Sunday, December 17, 2017

Review: Replays, Rivalries and Rumbles (2017)

By Steve Gietschier

This is an interesting idea.

Steven Gietschier used to handle some of the historically linked stories and columns in The Sporting News, a weekly publication I still miss these days. He was obviously pretty smart and knew his stuff.

Gietschier has done a national search for college professors who have studied certain events that stand out in sports history. Those academic types have written a relatively short essay(10 pages or so on average) on said event, and Gietschier collected them to put in one place.

Put the 23 essays together, and you have a book: "Replays, Rivalries and Rumbles."

The list of subjects is rather wide-ranging and comes in chronological order. The brief rundown would include the invention of baseball,  the "Black Sox" scandal, the start of the NCAA basketball tournament, integration of the National Football League, the Dodgers' move to Los Angeles, the 1972 Olympic basketball final, Ali-Foreman, and the start of ESPN. The cover photo is a shot of the relatively famous fight between Juan Marichal and Johnny Roseboro in 1965, in which Marichal hit Roseboro in the head with a baseball swing.

There's certainly reason for optimism in checking out the list of subjects. Someone else might have taken different events, but that's allowed. But does this list and concept work well? Somewhat.

The problem with it is that it's a wide-ranging collection of authors, all from the academic community. I've found over the years that such professors certain know their stuff, but they probably are better teachers than writers. In this collection, the essays go from quite interesting to quite easy to skim through.

Part of the problem is that some of the subjects don't really have answers. How did baseball get invented? Did Babe Ruth really call his shot? Has America always not dipped its flag at the opening ceremonies of the Olympics? We're not sure, and there are no conclusions offered. Sometimes things have to stay in the fog of history. Sometimes the articles cover familiar ground and don't offer too much new. An article on "The Drive" in a Browns-Broncos playoff game is something of an excuse to review Cleveland's sports and economic history. The Dodgers' move to Los Angeles from Brooklyn is tough to summarize in such a short piece.

The stories that jump out, then, are the ones that are not covered by other sources very often. Lindsay Parks Pieper reviews Babe Didrikson at the 1932 Olympics. Althea Gibson's run-up to grand-slam tennis titles gets the once over through the work of Maureen Smith. The story of Dan Gable's one wrestling loss is a good one, thanks to David Zang. Michael Ezra does a good job of putting the Ali-Foreman fight into perspective.

Admittedly, I've read more sports history than most people, so that could be a reason for my lack of overall enthusiasm. Those a little less familiar with the subjects will learn some facts about important events from the past. Overall, though, "Replays, Rivalries and Rumbles" comes across as a hit-or-miss proposition.

Three stars

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Friday, December 1, 2017

Review: Game Face (2017)

By Bernard King with Jerome Preisler

There's a lot to admire about the life of Bernard King.

He grew up in a tough part of New York with a family that featured a distant, alcoholic father and a mother who really had little clue on how to raise children. Even so, he managed to become one of the best basketball players in the city, and earned a scholarship at Tennessee. From there, King became an All-American for the Volunteers - although he encountered some 1970s-style racism along the way.

The forward left college early to turn pro, and made the transition to the NBA smoothly on the court - although he had some problems off it. King certainly deserved eventual status as a Hall of Famer.

Now 25 years later, he's written down his account of his life in his autobiography, "Game Face." And it's interesting that King's biggest obstacle - and the one he discusses at the start of the book - had nothing to do with anything listed above.

King suffered about as bad a knee injury as you could find without getting involving in some sort of traffic accident or other disaster. He jumped in the air during a game and knew he was in trouble even before he landed. Doctors looked at him and wondered if he would ever walk normally again. Basketball figured to be in the past, not in his future.

But King worked hard, harder and hardest. He was sidelined for about two years before finally returning to the NBA. King played three full years after the injury, and got his scoring average back up to 28.4 points per game. It was a remarkable comeback.

It's easy to split this book into two parts, one more compelling than the other. King's early years are the interesting ones. His father wouldn't even let him play basketball (or do anything else) outside on Sundays until Bernard defied him. His mother apparently used a strap on him more than one, because that how she was raised. As a result, King said he felt better hiding his feelings behind a "game face" - don't let them know what you are thinking, particularly on the court. Let me assure those who are too young to remember that King was a true handful when playing - a pure scorer who earned his points every single night.

The second half of the story doesn't work as well. One of the obvious reasons is that he played with some mediocre teams over the years - emphasis on "teams," since he bounced around quite a bit through five teams. King didn't come close to playing for an NBA champion. That's not his fault, but it will be noticed by the reader.

Also missing and a little puzzling is the lack of material on younger brother Albert. He was the finest high school player in the country as a senior, and he went on to play at Maryland and then to the pros. Albert isn't even mentioned in the front half of the book, only coming up  when the two players met in the postseason.

Albert isn't alone in that description. Bernard's first wife doesn't even have her name mentioned. Also avoided is how King got away from alcohol and drug abuse, a habit he picked up early in his career. And the picture painted about what King has been doing after basketball seems incomplete. He's done some broadcasting work; let's hope he took care of his money and moved happily into middle age.

Naturally, any book written about an athlete from the 1970s or 1980s is going to feel like ancient history to some. Even so, "Game Face" lets us have a peak at a man who admits he didn't like telling much about himself back in the day. Therefore, those in the proper demographic will find this worth a read.

Three stars

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Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Review: Game Change (2017)

By Ken Dryden

You're probably heard about the problems that the National Football League has been having with concussions in recent years. Several players who have been diagnosed with brain damage after their deaths (the best test only can be done at that point), and the numbers continue to grow with each passing month.

The National Hockey League has similar problems. It just hasn't received as much attention as the NFL.

But it's certainly there. Ask the family and friends of Steve Montador, who was diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) after his death in 2015. He'll certainly become a poster boy for the subject thanks to the new book, "Game Change" by Ken Dryden.

