Tag Archives: Sandy Koufax

The Arm

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The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports by Jeff Passan (Harper, $26.99, 376 pages)

One of the first things nearly all of us who picked up a baseball as a little boy – dreaming of one day playing in the major leagues, heard was, “Now remember, son, you only have one arm.” Jeff Passan has written a must read for any baseball fan called The Arm, which delves deeply into the mystery of how this limb withstands the continued trauma of throwing a baseball until it finally breaks down.

Anyone who has taken the pitcher’s mound in any relatively competitive situation from youth travel ball, to varsity high school baseball, to college, to pro ball, has said on numerous occasions, “I can throw. Gimme the ball.” That is how pitchers are wired. In the pitcher’s mind, he can’t pitch and beat you if you don’t give him the ball. But, how much is too much? What is the right number for a pitch limit? How much rest is required under what circumstances? What types of training, conditioning and preventive measures work best? What actually causes the arm to break down? According to Passan, nobody knows for sure. He faults organized baseball for not being more proactive in this regard, though he does cite some progress in this area over the past couple of years.

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In 1974 Dr. Frank Jobe made history by drilling holes into Tommy John’s elbow and weaving a new ligament into it to replace John’s torn Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL). This, of course, came to be known as “Tommy John surgery,” which now seems about as common for pitchers as putting their spikes on. According to Passan, instead of naming the surgery after himself – which is common when coining an innovative surgical procedure – he deferred to John, who he said is the one who had to undergo all of the pain and hard rehabilitative work.

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Two hundred and eighty-eight major league pitchers have had Tommy John surgery. Just two have had it twice: journeyman reliever Todd Coffey, and Dan Hudson of the Arizona Diamondbacks. A significant portion of the book chronicles their professional and personal highs and lows as they attempt to return to The Show.

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The book addresses how travel ball and specialization has taken over youth sports and delves into one of the preeminent organizations in the country, Perfect Game. It goes back in time to trace the evolution of arm care, from Sandy Koufax and the premature end of his career, all the way up to Kyle Boddy of DriveLine baseball in Kent, Washington, and his controversial training approach using over and underweight balls. Also included are discussions of alternatives to going under the knife.

While Passan seems intrigued at the possibilities offered by some of the new approaches to training, prevention, and treatment, the book does not conclude with an answer as to how to better protect young and old pitching arms. That’s because nobody has the answer. It may be that throwing a baseball as hard as you can, thousands and thousands of times – over decades beginning at age eight or so, is simply a destructive act.

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One final note: assuming both World Series teams carry 12 pitchers on their roster, 12.5% of the pitchers throwing in the 2016 World Series have had Tommy John surgery – John Tomlin of the Cleveland Indians and John Lackey and Hector Rondon of the Chicago Cubs. Tomlin was drafted in 2006, reached the big leagues in 2010 and had Tommy John surgery in 2012. He went 13-9 this year in 29 starts and sports a 49-39 career win-loss record. Lackey was 11-8 this year in 29 starts, and boasts a 176-135 win-loss record over 16 seasons. He had Tommy John surgery in 2011. Rondon, a reliever, had 18 saves this year and has a 14-14 career win-loss record. He missed some playing time this year with a non-arm injury and had Tommy John surgery performed in 2010.

While The Arm does not supply a solution as to how baseball can protect the arms of Little Leaguers and college pitchers and professional throwers like Tomlin, Lacky and Rondon, it performs a service in focusing attention on the ongoing issue of constitutionally fragile arms. It’s a good start.

Highly recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

The Arm was released on April 5, 2016.

Dave Moyer is a school administrator in Illinois, a member of the Sheboygan A’s Baseball Hall of Fame, and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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Summer of ’68

Summer of ’68: The Season That Changed Baseball – and America – Forever by Tim Wendel (Da Capo, $25.00, 288 pages)

“…in 1968, we of the pitching profession came as close to perfect as we’ve ever come in modern times.”   Bob Gibson

There’s a reason the phrase “inside baseball” has come to be used.   And the phrase represents the problems with trying to determine who will want to read the rather awkwardly titled Summer of ’68: The Season that Changed Baseball – and America – Forever by Tim Wendel.   If you’re a baseball fanatic, you probably already know about every detail, every fact in this account of the 1968 World Series.   If you’re not, you won’t be able to relate to the names that pop up on every page – many of the details seem to pile on without context.

