Monday, August 8, 2022

Review: Saving Buffalo Baseball (2022)

By Howard W. Henry Jr. 

Sometimes you just have to sit back in awe and admiration of someone else's literary effort. 

That's the case with Howard W. Henry's book, "Saving Buffalo Baseball." If you need to know anything about this team of baseball players from the International League that represented Buffalo in 1956, well, you've come to the right place.

Henry spent years tracking down facts and information for this book. It's easy to wonder how his vision is after looking at so much microfilm and other papers to fill this publication out.

The back story to this particular season needs a little explanation. Minor league baseball had exploded after World War II, as the population was ready to return to leisure activities. Every good-sized town in American seemed to have a team of some sort.

That couldn't last forever, and it didn't. Attrition took care of some of the teams, of course, but there was a greater problem on the horizon: television. Suddenly, people could watch major league games as they happened. How are you going to keep the people in, say, Batavia, engrossed if Mickey Mantle is as close as the television set? The economics of minor league baseball started to fall apart. The old system, which featured teams that owned some of its own players who could be sold to higher levels, was starting to crack. 

The changes hit the Buffalo Bisons for the 1956 season. The Jacobs brothers had sold the team in 1951 to the Detroit Tigers when the franchise was starting to drown in red ink. But owner Walter O. Briggs had died in 1952, and that had triggered an examination of the baseball organization's structure. Then Walter Briggs Jr. was forced to sell everything in 1956 - which the Bisons saw coming and had to react accordingly. There were no guardian angels available who could swoop in and make financial problems disappear with a simple signature on a check.

The only answer, at the time, was community ownership. A group got together to put together enough money - a few dollars at a time from local fans and businesses - to keep the team going. Reginald Taylor, John Stiglmeier and Harry Bisgeier led the new organization, which had the twin tasks of finding players and selling tickets. That sounds a great deal like a major league team's mission statement then and now. The difference, of course, is that the Bisons had to take any players they could find. That was no small task, especially when the Tigers didn't quite meet their original commitment of talent to the Bisons. 

Henry steps in with the play-by-play of how the team came together. The author summarizes the newspaper accounts of the time in the lead-up to the season. Then the actual season starts, and every game, rainout, and other development are covered completely. (I might have restricted stories to a page per game, but it's not my book.) If that's not good enough for some, and I find it hard to believe that it won't be, Henry has all of the box scores from the '56 season on a website. It's all quite impressive and overwhelming.

One of interesting parts of the recap is that it's amazing how local sportswriters covered the team and the league as if it were the majors. There are previews about the other teams in the league, emphasis on finishing "in the first division" (the upper half of the league standings), and so on. Heck, Buffalo-based visitors to road games even were mentioned in the paper. It's a far cry from the few paragraphs most Bisons' game receive in the newspaper today. That's not necessarily inappropriate or worse; it's just really different. 

The team wasn't too good. It ran on a financial shoestring, and injuries caused big holes in the lineup. The Bisons sank to the bottom of the International League relatively quickly, and stayed there. But they finished the season - their greatest accomplishment - and lost a handful of dollars (less than $100) that season.

The sad part of the story is that the 1956 season didn't prevent Buffalo's Triple-A team from eventual collapse; it merely delayed it. The franchise had a revival in ticket sales through the rest of the 1950s, but a move to War Memorial Stadium proved less than helpful. The times, and neighborhoods, were changing. The franchise was off to Winnipeg in 1970. It took the financial support of Bob Rich for organized baseball to be a strong part of the local sports scene again.

Still, 1956 was a unique season. Henry obviously fell in love with the game because of the team from that year, and his passion shows through on every page. Self-publishing is an obvious choice for a book like this which doesn't figure to have wide appeal. It's a professional-looking publication, with some good illustrations. I particularly liked the drawings of all of the stadiums of the International League. Nitpickers obviously will point out a couple of uses of "today" and "yesterdays" in the midst of the daily recaps. I'm not sure how that happened, but a little forgiveness must be used in a book that doesn't have a bunch of professional copy editors at the ready.

Your enjoyment of "Saving Buffalo Baseball" obviously would be helped by having lived through that era. But I was zero years old at that point in my life, and I enjoyed the team's story as well as reading names that were either on old baseball cards I had from the 1950s ("Where have you gone, Carl Sawatski?") or that were local political or public figures from the day who still come up from time to time. That includes Pat McGroder, who did a great deal of behind-the-scenes work and who later popped up as the Bills' general manager for a short time. 

Those days aren't coming back. It's nice to have a record of them on the bookshelf.

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Saturday, August 6, 2022

Review: The Point After (2020)

By Sean Conley

Every so often a movie comes along out of absolutely nowhere and catches on with the general public. The best example of that probably was "Rocky" - the low-budget story of a boxing underdog that caught the imagination of those who saw it.

Rocky, meet Sean Conley - who tells his life story in "The Point After." I suppose practically everyone who turns up in a National Football League training camp - especially among the free agents who are long shots - has a story to tell. Conley is one of those people.

The native of Erie, Pennsylvania, had a dream of being a professional kicker. To do that, he had to take the long way to success. Long way? An understatement. 

Conley joined a Division III program that was just getting started, and somehow made the team ... where he put up some of the worst statistics in the country. Even so, he was convinced he could be a quality kicker, and moved over to the University of Pittsburgh where, against all odds, he made the team. Conley put up some good, if not great, numbers at Pitt. 

That wasn't quite enough for Sean, even when his name went uncalled in the 1993 NFL draft. He spent the next few years still trying to grab one of those coveted kicking jobs in the NFL. Conley was so devoted to the idea (ADD plays a role in the story) that he probably overtrained, and suffered some injuries that prevented him from getting even closer to that dream. He had tryouts with Detroit, Indianapolis, and the New York Jets, and even got to kick in a European league for a while. Still, he won't pop up on the Pro Football Reference website of those who played in at least one NFL game. 

