Thursday, December 24, 2015

Review: The Best American Sports Writing 2015 (2015)

Edited by Wright Thompson

The Best American Sports Writing series began in 1991, and it made an immediate impression with me - and not just because my name was mentioned in one of the included stories for a couple of paragraphs. It was instantly judged to be a worthy successor to similar anthologies in the field. You might be able to find some of them in the dusty parts of the library.

Here we are, 25 years later, and the series is still moving along nicely. Glenn Stout has proved to be a more than capable guardian for the idea, passing along the guest editor's job to some of the top names in the business. In 2015, he handed the reins over to Wright Thompson, the fine writer for ESPN.

Thompson has picked out the final choices of articles that appear in "The Best American Sports Writing 2015." I've read every single entry in the series. Not only have I noticed how the sports journalism business has changed over the years, but I've realized the guest editor's job must be a pretty subjective one. That's because the reader's opinion of a particular year's offerings can vary with how in tune he or she might be with the editor.

I'm not going to argue here that any of the choices here feature less than top-notch work. But some of the stories in the second half of the 2015 edition have a rather liberal definition of sports, and that made them a little less compelling than the others for me. There's a family history of Kansas City, which is more geneology than sports. As I'm fond of saying, one of the few things less interesting than your fantasy sports team is your family tree. It is tough to describe what the story of people going few thousand feet into a cave is, but it's not mainstream sports. The author of an article on elephant-hunting in Africa certainly did an admirable job, but it's a tough sell for me.

So that's the good news, but there's plenty of stuff here. A story on football great Y.A. Tittle leads the book off. It was memorable the first time I read it, and sure enough those are the type of stories you want to read again. I missed the Haverford Hoops story in Sports Illustrated, and I'm glad I caught it here. Profiles of Dean Smith, Jerry Jones and Chad Curtis are all fascinating in their own ways.

I'm also proud to say that the only newspaper contribution of the bunch - talk about changing times! - came from my newspaper. Tim Graham's look at ex-Bills linebacker Darryl Talley and his concussion-related issues of retirement ranks with the best stories anywhere in 2015. Stories about head injuries have been a part of the books in this series for the past few years. In Buffalo, this one really brought the problem home for Bills fans.

I've been reviewing books in this series for several years, and they have been very popular - they rank near the top in number of hits on this blog. The review again comes down to the fact that there's always something good here - how good depending on the individual reader's point of view. In this case's, Thompson's batting average wasn't perfect for me ... but there's a good chance that the book will be even a better fit for you. So pick it up, and see how it goes.

Four stars

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Saturday, December 19, 2015

Review: What's New, Harry? (2015)

Edited by Paul Ranallo

Welcome to a time machine.

"What's New, Harry?" really does take the reader back to a different era, and that's partly what makes this book interesting. But the concept will need some explaining first.

Let's start with the star of the show. Phil Ranallo is fondly remembered by those who lived in Buffalo after World War II. He started as a copy boy at the Courier-Express in 1942, and after a brief interruption caused by time in the armed forces, stayed there until the newspaper folded in 1982.

Ranallo did a variety of work for the sports section of the newspaper in that time. He is best remembered as the main columnist from the late 1960s through 1980 or so. He spent the last part of his career as a copy editor, a move that few columnists would even think about attempting before leaving in disgust. When the Courier-Express went under, Ranallo never wrote another word for publication.

During his time as a columnist, the Courier was more of the "blue collar" newspaper in town, more for city folks, while the Buffalo Evening News catered to a suburban mindset. The News had Steve Weller as its sports columnist, a graceful and hilarious writing talent, while Ranallo appealed more to the working class. Our family mostly read the News during the 1970s, so we only saw Ranallo's work when the Sunday newspaper arrived - the News didn't come out on Sundays, if you can believe it.

It's a roundabout way of saying that I didn't get the chance to see many of Ranallo's column. So this book instantly became an interesting way to look back at his work. After zipping through the 250 or so pages lovingly compiled by his son, a couple of points jump out.

Ranallo used a very odd device for some of his columns. He created a character for himself called Harry, and he quoted Harry making comments on the sporting scene. Some columns are virtually nothing but quotes from Harry. His wife became Ruby in the column, and some friends became characters every so often as well. This technique wasn't done in every column, and I have my doubts if anyone is trying it more than once in a while these days. But it does jump out at the reader now as being "old school."

There are more or less two types of columns here: local and national. The local ones are sure to bring back some memories for Western New York readers of athletes, games and places. The national columns, though, don't work as well in hindsight. Articles about say, Lou Brock and Rocky Marciano, feel like they are written from a distance, without much perspective. There are a few quotes in such stories, probably taken from wire service reports. But they don't seem to go farther than the idea that "Pete Rose sure is a great player." Since a book like this certainly is designed for Buffalo-area audiences, I think I would have increased the number of local columns in the collection greatly.

