Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Review: Brave Face (2023)

By Ron Vanstone

Once upon a time, hockey goaltenders didn't wear masks. 

That idea may sound like a fairy tale these days. After all, skaters have been known to shoot pucks at more than 100 miles per hour. You might have guessed what happened when vulcanized rubber traveling at that speed strikes the head of a human being. The puck usually wins, and so do doctors who are paid to sew up the damage. 

But it wasn't always that way. As ridiculous as it sounds now, no one between the pipes used to wear masks - even in the NHL. That raises the question, what happened?

That's what is at the center of Ron Vanstone's book, "Brave Face" - a title that probably will force you to start humming the Paul McCartney song of a similar title, "My Brave Face."

As the author points out here, the hockey mask went through something of an evolutionary process. In the good old days of hockey's beginnings, no one shot the puck particularly hard ... or particularly high. While accidents certainly did happen, there weren't enough cases of injuries to cause people to search furiously for a cure for the common puck to the face. 

But by the 1950s, the shots were getting faster and the risks were growing quickly. Finally, in 1960, all-star goalie Jacques Plante had had enough. He started wearing a mask full-time and started a revolution. The early masks weren't great. They weren't well ventilated, the goalies sometimes lost the puck at their feet, and the equipment didn't offer that much more protection. Besides, some coaches didn't like the idea of them for some reason. Inertia is a powerful force in life sometimes. But eventually, one goalie wearing a mask turned into two, and two turned into three, and so on. By the late 1970s, mask-less goalies had become extinct.

Vanstone's story is wisely broken into sections. The first goes back to the pre-mask's days and Plante's decision to wear one regular in games. The second covers the great goalies of that era, who eventually came around to the idea that reducing the chances of losing an eye was a good idea. The third reviews the final holdouts, featuring such names as Joe Daley and Andy Brown. Vanstone tips his hat to Dave Dryden, a goalie in the 1960s and 1970s who helped push the revolution along. 

Credit must be given to the author to the amount of work that goes into this. Vanstone tracked down several of the goalies who were mentioned here for interviews, and found out plenty of other information about all of them. He also has the definitive word about several milestones in the history of goalie masks, which ought to solve a few arguments. Vanstone also has plenty of fun along the way here, showing a nice command of the language. You'll definitely smile a few times while reading this. 

This adds up to a good book on the subject ... for a while. In the second half of the book, there are some details of goaltenders' lives, featuring injuries and decisions about wearing a mask. After a while, they start to seem to go down the same path. It's rather easy to go from reading to skimming. The problem is that this is not a particularly long book, and some deletions of material probably would put it under the amount of type needed for a decent-sized publication. 

To be fair, the subject of goalie masks is a rather small niche in the world of hockey. If you have an interest in it, then "Brave Face" will be worth reading. The guess is that most sports fans probably don't want something so detailed. A good-sized article probably would cover their curiosity about it. Still, authors often come up with books like this, complete with a personal drive to tell the full story. Vanstone deserves plenty of credit for putting this together.

Three stars

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Monday, November 20, 2023

Review: The Football 100 (2023)

By Mike Sando, Dan Pompei, and The Athletic NFL Staff

It was easy to see this book coming from, well, somewhere. 

Joe Posnanski wrote a book on "The Baseball 100" last year, as he "sort of" ranked the top 100 players in the sport's history. The "sort of" part of the book centers on the fact that he didn't take the rankings that seriously. If there was a particular number that applied to a certain player and was roughly around where he should be ranked (i.e. Joe DiMaggio, No. 56), then that number was assigned to him. That book worked really well because of Posnanski's dedication to finding out facts about all of the players that weren't common knowledge, and presenting them in an entertaining way. He succeeded in those goals beautifully.

And then ... well, with the success of that book, it was natural to assume that other sports might receive the same treatment. The Athletic's staff went to work on it, and the result is "The Football 100" - a massive project that will help fill that empty spot on the bookcase with its 656 pages. 

