by Clark Groome
A legendary football executive, a historic team and perhaps the most respected NHL referee in the sport’s history are the subjects of three terrific sports books – all with significant local connections. Avid sports fans should consider these books, as either presents for sports-loving friends or as a bit of well-deserved self-indulgence.
While many could argue that the title belongs to Kenesaw “Mountain” Landis, baseball’s first commissioner, it is clear from Robert S. Lyons’ terrific “On Any Given Sunday: A Life of Bert Bell” (328 pages, Temple University Press, $35) that the Philadelphia native was the most powerful executive in the history of American team sports.
Born De Benneville Bell to a wealthy and powerful family, Bell attended the Haverford School and went on to quarterback the University of Pennsylvania football team from 1915 until entering the military in 1918. He led his team to the 1917 Rose Ball game.
After World War I, Bell returned to Penn, where he later coached, before founding the Philadelphia Eagles in 1933. Thirteen years later he became the sport’s commissioner, presiding over a sport that was to grow into a national passion.
He oversaw the expansion of the league, the arrival of TV as a major opportunity for the sport and the emergence of the NFL Players Association. He dealt with a gambling scandal, much as Landis had after the infamous 1919 Black Sox affair. For many years he single-handedly drew up the NFL schedule on a large chart on his dining room table. He also founded the Maxwell Club and was an inaugural inductee in the Football Hall of Fame.
Bell is probably best known for being the man who said “On any given Sunday, any team could beat any other team.” He died, appropriately, at Franklin Field in the final moments of an Eagles/Pittsburgh Steelers game.
Bell was a fascinating personality whose life is vividly brought to life in Lyons’ book. A Philadelphian who for years was head of the La Salle College News Bureau, Lyons captures eloquently Bell’s strengths and quirks in a book that is really good history, fascinating sports and revealing biography.
The Philadelphia Phillies are the oldest continuous one-city, one-nickname franchise in sports. Its history began in 1883. All of that history is captured in the impressive coffee-table book “Phillies: An Extraordinary Tradition” (252 pages, Insight Additions, $50). Put together by long-time Phillies PR maven Larry Shenk and Scott Gummer, the book covers all of the parks, the stars, the highs, the lows and much in between.
The copy, written by a number of different people, ranging from Phillies President David Montgomery to ESPN broadcaster Jon Miller, is crisp, enlightening and entertaining.
What makes the book so special is the more-than-400 photographs it includes and inserts including memorabilia from the team’s 127-year history.
Many of the photos have never been published before. They’re all worth seeing. Coffee table books are often more for decoration than anything else. This one is for reading, perusing and enjoying.
The last game that Kerry Fraser worked before he retired as an NHL referee in April after a 30-year career was a Flyers/New York Rangers game at the Wachovia Center.
This wasn’t just any game. The winner would go to the playoffs and the loser would go home. It was a barnburner, a game that was decided in a shootout that the home team won, beginning the Flyers’ epic journey to the Stanley Cup finals.
It is that game which forms the beginning and the end of Fraser’s delightful “The Final Call: Hockey Stories from a Legend in Stripes” (286 pages, Fenn Publishing Company, Ltd., $29.95). In between those bookends, Fraser recounts an amazing career that lasted long enough for him to have officiated more games – 2089 – than any ref in NHL history.
During that time, in what he calls a great honor (he’s a Canadian who now lives in New Jersey), he worked games that involved many of the greatest players in the history of the game: Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Steve Yzerman, Ray Bourque, and Martin Brodeur among them. He worked a dozen Stanley Cup Finals, the 2004 World Cup of Hockey and the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan.
The stories he tells are funny, often at his own expense. They are also enlightening about what it takes to be an official in any team sport, most especially in the one that is universally viewed as the hardest to referee.
Hockey fans will doubtless enjoy this more than others, but it’s so clearly written and his passion and decency so apparent that any sports fan will be enriched by spending time with the man many say is the best official of any sport ever.
What comes across so clearly – and probably why the players always viewed him as the most consistent referee – is his willingness to let the game speak for itself.
In an interview with the Philadelphia Daily News’ Rich Hofmann after that final dramatic game, Fraser said, “It was all on the line – we called what we had to call and didn’t get in their way.”
Another element of his success was his sense of humor. When four of the famed Broad Street Bullies – Bill Clement, Bob “The Hound” Kelly, Orest Kindrachuk and Dave “The Hammer” Schultz – became American citizens this fall, Fraser recounted his first encounter with that team, as a linesman called up in 1975 for a game at the Spectrum. “They scared the heck out of me,” he said. “But I think it’s wonderful that these fine gentlemen are becoming U.S. citizens. From a homeland security position, I feel our country is a lot safer than it was yesterday.”
Hockey is a better game because of Kerry Fraser. Football is a better game because of Bert Bell. Philadelphia is a better place to live because of the Philadelphia Phillies. These three books tell you why.