THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES: LOU GEHRIG , GARY COOPER AND THE MAKING OF A CLASSIC by Richard Sandomir

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(Lou Gehrig)

After reading Richard Sandomir’s THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES: LOU GEHRIG, GARY COOPER AND THE MAKING OF A CLASSIC I cannot decide whether I have read a sports book, or a critique of how the film “Pride of the Yankees” was created and finalized.  I guess Sandomir has elements of both, but I wish he would have chosen one path rather than moving back and forth between the two approaches.  The book itself is informative and presents a number of surprising and interesting details of how Samuel Goldwyn, Eleanor Gehrig and others went about the conception of the script, how it was be transferred to the screen, and the diverse group of people who were involved.

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(Gary Cooper in the film, “Pride of the Yankees” making Gehrig’s farewell speech)

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(Lou Gehrig making his Farewell Speech at Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939)

Sandomir provides background on all the major characters.  We witness the courtship
and marriage of Lou and Eleanor Gehrig and the stresses in their marriage.  The main problem was that Lou was a “mama’s boy” and he had difficulty separating from his mother.  Eleanor describes her marriage as a triangle between her, her husband, and her mother-in-law.  This difficulty would continue after Lou’s death as his mother sued to contest Lou’s will.  A great deal of biographical information is presented dealing with Gary Cooper and Theresa Wright the stars of the movie which are interesting and a number of career insights are brought forward.  Samuel Goldwyn whose studio produced the film is presented as a man who cared mostly about profits from his film.  He did have a soft spot for Gehrig, particularly after Gehrig’s July 4, 1939, “I am the luckiest man in the world” speech given at Yankee Stadium shortly before he died of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).

For Goldwyn the story revolved around patriotism and capturing a shy, decent, selfless, and sincere individual who possessed the character traits of what the American male stood for.  The year 1942 when the film was released is very important.  World War II was not going well, and Goldwyn saw the film as a means of entertainment, profit, but also providing American society an uplifting experience.  The story about a man who was struck down in the prime of his life by an insidious disease is heartwarming.  Gehrig’s own response reflects a brave individual who could be held up as a role model for the World War II generation.  What makes Sandomir’s new book, and Goldwyn’s film so effective is that they are able to translate Gehrig’s life through the prism of film and how that film has preserved his legendary career and his personal integrity for seventy-five years.

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(Lou and Eleanor Gehrig)

The chapter on teaching Gary Cooper to become a “passable” baseball player was one of the most interesting in the book.  Sandomir does a fine job introducing former major leaguers like Lefty O’Doul and Babe Herman, baseball stars in their own right, and how they went about teaching Cooper how to appear realistic as a player on film.  The author provides surprising detail on how this was accomplished.  Especially interesting in the discussion on how the right handed Cooper could play the left handed Gehrig.  The analysis of how film techniques i.e., camera reversals-Cooper would run to third, but on film he ran to first, or uniform names and numbers were reversed were especially interesting.

Sandomir is correct in arguing that the film itself has created a conundrum in that it is difficult to ascertain what is real in terms of Gehrig’s life story and what is a Hollywood creation.  It is fascinating that Goldwyn, Cooper, and others knew very little, if anything about baseball and yet they created a classic film on the sport.  For Goldwyn baseball was tangential to how he wanted the film presented.  The film was to be about Gehrig and Goldwyn “craved commercial success, not fidelity to a sport he had no affinity for.”  Goldwyn’s main problem was one of authenticity-how would the film convince its audience that what they were viewing was historical accurate.  Goldwyn’s staff employs artistic license repeatedly raising questions as to how effective the film was in replicating the truth.

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(Gehrig and Babe Ruth following his Farewell Speech)

A major issue is whether Sandomir delves into issues he uncovers as an investigative reporter or are they dealt with in a superficial manner, for example, Eleanor’s relationship with Lou’s mother; the Gehrig-Ruth relationship; the Gehrig marriage; and the background for each character in the film.  The feeling emerges that this is more of a sports book about Gehrig’s life and how a film was made to glorify it, rather than a study of filmmaking that lacked the cultural and social components of the period.  Sandomir is correct in arguing that in the end “the film left people to accept the truths that were created, which did not stick too many of the facts.”

The book is a comprehensive study of Gehrig’s life on film and the problems that arose from that undertaking.  However, at times the book lacks flow as it becomes somewhat tedious as the author seems to over analyze each aspect of the film, i.e.; chapters dealing with Gehrig’s Farewell Speech, and training Gary Cooper to replicate Gehrig.  If you are interested in this topic I would suggest viewing the film before reading Sandomir’s narrative.  It would create context for the reader and might produce a more positive result once the book is digested.

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(Lou Gehrig)

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FIELDS OF BATTLE: PEARL HARBOR, THE ROSE BOWL, AND THE BOYS THAT WENT TO WAR by Brian Curtis

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(1942 Rose Bowl Game in Durham, NC)

Last Monday the University of Southern California and Penn State University met in one of the most thrilling Rose Bowl games in history with the Trojans winning on a last second field goal 52-49.  Before the game, in keeping with the remembrance of the 75th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, one remaining player from the 1942 Rose Bowl, and survivors of December 7, 1941 were honored.  In the wake of the attack the game was moved from Pasadena to Durham, NC.  Oregon State University, the underdog, played Duke University and the Blue Devil campus opened its arms to their opponents who had to travel across America by train in the wake of the Japanese action.  As players practiced for the game British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt met to discuss preparations for war, and allied strategy that would greatly impact these Rose Bowl participants.  Brian Curtis’ new Book, FIELDS OF BATTLE: PEARL HARBOR, THE ROSE BOWL, AND THE BOYS THAT WENT TO WAR catalogues a little known slice of American history describing what took place on the grid iron, the battlefields of World War II, and how many of these football players readapted to civilian life after the war.  Curtis’ style reminds one of John Feinstein’s approach in A CIVIL WAR: ARMY VS NAVY: A YEAR INSIDE COLLEGE FOOTBALL’S PUREST RIVALRY  as he delves into the personalities and military careers of the coaches, players, and many of the faculty at Oregon State and Duke.

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Wallace Wade who hailed from Gibson County, TN played football at Brown, enlisted in World War I, and after missing out on combat in 1918 returned to civilian life and became a football coach at the University of Alabama.  He was successful and had the reputation of getting the most out of his players, and after winning a national championship moved to coach Duke in 1930.  By September, 1941 the Duke’s football team was down to 49 players as with war in the air, 6 players had already enlisted.  Alonzo “Lon” Stiles, Jr. the Oregon State University coach grew up in Nebraska and was able to turn a small agricultural school into a major football power. However, by March, 1941 OSU was still seen as one of the weaker teams in the Pacific Coast Conference.  Curtis provides a history of the football programs at both schools and introduces the reader to the important players ranging from Don Durdan, the son of a banana farmer in Eureka, CA; Bob Dethman from Hood River, OR, a person who had it all, good looks athletic talents, and strong academically for OSU to Frank Parker, a rambunctious and driven person; to Jack Yoshihara, the only Japanese –American on the Duke squad.

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(Wallace Wade, Sr.,  Coach of the Duke Football Team)

After reviewing the 1930s and the eventual war in Europe, the American role in the world before Pearl Harbor, the author focuses on how the United States evolved into “the arsenal of democracy.”  Curtis integrates OSU and Duke into his discussion of military preparedness with new courses oriented to technological innovation and military needs, bringing in soldiers to take specialized courses to enhance their military training, along with the standard ROTC programs.