And then there’s the problem with the sub-title.   Yes, there were assassinations and riots that year that horribly marred the country’s history, but this reader felt that Wendel never adequately made the connection between the socio-political events and the sport covered here.   The story of Curt Flood of the St. Louis Cardinals will spark an interest for some – but, again, if you’re not already a deep-in-the-weeds baseball fan, this retelling will not mean much.

Wendel also tries a bit too hard to make the case that Bob Gibson may have been the best pitcher ever – a case that won’t convince fans of Sandy Koufax and others.   Summer of ’68 is sometimes interesting, but more often it’s just passable reading.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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The Boxer

Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson by Wil Haygood (Chicago Review Press, $18.95, 480 pages)

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“It was a savage sport, but it held a kind of sacredness to him – a mystery.”

Few biographies of great athletes manage to conquer the legend; to place the athlete in context as a walking, talking, human being.   It may be because they tend to be either fawning – relying on “good stories” without regard to their accuracy – or they’re overly bloodless and academic.   (None of the biographies of Michael Jordan, for example, have seemed to capture the man behind the uniform.)   There have been some exceptions…   Namath: A Biography by Mark Kriegal was fascinating and brutally honest/factual, as was Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy by Jane Leavy, and Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life by Ben Cramer.   But these remain the exceptions that prove the rule.

Now add to the exceptions list Wil Haygood’s biography, Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson.   Haygood – who earlier wrote a biography of Sammy Davis, Jr. – manages to capture the personality of the man in addition to the accomplishments of the athlete.   Robinson was, no doubt, one of the handful of best boxers who has ever lived, yet he was notoriously envious of the skills of other public figures and entertainers – most notably musicians.   (“He wanted desperately to know about life on the road for musicians.”)   Haygood uses this angle to produce some excellent comparisons between Robinson and jazz players such as trumpeter Miles Davis.   But the analogy only goes so far, as musicians’ errors are masked by other musicians.   The boxer enters the ring alone and stands or falls on his own.

Haygood fully acknowledges the fact that Robinson – a kind man on his own – could be vicious in the boxing ring.   After killing Jimmy Doyle of Los Angeles in a fight, Robinson was asked at the inquest if he knew or suspected that Doyle was in trouble.   His response was that, as a professional fighter, it was his job to get men “into trouble.”

This period piece is also a glorious overview of post-World War II Harlem, a time when jazz was at its peak and the issue of civil rights was about to break.   The general acceptance of black public figures like Robinson (the third African-American/Negro to have his face on the cover of Time magazine) made them pioneers in the then-burgeoning movement.   But the author does not take things too far in this direction as this is not a sociology or history textbook.   Nor does he bore us with literal blow-by-blow accounts of every single amateur and professional fight that Sugar Ray Robinson fought.   No, instead he tells us just enough to understand and recognize the greatness of this late athlete’s (1921-1989) life within and outside the world of sports.

This, then, is the well told story of a man blessed with great skills:   “I had it tonight; yes, sir, I had it tonight when I needed it – thank God.”   This is the true tale of the man who did so much to advance The Sweet Science, which is perhaps why he was the first of three highly gifted boxers (Sugar Ray Robinson, Sugar Ray Leonard, Sugar Shane Mosley) to be known as Sugar.   A New York Times reporter once wrote of Robinson, “He’s too incredible, too colossal to be true.”

Highly recommended.   Haygood captures both the man and the legend.   Excellent!

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

“The French had called him Le Sucre Merveilleux – the marvelous Sugar.”

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Anyone for tennis?

Little Pancho 2Once young boys had dozens of books to chose from that chronicled the lives and achievements of their sports heroes; of baseball heroes like Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Sandy Koufax; of football players like Johnny Unitas and Paul Horning.   Those days are apparently long gone, but then along comes this somewhat-adoring view of the life of tennis great Pancho Segura.   Little Pancho covers the life of the dirt-poor, extremely sickly, Ecuadorian who began winning tennis championships in his teens and continued doing so until the age of 67.

Segura was the man who introduced the two-handed forehand to tennis and went on to coach a young man who would find some success, a player known as Jimmy Connors.   Author Seebohm writes with a smooth and flowing style that makes this biography as easy to read as a young-adults version.   She also focuses on the “pay it forward” aspects of Segura’s life, such as the fact that his coaching of Connors led Connors to later coach a “struggling but talented” Andy Roddick.   Roddick learned Segura’s skills via Connors.

The only drawback with this story is the feeling that Segura’s personality is never quite captured.   Still, a charming life well told.

University of Nebraska Press, $26.95, 210 pages

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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