Montador wasn't a superstar at any point in his career. He worked hard during his days as a youth and junior player, doing what it took to make the team better. Montador wasn't drafted by an NHL team, but he found a way to reach the big leagues. The defenseman was a classic fifth or sixth defenseman - not good enough to stay with one team for a particularly long period of time, but usually good enough to land a job somewhere else. Montador bounced from Calgary to Florida to Anaheim to Boston to Buffalo to Chicago.

The problem was that Montador picked up some concussions all along the way, and had some after-effects that were serious. He also had some alcohol and drug abuse issues as an NHL player. Montador seems to be well-liked by teammates, and was considered a good person. One administrative worker tells the story about how the defenseman bought two season tickets, and asked that the seats be given to a pair of deserving fans every night - and that those fans be brought to the locker room after the game to meet Montador personally. 

Dryden is a great choice to write a book like this. He obviously knows hockey, as he was a Hall of Famer as a member of the Montreal Canadiens. Dryden has written five books, and they are all superb. The ex-goalie is a patient, intelligent observer and doesn't miss much. Dryden's other books were all extremely well done. He is obviously had full access to Montador's family and friends, and so gives the reader an upclose look at Montador's problems until his death at the age of 35. By the way, we still don't know much about Montador's final days.

Even more interesting is the way Dryden moves into other areas. He has some great analysis about how the game of hockey has changed over the years, as it has gotten faster and faster in its evolution. The problem is that a faster game can lead to more serious head injuries, but that the league hasn't been in a hurry to take a long look at the issue. It's a look at the history of the sport from a completely different perspective. Dryden also talks at length with players like Keith Primeau and Marc Savard, who saw their careers end prematurely with concussion-related issues.

The ending is a little different too. Dryden has written about the problems of head issues elsewhere, such as editorial pages, but this is a long (43 pages) treatment on the subject. His solution comes in two parts and is pretty simple - outlaw hits to the head of any kind (including fighting), and no "finishing a check."  Would it help? Probably. Is the NHL willing to go to that point? Not so far.

It's easy to get bogged down in the discussion of concussions in sports, mostly because the answers aren't clear. We don't know when the problems started, so it's tougher to assess blame. Some people recover from head injuries quickly; others never do come around. But clearly this isn't an issue that's going away soon, no matter what's responsible for it. We'll see if Dryden's well-reasoned look at the subject will help move the discussion forward.

Five stars

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Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Review: The First Major (2017)

By John Feinstein

Sometimes, the golfing gods are with you. Sometimes, they are against you.

Sometimes, the ball kicks off a hill in the rough, and puts your ball firmly in the fairway. Sometimes, your reward for a perfect drive is a landing spot right in the middle of a big, ugly divot.

John Feinstein knows all about the golfing gods, having written about the sport for several years. When he decided to write a book about the 2016 Ryder Cup, he certainly had hopes of a close or at least memorable finish. After all, the book figured to be released about a year after the competition between the United States and Europe was finished.

Feinstein didn't catch a break in terms of the match. You probably remember that the United States won convincingly in the 2016 version of the biannual match. But that only takes a little away from "The First Major," an always interesting book on the Ryder Cup and the qualities that make it a unique sporting event.

The Ryder Cup used to be a nice little event featuring the best of the United States and Great Britain/Ireland. The problem was that the United States almost always won. So in 1979, the GB/I team became the European team - and it was more than competitive. Europe had had the upper hand in the matches overall leading up to the 2016 clash in Hazeltine - winning six of the previous seven events. Meanwhile, the fans on both sides took the enthusiasm level to another level, making seem more like a Michigan-Ohio State football game than a pleasant golf match among gentlemen.

And what does that mean? Pressure on all concerned. Golfers usually play for themselves and their bank accounts. They are used to that, and we see great performances all the time during the year. (Those who don't measure up almost never appear on the Sunday television broadcasts.) But the Ryder Cup adds the team concept to the equation for one of the few times on the golfing calendar. When the golfers have a bad day, they go home early and practice for the next week. But golfers in the Ryder Cup are playing for their country. Everything becomes magnified in such a setting - good shots and bad ones, which come up at a surprisingly high rate. 

That history and intensity received much of the focus in the book. Feinstein does a good job of tracking down everyone involved, including those who had taken part in events in the years leading up to the 2016 matches. No one does too much ducking when it comes to questions about controversial events from the past. Even better, there are some good and unexpected stories about the players and captains. Who knew that Matt Kuchar was so funny?

Feinstein's books are always thorough, and that reporting skill certainly shows up here. There are plenty of times when he describes events that were private or that happened behind closed doors - such as deliberations over pairings, thoughts at key moments in particular matches, team gatherings, etc. As usual - I've read about all of Feinstein's work for adult audiences (he has written some for kids) - it's a fun, easy read. The longtime author seems very comfortable writing about this subject.

It's a little tough to decide if this book is very good or exceptional. Perhaps it can be best summed up this way - it's tough to picture a treatment of the Ryder Cup done any better. Golf fans, then, probably will call "The First Major" exceptional, and zip through it while enjoying almost every page.

Five stars

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Friday, October 6, 2017

Review: Dennis Maruk (2017)

By Dennis Maruk with Ken Reid

Nineteen players have scored 60 goals in an NHL season. There's little doubt about who are the two most anonymous members of that club.

Even Dennis Maruk, who is one of the answers to that question, knows he belongs there. He also knows that Bernie Nicholls is the other surprising answer. They may not be household names, but they are linked with named like Gretzky, Hull, Lemieux, Bossy and Lemieux.

That 60-goal season might be the reason why Maruk wrote this self-title autobiography. Fans of hockey from the 1970s and 1980s might want to know a bit more about him.

