Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Review of "Beyond Baseball's Color Barrier"

It isn't often that one can find a book on baseball's Black players that talks about the state of the game today, but this one has that and a whole lot more.  Here is my review of "Beyond Baseball's Color Barrier."

RATING: 4 of 5 stars (very good)

REVIEW: One of baseball's more noticeable trends the last few years is the decrease in the number of Black players in the game at all levels. Of course, it has not always been this was as the participation of Black players has had its ebbs and flows since Jackie Robinson broke the game's color barrier in 1947.  This very good book by Rocco Constantino explores the entire history of Black participation in the game, from the time of Fleetwood Moses Walker to today's Black stars like Mookie Betts and Lawrence McCutcheon. 

What I believe sets this book apart from others on this type of subject is that it covers the entire spectrum of participation by Black players.  Yes, many do know that Walker was the first Black player in what was recognized as the Major Leagues in 1884 and that for a short time, Black players were welcomed by baseball until an unwritten agreement between owners kept them out.  Constantino brings the reader into this era quite well by addressing the topic of that agreement and the attitude of baseball's first commissioner, Kennesaw Mountain Landis, in an objective manner.  

He continues with this writing style during the integration years when several clubs such as the Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Giants and Cleveland Indians integrated their teams with several Black players and few more followed.  Of course, there is significant coverage of Jackie Robinson, but this does not go into his role as deeply as other books as Constantino writes material on other groundbreaking star Black players such as Larry Doby, Satchel Paige, Willie Mays and Monte Irvin. 

But it is the later chapters about Black players in the 1970s and 1980s such as Dave Parker and Ron LeFlore, as well as Constantino's discussion on the current state of affairs for Black players and the lack of opportunities for Black youths to play in the sport that I found to be the best part of the book. Written just as objectively as the sections on the segregation era, this discussion revolves around the growth of traveling leagues that are deemed by some to be "country club" leagues and are out of reach in terms of both affordability and accessibility to Black players.  But even despite this, Constantino is sure to give credit to today's Black stars like Betts as much as he did for those in earlier eras.  This book is one of the more complete descriptions of the history of Black baseball players and is well worth the time to read for those who are interested in this part of the sport.  

LINK: Beyond Baseball's Color Barrier: The Story of African Americans in Major League Baseball, Past, Present, and Future: Constantino, Rocco, Tiant, Luis: 9781538149089: Books

Friday, June 11, 2021

Review of "Assisted"

Having a recent long car trip to a bowling tourney, I had the time to do something I have not done in quite awhile - listen to an audiobook.  I decided on John Stockton's memoir and it was a good choice.  Here is my review.

RATING: 4 of 5 stars (Very Good)

REVIEW: In most sports memoirs, the author/athlete spends much of the book talking about his or her sports career – whether it is about how their love of the sport came during their youth, their college or professional career and the camaraderie with teammates or competitors and their lives after their career ends – most follow this tried-and-true format.  "Assisted", the memoir of John Stockton who is the all-time leader for assists and steals, is a little different in that more of the book talks more about his family life in youth and adulthood than it does about his basketball career. 

That career, in which he played at Gonzaga followed by 20 years in the NBA, all for the Utah Jazz, was one of the most successful in the game's history. While he and the Jazz never won a championship, he and Karl Malone made up one of the more famous teammate duos and took the Jazz, who had only one winning season before Stockton joined them, to become one of the more successful franchises in the sport.  But despite all of this, Stockton doesn't write extensively about his basketball prowess or accomplishments with the Jazz. Instead, when talking basketball, he concentrates more on teammates, coaches, trainers and other important people involved in the game.  These make even better stories than his own, especially those of his first coach with the Jazz, Frank Layden, who is quoted liberally throughout the book.  He also speaks fondly of his participation on the 1992 and 1996 U.S. Olympic basketball teams, the first two Olympic teams composed primarily of NBA players

However, Stockton spends much time in the book talking about non-basketball items, mostly his family life.  This includes both his youth and his family consisting of his wife Nada and their six children.  Of course, he mentions how sports are important in those lives, especially in his youth and his competition with his brother.  He talks about his Catholic faith and some topics that could generate some debate as well, such as his pro-life beliefs.  This is not to say that he delves deeply into a political debate or into a controversial stance.  He does state, however, how he will speak his mind and will be honest about topics like this, no matter how popular or unpopular his beliefs may be.  Something else that ties into these types of topics is his discussion of life as a Catholic in a city that has a majority of its population as Mormon – and he spends time dispelling some myths about Salt Lake City.

