Saturday, June 22, 2024

Review: Talk of Champions (2023)

By Kenny Smith

It didn't take long for Kenny Smith to tell the basketball world that he was a man who could work in a fast tempo.

Smith turned up at the University of North Carolina in the fall of 1983, and needed no time at all to claim a starting spot as a freshmen. Practically no one ever did that for the Tar Heels in that era. Smith was also smart enough to realize that he was on the same team as Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins, and as a point guard figured it out to get the ball to those two. It's a little tough to believe that North Carolina only made it as far as the Sweet Sixteen that season, losing to Indiana. 

When Smith became an author in 2023, he more or less took the same approach. In "Talk of Champions," Smith moves the focus from himself to other people who have played a part of his life. 

Kenny and basketball have had a long relationship, dating back to his time as a child in New York City. After North Carolina, he went on to play for 10 years in the NBA. Smith won two championships, helping the Rockets to titles in 1994 and 1995. 

Once his playing days were over, Smith moved smoothly into a broadcasting role. He became part of TNT's studio show, which is considered by some to be the best program of its kind in television history. Smith worked with Charles Barkley, Shaquille O'Neal and host Ernie Johnson on a show in which you never knew where they might wind up on a given night, but you always knew you'd enjoy the journey. 

The people who helped Smith along the way receive a chapter each. Some of the names are instantly known - Michael Jordan, Dean Smith, Barkley, O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas and Hakeem Olajuwon. There are a few others that are included too, such as Smith's parents and his high school basketball coach. The lessons are targeted at his children, but the stories are universal to work for almost everyone. 

The anecdotes are wide-ranging. Dean Smith talks about how he didn't recruit Charlie Scott to be the first Black basketball player at UNC; he simply recruited Charlie Scott. Barkley and Kenny may have different viewpoints on subjects, but that doesn't mean they can't talk about them in private and public. Johnson gave Smith some lessons about how he became a businessman. Kenny and Olajuwon knocked down some cultural barriers that were preventing their team from realizing its potential. 

Smith is particularly good when it comes to racial issues. When he graduated from high school, he received an award that came with a tag in the form of the principal's remarks. He said that Smith made everyone not think about color during his time at school. Smith points out that it probably was intended as a compliment in 1983, but couldn't be more insulting from a 2023 perspective. Then again, when Smith was complaining about Europeans coming over to America to claim NBA jobs, Russell pointed out that "as an African American, you should never disagree with inclusion." 

By the way, it's rather obvious that there's no sign of a ghost-writer here. This seems to be pure Kenny Smith, much to his credit. 

This all goes by faster than a successful fast break, which is only appropriate. Most readers will be left wanting more, which is OK. Maybe Smith will have more to say in the future. In the meantime, "Talk of Champions" serves up some tasty morsels that will be enjoyed by those who try them.

Four stars

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Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Review: World Class (2024)

By Grant Wahl

Grant Wahl was in the right place at the right time during his too-short professional career.

Wahl came out of Princeton University in the 1990s, and landed a job with Sports Illustrated magazine. You might recall that the Nineties were the time when soccer had just started to make an imprint on the American sports scene, thanks in part to the placement of the World Cup tournament here in 1994. There weren't a great many sportswriters who knew too much about the game and how it was played, especially on an international basis. It was a perfect spot for Wahl, who had "studied" under future U.S. National Coach Bob Bradley at Princeton 

Almost before he knew it, Wahl was writing SI's soccer stories. No, they were never too plentiful, and they were rarely on the cover, but if you went searching for them they'd turn up. He'd found his niche. Grant also worked on college basketball during his time at the magazine. Those assignments lasted for almost 25 years. 

Then Sports Illustrated started to shrink in staff size, and Wahl was one of the casualties. Eventually he wound up freelancing on Substack, writing for an audience of about three thousand instead of many multiple times that number. But the readers were rabid soccer fans, and Wahl even paid his own way to major events to add his informed commentary to the conversation.

Wahl's career was unique in that he was the single unquestioned authority in his area of expertise, soccer. So when he died in December 2022, it was a particularly painful moment for those fans. The outpouring of sympathy was quite impressive and well deserved

"World Class," then, is something of a good-bye present to those supporters. It was put together by Alexander Wolfe and Mark Mravic, both SI alumni. It's Wahl's greatest hits, presented in anthology form and broken into a variety of themes. Realistically, though, the groupings of articles don't really matter much. We bounce from one subject to another rather easily. We're in good hands here. 

One way to judge anthologies is to count the number of stories that hold the reader's interest all the way through. In my case, I'm not going to say I'm a major follower of the sport of soccer. I've only written about it a few times, and know most of the rules and few of the strategies. Still, there were only a few stories here that didn't compel me to keep reading to the conclusion - mostly on international soccer subjects. 

Then again, some of the non-sports articles were definite keepers. Wahl's profile of then-new North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams was written at just the right time. Williams had just arrived from Kansas, and he had almost Shakespearean doubts about whether he was doing the right thing. Speaking of basketball coaches, Wolfe and Mravic reach back to Wahl's Princeton days for a column on why legendary coach Pete Carill wasn't quite the saint he was often portrayed to be by the national media. 

Perhaps my favorite piece in the book has never been published before. It was a paper written for a course taught by New Yorker David Remnick about Gloria Emerson, one of the only women who covered the Vietnam War for a major media outlet. The experience left some serious baggage on her psyche, and Wahl's profile of one of his mentors can stand up with any story of its kind done by more experienced reporters.

The proceeds of "World Class" are going to establish a journalism award at Princeton in Wahl's name, which is nice. Those who enjoy good writing and reporting certainly will find this book rewarding. Those who are big soccer fans will take that level of enjoyment up a notch.

Four stars

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Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Review: The 2,003-Yard Odyssey (2024)

By Joe Zagorski

The Buffalo Bills' 1973 season was unique. When did missing the playoffs ever feel so good?

The Bills had been more or less dead from 1967 to 1972, at least as far as the rest of the league was concerned. They didn't come close to a winning record in that time, and had the first overall draft choice twice in that span. At least they picked a good year (1969) to be terrible, as they "earned" the right to draft O.J. Simpson - perhaps the greatest running back in college football history. But those running the team couldn't figure out a way to use Simpson properly, and the Bills still were awful.

Then Lou Saban arrived to coach the team in 1972, and he knew what to do: Give Simpson the ball. A lot. O.J. won the NFL's rushing title for the first time that season, so there was a little optimism going into the '73 season. Simpson magnified those feelings in Week One with a 250-yard day against New England, setting a league record in a victory.

Buffalo went on to a 9-5 record, missing the playoffs by a game. As for Simpson, you might have heard that he finished the season with 2,003 yards to set a one-season NFL record. He still is the only person to reach 2,000 in the first 14 games of a season. Buffalo was never the most glamorous of sports cities, but at that point it had the brightest star in the sports universe playing within its area. 

Simpson's achievement still captures the imagination, since there's only one person who can be the first to reach the 2,000-yard milestone. That makes it a reasonable subject for a book, and Joe Zagorski has jumped into it with both feet with his book, "The 2,003-Yard Odyssey." The problem is that the author seems a little too enthusiastic about the subject to be at all objective. Not many discouraging words are written here, and the relentless praise feels overdone.

The framework starts off well enough. Zagorski reached out to speak with several members of the team, including Joe Ferguson, Dave Foley, Joe DeLamielleure, Reggie McKenzie, and Simpson himself. He also has charts that outline every single one of Simpson's rushing attempts. It's nice to have those quotes and stories as well as that reference material in a book like this. 

But there are some conclusions that don't really add up, and several paragraphs that could have been lost very easily. A little more editing would have been nice too; the number of "admitteds" and "Author's Notes" could have been decreased painlessly. . 

Here are a few of the problems that come up along the way:

* Quite a bit is made here about the team's preseason record of 0-6. That's a little strange, since no one probably can recite anything about those games the moment that preparations for a regular season game begin in September. 

