Sunday, October 14, 2018

Review of "Davey Johnson"

This book was one in which I thought I knew a lot about the subject matter, but it turned out I knew very little.  Oh, sure, I knew Davey Johnson was the manager of the 1986 Mets, that he had a very good playing career with the Orioles, Braves and Philles and that he managed three other teams - in each case taking them from losing records to division championships.  But a lot of the other information gleaned in this memoir - it was all new to me.  Here is my review of "Davey Johnson"


Title/Author:
”Davey Johnson: My Wild Ride in Baseball and Beyond” by Davey Johnson with Erik Sherman
Tags:
Baseball, professional, memoir, Orioles, Mets, Phillies Reds, Nationals
Publish date:
May 15, 2018
Length:
384 pages
Rating: 
4 of 5 stars (very good)
Review:
Having found success as both a player and a manager, it is no surprise that Davey Johnson wanted to share his baseball experiences in a memoir.  What was surprising about this book written with Erik Sherman is that Johnson was using sabermetrics long before computers were used widely, before Bill James published his books and well before the current use of advanced statistics done by every team today.
That is only one of the several surprises in store for the reader of this book. Johnson states in the book that when he was playing second base for the Baltimore Orioles, he created a report of all possible lineups for the Orioles in 1969, writing punch cards and inputting data from the 1968 season.  Johnson did this for a computer class he was taking at Johns Hopkins university. This would certainly aid him later on when he became a manager.
Here’s another surprise in the book, at least for me. While Johnson isn’t unique in his belief that the best managers are those who “handle the bullpen and the bench because that’s the deal”, this statement took me by surprise because every team he managed, from the Mets during their championship season in 1986 to the Reds and Orioles in the mid 1990’s and later the Washington Nationals, his teams usually had stronger starting pitching and were loaded with offensive stars.  Knowing that he felt that managing the bench and bullpen made the difference took me by surprise, even though it makes sense.
One other surprise, again at least to this reader although some others may already know this, was Johnson’s viewpoint that some of the rule changes or proposals such as instant reply challenges, robots calling balls and strikes, or the new rules for sliding into second base, are bad for the game.  He believes that these make the sport “not even the game of baseball anymore. It’s terrible.”  Johnson is far from the only baseball person who believes this, but it was information I learned from this book.
There are many other tidbits of information throughout the book that may be new to readers. Some are serious, some are humorous, but all of them contribute to the overall picture Johnson wants to paint of his time in baseball.  One of them that I have never heard before was that Hall of Fame Orioles pitcher Jim Palmer had the nickname “Cakes” given to him by Orioles teammates because he always ate pancakes on the days he pitched. Of course, Johnson added that “Cakes” also got under the skin of teammates as well, something that wasn’t as obscure as the nickname.
The part of his career that gets the most pages in the book is his time managing the New York Mets and their 1986 championship season. This part was another viewpoint of that team and some of the incidents and highlights of that team and that year. I found his reflections on the seasons AFTER 1986 and the actions of the Mets front office more interesting, especially when a popular topic that is still talked about today is why that team didn’t win more titles.
This isn’t to say that the rest of Johnson’s career, both as a player and as a manger, isn’t discussed thoroughly – in fact, I enjoyed his discussion about his playing days with the Orioles and the Atlanta Braves as it was very interesting to me.  It is often forgotten that he set the record for most home runs by a second baseman when he was playing with the Braves in 1973. He also talks about the night Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s record, as he was the hitter in the hole when Aaron hit the historic blast.
While this baseball memoir does read like many others, it was a good read for me as it was full of information about Johnson that I did not know, especially when the topics were when he was managing teams other than the Mets. I would recommend this book for most baseball fans as there is a lot of ground covered and it is sprinkled with humor throughout. 
Book Format Read:
E-book (Kindle)
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Thursday, October 11, 2018

Review of "The Legion Team"

It is always a treat to find books about teams or players I never heard of, and this one about an amateur hockey team that played in Waterloo, Iowa in the 1920's was excellent.  While information about the team was difficult to find and piece together, the author (who also narrated the audio version) did a very good job of telling the story of this team that never had to play a road game.  Here is my review of "The Legion Team"




