Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Review: Game Changer (2023)

By Bob Whitsitt

You have to give Bob Whitsitt credit. The man knows how to keep busy.

Whitsitt is the only man to serve as the general manager of basketball's Seattle SuperSonics and Portland Trail Blazers along with football's Seattle Seahawks. He even did a couple of jobs at the same time, which is mighty impressive. 

We only get a hint of what Whitsitt's life was like at his busiest when reading "Game Changer," a memoir on his time in sports. Still, it's more than enough to capture the attention of sports fans.

Whitsitt started as an intern for the Indiana Pacers in 1978, and he climbed the ladder quickly to become an important figure in the front office of the team. It didn't take long for him to move over to a better job in Sacramento, and then jump to the Sonics. Some of his best work was done there, as the team eventually became a contender behind such players as Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton. Alas, he opted to move on when working for owner Barry Ackerley - who takes some good-sized shots here - became more than difficult. 

Then it was on to Portland, where Whitsitt again built a basketball team that needed rebuilding. The team eventually reached the conference finals a couple of times, but couldn't take that last step to the NBA Finals. Along the way, he worked with Blazers owner and Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, who became an important influence on his life. Allen comes off in the book as shy and a little quirky, but grew to trust Whitsitt and put all sorts of projects on his plate. It's easy to wonder how he did justice to all of those responsibilities, since he doesn't get into details in that area.

One of those, oddly enough, came when the Seahawks looked as if they might move to California. Allen was one of the few Seattle residents who could write a check for an NFL franchise to keep it in place. Whitsitt helped make it all work, and his "reward" was additional responsibilities with that team. He was involved in bringing in Mike Holmgren from the Green Bay Packers to serve as general manager and coach. The Seahawks didn't prosper until Holmgren gave up the GM's job, which isn't surprising since it sure sounds like he had little interest in stuff that happened off the field. Whitsitt lost his job with the football team in 2005 - two years after he had resigned as the general manager of the Blazers. 

Since that time, Whitsitt has stayed out of the front office of sports teams. He's done some consulting and served on boards, and then at age 61 he went to law school. It's never too late to learn a new skill.

The book is something of an excuse for Whitsitt to launch into stories, and he has a bunch of good ones. There are always a variety of reasons, for example, why a sports team completes a certain trade - even if they don't become public for a reason. In one case, the Blazers had a talented teenager in Jermaine O'Neill was mostly was sitting on the bench under coach Mike Dunleavy, who refused to give him minutes even when told to do so by Whitsitt. The Sonics ended up trading O'Neill to Indiana, where he blossomed into a fine player. Whitsitt eventually got around to firing Dunleavy. Other trades that worked out better receive some space in the book too, of course.

Whitsitt's methods for building a basketball team came under scrutiny in both Seattle and Portland, and they probably continue to make "Trader Bob" a controversial figure in the Pacific Northwest to this day. Whitsitt always was willing to take a chance on a player with personal baggage when the rebuilding the team. The price was usually discounted at that reason, so the player could be acquired for pennies, or at least dimes, on the dollar. Sometimes that player could be rehabilitated and then moved elsewhere for someone with more talent. The theory worked well enough for the teams to move up in the standings. 

However, that approach seemed to cause problems in the community with fans. Portland's basketball team picked up the nickname of the "Jail Blazers" because many of their players had run-ins with the police. Whitsitt also preferred talent to chemistry, and points out that he did a lot of research into each player and his personality before swinging a trade. It probably comes down to the idea that some people want their favorite team to win, but they want it done in the "right" way. That's an interesting debate to have, but it's fair to say Whitsitt's approach probably didn't give him a long leash with the public.

"Game Changer" certainly has enough interesting material to keep the fans of Whitsitt's teams entertained. What's more, there are enough "behind-the-scenes" material to keep fans of sports from outside the Pacific Northwest entertained. Since it's not a long book, those out-of-towners can enjoy the tales of a sports executive's time in the spotlight without making a major time commitment. It adds up to a successful review of an interesting professional life. 

