Thursday, April 25, 2013

Review: Facing Ted Williams (2013)

Edited by Dave Heller

Some years ago, a book was written about what it was like to fight Muhammad Ali. An author tracked down some of his opponents over the years, and they talked about going into the ring against "The Greatest." That was followed by a book on fighting Mike Tyson, and one on hitting Roger Clemens (which, as I recall, was released shortly before the PED stories) came out.

It's a good concept, and it seems logical to hear about other all-time greats in this fashion. Thus, "Facing Ted Williams" was born. The problem was that the idea came along about 10 to 15 years too late, which will be explained in a minute.

Credit Dave Heller for doing plenty of homework here. He pulled together a list of how Williams did against every pitcher during a long career with the Red Sox, and then went about the business of tracking them down. He also talked to a few others who played other positions.

Each interview subject gets a heading with the times he was in the majors and career statistics. The pitchers get a breakdown of how they fared against Williams, complete with an at-bat by at-bat listing when available. For example, Williams was 4 for 8 lifetime against Dick Hall, who you might remember from some great Orioles teams in the Sixties, with a double, homer and five RBIs.

The biggest problem here is one of mortality. Williams finished his career in 1960, which is 53 years ago. Even the rookies in that year are in the their 70's and the veterans would be past 85. Sadly, there aren't many left, and some of them must be tough to find. If you go back a few years into the early-1950's, there are even fewer available candidates.

Even more to the point, the late 1950's and 1960 seasons weren't particularly good ones for the Red Sox. Most of Williams' important moments, the ones you'd like to read about even today, came in the 1940's. Therefore, we read first-hand stories about the end of a legendary career instead of its peak. There are a couple of accounts of his last game, in which he hit a home run in his last at-bat. 

The interviews have their ups and downs depending on the source. Virgil Trucks pitched in the 1940's and 1950's, and has seven pages of stories to tell. It's good stuff. Then there's Phil Regan, who needs two paragraphs to talk about walking him in 1960 in their only meeting. Everyone falls in between, obviously, but the brief ones outnumber the longwinded versions. The other positions' tales begin on page 185 of a 300-page book. Heller did find some players who had relationships with Williams that extended into retirement, who add some insight.

The editor also makes the slightly curious decision of including question-and-answer sessions with players who gave one-sentence (or so) answers to questions under sections called "Interviews." They really don't add much to the discussion.

Without stories to tell, most of the players go back to similar themes. Williams talked to practically everyone in a baseball uniform, friend or foe, about the game and had a fabulous memory. Activity used to stop when Williams went into the cage for some batting practice before games. And many people are convinced that if Williams didn't swing, few umpires would call a pitch a strike.

One interesting part of the book is that Heller has so much information at his fingertips. Therefore, when a pitcher talks about how nervous he was when he came into pitch as a rookie and the first batter was Williams, there's often a footnote - explaining that Williams was actually the third man up. Or someone says he pitched to Williams before a sold-out Comiskey Park, when the actual attendance was 19,121. Memories does play tricks after 60-plus years.

"Facing Ted Williams" does feature a good foreword by Wade Boggs and afterword by announcer Bob Wolff. The longer interviews do a good job of bringing Williams' vibrant personality back to life. There's just not enough of them to carry a book, which can be read in a day rather easily. Note to authors: don't wait 30 more years to do a book on Michael Jordan like this; get to work on it soon.

Two stars

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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Review: The Baseball Trust (2013)

By Stuart Banner

I must have made medical history today. I brought my copy of "The Baseball Trust" to the doctor's office for reading in the waiting room. I must be the only one in history to do so, since a book subtitled "A History of Baseball's Antitrust Exemption" usually isn't a competitor with People magazine in such places.

No matter. I learned a lot from Stuart Banner's book and I would guess most readers would too.

Baseball's relationship with antitrust laws is curious at best. Major league baseball has been a curious business for well over a century. Teams who are competitors on the field work together off it in a variety of ways, and that makes for a unique relationship.

Teams figured out relatively early that a top professional league needed to control the number and location of its franchises as well as the pool of talent in order to become established. The National League opted to create the reserve clause in a meeting in Buffalo in 1879, which held that certain players weren't allowed to jump to other teams when their contracts had expired.

The problem was that antitrust legislation started entering the national business world a few years later. Clever minds figured out that something was wrong with the system, and challenged it in a variety of ways. New leagues formed, players tried to sue for the freedom to play elsewhere, etc. Hal Chase, for example, successfully sued for the right to jump from the White Sox of the American League to the Buf-Feds of the Federal League in the middle of the 1914 season.

Inevitably, one case wound up in the Supreme Court, and the justices ruled in 1922's Federal Baseball Club that the sport was exempt from antitrust laws because it wasn't interstate commerce for the most part but merely exhibitions of talent in a particular state. That overlooked all sorts of factors, and is still considered one of the truly odd decisions in the Court's history.

From there, we've gone on an odd journey that extends to this day. The Supreme Court had a chance to change the situation with the Toolson case in 1953, but opted to throw back in the hands of Congress. The Curt Flood case was a similar story in 1972. Baseball still has most of its exemption to this day, useful in restricting franchise relocations as an example. That's in spite of the fact that other sports tried to have the same rules applied to them, only to be turned down by the courts. The reserve clause did die in 1975 with the Messersmith-McNally case.

