Thursday, April 19, 2018

Review: Pudge (2015)

By Doug Wilson

They don't make 'em like Carlton Fisk any more.

The Hall of Famer was, as that description implies, the greatest of his generation at the baseball position of catcher. He holds several records in the sport for durability and longevity, as he played into his 40s at a position in which one's knees are supposedly done by 35 or so. Old-fashioned hard work throughout his life gets much of the credit, although the individual doing that work is just as special.

Fisk was always one of those strong, silent types out of rural New England, where bragging wasn't done or appreciated. It's tough to imagine him sitting down for long periods of time to write an autobiography.

So it's up to someone else to fill in the gaps of describing Fisk. Doug Wilson took on the job when he wrote "Pudge" The author of a few other baseball books comes through with a thorough job of reviewing an eventful life.

Fisk's baseball story is an unlikely one for a couple of big reasons. The first is that he grew up in Charlestown, New Hampshire. That's located right on the Connecticut River on the eastern edge of the state, south of Hanover (home of Dartmouth). The winters can be long there and the springs slow in arriving, so you can imagine just how many baseball prospects come out of that region. Somehow, Fisk beat the odds.

Adding to the joy that Charlestown felt about sending one of its native sons to the majors was that Fisk landed in Boston to play for the Red Sox, New England's team. Could there have been a better pairing for all concerned? It didn't take Fisk long to be considered the greatest catcher in Red Sox history, proving to be a good fit with other 1970s stars on that team like Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Rice, and Fred Lynn. He developed a good rivalry with fellow catcher Thurman Munson of the Yankees along the way.

Catchers take a pounding in baseball sometimes, which is reason number two why this is an unlikely story. Fisk suffered a very serious knee injury relatively early in his long career, and there was some doubt about whether he'd ever play again at anything close to the previous level. The catcher did the work, and recovered to play at his previous levels for many more years.

What's more, Fisk took part in two of the iconic baseball moments of the 1970's. He was the central figure in one of them, a game-ending home run in Game Six of the 1975 World Series - finishing what is still considered one of the greatest games ever played. In another, he and the Red Sox fell to the Yankees in the 1978 playoff game that capped an era of intense rivalry between those teams. Both are well covered here, as you might expect.

Fisk was also part of a turbulent and somewhat forgotten about era in baseball in which the game's financial structure was blown up and rebuilt. Salaries exploded and Fisk was involved in an odd series of events - too complex to discuss here but nicely examined in the book - that led to him being declared a free agent and poisoning the relationship between the catcher and the Red Sox.

Fisk landed with the White Sox, and became the face of the franchise for most of the 1980s. Wilson doesn't have as much material here, as Chicago only won one division title during the catcher's time wearing #72 (he flipped his old number, 27, around after changing teams). The ending of Fisk's tenure as a White Sox player was awkward as well. That's not unusual, as it's always tough to know when a veteran athlete is done or merely in a slump - particularly an athlete as proud as Fisk.

Wilson talked to a long list of Fisk's teammates and associates here. Occasionally the material feels a little repetitive, but sometimes that research pulls out a little gem. I loved the story about someone climbing up the stairs to the top of a church in Charlestown right after Fisk's World Series home. A policeman arrived to find out what the fuss was about. When told about the homer, he answered: "Hell, if I'd known that, I'd have come and helped you."

The biggest drawback might be a slight hole in the middle of the story. There are plenty of quotes from Fisk accumulated from his years in the spotlight, but it's tough to know what he's really thinking along the way. No doubt he likes it that way.

Even so, "Pudge" works quite well. If you are of age to remember his body of work from the standings, then this should bring back some good memories and fill in some gaps in the narrative.

Four stars

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Sunday, April 8, 2018

Review: Lou (2017)

By Lou Piniella with Bill Madden

When I first got a look at Lou Piniella in person, he was a young prospect in the Baltimore Orioles' farm system. The outfielder was OK as a Double-A player in Elmira, New York, but not someone that could be projected into a long baseball career.

Boy, was that wrong.

Piniella made it to the major leagues for good in 1969, winning Rookie of the Year honors with the Kansas City Royals. He stayed in the game through the early 2010s, so he had a half-century of involvement with the game at its highest level. (For the record, Elmira followed him like a favorite son every step of the way.)

A guy like that should write a book, especially if he has a strong New York connection (sales and all that), and Piniella finally got around to it in 2017. The result is "Lou." Not surprisingly, the cover photo has Lou in a Yankee hat - he became relatively famous wearing pinstripes.

It's easy to think that Piniella beat some long odds to have the life he did. He wasn't a great prospect coming out of the Tampa area, but he did sign a pro contract. Piniella worked hard but did some bouncing around along the way. After some decent but not overwhelming years in Kansas City, Piniella was traded to the Yankees... and the fun began.

The Yankees of the late 1970s and early 1980s had some stars, but they also had some grinding players who seemed dangerous when it mattered most. Ask the Boston Red Sox, who might have had a happier ending to the 1978 had Piniella not displayed some unexpected defensive skills in the playoff game with New York.

Piniella had a front-row seat to the "Bronx Zoo" days of the Yankees in that era, and he naturally has some stories about Billy Martin, George Steinbrenner and Reggie Jackson. Those years have been covered elsewhere in other books. Come to think of it, co-author Bill Madden - the fine Daily News writer - has worked on several of those books. It still amazing that the "win first, argue later" approach of those Yankee teams worked so well.

Those stories of turmoil continued into the 1980s, as Piniella eventually turned into a Yankee executive. He got a chance at managing but couldn't quite get New York over the finish line, and eventually decided to go elsewhere. That came with some heartache, according to this book, but it probably was for the best for all concerned.

