New Sports Books for Jewish Dads

New Sports Books for Jewish Dads

The AJT’s sportswriter curates a selection of books that would make ideal gifts for the dads who just can’t get enough sports.

The Last of His Kind: Clayton Kershaw & The Burden of Greatness
By Andy McCullough

Andy McCullough, senior writer at The Athletic and former baseball scribe for the Los Angeles Times, published his first book last month, “The Last of His Kind: Clayton Kershaw & The Burden of Greatness.” Readers will hope that for McCullough, who’s married to Stephanie Apstein, an accomplished baseball writer in her own right, this first-ever biography of future Hall of Famer Clayton Kershaw isn’t the last of his books.

“The Last of His Kind” is an extremely well-written account of the gifted Los Angeles Dodgers lefthander, perhaps the greatest pitcher of the 2010s, whose indomitable career has drawn comparisons to that of Sandy Koufax — a notoriously reticent individual, Koufax was interviewed briefly for this work – and whose slender physique and devastating curveball spark thoughts of Max Fried.

Unlike many subjects of sports biographies, Kershaw, who was tutored at the beginning of his career by an aging Greg Maddux, willingly participated in this book project. His sincere involvement – as well as that of more than 200 of his friends, teammates, opponents, and coaches – results in a candid and exhaustive look into the life and times of the three-time Cy Young Award winner and the first pitcher to win National League MVP since Bob Gibson. As McCullough details, financial insecurity and the divorce of his parents (following the separation, his father was often not present) largely tainted Kershaw’s Texas upbringing, even as he was establishing himself as one of the state’s most ballyhooed pitching prospects in generations, one who, coincidentally, went to high school with future NFL quarterback Matthew Stafford.

As baseball fans well know, the burden which Kershaw carries with him to this day is a well-documented trail of postseason struggles. Sans his stout 2020 World Series performance, October has repeatedly haunted Kershaw throughout his brilliant career as his annual shortcomings in the season’s most important month have largely defined his legacy. With 210 career wins to his name, Kershaw, now 36 and expected to return soon from left shoulder surgery, will likely not reach the ever-elusive 300-win club but should have further opportunities to exorcise his postseason demons and rewrite the unfortunate narrative of choking when the stakes are the highest.

While Kershaw’s “burden” is poignantly chronicled (as well as his textbook pitching mechanics down to the most minute detail), readers may still struggle to understand how Kershaw deserves to be referred to as “the last of his kind.” An ultra-fierce competitor who’s weathered his fair share of physical torment and emotional setbacks on his way to Cooperstown, Kershaw may be an inspiring figure – but the question needs to be asked: does that make him unique?

When the Game Was War: The NBA’s Greatest Season
By Rich Cohen

Every NBA season has its dramatic moments, intriguing plotlines, breathtaking feats. It can be equal parts fun and maddening to label one season as the “greatest.” But in “When the Game Was War: The NBA’s Greatest Season,” New York Times bestselling author Rich Cohen makes a compelling case that the 1987-88 season fits that mantle.

Cohen, a columnist for The Wall Street Journal and contributing editor at Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone, does not give a game-by-game account of what transpired on NBA courts over 35 years ago. Instead, readers are taken on a rollicking journey through late 1980s pro basketball, when the game had just been rescued by the dynamic Larry Bird/Magic Johnson rivalry and emerging stardom of Michael Jordan. Actually, Cohen doesn’t even delve into 1987-88 until a couple chapters into his highly entertaining look back at this signature season; initially he chronicles the backstory of the characters and legacy teams, including the Boston Celtics, whose 1980s dynasty was engineered by the late Jewish sports icon, Red Auerbach.

As Cohen lays out, the 1987-88 campaign, during which the Detroit Pistons fell just short of dethroning the Showtime Lakers in an epic NBA Finals showdown (this series is chronicled in close detail), wasn’t just memorable for the star power of Magic, Larry, Jordan and Detroit Pistons Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas, whose friendship/bitter rivalry with Magic could be its own book; it was a banner year because of the on-court brutal, punishing clashes between teams, in particular the Bulls (Charles Oakley, Horace Grant) and Pistons (Bill Laimbeer, Dennis Rodman, John Salley), that are no longer a staple of the NBA. (Hence, the titular reference to “war.”) The same can be said for the settings of the hardwood duels, those now long-defunct mythical arenas of yesteryear – Boston Garden, Chicago Stadium, Omni Coliseum to name a few – that are brought back to life here and essentially become characters themselves. Yes, the Omni gets a shout-out, as do Dominique Wilkins and the rest of the Mike Fratello-coached Hawks who reeled off a 50-32 regular season before getting upended by the Larry Bird Celtics in a thrilling seven-game Eastern Conference semifinals series.

At the end of his 200-plus page account of what made 1987-88 such a magnificent year, perhaps the most magnificent, Cohen allows the reader to compare that iconic season of a now bygone era with more recent memorable ones (1995-96, 2007-08, 2015-16). After taking a journey back in time to 1987-88, it’s hard to imagine any other season in the league’s history being more exhilarating.

Team of Destiny: Walter Johnson, Clark Griffith, Bucky Harris, and the 1924 Washington Senators
By Gary Sarnoff

Habitually every season in the early 1900s, the Senators were an embarrassingly inept team, prompting famed sportswriter Charley Dryden to joke: “Washington: First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.” Except that is in 1924, when baseball was America’s most beloved sport and the Senators, behind Hall of Fame pitcher Walter Johnson (who finally got to compete for a winning squad) and second baseman/newly hired, 27-year-old manager Bucky Harris, rebounded from a mediocre 1923 season to capture the American League pennant —  and an entire city’s attention — before edging the heavily favored New York Giants in the Fall Classic.

Not many baseball fans are familiar with the Senators, who in 1960 would move to Minnesota, where they would morph into the Twins. Even fewer were around for the magical 1924 season, which is why author Gary Sarnoff, who specializes in early 20th century baseball history, took advantage of the 100-year anniversary to commemorate the improbable feat in his new book, “Team of Destiny: Walter Johnson, Clark Griffith, Bucky Harris, and the 1924 Washington Senators.” Given the Roaring Twenties timeframe, there are naturally no personal accounts from those who played, followed, or covered this unlikely world championship team. But the twists and turns of the Senators’ first World Series-winning campaign – and the sheer brilliance of what was supposed to be Johnson’s final season, but ultimately wasn’t — are depicted in vivid detail thanks to reports from a myriad of newspapers (Washington Herald, Washington Times, New York Times) and notable baseball history books among other secondary sources.

On another level, for fans of current teams grossly underperforming (or having solid seasons but trailing their divisional rivals by a healthy margin), “Team of Destiny” serves as a reminder that there’s a lot of baseball to be played between now and October. After all, in mid-June 1924, the Senators had fallen to 24-26 and were mired in sixth place in the AL standings before cranking out a nine-game winning streak that included a three-game sweep of Babe Ruth and the New York Yankees. Soon enough, hordes of fans would rush outside D.C. newspaper buildings to get updates on electronic scoreboards while President Calvin Coolidge would sit among the masses in a box seat at old-timey Griffith Stadium to root on the locals. After absorbing these anecdotes, which are sprinkled throughout the exhaustively researched game-by-game summaries, readers can’t help but feel a tinge of nostalgia for 1924 America, a time when baseball was king.

read more: