Thursday, September 6, 2012

Finding Ultra: Rejecting Middle Age, Becoming One of the World's Fittest Men, and Discovering Myself by Rich Roll

As noted in the review of Eat & Run, Finding Ultra combines the story of a world-class athlete, with his commitment to a plant-based diet.

So who is Rich Roll? (He's not the guy who created the rickroll internet meme!) Here's some background from his web site,

"Rich is a man of many hats – a wellness advocate on behalf of plant-based nutrition; an entertainment attorney; and a husband and father of 4, but most of all, he is a passionate and inspirational ultra-endurance athlete.

In May 2010, Rich and his ultra-colleague Jason Lester accomplished an unprecedented feat of staggering endurance many said was not possible. Something they call the EPIC5 CHALLENGE – an odyssey that entailed completing 5 ironman-distance triathlons on 5 islands of Hawaii in under a week. Commencing on Kauai, they travelled to Oahu, Molokai and Maui before finishing on the Big Island, following the course of the Ironman World Championships on the Kona coast.

In addition, Rich has been a top finisher at the 2008 and 2009 Ultraman World Championships in Hawaii. Considered by many to be one of world’s most daunting and grueling endurance races on the planet, Ultraman is a 3-day / 320 mile double-ironman distance triathlon that circumnavigates the entire Big Island.  Limited to only 35 carefully selected invitation-only participants from all over the world, Day 1 involves a 6.2 mile ocean swim immediately followed by a 90 mile cross-country cycling race.  Day 2 is a 170 mile cycling race.  And the event culminates on Day 3 with a 52 mile double marathon run on the searing hot lava fields of the Kona coast.

In his first time out after a 20-year respite from competitive sports and only 6 months of training, Richard clocked the 2nd fastest swim split, finished 11th overall and was the 3rd fastest American.

Having competed as a competitive swimmer at Stanford University in the late 80’s, Richard has an accomplished athletic background. But by age 40, Richard was close to 50 pounds overweight and completely out of shape. It was time for a major life change. To celebrate his 40th natal birthday as well as his 10th anniversary in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, in 2006 he overhauled his diet, became a dedicated vegan, put on his running shoes and jumped back into the pool. Two years later and close to 50 pounds lighter, he surprised the triathlon & ultra communities by not only becoming the first vegan to complete the event, but by finishing in the top 10 males, despite never having even previously competed in a single ironman distance event."

Rich's story is certainly inspirational. In some way his early years were similar to mine. We both wore thick black glasses, were typically the last kid picked for any sports game, and eventually found some success in swimming (unfortunately my swimming abilities never quite matched Rich's!) By the time he reached high school, Rich, as he put it, did nothing but eat, live, and breathe swimming. 

As a result of his success in swimming, as well as academics, Rich was recruited by many top-flight colleges. It was during the recruiting visits that he had his first taste of alcohol, and the unfortunate realization that he liked it too much. Rich ended up at Stanford, as a non-scholarship athlete. However, despite great promise after his freshmen year, Rich began to lose interest in swimming, and at the end  of his junior year he quit the team. His senior year then became a blur of parties, late nights, and hangovers. After graduation, Rich took a job with a Manhattan law firm, and a year later enrolled at Cornell Law School. After finishing at Cornell, Rich took a job with a law firm in San Francisco, and his drinking continued. After a year he joined a new law firm, and shortly after that was in a car accident, with a blood alcohol level of .29, more than three times the legal limit. After his conviction, he joined a local AA group, but was not fully committed. 

Another problem Rich was having was with his wedding plans. He started to sense that his wife to be was not as enthused as she originally was with the idea of marriage, but they went through with it anyway. However, it was over before it really got started; they ended up separating while on their honeymoon! During the nine months after this fiasco, Rich bounced around rehab facilities, but nothing seemed to work. Eventually, even his family abandoned him, telling him they did not want any contact with him until he was sober. He finally found a treatment facility that worked for him, Springbrook Northwest near Portland, and he ended up staying for 100 days. Soon afterwards, with his new sobriety and a new set of priorities, he left the law firm he had been working at, eventually starting his own practice. It was also around this time that he met Julie, his future wife. Things seemed to be getting better, and he remained sober.