Curtis describes the football season for both teams in detail and is able to use certain players and place them in their historical context, i.e., Jack Yoshihara, a Duke player that was interned along with his entire family after Pearl Harbor was attacked.  By the first week in December both schools were invited to participate in the Rose Bowl and began practicing and making plans when the Japanese attacked.  Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt was Commander of the 4th Army and responsible for protecting the west coast.  DeWitt was an intolerant individual and a racist and the author should have delved into DeWitt’s actions and policies in greater detail, particularly when he opposed moving the Rose Bowl east, and had the FBI arrest Jack Yoshihara in front of his teammates, banned him from playing in the bowl game, eventually moving his entire family from “internment camp,” to “internment camp.”  Curtis does present the standard history of how the internment camp policy was implemented, describing conditions in the camps and how Japanese-Americans adjusted.  Curtis does detail the plight of the Yoshihara family, as US citizens they still lived in demeaning conditions, having lost their possessions and being separated from Jack.

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(Minidoka internment camp, Oregon)

Curtis integrates wartime events into his narrative and how they affected the game and the players once it was moved to the Duke campus.  Curtis describes team preparation, the game itself, and what happened to the players following its conclusion.  Once the game was completed the author does a nice job dealing with how the war affected each campus.  College administrators sped up graduation requirements to allow men who were enlisting or being drafted to complete their education.  Further, scientific research became a staple as Nobel Prize winning scientists like Enrico Fermi and Arthur Compton worked on a “uranium weapons program,” the early stages of the Manhattan Project” which had ties to Duke facilities and faculty.

As he watched his players join the services, Wade, age 49 decided to reenlist as he wanted to do what he had always asked his players to do, ending his coaching career.  Eventually receiving command of the 272nd Artillery Battalion, Wade saw action in France after Normandy.   Stiner was too old to enlist, but he followed his players avidly putting a map up in his home and using stick pins to follow their progress in Europe, North Africa, and the Pacific.   However, the 1942 football season continued as Washington viewed it as a useful distraction from the war.  OSU and Duke would lose a significant number of players to graduation and the military.  They would present weaker rosters and their poor performance did not match fan expectations.  One of Duke’s former players, Walter Griffith who served in the 8th Marines, Second Division was the first Rose Bowl participant killed in the war at Guadalcanal, a battle that provided evidence to the allies how fierce the fighting would be to defeat Japan.  The former players would soon find out that “war was hell,” from the outset.  One of those was Wallace Wade, Jr. who had enlisted before his father and as an officer with the 9th Division Artillery made his way across Algeria and Tunisia, later crossed the channel into France through Belgium and Germany where he was close to breaking down.  With all his combat experience, Wade, Jr. concluded that “Sherman’s description of war was a great understatement.”

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(Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt)

Through the eyes of former players Curtis effectively describes the course of the war and the major battles these men participated in.  As he does this, Curtis places their experiences in the full context of the war, i.e., when Charles Haynes, leader of the Second Platoon, Easy Company, 349th Regiment, 88th Division deployed to Italy, an allied strategy designed to weaken Nazi defense of Germany by having them pick up the pieces after Mussolini was captured.  In fact, Charles Haynes of Duke would run into Frank Parker of OSU on the battlefield, then later Parker would carry the severely wounded Haynes to a medical station.   Later in the war Lt. Colonel Wallace Wade, Sr. would come across OSU’s Stanley Czech, a field artillery observer, and of course Czech offered the “old man” a cup of coffee.

By constructing his narrative in this manner for the final third of the book, Curtis offers a bird’s eye view of what these football players experienced during the war; fighting in the Ardennes Forest, the Battle of the Bulge, Iwo Jima, Normandy, Guadalcanal, Sicily, and numerous other historical battles, and why the 70 players and coaches that played or coached in the 1942 Rose Bowl who served in the armed forces, less 4 of which had been killed, were treated as heroes upon their return.  What truly enhances Curtis’ work are the personal stories he tells concerning how these men readapted to civilian life after the war.  Some dealt with the effects of the war well, others not so, but all in all these men made a tremendous contribution to their country.

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(1942 Rose Bowl Game, Durham, NC)

VICTORY SEASON: THE END OF WORLD WAR II AND THE BIRTH OF BASEBALL’S GOLDEN AGE by Robert Weintraub

(Stan Musial and Ted Williams)

The year 1946 was a watershed in Post-World War II America.  It is the year that Robert Weintraub points out in his book, VICTORY SEASON: THE END OF WORLD WAR II AND THE BIRTH OF BASEBALL’S GOLDEN AGE that the United States had to reinvent itself from a collectivist society that was geared toward winning the war to one that could reabsorb millions of servicemen and women at a time when the country was unprepared to receive them.  1946 witnessed severe labor disruption, spiraling prices, wages that did not keep up with prices, and shortages of many goods and services.  As domestic trauma seemed to increase each day people began to grow concerned about our former ally, the Soviet Union.  Many feared a return to prewar depression and a new president who seemed unprepared for the office.  As baseball returned to the national consciousness at spring training sites, Winston Churchill gave his “Iron Curtain” speech in Fulton, Missouri, and at the State Department, George Kennan called for the “containment” of the Soviet Union in his “Long Telegram.”

When the government removed price controls prices rose on average about 18%, but wages lagged far behind resulting in a flurry of strikes nationwide.  Steel workers, miners, railroad workers all took to the picket lines almost bringing the nation to a halt.  The result was higher wages something that baseball players returning from the war had difficulty achieving.  Baseball was exempt from anti-trust legislation and through the “reserve clause” in contracts players were the property of the owners, in a sense a form of “indentured servitude.”  1946 represented the first time that teams were not missing players serving in the military and it was hoped by the players and their owners that their skills had not eroded during the war.

(Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey)

When I first picked up VICTORY SEASON I hoped that it would explain in detail how baseball served as a catalyst for returning a sense of normalcy to American life.  Weintraub does make the attempt, but does not really develop this theme enough.  The author does a magnificent job discussing some of baseballs endearing and not so endearing characters.  Focusing on the alcoholic owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers and later the New York Yankees, Lee MacPhail, we learn how he laid the foundation for Dodgers success in the 1940s and 50s, and then helped build the Yankees into the powerhouse that dominated baseball from 1949-1963.  Branch Rickey is portrayed as a genius who knew how to evaluate talent and took over the Dodgers from MacPhail.  He is also remembered as the person responsible for breaking the color barrier by recruiting Jackie Robinson, a strategy that Weintraub writes was motivated more for money that achieving racial equality.  We meet Leo Durocher the ornery manager of the Dodgers whose life was intertwined with numerous show business types.  Bill Veeck, the owner of the Cleveland Indians who brought many innovations to the game.  Red Barber, a southerner who brought his gentlemanly ways to the broadcast of Dodger games.  Jorge Pasquel a Mexican millionaire created a scare among major league owners when he tried to lure major league ballplayers for his “La Liga”  teams in different Mexican cities.  Lastly, Robert Murphy a Boston lawyer and member of the National Labor Relations Board who tried to organize players to stand up to the owners. Though he would fail, he laid the ground work for Marvin Miller to organize the players and get the “reserve clause” struck down creating free agency.

Weintraub also integrates the experiences of many players who fought in World War II and how it affected their later careers.  Among them are Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn, who would survive the Battle of the Bulge and earn a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star; and Hall of Fame pitcher, Bob Feller who would see a significant amount of combat in the Pacific that greatly altered his view of life.  Of all the players who fought in the war only two were killed; Elmer Gedeon who played briefly for the Washington Senators was shot down over France as his plane tried to destroy one of Hitler’s V1 rocket sites; and Harry Mink O’Neill, a Marine who played for Connie Mack’s Philadelphia A’s and was killed on Iwo Jima.

(Iwo Jima Memorial, Arlington, VA)

Weintraub concentrates a great deal on the 1946 pennant races and World Series by focusing on Ted (the “splendid splinter”) Williams and the Boston Red Sox, and Stan (“the man”) Musial and the St. Louis Cardinals along with their amazing fan bases.  During his narrative all the major characters involved in the pennant race are explored with wonderful anecdotes and details that will make any fan of baseball history ecstatic.  The DiMaggio brothers, Bobby Doerr, Harry the Hat Walker, Pete Reiser, Jackie Robinson, Enos Slaughter are among the many stars of the game that Weintraub introduces and the reader gets to know.  Much of what Weintraub explores is based on his vast research and interviews with the few survivors of the 1946 season, their families, and newspaper reporters who knew them.

