Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Review of "The Cooperstown Casebook"

This book is perfect for a baseball nut like myself.  One, it ranks Hall of Fame players - always a good topic for spirited debate.  Two, it helps explain some of today's advanced statistics and breaks them down in a manner easy to understand.  Three, it makes a compelling argument about why certain players whose stats are worthy of the Hall of Fame but are not getting the votes required due to suspicions of using performance enhancing drugs should be in.  All in all, a great book for serious baseball fans.  Here is my review of "The Cooperstown Casebook."


Title/Author:
The Cooperstown Casebook: Who’s In the Baseball Hall of Fame, Who Should Be In and Who Should Pack Their Plaques” by Jay Jaffee
Tags:
Baseball, professional, history, Hall of Fame
Publish date:
June 27, 2017

Length:
368 pages

Rating: 
4 ½ of 5 stars (excellent)
Review:
One topic that is certain to ignite debates among baseball fans is the Baseball Hall of Fame.  Pick any year, and the voting by the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) will certainly draw praise and criticism. Similarly, there are arguments whether certain players who are already inducted truly belong there.  These types of debates will be conducted as long as there is a Hall of Fame.

While this book by Jay Jaffee is not intended for casual fans, it is one that every serious baseball fan should pick up. There is statistical information on every player currently enshrined in the Hall and a brief career bio on each one that explains why Jaffee believes whether or not the player is a worthy inductee. He uses advanced statistical analysis to make these decisions with a formula he names JAWS (Jaffee War Score). The score is primarily derived from the Wins Above Replacement (WAR) statistic, using each player’s peak performance and allowing for factors such as different ballparks and eras where either offense or pitching may be more dominant than at other times. It isn’t perfect, but certainly a fair method to evaluate each player.

However, before ranking each player within his position (and, spoiler alert, there are some big surprises on the rankings of some of these players) Jaffee does his best work in the book in two areas.  One is that he does a very nice job of breaking down some of the advanced statistical categories such as WAR, OPS+ and other statistics so that fans can better understand them. There is also a full chapter devoted to the argument the author makes on why players who have been suspected of using performance enhancement drugs, such as Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, should not be kept out of the Hall of Fame.  The only part of this argument that seemed flawed to me was not about these players, but he does not allow the same type of leeway for the inclusion of players who have been banned from the game for gambling, specifically Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson.  This isn’t a criticism of his opinion – just that the two specific situations seem to be approached differently when they may not be all that different.

One other aspect of the book’s structure that I appreciated was that each chapter on the players inducted at a specific position gave an example of a player that should be inducted but has not been voted in by either the BBWAA or a committee, of which there have been several throughout the history of the Hall. (Note: there is also an excellent chapter on the flaws of the voting over the years by both the committees and BBWAA.) Using JAWS, traditional statistics and some old-fashioned logic, Jaffee makes a good case for each of these players.  That was a nice touch to add to each chapter as a lead-in to the breakdown of each player’s write-up at each position.

The Hall of Fame may be a source of debate among baseball fans as long as it exists, but there should be no debate about the worthiness of this book.  Every serious baseball fan should read this for a better understanding of some of the advanced statistics that have been used to bolster the chances of some Hall of Fame players such as Bert Blyleven and Tim Raines as well as just gain some valuable information to use the next time an argument breaks out about the worthiness of some player who supposedly doesn’t belong there.

I wish to thank St. Martin’s Press and Thomas Dunne Books for providing a copy of the book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Format Read:
E-book (Kindle)

Buying Links:


Saturday, July 22, 2017

Review of "Golf's Iron Horse"

There are people who feel that they play a lot of golf, especially if they play multiple rounds per week.  But it is probably safe to say they will probably never reach the amount of golf played by Ralph Kennedy, golf's "Iron Horse."  This book is the story of his remarkable achievement in the game and this is my review of that book.


