Sunday, August 27, 2023

Review: The 50 Greatest Players in Buffalo Bills History (2023)

By Robert W. Cohen

Sports fans have to do something between games. After all, teams don't play 365 days a year. So ... they make up lists. And argue.

If they need starting points, there are plenty of books out there to begin the discussion. Ask Robert W. Cohen. 

He's written a long list of books about "the 50 greatest players in (insert team here) history." They mostly cover the teams in major league baseball and the National Football League, but he does have one coming out on the Boston Celtics. Cohen now has gotten around to doing the Buffalo Bills. This one is called, naturally, "The 50 Greatest Players in Buffalo Bills History."

As you'd expect, Cohen has the format down pretty well. After a brief introduction, he starts with the early days of each player's life, and works his way through high school, college and the pros. The highlights are told along the way, including some quotes from the player himself or those around him. The author deserves some credit for not turning away from some unfortunate or tragic events that have surrounded some of the players. Obviously O.J. Simpson comes to mind in that category, although a few others like Jim Dunaway also could fit in there. The chapters end with Cohen picking a particular player's best season, follow by individual highlights. 

By coincidence, I had to pick my own best player in Bills' history for a discussion recently. I used my own way of coming up with the No. 1 choice. What player on the Bills could be considered for all-time list of the greatest performer in football history? In my opinion, Bruce Smith fits that description. Simpson might have been higher on that list had he played a few more years; that would keep him below players like Emmitt Smith and Walter Payton. But as you'd expect, both Smith and Simpson do really well here. 

I won't spoil the names and ranks here. Cohen went through the usual standards of rank on all-time team lists, games played, all-star/Pro Bowl selections, and so forth. It's always difficult to balance peak value in a season (think Josh Allen, at least for now) and career value (as in longevity as a high level). Let's just say I was surprised that Fred Jackson was ranked higher than Jack Kemp. 

I had a bigger problem with the career highlights. Many of them come up in the body of the story, and the others just aren't that interesting at this point in time. Yes, it fills out the book, but I found myself skipping over large sections of the individual chapters for that reason. That's a bit troubling, especially for a $28.95 list price.

Still, "The 50 Greatest Players in Buffalo Bills History" is a pleasant enough trip down memory land. If you like this sort of approach, it's professionally handled and will make you well prepared for any discussions that come up along these lines.

Three stars

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Monday, August 21, 2023

Review: Nowhere Else You'd Rather Be (2023)

From The Buffalo News

Well, this is a little awkward.

The Buffalo News came out with a book on the 50-year history of the stadium in Orchard Park ... only days after my own book on the history of the Buffalo Bills was published. I don't think anyone expects me to say that the News' book is the only football publication you should buy this year. 

But on the other hand, The News was my employer for 23 years. And some friends of mine, including Corey Desiderio, Mark Gaughan and Jay Skurski contributed to the News' book. I would expect a worthwhile effort from these fine journalists, and they delivered one.

"Nowhere Else You'd Rather Be," adapted from the famous quote from Marv Levy ("Where would you rather be than right here, right now?"), sticks to the story of the stadium. That means the Bills will receive the lion's share of the pages, but not all of them. 

The story starts with the arrival of the Bills into War Memorial Stadium in 1960. A decade later, with the team snugly a member of the National Football League, it was obvious that the Rockpile had outlived its usefulness. A new building was needed if the Bills wanted to stay in Buffalo. The process was pretty ugly, particularly the conviction of some politicians on bribery charges. But Rich Stadium (The first suggested name was "Coffee Rich Park," by the way) eventually got built. It opened on August 1, 1973. 

The book sails through the various eras in Bills' history, highlighting some games along the way. I had to laugh when I saw that some of the quotes about those games turned up in both books. From there it's on to the owners, top players, records, and fans. Then the subject changes to football from other events that have taken place at the Abbott Road complex. This includes hockey, rock concerts, college football, and high school football. We wrap it up a short section on the new stadium. 

I had been told that this book would includes original stories from the events that took place in the stadium. We see reproductions of such text in the form of images of clippings and full pages of The News. But the text is generally original. 

The photos in the book come from The News' archives. This publication really does show how good the photographers at the facility have been over the years. Too bad we don't know who took each one, since most shots are uncredited. I did do a double take at a photo used to introduce a story on 2008's Winter Classic. The News allowed me to use that shot for the cover of a book I did on Buffalo's sports history in 2013.

"Nowhere Else You'd Rather Be" is something of a classic coffee-table book, with images you'll want to look at frequently. I suppose I can get away with saying that the text almost by definition has to be a bit more superficial than my book, considering the difference in the word count. But it's fair to say that the two books compliment each other nicely. You certainly could get away with buying and reading both of them. 

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Monday, August 14, 2023

Review: Oscar Charleston (2019)

By Jeremy Beer

Oscar Charleston might be the best baseball player that you know nothing about.

That sort of sentence assumes a lot. The amount of baseball knowledge that "you" carry around in your head at a given moment certainly varies from person to person. Still, for those wishing to compile a list of reasons why someone had been somewhat forgotten, Charleston checks a lot of boxes. 

He played about a century ago, in leagues that weren't too organized and not particularly well publicized at the time. Some of his best work was done in relatively small cities. Throw in the fact that Charleston played in the Negro Leagues, which were quickly written off by some of the people at the time who were so-called experts on the game (often for racist reasons), and you've got a good head start toward obscurity.

