Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Review: The Occasionally Accurate Annals of Football (2023)

By Dan Patrick and Joel H. Cohen

Dan Patrick and Joel H. Cohen gave themselves a tough assignment: write a funny book about football history. 

There are, to use the obvious analogy, some big holes to run through when it comes to comedy targets in the NFL. Picking on the New York Jets and Detroit Lions in regard to their history is, to use the obvious analogy, "low-hanging fruit" as these things go. Even so, that leaves the rest of the book. Let's face it - sports comedy is usually hard work, and frequently hard to pull off.

So start the fact that Patrick and Cohen get points for trying. The resulting effort is called "The Occasionally Accurate Annals of Football." That may sound a way to clean up some popular misconceptions about pro football. But instead it's more of a launching point for jokes. 

The two authors know something about the two parts of the task. Patrick virtually invented a different type of sportscasting when he and Keith Olbermann worked together on "The Big Show" some years ago. They were smart and hip and quick and snarky and, of course, funny/funny/funny. Cohen writes for the television show, "The Simpsons." It's been argued that Homer, Marge, Bart and Co. are the stars in one of the best-written comedy shows in television history. We're in pretty good hands here. 

Patrick and Cohen also call on about eight other writers to supply material. Most of them are writers for shows like "The Simpsons" and "Saturday Night Live." It's always a good idea to have a deep roster when football comes up. Oh, and Adam Sandler writes the introduction. 

With that out of the way, we're off on a journey through football history. They start with the origins of the game, and eventually work their way through the rise of college football in the late 1800s until the birth of the pro game, more or less with the start of the NFL in 1920. From there, we take a decade-by-decade look at the sport in the past century, never missing a chance to go off on a tangent or crack a joke. 

Just to take a few a random:

* The Cardinals play their games in State Farm Stadium, which has the catchy State Farm slogan, "Like a good neighbor, we'll charge you thirty dollars to park."

 * (Mike) Ditka was frequently referenced in the Saturday Night Live sketch that popularized the expression "Dah Bears." Incidentally, "Dah Bears" is also the answer to "Who Ate Dah Campers?"

* The Bills are famous for appearing in four straight Super Bowls (1991 to 1994) and losing them all. Bills management, feeling bad, gave all of the players "Participant" rings, which now sit lonely in their barren trophy cases.

* (On Josh Allen) "He's the future of the Bills, football, and maybe the world." (This sentence provided by the Bills PR department and approved by the Campaign to Elect Josh Allen President.)

Got the idea? Great.

Your reaction to all of this depends on your sense of humor and your knowledge of football. You will laugh out loud at times, you'll give it a chuckle at times, and you'll smile a little at times. But should you pay $29.95 for it? That's a tough question. That's a good-sized pile of change for a book that you can zip through in a day. I enjoyed breezing through it, but can't say I remember too much about it a day later. 

So you might want to take this for a test drive. Next time you are in a bookstore, check to see if it has a copy (release date is September 5). Then flip through the pages in an attempt to get a feeling about the material. If you like the approach, great - the laughs are almost guaranteed. If not, don't worry. Comedy is rather personal. I didn't have a particularly strong reaction, so you're on your own. 

Three stars

Learn more about this book from (As an Amazon affiliate, I earn money from qualified purchases.)   

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

Friday, July 21, 2023

Review: The Big Time (2023)

By Michael MacCambridge

Attention must be paid, as the saying goes, when Michael MacCambridge has a new book out. 

The veteran author and editor has a good-sized string of success stories to his credit over the years. He's written "America's Game," "Chuck Noll" and - one of my personal favorites - "The Franchise," a history of Sports Illustrated magazine.

Now MacCambridge takes on a bigger subject: sports in the '70s. "The Big Time" is thorough, well done and interesting ... as usual.

Take it from someone who was there, the Seventies were a time that shaped the modern world of sports. After a couple of generations in which sports were a connected series of mom-and-pop operations, a pair of developments changed everything. 

The first involves the relationship between the players and their bosses. That covers a variety of areas, but two in particular come to mind. The first is the legal ground rules for leagues in the form of collective bargaining. Through a variety of ways, the players started to have more of a say in determining their professional future. Free agency arrived in baseball in 1976, and that led to an explosion of interest and money for all concerned - as opposed to the gloom and doom predicted by owners at the time. The other major sports eventually followed along, usually after some painful moments in the courts. The days of "you'll play where we tell you to play, and you'll take the money we want you to have" were over for good.

