Thursday, April 28, 2022

Review: Blood and Fire (2022)

By Brian R. Soloman 

Admittedly, it's a bit odd to see a biography of a professional wrestler on this site. That "activity" is something of a combination of sports and entertainment, and the latter is more important than the former.

For an explanation, let me go back to 1970. I had just moved to the Buffalo area as a teen, and pro wrestling was shown weekly on television. I enjoyed the action and the story lines, mostly because of the campy approach. My friends and I even went to a few matches. We may have been laughing at them or with them in a given moment, but our money went into their cash registers all the same.

Meanwhile, up iu Toronto, "The Sheik" was holding court at Maple Leaf Gardens on many a Sunday night. Television station CFTO had the longest sportscasts in history back then, and sometimes would run film of the entire main event of the wrestling card. That was great exposure for the business and the Sheik, who would somehow figure out a way to avoid losing, match after match. He might have come to Buffalo for the odd match, but I'm not sure if I saw him live.

Therefore, the chance to read "Blood and Fire" - a biography of the fabled villain - was too good to pass up. What was the story on that guy who usually wound up bleeding all over everything but still managed to avoid losing by a pin? Brian R. Solomon, who has worked for several wrestling organizations over the years, has some answers in his book.

We start, as we always do, with the name. Eddie Farhat was just another guy from Eastern Michigan who had spent some time working in the auto factory before thinking there had to be a better way. He turned to wrestling, and found the gimmick that made him relatively famous. Ed dressed up in Arabian clothes, complete with pointed shoes, picked up a "prayer carpet," said he was from Syria, and was off on his new life. That's a major transformation for a Catholic, but it worked. 

The Sheik was quite a villain. He always kept an air of mystery around him, mostly by a willingness to stay in character in almost all situations. The Sheik also was all in when it came to selling that image. He never spoke, either on television or in person. The Sheik had a manager along to do the talk when necessary. And in the ring, his ability to drive the emotions of the audience higher and higher often meant that he had to give a little slice to an forehead or arm - sometimes but not always his own - in an effort to raise the temperature of the audience via some spilled blood. As a promotional tool, it worked quite well. He was the man many loved to hate. 

This all came with a behind-the-scenes catch. The Sheik was wrestling in a time when the business was cut into regional territories, lightly brought together in a national organization. That's why there seemed to be 57 world champions in the United States in a given moment. You could say the business sort of resembled organized crime in its structure. The catch is that the boss of the Detroit region was, yes, Farhat himself. When you are the boss and can plan the results, you probably don't want to prearrange a loss (although it could be argued that the occasional defeat might have been good for business). It turns out some of the wrestlers ran territories as well.

The Sheik had quite a ride for a while. He appeared all over North America, and made some lucrative stops in Japan. However, eventually the territory system started to blow up, and Farhat was known to spend money as fast as he earned it - if not faster. Eventually, the regional promoters fell by the wayside, leaving the WWE as the only major financial player in the field. Still, the Sheik soldiered on, wrestling until he was close to 70 years old - even if the matches were very short. Once he quit, his health quickly turned for the worse. He died at the age of 76 in 2003.

We have to salute Solomon for his level of research here. It couldn't have been easy to delve into this man's past. Many of the family members are dead or are unwilling to talk. That leaves something of an outside-in approach to biography. He talked to a number of people who were involved in wrestling in that era, who all seem to respect the Sheik if they never knew what he would do in a given moment - even in the ring itself. And how did he find all of the results of so many of matches. Solomon deserves plenty of credit for this.

One fun part of the book is that some of the back stories of the wrestlers of that era come out. Consider that the Sheik took a look at his oversized gardener, gave him some lessons, and called him "J.B. Psycho." Heck, Chief Jay Strongbow was Joe Skarpa, an Italian American from Nutley, New Jersey. The Mighty Igor, practitioner of "Polish Power," was Dick Garza, an Hispanic American. And so on. But of all of them, the Sheik was the one who did the most to push forward the idea that watching half-nelsons applied for a few hours could get dull, and that the act needed a little chaos to keep the customers entertained. That theory still drives some of the business to this day.

I'm not the usual reader for a book like "Blood and Fire," since a long magazine article might have satisfied my curiosity on the subject. It probably could have lost some pages quite easily, as the details of matches from 50 years ago feel a little irrelevant these days. But it's still fun to get the full story of Ed's life, while marveling at the effort to put it together. And those who have an interest in pro wrestling - and in particular in that era - will find plenty to enjoy. 

They don't make them like "The Sheik" any more. 

Three stars

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Sunday, April 24, 2022

Review: Rickey (2022)

By Howard Bryant

With Rickey Henderson, the stories always start before the facts.

Here's one that didn't make the book: A sportswriter asked Henderson for an interview, and Rickey asked where she was from. She said she worked for the Bee newspaper chain - the Sacramento Bee, the Modesto Bee, the Stockton Bee, whatever.

