Monday, June 12, 2017

Review: Hockey Towns (2015)

By Ron MacLean with Kirstie McLellan Day

Ron MacLean, best known north of the border for his hosting work on Hockey Night in Canada, apparently has become something of an author in his spare time.

His first book was something of an autobiography, "Cornered," which was a rather entertaining look at his career and his encounters with interesting people along the way.

In 2015, MacLean came back with "Hockey Towns." My guess, and it's only a guess, that MacLean probably was even more comfortable with the approach this time around. Here he pretty much stays out of the picture, and tells stories about some people in hockey across Canada.

CBC has traveled across the country over the years to look at the relationship of Canada and its national pastime. The hockey community really is closely knit up there. While the format salutes a variety of locations crossing this giant nation, MacLean and Kirstie McLellan Day stick to other people here.

Some of the best stories here answer the question "Whatever happened to ...?" There are a variety of NHL players who pass through our lives as fans, sometimes not stopping long enough in one place for us to get to know them. There's Trent McCleary, who almost died after blocking a shot but recovered enough to give the sport one last shot. Steve Bozek scratched out 12 years in the NHL, a few more than even he hoped for. Brad Dalgarno's career didn't work out the way he hoped, but he did get to play guitar on stage with Garth Brooks.

There are tales about names you know. Doug Wickenheiser was a No. 1 overall draft choice who drew comparisons to Wayne Gretzky, but that's a rather high bar to reach - particularly when you get hit by a car that wrecks your knee along the way. Speaking of Gretzky, you'll love a story about a childhood friend signed him to a "book contract" - in high school. There are also tales about some of the other people in hockey - officials and administrators and a broadcaster and parents, including the remarkable story of the father of Zenon Konopka.

Does it all work? Not completely. A few of the stories aren't that interesting to an outsider. Some of the tales don't have happy endings, if you are looking for such work. And in a few cases, such as the subchapter on Eric Lindros, more information would have been nice.

While MacLean does write introductions to the chapters, he doesn't seem to have too much involvement with most of the stories themselves. Based on the credits, it seems like the two names on the cover had plenty of help putting this together. That puts a little distance between the authors and their stories in some cases, and a more personal touch might have worked better.

Put it all together, and "Hockey Towns" is a pleasant enough read for hockey fans. I wouldn't go much farther than that, though.

Three stars

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Sunday, June 4, 2017

Review: The Last Innocents (2016)

By Michael Leahy

We all thought, at the time, the Los Angeles Dodgers were an interesting team in the 1960s.

This was a team, after all, that played baseball as if it were the Dead Ball Era (pre-1920). Not every game was 1-0, but it seemed that way. The Dodgers had a couple of Hall of Fame pitchers, and scratched out a run or two to help them win. A rally was a walk, two stolen bases and a sacrifice fly. John McGraw would have loved it.

But they may be even more interesting now, thanks to the work of author Michael Leahy. His thoroughly research book on those Dodgers, "The Last Innocents," does an excellent job on shedding new light on a team that came very close to being a dynasty.

Just for background's sake, let's review what the team accomplished in that era. The Dodgers moved out of Brooklyn in 1957, and started to turn over their roster. Their World Series win in 1959 was something of a mixture of the old and new, but the team had a new look by the team the team moved into Dodger Stadium in 1962 - a pitcher's park in which runs would be hard to come by.

Sandy Koufax was about to become, well, Sandy Koufax, and Don Drysdale was mighty good too at the top of the rotation. A scrawny shortstop named Maury Wills, considered a nonprospect by most, grabbed a starting job and revolutionized the game by bringing the stolen base back. The Dodgers almost won the pennant in 1962, took the Series in 1963 and 1965, and lost to Baltimore in the Fall Classic in 1966. After that, Koufax retired, Wills and outfielder Tommy Davis were traded, and the Dodgers needed several years to regenerate their talent base.

Leavy looks at those teams mostly through the perspective of seven players - Wills, Koufax, Davis, Wes Parker, Jeff Torborg, Dick Tracewski and Lou Johnson. That's an interesting mixture of players - from stars to subs. All but the reclusive Koufax were willing to talk at length about those Los Angeles teams.