However, while he was building a successful law practice, and remaining sober, Rich realized that he had let his health deteriorate. By the age of 40 he was 50 pounds over what he weighed when he was at Stanford. He decided to make some serious changes to his lifestyle, starting with a vegan, plant-powered diet. Rich attributes his success in his transition from a couch potato to Ultraman to this diet and mentions those who have influenced him, such as Dr. Neil Barnard from the PCRM (Physicians Committee for Responsible medicine), Dr. Colin Campbell, author of the China Study, and Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, from the Cleveland Clinic, and an author as well. 

It was  while he was transitioning to his Plant-based diet that Rich began to consider getting back into shape as well. He entered a triathlon, but did not finish, and followed that with a marathon, but ended up walking the last eight miles. It was then that he decided he needed a serious goal to focus his efforts, and he signed up for an Ironman. It is interesting to note that he began his training program one month shy of his 10-year anniversary of sobriety. Unfortunately, in the midst of his training, he found out that the Ironman he had counted on competing in was filled-up, and he was unable to enter. Not wanting to waste all of his training efforts, he came upon the Ultraman event. 

The Ultraman consists of 6.2 miles of swimming, 260 miles of biking, and 54 miles of running, more than twice an Ironman. He was accepted into the 2008 event, and he had six months to prepare. His training volume increased to 15-20 hours per week, with his diet playing a key role in enabling him to recover more quickly so that he could train each day. As a result of his training and nutritional habits, he successfully completed the Ultraman on his first attempt. 

He competed again the next year, and after finishing in first place after the fist day, a nasty bike crash st him back on day two, but he still managed to finish the race as the top American. It was during his training for the 2009 Ultraman that one of his friends, Jason Lester, proposed the idea of the Epic 5, five full Ironman triathlons on five different Hawaiian islands, on five consecutive days! 

The logistics of completing the EPIC 5 were nearly as difficult as the race itself. As it turend out , they were not able to do the EPIC 5 on five consecutive days, having to take a break after the first two days, and then on the day before the fifth Ironman. However, they were both successful at their attempt, in no small part due to tremendous support from the locals. I must admit that while it is an astounding feat for anyone, I was even more impressed with Jason's accomplishment since he only has the use of one arm! How do you swim 2.5 miles in the ocean each day, using only one-arm?! It seems like there is another story there somewhere...

The book has some great Appendices; the first is the Nuts and Bolts of the PlantPower diet, with lots of great tips. The second Appendix is a Day in the Life, showing the details of his eating plan for a typical day. The third Appendix is a list of resources, such as books and web sites.

This is a great book, telling the story of a man who had some early successes, succumbed to the addictive power of alcohol, and reached the bottom mentally, physically, socially, and professionally. While that could have been the end of the story, such as it was, through the help of an addiction  treatment center and some much needed will power, Rich was able to turn around his life. First, he became sober, followed by a change to a vegan (PlantPower)-based diet, then a serious commitment to endusance training, and finally ending with the completion of a race that no one had ever attempted before. Truly inspirational!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Eat & Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness by Scot Jurek, with Steve Friedman

This book, along with Rich Roll's "Finding Ultra", combines two of my favorite topics, fitness and veganism.

Here is some background on Scott, from his web site, www.scottjurekcom:

"Scott Jurek's outstanding competitive resume includes victories in nearly all of ultrarunning's elite trail and road events, including the historic 153-mile Spartathlon, the Hardrock 100, the Badwater 135-mile Ultramarathon, the Miwok 100K, and—his signature race—the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, which he won a record seven straight times. The Washington Times named him one of the top runners of the decade, Runner's World awarded him a Hero of Running and Ultrarunning Magazine named him Ultra-Runner of the Year three times. In 2010, he set a new US all-surface record in the 24-Hour Run with 165.7 miles—6.5 marathons in one day—for which he was named USA Today's Athlete of the Week.

More than just a champion, Scott is a true student and ambassador of the sport, known to stay at finish lines cheering until the last runner crosses. A passionate advocate for vegetarianism, he follows a 100% plant-based diet, which he credits for his superior endurance, recovery and overall health. He believes that everyone can run an ultra and everyone can access their bodys innate capacity to heal. Through writing, public speaking, and consulting, Scott takes joy in encouraging people of all fitness levels to take the next step toward vibrant health."

Jurek's goal in writing the book was to show the reader how he transformed from the inside out, and how the reader can do likewise, and he has successfully achieved that goal. 

The book follows a chronological path, starting with Jurek as a youngster in Minnesota. He notes the influence of his mom, who suffered from multiple sclerosis (which inspired his becoming a physical therapist), and his dad, a hard-working man who often told his son,  "Sometimes you just do things!" That philosophy became central to Jurek's character. After a successful high school career as a cross country skier, Jurek goes o college o pursue his therapy degree. It was during this time period that Jurek began to take his running seriously, as well as his diet.

His first long distance race was the Minnesota Voyageur in 1994, a 50 mile race. His first major ultramarathon win was the Westren States 100 in 1995, which he went on to win six more years in a row. At this point, Jurek was also fully committed to a vegan diet. Here is an excerpt where he shares he benefits of a vegan diet:

"The better I ate, the better I felt. The better I felt, the more I ate. Since going vegan, I had lost a layer of fat—the layer that came with eating the cookies and cakes and Twinkies and cheese pizza that so many omnivores and even vegetarians gulp down. I learned that I could eat more, enjoy it more, and still get leaner than I had ever been in my life. When I went vegan, I started eating more whole grains and legumes, fruits and vegetables. My cheekbones seemed more pronounced, my face more chiseled. Muscles I didn’t even know I had popped out. I was eating more, losing weight, and gaining muscle—all on a vegan diet. My recovery times between workouts and races got even shorter. I wasn’t even sore the day after 50-mile races. I woke up with more energy every day. Fruit tasted sweeter, vegetables crunchier and more flavorful. I was doing short runs in the morning, working 8- to 10-hour days, then running 10 to 20 miles in the evening. I felt as if my concentration was improving every day."

Jurek is impressive not only for his athletic ability, but for his mental toughness as well. Pain, physical and mental, is  guaranteed in an ultramarathon, and  the stories of what it is like to run an ultramarathon are eye-opening. Jurek even finished the last 45 miles of the Western States  with torn ligaments!

Jurek also shares the emotional pain he went through after his divorce and the death of his mom as well as his financial difficulties. What kept him going were his running and positive attitude. He also talks about the falling out he had with his best friend Dusty.

However, by the end of the book, Jurek is happily re-married,  is back on friendly terms with Dusty, and just set the American record for distance covered in a 24-hour run, an astonishing 165 miles.

In addition to the great stories about his races, each chapter concludes with tips on training as well as a plant-based recipe. It's a nice combination, since I have always felt that to be truly healthy, you need to focus on both diet and exercise, and that ultimately, diet is the key to long term success.

I highly recommend Scott's book, it is inspirational and full of practical tips to become a better athlete and a healthy individual.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Deep Water by Don Schollander and Duke SavagH

Before there was Michael Phelps, and even before there was Mark Spitz, there was Don Schollander.

Don Schollander was the first swimmer to win four Gold Medals in one Olympics, doing so in Tokyo in 1964 at the young age of 18.  Schollander also won the 1964 James E. Sullivan Award as the nation's top amateur athlete, and the AP Athlete of the Year, easily defeating runner-up Johnny Unitas. Schollander followed up his feat with a gold and a silver medal at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.