Title/Author:
Golf’s Iron Horse: The Astonishing, Record Breaking Life of Ralph Kennedy” by John Sabino
Tags:
Golf, History, records
Publish date:
February 7, 2017

Length:
312 pages

Rating: 
3 of 5 stars (okay)
Review:
Most golf lovers, whether they play the game, watch it or both, would be hard pressed to remember the name Ralph Kennedy.  Golf historians may remember he was one of the founding members of the Winged Foot course, where many major tournaments have been played including the famous 1974 U.S. Open in which Hale Irwin won at seven over par and has been dubbed “The Massacre at Winged Foot.”

However, Kennedy has a much more impressive feat – he has played golf on 3,165 courses covering the 48 contiguous states, 9 of the 10 Canadian provinces and more than a dozen other countries.  The story of golf’s “Iron Horse” is captured in this book by John Sabio.

Because Kennedy was often compared to baseball’s Lou Gehrig, he was given the same moniker as the all-time Yankee great because of Kennedy’s endurance to play golf so often and at so many course.  This was done in the early twentieth century and through the Great Depression.  He obtained special permission to play at some prestigious courses such Augusta National.

While the story is interesting, especially when one considers that Kennedy’s handicap was at 17 most of the time, which is a bogey golfer, the book seems to go off course several times.  If there isn’t a long passage about a particular course Kennedy played, there are many references to the history of the time or information on other athletes such as Lou Gehrig and Bobby Jones.  This additional information shows that the author did extensive research but it made the book a much longer and slow-paced one to read for me. 

The passages about the actual golf played by Kennedy and his wife, who accompanied him on many of his rounds, were quite good and I enjoyed reading about them and the equipment used by the couple.  The reader will learn about the changes in the clubs and balls for the time as well.  As interesting as these parts were, they too resulted in slow-paced reading.

Overall this book is one that is recommended for golf fans, players and especially historians. It does require careful reading to absorb all of the information but what the reader will learn about this amazing accomplishment will be worth the time it took.

Book Format Read:
E-book (Kindle)

Buying Links:

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Review of "The Boys of Winter"

Many people will agree with me that when the United States hockey team defeated the USSR in the 1980 Winter Olympics, that was the greatest sporting event that will ever take place.  This book that was published in 2005 recently became available on audio, so I wanted to take a listen to relive that game.  It was certainly all that I hoped it would be. Here is my review of "The Boys of Winter."


Title/Author:
Boys of Winter: The Untold Story of a Coach, a Dream and the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team” by Wayne Coffey, narrated by Kirby Heyborne
Tags:
Ice Hockey, Winter Olympics, History, audio book
Publish date:
February 28, 2017 (audio. Print originally published 2005)

Length:
288 pages

Rating: 
5 of 5 stars (outstanding)
Review:
Any American sports fan will know where he or she was on February 22, 1980.  It was on that date that 20 young men from the United States defeated the hockey team from the Soviet Union in the Winter Olympics. It is considered by many, including this reviewer, as the greatest sports event that has occurred and will not be repeated.  The stories behind this game and the players and Coach Herb Brooks are told in this book by Wayne Coffey.

The book starts and ends with scenes from Brooks’ funeral after he was killed in an auto accident in 2003.  There are short biographies of Brooks and each of the 20 players scattered throughout the description of the action on the ice during that game. The format makes for great reading for the print version and while also excellent for the audio version, the listener will have to pay close attention so that when the narration changes from player story back to the game, there is no disconnect.

The game replay is excellent with not only goals and saves described but each check, each penalty and each steal of the puck by either team relived in great detail. On occasion I will watch a video of the game and get chills, even after all these years.  I had the same reaction when Heyborne was describing key events of the game, such as Mark Johnson’s goal with one second remaining in the first period, spectacular saves by goaltender Jim Craig and certainly the winning goal by Mike Eruzione. 

Any reader who either wants to relive that special game or wants to learn why this team and event is still revered more than 35 years later will want to pick up this book. Even though it was originally published in 2005, the stories and events are just as thrilling to relive now as they were then.

