Wild Ride

The Book of the Week is “Wild Ride” by Ann Hagedorn Auerbach, published in 1994. This is a long story largely similar to many others in which one person acquires and abuses too much power in an organization that eventually comes to a bad end.

The horse racing industry is largely a playground for the wealthy, as it costs big bucks to purchase, stable and train horses for racing. There is only a tiny probability of profiting, considering all the different risks, and the factors required to produce a winning horse.

Major racing sites are located in Louisville and Lexington, Kentucky; New York City, Saratoga Springs in New York State, and Hialeah in Florida.

Calumet Farm was the site of the training and spawning of racehorses. It was owned by the Wright family, whose patriarch’s goal in the 1980’s was to turn it “… into a bustling assembly-line style breeding operation, hellbent on producing winner after winner.”

In the early 1980’s, J.T. Lundy wed a Calumet heiress with the aim of inheriting the large horse farm. He inherited it at 41 years old.  He  immediately engaged in excessive spending on farm renovations, the purchase of a corporate jet and additional horses, and paying more workers. In the industry in general, new systems were created by financiers to cash in on the horse-racing boom.

Lundy spent other people’s money (namely the Wright family’s) to fund his wheeling and dealing, while also commingling personal and business funds. The family (who knew nothing about horse racing) trusted him and his colleagues (who had numerous conflicts) to run the business and do what was in the family’s best interest.

The chief financial officer of Calumet attempted to duly inform Lundy of the farm’s mounting debt service, the unpaid insurance premiums and dwindling resources, etc. at the end of the 1980’s.

By November 1990, Calumet had approximately two hundred thoroughbreds and one hundred employees. Its fifteen-year-old stud Alydar, accounted for a large part of its revenue.

Sadly, the industry would reach its saturation point within a decade of Calumet’s soaring reputation as the premier place to breed winning horses. Read the book to learn the details of how the farm had gone from owing not a cent with the death of an heir prior to Lundy’s takeover, to the largest instance of debt explosion in the history of bluegrass.

The Franchise

The Book of the Week is “The Franchise, A History of Sports Illustrated Magazine” by Michael MacCambridge, published in 2009. There were two attempts to publish a magazine called Sports Illustrated in the late 1930’s and again in the late 1940’s, but both failed after a few years.

In summer 1954, Sports Illustrated (SI) was launched for wealthy men who engaged in golfing, croquet and yachting. Time, Inc. was able to arouse significant interest in its new magazine venture by soliciting existing subscribers of Time and Life.

Sidenote– The New Haven line leased out private rail cars to wealthy Westchester-County New York commuters. Rye was one train stop of the 1950’s Sports Illustrated’s first project manager, who got his shoes shined and was served ice water on his way to work.

Postwar prosperity and more leisure time allowed Americans to do more ping pong, softball, bowling, roller skating and boating. The original goal was for the publication to project a brand image of superiority in quality and comprehensiveness in coverage. However, target readers– athletes and spectators– were not thought of as intellectuals, so there was doubt as to whether they would read a magazine, even if it was about their hobbies.

The 1960’s saw television decrease the intellect of the nation as a whole, but it caused the popularity of such spectator sports as baseball, football and basketball, to soar.

The main competitive advantage of the magazine was full color photos. The publishing of those photos, even when generated with the latest technology, was very expensive and had a lead time of days. Nevertheless, in those days, publishers were willing to spend lots of money to ensure quality, and gave new projects lots of time to develop into successful ventures. SI was losing money for ten years before it turned the corner.

Long lunches and greatly exaggerated expense-account claims were also rife then. As were excessive alcohol consumption and bloated staffing. Starting in spring 1974, at SI, there was a team of four editors for every single article in every issue.

In September 1979, the magazine’s major area of dominance (college football and basketball recaps) was attacked with the introduction of ESPN.

Beginning in the late 1980’s, staffers “…willfully blurred the line between… edit and business, publicity and journalism.” The ethics conflict peaked during the 1996 Olympics, when “… the effect of having the business side of the magazine promoting an event that the editorial side was covering was profound and distracting.”

Read the book to learn of the other obvious contrasts between Sports Illustrated‘s early history and the current climate in magazine publishing in general in terms of sloppiness, illiteracy and lack of fact-checking, not to mention lack of ethics (mostly due to unwillingness to spend money on quality, and too much focus on the big dollar sign); the people who ran SI; their office politics; and their ability to change with the times.

