Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Streak by John Eisenberg




Why I Read It: Ripken breaking Gehrig's record was a remarkable moment for baseball, and it occurred during my lifetime, making it an interesting historical topic for me personally.

Summary: Gehrig, Ripken, and all the others who have tried to break their consecutive games played streaks.

My Thoughts: When you think about it, an iron man streak is a precarious thing. A player can, at times, seem invincible, heroic; at others, he can be seen as the most selfish man in the majors. When averages are up, runs are being knocked in and the position is being fielded cleanly, it's all good. When the average heads for the Mendoza line, fans begin calling for heads.

So it should be no surprise that it took two Hall of Famers to set the records.

But Eisenberg reminds us that Gehrig's streak was by no means the first, and Ripken's was by no means the last - more on that in a minute. The story of the streak predates Gehrig by decades, and continues today. Between the Iron Horse and Cal came a long list of pretenders who never made the grade, for various reasons. Eisenberg shows how health, a dedicated team trainer, sympathetic managers and even luck need to come together to play the game for more than 2,000 consecutive appearances.

But what is an appearance? Is batting lead off and being pulled from the game considered an appearance? What about pinch running? Just playing defense? As you can imagine, it has been debated through time, and even appears in the Major League Baseball rule book.

This record is one that may never be broken. Yes, it's cliche to say that, and also to say, "Never say never," but the fact is that with today's game the rationale no longer exists. Current belief states that players are better with occasional rest, that the 162-game grind is beyond human capacity, if a team truly believes in fielding its best nine every day. Rarely do players play all 162 any more; stringing together 18 consecutive 162s seems utterly comical.

But, the fact is, Ripken set his record just twenty years ago, and in this ageless game, one never knows what will happen next. Still, Ripken and Gehrig are the only two to break 2,000 (Sachio Kinugasa did so in Japan), and Everett Scott's 1,307 was less than half Ripken's total.

Eisenberg examines all angles, bringing us back to the 19th century to seek the genesis of the iron man streak. He turns over every rock in the life of Gehrig to figure out why he did it, and does the same with Ripken's story. When one considers it's been 19 years since the record was broken, this side-by-side telling of their stories was long overdue.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Baseball Meat Market by Shawn Krest



Why I Read It: Whenever I get stitches, I ask the doctor to make them red. Baseball is in my blood.

Summary: Twenty of the biggest baseball trades in history, how they came to be, and how they look in retrospect.

My Thoughts: I'll state right off the bat (haha) that I'm not a huge fan of the modern statistics. I understand how it happened. Imagine living in the 1920s when the craze for statistics first hit. No longer was a player just what the eyes told you he was. Nope, he was now a bag of numbers, statistically comparable to all others in the game. It was a dehumanizing moment for baseball, and all sports that followed as crazes for the American public. Sports - all sports - became math games.

There's been a recent explosion in the ways we measure baseball players. For decades, we were comfortable with the big three for hitters: Average, Home Runs and RBIs. We checked Wins and Losses for pitchers, Earned Run Average and Strikeouts. Pitchers were judged by Complete Games and Shutouts for starters, and, from the 1970s onward, Saves for closers. Krest throws that all out for the purposes of this book and focuses on Worth Above Replacement, or WAR.

So, for old-timey stats lovers like me, let's move past that and get into the meat of the book.

Krest pulls out 20 of the biggest trades in history and dissects them from inkling to aftermath, ultimately validating his judgement of them by the use of WAR comparisons. It's the area in between that is the most fascinating. Trades can often surprise us, when we hear that player A was moved for player B or player C to be named later. We think, "wow, that came out of nowhere," but, in many cases, there were may iterations of that trade before it was finalized. Different names were thrown around.

Through Krest's research we find out just how detailed and mind-boggling the process can be, with players dangled and pulled back, offers changed and more. This book humanizes the trade process, reminding us that there are wives who want their children to grow up in strong communities, knees blown out in offseason basketball games necessitating the search for replacement players, crabby attitudes on behalf of the players and simple miscalculations and missed projections on the parts of the trading partners.

The book is dense, and covers an era from the 1950s onward, mostly focusing on the 1970s forward. For almost all baseball fans there will be a moment of revelation when they are forced to picture their favorite player wearing a rival uniform, in a version of a trade that never was.

Monday, July 3, 2017

The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle




Why I Read It: A check mark on my classics list.

Summary: A condescending and truculent man of science tells tales of dinosaurs living in South America and leads an expedition to find them to quell the doubts of the London scientific community.

My Thoughts: That Sir Arthur Conan Doyle can write.