Book Format Read:
Audio book

Buying Links:


Monday, July 17, 2017

Review of "Odd Man Rush"

This book is one that the author has been giving away every month on Goodreads since it was published.  Every month, I would faithfully enter the giveaway - and every month, someone else was chosen.  Until out of the blue, the author asked if I would consider reviewing the book here - of course I said yes.  It was a very entertaining memoir - here is my review of "Odd Man Rush."



Title/Author:
Odd Man Rush: A Harvard Kid’s Hockey Odyssey from Central Park to Somewhere in Sweden – with Stops Along the Way” by Bill Keenan
Tags:
Ice Hockey, Professional, college, memoir, autobiography, humor

Publish date:
January 5, 2016

Length:
304 pages

Rating: 
4 ½ of 5 stars (excellent)

Review:
If a child is playing a sport, chances are good that he or she dreams of playing the game at the highest professional level in the sport.  Hockey player Bill Keenan took that dream to its ultimate test as when he realized his dreams of a National Hockey League contract would not reach fruition. Instead, he started a European adventure, playing on teams in Gremany and Sweden.  The adventures he had while playing there as well as Harvard for his college hockey career are captured in this very funny and entertaining memoir.

The book is part hardcore hockey, part coming-of-age in both the sport and in life and part wild ride in the far outreaches of European minor league hockey.  Keenan writes these stories with a great deal of humor (some at the expense of others, some self-depreciating) and just a bit of melancholy as well.  The latter is especially true when he was in Sweden and had to end a relationship with a woman when he was sold to another team. 

The hockey talk is great in that it is detailed enough to satisfy very knowledgeable fans, but easy enough to understand so that non-fans or casual fans will understand it as well.  There isn’t a lot of statistical information, no X’s and O’s and no detours to long winded explanations of the European minor league structure - just good stories about Keenan’s wish to keep his hockey-playing dreams alive as long as possible.  This is a book that hockey fans, humor fans and anyone who wants to read an entertaining memoir will want to add to his or her library.

I wish to thank Mr. Keenan for providing a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Book Format Read:
Hardcover

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Review of "The Phenomenon"

As I was somewhat familiar with the story of Rick Ankiel, I have been interested his memoir since it was published in April.  I was able to obtain the audio version and I believe that it made a good story even better.  Some of the reviews of this book that I read were somewhat critical of the writing and the narration, but I felt that those were secondary to the story which is one that is inspiring.  Here is my review of "The Phenomenon"



Title/Author:
The Phenomenon: Pressure, the Yips and the Pitch that Changed My Life” written by Rick Ankiel and Tim Brown, narrated by Rick Ankiel

Tags:
Baseball, Professional, memoir, autobiography, Cardinals, Braves

Publish date:
April 18, 2017

Length:
304 pages

Rating: 
5 of 5 stars (outstanding)
 
Review:
In October 2000, Rick Ankiel felt like he was on the top of the baseball world.  He was considered one of the best young pitchers in the game and was on the mound for a post-season game against the team he cheered for as a boy, the Atlanta Braves.  In the third inning, a seemingly innocent wild pitch led to even more of them and he had to soon thereafter be removed from the game. That led to even more wildness and Ankiel was in the fight for his baseball career.  But that fight was an internal one and how he handled that is chronicled in his recently published memoir.

When I saw that Ankiel was the narrator of the audio version, I decided to listen as I always believe that hearing the author tell his or her story lends an air of credibility to the book if he or she sounds honest.  That was certainly the case here as Ankiel comes across in both words and voice as completely honest.  While he had a difficult childhood by seeing his father treat his mother badly, he doesn’t blame that or any other external reason for his sudden loss of the ability to throw a baseball where he wanted.

When Ankiel subsequently underwent surgery on his throwing arm and still did not have success, the reader or listener will be surprised at how he decided to change from being a pitcher to an outfielder.  Even though I knew the story behind his decision to change and his subsequent work to learn a new position, I believed this was the most inspiring part of his story.  Late in his career, he played in another post-season game, this time for the Braves and he hit a game-winning home run against the San Francisco Giants.

