New book on the mixing of sports and politics is a fun read

There is no shortage of books written about American presidents.

But in his new book, “Power Players: Sports, Politics and the American Presidency (Hachette Book Group), Chris Cillizza adds a new twist to the subject of presidents by examining the interest that every president since Eisenhower has had in sports.

The theme of the book is that their interest in sports isn’t surprising because like it is in politics, winning is everything in sports.

And even if they aren’t that into participating in sports, they know how to use the interest of others in sports to gain what they wanted.

For example, Lyndon Johnson had no interest in baseball but he learned that Richard Russell, then a powerful senator from Georgia back when the Solid South was Democratic.

So Johnson started attending games with Russell, who was a loner and didn’t have anybody to go with. He attended few games before Johnson started going with him. And Russell started viewing him as sort of a surrogate son and helped him pass the 1957 Civil Rights bill that was so critical to Johnson’s reputation. That helped him get on the ticket in 1960.

A friend said Johnson could care less about sports, entertainment and movies. But he used baseball to his advantage.

Still some of the presidents cared a lot about sports.

Eisenhower, for example, was such a serious golfer that he went to Augusta 45 times, 29 as president. They also built him a three story seven bedroom cottage near the 10th tee at Augusta.

He also played football at West Point before he suffered a knee injury and turned to poker and was very good at it. He later played a lot of bridge. The author then goes all through the presidents after Eisenhower and chronicles their athletic exploits or lack thereof.

The best athlete was probably Gerald Ford, who played center at the University of Michigan and was offered a contract by the Green Bay Packers. Still Ford had some spills and Chevy Chase exaggerated them on Saturday Night Live.

It wasn’t generally known what a good athlete he was. He was even a good skier. 

Cillizza writes, “The dirty little secret about Gerald Ford then was that he as a very good athlete. Which shouldn’t surprise exactly no one – and yet it does.” Ford kind of downplayed his athletic ability because athletes sometimes aren’t considered the sharpest knives in the drawer.

I wasn’t surprised he was a good athlete because I grew up in Grand Rapids and knew his background. My dad was in his high school class and played in the band. When Ford became president, I was working at UPI in New York and told our columnist before he went to interview Ford and the columnist mentioned my dad.

Ford said, “Oh, you mean Phil’s son.” Ford never forgot his roots. 

At least two presidents managed to inflate their athletic accomplishments.

In campaign stops at Ohio University in 2008 and 2010, Joe Biden said his Delaware team beat the Ohio University Bobcats in 1963. It turns out Delaware did win but Biden wasn’t on the team. The author says Biden “fibbed.”

And then there was Donald Trump. Not surprising that he pretended to be a better baseball player than he was in high school. Slate magazine did a deep dive into Hudson Valley papers and found nine box scores in which he had four hits in 29 at-bats.

By contrast, George H.W. Bush was good enough to be a first baseman at Yale and the book includes a picture of him meeting Babe Ruth shortly before he died.

The book is a good read filled with anecdotes like this. Cillizza said the idea for the book has been rattling around in his brain for the better part of five years and it turned out to be a good idea.

Entertaining new book goes to the heart of sports and numbers

Do you like to debate who are the best of the sports legends? Do you like knowing their best numbers?

Mike Greenberg and Paul “Hembo” Hembek have just the book for you – “Got Your Number – The Greatest Sports Legends and the Numbers they Own.” It is just out and published by Hyperion Avenue.

They go from 0 to 100, and many of the numbers are uniform numbers. Like Derek Jeter at 2, Babe Ruth at 3 and Joe DiMaggio at 5.

Of course, some athletes don’t have numbers so Arnold Palmer is 62 for his number of tour wins. And then there is Secretariat who is 31 for the number of lengths he won the Belmont by in his Triple crown year. And 88 is for John Wooden’s longest winning streak at UCLA.

Each number gets two or three pages and tends to be crammed with interesting anecdotes and numbers.

For example, they note that Willie Mays, number 24, led the league in homers and steals four times each. No player has ever done that and probably never will again. He also won 12 Golden Gloves in a row and recorded 7,112 putouts, a record they say will never be broken. And then, of course, there was the catch of Vic Wertz drive in the World Series.

