Monday, April 25, 2022

Review of "True"

This year marks the 75th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's debut in Major League Baseball.  To mark this, a new book on him has come out and it is a very different type of biography that does include a very different look on one of the most recognizable athletes to have ever graced a playing field.  Here is my review of "True".


 

Title/Author: “True: The Four Seasons of Jackie Robinson” by Kostoya Kennedy

Rating: 5 of 5 stars (outstanding)

Review:  Jackie Robinson is a person who needs no introduction or explanation on what his place is in history, even for people who have no interest in baseball.  There has been much written about him that covers just about everything he did in sports, for civil rights and every other aspect of his life.  So it was with curiosity that I decided to read this book on Robinson by Kostoya Kennedy, wondering what more could be written about him without simply rehashing what others have written.

It turned out to be a wise choice – this book was outstanding in many aspects.  The first of which is simply the idea for the subtitle.  By writing about four different years in Robinson’s life span which would be considered the season of his career and post baseball life, Kennedy portrays Robinson and his wife Rachel, who is just as important a figure in this book as is Jackie, in a very different context than most other biographies do.

The best example of this would be the first season, Spring, which details the year 1946 when Robinson played for an otherwise all-white team, the Montreal Royals.  It was the year before Robinson made his historic debut for the Dodgers and it was remembered fondly in the book by everyone Kennedy referenced.  It has been well-documented that this was done to prepare Jackie for the rough treatment he would receive in the Major Leagues, and it isn’t right to say that his time in Montreal didn’t have its rough patches as well. But that doesn’t take away the excellent memories shared by Rachel with Kennedy about how they were treated, nor does it detract from the overall picture created about that year.

The other chapter in which Kennedy’s work shows its excellence is the last chapter, Winter, which is about Jackie’s failing health and Rachel’s strength in 1972 before he passed away that year.  The chapter’s beginning was very powerful as it describes Jackie’s struggles to travel in order to attend the funeral of one of his beloved Dodger teammates, Gil Hodges. The help Jackie received from other teammates and even how Kennedy described the sudden death of Hodges sets up the reader for a very powerful conclusion to the book.

This type of writing, save for all pleasant memories and instead providing excellent narrative no matter what the emotions of the time may bring, is present in the other three seasons as well.  Whether the reader is thrilled by the success on the field for Jackie in 1949 when he was the Most Valuable Player in the National League, stunned by the realization that his baseball career is over when he made the last out of the 1956 World Series (and his subsequent trade to the rival New York Giants, to whom he would not report) or saddened by reading about his health struggles in his last year of life, this is a book that should be read by all – not just baseball fans, but everyone who has any interest in Jackie Robinson the man.

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

Link:   True: The Four Seasons of Jackie Robinson: Kennedy, Kostya: 9781250274045: Books (amazon.com)

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Review of "The Forgotten First"

Currently there are many books available that are about teams or athletes that were pioneers in making sports more accessible, equitable and available to all who are interested.  For professional football, this book about four Black players who played important roles in this issue is a good read for those interested in the subject.  Here is my review of "The Forgotten First"

Title/Author: “The Forgotten First: Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, Marion Motley, Bill Willis and the Breaking of the NFL Color Barrier” by Keyshawn Johnson and Bob Glauber

Rating:  4 of 5 stars (very good)

Review:  Much like professional baseball, professional football in its earliest days had Black players in its ranks, then an unwritten rule to bar them from further participation took effect.  For the fledgling NFL, that barrier lasted 13 years which was broken in 1946 by two star players from UCLA – Kenny Washington and Woody Strode.  In that year, there was another professional football league, the All-American Football Conference that also signed two Black players, Marion Motley and Bill Willis.  They signed with the Cleveland Browns who were led by the legendary coach Paul Brown, who was one of the most progressive coaches for integration at that time. 

This book by Keyshawn Johnson and Bob Glauber tells the story of each of these men and others who were either important in the breaking of the color barrier, such as Brown and Rams owner Dan Reeves or those who were responsible for the lack of Black players in the professional ranks such as George Marshall, the owner of the then-Washington Redskins, now known as the Washington Commanders. 