The NHL struggled at times during the 1970s, and Maruk was part of the ride by playing on some bad teams. He was the last of the California Seals (Oakland) in the NHL, and moved on to be a Cleveland Baron, was shipped to Minnesota, was traded to Washington - where he did his best work for his best teams - and then returned to Minnesota. The forward only came reasonably close to a Stanley Cup once, reaching the semifinals before running into a powerful New York Islanders team that was in the midst of a dynasty.

He was one of those guys who did what it took to score, and was very successful at it for a couple of years. Maruk had that 60-goal season in 1981-82, and had 50 the other year before. But he dropped to 31 in 1982-83, and never got about 22 after that. Still, Maruk finished with 356 goals, and that's not a bad career's work.

This book is broken into 60 chapters, which is an interesting gimmick. But in a story that takes relatively very little time to tell, I'm not sure it works so well. Maruk mentions what should be big moments in his life throughout the book, but is quick to say that he remembers absolutely no details from them. He even did a little searching of YouTube, but didn't find much. Mix that in with a lack of stories about good teams and players, and it takes less than two hours to get through this.

Since retiring from hockey, Maruk has been a little lost. He has had a series of jobs in and out of hockey over the quarter-century plus. At one point, Maruk announced to his wife in Minnesota - who had a good professional situation of her own there - that he had taken a job in Louisiana and they'd be moving. Period, end of discussion. That didn't go over too well. It led to a divorce, and puts the reader squarely in the ex-wife's corner.

To be fair, Maruk had bigger problems than that during his pro-hockey days, to the point where he came close to suicide. He's better now, and you hope he will stay on the right track for the rest of his days.

Dennis Maruk's story might have made for an interesting television feature or magazine articles, as he's a reminder that a midlife career change doesn't always turn out to be seamless. The book version probably won't work for most.

Two stars

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Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Review: Gratoony the Loony (2017)

By Gilles Gratton and Greg Oliver

A great many "characters" have passed through the portals of professional hockey. Gilles Gratton not only is one of them, he can lay a claim to being the biggest character of them all.

Gratton spent some time in the World Hockey Association and the National Hockey League in the 1970s. Not surprisingly, he was a goalie - a position that is filled with unconventional actors. Gratton wasn't a bad goalie, but his skills always took a back seat to his antics and comments.

It took a while for Gratton to get his thoughts down on paper - maybe too long, since few might remember him at this point - but he finally has done so. "Gratoony the Loony" is that autobiography.

Gratton does a little explaining about his life and his actions in this quite short book. Tellingly, it doesn't sound like he had a particularly happy childhood,with parents who were frequently indifferent. Gratton sort of fell into hockey; it's probably difficult not to give the sport at least a try if you are growing up in Canada. Besides, his brother Norm was good enough to be an NHL player. Gilles turned out to be pretty good at goaltending - good enough to climb the ladder, even if he wasn't particularly enthusiastic about playing it.

Gratton's fame came through his actions. He famously skated naked in an arena during a practice, which he says now was came on something of a dare as a way to obtain a dozen sticks for youth hockey. He refused to play in one NHL game by claiming the moon was lined up incorrectly in the sky, which he now says was his way of protesting the firing of coach Billy Harris. Some other, R-rated stories pop up here which probably cross the line of funny-or-sick to the sick side. The goalie sounds like he was drunk or high for most of his career.

It seemed inevitable that such a player would have problems with management somewhere, and Gratton was no exception. He spent a year with the Rangers, headed down to the minors, and then was released. He's been looking for "enlightenment" since then, and the concluding chapters talk about that. Gratton once saw a stranger and said he was destined to have three kids with her. He was wrong - he only had two. A discussion of some of his past lives comes up, as does stories about how his body can go to sleep while his mind stays awake. He works for an auction house that specializes in hockey memorabilia - a little ironic for a guy who hated to play hockey.

Coauthor Greg Oliver rounds up some other quotes from teammates, etc. about Gratton, filling out the book a little bit. They all seem to like him, even though I'm sure his attitude probably left them shaking their heads a bit.

Those old enough to remember Gratton's time in hockey might enjoy reading "Gratoony the Loony" in order to see what the fuss was all about. Otherwise, it's difficult to recommend it.

Two stars

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Saturday, September 16, 2017

Review: Alley-Oop to Aliyah (2017)

By David A. Goldstein

Those who follow college basketball relatively closely realize that the NBA isn't the only post-graduate course for players. Each year, several Americans leave their native country to test their hoop skills in the pro leagues of other countries. Not only does it offer a good paycheck (not by NBA standards, of course, but it can beat working for a living), but it's a relatively cheap way to see the world.

Once the players get there, though, life can turn, well, interesting. The cultural differences can be striking and difficult, depending on the location. And certainly one of the most interesting places to play is Israel.

That's the focus of David A. Goldstein's book, "Alley-Oop to Aliyah." If many stories in life are centered on some form of a "stranger in a strange land," this certainly qualifies.

On one level, this seems like an odd fit. An African American basketball player that walks down the street in Tel Aviv is likely to stand out from the crowd, pardon the obvious pun. On the other hand, Israel is a modern country, thus reducing the adjustments needed by travelers. The people are very friendly, and they generally speak English.

Goldstein covers the subject thoroughly here, including some areas that might not come immediately to mind when thinking about it initially. A surprisingly amount of players who play for at least a few years in Israel end up moving there. Some have gotten married and raised a family there, and a few have converted to Judaism. Goldstein tracked down a couple of dozen Americans who played or play in Israel. They are generally success stories, although it's fair to note that the ones who hang around obviously like the situation and the country.

The presence of the foreigners has raised some questions for Israeli basketball. Do these players raise the quality of play for all, or do they take jobs away from native-born players? A little of both, probably. Maccabi Tel Aviv dominates the league, as it has the most money. (Think of the New York Yankees' payroll and record of success on steroids, proportionately.)  The players say it takes a little time to get used to the strict security measures, but they feel safe once they do. The African Americans generally add they haven't noticed too much overt racism, although it has been difficult for them to move into prime coaching jobs there after their playing days are over.

