Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Review: Bill Veeck (2012)

By Paul Dickson

Talk about a tough act to follow.

Former baseball executive Bill Veeck wrote one of the greatest sports books ever written, "Veeck -- as in Wreck," about 50 years ago. Veeck was by any standard a unique sports figure, someone who mixed intelligence, a sense of fun, occasional indignation, and a common touch. Just about everyone, except those wearing stuffed shirts, liked him. The book holds up well to this day.

But the story was written more than a quarter-century before Veeck died. During that time he still played the gadfly, taking one last go-around as a baseball owner and engaging in a variety of other activities. An proper update has always been needed.

"Bill Veeck" is that update. It's a big, big task, but author Paul Dickson has come through with a book that's terrific in different ways than Veeck's own tale.

Just as a refresher, Veeck was the son of a baseball writer and Chicago Cubs' executive. Therefore, he grew up around the game. Credentials? He helped plant the ivy on the outfield fences of Wrigley Field.  Veeck later ran a minor-league team in Milwaukee, almost certainly made an attempt to buy the Phillies during World War II and field an all-blank roster, and finally reached the majors when he led a group that purchased the Cleveland Indians. That team won the World Series in 1948, thus putting Veeck in the heart's of Cleveland's baseball fans forever.

A divorce caused a sale of that team, but Veeck later moved on to the St. Louis Browns, where he had his most famous moment by sending a midget up to the plate as something of a publicity stunt. Then it was on to the White Sox. Chicago made it to the World Series in 1959. Almost two decades later, Veeck returned to buy the White Sox, the last of the non-wealthy owners who sadly got overwhelmed by the changing economics of baseball.

All along the way, Veeck looked out for the fans, fought injustice and racism wherever possible, tweaked authority, and staged promotional gimmicks. It was a life well spent.

Dickson takes the right approach of giving Veeck a little distance and not falling in love with the subject, which is easy to do. He talked to as many original sources of information as possible, including Veeck's second wife and children. Dickson wasn't lacking for old newspaper and magazine interviews, either.

There's plenty of digging that went on as well by the author as well. For example, Veeck in his book made references to a wartime leg injury that eventually resulted in an amputation, but the story wasn't explained fully. Here Dickson gives an educated  that his injury was not treated properly by military doctors. The resulting story is not just one man's memory of a life, but several ... and it's all fits together.

"Veeck -- As In Wreck" still deserves your time and a place on the bookshelf, but this should be right alongside of it. "Bill Veeck" is as good as it gets when it comes to describing an American original.

Five stars

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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Review: Starting and Closing (2012)

By John Smoltz with Don Yaeger

A strange book, "Starting and Closing."

As Smoltz writes in the early going, "This is not your typical autobiography," and he's right.

Smoltz had one of the truly unusual pitching careers in baseball history. He had great success as a starting pitcher with the Atlanta Braves, which included winning a Cy Young Award in 1996. Then, circumstances (mostly physical) forced him to move to the bullpen for a while, where he became one of the sport's best closers.

All of that will make him a rather untraditional candidate for the Hall of Fame some day. He doesn't have the overwhelming career numbers, such as 300 wins, that others have. Yet he was obviously very good at what he did over the years, and there were a lot of years.

His career, then, somewhat resembles Dennis Eckersley, another very good starting pitcher who switched to closing in mid-career and became one of the best ever in that area.

Throw in the fact that Smoltz played for a Braves team that won 14 straight division titles, and that he usually picked up his game a couple of notches in those frequent postseason appearances, and you have a unique career.

What, then, does Smoltz do in telling a portion of his life story? He throws out most of the interesting stuff.

Much of the book centers on injuries suffered during the course of his career, and how he overcame them. Admittedly, rehab is a difficult, lonely business, and it's not easy to work through pain for months without obvious signs of progress at times. Many can't do it Still, the financial rewards really can be great in baseball if the process is successful (Smoltz earned more than $125 million in his career), a powerful incentive to at least try. And people overcome much worse obstacles than shoulder surgery every day.

Smoltz spends a great deal of time reviewing his final season, in 2009, when he made one last shot at coming back. He signed as a free agent with Boston, got released due to ineffectiveness, and went to St. Louis, where he made some adjustments and found a little success. Some of the best parts of the book come when Smoltz describes what it's like go through the bad times and the good times, relatively speaking, of that last season.