Part two of that concept involves African Americans. Keep in mind that even in the late 1960s, the national championship team in college football did not have a Black player on its roster. There were a few Black players who had started at quarterback or middle linebacker - supposedly the most cerebral positions on the roster. There were no African American head coaches or managers. Muhammad Ali started the decade as something of an outcast; he finished it as an American hero. The list goes on from there, but you get the idea. Progress was slow, and it's still too slow in many ways, but at least change had begun.

The other development involved women. In some cases, women weren't allowed to participate at all in certain athletics. It was believed that it wasn't feminine, and/or that strenuous physical activity would somehow damage some delicate body parts. When they did get to play some sports, they were decidedly second-class citizens. In tennis, for example, the prize-money distribution was terribly imbalanced. 

Title IX changed all of that, of course. Suddenly, universities had to achieve something close to parity in athletic opportunities by gender. Billie Jean King led that fight in many ways, and not just in tennis. You can still hear the screaming by administrators from that era, and it gets more tone-deaf as the days go by. The funny part is that once women started playing sports, they started watching sports of all types as well ... increasing the fan base, and thus raising revenues, in the process. The administrators didn't mind that part. 

There is a lot of ground to be covered here, and MacCambridge can't spend too much time in terms of pages hitting all of it. So the book is something of a survey of the landscape in the decade. The big events are covered - the King-Riggs tennis match, the Seitz decision on baseball free agency, Monday Night Football, the rise and fall of some new leagues, etc. MacCambridge covers them well enough to get the points across. The author also has found plenty of interesting little moments and facts to drop into the conversation that are quite fresh today and add some perspective to the discussion. 

I found the story of the AIAW to be particularly interesting, as it has been undercovered over the years. That was the group that banded together to start competitions to determine champions in certain women's sports, most notably basketball. It wasn't easy. Eventually, the idea was swallowed up by the NCAA - which probably was inevitable. It wasn't the idealist result that the AIAW hoped to achieve, but it was progress. 

Some of the material here will be familiar to those who lived through it or who have read about those key moments. Others on the young side may be a difficult sell. But those in the sweet spot of the group that wants to learn about the turning points in the story of "How did we get here?" (thank you, David Byrne), "The Big Time" will work just fine.

Four stars

Learn more about this book from (As an Amazon affiliate, I earn money from qualified purchases.)   

Be notified of new posts via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Review: Marty Glickman (2023)

By Jeffrey S. Gurock

Somewhere in the mid-1990s, I had the chance to have dinner with a small group that included veteran broadcaster Marty Glickman. 

This was quite a thrill for me, since I had grown up listening to Glickman's radio broadcasts of the New York Giants' football games. He helped turn me into a fan of the game in the early 1960s. Needless to say, I spent most of the evening shutting up and listening. 

I still remember three pieces of conversation from Glickman:

* When I asked why the Giants had fallen apart in the mid-1960s, he said that coach Allie Sherman - who was Glickman's best friend in those years - became too full of himself and was convinced he could outsmart the rest of the league. Sherman was wrong. 

* He described, for the 6,000,000th time no doubt, what it was like to walk into the Olympic Stadium in Berlin in 1936. Yes, the athletes really did make fun of Adolf Hitler, comparing him to Charlie Chaplin.

* Most importantly, he was still furious at American Olympic officials who decided he couldn't run in the finals of the 4x100-meter final of the men's relay. 

The latter piece of information holds center stage in Jeffrey Gurock's book, "Marty Glickman." Gurock is a Professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva University, so he's well qualified to take this matter on.

In case you missed the story of this incident, Glickman and Sam Stoller were both replaced at the last minute on the American team by Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe. The excuse was that the Germans were said to be holding back some top sprinters in an attempt to steal a victory in the event. This, of course, was poppycock. Glickman and Stoller were Jewish, and the host country had taken a brief pause during the Olympics in its attempts to give Jews something resembling "non-person" status in the Germany of that era. Therefore, Avery Brundage, head of the U.S. Olympic group, seems to have passed the word to track coach Dean Cromwell to replace the two Jewish runners and prevent any "embarrassment" to their German hosts by having two Jews on the podium.

We've never had any definitive accounts come out of what exactly happened in the days and hours leading up to the relay final. But Glickman was convinced that antisemitism played a crucial role in the story, and others have reached the same conclusion.