* While the Bills' new stadium is mentioned along the way, its impact on the team and the community is underplayed. At long last, Buffalo had a facility that ranked with others in the National Football League, saying farewell to ancient War Memorial Stadium (born in 1937) in the process. The pride that came with showing off a new home added to the enthusiasm level of the fans and the team. 

* While much is made about the Bills' run-first offense, and deservedly so, Saban didn't really have much choice. His quarterbacks didn't offer much in 1973. Joe Ferguson started most of the games, but he was only a third-round draft choice from Arkansas and wasn't ready for prime time yet. He threw for four touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 12 games, despite having two good receivers in J.D. Hill and Bob Chandler.

Meanwhile, Dennis Shaw had no TD passes and four picks in a back-up role. It's a surprise that Shaw was even on the roster that year. In Chandler's book about his football career, he writes about a 1972 incident between Shaw and some African-American youngsters who were near the bench. That caused a huge problem for the Black players on the team, who had to be talked out of rebelling by Simpson. Therefore, Saban probably should have gone out and found a veteran quarterback for 1973 who could have served as a mentor to Ferguson.

* The book generally moves along chronologically, but the Monday night game with Kansas City is moved back in the narrative for some reasons.  That was a big game for the city, since national television audiences for the Bills in those days were relatively rare.

* In a discussion about the secondary, Robert James barely gets a sentence's notice - even though he had become one of the game's best cornerbacks at that point. He was even a first-team All-Pro in one vote, although usually he finished behind Hall of Famers Mel Renfro and Willie Brown on such lists.

* Walt Patulski's problems on the field in 1973 are outlined, but the fact that he didn't get along with Saban doesn't come up here.

 * Buffalo's weather gets a few shots, particularly concerning a rematch with New England in December. It feels quite over the top. The Bills have had more weather-related problems in the last few years than ever before, simply because the schedule now goes into January and the team has had some success in reaching the playoffs. 

"The 2,003-Yard Odyssey" comes up short of being a clear-eyed look at an interesting season in football history. Those interested in the subject might look to Sal Maiorana's book on that era, "When Buffalo Stood Atop the Sports World" for a more professional accounting. 

Two stars

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Friday, June 7, 2024

Review: Why We Love Football (2024)

By Joe Posnanski

There are a couple of references to the joys of repetition in Joe Posnanski's book, "Why We Love Football."

One centers on Jim Brown. He was/is the greatest fullback in the sport's history. Occasionally the Browns would try to get a little cute about their offense. Then the light bulb would go on, and the team would simply hand the ball to Brown and let him run with it a lot. Wash, rinse, repeat. Maybe, that should read - wash, rinse, repeat, win. Brown would lead them into the end zone for the score, and good times would follow.

Then there's the story of the Vince Lombardi and the Power Sweep. Football fans can still picture it in the mind, as Jerry Kramer and Fuzzy Thurston lead Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor around the end for a good gainer. Lombardi had specific assignments for that play, and one time at practice at one time he did nothing but go over that one play. It was tough to execute perfectly, but the Packers were really good at it in the 1960s. No wonder they won a lot of games. No wonder it's now called the Lombardi Sweep.

In 2023, Posnanski wrote "Why We Love Baseball: A History in 50 Moments." A year later, he has come up with "Why We Love Football: A History in 100 Moments." The first book went over extremely well. Why wouldn't you want to try something very similar a short time later? Of course, you would. So it's good to see this football version arrives, and it still goes down very smoothly - as most of Posnanski's work does.

There are a couple of differences between the baseball and football version of the same thought. In baseball, the book more or less sticks to the major leagues. But the football side of the coin covers all of the sport. That means that we hear about Stanford-California ("The band is on the field"), among other interesting moments. High school ball isn't completely ignored either. So maybe that's why we go from 50 moments in baseball to 100 moments. There was a lot of ground to cover.

Posnanski's writing style probably works a little better with baseball. He does sentiment and romance well, and there's a lot of that in the history of baseball. Football usually has a little less of those qualities attached to it, perhaps because it has been a major sport for a smaller amount of time. It's a minor point, one that won't get in the way of your enjoyment of the book. Posnanski starts with Aaron Donald (he reveals the reason why later in the book), and races through everything from trick plays to NFL Films, from a rendition of the National Anthem to Appalachian State's amazing win over Michigan. 

Once again, Posnanski doesn't get hung up in the order of the selections (although the football list has fewer gimmicks than its baseball counterpart). He simply has fun with the choices.  By the way, I never saw the No. 1 choice coming, and I'd bet you won't either.

Posnanski hasn't written a book that's not entertaining yet, and "Why We Love Football" continues that winning streak. If you see his name on the front cover, you'll enjoy it and get your money's worth. That's the type of consistency we can all enjoy.

Four stars

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Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Review: 976-1313 (2024)

By Scott Orgera and Howie Karpin

OK, children, gather around. You're about to learn a lesson.

From the mid-1970s through the mid-1990s, there was no Internet, no ticker on ESPN, and very few all-sports radio stations. So how did fans keep up with their favorite teams? 

By phone, naturally.

Huh?

Yes, you could call a phone number and you'd get 59 seconds of scores and sports news on a recorded message. It was called Sports Phone, and it was an interesting transitional method of getting information to people. There was a small fee involved, which could add up quickly if you needed a score for one reason or another. A lot of parents of sports-minded children received a monthly surprise when the phone bill arrived.

Not too many members of today's younger crowd have heard of Sports Phone, and they probably would have trouble grabbing the concept. Thus it's nice to see Scott Orgera and Howie Karpin come up with a book on the history of the service. Sure enough, it's called "976-1313." If you were a sports fan, particularly in New York City, you no doubt had it memorized.

Sports Phone used to regularly update its "programming," with the frequency of reports depending on what was going on. For example, for Sundays in the fall, those 59 seconds would be changed every couple of minutes. College football Saturdays were as busy as you'd expect, with extra numbers pressed into service to include more scores. 

But it wasn't just scores. Often they used audio tape to sweeten their reports. It took a small army of reporters and editors to do this constantly, and it was an excellent was for young people to break into the sportscasting business. 

It's amazing just how many people are familiar to me, as so many did so well in their chosen field later on. The list is a long one: Shelley Adler, Gary Cohen, Linda Cohn, Jack Curry, Brian Kilmeade, Don La Greca, Bob Papa, Howie Rose, Andy Roth, Ken Samelson, Peter Schwartz, Tommy Tighe, etc. Those are the ones I know; New Yorkers no doubt can add to the list.

And there was one other employee who didn't pop up on the list: me. I worked for them from 1980 to 1986.You can find my side of the story here. Don't look for me in the book, though. I was a very small piece of the puzzle from my lone outpost in Buffalo, although the face that Western New York was included in the service does come up a couple of times.

Based on this book, most of New York's broadcasters of a certain generation sharpened their skills by talking into a phone. Ever try to give 40 scores in 59 seconds? It made a typical broadcast on radio almost leisurely. Others have gone on to other things, but still remember their days with Sports Phone fondly. 

And that's basically the theme of the book. It's former employees looking back on their days with Phone Programs, which usually was the name of the company on paychecks. The company did several phone lines, depending on the era, which generated plenty of money and profits for those involved .... for a while. The owners of the company could see the end coming as soon as ESPN2 placed "a ticker" on the bottom of the screen in 1995. The scores were constantly updated there, and there was no additional charge to access it. The numbers for calls soon fell off a cliff. Well, it was nice while it lasted.

Karpin worked on Sports Phone from 1980 to 1992, while Orgera did/does a variety of other sports-related work in a variety of ways. Their enthusiasm for the subject is impressive. The two of them tracked down many of those who worked in the New York office, and grabbed a few other celebrities who used the number in their work. For example, agent Leigh Steinberg kept track of his football clients by calling for scores, while hockey player/horseman Ed Olczyk liked to call to catch up on the ponies. 