Listening to the audio version, especially as it was narrated by Stockton, lent an air of authenticity to the book.  This was especially beneficial for this last paragraph as the voice inflections helped to show that he was firm in his beliefs.  Although the best parts of the narration, at least for entertainment, were when he would quote Coach Layden with a deep gravelly voice. This book is one that any fan of Stockton or the Jazz will enjoy.


Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Review of "Sooley"

 This book was selected for two reasons - one, I decided that maybe a fictional book might break me out of my current reading slump (so far, so good) and two, my wife recommended it to me.  So, here is my review of the John Grisham novel "Sooley"

RATING: 5 of 5 stars (Excellent)

REVIEW: While John Grisham is mostly known for his legal thrillers, he has also written some popular novels centered around sports such as Bleachers, Playing for Pizza and Calico Joe. Now he turns to basketball with Sooley, a novel about a young man who escapes war-torn South Sudan by making a basketball team that would be playing in a tourney in the United States.

Samuel Sooleyman, a 17-year-old with raw but untapped basketball talent, was the last player selected for this team.  Considering this a lucky break, he gets even better news when he learns that he will be provided a scholarship to play basketball at North Carolina Central.  This was done by the school's coach mainly as a favor to the coach who brought the team from Sudan to America.  While at NC Central, Samuel's family is fleeing their village which has been burnt by the fighting.  His mother Beatrice and two siblings find refuge at a camp in Uganda, but Samuel is anguished at their plight.  In the meantime, his basketball skills improve greatly and he becomes an instant star as NC Central makes an improbable run for a great season.

Two main thoughts on this very good novel for basketball fans:  one is that for his first basketball story, Grisham writes about the college basketball landscape like a seasoned veteran.  Whether it was about recruiting, early practice, redshirting promising freshman who likely will not play (which was going to originally be Samuel's situation) or the NCAA tournament, nearly every basketball passage is written with clarity and depth that will make basketball fans happy.  In fact, these were so good that at times I forgot this was a fictional book.  This was the case when NC Central makes the tournament as a 16 seed and it is mentioned that no #16 seed has beaten a #1 seed and the same for #15 over #2 and #14 over #3.  I thought, "Wait that HAS happened, what is he talking about?"  Then I stopped and remembered this is fiction.

Speaking of fiction, all of the elements that one would hope for in a good fictional story – good character development, an interesting story and side story and an ending that leaves the reader satisfied.  While one might say the story of Beatrice and her family's survival during the fighting and subsequent life at the refugee camp may be the more important story than that of Samuel, it is written with the same care that Samuel's basketball life at NC Central is.  Both Grisham fans and basketball fans will enjoy this book.


Sunday, May 30, 2021

Review of "Forty Years a Giant"

As one of the last teams that was owned by a family in which the team was the primary source of income instead of a side venture, the New York and then San Francisco Giants were owned by the Stoneham family.  This book chronicles the time that Horace Stoneham ran the team.  Here is my review of "Forty Years a Giant."

RATING: 4 of 5 stars (very good)

REVIEW: At 32, Horace Stoneham became the youngest owner in Major League Baseball when he assumed control of the New York Giants after the passing of his father Charles.  For the next forty years, Horace would see the Giants through not only the ups and downs that most teams experience on the field, but also through two seismic shifts in the baseball industry - integration and the movement of Major League Baseball to the West Coast.  Horace was directly part of the latter and his role in that, as well as everything else related to the Giants, is told in this very good book by Steven Treder.

This is not a true biography, as there is not much written about Horace Stoneham's personal life outside of the Giants. In fact, there really is more about his father Charles' life outside of baseball in the first three chapters, leading up to when Horace takes over the club after his father's passing, than there is in the rest of the book about Horace.  This isn't to say that there isn't plenty of material about Horace in which the reader can get a good glimpse into what kind of person Horace Stoneham was - it's just that this perception will be made based on how he handled the Giants.