There are a couple of drawbacks to the story as presented here. Most of the interviews for the book appear to have taken place some years ago. I'm not sure if there's a story to that - it can be tough to find a publisher for anything these days - but it is odd to read lines like "he said in a 2009 interview." And readers should keep a bookmark on the appendix, which has brief bios of the profiled players. My enjoyment of the book increased once I did that. It's an interesting group, but most basketball fans only will have heard of a few of them before reading this.

"Alley-Oop to Aliyah" isn't a long book, but may be more information than a casual fan would want. A long magazine article might satisfy the curiosity of those readers. But for the ones who seek a full story, the book ought to work for them nicely.

Three stars.

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Friday, September 1, 2017

Review: The Boxing Kings (2017)

By Paul Beston

The heavyweight division of boxing has had mostly American champions over the history of the sport. The tradition started by John L. Sullivan in the 19th century, and continued through such greats as Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali. There were a few "foreign" boxers on the list in the 20th century, such as Max Schmeling and Ingemar Johansson.

It was a heck of a run, and it certainly played a role in the growing of boxing as a spectator sport in the United States. That run is mostly over.

It's not a bad time, then, for a review of the subject. Paul Beston jumps all in with his fine book, "The Boxing Kings."

Organized boxing came out of a different time. The first set of rules go back as far as 1743, although they were updated in the 19th century. Eventually the heavyweight champion was known as the guy who could honestly say "I can lick any man in the house," no matter what house he was in. Eventually, Sullivan earned that title.

Beston goes through the famous title bouts and the other champions. What's great about boxing is that much of it has been recorded on film over the years. A big fight was a large enough event to lure primitive cameras along, because people would pay to see it after the fact. Therefore, we can take a look back and see what Jess Willard and Jack Johnson looked like about 100 years after they were in their prime boxing days.  The author obviously did that, and brings a trained eye to the analysis of the fights.

The major stars receive much of the coverage here, and deservedly so. Still, all of the heavyweight champions receive a mention here, including those who seemed to have the title for about an hour. And almost every bout is mentioned. The classic fights - Ali-Frazier, Tunney-Dempsey,  Louis-Schmeling, etc. - are covered in much more detail, and Beston comes up with some new material that will surprise even some veteran fans.


Beston is the managing editor of City Journal, and has written for several newspapers, magazines and websites. He obviously knows his stuff, and that shows up on every page here.

Boxing's popularity in the United States has declined in recent years, probably in part of the lack of a heavyweight champion from this part of the world. There are other factors as well, such as the rise of Mixed Martial Arts and an improved standard of living that has made boxing less attractive to potential athletes. Can you name any of the current heavyweight champions? (The fact that there are more than one at a given moment is part of the problem.)

"The Boxing Kings," then, takes us back to a time when boxing mattered. It's funny how time has flown. Mike Tyson hasn't been a big factor in boxing for more than a quarter of a century, and Evander Holyfield's prime checks in at about 20 years ago. That may limit the audience for a book like this - and the $36 list price may not help in that sense either - but those looking for information on the subject will find this an excellent source of material.

Four stars

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Sunday, August 20, 2017

Review: Dr. Z (2017)

By Paul Zimmerman

Sportswriters always liked to tell stories about Paul Zimmerman, the legendary football reporter for Sports Illustrated who was known for his fanatic and complete dedication to his job. Here's one of them, told during Super Bowl week one year, which gets the point across. If it's not true, it should be.

Zimmerman was working for the New York Post one fall Saturday, and was assigned to cover some small college game. He wanted to see a big college game that started at 4 p.m. or so on television. Zimmerman liked to chart games as they went along, and he almost physically needed to be watching the game from the start - missing a play or two was unacceptable.

Zimmerman covered the first game, and shortly before its conclusion dashed down to the field to interview the coach and a star player or two briefly. Then he got in the car, drove to a nearby hotel, and got a room on the sixth floor of a hotel - arriving at 3:55 p.m.

Zimmerman grabbed his notebook, sat down, flipped on the TV ... and saw nothing. The television wasn't working. He called the front desk. "This is Paul Zimmerman in 612. My television set is not working. If I don't get a new room in the next five minutes, I will throw the television in this room from the balcony into the swimming pool below."

He got the room, and saw the kickoff.

Zimmerman's distinct literary voice has been quieted for the past nine years. He suffered a series of strokes in 2008, and cannot read, write or speak. Yes, some things just aren't fair.

Before the stroke, Zimmerman had taken a sabbatical and was hard at work on his memoirs. There wasn't much rhyme or reason to what he got down on paper, but he figured he would get to that. Fate had other plans.

But now friend and coworker Peter King of Sports Illustrated has taken those words, and organized them a bit. He also has added some columns written by Zimmerman for Sports Illustrated, and the result is an unexpected (because of the physical problems) surprise of the season: "Dr. Z - The Lost Memoirs of an Irreverent Football Writer."

The book is broken into 14 chapters, the various parts of Zimmerman's life. By far the longest is his personal all-time team in pro football, which is great fun to read. Zimmerman liked nothing better to look at film of old games and great players, and came up with ratings. The ratings are about a decade old at this point, and it would be interesting to see what he might do with the subject now. For example, has Tom Brady replaced Joe Montana as the greatest quarterback of the modern era? (John Unitas still wins the old school division.) Montana, by the way, is the subject of a fascinating feature story by Zimmerman, reprinted here from Sports Illustrated.