He also spoke honestly about his name appearing on the Mitchell Report, the report written by former senator George Mitchell on his investigation in the use of performance enhancing drugs in baseball.  Ankiel states that he took human growth hormone while recovering from his surgery and at the time, he checked if it was a banned substance in the game.  He stated that it was not at the time (not until 2005) and therefore he decided to use it.  There was no defiance, no bitterness at being listed on the report – just stated as a matter of fact. 

This statement is in line with the rest of his book – narrated as just what happened without a lot of emotions, regrets or anger.  It was an audiobook that I enjoyed listening to and would recommend this book, either print or audio, to baseball fans who enjoy memoirs or a good comeback story.

Book Format Read:
Audiobook

 

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Review of "Electric October"

When I saw the description of this book, I immediately thought of Kevin Bacon and his "six degrees of separation" theory.  The way the six men who are the subject of this book on the 1947 World Series didn't take six degrees of separation, but instead seven terrific baseball games in order to draw the men to one commonality.  Here is my review of the terrific book "Electric October."




Title/Author:
Electric October: Seven World Series Games, Six Lives, Five Minutes of Fame That Lasted Forever” by Kevin Cook
Tags:
Baseball, Professional, History, Yankees, Dodgers
Publish date:
August 15, 2017
Length:
304 pages

Rating: 
5 of 5 stars (outstanding)
Review:
1947 was a very memorable year in baseball as not only did Jackie Robinson become the first African-American player, but the New York Yankees and Robinson’s team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, played a very exciting seven game World Series in which the Yankees prevailed.  With those two teams, one expects the stars to play big roles. That wasn’t the case in the 1947 World Series, and this excellent book by Kevin Cook sheds light on some of these forgotten players and also the two managers.

Both managers, Burt Shotton of the Dodgers and Bucky Harris of the Yankees, were unlikely choices to lead these teams. Shotton was considered a temporary manager for the Dodgers until Leo Durocher completed serving his one year suspension.  Harris, who had been considered the “boy wonder” when he managed the Washington Senators to the World Series championship in 1924 and nearly repeated the feat in 1925, had little success since then and had been bouncing from team to team.  The stories for each man on how he led his team to the World Series made for excellent reading.

However, the best stories are for the four players who were not stars, but played important roles in the Series. There is Bill Bevens, a journeyman pitcher who came within one out of pitching the first no-hitter in World Series history in game four. The Dodger who broke up that no-hitter, Cookie Lavagetto, not only hit a double with two out in the bottom of the ninth, but drove in two runs as two base runners who previously both walked scored on the first Brooklyn hit of the game.  Then there is Snuffy Stirnweiss, a solid player who won the American League batting title in 1945 but received little respect for the feat since the game was depleted of its stars who were serving in World War II.  Finally, there is Al Gionfriddo, whose catch of a Joe DiMaggio fly ball is well known from the famous reaction by the Yankee Clipper when he kicked dirt after rounding first, realizing the ball was caught.

These six men has their lives changed by these moments that would bring them temporary fame that was soon forgotten. What they went through before, during and after that World Series is captured in great story writing by Cook. He not only tells of the men’s careers and life after baseball, but he tells the readers little known details about each player that will make a reader pay a little more attention each time.

Here is an example of these little-known tidbits. Bucky Harris’s marriage was not holding up to his baseball life very well, and Ty Cobb offered to take the Harris children out to dinner so that Bucky and his wife Betty could get a break and have a night alone. While it never happened, the offer made a big impression on Harris that he never forgot. 

One last area the book covers that I found interesting is when Cook writes about the place in history that both managers are and where Bill James, the father of advanced statistics, believe they should be.  James feels that both Harris and Shotten are not given their proper credit for the managing jobs they did in 1947 and his reasoning is simple yet not well known. 