Deep Water has always held a special place for me, since I was just getting involved with swimming when it was published in 1971. I found the book at the time both inspirational, as well as eye opening. Upon my most recent reading of the book I was once again impressed with the insights Schollander provided into the world of amateur sports and the Olympic Games. Many of the problems he identified are still with us today, and in many cases, much worse.

Schollander begins the book by highlighting some of  the early successes he had in swimming, setting a national record in backstroke for boys 10 and under. As a freshman in high school, he had to choose between his first love, football, and swimming. While he was leaning towards football, his parents encouraged him to try swimming for a year, and he met with success once again, winning two races at the state finals. Then, early in his sophomore year, at the age of 15, his parents asked him if he wanted to leave home so that he could really focus on swimming. While he was initially reluctant to do so, he decided to move to Santa Clara, California, and swim for coach George Haines.

It was a big shock, both athletically and socially. He was used to training for an hour a day; at Santa Clara they were training three hours a day. He had no friends at the new school, and it took a while to be accepted by the Santa Clara swimmers. He was still happy he made the move, and credits most of that to George Haines, who was not only a great coach, but became a substitute father to Schollander.

It was during the 1962 Spring Nationals that Schollander first made his mark on the swimming world, earning two third places. As a result of his success, Schollander began to believe that the 1964 Olympics were a realistic possibility. That summer, he won the 200 free at the Outdoor nationals, and in July, 1963 he became the first man to swim the 200 free in less than two minutes. The newspapers compared it to Roger Bannister's conquest of the four-minute mile.

When the summer of 1964 came around, Schollander and his coach had some tough decisions to make. There were three big meets that summer, the Outdoor Nationals in July, the Olympic Trials in August, and then the Olympics in October. The key was being in peak condition for the Olympics, but the problem was that first you had to make the Olympic team.

Schollander discusses the way Olympic athletes are chosen in the US, using the results of US Olympic Trials as the sole basis for selection. Thus, someone could be the greatest swimmer in the world, and have one bad day at the Trials, and not make the Olympic Team. This is not the approach used in most other countries, where the Olympic athletes are chosen well in advance of the Olympics based on several criteria, and then go through a rigorous training schedule.

Since the swimming trials are held just six weeks before the Olympics, it is difficult for an athlete to peak for both; there is not enough time between the two events to do so. Schollander and Haines took a gamble and decided to have Schollander peak for the Outdoor Nationals, and not for the Trials, and hope that he would do just good enough (finish in the top three) to qualify for the Olympics. This would then enable him to peak for the Olympics.

The strategy obviously paid off. While Schollander did not win any individual events at the trials, he did take two seconds. Others were concerned however about the drop in his performance from the Outdoor nationals, where he won three events. Schollander and his coach were not concerned, since it was part of their strategy.

The next part is well known, Schollander won two individual events, and was on two winning relays a the Tokyo Olympics. There was some controversy however. Typically, the US swimmer with the fastest time in the 100 free at the Olympics would swim as the anchorman for the 400 medley relay team. Thus, after his victory int eh 100 free, Schollander thought he was the obvious choice for the medley relay team. However, the team coaches decided that if Steve Clark, who had not even finished in the top three at the Trials, could turn in a faster time than Schollander while leading off the 400 free relay, then he would be the anchorman for the medley relay. This is how events turned out, and it likely denied Schollander a chance at five gold medals.

After the Olympics, the book discusses what life is like as a celebrity, and the demands on your time. Schollander was on the cover of Life magazine, and there was even a movie made about him, The Boy Who Swims Like a Fish".

His schedule was nonstop, including accepting awards all over the country, and many foreign trips. He also began college at Yale, a semester late. His first semester at Yale was a difficult one, he found it difficult to fit in and felt like everyone was staring at him and talking about him. I found a couple of the college stories interesting because of how much things have changed. There was one excerpt from a story written in the Boston Globe by Bud Collins (yes, the same Bud Collins who became famous for his broadcasting at Wimbledon!) where it starts as follows: "The name on the door at Welsh 98 is Schollander...". I can't imagine being allowed to publish such information today about a college athlete, or any student.