Glickman's story leading up to those Games was an unlikely one. He was the son of two immigrants from Romania, and the family lived in New York City. The Glickmans slowly worked their way up the economic ladder, encountering some missed steps along the way. Gurock tries to fit them into a larger picture about life for immigrant Jews in New York in the 1920s and 1930s. Indeed, there's a great deal of anthropology here.

Eventually, Glickman fits in with melting pot of American life, the sports world. While discrimination has been part of athletics forever, the playing field has been a little more level most of the time. Glickman was a fabulous all-around athlete in high school, one of New York City's best. He eventually went to Syracuse University, where he became a world-class sprinter. That led him to the Olympic Trials, which led him to Berlin.

After the Games, Glickman only said that he was disappointed that he didn't get the chance to run in Berlin. He was practicing the usual "go along to get along" strategy that minority groups have been using for years and years in order to status incrementally. In hindsight, it's slightly amazing (using today's standards) that it wasn't much of an issue. In fact, Eleanor Holm received more publicity for getting kicked off the American team than Glickman's slight because she had a few glasses of champagne on the boat to Germany. Glickman also had to cope with the idea that Jesse Owens won his fourth gold medal of the Games in that missed relay race, and thus became an immortal. Gurock doesn't touch on this part of the story too much, but certainly Owens' achievement became the dominant story coming out of the race as far as sports history was concerned. 

Glickman's love of sports eventually helped him almost fall into broadcasting, and he seemed to be everywhere on the New York City sports scene. Glickman was first widely noticed for his work with the New York Knicks' basketball team. He had a chance to become a national voice of the NBA during the 1950s, but was passed over - probably because he was from New York and he was Jewish. Regional accents weren't too popular then; everyone on the air in national broadcasts seemed to come out of the Midwest - or at least sound like they did. But Glickman always was busy, usually with the Giants but he found other work as well.

A couple of things changed by the 1980s. Glickman found a new role as a mentor to the next generation of broadcasters, a wise teacher always willing to give guidance to those who asked. Marv Albert and Bob Costas are in that group. When I met him, he was critiquing the broadcasts of the Buffalo Sabres. Meanwhile, Glickman finally let loose with the rage that he had kept bottled inside of him since 1936. It probably was good to let that out, but at that point he couldn't let it go completely. And who could blame him?

At times this book feels a little bit like it should be found in the "Jewish Studies" section of the bookstore instead of with the sports books. This is a relatively short book, checking in at under 200 pages of copy. It feels as if the broadcasting years were a bit short-changed. Some of the material in the publication, especially in the beginning, feels as if it needs better attribution. Yes, there is a pile of footnotes in the back, but this is important enough of an issue to give a full explanation right away. 

Still, the story told in "Marty Glickman" is a compelling one, and it's still important in this day and age. Glickman's own autobiography might be more interesting to the people who come to this site, but Gurock's contribution to the conversation carries plenty of weight too.

Four stars

Learn more about this book from (As an Amazon affiliate, I earn money from qualified purchases.)   

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

Friday, July 7, 2023

Review: Why We Love Baseball (2023)

By Joe Posnanski

The last couple of baseball books that I read were interesting and well done, but they were a little on the dense site. I'm not saying it was a chore to go through them, but it did take a little time and concentration to digest.

The antidote to that is a book is something that is a pleasure to race through. I suppose for some, a novel designed to be read on the beach works in that sense. As for me, I'll take a book by Joe Posnanski.

Joe is back with another feel-good crowd-pleaser, "Why We Love Baseball." It's sweet, fun and hard to resist.

This could be called a follow-up to last year's "The Baseball 100." There Posnanski picked his top 100 players in the sport's history, and he made the smart decision not to get bogged down over whether No. 37 was better than No. 36. Instead, he just told stories about baseball and its participants. A lot of trees died in the process of publication of a rather massive volume, but it ranked as the most entertaining book of 2022.

This has something of the same formula. Posnanski has come up with a list of 50 of the best moments in baseball history. It should be mentioned that this isn't just major league baseball. There are some good stories from the minors, amateur, and Japanese ball, for example. Joe once again did his homework, and takes us down some unexpected trails about the events we thought we knew quite well. In other words, almost every "moment" has a fact or detail that will be unknown to the most devoted of fans. That level of research really makes the book work. 

