Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Review: March 1939 - Before the Madness (2014)

By Terry Frei

It's a little surprising that this book wasn't written, say, 25 years ago.

We're coming up on something of a college basketball milestone this year. It's been 75 years since the NCAA tournament staged its first-ever competition in 1939. That makes it a natural for a look back - probably as it would have been 25 and 50 years ago as well.

The sport has come a long way in those 75 years, and Terry Frei hops in his time machine to review initial competition in "March 1939 - Before the Madness."

Frei has done a number of books over the years, and the titles always have been interesting. The books include the 1977 Broncos, the Texas-Arkansas college football game in 1939, and the 1942 Wisconsin Badgers, who were headed into World War II after their season ended. This one was a bit personal, since Frei spent part of his childhood in Oregon because his father was a football coach there.

The book follows the format you might expect. We are introduced to basketball in the 1930s, a game that was evolving at the time. We had only gone a couple of years without having a jump ball after every basket in the 1938-39 season, with other rule changes either just in or obviously on the way. Some people will have heard of some of the names that pop up along the way, such as Hank Luisetti, Adolph Rupp and Clair Bee. 

The Oregon players on that championship team didn't produce any national figures, although they obviously were good players. It's more of a reflection of the lack of a pro game and the relative novelty of intersectional games. The starters for the Webfoots (Ducks was down the road) were Bobby Anet, Wally Johansen, Slim Wintermute, John Dick and Laddie Dale. Howard Hobson, who literally wrote the book on uptempo philosophy, was a coach who was ahead of his time.

Frei goes over the background of each of the important figures in Oregon basketball, and eventually gets to that championship season. It was an odd time, what with New York City capturing much of the attention by hosting out-of-town teams in Madison Square Garden. Oregon made such a trip by train in 1938-39. It's almost charming just how unorganized it all was back then. The National Invitation Tournament was only a year old in 1939 and didn't really have a formal name yet, and the NCAA event was on the sports radar screen, but barely. That last part is not surprising, since they were making up the rules as they went along.

The Big Dance, although no one would have called it that then, rolled through March of 1939, and so did the Webfoots. Frei shifts into a day-by-day description of what was going on during each day of March. He precedes it by adding a paragraph or two on the news or the day, and there was a ton of it as Europe went on its slow but sure march toward the start of World War II the following September. I'm not a big fan of this technique - it gets overused - but it works well here because the guys on the court certainly knew that they were likely to be fighting overseas instead of playing basketball in their near futures.

Frei obviously did his homework, and doesn't go into overwhelming details. In other words, it's a quick read. Admittedly, the championship game wasn't a classic, as Oregon beat Ohio State relatively easily in front of a less-than-packed house.

The author admits that he would have liked to have started the research for this book earlier. After almost 75 years, everyone involved had either passed away or wasn't available for long interviews. But Frei certainly explored all the sources possible, and he does give the flavor for what it all what like.

"March 1939 - Before the Madness" is probably what students of college basketball are seeking - a nice treatment about how the tournament got started. In that sense, Frei succeeds nicely.

Four stars

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Review: Last King of the Sports Page (2012)

By Ted Geltner

Let's start with an over-generalization.

Way back in the 1960s, sports columnists in the newspaper had something of a mythic quality about them - particularly the good ones. Yes, every town had a couple of columnists, and they were the obvious authority in their circulation area. But the good ones worked their way up the ladder and eventually landed in the big cities. They were the ones who went to all of the big events.

The mythic part was that, in that non-Internet age, it could be rather difficult to read those columnists without living in a particular town. (The Sporting News had a few columnists, but it was more information-driven.) So only the very special ones were syndicated and read in other newspapers.

Two people led the way in that era, and they were from completely different schools. Red Smith was a craftsman; you could practically see his tools in between the lines. Words were carefully chosen, and by column's end it was difficult to find a wasted word, let alone paragraph. Smith was a writer's writer.

Then there was Jim Murray. He was no less a wordsmith in his own way, but he was funny. World-class funny. Trying to make jokes about sports is extremely difficult, but Murray usually succeeded six times a week. His imitators, and there were were many, found that an impossible standard to meet. I never lived closer than 2,500 miles from Los Angeles, so seeing a Murray column was a rare thrill. No wonder he collected "sportswriter of the year" awards like Green Stamps.