Savage, the co-author, tells the story of how the students at Yale were trying to see how they matched up against Schollander, and since they knew they could not do so in the pool, they would try to beat him in the classroom. When grades were posted from an exam, students would check their own grade, and then quickly scan the names to see how Schollander did. Once again, this is something that would not be permitted at a college today, the posting of student names and grades.

It was during his freshman year that his attitude towards swimming started to change as well, and Schollander notes that he started to swim not with the goal of winning, but with the goal of not losing. He also felt that his training at Yale was not up to what he had gotten at Santa Clara, and this was starting to affect his performance. As a result of an illness, he also had to take the summer of 1965 off from swimming. He went back to Yale excited about taking a bigger part in college life, and he did, going to football games, parties, and joined a fraternity. (Interesting side note - by the time he graduated, Schollander was inducted in to the exclusive Skull and Bones Society; one of his fellow members was George W. Bush!)

At the Spring Indoor Nationals that year (1966), Schollander did not make the finals of the 500 free, and many people said that at the age of 19, he had already peaked, and was on the decline. However, the next day he won the 200 free, and that restored some of his confidence. At the Outdoor Nationals that summer, he set two world records, and won five gold medals, and he felt like he was on top again.

After a great year socially at Yale, and just an OK year as a swimmer, Schollander was looking forward to eh summer of 1967 to get back into peak condition. When he went back to Santa Clara he felt things were different, he felt like an outsider. In addition, he was no longer ht star at Santa Clara, people were talking about the next great swimmer, Mark Spitz. At the 1967 Outdoor Nationals, Schollander was back in top shape; he won the 200 free in world record time, and won the 100 free as well. He was also on two winning relays, and finished the meet with 4 golds and fifth place in the 400 free. However, Spitz had four golds and a third, and won the high-point total.

His senior year at Yale was uneventful from a swimming perspective, but he realized that by the time Spring 1968 rolled around he would need a lot of work to get ready for the Olympics. Back training at Santa Clara, Schollander felt that Coach Haines had changed, that perhaps he was getting a bit tired of coaching. In addition, Schollander felt that Spitz had become "the man" and Haines was more interested in perhaps seeing if Spitz could win five, maybe six, gold medals in Mexico City. As a result, he thought that Coach no longer had the same confidence in him. At the Olympic Trials that summer, Schollander set a world record in the 200 free, and felt that he had proved that he was not over the hill. However, despite a great time in the trial heats of the 100 free, Schollander finished a controversial fifth in the finals, leaving him off the 400 free relay.

From a swimming perspective, there really is not much in the book about Schollander's performance at the 1968 Olympics. He won a gold medal in the 800 free relay, and took second in the 200 free. His main thoughts were that he was glad it was over.

While swimming is obviously a central focus of the book, Schollander also spend a good deal of time talking about the current state of amateur sports at the time, and his belief that it is an archaic concept. Most other countries make no distinction between amateurs and professionals, while in the US they tried to make the difference clear. An amateur could not earn any money from his sport. Schollander felt this was wrong, since it created an unfair playing field. In addition, Schollander talks about the power struggles between the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) and the NCAA. I am sure Schollander would have been pleased when Congress passed the Amateur Sports Act of 1978, removing the AAU from any governance role, and now just serving as an organization that promotes youth sports. However, the NCAA has become even more powerful, and more frightening ni the eyes of many.

Schollander also talks a good deal about the Olympic movement, and how in its current state (1968), it no longer concerns itself with the original ideals set forth by Pierre de Coubertin in 1896. Instead, the Olympics  were (circa)1968 just as much about making political statements as they are about the athletic competitions. He bases this on some of the key political issues that took place in 1968; the banning of South Africa from the games, the potential boycott of the games by Russia and Africa, and the US Black Power movement that culminated in two athletes raised black-gloved hands during their medal ceremony. Schollander notes that most members of the International Olympic Committee are too far removed from what is actually happening i the world of sports to effectively lead the Olympic movement.

