The Post No One Wanted, Especially Me

September 14, 2013

Well, this is it.

As my more long-term readers know, I started this blog during a bout with unemployment back in 2009. I’ve risen to some kind of prominence and been acknowledge by several authors whose books I’ve reviewed on this site, most notably Cait Murphy (Crazy ’08) and Marty Appel (Pinstripe Empire).

My life has also gone through some wild uphevals since then. I’ve been slowed by a return to my hometown, a couple of jobs, and other things I wanted to try writing. Well, none of that compares to what’s going on in my own personal life right now. One day, I snapped and realized that the starving part of being a starving artist sucked exceptionally hard, and it was something I wanted no part of. So after re-evaluating my life and giving a little thought to my situation, this past year I made the decision to enroll in the University of Buffalo to study Exercise Science, full time, possibly as a prerequisite to another area of study to follow. UB took me.

Its now been eight years since my last tour of duty through academia, and I’m being so thrown off by the return to routine that with everything I’m learning in my classes, it feels like a shrapnel bomb went off in my head. I knew going in that I would have to make sacrifices, and one of them is unfortunately this blog. I will still keep it up – hell, I have a part-by-part review of Ken Burns’s Baseball to finish. Unfortunately, it leaves me virtually no time to read, analyze, and review baseball literature the way I once did.

I’ve enjoyed writing this blog, and I’ve learned some truly interesting things about baseball. Now I have to work to let in other subjects like calculus and human nutrition. Trying to do both at my age (32) is something that might leave a lot of clutter in my head, so I have to keep my priorities straight. And let’s face it, as much as we love to debate whether Ty Cobb or Babe Ruth was really a better player, that subject would mean very little to someone I was trying to teach to operate a new mechanical leg. This isn’t the biggest sacrifice I’ve had to make. I’ve also largely given up video games, and considering my first prominent writing gig was for an independent video game website, I’m still not sure if those close to me believe I’m really doing that.

I might write once or twice in my increasingly little spare time, and I’ll certainly be cheering for the Yankees and White Sox, same as I did when I started Lit Bases. For those interested, my journey can be followed through my personal blog, The Windy Nickel. http://windynickel.wordpress.com/ I’ll always be trying to make it as a writer as well, so thank you all for reading and commenting – especially the authors who stopped by and left messages. It meant a lot.

Who’s on Worst? by Filip Bondy

August 21, 2013

I know I’m merely reiterating a sentiment that’s been recorded a million billion times in the past, but there isn’t much of a better way to start a review of a book like this: Part of the big reason people are drawn to baseball is that it seems so humanized. The folks who go to the plate at the very highest levels of the game are are still hoping to be good enough to hit the ball three times out of ten, if even that. Baseball is human. Humans are very prone to mistakes. Baseball is such a challenging sport that greatness in it is decided by still being able to fail more often than having success. Three hits out of ten tries is the best ratio one dares hope for. The last time anyone did better than that was in 1941, and two things stick out about even that accomplishment: The first is that the hitter who successfully did that was still only hitting the ball four out of ten times. The second is that the hitter was Ted Williams, very possibly the greatest hitter of all time.

Is it any wonder we get so fascinated by books which celebrate the worst of the ballplayers? We’re not even insulting them, or mocking them, we’re celebrating them as regular old joes who make foibles trying to play a sport which demands more minute speed, reflexes, and awareness than any other. We love such celebrations because we realize if we tried to play baseball, we know that the people making the biggest errors could easily be us.

Some of us are also bad at making jokes or puns, such as Philip Bondy, a writer for the New York Daily News who wrote the book Who’s on Worst? This is another book celebrating the worst in baseball, and by the standards of what it’s supposed to be and what it’s trying to do, it’s a dandy.

Just when you think you’ve seen the worst of baseball covered at every conceivable angle, someone comes along and finds new things to spot that are rarely pointed out in baseball conversations. Yes, there are several standards inside Who’s on Worst? – the ever-ubiquitous worst hitters and worst pitchers are both in this one. Goats? Yep. Cheaters? Of course. So what’s new, exactly? Well, Bondy shows how narcissistic New York City sportswriters are by giving us a chapter on the most overpaid Yankees players. That’s not a coincidence; it’s an official chapter Bondy justifies by saying the Yankees have overpaid even by today’s ridiculous baseball economics. There’s a whole different chapter dedicated to the most overpaid players who weren’t Yankees. Telling of the era, there’s also a chapter full of players who used steroids but still sucked all over MLB.

At the end of every chapter, Bondy gives us his top ten list of the worst, but in the chapters he only expounds on half of them on average. This book could have been a lot stronger if he would have included the details for all of them. Maybe that was something the editor did, but if that’s the case, then this book really could have used a different editor. As for the arguments he uses to state his cases, Bondy is great at this. It takes guts to call Gene Mauch one of the worst managers of all time despite being number eight on the list of games won. Mauch’s record was 1902-2037 for his career, and he never made the World Series. He was responsible for The Phold while managing the Philadelphia Phillies and blew a couple of great chances with the California Angels. Bondy uses a quote or two to describe Mauch as a little guy who sacrificed more than a couple of wins to keep players in his personal doghouse and overworked his better pitchers.

His list of worst team owners is also pretty unusual. He includes both Frank McCourt and The Wilpons, but Peter Angelos and Jeffery Loria are numbers nine and ten respectively. Charlie Comiskey doesn’t even make the cut.

I found it difficult to get Bony’s angle on steroids. It’s certainly telling that he gives steroid “cheats” their own chapter, but he never seems to condemn it or condone it. He treats them as they’re just there, another obstacle MLB has to reckon with. Somehow, Manny Ramirez managed to get himself onto that particular list. Traditional folks on his cheating list include Gaylord Perry, a character asinine enough to try to defend himself while running his mouth about steroids. Others include Kevin Gross and Wilton Guerrero, Vlad’s brother.

One of the more interesting chapters is on star players whose relatives weren’t quite as good. Hank Aaron’s little brother only hit 13 home runs. Pete Rose’s boy had a career which didn’t run as long as his dad’s. There’s also chapters on goats and lucky players. I had qualms with these: Steve Bartman is listed as a goat, and Jeffery Maier is listed as lucky.

There’s a chapter on the biggest jerks in the league, too. It includes a couple of the usual suspects, like Dave Kingman and John Rocker, but also, surprisingly, Jeff Kent. There’s little question that Kent probably deserves to be known as such a jerk, but it’s a change seeing him get mentioned because he usually gets overshadowed by teammate Barry Bonds.

There’s really not much more to say. Filip Bondy’s Who’s on Worst is a fun, well-argued book about some of the worst things in baseball. It’s definitely worth checking out if you don’t mind being copped out by chapter-end lists which were only comprised of half the chapter, and therefore being deprived a several details you would want to know.

42 (Movie)

July 8, 2013

It’s hard to think that in a 40-year acting career that included Han Solo, Indiana Jones, Jack Ryan, Richard Kimble, and an Oscar nomination for Witness, Harrison Ford never really tried to delve into the role of a person who actually existed. It’s why the casting of 42, the movie about Jackie Robinson, felt so weird: It isn’t some great Method actor known for disappearing into his roles playing Branch Rickey. It’s Ford, one of the all-time recognizable movie stars. He does a beautiful job of it, too.

That’s important, because the story of Jackie Robinson as told in 42 is very much the story of Branch Rickey, the man who took the chance of signing Robinson. Rickey actually receives a wee bit more character development than Robinson, as we get to hear the stories of why Rickey feels so strongly about signing a black man to a major league contract, we learn of his devout Methodism, and he’s really the one pulling a lot of the strings. On the other hand, we don’t learn so much about Robinson’s past, and we don’t even get any views on interpretations of Robinson’s famous 1945 tryout for the Boston Red Sox – something the Red Sox only did to appease Civil Rights activists, after which they told Robinson not to call them, they would call him.

42 plays out as the story of Jackie Robinson’s rookie year in 1947, when he won the Rookie of the Year award and led the Dodgers to the Pennant. That’s the only year we get to see played out in 42, but man, is it ever a doozy. I know Robinson faced unfathomable racism of the worst kind, and seeing it placed right in front of my face was pretty jarring. I was born in 1981, and it’s difficult for see how different everything was back then, and know that there are still a lot of people alive today who had to live through the kind of abuse Robinson faced. (My father was born in 1947.) A lot of the motivations for bringing Robinson up to the bigs had to do with money, something even Rickey even admits when he tries to sell the idea. Hey, if it worked!

The racism is the main theme of 42. Although there’s naturally a lot of baseball played in the movie, 42 has very little to do with baseball. Yes, we get regular updates about how the Brooklyn Dodgers are doing, but 42 exists mostly so we can get a look at Jackie Robinson and get an idea of the way the rest of the world reacted to him. There are some famous bits and pieces of the year in the movie – Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman verbally undressing Robinson with a relentless onslaught of every racial slur he can think of, and Pee Wee Reese placing his arm around Robinson’s shoulder as a show of solidarity as Robinson is lustily booed by a crowd in Cincinnati. A moment I would have liked to see would be after Robinson led the minor league Montreal Royals to their Championship, after which him and his wife, Rachel, were chased through Montreal by throngs of adoring fans who wanted to celebrate; the irony of that wasn’t lost on Jackie or Rachel. Montreal is in fact covered pretty generically, and Robinson’s Montreal Manager, Clay Hopper, barely has five minutes of screen time. That’s a shame for an ornery southern segregationist who was completely transformed by the experience of having Robinson on his team and mentored more black players who came up through Brooklyn’s system afterward.

There are some very powerful scenes in 42; Branch Rickey’s declaration about wanting someone with the guts to not fight back is in 42, and his worry about facing the lord one day with an inexcusable answer to the question of why he didn’t let black people play Major League Baseball are both in it. Hell, none other than Jackie Robinson’s widow, Rachel, gave 42 her personal blessing and said they did a great job with it. However, there are far too many scenes in 42 awash in syrupy melodrama. First of all, there are some of those damned kids in the movie. I’ve long believed the use of kids who turn up during pivotal power scenes is a cheap directorial tool for hacks, and half the time I keep wishing the little ankle-biter gets run over by a train. During the scene in Cincinnati with Reese and Robinson, there’s one of those kids, and he’s seen taking after his father and screaming slurs, then being instantly changed when he sees Reese place his hand on Robinson’s shoulder and chat him up. The scene would have been just as effective without the kid, especially since 42 is mostly melodramatic kid-free and this happens close to the finale. Gag me.

That’s not all. The ridiculous score sounds like the insufferable music that always accompanied the Lesson of the Week on a terrible 80’s sitcom. I get that such dreck is par course for movies like this, but there’s virtually no other kinds of music heard throughout 42. What this does is give 42 a real after-school special feel, and after-school specials don’t ring fond memories in people of my generation. By and large, we just started getting fed up with the things after awhile.

You can’t have a sports movie without an army of cliches, and things were decidedly looking down after the scene where Jackie proposes to Rachel over the phone. Cliches are wildly abundant because of the nature of 42: A sports movie about racism. 42 takes its sweet time letting you know exactly what it’s about. One early scene shows Robinson trying to use the toilet at a gas station but being denied for being the wrong color, then telling the attendant they would be getting gas somewhere else. Another scene is when Jackie and Rachel arrive in New Orleans for Spring Training and Jackie finds herself staring at a Whites Only bathroom, saying she’s heard about them, but never seen them before. Annoying as those cliches were, they were at least important to the theme of the movie. The other cliches come through the baseball medium, and they’re no good at all. Most of them revolve around people having their opinions of Jackie being changed on a dime because he makes some otherworldly athletic play. There are on-cue diving catches and home runs. There’s a walk-off at the end of the Big Game at the finale.

What really confused me, though, is that 42 seems to place a big emphasis on Robinson’s ability to steal. Yeah, we get that Robinson was very fast, but as this movie proves, that doesn’t translate well to cinematic excitement. Not on a baseball diamond, anyway. That’s not entirely absurd because Robinson was a two-time Stolen Bases Champion, but his stealing numbers in either of those years wasn’t outrageous – 29 in 1947 and 37 in 1949 – and it’s clear from the start of the movie that Branch Rickey wants him because he was a prolific hitter (.311 career average). So it seems funny to me that stealing would be given such an emphasis, even if Robinson did steal home in the 1955 World Series.

I won’t begrudge 42 for its story or the fact that it shows us just how stupid we really used to be. The fact that it earned a ringing endorsement from Rachel Robinson says more about it than I ever could, and you should probably go see it for that reason alone – it is, after all, one of those stories that really needs to be told, and that you can’t fully appreciate until you know something about it beyond the usual school textbook glossover. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a very good movie, though. At least Harrison Ford’s performance is captivating enough to hold your attention between the after-school special parts of it.

Comeback by Dave Dravecky

July 3, 2013

The great trouble with the Christian Inspiration genre of any medium is that there’s only one brand of it. The only differences are the obstacles and the number of times God is mentioned.

I went looking through my local library for a book which wasn’t about the Yankees or Red Sox, and what I came up with was a forgotten bit of Christian Inspiration called Comeback. It was written in 1990 by Dave Dravecky, who pitched for around five years in Major League Baseball. Although he was originally put into the Pittsburgh Pirates system, all his big league hurling was done for the San Diego Padres and San Francisco Giants. He got to play in the World Series for both of those teams. According to Wikipedia, he compiled some fairly respectable numbers: 64-57 win/loss record and 3.13 ERA to go with 558 strikeouts for a career which went from 1982 to 1989. All-Star in 1983.

Other than that, Dravecky didn’t have very much about him that was remarkable. Yeah, at one point he went broke, like so many people who make the Major Leagues do, but that wasn’t blowing the money on bourbon and hookers like a lot of those others. Dravecky’s bank-breaking happened on a series of bad home investments – a boring, middle class way to kill an account. Instead of living up the rock star lifestyle at the beginning of his career, Draveky was married to his high school sweetheart even when he was drafted.

So what about him warrants a book? Well, it started with a tumor that popped up in 1987. The operation to get the tumor out removed half his deltoid muscle in his pitching arm, which is a big deal because the deltoid is the muscle responsible for the rounded padding of the human shoulder, and therefore the muscle responsible for the shoulder being able to perform many of its primary functions. Its removal is a big issue, and for Dravecky, it resulted in the loss of a lot of movement. This happened in his PITCHING shoulder. If you’re a pitcher and you get that sucker cut out, there’s a good chance you don’t pitch again.

Well, Dravecky DID pitch again. He also broke his arm, came back from that, broke his arm again, and retired after the doctors told him his cancer was making a little comeback of its own. That’s where Comeback ends. Researching Dravecky, I learned that he finally had to bite the bullet and have his entire left arm amputated in 1991.

I was expecting Dravecky’s life story, but Comeback is about that and that alone: His cancer and his return to baseball from that cancer. Dravecky writes that it started with a lump which even the doctors wrote off, but escalated to a point where it couldn’t be ignored – the thing grew up to the size of a golf ball. Dravecky details exactly what the operation did to him, and write about the various exercises he had to perform in order to get into playing shape again. When he’s back in shape, he write about what it was like for his arm to break again, twice. This only goes over his stint in San Francisco, where it all happened. He barely writes about San Diego or the minor leagues, although while he was in Pittsburgh’s system, he played for the Buffalo Bisons. This dated the book for me because while he was pitching in Buffalo – my hometown – the Bisons were still playing at War Memorial Stadium, a run down shack of a stadium in one of the city’s worst neighborhoods. Buffalo’s minor league baseball stadium, Pilot Field, was built in the late 80’s. It set the standard for what a ballpark experience turned into in the 90’s and is still considered a crown jewel today.

Faith and family are the main focal points of Dravecky’s life, and he writes a lot about his prayer group. Given Comeback’s genre, you would expect this. I think Dravecky tends to downplay his own determination in favor of his faith, since he writes that and his competitiveness as the primary factors which allow him to really excel. The most interesting parts of the book are when he writes about those exercises. The least interesting are when he goes into detail about his religion, and that’s not (just) the fact that I’m an atheist talking. It’s as I wrote in the beginning: There’s no original way to do Christian Inspiration well. The way it’s often done is to tread on eggshells, writing as much as possible about feeling God, because that’s the only way to do it without pissing people off. Taking a deep water dive into theology alienates people, and if the author is writing for a big, broad audience, alienation is the last thing he would want. That doesn’t leave a lot of room to explore the theology the way Dravecky probably would have liked, and so, like a lot of Christian Inspiration I’ve been exposed to, it feels weak.

The most interesting tidbit I picked up from Comeback is the fact that all baseballs are apparently different. Baseballs take such hard beatings during games that it’s impossible for them to keep their shapes, and so they’ll be replaced dozens of times over a single game. Therefore, pitchers handle thousands of balls throughout their careers, so they tend to notice little differences between the baseballs. It makes perfect sense when you think about it.

It’s tough to write about a story I’ve read a thousand times. It’s tougher for me to see what meanings I can dig out of the Christian Inspiration genre. Even knowing that Dravecky ultimately had his arm amputated, I didn’t get as much out of Comeback as I did out of Soul Surfer, the story of how professional surfer Bethany Hamilton fought to regain her surfing form after her left arm was bitten off by a shark. Both Dravecky and Hamilton are amputees and devout Christians, but Hamilton was faced with an obstacle which would have made her situation comical had it not actually happened. Somehow, she pulls off the incredible trick of surfing without an arm. In any case, the genre is boring because despite the country being overwhelmingly Christian, no one wants to take chances with the inspirational/theological mold even within the Christian faith. There aren’t any inspirational memoirs by celebrities of other beliefs. I’ve read one autobiography by an orthodox Jew in which religion is a major factor in the author’s life: The famous AV Club head critic Nathan Rabin, who never writes about his devotion to Judaism after the first chapter or the factors that led him to it. It wouldn’t kill anyone to publish one of these written by a famous Muslim. Or, (gasp!), a celebrity memoir in which the author finds his strength within after a search for religious inspiration only lets him down.

Ken Burns’s Baseball, Third Inning: The Faith of Fifty Million People

June 17, 2013

Well, it isn’t like the Black Sox scandal of 1919 is ever going to fade into the backwaters of baseball lore or anything. It’s probably the longest section of Ken Burns’s Baseball’s Third Inning, The Faith of Fifty Million People. I was quite happy at this point just to see that Burns decided not to dwell on trying to make a case for the innocence of Shoeless Joe Jackson, whose innocence is contestable on the best of days. In my official capacity as a White Sox fan, I actually felt a little relieved by Burns’s way of covering the Black Sox scandal. He didn’t try to center it by using Jackson as the entire scandal’s moral fulcrum, which is a common aspect of most portrayals of the Black Sox that pisses me off. Jackson isn’t treated any differently than any of the other folks who were nailed in the Black Sox episode.

Unfortunately, Burns doesn’t get his facts completely straight, either. He does wholeheartedly sell us on two other commonly told half-truths about the Black Sox scandal: The first is that people began staying away from the ballpark in droves. If there’s any real truth in this, it isn’t nearly as much as people like to believe. When told about the devastation of the Black Sox, one tends to imagine players playing games in the middle of nearly empty ballparks. This just wasn’t true – baseball had survived scandals before the Black Sox, a few of which were related to gambling. People seemed to have at least a little bit of knowledge that the game wasn’t entirely on the level. Yet, they attended games anyway. The Black Sox didn’t keep that many people out of the ballparks. In fact, knowing what we know now about baseball and the fans, the very idea of a gambling scandal scaring off the public is insanely farfetched. The other big myth was that the White Sox were a dynamo that would have overpowered the Cincinnati Reds no matter the circumstances. Well folks, in 1919 the Reds went 96-44, as opposed to Chicago’s 88-52. The Reds finished nine games ahead while the White Sox finished three and a half games ahead. Cincinnati actually had a better pitching rotation that year, though Chicago’s batters were miles better than the Reds. An objective argument over which team was actually better could go well into the early hours.

Inning Three also contains a little bit of detail about the batting contest between Ty Cobb and Napoleon Lajoie. Burns expounds a little bit more on Cobb, mentioning the time he went into the stands to beat up the guy with no hands. And once again, Cobb’s racism is the main angle. Once again, there’s nothing about the handful of ballplayers were were full-fledged members of the Ku Klux Klan – and that includes Tris Speaker, whom Burns felt obligated to mention on a detour about a handful of the decade’s notable stars.

Ken Burns is a fan of the Boston Red Sox, so it should come as no surprise that he tends to dote on his team a little bit. The Faith of Fifty Million People can be excused for doing that in this case, though, because it was during this era that the Red Sox reached their apex of on-field success and possibly their apex of importance to the league. Four of Boston’s seven World Series titles were won during this decade, and they were led by this young pitching phenomenon they found named George Herman Ruth. The Philadelphia Athletics – particularly Connie Mack – also get a bit of time devoted to them, and of course there was The New York Team. In this case, though, that was the New York Giants, the John McGraw-led team tearing up the National League. The Cubs are barely mentioned, if at all.

One of the important things to remember about Ken Burns’s Baseball is that it’s not a documentary about Major League Baseball. It’s a documentary about BASEBALL. The lack of those two words is very important, because Burns tends to frequently tip his hat to many of the things that were happening outside of Major League Baseball at the time. The Negro Leagues were getting started right about now, and one team tried to pass off a black player with lighter skin as a member of a different race to keep him on a team. This says a lot about racial attitudes. Consider: There were members of every race in Major League Baseball except blacks, and a team actually tried to pass off a black man as a member of a different non-white race that was getting more rights than black people. It’s a hell of a condemnation if you really think about it.

Workers’ leagues are also talked about briefly. Once upon a time, it was in vogue for corporations to offer extracurricular activities to workers in order to keep them away from the unions. I would have loved to know more about the workers’ leagues, how they operated, and the kinds of lives their players lived as both workers and ballplayers, and how they might have differed from those of workers who didn’t take the option of being ballplayers. I’ll write this off, though, because most of the noteworthy events of baseball were in the big leagues, and the histories of the workers’ leagues were likely written by their rich bosses anyway. Minor league baseball is barely mentioned, which is also unfortunate because Major League Baseball never moved south of Washington or west of St. Louis until after 1950, and this could end up ignoring a lot of events that were happening elsewhere in the country.