The stories start with Fran Tarkenton at No. 100, and run through No. 1 (no spoilers here, although you probably can guess the top four in some order rather easily). There are some similarities in the profiles as we march through the greatest in football history. The stories are all about the same size. Some of their statistics are presented when available, including Pro Bowl appearances, all-league and all-decade teams, etc. 

All of the stories have some backing support information and stories and quotes from the player himself or other people that usually show the greatness of that player in some way. Most of these athletes are beyond criticism, at least on the football field. Otherwise, they wouldn't be here. There are no real complaints to be found in each of the profiles. They serve the purpose well enough. 

However, something odd happens along the way after a few dozen of these articles. Since a few different people contributed to the book, the stories by nature have to be self-contained. In other words, there's no connection between the players profiled. They stand alone. 

For example, Merlin Olsen, Bob Lilly and Alan Page are grouped together in the top 100, and all are deserving of superlatives. Was there any reason why one was ranked a little better than the other? There must have been one, but all three greats receive nominations as great players. Along those lines, Jim Parker, Bruce Matthews and Larry Allen also have a literary blanket thrown over them. 

In my neighborhood, O.J. Simpson is the chapter that probably will receive the most attention. He was ranked No. 52, which struck me as a little low. For five years Simpson was as good as any running back in football history, and was the league's brightest star. Personally, I'd put him above Gale Sayers, Eric Dickerson and Bronko Nagurski, which would put him in the low 30s. Admittedly, Simpson's life after football has taken some terrible turns. Tim Graham's worthwhile profile addresses Simpson's full lifetime legacy, but it's tough to know where Simpson might have been ranked in, say, 1993. 

It would have been interesting to have some pages devoted to the ranking process in some detail here. Failing that, I'd listen to a podcast with the authors discussing their thinking at certain points of the discussion. 

If you are looking for a well-researched review of football's all-time greats, then "The Football 100" will do the job nicely enough. But the lack of fun and flow along the way might drag down your enthusiasm level after a while.

Three stars

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Sunday, November 12, 2023

Review: George Allen (2023)

By Mike Richmond
For a while in the late 1960s and early 1970s, George Allen might have been the most interesting man in the National Football League.
The story about why that's true probably is justification for Mike Richmond to write this full-fledged, detailed biography, naturally called "George Allen."
Our subject had a great run in the football spotlight. Allen first became known as the brains behind the Chicago Bears' defense on their 1963 NFL championship team.  After a couple of more years in that role, he was offered the job of head coach of the Los Angeles Rams - and Bears' owner/coach George Halas wouldn't let him out of his contract to advance professionally. That wouldn't happen today, but Halas won the lawsuit ... and promptly released him from the deal. Allen wound up in Los Angeles after all, although the relationship between the two men was never the same. 
The Rams quickly turned around their fortunes under Allen, becoming a very good team throughout the rest of the 1960s. They were 32-7-3 in the final three years of the decade.  But he never did get the Rams into the Super Bowl, and he was an odd mix with Los Angeles owner Dan Reeves. They finally parted company after the 1970 season.
Then Allen immediately landed with another team had enjoyed little recent success, the Washington Redskins. It was there where he established his reputation as an unusual operator - one who was unafraid to do what ever it took to win, even if meant trading the same draft choice twice or spending the owners' money freely. Allen traded draft choices for veterans as fast as he could to win immediately, and it worked. The Redskins reached the Super Bowl in second year in Washington. It's indicative of how good people thought Washington was that season that the team was favored in the Super Bowl against Miami, which had won all of its games in 1972-73. The Dolphins made it a perfect season by beating the Redskins, who might have run out of gas after two emotional playoff wins.
Allen stayed in Washington through 1977, but by the end he was butting heads with ownership frequently by then. He jumped back to Los Angeles to coach the Rams in 1978, but didn't even last the preseason there. Somewhat surprisingly, George never coached in the NFL again. Allen never had a losing season in 12 tries in the NFL, and is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. 
Richmond highlights those years, of course, but the origins and endings are interesting too. Allen worked his way up the coaching ladder in the usual way, taking small steps forward and then moving to the next job before reaching the top of his profession. On the downside, he did some of that in reverse, coaching a USFL team and then a bottom-feeder of a Division I college football team at Long Beach State (he even had a winning record there). 
The Allen family seems to have fully cooperated with this book's research, supplying some helpful details of Allen's life - particularly off the field. A number of other people chime in with quotes from fresh interviews or old stories. It's all done rather nicely.
The resulting book is on the massive side. Including notes at the end of the book, this checks in at more than 600 pages. Without the notes, it still approaches 500. That's a lot of material about someone who hasn't been around for more than 30 years. Certainly the reader will find himself wondering if some of those pages could have been edited out.
Those who are old enough to remember and follow the veteran coach certainly will find plenty to enjoy in "George Allen." The guess here, though, is that this may be a little slow-going for the rest of the football audience. 
Three stars
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Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Review: The Year's Best Sports Writing 2023