Unfortunately, things did not get better. The 1972 Munich Olympics are perhaps more well known for the killing of nine Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists than for Mark Spitz's seven gold medals. The 1980 Moscow Olympics were boycotted by the United States and other countries because of Russia's invasion of Afghanistan. This led to the 1984 boycott by the Russians of the Los Angeles Olympics. As Schollander noted a long time ago, the Olympics were being used as a way to make political statements.

I am sure Schollander would also be concerned about the commercialization of the Olympics, and sports in general, that have taken place since his book was published. Even though he wrote the book over 40 years ago, at a very young age, it is obvious that Schollander was not only a gifted athlete, but an insightful, and deep thinking person. It is a shame that there are not more people like him today in the world of sports who are not only  willing to speak out about the problems they see, but offer solutions to those problems as well.

It was great reading this book 40 years later to not only refresh my memory of what an amazing swimmer Don was, but to get me thinking about some of the sports related issues that he raised 40 years ago. To me, it is obvious that the Olympics have moved further away from its original goals, which is a sad thing to see, particularly if it involves issues that were brought to the surface four decades ago.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Ball Four - the Twentieth Anniversary Edition by Jim Bouton

No site dedicated to reviewing sports biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs would be complete without a review of Ball Four. I grew up loving baseball, and could recite the starting lineups for every team in the National League. I would play imaginary games in my backyard, taking on the role of everyone who played for my beloved Phillies. Unfortunately, my imagination was much better than my actual abilities, and I never made it past Little League. It was around this time that Ball Four was published, and my view of baseball players was about to change.

Considered by many to be one of the best sports book of all time, Ball Four was written in 1970 by Jim Bouton. The book is a diary of his 1969 season, spent with the Seattle Pilots and then the Houston Astros, after a late-season trade. In addition, Bouton also provides a recap of much of his career throughout the book. The twentieth anniversary edition also includes two updates. The first, entitled Ball Five, offers a brief summary of what took place in the 10 years after Ball Four was published (most notably Bouton's successful comeback with the Atlanta Braves). The second update, published in 1990, provides an update to what has been happening in Bouton's life, as well as the lives of many of the people he had written about in the original Ball Four, during the intervening years.

Ball Four was one of the first sports books to offer an honest, insider's look at the game of baseball. Bouton did not hold anything back, openly discussing the rampant use of drugs and alcohol, the amount of womanizing that took place, and the general antics that took place on and off the field. He also chronicles the problems he had with his coaches and his teammates, and the anxiety he felt while pitching for Seattle as he tried to feel like a contributing member of the team.

Bouton started his career in 1962 with the New York Yankees, and enjoyed some early success. He was a member of the 1962 Yankees World Series championship team, although he did not pitch in that series. He was named to the All-Star team in 1963, and pitched in both the 1963 and 1964 World Series. However, perhaps because of pitching too many innings, Bouton's arm became sore, and he was relegated to bullpen duty. He was then sold to the Seattle Angles, a minor league team, in 1968, which then became the Seattle Pilots of the American League in 1969. It was in November 1968 that Bouton begins his diary.

There are many notable characters throughout the book, including coaches, players, and baseball executives. While reading the original book again for the first time in 40 plus years, many of the stories came back to me, and made me laugh once again. I also found it ironic that I happened to be reading this in the summer of 2012, when R.A. Dickey of the New York Mets is getting a great deal of publicity because of his success with using a knuckleball. This was the pitch that Bouton was committed to at this point in his career, despite the lack of encouragement from his coaches and his teammates to use such a pitch.

Bouton recounts one incident when John Gelnar was on the mound, with a couple of men on base, and the manager, Joe Schultz comes out to the mound for a visit. Melnar asks Joe if he has any pitching advice for him, and Joe's response was "Give him some low smoke and we'll go in and pound some Budweiser." As it turns out, that was the manager's advice in many situations throughout the book. I was also amazed at the more carefree attitude of the athletes back then (as well as the much lower salaries - Bouton's contract in 1968 was for $22,000). Bouton tells the story of when he was taken out of a game during the second inning, and a few minutes later got into a confrontation with his teammates and a coach in the bullpen. His coach finally tells him to go take a shower, and while in the clubhouse, he drinks a few beers while the game is still in progress. While I have no idea if this still happens today, my sense is that if it does, it is much rarer than it was back then.

