Monday, May 30, 2016

Talking About Buck O'Neil and the Kansas City Monarchs With Former Players Sam Taylor and Bill Bell

Not long ago, I had the opportunity to talk to former Kansas City Monarchs players Sam Taylor and Bill Bell.

Taylor, from East St. Louis, was a catcher who played with the Monarchs from 1952-54

Bell, who grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, was a pitcher and center fielder for the Monarchs in 1949, then went into the service. When he came out he played with the Monarchs again in 1953.

"We were the best team in the league," said Taylor, and he's not just bragging. The Kansas City Monarchs were the flagship team of the Negro Leagues. Charter members of the Negro National League in 1920, they boasted alumni such as Satchel Paige and Jackie Robinson, won more championships and would send more players to the major leagues than any other team. The Monarchs had an aura, and a national following. Tweed Webb, who wrote for the African American weekly the St. Louis Argus summed up: “To play for the Monarchs, you had to be the best.”

It was tough to make the team, and veterans were not exactly happy to see new players. “Any time you come to a new team, it’s rough,” said Taylor. “You don’t have no friends. When you come in you’re taking someone’s spot, their job—it might have been one of their friends. They’re afraid it might be them next. Nobody is proud of you when you go up to a team. It takes a while for them to accept you. You have to prove yourself. Everybody is watching you.”

Once they proved their worth, however, new players became part of a close family. But times were changing. Once the Negro Leagues had been an integral part of Black society. By the early 1950s, they were on their way out. “The older guys were always talking that it wasn’t the way it used to be,” said Taylor. “We had some pretty small crowds sometimes."

Owner Tom Baird had to keep a close watch on the budget. "Baird, he was a slick talker anyways," said Taylor. "He was always playing poor. ‘We ain’t getting no money, we don’t have any money for that.' When the subject of money came up, he was tight.” 

"I always thought Tom Baird treated me all right," said Bell. "A lot of guys thought T.Y. was kind of stingy with his money and wanted to keep it all for himself. You know, when he sold off players to the majors, they didn’t get any of that. But everybody had to be careful with money back then. When I went in the service, I told Tom I needed some money and he sent me about 500 bucks."  

The legendary Buck O’Neil was the manager of the Monarchs. O’Neil, who would soar to prominence after appearing in Ken Burns’ 1994 series Baseball and lived out his life as the sweet-talking oracle of the Negro Leagues, was a slick fielding, better-than-average-hitting three-time All-Star first baseman who had been with the Monarchs since 1938. He became player manager in 1948 and would hold that title until 1955 when he resigned (after Baird sold the team) and became a scout for the Chicago Cubs. By 1950, at the age of 39 years, he confined himself to the dugout most of the time, but could still swing a bat well enough that when he looked around the dugout for a pinch hitter, he would often say, “Wait a minute. Hand me my wood."

 O'Neil was universally respected by the men who played for and against him. “The only thing I can say about Buck is that he was one of the finest men I ever knew,” said Taylor. “If you couldn’t get along with Buck there was something wrong with you. He never pulled punches, he would tell you exactly how it was. He could have managed in the majors if they'd given him a chance. He knew how to handle people, that was the key. He made everybody on the team want to play hard. Guys wanted to play for Buck. He could keep everybody happy. It’s one thing to know baseball, it’s another to know how to manage men. Buck knew both.”   

“Buck O’Neil was the kind of manager that left it up to you as far as what you needed to do and what kind of career you wanted to have,” said Bell. "Buck expected everyone to do what they needed to do to be ready to play."

O’Neil taught smart, fundamentally sound, aggressive baseball—heads up in the field, throwing to the right base, aggressive on the base paths, always ready to steal or take an extra base. Although players feared his disapproving looks, O’Neil seldom raised his baritone voice when a player committed an on-field sin. More than anything else, Buck O’Neil was a leader. The men on the team looked to him, whether it was for a sign with one out and a man on first, or to find out which restaurant to go to after the game. Eternally optimistic, it was difficult to spend much time with him without some of his philosophy and personality rubbing off.

The Monarchs didn’t spend a lot time in Kansas City but when they were there, they were celebrities in the African American community. They played in the stadium of the New York Yankee AAA farm team, the Kansas City Blues and would frequently outdraw their white counterparts—often twenty thousand to Opening day. The Monarchs drew fans from all over the Midwest, even whites. Black churches would end services early when the Monarchs were in town; preachers knew better than to keep the crowd of fidgeting kids--and adults—late. Fans would crowd into the park in their Sunday best. A Monarch game was a downright social event.

At the time, Kansas City was segregated at 27th Street—north was white, south was black. While Monarch players rarely went downtown due to the segregation in restaurants and theaters, they ruled south of 27th Street. There were those who said that Kansas City had the best blues, the best barbecue and the best baseball in those days, and it would be hard to argue against them. For Monarch players, Kansas City life centered around 18th and Vine Streets, on the east side of town. Count Basie, Charlie Parker and Pearl Bailey routinely torched joints like the Blue Room and the Reno Club. Basie came to Kansas City so often he named his band the KC Seven.

Most players took a room at the Streets Hotel and were treated like royalty. The Streets was a three-story, red-brick building with a barber shop and a big restaurant called the Rose Room on the first floor. Located in the heart of the black commercial district, not far from the building in which Rube Foster had founded the Negro Leagues in 1920, it was steeped in tradition.

 A big steak dinner at the Rose Room was a dollar and two cents tax. Players called it a “dollar-two.” A plate of eggs, bacon and grits for breakfast was thirty-five cents. Not far from the Streets was a legendary barbecue rib joint at the corner of 18th and Brooklyn. The owner, Arthur Bryant, was a huge baseball fan and players often ate all they wanted there for free. A renowned tailor at Myers Tailor Shop provided the impeccably dressed O’Neil with his suits and argyle socks

The one constant about playing baseball in the Negro Leagues was the travel. "There was a game every day and everyday you were in a different town," said Bell. The team played the vast majority of its games on the road. The Negro League season was April to September, about 125 games. But in between league games, they played a lot of small towns to make money. "Sometimes, if the town team had just been routed by another road team, attendance would be down, which affected everyone."

 "We would go from town to town, playing local teams," said Taylor. "They would let us know when we had a league game coming up. I have caught four games in one day. Some weeks I caught 12 or 13. That's a lot of bending over--that's why my knees are bad now [at the time of the interview, Taylor was 84 years old and spent much time in a wheelchair]."

“We would be in the Catskill Mountains and the next day we’d be in Columbus, Ohio,” said Bell. “We would sleep on the bus while it drove to the next town. We did a lot of sleeping on the bus. We’d go to Memphis, then head down to Florida, then back up to Birmingham, then work our way up to Indianapolis.”

Frequently they would hook up with a team such as the Indianapolis Clowns and tour with them for several weeks, playing games each day in a different town. 

 When in heavily populated African American areas, such as Chicago, Detroit and New York, they stayed at the best hotels, ate in good restaurants and heard the best music in the world. The Negro League teams could play in every major league ball park except Boston’s Fenway Park and Chicago’s Wrigley Field.    

In small towns, they sometimes had less than hospitable eating and sleeping arrangements. O’Neil usually had the inside track on friendly African Americans who would allow players to sleep at their houses, but often, there were no accommodations.  “A rookie had to be the one to go into the restaurants and get us seats sometimes," said Taylor. "I got some hard things said to me. It was hard to swallow. But sometimes you could talk them out of it. Alot of times Buck could talk us into a place and we'd get to eat."

 "Sometimes we'd all go out to eat together, sometime just a few of us depending on where we were. Once in a little town in Wisconsin, about four or five of us went into this little restaurant and sat down and they called the police. So here comes this policeman and when he talked to us and found out we were Monarchs, he said, 'Shoot, you usually go to better places than this.' Then he gave us directions to a better restaurant where we could eat."

Nobody griped about the conditions; it beat work. They soon developed a routine--play, pack, ride--that they performed with meticulous precision that would make an Army logistics officer smile. Often with no showers after the game, it was not unusual to play the next day in a damp uniform. 
Players would chip in their three or four dollar a day meal money and go to a supermarket for baloney, sardines, bread, peanut butter, and drinks. Occasionally black families would invite them over and feed them. Riding the bus, guys playing their blues harps and guitars, singing, joking and arguing, get into small towns, get out, change clothes, play the game, get back on the bus and ride to another town. “But we had a lot of fun," said Bell. "Everybody got along good on the team and had fun together. You spend that much time together, you get close. And we never had guys who caused any trouble. Buck wouldn’t have stood for that; he would have gotten rid of them.” 

As expected, playing in the south presented challenges. “Oh man, it was rough,” said Bell. "There was a lot of stuff I had never seen before. I’ll never forget the first time we were in San Antonio. I was about 18 or 19. I saw a sign that said, 'Nigger chicken served here.' I asked Willard Brown what that meant. He just shrugged, ‘Oh, that’s just what they call dark meat chicken down here.’ I grew up in Des Moines. I wasn't used to that. The guys from the south already knew the rules. Like Ernie Johnson and Sherwood Brewer, they were from Mississippi. It was a different mind set down there.”

Buck O’Neil and the older players would tell them at each stop what to do, what not to do, and which stores and restaurants they could go to. There was no joking--the older players were totally serious when they would look out for the younger players, often adding a legend of bad things that had happened to a black man who hadn’t obeyed the rules in that part of the country.  “Buck and the other guys would always tell us when we went to a new place, to keep us out of trouble, to make sure we didn’t step out of line.”

 And they would especially warn them of the dangers of the potentially deadly syndrome of reckless eyeballs. “Once in Memphis my first year [1948], I needed to get a pair of socks," said Bell. "Willard [Brown] told me, ‘You get down to the store, get what you need, and then get your ass straight back here.’ Memphis was really bad. You had to be careful. They said you might pass some white women waiting for a bus or something and sometimes, they liked to show everything they got, you know. They said, ‘Don’t even look. It might be the last thing you ever look at.’”

“I remember once in Little Rock, the older guys told me, ‘See that white man coming down the street? He’s not going to get out of your way. You’re going to have to get on the damn grass. And he doesn’t want you to look him in the eye. You have to look down.’ They wanted to belittle you; take your dignity. But Birmingham was the worst. Let me tell you, when we played there, we didn’t go nowhere. We just stayed together, played ball, then got the heck out of town. Memphis was rough. You didn't step out of line there. Indianapolis and Cincinnati weren't much better."

"Once we were down in Tampa for two days and we were in a park that had a lot of major league contacts. It had a nice clubhouse. Before one of the games, some of the guys took a shower. I said, 'I'll wait until after we play to take my shower. And when we came back in, they'd turned off the hot water. There was nothing left but cold water."

"Another time in Tampa we slept in the bus three nights in a row because there was no place to stay. We went to the bus station when we had to go to the bathroom [in the 'colored only' restroom]. You had to pay a nickel to use the restroom."               

How did they survive? How did they keep their drive, keep from giving up, succumbing to the hatred and lack of hope? “I guess it was just the times,” said Bell. He added that players realized that there was nothing they could do about the racism and that things were certainly better than they had been in their parents’ time. But it wasn't easy.
By the early 1950s, the Monarchs had a working agreement with Havana, which supplied several outstanding Cubans players. Pancho Herrara, a hulking 18 year old first baseman who would later play in the minor leagues, and Juan Armenteros, a hard-hitting catcher who would make the Negro League All-Stars for several years, were nice guys and liked by all. Diego Nunez, was a twenty year old, 5-6 pitcher with outstanding ability, but he had a bit of a reputation. “He had a high temper," said Taylor.

"He was a hood,” said Bell. “Herrara told us that Nunez had been into everything back in Cuba, maybe even jail. He had to leave the island was why he came here to play.”

“Some of the fellas didn’t like the Cubans,” said Taylor, “especially when they went to talking that Spanish. Nobody knew what they were talking about. But I got to know them and they became some of my better friends. I learned a lot of Spanish from them.”

The one thing on everyone's mind in the early 1950s was to get noticed by major league scouts. “By 1953, everybody was trying to get to the next level,” said Bell.

“We didn’t call it the major leagues,” said Taylor. “We called it ‘Going to Heaven.’ Guys would be talking and they’d say, ‘You hear about so-and-so? He’s going to Heaven.’ That meant he got signed. That’s all we thought about—getting seen and then signed.” 

Alot of guys made the jump to Heaven. But alot of good players didn't. They were too late. By the mid-1950s major league teams were scouting and signing their own African American players and neglecting the Negro Leagues. And the Negro Leagues were dying a slow, painful death. 

"My last year was 1953," said Bell. "I had a job with the post office. I worked up to a pretty good job and if I left it for the summer I might not get it back. I had gotten married and had a kid. I had to get out of baseball to make money to raise a family. The most I got with the Monarchs was $400. A kid had to really love the game to do all that for that little money. And he couldn’t have any obligations to worry about. It was pretty rough at times. After I got married, I didn't think I could afford to go back. I ended up making pretty good money with the post office for about thirty years, then I retired."         

Taylor made even less than Bell. "I did it for a big $250 a month," Taylor said. "I didn't even get meals. I didn't know anything about contracts. I had a wife and two kids; $250 a month doesn't get you very far, even back then. It was hard. My last year was 1954. I went back to my job at a chemical plant near St. Louis. I made a lot more money there." 

There are no regrets and neither ever lost his love for baseball. "Later I was hooked up in Little League and Babe Ruth League for years," Bell said. "A couple of times we almost won the state championship."

 "I loved the game," said Taylor. "I love it now. I'll never forget the time I had in baseball."

"I wonder if guys today realize how easy they have it compared to us," added Bell.

Monday, May 23, 2016

The Guide to Pete Rose Literature

Pete Rose frequently said that he wrote more books than he read and that is probably true. He has had more major release books published than any baseball player of his era. With Cincinnati fans looking forward to the return of their prodigal son--for induction into the team’s Hall of Fame--this summer, I thought this might be a good time to review the Pete Rose literature. It’s a worthwhile exercise to look at them all at once because of the vast dissimilarities which the books display while discussing the same subject and the different stories from the different eras.

I should note that there have been several quality Pete Rose books by minor publishers, such as McFarland, but in the interest of brevity, I will stick to the major publishing house releases.

The Pete Rose Story: An Autobiography. 1970. Author: unknown.

This is Pete’s first big book. At the time of release, Rose was a local star in Cincinnati—he had hit over .300 in five straight seasons and had led the National League in batting the previous two. Nationally, however, he was known only as a good singles hitter and a guy who sprinted to first after walks and slid headfirst into bases. He wouldn’t have cracked anyone’s all-star outfield of Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Roberto Clemente; or even been picked over Billy Williams or maybe Lou Brock. There had been no Ray Fosse collision, no Bud Harrelson fight, no 1975 Series; none of the rest. So the book is interesting as a jumping off point.

The first great mystery of this book is the identity of the writer. Yes sports fans, it says right on the cover that it is an autobiography, but we can safely assume that Peter Edward Rose did not sit down with a Smith Corona typewriter and peck this out. Nowhere on this book does it say who the real author is, so we must conclude that this is one of the good old fashioned ghost-written books; the kind that were popularly foisted on the sporting public in the first half of the twentieth century. 

From his earliest days in Cincinnati, Pete was very friendly and cooperative with most members of the media and the Reds were covered by some great sportswriters in those days, three of whom—Ritter Collett and Sy Burick from Dayton papers and Earl Lawson from the Cincinnati Post—have been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame writer’s wing. Possibly it was one of them; or maybe it was some hack lined up by Pete’s advisors.

From the verbiage and grammar, it doesn’t take long for the reader to conclude that Pete’s ghost-writer was actually Beaver Cleaver. And that’s okay. The book is written in the classic old-school style of baseball literature which was pervasive at the time—the kind in which the public was supposed to believe that all baseball players lived in a 1950s black and white television show. All those guys really cared about was playing baseball. Girls, money and the rest were not even a thought—or so they would have you believe. Of course at the time this book was being thrown together, Leonard Shecter and Jim Bouton were lurking somewhere in the shadows preparing their manuscript of Ball Four that would change the baseball literary world forever and render this type of product obsolete.

As a latter-day Huck Finn of the diamond, Pete recounts harmless pranks and high jinks from his formative years. His idea of mischief as a kid, apparently, was going to the local Frisch’s Big Boy (“where they sell those double-decker hamburgers”), order a Coke and sit in the booth for a couple of hours without spending any more money—scandalous stuff. According to the book, he enjoyed more of the light-hearted frivolity in professional baseball; just a bunch of G-rated jokes and fun among the guys.

He mentions several times that he never had much luck with the ladies [We will learn later that this is a gross understatement].

While Pete sets the basis for the theme repeated in every future telling of his story by mentioning repeatedly how much he admires and respects his father (who would die later that year), this book is otherwise totally without substance. He rambles for pages and, when you read and reread it, you realize that absolutely nothing is said. There is no insight and very few truly amusing anecdotes; just generalities and statements to the effect that his fellow players, owners, general manager, managers at every level, sportswriters, fans, umpires and even his army reserve drill sergeant were all “swell” guys. At the time, no one expected him to throw anyone under the bus, but he could have added some personality or color to his costars.

The book devotes 21 pages to Rose’s post-1967 season goodwill trip to Vietnam with Joe DiMaggio, who he repeatedly states that he idolizes. While there are some decent accounts of the various places they visited, a good editor would have cut this part in half, as it tends to ramble aimlessly long. Also, Pete informs us that Joe D was a classy guy no less than six times—class I tell you, class.

This book does shed a little light for Pete Rose historians in two important areas. It is obvious that Pete was an exceptional athlete—not the slow, plodding guy with no ability who made himself into a great player only because he willed it so (as some later historians would have us believe). Sure, Pete had more determination than anyone else and possibly worked harder and smarter as well, but he was nonetheless a great athlete to begin with, although admittedly a late bloomer. In football, he played halfback for a large Cincinnati high school and scored a number of touchdowns, sometimes as many as four a game, many on long, twisting broken field runs of 50 or 60 yards. Try doing that with only determination and no speed. He turned down a college football scholarship to the nearby University of Miami (of Ohio)—the place that gave us Paul Brown, Ara Parseghian, Bo Schembechler and Ben Roethlisberger—no small feat in itself.

Also, according to later lore, Rose was very lucky to be signed by the Reds at all, and only because his uncle badgered the front office. From this book we learn that the Baltimore Orioles were very interested in Pete as well. Pete had been a regular at workouts at Crosley Field for some time and was tearing up a Dayton-area amateur league, playing against mostly older men, as a senior in high school (because his eligibility had been used up due to repeating tenth grade). Sure, his uncle, Buddy Bloeblum, helped, but the penny-pinching Reds gave Rose a $7,000 bonus when he signed. That was more than they would give a young decent-looking catcher and second-round draft choice from Oklahoma five years later; a kid named Johnny Bench. So Rose was obviously at least somewhat regarded.

Pete downplays the later well-documented troubles he had with veterans while breaking in with the Reds as a rookie. He says he only noticed that “some of the other guys resented me” when reporter Earl Lawson mentioned it to him. He says it was only a few guys and “most of them were swell guys.” [in reality, almost every veteran except for Vada Pinson and Frank Robinson resented Rose a great deal—in part because he was so obnoxious—to the point that they tried to freeze him out and ignore him]. He does mention that Pinson and Robinson took him under their wings and helped him, without further explanation.

All in all, this book is somewhat hard to get through and in the end leaves the reader with very little true information. Read it only if you want to waste a few hours and see how truly ungratifying early sports biographies could be.

Charlie Hustle. 1975. By Pete Rose and Bob Hertzel.

This book moves us into the modern era. In 1974 Pete Rose was coming off a 230-hit, MVP season and was now a nationally-recognized force of nature. Pete’s co-author on this one is young Cincinnati Enquirer beat reporter Bob Hertzel. The book is a diary of the 1974 season, a season in which Rose slumps to .284—his first sub-.300 season since 1964—and the Reds chase, and can’t catch, the Los Angeles Dodgers all year, but it is sprinkled liberally with stories from Rose’s past.

This is the most entertaining of all of Pete’s books. It is filled with anecdotes, many of which are very funny. There are several items about almost all of Pete’s famous teammates and managers. There is also quite a bit of real baseball in the book as the Reds try unsuccessfully to overtake the Dodgers and Pete tries unsuccessfully to replicate his 1973 season. Hertzel does an excellent job of moving the story along and editing Pete’s memories. And he probably does the best of all of Pete’s co-authors over the years of showing Pete’s true “voice.” While Pete shows a salty humor, explains that major league baseball players sometimes expel intestinal gas on the team bus—and find it funny-- and let’s fly with a few damns, hells and a shit or two, it is still essentially PG-13.

Overall, this is a very good baseball read and highly recommended to anyone who wants to know about the Cincinnati Reds and baseball in the 1970s.

Pete Rose: My Story. 1989.   Pete Rose and Roger Kahn.

I’ll resist the temptation to call this one “The Wrath of Kahn,” but in order to fully understand the book, and it’s afterlife, it is necessary to understand the sordid back-story. This book started out as one of those great ideas: let’s match up the guy who wrote one of baseball’s all-time most popular books with one of baseball’s all-time most popular players—what could go wrong? Pete was fresh off breaking Ty Cobb’s record and riding high. Kahn was in his early 60s—still in the prime of his writing career--and still basking in the glory of The Boys of Summer.

The book opens with the quote “Hey Rog, I’ll never lie to you.” The speaker was Pete Rose. We would later discover that the quote turned out to be quite untrue.

Kahn later stated that he had reservations from the start, but the publisher assured him it was a million-dollar deal—half for him and half for Rose. That promise was enough to pull him in. Things started off well; Rose was initially very cooperative and helpful in telling his story and allowing Kahn unlimited access. History stepped in, however, as life unexpectedly turned sour for the Pete Rose camp midway through the writing process—the whole gambling deal broke and Rose was suspended.

Kahn and Pete hung in there on the book, however reluctantly, and they used the last few chapters as a sounding board to advertise Pete’s total and absolute innocence to any and all charges. And this is where Kahn went wrong--he ends up looking very, very bad [you could add as many very’s as you want here and you would still underestimate]. This came to be viewed as his worst book and substantially damaged his reputation as a journalist.

As far as the book itself, thanks to its author, the first half is highly readable. It is written in conversational style, with Pete spinning stories and Kahn keeping the account moving and on target and interposing his own research. Rose recounts some of the same anecdotes as recounted in his previous books, however some have different versions. Kahn did a lot of legitimate journalism as he personally interviewed a large number of people from Rose’s past, including his first wife, his high school football coach, the high school quarterback, the football coach at the University of Miami who offered Rose a football scholarship, the general manager of the Macon Peaches and quite a few teammates from various years.  Many of the quotes Kahn unearthed for this book from these sources have been pinched liberally in future Pete Rose books.

This book provides the first mention of the since-oft-repeated stories of Pete’s father breaking a hip on a kick-off play in a semi-pro game and crawling to make the tackle, of toddler Pete breaking a window on their house with a line drive and his father refusing to ever repair the window—because it was a historic artifact, of his father spending money meant for his daughter’s shoes on baseball equipment for Pete, and explains the feisty toughness of Pete’s mother. Kahn also scores a print-first discussing the traffic ticket a married-for-one-year Pete got at 4:30 AM in 1965 across the river in the garden of evil, Newport, Kentucky.

On the downside, Kahn annoyingly and needlessly inserts himself and his views of politics and anthropology which, in truth, should have been hacked out by a good editor. He disparages former President Nixon no less than three times in the pages, once mentioning that unscrupulous writers tried to make Rose look “as guilty as Nixon.” This is curious because when the book was published, Nixon had been out of politics nearly twenty years [Editor’s note to Kahn: Get over it! Find a new source for similes].

Also, the account of Pete’s playing career seems hurried. Many parts are skimmed over abruptly, especially the Philadelphia years which are covered in about a paragraph.

This book is much more earthy than previous Pete Rose books. There are quite a few f-bombs and Kahn hints at Pete’s well-documented womanizing ways, but makes light of them. He writes charitably of Pete’s first marriage, “with years, the love grew hard for both of them,” apparently saving Pete’s fans from the nasty truth.

The book takes a sinister turn and drives off a cliff suddenly two-thirds of the way through. This is the point in the narrative where the gambling scandal erupts. Perhaps Kahn is aware that, as an authorized biography, Pete and his lawyers have ultimate editorial control and he becomes so intent on making his collaborator happy with the book that he loses all sense of intelligence or reasoning. Or perhaps Kahn experiences a severe case of the literary Stockholm Syndrome. Page after page is filled with haphazard and nonsensical bleatings defending Rose from all charges. The diatribes against major league baseball and especially the Dowd report sound hollow and are full of holes. They are also very sad when viewed with the knowledge that we currently have.

Perhaps feeling a little self-conscious and having doubts himself, Kahn mentions in the book that Pete can be very persuasive when he looks you in the eye. I am reminded of a passage in The Boys of Summer in which young reporter Roger Kahn is intimidated by manager Eddie Stanky into believing, and printing, a complete lie. The next day Stanky laughs, admits his deceit and dares Kahn to do anything about it. Apparently, Kahn did not learn his lesson about looking ballplayers in the eye for the truth.

In a key chapter of the book, entitled The Gambler, Rose and Kahn lay out the defense of the charges of gambling on baseball: Rose was framed by low-life hangers-ons who were mad at him; all of their accusations were completely baseless and made up. And the alleged fingerprints on betting slips were smudged and hard to decipher. And Pete had handwriting experts ready to testify that none of the handwriting was his in the first place. And, anyway, Pete Rose had too much respect for baseball, and its rules, to ever, ever even consider gambling.

Kahn irreparably sullies himself by repeatedly making light of the charges and the journalists who pursued them. He writes of Rose being set up by “warbling felons,” states that the report of baseball’s chief investigator John Dowd “smelled,” and would unravel with the slightest review. Kahn writes that he hopes the career of Senator Joseph McCarthy would not be forgotten and compares Dowd to “Inspector Javert of Les Cincinnati Miserables.” Really? These are all Kahn’s words, not Rose’s.

As for Rose, he merely states unequivocally, “I swear I never bet baseball.”
For those not paying close attention, I’ll repeat: “I swear I never bet baseball.”

In the final pages, Kahn tries to rally by resorting to his old standby—fathers and sons and baseball. But by this time, it is much too late, for the book and Kahn's reputation.

While the book sold briskly and shot up the bestseller lists, the voyeuristic public eager for anything Rose-related at the time, it was not quite the financial success expected. Rose, apparently busy with other items in his crumbling life, reneged on his promised promotional efforts. Kahn reportedly only got about $100,000 out of it—far less than the half-a million he expected.

The book became a permanent stain on the conscious of Kahn. When he later heard Pete Rose’s confession in 2004 that he had indeed bet on baseball, Kahn told a reporter: “I wanted to reach for a barf bag.”

He also said, “Pete Rose is the Vietnam of baseball.” For those of you who missed the 1960s, I’m pretty sure he was not thinking “beautiful jungles and deltas and a friendly communist government” when he said it.

Overall, this book is worth reading for the first half to understand Rose’s life and for the last part to watch a once-respected journalist self-destruct.

Hustle: The Myth, Life and Lies of Pete Rose. 1990. Michael Sokolove.

Unlike the previous book, this one was written without Pete’s consent or cooperation. Two-thirds of the way through, Sokolove lets us know that he asked Pete for an interview, but was turned down because, “If I talk to you, the book will make more money and I’m not going to do it because I won’t get any of it.” This, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad thing. A good book certainly does not need the cooperation of the subject and, in fact, the author will not feel any allegiance to the subject and so he can print what he feels is the truth (see Kahn, Roger and Pete Rose: My Story).

The title says it all and this book reads like the hatchet job it was apparently designed to be. Sokolove does some good research, however he apparently framed his questions to draw out the desired conclusions. I’m not sure what Sokolove had against Rose, but he certainly appeared to harbor ill feelings for some reason. Virtually every story and anecdote from Rose’s life is told in a negative light—often where a negative light is neither indicated nor appropriate. There is also much collateral damage as he gives the same treatment to Rose’s mother, father and first manager, Fred Hutchinson.

While the book is well-written and entertaining and Sokolove is obviously a talented writer, in his zeal to crucify Rose, or perhaps make more money in book sales, he irritatingly makes some factual statements when a little hesitancy or waffling would be better served.

In reviewing Pete’s childhood and career, this book eventually becomes tiresome due to all the negativity. Sokolove seems to resent Rose’s popularity with both fans and writers. At one point he devotes several pages trying to prove that Rose was not a very good player—a complete revelation to a reader who actually watched most of Rose’s career. 

Granted, Rose was not in the class of Cobb, Ruth, Mays or Aaron, BUT there is the little matter of about 4,000 base hits—the vast majority of which were accumulated when he was a productive player, not just hanging on trying to break a record. Sokolove seems to overlook the fact that it is relatively difficult for a man to hit over .300 fifteen times and get more than 200 hits in a season ten times in major league baseball (if it’s easy for untalented guys to do it, then why don’t they?). And, yeah, Pete played with some pretty good players but, regardless, they did win all those division titles and pennants and Pete certainly played a role.

Just when the reader is ready to give up, however, the book picks up speed. It excels when discussing the aftermath of the 1989 gambling scandal. Sokolove gives a very good review to the charges, the players in the scandal and the investigators. 

He asks the very disturbing question of how a street-smart guy like Rose could be totally unaware (as he claimed) of the extensive involvement in cocaine and illegal steroids of his new friends that he hung out with at a Cincinnati Gold’s Gym—apparently oblivious to where their money came from as they flashed bling and fancy cars without any visible means of support, and as they openly discussed drug deals. And these thugs and criminals (all of whom were eventually convicted of drug-related charges) were allowed unfettered access to Pete’s Cincinnati Red clubhouse while he was manager.

Sokolove also brings up the question of why a guy who is a compulsive gambler and runs up large debts would refrain from gambling on the one thing that he knows best—baseball.

Sokolove details Pete’s extensive gambling phone calls (from his home and the Reds clubhouse) and losses to numerous illegal bookies in Cincinnati, Florida and New York. The mystery of why Rose was let go from Cincinnati in the late ‘70s is illuminated (in the Kahn book, Rose stated it was because of his impending divorce, in this book it is because Reds’ officials were worried about his well-known gambling troubles and the threat that mob-related men might break a leg or two).

Overall, this is a solid, entertaining book. The author had an admitted bias against Rose but this may be the best Pete Rose book to read if you want to know the closest approximation (which is all we will really get) to the truth involving his scandal. Read other books to find out about his childhood and baseball career.

My Prison Without Bars. 2003. Pete Rose and Rick Hill.

How can I be charitable? This one is just plain bad. Okay, actually, it reeks. And remember, that’s being charitable.

This book was supposed to be Pete’s Mea Culpa, his chance to finally come clean and, hopefully, put himself in good graces with the public and the commissioner of baseball. Unfortunately, it turns out to be an Everyone-else-is-culpa-but-mea. And nobody wanted that.

I’m not sure how much Pete really even contributed to this. The first few chapters seem like Pete just told Hill, “There’s already been a bunch of books written about me, read them and summarize my early years.” Because that’s exactly what he did.

And apparently the Pete Rose book Hill preferred was Hustle. Because he lifted, word-for-word, several sentences and quotes from the Hustle book, without giving credit for the references. The sequence of events of Pete’s childhood are told almost exactly in the same order, with almost exactly the same anecdotes and stories, as Hustle. What are the chances that Pete, in his retelling of his childhood, would rely on the most negative book ever written about him? 

It soon becomes very annoying that Hill does a poor job in the attempt to give Pete his voice in narrating the story. Basically, he achieves Pete’s voice by inserting “sumbitch” on every other page. Every friend, ex-teammate, or anyone else discussed is invariably a sumbitch. I had never heard Pete talk this way in interviews and he never spoke this way in previous “autobiographies.” Maybe the sumbitch just picked up a temporary habit. Who knows?

And for those who enjoy fine literature, we are treated to such classic passages as: "I'd spent 30 years of my life inside of dugouts and locker rooms. I've smelled my share of rank farts . . ." Ernest Hemingway couldn't put it any better.

As far as the actual content, Pete admits within the first few pages that he doesn’t have any hobbies; except for gambling. That’s what he does, that’s what he enjoys. He admits that his gambling “got outta control” after he broke Cobb’s record, but then immediately explains how exciting and fun gambling is and proudly mentions that over the past 30 years he has hit more than a dozen pick-six tickets at racetracks (rather than coming off as a warning to others or even an apology, it sounds like an advertisement for the gambling industry).

Throughout the book Pete liberally throws in gambling terms such as “exactas,” “betting a dime,” “quinellas,” “the vigorish,” and explains that he used “a runner when betting more than a grand a game” and explains how the odds work at tracks. Once more he comes off sounding like a hardened veteran gambler telling of the workings of his racket rather than a guy trying to come clean and—maybe—change his lifestyle (which is what MLB wanted him to do).

The only change in the telling of Pete’s childhood—but this is a big one--is to insert several medical excuses that serve as foreshadowing and excuses for gambling. We’re informed that Pete probably had ADHD as a child and, oh by the way, it has since been proven (according to the authors) that ADHD is genetically linked to addictive gambling. Also we learn that Pete had Oppositional Defiance Syndrome, which made him always do the opposite of what good-intentioned people tried to counsel.

He continues this trend throughout the book. He lays on terms like Dopamine and explains that it is a chemical in the brain that is linked to gambling addiction and apparently Pete has high levels of it. No wonder he can’t control his gambling folks, he’s genetically predisposed and has high levels of chemicals so, you see, it’s not really his fault.

Pete prominently mentions several times that he and his father frequently went to the track to gamble with the fathers of local baseball players Don Zimmer and Ed Brinkman. So, the reader is left with the definite impression that, apparently, It’s okay to gamble because the fathers of other baseball players did it.

Pete blamed his gambling on (along with his genetic propensity and watching his father and other fathers) needing the competition after retiring from playing. He offers a lengthy explanation that gambling is actually competition—the bettor is competing against the bookie, “trying to kick the bookie’s ass.” While Pete admits that he used multiple bookies in Florida, New York, Cincinnati and Dayton, it's apparently okay because the bookmakers he used were “honest, working-class guys who had wives and families.” 

And Pete also mentions that using the bookies was okay because his brother-in-law was a cop and told him they had never prosecuted a case against a gambler who used bookies, only the bookies themselves. So, relax fans, the bookies were all good guys, and the cops don’t mind, so it’s allright.

And Pete divulges that when the baseball season started, he was totally focused on baseball—no betting. “I always lived by one hard and fast rule: “You don’t bet baseball.” But then, on page 123, he suddenly admits that he did bet on baseball; he could not remember the first time, but was sure it was sometime in 1986. Hmmm.

He also states that it was okay to bet baseball when he was a manager because “I never took an unfair advantage. I never bet more or less based on injuries or inside information.” So, it’s okay to bet on baseball as a manager as long as you bet stupidly.

The book is sprinkled with frequent references to a wide cross section of famous people who battled various addictions or had overly competitive personalities: Robert Downey, Jr., Douglas MacArthur, John Belushi, George Patton, Joseph Kennedy, John Kennedy, Elvis, Rock Hudson, Bill Clinton and Babe Ruth, among others. Speaking of Babe Ruth and his habit of visiting speakeasies, Rose lets us know that “the 1980s version of the speakeasy was the racetrack.” So, again, it’s okay because look at all these other guys who did bad or embarrassing things.

And so it goes, over and over throughout the book. It becomes very tedious and difficult to plow through. The reader gets the feeling he’s listening in on a conversation between an elementary school principal and a chronically tardy student. Excuses, excuses, excuses.

The book pays only cursory attention to Pete’s career and the few anecdotes included seem forced, out of place and are often wrong as to the correct players or circumstances (again, with some of the obvious errors, the reader is left to wonder what Pete actually contributed). But just when the reader is tempted to give it all up and throw the book away, a funny thing happens: it starts to be pretty good. The last 50 pages are entertaining as Pete details his stay in prison for income tax evasion (a prison term which is ridiculous when viewed with the charges) and his fight against major league baseball. Pete gives an entirely reasonable explanation for why he lied to Major League Baseball and fans: an admission would have meant an immediate ban from the game. We can all buy that. The book sadly ends with a meeting with Commissioner Bud Selig and Pete’s hope of reinstatement, which we now know did not work out to Pete’s liking.

Overall, this is a very poor effort and probably set Pete’s defense back years and made people wonder how much more is he not telling. Apparently there was more.

Unfortunately for anyone who actually spent money on the thing, the enablers at Sports Illustrated guaranteed this book a certain early financial success by running it as an excerpt, complete with Pete gracing the cover. One wonders if the editors at SI had bothered to read it. And, if so, were the sumbitches able to keep a straight face.

Pete Rose: An American Dilemma. 2014. Kostya Kennedy.

I’ll have to confess. I really didn’t want to like this one. After all the previous books, I felt that this was one dead horse that didn’t need any more beating. But I was wrong. Apparently it needed to be beat one more time.

Kennedy is a good writer and it doesn’t take long for him to establish the fact that this is a very good book. Despite my previous beliefs, I found it hard to put down and by the end I had become a Kostya Kennedy fan. Damn.

While Kennedy covers Pete’s career summarily and tries to add a few new interviews, he cribs shamelessly from previous books. He includes pertinent facts and negatives and moves along brisky. Don’t read this one expecting to find any new info on Pete Rose the player, or Pete Rose the west side Cincinnati kid.

The book shines in the second half when it tries to dispassionately evaluate the evidence against Rose and examines his place in baseball history. Kennedy does a good job of both.

Kennedy explains exactly how much gambling Rose did, and when, and where the boundaries were (apparently there were few boundaries). He cuts through all of Rose’s denials and lies from the previous two decades.

The personal interview with John Dowd is very interesting. Two decades earlier, Roger Kahn, in his defense of Rose, had compared Dowd to tortured Miserables Inspector Javert in his obsession to bring down Rose, and Kennedy’s portrayal evokes the same sentiment. But this time we can clearly understand why.

There is a lengthy section on Pete’s brother and his son, Petey. We learn that Petey had a complicated relationship with his father, who he apparently still idolizes, and spent almost twenty years playing minor league baseball, mostly with independent teams with no hope of promotion. He also pounded steroids and bulked up to 240 pounds in an effort to hang on.

In the end, there does not appear to be much moralizing. Kennedy presents all sides and evidence in the Pete Rose story and leaves it up to the reader to draw conclusions. And that’s what a good author should do.

    *     *     *
So there you have it--a guide to Pete Rose literature. The Pete Rose question will continue to be debated among baseball fans for decades. Every fan will need to form his own opinion eventually. And it's good to have some info in your pocket before you jump in.

Monday, May 16, 2016

RIP Sammy Ellis

Former Reds pitcher Sammy Ellis passed away this weekend. He is another one of those guys who will always hold a special place in my heart because he helped me with one of my books. I spoke with him twice about Fred Hutchinson and the 1964 season. He was very helpful adding stories about his rookie year and his manager.

Ellis was a hotshot pitcher signed by the Reds off the campus of Mississippi State in 1961. He pitched for the Reds briefly in 1962 but was not effective and admittedly battled an intense competitive nature that at times caused him to lose both his temper and his focus on the mound.

After two solid seasons in triple-A San Diego, where he threw a no-hitter in 1962, Ellis made the Reds for good in spring training 1964. It was a memorable spring for Ellis as he also met his future wife in Florida that March. He was ecstatic about both making the Reds' roster and getting the pay raise that came with the major league assignment--to a whopping $7,000 a year.

The 1964 season would turn out to be a dramatic one for the Reds as popular manager Fred Hutchinson was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer before the season. Refusing to give in, Hutchinson gamely tried to finish out the season with his team.

"I was scared to death of Fred Hutchinson initially," Ellis told me. "I later found out that he was a very loveable guy, but he was intimidating. He was burly and almost a grumpy looking guy when you first met him. But I think everybody who ever played for him really liked him. He let his players play and you always knew where you stood with him. And no one wanted to win more than he did. He was one of those guys who commanded respect and could manage men without saying a lot."

By June, Ellis and fellow first-year man Bill McCool had formed one of the best righty-lefty bullpen combos in the majors. Over and over the youngsters displayed cold-blooded efficiency holding on to slim late-inning leads.

With Hutchinson visibly melting away due to the cancer, the team tried to stay focused on the field. But it wasn't easy. "Whereever we go as a team this year, Hutch is somehow there," Ellis was quoted in Sports Illustrated in September. "His name will come up over dinner. You're sitting there and somebody says, 'Hear anything about Hutch?' There is a kind of quiet that comes over everybody. It makes you put your hands under the table and clench your fists and wish somehow there was something you could do. Sure we want to win the pennant for ourselves . . . a ballplayer wants a World Series ring more than anything and we want to put a ring on Hutch's finger."

The Phillies appeared invincible most of the season, with the Reds lurking just closed enough to have a shot. After Hutchinson stepped down when he was finally no longer able to continue managing from the bench, the Reds rallied in late September. They swept a crucial series with the Phillies and launched a nine-game winning streak to give themselves a chance to win the pennant on the last day of the season.

Ellis was on the mound for the Reds in a tense situation in the third game of the Phillies series. Coming on the seventh inning of a tight game, he struck out the first man, then walked the bases loaded. "All of a sudden I couldn't find the strike zone," Ellis said. "With the bases loaded Johnny Callison is the batter and he was having an MVP year, a great year." Callison would end up with 31 home runs and 104 RBIs in 1964 and had won the All-Star game with a ninth-inning three-run walk off homer. "I look down to the bullpen and [interim manager] Sisler's got Nuxhall warming up. Sisler comes out to the mound. I'm expecting him to take me out. But he looks at me and says, 'Look, you've been doing the job all year, get this guy out.' And so I struck the son of a bitch out and then struck out the next guy too." On a full count to the dangerous Callison, Ellis threw probably the best pitch of his career, painting the outside corner to catch him looking. He then finished the last two innings for the save. It was that kind of year for Ellis. He would end the 1964 season with a 10-3 record and a 2.57 ERA.

In 1965 Ellis was converted to a starter, won 22 games, threw 15 complete games and made the All-Star team. Only 24 years old, his future appeared secure. Unfortunately, he fell victim to the peculiar malady of Ohio River Fever--a highly contagious, devastating arm ailment that afflicted virtually every Cincinnati pitcher of the era. Reds hurlers spent so much time in the whirlpool that they regularly led the league in barnacles. Ellis noted by mid-1966 that his arm was no longer the same. He struggled to a 12-19 season with an ERA of 5.29. It was the beginning of the end.

Although teams and management didn't seem to care or take note of pitch counts and total innings thrown in those days, a modern forensic specialist might point to the fact that young Ellis threw 263 innings in 1965 after throwing only 122 in 1964. There was also the period in late June in which he pitched an 11-inning complete game then, with three days rest, went 14 innings in Pittsburgh. In the second game, in which he gave up only four hits, he hit for himself leading off the top of the 13th inning, drew a walk and came around to score the first run of the game. Unfortunately, he stayed in to pitch and gave up a run in the bottom of the 13th. The Reds eventually lost 2-1 in 16.

Trying to hang on, realizing he had lost his once-impressive fastball, Ellis adopted an assortment of junk, including a knuckleball, but after struggling in 1967 he was traded to the Angels. He played one season each with the Angels and the White Sox, never regained his effectiveness, and then his major league career was over at the age of 28.

After his playing days, Ellis was a longtime major league pitching coach and later retired with his wife to Florida. He was 75 years old when he passed away.

I feel a certain kinship to the guys who are nice enough to allow me to interview them and I always feel bad when they pass away and are relegated to the one simple memorial paragraph in a news service release. These guys take a piece of baseball history with them when they go. They certainly deserve much more than one paragraph.

Sammy Ellis: So long and thanks.