Title/Author:
"The Legion Team: Forgotten Hockey in Waterloo, 1927-1930” written and narrated by Tim Harwood

Tags:
Ice Hockey, amateur, history, audiobook

Publish date:
May 20, 2015 (print version published June 13, 2013)

Length:
143 pages

Rating: 
5 of 5 stars (outstanding)

Review:
The city of Waterloo, Iowa is the home for the Waterloo Black Hawks, a junior hockey team playing in the United States Hockey League. While they are the only team currently playing in the city, they are not the first team.  There was an amateur team that played in the 1920’s sponsored by an American Legion post that captured the fancy of fans in Waterloo.  This book by Tim Harwood attempts to revive the memories of that team.

Because the players on those squads are no longer with us and details of the games and the teams are difficult to obtain, this book is a work of dedication for the author as he painstakingly brings the details of the team, its games and its home in a manner that is easy to read or listen to. The reader will not only learn about the team sponsored by the Becker-Chapman American Legion Post, but the book starts out by telling the story of the two men who died in World War I and whom the Post was named for.  Neither of them played hockey (both were football stars) but their stories set the stage for the beginning of hockey in Waterloo.

The club, sometimes referred to as the Hawks, was not a professional team nor was it affiliated with any other club or league.  Throughout its existence, it never traveled to another city for a game. Instead, teams from cites as far away as Chicago, St. Paul and Winnipeg came to Waterloo where they faced a club that won more games than it lost and would play in front of several thousand enthusiastic fans. The arena did not have the capability to make artificial ice, so the games were only played when it was cold enough to have natural ice inside. 

The book is a nice summary of the games played throughout the four year history of the Becker-Chapman team, with enough detail provided that a reader or listener will comprehend just how good the team was and the enthusiasm of the fans.  Some games are filled with details like specific goal scorers, statistics and attendance while a few are not covered in as great detail. It was all dependent on the newspaper accounts at that time since statistics were not kept and being an independent team, there were no league archives to research. 

The rules of the games for the team and in that era are also explained and some of them are quite different from today.  The team often carried only eight or nine players, so some of them played the entire sixty minutes.  Imagine a superstar player today like Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid playing an entire game with no shifts.  The ice wasn’t always smooth – not only from the conditions of the arena and weather, but also because the rink was also used for public skating.


The end of the team’s run in Waterloo was due to economics. The Great Depression was in full swing and like so many other businesses, the American Legion had to cut back on expenses and one of them was hockey.  While the first two years produced a small profit, the fourth year resulted in a small financial loss and the Legion did not want to sink further in the hole with the team, so it folded.  When it did so, a chapter of Iowa hockey ended with it and this book does a great job of bringing that team back to life.  While a short book without a lot of depth on the team’s players, it nonetheless will inform the reader about that era of hockey and is recommended to be added to the library of any hockey fan.



Book Format Read:
Audiobook

 
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Monday, October 8, 2018

Review of "Never Ran, Never Will"

It is not often a book on any sport at any level will leave a message to me about social issues and make me want to help in some small way.  This book is one that did - a wonderful account of young men in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville and the youth football program that some see as a path to future success.  Here is my review of "Never Ran, Never Will."



Title/Author:
Never Ran, Never Will: Boyhood and Football in a Changing American Inner City” by Albert Samaha

Tags:
Football (American), youth, society

Publish date:
September 4, 2018

Length:
368 pages


Rating: 
5 of 5 stars (outstanding)

Review:
Brooklyn is noted for its diverse neighborhoods and the changing landscape of the borough is bringing more wealth and success to many of its residents. However, the neighborhood of Brownsville has felt that some of this success has left it behind.  There is a great success story that originates from Brownsville – the youth football program known as the Mo Better Jaguars.  This excellent book by Albert Samaha captures the spirit of these football squads, as well as its players and coaches.
 
The main focus of the book is not just the sport of football but the issues facing boys and young men in the inner city.  Several players – Gio, Oomz, Isaiah and Hart just to name a few – are portrayed and their issues with family, school, gangs and other matters are told in painstaking detail.  Some of the stories are inspirational, some are heartbreaking.  Their lives are taking shape while playing for the Mo Better program and they may surprise the reader on just how some of their experiences do not fit the stereotype of life in the inner city.