There are a couple of problems with the book from the reader's perspective. It's easy to guess that the book is self-published, since the publisher is listed as "Press Pass Chronicles" - which comes up on a Google search only in association with this book. So the layout has a lot of white space and isn't too efficient. (Note: Can't say I noticed many typos in it, so the authors did a pro-level job there.)

Meanwhile, a lot of the stories sound the same. Yes, the staff was happy to pay some dues there, and look back on it in a nostalgic way. But the tales of working in press boxes work much better than the stories from the office, which might fit into the "you had to be there" classification. Between those two points, we could have probably lost 100 pages and made it a little less intimidating to hold.

By the way, Orgera must have set the all-time record for using names in the acknowledgements. There are 13 pages on that particular subject. As he writes at the beginning, "Since this is my first full-length book and might be my last ..." I'm not sure how he missed his entire high school graduating class .... or maybe he didn't.

I definitely needed to read "976-1313" to complete my knowledge of the operation and to pay a small tribute to an important step in my career. New Yorkers who used the service will have similar thoughts about a unique moment in "broadcasting" history.  

Three stars

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Saturday, June 1, 2024

Review: Locker Room Talk (2024)

By Melissa Ludtke

We're coming up on the 50th anniversary of one of the biggest issues in the history of sports media, one that changed a great deal about how we hear about our fun and games. 

The subject concerns allowing half of the population to be allowed to do their jobs. Yes, it's the "women in the locker room" story. Those who don't remember the beginnings need to be educated as to how difficult it was for women in those transformative times.

Melissa Ludtke comes to the rescue with her book,"Locker Room Talk." And why not? She was front and center at the biggest battle of them all in this area. 

Ludtke was a reporter in 1977 for Sports Illustrated magazine, and she did some work on major league baseball stories at the time. In those days, you could only do so much reporting without setting foot in a team's locker room after a game. That catch was that baseball players needed to shower, etc., after games, and for decades they had simply gone about their business while male - always male - reporters milled about collecting information. So the locker room was part personal space and part workplace. While male reporters probably would be willing to whisper that interviewing naked athletes after games left them a little bit uncomfortable - the people covering Congress didn't have to worry about that - it more or less came with the territory.

But in the mid-1970s, more women started to enter the sports media and covered teams in the NBA and NHL. All right, that was where newspapers and magazines sent promising beginners to learn the business, and there weren't many problems. But in 1977, Ludtke was assigned to cover the World Series between the Yankees and Dodgers, and baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn decided that Ludtke couldn't walk into the Yankees' dressing room after the game even though she had been given a pass. And thus started a loud and at times juvenile debate (at least from many of the men) about women reporters' rights and locker room.

Not surprisingly, the whole thing went to court. Ludtke and SI sued Major League Baseball, and a hearing took place for a couple of hours. A judge more or less begged the two sides to come up with some sort of compromise, such as having players wear robes when they were in areas of the locker room space that were open to reporters. But Kuhn wouldn't hear of it, relying on his call that an all-male space was "in the best interests in baseball." So the judge had little choice but to tell MLB to open the doors to everyone, using the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment along the way. .

Ludtke became embroiled in all of this, of course, and the entire affair took quite a toll. That includes some health issues and a failed marriage. Not too many of her journalistic peers rushed to her side of the story, and she received plenty of hate mail - even if she didn't see some of it until years later. It's rather striking to read some of the comments from male journalists, particularly from names such as Red Smith and Dick Young. (OK, you might expect that from Young, but not from Smith.) They had views that seemed straight of Jurassic Park. Ludtke went to Time magazine for a while, almost returned to Sports Illustrated in an episode that showed SI wasn't completely innocent here, and moved on to CBS. The details of Ludtke's life aren't detailed from there, although it looks like she had some academic honors from Harvard and Columbia. 

It's interesting how the subject of women in the locker room eventually became moot in many cases. I have covered a variety of sports in the past several years, and I've rarely gotten close to the inside of a locker room. In many sports, coaches and athletes are brought to a media room for interviews. Everyone has a chance to ask a few questions. It's even true when I'm the only reporter there. With the Sabres, the players change out of their equipment in one room that's open to the media, but then walk into an off-limits area to finish changing and take showers. 

Ludtke brings up some comments by veteran sportswriter Leonard Koppett from the time the controversy was raging. Koppett, as close to an intellectual as anyone in the business, pointed out that a system that only allows group interviews will hurt the quality of the journalists' product. That thought struck me as I was reading the book. I remember in 1997 when the Sabres won a playoff series in Game Seven, I went into the Buffalo locker room and saw Garry Galley sitting in his stall (the defenseman beat everyone into the room.) He recounted for me his pleasure in seeing his teammates come off the ice, one by one, trying to figure out a way to express his joy. It became my lead to the story, and under today's rules I might not ever had the chance to talk to Galley that night.

But I'm willing to give up a little access to guarantee equal rights for all reporters in doing their jobs. Press boxes have become a more civilized place since women started to arrive in good-sized numbers, and that's a step forward. And where would we be today without the perspective of such sports writers as Sally Jenkins, Helene Elliott, and Christine Brennan?

As for the book, the main framework of the narrative centers on the court hearing. Ludtke chose to review the proceedings at length, often quoting the principals and documents word for word along the way. It's a bid of a grind to get through it all, at least for those without bringing a law degree into their background while reading. Along the way, the author does a little jumping through time in reviewing her life. That leads to some redundancies, and maybe some editing decisions could have gone another way.

But it is great fun to read about how people reacted to the controversy along the way - and how silly they look in hindsight. It's nice to have Ludtke's memories of that time down on paper; it's always good to find out a more complete version of a significant story like this. "Locker Room Talk" will force many to shake their heads and say about the era, "What were we thinking?"

Four stars

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Monday, May 27, 2024

Review: Bernie Nicholls (2022)

By Bernie Nicholls with Kevin Allen and Ross McKeon

It doesn't take Bernie Nicholls long to set the tone in his autobiography, "Bernie Nicholls." 

After a brief introduction to his life in the first chapter, Chapter Two is devoted to the pranks and practical jokes that he pulled during his hockey career. If that gets the idea across that this book is not going to appeal to the crowd that reads Doris Kearns Goodwin's books, you're on the right track. It's a slightly curious literary effort in that it has two co-authors; it's hard to know if the pandemic got in the way of the process of producing the book.

Nicholls was a very good player during most of his hockey player. He piled up some good statistics, compiling 475 goals and 1,209 points in 1,127 games. Those sorts of numbers have him on the fringe of discussion for the Hockey Hall of Fame. Nicholls broke into the NHL with a bang in the 1981-82 season, and stayed through 1998-99. He played for the Los Angeles Kings, New York Rangers, Edmonton Oilers, New Jersey Devils, Chicago Blackhawks and San Jose Sharks. The highlight was a 70-goal/80-assist/150-point season in 1988-89, but he was quite productive whenever he played. Injuries hurt him in the second half of his career, which probably kept him out of the Hall of Fame in the second half of his career. 

His life seems rather unlikely considering his roots. Nicholls grew up in West Guilford, Ontario, a place that almost could put the words "Welcome to West Guilford" on both sides of the same sign. It actually was about a mile wide, and Nicholls was related to many of the town's few residents. His home didn't even have a street address. The town is northeast of Toronto and west of Ottawa in Ontario, and it's near a huge provincial park so there was plenty of open space - and not much competition for ice time among the kids.

So let's take a youngster out of that area and place him in ... Los Angeles, where Nicholls first arrived in the NHL. Welcome to Disneyland, indeed. Nicholls became known as someone who could play quite quickly, and he also spread his wings a bit. His reputation for loud clothes quickly spread, and by his own account was someone who took his hockey seriously but also played hard off the ice. Nicholls points out that he stayed away from drinking and drugs during his life, but wasn't so resolute when it came to the other major temptations of the hockey life, gambling and women. There are a few stories in the book about betting on NFL games for example, a matter that might have caused some conversation had it comes out at the time.

