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.