naturally, and there are stories from the Super Bowls and quarterbacks. But the Olympics get plenty of space, as do stories about journalism. There are stories about boxing with Ernest Hemingway, and about going to Columbia with a future KGB agent. The last four chapters turn personal - they are called "Wine," "Collecting," "Authority," and "National Anthem." That last one needs an explanation - Zimmerman used to time them at sporting events and keep records. That's not surprising from a person who could tell you how many steps there were from the lobby of the Newark airport to Gate 26.

A book like that almost has to be a little disorganized, since it was a work in progress when it came to a nearly 10-year halt. But, King did a good job of putting it all together so that you'd get the idea of what Zimmerman's life and talent were like.

Fans of Zimmerman probably will think that they are doing him and his family a little favor by supporting this project with a book project, and they no doubt are. Still, "Dr. Z" stands up pretty well for long-time football fans. And if you don't remember Zimmerman's work, this will open your eyes to a unique individual.

Four stars

Learn more about this book.

Be notified of new posts via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Review: The Streak (2017)

By John Eisenberg

Baseball fans in the 1960s and 1970s knew that a handful of baseball records were about untouchable. That word could be used to describe Cy Young's win total of 511, and Rogers Hornsby's one-season batting average of .424. The game had changed a great deal since over the year by then, and no one had come close to such marks for quite a while.

Another, very different record also was in that category. Lou Gehrig played in 2,130 straight games for the New York Yankees. Few had close to half of that total for years, and it seemed improbable that anyone else could touch it. The same theory applied to Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, another outlier that defies comprehension in some ways.

Here we are in 2017, then, and DiMaggio's record still stands tall. But it turns out we were really wrong about Gehrig's record. Who knew that Cal Ripken would come along?

Ripken went sailing past Gehrig in 1995, and finished with 2,632 straight games to his credit. It would be easy to say that never, ever will be touched, but maybe we know better than to deal in absolutes in such case.

Ripken and Gehrig have been linked ever since, so a book on the two of them and their streaks seems like a natural - even 22 years after they were connected. But John Eisenberg has a bigger goal in mind in his book, "The Streak." While focusing on those two famous streakers, he examines the entire concept of playing in a large number of games in a row.

It's an odd record as these things go. You have to be exceptional to set a career record for stolen bases or hits, but you just have to show up day after day in order to rate highly in this category. That's not unimportant - perfect attendance has been desirable for most since grammar school. Still, you have to be good enough to earn a regular spot in the lineup, and then stay there for several years.

Eisenburg takes this concept way, way back to the beginnings of professional baseball. He helps to bring alive those early "streakers," and recounts a few controversies that came up along the way. Record-keeping then wasn't perfect in the late 1800s, so a couple of mistakes were make that changed the numbers and the record book. Interestingly, such streaks weren't a big deal then, which is why George Pinkney and Steve Brokie weren't household names even back when they played.

Eventually, Everett Scott of the Red Sox and Yankees went flying by everyone, and then Gehrig came along. His goal was to play every day, and he succeeded for more than a decade. As Eisenberg points out, there were a few close calls along the way. Once in a great while, Gehrig did things like hit in the top of the first inning and then exit, thus keeping his streak in tact. Major League Baseball has changed its rules about such actions and streaks over the years. You now can't simply be placed in the starting lineup and then be taken out for a pinch-hitter in the top of the first and still have it count as a game played. But Gehrig's tactics do make Ripken's ledger even more impressive, in that he went seasons without missing a single inning.

Eisenberg does a fine job of talking to several people about Ripken's big moments in the streak, making the feeling come along nicely. He also gets some opinions on how Ripken and Gehrig had slightly different obstacles to overcome in order to play so long, and on why the long consecutive streak may be a thing of the past.

Admittedly, a consecutive-game streak is almost a curiosity as these things go, and that might limit the audience a bit. Eisenberg admits that it took longer that he would have liked to finish this book. A natural landing point for the effort would have been 2015, 20 years after Ripken broke Gehrig's record.

But those who dive into "The Streak" will find some definite rewards. I'm not sure how the subject could be covered any better, and it will fully satisfy the appetite of avid baseball fans out there.

Four stars

Learn more about this book.

Be notified of new posts on this site via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Review: Houston to Cooperstown (2017)

By Greg Lucas

I'm not sure the Houston Astros were the most faceless team in baseball for some time, but they were in the argument.

Think about it. The team entered the National League in 1962, and struggled like most expansion teams. In those early years, most people probably thought of a stadium - the legendary Astrodome - when asked about the team. They didn't have many iconic players, and you could argue that they traded their best one (Joe Morgan) before he became famous. Houston had some memorable moments but oddly they were associated with losses. The 1980 playoff loss to Philadelphia, and the 1986 playoff loss to the New York Mets were amazing moments but ultimately unsuccessful ones.

The Astros had some very good players pass through Houston, such as Morgan and Nolan Ryan, and some good players who stayed like Larry Dierker and Jimmy Wynn. But there were great players who arrived and stayed, like Cal Ripken or George Brett.

That all changed, or at least started to change, in 1988. It is when Craig Biggio first arrived on the Astros' roster. A few years later, Jeff Bagwell followed Biggio to the big club. That was a heck of a right side of the infield for a decade. That's why Greg Lucas was smart to highlight those two in his brisk history of the Astros, "Houston to Cooperstown."

Biggio might have had one of the most unusual skill sets in baseball. No one has ever gone from catcher to second base to center field during the course of a career, and played it well. He was essentially too good an athlete and player to stay as a catcher, where the wear and tear of the position shortens careers. Bagwell was a topnotch power hitter, someone who moved from third to first at the start of his career and found a home.

The Astros still didn't receive a great deal of publicity with them around, but they popped up in the playoffs a few times with these two leading the way. Both of them piled up some big numbers. It's fun to look back and here and be reminded of just what they did. Biggio might have had the more impressive career because he was a little better in the counting stats, like 3,000 hits. Bagwell's body (the shoulder in particular) broke down toward the end, perhaps because he lifted too many heavy weights in the gym in an effort to stay strong. Both are now enshrined in Cooperstown, as Bagwell went in this year - which couldn't have hurt book sales.

Lucas, a former broadcaster for the team, covers the early years quite quickly, and lingers on the days of the two stars. Once Biggio and Bagwell are done, the author moves on to the last decade or so, which started with the arrow on the team pointing way, way down, but changed 180 degrees. Now they are one of the best teams in baseball.

If I could be allowed a bit of nit-picking, there are a couple of issues with the book - one of which has nothing to do with the publication itself. Biggio and Bagwell come off as good guys and solid citizens throughout. There's not much drama there. I could see how they'd be easy to cheer for, but their stories will leave your draw undropped. There also are some editing issues along the way, mostly in the form of the odd typo. Red Sox fans certainly will notice that Yastrzemski is misspelled twice here. Baseball readers are notoriously sensitive to such things - maybe too sensitive - but one more read by an editor might have helped.

Otherwise, "Houston to Cooperstown" reaches its goals nicely. It will bring back memories of Astros gone by for the local fans, while filling in the gaps of knowledge for the out-of-towners. I've known Greg Lucas since the late 1970s, and in my slightly biased viewpoint he's hit another line drive.

Learn more about this book.

Be notified of new posts on this site via Twitter @WDX2BB.