It's hard to talk about Nicholls without bringing up the name of Wayne Gretzky. When No. 99 arrived in Los Angeles in 1988, he brought massive amounts of attention to the Kings. Gretzky couldn't have done more on the ice for the team, and he was a great boost for Nicholls. Bernie thrived as teams couldn't afford to worry about much else but Gretzky's play, which helps explain Bernie's 150-point season. Nicholls here explains about how the two men became pretty close friends, surprising in that they seem a lot different in personality. 

But a little more than a year later, the Kings decided to trade one excellent player - Nicholls - to the Rangers for two good ones in an attempt to add some depth to the lineup. After that first season in New York, Nicholls never had more than 25 goals in a season. The bouncing around the league continued through 1998. He did a little coaching for the Kings in 2012, and played a role in that team's championship.

There are plenty of stories about games, teammates and opponents here, and they are fine. There are also stories about expensive houses and fast cars. Nicholls' salary reached a million dollars a year at one point, and it's fair to say he got his money's worth out of it. He does spent quite a few pages near the end talking about how much he respected his father. That's nice, although Mom doesn't get the same level of attention, which is at the least interesting.

The book is a very quick read; I got through it in a day without much effort. As you might guess, it's on the superficial side. Nicholls' wife pops up only briefly in the narrative, mostly because of a difficult pregnancy that led to Bernie not reporting to Edmonton for two months after he was traded by the Rangers. The twin children don't come up much in the story. Nicholls did have a child die shortly after birth, and certainly that level of tragedy must have put all sorts of stress on the family. The couple split at some point after that. Nicholls writes here that he never went to therapy after that tragedy, and didn't want to discuss his feelings on the subject. "I don't talk about my feelings," he says in the book. That's his right, although it's easy for bystanders to wonder from a distance if that was the best course of action under those horrible circumstances. 

Nicholls didn't have many great team moments in his career, but "Bernie Nicholls" will supply some background on the hockey career of this very good performer. Just don't expect more than that, and the book will work as the story of a fish that wound up way out of the Ontario waters. 

Three stars

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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Review: Game On (2024)

By David Bockino

If you been following the sports media during recent times, you know that the business seems to be changing by the hour these days. It's tough to keep up with all of the methods and choices that are out there, partially because the options turn over so quickly. 

In other words - used an AOL account to sign on to the Internet lately?

I suppose all of this started with the rise of spectator sports in the 19th century, when people began to have enough leisure time to participate and watch in physical activities rather than worry most of the time about where the next meal was coming from. The newspaper industry was cranking up its mass production levels at the same time, and it was a perfect marriage ... for a while.

But then, around 100 years ago, the business began to change. That's where David Bockino's book, "Game On," comes in. He's taken a good-sized look at some of the highlights of the big moments of development for that industry, and has put together a relatively easy-to-read guide to the subject. 

Bockino, a former ESPN employee who now works as a professor at Elon University in North Carolina, begins with the rise of a couple of different vehicles for telling sports stories. One was film. The Johnson-Jeffries fight had such strong interest that there was a demand to capture the fight that way so that it could be replayed later for audiences. Jack Johnson's victory over James J. Jeffries (who played The Great White Hope in that drama) led to some problems in the America of 1910, which in some cases wasn't happy about the sight of a Black man beating up a white man - even in motion pictures. 

The other came a decade or so later, when a Jack Dempsey fight with George Carpentier was broadcast on radio on a network of sorts in 1921. We didn't know what the future held at that point, but we could see and hear it to a certain extent.

With that we go on a ride through some important moments in the history of the sports media. Television displayed its potential with a broadcast of the 1947 World Series. Sports Illustrated offered a different perspective soon after its arrival in 1954. The NFL was allowed to sell its television rights collectively after an act of Congress permitted it in 1961;. The first Ali-Frazier fight of 1971 displayed the potential of closed-circuit broadcast of big events; you can see the link to pay-per-view broadcasts from there. 

Then there's the birth of ESPN, the opening of college sports broadcasts on a much larger scale, the rise of sports talk radio, the birth of social media, and the spread of sports broadcasts nationally. Lately, the decision to legalize sports betting in 2018 is changing the landscape in unseen ways as we talk about it. It's worth noting that Bochino spends some time on "foreign" events, such as European and Latin American soccer, along with cricket and the opening of the Chinese market to outside interests.  

Let's give Bockino credit for doing his homework. This is a well-researched book. Even someone who has followed events closely will learn some things along the way. That should keep you reading if you pick it up in the first place. The events might not be all interesting; I had a little trouble figuring out why I should care too much about sports media in Argentina. I'm also surprised that the demise of newspapers doesn't receive some examination along the way.

It doesn't seem as if there's an overriding theme that unites the chapters of the book together. Bockino does make a fair point that the sports media seems to be racing toward more personalization as a rule. In other words, fans these days can stick to watching a particular team or sport exclusively if they wish. They also can tailor the news through certain outlets to reflect their own interests. Companies can still make lots of money focusing on one team, but it's not like 60 years when fans had to take what they were fed. 

There will be more of that in the future, naturally, and we'll be surprised again by how fast the changed arrived. "Game On" is done well enough to offer quite a few rewards to those who are willing to pick it up and read it.

Four stars

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Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Review: Magic (2023)

By Roland Lazenby

One of the unforeseen aspects of the rise of computers in the publishing industries is that some books are getting bigger.

Because they can be. 

A friend of mine in the industry once told me that it became much easier to write a mammoth publication when paragraphs could be bounced around the page like basketballs on the court. Since it's easier to put words in than take them out, it's only natural to see books on sale that are a heavy lift when carrying them out of the bookstore or when toted to your front door by the guy from Amazon.

That brings us to Roland Lazenby's book, "Magic."

This checks in at an impressive 832 pages. My edition was on Kindle, so no muscles were pulled in reading this book for a review. To be fair, there are some notes and a bibliography at the end, so the actual text probably under 800 pages. We're used to that when Robert Caro is writing about Lyndon Johnson, but basketball players usually don't get this sort of treatment. 

Still, the subject of this book is Earvin "Magic" Johnson, and he's in rare air. Magic certainly ranks as one of the best basketball players in history - a unicorn as a 6-foot-9 point guard who could make opponents' victories disappear. Even better, his absolute joy in playing and his flamboyant style made him one of the few players in history that just everyone loved to watch. They didn't call the Lakers' style in the 1980s "Showtime!" for nothing.

Lazenby goes well back into the past in opening the story of Johnson's life, climbing the roots of the family tree back to the Old South. The Johnsons eventually landed in Lansing, Michigan. By the time Earvin was a couple of years into high school, everyone knew he could be something special - although it was difficult to know how special. What's more, Johnson's infectious personality was on display right from the start. As Lazenby writes about, Earvin played a role in helping schools get through some difficult times when it came to integration. Johnson even made some speeches to his classmates along the way.

The man who picked up the nickname of "Magic" along the way in high school opted to stay close to home in college by going to Michigan State. He played in one of the most famous basketball games in history in 1979, the NCAA final against Larry Bird and Indiana State. It was the start of a relationship hat would last a lifetime in various forms. 

You probably know what happened from there. Johnson joined the Los Angeles Lakers, and helped them win an NBA title in 1980. The championships popped up regularly through the 1980, featuring some epic clashes with Bird's Celtics that did wonders for the NBA's image. But then Johnson tested positive for HIV, essentially and eventually cutting his career short. Magic moved into the business world, and perhaps surprisingly showed that he was a quick learner there too. Johnson's wealth is well into nine figures these days.

Lazenby certainly has the time and space to explore just about everything at length, and no one can dispute that the major moments of Johnson's life are fully covered. There are even quite a few "I didn't know that" moments that pop up along the way, and not all of them are flattering. Still, the author captures the player and his era quite nicely. That's not unexpected, since he's written a number of basketball books over the years, many of them on the Lakers in particular. 

