(Rickey Henderson after he broke Lou Brock’s alltime base stealing record)

There are few more talented and interesting characters in baseball history than the enigmatic Rickey Henderson.  Be it his personality or ego which dominated a number of clubhouses or his play on the baseball diamond one accurate description emerges, unchallenged talent and a desire to be the greatest or one of the greatest in baseball history.  Henderson set the record for the most stolen baseball in a season, the most career runs scored, walks, the most lead off home runs, 3000 hits, earning a series of gold gloves and was a force in of himself.  All of these accomplishments are captured by Howard Bryant in his latest book, RICKEY: THE LIFE AND LEGEND OF AN AMERICAN ORIGINAL, which is an apt title for his biography.  Bryant has written a number of deeply researched and insightful books dealing with baseball and racism in American society.  His JUICING THE GAME: DRUGS, POWER, AND THE FIGHT FOR THE SOUL OF MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL is a superb recounting and expose dealing with the steroid era in baseball; SHUT OUT: A STORY OF RACE AND BASEBALL IN BOSTON zeroes in on the Yawkey family and their role in making the Red Sox one of the most racist franchises in baseball history; FULL DISSIDENCE: NOTES FROM AN UNEVEN PLAYING FIELD uses baseball as a meditation on the idea that we are living in a post-racial America which he easily destroys; and  THE HERO: A LIFE OF HENRY AARON which explores the life story of a different type of person and player than Henderson.  Unlike Henderson, Aaron was not as flamboyant or controversial and was beloved for his dedication to his craft and “played baseball the right way,” not rubbing his peers the wrong way despite his talent and on field performance.  In his latest effort, Bryant has prepared an intimate portrait of “the man of steal” discussing all aspects of his background, career, and life after many of his skills had eroded.  What emerges is a very complex portrait of a man who thrilled baseball fans on a daily basis for over two decades.

As in all of his books Bryant places his subject in the context of the civil rights movement and racism in sports.  RICKEY is no exception as he presents Henderson’s early  life story within the framework of white backlash against integration as he grew up in Pine Bluffs, AK, 45 minutes from Little Rock amidst the “Crisis at Central High School” in 1957 to Oakland, CA which became central to the black exodus from the south following World War II – in a sense the city was the black Ellis Island.  In 1940 Oakland was 2.8% black and by 1950 81% of blacks living in the city were born in the south and followed the concept of “chain migration.”  Bryant’s approach is a thoughtful one as he recounts why so many blacks migrated to Oakland.  The lure of jobs at the docks and defense industry as World War II commenced became a lifeline for southern blacks to escape violence, murder, lynching’s and all the “accoutrements” of living in the racist south.  It is fascinating to realize the baseball talent that accrued to Oakland as southern black families arrived.  Hall of Fame sports figures such as Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson, Joe Morgan, Curt Flood, Bill Russell, and Paul Silas all seemed to have the same migration background.

MLB Photos Archive
(New York Yankee manager, Billy Martin)

Bryant’s methodology toward sports biography is different than most.  His portrayals are steeped in American history, especially white racism, the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, and the forces in American society and uses Oakland as a microcosm for white racism and the plight of the black community.  It should not be a surprise that the Black Panther Movement of the 1960s and leaders such as Bobby Seale and Huey Newton hailed from Oakland.  In the 1940s and 50s Oakland was 90% segregated and it is in this climate that the 10 year old Rickey Henderson arrived from Arkansas in 1969.

Bryant carefully traces Rickey’s early years and his path to the major leagues.  Along the way we meet important personages like Charles O. Finley, the controversial and innovative owner of the Oakland A’s, Billy Martin, the abusive, racist, and brilliant manager of the team, Mike Norris, a pitcher who became Rickey’s best friend along with numerous characters that dominated baseball during Rickey’s career.  Rickey was all about himself – what was his worth, and his overall goal of becoming the greatest base stealer of all time breaking Ty Cobb and Lou Brock’s records.

Rickey’s life story reflects the lack of education due to segregation to the point that Henderson never really learned how to read in school as with many black athlete’s teachers would pass them on despite not mastering basic reading and writing skills as long as they could perform on the field or the arena.  Bryant explains this is why Rickey refused certain obligations knowing he could not read well and feared embarrassment and humiliation.  “Rickey speaks,” or “Rickey being Rickey” was a reputation he acquired in large part because of his own inferiority when it came to private interaction or activities involving public speaking or reading. 

Oakland Athletics
(Mike Norris)

According to Bryant Rickey burned to be great, but he was often a singular character, someone set apart from the rest.  He was not one of the guys in the clubhouse and he showed none of the deference veterans expected.  His lack of reverence was possibly a by-product of football being his number one choice as an athlete.  Another reason was his belief in his own ability.  He did not walk into the clubhouse in awe of everything baseball as many young players did.  Thirdly, Rickey never forgot the day he was drafted and who was drafted ahead of him.  He was chosen in the 4th round and believed he was a $100,000 ballplayer, not the $10,000 he signed for.

Billy Martin played an outsized role in Rickey’s development.  Perhaps because they both hailed from Oakland and had a similar view of baseball they would get along except that Martin was a control freak who refused to give Rickey the “green light” to steal at will.  Everything needed Martin’s approval, but it was under his managerial tenure that Rickey excelled and would break numerous records, which brought about Rickey’s resentment as his manager took a great deal of credit for his accomplishments.  In the end it did not matter who his manager was, Rickey was fueled by his obsession with greatness.

Rickey Henderson Field Dedication
(Rickey Henderson, his wife Pamela and their children)

Importantly, Bryant discusses Rickey’s “crouch” in the batter’s box which reduced his strike zone leading to increasing numbers of walks and steals as it forced pitchers to throw directly into his power.  Outfielder Billy Sample described Rickey’s strike zone as that “of a matchbox.” Opposing players, umpires, particularly pitchers and catchers complained in vain, and Bryant’s vignettes are priceless.  Rickey’s “style” made catchers look bad, increasing their hostility toward Rickey.  When he slid into home they hit him hard, when pitchers tried to pick him off first basemen would slap on a tag to make him feel as uncomfortable as possible – but nothing stopped him.  Rickey’s reputation as a “hot dog,” i.e., the development of his “snatch catch” was part of what he termed his “styling” something he had done since he was a kid, but according to Bryant many reporters evaluated his performance with a racial tone.

Bryant deftly places Henderson’s career and personality in the milieu of baseball history and carefully compares and contrasts him with others, contemporary and in the past.  Stories about Joe DiMaggio, Lou Brock, Willie Wilson provide insights into Rickey’s approach to baseball and his amazing accomplishments.  Different from others in his approach to his sport Rickey seemed to me in his own world.  He would talk to himself in the batter’s box, he would stroll slowly to the plate, and had so many eccentric habits that a Yankee executive, Woody Woodward described him by saying, “I’ve never seen a guy look so fast in slow motion.”

FILE - Oakland Athletics pitcher Dave Stewart celebrates the team's 6-2 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays in Game 5 of baseball's AL Championship Series on Oct. 12, 1992, in Oakland, Calif. Stewart is still waiting for his number retirement ceremony. Stewart, now 65, found out in August 2019 the club planned to retire his No. 34 jersey, then it didnt happen during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season or last year. The former World Series MVP and four-time 20-game winner posted on his Twitter account this week some frustration with his hometown team. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)
(Dave Stewart)

For Rickey, the “unwritten rules of baseball” should never have been written!  He went by a different drummer where his personal statistics were paramount.  Bryant compares Rickey’s accomplishments with contemporaries like Tim Raines, Willie Wilson and James Lofton and despite their success they came up short.   Rickey always measured himself against the accomplishments of others, particularly those he felt were a threat and these three individuals appear repeatedly in Bryant’s narrative.

At times Bryant digresses but does a wonderful job discussing Rickey’s relationship with managers such as Tony La Russa, who always believed and still does that he is the smartest man in the room, Buck Showalter, his New York Yankee manager who was considered a hard nosed manager, Bobby Valentine, the New York Mets Manager who Rickey held in disdain.  Of course, Yankee owner George Steinbrenner appears, Dave Stewart, one of his closest friends, Jose Canseco, a home run hitter who Rickey saw as a buffoon, Reggie Jackson, a teammate in Oakland with an outsized ego, and Don Mattingly, a Yankee teammate who he admired among many portraits that are depicted. Bryant’s work is extremely entertaining and satisfying.  It is well written as all of Bryant’s books and provides evidence for Rickey’s place in baseball history.  The book is a great read just for all the “Rickey stories” and “Rickeyisms” he quotes.  As his career evolved his reputation changed from a self-absorbed record seeker who in his late thirties became a beloved person whose feats and numbers spoke for themselves.  Playing at a time when players were beginning to flex their  legal muscle entering the age of free agency as owners could no longer control them for life, Rickey’s performance on the diamond cannot be challenged.  An excellent read.

** FILE ** In this May 1, 1991, file photo, Oakland Athletics' Rickey Henderson celebrates and raises third base after setting the all-time stolen base record during the Athletics' baseball game in Oakland, Calif., against the New York Yankees. The stolen base was Henderson's 939th, moving him past Lou Brock. Henderson was voted into baseball's Hall of Fame on Monday, Jan. 12, 2009. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)


(Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium)

Spring has arrived, at least in our minds up in New England, and with it the sounds and hopes generated by a new baseball season which hopefully will not be affected by Covid as it was last year.  At the same time, we are experiencing the 100th anniversary of the Negro Leagues, in addition to the tumult that fostered the creation of the Black Lives Matter Movement and its continuing relevancy.  Based on time of year and the impact of race on the news on a daily basis Luke Epplin’s new book, OUR TEAM: THE EPIC STORY OF FOUR MEN AND THE WORLD SERIES THAT CHANGED BASEBALL seems like an excellent choice to navigate the role of race in baseball history and its impact on our current view of the sport.

Epplin’s focus is on four individuals who greatly impacted baseball history apart from the Cleveland Indians magical run to the pennant in 1948.  Playing in the cavernous Municipal Stadium its owner Bill Veeck, part showman, shrewd businessman, and baseball lifer introduced a number of changes as to how owners approached their teams.  The second impact individual was Bob Feller, an Iowa farm boy who became one of the best pitchers in baseball history, though by 1948 he was on the downside of his career.  The last two individuals Larry Doby and Satchel Paige have a special place in baseball history when it comes to the integration of the sport.  By the time Paige arrived in Cleveland he was in his early forties and had played in the Negro League for years.  Possibly the best pitcher, black or white since the 1930s Paige would make significant contributions in 1948.  The last person Epplin focuses on Larry Doby became the first negro player in the American League. 

In 1947, Jackie Robinson who was groomed to be the first negro player in baseball by Branch Rickey made his debut.  When one thinks of the integration of baseball. Robinson and his experiences dealing with racists in out of the game comes to mind, and few think a great deal about Doby.  The young Cleveland outfielder was playing in Newark in the Negro League when he was called up in 1948 and did not undergo the “grooming” process that Robinson had.  Despite this handicap, after a slow start, Doby, along with Paige and a few other Indians players are responsible for the amazing 1948 season.

(Satchel Paige)

Epplin explains how the Cleveland Indians and these four individuals captivated the American people in 1948 as baseball had recovered its fan base and put their best product on the field since before World War II.  In addition to the economic impact, these men focused on  social issues facing the American people as the country was moving closer to the civil rights revolution.

Epplin gives justice to the legends and myths relating to Bob Feller and Satchel Paige dating to their confrontations on the diamond beginning in 1936.  The pre-1947 era was dominated by barnstorming players competing with each other during the off season to supplement their salaries which were kept low by owners due to the reserve clause.  Baseball Commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis realized that if negro teams defeated white teams on a regular basis, it would be difficult to justify segregation, so he implemented new rules to limit the barnstorming.  He wanted people to see them as exhibitions to prove that negro players were inferior to whites.  Despite Landis’ attitude players like Lou Gehrig, Dizzy Dean, and Carl Hubbell all believed that Paige belonged in the major leagues.

Satchel Paige Bob Feller Comparing Baseballs : News Photo
(Satchel Paige and Bob Feller)

The author effectively integrates the history of Jim Crow laws, and the overt and covert racism that existed in American society throughout the narrative as he focuses on the role race played in these individual lives in addition to the personal competition between Feller and Paige.  The subject of race is key.  Paige obviously was one of the best pitchers of his generation, but he never had a chance to exhibit his talent because of baseball’s color barrier enforced by its racist Commissioner Judge Keneshaw Mountain Landis who ruled baseball as a dictator after repairing its image following the 1919 Black Sox scandal.  When Bill Veeck tried to buy the Philadelphia Phillies in 1942 and Landis learned he would sign negro players he blocked it.  When the history of baseball integration is told writers tend to focus on Jackie Robinson and leave out the trials and tribulations highlighted by the demeaning behavior and outright racism suffered by Larry Doby who a year after Robinson broke the color barrier took the field in the American League.  Epplin has thoroughly researched his topic and the racist comments by Feller concerning Paige who repeatedly bested him on the mound during the off season are presented clearly and reflect the true character of the Cleveland fireballer.

The key figure in integrating the American League and bringing a World Series championship to Cleveland in 1948 was Bill Veeck.  Epplin zeroes in on the essence of who Bill Veeck was – his optimism, ingenuity, and ability to convince others of his viewpoints.  Ever since I read Ed Linn’s VEECK AS IN WRECK as a boy I have been fascinated by Veeck and his ability to transform baseball franchises be it in Milwaukee, Cleveland, or Chicago.  In effect through his desire to sign negro ball players, his promotional creativity, and his willingness to sacrifice his personal life and health Veeck became a sort of “mad scientist” conjuring up new ideas in his baseball laboratory on a regular basis.  As Epplin develops his narrative it is interesting as he notes that following World War II part of the reason Veeck signed Paige at the age of forty four was due to the decline of Bob Feller as a pitcher. 

It was Feller who epitomizes baseball during the era he played.  He was baseball’s dominant pitcher in the late 1930s until World War II.  Feller was a selfish individual who had difficulty accepting the lost wages because of his four year service in the military.  After the war he was hell bent on recouping the money and incorporated himself as RO-FEL Inc.  The barnstorming was the key, but his star status meant he had to pitch almost every day, make all arrangements and his commitment to earning as much money as possible and confronting baseball’s hierarchy meant he shortened his career as there are only so many pitches in a person’s arm during the pre-Tommy John surgery era.  Feller’s decline and views on race, and his selfishness as viewed by other players detract from his overall reputation as a baseball great.  As Epplin correctly points out, “Feller’s swoon, in a sense, facilitated Paige’s rise.”

(Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby)

Epplin follows Veeck’s quest to buy the Indians in 1946 in detail.  He delves into the roadblocks he faced, his interaction with fans and his promotional ability, and finally deciding to sign Paige and integrate the team with the signing of Larry Doby who after a poor start became one of the dominant sluggers in baseball at that time.  Epplin makes the important point that Robinson’s almost immediate success with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 was due to this preparation in the minor leagues for what he was to expect once he stepped on the field as a Dodger.  Secondly, Robinson was used to the publicity surrounding his athletic prowess at UCLA, his maturity from serving in the US Army during the war, and the strategy employed by Branch Rickey.  On the other hand, Doby, only twenty three, was forced to change positions, had no seasoning in the minors, and was a quiet introverted type who had never been exposed to the type of racism he would confront once Veeck signed him to a contract.  Interestingly, according to Epplin, Veeck developed a wonderful relationship with Doby, but Paige and Doby always seemed to be at loggerheads.

(Bill Veeck)

The book will take the reader through the 1948 season and Cleveland’s ultimate victory in the World Series.  Epplin does bring his focus on others aside from his four major characters to reinforce his views, but it is the role of Feller, Paige, Veeck, and Doby and his focus on the Negro Leagues that allows him to develop a narrative that is both interesting and timely as we confront the same type of covert and overt racism today.  It is clear that if Veeck had not signed Doby and Paige the Cleveland Indians quest for a pennant and World Series championship would have come up short in 1948.

Overall, Epplin has written a fine baseball history of the Cleveland Indians and their quest for a World Series in 1948.  However, apart from some interesting ”nuggets” that the author has uncovered, much of what he explores has been presented by other baseball historians which he acknowledges.  Despite this minor flaw Epplin writes well and he has produced an interesting read that should satisfy baseball fans of every generations.

Cleveland Municipal Stadium, former home of the Cleveland Indians
(Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium)


Yogi Berra during the 1960 World Series - photo Marvin E. Newman

(Lawrence Peter Berra ….”Yogi”)

Growing up in Brooklyn, NY I had had ample opportunity to sit in the bleachers in the old Yankee Stadium or watch the “Bronx Bombers” on WPIX.  If I could not watch the team in person or watch them on television, I could listen to my Sony transistor radio and learn of the exploits of my heroes.   The names of the players are embedded in my memory; Mantle, Ford, Skowron, Richardson, Kubek and of course Berra.  The Yankee catcher, sometimes outfielder was a sight to behold.  His awkward swing that paid no attention to the strike zone or his bowl legged stride did not detract from his baseball grace.  Be it jumping into Don Larsen’s arms following the 1956 World Series perfect game or turning his back on Bill Mazeroski’s game winning homerun to win the 1960 World Series, Berra always stood out as a leader among his teammates.  All of the wonderful stories  and career memories surrounding Berra are again brought to life in Jon Pessah’s new biography, YOGI: A LIFE BEHIND THE MASK which allows me to relive many important memories from my childhood.

Pessah’s prodigious research including interviews, culling newspapers, and other materials have produced a masterful biography as he places Berra’s story in the context of race relations, socio-economic issues, ethnic conflict, and other important aspects of American history during his lifetime.  A good example of the scope of Pessah’s effort is his discussion of the impact of World War II on American society, prejudice against Italian immigrants, and the obstinacy of baseball owners in integrating their sport.

Yogi Berra (left) won 10 World Series championships with the Yankees. (Courtesy Dale Berra)

        (Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle)

Pessah’s points out a number of interesting aspects of Berra’s life.  I was completely unaware that as a member of the US Navy during World War II, Berra volunteered for service on “Rocket Boats” which were designed to cross the English Channel on D Day and soften German targets for allied bombers.  Berra witnessed a great deal of carnage and death during the war which he never really went public with.  Another important aspect of Berra’s life and career was the abuse he suffered because of his facial features and stature.  Constantly the victim of crude and ugly remarks growing up he also had to deal with them when he stepped on to the baseball diamond.  Berra would become philosophical about the abuse and he was able to cope and put it behind him through a series of rationalizations.

Placing Berra’s career in the context of post war events is a key for Pessah.  Whether discussing the role of baseball during World War II, the GI bill of 1947, postwar American growth as Americans experienced discretionary spending to visit ball parks, the arrival of Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby to integrate both major leagues, racial unrest in the 1950s and 60s, all reflect the author’s strong command of history and provides insights into Berra’s views and career.

Yogi Berra relaxed on the field during Yogi Berra Day at Yankee Stadium in 1959.

(Yogi Berra Day at Yankee Stadium in 1959)

I would imagine that most people are aware of the many “Yogisms” that exist that are still referred to on a daily basis.  Yogis’ commentary endeared him to the American people as it seemed he “can do everything so wrong but have them all turn out so right.”  Comments like “the future ain’t what it used to be,” “when you come to a fork in the road take it,” “ninety percent of baseball is mental; the other half is physical, “or when a reporter asked him if the comments he had to endure about his looks he responded, “I haven’t seen anyone who hits with their face,” are still amusing today.  Many have painted Berra as inarticulate and not highly intelligent.  Nothing could be further from the truth as Berra was a shrewd businessman who built Yoo Hoo soft drinks into a national brand, partnered with Phil Rizzuto buying a bowling alley and selling it for a $1 million profit, acting in a few movies, and earning the highest salary for a catcher in baseball history.

Pessah does a marvelous job presenting the watersheds in Berra’s life and career.  The role of Dr. Bobby Brown, an infielder with the Yankees before he turned to medicine played an important role in taking care of Berra his first few years introducing him to life in the city, smoothed his rough edges, and preached patience.  Berra’s marriage to Carmen Short provided him a family life and a partner who helped make important decisions.  Lastly, the work Hall of Fame catcher Bill Dickey who worked with Berra and turned his raw skills into the best defensive catcher in baseball.

The first two thirds of the book covers Berra’s career with the Yankees which includes the standard statistics that most baseball books offer, Berra’s relationship with his teammates especially Joe DiMaggio, and his sidekicks Mickey Mantle, and Whitey Ford, along with the difficulties of transitioning to managing the Yankees and his firing.  What sets Pessah’s biography apart is that he delves into Berra’s post playing career and later life after baseball in great detail offering numerous insights into his personality and what made him so successful.

What is clear from Pessah’s biography is the importance of family and the role of his wife Carmen.  If you want insight into the type of person Berra was off the baseball field all you need to explore is how he dealt with his son Dale’s cocaine habit which began when he played for the Pittsburgh Pirates..  His addiction became public knowledge during a federal investigation.  The relationship between father and son is strong further highlighted by Dale’s reaction when his father was fired by George Steinbrenner in 1985 leading to Yogis boycott of Yankee Stadium until July 18, 1999 when Berra returned to the stadium to witness David Cone’s perfect game against the Montreal Expos (a game I attended!!!)  Berra’s boycott was fostered by Carmen’s anger and reflects her role as a dominating and protective force in their marriage.

All of the traditional aspects of a baseball biography are present in YOGI: A LIFE BEHIND THE MASK, and it is to Pessah ‘s credit that he has written a study of an important American icon that allows the reader to really get to know the man. Pessah writes with a passion about Berra in part because he was his father’s favorite player and would inherit his dad’s love of the Yankees. For me, the book was a stroll down memory lane, but it raised my level of understanding what Berra endured at times during his career and how he overcame his shy and quiet nature to become a strong, capable, person and a wonderful family man.  If you have missed baseball because of Covid-19 this book can really help fill the void.

Yogi Berra


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(Lou Gehrig)

After reading Richard Sandomir’s THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES: LOU GEHRIG, GARY COOPER AND THE MAKING OF A CLASSIC I cannot decide whether I have read a sports book, or a critique of how the film “Pride of the Yankees” was created and finalized.  I guess Sandomir has elements of both, but I wish he would have chosen one path rather than moving back and forth between the two approaches.  The book itself is informative and presents a number of surprising and interesting details of how Samuel Goldwyn, Eleanor Gehrig and others went about the conception of the script, how it was be transferred to the screen, and the diverse group of people who were involved.

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(Gary Cooper in the film, “Pride of the Yankees” making Gehrig’s farewell speech)

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(Lou Gehrig making his Farewell Speech at Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939)

Sandomir provides background on all the major characters.  We witness the courtship
and marriage of Lou and Eleanor Gehrig and the stresses in their marriage.  The main problem was that Lou was a “mama’s boy” and he had difficulty separating from his mother.  Eleanor describes her marriage as a triangle between her, her husband, and her mother-in-law.  This difficulty would continue after Lou’s death as his mother sued to contest Lou’s will.  A great deal of biographical information is presented dealing with Gary Cooper and Theresa Wright the stars of the movie which are interesting and a number of career insights are brought forward.  Samuel Goldwyn whose studio produced the film is presented as a man who cared mostly about profits from his film.  He did have a soft spot for Gehrig, particularly after Gehrig’s July 4, 1939, “I am the luckiest man in the world” speech given at Yankee Stadium shortly before he died of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).

For Goldwyn the story revolved around patriotism and capturing a shy, decent, selfless, and sincere individual who possessed the character traits of what the American male stood for.  The year 1942 when the film was released is very important.  World War II was not going well, and Goldwyn saw the film as a means of entertainment, profit, but also providing American society an uplifting experience.  The story about a man who was struck down in the prime of his life by an insidious disease is heartwarming.  Gehrig’s own response reflects a brave individual who could be held up as a role model for the World War II generation.  What makes Sandomir’s new book, and Goldwyn’s film so effective is that they are able to translate Gehrig’s life through the prism of film and how that film has preserved his legendary career and his personal integrity for seventy-five years.

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(Lou and Eleanor Gehrig)

The chapter on teaching Gary Cooper to become a “passable” baseball player was one of the most interesting in the book.  Sandomir does a fine job introducing former major leaguers like Lefty O’Doul and Babe Herman, baseball stars in their own right, and how they went about teaching Cooper how to appear realistic as a player on film.  The author provides surprising detail on how this was accomplished.  Especially interesting in the discussion on how the right handed Cooper could play the left handed Gehrig.  The analysis of how film techniques i.e., camera reversals-Cooper would run to third, but on film he ran to first, or uniform names and numbers were reversed were especially interesting.

Sandomir is correct in arguing that the film itself has created a conundrum in that it is difficult to ascertain what is real in terms of Gehrig’s life story and what is a Hollywood creation.  It is fascinating that Goldwyn, Cooper, and others knew very little, if anything about baseball and yet they created a classic film on the sport.  For Goldwyn baseball was tangential to how he wanted the film presented.  The film was to be about Gehrig and Goldwyn “craved commercial success, not fidelity to a sport he had no affinity for.”  Goldwyn’s main problem was one of authenticity-how would the film convince its audience that what they were viewing was historical accurate.  Goldwyn’s staff employs artistic license repeatedly raising questions as to how effective the film was in replicating the truth.

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(Gehrig and Babe Ruth following his Farewell Speech)

A major issue is whether Sandomir delves into issues he uncovers as an investigative reporter or are they dealt with in a superficial manner, for example, Eleanor’s relationship with Lou’s mother; the Gehrig-Ruth relationship; the Gehrig marriage; and the background for each character in the film.  The feeling emerges that this is more of a sports book about Gehrig’s life and how a film was made to glorify it, rather than a study of filmmaking that lacked the cultural and social components of the period.  Sandomir is correct in arguing that in the end “the film left people to accept the truths that were created, which did not stick too many of the facts.”

The book is a comprehensive study of Gehrig’s life on film and the problems that arose from that undertaking.  However, at times the book lacks flow as it becomes somewhat tedious as the author seems to over analyze each aspect of the film, i.e.; chapters dealing with Gehrig’s Farewell Speech, and training Gary Cooper to replicate Gehrig.  If you are interested in this topic I would suggest viewing the film before reading Sandomir’s narrative.  It would create context for the reader and might produce a more positive result once the book is digested.

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(Lou Gehrig)


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(Miller Park, Milwaukee, WI; the monument to Bud Selig’s rule as Commissioner of Baseball)

When I picked up a copy of THE GAME: INSIDE THE SECRET WORLD OF MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL’S POWER BROKERS by Jon Pessah I expected an exploration of the world of baseball between 1992 and 2010 from financial and labor perspectives.  What I read encompasses those general themes, but the book also evolved into a prolonged discussion of Bud Selig and George Steinbrenner’s roles in baseball during that time period, and bringing with it an excellent reporter’s knowledge of baseball and the personalities involved. I soon developed an intense distaste for Selig, who was the owner of the Milwaukee Brewers and the “acting” commissioner of baseball at the same time, a direct conflict of interest; and a greater understanding of Steinbrenner, and a degree of empathy for his at times, outrageous behavior.

The year 1992 can be considered a “watershed” year in the history of major league baseball.  The owners were at war with each other, the owners were also at war with the players through their labor union, and the steroid era was just emerging.  Pessah raises the question; did Bud Selig save baseball, as the former Commissioner of Baseball would like everyone to believe.  After reading Pessah’s account I agree with his conclusions that Selig did more to hurt the game he supposedly loved, and his actions were driven by his own selfish agenda and led to some of the most hypocritical actions and statements that I have ever been exposed to.  Bud Selig has one belief, what is best for Bud Selig.  When it came to his role as owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, that belief centered on improving the value of his franchise no matter who he hurt or used by reorienting baseball’s financial structure to meet his needs.

(Bud Selig, Former Commissioner of Baseball)

Unhappy with the settlement with the players union in 1990 because of what he perceived to be the actions of then Baseball Commissioner Faye Vincent, Selig worked assiduously to have him removed and have himself appointed as “acting” commissioner.  Once this was achieved Selig would be in charge of negotiating a new contract with his adversary, Donald Fehr, the head of the players union.  The Brewers team debt stood at $35 million in 1990 and throughout the period it would quadruple, if not more.  For Selig, a new stadium was needed to replace the antiquated Milwaukee County Stadium to help pay down his debt.  The problem was who would finance the cost of this project.  As Pessah’s research will prove Selig would blackmail localities into having public funding for stadiums or they could lose their teams to franchise relocation or contraction (having the league fold their franchises).   Selig was envious of large market teams with extensive resources because of cable television contracts and other marketing advantages, as a result he sought to pillage those teams through revenue sharing, a salary cap, and possibly, a luxury tax.  His target was George Steinbrenner’s New York Yankees and a few other franchises.  What was most disingenuous, is that when revenue sharing was eventually implemented, many of the small market teams took the millions of dollars they received, supposedly designated for player development and procurement to make their teams more competitive, and devoted the money to their own profits.  In Selig’s case he paid down his debt, and at the same time reduced his payroll.  In the case of billionaire owner, Carl Polhand of the Minnesota Twins, he just pocketed the money.

(George Steinbrenner, owner of the New York Yankees)

The first part of the book analyzes the steps that led to the cancelling of the last month of the 1994 baseball season and the World Series.  In meticulous fashion Pessah describes the positions of the owners and the player’s union.  What seems abundantly clear is no matter how many times Selig downplayed the idea that the owners wanted a strike, the evidence reflects the opposite.  After Selig arranged his coup against Vincent, he also engineered a change in baseball’s voting structure to allow small market teams like the Brewers to veto any settlement with the players they did not like.  Pessah places the onus of the strike and the possible use of replacement players on Selig and his supporters, and less so on the player’s union head, Donald Fehr.  Along the way the author integrates the story of Don Mattingly, the Yankee first basement who had never been to the post season and whose body was slowly giving way to father time.  When Selig ended the season, the Yankees were in first place and were on the road to a possible World Series appearance for the first time since 1981, and it seemed Mattingly’s last chance may have been passed by.  Pessah explores Steinbrenner and other owner’s roles as well as Fehr and the union in intricate detail.  What one concludes as a settlement is finally reached is that Selig is correct that financial changes needed to be implemented, but other issues facing baseball, like steroids were ignored because for Selig “the homeruns” that resulted from the use of steroids were good for baseball’s bottom line.  As a result he and the owners turned a blind eye to the problem.

Selig’s methods are a major focus of the book.  How he arranges for the Montreal Expos to be purchased by Major League Baseball for $120 million and its sale for over $400 million to a group that moves it to Washington, DC is priceless.  Further, his manipulation of the Florida Marlins situation reflects his duplicitousness as he arranges for the former owner of the Expos, Jeffrey Loria to buy the Marlins when he cannot really affords to do so.  Another example is how Selig arranges for John Henry to purchase the Boston Red Sox who he hopes will create a small market mentality more to his liking in Beantown.  Selig did not overlook the needs of his own team, managed by his daughter Wendy while he was commissioner, a team that was $148.7 million in debt.  Amazingly, by the 2007 baseball season that debt has been reduced to $30 million.  Eventually Selig would sell the Brewers for $200 million based on revenue sharing and Miller Park, the stadium that was publicly financed by the residents of Milwaukee.  In addition, by 2009 Selig earned a salary of $18 million a year, and by his retirement year he had a net worth of over $200 million, not including the $35-40 million he will collect from baseball as a Commissioner Emeritus, not bad for an owner of a small market team that at one time was hemorrhaging from debt.

(Donald Fehr, Head of the Major League Baseball Players Union who fought Selig’s hypocracy for years)

Pessah’s narrative includes a discussion of events taking place outside of baseball, and Congress is a major candidate for his sarcasm.  Different Congressional committees and their politicians will use labor issues and the steroid epidemic throughout the period under discussion, grandstanding about the national pastime and making threats to take away baseball’s anti-trust exemption.   At the same time they avoid dealing with issues relating to Hurricane Katrina, the lack of proper body armor for US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, the crisis over Abu Ghraib, and numerous other issues.  It seems reasonable to assume that the money that the owners are donating to Congressional campaigns bears fruit.  The reader is provided transcripts of Congressional hearings, National Labor Relations Board decisions, intimate conversations among owners, as well as the inner workings of the union.  These details are enlightening as we learn of Yankee General Manager, Brian Cashman’s distaste for the arrogance he sees in Joe Torre, George W. Bush’s hope to be Commissioner of Baseball, the inner workings of the Steinbrenner family, and many other interesting items.  I assume that Pessah has worked his sources well and he is presenting an accurate account, however, a degree of footnoting might assuage my historian’s sensitivities, though I compliment him on his excellent bibliography and the names of those interviewed.

(Baseball’s steroid greats, from left to right: Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens, Rafael Palmeiro, and Barry Bonds)

The narrative makes for an excellent read for baseball fans and the public in general who lived through the events and relationships described.  Pessah spares nothing in discussing the BALCO scandal and Barry Bonds, the Mitchell Commission and Report that Selig created to help clear his own guilt about how he handled, or better, did not handle the growing steroid scandal in baseball.  The “bash brothers,” Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco, Roger Clemens, Alex Rodriguez, Rafael Palmeiro, and many others make their appearances as authors or witnesses before Congressional committees.  Perhaps the most important aspect of the book reflects the human frailties of all involved as the reader is taken from one contract negotiation to the next, in addition to each scandal or blight on baseball’s reputation.  Pessah’s account is almost encyclopedic as his subject matter evolves over two decades.  It seems to me as an avid baseball fan he does not miss much and to his credit, his honesty in reporting is a highlight that readers should cherish.  THE GAME is more than a baseball book, it is a story of greed, power, and manipulation that in many instances gives our nation’s pastime a black eye.  But as most baseball fans realize once spring training arrives after a long winter, they are willing to forgive and forget the actions of the likes of Bud Selig.


(Citi Field, the home of the New York Mets…brings back memories of Ebbetts Field)

When Sandy Alderson agreed to become general manager of the New York Mets in 2010 he was somewhat aware of their financial situation.  He was cognizant of their ownership involvement with the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme scandal, but not the depth of their financial losses.  Believing that accepting the job was a career challenge, plus it would bring joy to his father who lived in Florida, Alderson accepted the position.  What Alderson did not know was that the Wilpon family, who owned the Mets invested over $500 million dollars with Madoff and counted on a constant 10% return to run the team.  Once the scandal broke that money was gone, and they no longer had the funds to pay off the debt from their 2002 purchase of the team from Nelson Doubleday, Jr.  The team was in such bad shape that baseball commissioner, Bud Selig agreed to an immediate short term loan of $25 million so the team could meet payroll expenses, and convinced Alderson to take over as general manager.  On top of that one of the trustees involved with the Madoff investigation sued the Wilpons for being “willfully blind” in dealing with the “Ponzi master” for $300 million.  The suit was finally settled on March 20, 2012, for $162 million, in addition the Mets had lost $70 million in the 2011 season.  When Alderson came aboard the Mets had reduced their payroll from $140 to $85 million in one year, the highest percentage salary reduction in baseball history.  This is what Alderson had to deal with during his first few years at the helm.  The debacle that had encompassed the Mets and Alderson’s plan to restore confidence in the team as well as rebuilding their baseball operation is told in Steve Kettmann’s new book, BASEBALL MAVERICK: HOW SANDY ALDERSON REVOLUTIONIZED BASEBALL AND REVIVED THE METS.  The book is not your typical sports narrative.  It is more of an intellectual biography of Alderson where the author weaves the Mets’ general manager’s life story that saw him as a Dartmouth and Harvard Law graduate, a Marine officer in Vietnam, in addition to his baseball successes as he applied his analytical, “moneyball” approach to rescue the franchise.

The reader gains insights into Alderson’s personality and approach to organization during his tour in Vietnam, when he goes over the head of his commanding officer who passed him over for a position because he had once disagreed with a decision that involved the constant rotation of company commanders in his unit.  As a Marine, normally this was not acceptable behavior.  However, in this case, Alderson used a seldom employed Marine tradition for officers and “requested mast,” the right to go over the head of a commanding officer to the regimental commander, who in this case was Colonel P.X. Kelley, Commander of the First Marines, a formidable figure who would later become the Commandant of the Marine Corps.  Kelly agreed with Alderson and gave him a plum position in intelligence.  Following a description of Alderson’s eight month tour in Vietnam, Kettman traces his journey from a law office in San Francisco, his education as a baseball administrative novice, to his present position.

(Sandy Alderson, General Manager of the NY Mets after a loss)

Alderson’s first step toward a career in baseball occurred when Roy Eisenhardt, an attorney in the firm that Alderson worked for asked him to oversee a major deal.  Eisenhardt’s father-in-law was Walter A. Haas, Jr. Chairman of Levi Strauss who wanted to purchase the Oakland A’s from Charley Finley and save the team for the Oakland area.  Along with Haas’s son, Wally, Alderson oversaw the purchase from the inimitable “Charlie O.” and the result was that he could not avoid being “bitten by the baseball bug.”   Kettman provides an ideological history of sabermetrics going back to Branch Rickey, who hired Allan Roth who developed the “on base percentage.”  Kettman next introduces, Eric Walker a young sabermatrician who prepared “The Oakland Athletics: A Quantitative Analysis by Mathematical Methods.”  Alderson hired Walker and their friendship would continue for years.  Oakland became Alderson’s baptism under fire as he employed his analytical or sabermetric approach to evaluating personnel and aspects of being a successful general manager.  Alderson’s baseball philosophy can be summed up as, “once you established a correlation between on-base percentage and slugging percentage with run production, then you also established a correlation between gross run production and win-loss percentage, and it became apparent that the best approach was on-high base percentage and hit the ball out of the ballpark, as opposed to batting average, as opposed to the hit-and-run and bunting.” (78)  Many baseball lifers had difficulty accepting “computerball,” but since Alderson was trained as a Marine military officer and a lawyer he had no difficulty adjusting.  If things made sense from an analytical and organizational perspective Alderson was on board.  Alderson applied this approach in Oakland and took Charlie Finley’s run down operation and turned the A’s into a World Series team between 1988 and 1990 under Tony La Russo, and winning it all by sweeping the San Francisco Giants in the “earthquake series” in 1989.

(Sandy Alderson, NY Mets general manager after a win)

Kettman explores a number of important issues in baseball apart from Alderson’s organizational successes.  The author provides insights into the life of a sportswriter.  The task of attending mostly boring baseball meetings, having your newspaper columns evaluated by how many “tweets” it generates, the lack of time to think and reflect on subjects they are investigating, and the rhythms of spring training are all described.  Kettman goes on to explain the controversy concerning steroids in baseball.  The issue created a great deal of controversy, particularly for the A’s since two of their best players, Mark McGuire and Jose Canseco, the “bash brothers” were users.  The question that Kettman asks was should someone as smart as Alderson have known about it, but with no testing, no punishment, and no official baseball PED policy, how could he be accountable.  Another interesting aspect of the book is the relationship between Alderson and Billy Beane, a former New York Mets prospect who finished an uneventful career in Oakland.  Beane became Alderson’s protégé and eventually he became assistant general manager in 1993.  Beane is described as a younger version of his mentor and when Alderson left the A’s, Beane took over complete control and if you have seen the film or read the book Moneyball, the relationship proved very successful.

Before taking over the Mets in 2010, Alderson did a stint with the San Diego Padres and worked with Major League baseball in the Dominican Republic to internationalize the game.  The book is essentially a case study in leadership and Alderson’s approach to restoring the Mets to prominence bears that out.  First, Kettman describes how Alderson constructed his organizational team.    Hiring two former general managers, Paul DePodesta and J.P. Ricciardi, and keeping John Ricco, the Mets assistant general manager reflects Alderson’s own personal security and his vision in employing individuals who have their own expertise in creating a superb front office.  Each had their own special talents that blended together nicely.  Their approach toward grooming younger players, signing free agents, dealing with player representatives, i.e.; Scott Boras and Jay Z, and creating a winning culture in the locker room should provide encouragement for despondent Mets’ fans for the future.

(Alderson during his tour of Vietnam)

Alderson’s approach in dealing with young players with great potential is fascinating.  Kettman uses Zach Wheeler, a young phenom that Alderson acquired in a trade for Carlos Beltran, Jacob deGrom, a former short stop who was National League rookie of the year in 2014, and Lucas Duda, who the Mets could not decide whether to trade or not, as case studies in how to develop players.  He explores when to promote a player to the major leagues, the burden placed on a young player who seemingly is seen as a major part of the future success of the franchise, how a young player deals with their own development, balancing fan expectations, handling a prospects first big league appearance, and how a young player adjusts to playing on the major league level, particularly with the distractions that playing in New York can bring.  In Wheeler’s case it worked well, until a few weeks ago when he succumbed to “Tommy John” surgery, for deGrom and Duda the 2015 season has begun very nicely.

Kettman analyzes how Alderson puts together a roster in conjunction with his staff as well as how they went about trades with other teams.  Currently, the Mets on the precipice of actually having a winning season.  If in the end the Mets finally become financially sound on the field and off, Alderson will be declared a “genius,” if not despite his past resume he will be roasted as a failure in the New York tabloids.  Overall, Kettman has delivered a strong “baseball book,” that has applications for leadership in other venues.  If you enjoy baseball and how a thoughtful and intelligent person goes about creating a winning culture for success, this book is a wonderful read.