Football drives the book naturally, and there are stories from the Super Bowls and quarterbacks. But the Olympics get plenty of space, as do stories about journalism. There are stories about boxing with Ernest Hemingway, and about going to Columbia with a future KGB agent. The last four chapters turn personal - they are called "Wine," "Collecting," "Authority," and "National Anthem." That last one needs an explanation - Zimmerman used to time them at sporting events and keep records. That's not surprising from a person who could tell you how many steps there were from the lobby of the Newark airport to Gate 26.

A book like that almost has to be a little disorganized, since it was a work in progress when it came to a nearly 10-year halt. But, King did a good job of putting it all together so that you'd get the idea of what Zimmerman's life and talent were like.

Fans of Zimmerman probably will think that they are doing him and his family a little favor by supporting this project with a book project, and they no doubt are. Still, "Dr. Z" stands up pretty well for long-time football fans. And if you don't remember Zimmerman's work, this will open your eyes to a unique individual.

Four stars

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Thursday, August 17, 2017

Review: The Streak (2017)

By John Eisenberg

Baseball fans in the 1960s and 1970s knew that a handful of baseball records were about untouchable. That word could be used to describe Cy Young's win total of 511, and Rogers Hornsby's one-season batting average of .424. The game had changed a great deal since over the year by then, and no one had come close to such marks for quite a while.

Another, very different record also was in that category. Lou Gehrig played in 2,130 straight games for the New York Yankees. Few had close to half of that total for years, and it seemed improbable that anyone else could touch it. The same theory applied to Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, another outlier that defies comprehension in some ways.

Here we are in 2017, then, and DiMaggio's record still stands tall. But it turns out we were really wrong about Gehrig's record. Who knew that Cal Ripken would come along?

Ripken went sailing past Gehrig in 1995, and finished with 2,632 straight games to his credit. It would be easy to say that never, ever will be touched, but maybe we know better than to deal in absolutes in such case.

Ripken and Gehrig have been linked ever since, so a book on the two of them and their streaks seems like a natural - even 22 years after they were connected. But John Eisenberg has a bigger goal in mind in his book, "The Streak." While focusing on those two famous streakers, he examines the entire concept of playing in a large number of games in a row.

It's an odd record as these things go. You have to be exceptional to set a career record for stolen bases or hits, but you just have to show up day after day in order to rate highly in this category. That's not unimportant - perfect attendance has been desirable for most since grammar school. Still, you have to be good enough to earn a regular spot in the lineup, and then stay there for several years.

Eisenburg takes this concept way, way back to the beginnings of professional baseball. He helps to bring alive those early "streakers," and recounts a few controversies that came up along the way. Record-keeping then wasn't perfect in the late 1800s, so a couple of mistakes were make that changed the numbers and the record book. Interestingly, such streaks weren't a big deal then, which is why George Pinkney and Steve Brokie weren't household names even back when they played.

Eventually, Everett Scott of the Red Sox and Yankees went flying by everyone, and then Gehrig came along. His goal was to play every day, and he succeeded for more than a decade. As Eisenberg points out, there were a few close calls along the way. Once in a great while, Gehrig did things like hit in the top of the first inning and then exit, thus keeping his streak in tact. Major League Baseball has changed its rules about such actions and streaks over the years. You now can't simply be placed in the starting lineup and then be taken out for a pinch-hitter in the top of the first and still have it count as a game played. But Gehrig's tactics do make Ripken's ledger even more impressive, in that he went seasons without missing a single inning.

Eisenberg does a fine job of talking to several people about Ripken's big moments in the streak, making the feeling come along nicely. He also gets some opinions on how Ripken and Gehrig had slightly different obstacles to overcome in order to play so long, and on why the long consecutive streak may be a thing of the past.

Admittedly, a consecutive-game streak is almost a curiosity as these things go, and that might limit the audience a bit. Eisenberg admits that it took longer that he would have liked to finish this book. A natural landing point for the effort would have been 2015, 20 years after Ripken broke Gehrig's record.

But those who dive into "The Streak" will find some definite rewards. I'm not sure how the subject could be covered any better, and it will fully satisfy the appetite of avid baseball fans out there.

Four stars

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Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Review: Houston to Cooperstown (2017)

By Greg Lucas

I'm not sure the Houston Astros were the most faceless team in baseball for some time, but they were in the argument.

Think about it. The team entered the National League in 1962, and struggled like most expansion teams. In those early years, most people probably thought of a stadium - the legendary Astrodome - when asked about the team. They didn't have many iconic players, and you could argue that they traded their best one (Joe Morgan) before he became famous. Houston had some memorable moments but oddly they were associated with losses. The 1980 playoff loss to Philadelphia, and the 1986 playoff loss to the New York Mets were amazing moments but ultimately unsuccessful ones.

The Astros had some very good players pass through Houston, such as Morgan and Nolan Ryan, and some good players who stayed like Larry Dierker and Jimmy Wynn. But there were great players who arrived and stayed, like Cal Ripken or George Brett.

That all changed, or at least started to change, in 1988. It is when Craig Biggio first arrived on the Astros' roster. A few years later, Jeff Bagwell followed Biggio to the big club. That was a heck of a right side of the infield for a decade. That's why Greg Lucas was smart to highlight those two in his brisk history of the Astros, "Houston to Cooperstown."

Biggio might have had one of the most unusual skill sets in baseball. No one has ever gone from catcher to second base to center field during the course of a career, and played it well. He was essentially too good an athlete and player to stay as a catcher, where the wear and tear of the position shortens careers. Bagwell was a topnotch power hitter, someone who moved from third to first at the start of his career and found a home.

The Astros still didn't receive a great deal of publicity with them around, but they popped up in the playoffs a few times with these two leading the way. Both of them piled up some big numbers. It's fun to look back and here and be reminded of just what they did. Biggio might have had the more impressive career because he was a little better in the counting stats, like 3,000 hits. Bagwell's body (the shoulder in particular) broke down toward the end, perhaps because he lifted too many heavy weights in the gym in an effort to stay strong. Both are now enshrined in Cooperstown, as Bagwell went in this year - which couldn't have hurt book sales.