The last word about "Magic" comes down to a simple question. If you are intently interested in the life of this Hall of Fame, then you're sure to go through this book in its entirety with enthusiasm. As for the rest of us, we probably could have lost a couple of hundred pages without much difficulty - but it's still worth the read.

Four stars

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Sunday, May 12, 2024

Review: Finished Business (2021)

By Ray Didinger

Ray Didinger had been following the Philadelphia Eagles for essentially his entire life. It started with parents who had the idea that there was nothing better on a summer afternoon than to go watch the team work out under a hot sun in training camp.

From there it was on to college, where he decided to become a sports journalist. Didinger quickly rose up the ladder from one job and newspaper to the next, eventually becoming one of the youngest beat writers in the NFL and then moved on to become a columnist. Eventually he moved into other mediums, such as working for NFL Films and in radio and television. 

Along the way, eventually he became one of "those guys" that became the most respected opinion on local sports in the area. Every city has a couple. They seem to tap in to what the community is thinking, simply because they are so familiar with how the population thinks. 

When Philadelphia won its first Super Bowl in 2018, Didinger did a little celebrating too - famously with a big hug with his son on camera. And he thought to himself that an NFL championship was just the bow he needed to tie his life in sports together in the form of an autobiography of sorts.

That book is called "Finished Business," and it holds up very nicely as a readable look back at an interesting career. 

One of the good parts about books like this centers on the basic job of reporters. That is to say, they rely on the kindness of strangers for information. Yes, Didinger's life story is covered here. But it's basically a clothesline to hang stories about famous athletes and personalities. Since Philadelphia is a big town, its stars are well known nationally.

Therefore, there's information about a variety of athletes from an upclose viewpoint. Bobby Clarke. Mike Schmidt, Julius Erving. Dick Vermeil. Some other characters come up who might be a little less familiar to national readers, like Eagles' owner Leonard Tose and wrestler Sergeant Slaughter. 

The best chapter in the book, though, might have been the next-to-last one, though. It's the story of Didinger's relationship with Hall of Fame wide receiver Tommy McDonald. Ray first met him as a seventh grader at training camp as he walked back to the locker room after practice with him. It became a ritual that took place over the course of six years. Much later, the two were reunited in a different way - even if Didinger didn't immediately reveal the old-time connection to McDonald. Ray played a role in Tommy's induction in Canton, and they remained close until he died. Didinger even wrote a play about their relationship; it sounds like it would be worth seeing, even outside of Philadelphia.

There are a few excerpts from his writing here, enough to give you an idea of his style. But there's a book that's a collection of his work from 2007 that is available elsewhere. This is a more personal story, and the reviews of it on Amazon.com are downright rapturous.

Admittedly, I'm an easy target for stories from sportswriters, especially the veterans. But "Finished Business" goes down very smoothly - as you'd expect. Let's put it this way: You don't have to be from Philadelphia to enjoy it. 

Four stars

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Thursday, May 2, 2024

Review: The Greatest Comeback (2022)

By John U. Bacon

Do you like oral histories?

Hockey fans who pass that test certainly will like "The Greatest Comeback," even if the structure of the book doesn't completely fit the traditional description of that technique. 

It's a look back at the famous 1972 hockey series between Canada and the Soviet Union. For those of you who weren't paying attention back then, there's never been anything quite like this in sports. Canadians essentially invented the sport and developed it and its world dominance hadn't been questioned for decades. But after World War II, the Soviets came along with a completely new way of playing the game. It featuring puck possession, speed and conditioning. They eventually began to dominate international competition, although the Canadians usually were excluded from such matches as the Olympics because of their professional status. (Yes, we know the Soviet team was paid to play hockey by the government, but it was all part of the gamesmanship going on.)

With nothing else left to prove, the Soviets challenged the Canadians hockey to a series of games Team Canada accepted the offer, figuring in many cases that they could simply cruise to an easy victory and maintain its reputation as the world's ultimate hockey power. Overconfidence is never becoming in sports, and it can come back to bite you. Ask the Soviet hockey team of 1980, which figured it would have no trouble with a bunch of college kids from the United States at the Olympics in Lake Placid. Some on this side of the pond, including general manager Punch Imlach of the Buffalo Sabres, in 1972 figured Canada would win all eight games easily.

But it didn't work out that way. Team Canada was an all-star squad at the start without much of a sense of team. The players had enjoyed the summer off and weren't in top shape. And the administrators had made some decisions about such factors as scheduling and officials that didn't help. It's tough to describe the reaction in Canada to Game One of the series - a stunning 7-3 loss in Montreal. It only took a dozen minutes in that game for Paul Henderson of Team Canada to note, it was going to be a loooooong series.

But as we know now, Team Canada eventually got its act together. It started thinking like a team, and playing like one too. Fitness came around, and the coaches made adjustments in reacting to the Soviet's approach. The result was out of a storybook - three straight wins in Moscow to capture the series, 4-3-1. Was it the Greatest Comeback Ever? Under the circumstances, you could make a good case for it. Meanwhile, there are open fields in Canada because of all of the trees that needed to be chopped down in order to print all of the books printed on this matchup. 

What was it like for Team Canada to go on that ride? Answering that question was Bacon's biggest task. He managed to talk at great length to just about everyone connected with the squad, as well as a few others. Even the players' wives chipped in with some valuable memories. Bacon also had books by Harry Sinden and Ken Dryden that were written as the series progressed, and he talked some others such as Wayne Gretzky - who was watching as a youngster back in Ontario. It's all edited together nicely with a ton of quotes along the way, supplying the same effect as an oral history.

It's that effort that makes this book a winner. We read about what all of the players were thinking along the way, on and off the ice. As an example, the NHL players rarely even spoke to opposing players in that era - even at All-Star Games. That created some walls that had to be broken down. By the end of the series, though, they realized that they were forever linked as participants in what was voted as one of the most significant events in Canadian history. The Soviets are kept at a distance here, and that really doesn't hurt the story much. There are books out there that cover that angle if you are interested.

There are all sorts of details of the series here that hadn't come up elsewhere. For example, four players left the team about halfway through as something of a protest about a lack of playing time. Two of them were Sabres - Gil Perreault and Rick Martin. I can't say I've read much about that particular aspect of the series, but the departure is covered quite thoroughly here. The reaction of the rest of the team, by the way, seems like it could be summed up with "good riddance." Bacon even comes up with the answer to a great Buffalo trivia question - what were Perreault and Martin's uniform numbers for the series? (It's 33 and 36 respectively.)

Bacon hasn't received enough acclaim for his work over the years. That's probably because he has written several books about the University of Michigan. That's a rather limited audience, particularly in the state of Ohio. But I've read a few of his books, and they've all been extremely well done. His name on the cover means you'll get something good. 

Meanwhile, the effects of that 1972 series linger to this day. The game we see today on the ice is a hybrid of the two styles that clashed back then. The skill level and pace of the game has improved drastically as a result. "The Greatest Comeback" is a full and readable account of how the road taken by the sport began. Even more than 50 years later, it's more than worth your time.

Five stars

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Monday, April 22, 2024

Review: Out of Left Field (2024)

By Stan Isaacs; edited by Aram Goudsouzian

This is one sports book that starts off with a mystery - and it's one that's difficult to solve.

Stan Isaacs had a nice run during most of the second half of the 20th century as a sportswriter. Most of that time was spent with Newsday, a daily newspaper that served Long Island. Eventually, he retired, and died in 2013.

Now, 11 years later, we have his autobiography, "Out of Left Field." That was the name of his column at Newsday for much of his time there. So ... where has it been? Sitting in a file cabinet or on a computer disk somewhere? There's no apparent explanation either in the book or elsewhere.

What is known is that Aram Goudsouzian did some editing to the manuscript, and convinced the University of Illinois Press to publish it. Now everyone can read "Out of Left Field."

