Sunday, April 11, 2021

Undisputed: How to Become the World Champion in 1,372 Easy Steps by Chris Jericho

Why I Read It: Hulk Hogan won the WWF championship when I was 12. 'Nuff said. Hulkamania, once caught, is hard to shake.

Summary: Chris Jericho's journey to the WWE, out of it and back again, paralleling his life as a rock star, a burgeoning TV star and actor, and, most importantly, a family man.

My Thoughts: If there's one thing Jericho wants me to do in this review it's to use his new word "froot," a flexible term that can mean anything in any situation, but he's not going to get it. I refuse to use it.

The more I read about the wrestling industry, the more I want to read about it. Jericho takes the peek inside the world of the pro wrestler one step deeper than I've ever been, talking about match construction, storyline writing, etc. I truly appreciated (both in this book and his first, A Lion's Tale, available in airport book stores everywhere) his brutally honest style.

Perhaps most importantly, Jericho did not even consider shying away from the most controversial of topics, the still-mysterious death of his friend and wrestler Chris Benoit. He has no problem defending Benoit, even to Benoit's children, when the rest of the world has labeled him a monster. Yes, his life ended in a monstrous way, but the rest of his life was not lived that way, Jericho argues. Jericho could have kept quiet or, worse yet, jumped on the bandwagon with everyone else, but his fierce independence and his belief in the rest of the truths of his friend's life would not let him.

The rest of the book is written with outrageously humorous takes on the events of his life. He is, if nothing else, both an egomaniac and humble. Many times both sides of his world meet and at those times he learns. He understands that he has been lucky to live the life he has, but also that it wouldn't have happened without his remarkable drive to succeed. Whether fronting Fozzy or challenging HHH for the world title, Jericho has given it his all.

Long live Y2J and all he has given to the professional wrestling business. I hope that he gives the same energy to his young family, and suspect he does.

Fine. I'll say it. This was one of the frootest books I've ever read.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Leaping Lanny: Wrestling with Rhyme by Lanny Poffo

Why I bought it: Leaping Lanny was one of my favorite wrestlers of all time.

Summary: A collection of poetry that mostly has to do with professional wrestling in the late 1980s.

My Thoughts: So, when I grabbed this one from the Kindle Store, I thought I was getting myself an autobiography. Totally my fault - I just hit send without looking deeply, really because I was so excited to start reading it. I always found Lanny Poffo to be a very interesting character (even beneath the facade of playing a character). He was, I think, the first wrestler I saw doing backflips in the ring. And with his suit of armor, he was perfect for the caricaturish WWF (when it still was the World Wrestling Federation) of the late 1980s. I saw him once in a battle royale at the old Boston Garden wearing it, and when he got tumbled over the top rope, top heavy, I never laughed so hard in my life (who won? King Kong Bundy beat "The Duke of Dorchester" Pete Doherty - yes, my memory can be insane sometimes).

Why poetry? Before his matches, whether a heel or a face (bad guy or a good guy), Lanny would read a poem to the audience, typically about his opponent. He put the words onto frisbees and then flung them into the audience.

Of course, a lot of it was woven into the storyline. He'd end a poem by saying that Jim "The Anvil" Neidhardt had no brain, and Anvil would come across the ring with a double axehandle and crumple him. Despite his obvious physical abilities and his confidence on the microphone in front of a full audience - before many others picked it up - he never went anywhere in the federation. This was during the age of Hulkamania. Size meant everything (still does with WWE). He wasn't a jobber, but he might as well have been, which to me was always a shame. I guess I like rooting for underdogs, which is usually how wrestling hooks us anyway.

So, many of the poems are pure strolls down memory lane for my 15-year-old self. But there's more. Lanny shares with us several other poems that have to do with his personal life, a few beautifully chosen words here and there. We're not talking about major works of art, though a few lines did strike me right in the heart. And I think it was heartening to know that the poetry on the frisbees wasn't a gimmick, that this actually was part of the life of Lanny Poffo.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Steve Blass: A Pirate for Life by Steve Blass with Erik Sherman

Why I read it: Impulse buy while in Pennsylvania; I love baseball history, and here was a bit I didn't know.

Summary: The autobiography of Steve Blass, Pirate World Series hero pitcher who lost control of his pitching and had to end his career. 

My thoughts: The baseball books are piling up on my shelves. Some wax poetic, others reach for laughs. This book does both.

Steve loves a lot of stuff in life: his wife and kids, baseball, his Connecticut roots, and everything there is about Pittsburgh. But at times, baseball, for one, didn't love him back.

If there was a reason for his sudden loss of control, he's not sharing it. But suddenly, seemingly from nowhere, Steve Blass, slider specialist, became Steve Blass, nervous wreck. The strike zone left him. After battling it in any way he could think to do, not wanting to let his teammates down any more, he walked away from the game.