The same goes for the coaches – Esau, Vick and Chris. These are even better reading as they are not only coaching the boys to improve their football skills but also on what they need to do or not do in order to succeed.  Their overwhelming theme is to avoid “the streets” as they can swallow a young man up and he will find himself in gangs, in jail or dead.  These coaches not only talk the talk, but they walk the walk. I found Vick’s story quite compelling, especially that at the same time he is telling his players about the importance of school and reading, he is trying to better himself by going to school to become a nursing assistant while trying to find a job. 

The reader will also learn about Brownsville – its history, its struggles and the lack of support it has received from the rest of New York City.  It is important for the reader to absorb this information as well, as it helps to illustrate what the Mo Better players are experiencing and how the Jaguars have become such a vital part of the neighborhood as many of these youth view football as the means to get onto a path to success.  That success may come in the form of an NFL career or a scholarship to college where the education received will lead to a successful career in another field. 

Football writing is not forgotten, however, and while Samaha is not a sportswriter by trade, his narratives of the action on field, both in practice and during the games, will be easily digested by all fans of the game no matter how closely they follow the sport. The detail is just as good here, especially when describing how much the players like to hit. It feels like they are releasing all of their frustrations with their issues at home or in school on the other kid, whether it is a teammate at practice or an opponent who will not be able to continue the play. 

This book will make an impact on the reader in ways that other sports books cannot, especially when one considers the topic and the issues faced by these young men.  It will make the reader think, it will make the reader cheer, and hopefully it will make the reader help to take action to ensure that young men living in places like Brownsville are not left behind.

I wish to thank Perseus Books for providing a copy of the book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.


Book Format Read:
E-book (Kindle)

Buying Links:


Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Review of "The Shift"

The title of this book is slightly misleading. While I expected it to be about sabermetrics in baseball, I thought it would primarily focus on the defensive shift teams do against certain batters. While that topic is covered, it is far from the only one. Here is my review of "The Shift." 



Title/Author:
The Shift: The Next Evolution in Baseball Thinking” by Russell A. Carleton
Tags:
Baseball, professional, statistics
Publish date:
April 1, 2018
Length:
366 pages
Rating: 
4 of 5 stars (very good)
Review:
When people ask me why baseball is my favorite sport, I tell them that I love it because it is a thinking game. The author of this book, Russell Carleton, agrees with my assessment, but he goes even further, stating that “maybe it’s even an obsessing game.  It is most certainly a shifting game.” The last portion of that statement is what he concentrates on proving in this book by illustrating how the increased use of advanced statistics, also known as sabermetrics, has shifted the focus of many aspects of the game.
There are many topics about the game covered in the book. Starting with asking the right question, Carleton explores just about every aspect of the game – hitting, pitching, defense (including the shift - only makes sense with this title), managing on the field, managing off the field and scouting.  No matter what part of the game the reader enjoys, he or she will find information that will be of interest.
Of course, since sabermetrics are the main theme of the book, there are numbers galore making Carleton’s points. Not only does he use the usual statistics that fans will see online or on television during the games, but he uses many charts that compares situations year by year to show trends.  This can be anything from the percentages of batted balls put in play to the run probability for a team in any situation it may find during its time at bat in the inning. At times, it can be overwhelming, even for the avid baseball fan. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing as it means the book is chock full of information that may be of use to some reader.
It should be noted that the book is not all numbers – there are a lot of stories about not only the human element of the game, but other stories such as when the author met his wife that will lead into the baseball application of the particular topic. These passages help to make the book more palatable to read than had it been strictly about numbers and charts.
Who should read this book? I will use my favorite quote from the book to answer this question as readers who fit this description should add this book to their libraries.  That would be readers who are “becoming wrapped up in the efforts of 25 players who just happen to wear funny pajamas emblazoned with the name of the major city that (they) were born closest to.”
Book Format Read:
E-book (Kindle)
Buying Links:


Friday, September 28, 2018

Review of "Carew"

While my recent trip to Minnesota was for a sad occurrence with the passing of my mother, I did want to pick up a book for the trip home on a topic related to the Minnesota Twins because she and I would often watch Twins games during my younger childhood days.  When I saw that Rod Carew's memoir was available in an updated edition, that was my choice as Carew was and will always be my favorite player of all time.  Here is my review of the book.