As you'd expect, there are a few tangents taken. There is material about growing up a Tigers' fan in Michigan, getting drafted by the Tigers and then getting traded to the Braves. There are chapters on how he ramped up his level of faith in 1995, and is working with a Christian school in Georgia.

Looking for insight into teammates on those great Braves teams? Don't look here. Smoltz also stays away from most family references, except when necessary (he divorced late in his career). There's also very little fun to be had here. About the only examples of mirth that come up are in the form of tales of a few practical jokes, which usually at best are in the "you had to be there" category of stories

There's also a small sense of anger that occasionally pops up here. The best example is a story involved an iron. He suffered a burn through a mishap, and the story got mangled so that Smoltz was allegedly burned while ironing a shirt that he was still wearing. For the record, it was not true. But such matters do have a life of their own, despite his efforts to set the record straight. It's one of the costs of being a public figure, but the pitcher still seems annoyed by it.

This all bounces around quite a bit as well. In total, there certainly are lessons to be learned about perseverance (which is mentioned in the subtitle), and obviously his drive for success helped him along the way.

But, at some level an autobiography is designed to answer the question, "What's that person like?" If "Starting and Closing" is an accurate answer to that question, then only Smoltz's fans will be enthusiastic about reading the 280 pages necessary to find out.

Two stars

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Sunday, May 13, 2012

Review: Over Time (2012)

By Frank Deford

Writers can be a competitive group, particularly those in journalism. They always want to tell stories, of course. In some cases, it matters to be the first to tell a story; in others it simply matters to do it well. Listen to writers talk, and eventually you'll hear some putdowns of other writers along the lines of "That should have been better." Translation: "I wish I had written it."

I'm not sure that Frank Deford's work ever received such a putdown. There's never been a better writer/reporter when it came to the long-form features that he used to do for Sports Illustrated. He usually wrote the type of stories that could be re-read days or weeks later, with the craftsmanship instead of the content jumping out.

As a result, the more literate of sports fans have tried to follow Deford's work over the years. He's done work on a variety of mediums over the years. Now he's gotten around to writing down some of his personal experiences in a memoir, "Over Time." Yes, Deford makes this look easy too.

One of the author's best qualities comes across loud and clear here. Yes, he's smart -- from Princeton, with a few cultural and historical  references that will send you off to the nearest encyclopedia or search engine for explanations. Yes, he's been lucky to have had access to the greats and near-greats, as the words "Sports Illustrated" could get him in a few extra doors once upon a time. Besides the magazine was willing to spend money to capitalize on that access. 

But mostly, Deford is a student of human behavior. He comes up with conclusions almost in passing, insights that the rest of us would probably consider worthy of the centerpiece of a sociology book. Deford starts every chapter in this book, and there are 46 of them, with such a quote from one of his stories. 

For example, ponder this: "Perhaps no man is so haunted as the one who was once stunned by instant success, for he lives thereafter with the illusion that tomorrow is bound to bring one more bolt of good fortune." I read that shortly after writing a brief biography (five paragraphs, that's how brief) of Joe Charbonneau for my newspaper. Deford could have been talking about Joe, but he could have been talking about many people.

This almost reads like a series of essays, staying on one chapter with one particular theme and then moving on. As could be expected, his families, childhood and adult, get some coverage, as do his days at college. Then there are the jobs, and not just with Sports Illustrated -- even though SI gets more ink than anything else. Deford was the editor of "The National," a great editorial idea with an apparently unworkable business model. He's done radio commentaries for National Public Radio and feature stories for HBO's Real Sports. Then there are novels and screenplays, among other projects.

Naturally, there are good stories about people along the way. Bill Bradley. Bob Cousy. Don King. Bobby Orr. Bob Knight. And so on.  Yet, this is that rare autobiography by a sports writer where the main attraction is not those he or she encountered along the way during a fine career. It's the author himself or herself.

The pages go by quickly, which almost comes across as a parlor trick. How could a book with this much insight seem to be so effortless? Must have something to do with the author.

"Over Time" ought to appeal to any student of the human condition, which should be just about anyone. It's a definite keeper.

Five stars


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