Thursday, May 30, 2019

Review: Mind and Matter (2019)

By John Urschel and Louisa Thomas

At some point, most adults will say that a level of mathematics sent them screaming into the night. It might be algebra, it might be trigonometry, or (in my case) it might be calculus. Once you get past the point where math becomes less useful in what we might call everyday life, it's easy to move on to other subjects.

John Urschel still hasn't reached that point. As a result, he probably qualifies as one of the most interesting and unusual personalities to come down the road in sports in some time.

That's what makes his book, "Mind and Matter" so different. He can talk about differential equations and run blocking with a very advanced level of knowledge. That's a combination that is tough on stereotypes, particularly when the fact that Urschel is African-American is added to the mix. So the phrase "good for him" applies on so many levels. Rulebreakers are always worth knowing.

Urschel spent most of his formative years, including high school, in the Buffalo area. He was always large for his size among fellow students, although perhaps a little undersized by the standards of future professional football linemen. That made him a natural to at least give football a chance, so he took it up and eventually became a prospect for colleges.

Along the way, Urschel discovered that he loved the "puzzles" that high mathematics could offer him. In fact, while barely into high school, he audited a course at the University at Buffalo in math and more than held his own. The young man saw, and sees, no contradiction between working on math and practicing and playing football. In fact, one was something of a break from the other. The book ping-pongs between his experiences in those disciplines. That can turn into something of a cliche, but the authors - he and Louisa Thomas are married - make it work quite nicely here.

It sounds a little like the proverbial "shaggy dog" story, but Urschel received one of the last available scholarships at Penn State for football. He wasn't considered a top prospect, but eventually worked his way into the starting lineup. In the meantime, Urschel also became a star in the classroom, maintaining a 4.0 GPA while working his way up the mathematics ladder in rapid succession. This is not an easy combination. Most football players have to take a reduced workload because of the time demands on their sport, and need tutors to get through it. Not only did Urschel do that and then some, but he seemed to be rather well accepted by the rest of the team. Football usually is not the place for non-conformists, but Urschel apparently pulled it off.

One of the most interesting parts of the story is that the Nittany Lion players was around when the scandal involving assistant coach Jerry Sandusky went public. The NCAA eventually came down heavily on the Penn State program. Urschel didn't understand why he and his teammates were penalized for actions that took place before he arrived on campus, but had to put up with as the university saw a new coaching staff put in place and several teammates transfer to other schools.

Urschel was good enough to be drafted by the Baltimore Ravens, and spent three years there. He even started 13 games. This took place while he continued to pursue high education in mathematics along the way - again, no easy task. But Urschel knew that eventually he'd have to choose one or the other - advanced mathematics is a young man's game too - and a concussion might have pushed that timetable up a bit. He became a full-time mathematician in 2017. He's currently a doctoral candidate in MIT.

One warning is necessary when talking to potential readers of this book: There is some complicated mathematics involved at times. Urschel goes out of his way not to get bogged down in it as he explains it from a distance, and handles it as well as it can be done. But this is a man who wrote an article called "On the Characterization and Uniqueness of Centroidal Voronoi Tessellations." Speaking as a reader who immediately became nervous when seeing the word "polynomial" in the text, this may drive you away for small sections of the book.

"Mind and Matter" feels like something of a swan song for Urschel. He's saying farewell to his "two-sided" days when football and math competed for attention. The only publishing he'll be doing down the road is when he does something interesting in mathematics - which no doubt will be often. Therefore, Urschel's look behind the door of what he was thinking along the way until he reached this point a couple of years ago is well explained and always interesting.

I'm not sure who might follow in Urschel's footsteps some day. But there's no doubt he's a heck of a role model for any who cares to look in an unconventional place for one.

Four stars

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Monday, May 27, 2019

Review: The Great American Sports Page (2019)

Edited by John Schulian

It seems that "The Great American Sports Page" has created more buzz in the media than most of the other new sports books this year. It's been written up in a quite a few outlets during the course of the spring/summer.