Someone like Murray played a role in the growth of sports in this country, particularly in the important Southern California market - which treated him like a treasured resource. He certainly deserves to have a full-fledged biography, and "Last King of the Sports Page" is a good one.

Murray himself wrote an autobiography in 1993, five years before his death. While that's an entertaining book, it does have plenty of stories about others. Author Ted Geltner sticks to the subject here, and wisely so.

Murray grew up in Connecticut and started his journalism career there, but fled to the sunshine of California around World War II to work in Los Angeles in the news department. That led to a stint with Time magazine (with some time spent covering Hollywood) and a shift to newcomer Sports Illustrated. His work was good, very good, but nothing you'd clip and put on your refrigerator.

Then came the move to the Los Angeles Times, where he was installed as the lead sports columnist in 1961. It took about a week for people to figure out what they had in the paper each day, something that made getting out of bed worthwhile. That relationship lasted for more than 30 years. Murray was so good that he became more famous that the people he wrote about, which had its inconveniences.

Geltner does a good job of reviewing Murray's life in full, including the professional triumphs (many) and personal tragedies (too many, such as medical issues and the problems of family members). It's interesting to see how Murray's writing evolved over the years on such "issues" as Muhammad Ali. Murray was late to the party on Ali's set of talents, but came around more or less after the first Joe Frazier fight.

Now, let's be clear about something. A book like this has all of the notes that went into Murray's writing, but very little of the music. Excerpts are held to a minimum here. There are four collections of columns out there, and I've got them all. They are still funny, and I assume they'd still work for someone who doesn't remember who Sandy Koufax is but wants to know what the fuss was all about.

From there, if you want to know more about someone who was someone was at the top of the heap, "Last King of the Sports Page" is a fine place to look.

Four stars

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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Review: Knuckler (2012)

By Tim Wakefield with Tony Massarotti

By coincidence, there seems to be a trend developing in autobiographies reviewed on this blog.

This is the second straight such book mentioned here that was written in the third person. Marty Schottenheimer's story was reviewed a couple of weeks ago. An interesting coincidence, at the least.

The person profiled here is Tim Wakefield, and his story is appropriately called "Knuckler." Not only was the baseball pitcher known for throwing the knuckleball, but his career took all sorts of unpredictable twists. That, of course, makes it just like his favorite pitch.

The writing approach jumps out in this particular story of the veteran who made it through 19 seasons in the majors. Longtime Boston sportswriter Tony Massarotti, who has done some fine work in books and newspapers, is clearly in charge of the story. He writes it as if it were a biography rather than an autobiography. While Wakefield is quoted a few times and obviously was the major source for material, the book often feels like it has a little distance from the subject.

For example, there aren't many stories here about Wakefield's personal life. There are a couple of references to his work in the community, which is legendary - he's won awards for his efforts - but that's about it. The book contains few stories about Wakefield's teammates. His family is almost ignored as well. This contrasts to how the Schottenheimer book was written, which featured plenty of input from the entire family. That makes for a rather dry package at times.

It is worth noting that Massarotti obviously likes Wakefield and thinks his contribution has been a little overlooked by everyone, especially management, at times over the years. But the book doesn't lapse into cheerleading, which was a major fault of the Schottenheimer book.

Wakefield does have a good story to tell, no matter how it's told. He grew up in Florida and was a good enough prospect to be drafted by the Pirates - as a position player. But he found out very quickly that he wouldn't be able to hit in the pros, and turned to pitching as a last resort. That led to his use of the knuckleball, which was taught by Wakefield's father as something of a plaything.

Amazingly, Wakefield's career caught fire in a memorable run through the 1992 playoffs as the Pirates came within a whisker of the World Series. The pitcher lost his form for a while after that and was released by the Pirates in 1995 - only to be picked up by the Boston Red Sox. He stayed there through 2011.

Wakefield had a variety of highs and lows in Boston. The obvious low came in 2003 when he gave up a walk-off homer to Aaron Boone of the Yankees in Game Seven of the American League Championship Series. By the way, Wakefield had pitched brilliantly earlier in that series, so he received nothing but support from the rabid Boston fan base. It all made the biggest up even better when the Red Sox won the World Series a year later, a postseason that included the greatest comeback in baseball postseason history - against the Yankees, no less.

There's some good insight here on the life of a knuckleballer, a species that always has a couple of practitioners in pro baseball at a given moment. R.A. Dickey is the current example. Once Wakefield let the ball go, he never knew where it would go and where it would land. You have to be a calm person in order to accept that lack of control.

