Here is a longer version of a book review I wrote of Paul Knepper's "The Knicks of the Nineties." This was for Sport In American History."
I remember the first time I saw Andre the Giant in person. It was sometime during 1974 at the West Palm Beach Auditorium. Andre was appearing for Eddie Graham’s NWA pro wrestling promotion in Florida, and before his match he stood in the back as kids swarmed around him.
I was 17 at the time, and Andre appeared to be two feet taller than me. He probably was.
Andre’s height and weight were always open to question. It was part of his mystique. He had been listed as tall as 7-foot-4 and at times, more than 500 pounds. And there was that frizzy shock of hair, a perfect complement to the Afro hairstyle of the 1970s.
There was one match against the Iron Sheik, for instance, where the referee announced Andre at 403 pounds.
“Well, the timekeeper obviously (is) misinformed as to Andre’s weight,” announcer Gorilla Monsoon noted. “However, we clarified it correctly on your screen (at 492 pounds).”
For many years, the Houston Astrodome was called the eighth wonder of the world. But pro wrestling took the phrase and applied it to Andre Roussimoff.
It wasn’t a bad idea.
Wrestlers tell the best stories — there are plenty of autobiographies as evidence — but during the era of “kayfabe,” they always managed to keep facts at an arm’s length while perpetuating myths to enhance their brand.
And Andre always had a mystique about him that few people could pierce.
Until now. Writers Bertrand Hébert and Pat Laprade have put together a biography that shatters myths and sticks to the facts.
The Eighth Wonder of the World: The True Story of Andre the Giant (ECW Press; hardback; $26.95; 421 pages) is a marvelous read, and the authors have done their homework. There are facts in their work that even seasoned wrestling fans might not have known about.
Before the internet, it was easy to weave a compelling narrative about a wrestler that was rarely challenged. Pro wrestling was divided into territories, where promoters carved out a niche and traded wrestlers and story lines freely. The NWA, AWA and WWWF were the Big Three of the squared circle, but people in New York, for example, rarely knew what was going on in San Francisco. Even the wrestling magazines were several months behind in reporting the “news.”
Those unwritten rules held until Vince McMahon Jr. took over his father’s promotion (WWWF) and revolutionized pro wrestling. McMahon snapped up territories, pioneered pay-per-view events and sold-out arenas with events like WrestleMania and the Royal Rumble. McMahon aggressively marketed his wrestlers and turned the WWWF into the WWF and finally, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE).
Andre’s height and weight were never confirmed, but promoters tossed out numbers for years that seemed reasonable. And why not? Wrestling promoters at heart are descended from the huckster-like tactics of P.T. Barnum, who also never let the facts get in the way of a good story.
Thankfully, Hébert and Laprade stick to the facts. There is plenty to chew on in this book.
For example, I did not know that Andre’s paternal family came from Bulgaria. Also, his relationship with his daughter, Robin, is given balanced, fair treatment. There is not much in the way of romantic encounters involving the Giant, although the authors do some teasing and winkingly bring up his size, inferring that, well, he was large all over.
Andre had to deal with acromegaly, a disorder that occurs when the pituitary gland produces too much hormone. The result is that a person’s bones — particularly the hands, face and feet — grow larger as a person ages. The disorder would cause Andre plenty of discomfort through the years. Ultimately, it caused Andre’s death in 1993 at the age of 46.
Some other tidbits — Andre was involved in an accident during the late 1960s that killed a moped driver. Andre also loved his role as Fezzik in the 1987 movie, “The Princess Bride,” and carried around VHS tapes (remember those?) and played them when he was on the road, viewing them with anyone who would sit with him.
The authors properly point out that Andre’s match against Hulk Hogan in WrestleMania III was a crucial event for McMahon’s promotion. What is gratifying, though, is how they detail Andre’s relationship with McMahon’s father, Vince McMahon Sr. The elder McMahon was from the old school of promoters, where a handshake was a person’s bond. Andre respected that and delivered for McMahon Sr., who in turn protected the Giant.
Yet, Andre’s fame had been established long before he wrestled for McMahon Sr. in the Northeast. The authors examine Andre’s career in the Montreal promotion and his forays to Japan. Wrestling fans will enjoy the detail as Andre carves out his legend and will realize the grueling schedule that pro wrestlers had to endure.
The authors also dispel myths about Andre never losing a match until late in his career (he had), or never being body-slammed until Hogan hoisted him up in WrestleMania III (he had), but also give the reader a view from the locker room.
Andre enjoyed the camaraderie with other wrestlers and was loyal to a fault, enjoying card games and excessive drinking binges. After all, Andre was a man with giant appetites, and some of the wrestlers still speak in awe about his ability to put away prodigious amounts of wine and beer.
The authors also discuss Andre’s snoring (loud) and flatulence (monumental), while recounting a rather gross episode in the ring that left Bad News Brown as an unfortunate victim.
“Andre’s life was always a matter of interest, not only for wrestling fans,” the authors write.
Cross him, though, or come across as being cocky without paying your dues as a wrestler, and Andre could turn a huge cold shoulder. Several wrestlers were more than terrified, wondering if Andre could turn a “work,” which was the scripted scenario, into a “shoot” — the real thing. Given Andre’s size, it was a major concern. Wrestlers live on the edge to begin with, and if an opponent does not sell a move properly — through ineptitude or indifference — it could cause major injuries.
The authors also highlight some of the major stars Andre faced during his career, including Don Leo Jonathan, Shohei Baba and Antonio Inoki. They also document how Andre was unable to live an ordinary life due to his size. There was a marked sadness to the man, who basked in his fame but was tortured by the idea that some fans viewed him as a freak.
The research in this book is deep and detailed, and peppered with interviews with Andre’s surviving relatives.
Both men are familiar with the wrestling world. Laprade was a field producer for HBO’s 2018 documentary about Andre. Hébert co-authored Pat Patterson’s 2016 biography, Accepted, and also the 2017 biography, Mad Dog: The Maurice Vachon Story. Hébert also wrote the 2013 book, Mad Dogs, Midgets and Screw Jobs: The Untold Story of how Montreal Shaped the World of Wrestling.
In The Eighth Wonder of the World, Laprade and Hébert portray Andre as he was: A top gate attraction in wrestling, a fun-loving friend, a major drawing card for promoters, and an enigma even 27 years after his death. Wrestling fans will enjoy the book, and so will mainstream readers.
“Even if this book tells the truth behind the myths, one must not forget that these myths carried Andre’s legacy,” the authors write.
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Steve Dalkowski was the hardest throwing pitcher you’ve never heard of. Oh, there is a certain generation of fans who remember the hum and hiss of the lefty’s fastball, but Aroldis Chapman, Craig Kimbrel or Kelvin Herrera have plenty of gas today.
Throw in Hall of Famers Walter Johnson, Bob Feller, Sandy Koufax and Nolan Ryan, and the overpowering fastball is well-represented in major league history.
Dalkowski might have been faster. But “Dalko,” who died earlier this year at the age of 80, never made it to the major leagues.
“Every pitch was an all-or-nothing effort, an unhittable strike or an uncontrollable ball,” authors Bill Dembski, Alex Thomas and Brian Vikander write in Dalko: The Untold Story of Baseball’s Fastest Pitcher (Influence Publishers; hardback; $26.95; 304 pages).
It’s true. Dalkowski almost seemed offended if a batter managed a loud foul ball. Unlike the 1949 movie, “It Happens Every Spring,” Dalkowski did not need a mysterious chemical that repelled wood to make him a strikeout king. He was scary fast. He was closer to writer-director Ron Shelton’s fictional erratic pitcher, Nuke LaLoosh, in the 1988 movie, “Bull Durham.” Shelton had been a player in the Orioles’ farm system and had heard the legendary tales about Dalkowski.
“In his sport, he had the equivalent of Michelangelo’s gift but could never finish a painting,” Shelton wrote about Dalkowski in 2009.
Blessed with an easy motion and a fastball that exploded out of his hand, Dalkowski could never find his control. He would strike out 18 batters in a game, while also walking almost as many. Pitching for Stockton in the California League, Dalkowski struck out 262 batters in 1960 — but he also walked 262. In nine minor league seasons, he struck out 1,324 while walking 1,236. But he hit 37 batters and uncorked 145 wild pitches.
As an 18-year-old in 1957, Dalkowski set an Appalachian League records with 39 wild pitches and 129 walks. However, he set a league record on Aug. 31 for left-handers with a 24-strikeout performance against Wytheville — but also walked 18. That came two weeks after Dalkowski walked 21 batters and had six wild pitches in 7 1/3 innings during a 9-7 loss to Wytheville.
Dalkowski advanced to the Triple-A level twice and even appeared on the brink of cracking the major leagues with the Baltimore Orioles in 1963.
“Ex-Wildman Tames Tigers,” The Miami News noted in a March 13, 1963, headline.
Nine days later, Dalkowski threw three straight strikes past Yankees slugger Roger Maris.
“I’ll bet Maris never names one of his kids Steve,” Steve Barber observed.
Barber was correct.
However, near the end of spring training, Dalkowski felt something pop in his elbow. The injury would prevent him from heading to the majors.
“Zeus quietly took back his thunderbolt,” Shelton would write.
Dalkowski still managed to have a Topps baseball rookie card — No. 493 from the 1963 set. He would not earn a solo card.
Dembski, Thomas and Vikander set out to debunk the myths surrounding Dalkowski, and they do a workmanlike job. They spent four years researching and interviewing, sifting through 55 newspapers and interviewing 27 subjects.
“The true story of Steve Dalkowski — as opposed to the legend — is out there, but it took some doing to find it,” the authors write.
One legend attached to Dalkowski was that his fastball was so explosive, it ripped a player’s ear off.
Not true. As the authors note, Dalkowski, pitching for Kingsport on June 30, 1957, hit Bluefield Dodgers batter Bob Beavers on the top half of his ear, “crushing” it.
“Though the ear was smashed and bloodied, it was not torn off,” the authors write.
According to the Bluefield Daily Telegraph’s story the next day, the incident, reported in the second paragraph of the story, occurred during the sixth inning, and Beavers was in “fair condition” at an area hospital.
The recurring theme the authors put forth is that opposing batters were amazed by Dalkowski’s velocity but were reluctant to step into the batter’s box against him. A batter never knew if a pitch was going to be a letter-high fastball or a pitch that sailed over everyone’s heads and into the stands.
That began when Dalkowski pitched for New Britain High School in Connecticut. He threw back-to-back no-hitters, but kept batters bailing with his unpredictable aim.
“When he was throwing strikes, nobody could touch him,” the authors write. “When his control was off, he didn’t know what to do to get it back.”
As it turned out, nerves and a lack of confidence derailed Dalkowski’s hopes to reach the majors. So did his love for alcohol.
His father drank heavily, and it was not unusual to see Dalkowski accompanying his father to area bars. Some teammates knew about the drinking, believing he was influenced by older players. The young southpaw, “ever friendly and eager to please,” was happy to go drinking, believing it was a way to be accepted.
As events would show, it was the wrong decision.
“I didn’t drink to forget. I just drank,” Dalkowski would say.
The authors hint that on the field, Dalkowski may have been the victim of overcoaching. Several coaches tried to tinker with his mechanics to help with his control, but that only tended to make the situation worse. The only manager or coach who really had a positive influence was future Hall of Famer Earl Weaver, who was Dalkowski’s manager in Elmira, New York.
Weaver believed that Dalkowski “was easily distracted and confused,” adding that the reason he did not improve is that coaches “were trying to tell him too much at once.”
Dalko would eventually resent the attention lavished on his fastball and his legend when he would join a new team or league. “Like I was a freak or something,” Dalkowski told Mark Fleisher of the Elmira Star Gazette in 1979. “I look back at it all and I’m a little disgusted.
“But you can’t cry over spilled milk, can you?”
By 1966, Dalkowski was out of baseball. That began a long decline as the former pitcher battled alcohol, a failed marriage, and finally, the onset of dementia. Several friends tried to rehabilitate him, but Dalkowski always slipped back into a haze of beer or liquor.
The authors note how during his baseball career, Dalkowski was forever broke, borrowing money from his teammates to go drinking. However, on payday, he would make good on his debts, only to borrow money again in a continuing cycle.
Dalkowski died in April 2020 after spending the last 26 years of his life at a nursing home with alcohol-induced dementia. The cause of death was listed as COVID-19 related. He lived long enough to be inducted into the New Britain Sports Hall of Fame.
Dembski, Thomas and Vikander do an excellent job in piecing together the life of a man who had all the physical tools to be a major league pitcher but could never overcome his wildness. Baseball’s hardest thrower lived a hard, sad life.
“A God-gifted rookie who was a lost soul,” the authors write. “Maybe (his gift) was too much. Maybe he never got comfortable with it. Maybe he needed other gifts to handle it.”
“Dalko” is a gift for the baseball historian’s library.
Panini America’s Rookies & Stars set is back, with its colorful design and a background that simply jumps out at you.
The nice thing about buying a blaster box is that Panini promises a memorabilia card, and the blaster box I opened was no exception. I received a Year One relic card of Buffalo Bills rookie Zack Moss, one of 42 possibilities in this subset.
The 2020 version of Rookies & Stars has a base set of 100 veterans and 100 rookies. For the blaster product, there are seven packs, with 10 cards to a pack. Each pack contains one rookie card, and collectors can expect to find at least 10 inserts and two red parallels. There is also an Optichrome parallel.
For those collectors who buy the more expensive Longevity retail product, there will be more parallels.
In the blaster box I opened, I pulled 48 base cards and seven rookies, along with a red base parallel and a red parallel base card of Chandler Jones and a rookie card of Jerry Jeudy. The two Tampa Bay Buccaneers I pulled were of Tom Brady and Mike Evans.
The base design features and action shot of the player, with a star background and spoke-like swatches of color. The effect really assaults your senses, especially since the spokes take on the primary colors of the player’s team.
“Rookies & Stars” is stamped in gold foil beneath the photo, with the player’s name and team on the next line — also stamped in gold foil.
The star design also prevails on the back of the card, using the same photo of the player but cutting it off at the waist. The player’s name is in capital letters beneath the photo, and a seven-line biography presents some career details along with the occasional corny description. Aaron Rodgers’ biography notes describes the Packers’ quarterback this way: “A glacier in shoulder pads, only a lot more mobile, Rodgers stays cool no matter what. He can ice a defense by heating up through the air …” Enough, already.
Or this bit on Dalvin Cook: “One can have too many cooks in this kitchen.” Or Ezekiel Elliott: “Keep him well fed and productive, and the Cowboys won’t go hungry in the wins column.”
OK. Waving the white flag.
The card back also has the team logo in the upper right-hand corner, with NFL and NFLPA logos in the upper left-hand corner.
The blaster I opened had 10 inserts and an Optichrome card. There were two Ticket Masters, featuring Dak Prescott and DeAndre Hopkins. As you might expect, the card design replicated an elaborate football game ticket complete with a bar code. There are 20 cards in this insert set.
Touchdown Club inserts are a 10-card subset featuring the game’s top scoring threats. The card I pulled was of Titans running back Derrick Henry.
Rookie Rush is a 20-card insert set, and I pulled two cards: the Colts’ Jacob Eason and Cee Dee Lamb of the Cowboys. The players’ names are stamped in red foil, and the “Rookie Rush” logo at the top sports a lime-green color scheme.
Another 20-card insert set is Standing Ovation, and I pulled Super Bowl LIV MVP Patrick Mahomes II and Packers running back Aaron Jones. The cards make good use of player jubilation shots, with a background that hints at fans standing up to cheer. It’s a nice idea because the photos are very expressive.
Action Packed insert cards sport a horizontal design on the front, with the familiar “Action Packed” logo. Each card has an action shot, with an insert photograph from the main shot that is cropped to look like an oversized head shot. The photo on the back mirrors the main shot on the front.
The Crusade insert is an attractive card, with a shiny finish and silver-etched outlines. The card I pulled was Giants running back Saquon Barkley.
Overall, not a bad-looking set. It’s kind of loud and brassy, and the puns make even a punster like me cringe at times. But there is a good selection of players and the base set should be easy to collect. Rookies will make it more difficult, but not impossible.
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Talented and tough. On paper, the New York Knicks of the 1990s should have won at least one NBA title. They failed because Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls won six NBA crowns during the decade.
That’s the short history, which gained more weight with the airing of “The Last Dance,” the ESPN miniseries released earlier this year. The perception became even clearer when Charles Smith’s shots were rejected four times by the Bulls in the final seconds of Game 5 in the 1993 Eastern Conference Finals.
Doc Rivers would compare that sequence to “the sudden death of a family member who was perfectly healthy,” Paul Knepper writes in his meticulously researched book, The Knicks of the Nineties: Ewing, Oakley, Starks and the Brawlers That Almost Won It All (McFarland; hardback; $35; 288 pages).
The Knicks certainly came close. They qualified for the playoffs for 14 consecutive seasons from 1987-1998 to 2000-2001. They lost in the finals twice (1994 and 1999) and fell in the conference finals five times.
Knepper, a Jericho, New York, native who now lives in Austin, Texas, rooted for the Knicks as a youth.
“I think about the Knicks more than I should,’’ Knepper told the New York Post. “I’m one of those people who long for those days in the ’90s.”
Knepper, an attorney who graduated from the University of Michigan and earned his juris doctor from the Fordham University School of Law, has a lawyer’s eye for detail. For his first book, he conducted 88 interviews with former players, coaches and executives. The insights of former Knicks and Madison Square Garden president Dave Checketts give Knepper’s work plenty of depth and context.
Knepper’s bibliography includes 31 books, five newspapers, two magazines and websites such as ESPN.com and Basketballreference.com.
Knepper, who began researching Knicks of the Nineties three years ago, peppers his narrative with brief stories about key players — and bit part actors. Coach Pat Riley, for example, was a gym rat and a basketball junkie despite his slicked-back look and expensive Armani suits. “If ‘The Boss’ was ‘Born to Run,’ Riley was born to coach,” Knepper writes. Riley was also a “master motivator,” sometimes turning his back on a player in an elevator or sending messages through the media. Other times, he would challenge players directly.
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Riley “had his finger on the pulse of his team” and embraced analytics long before it became common in sports. Riley’s assistants kept track of “hustle stats,” and the coach posted the results and praised players who excelled.
As for his players, Riley loved John Starks’ competitive spirit, even though “he played at full speed all the time, had questionable shot selection and was reckless with the ball,” Knepper writes.
Charles Oakley was the Knicks’ “thug,” Knepper writes, a 6-foot-9 enforcer who put fear into opposing players. He became a franchise cornerstone, a player beloved by fans because “he collected as many floor burns as baskets.”
After a few misses, the Knicks reached the NBA Finals in 1994, employing a strong defense and a workmanlike ethic. New York took a 3-2 series lead against the Rockets in the Finals and headed to Houston needing just win to earn the NBA title. They lost both games.
Starks, who scored 16 of the Knicks final 22 points in Game 6, went up for a shot from the left corner with New York trailing by two and seconds remaining. Somehow, Hakeem Olajuwon managed to get a finger on the ball, and it fell short of the hoop. Ewing was open but Starks did not pass to him.
Before Game 7, Riley spent the afternoon at his hotel with close friend Dick Butera, Knepper writes. As they waited for an elevator, Riley said to Butera, “Well, buddy, I know three guys that are gonna show up tonight.”
“Who?” Butera asked.
“You, me and John (Starks), Riley said.
Riley stuck with Starks in Game 7 despite poor shooting (2-for-18, and 1-for-10 in the second half). “Feast or Famine shot the Knicks out of the game,” Knepper writes.
After Riley he left for the Miami Heat — and started a heated rivalry with the Knicks — New York failed in its experiment with Don Nelson as coach, replacing him after 59 games with longtime assistant Jeff Van Gundy.
Van Gundy, short and underappreciated, seemed to be “a polar opposite” to Riley, but shared his mentor’s fiery competitiveness. He was a tireless worker who was detail-oriented and obsessive about basketball.
The players knew Van Gundy had their backs. A memorable brawl between the Knicks and Heat included Van Gundy, knocked to the floor during the fight, hanging onto Alonzo Mourning’s leg. “It remains the most recognizable image of Van Gundy’s career with the Knicks,” Knepper writes.
Van Gundy also knew how to work the officials. After the Knicks eliminated the Heat in the playoffs to become the second eighth seed to knock off a No. 1 in the postseason, Van Gundy was still arguing with a referee.
“What are you doing?” Checketts asked. “We won.”
“Coaching for the next round,” Van Gundy said.
Knepper also highlights the bizarre and drama that always seemed to swirl around the Knicks. For example, in 1999, Checketts invited Ernie Grunfeld, the team’s general manager who had been with the team’s front office for nearly a decade, to dinner and fired him “over biscotti and fresh fruit.”
Knepper’s narrative about Ewing, who he calls “The Big Fella,” is also interesting. Ewing was one of the most coveted players coming out of college after starring for Georgetown, and he was a force for the team for a decade. All he lacked was a championship ring.
Ewing was “respected, but never loved,” Knepper writes.
Readers are fortunate that Knepper did not write The Knicks of the Nineties in lawyer-speak. His prose is insightful and filled with colorful anecdotes, written mostly with an impartial approach, but also at times exposing his original allegiance. Sometimes Knepper gets too familiar, referring to players by their first names or nicknames, but it is part of the book’s charm.
The Knicks of the 1990s may not have reached the pinnacle of the NBA, but they sure came close. Knepper brings that exciting era of New York basketball back to life.
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I love to blog about sports books and give my opinion. Baseball books are my favorites, but I read and review all kinds of books.