Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Review: Joining the Clubs (2015)

By J. Andrew Ross

Here's an interesting concept: a hockey book without much talk about hockey.

All right, that's not completely fair. The hockey business certainly pops up in this work by J. Andrew Ross. There are a few references to rules changes that popped up in the early years of the National Hockey League.

Still, this is a business book. There's barely a reference to the game's great players. As you'd expect, that's going to limit the potential audience of a book like this.

Ross starts back in the pre-NHL days of the 19th century. The structure of hockey evolved about how you'd expect it to do so. Amateur leagues popped up in major Eastern Canadian cities. When they proved popular with players and fans alike, someone came along to try to turn it into a money-making proposition. That led to cities have a super-team, or teams, to compete against the other cities' best players. As soon as admission was charged, you can bet that the players wanted their shares of the proceeds.

After some stops and stars, pro hockey finally was headed on the right track with the formation of the National Hockey League in 1917. By the way, I never paid much thought to the fact that the NHL kept its name all these years, even though "National" is in the league name, despite expanding across the border. The NHL essentially was formed over a fight about the Toronto market. As Ross patiently explains here, it took a while for the game to catch on.

Eventually, though, the business took off. Mix that with the construction of arenas that were much bigger than anything that had been seen in North America before, and a business opportunity comes into focus. Cities such as New York and Boston saw an opportunity to book events in the form of hockey games over the winter, and soon many cities throughout North America wanted to get in on the fun. Look at the standings of the NHL in the 1920s sometime, and you'll see cities that didn't get a big arena built and thus quickly disappeared from the scene (Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Ottawa).

The Thirties, as Ross outlines, was a time to try to gain stability in membership, no easy task with the Depression. It also was a period when teams were trying to work out rules involving acquiring amateur players and setting up farm teams. When World War II arrived in 1939, the book spends much of its time concentrating on what the rules would be concerning players, the draft, and international travel by members of teams in two countries.

Ross obviously put in his time at the library here. The footnotes go on for pages and pages. I've read a variety of books on National Hockey League history over the years, and this has a great deal of new information. Therefore, it's exactly the type of book that a university should publish. Syracuse University is the owner of the press in question. This also reads like most of the scholarly efforts I've come across, with long summations about what was covered in the chapter.

In other words, it's not written for a mass audience. There are sections here that are a little dry, and there are other parts that are dry to the point of being dusty (mostly the beginning and ending portions). My guess is that not many people are going to be able to get through all of this.

It's good that people do care enough to write a book like this, in the sense that it fills in the gaps of hockey history. But it's tough to picture someone paying the $45.68 to get it. Those looking for something of a readable business history of the NHL should stick to "The NHL," which will be much more accessible to a mass audience.

Three stars

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Saturday, April 18, 2015

Review: Phil Jackson - Lord of the Rings (2013)

By Peter Richmond

Sometimes it's easy to be a little frightened by reviews.

I'm not talking specifically about movies, although certainly that can happen. Who wants to go a film that the experts say it hardly worth your money?

It can happen to a book too. That brings us to Peter Richmond's book, "Phil Jackson - Lord of the Rings."

The reviews on Amazon.com are quite harsh. Admittedly, there aren't many equivalents to the late Roger Ebert reviewing books on there, and in this case only a handful of reviews have been posted - all neutral to unfavorable. It was enough to keep this unread in my household for quite a while.

Still, having finally completed it, I think the other readers probably underestimate the book. It's not an instant classic, but it has its pleasures.

If you've been following basketball for the last few decades, you know Jackson's story. He came out of the Midwest (North Dakota, mostly) and arrived in New York to join the Knicks as a player - just in time to see that franchise go through the most glorious era in its history. The Knicks won titles in 1970 and 1973, and Jackson contributed to the latter team's success. (He was hurt in 1969-70.) That New York squad had a variety of memorable characters, but stories reveal that Jackson was the one mostly likely to be a coach.

It took a while, but he finally got his shot at an NBA coaching job. Not only was he ready for the big time, but he had some great company. Ever hear of Michael Jordan? The Bulls ran off six titles during their dynasty, and Jackson did a fabulous job of keeping the band together during that stretch. No coaches can win without talent, but not all coaches can win with it, and Jackson held together those Bulls teams of Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Co.

Then it was on to Los Angeles, where Jackson fell in with Shaq, Kobe and Co. Same story there, and more rings - an eventual total of 11 in his career. No one has more in basketball history. Richmond calls Jackson the most successful coach in basketball history, and the author has a case. Jackson finally left the Lakers a couple of years ago, but landed as the head executive of the Knicks last year. He's still looking for the next Jordan or Bryant in New York; good luck on that.

