Wednesday, October 19, 2011

#77: Pigskin: The Early Years of Pro Football by Robert Peterson

New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. 256 pages

Robert Peterson is best known for his excellent treatment of the Negro Leagues, Only The Ball Was White. This text breaks down the history of pro football until roughly 1950. The first two thirds of the text is excellent, with a great amount of info about the pre-1920 pro game and the infancy of the NFL.

Who was the first professional player? The first to be paid for tackling someone? The perfectly named William "Pudge" Heffelfinger, that's who. No, I am not making that up. Pudge Heffelfinger; what a great fucking handle for a football player. Just like old baseball players, old football players had better names. Who is on my all Name Team? I'm glad you asked!

1. Carlester Crumpler, Tight end 1994-1999. It would have been better if he had been a defensive tackle, so people could say "Crumpler Crumples the Ball Carrier."
2. Pudge Heffelfinger, Tackle 1892: Would you make fun of him? "Hey, pull my Heffelfinger!" That's a whoopin'.
3. Johnny McNally: member of the Hall of Fame, better known as "Blood". Blood McNally! Sounds like a drunk Irishman who would just whip some ass. He was and he did. This made him an excellent player, but a terrible coach.
4. Bulldog Turner: 1940-1951. 237 pounds of spit-knocking blocking power on a 6'1 frame. One of the Monsters of the Midway in the 1940s.
5. Dick "Night Train" Lane. I would give my right nut to have the nickname "Night Train". How cool would that be? I would walk into a room, men would say "Hey Night Train!" I would nod at them but not say anything, women would swoon and I would nod some more. But only in that I'm-cool-back-off sort of way. I got stuck with Barney. Damn it!

Anyway, back to the book. The one complaint I have in Robertson's treatment of the development of the league is the lack of diagrams of such things as The Flying Wedge, The Single and Double Wing, The T Formation, The Flying J and the Double Buffalo Wing With Dressing. That's a small complaint, and they are easily found online. Robertson's style is straightforward and his research is excellent. The first few chapters about football before the advent of the NFL is the true strength of the book. The Rust Belt is the true home of professional football, and why the Big 10 does the best tailgating. The SEC can suck hot dogs on that one. What were the football hotbeds of the Wilson Administration? Ohio and Indiana.

Robertson also includes an excellent bibliography, which I am finding is becoming a lost art in this day and age. Lousy internet.

#76: The Unthinkable: Who Survives Disasters and Why by Amanda Ripley

Crown Publishing, New York: 2008. 266 pages

This ranks as one of the most fascinating books that I have ever read. Amanda Ripley takes the question of why certain people survive disasters and spins it into a discussion of human nature, genetics, relationships and socialization. The disasters stretch from plane crashes, 9/11, the Virginia Tech shootings and the Halifax explosion of 1916 to such mundane things as traffic accidents and people shouting in a supermarket. 

As it turns out, you should take all of those fire drills, earthquake drills and airplane safety lectures seriously. The biggest thing to take away from this book is that most people in a disaster don't freak out. One of Ripley's chapters focuses on a busboy who worked at the Beverly Hills Supper Club outside of Cincinnati. On May 28, 1977 the building burned to the ground, killing 177 people. Ripley points out that "most people were more friendly during the evacuation", even while they were trapped by locked doors. Ripley's statement that "civilization holds" is chilling, in that most people will simply freeze and wait to be told what to do in these situations. Hierarchy holds; in the supper club fire, a busboy led the way for several people because "he had no vested interest in the club."

Ripley also takes on why certain people tend to run toward danger. They tend to be male, single and have no children. In other words, this may be an evolutionary thing; the idea that people freeze certainly is an evolutionary thing. This was the most interesting and frightening part of the book. A million years ago, when our biggest threats were large animals who viewed us as food on the hoof, playing dead or going limp was perhaps our best defense. It would lower our threat; in some cases, lions would not eat us because they wanted fresh meat. This same response is deadly in a fire in a plane or a skyscraper, as it takes time. Ripley describes a survival arc and plots each of her witnesses and examples along the arc, making the book easy to follow and digest.

This is in the top five of the year and cannot be recommended enough. What would you do in a disaster? Read this book and get some idea about what you might do whether you want to or not.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

#75: The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy by Bill Simmons

ESPN Books, New York: 2009. 715 pages

I did not expect to like this book as much as I did. I like Bill Simmons' writing quite a bit (he and Jason Whitlock are my favorite sportswriters) but I felt this was going to be roughly 700 pages of stroking the collective cocks of the Boston Celtics. It was roughly 200 pages of that, but at least it was entertaining.

Simmons book revolves around "The Secret", explained to him once in a pool in Vegas by Isiah Thomas. "The Secret" is what makes good players great, great players transcendent, and championship teams candidates for elite-all time status. Along the way, one gets opinions, stats, more opinions, Johnny Wadd references, Michael Buffer references, a comparison of pre-1980s stars to old time porn stars. Simmons does not take himself very seriously, as evidenced by this footnote "Nothing's worse than being trapped in a room with someone who is creating dumb arguments, trying to prove impossible to prove things...unless it's this book." (674) This is what I would call a "Bar Book"; a collection of awesome arguments to have whilst watching sports over a beer with some friends.

This makes it different than many books of this type, looking for the "best ever" anything. Most of these books are overloaded with obscure statistics which sort of prove the point, but leave readers with that cloud of "Yeah, but...". This works in baseball, as SABR and Bill James have done most of the heavy lifting by figuring out the historical meaning of statistics. Simmons is on the leading edge of this with the NBA, as are the people who run the great Pro-Basketball reference website.

Simmons spins many sordid tales of NBA greats, but that is not what this book is all about. The book is about the game, and Simmons treats the game as sacredly as John Thorn treats baseball. I don't watch a lot of NBA basketball anymore, but it is refreshing to see someone keeping the '86 Celtics and '92 Bulls alive. Not to mention people such as Elgin Baylor, George Mikan and Dave Cowens; people who did not benefit from the extreme amount of coverage of today's bland corporate superstars. The strength of this book is that non-corporate, vaguely sexist and downright profane tone that Simmons has always employed. Dan Biasone gets a LOT of attention; the man saved the NBA by inventing the 24 second clock, and the Hall of Fame let him die without inducting him. I find this outrageous, as does Simmons. The best authors are in touch with the history of their subject and celebrate it warts and all. Simmons is certainly one of those authors.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

#74: The Two Towers by JRR Tolkien

Silver Jubilee Edition, Ballantine Books. 447 pages

OK, so after Needham I went back to the well to finish my annual reading of three of my five favorite books (The Hobbit and Catch 22 are the others, with a shout out to The Illuminatus! Trilogy). And, even after not watching the Two Towers movie for several months, I still see Faramir saying the one thing that made me gasp and develop a seething rage against the film franchise:

"The Ring goes to Gondor."

Of course, Faramir never says this in the book, and never would say this in the book. Why? Because he is noble in thought and deed, a true descendant of Numenor. His brother was a weaker man, and destroyed by temptation before he had a chance to redeem himself. Maybe movie audiences would not understand. Certainly in this world of Tron, Footloose and Dirty Dancing remakes, no one would understand that some people can master their own feelings! I am not one of them, which has always made me look up to Faramir. Even Frodo gave in at the end; Bombadil and Faramir are intriguing because they do not.

This book reads the fastest with the Three Hunters chasing the Orcs to the border of Fangorn, the awakening of the Ents and the downfall of Saruman. Then, it slows down when swinging to Samwise and Frodo. I have always been of two thoughts on this, that the Sam and Frodo action is slow (until Shelob shows up), or it is slow because it should be. Sam and Frodo are moving more slowly, their sense of doom is increasing (at least Frodo's) and the threat to them is growing every step they take. This time through I came down on the second of these, which again the movie fucks up by "sending Sam home". Frodo would never do this, as he trusts Gollum only through shared experience. This does not cloud the fact that Gollum is a sneaky little bastard. Frodo has no illusions. What makes Samwise a beautiful character is his ability to keep his head when all about are losing theirs. There is also a true tenderness to their relationship that the movie's change undermines.

My favorite line? The oft repeated "We are the fighting Uruk-Hai". That's always been up there with "Fool of a Took". When I was little, I wanted to go against the Uruks with Faramir. Lousy Dungeons and Dragons.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

#73: Stuntman: My Car-Crashing, Plane Jumping, Bone-Breaking, Death-Defying Hollywood Life by Hal Needham

New York: Little, Brown and Co. 2011: 307 pages

I looked at this book several times before I picked it up. I thought "Hal Needham is one of the best stuntmen in the history of film. But, he did direct Hooper." He also gave us Smokey and the Bandit I and II, Stroker Ace and The Cannonball Run. Under no circumstances did I anticipate a good book, well written and interesting. I thought it would be filled with crashes and stories about Burt Reynolds.

I was right except the stories were all about Mr. Needham and name dropping. Burt Reynolds, Kirk Douglass, Arnold Shcwarzenegger...even Have Gun, Will Travel makes an appearance. This has got to be the single most boring book about a man who has broken 56 bones that has ever been written. Here is a sample:

"He sounded like Burt Reynolds and looked like Burt Reynolds, but why was he talking to us (the women wondered)...Burt was always ready to help a couple of buddies in need." (201) or "I scratched him (the horse Alamo) affectionately under the chin. Arlene walked over and said if I treated her that well, maybe we'd have a better relationship." (131)

No crummy hotel in the country was safe from Hal Needham in the 1970s as long as Burt Reynolds was around. Needham's first marriage is summed up in about 3 pages, wherein he manages to say that "Hollywood types don't like cowboys". Probably because the fuckin' cowboy is chasing tail as Burt Reynold's wingman. When this magic association began to wear off (around the time Evening Shade became popular) Needham was owning a stock car team, which he calls "the second most popular in to The King, Richard Petty." Before the advent of ESPN and TNT, this was somewhat akin to saying you were the second most popular football team in Alabama. Personally, I thought Harry Gant was one hell of a driver, but I liked Dale Earnhardt's Wrangler machine more.

Even the description of the stunts in his films are devoid of any sort of emotion. I suppose that is good, as a lesser man (me) would have been scared shitless to fall backwards off a 45 foot cliff. Believe it or not, even Smokey and the Bandit is based on a real event, namely "a maid stealing Coors beer out of my fridge in Miami." What got Needham the money to do these films was one man, Burt Reynolds. Needham would probably never have become a director without him, and Needham seems a little wary of this. Reynolds had to be talked into doing the Cannonball Run because he did not want to do another fast car picture. I mean, who the fuck is going to give you money to do a movie about a fucked up race across the U.S.? Even if Needham is the man who tried to bring Jackie Chan to an American audience, that film is not made without Reynolds.

By that time, Farrah Fawcett had left Charlie's Angels and would not make a post-Run film for more than three years; Roger Moore had three unremarkable Bond films left in the tank. The Rat Pack leftovers were reduced to doing shtick. Needham acts as if this was a "cavalcade of stars" when in fact it was a group of people whose careers were in decline. This book would have been much better if it stuck to the stunts and the technical details and dangers of making films. In some ways, Needham seems least comfortable in writing about these things. We actually hear more in Needham's autobiography about who Burt Reynolds was dating. That's sad. Needham is due a lot of respect for his tireless work on behalf of stuntmen and women in Hollywood; give him that but don't bother with this book.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

#72: Skyjack: The Hunt for D.B. Cooper by Geoffrey Gray

Crown, 2011: 320 pages

Remember that show In Search Of.... with Leonard Nimoy? I first heard about D.B. Cooper on that show, and have been moderately interested in the crime ever since. On Nov 24, 1971 a man calling names Dan Cooper hijacked a 707 flying to Seattle. After it landed and refueled, the Feds loaded $200,000 and parachutes on the plane. It took off for Mexico; somewhere around Portland Cooper jumped out the back of the plane. He has never been seen again.