The rest of Piniella's story might be the most interesting to some fans, simply because it hasn't really been told. He landed in Cincinnati, where he led the Reds to one of the great upsets in World Series history by beating the mighty Oakland Athletics. From there it was on to Seattle, where he had the chance to manage Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Randy Johnson and Ichiro Suzuki. Then Piniella was on to Tampa Bay, where he was hamstrung by finances, and Chicago (Cubs), which went through an assortment of ownership groups while he was managing - a recipe for problems.

For a guy who is best remembered for throwing bases around while arguing with umpires, Piniella comes off as rather calm here. He says religion helped him reach that state, and he probably mellowed a bit with age. Piniella also seems quite affected by the fact that three of his closest friends in baseball - Thurman Munson, Jim Hunter and Bobby Murcer - all died at a young age.

No matter what the reason, he's a little embarrassed by a few of his actions in hindsight. Piniella also gets some help along the way here, as people like Griffey and Rodriguez contribute their stories a few times. I'm not a great fan of that technique, but it works pretty well here.

It's difficult to have a strong reaction to "Piniella." It was an interesting baseball life, and the seasons do go by quickly. But the book may not be called fascinating or filled with bombshells. Let's just say, then, that this autobiography is worth your time, and will get an extra star from Yankee fans.

Three stars

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Sunday, April 1, 2018

Review: Unbeaten (2018)

By Mike Stanton

This one is personal.

Brockton, Massachusetts, is a small city in the southeast part of the state. Once upon a time it was one of the shoe manufacturing centers of the United States, with millions of pairs produced per year. The work was tough and difficult in some cases, but it was also honest and put food on the table for thousands. That led to a better life for a lot of people, and a better future for their children.

There wasn't a lot of glamour attached to Brockton back in the day, before the shoe business dried up. But in the late 1940s and 1950s it had Rocky Marciano, and that was something.

Marciano fought his way to the heavyweight championship, when that title meant almost everything in sports. He finished his career unbeaten at 49-0, something no heavyweight has ever done. Marciano put Brockton on the map, no small task.

While I'd like to think that my parents and grandparents were the Favorite Sons and Daughters of Brockton, since they are natives of the place, reality puts Marciano as the champion in that category. I spent roughly the first six years of my life there (late 1950s), and went back frequently for visits. It was difficult not to hear stories about Marciano from relatives and friends. Even today, it's tough not to see evidence of his life - such as the monument just outside the stadium that's name after him.

Let me assure you, then, that Mike Stanton gets just about everything right in his thorough book on Marciano's life, "Unbeaten."

Stanton really captures what Brockton was like, particularly for those immigrant families who came there looking for that better life. Rocky Marciano (real name - Rocco Francis Marchegiano) was born in 1923, and thus became aware of life right about the time the Depression started. For the record, my father was born about six months later and didn't really have any memories of Rocky in high school even though they were in the same building for a while. Rocky dropped out along the way.

After Marciano was kicked out of the military, you might have picked him as the longest of long shots to be famous. He wasn't well educated, and manual labor of some sort seemed like his best option in life. But he was a good athlete, and he was dedicated and determined. Although Marciano wasn't a bad catcher, boxing was a much better fit. By Stanton's description, Rocky was incredibly raw - but he was very strong and wanted to learn.

The wins started to pile up, and eventually he climbed the ladder into the heavyweight rankings. There was a vacuum created by the retirement of Joe Louis from the boxing scene, and there wasn't much talent to replace him - until Marciano walked in. He knocked out Joe Walcott in an epic bout to win the championship, and kept it through the time he retired 1955. Rocky didn't fight very often as champion, partly because of the tax laws of the time, and he didn't have that many great opponents. But he showed up every night, punched in, did his job, got the win, and went home. Residents of Brockton used to bet as much money as they could on the Native Son, collect the winnings, and have a party. My parents used to drive from Philadelphia to Brockton on fight nights, just so they could join in the inevitable celebration. The book tells how people bought cars and houses with those winnings.

The fights are carefully reviewed, one after another. Stanton must have sore eyes from reading microfilm and watching YouTube. But he really does justice to a couple of other areas in Marciano's life that deserved investigation.

The first centers on the sport of boxing in the 1950s, which was - by any standard - a mess. Fixed fights were relatively common, and organized crime played a role in the sport. There are no signs that Marciano had pre-planned outcomes in his fights. However, his de facto manager, Al Weill, was also the matchmaker for the International Boxing Club, which essentially ran the sport during the 1950s. Marciano discovered Weill was skimming some money off the top of purses for his own benefit, and that may have helped drive him into retirement. On the other hand, the boxer probably benefited from having a, um, well-connected business partner in terms of his career.

Then after retirement, Stanton refers to Marciano as "America's Guest," someone who never paid for anything if he could help it. (By the way, my grandmother told me stories about how Rocky's mother didn't like opening her purse either, throwing off lines like "Don't you know who I am? I'm the Champ's Mother.") The Depression and the dishonest manager left a few scars in that area. I guess. Marciano may have been America's worst money manager during the remaining years of his life, hoarding cash when possible and hiding it in all sorts of places. When he died in an airplane crash, the locations of those bankrolls went with him.

It's tough to know how good Marciano was. He was small for a heavyweight by today's standards, checking in at under 190 pounds. Marciano came along at a bad time for talent. But he could throw and take a punch, and rarely took a step back. Maybe he's Joe Frazier with a better chin. And he beat everyone was put in front of him, and nobody else has ever done that.

Marciano, then, certainly deserves a first-class biography, and this is that. Take it from another grandson of Brockton - "Unbeaten" brings an interesting if complicated era back to life.

Five stars

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