Edited by Richard Deitsch

My personal streak of reading every different copy of "The Year's Best Sports Writing" takes a very small personal turn with the 2023 issue. Richard Deitsch is the editor of the new version. I knew Rich slightly when he was more or less just out of school in the Buffalo area, as our paths crossed a few times. 

He's obviously done quite well for himself. Deitsch's career is mostly noted for a 20-year stay at Sports Illustrated, where he did some coverage of the media as well as working on college sports, Olympics and tennis. Now he's doing media stories out of Toronto for The Athletic

In the introduction, Rich raises the basic problems of being an editor of a publication like this. The first is the "Am I worthy?" question, considering the talented list of people who have preceded him in this annual position. Then there's the chore of picking out the articles that belong in the anthology. Chore is a carefully chosen word in this case, because there is a great deal of fine material out there and picking one story over another is agonizing. 

But Deitsch does what all of would do in this situation. He received some help from several esteemed contributors. From there Deitsch tried to narrow down the candidates for publication. He writes that he asked questions like "Which pieces stayed with me days after I let them go?" and "Which pieces demanded I read them again and again?"

Any insecurities about the picks should be gone at this point. It's another worthwhile collection, for the upteenth straight year. (It depends on how you count.)

If there's a theme here, it's that sometimes the line between sports and the rest of the world sometimes is blurred. For example, baseball only touches on "She Made Us Happy." It simply a way to introduce the subject of the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas. The same could be said about Michael Rosenberg's story about of a school shooting in Michigan. The sports connection might be even more blurred as sportswriter Jonathan Tiarks describes his eventual losing battle with cancer, leaving a son behind in the process. You probably can argue whether the stories belong here, but they will stay with you. 

There are other stories that if you read them in the original form, you'd know they'd probably appear here. The great Wright Thompson checks in with the tale of the Ukrainian national soccer team, men trying to find a little sanity through a game while the rest of their lives have turned to chaos because of the war there. David Remnick's tribute to Roger Angell hits all the right notes. Some good investigate work on such subjects as Deshaun Watson and the killing of Auburn's iconic trees on its campus take a bow here too.

Then there are the surprising topics that draw the reader in just by the subject. Stone skipping? The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders? Cornhole? Port-A-Potty?

Not surprisingly, Deitsch ends with a tribute to Grant Wahl, the former Sports Illustrated writer who died while covering the World Cup. Wahl was incredibly liked and respected, based on the outpouring of stories upon his passing. He was said to have been very proud of his piece on the migrant workers of Qatar - again, another story that only touches on sports but shows an excellent mixture of fine reporting and fine writing. 

I may not have gotten through every single story here in its entirety, but few books bat 1.000 in that sense. "The Year's Best Sports Writing 2023" is a worthy addition to the series.

Four stars

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