Sunday, April 30, 2017

Review Sting Like a Bee (2017)

By Leigh Montville

Ever since Leigh Montville stopped writing newspaper and magazine articles and started writing books, you can never tell what he's going to work on next. Let's see - there have been books on Babe Ruth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Ted Williams, Evel Knievel, and Manute Bol among others.

This year, he's added another interesting choice to the list. Admittedly, forests could have been spared if Muhammad Ali hadn't come around when he did. All sorts of books have been written about him over the years. It's hard to turn away from his personality.

But this is different. Montville opts here to write about the time when he had an epic fight with the United States government over his draft status. That's a big part of the Ali legend at this point, but it's not a particularly well-known story. That's why "Sting Like a Bee" is a useful addition to the library.

For those of you too young to remember, Ali really did shock the work when he defeated Sonny Liston for the heavyweight boxing title in 1964. Then he did it again the next day by announcing that he had joined the Nation of Islam, a controversial Muslim group. Ali eventually changed his name from Cassius Clay. To say this all was unpopular would be a great understatement. Put it this way - most people thought the reputation of the boxing championship was tarnished - and Liston was known to be under the influence of organized crime. Plenty of people refused to call Ali by his new name; you'd think it would be easy to respect someone's personal wishes in this department.

Ali zipped through the heavyweight division's contenders, with his only roadblock being the draft board. After flunking an intelligence test, the military opted to reclassify several people by taking them into their ranks and giving them special training. Suddenly Ali was 1-A, and he claimed that his religion would not allow him to fight in Vietnam. Besides, Ali added, the Viet Cong had never discriminated against him. (His language was more colorful, but you get the idea.)

Montville gives the blow-by-blow account of the legal battle over Ali's status. There are a variety of stops and starts, but a key side issue was that Ali lost his boxing license once he refused induction - thus taking away his right to earn a living while he was fighting the case in court. It's a strange tale for the author - a book about a boxer without a heck of a lot of boxing along the way. Ali's journey almost is more of a legal expedition, as lawyers keep looking for a way for Ali to avoid military service.

The author makes a great point when he writes that as the Vietnam War became less and less popular, Ali's defiance became more and more mainstream. He eventually won his case to get his boxing license back, and fought a couple of times before the epic bout with Joe Frazier. Right after that, Ali won his case in the Supreme Court - and as Montville reminds us, he won it mostly because the Court Justices worked hard to find a legal loophole so that Ali wouldn't become a martyr in jail.

Montville did lots of reading about Ali and the Nation of Islam, and he sought out all sorts of people who played some sort of role in the story. The author even gets a lot of material from Ali's second wife, although some of it feels like it's from a different book in terms of content. Some of the twists and turns weren't particularly well publicized at the time, so it's good to catch up with it here.

There is one stumbling block here, and it's a good-sized one in terms of some readers' enjoyment of the story. There is plenty of legal stuff here, and it's quite dry. Montville includes quite a bit of legal testimony and documents verbatim, and it's hardly brisk reading. And that's an odd combination with Montville's wordy writing style, which can be a little tough to navigate if you aren't used to it. Ali certainly doesn't come off as a saint here either, mostly because of his wife's comments. That may not please the big fans, and disillusion others.

"Sting Like A Bee" is a good addition to the Ali library, filling in a literary gap. I'm just not sure it's going to work for everyone; I've read most of Montville's books (and loved him as a columnist) so I'm a little biased. If you are willing to put up with the lack of fun and excitement in a book about a fun and exciting public figure, dive in and receive an education.

Four stars

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Sunday, April 23, 2017

Review: Arnie (2017)

By Tom Callahan

The year 2016 was a tough one for sports icons. We lost Muhammad Ali, one of the best boxers ever and a man who influenced world culture. We lost Gordie Howe, a simple, down-to-earth guy who, depending on your standards, is one of the finalists as the greatest hockey player.

And we lost Arnie. You didn't need to be a golfer to know that we're talking about Arnold Palmer, one of the most important players in the sport's history.

That's the guy Tom Callahan, a veteran golf writer, profiles in his book, "Arnie."

Palmer might be an example of the "right man at the right place" school of history. He turned professional in the middle of the 1950s, when Americans had more leisure time and were using it to play more golf. It was also when television started to influence American culture, and Palmer was perfect for that. You can tell by the photographs out of that era that Palmer was "cool" - Steve McQueen with a driver.

Palmer loved to compete, and was never afraid to take risks in search of victory. Sometimes it didn't work, and you could see his expression turn briefly sad. But when it paid off, the smile lit up the golf course. The crowds noticed that, of course, and loved to follow him. They turned into an army - "Arnie's Army."

Palmer had a great run of about 10 years in which he was winning major championships or in contention for them. His biggest problem was that Jack Nicklaus came along in the early 1960s, and Nicklaus could play. He turned out to be the best ever. (Almost the same thing happened with Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods.)

