24 August 2006

The Team That Changed Baseball: by Bruce Markusen

The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates
By Bruce Markusen

c. 2006 Westholme Publishing Inc. 240 pgs. $25.00 (paperback)

Fellow blogger Bruce Markusen's newest book covers the story of the 1971 Pirates team from beginning to end, and goes beyond that, really, since it starts with General Manager Joe Brown’s assembly of the club in the winter of 1970-71 and ends with a “where are they now” epilogue. Markusen’s fond memories and thorough research, buttressed by numerous personal interviews with some of the surviving personalities form that team and that time, provide for an extremely detailed description of the season, the players and the games. The reader is led through the year, month by month, game by game, and gets the kinds of details most people would only know from having been there, which is generally a good thing. But baseball isn’t called “The Long Season” for nothing, with a month of spring training, 162 regular season games and (mercifully, in 1971, only) two rounds of playoffs to cover, not to mention the important events of the preceding and following winters. Over such a long span, the particulars of individual games get a little tedious, especially if you aren’t as invested in the Pittsburgh franchise as Markusen evidently is.

The premise of the book is that the 1971 Pirates, being the first team in Major League Baseball to field an all-minority lineup, and actually winning as they did so, showed the rest of MLB and the world that success could be achieved regardless of the colors of players’ skin. GM Joe Brown’s acquisitions of players to bolster his roster based on his team’s needs, and the players' talents, rather than their status as black or white or Latino, served as a model for other franchises to consider abandoning any official or unofficial racial quotas they may have utilized. That manager Danny Murtaugh daily filled out his lineup card without regard to race or ethnicity is a credit to his open-mindedness and gave other managers an example to follow. But if the team had not succeeded, if they had not won the National League and eventually the World Series, perhaps fewer heads would have been turned and the impact that Markusen discusses might not have been realized in MLB for much longer.

Jackie Robinson debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers on 15 April 1947. The fact that it took over 24 years, until 1 September 1971, for an all-minority lineup to take the field in a major league game is a testament to the resistance of the establishment, any establishment, to change. In spite of the major leagues being officially “integrated” as of 1947, it took years for many teams to employ their first black player, the last of them being the Boston Red Sox, in 1959. Some teams were slow to embrace the new policy, at least until they saw that black players could win, and the 1971 Pirates definitely put to rest any questions that might have remained about the quality of minority players.

Markusen is an avid baseball fan, one who's written several other books about baseball, who works at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, and whose name, when Googled, provides a host of baseball blogs, online journals and other articles from his hand. The man could hardly have a more impressive set of credentials. The book itself is sufficiently well written, with game stories and quotes that any team's beat writer would be proud to call is own, but as a book, The Team That Changed Baseball comes off a little dry. Beat writing is fine for the daily papers, but a book, to keep a reader interested, needs a little more life and a little less detail, I think. Interjections of the author's humor, his opinions, and creative word-smithing can make a book more pleasant to read, but Markusen mostly fails to include such things in this book. Perhaps more discussion of how other teams, other players, and especially fans and writers saw this team, how they reacted to the '71 Pirates and their handling of racial issues, or social issues facing the country as a whole, would have helped make the book more of a page-turner. Even painting such things in broad strokes tends to create a more intriguing picture than the simple, plodding, game-by-game, inside-the-clubhouse vantage point he takes through most of the book.

I suppose that with a title like "The Team That Changed Baseball", Bruce was sort of setting the reader up for disappointment, like calling your sports team "The Unbeatables" or naming your first born son "Jesus". Other books that have followed a team for a season or longer, Roger Kahn's Boys of Summer or Seth Mnookin's Feeding the Monster (which I'll be reviewing soon), for example, manage to include more of the emotional aspects of pursuing baseball's ultimate prize than this book did. Markusen by no means ignores the racial, ethnic, social and emotional aspects of the story, but too much of his effort, in my opinion, is squandered on who hit a home run or pitched two and two thirds innings of effective relief during a particular game or series in April or July or September, things that amount to largely inconsequential details if you're trying to make an argument that this team "changed baseball".

The fact that this 1971 Pirates team, on paper, looks very much like any number of other good teams, testifies that the "change" took, that for the last 30-plus years just about every team has been built based on talent rather than race. Whether the '71 Pittsburghs were the first team to try this, or just the first team to succeed remains an open question, but in any case they were the first team to be recognized as having been assembled this way. That alone makes this an interesting team, especially if you happen to be a Pirates fan, not to mention all the personalities on the team: NL MVP Willie Stargell, manager Danny Murtaugh, Dock Ellis, Steve Blass, Mudcat Grant, Manny Sanguillen, and of course, Roberto Clemente. There's no shortage of stories and quotes from this group, ways that they struggled, and succeeded, in getting along and in winning.

For his part, Markusen does a great job of keeping the reader in suspense, despite the fact that the events he describes happened 35 years ago. You really do feel like you're not sure the team is going to win. They took over first place in the NL East in early June and never relinquished control, building up a 10+ game lead and never letting anyone within about 3.5 games of first place after that, but still, you worry as they suffer through a 14-17 August. You worry as they get swept in four games by their likely playoff foe, the San Francisco Giants. And even after dismantling the San Franciscos three games to one in the NLCS, you worry as they face the heavily-favored Baltimore Orioles, with four 20-game winners, in the World Series. Markusen's attention to game details serves us well in these situations, particularly the playoff games, as he keeps you on the edge of your seat for all seven games of that Series, right to the very end.