Rickey was said to have responded, "Man, the Bee be everywhere."

Henderson may have actually said that. Then again, maybe not. The point is that it's hard to separate truth from fiction when it comes to Rickey, and that's why this biography of the baseball great is so valuable ... and why the subtitle - "The Life and Legend of an American Original" was right on target. 

Howard Bryant went deep into the subject of Henderson's life to figure out what really happened. The resulting book, "Rickey," brings clarity to the life of someone who can use it at least in the public relations sense. However, the actions speak louder than those words - or atleast they should.

Rickey was part of the Great Migration of the 20th century that brought millions of African Americans out of the South. Quite a few settled in Oakland, California. In the early going of the book, it was almost easy to trip out over someone who would become a public figure down the road. For example, an Oakland high school once had a baseball outfield of Frank Robinson, Curt Flood and Vada Pinson. Other made substantial contributions to black cultural life in other ways. 

Henderson wasn't part of that original wave of athletes. But when he reached high school, he was beyond a sensation. It's hard to imagine just how good someone with his athletic skills must have been in football. Who at that level could even tackle him? But Rickey ended up in baseball right out of high school. He started in the Oakland Athletics farm system, and it took him a relatively short period of time to move up the ladder - maybe longer than Rickey would have liked. In that first year, Rickey carried along a little secret. He was essentially illiterate, teaching himself how to read in his first years as a pro. A great athlete tended to get pushed along, so Henderson didn't feel a great deal of academic pressure - especially one with reading issues.

Rickey eventually reached the majors, and led the league in stolen bases in his first full seasons - including a preposterous 130 in 1982. Henderson was rewarded with good contracts, but his requests for better ones were rejected. The knock was along the lines, "Yeah, he gets on base and steal bases, but he doesn't show much power." So the Athletics traded him to the Yankees, where Rickey started turning up the power (24 and 28 homers in his first two years) but still doing all the things that made him the best leadoff man in the league. 

The reaction was rather stunning, at least from the New York media. It downplayed his achievements; the stories quoted in the book almost seem laughable. In hindsight that seems rather shocking. Bryant makes a case that racism was involved. Some of that might have come from "leaks" of information from the team. Bryant points out that it was somewhat rare at the time for African American Yankees (that phrase reads oddly in hindsight) of that era to be embraced by the team and the players. Somehow, Dave Winfield wasn't a true Yankee, even if his biggest offense was outsmarting team management in contract negotiations. 

And Rickey also went his own way whenever possible. You wouldn't expect someone of his background to be particularly good at media interviews, and he wasn't. Contrast that to the leader of team across town, Gary Carter of the Mets, who never met a microphone he didn't like. And Henderson was not one of those guys who took the field game after game, no matter what. If he wasn't close to 100 percent, he took a maintainance day. Rickey only played more than 150 games in a season twice (both in New York). For a guy whose legs took a pounding with all of those stolen bases, that seems like a good idea in hindsight. 

Rickey eventually went back to Oakland, where he was happier and just as good - winning an MVP trophy in 1990 as a big part of the great teams in that era. After a few more years with the Athletics, he bounced from team to team. In a third stop in Oakland in 1998, he had 66 stolen bases ... at the age of 39. Who does that? Heck, who breaks a career record in an established sports at the end of 31, as Rickey did in steals.

Bryant makes a very good case that if Rickey was truly dogging it on the field, he wouldn't have played until he was 44. And he wouldn't be the all-time leader in runs and stolen bases. Perhaps all of those stories about him were a way of humanizing him, since there wasn't much wrong with the way he played baseball. Henderson always was rather driven to become an immortal, keeping an eye on his financial situation as he went. When he made it to Cooperstown, he received a little help beforehand and then delivered an acceptance speech that hit a perfect tone. Rickey didn't even have any of his characteristic references to himself in the third person. 

Practically every article on Rickey's legacy contains a quote from baseball analyst Bill James - if you cut Henderson in half, you'd have two Hall of Famers. Yup, he was that good - the most disruptive giure on the basepaths since ... who? Ty Cobb? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe ever.

Bryant performs the public service of putting the image of Henderson as a caricature somewhat to rest with "Rickey."  The stories about him may not be all true - the author knocks down a few of them along the way - but the achievements remain. 

Five stars

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Monday, April 11, 2022

Review: Playing Through the Pain (2022)

By Dan Good

Author Dan Good spent 10 years trying to figure out the puzzle that was Ken Caminiti's life. That sort of dedication shows up on every page of the book, "Playing Through the Pain."

And there are a lot of pages, too - almost 400.

Good talked to almost 400 people in an attempt to tell the story of the late baseball All-Star. He started doing research on Caminiti in 2012, perhaps not knowing what he was in for. Now the book is finished, and the first reaction has to be complete respect to the author for putting in the time and trying to find the full story. 

On one level, Caminiti had a relatively typical baseball life for a major leaguer - at least from a distance. He was a star athlete in high school, drafted by the Houston Astros, worked his way up the ladder and reached the majors in 1987. Ken spent a few years there before he was traded to San Diego, where he became an All-Star and the Most Valuable Player in the National League in 1996. Caminiti played hard, and at his best played well.

But Caminiti had an accompanying story, one that basically is the reason for writing the book. Ken was sexually abused as a child, and it's certainly difficult to know what sort of psychological damage that caused in the years to come. In high school, Caminiti was pounding alcoholic beverages pretty hard. It wasn't long before drugs became a problem for him as well.

In Houston, he was a good regular third baseman and nothing more. Caminiti's body took a pounding through baseball in that era, but he do anything he could to get back on the field. Ken also was known as a generous teammate, who went out of his way to help young players on his team. But when he arrived in San Diego in 1995, his stats suddenly took an upturn. Ken hit more than 20 home runs for four straight seasons, capped by the MVP season in 1996 of .326 batting average, 40 homers and 130 runs batted in. Caminiti had four great years in San Diego before bouncing around a few teams at the end of his career.

But substance abuse still followed him, and steroids had been added to the mix along the way - which might explain something about that statistical bump in San Diego. He received a great deal of publicity in 2002 when he was the subject of a Sports Illustrated article in which he detailed his steroid use. One memorable line from that story was: "I’ve made a ton of mistakes. I don’t think using steroids is one of them.”  Caminiti was about the first to go public with his steroid use during his playing days, which turned into a much bigger public service than he probably realized. He died of a drug overdose in 2004.  

The amount and type of information presented here are rather dazzling. For example, Good convinced Caminiti's trainer/steroid supplier to go public on how everything worked. Practically everyone from teammates and coaches to high school friends are willing to talk about Ken. If there's one almost universal feeling that winds through the comments, it's that they liked Caminiti but always wondered what was going on beneath the surface.  

The book has a few aspects to it that are going to be considered mild drawbacks to some. There are several books out there by sports figures with addiction problems. None of them would be called a light, fun read. This is no exception. There's also a great deal of material presented, and it's easy to wonder if a little trimming might have made the presentation a little better ... or at least easier to digest. 

Good also shows a great deal of sympathy toward Caminiti along the way. His problems are by no means overlooked, but the author comes off occasionally as quite anxious to show off the baseball player's good points. Caminiti certainly caused a lot of pain for his family and friends along the way. It's a tough balancing act to show the good and the bad in any life; maybe this needed to be pushed just a little more to the bad from an editorial point of view.

"Playing Through the Pain" certainly provides enough context on the unusual career of Caminiti to put it all into better perspective. That makes the book a solid success. And for those who followed his career closely - that's you in Houston and San Diego - this will provide some necessary and very appreciated details about what went right and what went wrong.

Four stars

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Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Review: The Whalers (2021)

By Pat Pickens

Ah, the Hartford Whalers. Or, as they were once called by Boston Globe hockey writer Kevin Dupont, "The Forever .500 Whalers."

The Whalers were around for about a quarter of a century. The franchise started in Boston with the World Hockey Association in 1972. The New England Whalers won the title that season, although few noticed because most people in that city were more concerned with watching Bobby Orr and the Boston Bruins. That win turned out to be the high point of the franchise, at least in terms of winning.

The Whalers soon moved to Hartford, and made it until the end of the WHA's existence ... no small accomplishment. They also were admitted to the National Hockey League in 1979 - the only American team to be so invited. 

It was Connecticut's one shot at professional sports glory. No wonder the sports fans still remember the Whalers fonder. And no wonder hockey writer Pat Pickens picked that team for a book about its history - called, for obvious reasons, "The Whalers."

Once the Whalers joined the Big Boys of the NHL, they more or less settled into a pattern. They were usually a little below the breakeven mark, qualifying for the Stanley Cup playoffs eight times in 18 years with only three winning seasons along the way. Part of the problem, particularly after the early years of the 1980s, was that Hartford was stuck in a really good division. Boston and Montreal were very good year after year, and Buffalo and Quebec were often more than competitive. When the first two rounds of the playoffs were against divisional rivals, there wasn't much room for the Whalers to win. Their only playoff series win came in 1986, when they swept the Nordiques but lost to the Canadiens in Game Seven of the next round - in overtime, no less. If Hartford had scored the OT goal that night, maybe the course of the franchise is altered. 

Eventually, though, the Whalers returned to mediocrity. That was followed by some bad trades and poor financing, and the vultures started circling. The team moved to Raleigh, NC, in 1997 - another area with no other pro sports competition but with a population large enough and rich enough to support a pro team. The Carolina Hurricanes haven't been that much of an improvement over the Whalers overall, but they have done better in the playoffs - even claiming a Stanley Cup.

