Wednesday, January 04, 2012

"Satch, Dizzy, & Rapid Robert": A Review

Before Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers integrated Major League Baseball in 1946, white and black professional ballplayers competed against one another in barnstorming tours in the fall and winter of each year. In "Satch, Dizzy & Rapid Robert," historian Timothy M. Gay provides a history of that era, capturing both the prejudice and discrimination characterizing those times and the hopeful events of these tours.

While numerous other stars, both white and black, are covered, Mr. Gay focuses on the contributions of the three players named in the title. Lanky in physique, and mercurial in personality, Satchel Paige would certainly have been universally regarded as one of the greatest players of his time if he had been permitted to play in the white leagues earlier in his career. Past age 40 when he was finally allowed to pitch in the Majors, he nonetheless put together some solid years in the big leagues.

Dizzy Dean and Bob Feller are neither lionized nor demonized in the book. While they are praised for participating in tours that helped open the door to integrating baseball -- at a time when many white players refused to compete against black players and MLB frowned on the inter-racial off season games -- it is also noted that Messrs. Dean and Feller primarily engaged in these events for money making purposes, not for social ones.

Modern baseball fans will be surprised at the number of innings pitched, working almost daily at times, during these tours. While the strain of barnstorming probably contributed to the early retirement of Mr. Dean (though he ultimately hurt his arm by changing his motion after a line drive broke his toe), it did not seem to affect either Mr. Paige or Mr. Feller.

While the book covers much interesting ground about a world that is thankfully foreign to the modern reader, it sometimes suffer from a travel log type style, with repetitive recounting of cities, crowd sizes, and numbers of hits and strikeouts by various players. Nonetheless, the descriptions of the various personalities involved, as well as anecdotes from the various tours, make this book a recommended read for any baseball fan.

Monday, January 02, 2012

2011: Full of Sound and Fury

The age old question of whether a tree falling in an uninhabited forest makes a sound held no relevance to the events of 2011. The nations raged and nature unleashed her fury. Only the coming years will determine the consequence.

The year began with the bang of a gavel, as Nancy Pelosi handed over the reins of the House of Representatives to John Boehner. Republicans had taken control of the House as the result of a seismic election overthrowing the Democrats in the public's retaliation against Obamacare and other obstinancies. Nonetheless, the nation's political attention quickly moved outside the Beltway as the result of one of the year's tragic incidents -- the shooting of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords at a campaign event in her home state. Ms. Giffords was critically injured, and others died at the scene. The perpetrator was a deranged man with no coherent political philosophy, but people opposed to the free speech rights of others feigned concern over the rise of uncivil political rhetoric in order to silence their opponents. The President gave a thoughtful speech on the subject that will be little noted nor long remembered, because no one really cared about the issue. A couple of months later, when union protesters in Wisconsin painted Hitler-like moustaches on posters featuring Governor Walker, those previously concerned about uncivil rhetoric were no where to be found. By year end, Ms. Giffords had recovered to some degree, managing to cast a key vote in the House and attend the final launching of the space shuttle Atlantis, which included her astronaut husband on board.

The American economy continued to lag along, seemingly avoiding a recession, but not generating enough growth to move unemployment much below 9%. An enormous disaster in Japan -- the result of a massive earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear catastrophe -- an ongoing debt crisis in Europe, Middle East turmoil, and decreasing confidence in the U.S. government all created headwinds for what would have likely been slow growth in any event. Recognizing the public's concern about the public debt, the divided American government did the best it could: it created a Commission under circumstances that made its year end failure almost certain, thus kicking any reforms related to spending and entitlements a year further down the road. Those who created the debt crisis largely blamed those who want to restrain spending for S&P's downgrading of the U.S. debt rating. President Obama, who for the most part was not present for negotiations, blamed Congress.

None of this is to say that nothing was happening in Washington. NY congressman Anthony Weiner was caught sending women pictures of his -- well, of himself. President Obama bowed to pressures from within his party and dallied on granting permits for the building of a pipeline from Canada to the gulf coast that would largely alleviate American dependence on foreign oil. Attorney General Eric Holder was at the center of a scandal involving the delivery of arms to Mexican drug cartels, but remains in his job. Billions of dollars wasted on a bankrupt green energy firm, Solyandra, has also gone unpunished.

In years past, Obama bewailed American interventions in the Middle East, while neo-conservatives cheered them, but they made for strange bedfellows as protesters in Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere sought to overthrow their tyrannical governments. On the theory that American forces were not stretched thinly enough, the United States launched an air war against Libya and Moammar Qaddafi under the guise of a NATO action in order to avoid the constitutional nicety of consulting Congress. The United States has still not been engaged in a war, in the declared sense, since 1945, and none of the candidates seeking to replace Obama seems to think it an issue. Nonetheless, the Libyan strongman was ultimately overthrown, his brutal murder being recorded on videotape. New governments in Libya and Egypt, however, would seem to portent less an "Arab spring" than a regression toward Islamic fundamentalism. Osama Bin Laden was also killed by American special forces. While Osama's death was welcome, Americans have possibly not thought enough about the potential implications of the acceptance and openness about this form of military action. As the Middle East revolutions turned bad, the American media stopped paying attention, though they did find available resources to cover Prince William's wedding, where they breathlessly reported that Kate's younger sister was better looking. Stop the presses.

American forces leaving Iraq and Afghanistan reminded the American public that they were still there.

In general, it was a bad year for journalism. David Broder and Andy Rooney died. They will not be replaced. Christopher Hitchens, sadly, met his Maker. The press spent too much time wondering why the nation could not appreciates its brilliant President. Meanwhile, in Britain, a media outlet owned by Rupert Murdoch was caught wiretapping.

In North Korea, Kim Jong Il, who had convinced his population that he was so pure as to have no need for defecation, improved the world by his death, though it is not known whether his son will be any better.

In addition to Japan, Mother Nature unfurled her wrath in other places. New Zealand and Turkey also endured massive earthquakes. Joplin, Missouri was the most notable of several American cities hit by vicious tornadoes. Given these cataclysms, a small group of people given far too much attention became convinced by a radio minister named Harold Camping that the world was going to end in May -- no make that October. It did not. People of such a mindset are now turning to 2012 and the Mayans.

For those seeking diversions in sports, it was a mixed year. The Packers and Steelers invaded the frozen tundra of the Jerry Dome, and the Cheeseheads won the Super Bowl. In baseball, two playoff spots were determined in final innings on the last day of the season, and the most dramatic World Series in over 30 years went to the Cardinals after the Rangers could not close the deal. In the aftermath, Albert Pujols decided that he was no Stan Musial.

It is sometimes said that sports build character, and there have been few characters in sports more vile than Penn State's Jerry Sandusky, who was at the center of the worst scandal in the history of college and professional athletics. Failure to aggressively react to information about an alleged child molester has ruined the previously pristine reputation of Joe Paterno.

It has now been 15 years since the Dallas Cowboys appeared in a Super Bowl, but Jerry Jones remains the general manager, and it appears that the owner will not replace him. Scourge of the NFL Al Davis died. The NBA went on strike, but no one noticed.

The Casey Anthony case proved once again the capacity of the American public to obsess over the trivial while also further discrediting the American legal system. However, in the Conrad Murray case, a California jury finally got a big trial right. In business, a group of professional protesters angry at Washington bailouts decided to occupy Wall Street, in New York. Copy cat protests broke out across the country. At the University of Tampa, a protester explained that school was not just about partying: there was protesting. Studying never came up. The "Occupy" movement began to be broken up by law enforcement due to increasing crime problems. Steve Jobs passed away. His ability to innovate prevented Apple from maturing into obsolescence. American Airlines filed for bankruptcy.

Were any good movies made in Hollywood this year? Perhaps the remake of True Grit. Liz Taylor died, as did James Arness and Peter Falk. Amy Winehouse's life ended as many feared.

Given the state of the economy, one might think that Obama's re-election chances would be nil, but Republicans are doing their best to revive his odds. Sarah Palin wisely stayed out, but Tim Pawlenty, Mitch Daniels, and Chris Christie disappointed serious people by either withdrawing or deciding not to run. Donald Trump threatened to run while garnering publicity talking about Obama's birth certificate, but mercifully backed out. Meanwhile, those running engaged in a game of musical chairs in pursuit of the front runner's seat. Mitt Romney remains the favorite, in spite of his plethora of flip flops. Rick Perry's candidacy generated much enthusiasm before it was undermined by his IQ. Republicans turned off by Herman Cain's woman problems briefly flirted with Newt Gingrich. Rick Santorum has recently surged in Iowa, but he has little organization elsewhere. Jon Huntsman has staked out the most articulate and conservative positions on the issues, but his clumsy decision to run as the Republican most likable to non-Republicans probably ensures his defeat. Ron Paul continues to get enthusiastic support from the fringes of the party.

Czech playwright Vaclav Havel died. Both a man of courage and a brilliant thinker, Havel was among those that helped establish governments in eastern Europe in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

It was a year of sound and fury. Signifying what?