Title/Author:
Carew” by Rod Carew with Ira Berkow

Tags:
Baseball, memoir, Twins, Angels

Publish date:
March 29, 2010 (paperback – original publication May 22, 1979)

Length:
268 pages

Rating: 
4 of 5 stars (very good)

Review:
Rod Carew is considered one of the best pure hitters in baseball history. With seven batting titles, more than 3,000 hits and 18 All-Star selections, he was a first-ballot Hall of Fame player elected in 1991. When he was still a player, he penned a memoir of his life and baseball career to that point with sportswriter Ira Berkow. Additional information, especially on his life after baseball, and a foreword by Torii Hunter was published in 2010. This review covers the latter publication.

What struck me most about the entire book, whether it was discussing his childhood, his time in the minor leagues or his stellar Major League career, was his candidness.  If something bothered him or he felt it was wrong, he didn’t mince words in this book. Whether he was talking about his father, the frugality of the owner of the Minnesota Twins at that time, Calvin Griffith, or the perceived mistreatment he received from others, the reader will certainly know how Carew felt. The reader may not always agree and may even close the book with the perception that he was a moody or even arrogant person.  I believe that is a positive for reading the book as the reader will learn who the real Rod Carew is.

His discussions about hitting are just as good as when he would step into the batter’s box as much can be learned about his methods and theories on hitting.  Something that was well known during his career is that he employed many different batting stances depending on the pitcher or situation.  He explains why he would use certain stances as well as describe the unique construction of his bats and the way he held the bat which appeared to be very loose. These were fascinating revelations, even if Carew fans like me know this information already.

He was raised in Panama in a family that didn’t have much money and his father was not always present (something that the reader is reminded of throughout the book even during Rod’s adulthood) but his love for baseball is reflected on what he did to ensure he had a ball and glove to play the game.  When he and his family were brought to the United States, he was quickly discovered by baseball scouts.  His story about how the Twins wanted to make sure he was signed before anyone else knew about his talent was entertaining.

Carew spent the first 12 years of his career with the Twins where he won all seven of his batting titles. In 1979, just before writing this book, he was traded to the California Angels as the cash-poor Twins couldn’t afford to sign him to a new contract and traded him for four players rather than lose him to free agency.  His time with the Angels and his life after baseball is covered in the new material.  He experienced tragedy during this time, with the death of his daughter Michelle and subsequent divorce, as well as good times. He fondly writes about meeting and marrying his second wife Rhonda and his time spent back with the Twins as a roving coach.


Overall, this is a very good memoir first written at the peak of his career. Some readers might be turned off by the tone of his words on events and people that he did not like but as stated earlier, he comes across as honest in these passages.  Readers who are Twins or Carew fans will enjoy this book.

Book Format Read:
Paperback

 
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Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Review of "The Legacy of Maggie Dixon"

Living in the Hudson Valley region of New York, I follow Army sports fairly closely and I remember the magical 2005-06 season for the Army women's basketball team and their excellent first year coach Maggie Dixon. The entire area was saddened by her sudden passing in 2006, so when I saw that a book was written about her, I immediately requested a copy.  It turned out to be just as good as I had hoped.  Here is my review of "The Legacy of Maggie Dixon"


