Books score with armchair sports fans
Some suggestions — yay and nay — for your fall sports book reading ...
"The Wizard of Foz"
By Bob Welch with Dick Fosbury
Fosbury, the Medford native and Oregon State grad whose "Fosbury Flop" revolutionized the high jump, is profiled in this biography written by Welch, the former columnist for the Eugene Register-Guard (full disclosure: He was a high school classmate of mine).
Fosbury sprang upon the national and international track and field scene in 1968 with his innovative "flop" style, winning a gold medal at the Olympic Games in Mexico City with a flourish that put him on top of the sporting world, if only for a moment.
Welch explores the inner "Foz," taking the reader through the early years in Medford, through his parents' divorce and the death of his brother, Greg, a traumatic experience Dick has never fully shaken.
An experienced author and talented wordsmith, Welch goes behind the scenes to describe Fosbury's near failure during the Olympic Trials in Lake Tahoe on a site cut through a swath of wilderness — a setting that could never happen again in American sport.
The book pretty much ends after Mexico City — Fosbury's high-jumping career went downhill from there.
I'd have liked to see Welch go further into the man's very interesting life, as an engineer in Ketchum, Idaho, to his work as president of the World Olympians Association to his current bid for election as county commissioner in his hometown. Foz is an accomplished guy with plenty of interesting ideas.
All fodder, I suppose, for the next book.
"Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball To Indianapolis"
By Mark Montieth
I've known Montieth since the 1990s during his time covering the NBA Pacers.
This book offers a look at the inaugural two seasons — 1967-68 and 1968-69 — of the Pacers in the old American Basketball Association, which laid the groundwork for inclusion into the NBA as one of four expansion teams from the ABA in 1976.
Montieth goes back further in pro basketball history in the "Hoosier State," using extensive research to connect the dots that led to the Pacers being one of the NBA's most stable franchises today.
If you're over 60 and a basketball fan, you'll remember names such as Mel Daniels, Roger Brown, Freddie Lewis and "Slick" Leonard, key figures in the first two years of the franchise.
I found most intriguing a segment on Reggie Harding, a 7-footer from the mean streets of Detroit who played 25 games with the Pacers in their first year. Harding, one of the first players to go directly from high school, was beset by drug and personal problems that shortened a promising career. He was killed by gunshot in 1972 at age 30.
Montieth re-tells the story of Harding — then with the NBA Detroit Pistons — shooting at teammate Terry Dischinger's feet to make him "dance."
"That never happened," says Dischinger, 77, now retired and living in Lake Oswego. "In Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's book, he told a similar story and said it was Sonny Dove who shot at my feet. That never happened, either. I don't know how to dance, anyway."
Dischinger played three seasons in Detroit with Harding.
"Playing with him was no problem," says Dischinger, who wound up his career with the Blazers in 1972-73 and enjoyed a long career as a dentist in the Portland area. "Reggie had some ability. He could dunk dragging his toes. But he didn't have good people around him, and he got into drugs. It's too bad. If he'd done what he was supposed to do, he'd have had a long career."
"Singles and Smiles: How Artie Wilson Broke Baseball's Color Barrier"
By Gaylon White
Bowman & Littlefield
As a longtime Portland resident, I'd heard the legend of Artie Wilson but never met the man. White's biography of Wilson makes me wish I'd had the pleasure.
Wilson didn't really break baseball's color barrier. But he was the first black player for the Pacific Coast League's Oakland Oaks in 1949 and was one of the pioneers who integrated the minor leagues after Jackie Robinson became the first black major-leaguer in 1947.
Wilson, a middle infielder of great repute through baseball's Golden Age, chose Portland as his home after playing for the PCL Beavers during the 1955 season. He stayed until his death, three days after his 90th birthday in 2010.
Thousands of Portlanders knew Wilson as a friendly, efficient used car salesman. Before that, he was one of baseball's premier players, the last to hit .400 in the Negro Leagues. That was when he hit .402 for the Birmingham Black Barons in 1948, a teammate of a 17-year-old outfield prospect named Willie Mays.
The 5-10, 160-pound Wilson was a slap hitter who tore it up in the PCL, batting over .300 six times in what was then considered the third major league.
Wilson was a victim of circumstances, seeing only 22 at-bats in 19 games with the New York Giants in 1951 before asking for his release so he could return to the PCL, where he could play every day and make more money.
White met Wilson in the 1990s and spent plenty of time with him before his death. In this book, we learn Artie was a dapper gentleman who liked his cigars, treated people with respect and never found a pitcher off whom he couldn't punch a single to left field. His is a story worth telling.
"Man Versus Ball: One Ordinary Guy and His Extraordinary Sports Adventures"
Try as I might — and Hart seems like a nice fella — I couldn't get into his exploits being all that extraordinary.
Though the title suggests otherwise, Hart doesn't really play much ball in this participatory journalism exercise.
He serves as a scrub on a semi-pro football team and encounters some characters along the way.
He spends a lot of time as a vendor at major league baseball stadiums as well as NBA and NHL arenas.
He attends a pro wrestling school, though he doesn't make the cut for the showcase's Battle Royale.
He fails in a bid to land a job as a mascot for an Arena Football League team, then enrolls in a mascot school and lands a job with an independent league baseball team.
He has a rather successful gig as a tennis ball person, working the U.S. Open, which is no small feat. His readers learn the ins and outs of the profession.
He works as a caddy for an amateur in a pro-am of a PGA tournament.
He plays a little roller basketball, participates in the Empire State Building Run-Up and takes part in some sort of hardball game, played without gloves. Ouch.
And that's about it. You decide if this is something you might want to read.
"I'm Keith Hernandez"
Little, Brown and Company
"And you're not," I thought as I read Hernandez's memoir.
Maybe that's not fair. Ego is only natural for a guy who earned 11 Gold Gloves, four All-Star Game appearances, and the 1979 National League MVP Award during a 17-year major league career.
And give credit to Hernandez for being revealing about plenty of personal faults and weaknesses in this 327-page account that curiously ends as he is traded from St. Louis to the New York Mets in 1983, seven years before retirement as a player. I guess that opens the possibility of a sequel.
After all, who admits that, as a TV analyst, he fell asleep once during a broadcast? Or that he has to shower every morning to make sure he doesn't "break out" with pimples on his ass? Or that as a player, he once walked "buck naked" on his hands through a locker room in some sort of protest against female members of the media, who "didn't seem to be there for anything other than the spectacle" of the clubhouse?
Hernandez goes into detail about a love/hate relationship with his father, who was overbearing at times throughout his life as a ballplayer. In that vein, the book had to be cathartic for a guy who comes off as a bit defensive over criticism of a lack of home-run power during his career (he had a .296 batting average but only 162 homers).
For years, Hernandez has been on the TV broadcasting crew for the Mets, and I've mostly enjoyed his opinionated commentary. We're the same age and we're both mostly old-school — sabermetrics have their place in baseball, but some of the categories (trajectory angles, exit velocity, etc.) are a bit overdone, for instance.
The book is a bit disorganized, bouncing back and forth between his childhood years and his time as a professional first baseman and his broadcasting years in the present. That makes it difficult to follow at times.
Hernandez opens with the thought that he finds most baseball books boring, that he wanted to go "deeper" to get to the "core" of his story. His book isn't boring, but it's not exactly "Ball Four" or "The Boys of Summer."