Sunday, March 30, 2014

Review: Brooks (2014)

By Doug Wilson

This review was written for The Buffalo News. You can read it by clicking here.

The synopsis: Robinson might not be the best subject for a biography, simply because there's not much conflict in the story. By all accounts, he was a better person than a ball player ... and he was a great ballplayer. Still, for those who like to read about heroes, this is a good example of someone in sports who really can be a role model to all. And I have no doubt that everyone in the Baltimore area will love this.

Three stars

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Friday, March 28, 2014

Review: Azar's Attic (2014)

By Rick Azar

"What took you so long?"

That's what I said to Rick Azar when I had him autograph my copy of his autobiography, "Azar's Attic." He was a natural for a locally produced memoir, since he spent much of his childhood in Buffalo and then worked as a popular broadcaster in the area for a few decades.

Azar retired from sportscasting in 1989. It took him a while - a couple of decades, actually - to put it in the effort to get a book written. But now it's out, and it's an enjoyable tale.

Part of the book's charm is that the story of his early years are hardly run of the mill and quite interesting. Who knew that Azar grew up learning how to play the violin? How many people know the story that he spent his early years as an actor? He even gets to drop a few names along the way about his days in New York at acting cattle calls, encountering such people as Ted Knight and Martin Landau.

It took Azar to find his niche in sportscasting, and - come to think of it - he did carry a bit of a dramatic flair to the job. It proved to be a good mix with anchorman Irv Weinstein, a classic tabloid-like radio announcer who moved to the television side. They made stories sound important, which is a much more crucial quality that you might think for television.The two of them worked with weatherman Tom Jolls, who came off as a good-natured counterpart but one who discovered an attention-grabbing gimmick - doing the weather outside. It was great theater when Jolls not only told us it was snowing hard, he showed us. It was something of a precursor to the Weather Channel of today, in which Jim Cantore reports from the middle of the nation's worst weather in a given moment.

Weinstein, Azar and Jolls were a terrific combination, and their act stayed together for about 37 years - the longest-lasting trio in the country, at least at the time. They were always number one in the ratings, and their station arguably hasn't recovered from their departure to this day. There are surprisingly few stories here about Irv and Tom, perhaps because Azar contributed to another book about the news team some years ago.

Once Azar gets through with the warm-up years, he moves into personalities and stories about the area sports scene. They are gentle and filled with good fun. In other words, no scores are settled here, which is fine and appropriate. You hang around for a bunch of years, you talk to all sorts of local and national figures - from O.J. Simpson and Gil Perreault to Arnold Palmer and Arthur Ashe.

By the way, these books sometimes can be a little weak on history and grammar. I can happily report that the facts here are accurate to my knowledge. Azar probably was used to writing for television, which is much different than for a book. But the transition to print went quite well. 

The "what took you?" issue is one of the few problems in the book. There isn't much in here that couldn't have been written 20 years ago, and it's easy to wonder how many people remember Azar's work on the air at this point. Remember, you have to be close to 50 now to remember O.J. Simpson's great season in 2003. It also would have been interesting to read more about what Azar has been doing since retirement, and what he thinks about the state of television sports today. That might have filled out the book, which can be read in no time.

Still, those who remember Azar's on-air work or are interested in the era, certainly will enjoy "Azar's Attic."  I didn't have many dealings with him over the years, but he was always nice to me and qualified as the proverbial "class act." The book is a nice keepsake of those times for all concerned.

Four stars

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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Review: Keepers of the Flame (2014)

By Travis Vogan

Pro football fans of a certain vintage can turn nostalgic in a second when the subject of NFL Films comes up.

They no doubt grew up with that organization's programs, which included highlight shows during the season and special documentaries that popped up throughout the year. The father-son team of Ed and Steve Sabol led the company in producing distinctive programs that did a fabulous job for promoting the NFL, starting in 1962-63.

Just ask a fan of those golden years in the 1960s and 1970s when NFL Films' work was close to revolutionary, and three specific areas will undoubtedly come up. There was the camera work, specializing in slow motion shots of a ball spiraling through the air. There was the voice of John Facenda, whose slow, dramatic delivery gave the scripts added weight. Throw in the unforgettable and underrated musical work of Sam Spence - heck, I have a double CD of his work - and the whole package was unforgettable.

All of this makes for good fodder for a book, and Travis Vogan has written one. It's called "Keepers of the Flame," a reference to a remark by George Halas, the late Bears owner, about keeping the league's past alive to the next generation of fans.

This is more of an academic look at the subject, which shouldn't be surprising. Vogan teaches journalism at the University of Iowa. He says it's the first book to take that approach in examining NFL Films, and I don't doubt it.

Vogan must have watched a ton of NFL programming, because he certainly writes with authority about the shows that have been produced over the past 50 years or so. He also did plenty of research, and not just because the list of footnotes and sources of information in the back of the book is huge.

