Friday, July 31, 2020

Review: The Bona Fide Legend of Cool Papa Bell (2021)

By Lonnie Wheeler

The book, "The Bona Fide Legend of Cool Papa Bell," carries with it more than a little poignancy before reading a single page.

Author Lonnie Wheeler had just finished this book when he died in June. He was a sports writer who had written 12 books. The best-known of those efforts might have been with Henry Aaron and Bob Gibson. Most of the books were about baseball, although Wheeler could do more than that.

For whatever reason, the good folks at NetGalley provided reviewers like me an electronic copy of the book about six months before it was scheduled to be sold to the public. This is kind of like getting a Christmas gift in July, or at least having ice cream before dinner.

In any event, it is good to note that Wheeler - by all accounts a fine person and a fine writer - at least exited with another winner for his legacy. And who wouldn't want to write a book about a man named "Cool Papa?" The Negro Leagues had a great way with nicknames, with such names as "Turkey," "Mule," "Boojum," and "Double Duty." Cool Papa is lovely.

Wheeler admits in the opening pages that tracking down the full story of Bell's life is not exactly easy. We can get the idea of the music he created on the field during a career that lasted well over 20 years, but it's difficult to see all of the notes individually. After all, the Negro Leagues of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s were not particularly well organized, especially in the area of record keeping. We don't know how many games Bell played, or how many batting titles he won, or how many hits he had. We just know that he was really good.

There may have been faster people that played baseball, but not many. What's more, Bell played with a sense of daring that isn't seen in today's game. For example, how many players can score from first on a sacrifice bunt. Bell did it. When a batter bunted toward the third-base side of the pitcher's mound, Bell took second. Seeing that many of the fielders were out of the position, Bell rounded second and saw an open third base. He only had to beat a catcher to take third, and that was easy. But then when Cool Papa got to third base, he noticed that there was no one close to home - and he had a running start to get there. Mookie Betts sometimes goes from first to third on a sacrifice, but I don't think he has scored on that play.

The story that most people have heard about Bell involves a hotel. He had already established a reputation for speed when he noticed that a switch in his room when thrown had a delay of a few seconds before the light went out. Bell called in a teammate, and told him he was so fast he could turn out the light and be in bed before the room was dark. The response was along the lines of "yeah, sure," and then Cool Papa did it thanks to the pause.

Wheeler goes through the outline of Bell's. He was born with the name James Nichols, but eventually took the last name of Bell as a teen. Jim moved from Mississippi to St. Louis as a youngster, and used that city as a home base for the rest of his life. It was the launching point for his career in baseball. Bell did some pitching early in his career, but found a home in the outfield. Center field was a place where hits went to die in Bell's glove, because he covered so much ground.

The author makes one good move here in his approach to the book. He supplies the information that he has compiled about Bell, but he's more concerned with providing a look at his life and times. Bell played with many of the greats of the Negro League over the years  - Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, etc. The book gives a good idea what the era was like for all concerned. It's hard not to fall in love with the idea of the Negro Leagues - top players who were denied the opportunity of playing against the best competition in the world because of the color line, but who pressed on anyway.

By the time integration came to major league baseball, it was too late for Bell. His playing days were about over. After retirement, he couldn't even find a job in the sport although he was an obvious expert in hitting, running and fielding. Bell became a janitor and then a night watchman in St. Louis.

Happily, though, Bell lived long enough to learn that his skills were appreciated. (This is in contrast to Gibson, who died of what was said to be a broken heart when he realized he was too old to go to the majors.) The Baseball Hall of Fame started taking Negro League stars in its ranks when Paige entered in 1971. Cool Papa went in in 1974. Bell had about 20 years to tell stories about his exploits in the Negro Leagues before he died in 1991, so Wheeler did have a good supply of oral interviews with Bell available that he could use to fill in some gaps.

We're coming up on the 100th anniversary of Bell's first pro game in 1922. Certainly that's a little dusty for some people, who prefer their history to be a bit more timely. But those looking for an overview of Bell and his times should be quite satisfied by "The Bona Fide Legend of Cool Papa Bell."

Four stars

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Saturday, July 25, 2020

Review: Beating the Odds (2019)

By Eddie Olczyk with Perry Lefko

Eddie Olczyk certainly has led an interesting life to date.

He was a good hockey player in his day, and went on to make a seamless transition to announcing after his playing days were over. Eddie does the Blackhawks games now as well as top games for NBC. He's got a good-sized, happy family. and seems to be popular in and out of the workplace.

But before this review starts to read like a story book, Olczyk went through a battle with colon cancer a few years ago. As the book's title, "Beating the Odds," indicates, Olczyk came out a winner.

The medical portions of the book provide much of the drama for Olczyk's story. He went public with his story along the way and then wrote this as an attempt to spread the word about preventive care and treatment. Some of his friends went to get colonoscopies in the process; maybe Eddie saved a few lives along the way. The descriptions of the "joys" of chemotherapy allow the reader to find out what that experience is like, which sounds a whole lot better than doing it first-hand.

Until then, life was rather good for Olczyk. He was something of a child prodigy in hockey terms, a No. 1 draft choice of his hometown team, the Chicago Blackhawks, in 1984. He stepped right into the lineup - no easy task - and scored 20 goals as an 18-year-old. The forward had 29 more goals the next year, and it looked like it was a case of hometown hero makes good. But Olczyk slumped to 16 goals in 1986-87.

A trade to Toronto helped greatly, and he scored at least 30 goals in all three years there. From there Olczyk landed in Winnipeg, and he was really good there too. In 1992, Olczyk was a consistent scorer at the age of 26 and looked to be in the prime of his career.

But a trade to New York changed everything, and it's not exactly clear what happened - even to Eddie. Rangers coach Mike Keenan didn't play Olczyk very much , and his production dropped considerably. Keenan, by the way, is the only person in the entire text who gets really carved up a bit. Eddie never fully regained his scoring touch, except for a couple of decent years for Winnipeg (second time around) and Los Angeles, and became something of a journeyman. Eddie played more than 1,000 games and 16 years, but it's easy to wonder if something went wrong. There's no answer here.

In any event, Olczyk finished his career where it started in Chicago, and he landed a job as a broadcaster in Pittsburgh. That led to a jump to the head coach's job with the Penguins for a season and a half, and then it was back to broadcasting. As his role at NBC grew, Olczyk found time to do some work on his favorite hobby, horse racing. He obviously loves everything about the ponies, especially handicapping races. Ed is happily surprised that he's now getting paid occasionally for hanging around a racetrack.

There are a couple of flaws in the book. Admittedly, I'm no gambler, but I did grow a little tired of stories about big financial wins on bets at the track. Yes, he can afford it, but it's easy to wonder how much losing he's done during the rest of his time at the betting windows. Olczyk and coauthor Perry Lefko also receive testimonials from a variety of people in Olczyk's life along the way. That's a fairly common technique, but I found myself wishing that those people could provide insight and examples about Olczyk's life rather than simply saying nice things. As it is, the information comes off as a little redundant.

It's not that big a deal, though. "Beating the Odds" is an easy, interesting read told with good humor. Olczyk obviously has lot of friends from his work on and off the ice, and let's hope he continues his good run for years to come.

Four stars

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Friday, July 17, 2020

Review: The Q Factor (2020)

By Brian Billick and James Dale

Looking into the future when it comes to young pro football players is not exactly a science. That's part of the fun of the NFL draft, as teams look at players who are just into their 20s and try to predict what the next 10 to 15 years of their football lives will be like. It's a difficult task, and it can be fun - as long as your job doesn't depend on being right more often than wrong.

That is particularly true when it comes to quarterbacks, the most important players in a given game. No one has a larger role in the outcome of a particular contest. Pick the right one on draft day, as the Patriots did once upon a time with a fellow named Tom Brady, and you'll be set for a couple of decades. Guess wrong, as the Chargers did with Ryan Leaf and the Raiders did with JaMarcus Russell, and you'll pay the price. Not only is there an economic cost to bad decisions that can runs into the millions, but there's also time that is wasted in the development of a football team.

The question become - how do we improve the percentages when it comes to taking the best player available? It's an interesting question, especially to football fans, and it's the basis for "The Q Factor" by Brian Billick and James Dale.

Billick knows something about the importance of having the right quarterback. In 1998, he was the offensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings team that set an NFL record for points in a season. That got him a job as the head coach of the Baltimore Ravens, and he went on to win a Super Bowl during the 2000 season there. However, the Ravens did it not because of offensive talent (their quarterback in the Super Bowl was Trent Dilfer, who will never be confused for Peyton Manning), but because they had one of the great defenses in the history of the NFL. In the succeeding years, the Ravens were frequently good but never good enough to return to that height. Part of the reason is that they never had that superb quarterback who could lead the team to those last couple of steps. Billick lost his job after the 2007 season.

The book gets off to an absolutely spectacular start. Billick focuses in on the quarterbacks taken in the 2018 draft. That was a big year in that department, with several going in the first round. But there was no clear consensus at the time about who might be better. Billick breaks down what each quarterback - Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Josh Rosen and Lamar Jackson - brought to the table, and adds a little gossip from his sources around the league. All had their supporters, but none looked like a clear No. 1 pick. It is great fun, at least for football fans, to have an expert break down each player in such a details, intelligent fashion.

Billick jumps into quarterback talk from there, looking at what goes into a great player at the position. The stereotype is a guy who is 6-foot-4 with a sturdy body and a big arm. Not every successful quarterback fits that mold though, even though we may get carried away with that model. Then he moves through what he calls extrapolations, searching for trends of improvement without the ingredient of wishful thinking ("Yeah, he'll get more accurate with a little playing time...").

The author then goes back to the Class of 2018, seeing how they did in their rookie year, and then in their second year in 2019. As could be guessed, the jury is still out on them. However, the star of the crew is Jackson, who was the league's MVP. Rosen's career has been close to a wash-out. The others have shown some good signs but haven't been consistent. In other words, we still don't know if Mayfield, Darnold and Allen will ever get better.

Billick stresses production in his thinking when it comes to determining signs of greatness. The good ones figure out a way to move the chains and score touchdowns consistently. Russell Wilson fits no one's model as the ideal size for a quarterback, but he's been very successful. Pat Mahomes improvises more than most but gets the job done. Neither came into the league with guarantees. Wilson wasn't a first-round draft choice, and the Bills, who needed a long-term solution at the time, traded their first-round pick to the Chiefs - who took Mahomes. Football may be changing a bit, but Billick argues that a team's approach has to be altered to fit a quarterback's talents - and not the other way around.

Ever since the Ravens were featured in the HBO series "Hard Knocks" some years ago, I've been very impressed by Billick. He has a first-rate mind and knows the business. In fact, I wondered why he didn't get another chance at an NFL job after leaving Baltimore. The Bills sure had chances to snap him up over the years.

"The Q Factor" isn't something I'd call beach reading for most, and occasionally it lapses into material that would feel right at home in business/leadership books. It's not much of a problem. When this book is good, it's superb. It's always good to hear from an expert on a subject he loves.

Four stars

Learn more about this book.

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