In researching the crime, Gray meets with several people who are convinced that they know the identity of Dan Cooper. Several are, predictably, complete nutbars. A few have compelling cases. Gray handles most of these folks gently, which is better than how they handle each other. This is pretty common for folks on the trail of Bigfoot or Nessie. The book is about "the hunt for DB Cooper", so I thought it would be about the actual hunt for him. It wasn't. The second 1/2 of the book read like a jumbled collection of some very funny anecdotes, absolute 100% bull shit and a damn travel guide.  In that, I was let down.

The actual case is lost in the crazies that dominate the end of the book, which subtracts from the overall quality of the text. And crazies they are. You know 'em, the ones that maintain that James Earl Ray was a CIA operative under Raoul's mind control, that the black ops helicopters are actually behind all the cattle mutilations of the 1970s and that LBJ had JFK killed. We all know of course that Ray was hired by the FBI, UFOs actually butchered up those cows and JFK was killed by the Mob. It begs the question of why in hell would you go down the rabbit hole? Everything you ever find is contradictory to what you already know. These people waste their lives; at least three of the are chuckleheads that Gray runs into are "writing their own books". Well, I won't read them. They will not be professional writers like Gray. At least his prose is worthy.

Gray sees the edge of the rabbit hole and does not go down, which is good for him and the reader. I could not take much more conjecture, unsupported claims and assorted crap. What I did like about this book was too short and what I did not like went on for dozens of whiny, paranoid, I know that person from somewhere pages. The whole "I know something that flies in the face of reason and evidence" shtick is getting old, and smacks of hubris. Well, good for you, Mr. Smartpants! Show me proof, not a bull shit story from some random guy who knows this woman whose husband said that his brother was a friend of a guy who worked at United that disappeared in 1972 after taking a parachute class in Ohio. FUCK! That guy must be D.B, Cooper! He could be living on your street, spending the last of the Cooper Money...oh yeah, that's never been found. Because he buried it in the yard of a friends house for safekeeping and is "waiting for the case to be closed". Irritating.

Monday, October 3, 2011

#71: America's Quarterback: Bart Starr and the Rise of the NFL by Keith Dunnavant

Thomas Dunne Books, 2011: 386 pages

Keith Dunnavant is a very respected football researcher who brings to light much that I did not know about Bart Starr. I agree with Dunnavan't assertion that Starr is perhaps the most underrated QB in the history of pro-football. However, I do not think that he was in any way the best QB in history. Dunnavant turns to the "Hardware" equation, meaning Starr won more NFL championships than anyone else did. I respect that, but do not agree with it. Overall, this book is quite good. Bart Starr seems like a true mensch.

The title is both a statement and a swipe at Johnny Unitas, the subject of a book entitled "America's QB" in 2004. Starr and Unitas were compared throughout the 1960s; Starr had the hardware, Unitas the stats. Between 1961 and 1967, the Green Bay Packers were the best football team on earth. Period. End of Story. In those years, Starr's record as a starting QB was 78-18-4, a winning percentage of .780. Starr was 9-1 in the postseason. Unitas was no slouch, earning a record of 63-29-3 in the same span, a .663 winning percentage. The Packers were an excellent team, consistently in the top five in the league in both running offense and defense. When other QBs started for the Packers, they put up a record of 5-2 during those years. When others besides Unitas started for the Colts, they were 2-3.

The single most fascinating thing in this book for this reader was a comment from Starr himself. Starr was (still is) heavily involved in charity work in Wisconsin and Alabama. While working for a home for troubled youth in Wisconsin, he has this exchange with a student:
Starr: I hear you're a tough kid.
Tough Kid: So?
Starr: I hear you like to beat people up in the street.
Tough Kid: I like to get in fights (insert you're next, oldster, right here)
Starr: If you do that on the street, you're a thug. If you do that on a football field, you're a hero.

Some will take from this the legitimization of thuggish violence. To "legitimate" something is to make it legal, but more importantly to justify it. Starr saw the violence around him, but I don't think he found it justified. It was part of the game. What Starr was, as Dunnavant points out, was on the other side of a great generational divide. Violence, in whatever form, is a defining element from the point of view of a child. Were you ever spanked? Beaten by a parent? Chances are, your parents were of Starr's or the next generation. Starr would spank his kids, but never flat out beat them; Starr's father, gathering from the book, was very similar. There is a huge difference between a spanking and a beating; trust me, I know. Starr left the violence there on the field, likely because he was on the receiving end of some truly brutal stuff; some of the pounding that Starr took courtesy of Tommy Nobis, Butkus, Bubba Smith and the rest were no doubt legal. To steal a recurring and annoying construction from the book:
Men hurting others to win a game?
Men with concussions going back out to play?
Not knowing where they are or who they are?
Is that justified?
That is the question of football, not the bull shit "it makes you a man" crap that peppers the text.

