Friday, October 6, 2017

The Natural: When Hollywood Meets True Literature

Sometimes strange things happen on the journey from paper to the silver screen. That certainly was the case for Bernard Malamud's classic novel The Natural.

Both the book and the movie are very good; and perfectly appropriate for their intended venue. But despite sharing a title, basic plot and every single character, they are two completely different stories.

The difference between the book and the movie is perhaps best explained by the difference between literature and Hollywood. I have always followed a simple test to tell if a written work is true literature: the reader spends the first two-thirds taking interest in the plight of the characters while marveling at the author's use of literary devices such as metaphors, foreshadowing, similes and symbolism; then, often quite suddenly, the story shifts and something very bad happens to the main character, frequently due to some self-inflicted failing, and once completed, the reader feels miserable about himself and the general state of mankind.

Of course Hollywood can not dare follow the same formula--no one would buy a ticket (it's a strange human phenomenon that someone will willingly invest $4.95 in a book to feel miserable but will balk at plunking down twelve bucks for a movie ticket for the same treatment--we want to feel good walking out of the theater). No one in the movie industry can risk an artistic triumph that is a box-office failure. And therein lies the conundrum faced by the producers of the movie The Natural.

The book, definitely a downer, was written by Bernard Malamud in 1952 and was his first published work. Malamud went on to a distinguished literary career and is recognized as one of the top American authors of the 20th century (if there was an American Literary Hall of Fame he wouldn't be a first-ballot shoe-in like Hemingway and Steinbeck but would easily get in with the later ballots or by the veteran's committee). Malamud, 38 years old in 1952, was raised Jewish in Brooklyn during the Great Depression and this heavily influenced his work. He was the master of the antihero whose ambitions were constantly derailed and he often wrote about the sufferings of lower class Americans and immigrants.

We see this theme prominently in The Natural. The protagonist, Roy Hobbs, is a young baseball player of immense physical talent whose sole ambition is to be "the best there ever was." His dream is side-tracked, however, when he is shot by a mysterious woman in a hotel before he ever gets started in professional ball. Roy later appears in a major league dugout at the age of 34, still possessing the talent and ambition but, unfortunately, also still possessing the same poor judgment and character flaws that got him into trouble the first time around.

Malamud comes through with the requisite prose and tricks to punch the book's ticket as genuine literature. He heavily leans on the Arthurian Legend and the idea of the sports hero as a knight of old. It is no coincidence that the team for which Roy plays is the New York Knights. Roy wields a special weapon--a bat made from a tree destroyed by lightning (anointed by the gods)--named Wonderboy, which is as powerful and magical as Excalibur ever was. The manager, Pop Fisher, is similar to the long-suffering Fisher King of legend who yearns for the Holy Grail (the pennant). Young Roy defeats the Ruthian Whammer in a joust in front of the young maiden. An enemy pitcher is terrified by the sight of Roy at the plate, "In full armor, mounted on a black charger . . . with a long lance as thick as a young tree."

And it's always nice when the author throws us an easy one: when Roy is frustrated by the continued refusal of his amorous advances and mired in a horrendous slump, "Wonderboy resembled a sagging baloney." It doesn't take a Freudian scholar to see the symbolism in that.

The book is a realistic, dirty look at the business of sports and hero worship. Malamud, who clearly understood baseball, as would be expected of anyone who grew up in Brooklyn in that era, takes pains to poke holes in the shroud of purity and innocence with which the game had encased itself--one of the first authors to do so, well ahead of guys like Mark Walker, Jim Brosnan and Jim Bouton. Malamud allows the reader insight into Roy's thoughts--which often differ drastically from his words--and makes it clear that he cares little for the team or anyone other than himself. His selfish ambition, greed and lust prove to be his undoing.

In going to the woman's hotel room at the beginning of the tale, Roy goes not as a wide-eyed innocent, but as a guy who knows exactly what he wants--a guy who has already gotten to second base on the train and fully expects to be waved home by the third base coach in the hotel. Upon joining the New York Knights, Roy shares a bed, and intimacy, the first night with the beautiful and cursed Memo as the result of a practical joke set up by Memo's ne'er-do-well boyfriend and resident leftfielder Bump Bailey. Roy spends the rest of the book recklessly pining for the siren Memo--obsessed with obtaining that which he has already had.

The fact that Roy's hubris will be his undoing is foreshadowed when the amiable coach Red offers him advice to be careful: "There is a short life in baseball and we have to think of the future. . .  try to protect your old age." Roy, intent on charging full speed toward his destiny, replies, "To hell with my old age . . . I will leave my mark around here."