Four stars

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Thursday, May 25, 2023

Review: Bush League, Big City (2023)

By Michael Sokolow

The New York-Penn League filled an odd little niche for decades for baseball fans in Upstate New York. It was something of an entry-level business for professional baseball players. Athletes would come to play in small towns in the region in a short-season league (June through August) and see how they measure up against others in the same situation. Every once in a while, a Wade Boggs or Ryan Howard would pass through so that the host cities could say "We knew him when."

Fans in the region could see better baseball rather easily, of course. The big league teams (New York, Boston, Cleveland, Pittsburgh) were reachable by car when the urge struck, and games were often on cable television. Triple-A teams were scattered in Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse, and Double-A teams sometimes landed in cities such as Binghamton, Albany and Elmira. So that left the NY-P league to cities like Batavia, Jamestown and Oneonta. It was pure baseball without many of the trappings of the higher levels present, and therefore had a certain charm to it.

So what happened? To a certain extent, that's what "Bush League, Big City," by Michael Sokolow is all about. 

A not-so-funny thing happened to minor league baseball starting in the 1980s. Teams became much more valuable in financial terms. You can almost draw the line yourself from there. If an owner has spent a good-sized amount of money on a team, he or she wants a return for that investment. That eventually means that some of the small cities will fall by the wayside, as said owner looks to bigger markets that will buy more tickets and merchandise. Sometimes the teams ended up outside of the states of New York and Pennsylvania, ranging from Massachusetts to Maryland to Ohio.

In the case of the New York-Penn League, the story reached a climax in the 1990s. That's when teams ended up in New York City - as far from Elmira at least in terms of sociology as can be imagined. Most of the book is devoted to the story of how teams ended up in Staten Island and Brooklyn, where the record of success was, well, mixed.

Sokolow outlines how the Mets and Yankees, who owned territorial rights to New York, became involved in bringing Class A ball to the Big Apple. Mayor Rudy Giuliani was  determined to make the idea work, no matter what the cost was. The big league teams, themselves looking at the need for new stadiums down the road, went along with the idea to score points. It was, of course, a difficult journey. The Mets and Yankees had different approaches for how they wanted the teams set up, including different ownership percentages. 

Most importantly, new stadiums of any size are never easy to build in big cities. The financing is always complicated, and there are always unexpected turns because of such matters environmental issues and neighborhood concerns. So construction takes longer than had been planned, revenues don't match inflated expectations, etc. Brooklyn ended up as the more successful of the two, thanks in part to some excellent marketing in linking the minor league team with its major league predecessor, the Dodgers.

As could be imagined, this is difficult to sort out. So give Sokolow credit for even trying. He's an Associate Professor of History at the City University of New York. There's a little doubt that he was the right man for reviewing the situation with the birth of the new teams.

Still, there are a couple of problems here that are difficult to overcome. Much of the research for the book was done back in 2006. Since it concentrates on the New York City teams, it has to do some difficult navigating through all sorts of government agencies and personalities to tell the story. Anyone would have trouble making this sort of study interesting. The fact that it was researched 17 years ago adds to a slightly dated feel. 

Meanwhile, the landscape for the New York-Penn League has changed at a breathtaking rate in the past couple of years. That's because the league fell victim to a contraction plan from Major League Baseball in 2020. The NY-P League is no more, which is sad enough on its own. A couple of the cities moved into leagues that survived the purge. But some of the other cities, like Batavia and Elmira, have been forced to host a newly formed college league that features teams scattered through the Northeast. It's baseball, but it's not the pros. It would have been nice to learn more about that side of the issue, since it's essentially the end of the story for a league that started in 1938. Sokolow gives it part of a chapter at the end, but it feels underdeveloped.

"Bush League, Big City" has some good information along the way, but it's rather dense and probably doesn't have enough baseball along the way to please most potential readers. That means it might have trouble reaching an audience. Still, it's nice to have someone like Sokolow get the story of the birth of the New York City teams in the NY-P league on paper.