Title/Author:
The Legacy of Maggie Dixon: A Leader on the Court and in Life” by Jack Grubbs
Tags:
Basketball, college, biography, coaching, women, Army
Publish date:
November 15, 2018
Length:
238 pages
Rating: 
5 of 5 stars (outstanding)
Review:
Few coaches have ever left as big an impression in only one season as the one left at the United States Military Acadamy by Maggie Dixon. She was the head coach when the Army Black Knight’s made their first ever appearance in the NCAA women’s basketball championship tournament in 2006. The 28-year-old coach brought a wealth of basketball smarts and communication skills to a downtrodden program and made the team THE talk of the campus. Her life, which ended far too soon the following summer, is captured in this wonderful book by Jack Grubbs.
Not only does the reader learn much about Dixon but also about the life of cadets at West Point and many of the traditions. This information and setting is important as it illustrates even more vividly how Dixon made an impression on her players, the student body and the officers in charge of the athletic program. Even though she never served in the military and was not raised in a military family, Dixon adapted quickly to the regimented lifestyle and guided her players to be at their best in academics and military duties as well as basketball.
Dixon’s family was a basketball family as her brother Jamie was a successful men’s coach, most notably at the University of Pittsburgh. When reading about Maggie Dixon the person, the reader will immediately see a smart, charming and witty young woman who impressed everyone who knew her.  Her sudden death from cardiomyopathy left West Point in shock.  Very rarely will a civilian be buried on the grounds of the academy, but because Dixon left such a mark on the campus, the officials made the decision to do so.
The writing about basketball is also very good, especially when covering important games such as those against Navy, the championship game of the Partriot League against Holy Cross and the defeat at the hands of the powerful Connecticut Huskies in the NCAA tournament. Much is also written about the players that Dixon coached.  Not only are their basketball skills discussed, but also their academic and military ups and downs as well. 
This is more than just an excellent basketball book about an excellent basketball coach. It is a book that captures the human spirit of a driven and successful woman who was taken away from her team and her livelihood far too soon.  
I wish to thank Rowman & Littlefield for providing a copy of the book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Book Format Read:
E-book (Kindle)
Buying Links:


Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Review of "Collision of Wills"

After a death in my family that took me away from reading and reviewing, it is time to get back into the swing of things with books. I read this book on the plane trip to be with family members and now am writing the review.  It was a decent read on two legendary figures in professional football.  Here is my review of "Collision of Wills"



Title/Author:
Collision of Wills: Johnny Unitas, Don Shula and the Rise of the Modern NFL” by Jack Gilden

Tags:
Football (American), biography, history, Colts

Publish date:
October 1, 2018

Length:
352 pages

Rating: 
4 of 5 stars (very good)

Review:
Johnny Unitas and Don Shula are two legendary figures in the history of professional football.  The former is a Hall of Fame quarterback who played most of his career with the Baltimore Colts.  The latter played as a defensive back for multiple teams, including the Colts where he was a teammate of Unitas.  Shula became a coach when his playing days were over, leading the Colts and Miami Dolphins to titles and becoming a Hall of Fame coach.

The relationship between the two men ranged from tolerable to frosty whether they were teammates or Shula was the head coach and Unitas was his quarterback.  The relationship between these two men is explored in this book by Jack Gilden. This is the best aspect of the book as Gilden uses interviews from many different people with different connections to the two men. These vary from Colts teammates to Joe Namath, the Jets quarterback who led his team to an upset victory over the Colts in Super Bowl III.  The Colts were coached by Shula and Unitas played in that game in relief of starting quarterback Earl Morral. 

Like many books about sports in the 1960’s, which is when most of the events took place, it mingles the sport with the culture of the time. These include the Vietnam war, the sexual revolution and the civil rights movement.  There is a lot of text devoted to these subjects and while interesting; I felt that at times these took the focus away from the main subjects of Unitas and Shula.

However, when concentrating on them or on the history of the Colts, this is an excellent source of information.  In addition so learning more about Unitas and Shula, a reader will learn more about the eccentric owner of the Colts at that time, Carroll Rosenbloom (who later traded the ownership of the team to Robert Irsay in exchange for ownership of the Los Angeles Rams).  Weeb Ewbank, the man whom Shula replaced as head coach of the Colts, is also portrayed, and he comes across as sympathetic figure – until he coaches the Jets to the win over the Colts in the Super Bowl.

Overall, this is a very interesting and informative book on the Colts and the two legends who played an important role in making the Colts one of the best teams during the 1960’s.  Their role in changing the landscape of professional football cannot be overlooked and this book informs the reader of their importance.

I wish to thank University of Nebraska Press for providing a copy of the book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Format Read:
E-Book (Kindle)

Buying Links: