Books celebrate underdogs, champs
Christmas is almost here. Here is my latest mini-reviews column on sports books you may, or may not, want to consider for either your holiday reading or your gift list. ...
"In the Name of the Father: Football, Family and the Manning Dynasty"
By Mark Ribowsky
Maybe the best sports book I've read this year, by a prolific author who seemed to have fun writing it.
The book covers the lives and careers of Archie, Peyton and Eli Manning, the greatest quarterback family in football history. There's a little thrown in on the third Manning brother, Cooper, for good measure. It's unauthorized, which means Ribowsky lets the subjects have it when they deserve it, and even sometimes when they don't.
Archie, the father of Peyton and Eli, was an outstanding QB with New Orleans through the 1970s. Peyton and Eli have been two of the most successful signal-callers since the turn of the century. Ribowsky weaves their story together in chronological fashion and tells it with style and a plentiful amount of engaging prose.
The reader learns about the suicide of family patriarch Buddy Manning, Archie's father, a farmer who evidently didn't feel he could measure up to his accomplished brood. And that Archie was diagnosed at the Mayo Clinic with Grave's Disease late in his playing career. And that Peyton had a maniacal obsession with becoming the very best quarterback in the history of the game. Also, his ill-fated attempt for revenge at a former Tennessee female trainer's accusation of inappropriate behavior is thoroughly covered.
A couple of quibbles: Ribowsky makes Archie's segment a tale about racial prejudice during his time in the South at Ole Miss and with the Saints, and hints at the man's indifference toward injustice. Actually, he rags Archie pretty good ("Archie's identity was carved by white privilege"), which felt a bit like piling on a guy who didn't choose his birthplace and seems to have treated people of all races fairly during his life. Also, there is too much football play-by-play, especially in the parts about Peyton.
Ribowsky's best stuff centers on the flow of information about Archie's upbringing to that of his fabled sons. The author has some great lines, such as this one about Peyton tossing compliments at Tennessee offensive coordinator David Cutliffe: "He never passed up a chance to bathe the coach in heavy syrup."
And when Doug Dickey let it slide when Peyton got into his face during an argument with the Volunteers' athletic director: "When Peyton Manning fought authority, authority didn't always win."
Ribowsky labels Steve Spurrier as "the ultimate strutting cock" and former NFL coach Rex Ryan as "bloated" and a "circus clown" and Peyton as "the old drama queen" and a "quarterback with self-promotional skills." Fair or not, it makes you laugh.
The reader will come away with mixed feelings about the Mannings. They'll know an awful lot about them, though, and they'll have been entertained.
"The Trade: My Journey into the Labyrinth of Political Kidnapping"
By Jere Van Dyk
This is definitely not a "sports book." I picked it up because I remember Van Dyk as a University of Oregon middle-distance runner from the late 1960s (he ranks third on the school's all-time 880 list with a best of 1:47.9). Van Dyk is a Vancouver, Washington, native who rose to prominence as a print and broadcast reporter on the Middle East for such outlets as The New York Times and CBS News.
This is Van Dyk's third book on Afghanistan and his second since his 2008 kidnapping while crossing into dangerous regions of Pakistan, where the Taliban held him for 45 days before release.
I didn't read the first two; this book focuses on his obsession to return nearly a decade later to the area of capture on a personal mission. Van Dyk wants to learn more about the process of what he called "the Trade" — the kidnapping business, a growing criminal enterprise in which money and bodies are dealt to varying degrees. He wants to know exactly who kidnapped him, and why, and why he was released and not killed like so many other hostages.
This is not light reading. There are no photos, but there is an overflow of information and way too many names of people he knew or encountered along the way for the reader to keep track of. The confusion overwhelms in this complicated quagmire that is both fascinating and suffocating. I'd have liked to read a bit of personal background on Van Dyk, who gives only a dusting of information about his private life.
Van Dyk first visited Afghanistan on a trip with his brother in 1973, and then in the early '80s to report on the Soviet-Afghan War. That he was drawn back again to a region in the world that would seem to provide more danger than allure is almost inconceivable.
Through the book, we read about plenty of famous fellow abductees such as Daniel Pearl and Jim Foley and Nicholas Berg. In the closing chapters, Van Dyk writes of a 2014 White House meeting, along with other kidnap victims or their families, with former president Barack Obama. With that, he provides an intriguing window into the political world that the reader doesn't often have access to.
In the end, Van Dyk got the answers — sort of. He seems a very brave and determined and perhaps foolish individual, fortunate to be alive to tell about his adventures, of which there may be more in the future.
"Dick Allen: The Life and Times of a Baseball Immortal"
By Williams Kashatus
It's not surprising that Kashatus takes a sympathetic look at a complicated sports figure. Kashatus is a Philadelphia native and an unabashed fan of Dick "Don't Call Me Richie" Allen, referring to him as "my first childhood hero."
Kashatus likes Allen so much, this is the second book he has written about the former major league slugger who hit .292 with 351 home runs in his 15 seasons (1963-77). He was the American League Most Valuable Player in 1972 with the Chicago White Sox.
Kashatus said he spent "nearly a decade" researching and writing this book, using two "lengthy interviews" with Allen as well as information provided by Allen's autobiography along with interviews from other players, family members and people around the controversial former player.
The author believes Allen was mistreated by the Philadelphia media, creating an unfair portrait of him as a malcontent. Judging by what I read in this book, Allen did a pretty good job of that himself with behavior that included drinking beer before and during games, arriving late to the ballpark, or not at all, and routinely breaking curfew.