In total, I think I'd give this book a hesitant recommendation, say, one and a half balls, on a scale of four. If you're a Pirates fan, I'd make it two and a half balls, and if you're Steve Blass, needing a diversion from broadcasting this year's dreadful Pirates games, it gets four balls. Blass should be pretty familiar with what that means.

07 August 2006

Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Blunders

Mr. Wrigley [...] announced [...] the College of Coaches. The idea was that eight top coaches would rotate through the organization, from Class D all the way up to the big club, ensuring that players at every level were taught the same way to botch rundowns, miss cutoff men, ground into double plays, and so forth. [But...]

Who would manage the Cubbies?

Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Blunders

by Rob Neyer (duh)
c. 2006, Simon & Schuster, NY
Paperback, $16.00 US/$22.00 Canadian

The newest book from ESPN's Rob Neyer, the self-named Big Book of Baseball Blunders, follows on the heels of last year's Big Book of Baseball Lineups. I don't know if Neyer is planning a while series of such works, (Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Managers, Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Equipment, Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Ballparks, Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Bubblegum...maybe not.) but you can count me in on the rest of the collection.

In this book's introduction, Neyer makes a particular point of defining the difference between a blooper and a blunder. Bloopers, i.e. on-field, spur-of-the-moment mistakes, happen all the time, and while they make the game more interesting, there's not really any way to second-guess a blooper. They just happen, and if you could prevent them, you would do so. But blunders, pre-meditated, well-thought out decisions that somehow go horribly, horribly wrong, those make for some pretty good conversations, and a pretty interesting book.

Neyer runs (mostly) chronologically through baseball history, starting with some bad decisions made by the Sox (the White ones in 1917 and the Red ones shortly thereafter), and goes straight through to Joe Torre's failure to use Mariano Rivera in a tied, extra-inning game during the 2003 World Series. He examines some of the best-known, so-called "classic blunders" (the most famous of which, is "never get involved in a land war in Asia"), but only slightly less well known is this: Never sell your best player to your biggest competitor (like the Red Sox did with Babe Ruth in 1919)!

Most of the blunders fall into one of three categories:

1) Use and/or mis-use of certain players, especially during the playoffs.
These blunders include Walter Johnson being left in too long during the last game of the 1925 World Series, Leo Durocher's failure to calm down Hugh Casey after Mickey Owen dropped what would have been the last out of the 1941 World Series, Casey Stengel's failure to use Whitey Ford three times in the 1960 World Series, and the aforementioned 2003 World Series relief pitching blunder.

Some of these types of blunders are much-debated, well-known, long-term mistakes, like Don Zimmer's mis-use of his bench (and other assorted mistakes) during the Red Sox doomed 1978 pennant drive. The St. Louis Browns' playing of a one-armed outfielder, Pete Gray, in 1945 stands as one of the more interesting stories in the history of major league baseball, an encouragement to handicapped people everywhere, I suppose. But Neyer details how Gray's presence on the team may (or may not) have cost the team the pennant.

B) The sale or trade of a great player prematurely.
Babe Ruth to the Yankees. The Pirates trading away Kiki Cuyler and Joe Cronin. The Tigers trading away a young Carl Hubbell. The Red Sox selling Pee Wee Reese to the Dodgers. Roger Maris. Steve Carlton. Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas (for Christ's sake!) Larry Anderson for Jeff Bagwell. There are, in fact, two whole chapters on bad trades, interspersed throughout the other sections, most of which are entire chapters detailing only one such tremendously bad decision.

These particular types of decisions make for some of the most interesting discussions. Some of the most famous trades/sales of players, like Babe Ruth or Pee Wee Reese or Fred McGriff, are well known for how the seem to have afflicted their former organizations for such a long time, but one of Neyer's best attributes as a writer is his penchant for analyzing both sides of an issue. He looks intently at some of these transactions, and many of them, it turns out, were not such a detriment to the franchise as you might expect. In most cases, teams that jettissoned players were either so far out of contention that the player would not have made a difference, or they had an established player in the same position and couldn't have used him anyway. Of course, that wasn't always the case, but you'll have to read the book to find out which ones

iii) Ill-considered organizational choices.
The owners naming a former military bigwig to the position of Commissioner. Collusion. The owners refusing the Charlie Finley Option of annual free agency for every player. Collusion. Candlestick Park. The Cubs' College of Coaches. Collusion.

Man, the owners have made a lot of poor choices over the years, haven't they?

These blunders, without necessarily having the debate and the local flavor of some of the bad trades or poor managing decisions, often have much more far-reaching consequences. Old time Dodger fans probably still debate Walter Alston's many poor decisions during the last game of the 1962 World Series, but very few baseball fans of any team stand around discussing how the owners' short-sightedness cost them millions of dollars, both when they missed the boat on perennial free-agency, and when they boarded it on Collusion. All three times.