Along the way, Sean picked up a wife, Karen, who certainly will be nominated for sainthood for her nonstop support of her husband's attempt to beat the odds. She also started delivering children along the way, which probably helped deliver some perspective to Sean as he realized that maybe fate wasn't on his side.

Along the way, though, Conley delivers a excellent and interesting account of the ups and downs of placekicking. The pressure is extraordinary; a couple of bad kicks, which can be caused by hitting the football a fraction of an inch from the sweet spot, can send the kicker to the bench or the unemployment line, depending on the level. 

Once Conley gives up on kicking, the book takes a turn away from the sports world. Sean became a salesman but gave that up to help his wife in her yoga studio. Perhaps the ending won't be as interesting to a football fan, but many who have gone through his journey through the pages of the book will be happy to see that the story turns out nicely as a wiser person emerges. Rocky Balboa learned some lessons along the way, too.

"The Point After" ought to appeal to anyone who has watched a preseason NFL game, looked down at the guys playing in the fourth quarter, and asked, "What motivates these people?" The fact that Conley is so honest and articulate about his feelings along the way helps too. It's a book that might be a little hard to find outside of Western Pennsylvania. But it's a nice story, it can be read in a day, and it might just work well for you. 

Four stars

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Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Review: The Last Folk Hero (2022)

By Jeff Pearlman

I loved "The Last Folk Hero" at hello, as the line from the movie "Jerry Maguire" goes.

The hello in this case is the introduction. Author Jeff Pearlman writes that he was in the Atlanta airport one day, going through security. He is stopped, predictably enough, because he has a brick in his carry-on bag. That's right, a brick. The security agents have a predictable response: You can't take a brick on to the plane with you. 

Pearlman explains that this isn't just any brick. It's from the first house of Bo Jackson, a legendary athlete. The house was abandoned and allowed to crumble, but there were a few bricks still on the ground. Pearlman, deep into this writing project, thought he needed to have a brick for his inspiration of a biography. It took some convincing, but eventually someone at the airport who knew about Jackson decided that taking a brick from Bo's home wasn't a bad idea at all ... and let it through.

Speaking as someone who has a brick from Buffalo's Memorial Auditorium in the garden, I immediately identified with Pearlman's quest to explore Jackson's life - brick by brick. The finished building, er, product, is "The Last Folk Hero," and I doubt you'll read a more interesting and thorough biography this year.

Most of us know the skeleton of Jackson's story. He grew up poor in Alabama, and sports became something of a refuge for him. Eventually it was on to Auburn University, where he won the Heisman Trophy as the nation's best player. But Bo also was a heck of a baseball player, giving him some options when it was time to choose a career. He stunned everyone by signing with baseball's Kansas City Royals, even though he was the first overall NFL draft choice by the bumbling (at the time) Tampa Bay Buccaneers. 

Bo was a raw baseball talent, but seemed to have skills far beyond those of mortal men. He hit baseballs so hard and far that observers were simply left speechless. On the basepaths, he was essentially a truck. I happened to be at the game in Kansas City in which Jackson was a baserunner headed home, and Rick Dempsey of the Orioles was waiting with the ball. Bo put his shoulder down and tried to ram the catcher so hard that he'd drop the ball. It was a collision straight out of the NFL, as Dempsey wound up halfway between home plate and the dugout. But he held on to the ball, and Jackson was out. 

Baseball wasn't quite enough activity for Bo, and he decided he wanted to play football in his spare time. Who does that? He was occasionally sensational, even though he wasn't particularly interested in such aspects of the game as blocking and catching passes. But when he took off on a long run, it was breathtaking.

Alas, the story was shortened by a hip injury suffered during a football game. Hip replacement surgery was needed, and that ended the football side of Jackson's career. He tried coming back to play baseball, but couldn't match his own high standards. 

Skeletons only reveal so much, even to forensic scientists. It's the seemingly ridiculous episodes of Bo's life that make this book so fascinating. Pearlman tracked down more than 700 people for interviews, and it only seems as if they all had a "Did you see that?" moment when it came to Jackson. This was a man who picked up a discus as part of high school track meet, and with a few minutes of coaching threw it 20 feet farther than the Section champion. This is someone who could jump completely out of a swimming pool and land on his feet. (OK, it was the shallow end. But still.) He could throw out baserunners from more than 300 feet away, and he could leave football tacklers either grasping at air or left clobbered on the ground. He once ran the 40-yard dash in 4.13 seconds. Add that up, and it was hard to know with the person ended and the legend began.

That all made him one of the top celebrities in the country when it came to endorsements. You might remember Nike's "Bo Knows" campaign, which featured a commercial with him playing a variety of sports ... plus the guitar, with Bo Diddley. That's impressive for someone who had to overcome a childhood stutter and thus didn't talk in public much. 

Still, all of those sources help to fill in the stories around those incidents. What comes across quite clearly is that Jackson was a man who always did what he wanted to do. That could mean he would report to a team when he wanted to do so, and not when the team wanted him. That could mean he would be distant and rude to teammates and to the public and its proxies. But he also could be generous to a fault with others. Jackson seemed to mellow as he went along. Now he doesn't have much unwanted contact with others, as he's happily living with his family in the Chicago area.

It's quite a life story, and Pearlman tells it completely. It checks in at around 500 pages, but it's never boring along the way. If you want to read about the man who could be summed up as Paul Bunyon in cleats, "The Last Folk Hero" will be the place to go.

Five stars

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