When reading this as a thirteen-year old, I especially liked the humor found in the phrase "Ding Dong", which is the phrase used when the catcher gets hit in the cup with a baseball. Somehow, it's still funny 40 years later.

It was also interesting reading the book now, and recognizing many of the names that are now almost mythical in stature (Mays, Mantle, Berra, Ford) but were contemporaries back then, as well as mention of some names who would become famous later, such as Johnny Bench, Roberto Clemente, and Reggie Jackson. There is also mention of Bowie Kuhn, the new commissioner of baseball at the time. Later, in his 10-year followup to Ball Four, Bouton recounts how Kuhn tried to get Bouton to publicly acknowledge that he had made a terrible mistake and that the book was a bunch of lies. When Bouton refused to do so, Kuhn then asked Bouton to promise that he would never reveal what went on at that meeting...

What I particularly liked about reading he updated version of the book is finding out what happened to all the characters from Ball Four. Bouton retired from the Astros in 1970, and this was followed by a career as a sportscaster, created and starred in a sitcom based on Ball Four. Then, in 1977, at the age of 37, Bouton decided to try and make a comeback. His first attempt was with the White Sox AA farm team and then later with the AAA farm team of the Atlanta Braves. His dream was realized in September of 1978 when the Braves called him up to the Big Leagues. He pitched well in a few games, and then decided to call it quits. Bouton is also a serial inventor, his most successful product being Big League Chew, a gum that is sold in pouches like chewing tobacco. Bouton eventually sold the product to Wrigley.

For many years after the publication of Ball Four, Bouton was effectively banned from attending many official baseball functions, perhaps most notably the annual Old-Timers' Game with the Yankees. Allegedly, it was because Mickey Mantle claimed he would never play in such a game if Bouton were invited. Mantle later denied the allegation. (Mantle's legendary drinking habits were clearly noted in Ball Four). However, in 1998, Bouton's son Michael wrote an open letter to the New York Yankees which was published by the New York Times. In the letter, he describes the anguish his father had suffered when his daughter Laurie, Michael's sister, died the previous year. Facing public pressure, the Yankees invited Bouton to that summer's Old Timers' Game, and received a standing ovation. He has been a regular fixture since.

I highly recommend Ball Four, and not just for sports fans. It has been selected by Time magazine as one of the top 100 non-fiction books of all time, and the only sports-themed book to make the New York Public Libraries 1996 list of Books of the Century. If you've already read the book, but it's been a few decades, I can attest to the fact that it's just as funny as ever, and you will enjoy the updates at the end.

If you'd like to read a bit more detail about the book and Jim Bouton, Wikipedia has a couple of nice entries at and

Friday, July 13, 2012

Foul: The Connie Hawkins Story by David Wolfe

Even though it's been 40 years since I first read this book, it's the first one that came to mind when I thought about creating this blog. I was 14 years old at the time, and loved everything about sports (despite not being very good at most of them). However, after reading Foul, while my love for sports was not diminished, I started taking a more discerning look at sports and what was going on behind the scenes.

Foul is the story of Connie Hawkins ("The Hawk"), a former NBA basketball player and an all-time playground legend on the courts of New York City. Connie grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and his family was among the poorest of the poor. He started playing basketball when he was eight years old at the local community center, and by the age of 12 was playing regularly in the schoolyards during the summer. School was never Connie's strong point, and his lack of basic academic skills were overlooked throughout his school years. By the time he got to high school, Connie was one of the best players his age in the city, and his team, Boys High, won the city championship his junior year. Despite losing in the finals of the city high school championships, Connie was selected as New York's top schoolboy player and as first-team All-American by Parade Magazine. 

