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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Bob's Books - Bottom of the Ninth by Michael Shapiro

Bottom of the Ninth, by Michael Shapiro, is an interesting book. Subtitled Branch Rickey, Casey Stengel, and the Daring Scheme to Save Baseball From Itself, it is actually about two unrelated stories. The early part of the book focuses more on Casey Stengel's run as manager of the New York Yankees. The other story, which moves to center stage later, is about the attempt by Branch Rickey and William Shea to create The Continental League, a third professional circuit that would work with major league baseball, rather than be an outlaw league like the prior attempts.

 Both tales are about baseball, and the activities in the book take place in the short span of 1958 to 1960; though, of course, a great deal of background from prior years is included. From the title, I thought that Rickey and Stengel joined forces in some gargantuan baseball effort. But the Stengel and Rickey stories have nothing to do with each other. That's fine, but unexpected and resulting in a kind of disjointed book. I found the Continental League's brief time to shine the more interesting of the pair.

The National League had held off challenges from the American Association and other professional leagues.
Ban Johnson, Rickey's inspiration, had crafted the American League, tenaciously held on and then reached an agreement that resulted in Major League Baseball. The two then successfully fought off the Federal League in 1914 and 1915 (with help from Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who was rewarded with a lifetime appointment as the first Commissioner of Baseball).

A 1922 Supreme Court Decision granted Baseball exemption from anti-trust laws. It was a multi-million dollar monopoly run by barons. After the Dodgers and Giants abandoned New York City (to the Yankees) for southern California in 1958, New York lawyer William Shea and future hall of fame executive Branch Rickey (architect of the powerhouse Cardinals and Dodgers teams) set out to bring major league baseball to seven big cities...and New York City. Future major league cities such as Houston, Minneapolis/St. Paul and Atlanta were part of the proposed Continental League.

These nine men nearly revolutionized
baseball in 1959. And they did force
long overdue expansion.
Shapiro does a nice job examining the rise and fall of the Continental movement, including the initial attempt to work with the major leagues and, after that failed, to work with Congress. The Continental had an uphill fight, but in 1959, it was a real threat to the majors. Obviously, the Continental never played a game, but it did force baseball to expand; something it had resisted for decades. The Astros, the Mets, the Rangers (who were first the Senators) and the Angels owe their formations to the Continental League's impudent attempt. 

Casey Stengel had failed miserably as manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Boston (later Milwaukee, now Atlanta) Braves. He was managing the AAA Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League in a nice `almost retired' gig. (he was almost 60). He was a complete surprise as the new Yankee hire in 1949, then proceeded to win five consecutive World Series. But Stengel, who had a loose usage of the English language, was an unconventional manager who platooned ball players (not done at the time) and wasn't afraid to claim credit and criticize his men.

After "only" two World Series titles in six years, it appeared that Stengel was in danger of losing his job
heading into 1960. Shapiro provides a nice look at the inner workings of the Stengel Yankees, as well as the roles played by Hall of Fame front office exec George Weiss and owners Dan Topping and Del Webb (proud constructor of a Japanese internment camp during World War II). After a third place finish in 1959, Stengel led the Yankees back to the World Series, where Bill Mazeroski sealed `The Old Professor's fate.

 There are plenty of books that deal with Casey Stengel and his time with the Yankees. It's worth reading here, but nothing to write home about. But the Continental League stuff provides a fascinating look at the last major threat to Baseball's monopoly. This one is worth reading.

Jackie Robinson is my idol, so I'm an unabashed Branch Rickey fan. Rickey created baseball's minor league farm system, which is likely the most important development in the game's history. He also signed Jackie Robinson and smashed baseball's color barrier. And, at the end of his career, he nearly established a new major league and in the process, forced the first expansion in decades. Rickey may well have had the greatest influence on major league baseball of any man in the game's history. This book tells the largely unknown part of that story.

There is a brand new book out on the Continental League by Russell Buhite. It's on my "Must Read" list.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Why I'm a Christian

Really, it all boils down to John 3:16;

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

There is almost NOTHING I would not do for my little boy. My mundane life revolves around him. The idea that God sent his son to the cross to pay for my sins and all the sins of mankind is staggering. I would undergo any torture for my son, but I wouldn’t submit him to a single hurt. So, for God to send Christ to take my place and offer me eternal life with him and his son… Well, I just don’t have the arrogance, the chutzpah, to say “Thanks, but no thanks.”

I can’t summon up the hubris to do anything other than thank him for this unimaginable sacrifice and revel in my blessings. It would be the epitome of ungratefulness to do otherwise.

If you acknowledge John 3:16, then you truly understand John a few verses later in 14:6 when he writes,

“Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’”

Those two verses are the whole core of human life. God loves us. God sacrificed his Son for our sins. And if we accept that, we gain eternity with God. Everything else is window dressing.

In How Many Kings, Downhere sang:

How many kings, stepped down from their thrones?
How many lords have abandoned their homes?
How many greats have become the least for me?
How many Gods have poured out their hearts
To romance a world that has torn all apart?
How many fathers gave up their sons for me?
Only one did that for me

So, this Easter holiday, celebrate the most important event in the history of the world and acknowledge Jesus as your redeemer.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

What's the Deal With Palm Sunday?

Jesus’ ministry has brought him to Jerusalem to reveal himself as The Messiah. The nation of Israel had been waiting for their savior to arrive and deliver them.

Zechariah 9:9 foretold, “...your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a

People came out from Jerusalem and laid palm fronds and tree branches and cloaks out on the road for Jesus, mounted on a donkey to ride across as he entered. Thus, Palm Sunday and the fulfillment of the prophecy.

The Jews of Jesus’ time expected a military leader who would end Roman rule and restore them to power. But the Pharisees and the Sadducees were blind to the very scripture they were supposed to be expert in. Jesus had been born in a manger. He rode into his city on a donkey. He was there to bring salvation by triumphing over sin, not by wielding a sword and conquering men.

Palm Sunday represents Jesus’ revelation as our savior by being the Lamb of God, not the sword of God. Later in Holy Week he would tell of his Second Coming, which will be the opposite. In Matthew 24:30, we read, “T 

That’s from the Olivet Discourse, which Jesus gave to his disciples on Thursday of Holy Week. It’s one of my favorite passages in the Bible and I’ll be posting a missive on it on…you guessed it, Thursday.

Jesus entered the world as a lamb: A sacrificial lamb, to be more precise. Though man and Satan thought that they triumphed over Jesus by crucifying him, Jesus showed them it was God’s victory by rising from the dead three days later. As Paul tells us in Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Jesus has come as a lamb. Next time, he will come as a lion. Palm Sunday represents Jesus revealing himself as the Messiah of scripture, not human perception. While that is a glorious thing, it is also bittersweet, as the Jews’ failure to recognize their savior dooms them. As Jesus says in Luke 19:41-44:

41As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it 42 and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. 43 The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. 44 They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Beach Boys Covers - Sloop John B

Previously, I posted that 'California Dreamin'' and 'Crocodile Rock' were the two best covers that the Beach Boys had recorded. Oops! This song is so associated with the Beach Boys that I forgot it was a cover.

'The John B Sails' is an old Bahamian folk song which Carl Sandburg included in his 'American Songbag' in 1927. In 1958, The Kingston Trio made the song "known" with a popular version in 1959.

Al Jardine took the tune to Brian during the recording of Pet Sounds.

"Brian was at the piano. I asked him if I could sit down and show him something. I laid out the chord pattern for 'Sloop John B.' I said, 'Remember this song?' I played it. He said, 'I'm not a big fan of the Kingston Trio.' He wasn't into folk music. But I didn't give up on the idea. So what I did was to sit down and play it for him in the Beach Boys idiom. I figured if I gave it to him in the right light, he might end up believing in it.

So I modified the chord changes so it would be a little more interesting. The original song is basically a three-chord song, and I knew that wouldn't fly. So I put some minor changes in there, and it stretched out the possibilities from a vocal point of view.
Anyway, I played it, walked away from the piano and we went back to work. The very next day, I got a phone call to come down to the studio. Brian played the song for me, and I was blown away. The idea stage to the completed track took less than 24 hours."

Brian was at his creative peak in 1966 and producing brilliant stuff. I do believe he may well have put this tune together in 24 hours, as Al claims. If so, it's a testament to his amazing talents.

Though the tune doesn't thematically fit in on that album (I've seen it said that it was like "a debutante at the wrong ball) Brian produced a masterpiece. It hit #3 in the US and was a top five hit in many other countries. A version with Brian singing all of the lead and another with Carl singing lead on several verses is included on the excellent The Pet Sounds Sessions.

This video has promo footage, which was a pretty rare concept back in 1966.