What I wanted far more of in this book was what Dunnavant opens but does not develop. The place of Starr and Unitas as counterpoints to the non-conformist AFC and the anti-war movements is well known, being referenced on The Simpsons, no less (Johnny Unitas! Now there is a haircut to set your watch to!). The writing seemed strained during these passages, as if Dunnavant wanted to punch those dirty hippies for belittling Bart Starr and his "small town values". What Starr thought of the changes in society is mostly hinted at; Dunnavant at one time states he was "a great symbol of Nixon's Silent Majority." Starr himself probably thought this. In any event, while welcoming and a great attempt at citing the historical significance of Starr, this part of the book failed from non-development and author bias. A small gripe, however. In Dunnavant's defense, this is a biography and not a work of cultural history.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Could We See That Game Happening?

My shoulder was aching badly, so as it barked at 6 am this morning I decided to get up. I watched the "welcome to the Big 10, Nebby" beatdown by Wisconsin and began to wonder could we should have predicted that Russell Wilson would outduel the wunderkind Taylor Martinez?

Perhaps. Russell is a transfer senior from NC State while Martinez is a sophomore. Martinez has played 6 games against teams in the top 25 and Russel 5, including last night. Here are their combined performances vs. top 25 teams:

Martinez: 119 attempts, 67 completions, 927 yds, 6 TD, 5 INT passing, 89 carries for 195 yards and 1 TD rushing
Russell: 151 attempts, 87 completions, 1125 yds, 8 TD, 3 INT passing, 51 carries for 124 yds and 4 TD rushing

The game that put Martinez on the map last year was against Oklahoma St in which he threw for five touchdowns and ran for 119 yards. If that game is removed from Martinez's resume, we could see this coming. Why? Look at the rushing numbers:

vs Top 25 teams not named Oklahoma St: 70-113-1, 22.6 yards per game, 1.6 yards per carry.
vs non-tops 25 teams: 156-1252-18, 113.8 yards per game, 8.1 yards per carry.

Stop Martinez from running the ball, force him to throw and he gets uncomfortable. He is an exceptionally mobile quarterback and has a good arm; he is not a passer yet. Oklahoma St allowed him to pile up 119 yards on the ground, which allowed Martinez used to hang 323 yards passing on the Cowboys. The first second quarter interception yesterday doomed Martinez; however, Wisconsin's defense also stiffened up against Martinez's running capability

Martinez Before Pick: 6-10, 98 yards passing, 11-50 rushing with 1 TD
Martinez Post Pick: 5-12, 75 yards, 3 INT passing, 10-11 yards rushing.

Of course, maybe it was Wisconsin's offensive line. Montee Ball usually did not have a finger on him until he was three yards up-field last night. Nebraska better get used to that; teams that play more like Big 10 teams usually give them trouble and the Nebraska secondary is very susceptible to play fakes. Wisconsin used their aggressiveness against them.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

#70: Those Guys Have All The Fun: Inside the World of ESPN by J.A. Miller and Tom Shales

New York, Little, Brown and Co.: 2011. 784 pages

You may balk at the 784 pages, but this book is written in snippets of interviews surrounding a larger theme. It is arranged chronologically; since I no longer enjoy the broadcasts of the Worldwide Leader, I did not know 3/4 of the "talent" interviewed in the last 150 pages. I liked the arrangement of the book and thought that letting the ESPN people speak for themselves was far better than writing a book about the company. Miller and Shales identify eight "steps in ESPN's rise to world dominance", all of which seem to be correct.