The negatives of this book are not many but there are two main issues I have with the it.  One is that while the portrayal of Marshall is accurate, it places the bulk of the blame for the lack of integration on him.  Yes, he was outwardly racist and had an inordinate amount of influence on NFL owners, including the legendary George Halas.  However, the entire league had this barrier, not just Marshall’s team.  To blame it all on him is not correct – the entire league was the problem.  The other one is that far too little is mentioned about the Black players before these four as they were the true pioneers, such as Fritz Pollard. 

However, the positives of the book do add up to a good reading experience.  While there are other books that may have more information on Washington and Strode in particular, this book will be a good introduction to them, as well as Motley and Willis, and their lives and careers.  As one would expect, all four of them had to endure the racism from not only fans but other players as well.  There were many instances described in the book about them taking extra hits or getting their hands injured when other players would make sure they stepped on the Black player’s hands at the end of a play.  I was especially pleased to read about Motely and Willis as there is even less available reference material on them, mainly because the NFL does not recognize statistics and other items from the AAFC.  This despite the fact that three of that league’s teams were absorbed into the NFL – the Browns, the San Francisco 49ers and the then-Baltimore Colts, now the Indianapolis Colts.

Overall, this is a quick paced book that gives good information on these four players who may not have been superstars during their era but still played a very important role in the history of professional football.  Those who have read other books on them, such as “The Black Bruins” (about among others, Washington, Strode and their famous teammate Jackie Robinson) may not learn as much as other readers who have not heard of these pioneers.  But for those who have not, this is a very good starting point to learn more about them and the permanent integration of professional football.

I wish to thank Grand Central Publishing for providing a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Link:  Amazon.com: The Forgotten First: Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, Marion Motley, Bill Willis, and the Breaking of the NFL Color Barrier eBook : Johnson, Keyshawn, Glauber, Bob: Kindle Store


Friday, April 15, 2022

Review of "Walter Johnson"

 As a Minnesota Twins fan, I am also very interested in books about their time as the Washington Senators. Since the best pitcher in franchise history played during that time, I was very interested in this biography of Walter Johnson and it was terrific.  Here is my review:


Title/Author: “Walter Johnson: Baseball’s Big Train” by Henry W. Thomas, narrated by Ian Esmo

Rating:  5 of 5 stars (excellent)

Review:  At the time of his retirement in 1927, Walter Johnson was considered by some to be the greatest pitcher in the history of baseball to that point.  Today, nearly 100 years later, he is still considered to be an all-time great despite pitching for mostly losing teams in Washington.  Henry Thomas' biography of Johnson can be considered to be in that same lofty conversation - nearly 25 years after its publication, it should still be considered among the better baseball biographies. 

Every aspect of Johnson's life is covered in great detail and will never come across as "ordinary" or one that a reader will want to skim or skip entirely.  Thomas writes with as much passion about Johnson the man as he does about Johnson the pitcher.  Johnson's childhood and life after baseball was mainly on the farm and he enjoyed that lifestyle - it is said often how much he enjoyed being outdoors.  He was also a very devoted family man to his children and his wife Hazel and he received a lot of praise for his clean living.

That praise was matched by the accolades he received for his pitching as despite pitching for a mostly poor Washington Senators team, Johnson was able to accumulate 417 wins, 3509 strikeouts and an ERA+ of an astounding 147 (100 is considered an average major league pitcher).  While most of his time with the losing Senators is written in mostly positive terms in this book, Thomas' best baseball writing in the book coincides with the two best seasons for the Senators during the Big Train's career when the Nationals (which is the name used for Washington most of the time during that era and is used by Thomas) won the World Series over the New York Giants in 1924 and came within an inning of defending that title against the Pittsburgh Pirates the next year.  Even though Johnson was clearly on the downhill side of his career, it was also very clear he was first in agony in the 1924 World Series when he lost the first game but elated when he came in and pitched game 7 in relief and was the winning pitcher.  This part of the book is the perfect example of how good the writing is throughout. 

