Sunday, August 2, 2020

Son of Havana by Luis Tiant with Saul Wisnia

Why I Read It: I was seven when Bucky Dent his the home run in 1978. I bleed Red Sox baseball.

Summary: The autobiography of El Tiante, the most colorful baseball player I ever had the privilege to watch play.

My Thoughts: There's usually more to an athlete than meets the eye. Sometimes, the stuff that gets hidden is better off kept tucked away. Not so with Luis Tiant.

The LOO-EE I knew as a kid was a twisting, twirling, baseball-hurling machine, just another one of my heroes as I grew up a Red Sox fan in Boston. As far as I knew, this was what he did. He existed only on the mound.

I was born too late to know his backstory. Had I been five years older, I might have caught the stories of separation from his family as a young man, as Fidel Castro closed Cuba's border and outlawed professional baseball in the island nation. I might have seen the newspaper articles covering his reunion with his parents as they came to the States late in life. I might have known that Luis was the second great Luis Tiant to pitch professionally. But I missed all of that.

My dad didn't. As lifelong fan himself, he loved to tell a story he read in Peter Gammons' Beyond the Sixth Game, of how El Tiante, short, dark-skinned, somewhat burly, would walk by a mirror in the Red Sox clubhouse after a shower, look at himself with his towel around his waist and a cigar in his mouth, and say, "6'2", blond hair, blue eyes, looking goooood!" Luis brought joy to a Red Sox nation that was getting flat-out desperate for a championship.

And he did it in a time when race relations in Boston were at their worst in decades. The city that produced William Lloyd Garrison and The Liberator, the city of the Fighting 54th Regiment of Civil War fame, was tearing itself apart over busing. Tiant had faced racism in the minors in the south, and he faced it in suburban Milton, Massachusetts, in the 1970s. But when he stepped on the field in Boston, he was beloved. 

Life shouldn't have been as hard as it was for Tiant. And he was one of the lucky ones who escaped Cuba to follow his dream. But he has lived a damned good life, one of sweat and tears, no doubt, but one of philanthropy, mentoring, guidance, family and passion for the sport he loves.

I know I'll never be able to repay Luis for what he did for me and my dad. We could be 1000 miles apart, having not spoken to each other for a month, pick up the phone and start in on Red Sox memories without missing a beat. They all started, for me, watching El Tiante do his thing at Fenway Park as a young boy in the 1970s, and learning that you could go to war every day with a smile on your face. 

I had no idea what kind of wars he was fighting until I read this book.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

A Marvelous Life by Danny Fingeroth

A Marvelous Life: The Amazing Story of Stan Lee: Fingeroth, Danny ...

Why I Read It: My 8-year-old son is a Spiderman nut, and his mania for Marvel Comics has started to rub off on me.

Summary: A biography of Stan Lee.

My Thoughts: The biggest takeaway from this book for me was the author's reluctance to say that the Baby Boom played a very large role in the success of Marvel. He chalks it up more to some nearly inexplicable nexus of creative genius and audience identification, to the wonders of the mind of Stan Lee and his ability to connect to readers.

But then there are just sheer numbers. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created the world's first standalone teen-age superhero at the precise moment that there were more teenagers in existence than at any time in the history of the United States. Teenagers drive popular culture fincncially, and long have, from music to movies to comic books to video games and more. Beatlemania was driven by teenage girls, at almost the exact same time that the core Marvel characters came to prominence. Lee and Ditko hit the right nerve at the right time. Spiderman has been riding the wave ever since. Those Baby Boomers are still here, and have passed down their love of Spidey to their kids and grandkids.

There's also a moment in the book, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when publisher Martin Goodman is vilified for dumping full-time staff for freelancers. The author does a wonderful job of navigating the vilification of comic books themselves during those days, but misses a major moment of American post-war economic instability that may have been the cause of the turmoil, rather than a Machiavellian turn by Goodman.

The author was an acquaintance of Lee and works in the comic book industry, and while it may seem that those facts would perfectly set him up to write a sympathetic book about the man, he is fair. He does delve into the relations between Lee and Timely/Atlas/Marvel's top artistic talents and does not choose to side with Lee at all times, instead laying out the facts of who said what and when, and letting the reader decide.

Lee's character comes through very clearly in this book, and his voice is as recognizable in his quotes as it is in his movie cameos. He certainly had a style all his own as a writer and speaker, and a creative streak the likes of which most of us will never come close to achieving. I came away with a greater understanding of the history of Marvel, of comic books in general, the story of Stanley Lieber, and the origin stories behind each character's origin story.

