Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Review: The League (2018)

By John Eisenberg

It is difficult to imagine the National Football League as something of a curiosity in the sports world. We've gotten used to full stadiums, maxed-out television broadcasts, and overwhelming media coverage.

As you may have guessed, it wasn't always that way.

The NFL didn't draw a straight line to success. There were all sorts of bumps along the way - times when it looked as if the concept of pro football wasn't going to quite make it.

That's what John Eisenberg covers in his worthwhile book, "The League."

It's probably an oversimplification to say that "five rivals created the NFL and launched a sports empire." But - it's not a huge exaggeration. Certainly, the story of the NFL's history can not be told without giving a large amount of credit to such men as George Halas, George Preston Marshall, Art Rooney, Bert Bell and Tim Mara.

Halas was there at the creation, at the now-famous car dealership in Canton, Ohio, where the league was first formed. He was a player, coach and owner of the Bears. Marshall brought showmanship to the league with the Redskins. It's also fair to say that he added more than a touch of racism to the story. Rooney was always a beloved figure with the Steelers, although  it took him decades to field a consistent winner in Pittsburgh. Bell, a child of privilege, unexpected became an owner and eventually the commissioner of the league. A case could be made that Bell is one of the most underrated figures in pro football history, and Eisenberg makes it. The author points out that Bell brought a lot of organizational skills and common sense to the league, qualities that were not always in large supply.

In hindsight, it seems like the concept of professional football should have been a slam dunk, to mix a metaphor for a moment. In the 1920s, college football was packing people in big stadiums throughout the country. When those players graduated, they should have brought a following along with them to the pro game. But that didn't really happen too often in that era, with the odd exception like Red Grange.  The pro game also suffered from instability, frequently caused by weak ownership and a lack of organization.  Check the record book, and you'll see how teams played one game in the NFL and then disappeared from view.

The five men profiled here persisted. Sometimes they were willing to do what was best for the league instead of what was best for their team, even if that attitude didn't extend to the playing field. They had some major obstacles thrown in their way. The 1930s featured the depression, of course, and money was hard to find. That led into World War II, where many of the players crossed the oceans to fight for their country. The end of the war marked the birth of the All-American Football Conference, and dueling leagues chasing limited dollars means losses for just about everyone. Along the way, a color line was created by the NFL, kicking African Americans out in the early 1930s and keeping them out until after WW2.

Eventually, the big city teams - New York in particular - became major players in their areas in the sports scene. By the Fifties, pro football was waiting for a match to ignite - and it found one with the 1958 NFL championship game. That was the overtime classic between the Giants and Colts, and there was no turning back from there.

Eisenberg does a good job of telling the story here, with plenty of details that aren't common knowledge even for football fans. If you've ever wondered about the evolution of some rules or the adoption of the college draft, the subjects are covered here. And the personalities of the five men certainly come alive.

The thought comes to mind while reading this that it might be a little difficult to attract a young audience with this book. It's been 60 years since that 1958 game, and there's plenty of dust on the tales revealed here that came before that. So it's not for every taste.

Those who do read "The League," though, will find it rewarding. Eisenberg, who has done several other books on sports history, is good at making the details come alive. After finishing it, readers will certainly realize that the NFL's current success was far from inevitable.

Four stars

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Sunday, September 16, 2018

Review: The Last Pass (2018)

By Gary M. Pomerantz

A case could be made that Bob Cousy might be the most underrated great player in basketball history at this point in time.

There are a few reasons for that. After an outstanding college career at Holy Cross, Cousy landed with the Boston Celtics in 1950. There he became one of the best players in the league, earning such nicknames as "Mr. Basketball" and "Houdini of the Hardwood." Cousy usually averaged a little less than 20 points per game and usually led the league in assists once he got the hang of the pro game. I would guess that he replaced George Mikan as the face of the NBA when Mikan retired.

But early in his career, he didn't win many games. Cousy played on some Celtics teams that weren't quite good enough. That changed in 1956, when a center named Bill Russell arrived. Russell was really, really good, and meshed well with Boston's fast-break offense. The Celtics won six titles in Cousy's final seven years. His retirement ceremony at the Boston Garden was one of the all-time great tear-fests as these go.

After one last title in 1963, Cousy went off to coach at Boston College. And the Celtics kept winning, and winning. Russell and his talented teammates won five more titles in six years, and everyone realized that the center was the biggest winner in team sports. It could be argued that he still has that title; there's a reason the MVP award of The NBA Finals is named for him. As for Cousy, basketball changed quickly over the years, and his stats such as shooting percentage don't hold up too well when put up to today's light.