And that's a good thing. Isaacs always wrote with a distinctive voice, and it's good to have a book full of his thoughts on an eventful career. He influenced such people as Tony Kornheiser and Keith Olbermann.

The title gives an indication of the way that Isaacs thought. When an idea comes from "out of left field," it's considered away from the mainstream and unconventional. That's Stan. This is a man who was always on the lookout for different ways of telling a story. 

For example, the Kansas City Athletics one time put sheep on a grassy section of their ballpark just beyond the outfield fence. He went out and watched a game with them one time. For example, Isaacs happened to be near the spot where George Washington allegedly threw a dollar over a river. So he investigated, and found with it probably could have been done with a metal coin and someone with a good arm (which Stan didn't quite have, although he missed by only a few feet). It's a narrow river. 

Isaacs had some company in that part of the sports world. He was part of the relatively famous "Chipmunks" of the early 1960s. This was a group of baseball writers who followed the Yankees at a time when sportswriters were expected to be so thrilled about following such a mighty institution that they didn't write anything critical and were content to consume free food and drink. Leonard Shechter and Larry Merchant were also a main part of that unconventional approach, and they picked up the nickname because of the protruding teeth of one of their fellow writers. Shechter, by the way, became famous as the coauthor of Jim Bouton's "Ball Four." 

In his job, Isaacs covered a variety of big events around the world, from league championships to the Olympics. He also encountered a variety of big-name personalities. Did you hear about the time the Beatles met Muhammad Ali? Stan was in the room. And he wasn't above having a little fun along the way. Like the time he made up a trade rumor involving Yogi Berra if only to see if it would come back to him. (It did.) Or the time he "liberated" the championship banner of the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers after the team moved to Los Angeles. Isaacs helped return it to its original home, where it hangs in a museum. 

There are some fun stories along the way, too. I particularly liked how someone had the idea of writing a somewhat sexy novel, and enlisted a couple of dozen members of the Newsday staff to write a chapter each. After some editing to eliminate the rough edges, the book was published and sold some copies. Then word came out about the backstory ... and it popped up on the best-seller list. Isaacs and all of the other writers split the proceeds, which came out to be several thousand dollars each. A movie version wasn't quite as successful.  

There are a couple of points that a potential reader should know going in. First of all, Isaacs was an unabashed liberal throughout his life. That occasionally popped up in his work, but it certainly influenced his thinking from childhood (a big fan of both Roosevelts) until the end. For example, he felt a little guilty about posing for a photo in 1969 with President Richard Nixon for decades. If you have trouble with that, you've been warned.

Second, the target audience for a book like this skews old. Some of the fun is hearing about Isaac's impressions of the people he encountered along the way. But those names are going to be ancient history to most people reading now, and the delay in publication probably worsened that issue. Some of the issues have changed too. A chapter on hypocrisy and the Olympics feels dated now. All of the scandals that Isaacs mentions have taken a bit of a toll on the Olympic movement and its popularity, although it's still a very valuable piece of television programming property.

The key point, though, is that Isaacs and his unique approach to sports writing always has been worth reading, and it remains so today. "Out of Left Field" is a brisk look back at an original thinker. Most sports fans will enjoy it on some level, although the older crowd represents the sweet spot of the main demographic.

Four stars

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Friday, April 19, 2024

Review: Let's Play Two (2019)

By Ron Rapoport

We may have reached the point where Ernie Banks has become one of the most underrated players in baseball history. 

Note: This does not include certain locations around the Chicago area.

Banks was one of the last stars to come out of the Negro Leagues when it broke up as the majors became integrated. It took him about a year and a half to figure out the majors after signing with the Chicago Cubs, He arrived in 1953 and was pretty good (second in Rookie of the Year voting) in 1954. But by 1955, Ernie had figured things out. He batted .295 with 44 homers and 117 RBI. It was sort of like that throughout the rest of the 1950s, as Banks won back-to-back MVP trophies. 

But by the early 1960s, Banks' knees had started to deteriorate. He moved off shortstop, a spot where power wasn't expected, to first base, where it was. Ernie wasn't legging out many singles in those years, as he never hit .300 again. But he was still a threat to go deep, finishing with 512 homers in his career - a big number back in 1971, when he retired. So the number of people who remember him at the peak of his powers is decreasing rapidly.

Oddly, Banks became remembered about as much for his personality as for his skills on the diamond. He was the game's Mr. Sunshine, at least outwardly. Ernie is still remembered for his quote, "It's a beautiful day for baseball, let's play two." That reputations stayed with him for the rest of his life.

But what was he really like? That's the mission that Ron Rapoport sets out to accomplish in the book, "Let's Play Two."

The author covers all the bases quite nicely, pardon the pun. Banks grew up relatively poor in Dallas, and it comes out that Ernie's mother was a cousin of - wait for it - O.J. Simpson's mother. Small world. But he was good at athletics, and eventually was steered to baseball. From there it was on to the Kansas City Monarchs, who were at the end of a memorable run in the Negro Leagues. Banks took a detour into the Army for a while, but soon after his release he was off to start a career in the major leagues with the Cubs.

Banks was tough on stereotypes once he settled in for a job. Shortstops of that era were supposed to be good fielders who could steal a base every once in a while after hitting at the bottom of the order. Johnny Logan of the Braves was a good shortstop of that era, hitting .297 with 13 homers. He wasn't in the same area code as Banks.

Despite having a great building block in Banks, the Cubs never did much in the standings during the shortstop's best years. Rapoport does a really good job of bringing back the era of the early 1960s when the Cubs thought it would be a great idea to rotate head coaches instead of having a single manager. It was rather typical of a dysfunctional franchise that never could get out of its way. 

It took some years for Chicago to figure out how to win some games. The Cubs brought in names such as Billy Williams, Ron Santo and Ferguson Jenkins, who led the team to respectability. What's more, they brought in Leo Durocher as manager, who if nothing else was never boring. There's plenty here about the fabled 1969 season when the Cubs collapsed - allowing the Mets to win the division and eventually the World Series. That was a very sore subject in Northern Illinois until at least 2016 ... and maybe still qualifies in some households today. 

That's an interesting baseball life, but Banks didn't really inject much of his personality into it. At times he disappears into something of a supporting role in the stories about the team. If he was a team leader, he was a quiet one. The slugger wasn't one to criticize Durocher when the skipper tried to push him out of the lineup. Ernie discovered at an early age that keeping relatively quiet and staying upbeat in dealing with strangers worked well on most levels. That means he doesn't play a key role in some of the highlights of Cubs' play during the course of his career.

Meanwhile, the book opened with a long story about how difficult it was to get Ernie to talk about himself. And when he did so and repeated some of them to others, the stories didn't quite match up. Banks spent a lot of time during conversations asking strangers about their lives, an interesting defense mechanism. 

Ernie's home life comes under a bit of scrutiny here. He went through four wives in his life, and his children didn't get the chance to be as close to their dad as they would have liked. The relatives couldn't figure him out either.

Banks remained a somewhat elusive personality right through his death, so this is about as close as we're likely to get to a complete portrait. "Let's Play Two" is a very good review of the life of arguably the most popular baseball player in Chicago's history.  

Four stars

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Saturday, April 6, 2024

Review: Baseball: The Movie (2024)

By Noah Gittell

If you are a good-sized baseball fan, you probably love baseball movies. 

You got a little weepy at the "Dad, wanna have a catch?" line in "Field of Dreams." You laughed at "There's no crying in baseball" during "A League of Their Own." You laughed harder at "Candlesticks always make a nice gift. OK? Let's get two!" in "Bull Durham."

You may have even enjoy the silly movie from about 74 years ago, "Kill the Umpire" ... although that may be stretching the point a bit.  

The point is that there is a relatively long tradition of baseball movies in this country, and the total collection has gone through a variety of forms over the years. That makes it an interesting starting point for a good-sized analysis. Film critic and writer Noah Gittell sets out to publish a something of a opinionated history of the subject in his book, "Baseball: The Movie." 

