Saturday, March 25, 2017

Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic by Jason Turbow

Why I Read It: I grew up thinking I was destined to play third base for the Red Sox. Baseball is in my blood.

Summary: The subtitle says it all: "Reggie, Rollie, Catfish and Charlie Finley's Swingin' A's." The book covers the early 1970s A's dynasty.

My Thoughts: If you did not live through the early 1970s baseball seasons, here is your chance.

Jason Turbow's book about the early 1970s is essentially a collection of biographies, with the keystone figure being Charlie Finley, the twenty-year owner of the A's, first in Kansas City and then in Oakland. The surrounding cast, though, is as important to the central story as the Owner (capital "O" intended): Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, Vida Blue, Blue Moon Odom, Rollie Fingers, Sal Bando and so many more. And that fact drove the Owner to ridiculously self-destructive acts that somehow never proved strong enough to take down his own team.

It's complicated.

Finley survived early health problems to build his own business empire, eventually buying the A's and creating a baseball dynasty. He played a back-and-forth game with his players, lauding them with riches when they made him look good (oftentimes taking credit right from them, claiming that the only reason they performed well was due to his foresight) and haranguing them when they did poorly (always their fault). His relationships with his managers - 18 in 20 years, including a few repeat customers - were just as difficult. He was both lavish and cheap, depending on the circumstance. And he never could see how his actions affected how people viewed him. He never got out of his own way.

His ego was met head-on by those of his players, including Reggie Jackson. Reggie's rise to stardom was meteoric, and Finley couldn't stand to share the spotlight, despite the fact that Reggie's greatness would help propel Finley's own team to amazing accomplishments. Reggie and his teammates spent most of the early 1970s fighting back against Owner-imposed injustices on the players; how they managed to win three consecutive World Series during this time is one of the greatest puzzles of baseball history.

In the end, the story is one of lost potential. With a core of young superstars and a rising cast in the minors, the A's should have contended for the next decade, but because of Finley's mismanagement - poorly mistimed with the beginning of the era of free agency - the A's fell flat on their faces for the balance of the decade. Had it been anywhere else, under any other owner (save for Steinbrenner, maybe?) the 1970's A's might have gone down as the most celebrated team in baseball history. But alas, they scattered, fleeing Finley whenever they had the opportunity, reuniting here and there, never regaining old glories.

If you don't believe me, trust in Turbow.

After reading this book, I want to re-read Jonathan Mahler's Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning, as it more or less picks up the Reggie Jackson story where Turbow's reportage closes. Why not keep this train rolling?

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Crazy is my Superpower by A.J. Mendez Brooks

Why I Read It: Have been a wrestling fan since before Hulk Hogan took down the Iron Sheik.

Summary: The full backstory behind the rise of "A.J. Lee."

My Thoughts: There are wrestlers' autobiographies, and then there are autobiographies by people who became wrestlers, but who understand that they are not fully defined by what happened between the ropes.

April Mendez faced ridiculous odds. Her life started with bouts of homelessness and, when she had them, homes under the duress of domestic violence, substance abuse and mental illness. Much of her youth  was spent wondering: why do my parents fight each other? why are all of our belongings on the sidewalk? why am I so hungry all the time? The fact that she became a superstar wrestler is not the surprise; making it to adulthood with any kinds of goals and dreams intact was the real longshot.

Her story - exceptionally well written, in no-holds barred style - is of breaking free and being pulled back down. Ultimately it's of overcoming the restraints associated with mental illness and driving toward goals. It's of bucking the system - why should all women in professional wrestling look the same, play the same role? - and redefining the place of women in the sport. And, in the end, it's of early retirement, getting into a cutthroat world and getting out of it before it was too late.

This book is an inspirational as it gets. And, for those of you instantly judging it as "a wrestling book," know that what made A.J. Lee spring forth from April Mendez took many years. This is not ringside play-by-play. It's the unscripted life story that got an undersized girl obsessed with anime and video games into the spotlight of the WWE, against all odds. The wrestling stories come and go quickly in the book, just a brief phase of the life of April Mendez.

When War Played Through: Golf During World War II by John Strege

Why I Read It: I was writing a book about golf history, and wanted to capture this era in particular, as information about the sport during those years, on a local level, can be tough to come by.

Summary: Golf as played on the homefront, by the generals, by the POWs and on the training bases of World War II.

My Thoughts: I reiterate. World War II was not just one story. It is a story of millions of stories.

So, what of golf? I was working on a state history of the sport and realized I was coming up dry. The state association I was following through time dried up during the war. Finances became tight, tournaments stopped, even meeting minutes came to a crashing halt. But the golf courses still existed on December 8, 1941. The golfers still lived. What became of them all for the next four years?

This book helps to answer that question on the national level, obviously straying beyond the country's borders as the passion for golf traveled with both amateurs and pros overseas, into war zones, even POW camps.

The author follows the pros of the day, both those who signed up with one of the services for the duration (many of them became instructors on golf courses stateside) and those who kept playing the game professionally against a depleted field. He also follows the amateurs, some to their untimely deaths in uniform. He explains how materials shortages affected the game (you couldn't find a new ball anywhere, at least not for anything even remotely affordable), and how the United States Golf Association and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews supported each other during the war. He follows General Dwight Eisenhower down the fairways as he bought precious moments of solitude while on the courses where his headquarters sat.

Still to be gathered are the local details, how it affected each and every course (some were turned over to pasturage, others became part of the war effort). This, of course, is for the surviving clubs themselves to interpret and for local historical societies to explore. As deeply as this book went, there are many layers beneath yet to be fully explored.

Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Why I Read It: A personal fascination with what we control and what we don't, in regard to our minds.

Summary: System 1 (instinct) and System 2 (contemplation), and what they do for us.

My Thoughts: We all think the same way. We are, after all, the product of millennia of evolution. Just as easily as we say that Purple Martins seek hollowed-out gourds for their homes in spring because they evolved to do so through the course of thousands of years, so, too, do we react to situations in specific ways because our brains have evolved. When threatened, we strike or flee, in much the same fashion our caveman ancestors did when faced with life-or-death situations. System 2 kicks in afterwards, when we have time to stop and think through the incident.

This is superbly oversimplified by me. The author goes to much greater length to prove the existence of the systems and to explain how they work. He references numerous studies - his own and those of others - that build the case, many of which are truly eye-opening.

I found myself at one point doubting him, based on the results of a survey into which I clearly placed in the minority. I finally realized that that was just the case: when you have a 70-30 split in a percentage, somebody is in the minority. I then took a different tactic in reading the book; I surrendered to it. My own egotistical assumptions aside, I learned to take the text at face value. After that, I was free to enjoy it.

Some of the studies referenced in the book tackle real world subjects like the actual accuracy of "experts" in financial markets, as compared to their perceived accuracy. Are experts really experts? Are they paid appropriately? You will be surprised at the truths. Can anyone honestly say they should trust their instincts, their gut reactions, to guide them every time?

So, drop the ego and enjoy. You will probably find out more about yourself, not to mention humanity, than you ever thought you would by looking at the cover.