The games mostly take a back seat to the people here, which is a good idea in a book about a team from more than 50 years ago. Wills grew into a team leader on and off the field, but along the way would barely make a peep about what he sought at contract time. Parker, the son of rich parents, apparently had what looked like an easy life - except that his family life as a youth was a nightmare and baseball was his way of escape. The two life stories of the two Dodger infielders are at the center of the story. Torborg and Tracewski were mostly backup but provide plenty of insight here, while Johnson remains a fun character to this day.

Even so, Koufax might be the most fascinating person in the narrative, even from the distance of second-hand information. He was (and still is, no doubt) intelligent and well-rounded, but far more competitive and proud according to teammates that the outside world might have thought. All were in awe of what he was able to do with an arm that seem to degrade with every pitch.

There are plenty of stories here about Dodger management, which for the most part center on general manager Buzzie Bavasi. The franchise was a money machine in those days, and Bavasi was in charge of keeping it that way. He was a man of contradictions - someone who would lend a hand to a Dodger down on his luck one minute, and then pull deceptive negotiating methods the next. It's interesting, though, that Walt Alston, the team's manager barely comes up in the discussion. It sounds like he didn't make much of a footprint, although someone had to be pressing some buttons correctly for the team to do well.

The book has the subtitle of "The Collision of the Turbulent Sixties and the Los Angeles Dodgers." It's difficult not to touch on the surrounding events of the Sixties when writing about any part of it. The players were visible at a time when Vietnam and civil rights were becoming major issues throughout the country, and had to be careful expressing viewpoints while working for a quite conservative business. Internally, the baseball players union more or less started in the 1960s once Marvin Miller came aboard, and that changed everything - although not during the Dodgers' run. Those events, though, take a back seat to the team itself.

Leahy jumps in with a couple of strong opinions along the way. He believes Wills should be in the Hall of Fame, and that the Dodgers handled Koufax's arm problems terribly. Both are very defensible positions. In fairness, Wills' addition of speed to the game changed baseball, but may not have had the long career that is the usual prerequisite for a trip to Cooperstown. It's always tough to judge the revolutionaries in that context. Hindsight is 20-20 with Koufax, and there's no way he would be treated the same way medically now. But it wasn't uncommon in the mid-Sixties to work a pitcher on two days rest when someone thought it was necessary, and complete games were much more common. We're all learned a lot on the subject of arms since then, even if there's still some mystery about it.

This is a fairly long book at more than 450 pages, but the material is frequently fresh and almost always interesting. "The Last Innocents" won the Casey Award as the best baseball book of 2016. I haven't read all of the nominees, but my guess is that this one is a very worthy winner.

Five stars

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Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Review: Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic (2017)

By Jason Turbow

Those old to remember have heard a lot about the Oakland Athletics of the early 1970s. I mean, a lot about the Athletics.

It's a group that won three straight World Series titles from 1972 to 1974 inclusive. That means they won six straight postseason series, which was a record at the time. They did it in a unique way too, fighting with the owner and fighting with themselves. The former was legal and financial, the latter was more physical.

Some of the stories spilled out into the public, where the media was more than happy to pass them along. You could almost see the heads shaking as the information got distributed. But we didn't know everything.

It took a while, but it's nice to get the whole story in one place now. That's the job Jason Turbow does in "Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic." Plenty of books have covered this era in one form or another, but - without reading them all - my guess is that this is the best one.

The Athletics would have been an interesting story even if they sang songs together around the campfire. The franchise spent a great deal of money on prospects in the late 1960s, as owner Charlie Finley tried to end a skid that dated back for decades. Not every dollar was well spent, but Finley's money went to enough good causes to make it work.

The A's, as Finley liked to call them, had quite a cast of developing stars and solid workmen. It was headed by Reggie Jackson, a fabulous talent who carried some baggage along in terms of ego but was kept under control by teammates who had been with him since they were all in the minors. Jim "Catfish" Hunter recovered from a shot to the foot to become a Hall of Fame pitcher. Rollie Fingers found his niche in the bullpen, providing another ticket to Cooperstown, He probably received more publicity for his distinctive mustache than his pitching. Joe Rudi was called "underrated" so often in his day that someone once said he should be simply "rated" - because we all knew how good he really was. Then there was Vida Blue, who when good was very, very good and had a name so lyrical that, as sportswriter Jim Murray once said, made you want to go home and yell at your parents for naming you Jim.

The other guys on the roster may not have gotten the attention of the others, but were pretty good too. Sal Bando was the glue of the team, Bert Campaneris was the sparkplug, Billy North added speed and defense, Dick Green was a defensive wizard, and Ken Holtzman was a dependable starter. Yes, they didn't get along so well at times, but they were united by a hatred of Finley. As Turbow recounts, it was always something new with Finley. Not only was playing for the Athletics of that time frustrating and maddening, but it was also exhausting. Finley appreciated his femployees, but only on his terms. When crossed, the owner could be petty and bizarre. Like most bullies, he tried to get his way all the time - and he roared (and sued) when he didn't.

Finally, Finley's stubborness proved to be past of the reason for his downfall. He didn't honor a contract with Hunter, and thus lost him as a free agent to the Yankees. The reserve clause soon passed away after that, and Finley couldn't come close to afford what it would take to keep the team together - particularly with the shoestring organization that he had put together around the team. The pieces soon scattered with the wind.

Turbow talked to as many members of those teams as he could, getting an impressive amount of people to look back. Their memories can be a little rough in terms of language. On the other hand, it's tough to picture the little ones even picking this story up. The author also does a nice job of putting the story together without too many details of the games. Yes, some moments of the big playoff games get highlights, but with the hindsight of around 45 years, they are less important than the stories about the principals and their personalities. The story moves along nicely.

"Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic" has more than enough going for it to keep just about any baseball fan entertained by a unique story line - especially if you are old enough to remember the story. And if this group remains your favorite all-time team - which probably hits quite a number of people in the Bay Area - do yourself a favor and buy this book right now.

Four stars

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Sunday, April 30, 2017

Review Sting Like a Bee (2017)

By Leigh Montville

Ever since Leigh Montville stopped writing newspaper and magazine articles and started writing books, you can never tell what he's going to work on next. Let's see - there have been books on Babe Ruth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Ted Williams, Evel Knievel, and Manute Bol among others.

This year, he's added another interesting choice to the list. Admittedly, forests could have been spared if Muhammad Ali hadn't come around when he did. All sorts of books have been written about him over the years. It's hard to turn away from his personality.

But this is different. Montville opts here to write about the time when he had an epic fight with the United States government over his draft status. That's a big part of the Ali legend at this point, but it's not a particularly well-known story. That's why "Sting Like a Bee" is a useful addition to the library.

For those of you too young to remember, Ali really did shock the work when he defeated Sonny Liston for the heavyweight boxing title in 1964. Then he did it again the next day by announcing that he had joined the Nation of Islam, a controversial Muslim group. Ali eventually changed his name from Cassius Clay. To say this all was unpopular would be a great understatement. Put it this way - most people thought the reputation of the boxing championship was tarnished - and Liston was known to be under the influence of organized crime. Plenty of people refused to call Ali by his new name; you'd think it would be easy to respect someone's personal wishes in this department.

Ali zipped through the heavyweight division's contenders, with his only roadblock being the draft board. After flunking an intelligence test, the military opted to reclassify several people by taking them into their ranks and giving them special training. Suddenly Ali was 1-A, and he claimed that his religion would not allow him to fight in Vietnam. Besides, Ali added, the Viet Cong had never discriminated against him. (His language was more colorful, but you get the idea.)

Montville gives the blow-by-blow account of the legal battle over Ali's status. There are a variety of stops and starts, but a key side issue was that Ali lost his boxing license once he refused induction - thus taking away his right to earn a living while he was fighting the case in court. It's a strange tale for the author - a book about a boxer without a heck of a lot of boxing along the way. Ali's journey almost is more of a legal expedition, as lawyers keep looking for a way for Ali to avoid military service.