So what did he do? Well, for the nuts and the bolts, see the book. In general he tried to replace the void in his life by taking on too much. He settled into baseball broadcasting, but learned a ton about himself along the way.

I've always maintained that the funniest baseball book I've ever read was Bullet Bob Comes to Louisville by John Morris, but this book may be the new champ. Blass has obviously reached the point beyond caring what people think of what he says, as he gets down and dirty with stories about himself and his teammates in ways that make you laugh out loud. We must always keep in mind that professional baseball is played by men 18-45; that's a lot of youth, a lot of money, and a lot of free time. From that comes a lot of pranks, a lot of irreverence.

For Pirates fans, the names are all there: Clemente, Stargell, Mazeroski and on. In a way, now that I think about it, it was nice reading a book about baseball that didn't mention steroids. I'm sure he encountered them - Barry Bonds played for the Pirates, for instance - but he chose to ignore them. Heck, after fifty years in baseball, he had plenty to talk about anyway.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Trout Water by Josh Greenberg

Why I Read It: Impulse grab. I grew up on the ocean (on a peninsula) and felt like this book would include tales about how the other half lived.

Summary: A year in the life of an impassioned trout fisherman.

My Thoughts: I've seen such passion before.

I've seen it in birders, who I've led around the country in search of species to check off on life lists. Sometimes it's been just very local walks, and other times it's been hundreds of miles from my home in Massachusetts. I'll never forget one time driving a van across Colorado when we came across a bend in a river as a small boat pulled towards us, one man at the wheel, another on the deck casting and reeling in. We, the van full of birders, from Massachusetts, New York, Montreal and other points east, seeking glimpses of prairie chickens and longspurs and burrowing owls, watched as the guy on the bow looked our way. "I came all the way from Pennsylvania for this!" he yelled. "This is the best day of my life!" From behind me, a woman's voice said, "Can you imagine traveling all the way across the country, just to go fishing?"

This book is about that kind of passion - both his and hers - but it's not about the fish. They get mentioned, dozens of times, but it's not about the fish.

It's about fishing, yes, but it's about how fishing has been the sidelight, perhaps the background activity, for the most important moments in the author's life. It's tied him to family and friends, it's formed relationships and cemented relationships.

It's about generations, too, and understanding that we are all links in a chain. The book starts with the passing of an old friend, a legendary trout fisherman, and the feeling of loss that moment engendered for not only the friend, but for the days lost to the inexorable march of time and what it does to us all. It ends with stories of the author's boys, and the beginnings of their fishing adventures on the same stretches of water they dad fishes and someday their grandchildren will, too. The author lets us know that we are here to learn, and to pass on what we learn. In his case, the story is told through trout fishing.

We should all be as passionate about something in life as the author is about his friends and family.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Wrestling and Wrestlers by Sidney Gilpin and Jacob Robinson

Why I read it: Couldn't pass it up - as obscure a topic in wrestling history as I think I will ever read.

Summary: "Biographical Sketches of Athletes of the Northern Ring; to Which is Added Notes on Bull and Badger Baiting" (the subtitle)

My Thoughts: Imagine Messrs. Gilpin and Robinson, back in 1893, knowing that we would someday read their classic work as an "ebook." Imagine the wrestlers, who practiced their art back in the first three decades of that same century, knowing they would be immortalized, in the way that anybody whose name lives on in a text like this one, two centuries after their deaths, in digital format, no less.

Yet here we are. The authors take us first on a journey around the world - the world of the British Empire - to discuss the methods of wrestling found in different places. You'll excuse them for occasional racist stereotyping, please. The times were what the times were. And then they make the case that no one could match the wrestlers of the English/Scottish border area of the early 1800s.

Perhaps the most interesting tales in this book concern the facets that have come down to today's professional wrestling rings, including, I think my favorite thing, the belt. In those days when a man threw his opponents in a tournament at a fair or other staged event, a prize was usually offered, and oftentimes it was a hat, other times it was a belt. Just a good old-fashioned workaday belt, something to hold the pants up, yet also a symbol of victory. Oh, how it has morphed.

Most of the book is comprised of those aforementioned sketches, each one an attempt to outrank the last. Every man was big, performed ridiculous feats of strength or found himself in some sort of real-life combat. The authors go to great lengths to include the language of the day, accents and all, which can be very funny to try to read. One almost has to do it phonetically, sounding it out.

In the end, the bull and badger baiting is a strange add-on, but wait! They used dogs to bait the bulls? British...bull...dogs? Hmm, I want to look more into that one.

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Big Hair and Plastic Grass by Dan Epstein

Why I read it: The cover looked like my first baseball card collection.

Summary: A chronological summarization of 1970s baseball, spiked with the baseball-related tales that made the decade unique.

My Thoughts: Although it sounds harsh to call Epstein's book a "summary," in a way, it's true. He gives us the whole picture from '70-'79, sharing the major stories of the baseball seasons from the diamond, then spicing them up with all sorts of cultural references, everything from political campaign slogans to television commercial jingle lyrics. It's a dip back in the pool that was the 1970s, the most funkadelic decade America ever saw.

