Sunday, July 3, 2022

Review: Path Lit by Lightning (2022)

By David Maraniss

Those who are driving along Interstate 476 in Eastern Pennsylvania for the first time might be a little surprised to see an exit sign that reads "Jim Thorpe." After all, the famous athlete never set foot in this part of the state in the time he was alive. The mystery becomes a little deeper when those cars drive into town and find a little park that hosts Thorpe's grave. Here? Really?

There's a story behind it, of course - one of many that surrounds one of America's greatest all-around athletes. Now David Maraniss explains all of them in massive detail in his book, "Path Lit by Lightning."

Most sports fans know at least the basic details of Thorpe's athletic life. He was born in what is now Oklahoma as part of the Sac and Fox Nation in 1887. Thorpe eventually landed at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, which was designed to "Americanize" some of the young members of the Native population. His athletic abilities were noticed along the way there, and he quickly became something of a one-man program.

Thorpe had first caught the eye of Pop Warner, a legendary football coach, through track. But it was tough to keep someone of his ability off the football team. Sure enough, he soon moved up to a starting job in the backfield and became an All-American. It's really tough to explain how Carlisle became a college football powerhouse to a modern audience. It wasn't really a college in the traditional sense - more of an institution designed to reprogram the Native population into becoming "Americanized," and the admission rules were a little, um, arbitrary. But Warner was ambitious enough to build up a program that was more than competitive with the nation's best college teams around 1910. A highlight came when Carlisle went to West Point and knocked off Army - a small payback for the way that the real Army had massacred Native populations over the years.

Thorpe hadn't forgotten his track and field talents, and entered the Olympics in Stockholm in 1912 as a participant in the pentathlon and the decathlon. He won both events, earning recognition as the world's greatest athlete. But later it was revealed that Thorpe had played professional baseball during the summer of 1910 in North Carolina, and his medals were taken away. That sparked an argument that lasted literally decades, and it could be argued that matters still were never made right in this area.

Thorpe turned up on the roster of baseball's New York Giants in 1913, and was good enough to make the team but not good enough to play much. Jim also was around in the days when pro football was in its formative years. He was named the head of the league in 1920 that eventually became the National Football League for a while, although it was something of a figurehead position. Thorpe took part in athletics as long as he could, and then more or less living off his reputation for the rest of his life. He had a couple of strikes against him along the way - a lack of money management skills, and occasional issues with alcohol consumption. Thorpe wasn't too good at family matters either, going through three wives and several children along the way. 

Maraniss, one of the nation's top authors, has several top biographies to his credit on subjects ranging from Roberto Clemente to Vince Lombardi. Here he puts his usual exhaustive research effort into tracking down the details of Thorpe's whole life. That's not easy, considering how Jim and his families tended to bounce around the country in a futile search for some sort of stability. At times it's difficult to believe that Mariniss found so much information about someone who was prominent about 110 years ago, and whose origins weren't exactly documented thoroughly at the time.

Maraniss examines the details of Thorpe's journey through a definite prism. He puts him in his time and place when the Natives were treated horribly by almost any standard. Reading newspaper stories about Jim's athletic days are worth a cringe or six with their use of stereotypes. In other words, Carlisle didn't just beat football opponents, they scalped them. Indeed, the story reads something like many boxing biographies at times. A talented if somewhat uneducated athlete is used by others for financial gain. Then when his athletic usefulness has been chewed up, the athlete is discarded. 

Two of the major villains in that area are Warner and Avery Brundage. When the news broke nationally that Thorpe had played pro baseball and lost his Olympic medals, Warner essentially threw him under the bus by saying he had it coming. That's in spite of the fact that Warner knew about the baseball episode beforehand. He tried to make it look as if he was Thorpe's lifelong benefactor (particularly in the movie version of Thorpe's life), but really was just another guy out for himself. Brundage never really considered reopening the Thorpe case when he was head of the International Olympic Committee, even though there was a rule on the books that said complaints about eligibility had to be filed within 30 days of the competition. Brundage may have been a little jealous of Thorpe's Olympic acclaim, since he did little as part of the American team in 1912. History has not been kind to Brundage in other ways, due to his embrace of the Nazi government at the 1936 Games, and his handling of the terrorist episode in Munich in 1972. Replicas of Thorpe's medals were given to his descendants in 1983, although Jim was only declared a co-champion at the time. The fight continues.

As for the burial, Thorpe's third wife worked out a deal with the citizens of a Pennsylvania town that they would rename the town for him if his body was brought to it. Descendants again have fought that decision for years, saying that Thorpe himself wanted to be buried in his native Oklahoma. But court cases that even reached the Supreme Court haven't changed anything, and Jim remains in Jim Thorpe.

Reading this book is not exactly a casual commitment. It takes quite a while to go through the nearly 700 pages contained between the covers. (OK, about 100 pages of that are notes. But still.) The amount of research is shown on almost every page. For example, it's one thing to print a few of Jim's love letters to one of his eventual wives. It's another to print so many of them. 

That level of effort certainly makes "Path Lit by Lightning" the definitive biography of Thorpe. He's still the standard when it comes to all-around athletic ability, paving the way for such athletes as Bo Jackson decades later. Maraniss deserves credit for reintroducing Thorpe into our sports conversation; maybe we'll all learn some lessons from his story.

Five stars

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Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Review: A Wonderful Waste of Time (2020)

By Terry Bonadonna

Terry Bonadonna had me on the first page of the introduction to this book.

The future baseball writer describes how he was the biggest baseball expert in his school years, to the point where people would ask him trivia questions about the sport just for the heck of it. Yup, that was me. 

I remember one time someone asked me out of the blue, "Who won the 1935 World Series?" The secret to coming off as Mr. Know-It-All in some cases is to give a fast answer, even if you don't know it. As I recall, I blurted out "Cincinnati Reds" in less than a second, causing Joe Frisk to shake his head in wonder. (The Detroit Tigers were the actual winners.) So we're kindred spirits.

I somehow heard that this book was worthwhile, and eventually got around to reading it. "A Wonderful Waste of Time" works quite well in spite of some small obstacles. 

This is the story of the 2017 Windy City Thunderbolts of the Frontier League, and its announcer. Right away, that's going to require some explanation for non-baseball junkies.

The Frontier League is a collection of baseball teams that are professional, but out of the formal structure of organized baseball. This Midwest-based league (there are a couple of others) feature players who weren't quite good enough to latch on to a major league organization for one reason or another, so they head to this league for another chance. They probably would be competitive with Class A teams in the minors, mostly because the players might be a little more mature that the prospects working their way up the ladder to the big leagues. Occasionally, the second chance works out. But if it doesn't, well, playing baseball beats working for a living. 

You might think that a book on a bunch of 2017 baseball refugees, playing in a league that few know about with players that no one knows, might have trouble attracting an audience. That's probably right. But the good news is that the book doesn't date at all. The reader gets to hop on the bus and go for a season-long ride with the Thunderbolts, who are located in the Chicago suburbs. You could change the names and places, and it would still ring true. This is timeless.

By this stage, Bonadonna already had been around the league for several summers as a broadcaster. So he's familiar with the league and how it works. There are stories about the team and its players and staff, but this is more of a diary about how the broadcaster's summer went. 

The author really captures the feel of baseball at this level. He's one of the few people that probably cares about the outcome of the games. The players are trying to land a contract, while the front office is more concerned with attendance than wins/losses. That leaves Bonadonna, compiling notes about the players and coming up with a complete picture during the broadcasts - which probably don't have a particularly large audience. 

The baseball life is a difficult one at this level. The bus rides can be long, the hotels can be spotty, and nutritional goals take a pounding. Seven straight ballpark cheeseburgers for dinner is the sort of record no one wants to hold. Take it from someone who has been around sports at various levels all his life - the conversations and thoughts here offered by Bonadonna are authentic and interesting.

He's not a bad writer, either. The story flows along rather nicely as the season progresses. The biggest complaint is that it's difficult to know where all of the teams are located. Some of the cities have generic names, and others use nicknames like "Windy City" (at least you can sort of guess where that one is). A little more clarification of the teams and their locations would have been nice. 

A postscript might have been nice too, since we are talking about the 2017 season. What happened to everyone after that campaign? Anyone find success?  Bonadonna does have a website (TerryBonadonna.com), and he's still working for the Thunderbolts although he apparently isn't broadcasting any more.

"A Wonderful Waste of Time" clearly isn't for every sports fan's taste. But it is a thoughtful look at a life that usually goes unexamined. It goes by quickly at a little over 200 pages. If you can find a copy of this self-published book, pick it up for your next long bus ride. 

Four stars

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Monday, June 13, 2022

Review: In Scoring Position (2022)

By Bob Ryan and Bill Chuck

Bob Ryan and I have at least one thing in common. We reflexively, and perhaps even compulsively, keep score at baseball games. 

That was a skill that many people knew back in the day, which is why teams sold scorecards at games. Now, if you go to a game, you are in a distinct minority if scribble down the lineups before the game and then follow the action by pen and pencil. Me, it adds to my enjoyment of the game and provides some context to what has happened. 

The difference between Bob (OK, I've met him a few times) and me is that he has put all of his scoring efforts into personal scorebooks. I started doing that about 15 years ago, but haven't quite seen enough games to fill up the thick book with games yet. (Don't worry, Book No. 2 is on my on-deck circle, warming up.) The books no doubt fill up a shelf in Bob's home, waiting to be reviewed.

And reviewed they were at the start of the pandemic. After all, what else was there to do? Bill Chuck, a veteran baseball researcher, heard about Ryan's hobby and wondered if there might be a book floating around somewhere in those old scorebooks. 

It turned out Chuck was right. The resulting book was called "In Scoring Position," a nice play on words right off the bat.

We start with a May 7, 1977 game in Fenway Park in Boston, as Bob Stanley blanks the Angels. We end on April 19, 2021, as the Red Sox allowed some fans back in the building for the first time since the height of the pandemic. The book is produced with a similar format for each game. After a reproduction of one of the pages from the original scorebook, Ryan writes about the game itself - sometimes quoting his own game story, and at other times telling about how he came to be at that particular game. 

Chuck then follows along with pieces of information that are either directly or indirectly connected to the game. He's really good at this stuff, and it shows with every page. I enjoy such material, particularly to drop into my print stories. (Confession: I keep track of a variety of things for my lacrosse stories, so that I can ask questions such as "Your team hasn't opened a game with a 6-0 lead since at least 2005. What did that do for you during the rest of the game?" That drew a double-take and a "How did you know that?" from the coach.)

Put these qualities, and these two people who are really good at their jobs, together, and you should come up with a good book. And for some people, this publication will meet that description perfectly. But it's unlikely that some readers will be as enthusiastic as the natural base.

The first catch comes with the fact that this book is filled with Red Sox games. That is no surprise, since Ryan has lived in the Boston area for all his professional life. So most of the names and some of the trivia are centered around the Red Sox. If you follow this particular New England team, this is fine. But if you are sitting in Minnesota trying to keep up with the Twins, well, this might leave you a little, um, cold. 

The image of one page of the scorebook (in other words, only one team's batting order) leads off each game, but it is small. I suppose you could get really close to the page or use a magnifying glass (do they still have those?) to read the plays of a particular game, but that's quite a bit of work. I'm not sure if a slightly bigger image might have helped enough to make it useful, but its current size is going to make it more of a decoration than a tool for the reader. 

In addition, this book goes for almost 450 pages. That's a lot of games. In fact, it's probably too many. Cutting the volume down to 350 pages might have helped. After all, since all of the games are bite-sized individual stories, there's not much to push you along through the book. 

"In Scoring Position" is a fun read, but maybe it could have been better. Maybe someone will try this format in a more generic way. In other words, "Baseball's Greatest Games" - complete with a readable scorecard and related facts - or "World Series Games of 2000s" might do pretty well. 

Three stars

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Friday, June 10, 2022

Review: Alive and Kicking (2021)

By Michael Lewis

The Buffalo History Museum used to sponsor an authors' gathering on the Saturday afternoon after Thanksgiving.  A local group would gather in an attempt to sell books to the public in the Holiday season. 

The subjects of those books were all over the place, and sometimes the same people would be back, year after year. I can't say I paid much attention to the writers of fiction, since I never read that category (I will add quickly that I can appreciate the efforts of someone who made up a good story; I could never do that.)

As for the nonfiction writers, their dedication certainly was on display. They sometimes take a narrow subject and expound on it for a few hundred pages - even though it might not be of great interest to many people besides themselves. You've got to love it to do it.

That brings the conversation to Michael Lewis. He's a writer who worked in the Rochester area for a while and almost stumbled on the world of soccer through an assignment. And ... he learned to like it. Michael not only followed Rochester's voyage through the stormy seas of American soccer history, but he even popped up in Buffalo a few times to cover that city's indoor soccer developments. Those seas were pretty stormy too at times, and the cast of characters sometimes overlapped. Lewis went on to other positions, and he's stuck with soccer along the way.

That makes him the perfect candidate to write a history of the Rochester Lancers. The book is called "Alive and Kicking," and its depth is a little overwhelming.

That team was its city's only entry into the big time in sports, surviving by accident over the years with its finances hanging by a shoestring. Soccer in this country sort of bubbled up from a collection of local teams, often involving immigrants. The nation's leagues started to become more organized in the 1960s, and Rochester's team sort of hung around when national leagues were being formed. 

That led to a problem, particularly as some major financial players moved into the game in the 1970s. Rochester's team was still in Rochester, a region without that many people compared to the opposing cities. Add to the fact that it used a high school football stadium as its home, and the Lancers were always playing from behind economically. The franchise finally perished after the 1980 season. 

Still, it was quite a ride. Part of that was due to the financial problems, which always leads to odd events such as player and coach turnover and bizarre road trips. Soccer also attracted some interesting personalities. It probably took a special type of person to try to plant the seeds of soccer in a new land, and those who came to America certainly qualified. 

The games are included there, of course, in the loving detail that only a true fanatic would appreciate. But the stories are here too - of unexpected heroes, villains and rivalries; of ownership fights; and of coaches charging onto the field to personally complain about officiating. 

I am willing to admit that I'm not the target audience for this book. I saw a few Lancers games in person, including the famous contest that the teams allegedly at least talked about fixing the score to ensure that both teams would qualify for the playoffs. Mostly, though, I wanted to learn a little about some of the Rochester names who turned up in Buffalo in the Major Indoor Soccer League. I have to admit I skimmed through good-sized sections of the game stories presented here within the 454 (!) pages.

But I can appreciate the effort that went into "Alive and Kicking." It's a self-published book without any frills - just pure information. So if you followed Rochester soccer during the 1960s and 1970s, this exercise in nostalgia ought to bring you several days' worth of delightful memories as you plow through it. 

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Sunday, June 5, 2022

Review: Game (2022)

By Grant Hill

It didn't take long at all for basketball fans to fall in love with Grant Hill's game.

He arrived at Duke in the fall of 1990, adding his talents to a roster that already had such stars as Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley. Hill was 6-foot-9, and he immediately showed why he was so extraordinary. It was once said about Grant's father, football player Calvin Hill, that he could have played any position on the field when he suited up for Yale University. His son was just like that too. Need someone to guard a point guard? Jump center? Rebound? Grant was your guy. 

And he all made it look so darn easy - which, of course, discounted the hours of work that made it all possible. 

No one, then, should be surprised that some of those same qualities are on display in Hill's autobiography, "Game." His writing is as smooth as a steal and a layup on the court. 

Hill's story for the most part is as smooth as his game, as he seemed destined for success. Calvin - a former NFL star who later worked with teams to help troubled playes - and wife Janet were not only great role models for their only child but for others as well. Janet picked up the nickname "The General" from Grant's friends over the years, as she was a special assistant to the Secretary of the Army for a period. 

Eventually Grant arrived at Duke, where he fit in with one of the great teams in college basketball. There were some strong personalities on those squads, and maybe it's not surprising that the people on the roster aren't particularly close years later. It might be giving Hill too much credit to say he was one of the "glue guys" that kept everyone together in that era. Then again, maybe it's not.

Then it was on to the pros for Hill, where there were unexpected bumps in the road. He was drafted third overall in 1994 by the Detroit Pistons, where he played at a high level on some mediocre teams. When his first chance at free agency arrived in 2000, Grant jumped to the Orlando Magic - where he immediately developed ankle problems. He spent more time on the sidelines than on the court in those seven years, and implies here that the medical treatment was less than appropriate. He came close to dying because of an infection in 2003. Even the storybook tales have some bumps in the road. Unless you followed the Magic in that era, you probably aren't aware of how difficult those years were for him.

Hill finally returned to health (relatively speaking) around the time he left Orlando in 2007, signing with Phoenix. He wasn't a star any more, but settled nicely into the job of role player for several years. Hill ended up playing 18 years in the NBA. Grant was back on the right track, and he has apparently stayed there. Hill married Tamia, a world-class singer from Canada, and they have had two children who we can only assume are going to be overachievers too. Grant eventually made the transition to basketball broadcasting, working the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament. And, oh by the way, Hill owns a share of the Atlanta Hawks. The Basketball Hall of Fame called him along the way.

That's a very interesting life, of course, especially for someone who hadn't reached 50 years old when he wrote it. But the best part is that the story is so well told. The story flows together quite seemlessly, and Hill is even willing to admit his (few) mistakes that he made along the way. 

The result is a biography that is just like listening to an intelligent, thoughtful over a series of long dinners - and what could be much better than that? "Game" is a top-flight effort that even non-basketball fans will appreciate.

Five stars

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Sunday, May 29, 2022

Review: But Seriously (2017)

By John McEnroe

Sometimes sequels are a good idea. "The Godfather, Part 2" lived up to the reputation of its predecessor. "Top Gun - Maverick" by all accounts is extremely well done.

Sometimes they aren't. That brings us to John McEnroe's second book, "But Seriously."

The tennis champion had written an autobiography back in 2002, and it was fairly successful as these things go. McEnroe was always a complicated personality, especially by tennis player standards. We sort of knew that there was a first-rate mind lurking in his head. The problem that his public behavior, especially on the tennis court, could be less than impressive. But he made some efforts to calm down, and apparently he was successful at it. He found a good-sized niche as a commentator for tennis, and has stuck with it for a few decades now. 

This book essentially deals with what his life has been like since that 2002 book came out. That statement raises an obvious question, with the answer come back as "not too much of interest." 

We sort of get the idea here right away that this is not going to be a keeper of the book. McEnroe jumps into chapter one with a description of how he and his wife Patty Smyth met. The catch is that it's Patty doing the describing. It's usually not a good sign in an autobiography when other people do the talking/writing. 

From there, McEnroe goes through aspects of his life from 2002 to the publication date of 2017. There are stories about how he hosted a couple of television shows, which didn't work out for one reason or another. Johnny Mac even discussed the possibility of hosting a morning-drive radio show in New York, but decided he didn't want to embrace that sort of lifestyle (good idea, John). There are a few chapters about collecting art. The artists that come up in the discussion may be well-known in certain circles, but it's easy to guess that tennis fans - who probably comprise most of the reading audience here - don't travel in those circles. Those chapters have little choice but to be boring to most. There are a few stories about rock and roll, which are OK but are mostly useful for name-dropping. 

That means a good chunk of the 270 pages within the covers have little to do with tennis. This sounds like a less-than-ideal recipe to be crowd-pleasing. McEnroe devotes some time to his play on the senior tour, which is fine. He's been fighting off Father Time that way for years, and played such opponents as Lendl and Connors once again. It's almost too bad that the senior tennis tour didn't evolve into something like the Champions Tour in golf, where there is good competition, major championships, and a point to the activity. The tennis version is a nice exercise in nostalgia - entertaining but not significant. Of course, tennis takes more of a toll on the body than golf, which means golf can still be played at a relatively high level into middle age.

