Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Under the March Sun by Charles Fountain

Why I Read It: A baseball fan through and through, major league spring training is something I've never experienced.

Summary: A history of the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues, focusing mostly on the musical chairs game at play among the many cities hosting and hoping to host big league clubs.

My Thoughts: When I was a kid, Winter Haven was the byline. The Red Sox trained in Winter Haven. Always had, always would. I had no understanding that spring training did not come with the advent of baseball. It seems so obvious; they must have trained somewhere warm before the season started, even the old Boston Beaneaters. Yet, at some point in my life, they moved to Fort Myers. It was the result of negotiations regarding the needs of a club and the needs of a community, of the optimum number of practice fields and fan accessibility. It was part of the regular shuffling from city to city, from state to state, through time. But it had major economic impacts on Winter Haven. There are only so many major league teams to go around. Without the best package to offer, a community may find itself without one for a year, and a facility in waiting is a facility stagnating.

And yet, from Boston, when I found out the Red Sox moved, I reacted like someone who had no idea of any of the above. "Huh, they moved." And I went on my merry way.

Politics and economics both play major roles in the spring training game. From the beginning, pioneers in Florida saw spring training as their economic salvation. Six weeks of bylines in major northern cities were seen as untouchable marketing opportunities for tourism boards. Now, a century on, it's all a multi-million dollar affair. It's Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Boardwalk and Baseball in Haines City. It's the celebration of baseball that sometimes goes too far to be sustainable. It's about understanding the fan experience as a part of the grander scheme, but that the bottom line still trumps everything.

It's also the competition between cities in Florida, and between Florida and Arizona. And it's the story of the briefly considered Oasis League in Las Vegas. The sting of gambling kept the sport away, but now that the NHL has broken down that barrier, with a new team in the desert, has the game changed? The author also deals with the trials of racial integration. Florida is the Deep South, and as such, spring training was a battleground in the integration war.

To keep it all straight, the author includes a thorough appendix, by team, of the spring training locations of the past 120 years. After reading this book, I'll never give the news of a move a "Huh" again.

Finally, let me just say how fun it is to read all the way through a book, and have the author sign off the acknowledgments from a spot fifteen minutes from your house. It brings the whole reading experience full circle, and makes one feel like there is somehow magic nearby.

Eisenhower in War and Peace by Jean Edward Smith

Why I Read It: Had an Amazon gift card and wanted t o load up my Kindle with some good history reads.

Summary: A straightforward biography of the General.

My Thoughts: It might be hard to find anyone who shaped our 20th century way of life more than Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The author takes an even-handed view of the life and times of Ike, from his personal relationships (including his alleged affair with Kay Summersby) to his political dealings. The result is an opus, a sweeping, epic journey through a half century of American history.

What we find is that Ike knew better than most how to leverage personalities against each other, and how to call in favors when needed. When he saw his Army career stagnating, he would call on superiors he knew were sympathetic to his cause and would find the next great job. Although he missed World War I, on the sidelines as the troops marched off and returned, he was, from the 1930s to the 1960s, tied into many of the most important moments of American history. He served in Washington D.C. during the dispelling of the Bonus Army. He served under MacArthur in the Philippines. And he was given supreme command of the combined allied efforts in Europe in World War II.

It's here that we see his strengths and weaknesses, according to Smith. Dealing with Roosevelt, Churchill, de Gaulle, and the political scene, he excelled. As a military strategist, he lacked polish; it would be interesting to read a biography of Ike written by a British military man like Montgomery. To be fair, sadly, the British had a two-year head start in combat on the continent, and were therefore battle-hardened by the time the Americans joined the conflict. Still, it was when he pulled back from coordination of combat tactics and focused on political relationships that would be important after the war that he shined.

It was, of course, perfect training. Ike would return to regular army duties after the war, would work as president of Columbia University and as Supreme Commander of NATO and ultimately would spend eight years in the White House. He traded in Patton, MacArthur and Marshall for Roosevelt, Churchill and de Gaulle; he then traded them for McCarthy, Stevenson, Nixon and the rest of the 1950s cast of domestic political characters. His years in the White House included the opening days of the Civil Rights movement (he demanded desegregation of the Army) and the Space Race; unrest in both Asia and the Middle East; the Dien Bien Phu incident; the rise of the CIA; the expansion of the American highway system; and more. He worked hard - oftentimes to the dismay of his fellow Republicans - to avert war. Having seen it up close, he felt that funds poured into defense could better be spent elsewhere in the U.S. He exhorted the Soviets to think the same way.

Yet, he also believed in the use of overwhelming force as a deterrent. When the people of Little Rock refused to integrate their schools, Ike ordered the 101st Airborne to Arkansas to escort the kids into the building. He held the atomic bomb at bay, wanting never to use it, but also never letting his true feelings be known. He believed that global, open sharing of the science behind it would avert the feared mutually assured destruction its use would inevitably bring. But it remained a chip he could play at any time, if needed.

He maintained good relations with the Russians until the very end, when the U-2 incident destroyed them. Ironically, the last flight caused the uproar. Eisenhower didn't like the idea of American overflights of Russian territory, though the data returned, ostensibly about the Soviets' ability to wage war with intercontinental ballistic missiles, had value. He called for an end to the flights, but the CIA pushed for more. He allowed one more, within a two-week window. It got delayed until May 1, and was shot down, the pilot surviving. Any good will Ike had built up with the Russians for the past decade and a half was gone, leaving the next President (Kennedy) to inherit a highly unstable world.

The author treats Ike's final years as a denouement, as Ike hoped it would be. He had put in his time on the world stage and was ready to fade into the background.

This book left me wanting the story to continue, as I felt like I was losing a friend when the "character" of Ike petered out. I felt the same way reading James Clavell's Shogun. And yet, I move on.