Saturday, April 7, 2018

Vietnam Veteran's Day Salute to Former Major League Pitcher and Honorary Green Beret Pete Richert

I'm always impressed by stories of guys who take their own time to do something for others. And it's a shame when these stories are sometimes lost with time. Since Vietnam Veteran's Day was last week, I thought I would take a look back at one such story--of a major league baseball player who showed his support for American troops..

Pete Richert was a two-time All-Star and a top relief pitcher who had a thirteen-year major league career from 1962 to 1974. While playing for the Washington Senators in the mid-1960s, Richert met and befriended a group of wounded Vietnam veterans who changed his life. I recently spoke to him about the experience:

"Playing in Washington, we were close to Walter Reed Army Hospital and I ended up doing a lot of work with wounded soldiers," says the 78-year-old Richert, who now lives in California. "I always thought that was important. I got involved with a group of seven or eight officers who had been shot up and lost limbs. I met one and he invited me to visit their ward. They had a certain ward there, Ward One. They were all Green Berets, the special forces. They were really impressive guys; very smart, very dedicated. We would sit around and talk and later they would come over to my apartment and we would do things together, drink and party, watch games on TV. They were special guys. Their attitudes were just amazing. Here they were, severely wounded, some had lost arms or legs, and yet everyone of them said they would go back there in a heartbeat--to help their fellow soldiers. I thought that was incredible."

Seeing the need, Richert became more involved in projects to help returning injured vets adjust.
"It built up and became a big thing for me. I started a program where guys from other teams would stop in and visit the wards at Walter Reed when they came to Washington to play us. Most baseball players were happy to do it. And the guys in the hospital loved it. It was really a great thing for their morale. The AP picked up the story and called it the VIP program for Very Important Patients. I certainly thought they were very important--they were true heroes in my book. A few years later, I got traded to Baltimore, but that was still close so I kept it up."
As it became well-known that the cause was close to his heart, Richert was a natural choice when Major League Baseball sought members for a 16-day goodwill tour following the 1968 season. He didn't hesitate when asked.

The trip included Ernie Banks, Ron Swaboda, Larry Jackson, Cardinals' General Manager Bing Devine and Al Fleishman, public relations advisor for the Cardinals. The group met in San Francisco and flew to Vietnam in a military jet with 160 GIs. Once they arrived in Saigon, the men were issued combat boots and fatigues and split into two groups--Richert, Banks and Fleishman headed north.

Richert (middle) and Mr. Cub meet with GIs

They visited U.S. soldiers throughout the region; sometimes at large firebases where they gave talks in mess tents filled with hundreds of soldiers, but more often dropping in on small outposts and talking to the men in small groups. "We would go to a big camp and have dinner with the guys at night. During the days we would fly helicopters out to little encampments. We would land on top of a hill and meet the guys. The jungle, the Mekong Delta, wherever GIs were at, that's where we went. One day somebody broke out a glove and ball and I pitched to Ernie in front of the guys in the middle of a swamp. And, of course, we visited a lot of hospitals."

They chatted with the troops and answered endless baseball questions. "It was important just to talk to the guys and show them we supported their efforts. Me and Ernie both took a pad and wrote down numbers of the family of those who lived near us. When we got back I made forty or fifty phone calls to parents, just to tell them we saw their sons and they were all right and said 'Hi.' That was a big deal for them to receive those phone calls."

The baseball group received an overwhelming welcome from the young men, who were both enamored by the big leaguers and starved for any information from the "real world."  Richert's sideburns were as big a hit with the troops--many of whom had been out of the U.S. for two years--as his baseball status.

Richert met a young GI who was a gunner on a helicopter who traveled with a puppy he had named Tripper. He had found the puppy and as he was walking with the dog in front of him, the dog set off four or five booby traps--traps in which a tripped branch throws the victim against spikes on a tree. The puppy was not hurt due to it's size, but they would have nailed the young soldier. They would take off with the kid training his 60-caliber machine gun on the ground for cover, but once they achieved a safe height, he took out a harmonica and began playing. The sight of a teenage soldier, sitting between a machine gun and a puppy, flying in a combat helicopter, playing a harmonica was a sight Richert would not soon forget.

"We went into one place and there was an area marked off with barbed wire. I asked someone what that was and they said, 'That's the Green Berets--special forces--nobody goes in there.' They had their own area. That night they had a big thing for us and we answered questions and talked to the troops. When we finished, four Green Berets walked in and said, 'Richert, you're coming with us.' So they took me and Ernie out. It turned out that my buddies on Ward One had called them and told them we were coming and arranged a welcome for us with the Green Berets. They took us and we spent the whole night with them. Ernie didn't drink so I had to take up the slack for him to hold up the honor of Major League Baseball. It was rough, but by the morning, we had earned our Green Berets.'

Many of their visits were uncomfortably close to the enemy. It was not uncommon to hear both friendly and enemy fire. One night, Richert and Banks were startled awake by the sounds of combat as Viet Cong troops were trying to breach the perimeter of the base--less than 300 yards away from their quarters. Richert had served in the National Guard and Banks had served in the Army in 1951-52, but neither had faced hostile forces up close. It was an eye-opening experience. "To see what those young men faced on a daily basis certainly put things into perspective," says Richert. "It's hard to explain the courage that it takes to function in that environment without seeing it up close."

While two previous baseball-player trips to Vietnam had been uniformly heralded upon return, Richert's group met an ambivalent response. Coming ten months after the Tet Offensive, patriotism was no longer in style. That did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm for Richert. "These guys were just doing their jobs," he says. "They were true heroes." Richert, who played on a World Champion team with the Dodgers in 1963 and appeared in three straight World Series with the Orioles from 1969 to 1971, adds, "It was the most significant thing I did as a baseball player."

Monday, February 12, 2018

Who Was Major League Baseball's First African American Manager? (The Answer May Surprise You)

Few things are more annoying than bad baseball trivia—especially when its picked up and repeated by popular media. Since February is Black History Month, I wanted to take this opportunity to correct a misconception and ensure that proper credit is given where its due. Everyone knows that Frank Robinson became the first African-American to manage a major league baseball team full time in 1975. It has been stated erroneously numerous times, however, that Ernie Banks was the first to ever serve in that capacity during a game. Indeed, Banks, who was a coach for the Cubs, did take over as manager in the 11th inning of a game May 8, 1973 after manager Whitey Lockman was thrown out.

Speaking of that game, The Sporting News Official Baseball Guide for 1974 stated, “Ernie Banks became the major league’s first black manager, but only for a day.” An article in Sport magazine in 1988 congratulated Banks regarding the feat and Ernie himself came to believe that he had been the first. Like so many baseball history errors, this was repeated over and over as journalists including those in Sports Illustrated, guys like Joe Posnanski, and virtually everyone in Chicago added it to their lists of factoids about Mr. Cub. This is all good, and Banks certainly deserves praise for his optimistic personality and accomplishments during his Hall of Fame career—except that when it comes to this particular achievement, it is completely false.

Ten years before an umpire’s thumb forced Banks into the managerial role for the Cubs, a similar event occurred. The date was September 21, 1963. The Pittsburgh Pirates were facing the Dodgers in Los Angeles. In the 8th inning with the score 2-2, Pirate manager Danny Murtaugh and coach Frank Oceak were tossed by umpire Doug Harvey and the reins were passed to coach Gene Baker. Earlier that summer Baker had become the second African American to coach at the major league level, trailing the Cubs’ Buck O’Neil by a few months. As Baker led the Pirates, they took a 3-2 lead, then lost on a ninth-inning home run by Willie Davis.

A small article in that weeks’ Sporting News was titled, “Baker First Negro at Major ‘Helm.’” It stated, “Coach Gene Baker of the Pirates is believed to be the first Negro to ‘manage’ a big league team. . . ”

As Buck O’Neil was the only other African American to have preceded Baker as a major league coach and special precautions had been put in place by Chicago management to ensure that O'Neil never left the dugout during a game, it can be said with certainty that the title belongs to Baker.

It is perhaps ironic that Banks was remembered for the feat at the expense of Baker. It was not the first time that Banks unwittingly upstaged Baker.

Gene Baker was born in 1925 in Davenport, Iowa. After starring at shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs in 1948 and 1949 (playing the same position for them that Jackie Robinson had a few years earlier), Baker was signed by the Cubs’ organization in 1950, becoming the second African-American signed by the team. The first, 36-year-old pitcher Booker McDaniels, appeared to be signed only for publicity purposes, with little intention of ever being brought to Chicago (McDaniels pitched two years for Los Angeles in AAA and finished with a record of 11-13). The saga of Cubs' owner P. K. Wrigley dragging his feet on the integration issue is another story in itself.

Baker was assigned to the minor leagues where he quickly established himself as a first-rate shortstop. The Cubs, who had the much-maligned Roy Smalley at short, had to defend themselves repeatedly over calls for Baker’s promotion. Smalley's arm was so erratic that the chant at Wrigley Field for double play ground balls hit to second baseman Eddie Miksis (in the manner of Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance) was Miksis-to-Smalley-to-Addison Street. Wendell Smith (who figured prominently in the Jackie Robinson movie 42) of the Chicago Herald-American and writers for the African-American paper, the Chicago Defender, led the chorus all through the 1953 season as Baker led the AAA Los Angeles Angels with a .282 average, 20 home runs and 99 RBIs while being clearly felt to be the best fielding shortstop in the Pacific Coast League.

The Cubs finally announced that they were bringing Baker up when the Pacific Coast League season ended in September of 1953. At the same time, they signed a promising kid who played shortstop for Buck O’Neil’s Monarchs, Ernie Banks and, in a rare move, brought him straight to the majors without a stop in the minors. 

Since they both played shortstop, this presented another dilemma. It was felt that Baker, the older and more polished of the two, would handle a position switch easier than Banks, who had a stronger arm but had never worked the pivot from the second base side. Baker reported with a slight injury sustained in his final game in LA and so Banks started first, making his debut September 17, 1953. Baker’s first game came on September 20.

Banks quickly proved to be much better than advertised, but Baker was also recognized as a very good player himself. Baker was the consummate professional baseball player. He was smooth and heady in the field. On offense, he rarely struck out, was a good hit-and-run man, a great bunter and was adept at hitting to the right side to move runners. And he could steal a base. Banks and Baker became the first African-American keystone combo and, referred to as Bingo and Bango, over the next three years together were recognized as one of the best in the majors. They both made the All-Star team in 1955.

Whereas the young Ernie Banks was almost quiet to a fault, the older and more mature Baker was outgoing and  mixed easily with all teammates. Baker became an invaluable companion and mentor to Banks.

While researching another project, I had the opportunity to talk to a number of Baker's teammates with the Cubs. Their opinion of him was unanimous: everyone appreciated not only his ability as a player, but his head for the game and his overall attitude. "I liked Gene," said Bob Talbot, who had played with him three years in the minors and came up to the Cubs at the same time. "He was a good guy. He got along with everybody and just went out and did his job. He had been a great short stop in the minors and was a very good second baseman with the Cubs. Everybody respected his knowledge of the game. He became the leader of the infield. I always thought he would have made a great manager for somebody."

Baker was traded to Pittsburgh in 1957 and suffered a leg injury soon thereafter that ended his time as an everyday player. As a tribute to his knowledge of the game and reputation, he was made a coach in the Pirate system. In 1961 he became the first African American manager in “organized” baseball, taking over the Batavia team in the New York-Penn League. He was promoted to AAA Columbus as a coach in 1962 and became a coach for the Pirates in 1963.

Baker later became a long time scout and continued to manage in the Dominican League during the winters and most observers felt that he would have had a long major league managerial career had the situation been different. He died at 74 in 1999. Gene Baker was a man who was always just a little before his time. He made a valuable contribution to the history of the game which should not be forgotten.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Former Dodger and Cub Nate Oliver: For the Love of the Game

It doesn't take long talking to Nate Oliver to realize that he loves the game of baseball; and also, that he loves sharing it with others. Oliver, 77, currently works full time at an Oakland rec center and also three or four days a week stops by a local high school to help those kids improve their baseball games. It's interesting that his brother, James Oliver, Jr., is a retired middle school teacher who does the same thing now with kids in their native St. Petersburg.

"We got that from our father," Oliver says. "He was a special person. He played in the Negro Leagues for the Indianapolis Clowns. He passed his love of the game on to us. Each year he would come home in the winter and share with us everything he did. He taught us about the game and he was a mentor for kids in St. Petersburg on the baseball field. There were three of us kids who went on to play in the major leagues: myself, Ed Charles and George Smith [second baseman for the Red Sox]. That was unusual for three kids from the same small area to go on to the majors and we were all mentored by my father."

James Oliver, Sr. was a slick-fielding shortstop with a shotgun arm. "He took pride in doing all the little things right," says Oliver. "Bunt, steal, move the runner, throw to the right base, and he taught us to do all that." The baseball field in their former neighborhood in St. Petersburg is now known as James Oliver Field.

As a kid, Nate spent a lot of hours watching future Hall of Famers play during spring training as both the Cardinals and Yankees made St. Petersburg their spring quarters. When he was small, he had no way of knowing that he would ever be allowed to play on the same field as the white men he watched. When the big change happened, the elder Oliver made sure his kids understood the significance of Jackie Robinson. "I was only seven when he broke in with the Dodgers, but my father explained to us how big of a deal this was. He talked to us a lot about it." Because of Jackie Robinson, Nate and his brother would have an opportunity that eluded their father. "Jackie Robinson was my idol. He's the reason I signed with the Dodgers. There were several teams after me [Nate had a great series in Wichita, Kansas in the 1959 National Baseball Congress tourney and attracted interest from more than half of the then-sixteen major league teams] but for me there was no question--I was going to sign with the Dodgers because that was Jackie Robinson's team. I got to meet him when I was a kid. Back then they would come through the south after the season barnstorming. There was no TV so this was the chance to see them. And they would draw huge crowds, black and white. For me seeing him back then, he was larger than life. After I joined the Dodgers, Jackie was done playing but he still came around. At spring training he would come in and talk to us. He hated to see young black players sitting together and eating in our own little groups. He'd say, 'I didn't work so hard to integrate the game so you guys can voluntarily segregate it now. Get your asses over there and sit with those guys. Get to know them. Learn about them.' He was real big about the races mixing together on a team."

Nate Oliver was a career utility infielder in the major leagues. Playing with the Dodgers from 1963 to 1967 gave him the opportunity to be a part of three pennant winners and two world championship teams. He was traded to the Giants for 1968, spent a brief period with the Yankees at the beginning of the 1969 season, then finished his career with the Cubs in 1969. He was the kind of guy who was always willing to do whatever the team needed: good defense at second, short or third, pinch-running, pinch-hitting, bunting, even singing the National Anthem. Oliver, who had a good voice, sang the National Anthem at Dodger Stadium four or five times and once, in a rare appearance by a visiting player, sang it at Crosley Field in 1964.

Oliver speaks of the professionalism of the Dodger teams of the sixties: "You had so many leaders on that team--Roseboro, Wills, Gilliam. Those guys all could have been great managers. They were not only good players, but they were baseball scholars. They studied and knew the game so well. When we were in the field, it was like having two or three extra managers. A lot of times they saved Alston trips to the mound. Those guys knew the when, why and how--they would walk to the mound if something needed to be done. Essentially it gave Alston three trips to the mound in an inning instead of two."

The 1969 Cubs were a historic team. "That year was so fun. Everybody went crazy. We did an album. It was just tremendous for four or five months. That entire clubhouse was different. They were all just great guys. I came in after the season had started, but I was welcomed with open arms. I'll never forget the day I walked into the Cubs' clubhouse, we were playing in Montreal, and Don Kessinger met me at the door and said, 'Nate, we are so glad to have you here.' That meant so much because sometimes going from one club to another is hard; you don't know any of the guys, you don't know how you'll fit in."

"All year long we had fun. The guys would just feed off each other. Whatever came up each day--practical jokes, anything--we would just go with it and all the guys joined in. Everybody laughed and had a good time together."

If you talk to Nate Oliver and don't come away with a handful of great baseball stories, it's your own fault. He's got stories on everyone from the '60s.

Willie Mays: "He had the quickest reflexes of anyone I ever saw in baseball. You could not hit him with a pitch. Guys threw at him all the time because he was so great and you didn't have a chance of getting him out if you couldn't back him up, but you couldn't hit him because of those reflexes. I saw him dodge a pitch from Don Drysdale that was an inch behind his head. Me and everyone else in the stadium still have no idea how he got out of the way of that one. It was a scary pitch. Then he got up and blasted the next pitch out of the park. And he wasn't done. He made two great catches in the outfield. The next time he came up, and this was in Los Angeles, everyone gave him a standing ovation."

Leo Durocher in 1969: "Leo was Leo [chuckles]. You knew what you were going to get. I knew him because he had been a coach in Los Angeles. He was flamboyant, outspoken. But he was a genius when it came to Xs and Os. He was always two steps ahead of everyone else. Leo was a tremendous influence. He molded that team, helped them understand what winning was all about."

Bob Gibson: "Man he was tough. And scary. My rookie year I came up to the plate and I used to like to dig a little hole to put my back foot in. They later told me Gibson hated for guys to dig in on him. He took that as an insult. He would flatten guys when they did that. Well, I guess maybe he took some pity on me because I was just a rookie and didn't know any better, because he didn't try to kill me. But when he saw me doing that he walked in front of the mound and stood there watching with his arms crossed. Then when I finished he gave me that look of his and said, 'Now fill it in.' There was no arguing or negotiating with him. You can bet I filled that in awfully quick. I would have used a shovel if one had been handy."

Ernie Banks: "You felt like you knew Ernie even when you were on other teams because he was always talking to you in the field. You'd get a hit and go down to first and he would always ask about the wife and kids, really act like he was interested in you. Sometimes, it was time to run to second and you felt bad because he was still talking--the conversation wasn't over. But it was inspiring to be around him, you just wished that you could have that kind of enthusiasm every day. And he could still hit [in 1969]. He was just a great hitter. You don't hit 500 home runs without some real talent."

Sandy Koufax: "Oh man, he was so good, it wasn't even fair. Those years if he had his curveball on any given day, you might as well not even walk up to the plate. Don't even leave the dugout because you have no chance. You wandered how he ever lost a game in those years. Gibson and Marichal were good, but no one else was even close to Sandy."

It speaks to the respect Oliver still has for Koufax that when asked to name the top moment in his major league career, he picks the Koufax perfect game; a game in which Oliver didn't even play in, but he was just so impressed to be a part of as a teammate. "You knew we were watching something historic. And the last inning, he just blew those guys away."

After his playing days were finished, Nate Oliver spent years in professional baseball as a minor league manager, roving instructor, bunting instructor and coach. And now he spends his days working with youngsters--still spreading the love for the game.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Book Review and interview with author Rich Cohen on The Chicago Cubs: Story of a Curse

What if something happened that not only invalidated everything you had come to know and accept, but also ripped out the very core of your existence? And what if that event was the one thing you had been hoping for your entire life?

This is the dilemma faced by long-term Cubs fans after their team won the World Series in 2016, after a drought of 108 years. Rich Cohen addresses this deftly in his thoroughly enjoyable new book The Cubs: Story of a Curse.

A lifelong Cubs fan who spent many childhood afternoons sitting in the Wrigley Field bleachers, Cohen mines the rich history of the Cubs to help the reader understand the "stinking heartbreak of history" and "what a hundred years of losing does to your psyche." 

In examining the dreaded curse and all its impact--on players, management and fans--Cohen leads the reader on an entertaining tour of  "years of blown leads and late-season collapses." He also reminds readers that long ago the Cubs were actually one of the best teams in baseball for more than a decade. It's all there, the good times and the bad: Tinkers, Evers and Chance, Mordecai Brown and his three-fingered curve ball, the great pennant race of '08, Babe Ruth's called shot in the 1932 Series (against the Cubs in Wrigley Field of course), the long years in the nether regions of the National League cellar, Ernie Banks, Leo and the collapse of '69, Joe Pepitone, Dave Kingman ("it's strange how a player who hit so many home runs . . . can leave such a bad taste in your mouth), the San Diego ground ball and the Bartman episode. And he does so with an unmistakable flare that makes the book a very easy and enjoyable read.

In analyzing the pathos that inevitably afflicts those rooting for a bad team, Cohen's words ring true for fans of other long-suffering teams. His examination of the past half-century for the Cubs begs the question: did the actual curse cause the drought or did the fear of the curse, like belief in voodoo, cripple the organization and its members?

Cohen includes a lengthy interview with Theo Epstein which provides insight into the equally difficult tasks of dismantling the curse and building a championship team then takes the reader through the thrilling 2016 postseason that changed everything.

Due to connections from his famous father (negotiator extraordinaire and author of the best-selling book You Can Negotiate Anything Herb Cohen, who incidentally grew up with Sandy Koufax in Brooklyn) Cohen had access to the playing field and stars as a child and he includes anecdotes of meetings with Ernie Banks, Bill Buckner, Joe DiMaggio and Koufax. These experiences give added perspective and color to the narrative. Although Cohen is non-sports writer in his day job (contributing editor for Vanity Fair, former contributing editor at Rolling Stone among other gigs), he has written frequently about the Cubs in the past for Sports Illustrated--including one of the last major interviews of Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks--and wrote an extended piece on the Cubs curse for Harper's in 2000. So he comes with the necessary credentials to do justice to this subject.

Cohen is a great writer and shows it early and often. The guy can turn a phrase as well as Bryant and Rizzo can turn on a fastball. When he writes of the well-known habit of Cub fans throwing back home run balls hit by opponents, he says they, "vomit it back, reject it like a bad kidney."

For all those Cubs teams with no hope of postseason, "Autumn was storm shutters pulled over outfield grass."

"Hitting well is like being cool in high school. The more you want it, the harder it is." And during a Cubs World Series rally, "the piƱata had been busted open, the candy was spilling across the floor."

I recently caught up with Rich Cohen to discuss his book, his thoughts on the Cubs, the infamous curse and its affect on its fans.

What made you decide to take time out from your busy regular writing jobs to write this book?

"I've been a Cubs fan longer than I've been a writer. It's a primal relationship. Most of my sports stories have been about the Cubs. A significant part of the book I did about the 1985 Bears [Monsters] was about what the Cubs did to us all in 1984. There is such great material with the Cubs, such a great history. It's fun to dive deeper into that history. And, finally, when they won the World Series last year I knew it was the end of something we had come to know. This story is real. It's deep to me. This is my life."

You mentioned fun. You seem like you enjoyed writing this.

"I did. It was just so much fun to go back through the history of the Cubs. And to read about Eddie Waitkus and The Natural and to examine all these connection that wind the story of the Cubs together. There are a lot of things you've known forever as part of the culture being a fan, but when you dig deeper you get a much greater appreciation and understanding of the strategic structure of how it all fits together."

What are you're thoughts on the curse, was it real?
"Cubs baseball has really had a long tragic history. The great Chicago fire in 1871 actually destroyed the ball park of the Chicago White Stockings, who were the precursors to the Cubs. It destroyed their park and all their equipment and uniforms. They were battling for first place at the time, but had to finish the season on the road wearing piecemeal borrowed uniforms and they lost. It sort of set the trend for Chicago baseball as we've come to know it. And even when the Cubs had those great teams in the early part of the century, they should have won a lot more Series, but they didn't. Things just happened, to the team and its players. So the curse was there, even though it didn't actually happen or become formal until 1945. Once you know about the curse and look back you recognize that the team had a tragic history long before that but they didn't recognize it as a curse. So I think the curse identified something rather than caused it. But later, the weight of all those things, of history, caused more pressure on the team. Everyone knew the Cubs always lost in the end. Each time the team got close, they almost were waiting for something to happen."

What now, that the curse is broken?

"Winning the World Series changes the persona of Cubs fans. Forever Cubs fans have had this thing--believing in lost causes. They weren't ever going to win so they became baseball purists, they could cling to the beauty of the park, the game itself, the bleachers, appreciate all the little things. Now that they've won, we've entered a new era. That's good and bad. This group of players and front office broke the curse and they look like they're going to enter an era in which they will be competitive for a long time. But an entire generation will grow up not understanding how we felt."

Overall, this is a well-written, entertaining book that is not just for Cubs fans. Anyone who enjoys baseball will understand and appreciate the history of the game and the thoughts on losing teams and their fans. This is quite possibly the best baseball book of the year.

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 great 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.

I think it is important to note that Malamud grew up in Brooklyn in the '20s and '30s. Every kid in that time and place knew baseball and Malamud shows this clearly. He also cribs numerous real-life baseball players and events for his book. The Whammer is obviously Babe Ruth. And as everyone knows, the chick-shooting-the-ballplayer-in-the-hotel is eerily similar to the Eddie Waitkus shooting that happened only a few years before the book was published. The gamblers, bribe and little kid saying, "Say it ain't so," are taken directly from the 1919 Black Sox scandal.

One less obvious baseball reference comes when Malamud needs a quick way to get rid of Bump Bailey, Roy's rival for the femme fatale. Being from Brooklyn, Malamud was familiar with the unfortunate career of Pete Reiser--the 1941 NL batting champ and one of the most promising young stars of the era. Reiser, who Leo Durocher once said could do everything that Willie Mays could, had one flaw in his game--he simply couldn't avoid brick walls. Thirteen times in his short career he was carried from the field. In the most serious incident, he sustained a skull fracture and was actually administered the last rights in the clubhouse by a priest (he was in a coma for two weeks). So, with Reiser in mind, Malamud has Bailey plow face first into a fence at full speed and, presto, no more romantic rival.

The book is a realistic, dirty look at the business of sports and hero worship. Malamud 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."