Friday, October 6, 2017

The Natural: When Hollywood Meets True Literature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 18, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 7, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 2, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Classic Book Review: The Boys of Summer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Sey Hey, Thanks For the Bat Willie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 23, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Talking to Darrel Chaney: An Important Cog in the Big Red Machine

I had the good fortune recently to talk to former Cincinnati Reds player Darrel Chaney, a good baseball player and an even better person. Darrel Chaney wasn’t a household name in the 1970s—except to Reds fans who realized his importance to the team known as the Big Red Machine. 

Chaney could handle a glove at second base, third base or shortstop with equal ease. He pinchhit, pinchran and could lay down a bunt or steal a base if needed. And just as importantly he was a good guy to have around the clubhouse with his selfless attitude and sense of humor. 
A three-sport star in high school in the northwest Indiana town of Hammond, Darrel was a Parade All-American quarterback on the football field. A slight of hand master on offense, he also intercepted 27 passes in three years while moonlighting on defense. He received more than 30 college football scholarship offers but turned them all down for a whopping $8,000 bonus to sign with the Cincinnati Reds who had drafted him in the second round (33rd overall) in the 1966 draft (the Reds first pick that year went to California high school pitcher Gary Nolan). While Chaney was a standout in basketball and football, it had always been his dream to play major league baseball and he never had any second doubts about his choice.
After military obligations wiped out most of Darrel’s 1967 minor league season, he turned in a solid year for Asheville in AA while playing for an unknown manager named Sparky Anderson. Sparky had managed a few years in the low levels of the Cardinal organization and was brought to the Reds system by new general manager Bob Howsam. Playing alongside future Reds Bernie Carbo and Wayne Simpson, Chaney hit 23 home runs and Asheville finished 32 games over .500 and cruised to the Southern League pennant. “I always told Sparky, ‘if it wasn’t for me you never would have made it to the big leagues,” Chaney says.

As for Chaney, it was his handy glove that helped him make the big leagues. His showing at AA earned him some reps with the big team in the spring of 1969 and the last day of camp manager Dave Bristol called the 21-year-old into his office and delivered the news he had waited his whole life to hear: “Congratulations Darrel, you made the club.”
“I had a really good spring,” Chaney says. “But it was kind of good and bad. I was happy to make the majors, but because I was one of the only guys who could play second, third and short I kind of got labeled as a utility player right off the bat. That’s unusual for someone 21 years old.”
The early move to the majors cost Chaney the much-needed time in the minors to perfect his hitting against high-level pitching. He traveled north with the Reds in the spring of 1969 with only 776 minor league at bats under his belt. It would ultimately prove to be damaging to his career. 

In June of 1969, Chaney experienced one of those moments every kid dreams of—a ballfield close encounter with his childhood idol. “I grew up a huge Ernie Banks fan,” Darrel explains. Hammond is just south of Chicago. “I admired the way he played and the way he acted. After my 12-year-old season in Little League [1960], Ernie Banks was the guest speaker at our banquet. I can still remember the speech he gave. He told us, 'When you go to work, work hard. When you play, play hard, when you pray, pray hard. And always tell the truth so you never need to remember what you said.' After Ernie talked I got to go up and meet him and get his autograph. He signed it, ‘I’ll see you in the big leagues.’ I still have that autograph framed in a collage.

June 7, 1969 the Reds were in Chicago for Darrel’s first series at Wrigley Field as a major leaguer. Ernie Banks was playing first base for the Cubs. “I got a double early in the game and so I didn’t get to stop at first. But later I got a single. I was standing on first and suddenly I felt an arm around my shoulder. I looked up and Ernie Banks said, ‘Darrel Chaney. I knew you’d make it. Welcome to the big leagues. It’s a long way from that banquet in Hammond, Indiana isn’t it.’ There had been a personal interest story in the paper the day before and maybe Ernie had read it, but it was so great to be standing there on first base in Wrigley Field with my parents and friends in the stands, with Ernie Banks giving me a hug.”

Chaney played solidly in the field during his rookie year, splitting time at shortstop with Woody Woodward and filling in as needed in late innings around the infield. The Reds narrowly missed winning the division that year. “We had a lot of talent in 1969,” he says. “That’s the first year they started calling us the Big Red Machine.” The Reds were tied for first as late as September 11, but a rash of pitching injuries slowed them to 12-10 the rest of the way while the Braves went 14-4 and took the flag.
That was the excuse Bob Howsam needed to give Dave Bristol the axe. “I was really surprised when Dave was let go,” says Chaney. “I loved the guy. Still do. Everybody on the team liked him. He was always in there fighting--and I mean fist fights sometimes--just to back us up. You knew if you ever got in an argument with an umpire or got thrown out he was going to back you up. Comparing the two managers, I think Dave knew more baseball than Sparky. I know that’s saying a lot because Sparky won a lot of games, but Dave really knew the game inside and out. But he was from the previous regime and Howsam wanted to bring in his own man. It’s unfortunate because Dave should be remembered as the man who helped build the Big Red Machine. He had all those guys--Bench, Pete, Perez, Helms, May—all of them in the minors. He brought them along. And we were so close in ’69.”

Under Anderson, Chaney initially platooned with young Venezuelan shortstop Dave Concepcion who struggled at the plate his first few years. “I outhit him in 1972 [.250 to .209] but when we got to camp in 1973 Sparky gave him the job fulltime.” The multi-talented Concepcion had a breakout year in 1973, winning the first of what would be nine All-Star selections over the ensuing decade. 

With second base manned by future Hall of Famer Joe Morgan, Chaney found himself starved for playing time. “You get on a great team like that and it’s hard to get in the lineup," Chaney says. "Sure, I wanted to play every day, but it was great just to be a part of a team that good.” 

Fans sometimes forget that everyone with enough talent and drive to make a major league roster was a star in high school and wants to play all the time. It's difficult to accept a reduced role for the good of the team, but that's what Darrel Chaney did. Once he had a heart-to-heart talk in Sparky Anderson's office about his place on the team and his future. Sparky explained that with a future Hall of Famer at every position, there was little place for Darrel as a starter with the Reds. But he reminded him that he was still valuable for all the things he could do. "Be ready when the time comes."

"And that's what I tried to do," Chaney says. "When I got my chance, whatever was needed, I tried to contribute."

Perhaps Darrel Chaney's most valuable season as a Red came in 1973. Concepcion broke his ankle sliding into a base July 22 and was lost for the year. At the time the Reds were beginning to roll--fighting their way back from a deficit to the first-place Dodgers which had been 11 games July 1--and had drawn to within five and a half games. With Chaney playing shortstop almost every game the rest of the way the Reds went 42-21, caught the Dodgers September 3 and never looked back, cruising to a 99-win season. “That was an exciting year because the Dodgers had such a big lead. But we just played great and they didn’t and their lead slipped away. We had so much hitting on that team, all I really needed to do was just catch the ball.” 

But being a part of a team that good meant that Chaney could never coast. “I went to spring training every year for seven straight seasons playing to win a roster spot. I never could relax in the spring. It was a great time, but there was a lot of pressure. I never knew what was going to happen, if I was going to get traded or something.”
The trade came in 1976. Dave Bristol had taken over as the manager of the rebuilding Braves. It says a lot that he remembered Chaney from 1969 and wanted to bring him in to the middle of his new infield. Chaney was a starter for the Braves in 1976 and hit a solid .250. “It was good that I got a chance to start in Atlanta,” he says, “but it was hard leaving Cincinnati. I had a lot of friends on the Reds.  It was such a great city and a magical time for the team; to be able to walk down the street in Cincinnati and have people say, ‘Hey, you’re Darrel Chaney. Great job.’ I was part of arguably the greatest team in baseball history.  I sat and cried when I watched them win the Series again that fall because I wasn’t a part of it anymore.”

Chaney played four years for the Braves then hung up his cleats after an eleven-year major league career. He made the Atlanta area his home and worked briefly in broadcasting before launching a successful business career. He also was involved for years in the Major League Alumni Association and as a public speaker. Now comfortably retired in the mountains of northern Georgia, he and his wife will celebrate their 50th anniversary next year. They raised one son and now enjoy watching another baseball Chaney—a 17-year old grandson rising senior who has been noticed by college and pro scouts.
Darrel keeps busy as a motivational/inspirational speaker. Faith has played a important role in his life and he is a big believer in the importance of character in the lives of young people. In 2013 Chaney and a minister friend published a book Welcome to the Big Leagues--Every Man's journey to Significance: The Darrel Chaney Story. More than your average baseball memoir, it is an inspirational faith-based book that takes lessons from the triumphs and struggles of his career. 

Darrel learned the value of a good role model when he was young and he tries to carry on the message. He has a strong desire to help the future generation and be a good role model. "It was so great to meet my idol Ernie Banks and have him turn out to be such a nice guy. I tell kids, 'Find out about your heroes. Don't just like a guy because he's a great player. Find out what they're really like.'"
“Baseball gave me a platform. If I can use that to make an impact on someone else’s life, especially a young person, there's nothing better than that."  You can contact Darrel to speak to your group at his website:

Looking back on his baseball career, Chaney picks two moments that stand out above all the rest. The Ernie Banks episode of course is tops. “The second was riding down the street in Cincinnati in the parade after the 1975 World Series [the Reds’ first championship since 1940]. People were hanging out everywhere, paper and things were raining down on us from the buildings. Everybody loved everybody. You can’t realize what that felt like.”

Reds beat reporter Earl Lawson wrote in Sporting News that one winter in the early 1970s the Reds installed a universal weight machine in the clubhouse. After watching the trainer give the players a demonstration, Chaney asked one of the coaches, “If I do this will it help my batting average?”
“No,” came the smirking reply, “but you’ll look better while you’re sitting on the bench.”
Darrel Chaney always looked good for the Reds, both on the bench and the field. Every great team needs a Darrel Chaney, a good character guy willing to fill whatever role is needed.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Book Review: The Black Prince of Baseball: Hal Chase and the Mythology of the Game

Hal Chase is generally viewed as baseball’s all-time leading crook, a degenerate gambler and general ne’er-do-well who had a hand in every scandal in the early days of the game and was a major force in establishing the landscape that led to the Black Sox scandal of 1919. The Black Prince of Baseball: Hal Chase and the Mythology of the Game informs readers that this may not be quite a fair legacy.  Yes, he was a crook and all the rest, but maybe not so monolithic, and in his nefarious activities he definitely had company, including some of the biggest names in baseball’s Hall of Fame.

Hal Chase was drawing raves on the baseball field by his mid-teens as he played throughout California in the early part of the twentieth century. Working his way up from town teams to semipro squads, as an unenrolled ringer on a college team and finally in various professional leagues, he often played for several teams at the same time. He quickly developed a reputation for two things: flamboyant, often brilliant, play in the field and the penchant for jumping to whichever team offered him more money, regardless of previous commitments.

After being a top drawing card in the Pacific Coast League for several years, the 22-year-old Chase joined the major league New York Highlanders in 1905. Charismatic, well-spoken, and a good-timing guy in the bars of Manhattan, the much-hyped rookie quickly became a favorite of both fans and the media. By his second year he was being proclaimed as one of the best players in professional baseball.

 While he was a better-than-average hitter, the enduring legacy of Hal Chase’s play was his excellence on defense. Quick, daring, with a strong arm and great instincts, he was exceptional at taking away bunts--in an era when bunting was a major part of offenses—and acrobatic catches became routine. He was considered by many, fans and enemies alike, to be the best fielding first baseman in the first half of the twentieth century.

But there was another side to Hal Chase, one that would ultimately overshadow his playing ability. Throughout his career, he is shown having difficulty getting along with teammates and undermining managers he did not like. He had a propensity for holdouts and jumping teams; he skipped practices, missed games with mysterious illnesses and behaved generally as a clubhouse cancer. In viewing the discord around him, it was perhaps no coincidence that Chase never played on a pennant winner, despite several teams that went into the season with high hopes.  

Traded to the White Sox in 1913, he continued his habit of personally thriving in dysfunctional clubhouses. He jumped his contract the next year to join a team in the rival Federal League, winning the ensuing court case but making powerful enemies of both White Sox owner Charles Comiskey and American League President Ban Johnson, men who controlled the game and knew how to nurse a grudge. The authors insinuate that it is these two grudges more than anything else that contribute to Chase’s ultimate reputation as the worst of the worst among  baseball’s rogues.

Back in the majors in 1917, but blackballed from the American League, Chase signed with the Cincinnati Reds. It was in Cincinnati that his luck began to play out. He had always enjoyed a flamboyant lifestyle, living far above his means, as likely to swindle a friend out of a poker hand as to spring for drinks for an entire bar after he had done it. As the authors note, at 35 years old in 1918, Chase was one of the oldest regulars in either league and “Chase didn’t have to be told that his big pay days were winding down to a precious few and that he hadn’t provided for even an overcast day." 

Exactly when Chase began throwing games for gamblers is not known. As early as 1913 he was being accused of laying down in the field, however, at the time it was felt that he was doing it to cause an unpopular manager to lose his job. Chase had long ago perfected the subtle moves of short-arming throws and arriving late to the bag to make missed throws look like errors on the infielders—the hustler’s art of playing poorly while still looking good.

Considerable evidence exists that by 1917 Chase was making money on baseball skullduggery.  There was a string of suspicious losses for Cincinnati late in the season, often due to uncharacteristic errors or baserunning blunders. Hall of Fame teammate Ed Roush told an interviewer years later, “He was the best first baseman I ever saw. He was also the worst if he wanted to lose a game. . .  You could tell after an inning or two whether he was in there to win or to lose."

Another Cincinnati teammate later testified that Chase approached him on the mound one day with “I’ve got some money bet on this game. There is something in it for you if you lose."

By 1918 Chase, emboldened by meeting little resistance from baseball’s establishment, was regularly meeting with well-known gamblers around the league and also attempting to enlist teammates and opponents to throw games. Reds manager Christy Mathewson, unable to tolerate what he felt to be Chase’s open disregard for rules or the team, suspended him in August, 1918 with the official explanation of “indifferent playing.” 

The suspension and subsequent evidence of dirty play led to a highly publicized hearing in front of Baseball’s National Commission. But while Chase’s motivations were well-known to players, proving it in court was another matter when the only witnesses were other dirty players and gamblers. Chase lawyered up and beat the charges.

Although the National League President was enraged at the outcome of the hearing, the head of the commission, Reds owner Garry Herrmann did not take the news so badly. He had earlier implored the other baseball leaders that if overwhelming evidence warranted expelling Chase from the game, it should be kept private to avoid any public appearance of wrong-doing within baseball.

This feeling among the baseball powers to overlook gambling in order to protect the image of the game provides a dark undercurrent to the book. While telling the tale of Chase, the authors provide an excellent look at the rough and tumble state of major league baseball in the early days of the twentieth century. The public was fed a constant reminder that the game was beyond reproach as “a model of morally uplifting athleticism.” This squeaky-clean image is shown to be misleading, however, as unscrupulous egomaniacal owners fought savage power struggles with league officials, routinely pillaged other franchises and exploited players bound by the reserve clause. Meanwhile ruffian players and managers showed little regard for rules and gamblers openly plied their trade in box seats. In short, there was little morally uplifting about the game, on or off the field.

The authors show baseball of the time to be a game thoroughly entwined with gambling. Owners and players alike routinely enjoyed gambling over high stakes poker tables, in pool halls, casinos, racetracks, and on baseball games, and often they were business associates of well-known gamblers and bookies. In fact, betting on baseball games by baseball players and managers was not even expressly prohibited until an edict by the National League president in early 1919.

Major league baseball in New York particularly was lousy with gamblers and racketeers. The Highlanders owners were Frank Farrell, well-known as one of the biggest gamblers on the East Coast and Bill Devery, a Tammany Hall crony who had amassed his fortune as one of the most corrupt Police commissioners in the city’s history. New York Giants czar John McGraw and a professional gambler co-owned a popular Manhattan pool hall which was frequented by many prominent bookies and lowlifes, including the notorious Arnold Rothstein. This was business as usual within the game of baseball at the time and no one thought twice about it, except maybe to double check the odds of the next day’s games before laying down their money.

There was no true will among owners to seriously combat gambling, in part because most agreed that gambling was good for the turnstile. “Betting had been so grafted onto the roots of baseball that there was little certainty in the sport’s boardroom that it [cracking down on gambling] was bad for business.” Even crookedness among players of the time was tolerated as long as it didn’t become too public, less fans at large perceive a gambling problem and lose confidence in the effort of the teams (and stop spending money to watch them). Although there were numerous complaints of throwing games, no player was ever sanctioned as the cases were quietly settled.

Of the whitewashing efforts of the owners, the authors write, “If Herrmann, Johnson and the National League President of the moment [members of the ruling commission] were not out and out crooks, they were sitting on a library of suppressed reports identifying who was.” The authors imply that the keepers of the game were as culpable as the gamblers and the crooked players in the growing corruption of the game. “If the stink in the air wasn’t that of institutional immorality, it was of the closest thing to it—random morality. Executives of both leagues acted satisfied with the sliver of difference.”

Assisting in the public whitewash were the writers who were indebted to baseball owners for their very livelihood. They went to great lengths to perpetuate the myth that all was wholesome and clean within the professional game. The authors state, “The subject of gambling in baseball brought out the worst intellectual contortions . . . Albert Spalding had made it abundantly clear that it [baseball] was an uniquely American enterprise . . . this seemed to call for a patriotic protectiveness in which only clear thinking stood as a scoundrel.”

And so it was in this environment of casual rubbing elbows with gamblers and tacit acceptance by owners that men like Chase saw the opportunity to improve their meager pay.

After he was exonerated by the National Commission, Chase played one more year, joining McGraw’s 1919 Giants. In the period following the Black Sox scandal, in which he was widely reported to be somehow involved without any evidence, the 38-year-old Chase became a pariah. He continued to play baseball for another decade, however, blackballed by organized baseball but making his way through the outlaw leagues of California, Arizona and Mexico. While plying his trade for peanuts in dusty towns, Chase was unable to outrun his reputation even though he had never formally banned by Baseball Commissioner Landis. Broken down, unable to make a living with anything other than a baseball glove or a pool cue, Chase eventually played out his days in sad obscurity as an alcoholic, frequently dependent on his sister.

The book is exhaustingly researched and provides great history. It flows smoothly in chronological order and is well-written in the academic style, but it is not for light readers. At times it is a slow read, especially during his offseason California ballfield exploits. Baseball historians will find this an excellent addition to their knowledge on the early game and the general topic of gambling in baseball.

The authors are neither apologists nor crucifiers, but present a fact-filled portrait of a flawed man. The question of Hal Chase is not an easy one to answer and should not be undertaken flippantly. He was a man with gifted hands, equally adept at palming cards, hustling pool and digging errant throws out of the dirt. He was an unrepentant womanizer, an uncaring absent father, a philandering husband, a gambler and at times seemed completely selfish and amoral. But perhaps no more so on any of these charges than many other ballplayers, some of whom reside permanently in baseball’s Hall of Fame.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Ten Things You May Have Forgotten About Babe Ruth and Why He's Still the Best

I can clearly remember the first time I heard about Babe Ruth; remember it just like it was yesterday.

I was three years old; or maybe four; could have been five. My father sat me down and showed me an article in a sports magazine that had just arrived in the mail. I think it was Sports Illustrated; might have been Sport. He showed me pictures of the famous Bambino and told me all the stories: how he had been a pitcher and then switched to the outfield because he was such a great hitter, how he hit more home runs than anyone ever had or ever would; and, most of all, how he had called his shot in the World Series. I was hooked, forever convinced that there has never been, nor will there ever be, a baseball player comparable to the Babe. I remember it just like it was yesterday.

Or maybe the day before yesterday.

Most baseball fans of a certain generation have a similar story in their memory banks, sort of a sports coming-of-age moment, when they first learned of the mighty deeds of Babe Ruth. Thereafter, we tend to feel that we know everything there is to know about him. The problem is that, like my own recall, sometimes we forget a few of the details.

I am always amused when people try to come up with excuses for why someone other than Babe Ruth may be baseball's all-time greatest player. I think the feeling of complete knowledge in the face of a faulty memory contributes to this. To me, it's a worthless intellectual exercise to even consider that anyone else is superior. There really is no discussion. No one else is even close. As a player or as a personality, the Babe was just that much better. It's unfortunate, however, that the newer generation may occasionally believe impostors with their fancy statistics and new-age reasoning.

I have always felt that any statistical analysis that doesn't start with Babe Ruth being the greatest is, by definition, seriously and fatally flawed and worth about as much as the romper the guy was probably wearing at the time he came up with it.

Here are a few reasons why I love Babe Ruth and things about him you probably know, but may have forgotten:

1) The Babe was a man totally without pretense or guile. He made no attempt to portray himself as anything other than what he was. Sure, his legend was partly the creation of a very astute business manager who was decades ahead of his time in the marketing business, and the Babe may have had a few habits that might be looked down upon in certain quarters of civilized society, but he was essentially a true character. He rarely tried to hide his habits or apologize for them. We were never forced to witness the Babe visibly shrinking in front of a jury or Congress, groveling and mumbling lame excuses, not-talking-about-the-past, wagging his finger in arrogant mockery of his accusers, suddenly forgetting how to speak English, or defiantly lying about his actions to save his miserable butt. I believe, given similar circumstances, the Babe probably would have borrowed a line from Popeye and asserted, "I yam what I yam." And the public would have understood.

2) He never tried to impress people who he thought were important and he never resorted to namedropping to try to impress anyone else. Everyone was the same in the Babe's eyes--a "kid" or a "dame," he treated them all the same. When he met the top man in the free world, the Babe confidently looked him right in the eye and said, "Hot as hell ain't it Prez."

Once, he was invited to attend a Gatsbian party at a swanky place in Manhatten. The next day he told pitcher Waite Hoyt how much fun he had at the party, with "guys with green vests and plaid vests and tails on their coats," serving an endless supply of champagne and of jumping and splashing in the huge fountain.

"Where was this?" Hoyt asked finally.

Somewhere in the city--the Babe wasn't exactly certain where--but "there was a dame named Mrs. Vanderbilt" who was the hostess. The "dame" named Vanderbilt was New York City's leading socialite and the site of the party had been her famous mansion at 58th Street and 5th Avenue--at the time called the grandest mansion in the city, know to everyone in America. Everyone, that is, except the Babe.

3) The Babe didn't worry about politically correct niceties. Not that he had any malice, he just didn't think about it. Once while helping New Yorker Al Smith stump for the Presidency, the Babe was speaking on a radio show with teammate Tony Lazzeri, who was of Italian heritage. "Tell me Tony," Babe said into the microphone, "who are the wops going to vote for this year."

4) He wasn't just a pitcher before he switched to the outfield, he was a great pitcher who could lay legitimate claim to the best lefthander of his era. People forget just how great a pitcher the Babe was. Consider:

He never had a losing season as a pitcher.

His lifetime ERA was 2.28. That puts him 17th on the all-time list (of pitchers with more than 1000 innings pitched).

He had a lifetime record of 94-46. That's a .671 winning percentage--which places him 11th on the all-time list.

He topped 300 innings pitched in a season twice (for pitch-count fanatics, he threw 323 in 1916 as a 21-year-old).

From 1915 to 1918 he put together a four-year run that rivals Sandy Koufax at his best, and Babe was much younger. When he was 23 years old, he already owned a career record of 80-41 with a 2.09 ERA.

He threw nine shutouts in 1916--a league record for lefties that was unmatched until Ron Guidry threw nine in 1978.

His 14-inning victory in Game 2 of the 1916  World Series for Boston remains the longest single-game effort by a pitcher in World Series history. With modern bullpens and pitch counts, that's one that will most likely never be broken.

The Babe had a run of 29 scoreless innings pitched in World Series play, a record that stood for 42       years, until broken by Whitey Ford.

He was 3-0 with a 0.82 ERA in 3 World Series starts.

Had Babe Ruth finished his career as a pitcher, he would have made the Hall of Fame at that position. He was one of the best pitchers during an era of pitching domination and then became the best hitter during an era of hitting domination. The only comparison for modern fans to comprehend would be if Clayton Kershaw decided next year that he was going to play outfield. To make the comparison correct though we would have to pretend that Kershaw had pitched in the postseason like he has in the regular season, which has not happened. And, oh yeah, Kershaw would need to hit 45 home runs--each year for the next 15 years.

5) Babe Ruth was not a slow fat guy for most of his career. In the 1921 World Series, he stole second and third base in the same inning. He stole as many as 17 bases in a season twice and had 123 for his career. He hit double digit triples four times and had 136 for his career. That's a lot of running, not just trotting, around the bases.

6) He did not use a diet of hot dogs, beer and women to stay healthy. Although he did more than his share of damage with all three, he was actually one of the first professional athletes to have a personal trainer. After his disastrous 1925 season, marked by the "bellyache" heard 'round the world, he hooked up with a former boxer who had a sort of gym for the stars in New York. Thereafter Babe worked out regularly during the winter months for the rest of his career and even took some dietary advice. This more than anything resulted in his remarkable performance into his late 30s which was decidedly unusual in that era.

7) The Babe holds up well to nerds. Babe was tops in Moneyball stats decades before Billy Beane was even a glimmer in the eye of Brad Pitt. He is baseball's all-time leader in OPS, on-base percentage plus slugging, and just in case you think he was artificially aided by his ballpark or the times he is the leader in OPS+ which accounts for that sort of thing.

WAR, wins above replacement, is the current stat de jour among the intelligentsia. A seasonal WAR of 10.0 or better is considered superlative and has been bettered just 56 times in recorded history. Babe Ruth did it nine of those times. He has the top two WAR seasons in baseball history with a 14.0 in 1923 and 12.9 in 1921, is tied for the third highest, occupies six of the top 12 spots and has the highest career WAR. However, rather than justify the Babe, these facts, in my mind, only justifiy OPS, OPS+ and WAR as valid measures of greatness (see above).

8) Babe didn't just usher in an era of home runs, or thrive in an era when everyone was hitting them, capitalizing on a new rabbit ball and small parks--he completely revolutionized the game and dominated all his peers. In 1920 he homered more than every team except two. While some of his run, RBI and batting average totals were certainly influenced by playing in the batting average-happy 1920s, the home run totals are a different matter.

A good measure of how much above the norm a player was is to compare him to other players of the time, who played with the same ball and in the same parks. In the history of baseball, a hitter getting more than 10 % of the entire league's total of home runs has been accomplished ten times. Gavvy Cravath of the Philadelphia Phillies did it in 1915 when he hit 24 of the National League's 225 (10.7%). Babe Ruth did it the other nine times, beginning in 1918 when he hit 11 of the leagues's 97 home runs (11.3%) while playing in only 95 games, 20 of them as a pitcher (13-7). As he led the league in home runs in 12 of the next 14 years, Babe had seasons such as 1920 when he hit 54 of the league's 370 homers (14.6%). For comparison, when Barry Bonds hit 73 in 2001, the National League had 2952. This gave Bonds 2.4 %. To equal 10%, Bonds would have needed to hit 296. Since there were 16 teams in Bonds' league in 2001, compared to 8 in 1920, without breaking out the slide rule we can say that, allowing for the extra teams, Bonds would have still needed to hit about 150 to have a comparable slice of the league's total. Still a pretty big task.

9) Contrary to his occasional remark to the press that "I always swing hard just in case I make contact," Babe was far from the modern home run-or-strike out guy. While he did strikeout more than was the norm for his time, it was not dramatically so--and nowhere close to the drastic difference in his home run total and the rest of baseball. He never struck out more than 100 times in any season. His most was 93 in 1923. In 1931, as an old man, he struck out a mere 51 times in 534 at bats, less than one in ten. He did lead the league in strikeouts five times, but the record when he started was 120 and 100 had been topped eight times by 1918. When he led the league in 1927 with 89, Lou Gehrig was a close second with 84. Babe currently ranks 121st on the all-time strike out list, just behind Dean Palmer, Gorman Thomas and Ellis Burks.

10) Babe knew how to rise to the occasion.  In addition to his early pitching heroics, on the offensive side, he twice hit three home runs in one World Series game. While the 3 home runs have been matched now 3 times, no one has ever come close to doing it twice.

He played in ten World Series, won seven. During those Series he hit 15 home runs in 129 at bats and had a lifetime Series batting average of .326. The average should be viewed with the knowledge that he was 1-for-11 in his first three World Series with Boston when he was a pitcher.

Boston had been in three World Series in the Babe's first four years and never won another pennant for 86 years. The Yankees had never won a pennant in their existence, but won seven in 12 years after getting Babe.

He hit the first home run in Yankee Stadium, the house that he built of course, and the first home run in the first All-Star game.

Perhaps the best way to explain Babe Ruth to modern fans is to say that he was "the Babe Ruth of baseball." Nothing more needs to be said.