The Jew in American Sports

The Book of the Week is “The Jew in American Sports” by Harold U. Ribalow and Meir Z. Ribalow, originally published in 1952, revised most recently in 1985.

The authors contended that the achievements of the athletes who were perceived to be Jewish, were all the more remarkable, considering that they had to overcome religious discrimination in addition to the fierce competition, rigors of training and harsh traveling conditions they had to endure in their generations. That is why the authors compiled this specific list of athletes.

The authors said Hank Greenberg might have been better than Babe Ruth in the 1930’s. “… Ruth was left handed and aimed at a 296 foot wall at Yankee Stadium most of the time. The park was built for him. Greenberg, right handed, aimed at a fence 340 feet away… he fell only two [homeruns] shy of Ruth’s record!” Later ballplayers had more opportunities to break records with lengthier seasons, stadiums easier to hit in, not to mention performance-enhancing drugs. Other baseball standouts included Al Rosen, Moe Berg and Sandy Koufax.

Jews became proficient in professional boxing in the early 20th century due to abuses they suffered at the hands of local neighborhood thugs of rival ethnicities, such as Irish and Italian. The New York City law against boxing was relaxed when Mayor Jimmy Walker saw the appeal of the sport among World War I veterans.

Benny Leonard was a Jewish boxer who benefited from that. He became rich and famous and from the mid-1920’s into the 1930’s, used his fame to purchase a hockey team, act in Vaudeville, write about sports and teach a course on pugilism at City College, New York. After his failed comeback, he tried his hand at refereeing, Zionism and helping to sponsor a Jewish Olympics in Tel Aviv.

Harry Newman, like Benny Friedman before him, played exceptionally great college football in the early 1930’s at the University of Michigan. In 1932, the team was undefeated and untied. “He had a hand in every winning play in every single game.” Benny Friedman, who played with the (professional) New York Giants, was popular with Jewish fans. The Giants saw Newman’s potential to keep up the good work, so they agreed to an irregular contractual provision that gave Newman a percentage of home attendance revenue.

In 1928, Irving Jaffee competed as a speed skater in the Olympics. When a Norwegian judge committed religious discrimination against Jaffee, a tremendous hue and cry erupted from athletes and the International Olympic Committee to award Jaffee a deserved gold medal. The American media picked up the story so the athlete became more famous than otherwise.

Read the book to learn about many other American athletes perceived to be Jewish, who overcame hardships and prejudice to rock the sports world with their feats.

Tales from the Dugout

The Book of the Week is “Tales from the Dugout” by Mike Shannon, published in 1997. This lighthearted compilation of anecdotes mentions some of American professional baseball’s colorful characters of different eras.

It was a dirty little secret that Willie Mays deliberately wore an oversized cap so that it fell off for a more dramatic effect when he was making one of his legendary catches in the field.

In April 1991, the J. Fred Johnson minor league stadium was cleaned up after a game via crowd-sourcing of the fans, who, in compensation, had received free admission.

Earl Weaver, manager of the Baltimore Orioles in the 1970’s and 1980’s, got thrown out of 91 games for arguing with the umpires. Needless to say, he was a hothead. One time, he made good on his threat to pull Orioles pitcher Rick Dempsey out of a game. Dempsey was so enraged, he threw his protective gear at Weaver in the locker room, and as their shouting match continued, got Weaver all wet when he turned on the shower.

Read the book to learn of other amusing episodes.

Foxcatcher

The Book of the Week is “Foxcatcher” by Mark Schultz with David Thomas, published in 2014. This autobiography discusses the author’s experiences in high school, college and professional wrestling in the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s, and his association with John du Pont.

Wrestling is comprised of technique, conditioning and luck. The season runs from November through March, and fans can be loud, obnoxious and profane. Schultz and his older brother, Dave, were passionate wrestlers. In 1983, they competed in the World Championships in Kiev, Russia. In 1984, they were the first brothers in United States wrestling history to win Olympic gold medals. During a time in his career when he struggled to make a living, Schultz put on wrestling clinics. He was employable in this capacity because he had been a global wrestling celebrity, hired by high school wrestling coaches. Wrestling is a nonrevenue sport. On the other hand, Russian wrestlers are paid to train and compete on the Olympic team.