What's not covered too much is the actual tennis that was played in those 15 years. It was a rather fascinating time as these things go.  On the men's side, Roger Federer took charge - but soon was joined by Rafael Nadal. Then Novak Djokovic came along, and at last look the three of them are on the top of the list in major championships in a career. McEnroe has had a great seat for many of those wins, and he's at his best describing the play of those three great champions. On the women's side, Serena and Venus Williams did some serious winning as well during that decade and a half. You'd think he'd have something to say about all of it.

At least McEnroe's voice remains true. He's still willing to poke fun at Lendl and Connors, still willing to talk about his respect for Bjorn Borg, still willing to have a laugh at his own expense. That means it's relatively to navigate through this, even if some of the material feels recycled in spots.

"But Seriously" must have seemed like a good idea at the time, but simply didn't work out well. It would be interesting to know what went wrong. McEnroe remains an attractive personality, but this book never quite brings it to life. I guess someone broke his serve.

Two stars

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Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Book Review: True (2022)

By Kostya Kennedy

It was particularly appropriate - and perhaps a little scary - to read this book shortly after the mass shooting in Buffalo that killed 10 African Americans.

As you might know, it was a typical Saturday afternoon, and people were shopping for the week's food as usual. Then a gunman, who had driven about 200 miles, opened fire. Our city may have had worse days, but none come to mind. 

The shooter was an 18-year-old supporter of white supremacy concepts. He thought that shooting random African Americans would somehow help his cause. In other words, the victims' only crime was to have dark skin.

That was Jackie Robinson's problem too. There hadn't been someone who looked like him playing major league baseball in the 20th century. When he arrived, some people chose not to play on his team, others on other teams offered vicious taunts at him, and fans sent hate mail to him and his team. 

Have we made much progress since 1947? It's easy to think about such matters while reading Kostya Kennedy's fine book on Robinson, "True."

Many of us already know Robinson's story. He was a superb all-around athlete who was picked by Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers to break a color line in organized baseball that had been around for more than 50 years. Robinson signed shortly after the end of World War II, and after a year in minor league baseball spent a decade in the major leagues. Breaking that barrier was never easy, and it took a toll on him. But with the help of wife Rachel, who might be as classy a person as anyone in public life, Jackie survived and thrived. 

It's easy for a writer to fall in love with Robinson. His story is so obviously one about good versus evil, the long man fighting ridiculous odds to bring justice to his profession. Plenty of trees have come down to tell the story. I even contributed a few to the pile when I wrote a short biography designed for school children.

It's easy to wonder at first if we need another biography of Robinson. Kennedy, though, is a good enough writer to make it work. He takes an interesting approach by concentrating on four different years of Robinson's life. There's 1946, where Jackie got some baseball lessons playing in Montreal of the minor leagues. Fast forward to 1949, when Robinson was at the height of his baseball powers. Then there's 1956, when those powers were fading and he was headed toward retirement. Finally comes 1972, when Robinson is slowed by various ailments and dies in the 25th anniversary year of his debut. If you want to call these years the spring, summer, fall and winter of his baseball life, you wouldn't be wrong.

This is a tough assignment for Kennedy, and it might not have worked so well with another, less skilled writer. He has to tell the tale of a man's life, but forces himself to concentrate on four particular years while not completely overlooking the rest of his life. Luckily, Kennedy is good enough to pull it off. The author did a ton of research into the book. I usually become suspicious when a biography has some sentences about what the subject was thinking at a particular time, and there's some of that here. However, Kennedy's version of events comes across quite plausibly, and reads well. He may be a little less than objective about Jackie and Rachel along the way, but that's understandable.

The epilogue also is worth noting, because it brings us up to date on Robinson's influence. Pioneers in almost any field, particularly athletics, pick up the nickname of "The Jackie Robinson of (Blank)." The name still has relevance to us, 75 years after his first at-bat for the Dodgers.

Other biographies of Robinson might work better for those who want the complete story. But "True" works quite well for those who are new to the subject and want to learn what the fuss is about. Take it from a guy in Buffalo - it's still very relevant.

Five stars

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