If one said Horace's life revolved around his baseball team, that would be accurate and hence why it is fair to have this book based mainly around Horace's interactions with the team. The reading about the Giants, both in New York and in San Francisco, is rich in detail and whenever a major decision is made affecting the team, Treder will include Horace Stoneham's involvement in that decision.  The best parts of the book in which this is done is when Horace made the decision to move the team west to San Francisco, when he made the decision to trade legendary center fielder Willie Mays to the New York Mets and when he was forced into selling the team because the team was close to bankruptcy - and this was just before free agency would drive up the salaries of players.  For each of these topics, Treder not only provides good information - at least as good as can be derived without being able to speak directly with sources - but also dispels some of the stories that have grown over the years.  

Most notable of these is that the story of Horace simply riding the coattails of Walter O'Malley in the move to the West Coast because O'Malley asked Stoneham to join the Dodgers in California is simply not true.  Long before O'Malley met with Horace, Stoneham had already looked into leaving New York as attendance was plummeting for the Giants at the Polo Grounds. He not only considered San Francisco, but also the Twin Cities in Minnesota before that meeting and simply said okay.  This was one of many passages about the Giants that made for very good reading.  

The team's success or lack thereof on the field for every year of play under Stoneham's ownership is covered as well.  Stoneham ran the team with treating those who remained loyal to the team with generosity, almost to a fault.  This is illustrated in the writing about his reverence to figures like Mel Ott and Willie Mays.  There were many questionable transactions made by Stoneham as well and the reasons that would seem to explain them (again, since everything obtained in this book is secondhand, there is no way to verify) are given in the text. A reader may not always agree with the conclusion or speculation provided by the author, but it doesn't diminish the work done to make this book an enjoyable read.  Fans of the Giants will especially be interested in this historical book on the team as well as those who enjoy reading baseball history books. 

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


Friday, May 28, 2021

Review of “Across the River”

Many books about a sports team turn out to be about much more than the sport or the team. This excellent book on the coach of a high school football team is one of those books. Here is my of “Across the River” by Kent Babb.

REVIEW:  In the New Orleans neighborhood of Algiers, gun violence is a way of life. That is part of the a-too-familiar lifestyle of the mostly Black residents but for those young men who are football players on the Edna Karr Charter School football team, there is a welcome distraction. That is not just because of the football, but also because of their coach, Brice Brown and his staff. He spends as much time mentoring his players, talking to nearly every one of them daily to ensure they are safe - this takes more time than he spends on his football plays and strategy. Coach Brown’s story and that of his assistants and players is told in this terrific book by Kent Babb.

Babb first covers coach Brown for the Washington Post in 2018 and this book is a more complete story of the complex coach. Babb weaves stories about coach Brown, stories about his players and his own inner turmoil about whether to move on to become a college football coach. The stories can be uplifting, like those who graduate and earn football scholarships to college; heartbreaking, such as the story of one player’s trauma when his mother is sent to prison when he is being raised by her alone; or downright maddening, usually when accompanied by descriptions of the desperate situations of these players. It was compelling reading and often times, these were much better reads than the passages about the football team.

Don’t skip over those, however, as they are just as good. While not greatly detailed or heavy on the “X’s and O’s” these games nonetheless do highlight not only the success of the Karr program and their many years of playoff football, but also provided the reader a glimpse of the mindset of the coach and his sometime unorthodox means of not only playing the game, but also motivating his players. 

Along with discussions on racial inequality so prevalent in New Orleans and other areas, this book is a fascinating look at a high school coach and his challenges to be the best he can be for his players on and off the field. A reader doesn’t have to enjoy football to be rewarded by reading this book.


Thursday, May 13, 2021

Review of "Mountains and Desire"

As a reader who loves mountaineering books, but could never do such a thing, this book was a fantastic look at the reasons why so many people take the risk to make dangerous climbs such as Everest, K2 and the "Free Solo" climb.  Here is my review of "Mountains and Desire"

REVIEW:  Ever since George Mallory gave his famous quote "Because it's there" when asked why he would climb Mt. Everest, that answer, or very close variations of this answer, has been part of every climber's reason to take the chance and attempt to scale not only Everest, but so many other dangerous mountains and cliffs.  This book by Margret Grebowicz not only explores why this drives so many people but also explores the future of the sport as social, environmental and economic changes have affected attitudes toward mountaineering.  