The narration in the audio version by Ian Esmo is just as good as the writing as he not only makes the play-by-play sections very exciting but a listener will enjoy the many stories and articles sprinkled in the text by some of the better sportswriters of the time such as Grantland Rice and Damon Runyan.  For this reviewer, it enhanced the writing about Johnson as well.  But whether one wants to read or listen, any baseball fan who wants to learn more about this legendary pitcher should add this to their collection

Link:  Amazon.com: Walter Johnson: Baseball's Big Train: 9780964543904: Henry W. Thomas, Shirley Povich: Books

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Review of "Tiger & Phil"

With the biggest story the past week in sports being Tiger Woods playing in the Masters only 14 months after a horrific car accident, I was scouring my TBR pile to see if I had any new books on him - lo and behold, this one was near the top.  It was a very good book not only on him, but also Phil Mickelson who has made his own headlines recently.  Here is my review of "Tiger & Phil."


Title/Author: “Tiger & Phil: Golf’s Most Fascinating Rivalry” by Bob Harig

Rating: 4 of 5 stars (very good)

Review:  For about the last 25 years, the two most recognizable professional golfers have been Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. Between them they have won 21 major titles and 139 professional tournaments.  Their careers, their lives and how they have intersected are documented in this book by gold writer Bob Harig.

The information obtained on both golfers is very good and shows the work that Harig put into this book, especially when one considers how protective Tiger was about various aspects of both his professional and private life.  That seems to be a contradiction when one considers how much was revealed during his time away from golf, whether for health reasons or due to scandal, but it is still remarkable at how much Harig was able to write about Woods, as well as Mickelson.  Some of this gets repetitive as the book continues but nonetheless is still quite interesting.

The description of both players’ wins in certain major tournaments, especially for those in the Masters (Woods in 2019 and Mickelson in 2010 with his famous tree shot at 13 are notably excellent) are the best aspects of this book for golf fans.  Woods’ memorable 2008 U.S. Open win that took an additional 19 holes to finally defeat Rocco Mediate was also a great section. Readers who enjoy watching these two perform, even if they prefer one over the other, will gobble up these pages as they picture those famous moments in their minds while reading.  There are also nice passages to other not-so-great moments such as the ill-fated pairing of the two golfers for the 2004 U.S. Ryder Cup team.

That disaster for the Americans is the point where readers will most likely believe that the rivalry between them was at its peak and if one considers this a true rivalry, then that would be true.  While Harig does write about the coolness that they had on the course through the years when they played together, the respect each of them had for the other is also portrayed just as strongly.  This is especially true for Mickelson’s many quotes about his reverence for the strong play of Tiger.  While reading the book, it may feel like the “rivalry” that is touted in the book’s subtitle is more of a creation of either fans or the media rather than a true rivalry.  Items like the current spats between Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka feel more like a rivalry than Woods and Mickelson do, despite the very good information in this book.

While one may question whether Tiger and Phil really had a true rivalry, this book is one that any golf fan, no matter who their loyalty may be with, will want to read to learn more about the fabulous careers of two of the very best to ever play the game and who have kept fans entertained for more than two decades.

I wish to thank St. Martin’s Press for providing a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Link:   https://www.amazon.com/Tiger-Phil-Golfs-Fascinating-Rivalry/dp/125027446X/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=


Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Review of "Playing Through the Pain"

With the opening of baseball season, it's only appropriate to review a baseball book the day before Opening Day.  And what a book this was - a fantastic biography of former MVP Ken Caminiti.  Here is my review of "Playing Through the Pain."

Title/Author: “Playing Through the Pain: Ken Caminiti and the Steroids Confession That Changed Baseball Forever” by Dan Good

Rating: 5 of 5 stars (excellent)

Review:  If there is one “a-ha” moment when steroid use could no longer be a dirty little secret within Major League Baseball, it was when Sports Illustrated published an interview with Ken Caminiti in 2002 when he disclosed that he used steroids through much of his career, including when he was the National League MVP in 1996 while playing for the San Diego Padres.  This book by Dan Good is a terrific look at Caminiti’s life and career that has many highlights as well as many demons beyond just using steroids.

While outstanding in many ways, what may be the most impressive aspect of the book is how many people Good interviewed to paint a complete picture of Caminiti.  Over 400 people talked on the record to good and it wasn’t just the usual collection of former teammates, family members and business acquaintances.  The people who shared their thoughts on him ranged from Ken’s girlfriends in middle school to his physical therapist when he was rehabbing from injury to his parole officer after one of his multiple arrests on drug possession. 

