Monday, March 23, 2015

Review: On the Clock (2015)

By Barry Wilner and Ken Rappoport

An easy way to sum up the growth of the National Football League is to look at the Draft - the selection process used by teams to pick college players.

Once upon a time, this procedure was done in a hotel ballroom, with little fanfare and hoopla. Now, the Draft has been staged at such places as Radio City Music Hall in New York, and it's going on the road to Chicago this year to spread the excitement.

What happened? Veteran football writers Barry Wilner and Ken Rappoport teamed up to tell some of the stories about the draft. "On the Clock" give the allotment procedure a quick once over.

The authors jump around quite a bit in their coverage after devoting the first chapter to the 2014 proceedings. Jay Berwanger is the answer to a couple of trivia questions - the first NFL draft choice, and the first Heisman Trophy winner. Berwanger turned down the pros because they didn't offer enough money. That hasn't been an issue for some time.

Bert Bell, the former commissioner of the league, gets credit for creating the draft. It was a revolutionary step at the time. Baseball essentially let any team sign anyone it wanted until the middle of the 1960s, something that certainly helped the New York Yankees plant the seeds that led to championships. Football spread out the wealth about 30 years before that, keeping the rich teams and poor teams on a more level playing field.

Still, the draft didn't begin to expand in interest until the early 1980s, when ESPN started televising the show. As the production values grew, the draft served as a bridge between college and pro football. The college fans were interested in seeing where their boys would go in the pros, and the pro fans treated the day like Christmas - teams knew they'd get something good, but they weren't sure what until they got to "open them." The broadcasts led to the rise of such analysts as Mel Kiper Jr.

Wilner and Rappoport have a few other subjects to cover. There's the story about top draft picks who didn't wind up with their drafting team for one reason or another - Bo Jackson, John Elway, Eli Manning. The authors also pick a best pick and a bust pick for each team as well as the top five all-time draft choices by position - which is a lot like just picking something close to an all-time team, since just about everyone in the past 60 years has been drafted.

The material can be read in a couple of hours, and the authors know what they are talking about. Still, this feels like a very basic look at the subject. There aren't many "inside" stories on the teams and players. In fact, my guess is that most football fans will have at least a passing familiarity with the material that's covered here.

Those looking for a primer on this spring tradition could do worse that picking up a copy of "On the Clock." But it's probably going to have trouble finding an audience.

Two stars

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Sunday, March 1, 2015

Review: The Outlaw League ... (2014)

By Daniel R. Levitt

It's probably not possible to send an anniversary card to a defunct baseball league. Who would you send it to? And where would it be delivered?

Still, we're in the middle of a relatively significant baseball anniversary, especially in the business sense. The Federal League fielded teams in 1914 and 1915, and is the last on-field competitor to Major League Baseball as we know it. Its remaining legacy in terms of baseball is Wrigley Field in Chicago, which was first built to house a Federal League team.

The tale of the Federals pointed baseball, and in some ways all sports, down a particular path in the years to come. Thus a complete story of the Federal League's tale from creation and demise is worthwhile from an historic perspective.

Daniel R. Levitt has written that book. It comes complete with a very long title, "The Outlaw League and the Battle that Forged Modern Baseball." Come to think of it, the book and its title both have plenty of detail.

A little history lesson: The Federal League started as a minor league in 1913, but had the idea to try to join the American and National Leagues the following year. Owners were found, parks were built or leased, and players were pursued. The league did indeed open on time in 1914.

But its two years of operation was a constant battle. Everyone involved took a financial hit, mostly in the form of decreased attendance and higher salaries. The legalities of contracts were open for question, depending on the judge, and some players initially jumped to the Federal League only to jump right back. Finally, the Federal League worked out a settlement with the majors, and we returned to one baseball operation. It has stayed that way until the present day.

The settlement's most interesting part led to a lawsuit with huge legal implications. Baltimore was left out of the "merger," and filed an anti-trust suit. This is the one in which the Supreme Court decided that baseball was not interstate commerce and not subject to anti-trust laws. That has affected operations for more than 90 years, even though the reasoning for the decision puzzled scholars and lawyers then and now.

Levitt obviously spent lots of time doing research, which shows on every page. There are tons of stories about how the leagues were formed, and how contract negotiations took place. Some court testimony is used effectively to tell how negotiations at critical stages went. If someone wants to call this the complete business recap of the Federal League, I'll agree fully.

There is a problem associated with all of this, at least in a sense. There's no baseball in it. The pennant race of 1915 is briefly covered, and that's about it. You don't get any flavor about what the game or individual teams were like in that era. Levitt obviously set out to write the business site of the story, and he followed through on that.

Still, I have the feeling that only a small part of the baseball-loving public will find this overly interesting without the weaving of games and seasons involved. In other words, this won't be popping up on any beaches for reading this year.

Be warned, then, that "The Outlaw League..." will be a little too dry and scholarly for many. But those who like this sort of material will learn a lot as they read it. 

Four stars

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