(Fenway Park, circa, 1946)

It appears Weintraub is straddling the line of writing historical narrative at the same time as presenting an interesting sports book.  He does an effective job integrating important aspects of the 1946 baseball season with the socioeconomic and political history of the period.  Weintraub explores the transportation industry, particularly the early use of airplanes by teams, railroad strikes that hindered teams from reaching their destinations, the segregation of society depriving black ballplayers the same amenities that white players enjoyed, the postwar housing shortage limited where all players could live, and many other examples.  When Weintraub focuses on this component of the story, it is fascinating, however, when he switches to the statistical component of baseball he seems to lose some of his effectiveness.

(Sportsman’s Park, St. Louis, MO)

An area that is both interesting and effective is when Weintraub introduces certain historical details and relates them to what is occurring on the diamond.  A number stand out, i.e.; aspects of the Nuremberg trials taking place in Germany-how a young guard smuggled a poisonous pill to Hermann Goering to facilitate his suicide, as well as describing how a truck strike in Boston during the World Series made it almost impossible to acquire day-to-day goods, especially baby food, among many other items.

For fans and players alike the return of baseball from the war years was an important vehicle in returning America to a more normal environment, but he goes a bit overboard comparing America’s victory in World War II with Enos “Country” Slaughter’s made dash home to win the 1946 World Series for the St. Louis Cardinals.  For fans and students of the game 1946 is like a “coming attraction” for baseball and the “Golden Era” that would follow.  Weintraub has written an interesting book that should satisfy those interested in the minutia of baseball history and how it was integrated into American society following World War II.

(Stan Musial and Ted Williams)

INDENTURED: THE INSIDE STORY OF THE REBELLION AGAINST THE NCAA by Joe Nocera and Ben Strauss

In 2011 the Pulitzer Prize Winning historian Taylor Branch wrote an article for THE ATLANTIC entitled “The Shame of College Sports” that finally blew the lid off of the NCAA reign of terror of “student-athletes.”  In it, Branch noted that the majority of athletes that played football and men’s basketball were African American.  Further, he noted that the NCAA lets off “the unmistakable whiff of the plantation.”  Coming at the same time as a PBS Frontline episode “Money and March Madness” the NCAA’s reputation suffered greatly and they were forced to answer to the public for a great number of their policies that the article and television program exposed.  The NCAA practices and their rationalization for their numerous rules are exposed further in Joe Nocera and Ben Strauss’ new book INDENTURED: THE INSIDE STORY OF THE REBELLION AGAINST THE NCAA.  The authors’ approach is damning to the decades long reign of the NCAA as they describe the enforcement of rules and regulations with seeming blindness to the effects they have on the athletes and their families that they are expected to regulate.  Nocera and Strauss discuss the different heads of the NCAA and what emerges is a consistent refusal to reform and change policies that were drawn up in the 1950s that have destroyed numerous lives.  The authors trace the development of the NCAA from its beginnings to the era of mega revenues that have economists, politicians, educators, sportswriters, legal scholars, and numerous others referring to it as a cartel that has spent most of its time ruling college sports, but at the same time being exempt from anti-trust legislation.

The book itself could serve as a legal brief against the NCAA as it delineates numerous practices that are detrimental to the athletes they supposedly supervise.  The book is organized into a series of chapters that examine a specific problem with the NCAA.  Each chapter is preceded by a short rendering of a particular case that the NCAA pushed against a particular athlete, their families, or a coach and how they ruled unjustly, and at times unethically.  At issue throughout the narrative is the concept of the “student-athlete” that the NCAA created to justify its actions.  The core of the argument against the NCAA rests on a number of areas.  The lack of health insurance for athletes, particularly when they are expected to train during the off-season and suffer injuries which can cause them to lose their scholarships.  Another area is the practice of having to renew their scholarships each year and how coaches manipulate this practice to gain more scholarships for recruits.  The lack of stipends to assist students who have little or no money for laundry, food outside the cafeteria, and assist them with supplies needed for class is a major issue when university programs are reaping millions of dollars because of the athletes, but the athlete themselves receiving nothing from their labor.   The labor of which is roughly 40 hours a week or more for individuals who play Division I sports of which I am personally knowledgeable since my son played Lacrosse at that level and he did most of his class work after midnight.  The lack of academic support for college players is a travesty, for example, some coaches would hold back the distribution of textbooks until they were satisfied with on field performance.   Lastly, probably the most egregious actions by the NCAA is that their investigative process is dominated by fear.  Since they do not have subpoena power they will use any method to gain information, a process that allows them to bribe people for testimony, accept the statements of witnesses who are stretching the truth to achieve their goal of prosecuting a particular athlete, among other strategies to make athletes ineligible.  Athletes seemed to always make the mistake of assuming that their schools would support them when the NCAA investigated, a major error, as all the schools cared about was their own welfare.

(University of Michigan Stadium on a Fall Saturday afternoon, capacity 102,000)

The authors provide all the relevant statistics to support their conclusions.  College sports generates about $13 billion a year, more than the National Football League.  Though there are 460,000 NCAA athletes engaged in 24 sports, the book focuses in on about 15,000 who play the most revenue driven sports, football and men’s basketball.  While the NCAA uses their self-serving definition of amateurism to reinforce and justify their policies, the amount of money they bring in because of these supposed “amateurs” makes one accept the idea that these athletes are indentured servants.  The historical definition of an indentured servant is “a person under contract to another person for a definite period of time, usually without pay.”  As used historically that person is working for passage to another country or maintenance.  In the case of the NCAA, athletes seem to be indentured servants, but they are not being maintained properly if they are not provided full health care and food.

Based on the article by Taylor Branch there is a racial component to this process.  A large majority of athletes come from poor black families who live close or under the poverty line.  Many of these athletes need remedial education which most universities do not provide, but what they do provide as is evidenced by the University of North Carolina African American history program are “caned” courses where students did not have to attend classes but received passing grades.  This went on under the rule of Coach Dean Smith, regarded as a deity in Chapel Hill and of course was white.  If we turn to the UCLA basketball program under John Wooden, considered a “basketball god” as he earned 11 national basketball titles between 1965 and 1975 overseeing numerous infractions, (i.e.; builder Sam Gilbert was paying his players), that the NCAA let slide because he brought in money, and yes he too was white.  The stories Nocera and Strauss bring to the fore are mostly black athletes who seem to be persecuted by the NCAA.

The growth of revenue at such an exponential level is amazing to this reader.  It all relates to the commercialization and corporatization of college sports.  The creation of ESPN in 1975 and its later offshoot channels, ESPN2, ESPNU, and ESPN Classic created the need for more and more programming, roughly 8000-10,000 hours a year.   Billion dollar contracts have followed over the years and universities rebelled against the NCAA as they believed they could make more money.  Their individual conferences, beginning with the Big 10 decided to create their own networks and negotiate with ESPN, the major networks, and the new sports channels themselves to get a bigger share of the pie.  Once the Big 10 was successful then other conferences like the PAC 10, ACC, SEC and others, did the same.  The result has been musical chairs for universities as the conferences lured schools with the promise of increased revenues to the detriment of schools with weaker athletic programs who could no longer compete for the funds needed to keep up with the new arenas, stadiums, and other facilities of the larger newly realigned programs.   It is obvious that college sports has become a multi-billion dollar enterprise with March Madness, the BCS playoff system for college football, as well as all the other bowls that have corporate sponsors.   My favorites include the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl and the Go Daddy Bowl, and I wonder in the future if the NCAA will offer a Kohler Toilet Bowl.

(Theodis Colter, Northwestern University Quarterback and college player’s union advocate)

Aside from the commercialization off college sports, the next motivator for athletes to try and be heard was the proliferation of concussions that have led to CTE in former players.  College football’s “concussion protocol” was non-existent and finally Northwestern Quarterback Theodis Colter began a movement to unionize Northwestern football players with the creation of the college Athletics Players Association.  The organizing of college basketball and football players had been burgeoning for a number of years due to the inequities already discussed, but it seemed that the concussion issue pushed some over the edge.  After the National Labor Relations Board recognized the players right to unionize a vote took place in April, 2014 to approve the unionization of Northwestern players.  After tremendous pressure from alumni and a calculated effort by the Northwestern administration to convince players what they could lose if they voted yes, the players voted down the union concept.

(Ed O’Bannon, former UCLA basketball player who led the fight to renumerate college players for their own “images.”)

One of the most interesting cases involves whether the “image” of an athlete can be used as a commercial product after the athlete graduates (and is enrolled) since that image generates millions of dollars from the likes of EA Sports and other corporations.  Ed O’Bannon, a former UCLA basketball player has sued the NCAA and the authors delve into the legal fight and the nuances and strategies pursued by both sides of this case as they do with a number of other cases throughout the book.  The O’Bannon case is extremely important because it finally showed that their business model of “amateurism” was no longer tenable. It must be asked why college book stores that sell the jerseys of players, and make enormous sums of money, do not share their profits with the athletes who wears the jerseys that make sales possible.  As the O’Bannon case court hearings evolved, Nocera and Strauss reintroduce a number of characters that have been discussed throughout the book.  Men like James Delaney, head of the Big 10, Sandy Vaccaro, a major figure at Nike at one time, Jerry Tarkanian, former head basketball coach at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, Andy Schwarz, an economist, Ramogi Huma, a former player and activist for player rights, Mark Emmert, head of the NCAA, and the work of Walter Byers who developed many NCAA rules and regulations among numerous others.  The Final decision in the case struck down the NCAA concept of “amateurism” and promoted reforms for the benefit of the players, many of which the NCAA supported, but this did not stop the NCAA from appealing the decision even though they could remain a cartel whose prerogatives were only tweaked.  But the NCAA and its member schools began tripping over themselves as they tried to institute reforms to benefit the players and as the author’s argue in their closing chapter, “the sky did not fall,” even as the cost to universities for health care, guaranteeing scholarships, and a cost of attendance stipend increased. In reality, revenues for college sports “kept rolling in” to cover these new benefits, in addition to producing further revenues above these new expenses.

(Ed Delaney, former head of the Big 10 Conference)

If an athlete sought to try and get legal redress it was very difficult as the NCAA would rarely settle a lawsuit and its strategy rested on legal obstacles dragging cases out for years.  Since they had the greater resources, few would challenge them.  The key to any reform is for university presidents to grab control of college sports from their athletic directors.  However in a system where some athletic programs, i.e.; Louisiana State University brings in 25% of the schools revenue, school presidents are not likely to push too hard.  The bottom line that emerges from Nocera and Strauss’ excellent research is that “student-athletes” do not control their own lives while they are indentured as college athletes.  If the reader wants to delve further into the debate they include an appendix that present documents that are germane to the material presented in this very readable book.

THE GAME: INSIDE THE SECRET WORLD OF MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL’S POWER BROKERS by Jon Pessah

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(Miller Park, Milwaukee, WI; the monument to Bud Selig’s rule as Commissioner of Baseball)

When I picked up a copy of THE GAME: INSIDE THE SECRET WORLD OF MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL’S POWER BROKERS by Jon Pessah I expected an exploration of the world of baseball between 1992 and 2010 from financial and labor perspectives.  What I read encompasses those general themes, but the book also evolved into a prolonged discussion of Bud Selig and George Steinbrenner’s roles in baseball during that time period, and bringing with it an excellent reporter’s knowledge of baseball and the personalities involved. I soon developed an intense distaste for Selig, who was the owner of the Milwaukee Brewers and the “acting” commissioner of baseball at the same time, a direct conflict of interest; and a greater understanding of Steinbrenner, and a degree of empathy for his at times, outrageous behavior.

The year 1992 can be considered a “watershed” year in the history of major league baseball.  The owners were at war with each other, the owners were also at war with the players through their labor union, and the steroid era was just emerging.  Pessah raises the question; did Bud Selig save baseball, as the former Commissioner of Baseball would like everyone to believe.  After reading Pessah’s account I agree with his conclusions that Selig did more to hurt the game he supposedly loved, and his actions were driven by his own selfish agenda and led to some of the most hypocritical actions and statements that I have ever been exposed to.  Bud Selig has one belief, what is best for Bud Selig.  When it came to his role as owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, that belief centered on improving the value of his franchise no matter who he hurt or used by reorienting baseball’s financial structure to meet his needs.

(Bud Selig, Former Commissioner of Baseball)

Unhappy with the settlement with the players union in 1990 because of what he perceived to be the actions of then Baseball Commissioner Faye Vincent, Selig worked assiduously to have him removed and have himself appointed as “acting” commissioner.  Once this was achieved Selig would be in charge of negotiating a new contract with his adversary, Donald Fehr, the head of the players union.  The Brewers team debt stood at $35 million in 1990 and throughout the period it would quadruple, if not more.  For Selig, a new stadium was needed to replace the antiquated Milwaukee County Stadium to help pay down his debt.  The problem was who would finance the cost of this project.  As Pessah’s research will prove Selig would blackmail localities into having public funding for stadiums or they could lose their teams to franchise relocation or contraction (having the league fold their franchises).   Selig was envious of large market teams with extensive resources because of cable television contracts and other marketing advantages, as a result he sought to pillage those teams through revenue sharing, a salary cap, and possibly, a luxury tax.  His target was George Steinbrenner’s New York Yankees and a few other franchises.  What was most disingenuous, is that when revenue sharing was eventually implemented, many of the small market teams took the millions of dollars they received, supposedly designated for player development and procurement to make their teams more competitive, and devoted the money to their own profits.  In Selig’s case he paid down his debt, and at the same time reduced his payroll.  In the case of billionaire owner, Carl Polhand of the Minnesota Twins, he just pocketed the money.

(George Steinbrenner, owner of the New York Yankees)

The first part of the book analyzes the steps that led to the cancelling of the last month of the 1994 baseball season and the World Series.  In meticulous fashion Pessah describes the positions of the owners and the player’s union.  What seems abundantly clear is no matter how many times Selig downplayed the idea that the owners wanted a strike, the evidence reflects the opposite.  After Selig arranged his coup against Vincent, he also engineered a change in baseball’s voting structure to allow small market teams like the Brewers to veto any settlement with the players they did not like.  Pessah places the onus of the strike and the possible use of replacement players on Selig and his supporters, and less so on the player’s union head, Donald Fehr.  Along the way the author integrates the story of Don Mattingly, the Yankee first basement who had never been to the post season and whose body was slowly giving way to father time.  When Selig ended the season, the Yankees were in first place and were on the road to a possible World Series appearance for the first time since 1981, and it seemed Mattingly’s last chance may have been passed by.  Pessah explores Steinbrenner and other owner’s roles as well as Fehr and the union in intricate detail.  What one concludes as a settlement is finally reached is that Selig is correct that financial changes needed to be implemented, but other issues facing baseball, like steroids were ignored because for Selig “the homeruns” that resulted from the use of steroids were good for baseball’s bottom line.  As a result he and the owners turned a blind eye to the problem.

Selig’s methods are a major focus of the book.  How he arranges for the Montreal Expos to be purchased by Major League Baseball for $120 million and its sale for over $400 million to a group that moves it to Washington, DC is priceless.  Further, his manipulation of the Florida Marlins situation reflects his duplicitousness as he arranges for the former owner of the Expos, Jeffrey Loria to buy the Marlins when he cannot really affords to do so.  Another example is how Selig arranges for John Henry to purchase the Boston Red Sox who he hopes will create a small market mentality more to his liking in Beantown.  Selig did not overlook the needs of his own team, managed by his daughter Wendy while he was commissioner, a team that was $148.7 million in debt.  Amazingly, by the 2007 baseball season that debt has been reduced to $30 million.  Eventually Selig would sell the Brewers for $200 million based on revenue sharing and Miller Park, the stadium that was publicly financed by the residents of Milwaukee.  In addition, by 2009 Selig earned a salary of $18 million a year, and by his retirement year he had a net worth of over $200 million, not including the $35-40 million he will collect from baseball as a Commissioner Emeritus, not bad for an owner of a small market team that at one time was hemorrhaging from debt.

(Donald Fehr, Head of the Major League Baseball Players Union who fought Selig’s hypocracy for years)

Pessah’s narrative includes a discussion of events taking place outside of baseball, and Congress is a major candidate for his sarcasm.  Different Congressional committees and their politicians will use labor issues and the steroid epidemic throughout the period under discussion, grandstanding about the national pastime and making threats to take away baseball’s anti-trust exemption.   At the same time they avoid dealing with issues relating to Hurricane Katrina, the lack of proper body armor for US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, the crisis over Abu Ghraib, and numerous other issues.  It seems reasonable to assume that the money that the owners are donating to Congressional campaigns bears fruit.  The reader is provided transcripts of Congressional hearings, National Labor Relations Board decisions, intimate conversations among owners, as well as the inner workings of the union.  These details are enlightening as we learn of Yankee General Manager, Brian Cashman’s distaste for the arrogance he sees in Joe Torre, George W. Bush’s hope to be Commissioner of Baseball, the inner workings of the Steinbrenner family, and many other interesting items.  I assume that Pessah has worked his sources well and he is presenting an accurate account, however, a degree of footnoting might assuage my historian’s sensitivities, though I compliment him on his excellent bibliography and the names of those interviewed.

(Baseball’s steroid greats, from left to right: Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens, Rafael Palmeiro, and Barry Bonds)

The narrative makes for an excellent read for baseball fans and the public in general who lived through the events and relationships described.  Pessah spares nothing in discussing the BALCO scandal and Barry Bonds, the Mitchell Commission and Report that Selig created to help clear his own guilt about how he handled, or better, did not handle the growing steroid scandal in baseball.  The “bash brothers,” Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco, Roger Clemens, Alex Rodriguez, Rafael Palmeiro, and many others make their appearances as authors or witnesses before Congressional committees.  Perhaps the most important aspect of the book reflects the human frailties of all involved as the reader is taken from one contract negotiation to the next, in addition to each scandal or blight on baseball’s reputation.  Pessah’s account is almost encyclopedic as his subject matter evolves over two decades.  It seems to me as an avid baseball fan he does not miss much and to his credit, his honesty in reporting is a highlight that readers should cherish.  THE GAME is more than a baseball book, it is a story of greed, power, and manipulation that in many instances gives our nation’s pastime a black eye.  But as most baseball fans realize once spring training arrives after a long winter, they are willing to forgive and forget the actions of the likes of Bud Selig.

PARCELLS: A FOOTBALL LIFE by Bill Parcells & Nunyo Demasio

(Bill Parcells being carried off the field by Lawrence Taylor and Carl Banks after the New York Giants defeated the Denver Broncos, 39-20 in the 1987 Super Bowl)

Years ago when my son was rather young I would take him to Farleigh Dickinson University’s Madison, New Jersey campus to watch the New York Giants pre-season training camp.  I told him that any words that he would hear that his mother might not approve of were to be forgotten and never repeated, at least not in her presence.  As an avid Giants fan going back to the glory days of Charley Conerly, Frank Gifford, Sam Huff, and Andy Robustelli I took great pleasure in sharing my passion for “Big Blue.”  During one of our visits the Giants coach, Bill Parcells was especially sarcastic in his own inimitable fashion as he joked with the likes of Lawrence Taylor, Phil Simms, and Mark Bavaro.  The expletives flowed, but what we witnessed was the work of a master motivator who, despite some unorthodox methods, knew how to get the best out of his players.  I am avid follower of sports, but I like to look at it from a historical perspective.  Many sports books, particularly, biographies come down to hagiography and statistics, which I find unacceptable.  The new biography, PARCELLS: A FOOTBALL LIFE by Bill Parcells and Nunyo Demasio is an interesting blend of football statistics, but also an in depth study of one of football’s greatest coaches.  We see a man with all of his foibles apart from his successes, in addition to his large ego, but also a strong sense of contrition as his life evolved.

Charles Parcells, Bill’s father was a northern New Jersey sports legend who was a loving father, but a strict task master.  His mother, Ida was a traditional Italian woman who maintained a warm home, and usually contained her forceful personality.  Bill was more of a baseball player than a football player during his youth, but he would grow interested in the sport as it was seen as a ticket into college.  He was a lineman/linebacker at Wichita State University and was even drafted by the Detroit Lions.  While in college he met his wife Judy and by the time he obtained his first job, at Hastings College in Nebraska, they had a daughter and another child on the way.

(Bill Parcells, then the coach of the New England Patriots shaking hands with one of his disciples, a young Bill Belichick, then the coach of the Cleveland Browns in 1991)

Parcells coaching career would keep him out of the state he loved, New Jersey, for almost twenty years.  His career path as an assistant coach would take him back to Wichita State, to West Point, Florida State, Vanderbilt, Texas Tech, Air Force, the New York Giants, and the New England Patriots.  Along the way he met and grew close with a number of mentors that included; Bobby Knight, the irascible basketball coach, and Al Davis, a Brooklynite to the core and long time owner and coach of the Oakland Raiders.  Throughout his journey before he became a head coach Parcells, who possessed his own rather large ego, was willing to learn from others and adapt if it would contribute to making him a better coach and improve his players.  Finally, he would achieve his goal of being a head coach, being hired by the New York Giants in 1983.  When Parcells arrived he found the likes of Lawrence Taylor, Harry Carson, and a quarterback named Phil Simms who as yet had not found himself on hand.

For me the Parcells era with the Giants was wonderful.  With visits to training camp I felt I had a special relationship with the team.  Parcells banter at press conferences reflected a moody, sarcastic, but sincere individual.  He drove his coaches and players to distraction to the point that Simms came into his office at one point and demanded that he be traded.  The book does a superb job describing Parcells coaching methods and philosophy, particularly how he interacted with the players on a number of levels.  For example, he was quite aware that a number of players had drug issues especially Lawrence Taylor.  Parcells worked with these players to overcome their problems, set up a team drug policy at a time the NFL did not have one, and a vast majority of players who worked under Parcells state that the most important thing he did for them was make them into men and accomplish things they thought they would never be able to achieve.  In January, 1987 the Giants won their first Super Bowl under Parcells, a game that has special meaning for me as I was in Brussels that weekend accompanying twenty high school students on a Model United Nations competition at the Hague.  When I arrived the first thing I asked the attendant at the hotel desk was where I could watch the game.  I was told 150 miles from the city (I think he thought I was referring to soccer!).  Distraught, I called the American Embassy and explained my predicament.  The desk sergeant was from Long Island and he agreed to send transportation for myself and my students to NATO Support Headquarters to watch the game with American troops if I promised to send him a VCR copy of the game when I returned home.  A deal was struck; we convoyed to Headquarters and watched the game with American troops until 4:00 am.  I was never prouder to be an American and a Giants fan when they beat Denver 39-20.

Parcells would win another Super Bowl in 1991 against Buffalo and the odyssey that is Bill Parcells would continue.  To the authors credit they mince no words in describing Parcell’s vagabond approach to his career.  Parcell’s ego needs total control in any job and it led to his departure from the Giants and his eventual arrival in New England.  Throughout this process we witness the growing “bromance” between Parcells and Bill Belichick who was taken under “the Tuna’s” wing as he helped develop him into one of the greatest coaches in football history.  Parcells stay in New England ran into the same control issues with its owner Robert Kraft, whose own sense of self was equal to that of Parcells.  An interesting part of the narrative is the description of the Parcells-Kraft relationship, and neither man comes out very positively. The question for the two of them was whose ego was larger; the shrewd owner who wanted total control of his organization to maximize his monetary gain, or a coach who wanted almost total control of the football component of the team.  Despite Parcells football divorce from the Patriots, he did make them relevant and laid the foundation for the most successful football franchise in the 21st century.  Parcell’s approach to coaching is very simple as he put it, “if you’re going to cook the meal, they ought to let you shop for the groceries.” (269)

The list of coaches that Parcells trained is remarkable and many became successful head coaches in their own right.  After leaving New England Parcells wound up back in New Jersey with the New York Jets where he was successful once again in turning around another franchise.  After the death of its owner Leon Hess, who Parcells worked with well, he moved on to the Dallas Cowboys after a stint as an analyst on ESPN.  With the bombastic Jerry Jones, the owner of the Cowboys we see a mellower Parcells in dealing with ownership, but the same overbearing approach on the field.  Following his stay in Dallas, Parcells concluded his career in the front office of the Miami Dolphins.  The book delves a great deal into Parcells private life.  His meandering career played havoc with his 40 year marriage which collapsed due to his infidelity.  In addition, he was an absentee father to his three children as he became more of a parent to his players.   We witness a man who faces his mortality with intricate heart surgery.  Lastly, we are exposed to Parcells inner thoughts as he reviews his life decisions and takes the blame for many of mistakes he has made.

(Bill Parcells addressing the NFL Hall of Fame in 2013 after his induction)

To Parcells’ credit he did try and right many of the wrongs he felt guilty about as he made peace with certain colleagues and apologies to family members.  However, no matter what we think of Bill Parcells as a person, no one can minimize the impact he had and how integral he was to the history of the NFL during his long tenure.  To his credit he fathered an amazing coaching tree that includes the like of Bill Belichick, Sean Peyton, and Tom Coughlin, between them there are six super bowl rings.  Some would argue that Parcells receives too much credit for his success and that his legacy should be that of a “franchise hopping, Hamlet like resignations” dominating.  Having watched Parcells since 1980, I believe that this biography is mostly objective and if you want to enjoy a stroll down memory lane and relive many of the NFL highlights of the last forty years you should pick up a copy of PARCELLS: A FOOTBALL LIFE.

BOY ON ICE: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF DEREK BOOGAARD, by John Branch

(Derek Boogaard’s hockey card as a member of the Minnesota Wild, 2005-2006)

The first time I looked at the dust jacket of John Branch’s new biography of former hockey player Derek Boogaard, entitled, BOY ON ICE: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF DEREK BOOGAARD I was struck by what a large figure Boogaard presented.  Here was an individual who stood almost seven feet tall on skates and weighed around 275 pounds, however after reading Branch’s fine narrative of his life I was struck by how gentle and unassuming a person he was, and in many ways his behavior and thoughts were that of a boy, at times simple, and at times complex.

Derek Boogaard grew up in a small prairie town in northern Saskatchewan where hockey was something that boys engaged in as almost a religion.  If you had any talent or perhaps the size it became a way of life.  Boogaard fit right into this formula.  He was always the largest boy for his age and though he was not the swiftest skater or the most proficient stick handler, he had what many coaches say cannot be taught, size.  From his earliest days in organized hockey his role became clear, defend his smaller teammates, and make opponents feel uncomfortable whenever he was on the ice.  John Branch does an exceptional job following Boogaard’s development as a person and a hockey player from a very young age and traces his career from its lowest level when kids follow the puck like swarming bees, through his teenage years as a Bantam, through junior hockey, various levels of minor league hockey, until he finally reached the pinnacle, the National Hockey League.  In each instance, thanks to the cooperation of the Boogaard family, close friends, professional hockey careerists, and finally notes that Derek left about his childhood, Branch is able to explain what his subject went through and was thinking at each level of his career.

(Derek Boogaard engaging in his role on the ice as a member of the Minnesota Wild)

Boogaard’s official role as a hockey player was that of an “enforcer,” a role that consisted of intimidating opponents on the ice and if need be to fight the person who filled the same role for the opposing team.  Branch does a marvelous job of tracing the history of violence in hockey and the evolution of the “enforcer.”  He discusses the impact of that role on the sport, the reactions of players and coaches, and the rationalizations offered by team general managers, owners, and National Hockey League officials when it was becoming increasingly obvious that the constant violence, that at times dominated the sport, was resulting in the deterioration of the medical health of a number of hockey players in retirement, and who were still on the ice.

Branch does a superb job analyzing the sub culture that surrounds the “enforcer” in hockey.  For most of the men who adopt the role it is their only “meal ticket” to play the sport professionally.  Though some possess some hockey sense and/or skills, most do not, and are labeled as “goons.”  These men do not enjoy fighting and in many ways approach their role as nothing more than a job.  In Derek’s case off the ice he was a very sweet person who tried to care for everyone, was very giving of himself, and his generosity with his time and money new no bounds.  However, when Derek was challenged on the ice, it seemed as if a light switch was turned on and he would try and pummel his opponent(s) into submission.  Once the fight was over he would skate to the penalty box without engaging in the histrionics that other enforcers engaged in as they fed off the crowd in the arena.  For years, enforcers liked what they earned from fighting, respect and a career that paid them well.  However, they were not aware of the hidden costs.  For Derek, with strength and power, with the ability to win fights and gain recognition, he basically did not enjoy beating others up.  “He enjoyed it when he needed it, but some of it weighed on him.”  The pressure was enormous, one lost fight, a broken bone or injury and the team could send him back to the minors, a lucrative career, over.  It was difficult never knowing what a game would bring as “shift by shift, enforcers had to be ready to fight at a moment’s notice.”(154)  If you didn’t want to do it, there were many others who would gladly take your roster spot.  “Even as Derek arrived, the line of NHL enforcers was littered with broken lives.  Alcohol and pain killers especially became the antidotes to the pain and pressure.” (155)

 

(Derek and his dad, Len who was a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police)

Branch catalogued many of Derek’s fights as if he were a ring announcer covering a fight broadcast from Las Vegas.  The toll of his hockey career led to numerous injuries, broken noses, ripped tissue that never healed on his knuckles, torn shoulder muscles and constant back pain. For Derek and many others they thought their only recourse to maintain their jobs was pain killers.  Branch delineates the prodigious amount of pain killers that Derek ingested over his four year hockey career.  Vicodin, oxycodone, Percocet, oxycontin, et al was the elixir that dulled the pain.  Team doctors would prescribe medications, many never kept records of what was provided, and if doctors would not cooperate, Derek, who had the funds found illegal ways to acquire his drugs.  Two attempts at rehabilitation failed and what was increasingly clear was that the constant pounding that Derek’s brain experienced led to countless concussions that he was unaware of.  He exhibited textbook characteristics of post concussion syndrome-mood swings, depression, loneliness, disorientation, and memory loss.  It was clear when he over dosed accidently mixing alcohol and pain killers that had he not died at the age of twenty-nine, that his ensuing years would have witnessed the onset of dementia at a very young age.  Derek’s brain was donated to science and the findings are very scary in terms of individuals who have suffered constant blows to the head.  Since these blows are cumulative, each concussion, or whiplash movement will create the nausea, headaches, and other symptoms repeatedly.  In Derek’s case it is especially sad because according to those close to him, he did not have a mean bone in his body.

(Derek Boogaard during happier times)

Branch has done a service by presenting a wonderful biography, placing it in the context of a national epidemic dealing with brain injuries.  Research is an ongoing avocation, but Branch’s book should raise the eyebrows of parents and anyone involved in contact sports, no matter the level, that we must do more to protect the athletes who are involved.  If that means raising the curtain that sports officials at all levels have refused to raise, to change some of the rules, especially around fighting and unnecessary violence so be it-I am certain it will not detract from the skill and beauty of the sports involved, but it will save lives and improve the quality of life for athletes after they retire.  This book is not your typical sports biography, as a father of a son who played prep school hockey and college lacrosse I wonder how many times he had “his bell rung.”  Branch’s book is a wake up call, hopefully the right people will be listening.