All of these people, plus the extensive research by Good help to paint a complete and very complex picture of Caminiti.  On the field, he was both consumed with perfection and competition.  He was going to make sure that he always performed at his best, opponents or injuries be dammed.  While he was fiercely competitive, as are most athletes, he was always quick to help other players improve.  This included players who he felt might be taking away his job.  Many of the people interviewed would mention how he was always willing to help others.

But despite this, the demons of alcoholism and drug addiction, including cocaine, were the worst enemies for Caminiti.  They not only helped in his decline as a player, but they were also detrimental to his friendships and his marriage.  Good describes his ex-wife Nancy in almost saintly terms on how she held together their family while Ken was in and out of substance abuse treatment several times.

The passages about his play on the diamond were very good as well.  There isn’t a lot of play-by-play analysis or extensive reviews of his seasons, including his best ones with the Houston Astros (two separate tours) and the Padres.  Caminiti also tried to salvage his career in 2002 with the Texas Rangers (I thought Good’s frequent reference to Alex Rodriguez with that team as the “$252 million man” was funny) and Atlanta Braves.  No matter what team he was with and whatever his level of ability was at, he was always remembered fondly by teammates, especially Hall of Fame second baseman Craig Biggio from the Astros.

Of course, one of the main questions that readers will have when selecting this book will be about steroids.  Good’s passages about this, from the acquisition of the drugs by friend Dave Moretti to Ken’s inner demons on why he needed to use them to the two interviews by Jules Roberson-Bailey and later Tom Verducci that were used in the bombshell Sports Illustrated article on his use.  Throughout the book, Caminiti is portrayed by many who, when not under the influence of any drug or alcohol and is thinking clearly, will speak in a matter-of-fact tone and that is how he is portrayed in giving these interviews.  Good should also be credited with being open minded about steroid use by Caminiti. If there is any bias, Ken does come across as a person with whom one can sympathize, but even that is tempered and the reader is left to come up with their own conclusions.

Every baseball fan who watched the game during the era of steroid use when statistics were altered, bodies of players changed and the sport enjoyed a rebound of popularity after the 1994-95 strike should add this book to their reading list.  It doesn’t matter whether one liked Caminiti or even never heard of him, it is a great read about a very complex man.

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

Link:   https://www.amazon.com/Playing-Through-Pain-Caminiti-Confession-ebook/dp/B09C17ZKJ5/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=

 

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Review of "The Summer of Beer and Whiskey"

With a title like this, what baseball fan WOULDN'T want to check out this book?  It's available at a good price, whether print, e-book or audio or at the library.  However, don't let the title fool you - yes, those beverages are part of the story, but it isn't as wild as you would think.


Title: "The Summer of Beer and Whiskey: How Brewers, Barkeeps, Rowdies, Immigrants and a Wild Pennant Fight Made Baseball America's Game" by Edward Achorn, narrated by Ax Norman

Rating: 4 of 5 stars (Very Good)

Review:

Baseball pennant races always are exciting. no matter the league or the year. In 1883, there was an exciting finish to the end of the American Association's season and this season is captured in this well-researched book by Edward Achorn.


The title will draw in readers and it sounds like it was a very wild time in the game. While it was true that many of the players were hard drinkers and were "rewarded" with adult beverages, the bulk of the book deals with the business of the game, such as it was in the 19th century, as well as the play on the field.


The American Association was considered a major league at the time and both Achorn and narrator Ax Norman, who does a good job on the narration, are careful to treat it as such. The best work in the book is about Moses Fleetwood Walker. a Black catcher who was the first Black player to be in a game considered Major League. (Jackie Robinson would be the first in Organized Baseball, as we know MLB today) Achorn's account of Walker's treatment and how he handles it is well written and well spoken by Norman.


This is a good account of the 1883 pennant race and will bring the reader back to that time in the game complete with the booze, the gamblers, the train transportation and even happy fans of the Philadelphia Athletics cheering their champions at the platform. Recommended for readers who enjoy books on baseball of that era.

Link: 
Amazon.com: The Summer of Beer and Whiskey: 9781610393775: Achorn, Edward: Books