The night before the potential pennant-clinching series, Roy is felled by a bellyache courtesy of Memo. He gobbles four plates piled high with ham, rolls, shrimp, fish, lobster, cheese and potato salad, chugs three bottles of lemon pop and three more of lime and still "felt as if he had hardly eaten." He then goes down to the hotel grill and wolves six hamburgers and two tall glasses of milk and is again "astonished at how hungry he felt." He wonders,"What must I do not to be hungry?" Malamud makes it clear that Roy's appetite for food is quite insatiable and is easily seen to be equaled by his appetite for Memo, pleasures of the flesh, fame, glory and money.

The movie, which was released in 1984, is generally viewed as one of the best baseball movies of all-time. It was very well cast in almost every character. The producers, shrewdly deducing that most guys need help in getting a date to see a baseball movie, gave Robert Redford the lead.  Redford is aided by some talented camera work that sets the baseball in aging Buffalo Memorial Stadium, turning it into a beautifully-set 1930s baseball palace. The baseball scenes, with the overlaid radio commentary, are stirring.

While the movie stays remarkably close to the book in almost every aspect, it is drastically different. By making a slight change in Roy's quotes and offering no insight into his thoughts, Roy's character is completely changed and, ultimately, the story as well. Roy becomes the idyll, mythic baseball hero that Malamud tried so hard to avoid. Movie Roy cares little for his own fame, personal needs and health; he is only concerned about winning a pennant for Pop, his fans and especially the kids. We can also assume, though it's not stated specifically, that Movie Roy is in favor of  truth, justice and the American way. The movie is basically a baseball fantasy--Roy Hobbs is a superhero on the diamond.

Film critic Roger Ebert panned the movie: "I got the idea that God's only begotten son was playing right field for the New York team." Ebert obviously missed the point. That is exactly why the movie is good. We don't go to the movies to watch a great hitter make an out seven out of ten times. Yes, some of the lines are corny, but Redford manages to  pull it off, especially if the viewer checks his sense of reality at the front door and accepts the fact that this is Hollywood's version of altered reality. We know a real life baseball player can not show up at 34 years of age, knock the cover off the ball and bring down the stadium lights with a home run any more than a group of dead baseball players can walk out of a corn field and help a farmer who constructs a perfect ball field in one growing season. But that's what we pay our ticket-price to see.

Movie Roy is appalled at the suggestion of a bribe to throw the big game. Book Roy eagerly embraces the idea, pausing only to negotiate a better price for himself.

Book Roy climbs to the evil owner's lair atop a crooked tower to ask for more money and is turned down. Movie Roy is offered extra cash by the owner, but triumphs in his test of purity by refusing to even consider it.

Movie Roy shares none of Book Roy's unhealthy and unsavory (dare we say even carnal) appetites away from the field. Whereas Book Roy does himself in with a massive indulgence of gluttony, in the movie Memo, with a sinister side glance, slips a small bite of food--obviously tainted--into the pure Roy's mouth while he is enjoying simple revelry with his beloved teammates.

Movie Roy's only thought while in the hospital (after being given a much more dire prognosis by the doctor than Book Roy) is to get out to play in the big game to help his team (which incidentally all crammed around his bed to wish him well as opposed to Book Roy's teammates, none of whom bother to visit him). Movie Roy even gushes the line, "God, I love baseball," with a straight face--and we eat it up!

Of course Movie Roy will not dare fail in the big game, even without his trusty Wonderboy which cracks under a bolt of lightning (I guess back then they didn't cancel games for mere electric storms). Book Roy has a late-inning change of heart and tries to win, but still strikes out, completely losing his confidence after his Wonderboy breaks in obvious metaphorical rejection of his moral failings. As poor Roy awaits the final pitch from a flame-throwing youngster, he feels his lifeforce ebbing: "It felt like winter. He wished for fire to warm his frozen fingers."

Movie Roy concludes the story in happy familial bliss, having a catch with his son in a farm field while his adoring wife looks on. Book Roy wanders from the park in the dark of night, a forgotten man, alone in his failure. He learns from a newspaper headline that his deceit has been discovered and he will be excluded from the game and his records forever destroyed. "I never did learn anything out of my past life," he admits. "Now I have to suffer again," and, finally realizing that, he weeps "many bitter tears."

The movie is a baseball movie, pure and simple. It is unlikely to be enjoyed by those who are not baseball fans. The book, however, can stand alone in a room of intellectuals who have never tried to hit a pitched ball in their lives--very little action in the book takes place at the ballpark. Literary types who understand little about the game can enjoy deconstructing Roy's character and the symbolism in the story.

When viewed together, the movie and the book are two completely different stories that share similar characters. Each is very good, and appropriate, for it's venue. Had the book been like the movie, it would have been dismissed as teenage sports drivel. Had the movie been like the book, no one would have watched it and it would have been quickly forgotten. The change in Roy's heart and the ending made all the difference.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Book Review: Leo Durocher: Baseball's Prodigal Son by Paul Dickson

As a baseball player Leo Durocher was an All-Star shortstop, a degenerate gambler and troublemaker, a profane, vicious umpire baiter and bench jockey nonpareil who very much earned the moniker Leo the Lip. As a manager, he presided over one of the biggest comeback pennant-winning teams in history and also one of the biggest late-season collapses in history. He routinely used every vile, offensive racial term, yet he was one of the early champions of integration in baseball and was virtually color blind in assessing talent. He was a selfish, roguish alpha male and a charming, accomplished ladies man. He was a charismatic first-class celebrity, an unrepentant cheater and a member of Baseball's Hall of Fame. The media hated him, but was unable to look away. In short, he was one of the most controversial and interesting baseball personalities the game has ever known.

So it's somewhat surprising that few biographers have taken on his legend. Paul Dickson does so superbly in the recently-released Leo Durocher: Baseball's Prodigal Son.

This is not a hero-worshipping tale. Dickson appropriately stays in the middle. "At his worst Durocher was a cologne-soaked bully with a talent for creating bad situations and, as Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey once said, 'then making them worse,'" he writes. "At his best, Durocher was a brilliant manager with a comic timing that allowed him to play straight man to a talking horse in a 1963 episode of the sitcom Mister Ed."

All the big events are amply covered: the Babe Ruth feud, the rollicking Gashouse Gang years, the revival of the Brooklyn Dodgers, the coming of Jackie Robinson, the suspension, George Raft, Frank Sinatra, Laraine Day, the Shot Heard Round the World season, Willie Mays, the Dodger coaching gig, the Cubs and finally his short-lived job with the Astros.

With an enormous pile of great stories and controversy, both on and off the field, with which to work, Dickson plays it straight and shows remarkable restraint from the urge to go for a more sensationalized account such as Leo and his coauthor used in the highly entertaining--and often fictional-- autobiography Nice Guys Finish Last. Dickson uses his extensive research powers to stick to the facts without moralizing and often corrects the errors, exaggerations and embellishments found in Leo's self-promoting versions.

Dickson shines in illuminating the reasons behind Leo's famous suspension from baseball in 1947. Presented from Leo's point of view, Commissioner Happy Chandler comes off as an Ahab who continues to chase Durocher well into old age--long after either had the legs any longer for a chase-- Chandler unable to ever resist any opportunity to hurl the harpoon. But then, Leo had an inimitable ability to inspire those sorts of emotions.

Cub fans may be disappointed in that Dickson covers the eventful Chicago years in an economical 34 pages, but otherwise there is little to complain about. This book is exhaustively researched, well-written and deserves the title as the definitive Leo Durocher biography.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Old Man and the Centerfielder: Papa, Joltin' Joe and a Literary Classic

Baseball has long lent itself to use in great American literature. One of my favorite intersections of baseball and classical literature is in The Old Man in the Sea, Ernest Hemingway's 1952 Pulitzer prize-winning novel. Beyond the book. The confluence of two supernovae of twentieth century Americana is irresistible.

The main character of the book, the old man Santiago, is a small-town Cuban fisherman in the midst of a historic losing streak. One day he ventures far out alone in his small skiff and hooks into the biggest, baddest marlin anyone has ever seen. Santiago resolutely fights an epic battle of will, strength and intelligence, ultimately winning the struggle, but losing in the end as sharks claim the fish before he can make it back to land.

Besides fishing, Santiago's only other interest is the American major leagues. He is a particular fan of the Yankees and "the great DiMaggio." He never uses the first name but anyone in the civilized world would know that he is not talking about Vince or even Dominic, but the Yankee Clipper, Joe DiMaggio.

Seven times during the story, Hemingway inserts a reference to the Great DiMaggio. When Santiago's young helper mentions, "I fear the Indians of Cleveland," Santiago reassures him, "Have faith, my son. Think of the Great DiMaggio."

Perhaps as a way of connecting with his diety, Santiago notes three times that DiMaggio's father was a fisherman. "I would like to take the Great DiMaggio fishing. They say his father was a fisherman. Maybe he was as poor as we are and would understand."

Later, when Santiago, alone and in pain after hooking the great fish, realizes he is in for the struggle of his life, he draws inspiration from DiMaggio's own heroic comeback from a much-publicized bone spur. "I must have confidence and I must be worthy of the Great DiMaggio who does all things perfectly even with the pain of the bone spur in his heel."

As he fights the fish into a third day, enduring excruciating pain in his back, bleeding from cramped and cut hands, experiencing hunger and thirst, he wonders, "Do you believe the Great DiMaggio would stay with a fish as long as I will stay with this one. . . . I am sure he would and more since he is young and strong. Also his father was a fisherman. But would the bone spur hurt him too much?"

As Santiago finally brings in the fish, he takes pride with the thought, "I think the Great DiMaggio would be proud of me today. I had no bone spurs but the hand and back hurt truly."

Hemingway uses Joe DiMaggio and his heroic image as another character in the book. He could have made Santiago a boxing fan who idolized "the Great Marciano," and it might have worked, but not nearly as well. This was 1952 and the Great DiMaggio, freshly retired, was universally held as indeed great; perhaps the greatest of all-time. There was no arguing his results as far as victory: the Yankees had won a remarkable ten pennants and nine World Series in his 13 seasons.

A half-century later, when all we have are statistics that have been surpassed many times, it is easy to forget how well DiMaggio was regarded at the time. There is an old joke that made the rounds in those days: A man goes into a talent agent's office with a dog. "This is a talking dog," he excitedly tells the skeptical agent. "What's on top of a house?" he asks the dog.
"Roof," the dog answers.
"How does sandpaper feel?"
"Who was the greatest ballplayer in history?"
The agent angrily throws the man and his dog out the door. As they are laying in the street, the frustrated dog turns to the man and asks, "I shoulda said DiMaggio?"

In 1952, even a dog understood the greatness of "the great DiMaggio."

 DiMaggio was not only a great baseball player, but a celebrity whose hero image was carefully constructed and guarded by the press. And it is this image, rather than the real man, that Hemingway uses as an extra character in the book.

Hemingway once said of his book, "The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man. The sharks are sharks. All the symbolism people see is shit." That's a nice thought that many brow-beaten college literature students would wish their professors to believe.
But why should we take Hemingway's word for it--he only wrote the thing. He mentions the bone spurs too many times for us to dismiss them so casually. Even as Santiago endures severe pain in a real-life struggle for survival, he somehow doesn't think his pain or struggle is as significant as that endured by the great man who was playing baseball with a sore foot. DiMaggio's bone spur--played up in the press at the time with the gravity of the thermonuclear detonations of the Cold War--is invoked numerous times. Hemingway seems to be trying to tell us something. We know bone spurs can be present for years before manifesting in painful conditions such as Achilles tendinitis and plantar fasciitis. Perhaps Hemingway is using bone spurs as symbolism for any mental or physical misfortune that afflicts man. Perhaps he thinks we make too big of a deal about minor injuries to athletes while more true pain is going on around us everyday? Or perhaps our efforts to understand it are, as he so eloquently stated, shit.

It's interesting to remember that Joltin' Joe and Ernest Hemingway were contemporaries. They shared many a drink and more than a few meals at a Manhattan establishment called Toots Shor's.

The owner and namesake, Toots, was a uniquely American character, known to everyone at the time. He made a lifetime of gladhanding and schmoozing every celebrity in seemingly every American field of endeavor. On any night at Toots you might see Jackie Gleason, Frank Sinatra, Jack Dempsey, Dean Martin, the stars of whatever teams were visiting New York at the time, and the bevvy of circulating hangers-on those men invariably attracted. DiMaggio was a regular Toots man for years.

For the famous men, Toots was a great pal, quick with a joke and even quicker to come up with choice tickets to the coolest entertainment and the best games in town. Along with free food and drink and the rest, Toots offered his guys a certain protection from being groped and annoyed by fans. It was understood at Toots' that the elite, the best of the best, were not to be bothered. Minor celebrities were allowed to pay homage from a distance--"You're looking great, Joe"-- and might even receive a nod in return, but otherwise the great men were free to enjoy their meal and drinks. And the fun didn't stop when the restaurant closed. Toots kept the drinks flowing in back for his special friends for as long as they wanted to stay. Toots Shor's was a man's place for men's men. Of course, dames were welcome as long as they were gorgeous and agreeable and knew their place.

And so the author and the baseball superstar spent quite a bit of time together with Toots, acquaintances if not friends.
A story has appeared in several books, although it may be apocryphal, that one day not long after DiMaggio retired he went to a game with Toots, Hemingway and several others. DiMaggio was immediately mobbed by admiring fans wanting autographs. As one of the fans was leaving he recognized Hemingway's face from the cover of Time and Look magazines. "Hey," he said to the writer. "Aren't you somebody too?"
Hemingway answered, "No, I'm just his doctor."

This period was the zenith for both Hemingway and DiMaggio. Two years later, DiMaggio himself would hook the greatest catch in the land--Marilyn Monroe. According to her biographers, he was the only man who truly loved her. But, not unlike Santiago, he was tragically unable to keep her away from the sharks.

For Hemingway, shortly after the book was published he was seriously injured in a plane crash in Africa and spent the rest of his life in pain. Less than a decade later he took his own life at 62 years of age.

As Santiago said, "I never had a bone spur. Perhaps we have them and don't know it."

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Former Cubs Player and Manager Jim Marshall--a Lucky Man

Jim Marshall went to the ballpark in Arizona the other day. Like a lot of 86-year-old men, he enjoys watching a good baseball game. Unlike most of them, however, Jim was working when he went to the ballpark. Same as the day before that, and the day before, as long as he can remember. You see, Jim's been working in professional baseball since 1950. He's never stopped; and he loves it.

Jim grew up in Compton, California in the thirties and forties. "The neighborhood has changed a little over the years," Marshall says. Jim was a three-sport star growing up. A local basketball coach named John Wooden offered him a scholarship to play at UCLA but Marshall turned him down for baseball. After attending Long Beach State for a year, he signed professionally with the Chicago White Sox.

A big guy for the times at 6'1 and 190 pounds, Jim could hit a home run. Or two. Playing in the Pacific Coast League, mostly with the Oakland Oaks, he launched 202 minor league home runs in eight seasons. In those days, with only 16 major league teams, advancing was tough. So Jim remained in AAA year after year, even as he had seasons of 24 homers and 99 RBIs, 31 and 123 and 30 and 102. "Alot of people nowadays don't realize how hard it was just to get a shot at the majors," Marshall says. "I wasn't alone. There were alot of good players stuck in the minors back then. You had to wait for your chance, and some guys never got a chance."

A trade to the Orioles finally gave Marshall his shot at the majors in 1958 when he was 27 years old.   He roomed with 21-year-old Brooks Robinson that year. "There was never any doubt about his fielding, but he really wasn't a very good hitter back then. We're still friends. In fact, I just talked to him recently. I always tell him, 'I knew you before you could hit.' But he really worked hard on his hitting and he made himself into a very, very good hitter. That's always impressed me. And you have to give [Orioles manager] Paul Richards credit, he stuck with him because he couldn't hit anything at first. Richards could see what Brooks would become."

In mid-season 1958, Jim was traded to the Cubs. The next year, he had his best season in the majors when he hit 11 home runs and 40 RBIs in 254 at bats. Those two seasons he got to witness Ernie Banks' back-to-back MVP years up close. "Ernie was just phenomenal those years. And he didn't have any protection in the line-up. It's unbelievable what he was able to do while everyone pitched around him or threw at him."

It was Marshall's misfortune to spend his major league career on bad teams and he never got a chance to play regularly. After spending two seasons with the Giants, he split 1962 with Pittsburgh and the Mets.

Marshall then made his way to Japan for the 1963 season. He was one of the first players to go from a major league roster to the Japanese baseball league. "I liked it there," Marshall says. "Of course there was a huge adjustment culturally and also with how they approached the game, their workout regimen and team attitudes. Another big problem I had initially was just in learning my teammates names and how to pronounce them."

Marshall played well in Japan, with seasons of 28 and 31 homers. He made the All-Star team where he split time each year at first base with legendary Japanese Home Run King Sadahuru Oh, who would retire with an all-time record of 868 home runs. "Sadaharu Oh was in the process of becoming a living legend in Japan in those years. In 1964 he set their record with 55 home runs in a season. It was an honor to be on the same All-Star team. I would play half the All-Star game and he would play half. I have a tremendous amount of respect for him. We're still good friends."

"Oh didn't look impressive up close at first because his shoulders were kind of narrow and he wasn't that big, but he was a tremendous power hitter. He would have hit a lot of home runs anywhere. He had great timing and balance. He hit with his whole body; he launched from a crouched position. He was able to do that because of his martial arts training he had when he was young and he still did a lot of it every winter."

Returning to the States in 1968 Jim managed in the Cubs minor league system and worked his way up. He took over as the Cubs' manager midway through the 1974 season after Whitey Lockman was let go. Managing the Cubs was a difficult task in those days. The Cubs were in a penny-pinching rebuilding phase. After back to back 75-87 seasons, Jim was fired. He doesn't feel too bad about being axed by the Cubs--he had a lot of company. "In the eighties I told someone, 'The Cubs thought about hosting a reunion for former managers but they had to cancel it--there were too many of them, it would have been too expensive."

Marshall managed the A's in 1979 and has been in baseball in various posts since. He joined the Diamondbacks organization in 1997--a year before they began playing. He helped with scouting and planning for the expansion draft and later became head of their Pacific Rim scouting. "I've been working in baseball for 67 years now," Marshall says. "I love it. I've been lucky."

Marshall speaks fondly of his wife of 65 years, who he just lost last year. "She was very special. We had known each other since Junior High. I was very fortunate to have someone like her. She was a great baseball wife. That's not an easy job, you know. It takes a lot of patience and understanding. And doing all the work at home. I was lucky."

They always say you are a lucky man if you can find a good job that you love. Well, Jim Marshall is a lucky man. In more ways than one.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Classic Book Review: The Boys of Summer

Here's an idea: take a popular former baseball team, track down the members after, say, fifteen or twenty years, see what they are doing now and write a book about it.

Sounds like a winner. Only if you present that to a publishing company today you will most likely receive a giant yawn and a "been done a million times already, bring me something original."

But if you had come up with that idea in 1970, you might have had a potential classic on your hands. That's what Roger Kahn did with this book. Kahn had been a young reporter following the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1952 and 1953. In 1970 he looked up the old gang, visited them at their homes and places of employment, and then wrote it all up. And in doing so, he invented a genre, one that has been copied so many times in the ensuing years that it's become passé. It's important to remember this in a historical concept when reading this book; if for no other reason than to give Kahn credit.

Of course, Kahn had a lot of luck. Not only was the team to which he was wed great, it was a team full of history and characters, and one that was on the cutting edge of the most socially prominent experiment in sports history. He had been in the perfect place at the perfect time. Had he been a young beat reporter for the Hobie Landrith, Johnny Temple, Wally Post Cincinnati Reds of the early '50s, the book wouldn't have been nearly the same.

These were the Jackie Robinson Brooklyn Dodgers, the first racially integrated baseball team. They were a team of immense talent and success, but one that seemed doomed by luck to fail at the most crucial times. Also when owner Walter O'Malley pulled up stakes and fled to the gold mine of Los Angeles in 1958, they came to symbolize the heartbreak of jilted fans and the western mobilization of society. Kahn excels in placing the era under well-preserved glass for future generations. Such was the impact of the book that the group of Dodgers--Jackie, Campy, Pee Wee, Oisk and the Duke of Flatbush--will forever be known as the Boys of Summer and, in fact, the term Boys of Summer has become indelibly etched into our lexicon.

The Boys of Summer is actually two books. The first part is an autobiographical narration of young Kahn as he grows to manhood in the thriving borough of Brooklyn amid post-depression Americana. He poignantly writes of his relationship with his father, a modest, henpecked man of immense intellectual powers who lacks the ambition and confrontational nature that could have made him wealthy. Father and son are united forever by the game of baseball.

Kahn contrasts his father with his mother who is described as a manipulative, nagging, pseudointellectual elitist. The viciously insensitive mother reveals the death of Kahn's grandfather, who died unexpectedly of a massive coronary while the child was away at camp, thusly: "'Would you like to see your name in the New York Times?' Olga reaches into a bureau . . . and shows me a clipping from the New York Times. Rockow, Abraham, D.D.S., suddenly on June 30. Beloved grandfather of Roger."

Interwoven in the images of his childhood, Kahn describes the team as viewed from his perch as a young writer. He conjures images of the players in their prime: strong, athletic men of diverse backgrounds who formed a close team. The autobiographical first section, while quaint and nostalgic, is not nearly as enduring as the portrayal of the men from the team, which became timeless; the players immortalized. Kahn reveals the character and personalities of the men in the clubhouse, which is often at odds with their popular heroic public images. He shows the fears and worries of the players; their raw language, prejudice, pettiness and also shows the dangerous, hard side of professional baseball.

The second part of the book finds the players in middle age, in various stages of success in their post-baseball lives. Some are executives and public figures, while others are hanging on in low-paying blue collar jobs, their previous athletic heroics all but forgotten remnants of another life. The images of the former players and their real-life tragedies are stark. The loss of youth, loss of physical powers among men who made their living based on those physical powers is an unavoidable sadness.

Before Kahn, ex-athletes were most often forgotten as the years moved on past their playing days. Remember, this was the time in which athletes were not set for life after a few years of playing--making millions of dollars in contracts with millions more awaiting in the insane memorabilia market. Back then, ex-athletes faced a lifetime of hustling employment after retiring from sports. Few members of the formerly adoring public bothered to think how these men viewed their past heroics, years removed from the spotlight.

Of course, one reason the book has endured so well is that Kahn  did it very artfully. His prose is thought-provoking, insightful and awe-inspiring at times.

He wrote of the postseason failings of the Dodgers and the affection of their fans: "You may glory in a team triumphant, but you fall in love with a team in defeat."

When he describes his father hitting him grounders with hardballs and explains the coming of age moment millions of boys of that era experienced, he writes: "There is no faking on sharp grounders. You put your head down and follow the ball and hope that the last bounce will be true. . . . A kind of test is under way. . . Gordon Kahn is testing to see if his indulged, skinny, quick-tongued son dares show his face to hard ground balls. The bald mustached man . . . and the boy are reaching, sensing, challenging and I suppose loving one another through a fifty-cent baseball. . . . Head down, head down. The baseball smarts, but pain passes and I feel a crown of sweat and all sensations are obliterated by pride. I am showing Gordon Kahn that I am not afraid of the ball."

