Review: Strength for the Fight

Strength for the Fight (Library of Religious Biography), Gary Scott Smith. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2022.

Summary: A biography on this pioneer Hall of Famer who desegregated Major League Baseball, devoted his post-playing years to civil rights activism, all sustained by his active faith.

As a lifelong baseball fan, this is not the first Jackie Robinson biography I’ve read. The one I read when I was a young fan focused on his exploits on the field, his courage and restraint in breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball, and how his play contributed to several pennants and a World Series victory. As this book makes clear, Robinson not only needed to be both courageous and self-controlled to face racist treatment, he needed to be good–and he was. He was fast and daring on the base paths, a great fielder, and could deliver hits and bunts in clutch situations. He was a great all-round ballplayer deserving of Hall of Fame status simply on those merits.

This book added to the portrait of Robinson in several ways. Most importantly, it reveals him as a man of deep faith, who like Augustine had a godly mother and his own Ambrose in the form of a Methodist pastor, Karl Downs, who rescued him from gang life in Pasadena. Later, as he faces intense pressure and vitriol, he testifies, “Many nights I get down on my knees and pray for the strength not to fight back.” This and the support of his wife Rachel made all the difference for a proud man whose natural instinct was to fight back. Yet Smith also shows how Rachel went beyond standing by Robinson to pursue her own career as a nurse-therapist and professor.

Gary Scott Smith also fleshes out the vital role Branch Rickey played in Robinson’s life. Smith goes into the Methodist faith the two men shared, a critical factor in Rickey deciding to sign Robinson. Rickey was both a deeply religious man in Smith’s account and a sharp (and parsimonious) baseball entrepreneur. It was Rickey’s counsel he followed in not fighting back against spiking, knockdown pitches, and crude racial insults. When Rickey died in 1965 he said of Rickey: “He talked with me and treated me like a son.” The treatment of Rickey is so interesting that I would love to see Smith follow up this book with a full length biography on Rickey, perhaps as part of this Library of Religious Biography series.

What also distinguishes this book is the account it gives of Robinson’s post-baseball career as a tireless activist for civil rights through newspaper columns that did not hesitate to criticize presidents of either party, through public addresses including messages in hundreds of churches, marching on the front lines in places like Selma. At the same time, Robinson was not a “movement activist.” While honored by the NAACP with its Spingarn award, he did not hesitate to differ with others like Paul Robeson over communism or Dr. King over Vietnam. Some accused him of being an “Uncle Tom” for his relationship with Nelson Rockefeller, motivated by both political and business considerations, and his support in 1960 for Richard Nixon.

Vietnam would contribute to tragedy in Robinson’s life. His son Jackie, Jr. returned with addiction problems but the book makes clear the strains on the father-son relationship between the two. Sadly, just as Jackie, Jr. started to get his life on track as well as his relationship with his father, he died in an auto accident, just a year before Jackson himself passed.

That leads to my one question about this book, that the author doesn’t discuss how such a fine athlete as Robinson died at age 53, just sixteen years after retirement, suffering from diabetes, heart disease, and nearly blind. Others have discussed the disparate impacts of racism on health and the effects of his repressed anger and racial traumas on his health. Pictures of Robinson show him with hair turning white in his last playing years. Robinson bore on his body in many ways, externally and internally, the trauma of racism, and perhaps this might have been further developed in this work.

Smith portrays Robinson’s faith as “muscular,” and apart from those bedside prayers concerned more about moral and social uplift of his people, expressed in his tireless work. Even in his last years, with failing health, he was grateful for God’s blessings. Yet, he was infrequent in church attendance, and Smith notes the evidence of extra-marital affairs. After his first two years, he was more aggressive in defending himself on the field, having fulfilled his agreement with Rickey. Yet there is a thread running through the course of his life, shown by Smith of a faith that sustained and strengthened Robinson. What resulted was some of the most significant civil rights leadership in the twentieth century delivered in the form of a stellar athlete (no one since has stolen home more than the 19 times he did this) and a courageous champion. His faith, courage, and perseverance are worth emulation.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: Five Seasons

Five Seasons: A Baseball Companion, Roger Angell. New York: Open Road, 2013 (First published in 1977).

Summary: Roger Angell essays covering the seasons of 1972 to 1976 that arguably transformed baseball into the sport it is today.

I’ve been discovering the marvelous baseball writing of the recently deceased Roger Angell, one of the great baseball writers. This book includes essays from the seasons of 1972 to 1976, my college years. One of the marvels of this collection was simply to relive in the reading the historic seven-game series between the Cincinnati Reds and the Boston Red Sox in 1975. It was the era of the Big Red Machine, Yaz, Carlton Fisk, Fred Lynn, and Luis Tiant with the Red Sox (the latter yet another great player traded away by the Indians!).

Along the way, he reminded me of the Oakland A’s championship teams united by their love of winning and their shared resentments of Charlie Finley, the brilliant and flawed club owner. By contrast, Angell recounts an afternoon watching the Giants in the twilight years of Horace Stoneham’s ownership, a gracious host.

We read of the final games of Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, as well as the years of Nolan Ryan’s greatness. He also writes of Steve Blass, who threw an amazing World Series game with the Pirates, and in subsequent years lost his control. He could pitch well in practice, his arm was sound, but he could not get his head sorted out. And finally he hung it up.

He takes us behind the scenes, at spring training games, the rebuilding of both Yankee Stadium and the Yankee team and Walter Alston’s brief playing career and the end of his managerial leadership of the Dodgers. We learn about the reserve clause that bound players to their teams, the fight to gain free agency, the owners lockout, and subsequent agreement that changed baseball as players won larger salaries and became more mobile. Angell tells the other side, about how many players want to remain in a community and hated trades.

One of the “behind-the-scenes” accounts in the book was Angell’s trip with Ray Scarborough, an Angel’s scout as he evaluated players. We learn what scouts looked for in pitchers (body, mechanics, and a good fastball with control) and hitters (good contact, whether they got hits or not) and the fraternity among them even though they scouted for rival clubs. It all came down to the draft and who chose who.

It was a time of change with the corporatization of the game, artificial turf, a changing of the guard of stars, and the power struggle between the Players Association and owners. But so much of this book just revels in the game, the ups and downs of each season, rain delays, and the quirks of each ball park, the contenders, the playoffs and the World Series. Angell reminded me of games I’d seen and players I remembered: Willie Stargell and Roberto Clemente, Vida Blue and Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson and Johnny Bench and Pete Rose (alias Charley Hustle).

For the young fan, the book tells us something of how we got to the present. For older fans, it is a time to remember. For all of us, Angell’s descriptions invite us to a special kind of fantasy baseball, reliving in our minds real games and personalities of the past.

Review: The Summer Game

The Summer Game, Roger Angell. New York: Open Road Media, 2013 (originally published in 1972).

Summary: A collection of Angell’s essays covering the ten seasons of Major League Baseball from 1962 to 1971.

This year we lost Roger Angell, the long time writer for The New Yorker, at the ripe old age of 101. He was a shaping force at the magazine as well as being considered by some, “The Poet Laureate of baseball.” I knew of Angell’s writing, but it was not until now that I discovered why he was so esteemed. Quite simply, he gave words to what any of us who love the game feel about its attraction. The final essay of this book, “The Interior Stadium” gets as close as anything I’ve read to describing the game’s mystique:

“Form is the imposition of a regular pattern upon varying and unpredictable circumstances, but the patterns of baseball, for all the game’s tautness and neatness, are never regular. Who can predict the winner and shape of today’s game? Will it be a brisk, neat two-hour shutout? A languid, error-filled 13-2 laugher, A riveting three hour, fourteen-inning deadlock? What other sport produces these manic swings?”

The Summer Game collects articles Angell wrote for The New Yorker from 1962 to 1971, which is quite wonderful because this was the time when I most avidly followed the name, reading The Sporting News and watching every World Series game I could (when I was not in school). He begins with spring training at the camp of the New York Mets, who were destined to become New York’s lovable losers until late in the decade, when they became champions. He describes games at the old Polo Grounds before Shea Stadium was built and the “Go” shouters.

He traces the championship teams of the sixties and especially the World Series matchups between them: the Yankees and the Dodgers, the Giants, the Cardinals, the Red Sox, the Twins, the Mets, the Reds, the Orioles, and the Pirates. There are all the stars I grew up with–Mays, Maris, and Mantle, Koufax and Gibson and the generation that followed, Yastrzemski, Rose and Perez, Clemente and Stargell.

As the players changed, so did the stadiums. Angell describes the demise of the old box-like stadiums with seats close to the game for the bigger stadiums in the round, used for multiple sports in many cases but with fans much more distant. It is ironic that most of these stadiums that were “new” when Angell wrote have since been demolished in favor of parks much more like the old fields with modern amenities. Even the shiny new Astrodome, although still preserved, no longer serves as a baseball venue.

The heart of the book is Angell’s accounts of the World Series games of each year. He brings back memories of the dominating performances of Koufax and Drysdale, and of Bob Gibson, who broke the hearts of Boston fans in his showdown with Jim Lonborg. Gibson, pitching his third game of the series was dead tired but hung on to win 7-2. Likewise, he reminds me of the hopes fulfilled when the Pirates in nearby Pittsburgh overcame the dominating Orioles of Earl Weaver to win the 1971 World Series. Some have criticized his inning by inning, sometimes play-by-play approach, but for me, it was a walk back in time, a reminder of great baseball of the past. He fills in the detail and drama of those games long tucked away in the recesses of memory.

He describes a game in transition as leagues expanded, playoffs were introduced and old stars faded as new names like Vida Blue, Catfish Hunter, and Reggie Jackson came on the scene, as TV revenues grew and with them, salaries, and new stadiums. And yet, it is the same summer game, played on a diamond, between baselines, nine players in the lineup on each side, fans in the seats behind first or third, filling out scorecards, rooting for the home team, vicariously sharing in the glory of the game.

Thank you Roger Angell! One can only hope there will be baseball in heaven so that Roger Angell can write about it.

Review: When Women Played Hardball

When Women Played Hardball, Susan E. Johnson. Seattle: Seal Press, 1994.

Summary: The story of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, a professional league of women playing hardball from 1943 to 1954 told through a game-by-game summary of the 1950 championship, stories about the league, and player narratives.

Women playing hardball at a professional level? Unheard of today, but a reality during the post-war years of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. You may remember hearing about this when the movie A League of Their Own came out back in 1992. The movie was a fictionalized account based on the league.

The league was the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which operated for twelve seasons from 1943 to 1954. The league began as a fast pitch softball league for the first few years, then transitioned to a hardball game, pitched overhand and with field dimensions closer to the men’s game. The league was the brainchild of Philip K. Wrigley, of the Chicago Cubs to fill the gap that World War 2 created as men entered the service. At its peak, the league consisted of eight teams in medium sized Midwestern cities. Originally, players were recruited in pools, then assigned to teams to create parity, making for a more competitive league. After 1950, management shifted from league management to team management, a move that contributed to the decline of the league. Altogether, roughly 600 women played on these teams.

One of the teams was the Rockford Peaches, who won a number of championships in the league’s early years under Manager Bill Allington. The author, Susan E. Johnson was ten years old in 1950 and idolized the players, avidly following that year’s championship series. In 1994 she turned those memories, accounts of that series, interviews of the players in later life, and discussion of various aspects of the experience of the women who played in this league.

The book is structured around the seven games of the series against the Fort Wayne Daisies. The Peaches had home field advantage. Each chapter has a game account, a player narrative, and discussion of some aspect of league life.

I would say that the game descriptions actually were the least interesting part of the book, although the series went to seven games. The stories of the players and discussions of league life elaborated a theme of a league where the players “looked like girls and played like men.” In the early years, new players went through charm school, wore skirts in public, could not cut their hair short, and sported uniforms that were one-piece tunic dresses with a skirt above the knees and shorts underneath, which could result in painful “strawberries” on the thighs from sliding into bases. Many of the women grew up as tomboys, playing with brothers and other boys, and in some places, in organized fast-pitch softball leagues. Woman after woman talked about plays they’d pulled off offensively or defensively, plays that reflect a high level of play. Not all were so fortunate, but those who played for Allington and several others, played for managers who really were dedicated to teaching the finer points of the game.

We also learn about life off the field. Chaperones both maintained discipline and were friends to the women. Some of the women were still in their teens when they started playing, and maintaining trust with parents was an important issue. Wrigley made to league worth it to the women. Earnings were between $45 and $85 a week for players, far more than they could earn in most jobs.

When the league ended in 1954 many of the women continued to find ways to compete. A touring team by Allington lasted a few years. Surprisingly, less than half married, unusual at a time when over 90 percent of women married. Some lived singly, some were in lesbian partnerships. Friends kept up with each other, and a newsletter and reunions and exhibition games began in the 1980’s. In 1988 the National Baseball Hall of Fame established an exhibit remembering women in baseball, including a ceremony many of the players attended, and described as one of their proudest moments–a recognition of the high level of competitive play their league had achieved. Then, the 1992 movie made them celebrities, something not altogether welcome for some.

I wish I could have seen these women play. They proved what women were capable of. Some baseball pros said that some could have played with the men and a few had invitations to do so. Sadly, there is no such league today, although this league helped make the case for women in sports. Baseball is a game that can be enjoyed no matter who is playing it. The physics of a curve ball is the same. A good drag bunt is the same no matter who is holding the bat. What it takes to execute a good double play or hit and run play does not vary by gender. In many sports, the level of team play is higher among women than in male leagues where individual superstars may dominate. That is what made this book a delight to read. It not only told the stories of some of the amazing women who made up this league, it celebrated the game–the joy of playing it well, and the joy of or reading of well-played games, no matter the gender of the players. And these women came to play!

[You can read more about The All-American Professional Baseball League at their website, including player search, league and team history, statistics, articles, and reunions]

Review: The Big Fella

the big fella

The Big FellaJane Leavy. New York: HarperCollins, 2018.

Summary: A biography of Babe Ruth, with the narrative of his life connected with a day by day account of a barnstorming tour of the country after his home run record-breaking 1927 season.

He was big in so many ways. He could probably have been a Hall of Fame pitcher. He not only held one season and lifetime home run records for decades, but his day in, day out hitting and slugging percentages and many other statistics place him at the very top of all time hitters. He was physically big, in height and girth, in hands. He not only hit a lot of home runs, but hit with a much heavier bat than most players used, and with a swing studied for its efficiency. He had huge appetites, for food, for women, for clothes, for adulation. He not only negotiated record salaries (and Leavy suggests he could have received more) but earned record amounts on appearances and endorsements.

Leavy tells this whole story from the loveless marriage of his parents that ended in divorce, with George, Jr. at St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys, and later St. James home, where he met Brother Matthias, who was probably the closest thing he really had to a father, and who taught him baseball. It is even thought that Babe modeled his swing on Brother Matthias. Leavy traces his career from the minors, his time in Boston and transformation from a pitcher to a hitter who played every day, his trade to New York.

She shows us a Ruth who tried to have a different life in his first marriage to Helen, yet whose appetites led to carousing and many women, and an increasingly distant relationship with Helen, who spent more and more time hospitalized or as an invalid, while Babe developed an extra-marital relationship with Claire who he married after Helen’s death.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the book was the role Christy Walsh played in making Ruth “big.” Long before agents became commonplace, Walsh worked tirelessly with Ruth to get him to amend his ways enough to stay out of trouble, play the game, endorse products, and make a fortune on post-season appearances. Walsh was the one who understood, in a way Ruth never quite grasped, how much Ruth was worth to the Yankees, and the limited time he had to capitalize on it.

Ruth, having not found love in his family, seems to never have been content with a family. He tried to keep playing when his body no longer could sustain it. Traded by the Yankees back to Boston, he hoped to manage a team, but was never given a chance. He got involved in a movie project that produced an inferior “B” movie. Then the cancer came. Ruth’s last years were hard and the “big fella” was reduced to 150 pounds by his tottering farewell appearance at an Old-Timers game at Yankee Stadium. A few months later, he was dead.

Leavy uses the device of a 21 day barnstorming tour across the country with Lou Gehrig following his 1927 season, the peak of his career. Each chapter covers one day of the tour and advances Leavy’s narrative of his life. The tour captures in miniature the story of his life from the game to the crowds including the kids, the after hours, and the adulation.

This was the one aspect of the book about which I was ambivalent. It captured an aspect of Babe’s life often overlooked in the accounts. But it also seemed distracting and one had to pay attention to when Leavy was writing about the tour, or moving forward the larger narrative of his life. It was an interesting device, but I’m not sure it worked for me.

However, Leavy gives us a portrait of both the power and pathos that were part of the Babe’s story. She helped me realize how extensive his accomplishments were long before today’s technology enhanced game, and how his presence changed the game. Christy Walsh anticipated the role agents would have in looking out for players’ interests, changing a game where the owners held all the power. It also raises the fascinating question of whether any of this would happen without the mentoring of Brother Matthias. One thing was sure. Ruth never forgot. And perhaps neither should we.

Review: Ultimate Cleveland Indians Time Machine Book

The Ultimate Cleveland

Ultimate Cleveland Indians Time Machine Book, Martin Gitlin. Lanham, MD: Lyons Press, 2019.

Summary: A collection of stories about baseball in Cleveland chronicling the up and down and strange history of the Indians (and their predecessor, the Spiders).

In 2016, my dream World Series happened. I had always wanted to see the Cleveland Indians play the Chicago Cubs. I was convinced that one of these star-crossed teams would have to win. Sadly, it wasn’t the Indians I had rooted for since childhood, even though they pulled out to a 3-1 lead and were on the edge of winning in the seventh game. This has been the life of an Indians fan. Now there is a book that collects all the strange stories of this franchise, a walk down memory lane for many of us, and a way for others to understand the unique pain of being a Tribe fan.

In twenty-seven short, witty, and engaging chapters, Martin Gitlin tells the story of the high and low points of the franchise. We actually begin with the baseball team before the Indians, the Cleveland Spiders. For those of us who suffered the years of 100 loss teams and the race to the bottom, this team was even worse, chalking up a 20-134 season, the worst ever in major league baseball.

There are high points. The amazing pitching of Bob Feller. The Lou Boudreau-led teams including the 1948 World Series champions, the last time the franchise won a World Series. The Indians were the American League pathbreakers in knocking down racial barriers with Larry Doby on the playing field, and Frank Robinson as the first black manager in baseball. In 2017, they had the longest winning streak at 22 games since the New York Giants won 26 in 1916, propelling the Indians to a 100+ win season.

There are the heartbreaks. The meteoric career of Addie Joss that ended when he died of tubercular meningitis in 1911. The rise and fall of Herb Score, hit in the eye with a line drive never to be the same (although he became a consummate announcer of Indians games). The trade of popular Rocky Colavito and the “curse of Colavito” that followed. Thirty years of mediocre teams from the Sixties to through the Eighties. “Sudden Sam” McDowell who never realized his potential due to alcoholism, Tony Horton who broke down under the pressure to excel and had to leave baseball, and one-season wonder Joe Charbonneau. Saddest perhaps were the off-season deaths of Indians Steve Olin and Tim Crews from a freak boating accident in 1993.

And then there is the weird. The Cleveland Crybabies of 1940. Ten-cent beer night in 1974, and the riot that followed. Albert Belle’s corked bat and the shenanigans that surrounded it. The invasion of the midges against the Yankees. The demise of Chief Wahoo, the politically incorrect logo beloved by generations of Indians fans.

All this and more is captured by Gitlin in words and photographs. It brought back memories of seeing many of the players, living through the seasons of hope and disappointment, and yet never in a heavy-hearted fashion. It was a great read on the treadmill, would make a great gift to the Indians fan in your life, or to anyone who loves America’s pastime. And if your team is suffering through a mediocre season, this book will help you say with generations of Indians fans, “there’s always next year.”


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review e-galley of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — John D. “Bonesetter” Reese


John D. “Bonesetter” Reese. Public Domain

When I wrote about the Welsh in Youngstown last week and the Welsh Congregational Church, someone asked me about “Bonesetter” Reese. I had to tell the truth that I had never heard of him. It turns out that he may win the award of the most famous Welshman to have a Youngstown connection. More remarkable, he treated everyone from mill workers to athletes to a British Prime Minister yet he dropped out of medical school after only three weeks. He was known as the nation’s “baseball doctor.” He would never be able to do what he did today. And there is evidence that the medical profession at the time wasn’t too happy about him.

He was born in 1855 in Rhymney, Wales, losing his father in infancy and his mother ten years later. He went to work in the ironworks and was befriended by a fellow worker, Tom Jones who was known as a “bonesetter.” The term had to do with manipulating bones and muscles to alleviate various strains of muscles and tendons, and maybe some dislocations, but not actual broken bones. His work sounds akin to a contemporary chiropractor.

He moved to the United States in 1887, working first for Jones & Laughlin Steel. Later, he moved to Youngstown, working for Brown-Bonnell and then for the Mahoning Valley Iron Company as a roller, a skilled position. His other skills soon became evident as he treated fellow-workers suffering various strains and sprains. James Anson Campbell, at that time an administrator, and later Chairman of Youngstown Sheet and Tube, encouraged him to go to medical school.

By 1894, he had so many “patients,” he had to quit his work at the mill. This attracted the notice of local doctors who accused him of practicing medicine without a license. As a result, he did not charge a set fee for his services, which would violate law. He told factory workers “pay me when you get it.” To address the criticism, he went to the medical school at Case in 1897–for three weeks before dropping out. It didn’t hinder his practice and eventually, the tensions were alleviated, both because of influential friends, and strict boundaries of what he would treat, referring acute illnesses to physicians. Eventually the Ohio Legislature, by extraordinary action, licensed his practice.

His initial connection with Major League Baseball came through treating Jimmy McAleer, a fellow Youngstowner who played for the Cleveland Spiders. Eventually, McAleer managed the St. Louis Browns and sent players to Reese. In 1903, the Pirates tried to hire him as team doctor but he refused to leave Youngstown and his practice with the mill workers who were always his first priority.

He became skilled in treating players and many came to him including some of the most famous of the time including Cy Young, Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, Walter Johnson, and John McGraw. He dealt with sore elbows, often the affliction of fastball pitchers, and sore shoulders, the affliction of curve ball pitchers. He also treated boxers and football players. Other famous people sought his services including Will Rogers, Teddy Roosevelt, Charles Evans Hughes and fellow Welshman David Lloyd George, who eventually served as Great Britain’s Prime Minister.

His obituary in The New York Times tells this story of some of the wonders he worked:

“One of Mr. Reese’s most remarkable cures was worked on the throwing arm of Glenn Wright, Brooklyn shortstop. The limb was injured in a basketball game in the off-season and in the middle of the 1929 National League campaign Wright quit the game, apparently ‘through.’ Reese worked on the arm that Autumn, and in the Spring of 1930 the brilliant infielder came back with a wing that cut down baserunners with rifle-like throws from all angles of the short field.”

In 1926, the American branch of the Welsh Gorsedd selected Reese for its highest honor, the Druidic degree, recognizing his service to humanity. The degree was awarded during an Eisteddfod at Wick Park.

He died of heart disease on November 29, 1931 in Youngstown. His funeral service was held at the Welsh Congregational Church. His minister summed up his life in these terms:

“He began to serve early in his life and kept on. He was faithful to the end. The only life worth living is the life of service”

Reese called Youngstown home for forty years and chose to stay and serve local residents as well as the illustrious who sought his treatment. His remains rest to this day, along with those of his wife, Sarah, at Oak Hill Cemetery.


Howard C. Aley, A Heritage to Share: The Bicentennial History of Youngstown and Mahoning County (Youngstown: The Bicentennial Commission of Youngstown and Mahoning County, Ohio, 1975), pp. 236-237.

David W. Anderson, “Bonesetter Reese” Society for American Baseball Research.

John D. Reese,” Wikipedia.

BONESETTER REESE DIES AT AGE OF 76,” The New York Times, November 30, 1931, p. 17.

Review: The Cloudbuster Nine

Cloudbuster 9

The Cloudbuster Nine, Anne R. Keene. New York: Sports Publishing, 2018.

Summary: The story of the 1943 Navy training school team on which Ted Williams, Johnny Sain, Johnny Pesky and others played, and the baseball hopes and disappointments of the team’s batboy, the author’s father.

In baseball circles, many consider Ted Williams to have been the greatest hitter to have ever played the game. Williams made a science out of hitting. Many wonder what his records would have been like had he not served in the military during World War II and been called up during the Korean conflict, while admiring his service.

What is not widely known is that Williams played on a Navy team during his pre-flight training in 1943 In Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The team was known as the Cloudbuster Nine, and perhaps reached the pinnacle of its fame in a game at Yankee Stadium to raise funds for the war effort. The game was the second half of a doubleheader between the Indians and the Yankees. The second game featured a combined Cleveland-Yankees team known as the “Yanklands” against the Cloudbuster Nine, whose roster included major leaguers Ted Williams, Johnny Pesky, Johnny Sain, Buddy Hassett, and others. Babe Ruth managed, and took an at-bat with the Yanklands while Donald Kepler managed the Cloudbusters, who handily won the game 11-5.

Anne Keene became interested in the Cloudbuster story after her father’s death, as she rummaged through an old chest in the process of composing his eulogy. She discovered an old scrapbook with photos of the Cloudbuster greats along with their batboy, her father, James Raugh, Jr. His father, Lt. Commander James Raugh, Sr., was second in command at the pre-flight school. This sparked a research and writing project to tell the story of this team, as well as to understand more of her father’s own failed baseball career.

Focusing on Williams, who stands out among the players she researched, she tells the story of the team, how its formation was part of pre-flight training, their travels in old buses, and victorious season. She traces the development of the pre-flight training school, and the demanding regimen of classes, physical work and training, including survival training that was the first part of these men’s preparation to be fliers. She recounts her interview with 96 year old Ivan Fleser, a pitcher who was the last survivor of the team and his recollections of Williams and the others. She reveals the fights to save the team from those who thought it a luxury, and the role Eleanor Roosevelt played. She talks about other pre-flight graduates, notably John Glenn and George H.W. Bush, and how many of the men who went through it counted it as the most formative experience of their lives.

The other part of this story is how this experience inspired a dream in Johnny Raugh, Jr. to play professional baseball. He played in the minor leagues until 1961 with flashes of brilliance, but never enough to make it to the parent team, the Detroit Tigers. By 1961, his arm was finished as he tried for the “extra something” that it took for a major league fastball that was not in him. As she researched his boyhood with the Cloudbusters, and his minor league career, she came to understand both his love of the game, and the sadness that hung over his life of not having “made it” to the majors.

Keene gives us a previously unknown glimpse into the Cloudbusters, Ted Williams’ military years, and the influence pre-flight training had on this “greatest generation” of baseball players. The narrative moves between the Cloudbusters, the training and her father’s story, all interesting, but perhaps a bit disjointed. Yet her account gives us a personal glimpse into the character of Ted Williams, his passion for the game, even played on fields before crowds of a few thousand. She helps us see how these are both fields of dreams and disappointments–and how baseball played a role in the winning of World War II.

Review: The Last Boy

The Last Boy

The Last BoyJane Leavy. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.

Summary: A biography of the life of Mickey Mantle, covering his family roots, baseball career, and post-career life, including his injuries, alcoholism, affairs, and something of a redemption at the end of his life.

Every summer, I read at least one baseball book, and so when I received this book as a gift earlier this year, I knew what my book would be this year, not that I would need much persuading. Mickey Mantle was one of my childhood heroes, even though, as an Indians fan, he played for the hated Yankees. We all followed the rivalry between him and Roger Maris to see if either could break Ruth’s record of 60 home runs. We all tried to switch hit when we played baseball, something most of us did very badly. We debated, as this book explores, whether Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays was the better player.

I was also pleased to see this was written by Jane Leavy. I had thoroughly enjoyed her biography of another childhood hero, Sandy Koufax. Mantle, it turns out was a far more complicated person, a mix of the great and the tragic and the tawdry wrapped into a single individual.

She tells Mantle’s story around twenty key dates in his life, which sometimes involves some back and forth between the key date and events prior and following. She begins with his family, and the powerful influence of his father, Mutt, who did not want his son to spend his life in the mines, taught him to bat from both sides, and guided him just long enough for him to get a contract with the Yankees before he died at an early age from the cancer that seemed to run through the family. Long enough to push him to the edge of greatness, but not long enough to help him deal with that greatness.

We learn of Mantle the athlete and his incredible speed and power and the tantalizing “what ifs” of just how great he could have been. In his first season with the Yankees, in 1951, running for a fly ball in the World Series, he caught a cleat in a drain in the outfield left uncovered, and blew out his right knee before there was such a thing as ACL surgery. He was never the same, and part of the story was how he could play at such a high level despite the physical problems that multiplied over the years. Leavy chronicles in detail the home run out of Griffith stadium in 1953 and enlists physicists and witnesses to figure out how far it actually traveled. She even includes analyses of his swings from both sides of the plate, and the near perfect form Mantle had at his best. She recounts his last at bat.

One of the great “what ifs” has to do with how Mantle lived off the field, something sportswriters in the Fifties and Sixties kept hush-hush, at least until a Yankee brawl at the Copacabana. Mantle was a high-functioning alcoholic in these years, at some points even hitting home runs when he wasn’t completely sober. Only in the Sixties, did this begin to tell on his body, combined with his injuries. She also doesn’t shy away from his womanizing and the complicated relationship he and Merlyn Mantle had throughout his life,

After baseball, he was unable to find something to do with his life. He was troubled by thoughts of an early death, which ran in his family. The drinking and affairs continue. He doesn’t listen to the few who try to warn him. “Sudden” Sam McDowell, former Indians fastballer and a reformed alcoholic tried to organize an intervention, only to have it aborted after a “friend” tips off Mantle. He tried and failed at a number of ventures, went into the memorabilia business with one of his lovers, and even was banned from baseball for a period because of an association with an Atlantic City casino, where he was paid simply to appear so guests could say they met Mantle.

It is in this context that Leavy met Mantle in 1983 for an interview that shattered her own image of Mantle. She unfolds this weekend encounter through the course of the book, from his gentlemanly effort to get her a sweater to keep her warm on the golf course, to his drunken efforts to pick her up that end with him slumping over asleep in her lap.

The book ends with Mantle experiencing a sort of redemption. Late in life, he began the work of facing his inner demons, including childhood incidents of sexual abuse that might have influenced his sexual proclivities. With serious liver problems looming, he checks into the Betty Ford Clinic and manages to stay sober for the rest of his life. He makes efforts to reconcile with his sons and make amends with others. He experiences what seems like a genuine death bed conversion as former teammate Bobby Richardson ministers to him.

I’m not sure Mantle really was the last boy. The image in part is one of America losing its illusions in the late Sixties. But the truth is that athletes continue to reach the peak of their physical powers long before they mature as people, and while they can perform on the field, they are unprepared for the hangers-on, the fast lifestyle, and the sudden affluence that comes their way. Like others with power, they often have no one to hold up a mirror to help them see their true selves, no one who will tell them what they do not want to hear. Certainly Mantle bore responsibility for this, and more and more toward the end of his life he acknowledged it. What the “last boy” title fails to capture is that our culture of adulation towards sports heroes still celebrates the physical gifts of youth while failing to affirm the character qualities of maturity that distinguish men and women from boys and girls. Perhaps the most tragic figure in this story is neither Mickey nor his boys, but Mutt, who pushed his boy to succeed, and only realized when he was dying that no one had prepared him to handle success.


My Dream World Series

cubs-indiansFor years, I’ve told friends that my dream World Series would be a match-up between the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians. I would usually add, “One of them has to win,” ending the Championship drought one of these teams have suffered since 1908 and 1948, respectively. For years, I thought it would never happen, as both teams languished. But as I watched the way both teams were playing this summer, I began to wonder, could this be the year? And it was!

Wednesday night ended a truly epic seven game series, one that I think people will talk about for years. An underdog team, the Indians jumps out to a 3-1 lead. Chicago comes roaring back to take the last three games. It goes down to a seventh game, tied at the end of nine innings. The only way I think it could be a better series would be if the Indians had won at home.

And so I show my true colors. I grew up rooting for the Indians from childhood. My first major league baseball game was an Indians game. I used to listen to Herb Score call play by play on my transistor radio on summer evenings. I remember Terry Francona’s dad, Tito Francona when he played for Cleveland. I remember Rocky Colavito, whose trade led to the purported “curse of Rocky Colavito on Cleveland,” “Sudden Sam” McDowell, Luis Tiant, before he went to a great career with Boston. There were the mediocre teams of the 70’s and 80’s, with a few standouts like Andre “Thunder” Thornton and Rick Manning. I lived in Cleveland at the time and would go to cavernous Cleveland Stadium on summer evenings when only 3,000 or so would show up. Then there were the powerhouse teams of the ’90’s with Mike Thome and so many others managed by Mike Hargrove who I’d watched as a player. There was the Series loss to Atlanta in ’95 and the heartbreak loss to the Marlins in ’97. I so hoped this would be the year.

And so I understand the joy of all the Cubs fans who have waited even longer. The last Indians World Series Championship was six years before I was born. The last Cubs championship twelve years before my late father was born. Congratulations Chicago! You’ve waited forty years longer, and it was truly a well-played series, representing so much of what I love about the game. Players who gave it all they had. Two shrewd managers who built teams that played as teams.

I don’t begrudge the fact that much of the nation was rooting for you. People love a fairy tale ending to a nightmare. The faithful of Wrigley have waited and endured through so much. As long-suffering fans, we’ve been on similar journeys. If it had to be anybody else but Cleveland, I’m glad it was you.

At the same time, here are some musings of a Cleveland fan already thinking of next year:

  • I’m hopeful. These are young players still getting better. They’ve nothing to be ashamed of–they accomplished more than almost anyone imagined this year. And they know what it is like to play in the World Series.
  • I hope to get to more Columbus Clippers games in my home town. The guys playing in Cleveland were guys I watched within the last few years. There seem to be people with an eye for talent in the organization.
  • I read somewhere that Cleveland’s payroll is 21st on the list of major league teams. It says something about Francona and the front office that such a team could contend so well.
  • That’s even more striking when you consider they went without standouts like Michael Brantley (another of the guys we used to watch in Columbus!).
  • On a more serious note, I hope Cleveland will retire the Chief Wahoo logo. It is demeaning to Native Americans. Let’s show how great we can be as a team without being demeaning.

This series is why I’ve been a lifelong baseball fan. I hope our political candidates can learn from this. Fight hard. Play fair. Give it your all. And praise the other team in victory or defeat. Win graciously. Lose without whining about it.

Next year in Cleveland–Believeland! #RallyTogether.