This should not be surprising.

I would bet that any self-respecting media member who started to read this book was positively entranced. Come to think of it, most sports fans with a sense of history ought to feel that way too.

Editor John Schulian apparently was in charge of this project, and he was well qualified for the task. Schulian was himself a columnist for a couple of big-city dailies, and has put together anthologies on boxing and football. He's smart, and good.

This anthology is not about a specific subject, but it still has a unifying theme - at least in theory. The idea was put a collection of stories together written by columnists who were on a deadline. In other words, the authors didn't have time to sit around and discuss the finished product over coffee and cake with editors and bosses. The story was due in less than an hour.

Take it from someone who has been there - this is not easy. Most writers are happy to get the score right and fill the allocated space in such situations. But to write a story that makes a point and does it gracefully, well, this is a rare skill.

Part of a joy of reading a book like this is taking in stories and authors that cover a wide range of time and subjects. Check, check. This book goes back to W.O. McGeehan, Damon Runyon and Grantland Rice almost a century ago. You've heard of many of the names if you're a student of such things, but there are some surprises along the way as some regional writers pop up. Emmett Watson, Sandy Grady, and Jim Kobuchar (yes, Amy's father) appear. There are some good writers outside of New York, you know. Schulian provides short biographies of each writer, and they put the contributions of those writers nicely into perspective.

Some of the joy of this book comes from reading about famous events as told by famous writers. Westbrook Pegler on Babe Ruth's called shot. Shirley Povich on Lou Gehrig's farewell. Red Smith on Bobby Thomson's homer. Robert Lipsyte on Clay shocking Liston. Thomas Boswell on Jack Nicklaus' Masters win in 1986. And so on.

To be fair, some of the stories aren't written right on deadline. Bill Plaschke and Jane Leavy check in with long stories that clearly needed time to write - as opposed to 40 minutes - but are certainly worth including here. The approaches are all over the map - rage, approval, fun, fly-on-the-wall, etc.

There probably will be a couple of stories here that you will skip over, but that's to be expected in a book like this. "The Great American Sports Page" works just about perfectly. You don't have to be a writer to appreciate this book. You just have to appreciate good writing.

Five stars

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Thursday, May 23, 2019

Review: The Legendary Harry Caray (2019)

By Don Zminda

It's been more than 20 years since Harry Caray died while still serving as the Chicago Cubs' main broadcaster after a long, long career in the business.

I suppose the best reaction to that is "Holy cow!"

Caray still seems a bit larger than life today, a figure that will put a smile on a face and prompt a bushel of stories from those who knew or listened to him.

Sometimes "larger than life" is another way of saying "exaggerated." Some of the stories surrounding Caray indeed have grown beyond the edge of the truth, while others have been confirmed to help fill out the legendary status.

Don Zminda took on the project of sorting it all out in his book, "The Legendary Harry Caray." He does a good job of setting the record straight.

Zminda is well qualified for the task. He's written a dozen books on baseball over the years, and he's been a well-known member of the Society of American Baseball Research for decades. Oh, and he's a Chicago native, so Zminda knows something about Carey and the teams he broadcast.

A look at the bare bones description of Carey's life would reveal that he spent 25 years as the announcer for the St. Louis Cardinals, achieving regional fame in the day through the team's vast network of radio stations. Then it was on to Chicago, where he spent 11 years with the White Sox and 16 with the Cubs.

That's quite a broadcasting career, but it sort of misses the point with Harry. He always seemed to be walking on a tightrope during a broadcast. Carey wanted his teams to win, but when they failed to meet his expectations the announcer wasn't above criticizing all those involved. In other words, a fan was behind the microphone - and all that implied. That sometimes led to dust-ups with management and team members, but it also led to a close association with fans - who thought like he did. As the sports business has grown, it has become more conservative - and that means that loose cannons like Caray have become less appreciated to everyone but fans.