But there are more than 50 such moments in the book. Posnanski takes timeout from the countdown to go on some interesting tangents, five at a time. Unlikely homers. Trick plays. Meltdowns. Loud home runs. Barehanded plays. Pitching oddities. Heartstrings. Blunders. Duels. Catches. The final total is 108, which is an interesting number in baseball. It's the number of stitches in a standard baseball for starters. It also marks the number of years in the Cubs' period between World Series wins, and the number of wins compiled by Joe's candidate as the best team ever, the 1975 Reds. (He wrote a book about that team.) I'd be quick to add that the Boston Red Sox won 108 games in 2018. It's shorter than "The Baseball 100," so some forests can breathe a sigh of relief.

Baseball fans probably can come up with the top 20 moments given a little time, and they certainly deserve to be there. But one of the sport's charms is that something can happen out of the blue that's totally wonderful. For example, the Buffalo Bisons played a game against the Worcester Red Sox in the summer that was completely routine for eight innings. Then, in the bottom of the 10th, Luis De Los Santos hit a 3-2 pitch with two out that resulted in a opposite-field, pinch-hit, walkoff, grand slam homer to give the Bisons the victory. Has there every been a moment in a baseball game that checked off more boxes for drama?

"Why We Love Baseball" helps to explain the hold that the game has on many people. They're the target audience for the book, and they'll be delighted to read it.

Four stars

Learn more about this book from (As an Amazon affiliate, I earn money from qualified purchases.)   

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

Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Review: Ballpark (2019)

By Paul Goldberger

Here's something unexpected - a book on the architecture of baseball parks/stadiums ... with a local angle.

Paul Goldberger's "Ballpark" centers on the evolution of the homes for major league facilities, starting way back in the middle of the 19th century when the game first became to attract spectators. The surprise comes a little past the halfway point, when Buffalo receives some attention. 

If you might remember, the stadiums that went up in the 1950s through 1970s received the nickname of "cookie cutters." They all were more or less alike, probably because they needed to be used for both baseball and football. There's a problem with that, because the layout of the fields for those games are quite different. Football has to have a certain regular layout, thanks to the standard playing field of a rectangle. Baseball's field is something of a cone, and the field in theory extends to theory. However, irregularities are not only tolerated - they are celebrated.

Let's go back to 1988, then, when Pilot Field opened in Buffalo. It was essentially a baseball-only facility, and it was somewhat limited in scope because the footprint wasn't used. Pilot Field essentially was squeezed into a space created by street layout - just like it was in the good old days of more than 100 years ago. This wasn't one of those stadiums surrounded by parking lots, with a corresponding lack of charm. This was a place that felt like it was part of the city. That old-time feeling grew with some of the decorations that were added to the stadium. The facility still had some modern conveniences, but it was as close to a "throwback" park as we'd seen in quite a while. It worked, and it still works 35 years later. 

That all led to Camden Yards in Baltimore, which took some of the ideas used in Buffalo and ran with them. It was instantly acclaimed as a giant step forward, and remains very popular as an attraction on is own merits without regard to how the team playing in it has done. Other teams wanted their own version of the facility, and some have come close to duplicating it.

Camden Yards is essentially the turning point in "Ballpark," when people started paying close attention to facilities. Admittedly, customers have been walking around ballparks to take in the atmosphere for decades. It's always a rush to come out of the corridor and see a new baseball park for the first time. It's often an explosion of green. Better still, sometimes part of the park opens up to a view of the hosting city. You know you're in Yankee Stadium and not Central Park, but if you use your imagination a bit ...

Goldberger is one of the top writers about architecture in the country; that Pulitzer Prize probably is a good method of proof in that. It's almost as if he knows too much at times, particularly at the beginning which starts a little slowly. But soon enough Goldberger gets into his rhythm, and comes up with sharp analysis of the most famous parks to host major league games over the years. 

There are plenty of illustrations. The early ones are in black and white, and we move into the age of color about halfway through the book. But this is not a coffee-table book. The photos merely provide some helpful background information to the text.

There are those fans who spend many of their summer vacations figuring how to go to baseball parks, keeping a running total of their visits as they go. It can only be assumed that they have this book by now, since it's been a while since publication. It's a perfect match to their interest. Others might not be that enthusiastic, but they'll appreciate the smarts and effort that it took to complete this comprehensive look at its subject.

Four stars

Learn more about this book from (As an Amazon affiliate, I earn money from qualified purchases.)   

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