Monday, December 28, 2020

Review: Dalko (2020)

By Bill Dembski, Alex Thomas and Brian Vikander

The number of recent sports legends who remain something of a mystery probably can be counted on less than two hands. 

Such performers needed to play games in an era when television was not around to record them, which somewhat translates to the pre-1970s. That's old enough for some people to still remember what happened, but not so old that first-hand accounts no longer an be obtained.

It's a good description for those who obviously had enormous talent but never quite were able to use it for one reason or another. In basketball, for example, New York City featured Herman "The Helicopter" Hastings and Earl "The Goat" Manigault. Pete Axthelm wrote a book on NYC basketball called "The City Game" that spread stories about their exploits far and wide (go read it if you can). 

Someone in that class for baseball was Steve Dalkowski. The legendary lefty from New Britain, Connecticut, is considered to be one of the hardest-throwing pitchers in baseball history - faster than Nolan Ryan, faster than Bob Feller, faster than Aroldis Chapman. The short version of the story is that Dalkowski never was too sure where the ball was going, and thus never reached the major leagues.

The longer version of the story is told in "Dalko." Bill Dembski, Alex Thomas and Brian Vikander joined forces to come up with the first full-fledged biography of the pitcher, as they tried to piece together as many parts of the puzzle as possible. The picture isn't complete now, but some of the blanks have been filled in.

Dalkowski was a good high school quarterback, but he received more attention for his work on the baseball diamond. No one at that level could touch his fastball, at least when it was in the strike zone. Steve ran up some unbelievable numbers in terms of strikeouts and no-hitters, although walks and wild pitches usually came with the package. Still, you can't teach velocity, and Dalkowski had more than enough of that. He signed with the Baltimore Orioles in 1957, and the professional odyssey began.

The pitcher spent the next nine years in the minors. The common denominator of those seasons, statistically speaking, is that Dalkowski had a ton of strikeouts but usually just as many walks. Inevitably, the free passes would pile up at the wrong time and he'd have to exit. Dalkowski probably received many more chances than the average pitcher to stick around because of his arm strength. It didn't help the situation that Dalkowski picked up a fondness for alcoholic beverages at a very young age - perhaps because of the pressure of being a phenom, perhaps because his father was known to drink as well. Then there's the fact that Dalkowski by most accounts wasn't particularly smart, which may have contributed to the fact that he didn't know how to control his emotions and instincts while pitching in games. It also meant he was anxious to be "one of the guys" and could be led into some difficult situations by others. 

It's easy to guess that the people involved in major league baseball at the time didn't know what to do with a player with this particular package. As Sam McDowell (another hard thrower in his day) writes in the introduction, sports teams had no clue when it came to the mental part of the game back in the 1960s. At one point the Orioles tried to have Dalkowski throw several dozen pitches before a game in an effort to tire him out and force him to aim the ball a little more. It didn't work most of the time. In the meantime, Steve was working in an era without pitch-count limits and probably threw thousands more pitches in a year than equivalent prospects throw today.

Finally in 1962, Dalkowski had a little success working with Earl Weaver with Elmira in 1962. Steve's ERA was under 5.00 for the first time in his career. (in fact, it was 3.04) The wildness hadn't completely departed, but it was a bit more under control. That led to an invitation to the major league camp with the Orioles in 1963, where Dalkowski seemed to take another step forward. When he struck out Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle and Elston Howard of the Yankees in an exhibition game, the Baltimore roster no longer seemed completely out of reach. But Dalkowski hurt his arm in that game, sidetracking his career essentially for good. The alcohol rarely left his side throughout the next 50-plus years, with accompanying destructive effects on his health and relationships. Dalkowski died in 2020.

The authors certainly did their homework here, as a variety of articles and interviews are cited as sources in the text. But there are a couple of problems that come up in the actual book that - based on the reviews I've read - bothered me a little more than other readers.

The book certainly roots quite hard for Dalkowski to succeed in his quest to join the majors, even though we know he ultimately fails. That comes up in evaluating his chances at reaching the majors at a given moment. Someone who can't throw strikes regularly isn't of much use to a big league team. Did striking out the side against the Yankees in a meaningless exhibition game mean much to his chances of reaching the Orioles? It's a tough call to say that now, especially when the pitcher's lifelong record of wildness is considered. There is a quote that says Dalkowski might have been on the opening day roster in 1963, although it was a big jump from the middle of the minors and his chances may have exaggerated just to be nice. 

There are a few such moments here. The good games along the minor league trail are considered signs of great promise, when his history tells us that they are more likely to be outliers. Dalkowski was promoted to Triple-A Rochester after the end of the season which is said to reflect that the Orioles' confidence in growing in him. It's much more likely that it was a paper transaction to fill out a roster once Baltimore set its 40-man major-league roster. The authors also take seriously am exaggerated comment from a teammate that Dalkowski had an IQ of about 60.

The three-headed approach to writing may have caused a problem in the finished product. Some information is repeated along the way here, so it probably could have used one more edit. 

It's easy to appreciate the effort that went into "Dalko," and it's nice to have the information as part of the public record. Still, the legend of Steve Dalkowski remains elusive after reading this, and it probably always will be.

Three stars

Learn more about this book from

Be notified of new posts on this site via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Review: Macho Time (2020)

By Christian Giudice

I had a relatively close, in-person look at Hector Camacho in the spring of 1985. He came to Buffalo to fight Roque Montoya for the NABF lightweight champion. The Macho Man was already a rising star at that point, and headed for bigger things and bouts. 

What I remember most about that week was the chance to see Camacho in action leading up to the fight. Camacho was everywhere, obviously having fun with appearing before the public. I believe my observation at the time was that he was like an elf, sprinkling fun wherever he went.

At a prefight luncheon, most of the fighters on the card spent their speaking time trashing James Broad, a heavyweight contender at the time who wasn't too popular with his peers for whatever reason. Hector jumped right in and though Broad had more than 70 pounds on him. Camacho said something like, "Give me a baseball bat, and I'll jump into the ring with him too."

For all the glitter and hi-jinks, Hector put on a good, workmanlike performance in beating a game Montoya. He obviously was someone to follow for the rest of his career. 

And what a career it was. Camacho had plenty of highs and some terrible lows in a too-eventful life. Hector, in fact, was so busy that it was tough to keep up with him. Therefore, Christian Giudice's book, "Macho Time," is a welcome addition to the boxing library. 

Camacho was born in Puerto Rico but moved to New York when his parents separated when he was three. It wasn't long before he was roaming the streets of Spanish Harlem, getting into some trouble but displaying a likeable personality that usually escape major incidents - although he did spend a little time in jail along the way. Luckily for him, Camacho became involved in boxing - a perfect match of his physical skills and his personality. 

Guidice makes it clear that Camacho was a natural at the sport - a standout before he became famous. Opponents couldn't find him, let alone hit him. Hector rose through the ranks relatively quickly. It took him three years to become a super-featherweight champion - only to see him move up in weight after two defenses. It was a similar story at the lightweight division, and in the junior welterweight title. While he piled up the wins, Guidice makes a good case that Camacho was never as good as he was when he first burst on the championship scene.

Camacho couldn't avoid the usual problems that often beset those in his situation - particularly boxers. In other words, you can take the boy off the streets, but you can't take the streets out of the boy. Camacho became a father at a young age, spent most of his life using drugs, and had no idea how to handle money. He fought until the age of 48 or so, and then was killed in what looked like a drug deal gone bad a couple of years later. 

Camacho's life story didn't really have the proper timing in some ways. He seemed to just miss bouts against epic challengers that could have proved his greatness. Hector didn't fight people like Ray Mancini and Julio Cesar Chavez until he was past his prime. That hurts the narrative a bit, since only big boxing fans would know some of the names that pass through here. 

The author certainly did his homework here. The list of interview subjects listed at the end is long and impressive. He also watched a lot of videotape as well, based on his descriptions of the major bouts of Camacho's life. Giudice might have used a few too many words in those accounts, slowing the narrative down, but that's a relatively small complaint. 

The Macho Man had quite a ride in his too-short life, and "Macho Time" captures it quite well. For those who followed Camacho's career closely, this is the book they've been waiting to read for years. As for the rest of us, it's a worthy effort.

Four stars

Learn more about this book from

(Be notified of new posts on this site via Twitter @WDX2BB).

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Review: The Best American Sports Writing 2020

Edited by Jackie MacMullan

To use a newspaper term, it's sadly time to put a "-30-" at the end of the Best American Sports Writing series. 

Series editor Glenn Stout announces in the foreward that the yearly edition has come to an end after 30 years. It's been quite a run. Such anthologies have been around for decades; you might be able to find a few dusty copies in a second-hand bookstore or a big city library. The Sporting News picked up the tradition for a while. Then in 1991, the tradition resumed under the caring, watchful eye of Stout. 

We've seen through the pages of these anthologies how the business has changed so dramatically in the past three decades. The sources for material no longer are almost exclusively devoted to major newspapers and magazines. Plenty of good work has been presented by websites in relatively recent years.

You can also look at the names of the editors of the annual editions since 1991 and see another worthwhile change. There are some great names on the list - David Halberstam, Frank Deford, Tom Boswell, Dan Jenkins, Rick Reilly, Peter Gammons, Wright Thompson. In 2011, a woman joined the formerly all-male club when Jane Leavy got the job. Now she is joined by Jackie MacMullan, a former Boston Globe reporter who now does work for ESPN. 

Reviewing books in this series always has been a bit of a challenge, because usually the stories are almost always worth reading. The difference from year to year usually comes from the editor's picks, which are a matter of personal preference. That's certainly true for the 2020 book. MacMullen writes in her introduction, "None of the stories highlight exploits of stars from the major professional sports teams. Increasingly, elite athletes have opted to create their own 'brand,' churning out self-made glossy presentations shellacked with a veneer that lacks the authenticity of a story well told."

That's certainly true here. It's also true that the definition of "sports writing" is a bit stretched here, and that it's a rather dark collection of articles. There are stories here that you'd never find in the sports section of a newspaper, or in a sports magazine (remember them?). 

We need examples. A soccer game provides just a bit of framework on a story by Roberto Jose Andrade Franco on the problems in Juarez, Mexico. Kurt Streeter has an essay on the monuments of Richmond, which includes Arthur Ashe. Bryan Burroughs writes about killer tigers in India. Steven Leckart chips in with a story of a unique bank robber who uses a bicycle for his getaways. John Griswold has a fine look at a Louisiana prison rodeo - who knew? Emily Giambalvo tracks down some of the dogs who were involved in Michael Vick's dogfighting ring - many of whom are living happily ever after as pets. 

The book has plenty of other stories of course, but many come at issues from a different angles. There's the physical toll of playing championship chess, a recreational hockey player's experiences with concussions, the top women's college basketball player who turned down the pros to become a cloistered nun, the death of an Olympic cyclist, a complete novice tries to cover a tennis tournament, and so on. There are even some good old-fashioned investigations - the Astros' sign-stealing scandal, the NBA executive who turned into a $13 million crook, and the sexual predator lurking around track programs.

No, there aren't a whole lot of feel-good stories here. At least the book opens with a Bill Plaschke piece on how baseball is used to help those suffering from Alzheimer's. But there's a key point to be made here: I started every article, and finished almost every article (I must admit I skimmed the end of one from the halfway point). Therefore, MacMullen was clearly doing something right. 

This final collection may not be for those who have a narrow definition of sports or like their fun and games to be mostly fun, but those who read it should find it rewarding. And a word of thanks goes to Stout and Co. for 30 years of good reading. Let's hope someone picks up the ball and runs with it, as they say in corporate America, in the future. 

Four stars

Learn more about this book from

Be notified of new posts on this site via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Review: Attacking the Rim (2020)

By Dave Bing with T.V. LoCicero

It's easy to wonder if Dave Bing considered borrowing the words "I Led Three Lives" for his new autobiography.

That was the name of a 1952 book that was written by Herbert Philbrick; it was later turned into a TV series. The three lives mentioned were citizen, community, and counterspy. 

Pfft. That's nothing compared to Bing. He can list basketball player, politician, and business leader on his resume - with some notable success in all of them. It's hard to think of someone who has had more different types of challenges face him in a lifespan, which makes him a good candidate to get his thoughts down on paper in an autobiography. 

Bing, first and foremost to many, was a great basketball player. He arrived in Syracuse and gave its hoops program its first run of sustained glory in the mid-1960s. You might have heard of his roommate from those days, Jim Boeheim. He's still coaching at their alma mater more than 50 years later. 

Bing was the second overall draft choice in the NBA in 1966, going to the usually mediocre Detroit Pistons. He certainly did his best to change the team's fortunes during his time there. Bing was an instant star upon arrival, but simply didn't have the necessary help to make any sort of run in the playoffs. As a result, he might be overlooked when the great players of that era are discussed - and Dave had a great 12-year career despite being essentially blind in one eye. The Basketball Hall of Fame eventually called him for induction.

Bing always had been smart enough to realize there was life after basketball, and he prepared for it by learning various lessons in the business world. Eventually, Bing went out on his own, and put together a company that employed hundreds in the Detroit area and was a role model for minority-owned businesses. "Bing Steel" even picked up some national awards. Alas, when the Great Recession of 2008 struck, the firm simply didn't have enough resources to survive.

After taking the business as far as it could go - perhaps a year longer than it should have, because Bing wanted to keep people working, it was time to run for Mayor. The city of Detroit was in big trouble due to a variety of factors, one of which was corruption in the Mayor's office. Bing was considered an honest broker by most people in the city and served almost five years in the job. Eventually, though, the problems were just too large for the Bing Administration, and the state came in to help run the city under certain controls. Bing certainly did some good work, but miracle workers are few and far between. That finally allowed Dave to cut back a bit on work, but he threw himself into developing a mentoring program that tries to set up relationships between African American boys and men, one on one. 

In the book, Bing certainly comes across well. He's usually a serious man with one eye on the next step who always has paid attention to what has been going on around him. But from a literary perspective, there's a lot to cover here - and it's hard to give everything its just due. 

The basketball part of his life gets about half the pages dedicated to it. Bing didn't play for many top-notch teams in his career, so there aren't any exciting stories about big playoff games and superstar teammates (Bob Lanier is the exception to that). Bing is rather reserved in many of his comments, although he does write a bit about the drug problems that had entered the NBA by the time his final season in the league arrived in 1977-78. It's rather easy to figure out who the problem children were on the Boston Celtics' roster of that era. 

From there, the business pages go by pretty quickly. Bing doesn't get too technical here, but the material is a little dry for the general audience. The chapters on running the city of Detroit perk the text up a couple of notches, but I had the feeling that anyone outside the Detroit metropolitan area might have trouble keeping up with the cast of characters.

What do we have at the end then? My guess is that two books would have worked better. The basketball story would have been a fine idea for Bing back when his name was a little more familiar to fans. A second book easily could have been done on trying to turn Detroit around - and then sold to the readers in Michigan. It's hard to be anything but superficial when reviewing such a complicated, interesting life in such a short span of pages.

But let's add something else that's just as important. "Attacking the Rim" makes it clear that Dave Bing could serve as an excellent role model to those who seek one. That's a bigger win than any playoff game in the long run.

Three stars

Learn more about this book from

Be notified of new posts on this site via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Review: Commander in Cheat (2019)

By Rick Reilly

The first question about Rick Reilly's book, "Commander in Cheat," is a basic one. Does it deserve to be put on a blog that reviews sports books?

The pedigree is a good one. For the younger readers out there, author Reilly might have been as good as it got in the sports writing business during his 23 years with Sports Illustrated - back when SI matters. He wrote a back-page column for 10 years from 1997 to 2007. Reading it was usually one of the best parts of a sports fan's week. Reilly could write funny, smart, poignant and funny when needed. Funny is mentioned twice because it's difficult to bring humor to sports writing on a regular basic, and Rick did it week after week. 

The strain of writing all of those columns seemed to burn Reilly out, and he made the decision to bolt to ESPN late in 2007. There he did some TV features as well as some writing for ESPN the Magazine. I always had the feeling he had gotten away from what he had done best, although I couldn't blame him for seeking a change of pace. The arrangement stood until 2014, when Reilly retired from sports writing. Considering how well his books sold (several best sellers), it's hard to blame him for taking a step back. 

However, it would seem that the sight of Donald Trump on a golf course was enough to drive him back to the typewriter ... er, computer. Thus we have "Commander in Cheat." Since golf is at the center of the text, it can be placed here relatively safely.

It's rather obvious that Reilly loves golf, especially when it comes to the traditions and rules of the game. It's also obvious that Reilly hates the way Trump approaches the game of golf for many different reasons. Those time-tested traditions and rules - which go into a number of different areas - don't seem to apply to the 45th President of the United States. Think of Rodney Dangerfield in "Caddyshack," without the one-liners, and you get the idea. It's difficult to stay angry over the course of 242 pages, but Reilly more or less does it here - using a scalpel rather than an axe to carve Trump up. 

I suppose this list of offenses could be split into two parts. The first centers on violations of the game itself. The list probably starts with cheating during play, which might include kicking the ball into the fairway, not counting balls hit into water hazards, giving yourself putts under 10 feet, etc. That makes it difficult to judge how good a golfer Trump really is. He says he has a 2 handicap, but most experts rank him at a 9 or so - still pretty good for someone of his age, but not extraordinary. But it also includes matters such as driving carts on to tees and greens, hitting first off the tee and then taking off before others have hit (making it easier to cheat without someone watching), and so forth. Caddies are expected to throw balls out of the woods and improve lies. I'm not sure where inflating the legitimate number of club championships won fits in to this, but Trump has done that too - kind of like the size of his inauguration crowd. 

Then there are the larger issues of golf-related activities, many of them involving his string of courses around the world.  Environmental laws and norms are ignored during construction and remodeling, contractors are stiffed or forced to take pennies on the dollar, statements about improvements and valuations of complexes turn out to be extremely inaccurate, and lawsuits are filed regularly to drain the pockets of opponents. And that doesn't include the little, petty items - such as putting up a marker to a Civil War battle spot on the 14th hole at Trump Washington, even though there's no evidence that such a battle existed. 

All of the sins are nicely researched and chronicled, with Reilly providing the funny captions to keep the story moving along. The author only lets loose in the final chapter. One paragraph sums it up well: "When a man like President Donald Trump pees all over the game I love, lies about it, cheats at it, and literally drives tire tracks over it, it digs a divot in my soul and makes me want to march into the Oval Office, grab him by that long red tie, and yell, 'Stop it!'"

In short, Reilly had taken a laundry list of general actions by Trump that range from petty to horrible, and applied to just one subject: golf. The resulting book won't change many minds of the Trump faithful, but it does reinforce the feelings of disgust that others had about how the President acts. If you're part of the latter group, you'll find this very well done.

One final note: Reilly uses a quote to begin each chapter, and he uses one from Trump in Chapter 10: "My whole life is about winning. I don't lose." Well, more than 80 million people made him a loser on Election Day - and Trump can't kick any balls out of the fairway to change that, even though he's tried. 

Four stars

Learn more about this book from

Be notified of new posts on this site via Twitter @WDX2BB.