The author makes a great point when he writes that as the Vietnam War became less and less popular, Ali's defiance became more and more mainstream. He eventually won his case to get his boxing license back, and fought a couple of times before the epic bout with Joe Frazier. Right after that, Ali won his case in the Supreme Court - and as Montville reminds us, he won it mostly because the Court Justices worked hard to find a legal loophole so that Ali wouldn't become a martyr in jail.

Montville did lots of reading about Ali and the Nation of Islam, and he sought out all sorts of people who played some sort of role in the story. The author even gets a lot of material from Ali's second wife, although some of it feels like it's from a different book in terms of content. Some of the twists and turns weren't particularly well publicized at the time, so it's good to catch up with it here.

There is one stumbling block here, and it's a good-sized one in terms of some readers' enjoyment of the story. There is plenty of legal stuff here, and it's quite dry. Montville includes quite a bit of legal testimony and documents verbatim, and it's hardly brisk reading. And that's an odd combination with Montville's wordy writing style, which can be a little tough to navigate if you aren't used to it. Ali certainly doesn't come off as a saint here either, mostly because of his wife's comments. That may not please the big fans, and disillusion others.

"Sting Like A Bee" is a good addition to the Ali library, filling in a literary gap. I'm just not sure it's going to work for everyone; I've read most of Montville's books (and loved him as a columnist) so I'm a little biased. If you are willing to put up with the lack of fun and excitement in a book about a fun and exciting public figure, dive in and receive an education.

Four stars

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Sunday, April 23, 2017

Review: Arnie (2017)

By Tom Callahan

The year 2016 was a tough one for sports icons. We lost Muhammad Ali, one of the best boxers ever and a man who influenced world culture. We lost Gordie Howe, a simple, down-to-earth guy who, depending on your standards, is one of the finalists as the greatest hockey player.

And we lost Arnie. You didn't need to be a golfer to know that we're talking about Arnold Palmer, one of the most important players in the sport's history.

That's the guy Tom Callahan, a veteran golf writer, profiles in his book, "Arnie."

Palmer might be an example of the "right man at the right place" school of history. He turned professional in the middle of the 1950s, when Americans had more leisure time and were using it to play more golf. It was also when television started to influence American culture, and Palmer was perfect for that. You can tell by the photographs out of that era that Palmer was "cool" - Steve McQueen with a driver.

Palmer loved to compete, and was never afraid to take risks in search of victory. Sometimes it didn't work, and you could see his expression turn briefly sad. But when it paid off, the smile lit up the golf course. The crowds noticed that, of course, and loved to follow him. They turned into an army - "Arnie's Army."

Palmer had a great run of about 10 years in which he was winning major championships or in contention for them. His biggest problem was that Jack Nicklaus came along in the early 1960s, and Nicklaus could play. He turned out to be the best ever. (Almost the same thing happened with Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods.)

For a few years, Palmer and Nicklaus had what the other wanted - Palmer wanted to be as good as Nicklaus on the course; Nicklaus wanted to be as beloved as Palmer was with the public. That made the relationship a little frosty for a while, but they were both smart enough to figure out that they had a lot more in common than they had differences. Palmer spent a lot of time making money and making friends, and he admits that probably hurt his golf game. But, as the book mentions, on a personal level it was a good trade.

Palmer was very good at making money, but he was better at making friends. Yes, he was "Arnold Palmer," but was friendly to everyone in sight. Arnie answered his mail, signed endless autographs, chatted with young players, sat through countless interviews, and at the end no doubt posed for hundreds of selfies. And he seemed to remember everyone along the way.

Here's a story from the book that shows what he was all about. Two soldiers from Vietnam, Jeff and Wally, sent a note to Palmer asking if he could send them some sand wedges and balls so that they could practice bunker shots. Palmer sent them right away and enclosed a personal letter. Months later, they both returned home safely. One went to the Western Open in Chicago and found a way to thank him in person for the gesture: "I'm one of the guys you sent sand wedges to in Vietnam." Palmer's response: "Are you Jeff or Wally?" He remembered their names. Unbelievable. But that was Arnie.