Allen certainly wasn't all bad — Kashatus shows how he was mostly a good teammate, popular with younger players in particular, and seemed to have a good heart.
The book has dozens of great photos — more than I've ever seen in a biography, including one of Allen taking a long drag of a cigarette in uniform, probably in the Phillies' dugout. Also, one of Harry Caray broadcasting a White Sox game shirtless from the bleachers during an afternoon game.
It's a short book, 232 pages. Allen devotees will enjoy it. Other readers, not as much.
Kashatus tries to lay the case that Allen belongs in the Hall of Fame, calling him a "baseball immortal in every sense of the term." Forget the seven-time All-Star's deportment: I don't think his numbers quite stack up to Hall of Fame quality. Allen was a very good hitter but a poor defensive player and often times a problem guy. He's not Cooperstown-worthy.
"Big Time: The People, the Places and the Game of Oregon 8-Man Football"
Box Twelve Press
Jeff Riley is a Willamette Valley native and Oregon State grad who, through years of sportswriting, took an interest in the charm of eight-man high school football in our state.
Full disclosure: I've never seen an eight-man game, though I'd like to in the short time left before my career is over. There currently are about 60 Oregon schools that play eight-man football, including some so small that they "co-op," or share a team. Most of the schools are in outposts in the rural regions of our state, which adds to the intrigue.
Riley's narrative on the game itself and some of the coaches and players is in-depth, and he gives you a feeling for small-town life in Oregon and the game's importance in those towns.
I'd have loved to see a list of the most notable players ever to come out of eight-man football in Oregon, and a little more on the history. But Riley does a nice job of developing his main characters as he paints a picture of this slice of American sport that would otherwise go unnoticed.
"Joy in Tigertown"
By Mickey Lolich,
with Tom Gage
This fall, while interviewing Lolich on the 50th anniversary of him being named Most Valuable Player of the 1968 World Series, he kept telling me, "The answer is in the book. You have to get the book."
So I did, Mickey. I read the book, and I enjoyed it.
But you'll appreciate it more if you're a fan of the Detroit Tigers, and especially if you're old enough to remember the portly left-hander from Portland winning three games to lift the Tigers past the St. Louis Cardinals for the World Series crown.
Lolich intersperces the story of his Slabtown upbringing and professional baseball career with a look at the '68 season with the Tigers, who featured Detroit icons such as Al Kaline, Norm Cash, Bill Freehan and Denny McLain. Gage helps tell the story in Lolich's folksy manner, making it easy to digest in timely fashion.
By Jeff Benedict
and Armen Keteyian
Simon and Schuster
Several books have been written about the accomplished, enigmatic Woods, but none with more in-depth information and balance than this fascinating unauthorized biography. This exhaustive tome gives you everything you wanted to know, and maybe a few things you didn't, about pro golf's biggest name.
Woods is painted as a complicated personality, the product of the obsessive parenting of Earl and Kultida Woods, who made Tiger their life project.
The authors track Woods from the time he was a toddler golfing prodigy to his rise to not just No. 1 in his sport but also as one of the world's most well-known personalities.
They connect the illicit sexual behavior of Earl Woods to that of his son, whose extramarital affairs numbered in the hundreds prior to his divorce to Elin Nordegren in 2010.
Tiger comes across as cold and heartless, even to many of those close to him.
"He always cared more about collecting trophies more than making friends," the authors write.
Woods' sense of entitlement grew as he increased his empire, thanks not only to his PGA Tour earnings but to the many companies he endorsed, including Nike, Rolex and American Express.
But he was also extremely bright, funny and could be a pleasure to be around. His charitable contributions, as is the wont of many with great wealth, were considerable.
Woods' recklessness with his sexual addiction blew up not just his marriage but, at least temporarily, his life. He spiraled mentally and broke down physically in the years after his divorce, going through drug rehabilitation treatment.
It's a sad story of the demise of someone who had it all, though the reader is unlikely to feel sorry for someone who is responsible for his own undoing.
The book ends in January 2018, missing out on the implausible comeback that included winning the Tour Championship in September and reclaiming his spot as the world's most popular golfer. At 42, Tiger Woods is back.
Maybe there will be room for another book. If so, I won't be reading it. I've had my fill of Tiger tales.
"The Story of Baseball
in 100 Photographs"
This book would serve well as a holiday gift for the person who loves baseball history. It covers 150 years of our national pastime, featuring some iconic photos and others that may have rarely been seen.
The readers see Christy Mathewson's glove and "Wee Willie" Keeler's bat and Cy Young's pitching form and Randy Johnson's altitudinous frame and the Polo Grounds and Ozzie Smith's flip and a young Vin Scully.
They see Satchel Paige resting and Stan Musial laughing and Ty Cobb sliding and Fidel Castro pitching and Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson clouting. They see Joe DiMaggio rounding first base and Rickey Henderson heading for second and Jackie Robinson on his way home and Steve Bartman's at-the-wall interference.
There are Willie Mays' basket catch and Eddie Gaedel's diminuitive at-bat and Joe Carter, Bill Mazeroski and Sandy Koufax celebrating. There are Mickey Mantle tossing his batting helmet and Juan Marichal clubbing John Roseboro and Pete Rose bowling over Ray Fosse and the Griffeys, Ken and Jr., horsing around.
This one is going on my coffee table at home.