John Feinstein’s reputation is based on his excellent reporting and the 45 books he has written.  His approach is multi-faceted whether books or articles that cover baseball, golf, tennis, college and pro football, basketball, college and professional.  Feinstein’s writing is clear and insightful, and these characteristics are evident in his latest book, and perhaps his most important, RAISE A FIST, TAKE A KNEE: RACE AND THE ILLUSION OF PROGRESS IN MODERN SPORTS.  At a time highlighted by a former racist president, the Black Lives Matter movement, the death of George Floyd and too many others Feinstein effectively explores the issue of racial inequality in sports, a microcosm of our larger society which should open the eyes of its readers.

After reading the introduction by former NFL quarterback Doug Williams and Feinstein’s opening chapter it brought me back to my own experiences with racism.  In my early twenties I joined a group of friends in a softball tournament in Staten Island, NY.  When the games where completed, a teammate came up to me and said, “for a Jew, you are a pretty good guy,” I was dumb founded.  Earlier, I had undergone basic training in the army at Fort Lost in the Woods Misery, better known as Ft. Leonard Wood and the first thing I heard at reception station was “Freiberger, Jew boy we gonna whoop your fucking ass.” This was 1969 and being in a company where the majority of recruits were from Mississippi, Georgia, and Alabama I should not have been surprised.  Needless to say, things went downhill from then on. 

After reading Feinstein’s work and revisiting my own experiences which go beyond the two experiences I describe one would think that almost fifty years later as a society we would have made greater progress, including sports.  However, as Feinstein clearly shows in football where the vast majority of players are black, there are only three head coaches and two general managers.  In baseball, as of May 2021 according to USA Today, “just under 8% of the league’s players are Black. Dave Roberts of the Dodgers and Dusty Baker of the Astros remain the only Black managers. There are currently no Black general managers in Major League baseball.  If this is not an indicator of the current trends in sports then nothing is.”

John Thompson
(Georgetown coach, the late John Thompson)

Feinstein has conducted a prolific amount of research which is reflected in his discussion of numerous topics germane to his thesis.  A case in point is the number of black quarterbacks in the NFL and what it takes to become a quarterback if you are black.  Interestingly today there are a number of exceptional young quarterbacks in the NFL, but if the past is prologue many black players who aspire to stand behind a center have been steered in the direction of wide receiver, cornerback or safety because of course they were fast, and if we include racial tropes hinted by coaches like Mike Shanahan they are not able to grasp the intricacies of running the offense of a professional football team.  This is out and out racism and Feinstein provides examples to support his argument including the likes of Donavan McNabb, Colin Kaepernick and Marlin Briscoe. In Kaepernick’s high profile case he took a knee during the national anthem to protest the lack of racial justice in America, resulting in being blackballed by all 32 NFL teams.

As one reads Feinstein’s work a number of extremely important points emerge. First, the NFL is 75% black but if you are a white coach who has been dismissed one or two times the odds are you will get another opportunity to be a head coach.  If you are a black under the same circumstances you will most likely spend your career as an offensive or defensive coordinator, never given the opportunity to become a head coach.  Again, Feinstein points to a number of individuals to support his conclusions, Marvin Lewis, Jim Caldwell, and Lovie Smith.  Further, he asks the question many others have; why hasn’t Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy been hired as a head coach based on his career resume and success?  Football is not the only sport that exhibits these discrepancies.  In college basketball there are 332 coaching jobs, 82 of which are held by blacks – a sport where 50% of the players are black. (161)

Doc Rivers Clippers
(Philadelphia Seventy-Sixers coach Doc Rivers)

Second, why are black quarterbacks in college expected to change positions in order to play in the NFL?  Feinstein takes us inside the Baltimore Ravens 2018 draft room where it took a black General Manager, Ozzie Newsome to choose a black quarterback.  To understand this process and the choice of Lamar Jackson in addition to the cadre of young black quarterbacks in the league who are a success, we must ask, is the process changing?  Interestingly, in 2017 the Chicago Bears drafted Mitch Trubisky with their second round draft pick while Patrick Mahomes went in the 10th round and Deshaun Watson was chosen in the 12th.  Today Trubisky is a backup QB and not even with the Bears, but he is white and the others black.  The situation for blacks who aspire to become general managers face the same obstacles. The numbers do not lie. 

Third, when blacks peacefully protest they are usually stigmatized for life – exemplified by John Carlos and Tommie Smith of 1968 Mexico City fame and Colin Kaepernick.

Lastly, something Pittsburgh Steeler coach Mike Tomlin refers to as “the talk,” how you engage white police officers when you are pulled over if you have black sons whose only transgression is “driving while black.”  This has nothing to do with sports, but it provides a lens into how black parents try and protect their children in the larger society.  “The talk” is a result of the experiences of black fathers who for generations have been treated poorly by police.

A closeup of Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin.

(PITTSBURGH, PA – DECEMBER 17: Head coach Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers looks on from the sidelines in the third quarter during the game against the New England Patriots at Heinz Field on December 17, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania)

Feinstein does an excellent job providing the personal background for each of the sports figures he discusses.  Whether it is John Carlos, Tony Dungy or a host of other we get to see the world through their eyes and are exposed to an important perspective when it comes to race based on what they have been through leading to their professional careers. 

Perhaps Feinstein’s most entertaining and insightful chapter, “Pathfinders” focuses on the life and career of Georgetown coach John Thompson.  Thompson was a man with a tough exterior and took an exceptionally weak program and turned it into a national powerhouse.  But beyond the façade, Thompson was a wonderful person who took care of his players and was “thoughtful and eloquent and never ducked a question, once you got the chance to ask one.”  What is clear in college basketball most head coaching offers to Blacks are given by programs that are in poor shape.  According to Thompson, “there have been plenty of Black coaches capable of winning a national championship.  Only a handful have been given a realistic chance to do so.”

Feinstein’s discussion of the NBA, a league that is the most progressive and places itself at the center of society’s ills with protests by players and its commissioner are eye opening.  Focusing on Doc Rivers whose commentary encapsulates the plight of blacks in the larger society as opposed to zeroing in on the NBA is important because it shows how racial attitudes are intertwined between sports and the “real” world.  For Rivers, the deaths of George Floyd, Jacob Blake, Ahmaud Arbery, Breanna Taylor and so many others are too much as is the constant experience of Black While Driving.  The NBA may be more progressive, but it too has some key issues that must be addressed.

Feinstein finds the same issues that plague football and basketball in baseball.  Though he does not dig down as deep as he did with other sports the problems that exist sound familiar.  For example, why has Willie Randolph who had a successful career as a player, coach, and even as a manager of the New York Mets been out of baseball since 2011 and has not had the opportunity to manage another team since the Mets fired him.  Jeff Torborg has been a manager five times and his record is not as strong as Randolph.  If we are to examine this example and others it is clear, Randolph is black, Torborg is white.  Why did A.J. Hinch, the manager of the Houston Astros who was fired and suspended by Major League baseball for the illegalities in winning the 2017 World Series, get rehired by the Detroit Tigers immediately after he served his suspension?  He was white! 

  • Baseball MLB 1990 Bowman #449 Dave Stewart #449 NM Athletics

If we follow the path of Dave Stewart, an all-star pitcher and World Series champion to become a general manager the pattern is the same, and of course he is black therefore he missed out on the executive position with the Toronto Blue Jays who hired a “white” person whose resume did not hold a candle to Stewart’s.  If one follows Black men with executive positions in baseball we see Derek Jeter, part owner of the Florida Marlins and Kenny Williams as executive vice-president after being a GM of the Chicago White Sox, but it took twenty-one years – obviously, the pattern remains clear.

Feinstein has authored an important book, made even better with his sense of humor and sarcasm.  With the death of George Floyd and the events of last year hovering over each sentence Feinstein must be commended for his impeccable research, easy writing style, and the importance of his topic which makes the book difficult to put the book down.  If there is one area that Feinstein could have improved upon is that he can get repetitive at times, but this is probably nit-picking.

Image: Colin Kaepernick, Eric Reid

(San Francisco 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick, right, and Eric Reid protest during the national anthem before an NFL game against the Carolina) 


Japanese Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu, seated, signs the Japanese surrender document on the Missouri in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, 1945.

(Japanese surrender on USS Missouri after WWII)

The death of Franklin D. Roosevelt in April1945 vaulted the inexperienced Harry S. Truman into the Oval Office.  As Vice-President Truman was kept in the dark by Roosevelt on many issues including the Manhattan Project which would later result in dropping two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August 1945.  However, before the Enola Gay released its first bomb, American policy to end the war in the Pacific rested upon the phrase “unconditional surrender” a term uttered by Roosevelt at the Casablanca Conference attended by Winston Churchill in January 1943.  The policy was employed to avoid any possibility that the defeated powers of Germany and Japan would later question whether they were defeated militarily as occurred following World War I.

The application of “unconditional surrender” to the Pacific Theater is the subject of Villanova Professor Marc Gallicchio’s latest monograph, UNCONDITIONAL: THE JAPANESE SURRENDER IN WORLD WAR II.  A major focus in Gallicchio’s narrative is the role of Truman and a cadre of individuals that includes Henry L. Stimson, Joseph C. Grew, James Forrestal, George C. Marshall, Dean Acheson, Herbert Hoover, and numerous others in debating the policy of “unconditional surrender,” with an eye on the role of the Soviet Union, China, and Japan in the post war world.  Though Truman was a novice in foreign policy he held a number of strong views concerning uprooting Japan’s military and its ideology and replacing the imperial monarchy with a pro-western democracy.

File:TRUMAN 58-766-06.jpg
(President Harry S. Truman)

After the war, the United States would help with the reconstruction of Japan and impose a new constitution on the defeated country.  As Japan flourished she would become a staunch ally that stood firmly against the rise of communism in China and a supporter of Washington’s overall all policy for Asia.  The end result was that the United States avoided creating a revanchist regime in Tokyo.

A second major emphasis in Gallicchio’s presentation is how policy decisions evolved and the application of his own insightful analysis throughout. He reconstructs events and delves into the arguments of the major personalities that led to the Japanese surrender on the USS Missouri staged in Tokyo Bay in September 1945.

Gallicchio begins by explaining the origins and rationale for “unconditional surrender” as a means to reassure the Soviet Union that there would be no separate peace.  Russia would come to an agreement that once Germany was defeated they would shift troops to the Pacific and help end the war against Japan, but as in all cases in dealing with Joseph Stalin, Moscow had its own agenda for northeast China once the Japanese withdrew. 

Joseph Grew wwwnndbcompeople023000054858grew083201jpg
(Former US Ambassador to Japan, Joseph C. Grew)

Gallicchio exhibits an excellent command of the secondary and primary materials dealing with his topic and offers a concise application of the documentary evidence in developing his conclusions.  In addition, he considers the analysis offered by previous historians who have engaged the late World War II and early Cold War period.  For example, he reviews the Yalta and Potsdam Agreements in his treatment of the “Stalin Issue,” and how the World War II alliance of convenience unraveled despite Washington’s need for Soviet troops to help defeat the Japanese military.  Truman was very concerned that the US should try and defeat Japan as quickly as possible to avoid creating a vacuum in the region that could easily be filled by Moscow.  Aside from the cost of an American invasion of the Japanese home islands this was a major rationale for Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bombs to end the war as quickly as possible.

The author’s analysis includes a deep dive inside the Japanese military hierarchy, cabinet, and bureaucracy and summarizes the views of the different factions that emerged as it was confronted by America’s policies toward surrender and the future role of the Emperor.  Gallicchio spends a substantial amount of time discussing the peace faction that surrounded Emperor Hirohito as it tried to fend off the militarists who believed that if the war could be drawn out further, with Germany defeated domestic pressure in the United States would result in Washington’s acquiescence to a lesser policy than offered by complete surrender, military occupation, and retention of the Emperorship.  Further, the military believed that the Soviet Union could become a useful tool in pressuring the United States to alter its position, in addition to what they perceived as a weakening of the allied alliance.

refer to caption

(Portrait of Herbert Hoover)

A major strength of Gallicchio’s work is his exploration of the American home front as the war was ending.  Truman was under a great deal of pressure to end the war since Germany was defeated.  Public opinion polls pointed to the desire to bring the troops home and reconversion to a domestic economy and not allowing the Pentagon to dictate economic policy.

Gallicchio emphasizes the role of American code breaking as the United States collected a great deal of information through MAGIC decrypts of Japanese diplomatic messages and analysis of Japanese troop dispositions, which were processed through a military intelligence program code-named ULTRA.  These two sources tried to keep Washington one step ahead of Japan throughout most of the war.

(Japanese Emperor Hirohito)

Gallicchio is correct when he argues that the Potsdam Conference played a significant role as it became increasingly clear that there was little Washington could do to keep the Russians from seizing large parts of Manchuria, even if Japan was defeated before Soviet troops entered China.  However, it is during the conference that Truman learned of the successful test of the atomic bomb providing him with a major tool in dealing with Stalin and ending the war as rapidly as possible.  Truman was ill disposed to making any special guarantees to the Emperor who he believed was as much of a war criminal as Hitler and Mussolini.  But Truman also realized that he would need Hirohito to facilitate the surrender of Imperial troops.  In the end Truman would accept the Emperor as a glorified figurehead, hopefully avoiding a resurgence of Japanese nationalism in the future. 

Henry Stimson : News Photo
(Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson)

The end of the war did not end the debate over the “unconditional surrender“ policy.  Gallicchio dissects the revisionism put forth by those who blamed the policy of “unconditional surrender” for causing the problems in the immediate post war era that led to communist domination of Asia.  Gallicchio does an excellent job in his last complete chapter in presenting the arguments pro and con whether the Emperor was a peace candidate.  He also extrapolates that if the Truman administration had been willing to alter the policy and state that Washington had no intention to outlaw the monarchy the dropping of the atomic bomb would not have been necessary, the Soviet Union would not have entered China, and by 1949 Maoist forces would not have seized power in Beijing.  This revisionism is incorrect and reflects the inability of certain individuals including Herbert Hoover and Admiral William D. Leahy, Roosevelt’s Chief of Staff among others to accept the reality of the military-political situation within the Japanese establishment where the military dominated the government and in the case of Hirohito he did nothing to alter the conduct of Japanese forces throughout the Pacific.  Gallicchio continues his presentation by reviewing the historiography of his subject well into the mid-1990s and the cultural politics that ensued.

Gallicchio offers a tightly focused narrative that lays out the pros and cons of America’s policy of “unconditional surrender” in the Pacific at the end of World War II.  It is concisely written and stays on target with little or no meandering to other issues.  The book is a fresh look at the drama that unfolded at the end of the war and an important synthesis of what has been written before and encapsulates the important debates that led to the dropping of the atomic bombs and America’s occupation of Japan that ensued.

(Japanese surrender, USS Missouri, September 1945)


Image 1 - 1946 Studebaker Coupe Auto Car Ad Refrigerator / Tool Box Magnet

After creating two the national bestsellers, RULES OF CIVILITY and A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW, Amor Towles has now offered his third novel, THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY which has also received praise from many quarters.  The book approaches a ten day period in June 1954 involving four major characters as their journey culminates in New York City.  The story is told from multiple points of view, which has become a staple in Towles’ novels.  The story begins with Warden Williams returning Emmett Watson to his home Morgen, Nebraska after serving an eighteen month sentence at the Salina, Kansas youth home for manslaughter.  After Watson has been delivered to his house he discovers that two inmates from the farm, Woolly Walcott Martin and Daniel (Duchess) Hewett have hidden in the warden’s trunk as a means of escaping the farm.  These three characters along with Emmett’s brother Billy are the vehicle from which the stories embedded in the novel are told.

After their farm is foreclosed upon following the death of their father, Emmett and Billy decide to head to California to try and locate their mother who had abandoned them a decade ago.  Their plans change when Duchess and Woolly abscond with Emmett’s Studebaker and travel to New York.  The novel builds on this framework developing many interesting situations and characters highlighted by Towles approach to life and the foibles of people. 

The Lincoln Highway map from the book

Towles does a superb job framing scenes and is a master of dialogue be it a discussion of Kazantis the escape artist or the philosophical approach to life of Ulysses Dixon, “a large negro” who will save Billy’s life while traveling on a freight train.  Towles creates delightful characters that will capture the reader’s attention throughout the novel.  For example, Emmett’s search for cereal in the General Mills freight car that he and Billy had stolen a ride on to catch up to Duchess and reclaim the Studebaker.  It is on that freight car that Pastor John appears who informs Billy that he is a real pastor “like my namesake John the Baptist, my church is the open road and my congregation the common man” that things will become interesting.

Of all the characters that Towles creates, Ulysses is the most interesting. Ulysses’ story is a sad one as he volunteered for military service in 1943 against the wishes of his wife who was pregnant and when he returns following the war they are nowhere to be found.  Ulysses punishes himself by living in a homeless community under a bridge in New York City and traveling the country using freight trains as a means of transportation.  Towles use of Homer’s THE ILIAD is a remarkable tool to gain insight into Dixon’s life and what the outcome of his journey might turn out to be.

As Towles tells his story through the lens of the four main characters and a few ancillary ones the reader gains diverse perspectives about the same scenes and events and provides a greater understanding of human nature than focusing on only one perspective.  Towles is a marvelous storyteller with a keen eye concerning human relations and their attitude towards life’s vicissitudes.  Towles integrates a number of unusual analogies, for example, comparing the Salina youth farm with Alexandre Dumas’ THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO among many others.

Towles provides an accurate view of the 1950s through the landscape of the Lincoln Highway which connects Times Square in New York to San Francisco.  As Towles characters travel across America underlying themes of ant-communism, anti-Semitism, racism, and socio-economic inequality come to the fore.  Towles eye for detail is astonishing as he explores American culture employing diverse examples including; a Coup Deville, a Playtex bra, cans of Chef Boy-Ardie, television programs from Dragnet to the Long Ranger and others too numerous to mention.

The novel revolves around Emmett’s search for Duchess and their coming together in New York. The travail’s they experience, include Woolly and Billy, along with the family baggage they carry around.  The adventures that emerge are entertaining, thoughtful, and easily maintain the reader’s attention.  The commentary offered by Emmett, Duchess, Woolly, and Billy stand out in terms pathos, empathy, humor, and the serious nature of the lives they are living.  Towles use of Professor Abacus Abernathe’s COMPENDIUM OF HEROES, ADVENTURES, AND OTHER INTREPID TRAVELERS, a red book carried by Billy everywhere describing 26 heroes from Achilles to Zorro is an excellent source to present past history and how it affects the present.  Towles scenes where Billy meets the professor is unusual, and extremely important.

Times Square 

One of the many strengths of THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY is Towles knack of introducing new characters then delving into their personal stories.  Through their recounting we learn a great deal about America ranging from life in an orphanage in Nebraska, a youth facility in Kansas, Harlem neighborhoods, Manhattan to the Adirondacks. Towles has produced a sweeping book that is as much about literary history of the road novel as it is about one engaging journey.

Chris Bachelder is dead on in his November 7, 2021, New York Times  book review when he writes; At 600 pages, “The Lincoln Highway” is remarkably brisk, remarkably buoyant. Though dark shadows fall across its final chapters, the book is permeated with light, wit, youth. Many novels this size are telescopes, but this big book is a microscope, focused on a small sample of a vast whole. Towles has snipped off a minuscule strand of existence — 10 wayward days — and when we look through his lens we see that this brief interstice teems with stories, grand as legends.