Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Good Fortune of a Good Read

There is nothing like a dame, especially when she is Dame Fortune and she is smiling on you. In these weeks of all LeBron all the time and controversial calls on the baseball diamond and soccer pitch, the good Dame has led me to a couple books that put professional sports in a less glaring, less celebrity-filled light; books less about money and fame and more about people trying to do well in sometimes difficult circumstances.

In 2005, Max Weber wrote a story about the Jim Evans Academy of Professional Umpiring for the New York Times. A year later, he signed up for the Evans Academy's entire five-week course, and after completing it, he spent a great deal of time over the next couple years in the company of umpires from the low minors to the Major Leagues. As They See 'Em: A Fan's Travels in the Land of Umpires, is the book that came out of that experience.

The umpires, it turns out, are human. And the trip from umpiring school to the Major Leagues is a difficult trek on a rough road, with the umpires doing most of the driving. Until they reach Triple A, umpires have to drive from city to city.

A few finally make it to the Major Leagues, where umpires are the forgotten men on the field until they make a mistake - either real or perceived. It isn't an easy job, and all the critics have the advantage of instant replay.

In the end, though, many of the players and managers Weber talked to seem to respect the umpires and the job they do. Which might go a long way toward explaining the results of the ESPN Magazine poll of 100 players, in which Jim Joyce, whose wrong call ended Tiger pitcher Armando Galarraga's bid for a perfect game against the Indians on June 2, was voted the best umpire in the Major Leagues.

The other book I've been reading is Last Team Standing, in which Michael Algeo tells the story of the 1943 merger of the Philadelphia Eagles and the Pittsburgh Steelers. The problem was manpower: players were enlisting or getting drafted.

NFL teams filled their rosters with those who had been classified 4F by the Selective Service and those exempt from military service by virtue of being fathers. By 1943, however, the physical requirements for military service were being relaxed, and the Selective Service was preparing to begin drafting fathers. The Father Draft caused quite a hubbub at the time; 81 percent of the respondents in one poll favored drafting single women rather than fathers.

The Cleveland Rams had suspended operations for the 1943 season, and without the merger, the Steelers, who had just six players under contract, would probably have to suspend operations, too. The NFL owners approved the joint operation with the Eagles, and the Steagles were born.

The life of a professional football player during World War II was much like anyone else's. The Steagles operated from Philadelphia, and most of the players were under contract to the Eagles. All of them worked in defense plants, and the players who worked in the Philadelphia area practiced in the evenings.

Eddie Doyle, a tackle, worked at the Westinghouse plant in East Pittsburgh. After work on the day before a game, Doyle would get on a train to wherever the Steagles were playing that week. On Sunday evening, he'd get on a train going the other direction, get off at East Pittsburgh in the morning and walk to work.

But it wasn't all hard work and hard-nosed football. Greasy Neal and Walt Kiesling, the Steagles' co-coaches, both stayed at the Hotel Philadelphian during the team's training camp. One morning when an intra-squad scrimmage was scheduled, neither Neal nor Kiesling got a wake-up call. The players spent the morning doing not much until the coaches arrived around 11 a.m.

Sports is a lot more fun when it's about people instead of celebrities. Besides, Pug Manders and Bruiser Kinard were on the roster of the 1943 Brooklyn Dodgers football team. Where have all the Pugs and Bruisers gone?

This originally appeared in the Star Beacon, June 29, 2010

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