For a child of the '70s like me, it was fantastic. I was born in 1971, and came of baseball age around 1976. I wanted to be Fred Lynn. Still do when I grow up someday. While the first half of the book, therefore, was a world of which I knew the characters but none of the plot lines (save for what I could read from the backs of baseball cards as a kid), the latter half was a walk down Yawkey Way to the Fenway Park of yore. It was, in effect, a chance to relive that part of my youth through a different set of eyes.

And one thing struck me overall. Being an historian, I'm well aware of the concept of the Revolutionary War vet shaking hands with the young boy who would go on to the Civil War, who, as a G.A.R. man grabs the hand of a boy who will one day march off to World War II. Baseball has those same ghosts, best personified in W.P. Kinsella's Iowa Baseball Confederacy. In any baseball decade, there is crossover. Players from the 1950s were leaving the game as players who would play in the 1990s were entering it. It's a cycle that runs throughout time, the mixing of the generations. It doesn't happen so prevalently in any other sport, save for with an occasional aging back-up quarterback or an ageless goaltender or two. Hank Aaron out, Rickey Henderson in. As Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., would say, "And so it goes."

Epstein is probably right in singling out the 1970s as untouchable when it comes to baseball history. Defining the decades just by their numbers is, of course, ludicrous, but think "1970s" and certain images pop up. Reggie Jackson's home runs in the 1977 World Series. Carlton Fisk's home run in the 1975 World Series. "We Are Family." Aaron's 715th. Lou Brock stealing bases. Chicago White Sox in shorts. The Houston Astros uniforms. Their Astroturf. Oscar Gamble's afro. Rollie Fingers' mustache. Mark "The Bird" Fidrych. Disco Demolition Night.

But there's more. Free agency. The designated hitter. Expansion. Baseball changed in the 1970s, in important ways.

Still, I'd love to see a "Baseball in the 80s" book written, if just to continue the narrative. Think about it. George Brett's .390. Dan Quisenberry's submarine pitching style. Fred Lynn's 1983 All-Star Game grand slam off Atlee Hammaker. Roger Clemens' 20 strikeouts. Harvey's Wallbangers. Ozzie Smith. The cocaine scandals. The beginning of the steroid era. This story could roll on.

But Epstein's book is a stand-alone triumph. It's one of those books you have to read and then think to yourself, "You can't make this crap up." That's the 1970s in a nutshell.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Master of the Ring by Tim Hornbaker

Why I Read It: I remember when Buddy Rogers asked Jimmy Snuka if Rogers could become his manager, on Buddy Rogers' Corner.

Summary: The biography of the original Nature Boy, including the many ways in which he changed the wrestling world.

My Thoughts: Every time I read a Tim Hornbaker book, I say that same thing: Dammit, he did it again.

Hornbaker has a thoroughness and fineness about his research and his writing that matter-of-factly brings everything to the surface for every story, without leaving the reader to consider hidden agendas. The facts are just there, page after page. Like every good historian, he interprets them, but without much personal bias. Well, that statement should be couched, I suppose. I don't believe he would have invested the time he did in the project if he actually hated Buddy Rogers. So, maybe there was some positive bias. But that said, he had no problem exposing dissenting opinions when they factored into the story.

Rogers, or Herman Rohde, arrived on the scene just prior to World War II, and worked hard at his craft. He rose to the top in the age of Lou Thesz and the birth of the National Wrestling Alliance, when the insiders' political game was as important - perhaps even more important - than wrestling skill and the ability to pull in box office dollars. Rogers toured the country, moving from territory to territory, using the same finishes, the same drama, from town to town, knowing that there was no way somebody in Houston had seen him pull the same schtick in Columbus two weeks earlier. He ended up "in the hospital" in city after city after diving through the ropes, missing a flying tackle, or getting his neck twisted up in them, all in the tried-and-true routine of generating heat or just pain interest in the product. But that's how wrestling was in those days.

Hornbaker follows him step-by-step through the years, bringing us from East Coast to West Coast, from Florida to Montreal. We understand what drove Rogers, his love for his family and his never-ending marital problems. Being in demand meant being on the road, and when he finally did achieve his dream of the NWA world heavyweight title, it meant that he was on the road non-stop. Hornbaker walks us through the birth of the "Nature Boy" gimmick and how it has itself lived as a cultural icon for three-quarters of a century.

The story wraps in the birth of the World Wrestling Federation and weaves in the life stories of the myriad professional wrestling personalities Rogers encountered from the 1930s to the 1990s. We see Buddy from all angles, from his home life to his life on the road to wrestling greatness to his post-career business enterprises. No stone is left unturned, no good story left untold.

In a Tim Hornbaker-written book, we wouldn't expect anything less.