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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