Lucas, a former broadcaster for the team, covers the early years quite quickly, and lingers on the days of the two stars. Once Biggio and Bagwell are done, the author moves on to the last decade or so, which started with the arrow on the team pointing way, way down, but changed 180 degrees. Now they are one of the best teams in baseball.

If I could be allowed a bit of nit-picking, there are a couple of issues with the book - one of which has nothing to do with the publication itself. Biggio and Bagwell come off as good guys and solid citizens throughout. There's not much drama there. I could see how they'd be easy to cheer for, but their stories will leave your draw undropped. There also are some editing issues along the way, mostly in the form of the odd typo. Red Sox fans certainly will notice that Yastrzemski is misspelled twice here. Baseball readers are notoriously sensitive to such things - maybe too sensitive - but one more read by an editor might have helped.

Otherwise, "Houston to Cooperstown" reaches its goals nicely. It will bring back memories of Astros gone by for the local fans, while filling in the gaps of knowledge for the out-of-towners. I've known Greg Lucas since the late 1970s, and in my slightly biased viewpoint he's hit another line drive.

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Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Review: Playing Hurt (2017)

By John Saunders with John U. Bacon

Most books by nationally-known sportscasters follow a pattern. There are entertaining tales of the early days, jumping from outlet to outlet, and then the story moves into a recounting of games and personalities encountered over the years.

"Playing Hurt" is definitely not that book.

The late John Saunders had a lot happen to him in his too-short life. He tells us about many of them in his memoir, which in spots is painful to read.

From a distance, Saunders was a rather typical success story. He first became nationally known when he landed at ESPN in the late 1980s, just when the outlet was ready to take off. Saunders did a lot of events over the years, and did them well. He wasn't a polarizing figure on the air, content to merely tell you what was going on.  There's a certain dignity in that approach that was welcome; you don't have to shout all the time to get attention.

What's more, Saunders was a black from Canada, which made him different in a professional world filled with white males. If you were a youngster of color looking for a role model, Saunders certainly could fill that role. 

That's all well and good, but there is little about that side of Saunders in the book. He starts off in dramatic fashion, telling about a trip he took in 2012 to the Tappen Zee Bridge north of New York City. Saunders pulled to the side of the road of the bridge, got out of the car, walked to the edge, and thought about jumping. Depression, it turns out, came along with Saunders throughout his life, and he had to battle the demons almost every day. It's not what you'd expect out of person with a dream job and a lovely wife and two daughters.

Saunders goes into his childhood in Canada from there, and it's not pretty. His father was abusive (physically and verbally) when he bothered to be home, which wasn't often because he was usually in Ohio. His mom usually had to raise the family of three children by herself, and she had plenty of her own problems. Saunders was sexually molested by the daughter of a friend of the family before he became a teenager, causing problems in relationships for the rest of his life. Moving around a bit probably didn't help either. Saunders developed problems with alcohol and drugs, and his relationships with women were frequently distant and brief. And depression started to turn up with frequency; it would be a lifelong passenger along with diabetes.

At that point, it's easy to wonder how Saunders turned out so well professionally. A bright spot was that he was pretty good at hockey, which got him an invitation to play for a couple of colleges. Saunders sort of stumbled into a broadcasting career, starting with a job in Espanola, Ontario - I've been there, and it's even smaller than you might think it is. From there it was on to other stops, including Toronto and Baltimore, before landing at ESPN. There were some mental health issues along the way, but apparently he made his life work.

If all of that weren't enough, and it certainly would be for most people, Saunders blacked out and hit his head at work in September 2011. That caused a serious brain injury that would need a great deal of therapy. It also led to what could be called an addiction to a strong prescription drug that was issued by a doctor for reasons only known to him; other doctors were shocked at the dosage.

The story essentially ends in 2013, when Saunders has been weaned off the prescription drug and he was feeling better. Some readers will remember that when Saunders died in 2016, not a great deal was said about the reason or reasons why. While reading the book, it's easy to wonder what might have happened and why. Thankfully, co-author John U. Bacon writes an afterword about the next three years. Saunders collapsed in a bathroom and could not be revived. Doctors said he died of a combination of an enlarged heart, complications from diabetes, and another disease that affected the regulation of breathing, blood pressure and heart rate.

"Playing Hurt" isn't a happy story, of course, and it's sad that this almost-universally liked man left us too soon. Reading the story was almost shocking, and such stories aren't going to be brought to the beach to serve as a summer diversion. Still, Saunders' hope was that a book would show others with mental health issues that they aren't alone and should reach out for help. This should do that, and more.

Five stars

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Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Review: Best Canadian Sports Writing (2017)

Edited by Stacey May Fowles and Pasha Malla

"Best Canadian Sports Writing" comes across as something of an interesting experiment.

Readers of this blog know that I'm attracted to the series of anthologies highlighting some of the best sports writing in America for the past 25-plus years. Therefore, it's easy to be interested in how the format and approach might work in Canada.

Apparently, a couple of people thought the same way. Stacey May Fowles and Pasha Malla have done a variety of articles and books over the years. The call went out for contributions, people responded with stories on all sorts of different subject, and - poof! - you've got yourself a book.

The first question, then, is: does the book work? I have rather mixed feelings about that, and not just because I'm an American reading a book about Canadian sports. Living in a border city will knock down a few of the barriers that might exist in such a situation.

The biggest difference might be that the American series relies quite a bit on some established sources for stories - Sports Illustrated and ESPN the Magazine, for starters, plus some big-city newspapers. That's not to say those sources have been come more diversified in recent years, because clearly they have - the on-line world is touching the entire world of journalism.

There are some stories in Canada's version that were somewhat surprising to read. I should start with the good news; I liked some of the efforts.