For a few years, Palmer and Nicklaus had what the other wanted - Palmer wanted to be as good as Nicklaus on the course; Nicklaus wanted to be as beloved as Palmer was with the public. That made the relationship a little frosty for a while, but they were both smart enough to figure out that they had a lot more in common than they had differences. Palmer spent a lot of time making money and making friends, and he admits that probably hurt his golf game. But, as the book mentions, on a personal level it was a good trade.

Palmer was very good at making money, but he was better at making friends. Yes, he was "Arnold Palmer," but was friendly to everyone in sight. Arnie answered his mail, signed endless autographs, chatted with young players, sat through countless interviews, and at the end no doubt posed for hundreds of selfies. And he seemed to remember everyone along the way.

Here's a story from the book that shows what he was all about. Two soldiers from Vietnam, Jeff and Wally, sent a note to Palmer asking if he could send them some sand wedges and balls so that they could practice bunker shots. Palmer sent them right away and enclosed a personal letter. Months later, they both returned home safely. One went to the Western Open in Chicago and found a way to thank him in person for the gesture: "I'm one of the guys you sent sand wedges to in Vietnam." Palmer's response: "Are you Jeff or Wally?" He remembered their names. Unbelievable. But that was Arnie.

Callahan arranges the chapters by year, and the story is in somewhat chronological order. But it's more of a jumping off point for anecdotes about Palmer and his accomplices over the years. There are times when when it's easy to wonder in the text, "How did we get here?" But Callahan gets back to Arnie soon enough, and tells another story about him.

The pages of "Arnie" go by quickly (it's 250 pages of text, plus a long appendix), and you are sure to laugh a little and cry a little along the way.  This isn't a definitive biography, but it sure shows why so many people loved him. That makes it worthwhile.

Four stars

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Friday, April 7, 2017

Review: Leo Durocher (2017)

By Paul Dickson

The Buffalo News is publishing my review of this one, which you can find clicking here.

The short version - author Paul Dickson works hard to separate fact from fiction concerning the baseball manager's life. It's not easy, considering Durocher himself created some of the confusion. Durocher doesn't come off as a particularly likeable person here, but it's hard to look away when he's at his best and at his worst.

Four stars

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Review: Son of Bum (2017)

By Wade Phillips with Vic Carucci

The word that comes to mind when reading "Son of Bum" is ... curious.

Let's start with the basics. Wade Phillips might be the most well-known assistant coach in football these days. That's sort of like being a well-known spy, another profession not known for publicity-seekers. (Although there have been a few coaches who don't shy away from cameras.)

That's certainly in part due to the fact that he served as a head coach in a few different cities, including Buffalo and Dallas. Phillips also has a good reputation for putting solid defenses together wherever he's gone. And being a football coach, an occupation that keeps moving van companies in business, he's gone to a lot of places over the years.

But at the start of his football career, Wade was mostly known as the son of Bum Phillips. For the young readers out there, Bum put together some really good Houston Oilers teams in the late 1970s. The problem was that the Pittsburgh Steelers - the Steel Curtain Steelers - were always in the way.

Bum was loaded with personality, and he captivated the city of Houston with those teams. But that Phillips never could get over the hump, lost his job as a result, and moved to a much worse situation in New Orleans. Bum built up a decent team with the Saints, but eventually departed like most coaches do.

Wade is an entirely different personality. He received plenty of credit for his work in the Super Bowl win by the Denver Broncos in Feb. 2016, when he was the defensive coordinator. It was a nice reward for more than 30 years of good work in the NFL. Wade always came across as relatively serious, and someone who said what he meant without much flair. People like that don't often have books published.

The book is subtitled "Lessons My Dad Taught Me About Football and Life." That's true for most of the first half of the book. Bum frequently had Wade on his coaching staffs when the son was just getting started in the business. At times it seems as if Wade is more concerned with telling about his dad's approaches and experiences than his own. Since Bum wrote a book of his own in 2010, it's easy to wonder about how this might work. But Wade's affection for his dad certainly is evident right from the beginning, and certainly Dad would be proud of his son's reputation around the league at this point.

Once Bum leaves the NFL, Wade sticks to his own lifestory. It's covered relatively briskly, without spending too much time on individual games. The most interesting stories of the book probably center on switches in jobs over the years. Phillips has a lot to say about a pair of NFL owners with completely different personalities - Jerry Jones of the Cowboys and Ralph Wilson of the Bills. I'm fond of saying that teams usually lose for a reason, and Phillips' comments about what it was like to coach under Wilson back up that statement. Phillips' exit from Buffalo was a strange one for all concerned, and the Bills haven't been to the playoffs since he left almost two decades ago.

