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.

THE SYSTEM: THE GLORY AND SCANDAL OF BIG-TIME COLLEGE FOOTBALL by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian

 

When I picked up THE SYSTEM: THE GLORY AND SCANDAL OF BIG-TIME COLLEGE FOOTBALL by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian off the shelf at my favorite bookstore I flashed back to the early 1970s when I was an academic tutor for the football program at a division one school. As I thumbed through the book’s pages it was a natural for me to purchase it as I wanted to explore how collegiate football had changed over the decades and see if the abuses I witnessed decades ago still existed. I am sorry to say many of the things discussed by the authors were similar to situations I had encountered. I worked for one of the top coaches in the collegiate game and I was responsible for tutoring football players in the “jock dorm” each night and I had double duty before midterm and semester exams. I was told on many occasions that “resources” were available to make sure players passed their courses. The purpose of this review is not to report on my experiences, but to see what Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian uncovered in their thorough and eye opening portrait of college football as the 2013 collegiate season commenced.
The book outlines many important issues that haunt college football. The authors cover well known scandals that have been reported in the last ten years. The “tattoo” problem at Ohio State under Jim Tressel in addition to other NCAA violations that led ultimately led to Tressel’s firing is explored in detail. The problems that enveloped Penn State because of the Jerry Sandusky situation is presented very clearly as to who was to blame for the university cover up of sexual abuse of youngsters put in Sandusky’s charge. Events at the University of Miami that highlighted the problem of boosters and their influence and impact on college football programs are dissected and what emerges is a widespread problem that existed throughout the country and was not endemic just too a few schools. Recruiting methods reflect a college game that at times is out of control. Offers of money, sex, cars and other amenities are very prevalent but are to be expected when universities are forced to hire coaches, many of which are fully aware of what boosters and others are offering recruits, to compete in what has become a multi-million dollar industry.

The discussion of violations in the tutoring program struck home for me. I remember the words of the head coach I worked for; “Steve, I have this here linebacker and he has to pass” and the coach reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a wad of game tickets for me to sell and he also told me to charge the Athletic Department whatever amount was necessary to make sure his boys passed their courses. The authors delineate the problems of the tutoring program at a number of institutions and for me some of the issues dealing with academic cheating that were present in the 1970s remain the same. The authors offer a great of evidence as it explored the number of criminal acts that college football players commit. Rape, drugs, violent acts are all part of the picture. In addition, when football players commit some of these acts in many cases universities do not cooperate and try to avoid responsibility when dealing with NCAA investigations. What concerns me is that universities became aware of criminal records of recruits before they enrolled, and then appear surprised when these same individuals committed the same types of acts in college.
To the authors credit not everything in the book is negative. Benedict and Keteyian focus some of their attention on individual portraits of young men, coaches, and universities that present uplifting stories. The discussion of the BYU program under coach Bronco Mendenhall gives one hope that not all college programs are unethical. The discussion centering on Towson University is also exemplary as are other examples that are provided.

The book not only deals with events related to campus life but it has a wonderful chapter on ESPN and its “Game Day” program. The reader is taken inside the recruitment of announcers and how telecasts are put together. The authors also explore the financial commitment that the networks have made as well as how profitable it has become for the networks in addition to universities as the football programs bring in millions of dollars each year. The sums involved are enormous which explains why the college game has become so cut throat. The book closes with a chapter dealing with Nick Saban and his Alabama football team. The chapter presents a positive spin on how Saban developed his coaching philosophy and how it is employed at Alabama.

Alabama and the other 119 division programs are part of the national spectacle of college football and a game that has allowed universities to use the success on the grid iron as a source of revenue to benefit both athletic and academic programs. Though the book does explore some wonderful stories of achievement and success on a personal level by those involved in the game, the authors note a great deal of caution as they close the book by summing up the issues that still plague college football, “One could almost forget the unremitting pressure, the scandals haunting the sport-the bidding wars for top recruits; the booster payoffs; the horrific injuries; the academic cheating; the rising tide of criminal acts; the brute fact that the young men who sacrificed on the field were interchangeable pieces who have received none of the billions of revenue the game generated.” (386) For those looking for an inside look at these issues as the NCAA battles to try and weed out certain individuals and practices, THE SYSTEM is the perfect book for you.

THE LIFE AND TIMES OF SUGAR RAY ROBINSON by Wil Haygood

Wil Haygood’s THE LIFE AND TIMES OF SUGAR RAY ROBINSON is an almost literary portrait of one of the most revered boxers ring history. It is an intimate portrait of Robinson’s life and career blended with the cultural details of America during his lifetime. The reader is exposed to Robinson’s love/hate relationship with the “sweet science” as well as his desire to immerse himself in the world of jazz and the Harlem cultural scene. We are presented with the details of his major fights, though in a rather disorganized chronological fashion that at times leaves the reader somewhat confused. But Haygood’s blend of music, civil rights, and the generosity of his subject is well done. What is sad is that as Robinson’s boxing career should be ending, like others, he is forced to retire and unretired because of financial woes. Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in a truly in magnificent life that reads much more than a sports biography.