Once again, even though there’s live-action footage in The Faith of Fifty Million People, Burns is still stuck with a bit of clever editing with old newspaper stills. I’m not sure how much the movies had caught on by the 10’s, but it doesn’t seem to be enough to have made real footage of baseball games widely available. I couldn’t help but come away from The Faith of Fifty Million People a little bit disappointed. So far, it’s the most pedestrian entry into Ken Burns’s Baseball.

A-Rod by Selena Roberts

April 23, 2013

A-Rod, by Selena Roberts, doesn’t take long to cut to the heart of what it really is. You can tell what it is easily by looking to the top of the cover, where it mentions that Roberts is the Sports Illustrated writer who broke A-Rods steroids scandal.

As far as tomes to the fallen baseball heroes we once loved and wanted to believe in go, A-Rod is even more egregious and angry-written than Jeff Pearlman’s The Rocket that Fell to Earth, a biography of Roger Clemens in which Pearlman writes fed up. While I was reading A-Rod, I kept getting the impression that Roberts was not only airing the dirty laundry of Alex Rodriguez, but that she was doing so in a real hurry, as if she needed to finish the book before the A-Rod steroid story cooled down. She also seemed to be writing it out with an attitude reminiscent of a kid whose lunch money kept getting stolen.

When I read through the epilogue, my suspicion was basically confirmed. Roberts takes a first-person viewpoint and writes out a sizable retort to Rodriguez’s personal attack on her on a news show. Now, I can grant her a free pass for writing that out at the least. After all, she’s a reporter who doesn’t even have her photo on the book flap while A-Rod is a universally known and beloved baseball superstar, so that left her with pretty much no choice but to defend herself against the things Rodriguez said about her on national TV. And lord knows that way Rodriguez has been acting in public lately places the benefit of the doubt squarely in Roberts’s corner.

Selena Roberts seems to have wanted to shed a little light on the mysterious, veiled, enigmatic figure that is Alex Rodriguez, something which the New York City media has been cheerfully doing ever since his arrival in The Bronx. The Rodriguez facade had already crumbled to dust long before A-Rod was ever written because no one really wants to leave him alone these days. I find that the trouble with Roberts’s book here is that it’s a real rush job in that she just doesn’t come off with any point besides trying to make Rodriguez look bad. Alex Rodriguez the sympathetic little kid is the subject of a couple of chapters, but once that’s wrapped up, the bulk of A-Rod is a straight battering. So much of A-Rod focuses on Rodriguez’s steroid use and contracts that the title might as well have been “Money and Muscles: The Many Lives of Alex Rodriguez.”

A-Rod reads like the Hollywood tabloids. Rodriguez comes off as an anti-hero at the best of times, and a two-dimensional villain in the worst of times. Rodriguez’s impressive accomplishments on the baseball diamond are minimized, and that allows us a full picture of Alex Rodriguez the cartoon character. It allows us to look at Rodriguez the same way Roberts writes about Rodriguez looking at himself: A man who believes his greatest accomplishments aren’t his batting statistics or the impressive home run totals he hit, but his ridiculous contracts with the Texas Rangers and New York Yankees. Rodriguez is written as a man who thinks his greatest feat is reaching the height of celebrity, and who looks at baseball as nothing more than the vessel that brought him up to it.

I think the scariest information I got out of A-Rod is about just how rampant steroids are apparently running in high school athletics. That is, according to Roberts, the time Rodriguez was first exposed to steroids. Now, I can admit I really don’t give a crap about how many players use steroids, and I’ve said before that I believe they should be legalized. The scary part about high schoolers on steroids is the fact that so many of these kids are pressured into using them because they see baseball as their only possible way of life. Therefore, they feel an intense need to focus on and succeed in baseball, and things simply shouldn’t be that way.

Throughout A-Rod, Roberts doesn’t do much more than spew out the same information the tabloids and New York City media have been giving us ever since Rodriguez became a Bomber. She tends to draw out the information a little bit more, and give us more behind the scenes details: Things like how Scott Boras became Rodriguez’s agent, how Rodriguez really felt about Yankees teammate Derek Jeter, and his taste in women leading him to both Cynthia Scurtis and Madonna. She writes him as a man who just isn’t very good at getting swallowed up by the celebrity lifestyle once he gets to the Yankees, after years of playing the squeaky-clean good guy with the Rangers and Seattle Mariners so many people want popular athletes to be.

I didn’t get anything out of A-Rod. It comes off as too rushed, too hostile, and more about the material things Alex Rodriguez wanted as celebrity coups than the man himself. Although Roberts writes that Rodriguez does have a good side, it doesn’t crop up very often in this book. A-Rod feels flat, but if there’s one thing a reader can really learn from it, it’s that famous athletes frequently have sides they don’t show to the public. Honestly, after the recent Lance Armstrong fiasco, nothing would surprise me anymore, so it’s really time we quit lionizing these people as examples of how to live righteous lives. (I’ve written about my frustration over this, too.)

The biggest blow against A-Rod is the fact that Selena Roberts appears to be another person who believes fans care about steroids. Any fan being honest will admit he just doesn’t, and that’s why we still watch. In this respect, A-Rod can be taken as a condemnation of sports journalism, which is chock full of writers who think they speak for the fans, but who are, in reality, so out of touch that it’s embarrassing.

The Big Bam by Leigh Montville

March 30, 2013

Imagine – Babe Ruth, The Bambino himself, slipping around on a pair of ice skates trying to give hockey a shot. I have to smile at that. Apparently, The Babe gave ice hockey a shot during his years with the Red Sox.

The Big Bam, by Leigh Montville, contains a lot of the same old things we’ve come to know and love. Yeah, we all know Babe Ruth was a relentless carouser who loved his beer, women, and franks. We all know he started loosening his belt at an early age and might as well have tried to eat and drink himself out of baseball. Now, I’d like to first point out that Ruth is another great myth about baseball, so those images don’t necessarily match up with the reality the way we expect them to. Hell, one surprising thing Montville argues is that Ruth turning Home Run King didn’t do anything to save baseball after the Black Sox Scandal of 1919. The people, it turned out, didn’t stop lining up outside the gates just because a few Chicago White Sox players decided they were going to cripple the rest of their team in the World Series.

But I want to point out an angle Montville took with The Big Bam which I thought was more interesting than any other. I’m not sure if it was Montville’s intent or not, but what Montville was really writing about in The Big Bam was the rise of an entirely new concept: Babe Ruth was the birth of what is now the modern celebrity. Babe Ruth was the first person to truly become an icon of the country, the first person to have someone manage his relationship with the press and public, the first one who had a public image which was at least somewhat crafted and cultivated, and the first one to ever have to issue a public apology. If you really think about it, Ruth’s PR man, Christy Walsh, is still working his magic in a way. Babe Ruth is a figure f baseball mythology. Not just baseball history, but baseball mythology, something that gives him superhuman abilities and makes him seem larger than life.

In some ways, Ruth WAS larger than life. The way he lived, the way he set records which are shockingly inhuman by today’s standards, and even the way he was sold to the New York Yankees, the latter of which is now being given a little bit of revisionist history to make Harry Frazee look a bit more savvy. Speaking of which, Montville confirms the originally written history that Ruth truly was dealt for a play which, a few years later, was turned into the musical No, No, Nanette. I had heretofore bought into the revisionist story about the Ruth sale, because the idea of a baseball guy making a galactic mistake like that in order to finance a freaking play was just way too absurd. But Montville says it happened, that Frazee’s first love and concern was the theater, and there’s even a documented quote in the book where Frazee says his plays aren’t doing very well.

Montville spends the first few chapters writing a lot about the fog, a metaphor he created in order to describe the fact that we know very little about Ruth’s first few years, before he was sent to the orphanage in Baltimore where he grew up. Instead of de-mystifying and therefore demythologizing Ruth, Montville does something unusual by actually adding another layer of fog. There is apparently just one single, lone picture of Ruth’s mother, and it’s a group photo. The story doesn’t really begin until Ruth is dropped off at the orphanage. Despite a couple of attempts by people to adopt him, his story always wound up back there, and he resided there through most of his childhood, until he was signed to his first baseball contract.

After Ruth gets sold to the Yankees, Montville begins filling up the book with rock star anecdotes and you’ll-never-believe-how-wild-this-guy-was stories. Ruth wasn’t just the first modern celebrity – he may have been the first modern rock star as well. A lot of the stories told in The Big Bam wouldn’t be out of place in the autobiography of Motley Crue or Guns ‘n’ Roses. Ruth crashed his cars an awful lot, saw a lot of women, and ate lots of food. The stories about his appetite for, well, everything are well-known and from the stories told in The Big Bam, his reputation for living large is well-deserved.

In the middle of all the fast, high times, Montville also paints a picture of a tremendous, dominant, and gifted athlete. One of the aspects of Ruthian mythology is the idea that he was a guy who paid no attention to his body and carelessly trashed it. Ruth’s career, though, ran for over 20 years, and people who beat up their bodies the way Ruth is said to have done are usually lucky to make it through only half that time. We are reminded constantly that Ruth, when he was first signed, was a marvelous athlete whose body was pure muscle. And even when he did start letting himself go a little bit, he started getting back in shape after awhile because his career was in danger of flaming out, just like that after a bellyache put him in the hospital. He found the gym of a man named Artie McGovern, who helped him return to baseball shape, and apparently was very serious about his body and the idea of taking things in moderation so he wouldn’t be put out of baseball before his time was up. Most of the insults tilted at Ruth were based more on race – Ruth was a target of racial epithets because he had “black features.” While the flap of The Big Bam claims the book explores the idea of Ruth having a black parent, Montville never actually does this.

Naturally, most of The Big Bam is taken up by The Babe’s adventures as a Yankee. Montville takes more time describing Ruth’s Yankee adventures than he does in any other place. We learn a lot about Ruth’s contracts, how wealthy he really got, how elaborate his spending really was, and even some of his favorite things to do during Spring Training. We’re also told about what his relationship with Lou Gehrig was really like, although Montville doesn’t expound a LOT of detail on just why the two of them eventually grew so distant. While it begins to feel a little repetitive after awhile, Montville regales us with a lot of fun anecdotes about Ruth’s life with the Yankees, and as he writes, he humanizes Ruth by concentrating more on Ruth the person than on Ruth the ballplayer. Even during descriptions of certain World Series games, there is very little buildup and time wasted on the games themselves, even when it comes to The Called Shot and the failed steal which ended the 1926 World Series, sealing victory for the St. Louis Cardinals. I like the fact that the focus is so little on the baseball itself because The Big Bam tells a story about a man, not just a man playing a game. Let’s face it, reliance of descriptions about the action during a ballgame can really slow down the flow of a narrative, so Montville minimizes the problem by writing more about Ruth’s adventures behind the scenes.

The Big Bam ends almost as inauspiciously as it begins. Once Ruth’s stint with the Yankees ends, there’s not much more to the book. One thing I did appreciate was the fact that Montville tells us just why Ruth was so ineffective when he signed with the Boston Braves, with whom he spent less than half a season. His body was starting to take too much of a toll by then. Ironically, around that time, there was a proposal for a player in the lineup who could take the place of a pitcher and be assigned to nothing but hitting – the first time the idea of the designated hitter was floated. I was very satisfied with the writing on Ruth’s time with the Braves. However, his years in retirement go by almost as quickly as his years as a kid. I guess I can grant Montville a pass on that, though, because Ruth really didn’t seem to have a lot going after retirement.

Of all the biographies I’ve read, The Big Bam was the most fun, and most rock star-like. It gives a little bit of the history of the whole concept of celebrity while being extremely entertaining at the same time. If you’re hoping to have the foggier areas of Babe Ruth’s life cleared, though, you’re going to have to wait a lot longer.

Ken Burns’s Baseball – Inning Two: Something Like a War

March 15, 2013

Footage! Ken Burns’s Baseball now comes with real, old-school footage!

Since this was still the olden days, though, that doesn’t mean there’s a whole hell of a lot of it. We don’t get footage of anything significant, although there is a scene from the 1909 World Series where Ty Cobb is talking to Honus Wagner and, from the looks of the scene, apparently being cordial.

In the second part of Ken Burns’s massive documentary about baseball, I continue to be fascinated by the early goings of the professional sport. In Second Inning, Burns presents a part of baseball’s history that flew fast and loose as an up and coming form of entertainment which was not unlike the movies in that it was still very new and people hadn’t quite figured out just what to do with it yet. One of the facts from Second Inning that I didn’t know beforehand actually makes a kind of parallel connection between them: In the offseason, a lot of the big stars and popular players would go into the vaudeville circuit to supplement their incomes. I was amused to learn that John McGraw went into vaudeville to basically stand on a stage and be himself, reciting monologues and answering questions.

By now, baseball is such an established an unquestioned institution in the United States that we tend to forget that it had any kind of beginning at all. Burns spends a lot of time in Second inning showing us not just the development of the sport, but the development of the ballpark experience itself, including the concessions and hot dogs. It does a lot to remind us that the prototypical ballpark experience wasn’t always the ballpark experience. Burns also introduces us to the Royal Rooters, a fan club in Boston. Thats a reminder that the idea of adopting one team to follow and enjoy over the others wasn’t a thing once upon a time. Professional baseball didn’t exist at one time. Professional sports, in fact, didn’t exist at one time. Therefore, selling crappy food and clothes at the parks also didn’t exist at one time, and we start to realize that, like the sport itself, the idea of a fandom came from gradual evolution rather than being thought up all at one time. Seeing it in narration and old photographs right in our faces helps us appreciate that.

Of course, one name player who gets brought into the act in Second Inning is Ty Cobb. You have to mention Cobb’s name in baseball history because he may still be the greatest ballplayer ever. Now, I’ve seen a lot of different angles on Cobb. Some people say he was just a mean dude, others say he was just overreacting to some psychological trauma or sense of inadequacy. Some say he was a hardline racist, others say he gets too much crap for his racism because it wasn’t any different than any other Georgia man in his time and because his racism was more bark than bite. And Cobb’s life is one area where Burns chose to simplify everything. Burns gives him a very two-dimensional portrayal. Even though Burns does make room to talk about Cobb’s father and his motivations, he still gives us the one defining angle on Cobb: Racism, racism, racism. Burns didn’t attack Cap Anson this much, and Anson did a lot more to hold back equality than Cobb ever did. I’m actually a bit surprised Burns hasn’t brought up Cobb beating up a man with no arms yet, but that may have happened in the 1910’s. I wonder if Burns is going to bring up Rogers Hornsby and Tris Speaker being part of the KKK. Considering how much trouble Burns is taking to get several different angles on a lot of different things, his one-dimensional approach to Cobb is just lazy as hell.

The 00’s are the decade when the World Series first saw the light of day, and the explanation and photos of the first one between the Boston Red Sox and Pittsburgh Pirates are another reminder of just how different and new the ballpark experience was back in those days. There are some very impressive pictures of that first World Series, especially of the scenes in Boston where the fans all crowded along the foul lines and in the outfield. One wonders just how the players were able to actually get the games played during the whole fiasco.

One of the other important things Burns also covers is the first dynasty in baseball history: The Chicago Cubs. Yes, I know it’s hard to believe these days, but for half of professional baseball’s very existence, the Cubs were a dynamo of a team who struck fear into all their opponents. With players like Three Finger Brown, Orval Overall, and their Tinker to Evers to Chance combination, the Cubbies (who, as Cait Murphy reminded us in Crazy ’08, would have killed us for referring to them as the Cubbies) went on a spree which saw them set a regular season record in 1906, only to lose the first-ever crosstown World Series to the White Sox; win it all in 1907 and 1908; and return to the Series in 1910.

Fred Merkle is given coverage, of course, and we learn about the aftermath of his famous mistake in 1908. Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson are also featured. But for every story we know about baseball, there are other, more hidden stories which we don’t get, and Burns gives us two of those hidden stories of note: The first is the development of independent professional black baseball teams. The second is the story of a woman named Alta Weiss, a semi-pro pitcher who played for boys’ teams starting at age 14 and was playing semipro baseball with the men by 17. She became a sensation and a huge draw for whom special trains were being run out from Cleveland whenever she pitched. Weiss made enough money to put herself through medical school, became a physician, and played baseball on and off through the 20’s.

So far, all is pretty well in Ken Burns’s massive documentary. It looks like I have to wait until the next part for any significant mention of my favorite teams, though, the Yankees and White Sox.

Ken Burns’s Baseball: First Inning

February 21, 2013

The First Inning chapter of Ken Burns’s Baseball documentary at first feels like it’s going to be the popular picket fence images I detest so much. He spends the first 20 minutes ruminating nostalgic like one speaking starry-eyed on the good old days. Yeah, he was throwing bones to the darker aspects of it, but even so, those 20 minutes do a lot to set of tone, as if baseball is some sacred pastime sanctioned by the gods of Mount Olympus.

Over the following 80 or so minutes, he does everything to reinforce that image, while deconstructing it at the same time. The first part covers baseball from its origins to the beginning of the modern era, about the 1900’s. This is especially interesting because it doesn’t just show the start of a single professional league. It shows the entire founding of the entire sport of baseball. When it gets to leagues, in fact, it might as well be telling the entire history of professional sports in the United States, or at least the founding of them. After all, before baseball began organizing, there wasn’t any going out for an escape at the ballpark.

To be honest, I was a little bit fearful of how the first part would play out. After the sickening first 20 minutes, it isn’t long before Burns takes us through the founding of baseball by Abner Doubleday, step by step, without the slightest hint of sarcasm or irony. After hearing that, I was about to just hit my off button and throwthe rest of this project right by the wayside. But then, Burns abruptly interrupts himself to tell us the reality about the founding of baseball. Doubleday had nothing to do with it, and he begins to go through the evolution of baseball from the British and how it evolved into a number of different versions. It eventually makes its way right up to Alexander Cartwright, the man given the credit with inventing baseball in its current form. It was upon seeing Burns do this that I figured something out: Ken Burns is undergoing a massive reverential project here, trying to cover everything about baseball in its entirety. He understands that baseball’s myths, while separate from the facts by varying degrees, are as important to the game and its history as the facts themselves. He appreciates both the fantasy and reality of it.

Since there was no structure to the beginning of baseball, there’s really not much of a structure to the first 45 minutes to an hour of First Inning, either. Burns does what he can on the bare minimum, and it actually comes off a lot smoother than it is. That’s a great testament to Burns’s talent as a filmmaker. The First Inning starts to really get interesting during the second half. Every professional sports league in the United States underwent some kind of insane, anything-goes era for a couple of decades after starting out. This went doubly so for baseball, because the idea of people making a living by playing a kids’ game at a professional level was unheard of at the time, and teams and entire leagues regularly popped and folded into and out of existence, no matter how they finished in the standings – provided, of course, that the standings themselves were even rigid enough to have meant anything.

A lot of well-known lore is covered – I already know the story of Moses Fleetwood Walker, the first black man to ever play professional baseball. I knew blacks at the time were ostracized frequently by their own teammates, and that a lion’s share of responsibility for the segregation of baseball belongs to Cap Anson of the Chicago White Stockings (today’s Chicago Cubs) for his refusal to allow his team to play against any team fielding a black player. I didn’t know the story of professional baseball’s first gambling scandal. It was an important moment for the sport, and it grows when you give it a little thought: After surviving a scandal such as that, professional baseball probably realized at that moment that it would be able to get away with doing anything. That’s still very true today.

Even if it is in a wistful tone, Ken Burns reminds us that baseball – far from the images the old guard tricked us into thinking about the sport of the past – was, even from those humble origins, a game of cheating, scoundrels, scandals, and unsavory figures. Baseball may represent an ideal, but it has always been irrepressibly human, and the humans who have played it on a major level have always been flawed. It’s why I think the Hall of Fame is a big stinking tank of BS with the way it decides who gets in and stays out, more so after this last vote.

Some things get covered that many people don’t even think of. The beginning of the idea of fans is one of them. Cait Murphy mentioned it in her book Crazy ’08, of course, but she didn’t go into the details of it the way Burns does. He talks about the first stars of baseball, including Anson and King Kelly. Unfortunately, he also misses the Cleveland Spiders of 1899, a subject I would have loved to learn more about.

Burns keeps First Inning interesting despite his limited resources. This wasn’t an era of baseball which was able to give us advanced sabremetrics or complex statistics or exacting records or footage. Burns had basically nothing with which to make an interesting documentary except a bunch of written accounts and interviewees and still drawings and photographs, but he makes the most of all of them to create a compelling if clumsy and somewhat haphazard narrative out of them. And that what First Inning is trying to present – a narrative that tends to jump around a lot and present individual parts of baseball as stories of their very own.

It isn’t until the end that Burns begins to present us with the early characters that most baseball fans have come to know of: Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, and Branch Rickey among them. Still, First Inning manages to be very interesting despite the fact that the narrative is loose and the fact that Burns lacks many of the tools a modern film storyteller would need to effectively enhance the story so that it comes across well on film. Reviewing the other parts of Ken Burns’s Baseball is looking like it’s going to be very interesting.

Quick Message

December 27, 2012

I hate leaving little quickies like this because it feels like a cop out. Seeing as how this is the Christmas season, though, I don’t think I can be blamed. Anyway, it’s once again tougher to get my hands on decent books, so in order to keep getting things written, I will soon be turning my attention to the massive Ken Burns documentary about our beloved sport.

I don’t intend for it to be a one-shot deal, either. I want to do this whole-heartedly, and thus I intend to write individual reviews of each and every single part as I go along watching it.

Also, I’m going to try to start getting this blog a little bit of attention on Facebook. Hopefully I’ll have one of those Like buttons up and functioning within the next few months. Again, I apologize for my dormancy, but I AM one person whose life gets in the way every now and then.


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