There are a few columns that deal with other subjects here. There are tributes to departing friends, and "game stories" of events like the Kentucky Derby. There are a few columns here that deal with politics in a sense that are a little surprising. I wonder if Phil had to do much arguing to convince the sports editors to run columns on three straight days about the death of Robert Kennedy. I'm sure a piece on the futility of the Vietnam War got him some angry responses from readers too, but it's still interesting now. Ranallo could be funny, and he could be poignant - sometimes in the same column, which is hard to do. His language skills come out here.

For the record, the book has some typographical errors along the way. I would guess that stories had to be retyped by hand, which can lead to mistakes - especially with small publishing outfits. And it's tough to imagine how many legal hoops Paul Ranallo must have gone through to get the rights to the columns; I'm sure the thought went through his head 3,000 times that "I wish I could have done this sooner." 

Still, I certainly appreciate the chance to read "What's New, Harry," even 33 years after the Courier's departure. I got to know Phil a little bit in the final years of his time at the Courier. I can vouch for the fact that this was a gentleman, who was a credit to the business of journalism, and who was very nice to me in our few encounters. It's certainly nice to have some of his work on my bookshelf now.

Three stars

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Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Review: Super Bowl Gold (2015)

Foreword by Peter King

Assuming it's legal to use a baseball analogy for a football book, the idea of "Super Bowl Gold" must have been the equivalent to a hanging slider to someone in charge of Sports Illustrated.

After all, the 50th Super Bowl is coming up soon, and the NFL no doubt was planning a big celebration. Sports Illustrated had a ton of photos in some files, digital or otherwise, and stories on each game as they were played. Don't just stand there, staff members, get to work.

And so they did. And the resulting product is a beauty.

Each game gets six pages. There something of an introduction, a bunch of fine photos (it is Sports Illustrated), an edited version of the original game story, some fast facts about the game, and memories from a player from each team in the game. Zip, zip, zip, like a Joe Montana or Tom Brady drive in the final minutes. Yeah, those two guys come up frequently here.

There are a few more original stories here. Peter King checks in with some Super Bowl memories, and that's good fun. Austin Murphy obviously had a lot of fun with the halftime show. There are also stories on media coverage and TV commercials. The book ends with some sort of rating system that ranks the 49 games that have been played so far. Those systems usually are a little silly and it might have been better to have someone who has seen all the games rank them, but that may be just me.

One of the unexpected fun parts of the book is the game story. You really get to see the business change as you go from year to year. Tex Maule opens with basic stories, the way things were written before television fully wrapped its arms around the sport. Dan Jenkins follows and shows why there's hardly been anyone better at the actual writing. Paul Zimmerman lived and breathed football in his career, and it shows in his stories here. Since then, SI has gotten some backstage information that no one has, and it shows.

But the player comments are good too. It might be more interesting to read the accounts for the losers, some of whom were sure they'd be back in a year to win it all. And, most of them didn't. But someone did a good job collecting stories from those from both sides.

This book is heavy reading. No, really. It's big and heavy at 336 pages and some weighty covers. At least you know where the $40 went.

"Super Bowl Gold" certainly isn't for everyone, and that includes some football fans. The kids might not be too anxious to read about games and players who have faded into memory for the most part, and nostalgia isn't for everyone. But if you're going to put together a golden anniversary book for the Super Bowl along these lines, I can't imagine anyone doing it any better.

Five stars

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Friday, December 11, 2015

Review: Legends of the Buffalo Bills (2015)

By Randy Schultz

What does Randy Schultz have in common with the movie "Star Wars?" They both have sequels.

Schultz, naturally, is the less-famous of the two. The re-release of his book, "Legends of the Buffalo Bills," doesn't come with the advertising blitz that has accompanied the latest version of the famous science-fiction series.

Schultz's original book came out in 2003. He follows a rather foolproof formula. Schultz talked to a variety of Buffalo Bills figures from the course of their history, which began in 1960. Oldtimers, naturally, love to bring up the good old days, and this gives them the opportunity to do it.

So, as Vin Scully would say, Bills fans can "pull up a chair" and enjoy their favorite moments. Schultz's battling average in terms of interviews is very, very good. About the only drawback in that sense is that other people had to do the talking about Jim Kelly, since the great quarterback apparently wasn't available. But it works out well enough.