But that's no reason to diminish Cousy in the process. He remains an interesting character today, and he's the centerpiece of Gary M. Pomerantz's book, "The Last Pass." In fact, he's the reason it works so well. Cousy obviously opened up his life to the author, doing more than 50 interviews and allowing Pomerantz to have access to all sorts of material - like letters to and from his late wife - for the book.

Cousy brought a little baggage with him when he arrived in the NBA. The New York City guard of French ancestry was an only child whose parents didn't get along too well. That can cause all sorts of problems, but he pointed his competitive drive toward the basketball court. He's was happy and comfortable with the ball, at his best if you will.

Cousy also arrived in pro basketball just as African Americans were arriving in the NBA. He quickly befriended the blacks on the Celtics, as the abuse and prejudice that they faced upset the New Yorker greatly. Cousy also was a flashy player when it wasn't popular. He tried to make the correct play at all times, but sometimes that play was an unorthodox one. If an African American had done some of those moves in the early 1950s, he would have been called a showboat and told to tone it down or be gone. Cousy could make it acceptable, and led the way for everyone else to add style to substance. Go watch some videos.

Then Russell came along, and there was never anyone like him. He eventually became the first black player in the Basketball Hall of Fame, and he was picked not because he was great statistically (although he was a great rebounder) but because he was a winner. Russell did it at a time when African Americans were demanding respect and rights in all areas of society, and was unwilling to back down on those aspects of life. That made him a legend on the court, but somewhat unpopular for those off the court who weren't ready to handle change.

Relationships with Russell were always complicated, and Cousy still plays the "what if?" game about his time with Russell - at the age of 90. Could he have done more to help Russell gain acceptance? Should he have done more? Those questions are really at the heart of the book, and Cousy explores them at length - perhaps surprisingly so.

Pomerantz has done a couple of fine books on days gone by, reviewing the Steelers of the 1970s and Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game in 1962. This stacks up with them nicely, and may even be my favorite of the three.

Complaints about this book are minor. You obviously need to be receiving social security checks to remember Cousy well; I'm 62 and can barely picture him playing at Boston Garden when I was about seven. It's about my earliest basketball memory. The book also given a slightly vague sense of needing one more edit; some of the material is repeated at times.

No matter. "The Last Pass" works well because Cousy remains an interesting, even fascinating character - even past the age of 90. I'm underrated the book a little at four stars, and it certainly will be on my ten favorite reads of the year.

Four stars

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Monday, September 10, 2018

Review: The Dancing Bear (2018)

By Ron McDole with Rob Morris

You don't have to be a football fan from Buffalo or Washington to have heard of Ron McDole, but it really helps.

McDole remained relatively anonymous in those two cities over the course of an 18-year career in pro football, which was mostly spent in those two cities. He was, of course, good. You have to be good to stay in the game for that long.

In fact, the most memorable fact about McDole might be his nickname, "The Dancing Bear." It was given to him off the field by Sonny Jurgensen for his dance moves, but considering his size and quickness, it fit on the field too.

Therefore, when McDole finally decided to come out with a book on his football days, "The Dancing Bear" was the natural title.

McDole's type of story is of particular interest to fans of the American Football League in the 1960s. He came out of Nebraska as a defensive lineman, but bounced from the St. Louis Cardinals of the NFL to the Houston Oilers of the AFL. McDole suffered from migraine headaches, and it looked like that might drive him out of the league and into a career as a shop teacher.

Luckily for McDole, Bills' coach Lou Saban took a chance on his head and his heart and signed him. McDole became a regular on the Buffalo teams that won the AFC championship in 1964 and 1965. He might be the best player on those teams never to be inducted into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. The Bills fell apart after that stretch, and new coach John Rauch - best remembered in Buffalo as the guy who tried to use O.J. Simpson as something of a decoy - had McDole traded to the Redskins. The defensive lineman was 32. How long could he last? Owner Ralph Wilson was so upset that Rauch trashed McDole in a TV interview that he fired the coach and apologized personally to McDole for the deal.

McDole merely spent eight years as a Redskin. Most of them were with George Allen, where he was part of the "Over the Hill Gang." That team never won it all but came close, losing to the undefeated Dolphins team in Jan. 1973. McDole played through 1978, and retired instead of taking a contract with the Giants that would have meant playing past the age of 40. He still has the all-time record for most interceptions by a pro defensive lineman with 12. Dancing bear, indeed.

