CHUMPS TO CHAMPS: HOW THE WORST TEAM IN YANKEE HISTORY LED TO THE ’90S DYNASTY by Bill Pennington

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(Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter, and Andy Pettitte, the “Core Four”)

Bill Pennington describes his new book as a story of “resurrection and rebirth.”  It is the story of a once proud dynasty, the envy of sports franchises worldwide, so why use the terms just mentioned.  Pennington’s book, CHUMPS TO CHAMPS: HOW THE WORST TEAM IN YANKEE HISTORY LED TO THE 90S DYNASTY begins with a bad omen.  Yankee pitcher, Andy Hawkins, a career journeyman who was about to be released pitches a no-hitter against the Chicago White Sox.  However, an asterisk is called for because he lost the game 4-0, an occurrence that had never occurred in baseball history.  Such was the plight of the Yankees; attendance was down 35%, the farm system was bare, from 1989-1992 they had the worst record in team history, and the owner, the bombastic George Steinbrenner was banned from baseball.  At a time when the gloried franchise has returned as a major force it is interesting to turn the clock back and see how it emerged from its doldrums to become the last dynasty of the 20th century.

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(Gene Michael)

Pennington is on the top of his “game” throughout the narrative.  A former beat writer who covered the Yankees, and sportswriter for the New York Times he had unparalleled access to the organizations executives as well as the players.  He engaged in hundreds of interviews including the major characters including George Steinbrenner, Gene Michael, Buck Showalter, Don Mattingly, Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Paul O’Neill, and Andy Pettitte.  Pennington takes the reader on a year by year journey in Yankee history culminating in their resurgence winning the World Series in 1996 against the Atlanta Braves.  During that journey the major issues that confronted the franchise are presented in detail concentrating on how the team fell into the abyss of the 1980s and early 90s.

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(Buck Showalter on Seinfeld)

Pennington does a great job setting the scene of how far the resurgence traveled by exploring the depths of the 1980s.  It seemed the Yankees did well in the 1980s, but in reality they were on a slow decline as its petulant owner, George Steinbrenner constantly interfered in “baseball” decisions; signing over the hill expensive free agents, trading away numerous prospects, and firing managers at the rate of one per year, in addition to rehiring and firing the same people multiple times.  Pennington provides biographical sketches of the important individuals involved including Major League baseball officials, executives of the Yankee organization, and numerous players.  In so doing the reader acquires insights from all points of view and gains an understanding as to what went wrong, and later what went right.

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(George Stiernbrenner)

The key factor in the Yankee resurgence involves the arrogance and stupidity of George Steinbrenner.  The Yankee owner who had previously been suspended from baseball because of illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon found himself in hot water once again in the early 90s.  Steinbrenner had been at war with one of his high-priced free agents, David Winfield who he felt had lied about his contract and did not measure up to the standards that the Yankee owner expected.  The disagreement involved donations to the Winfield Foundation, the paying of hush money to a convicted felon that Steinbrenner hired, and in the end Baseball Commissioner, Faye Vincent banned the Yankee owner for life, though it would be reduced to a two-year suspension after a year.  During that time Steinbrenner was prohibited from being involved with major decisions involving the team.  This allowed General Manager Gene Michael, Manager Buck Showalter, and the rest of the organization to set the Yankees on a new path.

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(Paul O’Neill)

The change in strategy including the early use of analytics, keeping their own prospects as the farm system began to blossom, creating a new culture in the clubhouse by acquiring certain types of players, and developing a consistent organizational philosophy that would be implemented  throughout their minor league system up through the major league level.  As Brian Cashman, then Assistant General Manager has pointed out, the success the Yankees would achieve in 1993 and 1994 while Steinbrenner was away from the team allowed for the implementation of the new approach.  Once Steinbrenner’s suspension ended, he came back and allowed his baseball people to make decisions rather than himself.  The key point is that if Steinbrenner had not been exiled the success of the late 1990s would not have occurred.