Luckily, baseball has a devoted group of researchers who have spent uncounted hours trying to put together information and statistics on those days. Then there are authors like Jeremy Beer, who did a ton of other research in order to come up with his solid biography, "Oscar Charleston."

Charleston was born in 1896; his middle name was McKinley, which probably shows where the political sympathies of his parents were at the time. The family was in Indianapolis at the time. After lying about his age to get into the Army, and played a little baseball with the grown-ups until he returned to civilian life in 1915. Then it was back to Indianapolis, where he played with the city's ABCs - an independent team. By the age of 22, Charleston was an unquestioned star. He hit .390 with a .437 on-base percentage and a slugging percentage of .604. In other words, he put up stats as if he were a man among boys in a professional league.

Oscar kept it up through the 1920s, no matter where he was playing. Sometimes he wore the uniform for St. Louis in the Negro National League, sometimes he suited up for a Cuban team in the offseason, sometimes he stayed close to the home of his wife while playing for the Harrisburg Giants of the Eastern Colored League. Charleston almost always produced, although it was difficult to gain attention from anyone but his immediate baseball family in those days.

By the 1930s, he played with a host of future Hall of Famers, such as Satchel Page and Josh Gibson, with the Pittsburgh Crawfords. Charleston had started to slow down by that stage, which means the spectacular plays in the field and stolen bases were coming less frequently. Still, he contributed enough with the bat to find work as a first baseman throughout the decade. Charleston finally gave in to Father Time by playing his last organized game in 1941. He had already done some managing, and he continued to do that in Philadelphia from 1948 to 1952. Oscar also skippered the Indianapolis Clowns in 1954, the last year of his life.

So how good was Charleston? It's hard to know, of course, because he was forced to play at a lower level than the players we know at that level. By the time we started to pay attention to Negro League play, Charleston was a memory to the shrinking number of baseball people who saw him. But his contemporaries at the time, as Beer shows, put him in the same breath as players like Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker. Oscar had more power than both of them, and probably was in the argument with Speaker as the best defensive center fielder as the era. That sounds like a superstar to most. He could be something of a hothead when it came to fighting on the field every once in a while, but he also comes off as somewhat surprisingly cultured in other ways.

Beer did his homework here. His best find probably was a scrapbook that Charleston kept about his life. That gives some insight into his life as well as what he valued over the course of his career. Research helps fill in the gaps in his life, although admittedly the lack of quotes and a surplus of numbers does make the story a bit more fact-filled than fascinating at times. An interest in the subject helps quite a bit.

Still, "Oscar Charleston" fulfills its primary goal in bringing its subject to life. It's the go-to source information on someone who probably should be in the top ten of all-time best players in baseball history ... even if "you" don't know it.

Four stars

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Wednesday, August 2, 2023

Review: Breaking Through the Lines (2023)

By David Lee Morgan Jr. 

It would be relatively accurate to say that Marion Motley was the Julius Erving of football.

Hear me out on this one. 

Both Motley and Erving did their best work when playing with "lesser" leagues. Motley first turned pro in the All-America Football Conference, while Erving's pro debut came in the American Basketball Association. By the time they arrived the more publicized National Football League and National Basketball Association, they probably were a bit past their prime - although Erving's decline was slower. But that doesn't change the fact that both were fabulous at their peak. 

Motley is the lesser-known figure to today's audiences, since he played in the 1940s. Therefore, it's always good to see new material on his football career. David Lee Morgan Jr. obliges with his biography of the standout, "Breaking Through the Lines."

Motley is an important figure in football history, as he helped reintegrate the sport. A few Blacks had participated in pro football in the 1920s and early 1930s, but a line was drawn in 1933 by the NFL. The sports was lily-white until 1946. That's when Motley and teammate Bill Willis both arrived on the roster of the AAFC's Cleveland Browns. They didn't just break the color line, they smashed it. (Two other African Americans played for the NFL's Los Angeles Rams that year.)

Since Motley played for the less established league during the 1940s, his exploits were generally missed. There was no television coverage, and fewer big crowds. But Motley was a fullback who resembled a tank on cleats. He was simply too big and strong for most defenders. If there was a piece of territory on the football field that was unclaimed, Motley usually knocked over an opponent to claim it. A couple of tight ends in the 1960s, Mike Ditka and John Mackey, had that same reputation as receivers. Motley also could play defense, where his size and speed also served him well. So he was too strong to tackle, and too strong to block. That sounds like a successful football player. 

Morgan outlines his career well enough. Motley moved from the South to Ohio as part of the Great Migration, and played college football. Eventually he encountered Paul Brown, who coached the original Browns and made the decision to keep Motley on the roster. 

The future Hall of Famer's career ended with something of a whimper. He developed knee troubles soon after the NFL-AAFC merger in 1950. Marion hung on as long as he could, but eventually had to retire a little prematurely. The transition to life after football was difficult for the Black players of that era. Doors to coaching jobs usually were locked, and in those days no ex-player could live off his sports reputation. 

This has the makings of a good biography, since the idea is to bring a legend back to life. But Morgan comes up short in presenting new material here. The pages - less than 200 - go by really quickly in a rather superficial telling of the story. That's particularly true of Motley's days in the AAFC, which could have been expanded rather easily. 

Morgan had previously worked on a PBS documentary on Motley. The writer comes across as very fond of his subject in the book, and not without good reason. It's easy to root for the pioneers in this area. But this approach leaves the reader wondering if there's any more to the story. 

"Breaking Through the Lines" does provide the basics on an important figure in pro football history. Still, I would guess that many will come away from this wanting more. 

Three stars

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