One game does get a little extra coverage in these pages, and it's that Super Bowl win. There are a few good stories from that day, and it's obvious what a personally satisfying moment that was for Phillips.

Otherwise, the veteran coach spends just a little time dealing with the X's and O's of the business. The terminology of pro football can be intimidating, even to those who follow the game fairly closely as fans, but there's little here that will stop an average football fan in his or her tracks. This is also a pretty quick read, which is appropriate.

I won't give this a rating, as coworker and friend Vic Carucci worked on the book with him. The two have put together a book that won't intimidate many, but will instead give a fairly good look at a straight shooter. Those seeking to learn about a man and a profession that usually is closed to the public will pick up some insight with "Son of Bum."

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Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Review: Casey Stengel (2017)

By Marty Appel

There's a lot to be said for being the right person at the right time at the right place.

Ask Casey Stengel.

That might sum up the life of Stengel. Marty Appel uses those words and many more in his new biography of the legendary baseball figure, "Casey Stengel - Baseball's Greatest Character."

Appel, also known as George Steinbrenner's first public relations director with the New York Yankees, is well-qualified to try to put a picture of Stengel together. He's written several books on baseball, and obviously has plenty of contacts through the Yankees' history and through baseball to make this work in an entertaining and comprehensive style.

Stengel's real name was Charles, but he was from Kansas City - and he picked up the name Casey (as in K.C.) along the way. Stengel always preferred baseball to school work, and dropped out of high school a little early to sign a professional contract. And why not? His starting salary was twice what his father was earning.

Stengel wasn't a bad player, reaching the majors and bouncing around through a few teams once he got there. It included six years in Brooklyn and three with the New York Giants; Casey liked playing on the big stage that New York offered. Stengel also displayed an ability to be entertaining. The sportswriters would call it "colorful" or say he was a "real character." Whatever you call it, Casey was the type of guy who once reacted to a greeting at the batter's box by taking off his cap - and having a sparrow fly off his head. You don't see that today.

Stengel played 14 years. Baseball-reference.com's list of comparable batters has him as a close match to Cleon Jones - who signed with the Mets when Stengel worked there. He had a habit of turning up at historic moments - like hitting the first home run in Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, or hitting the first home run in a World Series in Yankee Stadium.

After finishing his playing career, Stengel started to work off the field - and provided a laugh-out-loud moment in his book right away. He was named the president and manager of a minor-league team in Worcester. Soon he was offered a job as a manager in Toledo, but the franchise owner in Worcester didn't want to let him take it. So Casey the manager wrote a letter to Casey the president, resigning from the position. Casey the president wrote back with "I join the fans of Worcester in expressing our appreciation for your outstanding services rendered and wish you luck in your new position. We congratulate Toledo on getting your valuable services."

Stengel managed for several years in the majors, guiding Brooklyn and the Boston Braves in the 1930s and early 1940s. But he only had one team play above .500, so no one thought of him as a genius. But Stengel still landed the Yankees job in 1949, and promptly won five straight World Series title - which has never been matched. It's funny how smart he got when he had good players. Joe Torre had a similar experience in the Bronx, as he guided the great Yankee teams in the late 1990s after having little success as a manager beforehand.

Some loved Stengel, and some disliked him. The sports writers and the public generally loved him, though, building up good will. He could be unconventional as a manager, pinch-hitting for players in the second inning and making odd decisions with the pitching staff. But generally, they worked out pretty well.

Appel barely touches on one part of the Yankees' story in the 1950s, which is race. The Yankees didn't integrate the major league roster until 1955, well behind most other teams. That would seem to be a sign that Yankee scouts weren't in a hurry to add African Americans to the roster, although a couple of anecdotes indicates that Stengel didn't have any problems with an integrated roster.

Stengel took a year off after the Yankees ordered him to retire after the 1960 season, and then turned up as the manager of the New York Mets. The expansion team wanted some attention, and Stengel certainly could provide that. The Mets soon outdrew the rival and much better Yankees. But New York's Mets were a terrible baseball team in those early years, one of the worst in history. It's easy to wonder if Stengel was the right man for that job in a baseball sense, and if the Mets were mismanaged in their first few years of play. Those issues go generally unexplored here.

Appel did plenty of research, and comes up with some facts that must have taken some digging to find. He is helped in his task by using portions of an unpublished autobiography by Stengel's wife, Edna. Written in 1958, the tales from that do help illuminate Casey as a complete person - one who was drawn to the spotlight, unable to pull away in spite of his wife's wishes in that area. There are a few moments in the book where the story becomes a little choppy, but for the most part this is an easy lift to read.

Appel also obviously is very fond of Stengel as a character, and it's tough not to be. Any criticism of the subject is rather gentle, and quickly offset by warm words. For those who don't know why we still remember the legendary figure so well, "Casey Stengel" fills in the gaps well.

Four stars

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