 

 

 

THE BOYS IN THE BOAT by Daniel James Brown

(1936 University of Washington rowers who won gold at the Berlin Olympics)

THE BOYS IN THE BOAT by Daniel James Brown is nothing short of a labor of love.  In describing the journey of the University of Washington rowing team from their blue collar origins, facing numerous financial obstacles, and confronting well funded opponents as they sought to represent the United States in the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin, the author has presented a riveting narrative that will touch the reader on many levels.  In addition to the personal stories that are described, Brown writes of the poetry that is a necessity for a rowing team to be successful.  The story is told through the eyes of many of the participants in their quest for rowing perfection, but a number of characters stand out.  The coaches;  Al Ulbrickson, a quiet taskmaster who keeps his emotions inside, his freshman coach, Tom Bolles, who develops many of the rowers; to Joe Rantz, who must overcome poverty and abandonment by his family, to George Pocock, the British craftsman who lovingly constructed the shells that the rowers would use on their way to Berlin and after.   The story begins in the Seattle area in the midst of the Great Depression and its impact on the region in general and the young men whose futures depend on making the University of Washington’s rowing team.

The story focuses on the life of Joe Rantz whose mother died of throat cancer when he was a nine and was sent to Pennsylvania to live with an aunt.  Later, his father remarries and when Joe returns to his family he does not get along with his knew step mother.  Eventually Joe’s father must make a choice between his son and his second wife and the family they were building.  After the family home burns down Joe is exiled to live in a school house away from the family for a period of time, when finally Joe’s father informs him that the family was moving away and that he had to remain and fend for himself at the age of fifteen.  For the next few years Joe employs the survival skills his father has taught him, and skills he developed on his own like poaching salmon and stealing alcohol for resale to overcome the obstacles he faces.  Finally, he is taken in by his married older brother and is able to graduate from high school and gain admittance to the University of Washington.  After being recruited by the freshman rowing coach, Joe realizes the ticket to his future was to make the rowing team.  Joe had little money and few clothes and lived in a room at the YMCA.  He took a number of menial jobs and fit them in around his studies and the torturous grind that was college rowing.  Brown follows the trials that Joe must overcome as he draws the reader into the narrative to the point that you do not want to put the book down.

I have read a number of books of the 1936 Berlin Olympics.  David Clay Large’s, THE NAZI GAMES: THE OLYMPICS OF 1936, and BERLIN GAMES: HOW THE NAZIS STOLE THE OLYMPIC DREAM by Guy Walters stand out, but Brown’s effort surpasses anything I have read for its detail, understanding the human emotion of sport, and how world events, particularly the rise of Nazi Germany impinged on the athletic stage.  Brown does a wonderful job of integrating the history of the time period into his narrative.  The reader is exposed to the devastation caused by the depression in the mid 1930s.  The unemployment and resulting poverty and their effect on families as fathers are forced to leave their children in order to seek a job elsewhere.  The Dust Bowl that blankets the Midwest at first and then destroys top soil throughout the United States resulting in the destruction of a major part of American agricultural production is reviewed in detail.  Overseas, the rise of Adolf Hitler to power is explained and the resulting violence against Gypsies, Jews, and Catholics is presented.  On a more personal level, Brown discusses the hatred between Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, and Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s chosen film maker as they fight over how the message of the Nazi ideal should be presented to the world.  The reader witnesses the laying of the foundation of what will grow into the Holocaust after the Olympic Games are completed.  The reader is made aware of the political infighting in the United States as President Roosevelt tries to deal with the problem of Nazi expansion.  In exploring these avenues, Brown places the Olympic Games in their proper historical context, and the importance of a Jesse Owens and the many athletes who sought to show Nazi racial theory for what it really was.

Apart from the personal stories of the nine men who will emerge from the rowing competitions from 1933 to 1936 in regattas such those on the Pacific coast, Poughkeepsie, New York, and the Olympic trials in Princeton, New Jersey what truly surprised me was the training that the rowers were exposed to.  I confess my knowledge of rowing is nil, but after reading Brown’s narrative I at least have some understanding of what the athletes went through.  The author’s description of “pain” cuts to the core of what these men accomplished.  For Brown the common denominator for the rower is that pain is “part and parcel” of the learning experience.  “It’s not a question of whether you will hurt, or how much you will hurt; it’s a question of what you will do, and how well you will do it, while pain has her wanton way with you.” (40) Brown’s discussion of the mechanics of rowing is important for the novice reader to understand what it means to have a successful “boat.”  In the case of the University of Washington’s first boat, “every one of them had come from humble origins or had been humbled by the ravages of the hard times in which they had grown up.  Each in his own way had learned that nothing could be taken for granted in life…..The challenges they had faced together had taught them humility—the need to subsume their individual egos for the sake of the boat as a whole—humility was the common gateway through which they were able to come together and begin to do what they had not been able to do before.” (241)

(US rowers win gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympic games)

The unbelievable demands of training, the fear of not having enough money for tuition each semester, feeling of anxiety, were among the many things that each rower had to overcome.  They knew the odds were stacked against them as their chief western competitor; the University of California had better facilities and financial support as did the eastern Ivy League schools.  Brown raises the important issue of social class in explaining the opponents the rowers had to contend with.  The ivy rowers mostly came from prep schools, had parents who were bankers and lawyers, and did not have to worry about their futures.  On the other hand, as Brown eloquently describes Joe Rantz and his team mates were blue collar in origin, and poverty was their life’s norm.  Brown’s rendition of the important characters in his narrative is sensitive and honest and as the story progresses the reader is rooting for “U Wash,” and as the author explains strategy, motivation, and the details of each race you feel as if you are sitting in the shell with the rowers, or you are inside the head of Bobby Moch, the coxswain, planning his next move as the rowing process has a very important cerebral component.

The author presents the pageantry and ostentation that was the 1936 Nazi Olympics in great detail.  He describes the hiding of any evidence of what Nazism was in reality; from removing the Gypsies, to taking down all evidence of anti-Semitism, and the vicious articles in the Nazi newspaper Der Sturmer, magically disappearing.  Brown describes the first six rowing competitions in which the Germans won five gold medals.  He reserves his best for the final race involving the nine on nine competition that all looked forward to.  It is interesting how the US boat was placed in the worst lane, when having won the preliminary race they should have had the best one.  Needless to say, the US rowers were at a disadvantage from the outset.  Brown’s overall description of the race is amazing as the reader can hear his voice as if he were rendering the race’s description vocally as a play by play on the radio that millions across America were listening to.  The US would win the race by six-tenths of a second over Italy and one second over Germany as Hitler stood up and immediately walked out.  After reading Brown’s rendition of the race I immediately found a You Tube film on my lap top and watched the emotion of the rowers at the race’s conclusion over and over.  THE BOYS IN THE BOAT is a wonderful story, and what makes it better is that it is shows the triumph of the human spirit and though it is a “sports” book, it is one that can be enjoyed by all.

A NICE LITTLE PLACE ON THE NORTH SIDE by George F. Will

(Wrigley Field, Chicago, IL)

George F. Will’s latest book will touch the soul of everyone who loves baseball.  Though the book titled A NICE LITTLE PLACE ON THE NORTH SIDE is a short history of Wrigley Field and the futility of being a Chicago Cubs fan Will takes the reader on a hundred year journey encompassing numerous historical, sociological, philosophical, and political components that relate to the ivy covered ballpark on West Addison Street.  Will, a conservative political columnist and a regular on the Sunday talk show circuit has written other books on the nation’s pastime.  MEN AT WORK: THE CRAFT OF BASEBALL and BUNTS were excellent treatises on their subject matter, written with an intellectual approach and a witty style.  Will’s latest effort follows the same model as he presents a history of Chicago from the late 19th century to the present, commenting on things as diverse as Carl Sandburg’s poetry, the philosophy of John Locke, to Ernie Banks homerun numbers.  In discussing the origins of Wrigley Field, Will takes us back to the Haymarket Massacre of 1886 when Chicago was a rather dangerous city, especially for labor.  This setting produced the need for recreation and Wrigley Field was the perfect progressive remedy for the working class to spend their spare time rather than getting involved with non-productive aspects of society.  Will’s history of Wrigley Field is interspersed with vignettes, facts, and stories that are not common knowledge, presented in a humorous fashion, and are a joy to read.