This paperback edition of "Knuckler" came out in 2012, but there's no sign of an update of the hardcover edition from 2011. So it misses Wakefield's last season, which included his 200th career major-league victory. Too bad. What we do have in this book is reasonably satisfying, although it probably won't be of a great deal of interest to those who aren't card-carrying members of Red Sox Nation.

Three stars

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Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Review: The Perfect Game (2013)

By Frank Fitzpatrick

Every national championship game in college basketball in the 1980s - especially if we can bend the dates to include 1979 - seemed like an epic confrontation. We had Magic and Larry in 1979, Michael and Patrick in 1982, Jimmy V in 1983, Keith Smart for Indiana in 1987.

One of the best, though, came in 1985. The Patrick mentioned above, as in Ewing of Georgetown, seemed destined to win his second national title while finishing a spectacular career with the Hoyas. As we know now, unheralded Villanova got in the way and somehow took home the title.

Many of those games are worth examining well after the fact. Philadelphia writer Frank Fitzpatrick does his part well by looking at the major upset in his book, "The Perfect Game."

The game was played in a memorable era in college basketball era. The Big East had exploded on to the landscape at that time, with fabulous players, interesting coaches, and intense rivalries that seemed to develop overnight. What's more, ESPN seemed to have a conference game on every night of the winter, so names such as Ewing, Chris Mullin, and Dwayne Washington became well known in short order.

Ewing was the dominant figure, though, a youngster who had immigrated to the Boston area at a young age and who developed into a basketball star. Georgetown won the recruiting battle for his services, and the Hoyas reached the NCAA finals in his freshman year - only to lose to North Carolina as Dean Smith finally won his first national crown. Georgetown didn't make the Final Four in 1983, but captured the title in 1984 and was top ranked in 1985 entering the tournament.

As for Villanova, the Wildcats seemed a little lucky to be even in the NCAA tournament. As Fitzpatrick points out, Villanova might have been sitting at home had the field not been expanded to 64 teams that year. But it made the tournament, and worked its way up the ladder to the Final Four in Lexington, Ky. Georgetown's semifinal win over St. John's - the Big East had three of the four teams in the national semifinals - came across as a warm-up to a coronation. But as you know, Villanova had other plans. It played a near-perfect basketball game to come away with a championship.

It's difficult to give a full play-by-play description of a basketball game years later, and Fitzpatrick instead gives plenty of background material to fill out the book. The basketball histories of Villanova and Georgetown are reviewed, and the coaches Rollie Massimino and John Thompson are well profiled. Then there is the matter of the personalities of the two teams. Both were small Catholic schools from urban areas, but Georgetown was the school that took on a mystique that seemed to resonate among African Americans - if merchandise sales are any barometer. Racism was often in the air for Georgetown games, sometimes in the form of signs or actions (bananas were frequently thrown at Ewing), and they certainly added an extra charge to the atmosphere. The Hoyas, for their part, seemed to thrive on it with an attitude that almost silent shouted, "we don't care what you think about us."

This is all researched nicely enough by Fitzpatrick, and the story moves along quickly. There are a couple of problems with the story, which aren't really of the author's making. First, no one besides an assistant coach at Georgetown, Craig Esherick, was willing to talk about the game at length from the Hoyas' perspective. Some of the Villanova players did speak to Fitzpatrick, but the story still feels a little distant and less personal. Usually books like this, written a couple of decades later, don't have that issue.

Plus, while the game had a happy ending, the Villanova story had a very unhappy postscript. Guard Gary McLain revealed later that he was a cocaine user during his time with the Wildcats, claiming to use the drug during the season and even on the way to the White House for the ceremony with President Reagan. Massimino never regained his magic touch at Villanova, as the Wildcats didn't come close to a repeat performance in the next few years. Massimino ended up jumping to Nevada Las Vegas, and Massimino wasn't forgiven easily for McLain's problems and the high standards that he set but couldn't reach again.

Still, Fitzpatrick captures the time and feeling of that point in basketball history nicely enough. The pages go by quite quickly. His book on the 1966 NCAA basketball final, "And the Walls Came Tumbling Down," struck me as better because we knew less of the story. But "The Perfect Game" still works pretty well. If you followed that Villanova team closely, this is a worthwhile read and purchase.

Three stars.

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