Banner is a professor of law at UCLA, and obviously knows the material well. He draws from a variety of sources for this book, even drawing in the story of other sports nicely when appropriate, and his conclusions seem to be right on target along the way. If there's a catch here, it's that some of the writing is unavoidably dry. I wouldn't say a law degree should be presented when purchasing this book (I don't have one), but the reader does have to turn up the concentration level at times here.

"The Baseball Trust" isn't targeted at a particularly large audience and certainly some fans would never be able to get through it. However, others are aware that the background story about baseball's rules and regulations off the field can be almost as interesting as the ones on the field. For that audience, the book certainly will prove rewarding.

Four stars

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Thursday, April 11, 2013

Review: Dream Team (2012)

By Jack McCallum

It's almost possible to imagine Jack McCallum, the respected longtime basketball writer for Sports Illustrated, giggling a bit when the idea for this book came along.

The stars certainly lined up nicely. The year 2012 marked the 20th anniversary is an obvious time for a retrospective in athletics, since all of the participants have more or less left the stage (although some moved into other roles, like coaching or broadcasting). For a basketball fan and writer, there was no bigger story than the Dream Team of 1992, the United States Olympic squad that brought the international game into a modern era.

McCallum covered that era and that team thoroughly, and thus had long relationships with the participants. Not only could he empty his notebook and memory bank when it came to writing a book, but he also could go public with his own opinions as well as interview those involved after the fact when they could afford to be more candid.

The result is "Dream Team," and it's a barrel of fun for basketball fans.

A little refresher course - before 1992, Americans could only send amateurs - read college players - to the Olympics. Standards were different for what was considered an amateurs worldwide, though, and the traditional Eastern Bloc countries always sent their best players. Team USA was always good enough to win with the collegians, with the bizarre exception of 1972, but the Americans lost fair and square in 1988. If the sport of basketball was going to turn up the volume from that point, all great players had to be invited to the party.

Thus, the Dream Team was born. It started with a Michael Jordan in his prime, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird on their way out, Charles Barkley on his way out the door to party, and so on down the line. The world was captivated, or at least the basketball-loving parts of it that seemed to include everyone. You'd have thought the Beatles had reunited to put on a few shows in such places as Portland, Oregon, (qualifying) and Barcelona (Olympics).

McCallum makes it pretty clear that the most amazing part of the entire summer was how well everyone managed to mesh together, even if it took some negotiating and leadership by strong personalities to make it work. The squad was filled with alpha dogs (David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Scottie Pippen, Karl Malone, Clyde Drexler, etc.) who knew enough to let the biggest stars set the tone. There's also plenty of good information here about how the team was selection; that translates into the story about how John Stockton wound up on the team because Isiah Thomas wasn't well liked by the other players.

The author obviously spent the most time on Jordan's role - McCallum isn't stupid - but every player gets a good-sized say here. That includes Christian Laettner, a token college player picked as something of a throwback to the old way of doing things. Heck, someone had to carry the bags.

There's very little drama here, as the team clobbered every opponent in sight, and I suppose you probably have to be at least 30 years old to have a great deal of interest in much of the story. McCallum relates a lot of his own personal experiences, which makes the book a little less scholarly and perhaps turns it into a book of anecdotes.

No matter. "Dream Team" comes across as extremely entertaining and well done. If you want to know what the fun was all about and how everyone involved dealt with it, this is a good place to go.

Four stars

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Monday, April 8, 2013

Review: Out of My League (2012)

By Dirk Hayhurst

Dirk Hayhurst's first book, "The Bullpen Gospels," was a critical favorite for its portrayal of life in minor league baseball.

His second book, "Out of My League," is even better.

You won't find a better look at what can happen when your dreams come true - a part that usually isn't discussed.

Hayhurst took the long way to success in baseball. He played in college, and then slowly but agonizingly surely climbed the ladder of organized pro ball. A lesser man probably would have given up along the way.

The pitcher picks up where he left off in the last book, winning a Double A title in the San Diego Padres' farm system. He comes home from that upbeat moment to a typical offseason by his standards, which means sleeping in his grandmother's house, dealing with his family's issues, and working in a store to earn spending money. It's quite dramatic even if it doesn't sound like a baseball book.

Good things follow quickly, though. He meets a woman who he soon realizes is a perfect partner for life's journeys, and he makes the Triple-A roster of the Padres' team in Portland, Oregon. Hayhurst details the odd life of long road trips and thrown-together teammates here, which somewhat resembles the first book in tone. He also pitches well, showing he belongs in AAA ball. Hayhurst again is a little different than the average player, and not just because he writes for Baseball America in his spare time. He's quite mature and thoughtful.

Life changes dramatically in August when Hayhurst finds out he has been called up to the Padres. Welcome to the Show - home of chartered aircraft, first-class hotels, and big minimum salaries, enough to get his marriage off to a better financial start. His first appearance guarantees that his name will be in the record books forever.

As Hayhurst walks us through those major-league days, it's easy to realize the pressures involved. That time, at least, he wasn't up to the challenge, as he gets knocked around by big-league hitters. It's gripping stuff, as the frustrations bubble over on to everyone around him. By the way, the epilogue does provide some good news that's more than welcome to all concerned.

As with the first book, I didn't find much material that struck me as laugh-out-loud funny - although others certain have. I am willing to admit, though, that the idea of a transvestite convention in Salt Lake City is, however, um, unexpected, Are 406 pages too many? Maybe a little, and perhaps some of the personal information could have been edited down a little, but it all goes by pretty quickly.

"Out of My League" was written about the 2008 season, but the experiences are universal and timeless. Looks like Hayhurst has added an extra pitch to his writing arsenal.

Four stars

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