Connie was heavily recruited by colleges, and ended up at University of Iowa. Because of his week academic background, he did not meet the minimum standards for an athletic scholarship, but Iowa was able to devise a complicated scheme for paying him under the table by arranging a bogus job at a local gas station. Connie only had to show up on payday, and his salary would cover his tuition plus room and board. A wealthy Iowa alum also sent Connie $150 per month for his other expenses, which to Connie was a windfall. 

It was during the summer prior to going to Iowa that Connie met Jack Molinas, a former NBA star who had been banned from the league for betting on games in 1954. However, by 1960 Molinas was not only a successful lawyer but also the key figure in a nationwide gambling operation that was bribing college players to fix basketball games. Molinas was someone many youngsters on the playgrounds of New York looked up to. He befriended Connie, with the eventual plan to use Connie to start shaving points at the start of his sophomore year. Connie was completely unaware of Molinas' intentions, and just viewed him as another white guy who gave him small favors because he was a good basketball player. 

Connie had sensational freshmen year at Iowa, at least on the court. The classroom was another story, where Connie struggled and was in danger of being kept on academic probation, and thus ineligible for a scholarship his sophomore year. The current payment arrangement was too risky once Connie stepped intot he national spotlight as a varsity player. While Connie worried about his grades, the Athletic Department was confident it could "work something out". However, that all came crashing down when detectives from New York city came to Iowa.

The detectives were there to find out about Connie's role in the point-shaving scandal that rocked college basketball. When Connie first met the detectives, he did not even know what point-shaving meant. However, because of his association with Molinas, the detectives thought Connie was involved, specifically as someone who introduced other college players to Molinas and his associates for the purpose of using those players as part of the point-shaving scheme. The detectives asked Connie to go back to New York City with them, for just a couple of days. but he ended up being gone for two weeks. It was during this time that his life fell apart.

Faced with unrelenting pressure from the detectives, Connie eventually was worn down and started admitting his involvement in the scandal. The reason? Hawkins was frightened and thought he would be put in jail if he did not tell the police what they wanted to hear. Connie ended up testifying to a grand jury which ended up indicting Joe Hacken, one of the key figures in the point-shaving scandal. Molinas and Hacken were quite clear in their testimony however, that Hawkins was never involved in the scandal, but their words fell on deaf ears.

As a result of his self-incriminating testimony, Connie was asked to leave the University of Iowa, and his life became a shambles. Nobody wanted anything to do with Connie, and he avoided like the plague back home in New York city. Since he was ineligible for the NBA (and would have been blacklisted anyway) Connie ended up playing for the newly formed American Basketball League, and became a star, winning the MVP award.. However, the league did not last long, and he then joined the Harlem Globetrotters. During his time with the Globetrotters, he filed a lawsuit against the NBA, claiming that he was unfairly banned from the league, and there was no evidence indicating that he had been a part of the college point-shaving scandal. After three years with the Globetrotters, Connie left to join the American Basketball Association, leading Pittsburgh to the team championship in 1968 and earned the league's MVP trophy.

In the meantime, the lawsuit dragged on, and in 1969 an article about Connie was written in Life magazine that helped push the NBA to a settlement. As part of the settlement, Connie was assigned to the Phoenix Suns, an expansion team in the NBA. It had taken eight years, but Connie had finally achieved his goal of playing basketball with and against the best players in the world. He more than held his own playing against some of the all-time greats, such as Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, and Elvin Hayes. 

What is remarkable about Connie's story is that he never seemed to harbor resentment or complain about his misfortunes. He took advantages of opportunities as they arose, and grew as a person as a result of his difficulties. It was a pleasure to reread this again as an adult, and is a book I highly recommend.

Postscript: Connie played in the NBA for seven seasons, and was chosen as an All-Star from 1970-73. Despite not having played in the NBA during his prime years, Connie was selected to the NBA Hall of Fame in 1992.