I think the best way to review this book is again to let the people in it speak for themselves. Some of the older folks that many of us grew up watching (Bob Ley, Chris Boomer, Robin Roberts, the late Tom Mees) or spent too much time in college watching (Keith Olbermann, Dan Patrick, Charlie Steiner) come across as, I hate to say this, regular guys who just happen to be on TV. I have long been a fan of Ley, Roberts and Steiner, and after reading this I am even more of one. Chris Berman's act has been old since 1998. He comes across as playing a character which he now believes to be himself. He's not a bad guy, he's not a good guy. He's just there. But, enough of that, here are some quotes:

1. "Am I a whore? Sure. (Stuart) Evey had money and we needed more of it." -- Chet Simmons on his hiring at ESPN in 1979 after his departure from NBC. Most of the "old timers" have a somewhat caustic view of the industry in general and are not afraid to admit that TV is about cash. This is refreshing. (29)

2."We were sometimes desperate...Bobby Knight had a run in with a Puerto Rican policeman at the Pan Am building, so that was a gift that kept on giving. We talked about that for hours." -- Bob Ley speaking about the early years of the network, in which no lesser lights than he and Chris Berman used a port-o-san in the parking lot because the bathrooms in the building were not finished. This is in many ways the strength of the book, and the difference between the older folks and younger folks. Ley, Berman, George Grande were bored in Bristol, CT shilling pool, Munster Hurling and Australian Rules Football. To reference another bloated sack of crap from the early 80s that has perhaps outlived its usefulness, SkyNet was not yet self aware. (55)

3. "During my first week, I was writing at my desk...I looked up and the Playboy Channel was on, with naked people everywhere, from the monitor right above my desk. There were like 12-15 guys standing there just to see how I would react." -- Karie Ross. This and a quote from Andrea Kremer during her time at NFL films. She asked a producer "What should I look like?" and he responded "Friendly, fuckable and informative." (200) What these people had to put up with on a daily basis in Bristol was akin to a group of Frat Rats at you neighboring university. The only things that mattered were sports and pussy. I have much more respect for the women that worked (and still work) at ESPN; but think of that friendly, fuckable and informative bull shit the next time you see Erin Andrews, Suzy Kolber or someone else. Shit hasn't changed in 25 years.

4."There was an effort by Disney to monopolize all intellectual property coming out of everyone's head while they were working at ESPN." --Jack Edwards. News Flash: Disney sucks. ESPN is a corporate shit heap. 'Nuff said. (352)

5. "Those of us who have that little touch of paranoia in them about a certain group--as I do about management--really are a bit more--comfortable is the right word--in a situation in which management if failing utterly." -- Keith Olbermann. I respect Olbermann, but he is kind of a dick. Most brilliant people are; they are smarter than the suits that will not take a risk. I respect Olbermann, Dan Patrick, Bob Ley and many others because they refuse to play the game. Or, as Mojo Nixon said back in the 80s, "I refuse to play the victim in your big daddy boss theater of the retarded." Berman plays that game well and is an institution. This also leads to gutless attempts at ratings by hiring Rush Limbaugh for a sports show and bringing on Russel Crowe to pimp his latest movie on Monday Night Football.  (262).

6. "The problem with the birth of ESPN2 was, you can't try to be hip. You either are or you aren't. It's that simple. Likewise, you can't try to be smart. You are or you aren't." -- Charley Steiner. (262)

7. "It all comes back to what people say about the place--they don't care about talent. Couldn't care less. "We don't need you, fuck you, we've got NFL games."" -- Dan Patrick (482)

This text reinforced a lot of what I saw on TV. The people whose work I liked I tended to identify with. That list includes Olbermann, Patrick, Ley, John Saunders (a 24 karat badass and one hell of a journalist), Suzy Kolber, Andrea Kraemer, Tom Jackson, Dick Schapp, Ron Jaworski and even Tony Kornheiser. You can see the integrity. The people I thought were schmucks on the air really are schmucks. Stuart Scott, Chris Berman, Joe Theismann; this list consists of people playing a part. But then, there are the executives. If you want to see who runs the show at this beast, peel back this curtain and compare the guys from the early 1980s to Mark Shapiro and the D-Bags at the wheel now. You'll feel dirty.