Richmond mixes a variety of sources to try to paint a picture of Jackson, certainly one of the most interesting personalities to come along in any sport. He's obviously smart and thoughtful, and comes across as considerate and adaptable when it comes to people. Those are all good qualities for a coach. Many of those who crossed Jackson's path are quoted here, some with direct quotes through interviews.

The author does have one good source for material - Jackson himself, but not directly. He refused to be interviewed for the book, although he promised not to do it any harm either. No, Jackson has written several books himself over the years. The first of those was called "Maverick" in 1975. I recall buying that book, which listed at the time for $7.95, for 88 cents at a used book store and thinking that I had overpaid. Richmond thought it was on the sour side as well. Imagine my surprise when I saw that copies of the book now were going for 100 times more than what I paid for it. Ugh.

The author also quotes several other books and interviews in the search for insight. Any book about Jackson will have some sections devoted to some non-traditional topics by basketball book standards - meaning that Jackson's interest in Native American and personal philosophy come up here. It's all part of the package.

The critics' biggest complaint centered on some silly errors in the text, remarks I usually associated with baseball fans and books on that subject (many such enthusiasts seem to take pleasure in finding such errors). It is difficult to believe that the Bulls were called the Bullets once in this book, and that some game details on playoff games came out wrong. I was surprised that the name of the Buffalo Braves' arena was botched, and that John Havlicek's injury in the Boston-New York series of 1973 didn't come up in the recap - obviously a huge part of the story.

Maybe more to the point, Jackson seems like a person who is hard to pin down here - even in a book that runs more than 300 pages. Of course, to many that's part of his charm.

Richmond has some flair in his writing, and has done some good work elsewhere. He certainly gave this an honest effort, and the book goes by pretty quickly. "Phil Jackson" might not turn out to be the definitive look at this coaching legend, but it does offer some insights that are part of the puzzle.

Three stars

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Thursday, April 9, 2015

Review: In Pursuit of Pennants (2015)

By Mark L. Armour and Daniel R. Levitt

The most fundamental question in major league baseball might be this one: How do you win games?

Obviously, scoring more runs than the opposition on a consistent basis is a good start. But, how is that accomplished?

It's a tougher question than many might think. After all, if it were easy, everyone would be doing it ... and every team would wind up at .500. Not only that, but the rules about putting together a winner in baseball keep changing.

Mark L. Armour and Daniel R. Levitt have taken on the big job of explaining how that task has changed in the past 110 years or so. No wonder the text of "In Pursuit of Pennants" checks in at more than 400 pages.

The short answer is that as the game has become more complicated, and more financially rewarding, the number of people in charge of such decisions has grown almost exponentially. We've gone from one or two people to dozens and dozens over the years as the stakes have gotten bigger.

That was a slow process, of course. This book starts in the 1890s, when baseball was just starting to move past the original concept where the captain was also a recruiter of local talent, and the games really were my town's best against your town's best. Before long, though, owners such as Barney Dreyfuss of Louisville and Pittsburgh started to take a role in putting together the team. That got to be a big job, so managers received a larger role in selecting the roster.

Eventually, the business of the game grew a bit, and the owners needed someone to oversee the ball club. That spot eventually became known as a general manager. Naturally he needed assistants as the organization grew in size.

Every so often, something came along to change the rules when it came to player acquisition. Let's list some of them - minor league teams became part of a major league organization, African-Americans (and later Latins and Asians) entered the talent pool, the amateur draft came long, the league expanded, and free agency arrived. It wasn't always easy to keep up.

The book, then, becomes something of a collection of case studies of certain teams in particular eras. The great Yankee teams and the Big Red Machine are profiled, as you might expected. But there are surprising choices as well. The Kansas City Royals, for example, rarely missed a step when they entered the American League in 1969, and became a constant contender in about seven years.

It's often very interesting to see how teams got better. For example, the Boston Red Sox of the early 1960s were rather awful. General manager Dick O'Connell cleared out many of the veterans, put in some talented youngsters, and watched the win-loss record slowly improve. The surprise 1967 pennant was followed by years and years of winning seasons, and it's great fun (at least for those who are familiar with the team) to see how things were put together in hindsight.

The narrative concludes in the present day, where teams like the San Francisco Giants used the latest analytics and technology advances to seek out an edge on the competition. It seems to be working, based on their record of success lately.

Credit goes to Armour and Levitt for some comprehensive research into the subject. There are plenty of interesting facts presented along the way. Drawbacks are few in number. It can be a little dry in spots, and a little editing would have gotten the manuscript down a bit to a slightly more readable length.

Plus, "In Pursuit of Pennants" obviously is designed with the good-sized baseball fan in mind. In other words, members of the Society of American Baseball Research will thoroughly enjoy this. Others might not open this volume, but it's nice that such a smart work about an important aspect of the sport is there for the reading by those who wish to get an advanced education on the subject.

Four stars

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