Of the 1951 Bobby Thomson playoff home run that beat the Dodgers out of a pennant: "Defeat, particularly dramatic defeat, confirms our worst image of ourselves. We are not effective, after all, not truly competent, not manly in crisis. . . We stand naked, before an unflattering mirror, hearing hard laughter that includes our own."

Discussing the outrage expressed by New York writers, who wrote that O'Malley had no loyalty to Brooklyn, only money, after the team left for the west coast, Kahn notes, "It amazes me to this day that once I stood in the ranks of journalists who, in the most furious words they could summon, indicted a capitalist for being motivated by a passion for greater profits."

On Kahn's first trip through the south with the team, he is appalled by the legally sanctioned segregation but is dismayed that older reporters just pull the blinds on the train and ignore it. "They accepted apartheid with a brief, angry grunt, the way they accepted a cramped press box, or a sinewy steak. . . It was odd, I thought. We wrote about the games, the players and the prospects. But, here in a wounding land, no one would report or could report the horror all about--racism. . . . unreasoning racial hate threatening then as it threatens now to shatter the country. I wish I could . . . figure a way to get the real story in the paper."

The players themselves offer indelible quotes on the loss of their identity that comes when they are no longer employed in the game. Clem Labine says, "Where are all the guys? Where's everybody you've been playing with? You're not in the fraternity anymore. That's one of the hardest things."

Read today, The Boys of Summer provides a historical look at attitudes on race at the time. Race is a major them throughout the book--how the players came to accept Jackie Robinson and the African American players who followed him, the challenges faced by those players, how they still faced challenges years later and the opinion of Jackie Robinson in 1970 of the status of integration and of the militant black movement that grew during the sixties. Robinson specifically denounced the violence of those who wanted to burn every trace of white society. Kahn writes, "He does not want society to burn. Burn America and you burn the achievements of Jackie Robinson. After ruinous anarchic blaze, who will remember the brave, fatherless boyhood, the fight for an inch of Army justice, the courage in baseball, the leadership and the triumph, of a free man who walked with swift and certain strides?" It is interesting to see how far we've come, or regressed, as an integrated society.

Paralleling the racial prejudice of the time is the equally appalling prejudice faced by handicapped children. The section on Carl Erskine prominently features the fact that his fourth child, Jimmy, had been born with Down's syndrome in 1960. At the time, the disease was callously referred to as Mongolism, due to the shape of their eyelids. Kahn included a medical definition of the condition which concluded with "such children are often imbeciles." While extremely stark and insulting, this definition refers back to the old classification of IQ in which below 25 was an "idiot," 26-50 was an "embicile," and 51-70 was a "moron." Unbelievable.

At the time of Jimmy's birth, Erskine and his wife were encouraged by doctors to leave Jimmy at the hospital, where he would be placed in an institution and "taken care of." They refused and brought him home to be a part of their family--almost revolutionary at the time. And even though Kahn seems to applaud the hurdles overcome by the Erskines, he is affected by the perceptions of the time as he writes about Jimmy very condescendingly, misspelling his attempted words phonetically and writing that he is overjoyed by simple accomplishments such as splashing in a pool and being able to bounce a basketball 4 or 5 times.

Overall, this book is deserving of its place on virtual every list of the top ten baseball books of all-time. The Boys of Summer may indeed lay in their ruin, but their gold tithings will never fade thanks to Roger Kahn and his magnificent book.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Sey Hey, Thanks For the Bat Willie

I'm a softy when it comes to stories about kids and sports heroes. Especially the good ones.

I was talking to Mike Filipiak, a 69 year old lifelong Cubs fan, recently. He said he and some buddies used to go to Wrigley Field as often as possible in the late '50s. "You could get a ticket for 65 cents in those days and, with not many fans coming to games back then, a lot of times we could get right on the rail next to the field."

Mike and his friends financed their trips to Wrigley by riding around on their bikes and collecting bottles for the refund. "You got 2 cents for pop bottles and a nickel for the big beer bottles. We'd go through cluttered alleys. It didn't take long to get enough for a ticket. Also a lot of times after games, the ushers would have us those long poker sticks with points on the end and we'd go up and down and pick up trash. When we finished, they'd give us a voucher for another game." Things have certainly changed at Wrigley Field over the years--it takes more than a few bottles and some trash to get a field-side seat.

