Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Review: Fenway (2012)


We all should have seen this coming.

Fenway Park opened in April of 1912, which means we're coming up on a 100th birthday celebration. That means everyone and his brother, and his sister, has figured a commemorative book would be a good seller. Sure enough, do a search for Fenway Park on amazon.com, and you'll see plenty of books either out or coming soon.

Sports Illustrated has gotten into the act with "Fenway : A Fascinating First Century." The magazine obviously doesn't have "Illustrated" in its name for no reason, and so they have plenty of great images filed away for just such an occasion.

The format is easy to describe. After a few introductory articles, the book offers a timeline of the park's life going decade by decade. Since the magazine only has been around since the 1950's, it was necessary to go through someone else's archives to acquire material. It's fair to say they did a nice job on it. It closes with pictures of replicas of Fenway, such as a wiffle ball field and a Lego version.

There are a few excerpts thrown in along the way. Some are from the magazine itself, while others are from books by SI writers on Babe Ruth and Ted Williams. In fact, I would have liked to have seen more stories, or at least longer ones, here. The graphics and research are all first class, as usual.

The only problem with the book is typical for coffee-table books like this. It checks in at $32.95 before the amazon.com discount, which is rather pricey for a publication that can be covered in less than a day. And no, you can't get it on a Kindle, which considering the quality of the photos is a good thing.

Glenn Stout's book, "Fenway 1912," which covers the park's birth and history, is a great companion to SI's "Fenway." Stout has the words, and SI has the pictures. If there's a Red Sox fan in your life, that person would be thrilled to get either as a gift.

Four stars

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Monday, March 19, 2012

Review: Summer of '68 (2012)


By Tim Wendel

Students of American history know that 1968 was a very historic year. The facts are easy to revisit -- Vietnam, Presidential election, assassinations, and so on.

It was a very busy year in sports, too. Joe Namath was at his peak as a quarterback (he'd help his Jets win the Super Bowl), the Boston Celtics' dynasty was rolling along, and a crazy Olympic Games took place in Mexico City. That doesn't include the World Series, which at the time was an obvious highlight of the sports calendar.

What's more, the fun and games weren't held in a vacuum. Those playing our sports were certainly influenced by events taking place around them.

Author Tim Wendel takes a look back at the year, concentrating on baseball, in his new book, "Summer of '68." Just a look at the psychedelic cover will have you ready to give this book a "far out, man" rating.

The two teams in the Series that year were perfect examples of the times influencing the games. The St. Louis Cardinals had a great mixture of players -- blacks, whites, and Latins -- who all got along and played together. The Cardinals were coming off wins in the Series in 1964 and 1967. The list of stars was a long one, including Bob Gibson and Lou Brock.

In their way in the 1968 World Series were the Detroit Tigers. That team missed out on the American League title the year before by a game, and probably had the best team. The Tigers were determined to erase that black mark on the record, and they did in relatively easy fashion. In fact, Wendel doesn't have much drama concerning either of the pennant races to cover here.

The Tigers' players grew up together in the minor leagues and thus came of age together in Detroit. Some of them were even from Michigan, and thus had an immediate connection to the area upon arriving in the big leagues. It was impossible for those players not to notice that the city had been clobbered by riots in the summer of '67. The Tigers received some credit for a lack of problems in that department in 1968.

Wendel uses a series of anecdotes to get the point across about the year. The baseball portions often centered on 1968 as "The Year of the Pitcher," as Denny McLain had a 31-win year and Bob Gibson's earned-run average was just over 1.00. There were other stars that year, such as Luis Tiant and Don Drysdale. But then, in the next section, the story can jump to track star Jim Ryun trying to figure out how best to run in the altitude of Mexico City in the Olympics.

Wendel does have a memorable World Series to work with as a climax. The Cardinals raced out to a 3-1 lead, only to let it slip away. Mickey Lolich (three wins) was the unexpected hero for the Tigers, while Curt Flood (Game Seven error) was something of an unexpected goat as unfair as that description is.

Wendel did some good research here, checking out a variety of books and articles for reference material. He also talked to some of the principals, even though quite a few from that time period have died. Has it really been 44 years?

What we have, though, is more than worth your time. Tim is an old friend of mine, as readers of this space might remember, so for me to say his work is worth your time isn't unexpected. Besides, I'm in the acknowledgements. That's why there's no rating. Still -- if you are old enough to have lived through the year (guilty), you'll remember a lot and learn a bit more. If you aren't, then you're in for an engaging head-shaking look back.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Review: Driving Mr. Yogi (2012)


By Harvey Araton

Just about everyone loves Yogi Berra ... even Boston Red Sox fans.

Berra was a catcher for the New York Yankees from the late 1940's to the early 1960's, and it's no great coincidence that the team won 10 world championships during his time with the Yankees. After all, Berra was one of the greatest catchers in baseball history. He also became famous for curious little phrases, such as "It ain't over 'til it's over," that represented some unique language skills.

He stayed in the game as a manager and coach for many years after that. Berra had done through something of a separation with Yankees' owner George Steinbrenner for several years, but Steinbrenner bridged that gap with a public apology and all was more or less forgiven.

That allowed Berra to be part of the Yankees' organization again from 1999, serving as the team's elder statesman and goodwill ambassador. Those years, for the most part, are what "Driving Mr. Yogi" are all about. The book is also something of a love story.

Ron Guidry, the fine Yankee pitcher of the 1970's and 1980's, always took good care of Berra during spring training in Tampa. He'd pick him up at the airport, have dinner with him most nights, and make sure Berra was treated him with respect. Berra wasn't a father figure to Guidry, who already had one of those. Guidry called Berra "his best friend," and there's obviously some truth in that.

Harvey Araton wrote a good-sized feature story for the New York Times on the subject of the relationship. It obviously received a great reaction, and was expanded into this book. As for the title, that was easy -- Guidry had a hat made up reading "Driving Mr. Yogi," while Berra eventually had a hat reading "Driven by Gator (Guidry's nickname)."

There's little doubt that this is a charming story at its base. Araton is obviously quite fond of both men. Berra is quite well-known, but Guidry was never that much of a public figure even when he was famous in baseball circles. Seeing this side of him is quite interesting.

With that all said ... it seems like the story is a better fit for a long newspaper or magazine article than a book. There's some padding and duplication of material here in order to get the amount of words up to the size of a relatively short book. The 200-plus pages go by pretty quickly here.

Therefore, it's difficult to think that most of the country won't think of this as a nice little tale between a couple of old-timers (that last word is used with the utmost respect, by the way). However, there's little doubt that many Yankee fans will like, and in some cases, even love this book. In other words, if there is a Yankee fan in your life somewhere, buying this book as a gift for him or her is a great idea.

Three stars

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