Dan Robson's story on a youth hockey team coming south from the area around Hudson Bay was very well done. I'm not sure I've read many fishing articles in my day, as I have no familiarity with the subject, but Cathal Kelly raised the subject in a way that was appealing and informative to this novice. John Lott's profile of the Toronto Blue Jays' batting practice pitcher was well done. Kristina Rutherford's profile of hockey player Harrison Browne was nicely written. Stephen Brunt's profile of the Blue Jays' Roberto Osuna was long but worthwhile.

But there were some stories about odd subjects that just didn't draw me in. Two articles on professional wrestling might have been one too many. There are tales of sumo wrestling, street drag racing, ice climbing, and ski ballet. I try to avoid stories on the UFC when possible. The transcript of a discussion of sports journalists in color struck me as relevant, but the writing didn't require more than a stenographer. And some stories, such as the essay on why a video of the Sun's surface was sort of like the New York Knicks, could have been avoided.

There were a few opinion pieces scattered along the way, and again some worked better than others. The article on how women's soccer has a chance to break through had me nodding in agreement at times, while a story on Kobe Bryant's appeal to Muslim got points for originality - although it might be a tough sell in most publications.

In the meantime, few of the stories were particularly topical. I'm not sure if that was a deliberate decision, but it sure would have been nice to read something about someone in the mainstream.

"Best Canadian Sports Writing" might have some appeal to the adventurous reader out there. I'd like to think I can qualify for that category, but it's a little over the line for me some of the time. Let's hope this became an annual effort, though, and perhaps the batting average will get better.

Three stars

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Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Review: Ahead of the Curve (2016)

By Brian Kenny

If you are a baseball fan, you may have noticed that a statistical revolution has been taking place over the last couple of decades. We've come up with all sorts of new ways of more accurately measuring performance on the diamond, but it all can be a little confusing - maybe a lot confusing in some cases - to those who haven't been paying attention.

Television host Brian Kenny takes a look at the revolution in his book, "Ahead of the Curve," taking some of those advances principles and applying them to the present and the past. That's not a bad idea at all, although what he writes about may strike you as more pleasing as how he writes about it.

Some of the numbers that are kept in baseball have been with us for well over a century - batting average, pitching wins, fielding percentage, and so on. We have come to believe that a .300 hitter in baseball is a good hitter, and that a 20-game winner on the mound is a great pitcher. But there are obviously problems with those numbers. Batting average doesn't account for walks and power, which makes it less effective than on-base percentage and slugging percentage (now combined into one number by many called OPS) in making those judgments. Pitching wins have an obvious bias toward good teams (the more games you win ...) and offensive support. Sometimes a pitcher gets eight runs scored for him every time he takes the mound, and suddenly he has a 14-2 record. Earned-run average is a better tool to judge pitchers, although that has its drawbacks too.

It's rather remarkable how much information is now available to baseball teams, and they are busy coming up with more of it. Every major league franchise has an office full of bright people who are looking for an edge. Sometimes they find one. If you saw or read "Moneyball," you realize how on-base percentage was overlooked for sometime, giving the Oakland Athletics an edge. The Pirates jumped on board the concepts of defensive shifts and pitch framing early, which helped their rise from sub-mediocrity.

Kenny goes through a variety of topics here along those lines. He thinks the save isn't really a good barometer of relief pitching, and that teams are on their way to changing their use of pitchers so that more hurlers appear regularly in a game for a shorter length of time. If you watched the Indians last year work their way to the World Series, you realize that he may be right. Kenny throws in a look at MVP selections over time and who should have been taken in a given year. That might not be fair in spots, since sports writers didn't have today's tools, but it's a fun exercise. That includes the 1941 American League debate, which pitted Joe DiMaggio and his 56-game winning streak against Ted Williams and his .406 average. Kenny eventually goes with DiMaggio, who did win it at the time, but wavers along the way.

This is all fine, and if you are looking for a course in such matters, you'll be well-served in that sense. But I found myself coming back to the question, did I like reading this? That's a tougher one.

I remember Kenny from his days at ESPN. I don't see him on the air now because he's on the MLB Network, which isn't on my cable package. Kenny comes across in the book as really sure of himself, as if anyone who disagrees with him isn't worth his time. Some of the reviews on amazon.com indicate that he's like that on the air too.

I always like to say that if I'm going to read a book about something, I want to enjoy the author's company along the way. I found myself getting tired of baseball people and reporters being insulted here. I would have preferred to have been given the facts, which are on Kenny's side, and gone on from there. I know, though, that television these days prefers loud to reasonable.

"Ahead of the Curve" accomplishes its goal, and I can understand why many readers have liked it. Maybe they'll now understand I'm a little less enthusiastic about it.

Three stars

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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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Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Review: Casey Stengel (2017)

By Marty Appel

There's a lot to be said for being the right person at the right time at the right place.

Ask Casey Stengel.

That might sum up the life of Stengel. Marty Appel uses those words and many more in his new biography of the legendary baseball figure, "Casey Stengel - Baseball's Greatest Character."

Appel, also known as George Steinbrenner's first public relations director with the New York Yankees, is well-qualified to try to put a picture of Stengel together. He's written several books on baseball, and obviously has plenty of contacts through the Yankees' history and through baseball to make this work in an entertaining and comprehensive style.

Stengel's real name was Charles, but he was from Kansas City - and he picked up the name Casey (as in K.C.) along the way. Stengel always preferred baseball to school work, and dropped out of high school a little early to sign a professional contract. And why not? His starting salary was twice what his father was earning.

Stengel wasn't a bad player, reaching the majors and bouncing around through a few teams once he got there. It included six years in Brooklyn and three with the New York Giants; Casey liked playing on the big stage that New York offered. Stengel also displayed an ability to be entertaining. The sportswriters would call it "colorful" or say he was a "real character." Whatever you call it, Casey was the type of guy who once reacted to a greeting at the batter's box by taking off his cap - and having a sparrow fly off his head. You don't see that today.