Gittell's goal certainly is worthwhile. He takes on most of the major releases in this class, starting with "The Pride of the Yankees" and running through "Sugar" (a 2008 movie about a fictional pitcher from the Dominican Republic). I suppose you could think of a clothesline, with a series of films hung up for inspection one after another in chronological order, more or less. 

The movies mentioned above (except for "Kill the Umpire") come up. So do such films as "The Jackie Robinson Story," "Fear Strikes Out," "Damn Yankees," "Bang the Drum Slowly," "The Natural," "Major League," "Moneyball" and "42." They get a full analysis here, as do some others in passing. There are a few asides along the way, such as this sidebar: "Is 'The Naked Gun' a Baseball Movie? An Investigation."

Gittell obviously put in some time here in collecting information for the book. There are many signs of research that come up along the way. For example, I had never heard that "Moneyball" went through a big rewrite once director Steven Soderbergh fell away from the project. So it's fun to go through the movies and see how they are remembered now. While you might argue about where a particular movie ranks in order of best baseball films based on the words in the essay, most are in the right neighborhood. 

But does the book work? As the car companies say, your mileage may vary. The guess here is that reactions are going to be all over the place. 

Let's start with the obvious: The readers needs to have seen the movies involved. I was doing fine in the first two-thirds of the book, and then I hit a wall of movies I haven't seen. I would guess that plenty of people have viewed "The Sandlot," "Rookie of the Year," "Trouble withe the Curve" and "Fences." I missed them all. So those portions of the book were of little interest to me, and I had to skim through them very quickly. 

Then we get into the matter of approach, and here's where the arguments start. Gittell definitely is on the left side of the political spectrum as these things go. He quotes sports writer Dave Zirin - the most liberal voice in the sports business, or someone at least in the running - a few times during the course of the book. The movies in question are rated through the prism, with frequent questions about how minorities and women are portrayed. That might be a fair enough point in some cases, but sometimes it can feel like the point is pounded into the story with a hammer instead of a keyboard. I can't say I saw a comparison of "Moneyball" to Howard Dean's Presidential campaign coming, but there's one here.

That viewpoint comes out in complaints about what movies are made in the first place. Gittell argues that more movies about Latin players should be made. His list includes a story about a 19th century baseball player from Cuba named Esteban Enrique Bellan, who played in America from 1868 to 1873. That's a little idealistic, since movies are designed for a mass audience .... and such a film might have trouble getting financing. 

Then there's the matter of timing. Some of the movies are set in a particular era. "The Natural" is set in 1939, so it's rather unrealistic to think African Americans would play much of a role of the film. With "A League of Their Own," it would be quite natural to think that some of the women of the 1940s would be torn with the decision of playing ball or raising a family. With "Major League," a movie that has some laughs but is usually too silly to take too seriously, the only good-sized role for a woman is the evil owner who wants the team to stink so she can move it from Cleveland to Miami and make money.

The movies on Jackie Robinson do take some hits about the way that he is portrayed in relation to benevolent white businessmen (mostly Branch Rickey) who give him an opportunity to play in the majors out of the alleged goodness of their hearts. That doesn't give enough credit to Robinson by any standard, and it's more than fair. However, these movies aren't documentaries, and sometimes a movie version of a life story doesn't come out right. After seeing the movie "Ali," I wrote the late critic Roger Ebert and asked if knowing too much about the subject of a film can detract from the enjoyment of it. He wrote back - "I think it can. But remember, no life is a movie." And that's a good way of thinking about it. 

By the way, there's going to be someone out there who will point out that Gittell is charged with an error in using an incorrect word that came up in the book "Ball Four" about the Yankees' "Peeping Tom" activities. He also makes a mistake in describing in "Bang the Drum Slowly" that the card game called TEGWAR is called "The Excellent Game Without Any Rules" in the text, while it's "The Exciting Game Without Any Rules" in the movie. Baseball fans aren't too forgiving about mistakes; ask someone about Joe Jackson hitting the wrong way in "Field of Dreams." (Speaking of the latter movie, it's interesting that the actual lyric from the song "The Streets or Laredo" contains "Beat the drum slowly" and not 'bang.' I wonder how that happened.)

Gittell does make a good point in saying that baseball movies are on the decline these days. Most of them now come out of faith-based operations, with inspirational stories to tell to a relatively small audience. No doubt the accountants in Hollywood are wondering how well baseball travels in our world these days, although you'd think there would be room for any well-told tale. 

As you may have guessed by now, there are a great many thoughts running around the mind after reading "Baseball: The Movie," many of them political in nature. That means some people will embrace the concepts, while others will reject them. That's the time we live in.

In other words, if Ebert were asked to rate this book, he'd probably stick his thumb sideways.

Three stars

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Thursday, April 4, 2024

Review: Baseball Obscura 2024

By David J. Fleming

It's always good to see someone new try to break into the lineup.

That's the basic story behind David J. Fleming's book, "Baseball Obscura 2024." 

Fleming had been doing some writing on Bill James' website for several years, tackling a variety of baseball-related subjects. That outlet died, and Fleming thought he'd like to read a book containing some essays about the sport, mostly tied to an upcoming season. Since there really wasn't such a publication out there, he wrote the book himself. And he's not above poking a bit of fun at himself along the way for attempting it, which is nice to see.

The title is a reference to the camera obscura, which came into use in the 15th century - in other words, Columbus might have heard of it. It was a darkened room that had a small hole at one end. It was used to project an image inside that room. For example, scientists could study what a solar eclipse looked like without damaging their eyes along the way. I thought the title might have something to do with a search for obscure information. But this - a way of looking at information in a novel way - might be an even better rationale for the title.

Every major league team gets a few pages, starting with a recap of basic statistics. Some of them have one long essay about a particular area, while others are broken into pieces. The pages go by quite quickly, all things considered. Fleming writes that he's interested in how teams are constructed, and there are some good thoughts along those lines. For example, he's a little more upbeat on the future of the Detroit Tigers than I would have thought.

And, he's one of the lone voices who is wondering about the Yankees' acquisition of Juan Soto. He simply doesn't know if it was worth giving up four good pitching prospects for the chance to have Soto for a year. The outfielder obviously got off to a great start in New York, and he's been a great player for most of his career. Usually a four-for-one deal works out best for the team that acquires the best player, but there are no guarantees. And it's tough to know if that's the best way to approach the building of a team. 

The book ends with a few more general essays. The story of Bullet Joe Rogan, who was the Shohei Ohtani of the Negro Leagues in terms of the the pitcher/hitter combination, was particularly interesting. It's the type of essay that you really don't get anywhere else.  

This all comes with a bit of an asterisk, which we will borrow from the record book; Roger Maris' 1961 season doesn't really need it. "Baseball Obscura 2024" is self-published. That's going to mean that some compromises had to be made in terms of quality. It is to be expected.

There are some typographical errors along the way. One that made me feel a little uncomfortable - in the "been there, done that" sense - was the misspelling of the last name of Luis Robert Jr. of the White Sox. It came out Roberts in the team essay. There are some other mistakes, and they seem to pick up speed as the book goes along. Fleming does say that he ran out of time to have someone do a good cleaning of the text.

He also says he could complete some of his ideas when it came to writing essays, and that feels about right. There are a few sections that feel like fillers. 

Still, Fleming deserves all sorts of credit and admiration for giving this a try. It was obviously a good-sized amount of work, and he did get the book produced. "Baseball Obscura 2024" is a good start, and it's fairly priced at $16. The people who have reviewed it for Amazon seem to like it a lot. The author deserves some encouragement to see if he can take more steps forward in the future.

Three stars

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Saturday, March 30, 2024

Review: Charlie Hustle (2024)

By Keith O'Brien

A Philadelphia sportscaster once offered an appropriate one-sentence summary of baseball's Pete Rose:

"He's a helluva guy, but he'd bet you on what time it was."