“Electric October” gets its title from what the World Series was called by television executives that year as it was the first one that was shown nationwide on that medium. The title could very well be used to describe the connection of these six men in that one glorious seven game series as well.  An outstanding collection of stories about men, about life and about one glorious World Series, it is one that all baseball readers should add to their libraries.  

I wish to thank Henry Holt and Company for providing a copy of the book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Format Read:
E-book (Kinidle)

Buying Links:
https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/electric-october-kevin-cook/1125426637;jsessionid=BE0D89E278C12E6B47A8E7B7564DE9DE.prodny_store01-atgap07?ean=9781250116567&st=AFF&2sid=Goodreads,%20Inc_2227948_NA&sourceId=AFFGoodreads,%20IncM000004

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Review of "Tall Tales and Short Shorts"

Happy Independence Day aka July 4th to all of my fellow American readers.  On this all-American holiday, what game is more appropriate to read about than the sport that was invented in the United States?  Of course, I am talking about basketball and I first followed the game in the 1970's.  This book is a very good account of the sport during that decade.  Here is my review of "Tall Tales and Short Shorts."


Title/Author:
Tall Tales and Short Shorts: Dr. J, Pistol Pete & the Birth of the Modern NBA” by Adam J. Criblez
Tags:
Basketball, Professional, History
Publish date:
June 9, 2017
Length:
311 pages

Rating: 
4 of 5 stars (very good)
Review:
The state of professional basketball was shaky in the 1970’s. Former NBA Commissioner David Stern called the decade the “darkest times” for the league.  The number of African-American players was increasing, there was increased drug use among the players, the game was felt to be too violent and the television ratings were so bad, there were playoff games that were not shown live, but on delay during late night hours 

However, there are some who credit this decade as the stepping stone to the global success the NBA is currently enjoying through the merger of the two professional leagues, the birth of free agency and the exciting play of many talented players.  This is the approach taken by author Adam J. Criblez in this very interesting book on the NBA of the 1970’s.

The format of the book is straightforward – each chapter is an account of each season through the decade, starting with the legendary 1970 championship season for the New York Knicks to the unlikely championship claimed by the Seattle SuperSonics in 1979. The material is not extremely detailed or in depth, but each season is covered well, as well as many of the great players from that time such as George Gervin, Bill Walton, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and John Havlicek. 

One facet of the book that I like is that each team, whether the champion, a playoff team or an also-ran is mentioned each year. Unlike many books that cover certain seasons, the star players from losing teams are credited with their fine play and there are even paragraphs about these losing teams that explains why they were in the poor shape they were in.

The season-by-season recap is interrupted three times for chapters on other topics.  Two of these chapters are about two of the biggest names in the sport during that decade – Julius “Dr. J” Erving and “Pistol” Pete Maravich.  Being a fan of both of these players during that time brought back some great memories and also a little bit of trivia that I had never heard before.  When Dr. J was trying to play in the NBA before the ABA and NBA merged in 1976, he signed a contract with the Atlanta Hawks, who already had Maravich on the roster.  While the matter was in the court system, the Hawks played three exhibition game with both players.  The contact was voided in court and Dr. J had to return to the New York Nets of the ABA.  It would have been very interesting to see those two legends play on the same team. 

Speaking of the merger, the third chapter that was not a recap of a season was about that topic when the two professional leagues stopped fighting each other on and off the court and became a stronger league.  One of my favorite passages from that chapter is about the final all-star game in the ABA when Dr. J performed his legendary foul-line dunk.

While the book does not shed a lot of new light nor goes into great details into any particular topic, it is a very entertaining and fun read for any basketball fan who watched the game in that decade. These fantastic teams and players may not get the same love as Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan did for “saving” the game in the 1980’s – but this book gives that decade some much-deserved recognition for providing the first step to that revival.

I wish to thank Rowman & LIttlefield for providing a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Book Format Read:
Hardcover

Buying Links: