31 December 2003

The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg
By Nicholas Dawidoff

Nicholas Dawidoff might better have entitled this book “The Sad Life and Death of Moe Berg.” For a man so known and so beloved in the public eye, a man with such talent and potential inside him, a man like Moe Berg, to have met his pathetic and prolonged demise in such manner does not seem appropriate. And yet, whether we like them or not, these are the facts. At least in so much as Dawidoff was able to discover them.

Dawidoff must have taken years to compile all of the information necessary to write this book. Given the seemingly pedantic nature of some of the minutiae he includes in the text, the reader must wonder at some point whether or not Dawidoff omitted anything he discovered in his interviews and research. The book’s epilogue is comprised of a list of everyone he interviewed or relied upon for information for the book, and a list of notes on his sources of quotations, which takes up over about 80 pages! At least nobody can accuse him of not being thorough.

The chosen subject, Morris Berg, would seem at first glance to be an exceedingly interesting catcher. His 15-year career as a major league catcher places him among the elite in almost any conversation, despite that he only managed to hit .243 in said career, but that’s just the beginning. Moe was Ivy League educated, graduating magna cum laude BA in modern languages from Princeton, where he was a star (not a third-string) shortstop. He also graduated from Columbia Law School and passed the bar exam, making him perhaps the first player who was truly qualified to represent himself in free agency, if such a thing had existed at the time.

As if this were not enough, Moe Berg retired from an exclusive and exciting existence as a professional athlete to embark upon perhaps an even more elite and exciting career: He became a spy for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, precursor to the CIA) during the Second World War, and traversed Europe in search of secrets regarding the German Atomic Bomb Program.

And sprinkled throughout this interesting juxtaposition of occupations, Berg somehow found the time to learn to speak or write (by varying accounts) Latin, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Japanese, Russian, Sanskrit and/or Swahili. Hence the old joke that, “Moe Berg could speak a dozen languages but he couldn’t hit in any of them.”

Indeed, Berg could not hit, or perhaps would not hit much in the majors. He was not a bad player, but he was fortunate to have laid claim to his position in a time when good-hitting catchers were the exception and not the rule, as today. Interestingly, the author reports that Berg’s status as a third-string catcher was by his own design, that Berg sought the freedom and privileges of life afforded to ballplayers, but did not desire to make himself a standout amongst them, at least not for his play. Berg seemed to prefer sitting in the bullpen, chatting up the pitchers and other players, impressing them with his knowledge of law, history, art, language or other trivia, rather than actually playing consistently. Dawidoff posits the theory that Berg chose to play only when he felt spry, in an effort not to shame himself between the white lines. Ironically, it could be argued that a man of such obvious talent in college might have been a better player overall if ha had allowed himself a bit more practice. Or, as Berg feared, he might well have been washed-up before he was ready to leave, and forced to do something rash, like work for a living.

Berg’s career as a spy is able to be presented in detail by Dawidoff for two reasons: First of all, it turns out that the Germans had no more progress on the Atomic Bomb Project during WWII than they did on their Time Machine Project or on their Perpetual Motion Machine Project. If any project existed at all, it was at worst a ruse, a failed scheme-turned-distraction-to-the-Allies at best. Secondly, Berg was not a very good spy. Virtually everyone who knew him, even in his own times, knew he was a spy, and he was always doing silly things like hushing people for mentioning certain issues or hiding behind beech saplings with no leaves when someone he didn’t want to see walked by. This is not a good spy. If either of these things had not been true (i.e. if Berg had been a good spy or if the Nazis really had developed an A-Bomb) we would not be allowed to know what berg did during the war. That we can know these things is simultaneously enlightening and distressing.

But the greatest distress to be derived from these pages lies in the story of Bergs pitiful life after the War. This man of such varied talents and skills, with such a background as his, could have chosen virtually any occupation he wanted after returning from the war. Let’s face it: There aren’t many people out there who could list two Ivy League degrees, a barrister’s license, a Medal of Freedom and a baseball career spanning almost two decades, on their resumes. But Berg would have none of it. Instead he squandered his waning years, traveling constantly, dropping in on old friends unannounced, staying until he had worn out his welcome (sometimes longer), and moving on. Always moving on. He never found an occupation that suited him as well as either baseball or espionage had, and so he apparently gave up trying, and live out what would be his remaining 25 years or so in a vagabond's life, charming hospitality out of anyone he could.

The book is a comprehensive, well-written piece, but even the greatest of writers could not have made this a thoroughly interesting book without embellishing the facts a little. To Dawidoff’s credit, he provides only the facts, and does little to suppose that he knows what any of the characters was thinking at a given moment in Berg’s history. But this lack of interpretation leaves something of a void for the reader. Where you had hoped to find answers, it turns out that there may only be more, unanswerable, questions.

And even if you have the penchant for minute details that I do (to an irritating degree sometimes, my wife will tell you) this book was hard to get through at times. It took me nearly a year to finish it, and even though it was a year busy with other responsibilities, any avid reader will tell you that they’ll make the time to finish a great book. This one was merely good.

20 June 2003

The Last Good Season: by Michael Shapiro

The Last Good Season: Brooklyn, the Dodgers, and Their Final Pennant Race Together
by Michael Shapiro

"Everyone wants to stay except for me...so we're going."
- Former Dodgers' Owner Walter O'Malley

Michael Shapiro's book, The Last Good Season, describes, as the sub-title indicates, the events surrounding the Brooklyn Dodgers' concurrent pursuit of what would be the franchise's 12th (and last for Brooklyn) National League Pennant and their owner's pursuit of a profitable venue in which his team could play. The Dodgers faced stiff competition all season from the Cincinatti Reds and upstart Milwaukee Braves, with the pennant being decided on the last day of the season, rather than in a landslide as they had in 1955.

And O'Malley faced perhaps even stiffer competition from New York City public official and all-around super-meddler, Robert Moses (who becomes the villain throughout Shapiro's account of the tale). The traditional lore of the events surrounding the Dodgers' move west to Los Angeles before the 1958 season has it that Walter O'Malley was just a "greedy bastard" who couldn't stand to only make millions of dollars in Brooklyn, so he sold his ballpark (Ebbets' Field) to a developer, his team to the City of Angels, and (probably) his soul to the Devil, to make millions and millions in Los Angeles. Reality, as it often turns out, is quite a bit more complicated than that.

Faced with declining attendance at Ebbets Field, the mass exodus of their traditional constituency to Long Island and New Jersey, and the advent of television (a considerably less profitable means of showing games at that time than now), O'Malley had a choice to make: Try to stay in Brooklyn, which would require a new stadium with sufficient parking and access roads, or move to another city. Everyone knows what he chose, but until now, only a select few have know why O'Malley chose to flee Brooklyn for a city he had never previously seen, 3,000 miles away. Shapiro does a wonderful job of setting the record straight.

Shapiro is a refreshingly eloquent writer, especially in light of the fact that his subject, baseball, or even sports in general, does not often inspire such eloquence. Certainly, there are Roger Kahns and Richard Ben Cramers out there, but for each of these it often seems that there are about four or five writers who choose more common vernacular to describe their subjects. This doesn't make such people poor writers, just a different style of writer. This Ernest Hemingway vs. Charles Dickens. It's a pleasant surprise to run into a book written so well about a part of New Yawk known for its vulgar accent and total disregard for the rules of the English language.

This can be a bit overdone at times: In one description of an equipment manager's attitude toward the Dodgers players, Shapiro describes him as "deferential to the point of being obsequious". Lovely. But I had to look up both words just to make sure that the phrase really meant "ass-kisser". It did. But generally speaking this trifle of trouble was worth it not to read "...he hit the ball really hard" for once in a baseball book.

The appeal of The Last Good Season is that it provides a somewhat different perspective, namely Walter O'Malley's, from the traditional view of this subject. But Shapiro knew that the warped viewpoint of a wealthy, out-of-touch, eccentric owner like O'Malley would only hold the attention of a commoner like you or me for so long. So, to add a more universally appreciated perspective to the tome, he added the warped viewpoints of the wealthy, out-of-touch, eccentric players to the mix. And just so nobody feels left out, he even included some normal people in the discussion. Initially, his interjected descriptions of Brooklynites' lives, people of whom you've never heard, appears somewhat ill-placed and slightly confusing. But once you realize what he's doing, namely providing a more easily related perspective, it fits perfectly and adds a flavor that many "sports history" books miss: Vanilla. That is, what the ordinary people thought and felt about the comings and goings of extraordinary people and events.

Superb writing, thorough research and a tremendous sense of his audience make Michael Shapiro's The Last Good Season an informative, touching and enjoyable acocunt of the last glory days of 'Dem Bums.

14 May 2003

Rickey and Robinson: The Men Who Broke Baseball's Color Barrier
by Harvey Frommer

"I want a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back."
- Branch Rickey

Harvey Frommer's Rickey and Robinson, recently re-released in paperback (Taylor Trade Publishing, $18.95), has lost none of its poignancy in the two decades that have elapsed since the first edition in 1982. The new forward by Hall of Famer Monte Irvin underscores the history lesson that none of us should ever forget: Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey made Michael Jordan and Jim Brown and Wilt Chamberlain and a host of other African-American athletic superstars' careers possible.
Sure, the color line was bound to fall at some point, but this story is more than just a case of being in the right place at the right time. As Frommer details in Rickey and Robinson, Branch Rickey spent years planning the 'stunt' he pulled on 15 April 1947. He had a seven-step plan that started way back in 1943, that had been carefully orchestrated, with the player painstakingly chosen, at the expense of great financial and other resources, to maximize the possibility of the Experiment's success.

Frommer's book outlines not just the events of the meeting of these two men, but starts you out with their respective upbringings, their backgrounds and histories, so that the reades has the feeling that he has at least known, if not lived, some of the joys and hardships of these two mens lives even before the events that would forever associate their names int he record books. You get to learn about Robinson's family history in Georgia, and upbringing in southern California, as well as his exploits in collegiate sports and the Negro leagues. You get to learn about Branch Rickey's country bumpkin background, his religious and political convictions, and his achievements in St. Louis before he ever came to Brooklyn. You even get to learn what each of them did after they left the Dodgers organization, how their passions drove them to strive for what they believed in even when most ordinary men would simply have conceded to diabetes, or retirement.

For that matter, you may get a little too much in the way of details. Make no mistake, Frommer's thorough and engaging research is a trademark of his work. His quotes from Rachel Robinson, Roy Campanella, Walter O'Malley, Irving Rudd, Mal Goode, Pee Wee Reese, Monte Irvin, and so many others help the reader to feel like he's getting a first-hand account of the events from those who lived them. Heck, I guess you are. But if you start reading the book hoping only to learn what Jackie's first year was like, you'll be in way over your head. Besides, you should know better than to think that Frommer would leave you with so truncated an account of such a significant occurrence in American History. Shame on you.

The book, as always, is well written. Eloquent without being excessively verbose (I suppose I could learn a thing or two about writing from Frommer myself!), Frommer is nothing if not a great author, and shows no disdain for the vernacular. But he also has a sense of the importance of his subject, and does not leave stones unturned where there are questions. He doesn not play up mythological events (like Reese's alleged gesture of freindship toward Robinson in Cincinnati) and does not seem to take a side on most of the political and personal conflicts depicted in the book. In all, this seems a fair and even-handed account, if not without Frommer's (also trademarked) slant toward new York sports. Can't say that I blame him.

Now more than thirty years after Robinson's death at the age of only 53, more athletes, not just the black ones, would be well served to remember the debt they owe these two great men.

Reading Rickey and Robinson would be a good start.

19 March 2003

Joe DiMaggio: The Hero's Life
by Richard Ben Cramer

Two Christmases ago I bought a copy of Joe DiMaggio: The Hero's Life for my mom, who is also an avid Yankees fan. Mom did not have the pleasure of having seen Joe D. play, as she was not yet five years old when he retired, but she is well aware of his status and legend among Yankee greats of her time and in history. She really enjoyed it, and I borrowed it to read it myself shortly thereafter, having had no idea what to expect, but being both delighted and dismayed at the results.

This was, without a doubt, one of the best books I have ever read, for content, writing style, entertainment value and character development. Cramer seems to appreciate DiMaggio's abilities as a baseball player, and his significance to New York and the Yankees as a player. He discusses each year of his career in moderate detail, with increased depth for events like the 56-game hitting streak and the weekend he returned from an injury to personally bury the Red Sox pennant hopes. But Cramer also describes DiMaggio's associations with gamblers, his efforts to amass as much tax-free wealth as possible through his celebrity, and his disdain for the box into which the media, the 'hero machine' had placed him. He may have hated it, but he also understood how to manipulate it, making sure that no pictures of him were ever taken with people (or in places) of ill repute, speaking little so as not to make a mistake, perpetuating the 'gracefully aloof' aura that the newspapermen furnished for him.

Cramer goes into excruciating detail as he tells of DiMaggio's life, from growing up near Fisherman's Wharf, to playing for the San Francisco Seals (the Yankees of the 1930s Pacific Coast League), to spring trainings and seasons in New York, to his reclusive existence after baseball. The author details some of Joe's exploits on the field, but even more of his life away from the ballpark, where the accomplished, graceful, heroic son-of-immigrants everyone admired and envied proved to be a greedy, self-absorbed, paranoid, jealous, vindictive son-of-a-bitch.

You could not ask for more development of supporting characters in a J.R.R. Tolkien novel. And these were all real people. I learned more about Marilyn Monroe, 'Longy' Zwillman and the pals with whom the Jolter grew up than I probably would have learned reading their autobiographies. Not surprisingly, much of what I learned endeared neither Joe himself nor his choices of associates to me. The author spent five years interviewing old friends, enemies and acquaintences of the Yankee Clipper, generally without DiMaggio's permission, and certainly without DiMaggio's slimy lawyer, Morris Engleberg's, permission. The hard work paid off, providing Cramer with numerous bits of gossip and tales of the baseball icon's failed marriages, disinterested fatherhood, and his use of the spotlight he abhorred to pursue the wealth he hoped would make him happy where his relationships never did. If nothing else, his endless pursuit of money may have somehow numbed the pain he felt from the losses of Marilyn and his son, or compensated for his distrust of...well, basically everyone.

If there is a problem with this book, it is that Cramer perhaps too often presumes to know what his subjects were thinking. It is one thing to observe that DiMaggio did not enter the service during WWII until his wife (Dorothy Arnold) presented a divorce ultimatum. It is quite another to presume that Joe was more concerned with losing his wife for the public spectacle it would cause than because he actually cared about her. But then a book full of observations with no conclusions drawn is a documentary, not a biography.

Cramer's villainizing of DiMaggio's lawyer and supposedly trusted friend, Morris Engleberg, has brought the author quite a lot of controversy, including lawsuits and now a book-to-counter-the-book from the slimeba..err..lawyer himself. Engleberg's exploitation of the Yankee Clipper, his time, money and image, his playing on Joe's paranoia to the point that people like Barry Halper were eternally shunned for requesting an autograph, is detailed thoroughly in The Hero's Life. This last section of the book could have aptly been named "The Hero's Death" as not only does the man himself finally pass on, but any naievete we might have held as fans of the hero met its demise as well. A sad state of affairs, but then heroes' deaths are rarely as glamorous as their lives were.

Joe DiMaggio was a man whose skills at baseball and determination to succeed we should all admire, but he was a man, just the same, as full of malice and selfishness as the beat writers would have had you believe that he was full of grace and professionalism. He was admired by millions, but known by few, loved by even fewer, and even betrayed by a trusted friend. The Hero, the Yankee Clipper, is not lost on Richard Ben Cramer, though some have said that the author misses the point by focusing so much on the man's flaws and glazing over his feats. I would argue that the opposite is true: that a man is defined not merely by what he can do, but by what he can't.

So continue to admire the Jolter's baseball talents and career, aspire to his success at business. There's no shame in admiring excellence. But learn the Hero's lesson: Don't take your eyes off the more important things of life, the things that eluded this media-made Hero: Friendship, Love, Happiness.

You only get one chance at Life.

10 March 2003

Growing Up Baseball
An Oral History
by Harvey Frommer & Frederick J. Frommer

Harvey Frommer and his son Frederick must have had a fantastic time writing Growing Up Baseball (Taylor Trade Publishing, Hardcover $23.95). Together this tandem collected dozens of stories of major leaguers for this unique piece of literature. From A to Zeile, from Hall-of-Famers like Jim Palmer and Ralph Kiner to relative nobodies like Ed Yarnall and Lazaro Ramon Gonzalo "Cholly" Naranjo, there is something for everybody here.

There are interesting little tidbits of information here, like that Dale Berra's dad never really played catch with him, "That's what you've got brothers for." Even more surprising is that this reality did not turn young Dale off to baseball. Dom DiMaggio used to hide his coke-bottle glasses whenever scouts would come around, so as not to bias their opinions of him. Think how good he could have been if he could see!

What This Book Is: A collection of charming little vignettes about growing up as a baseball fan and/or a baseball player. Some of your favorite baseball personalities relating how they managed to grasp a small slice of the American Dream. Easily read and comprehended pieces of times gone by, and some fairly recent memories, related so comfortably that you can almost see the succession of men in your own living room, taking their turns in your easy chair and telling their own stories.

Perhaps the most engaging aspect of this book is that it really isn't written by Harvey and Frederick Frommer as much as it was dictated to them by the individuals featured in the book. Each little (Fred Lynn's is not so little) story is told in the first person as they dictated it to the authors, so you can almost hear Nolan Ryan's Texas drawl or Manny Mota's Dominican accent as you read, and you can tell from his speech that Bobby Brown is quite an educated man, even before he tells you that he was a cardiologist and spent a great deal of time as President of the American League.

What This Book Is Not: Well, it's not really a book that lends itself to being read straight through. There are almost seventy mini-chapters here, and many of them relate similar details: Several of these men were accomplished athletes during their youths, often in sports other than baseball as well. Many of them had to work hard at another occupation, or grew up in relatively meager circumstances before striking it rich in the majors. Almost all of them feel compelled to tell you that whatever they signed for was "a lot of money in those days." And I'm sure it was. But you don't want to have to read that sixteen times.

You're better off taking this slowly, reading a story or two at a time, in your leisure. Savor these stories. Enjoy them, instead of trying to wolf them all down in order to get a timely review written, like I did.

You'll thank me later. When you grow up.

09 March 2003

Wait Till Next Year
A Memoir
by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Wait Till Next Year became the mantra for Brooklyn Dodgers fans everywhere, as their favorite team was so often within reach of the ultimate prize, a World Series Championship, without ever actually getting there. Next year turned out to be 1955, when 'Dem Bums finally beat the hated Yankees. The phrase also entitles Doris Kearns Goodwin's memoir of growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950s and '60s.

What This Book Is: Kearns-Goodwin doesn't only focus on baseball (no accounting for taste), but also writes of the relationships she established in her formitive years with neighbors and friends, discusses some of the religious hangups that accompanied her Catholic upbringing, relates her views of the racial issues of the day, and of course, talks about how gut-wrenching it was to follow the Dodgers of the late 1940s and early 1950's. As I mentioned previously, 1955 became 'next year', the season in which those Dodgers finally won it all, and the celebration after this historical win (Brooklyn's only World Championship) marks the climax of the book. But relentless time would not evel allow her to savor that for long, as her mother's death, the departure of Walter O'Malley's Dodgers for Los Angeles, and the changing world around her forced young Doris to grow up much sooner than she would have preferred.

This book made for an interesting reading experience for me. The primary threads seen throughout the tapestry of Kearns-Goodwin's childhood are her cultural heritage (Irish-Catholic), her relationship with her father (a sometimes distant but very affectionate husband and father, who was also a successful businessman) and mother (a loving but often sickly woman), and her love of baseball, particularly the Dodgers. This left me with almost nothing of common value from my own childhood with which to relate to her tale, requiring me to entirely trust her story-telling skills to help me understand what it must have been like to be a female, Irish-Catholic, Dodgers fan growing up in 1950s Rockville Centre with a father who loved her. Thankfully, this male, Baptist, Euro-Trash, Yankee fan, product of divorce got the picture just fine.

What This Book Is Not: The other issue, at least for me personally, was the lack of a plot. This I think, is more my problem than the author's though, as she does state right on the cover that this is a memoir, not a novel. So don't be too disappointed when the 'bad-guys' don't show up right away, or if you don't immediately see the conflict. The bad guys are the Giants and Yankees, and the conflict is the classic struggle of time against humanity.

But you and I can still escape to a simpler time and place by curling up with your favorite blanket, a cup of hot tea, and a copy of Wait Till Next Year.

Don't wait. Go get your own copy soon.

24 February 2003

A Yankee Century
A Celebration of the First Hundred Years of Baseball's Greatest Team
by Harvey Frommer

From the introduction by erstwhile Yankee rightfielder Paul O'Neill to the pages of famous and infamous quotes, to the lists of firsts and feats and statistics, Harvey Frommer's A Yankee Century ($26.95, Berkley, hardcover) is a joy to read. Frommer includes not only the accomplishments that have made the Yankees the most successful franchise in the history of professional sport (26 World Series titles, more Hall-of-Famers and retired numbers than any other team) but also the more dubious accomplishments (the embarrasing last-place finishes, off-color quotes and pre-mature trades, especially early in the Steinbrenner Era). The book allots the reader a view from almost any imaginable perspective: A timeline and a separate list of memorable moments, to review the details of specific occurrences; a history of Yankee Stadium, the shrine at which every New York boy's major league hopes are or were once laid; a who's who and discussion of the best and worst teams, the heroes every kid growing up around the Big Apple idolized; even lists of nicknames, significances of certain numbers, and a 100-question Yankee quiz. (I got a 72% - pretty sad - but I'm gonna study and re-apply next week!)

What This Book Is: A Yankee Century is well written. An Ivy-League professor, who ought to be able to convey his thoughts well, Frommer makes the book enjoyable by making it simultaneously eloquent and readable. Its sections fall in more-than-manageable chunks, making it easy to read through, or to take in small sections, as time allows. Like, in the bathroom, for instance. Numerous black and white photographs grace the pages, adding to the sense of nostalgia, reminding you both how handsome Mickey Mantle was and how funny Bernie Williams looked with those big old square glasses. It even contains nifty little surprises like a dictionary for interpreting Casey Stengel's verbal diarrhea and the entire text of Mickey Mantle's Hall of Fame acceptance speech. My wife will tell you that I know everything about baseball and about the Yankees (She's wrong, of course, but I like to let her believe it...) and even I learned a few things from A Yankee Century.

What This Book Is Not: Frommer seems to know quite a lot about baseball, both from the historical/human interest side and from the statistical analysis side of things. While he uses and cites a lot of numbers, this is not a sabermetric book. Only occasionally does he make reference to things like slugging pergentage or home run ratio, but of course, this isn't necessary for such a work. Despite the great B&W photos, this is not really a picture book. The focus is much more on the writing, and the liberal but tasteful use of pictures never becomes overwhelming.

A Yankee Century makes a great coffee table book for the old Yankee fan to reminisce, the young Yankee fan to marvel, or the aspiring baseball fan to help solidify his choice of the greatest baseball team to follow in history.