"One time the Giants were in town. Willie Mays got up and swung and the bat flew out of his hands and sailed right at me. I grabbed the bat and my buddies stood up and said, 'Forget the game. We got Willie's bat. Let's get out of here.' But just then the ushers showed up and made us give it back.Willie had come over to the rail and was waiting as the ushers walked the bat over to him. He saw us kids and he acted like he couldn't believe it: 'You guys brought my bat back? Thanks.'"

Then, the great man paused and smiled. "He tapped the bat on the top of the dugout and said, 'You know what, I think this bat is cracked. Here, you might as well have it.' And he handed it back to me. How great is that?"

Being a kid, Mike took the bat home and used it for what it was made for--he played with it in numerous backyard games until it virtually disintegrated.

That Willie Mays bat seven decades ago didn't last long. But the memory will never fade.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Book Review: The Cooperstown Casebook: Who's In the Baseball Hall of FAme, Who Should BE In, and Who Should Pack Their Plaques by Jay Jaffe

The title says it all and that alone should be enough to make any baseball fan pick up a copy. And Jaffe more than comes through on the title's promise by providing plausible answers to the title's questions with compelling reasoning and modern statistical analysis.

This is not a spurious undertaking for Jaffe. He has made serious study of the subject for more than a decade, has served on the staff of Baseball Prospectus, MLB network and and can lay claim to being one of a handful of experts on the matter.

The first half of the book is excellent reading. Jaffe lays out a highly informative history of the Hall and explains the complicated, and sometimes nefarious, procedures which have been used for election over the years.

He particularly provides a very good report on the murky workings of the various veteran's committees and shows how they have caused the vast majority of Hall injustices through rampant cronyism--particularly that led by Frankie Frisch--that led to the inclusion of such laggards as Fred Lindstrom, Ross Youngs and Chick Hafey (a trio that his analysis shows to be as unworthy as we have always suspected).

The BBWAA is shown to have been a very good gatekeeper over the years--especially for those who prefer a Hall of Fame and not a Hall of Very Good. At the same time, however, they have overlooked some very qualified players by focusing solely on old school stats and career milestones, leaving more than a few great players to languish in a voting purgatory until death or later.

He also provides a succinct primer on the workings and value of modern stats such as WAR, OPS, OPS+ and the like and introduces his personal formula, named JAWS (Jaffe War Score). JAWS was introduced at Baseball Prospectus in 2004 and has been modified since. As he describes it  "JAWS uses WAR to estimate a player's total hitting, pitching, and defensive contributions while accounting for the wide variations in scoring levels from era to era and ballpark to ballpark. Via JAWS, each candidate can be objectively compared on the basis of career or peak value to the players at his position who are already in the Hall." A certainly noble intent.

The second half of the book slows considerably--but remains a valuable reference--as Jaffe goes through each position examining the JAWS of Hall players and some notable leftouts. At each position he goes into depth to examine the claim of borderline or controversial cases such as Dick Allen, Minnie Minoso, Curt Schilling, Larry Walker and Alan Trammel.

The book provides plenty of room for arguments. Like any formula used to attempt to completely examine a fluid personal endeavor, JAWS is not perfect. It leans very heavily on WAR, and consequently on-base percentage and slugging percentage. One drawback is the fact that defensive metrics are still far from reliable and although they will continue to evolve, they may never be perfected. And any numerical system that rates Gene Tenace as being 13 notches better suited for the Hall of Fame than Roy Campanella can certainly not be considered perfect.

Conservative thinkers will be annoyed by Jaffe's approach to the steroid scandal: basically he chooses to ignore their very existence, preferring rather to adjust the worth of the abusers by comparing them against era-averages. This head-in-the-sand approach works great for numbers people, but seems very unfair to the few schmucks who may have actually played clean during those years.

And while he bestows blanket forgiveness to steroid cheats, he does not extend the same olive branch to Pete Rose, who he flatly states should "never get his plaque." While he makes excuses for the steroid abusers by stating that none have ever been convicted in a court of law and that we shouldn't use speculation and innuendo to impugn their reputations, he backs up his decision on Rose by openly speculating that Rose did indeed bet on his team to lose and "signal to gamblers that he doesn't expect to win"--apparently ignoring the fact that, regardless of evidence, Rose was never convicted in a court either (except for tax evasion).

Similarly, Jaffe questions whether Ted Simmons was excluded from the Hall because of his outspoken liberal views on the war in Vietnam, long hair and contract issues by the ultraconservative "older generation of writers", but does not seem nearly as upset when modern liberal voters openly say they are not voting for Curt Schilling due to the fact that they disagree with his conservative media warblings.

I point out the above not in an effort to detract from the book, however, but to point out the ample room for great arguments that will keep fans warm long through the winter.

Overall this is a great book and it definitely deserves a place on any baseball fans' shelf.