Three stars

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Monday, May 15, 2023

Review: Intentional Balk (2022)

By Daniel R. Levitt & Mark Armour

Many of our games are simple. Baseball is not. 

Think about it. Football is at its roots a game of real estate. Claim the entire playing field, and you have scored a touchdown. Basketball is centered on throwing a ball through a net. Hockey is based on putting a puck into a net.  So is soccer.

But baseball is tougher to explain. Someone hits a thrown ball, and he/she runs around the circumference of a square until a "run" is scored or the batter is declared "out" in any number of ways. 

What's more, the rules surrounding the play of the game are complicated. A player or bystander never knows exactly what might happen on a given day, as new situations come up all the time. 

No wonder baseball has something of a culture of "cheating" surrounding it. The rules are so dense that someone has the job of interpreting them - he/she is called an umpire. And, to use the old phrase, it's not cheating if you don't get caught. 

That sort of approach affects baseball in a number of ways. Daniel R. Levitt and Mark Armour have written them down and examined them in a comprehensive way. The result is the book, "Intentional Balk" - and it should be said from the outset that this is a clever name for such a publication. They start with what they call "The Hornsby Doctrine," named after superstar Rogers Hornsby's philosophy: "Baseball players and others within the game will and should find ways to bend and break the rules. It is the job of the authorities to stop them."

The authors are kind enough to break the types of bending the rules into 10 categories, which is a little astonishing at first glance but certainly is true. They go through them, one at a time. We start with the slight edges obtained during the course of the game, such as a first baseman catching a throw but pulling his foot off the bag a split-second early to gain an edge. Binoculars have been used to steal a catcher's signals. Front offices have spied on the opposition off the field, an activity that may have grown a bit in the computer age. You know about the Astros' famous trash can scandal of 2017, but might be less familiar with other electronic devices used to gain an edge. Bats have been altered in an attempt to gain some sort of edge.

That's only half of it. We have ground crews tailoring the field to improve the team. Front offices signing players illegally, particularly in the area of very young foreign players. Then we get into physical enhancements, amphetamines and steroids,  with the end donated to pitchers and the way they can alter the ball to their advantage.

That's a lot of cheating. Some of it depends on degree. For example, if an opposing player can figure out the other team's pitching signals with the naked eye, the attitude is, more power to him. If someone watches those signals from center field, and turns on a light to tell the batter what's coming, then that's against the rules. It's interesting that computers can solve a catcher's signal pattern in nothing flat - which is why we're entering an era where electronic devices are the preferred method of communication between pitcher and catcher instead of the number of fingers. 

This all has been going on since baseball started to become popular back in the 1860s, when players used to cut from first to third without touching second if they thought the umpire wouldn't notice. The morality of all of this isn't really covered in the book. The authors are content to list the ways of potential cheating, and that's fine. 

If there's a complaint to be given about the book, it's that the subject can be a little dry ... unless we're talking about spitballs. Levitt and Armour are both executives with the Society for American Baseball Research. In most of that organization's books, the authors seem very conscious of writing for history instead of popular consumption. That approach may push some readers away. 

Even if this won't attract a vast audience, "International Balk" still fills a nice niche in the baseball library. Readers will find themselves thinking about the game and its philosophy in a different way when they are done, and that's all to the good.

Four stars

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Monday, May 8, 2023

Review: The Forgotten First (2021)

By Keyshawn Johnson and Bob Glauber

In hindsight, it's interesting to look at how the various major league sports in America handled the issue of ending the color line. 

The story is straight-forward in baseball. Jackie Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946, and reached the major leagues in the spring in 1947. Just like that, a barrier that had been up since the 19th century crumbled. Others soon followed, but Robinson received and deserved credit as the first African American to integrate the sport. 

The other sports knocked down the wall in different ways. The NBA, which essentially began in something resembling its current form after World War II, waited until 1950 to integrate. The credit was split among three men. Chuck Cooper was the first Black to be drafted by an NBA team. Nate "Sweetwater Clifton" was the first to sign with the pro league. Earl Lloyd was the first to play in an actual regulation NBA game. There were a few African American pioneers who popped up in the National Basketball League in 1945-46, but the NBA still chooses not to recognize them ... even though the NBL merged with the Basketball Association of America in 1949 to form the NBA. 

