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

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

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

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

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

Be notified of new posts on via @WDX2BB.

Friday, March 22, 2024

Review: Baseball Prospectus 2024

Edited by Patrick Dubuque, Bryan Grosnick and Ginny Searle

It feels as if the smart guys at Baseball Prospectus - and I use that phrase with a ton of respect - have reached a bit of a turning point in their annual books on the sport. That requires a bit of explanation. 

The book's 29th edition, "Baseball Prospectus 2024," is out, and it's the latest in a successful series that dates back to the mid-1990s. That's when we start to see the first blooms of the analytic revolution in baseball, in which teams were investing in people who knew something about the ever-growing tool box that could be used to study baseball. In fact, the teams themselves often raided Baseball Prospectus for talent, along the lines of the way it treats minor league affiliates. "Say, that guy can help us win."

The early editions became something of a follow-up to Bill James' Baseball Abstracts, which stopped in 1988. Not only did the authors of BP go down some new paths in a search for new evaluation tools, but they also learned from James that good writing was a good-sized part of the job. It was the writing that collected some of the attention, as in "Say, these guys can make me laugh and learn at the same time." There was just enough snark and attitude to make it work. 

That was important, because the publication didn't want to limit its audience to just the (another loving reference coming) statistical nerds. So reading it was entertaining and informative.

That toolbox has grown in size greatly in the past several years. Some of the measures of ballpark performance has become fairly common - OPS, WAR, WARP. Others less so. There's so much more that we know these days, about chances of catching a fly ball to the amount of break on a slider.

So it was a little fear that I noticed that the first 10 pages of this year's book was dedicated to explaining what was going within the paes. And stats like ZSw% and OCon$ popped up in the player capsules, among others. Some others, like average MPH by a pitcher's fastball, are sadly gone. (That one I understood.) It's starting to feel as if some more people just got left behind. 

I tend to read the capsules for an update on what's going on around MLB. That means I generally stick to the players on my favorite teams, although I do try to glance as most of the people who are on major league rosters. (At close to 600 pages, I'm not up to reading every word ... but it's nice that it's all written for others.) It seems that the stats have crowded out the clever writing at times, even I learn some things along the way.

There are still instances of good prose scattered throughout the book. The team essays have almost been interesting, and continue to be interesting. The coverage of prospects remains terrific. In other words, this is still worth buying. But, "Baseball Prospectus 2024" isn't as quite as much fun to read as its predecessors. So if you are a baseball fan, know that beforehand before you plunk down your money.

Four stars

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

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

Thursday, March 14, 2024

Review: Present at the Creation (2017)

By Upton Bell with Ron Borges

The name of Upton Bell probably doesn't ring much of a, ahem, bell with many of the sports fans of today. Yes, he was in the sports media for a few decades in the Boston area, which probably is how he is best remembered.

However, that was his second go-around in the sports business. It was his first that might be of more interest, at least from an historical perspective. Bell's time in football is nicely chronicled in his book, "Present at the Creation." You can break that portion of his career into four different sections, which are covered here.

* He was the son of the former NFL Commissioner Bert Bell. 

* He was part of the front office of the Baltimore Colts during much of the 1960s.

* He was the general manager of the New England Patriots for a couple of years in the early 1970s. 

* He was the operating manager of the Charlotte franchise in the World Football League, an operation that lasted a mere two years in the 1970s. 

That is a rather intriguing resume, at least in terms of football history. It should be enough to draw some people in.

Bell's father probably ranks with one of the unsung heroes in the history of the NFL. There's a tendency to believe that Pete Rozelle deserves much of the credit for the growth in the league starting in the 1950s. However, Bell established a foundation for that growth in the 1950s. Granted, Upton's version is a little biased - as well it should be. But Bert seems like a man of integrity, and he took several steps that placed the sport of football on a national stage. Sadly, Bert essentially dropped dead during a game in 1959, just after he was making plans to try to step out of the Commissioner's job. Upton at least had an inside look at how pro football administration worked even before he graduated from college.

Upton eventually moved over to a job with the Baltimore Colts, showing an ability to find talent in the nation's colleges and thus having several drafts that helped propel the Colts to a contender's status throughout the 1960s. Baltimore had an interesting team in that era, led by a couple of strong personalities in quarterback John Unitas and head coach Don Shula ... who didn't really get along too well. While the Green Bay Packers are considered the dominant team of that era, it wouldn't have taken much to flip that script. The Colts lost key games to the Browns in the 1964 NFL championship, to the Packers in a 1965 playoff game (featuring a missed call on a field-goal attempt in the final minutes), and famously to the Jets in the 1969 Super Bowl. 

Indeed, the best part of the book might be the one devoted to that Jets' game. Bell said the Colts had figured out that New York not only had a better quarterback (Joe Namath vs. Earl Morrall) for that matchup, but also had better running backs and better wide receivers. In addition, age had caught up with Baltimore on the right side of the defense, and Jets' coach Weeb Eubank - the former head coach in Baltimore - knew it. Even so, the Colts probably would have won the game more than half the time; they just picked the wrong day to have a stinker. 

Still, the Colts' good run of success made Bell an attractive candidate for a promotion elsewhere, and he received it when he was named the general manager of the Boston/New England Patriots in 1971. As Bell writes, it seemed like a good idea at the time. The Patriots had been a mess for the previous several years, but Bell didn't realize how much of a mess it was. I'm fond of saying that sports teams lose for a reason, even if that reason isn't apparent from a distance. In this case, the team's Board of Directors was hopelessly fractured, and authority was scattered throughout the company. That rarely works. Bell lasted almost two years before the end mercifully came. The problems continued for a couple of more decades.

Bell received one more shot at pro football glory, taking an opportunity that became available in the World Football League. Stories of new leagues are always entertaining in a somewhat tragic sort of way. Bell helped move a franchise from New York to Charlotte, the opposite direction of what you might think was a path to success. However, the overall problems of the league overwhelmed Bell and the Hornets didn't need much of a push to be caught up in it. The WFL was dead before its second and final season ended in 1975, and so was Bell's football career.

"Football men" are notorious for having a limited focus on life, concentrating completely on the game rather than the world around it. One of the joys of this book is that Bell doesn't seem to suffer from that. He offers some good stories about what it was like to scout players in the South of the 1960s, where he had a first-hand look at the changes that were starting to take place. 

Bell probably could have fit a few more stories about his media days into the book, but what he offers is quite interesting. It already is closing in on 400 pages as is. Anyone who picks it up in the first place probably is looking for stories about football history, so this doesn't really date for what might be a somewhat limited audience. The pages go by quite quickly. 

In hindsight, it's easy to see why Bell had some success in the sports world. He's a smart, articulate man, and "Present at the Creation" reflects that. Those who fit into the proper demographic will find the book worth their time.

Four stars

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

(Be notifiied of posts on this site on via @WDX2BB.)