It's also interesting to read his conclusions about NFL Films. He more or less says that the company was a victim of its own success. The NFL has grown enormously over that half-century, meaning that the film division isn't the only game in town when it comes to highlights. Other media outlets - from cable television to your phone apps - have an appetite for immediate video, which makes NFL Films' slightly more leisurely approach seem dated. Vogan's conclusions are generally right on target.

Still, this is a difficult book to try to review and rate. That's mostly because it's reads something like a series of college lectures or a text book. It's relatively short, for starters. Vogan says what he's going to do, does it, and then recaps the process. That makes it feel a bit padded, even at less than 200 pages of text.

Vogan makes the curious decision of not including very many quotes from any sources here. That definitely makes the text on the dry side. Some of the language and phrases is repeated here and there during the course of the story, which doesn't help either. And some of the references, at the least, will go sailing well over the head of many football fans.

Basically, readers of "Keepers of the Flame" should know what they are reading ahead of time. It's easy to believe that some sort of history of NFL Films should crackle with excitement. This pretty clearly is not that book - and it wasn't intended to be. That means a mass audience won't be found. However, those looking for the academic side of the story should find this useful.

Three stars

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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Review: Babe Ruth's Called Shot (2014)

By Ed Sherman

The story of Babe Ruth's last World Series home run is one that just won't go away. What's more, it won't, either.

It came in the 1932 World Series. Ruth, in the midst of a running argument between his New York Yankees and the opposing Chicago Cubs, spent part of an at-bat in Game Three yelling and gesturing with the bench jockeys in the opposing dugouts. Then he launched a big homer into the bleachers, skipping and taunting his way around the bases afterwards. It put the Yankees ahead for good, as they won that game and then the fourth to sweep the Cubs.

But did Ruth predict the home run ahead of time? Call his shot, if you will? That's out of the realm of fact and into the area of conjecture. It's also why we're still talking, and, in the case of Ed Sherman's book, "Babe Ruth's Called Shot," writing about it.

Early chapters of the book review the circumstances of Ruth's career leading up that World Series, as well as offering a recap of the '32 regular season in both leagues. The Yankees were back on top after a few years away from the Series, and Ruth was about to start on the downslope of his career. But he was still mighty good, and teammate Lou Gehrig was better than that.

From there Sherman reviews the evidence of what happened. He starts with quotes from those involved, who naturally disagree with each other. Even Ruth appears to have told all sorts of stories about it, depending on the audience. He seems to have discovered quickly that a called home run only added to his reputation, and became anxious to embellish his own legend. 

From there it's on to newspaper accounts. Few mentioned the "called home run" aspect of the play right away, but several more jumped on the bandwagon shortly after that. Sherman had the chance to see the two surviving home movie prints of the incidents, and then had baseball authorities from Bob Costas to Tim McCarver weigh in.

Before reviewing the conclusion, the book itself deserves some comment. Sherman certainly gets the idea across that this whole matter is something of a mystery wrapped in a puzzle. How can so many people come to different conclusions about the same set of actions? He goes down a variety of venues in his search for the truth, and it's a professional job. Still, the book feels a little padded, as if it could have been a nice, long magazine article instead of a short book. You can zip through this in no time. Don't look for any bombshells either, although it is nice to have all the information in one place.

Personally, I think we've gotten caught up in semantics here. There's no sign that Ruth pointed to the bleachers and said, "I'm going to deposit the next pitch in Section 108, Row J, Seat 4" or anything like it. That's what comes to mind for many when "calling your shot" is mentioned. It's more likely he flapped his arms while trading insults with the Cubs, saying that he only needed one pitch to do something, and then did it. The gesture grew in significance in the context of the story after the fact. That's still quite impressive, and more to the point, memorable.

Sherman concludes in "Babe Ruth's Called Shot" that such an act would have been in character, and indeed was such a good fit for his reputation that it stuck - even if the story may not be quite true in its entirety. The author is right on target there.

We wanted to believe it happened in 1932, and we still want to believe today.

Three stars

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Sunday, March 16, 2014

Review: A Nice Little Place on the North Side (2014)

By George Will

Before getting to the subject of George Will, baseball writer, let's discuss George Will, writer.

One of the problems with most political writers these days is that they aren't good enough to convince others of their position unless those people already are on their side. In other words, a liberal who writes about the Affordable Care Act's benefits will received nods of approval from like-minded readers, and angry rejections by those who don't fit into that standard.

George Will is different.

Will is so darn smart, such a thorough researcher and so good a writer that he can shake a reader's preconceptions. In other words, after reading him, you often have to at least consider the possibility that he is right and you are wrong. I'm not sure how many minds he actually changes in this polarized world these days, but he gets high marks for trying.

But political considerations always cloud opinions in this day and age of gridlock. Luckily, Will has the habit of writing about baseball every now and again. He may have a bit of attitude when it comes to the game, believing famously that no other sport can come close to it. Will's most quoted line may be what he once said about football - that it combined the two worst elements of American society, violence and committee meetings. But for those who love baseball, he's a strong advocate for truth, justice and the American (plus Toronto, as in Blue Jays) way.

Will wrote the book, "Men at Work," many years ago. It was a full-length look at the activities of four major leaguers, including Cal Ripken and Tony La Russa. The publication was excellent. I believe Will once said that it was the only book he wrote in which he saw others read on an airplane.

Now Will is back with another baseball book, "A Nice Little Place on the North Side." It's something of a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Chicago Cubs' arrival in Wrigley Field, one of baseball's shrines.

Will grew up as a Cubs fan, which makes him "long suffering" - not that there is any other kind of Cubs fan. He gets the chance to give a series of relatively short essays about the Cubs and the park over the years, generally moving in something resembling chronological order. He gives the impression that he's more or less thrilled to comment on all of the Cubs' brief ups and emphatic downs over the years. To get paid for it ... well, life can be good.

Here, then, is Will on a variety of subjects that are Cub-related. The team was actually pretty good in its early years, a National League powerhouse more than 100 years ago. They even got into a World Series or two at some point, but those disappeared right around the time that Will started paying attention as a child. Maybe he's taking that a little personally.

There have been plenty of distractions along the way. Phil Wrigley had some odd ideas as owner. The strangest must have been in the early Sixties, when he opted not to have a manager but rather a collection of coaches. It didn't help. Wrigley also sold the idea that the ballpark was a nice place to spend an afternoon (remember, no lights until the 1980s), rather than to see a good team. This became self-perpetuating. The fans in Chicago like the park so much that they are willing to accept bad baseball, but stay home when beer prices go up. It's an odd economic dynamic.

Will talks about characters dating back to Hack Wilson and Leo Durocher, and events like Babe Ruth's called shot and a 23-22 game (10 innings, I believe). You probably know what's also on the list - 2003, in which the Cubs let a series-clinching game get away in horrific fashion. Will, by the way, agrees with a documentary's conclusion that Chicago's even worse treatment of Steve Bartman tells us more about Chicago than it does about Bartman.The finish in 1984 had its own scapegoat, Leon Durham, as the Cubs let a playoff series to the Padres get away.

A couple of remarks about the text - you are likely to see some words that I'm not sure have ever been published in a story with Will's byline before. They are from quotes, but it's still a little surprising. Sounds like Ruth knew how to throw around some bad words in colorful combinations.  In another section, Will prints manager Lee Elia's famous obscene outburst about the Cub fans in the early 1980s virtually verbatim, but with the profanity partially blocked out (as in d---, or worse).

It's also rather short, a couple of hundred pages or so plus notes, so it takes little time to go through. Don't expect this to last you for a week. Still, the writing is good enough to make it a pleasure, even if at $25 it's not going to be rated a "best buy" by Consumer Reports.

Will has lived in the Washington area for many years, and he certainly can go to an Orioles or Nationals game when convenient. However, it's still true that your favorite team as a child usually stays with you for a lifetime. "A Nice Little Place on the North Side" is a charming love letter to a team that has frequently broken his heart, yet left him coming back for more.

Five stars

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Thursday, March 13, 2014

Review: The Runner's Bucket List (2014)

By Denise Malan

Running magazines often have short feature stories on interesting races that are held around the country, often groups by time of the year. They can be chosen for a variety of reasons - history, scenery, size, whatever.

Writer and runner Denise Malan obviously was paying attention to those stories. She no doubt took a look, and said something like, "Why couldn't I compile the top races into one book?"

Presto. You have "The Runner's Bucket List." For those in the market for traveling to races, this ought to serve their needs quite nicely.

Malan's subtitle is "200 Races to Run Before You Die." It's grouped into 25 different categories. There are races with good finishing medals, races run without clothes, races inside, races that are fast, races that go over bridges, etc. 

From there, the author adds some touches beyond the basic stories of the races, which includes a caption. Some of the races receive first-person reviews from runners - Malan did a few of these herself but had others help each other out. There are plenty of photographs in bright color that are sprinkled throughout the book. The package more or less reminds me in appearance of a typical travel book, as in the Fodor's series.

This obviously took a great deal of work. I've heard of a few of the races listed here, but there are plenty of surprises. Who knew there was an indoor race in Kansas City on Groundhog Day?

What's the catch, then? Writing for a small niche isn't particularly uncommon in publishing, but this comes across as a really, really small niche. There are plenty of runners out there, but most of them don't travel very far to races. Yes, there are those who do bounce around looking for good events, but most can't do more than a few per year. That's partly because of the expense, and partly because a runner can only do a handful of marathons and/or half-marathons in a given year. Now, if I happened to be in Ann Arbor, Mich., when the Twinkie Run was scheduled, I'd be instantly ready to sign up. But such coincidences are rare.

This also is more of a reference tool than a book that can be easily read straight through. Malan's longer stories about specific races often work better than those from freelancers, although there are some exceptions.

Runners who look up races first before making vacation plans certainly will enjoy looking through "The Runner's Bucket List." At less than $20, it's not much of an expense for those who do such things, and it will serve their needs well. But, I know a lot of runners, and I can't think of many who would give this more than a passing glance.

Three stars

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