COLLISION LOW CROSSERS by Nicholas Dawidoff

COLLISION LOW CROSSERS by Nicholas Dawidoff is not your typical football expose.  It does not purport to provide deep insight into the strategy of the game and if it has any particular angle it tries to bring a sense of humanity to the sport.  Dawidoff was embedded for  a year observing the 2011 New York Jets, a team at that time that was coming off losing two American Conference Championship finals that would have taken them to the Super Bowl had they been victorious.  Bill Parcell’s, a former coach and general manager has noted in describing football that “this sport is not for the well adjusted.” (11)  Having played and watched football for more than a half century myself I firmly agree.  I remember driving for an hour and a half with my family to watch the 1958 NFL championship game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants; attending a Giants-Cardinals game at Yankee Stadium two days after the assassination of John F. Kennedy; watching the Giants defeat the Broncos in the Super Bowl on a high school trip at NATO Support Headquarters in Brussels, and living each moment of each Giants game, as my wife complains as if “you owned the team.”  It is obvious I am as a fan not very well adjusted which is why Dawidoff’s book was so intriguing.

The author takes the reader through the season focusing his lens on the coaches, players, front office personnel, and the player’s families.  The personal stories are at times uplifting and at times very sad.  Many players view the sport as a means of escaping poverty and dysfunctional families.  Their stories bring out the best in human nature, and at times the worst.  We meet a number of interesting characters such as Jets coach, Rex Ryan, a bombastic individual who has a very sensitive and soft side.  We follow Ryan through his childhood and relationship with his twin brother Rob, also an NFL coach.  We see Ryan live and die with each game, but more importantly we learn what kind of person he is as he relates in an emotional manner with everyone he interacts with on a daily basis, be it a player, coach, or fan.  Football can be a nasty enterprise, after all it is a multi-billion dollar business, but Dawidoff is able to bring the reader into the locker room and we witness the character flaws, the uplifting moments of victory and as John McKay said years ago, “the agony of defeat” on a daily basis.

The structure of an NFL season through the creation and preparation of the roster is reviewed in detail.  Player combines, draft preparation, signing of free agents and player competition are dissected and during the 2011 season it is made more difficult by a “lockout” perpetrated by the owners.  The reader is exposed to the emotion of being “cut,” and making the final roster.  However, just because a player makes the roster it is no guarantee he will be employed for the entire season.  Injuries dominate game preparation, and it is rare that a player can get through an entire season without playing hurt or playing up to their potential through an entire sixteen game schedule.

Locker room relationships are paramount on any team.  Some call it team chemistry and argue that you cannot win without it.  In the case of the 2011 New York Jets “chemistry” slowly declined as the offense was challenged by the defense because of a weak quarterback, Mark Sanchez, and a number of selfish personalities embodied in wide receiver, Santonio Holmes.  These issues could have been glossed over except for the poor decision making of Sanchez and the overall inability of the offense to score.  The defense which was one of the most dominant in the National Football league grew to resent the offense and this bled over into the locker room and at times the playing field.  Ryan and his coaches did their best to mitigate this problem but when fifty-three plus men spend what seems to be their entire waking hours together over a six month period the negativity of human nature usually holds forth.

As Dawidoff explores these human relationships there is one overriding theme for all involved, pain; physical and emotional discomfort that dominates the game.  There have been a number of exposes that have been written delineating the “pain” issue and how medical personnel deal with it in getting football players ready to take the field.  The author does not mince words and explores how players deal with their pain and how it is treated so they can play on a regular basis.  Constant pain and injury also has a psychological cost and Dawidoff devotes significant coverage to this problem as one player describes “it could all go to shit so fast.” (284)

For those individuals who follow the game there is a great deal of meat in this book.  We see how a professional coaching staff comes together in trying to meld fifty three men into a cohesive unit that strives to be the best it can be.  We see the Darelle Revis story told in detail as is the failure of Mark Sanchez to grow as a player from the perspective of 2011 and how his situation remains somewhat the same today.  But more importantly the book is not designed for the football fan but it provides a window for the general reader to engage with a sport that has become a national religion in our society.  Football is a sport that in the end is very violent, hence the obsession finally with concussions, and is a sport where the average playing career lasts between three and four years, and results in financial and medical issues once a player’s career ends that are difficult to cope with. Football is a microcosm of our society and COLLISION LOW CROSSERS is an effort to humanize the sport and place it in the larger context of our culture.  In the end this is a good read.