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.”

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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

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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.

Sources:

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.

 

 

The Month in Reviews: September 2016

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September’s reading list was certainly a diverse and wide-ranging one that reflects the quirky range of my reading interests. There were two baseball books, as we come to the close of another season of America’s Pastime. There were two Inklings books, both exploring the impact of the Inklings war experiences on their writing. I featured Ohio author J. D. Vance’s best-selling Hillbilly Elegy, and a book on the use of social media in public shaming.  I reviewed a couple of science texts, including Rachel Carson’s classic The Sea Around Us, and a new book on science and faith. There were books on social issues from micro-finance to domestic violence. And I read the usual assortment of theological texts on subjects ranging from evangelicalism’s social justice heritage to dispensational eschatology as well as a fine new book on the transition to post-college life. In all there are thirteen reviews in this list. Enjoy!

After College

After College, Erica Young Reitz. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016. A faith-oriented guide to navigating the transition from college to early adulthood, exploring issues of faith, relationships, community, work, calling and finances. Review

Banker to the Poor

Banker to the Poor, Muhammad Yunus. New York: Public Affairs, 2003. Yunus’ personal account of developing micro-lending and the Grameen Bank to help lift the rural poor out of poverty by providing the small loans they needed to develop their own small businesses. Review

No Place for Abuse

No Place for Abuse (2nd ed.), Catherine Clark Kroeger & Nancy Nason-Clark. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010. Written for Christian communities, this work chronicles the extent of domestic violence and abuse, the presence and factors that contribute to domestic violence in households in our churches, relevant biblical texts that address domestic violence, and steps church leaders can take to address domestic violence in their midst. Review

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Bottom of the NinthMichael Shapiro. New York: Times Books, 2009. The story of how two legendary figures, Branch Rickey and Casey Stengel, attempted but failed in schemes to transform the game of baseball. Review

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The Sea Around UsRachel Carson. New York: Open Road Media, 2011 (first published 1951).  A survey of what is known about the oceans– including their beginnings, the dynamics of currents, tides and waves, the topography of the oceans, the life within, and our own relationship with this dominant feature of our planet. Review

eschatology

EschatologyD. Jeffrey Bingham and Glenn R. Kreider (eds.). Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2016. A compendium of essays on the future hope of Christians reflecting a dispensational premillenialist perspective. Review

shamed

So You’ve Been Publicly ShamedJon Ronson. London: Picador, 2015. Explores the use of social media for public shaming of individuals, the dark side of ourselves this reveals, and the ways those shamed deal with this experience. Review

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A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great WarJoseph Loconte. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015. A study of why Lewis and Tolkien, contrary to a disillusioned post-war generation, went deeper into their faith and allowed both war experience and that faith to shape their greatest works. Review

bedeviled

BedeviledColin Duriez. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015. An exploration of the conflict of good and evil in the works of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, and how two World Wars influenced their thinking. Review

hillbilly-elegy

Hillbilly Elegy, J. D. Vance. New York: Harper, 2016. A memoir of growing up in a troubled family from the hill country of Kentucky in Middletown, Ohio, exploring why so many in the working class are struggling, and what made the difference for the author. Review

rediscovering-an-evangelical-heritage

Rediscovering an Evangelical Heritage, 2nd editionDonald W. Dayton with Douglas M. Strong. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2014. An updated edition of a study of the pre-Civil War nineteenth century roots of evangelicalism in the United States and the combination of piety, preaching, and social reform characteristic of this movement in this period. Review

the-truth-about-science-and-religion

The Truth About Science and Religion, Fraser Fleming, foreword by Gary B. Ferngren. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2016. A historical, scientific, and theological survey of the interaction of science and religion around the big questions of purpose, beginnings, the rise of life, the rise of human beings, the nature of mind and consciousness. Review

the-natural

The NaturalBernard Malamud. London: Vintage Classics, 2002 (originally published in 1952). The story of Roy Hobbs, whose promising career in baseball is nearly ended by a strange woman with a silver bullet and his attempt at 35 for one more season of greatness. Review

Best of the Month: I’m going to go with J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. It may not be the best writing represented on the list (I’ll give that nod to Rachel Carson), but I found this a compelling exploration the struggles and realities of life today among many working class Americans, a “forgotten America” whose presence has re-asserted itself in the current presidential campaign.