Since the Chicago Cubs have not won a World Series since 1908 when they defeated the Detroit Tigers, their fans are considered the longest suffering supporters of a team in baseball.  The “Cubbies” have proven fodder for many jokes over the years.  Will integrates numerous funny stories as he sprinkles them throughout the book.  For example, “in 1968, Cubs pitcher Bill Hands recorded fourteen consecutive strikeouts.  Regrettably, he did this as a batter in consecutive at bats.”  Another, “What does a female bear taking birth control have in common with the World Series? No Cubs.”   The Cubs have been so bad that in 1948 their owner P. K. Wrigley publicly apologized for the futility of his team.

On our journey Will relates many diverse historical figures to the Cubs.  We meet Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonalds; Jack Ruby, Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassin; and former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan as Will explains in detail how their lives are intertwined to the resident of “the friendly confines of Wrigley Field.”  Literary figures abound, including William Shakespeare and Theodore Dreiser, whose writings are used in trying to explain the agony of being a fan of the Chicago Cubs.  This is all part of Will’s profession of love for the Chicago Cubs and Wrigley Field.  I assume he realizes that his emotions are irrational, but like all love it is based on faith, which in of itself is irrational.  Then why does Will feel so strongly?  The book is his attempt to answer that question.

The story Will tells is one of human tragedy as he speaks of Wrigley Field as the final resting place for many Cubs fans as they have instructed their families to sprinkle their ashes in the outfield after they are gone.  It is clear from my study of baseball history that Cub fans have little to be thankful for except a beautiful ball park that has altered the course of baseball history as many stadium architects have used it to create the newer parks of the last twenty-two years.  In the late nineteen sixties baseball developed what I refer to as “cookie-cutter ballparks,” multi-use stadiums shared with football.  All were outside urban areas and to say it mildly; were very unattractive, not very fan friendly, and thankfully most have been torn down.  In 1992, Camden Yards opened, in part as a means of urban renewal.  The architects studied Wrigley, and Brooklyn’s long gone Ebbets Field as a means of creating a venue that was comfortable and help refurbish urban neighborhoods.  Camden Yards has become a model for numerous new stadiums all around baseball including minor league cities.  This has helped revive numerous urban areas and have created new revenue streams for teams and their cities.  As a result the goal of replicating the feel of Wrigley Field as a neighborhood institution has been a success.   Overall, Will’s concise and intellectually humorous approach to baseball history is a wonderful addition to any library, not just the nation’s pastime.  If you can spare a few hours, It is a great read that you will not be able to relinquish until completed.

 

 

(Camden Yards, Baltimore, MD.)

WHERE NOBODY KNOWS YOUR NAME by John Feinstein

( Home of the New Yankees Double-A team, Trenton Thunder)

Scranton Yankees

(Riverfront Stadium in Scranton, PA, Home of the New York Yankees, Triple-A franchise)

At the outset it is my obligation to inform the reader that I am a baseball junkie!  In fact as I look over my bucket list one of the prominent items is a cross country trip visiting minor league baseball parks as my wife and I transverse the continent.  With that being said John Feinstein’s knew book WHERE NOBODY KNOWS YOUR NAME, a saga of the 2012 minor league baseball season is timely.  I have been a Feinstein fan for many years and have enjoyed his numerous books.  Whether writing about the Army-Navy game, Bobby Knight, Duke Basketball or golf, Feinstein has always delivered a very thoughtful treatment of his subjects.  His new endeavor is no exception as the book reflects a prodigious amount of research that is emblematic of Feinstein’s approach.  Throughout the narrative stories abound concerning baseball lore and tradition, but what is most important are the lives being described and the affect that baseball has on Feinstein’s subjects and their families.  Feinstein’s discussion of Brett Tomko, a major league pitcher who after a number of successful seasons finds himself holding on to his career by a thread as he accepts life in the minors at the age of thirty-six; Mark Lollo, a thirty year old minor league umpire trying to make the grade in the majors learns that after twelve years his umpiring career is about to end; or Ron Johnson, a minor league manager, who tasted the major leagues as a coach for the Boston Red Sox, finds himself back in the minors hoping to obtain a major league managerial position are all interesting and at times, heart warming.  These are just a few of the individuals that Feinstein describes, others like Scott Posednik, Scott Elarton, John Lindsey, Nate McLouth, Charlie Montoya, and Chris Schwinden all share the trials and travails of pursuing a career in the major leagues and the obstacles they face that reduces them to minor league players or managers.  Despite their goal of the major leagues, they seem to accept their situations all because of their love of the game.

Using the perspective of minor league managers, players, coaches, broadcasters and even a groundskeeper Feinstein provides the reader a candid look at the people who make up the lower rungs of baseball.  We all read about the Derek Jeters and “Big Papi,” David Ortiz and their illustrious careers, but not everyone can reach those heights.  The sacrifices that these men and their families make in the pursuit of just one more chance at getting the call that they are “going up to the show” is heartwarming, but also disconcerting as the odds of their being successful is rather miniscule.  Along the way Feinstein integrates the experiences of other players who have interesting stories to tell.  Dontrelle Willis, a young phenom eight years ago, rookie of the year, and a twenty game winner, finds himself out of baseball.  Jamie Farr, one of the stars of the M.A.S.H. television series is from Toledo, Ohio, and becomes a center piece of Feinstein’s discussion of the Toledo Mud Hens, next to the Durham Bulls the most famous minor league franchise in America.

One thing that all of these players have in common is that they appear numerous times in the “transaction” section of the sports pages (a listing of player movements on a daily basis).  This reflects the impersonal side of baseball.  As all players understand that the bottom line is that baseball is a business and that the movement of players, the uprooting of families and the ego crushing experiences happen each and every day.  The constant comparison of minor and major league baseball are enlightening, where one is a fantasy like experience where you do not carry your bags, food and expensive hotel rooms are the norm, and you fly first class on a charter.  This is compared to a different type of reality where you carry everything, your meal money is about $12/day, you room with others and on the road you stay in cheap motels after experiencing an eight hour bus ride.  Feinstein captures the life of a minor league ball player as he writes; “No one wants to get comfortable in a Triple-A clubhouse.  The air inside a Triple-A clubhouse feels different because there are different people breathing it every day.  Players come and go on an almost daily basis; some get called up to the big leagues; some get traded; others get sent down to Double-A; and every once in a while players get released.” (108)

For the subjects of this narrative baseball seems to be in their blood.  Tommy Lasorda, a failed minor league pitcher became a Hall of Fame manager with the Dodgers and was asked about his loyalty to his team and he responded, that “I bleed Dodger blue.”  This encapsulates how these players feel about their sport and what they give up to play and try to reach the major leagues.   There are many interesting parts to the narrative aside from the personal impact of the game on these individuals.  Feinstein explores the decision making process and evaluation of players and the culture that baseball has created for itself.    But my favorite aspect of the book was the discussion of Scott Strickland a minor league groundskeeper who sought to become a head groundskeeper for a major league franchise.  In fact at North Carolina State University he majored in “turf-training!”  WHERE NOBODY KNOWS YOUR NAME is an exceptional read for baseball fans and the general public particularly when the sound of “play ball” is echoing across America as the 2014 baseball season has just begun.  If you are a Feinstein fan the book will not disappoint, if you are not, you may become one.