KLIATT - Raymond PufferIt is difficult for a reviewer to be objective about one of his own boyhood heroes, but Jesse Owens inspired two generations of aspiring track and field novices, and still has a loyal following today. In today's drug-scandalized sports world, many are asking: "What would Jesse Owens do?" Would Jesse Owens have used steroids or any other chemical performance enhancers to help his body along a little at critical times? Both fans and cynics maintain totally different perspectives, and of course the very question is unanswerable. This is where an author like William Baker shines. An emeritus professor of history, Baker has a longtime interest in sports, both amateur and professional. He has done his research and keeps an approving but clinical eye on one of the nation's most beloved sports heroes. The result is a convincing book that does full justice to the man and his times. It is always hard not to idealize James Cleveland Owens. Who could forget the black boy born in rural poverty, totally outside the world of competitive sport, who by his own efforts blazed his own path to the 1936 Berlin Olympics and an unprecedented four gold medals? Even people not particularly interested in sports know about the black man who shamed the myth of Nazi supremacy and was supposedly snubbed by Hitler himself. Yet here is where the author's professionalism comes into play. In truth, the Nazi leader never overtly showed any disrespect to the athlete, and the sports-loving German crowds went mad over him. Throughout the entire book, Baker studies Jessethe man and the legendwith the same close fairness, alternately describing his moments of true nobility and his occasional weaknesses. Asthe years went on and Jesse grew older, he found himself struggling to understand the increasing changes in black society and in the sports world. A thoughtful conservative and firm believer in the old-fashioned values of hard work and thrift, he maintained his integrity until lung cancer took him in 1980. There are many who still miss him.
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