Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Review of “Our Team”

This was one of the more anticipated baseball books for 2021 and it lived up to its reputation as it was a fine and easy read on the last championship season in Cleveland. It’s more than just a recap of their 1948 season. Here is my review of “Our Team”

Title: “Our Team: The Epic Story of Four Men and the World Series That Changed Baseball” by Luke Epplin

Rating: 5 of 5 Stars (excellent)

Review: The last time the Cleveland Indians won the World Series, as many know, was 1948. What might not be as well known is they had not one, but two Black players on their championship team just one year after the integration of Major League Baseball. The owner of the Indians, Bill Veeck, was just as determined as Branch Rickey to integrate the sport because he also saw the skills that Black players would bring to his club. Veeck’s story associated with this team is one of the four men highlighted in this very good book by Luke Epplin. 

The two Black players, Hall of Famers Larry Doby and Satchel Paige, took very different paths to get to the clubhouse of Cleveland Municipal Stadium in 1948. Doby was called up to the Indians by Veeck mid season in 1947, just a few months after Jackie Robinson. Unlike Robinson, who had spent time in the white minor leagues after the Negro Leagues and before joining the Dodgers, Doby had no such time to adjust. After Veeck bought Dolby’s contract from Effa Manley and the Newark Eagles, Doby was subjected to much the same harsh treatment as Robinson, but it came as a bigger shock. Doby was also questioning his ability to stick with the Indians - until it all came together for him in 1948 - at least on the field.

Paige was a little different as Veeck’s call to him later in 1948 was viewed by many as a gimmick despite Satchel’s ability to still get hitters out, no matter what his official age was. His story is told in a matter of act manner, just like Veeck and Doby, relying mainly on second hand accounts and research. Some may prefer first hand accounts for this type of book, but it works for this one. 

The fourth man whose story is important to tell for a complete picture of the 1048 Indians is the established star of the team, Bob Feller. He actually struggled during the first half of that season but came on strong in September and the World Series. The intertwining of his story and Paige’s, especially when they were performing on barmstorming teams before becoming Cleveland teammates, was easily the most enjoyable aspect of the book for me. Not just for the baseball, nor for the contrast in what each man got out the games, but for the mutual respect they had for each other. Epplin did very well with this aspect.

Readers who like reading about baseball’s integration as well as Indians fans should be sure to read this book. It is one that while short on direct quotes and material, is chock full of great stories about the four men who helped bring a championship to Cleveland.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Review of “Willie”

Even though Willie O’Ree doesn’t have an impressive stat line for his short time in the NHL, he is nonetheless a Hall of Fame player and an inspirational figure to many in the game. He may not have had the same legacy as Jackie Robinson, but his place in history of his chosen sport, hockey, is just as important. Here is my review of O’Ree’s memoir “Willie.”

Title: “Willie: The Game Changing Story of the NHL’s First Black Player” by Willie O’Ree

Rating: 4 of 5 Stars (very good)

Review: While it is well-known that Willie O’Ree was the first Black playoff in the NHL, it isn’t as well known that there were slaves in his family (they escaped to Canada), that he played almost his entire career blind in one eye due to injury and that he spent many years both on and off the ice enjoying life in Southern California. His memoir tells about this and a lot more in a down-to-earth, chummy style that truly does feel like it’s a grandfather telling the youngsters about what it was like “back in the day.”

That can be both a good thing and a bad thing in a book like this. I felt it was mostly a good thing in this book as O’Ree’s style makes the reader feel comfortable when he is talking about an uncomfortable topic, racism. Some may feel he downplays the racism he faced because he usually limits that to the insults from the fans or some players, but overall he doesn’t come across as angry or bitter about it, mostly sad. He praises most of his fellow hockey players and coaches as he states numerous times that not many cared about his skin color - they only cared about how good he was.  His eye injury was a scary incident and eventually cost him a shot at returning to the NHL after he was traded from the Bruins as the league had a rule in place that this type of disability would prevent a player from playing in the league. That comes across as his biggest disappointment after moving to California as he was hoping to get a chance when the Los Angeles Kings started play in 1967.

The best of his stories form his youth is when he got to meet Jackie Robinson and told the great second baseman that he was going to make history in his sport too. Sure enough, he did in 1959 when the Bruins called O’Ree up from the minor leagues as an emergency fill-in because of injuries to other players. Imagine his surprise many years later when he ran into Robinson again who not only remembered him, but also remarked that he was correct in that he would make history in hockey. 

Any reader interested in social or racial issues as well as hockey fans will enjoy this book. It may be quite folksy and tempered compared to book on similar topics but it is a very good read about a pioneer in the game whose contributions earned him a place in the hockey Hall of Fame.

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: Amazon.com: 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.

LINK: https://www.amazon.com/Assisted-Autobiography-John-Stockton-ebook/dp/B00F4FKSZI

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.

LINK: https://www.amazon.com/Sooley-Novel-John-Grisham/dp/0385547684/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=