And the authors expect debate about their selections. Greenberg says he will defend every word he wrote but will listen to other sides.

OK, I will start with fact he left out both Lou Gehrig and Sandy Koufax. I was so surprised at their omissions that I went back through the book to make sure I hadn’t overlooked them. Meanwhile, Michael Jordan got 3 numbers – 23, 63 and 93. Isn’t one enough? It’s not like he was Bill Russell. And Dennis Rodman was included. Huh?

And he includes Dan Marino, who was routed in his only Super Bowl appearances and omits Sammy Baugh, Sid Luckman, Bobby Layne, Bart Starr and Terry Bradshaw, who all won multiple titles.

And he also left out some good anecdotes.

Of Walter Payton, he said he was an Ironman who simply did not miss games. Well, he missed one against the Pittsburgh Steelers in his rookie year in 1975 when he had a minor injury and the coaches figured there was no point in letting the Steel Curtain batter him. After that game, Don Pierson, the esteemed football writer who covered the Bears and the NFL for decades, said to Payton, “Jim Brown never did that.” Payton said, “Did what?” Pierson told him Brown never missed a game. Payton never missed another one even when he was hurt. I covered a game in 1983 in Baltimore when Payton was hurt and carried only three times for four yards. But he didn’t sit out. That was Payton.

And any discussion of Joe DiMaggio should include the iconic piece by Gay Talese in 1966 that was called the Silent Season of a Hero.

Talese talks about how Marilyn Monroe came back from a USO tour in Korea and said, “Joe, Joe, you never heard such cheering.” Joe’s memorable answer was “Yes I have.” That was the essence of DiMaggio. Didn’t need four words if three were enough. And an example of the cheering he heard during his celebrated career.

And he gave props to the Steeler dynasty of the 1970s, using 58 and 59 for the two HOF linebackers Jack Ham and Jack Lambert. Joe Greene got his own number later. He noted it was the only dynasty defined by its defense. He points out they played 18 playoff games between1972 and 1979 and didn’t allow a 100-yard rusher. And they stopped HOFers Larry Csonka, Tony Dorsett, O.J. Simpson and Earl Campbell twice. They also didn’t allow a 300-yard passer although there weren’t many 300 passing games in those days. Still, the authors didn’t mention that after the NFL banned the bump and run after five yards in 1978, a rule aimed at Mel Blount and the rest of the defense, they won their last two Super Bowls on offense, scoring over 30 points to beat the Cowboys and Rams.  The defense was so good they changed the rules to neutralize and then the offense took over.

Well, I could go on and on, but this book is definitely a good read. You can form your own opinions if you read it.

The debates help to make sports so interesting and this book will spark a lot of debate.

NFL offseason quick hits

–Streaming is supposed to be the future for the NFL, but obviously the future is not now. The first year of streaming Thursday night games on Prime was less than a rousing success. The NCAA women’s title game got better ratings than the average for the Prime games. This is why Commissioner Roger Goodell wants to be able to flex games, but fell two votes shy of getting it passed at the owners meeting last month. He will try again in May. At the very least, he got the owners to approve teams getting two games on Thursday night, which means teams like Chiefs and Eagles will likely appear twice. But that is not going to solve the streaming problem. The NFL couldn’t resist Jeff Bezos’ billion-dollar offer, but the NFL will have to live with lower ratings for now on the streaming games. Meanwhile, Paramount+ streamed “Inside the NFL” for one year and dumped it, and it is now looking for a new home.

–The dynasty is over in New England and the Patriots now seem to be a dysfunctional team. Owner Robert Kraft is frustrated that the Patriots haven’t won a playoff game in four years and isn’t promising that coach Bill Belichick will survive long enough to break Don Shula’s record. And Belichick is not apparently happy that quarterback Mac Jones went outside the organization last year when he was struggling. And now there are reports Belichick may be shopping him depending on which version you hear. The Patriot Way isn’t working these days.

–The decision of NFL Media not to renew the contract of Jim Trotter, one of the best football writers, didn’t get much notice from the fans. But it is an important story because it is another example of the dysfunction and lack of diversity in the NFL. It was a bad look that Trotter’s contract wasn’t renewed after he asked Commissioner Roger Goodell two years in a row at a press conference about the lack of diversity. The NFL even offered Trotter three months’ severance pay if he would sign a non-disclosure form, but he declined it so he will be free to speak out more in the future. 

–Lamar Jackson’s future remains in limbo. No team has been willing to make him an offer and he has asked for a trade. Meanwhile, the Ravens, noted for being a good organization, aren’t handling it well. At their pre-draft press conference, they refused to discuss him, which kept it on front burner. Best if they just said no new developments and we will let u know when there are.

–There were a lot of eyebrows raised when the Jaguars gave Christian Kirk a four-year, $72 million dollar deal last year. As it turned out, the Jaguars got their money’s worth because he had a good season. But according to Tyreek Hill, it led to him leaving Kansas City. He wanted more than Kirk got so the Chiefs traded him to the Dolphins and won the Super Bowl without him. But the Kirk contract was a good example of how contracts can affect other players.

No clear option at No. 1 for Panthers

As the draft nears, the speculation continues.                                           

Which quarterback will the Panthers take with the No. 1 pick?

In recent weeks, the speculation has been the Panthers would go for C.J. Stroud. But now the rumors are that they will pick Bryce Young despite his 5-10 and 1/8 stature.

Longtime ESPN analyst Chris Mortensen is now giving the nod to Young.

And then there is Anthony Richardson, who was dynamite at the combine, but struggled at Florida.

And don’t forget Will Levis, who is likely to go in the first round but is generally ranked fourth of the four quarterbacks. Still, all the speculation shows that there is no sure thing in this draft, even the first pick.

None of the quarterbacks is a consensus choice for the top pick. And the short term future for the Panthers depends on getting this right.

But maybe there is no right answer. Maybe there is no Peyton or Luck in this draft. That is the Panthers’ worst nightmare.

Meanwhile, the speculation will continue until draft day.

For Goodell and the NFL, money is all that matters

Roger Goodell has turned the NFL into a money-making machine, but it never seems to be enough.

Just look at what has been going on in Goodell’s NFL recently.

He has decided that teams should be flexed into playing Thursday night games. Even though Goodell was two votes shy of getting the proposal passed at the recent meetings, he usually gets what he wants and it will probably pass in May. The owners did agree that teams can now play two Thursday night games instead of one.

This is a bad idea for several reasons. Fans who make plans to watch their team play a Sunday night game on the road can have those plans ruined if the game is flexed to Thursday. And the Thursday night games are a safety issue for the players, no matter how much Goodell denies it. And by putting better games on Thursday night, it means they get less exposure because games are streamed on Amazon on Thursday nights, and only subscribers to Amazon’s expensive Prime service can watch.

But it is another sign that the NFL is more interested in the fans who watch on TV than the fans who actually attend games. And Amazon is willing to pay a billion dollars to a league where cash is king.

And then there are the layoffs at NFL Media. The departure of Jim Trotter, one of the most respected reporters in the league, got the most attention. He had asked Goodell the last two years at press conferences about the lack of diversity in NFL Media. Goodell said that had nothing to do with Trotter’s departure, but it wasn’t a good look for NFL Media.

And the layoffs show that in the 20 years since it started, the NFL Network has not been the money-making success the league thought it was going to be. And even though the NFL is hardly strapped for cash with its billion-dollar TV deals, Goodell apparently can’t accept the idea of using NFL Media as a promotional tool for the league.

Meanwhile, Peter King reported the league is going to partner with Skydance Media to create movies and documentaries. But will they make the kind of money the league wants? We will see.

As we know, Goodell cares only about the bottom line. He is so popular with the owners that he is going to get a contract extension that will take him through 2027.

Goodell’s obsession with the bottom line is not a surprise. But we’ve just gotten another reminder of what Goodell cares about.