Oddly, Caray might be best remembered not for any particular moment of broadcasting, but rather a song: "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." Bill Veeck, another legendary character who owned the White Sox during part of Caray's tenure, said that he always wanted an announcer to lead the singing of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" during the seventh-inning stretch. Finding a personality who could pull that off, though, was difficult. Veeck found his man in Caray, who carried the gimmick from the South Side of Chicago to the North Side when he switched teams. The sing-a-long still takes place at Wrigley Field today, either through guest singers or a video of Harry.

Carey also was a man who knew how to have a party. Come to think of it, his appearance using prompted one. Carey's consumption of alcohol over the years was enormous, to the point where no one could keep up with him after games. It's quite surprising that he made it into his 80s, even if some of the stories about such postgame frivolity could be slightly exaggerated.

Zminda takes an objective look at some of the incidents that marked Carey's career - the disagreements with the bosses, the ups and downs with the players, the feuds with other broadcasters. Sometimes announcers turn out to be the face of a sports franchise, and a few bumps in the road are to be expected. Even so, there's a reason Carey has a statue just outside Wrigley Field.

This book arrives with only a couple of complaints. A few points are repeated along the way, so one more edit might have been nice. The story also doesn't carry a great deal of fun along the way, leaning toward the dry side. There are other places for that; Steve Stone's book ("Where's Harry?") about working with Caray is a good example of that. But Harry was, at the base, a fun person to hear. I missed that part of the story in this biography.

"The Legendary Harry Carey" certainly accomplishes its goal well of separating fact from fiction. My guess is that longtime listeners ought to enjoy the way Zminda connects the dots.

Four stars

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Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Review: The Cost of These Dreams (2019)

By Wright Thompson

Sometimes the author's name is enough to lure you in when you are looking for something to read. When it comes to sports, Frank Deford and Gary Smith were two of the all-time greats.

Wright Thompson has a very good chance of joining those two, if he's not there already.

Thompson is one of those writers that takes his time coming up with a story. His work is on the long side in this Twitter age, but always rewarding. Therefore, it's good to see that his first collection, "The Cost of These Dreams," is now available.

Thompson started his career working for newspapers in New Orleans and Kansas City. He caught a break in 2006, when he was hired by ESPN. Thompson found a home there, as even the Internet was big enough to hold some of his longer works. ESPN the Magazine also gave him the space to stretch out his stories when needed.

If you read the stories before, they are certainly worth another look now. And if you haven't, you are in for a treat. Here is Michael Jordan at 50, still the same personality as we saw in his playing days but without that main competitive outlet. Pat Riley is shown to be torn between the present and a possible more relaxing future. Dan Gable, arguably the best American wrestler of all time, is still fighting some demons. Urban Meyer tries to put some balance in his life; there's more to tell about that football coach down the road.

Two stories jumped out at me that I hadn't read before. "Beyond the Breach" is a look at New Orleans 10 years after Katrina. Yes, there is some football there, but not a ton. It's about a city that keeps crawling back from adversity as it has always done, and it reads a little like a Spike Lee screenplay. There's also the "Ghosts of Mississippi," a look at the 1962 football team at Ole Miss that was one of the best of the country - at exactly the wrong time for all concerned (note the year and location) and thus was more or less forgotten. That one was turned into an ESPN documentary.

My only complaint about the collection is that it could have used a voice from the present. Where did the story appear? What has happened to subject and author since then? Even so, it doesn't get in the way of one's enjoyment. 

I'm not sure what's ahead for Thompson. ESPN recently announced that its magazine would be dying soon, and you'd have to think he might want a similar platform for his work. Then again, times are tough for magazines in general. We'll have to see what happens there.

But, no matter what the state of sportswriting and publication is, Thompson will do just fine. "The Cost of These Dreams" is proof of that. His audience will find him and follow him no matter where he lands.

Five stars

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