Stengel played 14 years. Baseball-reference.com's list of comparable batters has him as a close match to Cleon Jones - who signed with the Mets when Stengel worked there. He had a habit of turning up at historic moments - like hitting the first home run in Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, or hitting the first home run in a World Series in Yankee Stadium.

After finishing his playing career, Stengel started to work off the field - and provided a laugh-out-loud moment in his book right away. He was named the president and manager of a minor-league team in Worcester. Soon he was offered a job as a manager in Toledo, but the franchise owner in Worcester didn't want to let him take it. So Casey the manager wrote a letter to Casey the president, resigning from the position. Casey the president wrote back with "I join the fans of Worcester in expressing our appreciation for your outstanding services rendered and wish you luck in your new position. We congratulate Toledo on getting your valuable services."

Stengel managed for several years in the majors, guiding Brooklyn and the Boston Braves in the 1930s and early 1940s. But he only had one team play above .500, so no one thought of him as a genius. But Stengel still landed the Yankees job in 1949, and promptly won five straight World Series title - which has never been matched. It's funny how smart he got when he had good players. Joe Torre had a similar experience in the Bronx, as he guided the great Yankee teams in the late 1990s after having little success as a manager beforehand.

Some loved Stengel, and some disliked him. The sports writers and the public generally loved him, though, building up good will. He could be unconventional as a manager, pinch-hitting for players in the second inning and making odd decisions with the pitching staff. But generally, they worked out pretty well.

Appel barely touches on one part of the Yankees' story in the 1950s, which is race. The Yankees didn't integrate the major league roster until 1955, well behind most other teams. That would seem to be a sign that Yankee scouts weren't in a hurry to add African Americans to the roster, although a couple of anecdotes indicates that Stengel didn't have any problems with an integrated roster.

Stengel took a year off after the Yankees ordered him to retire after the 1960 season, and then turned up as the manager of the New York Mets. The expansion team wanted some attention, and Stengel certainly could provide that. The Mets soon outdrew the rival and much better Yankees. But New York's Mets were a terrible baseball team in those early years, one of the worst in history. It's easy to wonder if Stengel was the right man for that job in a baseball sense, and if the Mets were mismanaged in their first few years of play. Those issues go generally unexplored here.

Appel did plenty of research, and comes up with some facts that must have taken some digging to find. He is helped in his task by using portions of an unpublished autobiography by Stengel's wife, Edna. Written in 1958, the tales from that do help illuminate Casey as a complete person - one who was drawn to the spotlight, unable to pull away in spite of his wife's wishes in that area. There are a few moments in the book where the story becomes a little choppy, but for the most part this is an easy lift to read.

Appel also obviously is very fond of Stengel as a character, and it's tough not to be. Any criticism of the subject is rather gentle, and quickly offset by warm words. For those who don't know why we still remember the legendary figure so well, "Casey Stengel" fills in the gaps well.

Four stars

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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Review: Lasting Impact (2016)

By Kostya Kennedy

Kostya Kennedy absolutely nails the key issue about concussions in football in his book, "Lasting Impact."

At the end, he writes, "The notion of football as a sport overwhelmingly played by the have-notes and consumed by the haves is not an easy notion to bear. Something will be deeply lost."

We all have read the stories about retired pro football players who are suffering from brain injuries later in life. Gale Sayers, the Hall of Fame running back, just added his name to the list recently. Are we headed to a time when the only people who will take the risk of playing football are those with the least to lose? In other words, is football going down a path that was pioneered by boxing? Because in terms of general interest, that has turned into a road to something approaching irrelevance.

We don't know yet. But Kennedy headed to high school in 2014 to see what the football landscape looked like at that level. He found a sport with plenty of positives going for it, but with the concussion lurking nearby like a thunderstorm in the distance.

He did it by spending time with the New Rochelle football team, located north of New York City. New Rochelle is a good-sized suburb with a mix of demographics roaming its school hallways.  The Huguenauts have had good success over the years, usually fielding winning teams thanks to a veteran coach who worries about X's and O's some of the time and his players' personal problems at others.

There are profiles of the coaches, administrators and players, naturally. Lou DiRienzo, the coach of the team, comes off pretty well. High school head coaches receive a little more exposure to real-world problems than those higher up the food chain in college and the pros; those guiding such teams are a little more isolated from the players on an everyday basis.

Every so often, Kennedy has to shift his focus to the real world - for example, the death of two high school football player relatively close to New Rochelle. And that doesn't include concussions that seem to be something close to a weekly occurrence in football these days.

Just to add an unexpected twist to the story, who enters the scene but Ray Rice - just after he was released by his NFL team after a video was released showing him striking his future wife in an elevator. Rice played for New Rochelle, and returned to his high school during the season in the middle of the controversy surrounding the situation and his fate in it. 

New Rochelle at least came through for Kennedy with a good season. But the author wisely doesn't get bogged down in too many details of a year that is in the past and won't be that interesting to most readers - even though it's easy to root for some of the people involved. Kennedy is more interested in focusing on how high school football can supply support, discipline, and bonding for kids. It does that in many cases, but it also leaves kids on the sidelines with headaches - and who knows what's ahead for them?

Kennedy wrote a pair of terrific books on Joe DiMaggio's streak and Pete Rose. This book isn't quite so obviously compelling because of the less-famous subject matter, but the author's smarts still come through nicely here.

By the end of "Lasting Impact," Kennedy still isn't sure whether he'd let a son of his play high school football. He writes that he had no agenda going in, and still didn't have one going out. Kennedy can see arguments on both sides.The romantic side of high school football is still appealing, but the risks of playing become more real all the time. It's tough to know what the right answer is in every case.

Four stars

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