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(Bernie Williams)

It is one thing to change philosophies it is another to have the management and players to implement it.  Pennington is correct in arguing that Michael knew how to deflect Steinbrenner’s urges, as Cashman would also do once he took over as General Manager.  Further, Pennington describes how effective the scouting department was uncovering players like Bernie Williams, and the core four of Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, and Andy Pettitte.  These players were supplemented by many others, but a climate of winning and accountability was created, that proved successful.

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(David Cone)

Perhaps the best chapters in the book deal with the relationship between Michael and Showalter and how they built the Yankees and dealt with Steinbrenner.  As in all relationships there is a watershed moment that alters the course of history.  Pennington does a superb job describing the events of 1994 and how the Yankees felt robbed by the baseball strike when they were on the cusp of winning a championship, and the loss to Seattle in the 1995 playoffs.  At the conclusion of that series Michael and Showalter did not return as General Manager and Manager for 1996 and Don Mattingly retired never to appear in a World Series.  Later, Steinbrenner admitted that not bringing Showalter back was his greatest mistake, and on a positive note it taught him to leave the team to his baseball people for the remainder of his life as he morphed into the realm of a benevolent patriarch.  It is ironic that in 2001, Showalter would be attending game seven of the World Series as an ESPN analyst where the two teams he helped build, the New York Yankees and Arizona Diamondbacks would play for the championship.

Old Yankee Stadium From the Upper Deck Behind Home Plate

As a Yankee fan since the 1950s I have witnessed a great deal of Pennington’s narrative from my own observations and reading newspapers on a daily basis.  The author hits all the major points, develops the most important personalities, and reaches the correct conclusions in explaining the remaking of the New York Yankees from a declining power to a constant force in major league baseball over the last three decades.  If you are a baseball fan you will love this book.  If you are a general reader it presents a story of redemption and change that has benefited millions of people and shows if you take a thoughtful approach to an endeavor and leave out impatience and bombast you can be very successful.

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SOLDIER, SAILOR, FROGMAN, SPY, AIRMAN, GANGSTER, KILL OR DIE: HOW THE ALLIES WON ON D-DAY by Giles Milton

(US troops waiting to leave southern England)

Next month will be the 75th anniversary of the allied landing in Normandy.  As with most major historical commemorations people will flock to the beaches off the French coast.  In addition, the anniversary has produced a plethora of new books to go with the classic works that have been written in the past, including;  Cornelius Ryan’s THE LONGEST DAY, Max Hasting’s OVERLORD,  John Keegan’s SIX ARMIES IN NORMANDY, Carlo D’Este’s DECISION IN NORMANDY, Anthony Beevor’s D DAY and Stephen Ambrose’s D DAY:JUNE 6TH 1944.  New books published in the last two months include COUNTDOWN TO D DAY: THE GERMAN PERSPECTIVE by Peter Margaratis, NORMANDY ’44: D DAY AND THE EPIC 77 DAY BATTLE FOR FRANCE by James Holland, SAND AND STEEL: D DAY AND THE LIBERATION OF FRANCE by Peter Caddick-Adams, THE FIRST WAVE:THE D DAY WARRIORS WHO LED THE WAY TO VICTORY IN WORLD WAR II by Alex Kershaw, and SOLDIER, SAILOR, FROGMAN, SPY, AIRMAN, GANGSTER, KILL OR DIE: HOW THE ALLIES WON ON D DAY by Giles Milton.  For this review I will focus on Milton’s new narrative.  What sets the book apart from the others is that he approaches events from a different perspective by focusing on the stories of survivors from all sides including; a teenage Allied conscript, the crack German defender, and the French resistance fighter among many others.  It is important to remember that each book mentioned has made an important contribution to the growing historiography related to the allied landing in June 1944.

(US troops bound for Omaha Beach)

Milton’s approach is very anecdotal as he introduces numerous characters.  Some are important historical figures like General Dwight David Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, General Omar T. Bradley, the most senior American commander at D-Day, and Nazi Field Marshall Erwin Rommel who Hitler placed in charge of preparing and thwarting any allied invasion across the English Channel.  The strength of Milton’s book is how he conveys the experiences of allied soldiers who bore the brunt of the carnage and eventual success of the invasion, but also French civilians who were caught in the crossfire between allied bombing and German artillery.  In addition, Milton gives voice to many individuals who have not been heard before; the Panzer Commander’s wife, the chauffeur to the General Staff, women who worked in in Southwick, the nerve center for Operation Overlord, and those teenagers forced into service as nurses at Portsmouth caring for German prisoners of war.

(German plane, Omaha Beach)

The narrative explores the difficulties in organizing such a massive undertaking that involved transporting 23 million acres of material across the Atlantic, 6939 vessels including 4000 landing craft,  200,000 service personnel, and close to 10,000 aircraft.  Milton has an excellent eye for detail be it weather forecasting, the personalities involved, the strategies employed by both sides, and in particular those stories that we do not necessarily think of when examining the insanity of war.  In this case Milton describes the experiences of paratroopers behind German lines who wound up caught in trees serving as a shooting gallery for German snipers, the mission of Howard Vander Beek who commanded an LCC 60, a small boat designed to lead American safely toward the beaches, or Wally Blanchard, an eighteen year old frogman whose job was to defuse the minefield that Rommel’s forces laid in front of Gold beach.

(The British landing at Juno Beach)

Milton’s work is chocked full of stories of heroes, individual acts of courage, and remarkable examples of bravery on the part of allied soldiers as they confronted Rommel’s Atlantic Wall as they hit the beaches and were subject to German artillery and mortars.  It was of immense importance that the German guns be knocked out so the landing zones could be built up to support the invasion.  Men like James Rudder, and his unit would be successful in knocking out the big German guns situated on top of Pointe du Hoc where six 155mm cannon could lob huge shells a distance of 25,000 meters covering Omaha and Utah beaches.  Others include  General Norman “Dutch” Cota and Colonel Charles Canham would help break the deadlock that existed on Omaha Beach, or Simon Fraser, a Highland Chief and the 15th Lord Lovat, “the mad bastard” would lead his men to link up with John Howard, an Oxford shire policeman’s unit to save the Benouville Bridge that was a key to allied advance after the landings.  The stories that Milton conveys are chilling as events unfolded on June 6th, as death became a game of chance.  The author points out that “for most the landings were petrifying, for a few it was intoxicating.”  The vivid description of death is difficult to deal with at times and in the end 37,000 allied soldiers died with 209,000 casualties and roughly 17,000 deaths in the air.

(Canadian troops on Juno Beach)

The German side of the invasion is also covered in detail as Milton introduces the reader to German soldiers like Franz Gockel and Josef Shroder whose weapons would meet the allied invaders.  They could not believe the bloodshed they were causing as they were picking off allied soldiers as they hit the beaches.  The arrogant and exceptional Panzer Commander Colonel Hermann von Oppeln-Bronikowski is introduced as he tries to drive a wedge with his tanks as he saw an opening between British troops on Sword Beach and Canadians on Juno. Rommel’s headquarters is also explored in addition to his surprise when the invasion took place – he was visiting his wife in Germany.  The disagreements between Nazi higherups, Hitler, and commanders on the ground is related and if they would have been in better sync with each other, the task for allied soldiers would have been much more difficult and the resulting casualty figures much higher.

(American troops on Omaha Beach after the landing)

Milton has skillfully woven a very complex narrative that allows the general audience to understand the violence and utter devastation that occurred on June 6th.  He has written a remarkable account through the eyes of the participants providing the reader with insights and an experience that is not always conveyed as well by historians.  After reading Milton’s account one but one cannot escape the fact of the willingness of so many on both sides to fight to the death. In the end despite the the difficulties involved, the importance of the allied success resulted in ultimate victory against the Nazi war machine.

(June 6, 1944, D-Day)

MAD ENCHANTMENT: CLAUDE MONET AND THE PAINTING OF THE WATER LILIES by Ross King

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(Claude Monet)

The work of artists who enter their declining years is not usually positive fodder for biographers, but Claude Monet’s later years is one of the exceptions as depicted in Ross King’s book, MAD ENCHANTMENT.  King who has written a number of interesting books dealing with art history, including, BRUNELLESCHI’S DOME, MICHELANGELO AND THE POPE’S CEILING, and LEONARDO AND THE LAST SUPPER begins his narrative by pointing out that once Monet reached his sixties and seventies, he had achieved great wealth, notoriety, and produced numerous career defining works.  For years rejected by conservative critics and the new Avant Garde Cubists, Monet would find himself producing his Grande Decoration, consisting of eight waterlily murals during the World War I period.

King does an exceptional job reviewing Monet’s life and career up to 1914 when the French artist decided to return to painting after a four-year hiatus due to a series of tragedies.  First, his loving second wife, Alice passed away in 1908, then in 1914 his son Jean died, in addition, he began to suffer from cataracts and in 1912 his vision began to decline. During this period a group of his friends also passed, including; Manet, Renoir, Rodin, Pissarro, and Cezanne.  Monet still had a number of friends remaining who he could lean on, chief among them was Georges Clemenceau, the French journalist, politician, and man of letters.  Clemenceau would support Monet emotionally throughout his life and encouraged him to renew his painting after a visit in early 1914.

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(Water Lilies, Water Lilies)

One of the most important components of the book is King’s quasi-biography of Clemenceau within the larger narrative of Monet’s life.  The later French Prime Minister nicknamed “the Tiger” helped lead France to victory in World War I and would become their voice at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919.  King uses Clemenceau as a vehicle to integrate French history with Monet’s life story and career and provides the reader the context of how major events affected Monet, how he responded, and their results.

There are a number of turning points in Monet’s life that King delves into.  The first is the purchase of Le Pressair in the village of Giverny in 1890, a transaction that did not go over well with local farmers who resented his plan to divert the River Ru and purchase adjoining land to create the large pond on which to plant his water lilies providing him with his subject to paint. The locals saw no commercial benefit in these paintings and resented him as an outsider.  Monet’s cantankerous personality also did not endear him to the locals.

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(The Studio Boat, 1874)

The second turning point for Monet was his reaction to the Dreyfus Affair in 1898.  Up until that point, Monet’s paintings depicted rural France, deemed as a patriotic message through his art.  Along with his friends, Emile Zola, Georges Clemenceau, and other Dreyfusards he rejected and criticized the rise in right-wing French anti-Semitism throughout the 1890s, as well as the unjust conviction of Captain Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French Army for spying for Germany.  Monet decided he would no longer paint rural scenes that could be interpreted as patriotic and concentrate on developing his gardens and canvases.

King accurately points out a number of contradictions when it came to Monet as an artist.  First, he wished to work in warm, sunny, and calm conditions, yet much of his career his place of choice to paint was Normandy whose weather was cool and damp for long periods of time.  Second, he loved to paint, yet he claimed to find it, “unremittingly torture.”  But this torture, friends pointed out was the key that drove him to perfection.  King does a wonderful job describing Monet’s methodology and philosophy of painting throughout the narrative, I.e. Monet would paint twelve separate canvases at a time while preparing his Grande Decoration and rotate them on wheels  according to the light in order to capture what he hoped to represent.  Monet’s health greatly impacted his work in his later years as he was a victim of fatigue and neurasthenia even though to outsiders, he appeared hale and hearty most of the time.  His maladies were greatly affected by the weather, which many times he refused to give into resulting in a negative impact on his health.