Pro football integrated in an even more diffuse way in 1946. Maybe that's a big reason why we don't hear a great deal about those who crossed that line. Maybe it's also a good reason why we should learn about those who did it. Keyshawn Johnson and Bob Glauber take care of that last matter with the book, "The Forgotten First." 

The odd part of the story centers on the fact that pro football did have a line to cross, but it wasn't always that way. A handful of blacks were on rosters when what we know as the National Football League was in its formative years in the 1920s. Fritz Pollard and Bobby Marshall were the pioneers in that sense in 1920, and seven others had played in games by the end of 1926. But soon the NFL started to contract, and the number of black players started to drop. The last two, Joe Lillard and Ray Kemp were done after 1933. 

The reason for the establishment of an informal color line still aren't clear, and Johnson and Glauber don't pin it down either. (It would have been nice to learn more about that part of the story.) Washington Redskins owner George Preston Marshall was extremely racist, and wanted no part of blacks playing for his team. He didn't integrate the roster until he had to do so in 1962 in order to play in a new stadium. It's tough to know whether Marshall was so influential that he could single-handedly impose his wishes on the league in the matter, or if the color line just sort of fell into place informally. In any event, the line was drawn.

That was, of course, a terrible idea. It kept some great players out of the pro ranks for more than a decade, and that's when Johnson and Glauber's story kicks into high gear. They begin with the story of the 1939 UCLA football team. The Bruins went from poor to very good almost overnight that season, and the major reason why was the play of three Black players: Kenny Washington, Woody Strode and Robinson (years before he signed with the Dodgers). Washington probably was the most exciting player in the country in college football at that point, a man who could do almost anything on the football field. Strode was a top end. Still, they went undrafted by NFL teams after that season. 

Meanwhile, a couple of other top Black players were waiting for their chance. Bill Wlllis was an exceptional lineman at Ohio State in the 1940s, while Marion Motley was a star at the University of Nevada. Any opportunity they had of continuing on to the pros was delayed by World War II.

But events after the War started to change the dynamic of African Americans and pro football. A new team in Los Angeles, the Rams, was essentially ordered to integrate if it wanted to play in the Coliseum. Washington and Strode, who were playing semipro ball in the Los Angeles area, were easy picks to join the team. Meanwhile, the All-America Football Conference was starting in 1946, and coach Paul Brown of the Cleveland Browns needed good players of any color. He signed Willis and Motley. The barrier came down that fall.

The authors make the point that circumstances were a factor in why these four men didn't become more famous for their actions. Washington had knee problems by this point in his life and only lasted a few years. Strode's marriage to a Hawaiian woman didn't thrill Rams owner Dan Reeves, who cut the end the first chance he had. Motley and Willis played in the "other league" in the 1940s, and so their exploits weren't that well known nationally. Both broke through in terms of attention after the 1950 merger of the two leagues, and both are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Johnson, himself a very good football player in his time, and Glauber mostly stick to the stories of the four men as well as Brown, who ranks as perhaps the greatest innovative force in the history of pro football. The players had to battle discrimination and other issues that are typical of the era, but their stories about such circumstances are still tough to swallow.  

While the five central characters receive most of the attention and pages here, the authors do spend a little time on their legacy. In other words, how are we doing in pro football in terms of equality these days? The biggest problem probably concerns the number of black head coaches - three as of this writing. Since 70 percent or so of the players in the NFL are Black, that's seems quite low. The numbers in management aren't much better. 

Meanwhile, Johnson - usually associated with the electronic media, so it's nice to see him branch out a bit - and Glauber do a good job of telling the story and moving it along. There is a little redundancy along the way, but that's nothing that will disturb the typical reader very much.

The book fills a nice void in the subject of football history, giving a reasonably complete story of the four pioneers. In other words, "The Forgotten First" aren't as forgotten as they were before the book came out ... and that's a good thing.

Four stars

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