It is sort of interesting to compare the two editions of the book. It is important to note that not a great deal happened to the Bills from 2003 to 2015 in terms of adding to the list of great teams and moments. Buffalo did not participate in a single playoff game in that time. As far as players are concerned, few of them from that era are going to pop up on the Bills' Wall of Fame. The only players from those years that could have turned up in the revised book might by Ruben Brown and Brian Moorman. Schultz did get to write new chapters on a couple of Sixties players, Ernie Warlick and Tom Day, and new owner Terry Pegula's story is offered this time around too.

The sequel's biggest drawback is that Schultz wasn't allowed to do much updating. The text and pictures are in many cases exactly the same, with the new edition staying with black and white versions of some color photos. The author had the chance to rewrite the end of a few chapters, including the deaths of such figures as Ralph Wilson and Van Miller. But there are still some obvious references from 2003 that remain in the new book. The publisher really should have allowed Schultz to do a little more rewriting in order to get the stories up to date to cut down on some confusion.

I've been a friend of Randy's since 1978 or so, and I know how much good work he does. That's why this book isn't rated. But I can say with confidence that most long-time Bills fans will enjoy the time traveling aspects of the book and hearing from the Bills' stars of yesteryear.

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Thursday, December 10, 2015

Review: Pop Warner (2015)

By Jeffrey J. Miller

Let's start with the name.

Pop Warner. It sounds like a throwback to a forgotten time, doesn't it? Wasn't there a Pop or Pops in every Western you ever saw that was filmed in black and white?

Football coach Pop Warner wasn't the star of any Westerns, although he did live in California for quite a while and for several coached what were known at the time as Indians. He also was one of the great innovators of his sport, and one of its most successful coaches from the game's early days.

It's always interesting to read about someone like that. For his part, Warner did do something of an autobiography at one point in his life. However, it wasn't a particularly complete story and thus paints a less-than-full picture. That left an obvious void.

Jeffrey J. Miller rode in to the rescue. Miller has done some very good work on football over the years; his "Rockin' the Rockpile" is a great source of information on Buffalo Bills history. As it happens, Miller lives in Springville, New York. That was Warner's home for much of his childhood, and he often returned to the small town south of Buffalo frequently during his life. Therefore, a Miller book on Warner is a natural. And "Pop Warner" is a good effort, filling in some gaps in the life of a coach hasn't worked since 1940.

Warner was born in Concord, NY, but moved to nearby Springville when he was 11. Warner remembers that going to Springville was almost like being in New York City compared to sleepy Concord. He played a variety of sports growing up, and eventually headed for Cornell. Warner considered a career in law, but turned out for the Cornell football team in 1892 at the age of 21. He was older than anyone else on the team, thus earning the nickname "Pop." It stuck.

Warner finished his playing career at Cornell and slid over to coaching duties for a while. He figured out a way to coach at Iowa State before the season (training camp started quite early there), and then head to Georgia for a full season there - and get paid by both schools. Both teams prospered under the arrangement, and Warner developed a good reputation as a promising coach. That attracted the attention of his alma mater, and Warner came back to Cornell.

That lasted two years, as Pop jumped to Carlyle - a school in Eastern Pennsylvania designed to provide lessons in life and academics to the Native American population. Warner stayed six seasons, putting together some excellent teams that played the best in the business at the time. Then it was back to Cornell for three seasons, and then back to Carlyle for eight seasons. It was then that one of the greatest athletes in history, Jim Thorpe, turned up for practice. The pair worked well together.

Warner quickly established a reputation as someone who was always trying to figure out ways to win. One time he outfitted a player with an elastic uniform, so that the player could tuck a football under his shirt and then take off for the goal line with it. Then there was the designed play in which a receiver would go out of bounds, run down the field behind a bench, and reappear on the field in time to catch a long pass. These plays weren't illegal at the time.

It's not easy to keep up with Warner's wanderings, but Miller does that as he follows the coach go from Carlyle to Pittsburgh to Stanford to Temple as a head coach. Warner finally was finished in 1939 with 311 wins. Along the way, he came up with all sorts of new offensive strategies, while personally designing improvements in shoulder pads and tackling sleds.

There's not a great deal of information about Warner as a person here. That's not a huge surprise, since he probably made most of his public statements about the sport and apparently spent a great deal of his free time thinking about football. Therefore, the appeal of this book is limited to football fans - but there's nothing wrong with that.

Miller doesn't get too bogged down in details of games involving Warner over the years. The length of the text is about 200 pages, including a handful of pictures. That's about right for a project like this - a quick course in one of the game's greats. The price is a bit high for a paperback at $30 retail, but that's to be expected for a book that fits into a narrow niche. It's a thorough, professional job of reporting and writing.

The name of Pop Warner now is mostly associated with youth football, as leagues by that name have spread across the country. Now those kids will be able to read about Warner himself. The book is a worthwhile addition to the football library.

Four stars

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