McDole comes across here as a nice enough fellow, rarely trashing anyone. It was a slightly less serious era in football, naturally, and his stories about the game in the Sixties and Seventies are quite funny and often interesting. But there are a few problems with the book, and it definitely will hurt your enjoyment of it.

First, it feels thin. There are several paragraphs of quotes from some of McDole's teammates about common experiences, and they feel like padding in some cases. Pat Fischer and McDole chat at length in an appendix, which is an unusual technique as these things go. They generally cover subjects that have been discussed earlier in the book. It feels like an attempt to get it to 200 pages; maybe some of that could have been filled with more about what McDole has been doing since 1978. Other than a few lines about charity work and thoughts on how the game has changed, this book could have been written about 38 years ago.

Second, it would have been nice to have someone give it one more read for editing purposes. Pat Fischer comes out Pat Fisher a few times; both are used in the same paragraph at one point. There are phrases like this: "Rayfield Wright of Dallas, who's in the Hall of Fame, was outstanding, but I had a lot of good games against him. He was an outstanding tackle." There are a handful of other sentences that don't make sense. And Sam Etcheverry comes out as Sam Estebury, among a few other typos.

Add it up, and it's tough to be too enthusiastic about "The Dancing Bear" (the book, not the person). Fans of the era will no doubt enjoy it, as they say. But others - especially outside of Buffalo and Washington - probably will come away with the feeling that it could have been better and lower this rating a bit.

Three stars

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Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Review: Collision of Wills (2018)

By Jack Gilden

If you are making up a list of the most important people in pro football history, Johnny Unitas and Don Shula have to be on it.

Unitas held the mythical title of "greatest quarterback ever for quite some time, as he took the position and in some ways the entire sport to new levels of brilliance during his great career. Shula merely has won more games than any NFL coach.

The pair were on the same side when they teamed up with the Baltimore Colts for a good chunk of the 1960s. But here's what was apparently whispered for years but not really discussed since those days, which saw the Colts win a ton of games but no championships: the pair never really got along.

That's the portion of Jack Gilden's book, "Collision of Wills," that will attract the most attention upon its release.

Shula usually took the high road in the relationship, merely pointing out that the combination won a lot of games. Unitas mostly kept quiet n public about Shula, but certainly he made it known to friends and associates that he had no use for the coach - a former teammate in Baltimore, no less.

Their dynamic drives the story along. In some ways, it's a relatively common tale. Unitas was an established star, the biggest name in football, when Shula arrived in 1963. Shula certainly wanted to do things his way, and was not shy about saying so. As the years went by, Unitas' career started to fall off - thanks in part to arm injuries that certainly weren't as diagnosed properly as they might have been now. The finish of the careers of such icons often ends badly, and Unitas turned out to be no exception. He lost his job as a regular and eventually was exiled to San Diego to end a magical run with a whimper.

Veteran football fans will find plenty to their liking here. The Colts were right in the middle of some of the best games in pro football history. That list includes the 1958 NFL championship game, which went to overtime as Unitas pulled a win out of his helmet, and Super Bowl III, the Jets' stunning upset of Colts when they were 17-point underdogs.

Gilden went out and talked to several key people in that era, and they add perspective on events. He also clearly did plenty of research into that era. Therefore, the games come back to life. It's great fun to read a detailed account of the time that halfback Tom Matte had to play quarterback in a playoff game for the Colts when Unitas and Gary Cuozzo were both hurt. Matte almost led the Colts to a huge win over the Green Bay Packers. Nothing like it has happened since.

There are a couple of small problems here that deserve a mention. It really helps to be old enough to remember most of the events from when they happened. In other words, the 20-somethings may not care too much about this and that's fine. It should be added, though, that Gilden carries the attitude throughout the book that the Sixties were the best time to be an NFL history, and he's not taking any arguments. I became a fan of the sport then too, but I'm not sure I'd go as far as the author does. You always remember your first loves.

There might have been room for another quick read on this. There's a little duplication in material along the way, and I'm still not sure why there's a chapter on David Halberstam. Gilden is a little unsure of himself when writing about the politics and culture of the decade.

But the football material is entertaining and can reel the football fan in nicely. Those who are looking for some new information on some legendary games and people - particularly those in Baltimore - will find "Collision of Wills" worthwhile.

Four stars

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