I’ve always been a sports fan. Well, maybe not always, but at least since I started watching football as a preteen. My father followed all the L.A. teams, so I did, too. I collected baseball cards, followed the box scores in the newspaper and parked myself on the sofa every Saturday and Sunday to watch six hours of football – shouting at the TV every time the ref made a lousy call.
My parents and I attended half a dozen Dodgers games each year, and my dad took me to see a Lakers game and a Rams game. We lived next door to the Dodgers’ left fielder at the time, Bill Buckner, and he got me a ticket to see a game in the 1974 National League Championship Series against the Pittsburgh Pirates, and a World Series game against Oakland that same year.
But I wasn’t just a fan of the major sports. Dad took me to an L.A. Aztecs soccer game at the Rose Bowl, where the 9,000 fans looked lost in a sea of 100,000 seats. I also saw Steve Young play a game for the L.A. Express. I loved the ABA’s 3-point shot and the USFL’s two-point conversion, and I followed the Southern California Sun in the old WFL. I even remember watching Dick Lane announce “World Champion L.A. T-Bird” roller games on syndicated TV. They were more spectacle than sport, but I didn’t know it at the time.
Memories from my childhood tend to find their way into books, as they did with Fresno Growing Up and Highway 99. So it is also with A Whole Different League, my latest release, an extensive look at outlaw leagues, forgotten teams and the players who made them great – or at least interesting – of only for a brief moment in time.
The work covers more than two dozen big (and wannabe big) leagues, most of which receive an entire chapter’s worth of information. Their founders were innovators who broke down racial barriers and ushered in the era of free agency. They gave us the three-point shot, which changed the way basketball is played today. With names like the WHA, AAFC and All-American Girls Pro Baseball League, they fielded teams with names like the Chicago Whales and Philadelphia Bell. They were upstarts and outcasts, playing in rundown arenas and without TV contracts but making the kind of memories you don’t find in prime time.
Writing the book
I started this project a couple of years ago, picked it up again, then put it down before finally finishing it this year. It was one of those ideas that just kept its hooks in me and wouldn’t let go, and I’m glad it didn’t. It’s the first book I’ve published on my own imprint (Dragon Crown Books) that includes photos and statistical tables, and it’s also the first in a larger format: 8 by 10 instead of the standard 6 by 9.
It was an involved process, to say the least. The research involved sifting through more than 400 newspaper articles, magazine pieces, websites and books on everything from the National Bowling League to the Negro Leagues, from the All-America Football Conference to the All-American Girls Baseball League. Even Roller Derby. I thought I’d almost reached the end of it when I remembered the Women’s Basketball League that ran for three seasons starting in the late 1970s.
I got in touch with Molly Bolin (now Kazmer), the league’s all-time leading scorer, who in turn put me in touch with Cardte Hicks, the first woman to dunk in competition. Both were kind enough to share their memories of the WBL, whose members were inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame last summer as “trailblazers of the game.” If you’ve never heard of either of these great athletes, that’s part of the reason I wrote this book.
Writing historical nonfiction is not only a trip down memory lane for me, it’s also a journey of new discovery. This book was no exception. If you enjoyed accompanying me on my scavenger hunt of old U.S. Highway 99, chances are you’ll enjoy this work, too. And there’s more where that came from: Forthcoming books will focus on U.S. Highway 101 and the history of American department stores/shopping malls.
A Whole Different League contains stories of:
The high-scoring basketball star who was so volatile an opposing team once hired five boxers to stand guard at courtside – and who disappeared, never to be heard from again, on a trip to Africa.
The Hall of Famer who came out of retirement at age 45 to play alongside his two sons, leading his new team to a championship and winning the MVP Award.
George Steinbrenner’s first big signing: the two-time college basketball player of the year.
The NBA legend whose poor eyesight led to him to design the ABA’s red-white-and-blue basketball.
Miami’s first pro football team, which was almost as bad as the 1972 Dolphins were good.
The man who built Wrigley Field and the team that played there before the Cubs called it home.
The first pro baseball game played under the lights at Wrigley – more than 40 years before the Cubs played their first night game there.
The hard-partying skater who signed the richest contract in pro sports but wound up sleeping on a park bench after he lost it all.
The team owner who warned Donald Trump he'd have "no regrets whatsoever" punching him “right in the mouth.”
The batting champion who hit like Ty Cobb but was banned from baseball. (No, it’s not Shoeless Joe Jackson.)
The team that was supposed to bring NFL football to Los Angeles nine years before the Rams moved west from Cleveland.Jackie Robinson’s professional debut – in football.
The man who set a record for the most points scored in a pro basketball game, even though he averaged fewer than 12 points a game that season.
The man who coached pro teams to championships in three different leagues.
And that’s just the beginning. At 334 pages, it’s the second-longest book I’ve written (behind the two-volume work, The Phoenix Principle). A Whole Different League is available now on Amazon. I had a great time writing it, and I hope you’ll have just as much fun reading it.