There are other types of blunders, of course. Amongst those he discusses, Neyer also includes interludes on various other types of mistakes. Bad drafts. Managers who should not have been managers. Numerous instances of teams missing the playoffs by the smallest of margins, where the decision to use or not use certain players made a real difference in the race.

Baseball's long, rich history offers many opportunities for second-guessing. Managers, owners, players: nobody is immune from criticism, and Neyer doesn't pull any punches in his critiques of people and organizations. As a writer, his skills cater well to most people, with a plain-spoken tone that makes you feel as if you're having a conversation about the book's subjects over coffee and a doughnut, rather than reading them in a book. His wry humor shines through in his writing as well, as do his intelligence and thorough research, his unique insights and his even-handedness when looking at both sides of the issues.

As a long-time reader and fan of Rob Neyer and his work, I never doubted that I would enjoy this book, and I was not disappointed. But I severely underestimated how much baseball history I would learn from it, and I was pleasantly surprised at how entertaining it would be, even in its discussions of business, politics, and attendance numbers.

Neyer's writing, and the brief nature of each discussion, most chapters lasting only three or four pages, makes this an eminently readable book. If you've only got ten or fifteen minutes, sit down and read a chapter, but you won't get bored if you prefer to read four or five in a sitting. Even shorter periods of time will still allow you to read one of his three or four paragraph sidebars in most chapters, some of which play "devil's advocate" to the chapter's main point, others of which simply outline some other blunder made by that person or organization around the same time. Coffee table, bookshelf or back of the toilet, Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Blunders will be at home nearly anywhere you decide to put it.

The worst blunder you can make is not reading it.

14 July 2006

Press Release and Yankees DVD Give-Away!!!

A&E Home Video has asked me to announce the impending release of a series of vintage World Series DVD sets, and as part of their promotion, they have given me five of these sets to give away to you!

New York Yankees Vintage World Series DVD Set Posted by Picasa

One of the DVD sets will be given to visitor number 2500, according to the counter on the left. So all you have to do, if you're visitor number 2,500, is take a screen shot and email it to me, along with your name and address. Also you have to send me $5 via Paypal to cover the shipping, within the continental US. (If nobody happens to send me a page with #2500 exaclty, I'll take the closest number to that, not less than 2,499.)

The other four sets will probably go via some kind of obscure trivia contest, but I haven't decided yet. I'll be posting a review of the set itself as soon as I get a chance to watch it, so stay tuned for that as well. In the meantime, here's the press release:


‘43, ‘47, ‘49, ’50-‘53, ‘56, ‘58, ‘61, ‘62, ‘77, ‘78, ’96 & ’98-‘00

VINTAGE FILM COLLECTION: 1966, 1970 & 1983

VINTAGE FILM COLLECTION: 1959, 1963, 1965, 1981 & 1988



VINTAGE FILM COLLECTION: 1972, 1973, 1974 & 1989

All Titles in this New Collection, Featuring the Finest Moments in Fall Classic History from Some of Baseball’s Most Storied Franchises, Will Be Available on July 25, 2006

NEW YORK, NY, July 2, 2006 -- A&E Home Video and Major League Baseball® present a new collection of DVDs featuring the finest moments in Fall Classic® history. Equally appealing to both the die-hard and casual fan, each set showcases the team’s World Championship seasons highlights, bringing together all of the greatest plays of the teams’ World Series wins. These new collections include, for the first time, all of the unique World Series® Films for each teams winning year since 1943. Eye-catching packaging and team-specific content has never before been assembled in such definitive anthologies. Remarkable, authentic, and charged with history and super stars, these official DVDs are attractive and affordable collectibles – the ultimate in sports memorabilia!

VINTAGE FILM COLLECTION: ‘43, ‘47, ‘49, ’50-‘53, ‘56, ‘58, ‘61, ‘62, ‘77, ‘78, ’96 & ’98-‘00

All the glory and timeless moments from 17 New York Yankees® World Series® Championships are digitally preserved on this one-of-a-kind, five-DVD collection featuring the finest moments and memories from 1943, 1947, 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1956, 1958, 1961, 1962, 1977, 1978, 1996, 1998, 1999 & 2000. No other team in Major League Baseball history has had such an unparalleled record as the New York Yankees. In these remarkable 17 World Series films the legendary Bronx Bombers® create an unmatched championship legacy for the ages. The Fall Classic® films in this collection includes, the Yankees five titles in a row (1949-1953); dynasties with Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Thurman Munson, and Reggie Jackson and the four titles in five season by Joe Torre and Derek Jeter.

VINTAGE FILM COLLECTION: 1966, 1970 & 1983

Spanning both three decades and three managers - Hank Bauer, Earl Weaver, and Joe Altobelli - the enduring, common trait of the Baltimore Orioles® success was stellar pitching, well-timed power, and peerless defense. The arrival of Frank Robinson in 1966 catapulted the Orioles to their first Fall Classic®. Baltimore’s pitchers dominated, holding the Los Angeles Dodgers® to just two runs – for the entire four-game World Series. Four Octobers later, the Birds power hitting and fielding were on display. The rally-ending defense of Brooks Robinson and the club’s 10 home runs in five games helped the O’s to a second Championship. In 1983, the familiar formula and a familiar face held an encore. The Orioles staff, including Jim Palmer who provided a bridge to the 1966 victors, stifled the Philadelphia Phillies® allowing only seven runs in the five games. All the glory and classic moments of these three Orioles World Series Championships are now digitally preserved on this official DVD.

VINTAGE FILM COLLECTION: 1959, 1963, 1965, 1981 & 1988

The passion and excitement of Los Angeles Dodgers baseball was on full display in the first three Fall Classic® games in 1959. Each record-setting crowd at The Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum swelled beyond 90,000, and a tradition of October Baseball in Los Angeles was born. In 1963, Sandy Koufax set the World Series strikeout record of fifteen in Game One. Again in 1965, pitching was supreme, but this time the Dodgers’ speed charged the offense as well. And, in the 1981 and 1988 World Series championships’ the team was fueled by the optimism of manager Tommy Lasorda. All the glory and classic moments of the Los Angeles Dodgers World Series Championships from 1959 to 1988 are digitally preserved in this one-of-a-kind two-disc DVD collection.


The champion Minnesota Twins® of 1987 and 1991 were recognized for their charisma and fun-loving personalities as much as their relentless, opportunistic style of play. The1987 World Series® was the first to be played indoors and the raucous Twins® fans did everything they could to blow the roof right off the Metrodome. Record-books will note this Fall Classic for Kent Hrbek’s Game 6 grand slam, while Twins fans will never forget the thunderous, homer-hanky waving crowds that propelled them to a record-setting four home victories. 1991 was even more remarkable. Considered to be one of, if not the greatest World Series, the Twins battled through seven extraordinary games. Kirby Puckett’s stellar Game 6 including his game-winning, 12th-inning home run was matched the next night by a game for the ages, as the Twins captured their second championship with a Game 7, 1-0, 10-inning victory from Jack Morris.


“The Catch” -- a magnificent moment in time when action, athletic genius, and history collide. This celebrated play of the 1954 World Series® created an iconic image and defined the competitive fire, excellence, and grace of the remarkable Willie Mays. Along with manager Leo “the Lip” Durocher, the electrifying Mays and the New York Giants® met the heavily favored Cleveland Indians® with their
American League® record 111 victories. Games One and Two took place on the hallowed Polo Grounds in northern Manhattan, while cavernous Cleveland Stadium was the site of the final two contests of the Fall Classic®. In addition to the stupefying defensive play by Mays off a prodigious blast by Cleveland’s Vic Wertz, Game One also featured the pinch-hit, game-ending home-run heroics
of James “Dusty” Rhodes. Stunned and defeated, the Indians could not overcome the stellar pitching and patient hitting of the Giants who swept all four games to claim the championship. All the glory and classic moments of the New York Giants 1954 World Series Championship are digitally preserved on this official DVD.

VINTAGE FILM COLLECTION: 1972, 1973, 1974 & 1989

This DVD features the official World Series® films of the A’s® World Championships from 1972, 1973, 1974, and 1989. Catfish Hunter’s pitching led the way in 1972 against the Reds when six of the seven games were decided by one run. The 1974 Fall Classic® versus the Dodgers® featured the hitting of Joe Rudi and Bert Campaneris, and pitcher Ken Holtzman’s timely home run that sealed the A’s third title in a row and place in history. Fifteen year later the A’s met the San Francisco Giants® in a historic World Series. After the A’s won the first two games, Game Three was delayed ten days by an earthquake that left sixty-seven people dead and rolled destruction across sections of the Bay Area. After much consideration, the World Series continued with Oakland sweeping all four games. All the glory and classic moments of the Oakland A’s World Series Championships from 1972 to 1989 are digitally preserved in this one-of-a-kind two-disc DVD collection.

A&E Home Video, part of the Consumer Products Division of A&E Television Networks (AETN) is a video distributor of non-theatrical programming, featuring collectible DVD editions of the high quality programming from A&E Network and The History Channel, as well as acquired classic programming. A&E Home Video brings the best of critically acclaimed entertainment presented in award-winning packaging to the special interest category. For more information about ordering these and other titles from the A&E Home Video Collection, call (212) 206-8600 (TRADE ONLY). Consumers please call 1-800-423-1212 (A&E). In addition to placing orders by phone, A&E Home Video products may be purchased over the World Wide Web at ShopAETV.com.

Major League Baseball Productions is the Emmy® award-winning television and video production division of Major League Baseball. With unparalleled access to the game and its players, Major League Baseball Productions produces original programming for growing audiences worldwide through its network specials, exclusive home videos, commercials and other specialty programming.

New Video Group Inc. is an entertainment, marketing, and sales company specializing in bringing classic television, feature films, quality children's programming, and documentaries to home video and DVD. Since 1993, the company has grown to become one of the leading non-studio DVD distributors, reaching retail, rental, direct to consumer, as well as library and educational markets. New Video is the exclusive marketer and distributor for A&E Home Video and the exclusive retail distributor for the Scholastic Video Collection, an acclaimed line of classic children's titles on DVD from Scholastic Entertainment. New Video also operates Docurama, a five-year-old home entertainment label dedicated exclusively to bringing critically acclaimed and cutting-edge documentary films to the home entertainment marketplace. Its youngest label, New Video NYC, brings to DVD an edgy, eclectic blend of indie gems and classic cult television. The New Video Group website is www.newvideo.com.

12 June 2006

The Only Game in Town, by Fay Vincent

The Only Game in Town: Baseball Stars of the 1930s and 1940s Talk About the Game They Loved
by Fay Vincent

In an era in which it seems like the game of baseball has been abused and scandalized, its name dragged trough the proverbial mud, a new book by the former Commissioner of Major League Baseball, Fay Vincent, harkens back to a time when the game was more than a little bit purer. The Only Game in Town includes interviews with some of the stars of that era, both from the major leagues, which were segregated at the time, and from the Negro leagues. Each inerview comprises a chapter in the book, ten in all. These are, in order: Elden Auker, Bob Feller, Tommy Henrich, Buck O'Neil, Dom DiMaggio, Johnny Pesky, Warren Spahn, Larry Doby, Ralph Kiner and Monte Irvin. And these men really were stars in their era. Half of them (Feller, Spahn, Doby, Kiner and Irvin) were eventually elected to the Hall of Fame, and Henrick, DiMaggio and Pesky all made All-Star teams at some point. Auker wasn't really a star, per se, but he won 130 games as a LAIM for a decade with the Tigers, Red Sox and Browns.

The title of the book is a rather ironic one, as the major leagues really were not The Only Game in (most) Towns, with Negro league teams barnstorming through regularly. Certainly the major leagues were exclusive to Black players, but in many ways the Negro Leagues were quite competitive with them, and the book contains some interesting stories about exhibition games and barnstorming tours from both black and white players. Some of the more interesting stories in the book relate to the annual barnstorming tours that Bob Feller and Satchel Paige arranged and Feller indicates that he and the other players made more money in that venture than they ever did in the majors.

This book is part of the Baseball Oral History Project, which Vincent describes in the Introduction to the book. It's an effort, a collaboration with the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, to get some of the stories of these great players down on paper, for posterity. The men who played in the 1930's and 1940's are now in their 80's and 90's, those who are still alive, anyway, and they've really got some great stories to tell.

The book's style, therefore, varies because it essentially consists of these mens' stories in their own words. Vincent interviewed the men in person, but none of his questions are included in the book, so it reads as though the player being interviewed is just telling his story at his own will, stream-of-consciousness style. Because of that, the Bob Feller chapter reads quite differently from that of Elden Auker. Johnny Pesky's recollections sound pretty different from Dom DiMaggio's, which sound different from Tommy Heinrich's memories, and etc.

Among the ten interviews in the book, Vincent has chapters on Negro League icons Buck O'Neil, Larry Doby and Monte Irvin. In truth, Doby didn't play in the Negro Leagues very long, as he was playing in the majors in 1948, the first Black player in the American League, at age 24. Irvin did not break into the majors until 1949, when he was already 30 years old, but both he and Doby were eventually elected to the Hall of Fame. O'Neil, despite his status as an icon and the prominance he's gained since Ken Burns' Baseball documentary featured him over 10 years ago, was not a Hall of Fame caliber player in any league, but he sure tells great stories.

Warren Spahn tells some good stories, too, as does Ralph Kiner. Of course, with over four decades in the Mets' broadcast booth, lots of Kiner's stories have been heard in venues other than this one, but a story about his disastrous date with Elizabeth Taylor, for example, is pretty interesting to read even if you've heard it before. Bob Feller tells us that "Josh Gibson couldn't hit a curveball with an ironing board." Elden Auker recalls how someone told him, after he'd struck out Babe Ruth, that the Bambino was all bent out of shape because "that was the first time a woman ever struck him out!" (Turns out that was a fib, but it sure got Auker all fired up.) Tommy Henrich relates the circumstances under which Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis declared him a "free agent", over 30 years before Curt Flood would make waves and change the game forever. Warren Spahn talks about his arguments with Ted Williams over whether or not pitchers are stupid, pointing out that, "if pitchers are all stupid, how come you only hit .406? Fifty-percent is .500 and you never hit that." Most of these guys, if not all of them, served in the military during World War II, and they all have interesting stories about those experiences.

In all, this book is a lot of fun. They're great stories, from great players. It's a quick, easy read, and sheds some light on a time when the game, and this country, were both a lot less complicated. Hopefully Vincent is working on another volume, either with more stars from the same era, or maybe some from the 1950s. This book would make a great start for a series of similar works. It would be a shame if The Only Game in Town were the only book of its kind.

17 May 2006

Burying the Black Sox, by Gene Carney

Burying the Black Sox: How Baseball's Cover-Up of the 1919 World Series Fix Almost Succeeded
by Gene Carney
c. 2006 Potomac Books Inc. $26.95 (Hardcover)

"Was [reporter and scandal-investigator Hugh] Fullerton a Don Quixote? He took a huge risk, and lost. He underestimated baseball's ability to keep the lid screwed tightly on the scandal. Fullerton had a blind spot when it came to the Sox's owner...and this ultimately cost him. He imagined that the baseball owners and [American League President] Ban Johnson had consciences to which he could appeal with passion and logic. he may have hoped that his voice would be joined by writers in every major city, and his articles would be the snowball that started an avalanche. But instead, by iself, his case had more like a snowball's chance in hell."

I usually like to include a short but meaningful quote from the books I review, some pithy comment by the author, to give you an idea what his or her book is about, but Gene Carney presented me with a unique problem. There is very little about his book that could be accurately described as "pithy". Not to be misunderstood, it's not as though he goes off on weird, irrelevant tangents all the time like, for example, I do. It's just that his subject requires fairly dense prose to give it the proper attention, which he does. The quote above does the best job of summarizing the meaning of and reason for the book he wrote. It just isn't short. Sorry about that.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me back up.

I first found out about this book in March, when I wrote a column for All-Baseball.com about the 1919 Chicago White Sox, ostensibly because last year's White Sox team wasn't ineresting enough to justify a column, but really just because the Black Sox were what I wanted to write about anyway. Mr. Carney's publisher commented on the post and contacted me to see if I'd be interested in reading and reviewing this book, which of course, I was, and I did. You see, I spent perhaps the better part of a week doing research for my article, while Carney spent years researchiing his book. It turns out that I had a lot to learn.

Carney's book does not merely dispel some of the myths surrounding the 1919 World Series. It practically starts the whole investigation from scratch. The White Sox never really called their 88-year championship drought a "curse" as Red Sox fans did, but the fact that they hadn't won one since before the team was accused of throwing the World Series sure didn't escape anyone's attention either. Carney was researching and writing his book long before the 2005 team ended that drought, and the meticulous care with which he approached his subject is immediately apparent.

Before you even get into the chapters of the book, Carney lists an entire "roster" of not just the players on the Sox and the Cincinnati Reds, but the front office personnel, league administrators, reporters and gamblers who played some role in the scandal itself and/or its attempted cover-up. He also has a brief chronology so the reader will know the basic flow of the events, which is mostly intended for those of us whose only background on the subject comes from watching John Sayles' movie "Eight Men Out", during which you may or may not have realized that an entire year transpired between the end of the World Series and the grand jury testimonies about the Fix.

In truth, many of the facts of the fixed Series did not come out until much later, at an otherwise unrelated trial, in 1924. At that time, the now-banned Shoeless Joe Jackson was suing the White Sox for back-pay, which raised the issue of why he was released in the first place. Burying the Black Sox really starts here, at this 1924 trial, looking at things much more closely than anyone did at the time, to see what could be learned about Joe Jackson and his involvement (if any) in the fixing of the 1919 World Series. That trial, as you'll read, brought to light a myriad of interesting facts, facts which forced Baseball to divulge some of its secrets and to admit, in some ways, how thin a case it had against the "eight men out". Oh, yeah...but they're banned anyway.

From there, the book goes back to the 1919 Series itself, outlining the events of each game, from the standpoints of baseball and of betting. He then details the attempted cover-up, initiated mostly by White Sox owner Charles Comiskey and other powerful men trying to save baseball's sterling image and of course, trying to save themselves a little Sterling, too. As the biggest-name player involved in the fix of the Series, Carney spends a whole chapter detailing the ways that Shoeless Joe Jackson may or may not have been involved with the fix of the series. He does a remarkably good job of providing lots of facts and at least attempting to allow the reader to draw his own conclusions about Jackson's guilt or innocence, though it seemed fairly apparent to me that Carney thinks he's innocent.

The next chapter essentially explains why it took an entire year for the facts of the Fix to come to light, and why no official investigation had been initiated sooner. The results of that investigation, the subsequent trial of the accused players and the aftermath of their odd verdict ("Acquitted...but banned anyway") are the subject of the next chapter.

He spends most of the rest of the book profiling people, especially the banned players on the White Sox. Particular attention is paid to Joe Jackson and starting pitchers Eddie Cicotte and Lefty Williams, the latter two having started and lost four of the five World Series contests in 1919. But he also discusses the remaining five banned players, Happy Felsch, Swede Risberg, Fred McMullin, Chick Gandil and Buck Weaver, who was banned for being in the wrong place an the wrong time, and for not "tattling" on his teammates.

There is a laundry list of gamblers, gangsters and their associates who may have played some role in this messy history, and so the Fixers get a chapter all their own, and Carney even spends a chapter commenting on how others have written on or spoken of the subject throughout history. He spends a little time on old-time baseball writer Ring Lardner, poet Nelson Algren, and about a half dozen others who've written somehting prominent about the 1919 Chicago White Sox and/or the fixed Series. Because of his prominence, Carney spends quite a lot of effort reviewing and critiquing novelist Eliot Asinof, who wrote the book Eight Men Out, on which the movie was based.

One of Carney's biggest criticisms, of Asinof and others, is their lack of footnotes and references, so he makes darn sure that no one will be able to accuse him of the same kind of lazy reporting. The book totals 363 pages, but the last 60 pages or so (~ 20%) consist of endnotes (hundreds of them), references, sources and an index. Carney has done his detective work, and he's very particular about making that clear.

Unlike today, the details of a baseball game are not recorded by huge companies with huge budgets and huge computers, and so many of the details that might have helped us to decipher these events have either been lost to history or just haven't been found yet. Nevertheless, Carney does a remarkable job with the meager tools he was given, newspaper clippings and interviews with fuzzy-minded, nostalgic old ballplayers and the like, to piece together an interesting and insightful work. This naturally makes for very dense reading. Lots of names, dates, places, events, often reflected upon from more than one individual's perspective or recollection. It's a lot to soak up, but stick with it and you won't regret it. The book does not read like a "fast-paced novel", which is an overused phrase, anyway. More like a history textbook, except, not as dry, and in this case it's about a subject you actually want to learn about, as opposed to, say, the Teapot Dome Scandal.

Like any good investigator, especially one who's examining a series of events so entrenched in the American psyche, Carney seeks mainly to dispel myths and show the truth. For the Black Sox Scandal, its myth as much a part of our collective history as George Washington's cherry tree, people know the story so well that they often don't want to hear the truth. We've read the book or watched the movie, so we know about the "eight men out"...but we don't know how much more extensive the gambling problem was in baseball at the time. We know about the farcical trial in 1920...but almost nobody knows about Jackson's case against the Sox in 1924. We know that White Sox owner Charlie Comiskey was a greedy old so-and-so...but we don't know that the players were still paid relatively well, and that they actually initiated the Fix, not the gamblers.

And of course we know about the pathetic but adorable little street urchin who uttered the immortal plea to his hero as he exited the courtroom in 1920, "Say it ain't so, Joe!" Well, it turns out that this is probably also misleading at best. Carney puts it this way:

"It really doesn't matter, it's a handy red herring-it was in 1920 and it still is today. It keeps our attention focused on the ballplayers and on October 1919, missing the bigger picture of gambling in baseball and baseball's determination to insist that the game was clean and honest. People who have never heard of the Black Sox know 'Say it ain't so, Joe.' It's stuck in America's consciousness like a commercial jingle."

My recommendation is to try and get that jingle out of your head. Pick yourself up a copy of Burying the Black Sox, and try not to let your head spin too much as you read.

11 April 2006

The Last Nine Innings, by Charles Euchner

The Last Nine Innings: Inside the Real Game Fans Never See
by Charles Euchner $22.95, 2006, Sourcebooks, Inc.

Charles Euchner is not a baseball writer. Unlike the Frank Defords and Dan Shaughnessys and Roger Kahns of the world, Euchner came from outside the sports writers' Old Boy Club, and yet he somehow managed to pen a book almost every bit as good as any from the hand of David Halberstam or Roger Angell. Like Michael Lewis of Moneyball fame, Euchner took his outsider's perspective and kept delving deeper and deeper into the soul and mind of baseball, peeling away layers of time, emotion and analysis to explore the causes and effects of a single game. And not just any game, but the last game of the 2001 World Series, perhaps the most thrilling baseball championship in a decade. The result, The Last Nine Innings: Inside the Real Game Fans Never See, should stand the test of time as one of the most poignant and comprehensive studies of baseball ever written.

Unlike my Double Play partner, Ben Kabak (whose review appears here), I do not continue to have nightmares about Luis Gonzalez fisting a broken-bat single over Derek Jeter's glove into baseball immortality. I am and have always been a Yankee fan, but I can also detach myself from that emotional bond, especially four and a half years after the initial pain. So while it wasn't necessarily pleasant reading a book that I knew would end badly for my favorite team, I could still recall the gravity and excitement of the game being discussed from my own memory, and Euchner's analysis of that game only served to focus those memories more.

The book's 23 chapters each concntrate on various factors that had an effect on that game. Inning by inning, out by out, Euchner looks at the game from the perspectives of the players, managers, coaches, fans, and even the family members thereof, in some cases. His narrative ranges all over creation, from the humble beginnings of some of the players, their struggles in the minor (and major) leagues, a brief personal history for nearly everyone who played that night. He accomplishes this with countless personal quotes form the players and others involved in the franchises and the game itself. Many of these likely come from personal interviews, as few of them are recognizable as "off the shelf" quotes, and this therefore is perhaps the best aspect of Euchner's work.

Avid, long-time baseball fans will find that some of the more notable details of the players' histories are already familiar to them, such as Curt Schillings' early struggles with his attitude in Baltimore and Houston, Randy Johnson's wildness as a young Montreal Expo, or Roger Clemens' grueling training regimen, but there is something here for everyone. Even the most ardent readers of baseball books and magazines will find something about which he can truly say, That was interesting. I didn't know that."

Euchner covers the physiology of training to play in the major leagues, and addresses different schools of though on the subject. Mercifully, he does not spend much time on the issue of steroids, dor does he bore the reader with endless references to arcane medical terms. Nevertheless, he manages to give the reader an idea of how far physical science has come, the approaches that baseball people are now taking to understand the impact that playing profesisonal baseball has on the human body, and what scientists are doing about it. He looks at the philosphies and sciences behind pitching and hitting, ways different players prepare to perform their respective tasks in the game, physically, mentally and emotionally. He focuses especially on Schilling's personal approach, his laptop computer, personal scouting reports and quasi-scientific efforts to prepare for any game situation. He looks at in-game managerial strategies, the split-second decisions that players must make during a game, and the effect that "luck" has on the outcome of certain plays and ultimately, the game itself.

Naturally, no event happens in a vacuum, even in baseball, where the sanitized and distilled box score from the seventh game of the 2001 World Series looks almost exactly like that from any other game played in the last 100 years. So no discussion of this game would be complete without making reference to the fact that America, and specifically New York City, had been attacked by Islamic extremist terrorists only two short months earlier, and less than 10 miles from where three of the seven games in the 2001 World Series were played. Every player and every fan was keenly aware of that fact throughout the Series, and Euchner provides some insight into the influence that event had on the series and the game at-hand.

Statistical analysis forms a significant part of Eucher's discussion as well, whether it's the issue of Derek Jeter's defense or how well pitchers perform at various points in the game, and he does a reasonably competent job of covering this diverse and complex subject. One of my few qualms with the book, however, lies in his discussion of the meaning and role of stats in baseball, as I think he tends to oversimplify things quite a bit. He calls OPS (On Base Percentage + Slugging Percentage), "Probably the best single measure of offensive production..." but of course "best" is a very subjective word. OPS is certainly a useful, "quick and dirty" tool for determining a hitter's overall effectiveness, but it doesn't take baserunning into account, and it inappropriately adds different types of units together, "apples and oranges," if you will, a cardinal sin in mathematics. Furthermore, it implies that slugging percentage and on-base percentage share the burden of offensive production equally, when in reality run scoring relies much more heavily on the latter than the former.

Other places where I take exception to Euchner's claims involve his tendency to ignore the influence of a small sample size on the stats he sites. He provides numbers to indicate how the players performed in various situations that year, especially for Clemens and Schilling, who started the game, but the numbers come only from 2001. Both of these men have been pitching since the 1980s, and it seems misleading, at best, to ignore 10 to 20 years worth of history and performance, making inferences based on one only year's worth of data.

With that said, my little quibbles about Euchner's misuse of statistics are no reason not to buy this book. Whether you're a fan of the Yankees, the Diamondbacks, or just baseball in general, The Last Nine Innings will make you want to go out and watch the next nine innings of baseball, anywhere you can, to keep an eye out for newly-discovered nuances and enjoy the game like you never quite could before.

01 March 2006

Ebbets Field, by Joseph McCauley

Ebbet's Field: Brooklyn's Baseball Shrine
by Joseph McCauley

c. 2004, Authorhouse, $34.75 (Paperback)

A brand new book on an old and endearing subject for baseball fans, Joseph McCauley's book Ebbet's Field: Brooklyn's Baseball Shrine revisits a long-gone place and time, a favorite subject of young and old fans of the game. McCauley grew up and lives in the Midwest, and is too young (I think) to have ever visited Brooklyn's baseball shrine, but as an avid fan of the game and of baseball nostalgia, McCauley felt that there was a void, at least in his own baseball library, that needed to be filled. To this end, he set out to write the book he wished he could have read. He did two years of research on the subject, visiting the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, the Library of Congress and places in Brooklyn, both for historical reference and historical perspective. He interviewed numerous former fans, players and others who were involved with the franchise before it relocated to Los Angeles.

I am sorry to report, however, that the result is something of a disappointment, at least to me. Much of my criticism of McCauley's efforts probably stems largely from the fact that this is his first effort at writing a book. Because of that, and the fact that his publisher, Authorhouse, is really a self-publishing house, the book is rather cheap, ironically, without being inexpensive. It's a 3/8" thick paperback, and it costs almost $35, and that's without a lot of large color pictures, which generally tend to drive up the price of a coffee-table book. For that matter, this book doesn't seem well-suited to coffee tables, as the cover seems to curl back, even when it's just left sitting for a while. As humid as it gets when it rains around here, a book should not simply deform like that. Not a well-made book, anyway.

Another aspect of the book that makes it less than an ideal coffee table book is that the writing is too dense. There are 58 images in the 89-page book, but most of them are not more than about 2" x 3" and the writing in between is not broken up into sufficiently succinct chunks to be convenient for reading a little at a time. Furthermore, as a rookie writer, and perhaps without an editor, McCauley's book really needed some fine tuning. The book is rife with typos, misspellings, inappropriate punctuation and other errata, some of which would normally be forgiveable in a first edition, if it wre not coupled with these other problems. His journalism degree (as described on the book's back cover) should qualify him to be a writer, but he has only worked as a letter-carrier for the US Postal Service and does not seem to have written anything of consequence in the two and a half decades that have passed since college, and his lack of practice shows. He attempts to cover the histories of the park and of the franchise simultaneously, but it is sometimes hard to follow his train of thought while reading. Other things are not explained very thoroughly, which either means that he makes a lot of assumptions about what his readers know or that it does not occur to him to lay such groundwork in his prose, either of which makes for problematic reading.

All in all, I am truly sad to report that Ebbet's Field(the book) offers little of the uniqueness, charm and craftsmanship that Ebbets Field (the ballpark) offered in its heyday. What it does offer is some interesting interviews, a few good pictures and a lot of nostalgia, as well as a chance for an upstart author to get his feet on the ground and a few dollars in his pocket. Best wishes to him.