When Grebowicz started the book by making connections to the culture of climbing to various movies, it felt like this would be a scholarly research book with a lot of theories with facts to back them up, but that would not be a fair categorization.  While yes, it has this quality throughout the book, there are so many different ways Grebowicz expresses the ways in which climate change and capitalism have changed many of these expeditions.  This is especially true for Everest - for example, the complaints of the debris left behind on the commercial climbs that are very popular, but it also is true for other climbs and mountains.  Two examples are her excellent chapter on K2, considered to be far more dangerous a climb than Everest and Alex Honnold's "Free Solo" climb - both a narrative and a discussion on the movie.

Another reason why it would not be correct to simply label this book as a scholarly type is because some of the passages are truly entertaining and thought-provoking.  One in particular that stuck with me was when she quoted Pam Sailor's work on the philosophy of climbing.  Sailors is quoted in the book as writing about "two types of climbers, summiteers and mountaineers."  The former is more goal-oriented and self-oriented while the latter is more process-oriented and "may show moral responsibility for the welfare of others."  This is just one of the many passages on the thoughts and psychology behind the climbing culture.

Any reader who enjoys books on climbing or mountains will surely enjoy this excellent book that is both excellent for its writing on the history of the sport as well as its current state and what the future may hold from the perspective of the minds of those who participate. 

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

LINK: Mountains and Desire: Climbing vs. the End of the World (Audible Audio Edition): Margret Grebowicz, Margret Grebowicz, Repeater Books: Books

Saturday, May 8, 2021

Review of “Lights, Camera, Fastball”

 Having never heard of the Hollywood Stars before obtaining this book, I was interested to learn more about this team - and this book is a great source of information for them.  Here is my review of “Lights, Camera, Fastball”


The Hollywood Stars may not have been the most successful minor league team during their 27 season existence existence, despite winning three Pacific Coast League pennants. Where their success came was at the box office, their innovations and their celebrity fan base. This book about the team by Dan Taylor is one of the best sources for information about the team that is not only well researched but also and easy read - only troubled by trying to keep all the names of their fan base straight.

The driving force behind nearly everything that the Stars were noted for can be traced back to the owner of the Brown Derby restaurant, Robert Cobb. Using much of the business acumen that made his restaurants success, Cobb brought int baseball when he purchased the franchise in 1039. His first action was to get many celebrities on board as part owners and/or stockholders.  A sample of these stars make up a Who’s Who of Hollywood at the team - Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Bing Crosby, Gail Patrick and Gene Autry. The last man listed is notable as he later purchased another team based in Southern California in Major League Baseball, the latest team called the Angels.

As for the Hollywood Stars on the field, they usually struggled to find the best players. When it seemed like they finally found the right players, they would often lose them to either major league clubs, a rival team in the PCL or to the military in World War II. However it was not all gloom for the team and when they did win in 1949 for their only championship (the previous franchise with the same name won the 1929 and 1930 titles), Taylor’s writing brings the fans close to the celebration, both in the locker room with the players and all the parties in Los Angeles as their famous fans were celebrating. 

Cobb’s team borough several innovations to the game. Some of them caught on and became staples for the game, both in minor and Major League Baseball.these include televising games, dragging the infield during the fifth inning for a “time out” to give fans time to visit concession stands and the use of batting helmets. They also designed uniforms wearing shorts, which of course didn’t go over as well. It should also be noted that Cobb built a new ball park for the team instead of sharing the Los Angeles version of Wrigley Field, building Gilmore Field and drawing many fans to the games regardless of the Stars record on the field.

With the arrival of the Dodgers, Cobb and his group decided to sell the team instead of moving and operating them elsewhere. When that happened a colorful portion of West Coast baseball ended and this book talks about all aspects of the Hollywood Stars that is such a good read that any fan will want to pick it up.  

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