Thursday, May 27, 2021

Review: Stealing Home (2020)

By Eric Nusbaum

Some of the best sports books are the ones that barely touch the activity that takes place on the playing field. 

"Stealing Home" can be found under this category. The twist is that it's more or less about the actual playing field. 

The location of this book is the city of Los Angeles - more particularly, Dodger Stadium. The structure was built in 1962 as the new home of the Dodgers, who had moved from Brooklyn in 1958. The centerpiece of the story to some extent is - to paraphrase the Talking Heads' song - "How did it get here?"

The answer to that is a little complicated. Author Eric Nusbaum tells a story about the construction of the facility. Some might know a few of the facts involved, but it's certainly nice to have the full story. He tells it by breaking matters into three distinct parts, and then letting them slowly come together with a rather loud bang. 

The first is the essentially the tale of three communities within the city limits - Palo Verde, La Loma, and Bishop.  All sorts of people came to Southern California throughout the 20th century, and some of them had Mexican heritage. That particular group filled up the communities in question. It was a classic case of people coming to that part of the world in an attempt to finding a better life. It wasn't easy - it took an effort, day-by-day, inch-by-inch, to crawl a bit ahead. But many wound up with their own land and a roof over their heads. 

Then there's the story of Frank Wilkinson. A son of a doctor, Wilkinson did some traveling as a young man and developed something of a social conscience in the process. When he saw the poor conditions that some people lived in, he wondered if there might be a better way to raise their standards of living. That took him in a couple of different directions. One was that he became attached to the concept and potential benefits of public housing. That was a relatively new idea after World War II, when America was feeling powerful and confident that it could solve almost any problem. The other is that he was becoming an advocate with what we might call left-wing political thought, which included a brief stay as a member of the Communist Party. You could imagine how well that went over, particularly in the early 1950s. No wonder the number of pages in his FBI file ran into six figures. 

Finally, we had the Dodgers. Good books have been written about their departure from Brooklyn, as the team was something of a victim of the changing demographics of the era and political in-fighting. The move to Los Angeles didn't really change much of that; it just changed the names. Owner Walter O'Malley eventually got his nearly perfect ballpark. What it did to the city is another story. 

Nusbaum does some considerable juggling here. He jumps from subject to subject as time marches on - three forces destined to collide without anyone realizing it. It doesn't take a spoiler alert to realize that Mexican population and Wilkinson are going to wind up as the losers of the story. The author starts the story with a news item that is relatively familiar in cases of this nature. A family becomes involved in a dispute with the city, and then is forced to leave its house when the bulldozers arrive. Sometimes, you really can't fight City Hall - at least indefinitely. What's more, the family and the city were only a few thousand dollars apart on the value of the property. It would have been so much easier just to pay that money as a fair transfer cost for the land and move on. 

The author's most interesting writing quirk here is the number of chapters: 76. He makes a point quickly and moves along to the next. It works better than you might think. The research is impressive and comprehensive. Nusbaum tells the story quite fully. He certainly has a point of view on the entire affair, and he makes a good argument. The only complaint that could be made is that a little more background and information on the Dodgers' move could have been supplied.  

"Stealing Home" might not appeal to those who prefer a little baseball with their baseball books. However, this book works nicely for people who simply want to learn about an under-publicized story about construction of one of baseball's cathedrals. 

Four stars

Learn more about this book from

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

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Review: Built to Lose (2021)

By Jake Fischer

If you'd like to read about the National Basketball Association in the past few years, "Built to Lose" ought to scratch that itch. 

Just don't expect to read much about basketball.

That seems like a contradiction, but author Jake Fischer has different goals for his book than following the bouncing ball into the basket. 

This is about the business side of putting together teams in the NBA in the last few years. In fact, it concentrates on the franchises that not only weren't particularly good at that skill, but indeed to go the extra mile to try to lose games in the short term in an effort to be much better in the future. 

That process grew to be called "tanking," and it became rather popular in the mid-2010s. Indeed, the stars of the book probably are the Philadelphia 76ers and their general manager at the time, Sam Hinkie. He held that job from 2013 to the spring of 2016.

Hinkie was a major proponent of the concept that a particular team shouldn't aim to be mediocre all the time, stuck on a treadmill of .500 indefinitely. It's better to tear things down, the thinking went, and obtain top-level talent in the draft than try to maximize efforts to win a few extra games in a particular season. That's the way the rules were written at the time, and it made some sense to take advantage of that fact.

While it may be easy to lose games, it's difficult to rebuild. Hinkie was around for three seasons, and the Sixers went 19-63, 18-64 and 10-72. But Philadelphia won 52 games in 2017-18, and has been above .500 ever since. Two big pieces of the 76ers' puzzle turned up during the bad years in Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid.   

Fischer goes through three seasons and offseasons in depth from the perspective of the Sixers and some of the other teams who were struggling. The list includes a couple of traditional powers in the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics, as well as stuck-at-the-bottom teams like the Sacramento Kings. With the perspective of time, people could not reveal what was going on in their minds in a particular moment from the 2013-2016 era - which, in terms of NBA rosters, is the distant past. The author reportedly talked to more than 300 people for the book, and it reads like it. This sounds very authentic. 

The NBA tinkered with its lottery system a few years ago to make losing a little less attractive. Still, it's going to happen in basketball. It's one of the few team sports where one player can make a huge difference in a team's fortunes. As an example, check out the record of the Cleveland Cavaliers with and without LeBron James over the past several years. The problem is determining who that player might be.  There are no guarantees when it comes to looking at players who might be 19 years old and forecasting just how good they might be in a few years. And if they are good, they might flee the original teams at their first opportunity for any number of reasons.

This book comes with something of a major warning. Only good-sized NBA fans need to dive into this. It's tough to follow the sport from a distance, since I live in a city without a team. So for example, the pick-by-pick recaps of drafts can be fascinating to learn of the thinking that went into each choice. However, sometimes the recognition of the players involved isn't too great. That's partly my fault, since I don't keep up with some of the names enough. It's also a reflection of the sport, as there are no guarantees that come with a draft choice in the first half of the first round. 

Even so, there are all sorts of good anecdotes that are uncovered here that ought to leave anyone with an interest in basketball entertained. So, feel free to pick up a copy of "Built to Lose" if you are curious about an odd time in basketball history. And maybe you can do what I did - keep a list of draft choices from that era handy for reference.

Four stars

Learn more about this book from

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

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Review: Heart and Steel (2021)

By Bill Cowher with Michael Holley

At the end of the author's note that starts his autobiography, Bill Cowher writes, "All in all, I coached the Steelers for 261 games. Fifteen years in the public eye. I did a reasonable job of keeping my private life, well, private. Until now."

If that sounds like a bombshell warning, forget it. It's fair to say there aren't any skeletons in the closet of the former Pittsburgh Steelers football coach. "Heart and Steel" is a straight-forward story of a straight-forward person who kept his eye on the ball most of the time. Football and family were what mattered most to him, and that's the Cowher that comes across here. 

If you aren't from the Pittsburgh area, you might not know Cowher's back story. He grew up in Crafton outside of Pittsburgh, and played football like every one person in that region at least wanted to do. Bill was good enough to earn a trip to North Carolina State, where - like in high school - he tended to exceed expectations on how good he would become. It was the same in the pros. Cowher wasn't drafted, and didn't even make the team in his first crack at the NFL. But he didn't give up, and eventually played six years at the game's highest level  mostly on special teams. If you didn't know about him then, you weren't alone.

Cowher may not have been ready to retire after the 1984 season, but he was offered a coaching job with the Cleveland Browns and decided it was in his best long-term interests to take it. That started a relatively short apprenticeship, as these things go, and in 1992 he landed the job of his dreams - head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers. It's almost hard to express what it must have meant for someone who grew up in Western Pennsylvania to actually drive to work at the Steelers' stadium each day.

Cowher still has all the notebooks he kept from his many years as the Steelers' head coach, and he refers to them frequently in the stories of the teams he coached. There is some insight into some of the players who passed through Pittsburgh, but few horror stories. Maybe that's not surprising considering the success the team had. Cowher concentrates more of his attention on the coaching business - preparation, motivation, key decisions, memorable moments, etc. If some of that sounds like a business book on leadership, well, you've got the idea. During that time in Pittsburgh, when he was the region's favorite son, he did his best to lead as normal a life as possible under the circumstances. Cowher used time with his wife Kaye (a former N.C. State basketball player) an his three daughters to get back to reality, as least as much as he could do so.

The results speak for themselves. Cowher made the playoffs in his first six seasons, one of two NFL coaches to do so. His career record was 149-90-1, and he won the Super Bowl in 2005. Cowher gives a sense here that after that championship he had a case of "now what?" His family had moved to Raleigh after the Super Bowl, and he retired after one more season. 

"What's next?' turned out to be work in the media with CBS, which left his life in better balance. Cowher's plans for the rest of his life, though, took an unexpected u-turn. The most poignant part of the book deals with the illness of Kaye, who became ill and died in a somewhat shockingly amount of time. But he's rebounded as well as possible, eventually finding another wife and staying with CBS on football broadcasts.

The book goes by easily enough. There are a few stories about some of the players and coaches that were encountered along the way that are entertaining. But mostly, this is a story about a man who watched most of his dreams come true, and is rather grateful about it. 

It's hard to say that "Heart and Steel" is going to be compelling to anyone who doesn't have an interest in football. But for those who want the background on a golden era of Steeler football as told by the smart, rational man who put that era together, this ought to work. Pittsburgh, you will enjoy it.

Three stars

Learn more about this book from

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

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Review: Fenway 1946 (2020)

By Michael Connelly

There's never been a baseball season quite like the one in 1946. 

After almost 40 years of stability and growth, major league baseball faced some difficult challenges that year. World War II had erupted at the end of 1941. While the games continued, many of the ballplayers left their teams to join the armed services for the duration. That meant they were out of uniform, baseball version, through the end of 1945.

When those players returned to work for their respective teams, there were question marks everywhere. Some players never made it home, of course. A portion of those who did brought physical injuries back with them, threatening their careers. Others had mental wounds. 

Then there's the factor of age and the layoff. The older players - say, in their mid-to-late 30s - didn't know if they could regain their skills after as many as four seasons away from the games. The younger players had missed development time that they might not receive again. 

Throw in the fact that such problems weren't equally distributed on each team's roster, and there was a situation where just about no one knew what might happen during the 1946 season. What did happen was that the Boston Red Sox fielded one of the best teams in their history. It's profiled in "Fenway 1946" by Michael Connelly.

It takes the author a little time to get to 1946, which is a good idea. After a brief review of Red Sox history before WWII, Connolly jumps right into the War Years. There are stories about how individual players were dealing with the situation. For example, superstar Ted Williams didn't join the service right away because he was the sole financial supporter of his money. Criticism fell on him like a shower just before a rain delay, and he eventually signed up. 

Then there was the matter of baseball and race. Late in 1945, the Brooklyn Dodgers signed African American Jackie Robinson to a contract, which changed everything in that area. The Red Sox had passed on the opportunity to sign Robinson and other top black players earlier, something which in hindsight certainly would have changed American history - not to mention the fate of the Red Sox. 

After covering all of that in the first third or so of the book, we move on to the 1946 season. The Red Sox came out of the gate like absolute monsters, dominating the American League virtually from the start. No one could stay close to them, and they had a relatively easy time cruising to the pennant. It was on to the team's first World Series since 1918, causing something of a civic celebration in Boston. The book's final 80 pages or so are devoted to the  the championship matchup with the St. Louis Cardinals; it only takes a glance at a record book to realize what happened there. It was a memorable series with a thrilling/heart-breaking finish.

No one can say that Connelly didn't put in the necessary work on this. He writes that he read the Boston Globe newspaper from cover to cover in its 1946 editions. Connelly's eyes must be bleary from microfilm study. Several other sources, including books, newspapers, and websites, are mentioned too. 

This is a good start, and Connelly chooses to take an anecdotal approach to the book. There is a great deal of information here that is of interest - in part because it's not often covered in baseball books. For example, housing shortages were a huge problem for American immediately after World War II. Teams had to advertise in the newspaper to find homes for their players in 1946. There's an absolutely amazing story here about how the World Series played a role in the death of Field Marshall Hermann Goring, who was awaiting execution in Germany when he took poison and committed suicide.

Connelly also makes Williams the star of the story, and wisely so. What a fascinating character he must have been at that point. The image of him kicking his glove in anger from the dugout to left field after a bad moment at the plate is a vivid one. 

On the other hand, more background information along the way would have been very helpful. In particular, the 1946 season is covered quite quickly. There's not much sense of the big picture here.  Some of the judgments - such as comments about team spirit, etc. - feel like they are straight out of the Forties and don't offer much of an historical perspective. 

One more edit might have been good too. Some names get a little botched along the way, just as Joe/John Dobson and Roger/Rogers Hornsby. A few items get repeated along the way as well.

"Fenway 1946" certainly will supply some information that even the biggest Red Sox fan probably doesn't know, especially 75 years after the fact. Still, it's easy to wish that it wouldn't have taken too much to make it even better.

Three stars

Learn more about this book from

Be notified of new posts via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Friday, May 7, 2021

Review: Steve Kerr (2021)

By Scott Howard-Cooper

It is the age-old question in the world of books. What's more valuable: biography or autobiography? 

That is to say, what's the best way of learning about a person? Does the reader gain an advantage by hearing from the subject directly, or is it better to have the perspective of many offer viewpoints on that same subject?

The usual answer is "it depends." Both can be valuable, particularly if the person in question is interesting enough. 

There's no doubt that Steve Kerr is more than interesting enough. The coach of the NBA's Golden State Warriors is one of the most fascinating, thoughtful people anywhere - let alone in sports. His life has gone down avenues that are part dream, part nightmare. What's more, he has shown on occasion an ability to be a good writer. Therefore, a Kerr autobiography ought to be a major event if and when it comes. 

He's not there yet, though. Kerr also turned down the chance to be interviewed at length for "Steve Kerr" by Scott Howard-Cooper, and didn't exactly go out of his way to help the author gain access to friends and associates. So this is definitely a book that features an outside-in look at Kerr, rather than an inside-out approach from the man itself. 

And, after reading it, the biography works quite well - thanks to some good work by the author and a subject that inspires curiosity and interest.

Kerr already had lived quite a life even before he finished college. His father was from the academic community specializing in the Middle East, and the family spent a great deal of time in Beirut, Lebanon - before it had turned into the violent stew of people that we associated with it. Steve attended schools in Cairo, Beirut and Southern California while growing up. Malcolm Kerr eventually was named president of the American University of Beirut.

However, Malcolm was assassinated by a militia group in Beirut in 1984, throwing the entire family into a very difficult situation. To their credit, they have handled matters probably as well as they can be handles, even if there's no playbook for such actions. Steve was at the University of Arizona at the time, an unlikely pick to even receive a basketball scholarship - let alone see any significant playing time. Kerr also suffered a very significant knee injury that cost him all of the 1986-87 season. But he bounced back to help lead the Wildcats to the Final Four in 1987. 

Kerr bounced around a bit at the start of his NBA career, but he clearly got every ounce of his athletic ability mostly due to smarts and work ethic. The guard eventually landed with the Chicago Bulls in 1993, just as Michael Jordan left to play baseball. Kerr hung on to a roster spot long enough to play with Jordan, and became a key role player on one of the greatest teams in NBA history. Kerr will always be associated with a long-range shot to win the clinching Game Six against Utah in 1998. Steve eventually earned three championship rings there. Then when the Bulls broke up, Kerr went to San Antonio for two more titles. 

Add it up, and Kerr played 16 years in the NBA - about 15 more than even he might have expected. His understanding of the game, made him a natural for management, and eventually Kerr landed a head coaching job with Golden State. Yes, three more titles came out of that relationship ... and he isn't done yet.

It's difficult to guess how thoroughly an e-book is written beforehand, but it didn't take long to figure out that Howard-Cooper wasn't interesting in gathering enough material for a quick, superficial book. There are tons of footnotes and book references in the back, and he clearly talked to as many people as he could. Kerr, his family, friends, teammates and associates also have offered plenty of opinions and statements on Kerr, and that helps too. There's plenty to chew on here. 