Author Pat Pickens covers what bases need to be covered here. He tracked down many of the important figures in team history, from owners through players to media members. Pickens even talked to some fans, who still are buying Whalers' merchandise when they get the chance. They also can hum the one thing that will always be associated with the team - its fight song. Anyone who was around the franchise in those years, even as a visiting player or media member, can come up with the tune from "Brass Bonanza." Some members of the organization hated it, but none can deny its long-lasting appeal from a 2022 perspective.  

This is told in a rather straight-forward way for the most part. The players seem to concentrate in their comments on how much they liked playing for and in Hartford. Many apparently come back regularly, and certainly get the hero's treatment when they return. There aren't many surprises and funny moments along the way here, and perhaps a few more would have been nice. Naturally, a few more wins along the way might have helped the dramatic elements a bit, but that was out of the author's control.

But Pickens first and foremost wanted to tell the Whalers' story in a clear manner, and he's has done that. For those of you who can still recite the team's power-play units all these years later or have their hearts skip a beat over the first notes of "Brass Bonanza," they are sure to enjoy this. 

Three stars

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Sunday, April 3, 2022

Review: Going 15 Rounds with Jerry Izenberg (2020)

By Ed Odeven

"Going 15 Rounds with Jerry Izenberg" is something of a love letter to one of the nation's top and most durable sports newspaper columnists.

Jerry Izenberg has been writing and reporting for the Newark Star-Ledger since 1951. That's a long time to do anything, let alone well. Before that, he was part of the legendary sports staff of the New York Herald-Tribute. It's assumed he's the last surviving member of that group that includes Red Smith and was founded by Stanley Woodward, who essentially invented the modern sports section.  

Year after year, Izenberg has been pounding out the columns - although he cut back when he was in his 80s. He's always been considered smart and literate. If Jerry is famous for anything, it's that he probably was one of the first sports writers who wasn't afraid to take on the intersections of sports and society. He was an early champion of Muhammad Ali's right to fight and have his own beliefs, for example. Izenberg had long streaks of covering such events as the Super Bowl (more than 50), Triple Crown horse races, etc. 

Perhaps his biggest problem in terms of a national following was his stage. The Newark Star-Ledger doesn't offer much of a spotlight in such terms. That's close to New York, but not quite Broadway if you get the picture. Izenberg did do some other projects, such as essays on a television show, books, a few documentaries, etc. But, the guys across the Hudson were the ones that received the most acclaim. That's not necessarily fair, but it is reality. There is something noble about doing what you love in the same place for that long. 

Ed Odeven grew up in New Jersey, and no doubt read Izenberg at that point. He's now a sportswriter based in Tokyo, but decided to put together his own tribute to the veteran scribe. Odeven put together a book that splits more or less into two parts. The opening section is edited to read as 15 different chapters, symbolizing the 15 rounds of boxing that used to constitute a championship distance for a fight. (It's now 12.) Those chapters certainly are the highlight of the book. Izenberg has accumulated bunches and bunches of stories over the years, as you'd expect, and most of them are charming. They are the type of stories that you can't wait to share with others. There are also tales about what influenced his writing style and his work, which are also quite interesting. 

The second half of the book doesn't quite work as well. Odeven tracked down some of Izenberg's peers and colleagues for comments on the veteran's career. Good idea, but the problem is that some of them don't really know Izenberg that well. They generally have the same sort of general viewpoints - fine writer, more influential than popular as these things go, etc. One footnote - one of those interviewed is Gene Kershner, my former coworker at The Buffalo News, my former newspaper. Gene has covered horse racing as a stringer for several years now, and has dealt with Jerry a few times. 

Now ... you should know going in that this was a self-published book. That means some compromises have to be made in the production process. This is an 8.5x11-inch book, and there are no columns on each page for whatever reason. That makes it thin and a little difficult to read as the eyes move all the way across the page. Odeven told an interviewer that it was 55,000 words, so it's too bad a smaller format couldn't have been used. Self-published books also have more errors than their professionally done counterparts, such as grammar, spelling and layout. There's some of that here.

But the most obvious problem is that Izenberg's columns are only briefly quoted a few times. That's a problem when there's a book filled with praise about someone's writing ability. It makes the reader curious to find out what all the fuss is about, but it's not present. It's perfectly understandable as to why there are no examples of his work included; reprinting such stories get into rights fees and legal documents. But one of the great rules of journalism, and maybe all of life, is "show me, don't tell me." 

"Going 15 Rounds with Jerry Izenberg" is enjoyable enough to warrant a look, especially if you are familiar with Jerry's work. If it inspires people to seek out Jerry's books or find some of his columns elsewhere, then Odeven has succeeded in his goal.

Three stars

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