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(Rouen Cathedral, 1894)

King approaches his explanation of Impressionism very carefully arguing that Impressionist artists  “conspicuously called attention to their brushes and paints.  They fragmented their brushstrokes into flickering touches of color that seemed to dissolve their painted worlds into shimmering mirages.”  Canvases were not meant to be viewed at close range.  King’s discussion of Monet’s painting of the Rouen Cathedral in 1894 with the proposed commission by the state of France to paint the damage caused by German shelling to the Cathedral at Rheims is illustrative of this point.  Monet’s Impressionist approach would not be the best way to depict the savagery of German artillery on the cathedral for a government which wanted to heighten French distaste for the “barbaric Germans.”  But, for Monet who always wished to receive a commission by the government this was not an acceptable argument, despite the “fuzzy envelope” that seemed to surround the objects that were represented.

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(Monet’s Gardens at Giverny)

The most important event that impacted Monet’s later years was World War I.  Monet’s travel and work would have to consider the effects of the war.  Art supplies, food, petrol was all rationed and in short supply.  A further reason for a state commission would allow Monet to receive coal, food, and materials for his canvases that others could not obtain.

King takes the reader to the Louvre which housed many of Monet’s and his fellow Impressionist friend’s paintings.  He reviews the political and economic considerations involved and how German bombardment of Paris, and at times fears of a German attack on the city affected these artists.  King provides a unique description and perspective  of Paris during the war.  Interestingly the fighting produced a war of words between German and French intellectuals over wartime accusations of barbarism.  Monet was even recruited to lend his name to these efforts as French intellectuals produced a book entitled, THE GERMANS: DESTROYERS OF CATHEDRALS AND THE TREASURES OF THE PAST.

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(Haystack Painting 1890/91)

The war also impacted Monet’s personal life, particularly his anguish over his paintings and his family.  Monet refused to leave Giverny during the war as he stated he would rather die among his canvases and life’s work than depart.  He also feared for his son Jeanne-Pierre who was in the army as was his son-in-law Albert Salerou.  His son Michel would not enter the army until later in the war and would participate in the fighting.  It easy for the reader to follow the course of the war as King describes Monet’s life and his interactions with his close friend Georges Clemenceau, I.e., the two battles of the Marne, and the Battle at Verdun, along with its overall impact on Monet and France in general.

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(Portrait of a Painter)

The war also galvanized Monet, with a friendly push from Clemenceau to complete the Grande Decoration which according to Kathryn Hughes writing in The Guardian (3 September 2016) there was nothing remotely optimistic or even particularly French about the massive painting that stretched to over 300 feet.  It is as Deborah Solomon points out in the New York Times (December 2, 2016) among art history’s greatest last acts as “the water lilies dispense with contours and boundaries and veer toward abstraction.”  It is important to note that the subject of Monet’s painting was a garden and pond that was man made and contained hothouse cultivars from South America and Egypt and not a natural outcrop of rural France.

King introduces an important discussion of how tastes in art changed because of the war and the impact of the death of over 300 artists.  According to art historian Kenneth Silver, the public and the painters would turn their backs on daring innovation.  For many Frenchmen, Cubism and other forms of pre-war art were wild experiments and adventures that were seen as specifically German, and therefore, not to be replicated after the war.  At the end of the war Monet offered to donate some of his paintings to the people of France and eventually the lily paintings were installed on specially constructed, curved walls at the Musee de l”Orangerie in Paris. The donation and the negotiations exacerbated by Monet’s need to control how the building would be prepared to receive and maintain his paintings are an integral part of the narrative as King relates his subject’s state of mind and physical health, particularly issues with his vision that led to a number of painful operations.

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(Monet’s close friend and supporter, Georges Clemenceau)

Solomon sums up her review by arguing that “the book is short on analysis and fails to definitively explain the role played by Monet’s illness in the development of his late style.”  But overall King has written a useful book that shatters the myth that Monet painted his Grande Decoration in seclusion when in fact people surrounded him.  A staff of gardeners, his granddaughter Blanche, and others all impacted his life, and no one can take away anything from the gift that Monet has produced for posterity.

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(Monet working on his Grande Decoration)