The author obviously has a great deal of respect for Kerr, which might be why he wrote it in the first place. Come to think of it, it's apparently difficult to find anyone who doesn't feel that way.  

For those who are curious to find out why this basketball coach is such an interesting character "Steve Kerr" will answer those questions nicely. Come to think of it, it will make you await Kerr's own version of the story with even a greater sense of anticipation.

Four stars

Learn more about this book from

Be notified of new posts via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Review: Burke's Law (2020)

By Brian Burke with Stephen Brunt

I still remember the first time I met Brian Burke, and where it happened. I'm just not sure when it was. 

I was working for the Buffalo Sabres at that point (somewhere around 1988), and we were on a road trip in Boston. Upon arrival the night before a game, Sabres general manager Gerry Meehan had some front office people into his hotel suite for something of a cocktail hour. While most of the faces were familiar to me, Burke's was not. 

I seem to recall hearing that Burke was a player agent, but in checking the timeline it seems more likely that he was a former player agent by that time and was working for the Vancouver Canucks (probably in the spring of 1988). Burke came off pretty well - not too boisterous but someone who knew some stories and was good company. 

A little investigating on my part might have told me that Burke wasn't a typical hockey executive. How many such administrators told Harvard Law School to wait for him for a year while he chased the dream of playing pro hockey? 

That was Burke, and that was only a small part of what had come before that meeting, and what would come after it. The full story - or at least as much as he was able to tell as of the summer of 2020 - is included in his autobiography, "Burke's Law." 

Burke apparently was always willing to go on his own path to what he perceived as success. He came from a big family where education was a major priority, but went to Providence College where he could play some hockey as well. Brian apparently was a fringe prospect, but got a look from the Flyers in his senior year. Burke played that "gap year," but was convinced that Harvard Law should be merely delayed and never ignored when it comes calling. 

Burke walked into a good legal job out of Harvard - no surprise - and soon had started a business as a player agent. But when he had the chance to work with the Canucks, he jumped on it. That starts a series of stops throughout hockey, mostly but not exclusively as a general manager. Follow the bouncing ball - Hartford, the NHL, back to Vancouver, Anaheim (where he won a Stanley Cup), Toronto and Calgary. Whew. It's a tough business, and it takes a toll. Just ask Burke, who has had two wives and has spent a lot of weekends flying from somewhere to see his children every other weekend. 

This book was written after Burke left Calgary, and had a job in the Canadian media. He therefore was free to look back at his time with a great deal of honestly, which adds plenty of color to the story. Want to learn how coaches are hired and fired, how players are traded, and what owners are like? This will tell you, often in profane terms. (A select few members of the media don't escape that description either.) Just as an example, Burke goes into great detail about how he went about the business of figuring out a way to get both of the Sedin twins on his roster when he ran the Canucks.  It should be mentioned that while Burke expresses anger at a lot of people here, he also says he worked hard to patch up those differences down the road. Credit to him for that. 

Oddly, Burke probably received the best publicity of his life concerning his son Brendan. When the young Mr. Burke came out as gay, Brian was supportive of his action and became a very public supporter of LGBTQ community. The senior Burke appeared in a few Gay Pride parades. Tragically, Brendan was killed in an auto accident in Indiana in 2010. That section obviously was a difficult one to write. 

Burke probably is the smartest guy in most rooms that he enters, but he carries a level of emotion with him at all times. That makes him a much more interesting character, from a literary perspective, which leads to a much more interesting book. 

It's obvious through the 288 pages in "Burke's Law" that he loves hockey. In the last couple of pages, Burke writes that when it came to the next job in the sport, "I'm done." I'm sure he meant it at the time. But since the book's publication, he took a job as President of Hockey Operations with the Pittsburgh Penguins. No doubt he'll have more stories to tell when that's over. In the meantime, this memoir offers plenty of honest and interesting anecdotes about one of hockey's more interesting subjects. 

Four stars

Learn more about this book from

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