Book Review: Summer of Shadows by Jonathan Knight (via Goodreads)

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Summer of Shadows: A Murder, A Pennant Race, and the Twilight of the Best Location in the NationSummer of Shadows: A Murder, A Pennant Race, and the Twilight of the Best Location in the Nation by Jonathan Knight

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After reading three lengthy histories and Margaret Atwood’s depressing dystopia, all I wanted was to relax with a baseball book from the pre-DH era when baseball was truly the national pastime, when the sun shined on men and women in hats and bleacher seats were under a dollar.

Summer of Shadows gave me so much more! First, it is a great baseball book about the 1954 Cleveland Indians, the team that set the American League record for wins prior to flaming out in the World Series. Jonathan Knight captures the essence of the team and its journey, giving us enough in-game action without burying us in statistical detail. The author’s gift for making scene and character come alive in tightly-written paragraphs is truly exceptional; the two chapters devoted to the doubleheader conquest of the evil Yankees are baseball writing at its best.

But Mr. Knight does not limit his talents to the ultimately disappointing history of the Indians. That summer also featured the murder of the young wife of a physician by the name of Sam Sheppard, whose story gripped Cleveland as tightly as the pennant race. Knight uses this tragic but compelling tale of “newspaper justice” to draw attention to the elements that drove a once-great city (“The Best Location in the Nation”) into moral and physical decline. The goal is ambitious, the challenge significant, but Mr. Knight pulls it off with aplomb. Never once did I feel that he was stretching too hard to weave these three superficially disparate themes together; instead, his mastery of narrative provides us with a tight, page-turning story that is difficult to put down and consistently stimulates thought and emotion. We enter a time of both innocence and naiveté at the start of 1954 and leave it with a greater understanding of the cultural causes behind Cleveland’s tragic decline, much of which lies in the darker side of human nature.

There are few books I bother to re-read, but Summer of Shadows will definitely make that exclusive list.

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Confessions of a Browns Fan

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I am a man of many defects, but there is one flaw I have that my friends and acquaintances can neither forgive or forget. I hesitate to disclose this to the reading public, as I am sure I will lose many of my followers with this startling admission.

I am a Cleveland Browns fan.

Let’s explore this blemish on my soul. I am a reasonably intelligent person. I have both a Bachelor’s degree and a Master’s degree. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, where we had a couple of pretty decent football teams who were certainly worth a fan’s devotion. I have no connection to Cleveland whatsoever and have only been there twice on business trips. I have reasonably high self-esteem and few masochistic tendencies.

And yet, ever since I was a little boy, I have been a Cleveland Browns fan. In spite of my intellect and the continuing misery that the Browns have heaped on all their fans over the years, I am still a Cleveland Browns fan. Last year I watched one of the few Browns games televised in Seattle and spent most of the afternoon making noises similar to those made by torture victims.

And yet I remain a Cleveland Browns fan.

My first experience with depression was the result of a Browns game. It came on right after Sam Rutigliano had Brian Sipe call Red Right 88 in the playoff game against Oakland. Instead of throwing the game-winning touchdown, Sipe floated the ball into the hands of Mike Davis of the Raiders. I spent two days in bed with no desire to move, to talk to anyone or to eat a thing. I didn’t go to work, didn’t go to school, didn’t do anything but just lay there and relive that horrible moment over and over again.

But I remained a fan. I still love Brian Sipe, too.

Any Browns fan will tell you that Red Right 88 was not the end, but only one of many equally depressing experiences that come with the territory. After that horrible day came The Drive, when John Elway canceled our tickets to the Super Bowl. Then came The Fumble, when the Browns fell tragically short in their second legitimate shot at reaching the big game. A few years later, the worst day of all: The Move. The Browns were moving to Baltimore and the team we knew and loved despite it all was going to disappear off the face of the planet.

Now, an objective observer would tell you that if any football team deserved to be removed from the face of the planet, it was the Browns. I didn’t feel that way. I cried. I wanted to rip Art Modell’s guts out.

But like a bad dream or the weird girlfriend you thought you dumped, the Browns came back. Sure, it was an expansion team full of rookies and castoffs, but they had the same orange helmets and the same tendencies as many of their predecessors.

They sucked.

They sucked worse than ever. Even when they had a decent record in 2007, they were left out of the playoffs because of a tiebreaker. You’d think that with all the pain that Browns fans have endured over the years, the NFL would have cut us some slack and let us at least play some kind of a mini-playoff game for that last spot in the playoffs like they do with the March Madness play-in games.

Nah. We would have lost that game, too.

The only thing I can remember about how I became a Browns fan is that it had something to do with watching footage of Jim Brown running the football, spinning past tacklers or knocking them on their asses on his way to the end zone. There’s another vague memory of Bobby Mitchell doing a public service commercial on nutrition and the importance of three squares a day.

But by the time I remember myself being a Browns fan, Jim Brown was retired and Modell had traded Bobby Mitchell to the Redskins. I must have been a very impressionable three-year-old.

The Browns used to be a dynasty. In the years 1946-1964, they won more championships than any other team. They were at the forefront of integration, admired inside and outside of football as the epitome of class.

I’m writing this because I intend to go to Cleveland this year and see the Browns live and in person. I’ve only seen the Browns once before. They were playing the Joe Montana 49ers in Candlestick Park. It was a blustery, rainy day and my buddy and I were wrapped in plastic to keep ourselves dry. The game was close and wasn’t decided until the final seconds.

And miracle of miracles, the Browns won! The Browns beat the Team of the Decade! Wow!

Of course, on the way home, we got a flat tire and spent a good hour in the middle of a ferocious rainstorm changing the fucking tire.

And I drove off still a Cleveland Browns fan.

I’ve looked at the 2012 schedule and it doesn’t look like the Browns will get anywhere near the playoffs this year. They’re in a tough division and this year they’re playing the teams from the NFC East, including the Super Bowl champion New York Giants. I’ve seen one writer predict a perfect season: 0-16. I don’t think things are quite that bleak. I think 2-14 is a realistic expectation.

Sheesh.

This is a 366-day a year obsession, by the way. Every day at breakfast, I read the news on the Net. I go to three sites: The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Cleveland Browns Page on the Cleveland Plain-Dealer website. Even in the off-season.

Please help.

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I am not alone! Terry Pluto of the Plain-Dealer has written a fabulous book on the on this apparently inexplicable passion that Browns fans feel for their hapless team: Things I’ve Learned from Watching the Browns. You can learn about the book and hear fans like me try to shed some light on this enduring mystery by watching this YouTube video:

Cleveland Browns Fans Featured in Terry Pluto’s New Book