He starts with a premise that fantastic creatures exist in a faraway place that cannot be fully divulged (thereby setting up an alien world on Earth) lest other adventurers race ahead and find out the area's secrets. A team is assembled: a doubting man of science (Professor Summerlee), a retired military man with a history in South America that will come back to haunt him (Lord John Roxton), and the hero of the day, Edward Malone, the dashing journalist who also happens to be a famous Irish rugby player (described as the last standing of the manly sports, an interesting editorial observation of the time). The pugnacious Professor Challenger surprises them all by arriving on scene to lead the expedition.

They assemble the standard gathering of Star Trek red shirts, the expendable support staff that one-by-one dwindles away via one incident or another. The four major characters make it through the Amazon jungles and up onto the plateau to find the world once depicted in the suspicious drawings of an American albino. They find what they came for, and much, much more.

The story has the feel of H. Ryder Haggard's King Solomon's Mines, Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan stories and other adventure tales of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when exploration into the depths of the jungles of the southern hemisphere was all the rage. Seemingly everything is included from the playbook of the genre, tribal wars, stinging plants, horrific depictions of grisly deaths, unexpected discoveries and run-ins with creatures yet unknown to man, or, rather, long ago forgotten. In one instance, the team is presented with a cliffhanger of mammoth proportions, as their escape route from the plateau is destroyed, which is funny, as Doyle is known as the inventor of the term.

Partway through the story, Malone, the journalist, changes from a first person narrative in journal form and begins a series of dispatches to his London newspaper. We read along like his readers would have, hanging, ourselves, on every turn of the troupe's fortunes.

In the end we are left with the belief that there is more to come. Malone took on the journey to prove his worth to the love of his life, but she is not waiting for him to return. He goes all in on the next adventure.

Jurassic Park be damned. This is where it all began, and where the tale will always remain in my heart. Long live Professor Challenger!

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Maybe We'll Have You Back by Fred Stoller




Why I Read It: I read My Seinfeld Year.

Summary: Fred Stoller's Hollywood autobiography.

My Thoughts: It's a cautionary tale, for sure. Fred tells us in great detail about how hard he has had to work to make it in Hollywood. Despite the fact that we believe we "see that guy in everything," a guest spot here and there means a paycheck here and there.

Who is he? Try the snarky waiter on Friends, in Monica's restaurant. He was the guy Elaine dated on Seinfeld, but he couldn't remember her after the fact. He was Cousin Gerard on Everybody Loves Raymond, playing the accordion and welcoming Robert into his cult. And you can't miss his voice in the Disney cartoon Handy Manny.

Fred's deadpan, self-deprecating style is deadly funny. It's been a struggle, and it's been a long shot, for sure, and he never lost sight of those facts. Yet he persevered. And he never sold out on his dream.

His experiences include the inner circle Hollywood crap of which we all hear, of ass-kissers and ladder climbers who were nice to him when they started out, but ignored him when they got to the top, or knives in backs and shysters seeking ways to extort funds from those working hard to get their big breaks. Fred has seen it all.

There are some tales he tells that surprised me. He protects a lot of names, but others, not at all. I can't say that I wish I was Fred Stoller, but I do wish I had the guts that Fred did to make a go of it when the world around him was telling him to stay in his room and forget about the outside world. In that way, Fred is a hero.

Chuck Amuck by Chuck Jones




Why I Read It: Childhood obsession gone wild in college.

Summary: The autobiography of Warner Brothers animator Chuck Jones.

My Thoughts: The basics are simple. I was born in a time when Bugs Bunny was on TV every day. And that meant that so, too, were Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Wile E. Coyote, Speedy Gonzalez, the Roadrunner, Foghorn Leghorn, et al.

And so the foundation was set. Fast forward to UMASS Amherst, 1990 to 1993. I happened to room with some guys with the same memories of sixteen-ton weights falling from the sky, of gunshots to the face that did not kill, yet rather spun the bill of Daffy Duck around in a circle, and "smell-a-vision replacing television." We did more than watch reruns. We became experts. We came to know the directorial styles, even the particular whims of the background artists (I can still pick out a Phil de Guard at 50 paces). We were majoring in history (both my buddy Jay and me), physics, hotel, restaurant and travel administration, but we were minoring in Looney Tunes animation.

Now fast forward to the spring of 2017. I was walking through the Gaslamp Quarter in San Diego with colleagues one night when I looked up and saw the words "Chuck Jones Gallery." Wile E. sat in the front entrance. My friends kept moving and didn't notice at first that I had stopped, entranced. They asked why. I pointed to the Grinch. I showed them "One Froggy Evening." I said, "You know him, you just don't know you know him."

And so I sought more. I headed straight to Amazon for the ebook.

My first impression is that it's a shame that Chuck Jones was an animator; he could have been a writer. He has such a beautiful style, reminiscent of the 1920s era in which he grew up. One of the world's truisms is that many of the greatest artistic expressions spring from personal experiences. From the start, Jones explains how the cats he animated exhibit traits he saw from one wanderer who came into and meandered out of his life. And it struck me: the arid southwest, roadrunners. This was where he lived.

Much of this book is about inspiration, and much about family. Some of the content turns to almost inside jokes of his industry, and we learn a lot about how cartoons were made in the middle of the 20th century, how various producers viewed the work and how their idiosyncrasies affected the final products. We learn what Jones considered his top accomplishments.

While I loved most of what Jones did, there were a few stops along the way with which I did not agree (see Tom and Jerry). That said, this book was a memory lane type excursion for me. As he spoke to me through his prose, I could see the images in my head of Marvin Martian and Duck Dodgers, of Elmer, Daffy and Bugs during Wabbit Season.

The book opened a floodgate of memories for me that will result in a cascade of follow-up reading.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Italy: A History by Vincent Cronin



Why I Read It: I'm Italian.

Summary: A thorough, straightforward history of the two millennia that forged the current Italian nation.

My Thoughts: It's good to know that my professors as UMASS were correct.

I had the chance to study Italian history under two professors who were, as we like to say, "fresh off the boat." They had no doubt been here in the States for a long time, but like my great-grandmother and others in my extended family, they retained heavy accents and occasionally threw in an Italian word where it fit better than anything English had to offer. Hearing them speak about their native history was inspiring, even if the Italian people have struggled to make their way through the centuries. I think that was the biggest takeaway from this book for me, that Italian history is not a simple path, and for huge chunks of time it's not even Italian.

It's glorious at the start, if we can confidently connect the dots between ancient Rome and modern Rome. Like much of European history it falls silent after the fall of the Roman Empire, and wide chasms of time pass without any, or much, documentation. But when Italy arises again, in its many nation states, it becomes the cultural center of Europe, from Michelangelo to Galileo and beyond. Napoleon - who was Italian in all but official nationality (born on an island that became French just a few years before his birth, he spoke Italian and had an Italian surname, Buonaparte) - forged the idea of unity picked up later by Mazzini and Garibaldi. Since that time, there has been a single Italy, even if it has struggled for national identity.

If there was one fact that I learned in this book that I will remember for the rest of my life it's that my name, or one very close to it, once sparked fear in the hearts of people across Italy. Gian Galeazzo (as compared to John Galluzzo) was the first Duke of Milan in the late 14th century, just before the Renaissance, and dreamed of unifying Italy. He led numerous military campaigns toward that end, and is credited with setting up the first modern bureaucracy. It all came to naught, as he died of a fever before he could finish off his plan.

This book, in my case, was refreshing, both in the sense of being pleasant, and also in reaffirming the value of my college education.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

You Gotta Have Wa by Robert Whiting




Why I Read It: Always up for a baseball book.


Summary: The experiences of American baseball players playing in Japan (as of the late 1980s).

My Thoughts: The cultural divide between the United States and Japan is enormous, and I applaud those folks who travel either way to forge a new life.

For baseball players - keep in mind this book was written in the late 1980s - the experience has been, simply put, testing. The Japanese at that time had a deeply strong belief that they were all middle class, but that no matter what the circumstances, they were better people than any gaijin, or foreigner, treading on their soil.

Their sacred traditions of respect and "face," as well as the bushido code, the realm of the ancient samurai, all play roles in the Japanese baseball world. They train until they can barely move, throw fastballs until their arms no longer work, even through injury, and run antiquated stamina drills because history mandates that they do so. Managers and owners make decisions based on how they look to other people rather than on sound baseball strategy. Pitchers will intentionally walk American batters numerous times to avoid the shame of giving up home runs, especially when a gaijin is chasing a record held by a Japanese star, and even when the bases are already full.

And then there's wa. The Japanese believe in team harmony, whole American teams have won World Series riding "25 players in 25 cabs." Anything that disrupts wa can be seen as a hindrance on the pathway to a championship. Many times that disruption has been an American in a Japanese uniform, living as an individual, as Americans do.

Some Americans have fared well under these circumstances, others have completely fizzled out. Some have challenged those sacred records (like Saduhara Oh's all-time home run title; Oh, by the way, was half-Chinese, and never fully respected by the Japanese). They've become the greatest American baseball players of whom we've barely heard.

Robert Whiting brings us through everything from the American perspective to the Japanese. He tells us what the umpires think, how the managers - both Japanese and Americans heading up Japanese teams - deal with the owners, and gives us a straight history of the Japanese game from the start of the Meiji Restoration in the middle of the 19th century to the late 1980s. Purists who follow the American game will shake their heads as they read, much like Japanese fans shake their heads at the American version.