Callahan arranges the chapters by year, and the story is in somewhat chronological order. But it's more of a jumping off point for anecdotes about Palmer and his accomplices over the years. There are times when when it's easy to wonder in the text, "How did we get here?" But Callahan gets back to Arnie soon enough, and tells another story about him.

The pages of "Arnie" go by quickly (it's 250 pages of text, plus a long appendix), and you are sure to laugh a little and cry a little along the way.  This isn't a definitive biography, but it sure shows why so many people loved him. That makes it worthwhile.

Four stars

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Friday, April 7, 2017

Review: Leo Durocher (2017)

By Paul Dickson

The Buffalo News is publishing my review of this one, which you can find clicking here.

The short version - author Paul Dickson works hard to separate fact from fiction concerning the baseball manager's life. It's not easy, considering Durocher himself created some of the confusion. Durocher doesn't come off as a particularly likeable person here, but it's hard to look away when he's at his best and at his worst.

Four stars

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Review: Son of Bum (2017)

By Wade Phillips with Vic Carucci

The word that comes to mind when reading "Son of Bum" is ... curious.

Let's start with the basics. Wade Phillips might be the most well-known assistant coach in football these days. That's sort of like being a well-known spy, another profession not known for publicity-seekers. (Although there have been a few coaches who don't shy away from cameras.)

That's certainly in part due to the fact that he served as a head coach in a few different cities, including Buffalo and Dallas. Phillips also has a good reputation for putting solid defenses together wherever he's gone. And being a football coach, an occupation that keeps moving van companies in business, he's gone to a lot of places over the years.

But at the start of his football career, Wade was mostly known as the son of Bum Phillips. For the young readers out there, Bum put together some really good Houston Oilers teams in the late 1970s. The problem was that the Pittsburgh Steelers - the Steel Curtain Steelers - were always in the way.

Bum was loaded with personality, and he captivated the city of Houston with those teams. But that Phillips never could get over the hump, lost his job as a result, and moved to a much worse situation in New Orleans. Bum built up a decent team with the Saints, but eventually departed like most coaches do.

Wade is an entirely different personality. He received plenty of credit for his work in the Super Bowl win by the Denver Broncos in Feb. 2016, when he was the defensive coordinator. It was a nice reward for more than 30 years of good work in the NFL. Wade always came across as relatively serious, and someone who said what he meant without much flair. People like that don't often have books published.

The book is subtitled "Lessons My Dad Taught Me About Football and Life." That's true for most of the first half of the book. Bum frequently had Wade on his coaching staffs when the son was just getting started in the business. At times it seems as if Wade is more concerned with telling about his dad's approaches and experiences than his own. Since Bum wrote a book of his own in 2010, it's easy to wonder about how this might work. But Wade's affection for his dad certainly is evident right from the beginning, and certainly Dad would be proud of his son's reputation around the league at this point.

Once Bum leaves the NFL, Wade sticks to his own lifestory. It's covered relatively briskly, without spending too much time on individual games. The most interesting stories of the book probably center on switches in jobs over the years. Phillips has a lot to say about a pair of NFL owners with completely different personalities - Jerry Jones of the Cowboys and Ralph Wilson of the Bills. I'm fond of saying that teams usually lose for a reason, and Phillips' comments about what it was like to coach under Wilson back up that statement. Phillips' exit from Buffalo was a strange one for all concerned, and the Bills haven't been to the playoffs since he left almost two decades ago.

One game does get a little extra coverage in these pages, and it's that Super Bowl win. There are a few good stories from that day, and it's obvious what a personally satisfying moment that was for Phillips.

Otherwise, the veteran coach spends just a little time dealing with the X's and O's of the business. The terminology of pro football can be intimidating, even to those who follow the game fairly closely as fans, but there's little here that will stop an average football fan in his or her tracks. This is also a pretty quick read, which is appropriate.

I won't give this a rating, as coworker and friend Vic Carucci worked on the book with him. The two have put together a book that won't intimidate many, but will instead give a fairly good look at a straight shooter. Those seeking to learn about a man and a profession that usually is closed to the public will pick up some insight with "Son of Bum."

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