Yup, that's Pete. You can say a lot about his life, which now has gone past 80 years, but you can't say it's been boring.

No wonder we're still talking about this legendary player, who had a fall that Shakespeare would have appreciated. Rose was one of baseball's all-time greats, but betting on baseball while managing the Cincinnati Reds led the his forced departure from his association of the game/business. 

Rose has had plenty written about him over the years, naturally. He returns to the literary spotlight in a new biography called "Charlie Hustle" by Keith O'Brien, which ranks as the most comprehensive account yet of Rose's life. Not only did the author interview dozens of people and went through a ton of records and transcripts of report, but he even talked to Rose himself for a few days ... before Rose got angry for whatever reason and stopped returning phone calls. 

Rose's story started out as the Basic Local Boy Makes Good. tale. He grew up in modest surroundings in Cincinnati, with a father who was a good but not great athlete. Pete didn't seem to pay much attention to school work, but baseball was another story. Nobody outworked him, and he signed to play with the hometown Reds right out of high school. After a shockingly brief stay in the minors (only a couple of years), Rose wound up in the Cincinnati lineup in 1963. He was good enough to be the Rookie of the Year in the National League. Pete also picked up the nickname of "Charlie Hustle" from Yankee stars Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford because of the way he ran everywhere on the field - particularly while going to first after a walk.

Rose simply got better and better from there. In 1965, Rose led the league in hits for the first of seven times and hit .300 for the first of 15 times. He won a Most Valuable Player award, played in 17 All-Star Games, and claimed three championships. Most notably, he broke Ty Cobb's seemingly unbreakable major-league record for most hits in a career. Pete was a player-manager of the Reds at that point, and he probably was the only person that would have put his name on a major-league lineup card. But it did happen.

It's hard to underestimate how popular Rose was during that period. He clearly wasn't the most physically talented player on the field, but no one worked harder. An undiagnosed case of ADHD probably was part of the formula for success.

But O'Brien points out, there were some red flags that were flying along the way. Pete picked up a love of gambling on horse racing as a teen, and that issue only grew as the years went on. Add in a personality who didn't seem to take his wedding vows too seriously and the intake of amphetamines, and this clearly was someone who was flirting with danger. However, Rose was so popular that many were willing to look the other way. Perhaps a little discipline in those playing days might have changed his path. Or, maybe not. 

That brings us to the second half of the book, more or less, as a baseball story turns into a crime story. Rose was betting on a variety of activities by the time he was managing, including baseball. Rose hung out with enough shady characters so that word was bound to leak out to the authorities. He probably thought he could have slid by again, but gambling on baseball is the proverbial red line of the sport. But, as O'Brien outlines step by step, the case against him got bigger and bigger, and the sport's authority figures eventually had little choice but to ban him from the game. 

And as the author points out, everyone was probably willing to give Rose an edge even then. If Pete had come out and just said that he had made some mistakes and that he was sorry, his suspension would have been a relatively short one and he'd probably be in the Hall of Fame by now. But instead, Rose dug in and denied everything for several years ... and then he wrote a book about his true activities. 

Rose has become a sad figure these days in some ways. He spends some of his time signing autographs for fans who don't think he needs forgiveness for anything. He's an idol for life for them. There's the occasional story on the media on what he's thinking these days, especially in the light of the embrace by sports of gambling once the laws on that subject were changed. 

I'm not a particularly big fans of books on crime, and the dive into that particularly part of the underworld wasn't the highlight of the book for me. But I'm willing to admit that the story is quite clearly told, and that it's necessary under the circumstances. 

"Charlie Hustle" certainly will go down on the last word on the subject of Pete Rose. For those who are too young to remember Pete as a player and want to find out what the fuss was all about, this is a good place to start.

Five stars

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Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Review: It's Hard for Me to Live with Me (2024)

By Rex Chapman with Seth Davis

Read enough books, and you are bound to come across a story of someone relatively famous who has fallen victim to some sort of addiction. Everyone from Eric Clapton to Dwight Gooden has written down their stories, which can be a form of therapy for some. While accepting the courage that they show in getting down everything on paper, such books are usually less than what we'd call "entertaining."

That brings us to Rex Chapman's book, "It's Hard for Me to Live With Me." It's an extremely readable account of his life to date, which gets him off to a great start in winning over the reader. That's often crucial in autobiographies.

Chapman has carved out a few niches for himself over the years. His first addiction was to basketball, in a sense. It's easy to guess that he thought the sport was a way to gain approval from his father, himself a basketball coach who was distant and who really didn't have much of an idea who to raise a child. The rest of the family had some other problems, leaving basketball as something of a refuge to Rex. Nothing else seems to have mattered to him, and he won a big enough share of the genetic lottery to become very good at the sport. Chapman became a high school star in Kentucky, a state that follows basketball like few others. That drove a wedge between Rex and his sister, who always had to play a lesser role because of her big brother. It also allowed him to get away with behavior that in most cases would be severely punished, but instead drew a half-hearted remark from authority figures who essentially said, "Don't do that again," and then tried to forget about it. 

Chapman soon caught the attention of the University of Kentucky. He originally planned to attend Louisville, but a campus visit quickly showed him that the Wildcats lived like kings. That sounded good to Rex, who wasn't too thrilled about the studying aspect of college anyway. He became a standout at Kentucky, and stayed two seasons before the call of the NBA and its money became too much to avoid. Besides, the Wildcats were headed for trouble in the form of a recruiting scandal.

Along the way, Chapman did receive an education of the ways of the South, even in the 1980s. He had an African-American girlfriend in high school and college, and the two of them learned that the sight of such a couple didn't go over too well in some quarters - so they stayed in a lot. In fact, a couple of times people called Rex in to talk about the relationship and told him to be careful. "We don't care who you date, but there are others out there who won't like it," was the speech. There's still some bitterness there, and deservedly so.

Chapman was a first-round draft choice who was a good scorer; he was always in double-digits in scoring during his 12-year career. The problem was that he often was injured, only playing more than 70 games in a season once in his career (75 as a rookie). He finished with 666 games played in 12 years, which averages out to about 55. Even when he was playing, he often wasn't at 100 percent.

When Chapman was finally done in 2000, you've never seen anyone as ill-prepared to enter a world without basketball and its NBA-sized paychecks. He quickly engaged in activities that were sure to drain a bank account - addition to prescriptions, gambling, divorce, cars, etc. Millions went down those drains. It reached the point where Chapman really did live in his car at times.

Such stories sometimes end in tragedy. In this case, Chapman picks up some work here and there through basketball connections. He also became a very unexpected icon on social media, starting with the posting of fun videos. That led to a series of posts on collisions called "Block or Charge?" He's ridden that to more television work, almost landing a show of his own on CNN at one point. It's reached the point that Chapman's book needed no time at all to reach the best-seller lists upon its release. 

The key point in all of this is that Chapman is honest throughout the book. He writes about how he was always willing to accept "gifts" from Kentucky boosters in the form of $100 (or more) handshakes, or take a little "loan" from them later during tough times. He also labels his Kentucky coach, Eddie Sutton, an alcoholic during Rex's time in Lexington, which is a bit surprising. Chapman is tough on others, but maybe tougher on himself.

The story moves along nicely, and the guess is that the talented Seth Davis, Chapman's co-author, had something to do with that. This can be read in a couple of days rather easily. A couple of sentences get repeated along the way, which is rather amateurish. But you'll get over it.

Chapman comes across in "It's Hard for Me to Live With Me" as someone who played the system surrounding talented athletes for a while, taking advantage of its benefits. However, he was rather blind-sighted by the after-effects of the decisions he made along the way. While Chapman's crash to earth is quite a story, perhaps the lessons we should learn from the pampering of athletes at a young age need to teach us something. In other words, it's an interesting and unusual life story that could have been even longer. But basketball fans will find what he did write down to be worth their time. 

Four stars

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