Quote of the Month: Rachel Carson’s nature writing is among the best there is. Here was one passage that captured my imagination, describing the process of sedimentation on the ocean floors:

“For the sediments are the materials of the most stupendous ‘snowfall’ the earth has ever seen. It began when the first rains fell on the barren rocks and set in motion the forces of erosion. It was accelerated when living creatures developed in the surface waters and the discarded little shells of lime or silica that had encased them in life began to drift downward to the bottom.  Silently, endlessly, with the deliberation of earth processes that can afford to be slow because they have so much time for completion, the accumulation of the sediments has proceeded. So little in a year, or in a human lifetime, but so enormous an amount in the life of earth and sea.”

Coming soon: In the next few days I’ll be posting reviews of a Dorothy L. Sayers mystery classic and the late Kenneth Bailey’s The Good Shepherd. I’m currently finishing up a book on the possibility of moral knowledge. I’m also reading a book by Reformed philosopher Cornelius Van Til on common grace and a fascinating new book with the title of How to Survive the Apocalypse, exploring the current fascination with everything from zombies to dystopian fiction. Later in October, I will be reviewing Shusako Endo’s Silence, hopefully in time for the debut of Martin Scorsese’s film version of this Japanese novelist’s work.

Happy reading!

 

Review: The Natural

the-natural

The NaturalBernard Malamud. London: Vintage Classics, 2002 (originally published in 1952).

Summary: The story of Roy Hobbs, whose promising career in baseball is nearly ended by a strange woman with a silver bullet and his attempt at 35 for one more season of greatness.

The story of Roy Hobbs is that of the tragic hero come to baseball. A number of you may remember the 1984 movie starring Robert Redford. I haven’t seen the movie but I sense the book is darker. The story begins with a young Roy Hobbs on a cross-country rail journey that recurs in dreams throughout the book as a symbol of futility. At one stop, he encounters  The Whammer, a fading star who he strike out. He also encounters Harriet Bird who turns out to be a crazed serial killer of athletes, who nearly ends Hobbs’s life in a Chicago hotel.

Flash forward to Hobbs at 35, who finally makes it back to the majors landing a spot with the hapless New York Knights, their aging manager Pops, their star clown, Bump, his girlfriend Memo (where does he get these names?), the shrewd skinflint owner,Judge, the gambler, Gus, and the sportswriter, Max Mercy, who senses this is not the first time he has met Roy. Hobbs lands a spot, taking Bump’s place after Bump died running into a wall chasing down a long fly ball. Roy, and his bat Wonderboy, help lift the club into first place. Hobbs tries to get Memo back in his bed (he had slept with her after trading rooms with Bump only to have her, thinking he was Bump, jump in bed with him).

When he fails in his efforts, he ends up in a slump, only to meet the one woman who really cares about him, who he avoids after a one night stand finding out that she, though younger, is a grandmother. But she restores his self-confidence, the team gets into first place, and has to win one more game, which it fails to do because Hobbs voraciously eats himself sick. They are tied with the Pirates and have to win a playoff game to win the pennant. Hobbs is released in time for the game but offered a payoff if he will throw the game–a payoff allowing him to provide a life of style for Memo. Will he take the payoff, or remain loyal to the team and Pops.

The quest for greatness, the voracious hunger, and the penchant for dangerous women suggest a man searching for significance in the face of onrushing death. He is the hubristic tragic hero. Yet all this seemed cliche, from the names, to the “dangerous women” to the language he uses to describe these women. Maybe this portrays his shallowness, but it seemed overdone and heavy-handed, which surprised me in a writer of Malamud’s reputation.

This is considered a baseball classic but I was disappointed. A bit more subtlety would have been welcome. From what I can tell, this was early Malamud and perhaps he was learning his craft. Whatever was the case, this is a classic I can’t recommend, as pleasant  as this might have been to read.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Baseball

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Huntington Park, where I watch a lot of baseball these days. (c) Robert C Trube

If you haven’t figured it out, I’ve always loved the game of baseball. While most people think of Youngstown first and foremost as a football town, Youngstown had, and from what I can tell, still has a vibrant baseball life that thrives on summer evenings.

There were Little Leagues when we were growing up, but for most of us baseball was played in our backyards until we were big enough to constantly knock the ball in a neighbor’s yard  (or break a window). In my case, we moved next to the old Washington School playground. The asphalt playground was hard on the seams of balls. Soon the cover would fall off to be replaced with a wrap of electrical tape. We didn’t always have gloves. No umpires, no parents. We worked out disputes on our own. Eventually we grew big enough to constantly hit home runs, which often ended up rolling down the entrance ramp of I-680. So the we found a bigger field, either at Borts Field or Kochis Field.

That’s as far as many of us got. I played a couple summers on a church softball team. It was fast pitch. We had a guy, Gary, who was pretty fast and wild, in life and as a pitcher. He was scary and I’m glad I never had to bat against him. He walked a lot of batters, hit a few, and, maybe good for a church league, scared the hell out of a lot of people more effectively than the fire and brimstone sermons.

Usually I played right field, which probably gives you a clue of my fielding skills. My last game was played at first base. I’m right-handed and ended up having a runner barrel into my left hand as I reached for a throw. Afterward, my left thumb was pointing in an odd direction. Coach came out and popped it back in place, or so he thought. I played the rest of the game only to find my thumb was busted. That was the end of my baseball career!

The most talented local players played in some of the Class B teams sponsored by local businesses. We used to go up to Borts Field to watch the games (and girls), running across the street between innings to Zitellos for a cold pop. While we watched, some went further. Youngstown produced a number of Major Leaguers over the years, many who can be found on this list on Wikipedia. One of the most famous was George Shuba who played for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was the first National League player to hit a pinch hit home run during a World Series. He played in three with the Brooklyn Dodgers. But what he was most famous for was breaking the color barrier in professional baseball when he was with Montreal Royals, the Dodgers minor league affiliate, shaking hands with Jackie Robinson as he crossed home plate after hitting a home run, something not done before by a white team mate.

Shuba returned to the Youngstown area after his career. In 2007, Borts Field, where I played and watched so many games and where Shuba had also once played, was renamed the George “Shotgun” Shuba Field at Borts Park. (Shuba gained the nickname “Shotgun” for his powerful line drives to all fields.) He sounds like he was always a class act, who will be remembered as the guy from Youngstown who broke the racial barrier in professional baseball.

 

Take Me Out To The Ballgame

Rocky_Colavito_1959

Rocky Colavito in 1959

I’m writing this post on the Opening Day of the 2016 baseball season. I grew up in northeast Ohio and even lived in Cleveland and I’ve been a lifelong Indians fan. To be an Indians fan is to be the definition of longsuffering. I totally get Cubs fans. I keep hoping for a Cubs-Indians World Series. One of them would have to win.

Truth is, I enjoy anything from a major league game to a sandlot game with a group of kids. The rules, the strategy are the same–all that changes is the skill level. I can think of few better places to spend a summer evening than a ballgame. These days we most often make it to a Columbus Clippers game–the Indians Triple A affiliate.

One of my other summer pastimes is to read at least one baseball book. In recent years these have included bios of Mike Piazza and George Steinbrenner, both gifts from my son and David Halberstam’s account of the ’49 Yankees. So many writers who excel in other genres have written great baseball books–Doris Kearns Goodwin on the Brooklyn Dodgers and George Will (several baseball books) come to mind.

This year I return to my beloved Indians. Every Indians fan talks about “the curse of Rocky Colavito.” In 1960 Indians GM, Frank Lane, traded this home run hitter to the Detroit Tigers for Harvey Kuenn. Colavito was the 1959 home run champ and beloved in Cleveland. And the trade, and many others in the Lane years, resulted in over 30 years of mediocre teams until 1995 and 1997 when the Indians won pennants. In 1997, fans may have concluded the curse was still alive when the Indians were within an inning of winning the Series leading 2-1 in the ninth of the seventh game only to have the Marlins tie the game in the ninth and win the series in the eleventh.

Terry Pluto, a Cleveland sportswriter, has popularized the idea of the curse. The 1994 edition of his book, The Curse of Rocky Colavito, which looks like a trip down a memory lane of unfulfilled hopes, is on my “to read” pile for this summer. Checking Amazon, it turns out there is a 2007 update. I kind of wonder if another is on the way. It’s been a long wait since the 1948 World Series Championship (before I was born).

The other baseball book on my list is a classic 1952 novel by Bernard Malamud eventually made into a movie by the same title, The Natural, in 1984, starring Robert Redford. Some consider this one of the best novels ever written about baseball. I’ll let you know.

If you are a baseball fan and a reader and haven’t started the tradition of the summer baseball book, maybe this could be the year. Chris Foran, an entertainment editor from Milwaukee has posted a great list of new baseball books. If you can’t make it to the ballpark, you can always sit on your porch or patio on a summer evening with a good book that takes you there.

Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jacks…

 

Review: Long Shot

Long Shot
Long Shot by Mike Piazza
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Mike Piazza was a catcher for sixteen seasons, mostly with the Dodgers and the Mets. In that role his lifetime batting average was .308 and he leads all catchers including Johnny Bench and Carlton Fisk in home runs with 427. Piazza became eligible for the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2013 and in some ways, this book reads as a campaign piece to justify his selection. And this seems in character with the Mike Piazza who emerges in this book.

Piazza grew up in a Philadelphia suburb with a father who placed all his baseball dreams on Mike’s shoulders. This was so much the case that dad built a batting cage and installed a pitching machine in Mike’s back yard. And he used his connections with Tommy LaSorda to get Mike designated a batboy for the Dodgers when they played in Philly. Along the way, Mike also gets batting pointers from Ted Williams, whose book on hitting Mike had devoured.

From an early age, it was clear that Mike could hit. The only problem was that he had no clearly defined position that he could play. Still, Mike made the minors on a draft courtesy pick in the 62nd round and was eventually slotted to be a catcher. So yes, it was still a long shot for him to make the majors. What Piazza does in this book is recount his hard work learning to catch, perfecting his swing, working on his body strength (he argues that this was without steroids, although he does admit to using andro, which was later banned).

The book is Piazza’s candid account of his years in the majors and for this reason, one often finds oneself asking “do I really like this guy?” He seems obsessed with his performance and carrying a hair-trigger temper that could be set off when he had a bad at bat or was hit by a pitch. We hear the ins and outs of contract negotiations with the Dodgers and Mets, and his feeling that he could never get the respect he deserved from the Dodger organization.

He also is candid about an off-the-field life complete with the girlfriend of the season (usually a Playboy Playmate), his partying and his growingly affluent lifestyle. It is a revealing glimpse into the world of celebrity athletes.

The best parts of the book for me was when he focused on the game itself–whether it was techniques, or particularly critical games in his career. Perhaps the high point was the home run he hit in the Mets first game in Shea Stadium after 9/11. In some ways, it seems 9/11 was a watershed moment for Mike and for the Mets. For the Mets, it was the beginning of a series of mediocre seasons. For Mike, it seems this began to call him out of his self-absorption as he got involved with the families of first responders, and began to think about deeper spiritual issues.

The book ends on that note, as Mike describes his last years in baseball, his decision to retire, his marriage, and his deepening spirituality, serving as a board member for Catholic Athletes for Christ. He writes, “I didn’t always stick close to my spirituality,–I strayed from it more than I should have–and yet it stuck with me unfailingly. I had a little talent and a lot of determination, but the fact was, I had no business doing what I did in baseball. My career, frankly, was a miracle. In retrospect, I can see that clearly.”

That both sums up the book, and in some ways gives me hope that Piazza might grow as a human being in his life after baseball. It was interesting to me that only later did he embrace his mother’s faith. For the first part of his life, it was all about dad and dad’s ambitions for him as a ballplayer. It makes me wonder how it might have been different if these ambitions had been coupled with a strong spiritual compass. And I wonder as well, what will happen if Mike is, or is not, inducted into the Hall of Fame. Either way, will he continue in the trajectory of growth that we see at the end of the book? One hopes this isn’t simply one more effort at self-promotion to gain the Hall of Fame.

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