Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Review: Lamar Hunt (2012)

By Michael MacCambridge

I haven't read every book by Michael MacCambridge from cover to cover yet. Forgive me for that; it's a little tough to read the ESPN College Football Encyclopedia that way.

As for his other titles, he's come up with four quality efforts in four tries. Number four is the latest one: "Lamar Hunt."

Hunt is one of those sports people who has a well-known resume to fans, but the entire story, including personality and family background, hasn't been completely explored too often. This makes Hunt a fine choice for a biography subject.

MacCambridge is up to the task of doing the subject justice too. The details of Hunt's early life are given in almost astonishing terms. It's filled with facts, to the point where there's a lot of "how did the author know that?" moments. The answer, along with good interviewing, is that Hunt did a lot of note-taking and collecting, and didn't seem to throw much out.

Lamar Hunt was the youngest son of H.L. Hunt, who at one point was called the richest man in America. OK, this isn't a rags to riches story. In fact, considering that Lamar never seemed to have much money in his pocket or expensive "toys," some people probably never guessed how well off he was (at least by the time he was allowed to access the trust fund).

While other family members stayed in the family business (and got into considerable trouble at one point along the way), Lamar never did outgrow a love of sports that started as a boy. He was always attending or playing games, even serving as a backup on the SMU football team. By the late 1950's, Hunt was out of college and looking for a big project.

What could be much bigger, and potentially more fun, than starting a pro football league? When the NFL turned down his bid to move a team to Dallas or acquire an expansion team, Hunt found a few other people interested in the sport, and the American Football League was born.

The AFL turned into a fabulous success, fully merging with the NFL by the end of that decade. Hunt didn't get to have that team in Dallas for long - the NFL did expand into Dallas and drove Hunt's team to Kansas City - but the Chiefs worked out just fine. The team's ownership is still in the family.

But football wasn't enough to satisfy Hunt. A trip to the 1966 World Cup convinced him that America was missing on something by not taking to soccer. He spent the rest of his life trying to make the game popular here, and lived to see his efforts finally produce some fruit. Hunt also did much to push tennis into the 20th century through professionalism. And that doesn't include owning a share of the Chicago Bulls as well as a few other ventures.

What's striking about MacCambridge's methods here is that he draws from all sorts of sources. Heck, Hunt's first wife even gave an interview. There are fresh quotes from many of his personal and business associates over the years, as well as stories published at the time they happened. Plus, there are Hunt's own papers. It gives the book a nice balance.

What jumps out here is while Hunt certainly could have used some power and wealth to wield influence, he never seemed interested. Chiefs' executives all have stories about him meekly asking if he could sit in on a meeting. Soccer executives were astonished when Hunt passed up a seat in a suite to go sit in the stands with regular fans.

About the only drawback to the story, at least for some, is that the soccer portions of the book don't quite measure up to the football sections. Admittedly, I'm a much bigger fan of football than soccer, and the names and stories about football ranked higher on the fascination scale. It's fair to say that any biography of Hunt needs to have plenty of soccer chapters, though, so it's difficult to blame the editorial decision by the author to include them.

"Lamar Hunt" gets a "mere" four stars for that reason, but it probably ranks between four and five stars for these purposes. Here is a more definitive evaluation: There is little doubt that this will be the definitive biography of the book's subject. MacCambridge makes a good case that Lamar Hunt was one of the most influential sports figures of his time.

Four stars

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