John du Pont was an eccentric, super-rich donor to Villanova University who decided to start a wrestling program there in the mid 1980’s. Schultz assisted with that effort. John du Pont broke the NCAA rules in various ways because he could, just to be controlling. He produced awards ceremonies for himself. “John got a kick out of manipulating people to see if they would go against their principles in exchange for money.”

Read the book to learn the details of Schultz’s wrestling life, and du Pont’s actions in connection therewith.

Bonus Post

This blogger skimmed “An Accidental Sportswriter” by Robert Lipsyte, published in 2011. This ebook is a career memoir.

Lipsyte covers a range of topics, including how his father was a role model, and the celebrities he’s written about extensively. He covers controversies, including gay athletes and performance-enhancing drugs in baseball.

Lipsyte writes that he spoke to someone who said it was a dirty little secret that such drugs were used extensively among athletes after 1960. The reason it took so long for the practice to be widely disclosed and frowned upon (wink-wink, nod-nod) was that professional athletes’ incomes have skyrocketed in recent years, so there has been resentment of late that some players were making so much money because their abilities got a boost from an unfair advantage.

The author asks, “Why have no [team] owners had to speak in front of Congress? Why have owners been allowed to keep every penny from the big money, big bopping 1990’s, while players have been put through the thresher?” Sometimes the rogues win.

 

The Education of a Coach

The Book of the Week is “The Education of a Coach” by David Halberstam, published in 2005. This ebook describes the career of Bill Belichick, eventual head coach of two different professional American football teams from the 1990’s into the 2000’s. His excellence at analyzing films of players in action was instrumental in assembling winning teams and Super Bowl victories.

Job security is poor for coaching positions in college sports departments and in professional sports. There are many factors out of the control of the personnel, and networking is crucial for obtaining the next job, often in a different city. A newly installed athletic director could fire the head coach, and the assistant coaches would have to leave with him. Players could get injured or the team owner could interfere with the coaching of the team. Egos are big and the system for how players are chosen for professional football teams has changed over the decades.

Read the book to learn how Belichick rose to the top and why he ran into trouble in Cleveland but achieved tremendous success in New England.

The Outsider

The Book of the Week is “The Outsider” by Jimmy Connors, published in 2013. This is the autobiography of the American tennis Hall of Famer.

Born in 1952, Connors grew up in Illinois. His mother and grandmother were instrumental in turning him on to tennis.  He started playing in junior tournaments at twelve. However, at that time, there was no money in tennis, so he played to try to get a scholarship to college. That turned out to be a moot point, as his grades were poor, partly due to an undiagnosed learning disability.

Connors was left-handed, and a two-handed-backhand player. Like John McEnroe, he was a hothead on the court and launched profanity-laced tirades when he thought the line judges were making bad calls. He became an “outsider” when he hired a litigious, greedy manager who shook up the then-professional tennis organizations of the early 1970’s.

Read the book to learn about the people who influenced his personal and professional life, and the people who shaped his generation of tennis players.

The Secret Olympian

The Book of the Week is “The Secret Olympian” by Anon, published in 2012. This ebook is about Olympic athletes (who were interviewed by the author) and the issues they face before, during and after the Olympics.

Most nation’s teams travel to the metropolitan area of the Olympic games locale two or more weeks prior to the actual competition. Of course, the better funded teams use the latest technology in adjusting to the local conditions. For instance, if the venue is at a higher altitude than what the athletes are used to, they sleep in “hypoxic altitude tents” if they don’t find them too noisy. Other high-tech devices are used to test the athletes’ physiology more than once a day– “…oxygen utilisation, lactate generation, statistics about lung capacity… at different cycling and running speeds…” Blood is drawn from the ear to be tested; a rectal thermometer tests core temperature.

In 1968 in Mexico City, Olympians saw various “firsts” in addition to high altitude that they hadn’t previously encountered. Gender and low-level drug testing were initiated. Mexico was the first developing, and Spanish-speaking nation, to host the Olympics. At those games, East and West Germany competed separately.

The author relates how extremely rare gold medallists are. In Great Britain, athletes who have won gold medals number about 300 out of a population of approximately 60 million; .000005 or 1 in 200,000 people.

Read the book to learn about various athletes’ experiences in training, competing, clothing-exchanging, doping, partying, retirement and much more.