Fingeroth creates a beautiful portrait of a man who became a legend in his own time.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

The Battle for Las Vegas by Dennis N. Griffin

The Battle for Las Vegas: The Law vs. The Mob: Griffin, Dennis N ...
Why I Read It: My wife and I went to Vegas and when she asked me "What's the one thing off the beaten path you want to do?" I answered unhesitatingly: go to the Mob Museum.

Summary: Law enforcement's fight to bring down Vegas mob boss Tony Spilotro.

My Thoughts: I think I've always associated the mob with Las Vegas, but living as far from Vegas as humanly possible in the United States, I never thought deeply about it. I had some vague notion of the hotels and mob control, of shady dealings, of money secretly being shifted around, Al Capone-style. But I really had no clue.

Then, we went. My wife and I found out that Aerosmith would be doing a residency at the MGM, and decided, what the heck, let's make a long weekend of it. We wandered up and down the strip, did the sights, ate the food, got swept up in all of it. And then we went to the Mob Museum.

I was hooked, I wanted to know more, and purchased this book.

Griffin's story quickly recounts the backstory of the growth of Las Vegas and brings it into the 1970s and 1980s, where he does most of his work. He follows the life of Spilotro, Lefty Rosenthal and others on the crime side, and law enforcement members on the other. He deftly covers the politics of the various departments - from federal to local - working the cases, and the struggles for power that faced both sides. He covers the court cases, the media members who covered the mob scene and more.

He finds out the graphic details of the murders, uncovers the strategic tactics that led to the arrests, the ties that stretched all the way back to Chicago. The book ends when Spilotro's life does, but Griffin doesn't let it go as an evil erased. He is very fair to his legacy, and shares the thoughts of those who knew and loved him. He allows for the humanization of a demonized man. He could have let it go, but didn't.

I've got a clearer picture now of this storied chapter in Vegas history. I wonder how many people passed through the city clueless to what was happening around them at all time. I wonder what I missed when I was there.

Flight Calls by John R. Nelson

Flight Calls: Exploring Massachusetts through Birds: Nelson, John ...
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Why I Read It: Obligated. I've been birding Massachusetts for 25 years.

Summary: A collection of essays that intersects the worlds of birds and literature, with all thoughts pointing toward Massachusetts.

My Thoughts: This is the book that I am going to write in twenty years.

I first knew John Nelson and I were kindred spirits when he approached the subject of Brown-headed Cowbirds, birds that drop their eggs in other birds' nests and take off. The young are raised by their new "parents" and yet, somehow, the young Cowbirds seek out other Cowbirds and perpetuate the species. How do they know who they really are?

I then knew we were forever tied together because I realized that not only did I know the same people he did - many, many of them, at least - but because we had chased the same birds in Massachusetts. And I don't mean species; I mean individual birds. We've traveled the same paths, scoped the same birds, asked the same questions, braved the same weather.

But then, John has a twist to him. As a professor of literature, he has a whole different perspective on birds and birding. He has researched and read through the literature of Massachusetts, through the centuries, and knows the references, both in poetry and prose to the birds of the Bay State. We have a common friend in Edward Howe Forbush, the great compiler of New England bird knowledge in the early part of the twentieth century. I, too approach the bird world differently than most birders. My life work is in history. When it came time to write the second Breeding Bird Atlas for Massachusetts, I was privileged, honored, to write the history paragraphs for the 220 species we were profiling. It was research that made my head spin, learning so many small details about the ebbs and flows of bird populations in Massachusetts over time, trying to encapsulate them in a few sentences per species.

And so, I was surprised, after learning so much about the Massachusetts bird landscape from John, to see that he had learned from me. He references the Atlas and the State of the Birds reports we produced at Mass Audubon. I had the great honor of breaking down a half century of Christmas Bird Count data to look for any unexpected trends for the first SOTB, a true labor of love . I'll never forget when we discovered the obvious plunges of the Great Cormorant as a winter resident and tied them to open bag limits in Canada, and other such details. I have no idea why I like statistics so much, but I do.

I feel like I should have been speaking to John R. Nelson for years, that we should have bumped into each other somewhere on the birding trail. Perhaps we have. We found each other on social media long before the book came out (perhaps he was grooming me for a future sale) and give each other thumbs up from time to time. I hope we do get to share a bird in person some day.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The Storytellers by Greg Oliver and Steven Johnson

The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Storytellers (From the ...
Why I Read It: Storytelling is becoming more and more important culturally; wrestling has long gotten it right.

Summary: Instances and examples of the best stories told in professional wrestling rings through time.

My Thoughts: What it comes down to is this. You don't need the best body. You don't need the best mouthpiece. You don't need the best gimmick. If you can be believable, if you can make the world truly believe that you are crazy, foolhardy, noble, or chivalrous, if you can capture the imagination of the general public while forcing them to suspend their suspension of disbelief, especially in the post-kayfabe era of professional wrestling, you will go far.

The best storytellers through time have influenced future generations. Gorgeous George was not the biggest or most skilled man ever to hit the ring, but by the time he got to it, with all the preening, the music, the spraying of perfume, fans hated his guts. See Ric Flair. See Randy Savage.

Some, though, have used gimmicks, from animals to valets to managers. Others have crafted stories through newspapers and magazines to draw heat, or attention, to themselves before an event. Still more relied on the prowess of enhancement talents, "jobbers" whose job it is to simply make their opponents look good, either by being squashed in the ring, or putting up just enough of a fight to allow the star the opportunity to show his or her guile or wit in cutting off that effort and claiming a victory.

With thousands of examples from which to choose, Oliver and Johnson zoom in on their favorites, from sideshow freaks to rings full of smelt, from ladder matches to monkey-wielding wild men. From end to end, it's all about the story. We can all learn a little from this journey, whether in advertising, running nonprofit organizations, or running the social media account for a pro sports franchise.

Stories sell.

100 Things WWE Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die by Brian Alvarez

100 Things WWE Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die (100 Things ...

Why I Read It: Because Hulk Hogan pinned the Iron Sheik at Madison Square Garden on January 23, 1984, when I was 12 and I've never been able to remember life before it happened.

Summary: Pretty self-explanatory title. It's an unauthorized gathering of backstories and more about the WWE for the modern generation to understand how things got to where they are today.

My Thoughts: What I love most about this book is that it could be about any federation or any association at any time. But I do have to admit that I also like the fact that it doesn't have to hide behind the veil of what the organization approves of or not.

Most of the "100 Things" are wrestlers themselves. Those wrestlers who are successful today have typically been through hell two or three times on the way to the top, under various names and varied gimmicks. Each of these individuals has a backstory as varied and crazy - and outside of the WWE - as could make for a novel in itself. Most of it vanishes the second they sign the contract, but is revived once they leave the WWE, if they ever do.

The result is a gathering of a cast of characters in the locker room that can talk forever about bad promoters, stupid gimmicks, works and shoots and even crossing paths under different names in different promotions.

And, the most amazing thing is that this book was outdated when it hit bookstore shelves, as new talent had arrived and old talent had moved on. Pro wrestling is about riding waves of momentum in the moment. What's hot today is gone tomorrow if the ratings aren't there.

War Fever by Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith

War Fever: Boston, Baseball, and America in the Shadow of the ...

Why I Read It: Boston, baseball, World War I, Babe you even know me at all?

Summary: Three lives twisted and turned by World War I: Babe Ruth, Karl Muck and Charles Whittlesey.

My Thoughts: It must have been an amazing time to be alive.

The Great War affected millions of lives worldwide, whether they came under trench mortar fire or not. There were hardships all around, in hundreds of thousands of homes in dozens of countries. But it was by no means an even playing field.

Just like the luck of the battlefield, where one man watched untouched as the man next to him blew to pieces, the pull of public sentiment picked and chose who it brought down. Anti-German feelings appeared in posters, in newsprint and on the lips of Americans across the country. For men like Karl Muck, the German-born Swiss national conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, that sentiment meant doom. Forced into untenable positions - why, detractors asked, would he not play "The Star-Spangled Banner" during BSO performances? - Muck ended up deposed from his perch, imprisoned and eventually deported, simply for his Germanness. The government and the press made headline news out of a suspected affair with a younger American woman, in order to drag his name through the mud.

But what of George Herman Ruth, the wayward, boozing and outwardly womanizing son of a German-American saloon keeper? Those same Boston pundits who excoriated and ruined Muck cheered Ruth. After all, he could hit home runs like no one ever had before, and his Germanness was hidden behind his nickname: the Babe.

In the midst of the hatred, sharing the spotlight with the influenza pandemic that ravaged the world, America's Lost Battalion had pushed through enemy lines only to find itself isolated and cutoff on the French front. Its leader, a bookish Harvard man named Charles Whittlesey, fought on tirelessly amidst diminishing amounts of ammunition, food and men. He came home to spend the rest of his life attending funerals and memorials and assuring family members that their sons, fathers and brothers died nobly and heroically, not in one of the far too numerous horrid endings he had personally witnessed on the battlefield.

Muck wanted to make music. Ruth wanted to play ball. Whittlesey wanted to serve his country. Fate would say who got what he wanted.

This is a total aside driven completely by my baseball history nerd-dom. The authors mention Massachusetts-born "Harvard" Eddie Grant, a friend of Whittlesey, in passing toward the end of the book, down to the detail that he had been killed by a direct shell hit in the Argonne. For some reason, they declined the opportunity to point out that he had been a professional baseball player for a decade before the war, a contemporary of Ruth. It would have made for an interesting linkage.