Search This Blog

Monday, July 23, 2012

Bob's Books - High Fives, Pennant Drives and Fernandomania by Paul Haddad

My earliest baseball memories are of the 1974 Dodgers. So I was excited to sit down with Paul Haddad’s High Fives, Pennant Drives and Fernandomania. A look at the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1977- 1981, these were the men in blue I grew up watching and reading about in box scores. Though the west coast games often didn’t make the east coast newspapers the following morning; I often found “Late Game,” instead of the Dodgers’ results. In those pre-internet days, it wasn’t uncommon to go a full day or even two before finding out who won!
Fernandomania totally
swept America in 1981
But my elation was short lived. In the introduction, Haddad states, “…I am not a professional baseball writer. I am a fan.” And this book is absolutely not written by a real writer. Haddad recorded Vin Scully broadcasts during the time and made his own highlight tapes, incorporating his own commentary. So, he had a lot of firsthand information from that period. And he decided to throw them together into a book.  

The Dodgers had not won a World
Series since 1965; and had lost
their last two to the hated Yankees
There is a six page section on why he thinks The Bad News Bears is the best baseball movie ever. We are also treated to a sample of the Dodgers newsletter that he created at the time. A cowriter might have helped him shape this fan reminiscence into some semblance of a viable book. Instead, it’s kind of like reading through a scrapbook. He picks five games from each season to serve as representative of the year, with other miscellaneous stuff thrown in, like his thoughts on the movie, The Fan.

While I loved the subject matter (the 1974-1981 era in Dodgers history is woefully underreported), this is just about the worst book on the Dodgers that I have read.  It did wistfully remind me of my baseball card collecting days, but it just isn’t a very good tome. I hope someone else decides to delve into the Jimmy Wynn to Fernando Valenzuela days.

Glenn Burke 'invented' the high five as a
celebratory greeting to Dusty Baker.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Ron Santo in the Hall of Fame: Really?

Ron Santo is going into the Hall of Fame. The long time Cubs third baseman and announcer, who lost both legs below the knees to diabetes, has been championed by many for years and is finally going in, selected by the Veteran's Committtee. That's the group that keeps picking marginal players who couldn't get into the Hall through the initial voting.

Sabermetrics, the 'new way' of looking at baseball players, offers a slew of statistics that supposedly are much more useful than the traditional measures, such as batting average, strikeouts, etc. While they have a place, what they are regularly doing is allowing an analyst to pick one or two measure favorable to his subject, then show how much better that player is than people think.

Ron Santo was a good player. His 162 game average (a measure NOBODY talks about), was a .277 batting average, 25 homers and 96 RBIs. And while he won five gold gloves, he doesn't rank in the top 100 fielding third basemen of all time (he wasn't Brooks Robinson). If the Hall of Fame is supposed to be for the greats of the game, then Ron Santo doesn't belong.

I'm not saying some players who don't deserve to be there aren't in the Hall of Fame already. But that doesn't mean we add to their number. Ron Santo was a good player; not a great one. Several years ago, Bill James (father of Sabermetrics) wrote a book called, "Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame?" That's still a good question today as the Veteran's Committee (which is actually divided into seperate groups these days) continues to water down the Hall.

BTW, I don't dislike Santo. My first baseball glove as a kid was a Ron Santo model. I just don't agree with the voices ringing out right now that Santo's induction was long overdue. I don't think it was due at all.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Bob's Books - Witness to Power by John Ehrlichman

Memoirs from those involved in Watergate and the Nixon Presidency are a dicey proposition. Now, those involved in events have knowledge and insights not necessarily available from others. But, as we’re dealing with illegal and unethical activities, you can assume that the author is trying to look as good as he possibly can.
In Witness to Power, John Ehrlichman writes a very interesting biography that gives an inside look at the Nixon White House. In fact, Watergate is just a relatively minor portion of this book. And some of it is undoubtedly accurate. But, in light of what we know from the tapes, transcripts and other books on the subject, most of this tome should be taken with a grain of salt. Subtitled The Nixon Years, he breaks out several chapters based on his experiences with different areas, such as the Nixon Cabinet, the Congress, the President’s two brothers (oh, that Donald!) and such. The first three plus quarters of the book are not about Watergate. As such, it gives an awful lot of insights on the Richard Nixon Presidency. With so many books solely about Watergate and related matters, this makes the book stand out. Much of what he has to say is quite interesting, such as the Cabinet chapter.

George Romney was a popular Michigan governor and 1968 Presidential hopeful. He also fathered the Mormon 2012 Presidential candidate, Mitt. In 1970, he was Nixon’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, announced a cut in his own salary to help balance the budget. Nixon disparaged it as “an ineffective grandstand play,” and said he wanted Romney fired. While Nixon juggled cabinet members, he played it like a fantasy baseball game, talking endlessly about various moves before actually doing it: Romney didn’t leave until 1973. But two days after blasting Romney, he asked Ehrlichman how they could reduce the President’s salary by $25,000; while increasing his pension by the same amount. That’s a pretty good snapshot of the type of man Richard Nixon was.

Nixon’s dealings with his cabinet member make one think of a bully. He had little respect for most of them, yet hated confrontations, so he tried to appear that he appreciated them yet refused to actually meet with them. He ran an administrative presidency, where Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman were more powerful than his Cabinet members. His preferred tactic was to disempower Cabinet Secretaries in hopes that they would quit, rather than force him to fire them. Ehrlichman was often the man in the middle and recounts several instances of this sort of thing. Including two near revolts from Cabinet members who resented the barriers the President had erected before himself.

To quote Nixon on the Cabinet: “I’ve wasted a lot of time on the Cabinet problem. We should put more emphasis on the subcabinet and the Administrative wives (wives of appointees)….The boats and Camp David – that has now been done, as afar as the Cabinet is concerned. No more. The Cabinet has no divine right to such things.” Nixon was a petty and power hungry man.

We also learn of Nixon’s active attempts to get rid of sitting Supreme Court judges so he could appoint his own ‘strict constructionists.’ Those early nominees are largely forgotten today, but the names Clement Haynsworth and Harold Carswell do not reflect well on Richard Nixon’s character.

Ehrlichman, not known for a sharp wit, displays such in his writing. However, his justification of his confrontational approach to the Senate Watergate Committee rings hollow and (justifiably) he clearly feels bitterness towards Richard Nixon. Nixon, who was pardoned for any crimes he might have committed, escaped Watergate scott free (having to quit your job and head into a cushy retirement because you did illegal things isn’t exactly cruel and unusual punishment) while many of his underlings, carrying out his orders and policies, went to jail. And as you might have guessed, he’s not much of a John Dean fan.

I think Ehrlichman is more culpable than he relates in the book, and he soft soaps many of Nixon’s actions (Nixon demanded the resignation of hundreds of his employees after being re-elected in 1972: nice reward for hard work. Ehrlichman dismisses this with the same gravitas as if the President didn’t like his salad dressing and sent the order back). But I also think he did work hard on domestic policy issues and did the president’s bidding, which earned him jail time and loss of his law license. This is a good look at one man’s experience working for the Nixon White House.
His lasting image as a combative
witness at Senator Ervin's
Watergate Committee Hearings

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Freeh Report...and Your Heart by Chris Tomlin

As baseball season resumes today (MATT KEMP IS BACK!!!!!), sports radio is all about the Freeh Report. Things like the Penn State and Catholic priest scandals make me think of King David and 1 Samuel. David rose to great heights and fell to great depths (you think you've got family problems...). Unlike Penn State, the Church and Cain, when confronted with his sins, David turned to God and repented.

That's what Psalm 51 is about: begging God for forgiveness. It is one every Christian should read and study.  'a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.'

If you're not familiar with the story, God forgave David but punished him Mightily, including the death of his son born of the adultery with Bathsheba.

I like this Chris Tomlin song about David, with its refrain, "At the end of the day, I wanna hear people say, that my heart looks like your heart"

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Bob's Books - A Year at a Time by Walter Alston with Jack Tobin

Walter Alston managed the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers for twenty three seasons, beginning in 1954. He replaced the popular Chuck Dressen, who had demanded a multi-year contract after three consecutive first place finishes. (1951 was actually a tie for first). Team owner Walter O’Malley thanked Dressen for his services and pushed him out the door. The headline in the New York Daily News after the introductory press conference read, “ALSTON (WHO’S HE) TO MANAGE DODGERS.”

Alston brought Brooklyn its only World Series title in 1955 and would finish with a total of seven national league championships and four World Series wins. In 23 years. The Dodgers have won two World Series in the thirty-six years since he retired. And one of those was largely composed of players he had in his final season of 1976. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1983; a year before he passed away.

Walter Alston is a small town man who was a genuinely nice guy. Leo Durocher is famously (mis)quoted as having said ‘Nice guys finish last.’ Well, in this case, nice guys write bland autobiographies. Alston writes about his life in Darrtown, OH (where he lived his entire life) almost as much as he does about managing the Dodgers. Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration, but not as much as you might think.  He offers some insights into his pennant seasons in Brooklyn, but not a lot of them.

As a player, Alston played 13 seasons in the Cardinals minor league chain. He did get to bat once in the majors; for the Cards in 1936. He struck out! But he spent several years as a player – manager in the minors, which prepared him for his future career. Alston was a Dodgers rarity: he was a Rickey man whom Walter O’Malley took into the fold. As poorly as Harold Parrott thinks about the Irishman, (see my review of his book, The Lords of Baseball, for a very negative view of O’Malley), Alston thinks well of the long time owner.
The skipper does talk about Lou Johnson bailing out the 1965 season, and how unbelievable Sandy Koufax was even as the lefty’s arm was disintegrating from arthritis. But there’s just not as much information on his Dodgers teams as you would expect. Alston mentions that he believes if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. Unfortunately, that makes for a rather boring book.

Tommy Lasorda had a heart attack partway through the 1996 season and had to retire. For forty-two and a half seasons, only two men managed the Dodgers. And both are in the Hall of Fame.  Since Lasorda stepped down, the Dodgers have had seven managers, none of who made it to the World Series.
Walter Alston was a symbol of the stability of the Dodger organization for parts of three decades. This book takes us through 1974, so he had two more years left as a manager. So, there is no discussion of Tommy Lasorda’s taking over the team after the 1976 season. Though I doubt Alston would have written anything negative, anyways.

Walter Alston was a Hall of Fame manager and a very good man.  I am a fan. This just isn’t a very interesting biography.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Bob's Books - Nightmare: The Underside of the Nixon Years by J. Anthony Lukas

I first read J. Anthony Lukas’ Nightmare: The Underside of the Nixon Years, a couple of decades ago. Though details faded as I aged, I retained the impression that it was just about the best book on Watergate I had come across. With my collection now inching towards a hundred volumes, I decided to revisit Lukas’s tome and see how it actually stands up.

This book from the two time Pulitzer Prize winning reporter and author grew out of articles which he wrote for the New York Times Magazine (two full issues consisted of only his writings on Watergate): plus a third that was commissioned but scotched when Nixon resigned the Presidency.  Lukas sets the stage with the unsuccessful (for the Republicans) 1970 midterm elections and the state of civil unrest in Washington in 1971. Then he leads us into, and out of, Watergate.

Lukas’ comprehensive but not overwhelming look at his subject matter is well laid out, as evidenced by the chapter titles: Fear of Losing, State of Siege, Leaks and Traps, Plumbers, Dirty Money, Dirty Tricks, Break-in, Cover-up, Uncover, Houses in the Sun, Tapes, Agnew, Firestorm, Operation Candor, Impeachment and Resignation. Watergate was not simply a ‘third rate burglary.’ It was an event that grew out of the Nixon administration’s increasing combativeness and declining respect for the law.

Bob Haldeman (L) and John Erlichman (R) were Nixon's
'Palace Guard' and went to jail for their illegal actions:
something Nixon, the chief architect, was spared.
Some books use Nixon’s flawed character development to show how the operating culture of his White House evolved. And certainly, other Watergate volumes provide information and theories not included in this book. But Lukas takes a direct path approach, from point A to point B (or to Z) and it works. By the middle of Chapter 3 (Leaks and Taps, which is about the wiretapping of employees and enemies, both real and perceived), you recognize that the Nixon White House viewed governing as one hundred percent “us against everybody who is not with us” and that the end (getting our enemies) justified the means (whatever possibly or blatantly illegal methods we used). While this is serious stuff, there are some Keystone Kops type moments: such as discovering that the Secret Service (presumably at the direction of Bob Haldeman and John Erlichman) wire tapped the President’s brother, Donald Nixon because he was a cause of embarrassment.

But things got less amusing as the paranoia and arrogance of power grew. Egil ‘Bud’ Krogh Jr. (who did jail time related to the Plumbers’ activities) is quoted in 1971 as saying, “Anyone who opposes us, we’ll destroy. As a matter of fact, anyone who doesn’t support us, we’ll destroy.” As Lukas explores the Plumbers unit and campaign finance shenanigans (that’s a soft word for unethical, illegal actions), it’s clear that the Nixon Administration has lost both perspective and any kind of moral compass (you can argue Nixon lost that years before).

Lukas’ narrative leaves the reader wondering if things would have reached such critical proportions if Henry Kissinger hadn’t convinced Nixon that the leaking of The Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg was devastating to national security; for Early on, Nixon realized that it was the prior administration of Lyndon Johnson which would look bad on Vietnam, not his. It is in the response to Ellsberg’s actions that we see the seeds of Nixon’s downfall sprout into towering trees. Though, as you dig deeper into the book, you realize Nixon’s flawed personality was as fatal as Achilles’ own heel.
The President, the Attorney General, the White House Chief of Staff, special counsels, the Domestic Policy Advisor, staffers at all levels; all the president’s men broke the law and/or acted unethically time and time again. It’s shocking to read, decades later. Lukas paints a picture of all the president’s men doing everything they could to make sure the truth of the Watergate break in did not come to light. And this was in large part due to all the other illicit and embarrassing activities that would be exposed to the light of day. And that includes his lack of ethics regarding his personal taxes and willingness to spend public money on his private properties.

Nixon's net worth went through the roof during his Presidency.
This is part of one of the two 'satellite offices' he established (in
San Clemente, CA; the other was in Key Biscayne, FL).

Richard Nixon had three priorities, from least to greatest: the American public, the presidency and himself. Nightmare paints a vivid picture of an administration that believed it could do anything it wanted, however it wanted. After his resignation, Nixon famously said, “Well, if the president does it, then it’s not illegal.” That’s a pretty good epithet for his presidency. Nixon did not have a disdain for the law: he had an utter contempt for it. And he was willing to betray his oath of office and sacrifice the office of the President for his own interests.

If you buy into the misleading mantra, “it wasn’t so much the crime, it was the cover-up,” you need to read this book. It was a staggering combination of both. Thirty-nine years after its first publication, Anthony Lukas’ Nightmare remains perhaps the finest account of Watergate and the events surrounding it.