Sports books for winter reading
A review of a few sports books I've read lately ...
By Chipper Jones
Larry Wayne Jones Jr. was a straight shooter through his storied career with the Atlanta Braves, and that's how he comes off in his autobiography.
Full disclosure: The sole professional sports team I root for is the Braves (but only since 1960, when I took them on as my team at age 7). Chipper is on a short list, joining Hank Aaron, Warren Spahn, Dale Murphy, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz as my all-time favorite Braves.
So I'm not an unbiased reviewer here, though I think even New York Mets fans would enjoy this read.
Jones takes us through his upbringing in tiny Pierson, Florida, to his 19 big-league seasons, all with Atlanta. He covers the highlights, which include the remarkable 14-year division championship run of the Braves and switch-hitting numbers that make him a lock for first-ballot induction into the Hall of Fame next year.
Jones tells us of his adulation for Mickey Mantle and Cal Ripken, his affection for former manager Bobby Cox, his admiration for ex-teammate David Justice and his distaste for the eminently unlikable Barry Bonds.
He is candid about his affairs that contributed to the end of his first marriage — and produced a child out of wedlock — and personal demons that have led him finally to a third, and happy, marriage.
So Jones had his imperfections, but the book title is perfect. He was a ballplayer, and a great one.
"My Oh My — the Dave Niehaus Story"
By Billy Mac
To Seattle Mariners fans, Dave Niehaus is their Bill Schonely.
Niehaus was the play-by-play broadcaster from the Mariners' inception in 1977 until his death at age 75 in 2010. For 34 seasons, Niehaus was the club's most enduring and popular figure with Northwest major league baseball fans. His "My Oh My" and "Fly Away" calls remain integral to Mariner lore.
Niehaus is now in the broadcasters' wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame, as is Schonely in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Mac is a professional singer who befriended Niehaus and took on the task of writing the broadcaster's biography after his death. It's a well-researched book, with plenty of stories — appropriately so, since Niehaus was an avid story-teller — and an incredible amount of detail about his early life.
It's a history of the Mariners franchise, really. And pretty well-written, though there was a bit too much about the author himself — including a whopping 15 photos he was in, and even four of his wife, singer Merrilee Rush!
By Ernie Johnson Jr.
There's a special place for Ernie Johnson in heaven. I suspected that, but I know for sure after reading the autobiography of a broadcaster I've always greatly admired.
Johnson, studio host for the NBA on TNT who also calls major league baseball for Turner Networks, is the son of former big league pitcher Ernie Johnson, who qualifies as both role model and hero for Ernie Jr.
That's clear in the book, which was created as a result of the terrific documentary piece on Johnson's life done in 2015 by ESPN's Jeremy Schaap.
There were a few central themes, including Johnson's idolation of his father, who taught him the right way to behave in life. And the family of Johnson, which includes wife Cheryl and their six children — four of them adopted from foreign countries. One, Michael, has suffered from muscular dystrophy through a life that has enriched his family and inspired many others, all the while showing what incredible people his parents are.
Also, there is the story of Johnson's bout with cancer — non-Hodgkin lymphoma — that he beat with good fortune and his ever-present positive attitude.
Johnson's character and humility shine brightly in this short, easy-to-read book that is guaranteed to require a couple of tissues to get through.
"Walter Lingo, Jim Thorpe and the Oorang Indians"
By Chris Willis
Rowman & Littlefield
There were plenty of obscure franchises in the infancy of the NFL, but none more so than the Oorang Indians, who played two seasons (1922 and '23).
Oorang? The team was actually based in La Rue, Ohio, population 795 — the smallest town ever to have an NFL franchise. Oorang was the name of the dog kennels run by the team's owner, Walter Lingo, who started the team to help advertise his breeding business.
Lingo became friends with the great Jim Thorpe, later to be honored as the greatest U.S. athlete of the first half of the 20th century. Thorpe, a member of the Sac and Fox tribes, was an Olympic decathlon champion and major-league baseball player, but football was his true forte. Lingo hired Thorpe to be player/coach and also to fill a roster of entirely Native Americans.
The Indians were a traveling team that played only one home game among 25 contests over two seasons. Their record was 7-18 — 4-16 against NFL opposition — but they were a strong draw in road games, mostly because of the popularity and notoriety of Thorpe.
This is a history book, and Willis' research offers too much detail on Lingo's Airdales operation for my liking. But Willis paints a vivid picture of what professional football was like nearly a century ago, using newspaper clippings and interviews with descendants of Thorpe and some of the other primary characters.
Sarah Crichton Books
I have to hand it to Sharapova. She doesn't pull any punches.
The 30-year-old Russian-born tennis queen is a diva, the yin to Serena Williams' yang, and she lets the reader know it in an autobiography that begins and ends with explanation of her 15-month ban after failing a drug test in 2016.
Sharapova moved to Florida at age 6 with her father, Yuri, to chase a tennis dream. It's a rather incredible rags-to-riches story — her father had virtually nothing when they arrived in Miami in 1994. Maria touched down at Nick Bollettieri's tennis academy, among other spots, at one point wearing hand-me-down clothes that once belonged to another Russian-born tennis prodigy, Anna Kournikova.
Sharapova developed skills and a steely temperament that has carried her to 35 singles championships and five Grand Slam titles, making her a household name in the sport and earning her many millions in endorsement contracts, in no small part due to her appearance.
While playing the juniors in Florida, she writes, "Even then, I tried to set myself apart. No emotion. No fear. Like ice. I was not friends with any of the other girls, because that would have made me softer, easier to beat. They could have been the nicest girls in the world and I wouldn't have known it. I chose not to know it."
Maybe the key is Sharapova hates to lose more than she loves to win. The only competitor who continually has gotten her goat is Williams, who lost their first two matches but has since won 19 straight. "She's owned me in the past 10 years," Maria writes.
Sharapova fully explains her 15-month suspension for using Meldonium, a supplement she had been taking for 10 years at the advice of a family doctor. It had only been added to the World Anti-Doping Agency's ban list in January 2016, and she'd missed news of the ban "because it came under my radar." Which is no excuse, of course. Somebody in her employ should have had the duty to keep up with the rules, however often-changing they may be.
Sharapova ultimately got the ban shortened from two years to 15 months, allowing her return to the courts this past April. During her time away from the game, she was able to write the book, so even in her mind, something good came from it.
The book may not make you like Sharapova, but you'll quite likely respect her, both for her journey and her resolve in getting to the top of her profession.