Sunday, January 30, 2011

Victory Faust

One of the things I was anticipating the most about working at the Baseball Hall of Fame last summer was getting to meet a couple of researchers whom I had always admired; Tom Shieber and Gabe Schechter. I had known both through SABR but had never met either in person.

Neither disappointed. Tom may be the best baseball researcher on the planet. It amazes me the things he is able to figure out and find. He started SABR's Pictorial History Committee and is really good at identifying stuff through photos (like who a person is based on their ears, for instance). Unfortunately, Tom tends to vacation during the summer so I was not able to spend much time with him.

Gabe, on the other hand, I got to spend time with almost every day. He actually worked as part of the library (whereas Tom is in curating). I use the word "worked" in the past tense since Gabe was let go by the Hall in the fall, presumably because of this essay. Fortunately, this message has been taken up more through the media and people are recognizing that there is a difference between a Hall of Famer and a winner of the Spink or Frick award.

One of the best things about Gabe is that in addition to being a top-notch researcher, he is a great storyteller and writer. On occasion Gabe would gather myself, the other library intern and maybe another intern or two for Uncle Gabe's Storytime and tell us a really entertaining story about baseball, the Hall, or maybe about himself. There's a lot to tell about Gabe. He's an interesting fellow. Dealt poker in Vegas for awhile, won almost 20 grand on Jeopardy, started his own publishing label which he named after his cat, and is just an all-around nice guy. Getting to work with him was a definite highlight of the summer.

Gabe provided me with an inscribed copy of his book on Victory Faust. Amazon doesn't carry it but you can buy it from Gabe. I decided to read it now because one, I had wanted to read more baseball this year and two, after seeing the Tod Sloan/John McGraw connection, I had a hankering to read something about McGraw's Giants and three, I got involved in an e-mail discussion about the 1911 season with a couple folks, including Gabe. Seemed like the right time.

As long-time readers of this blog know, I don't think highly of the readability of many baseball books. I think there is an over-reliance on statistics or too much reporting: "On June 23, the Giants won 3-1. On June 24, they lost 4-2 as Doyle committed two errors and Clarke hit a pair of doubles". Zzzzzzz......Thus, I tend to read books about other subjects.

Schechter manages to avoid falling into the same trap for the most part. He does follow the New York Giants' 1911 season and does get into the scores and the big plays. He does it, though, with the skill at storytelling that I mentioned above so that it doesn't get as dull as most.

The main story, and one that requires some work getting to, is that of Victory Faust. Charles Victor Faust was a man born in Kansas who was part of a farming family. Faust's elevator didn't quite reach the top floor. Whether he suffered from mental illness or just wasn't that bright or some combination of both isn't quite clear. He did seem to be very gullible and trusting. It is this gullibility, in part, which helped form this book.

Faust went to a fortune teller at age thirty who told him that he was to meet a woman in California named Lulu with whom he would fall in love. He was also told that he would pitch the New York Giants to the World Championship. Faust believed all this, went to St. Louis, where the Giants were playing the Cardinals, and began his quest to be part of the Giants.

The other aspect of Faust's story is his tenaciousness. Faust was not a ballplayer. He would say that he had some experience playing but that he had learned most of his skills from reading baseball guides. One look at him and his exaggerated windmills as he prepared to pitch showed he was no ballplayer.

The Giants and manager McGraw recognized he was no player and that he was gullible. They made him run the bases, telling him to slide at each one until he was banged up and his clothes ruined. They allowed him to sit on the bench with them and the Giants took two games from the Cardinals. When it came time for the Giants to depart by train, they waited to the last minute, told Charley his ticket was back at the hotel, and left as he raced back to get his ticket.

That could (and maybe should) have been the end but Faust was determined. He found his own way to New York and rejoined the Giants. Faust was given the opportunity to warm up and run the bases again which entertained the crowd immensely. The Giants won and he became a mascot and good luck charm for the team.

Fans and players took to Faust. The Giants would have Faust make speeches about baseball on train rides and he also would mimic ballplayers stances and deliveries. Opposing players also took to Faust. Faust would take the mound during batting practice and "strike out" opposing hitters to the fans' delight. Faust, however, felt that his appearances before the game were indicative of his ability as a pitcher and he pestered McGraw to let him pitch in a game.

The Giants had a successful summer, perhaps with the aid of Faust. With Faust traveling with the team, the Giants went an astounding 36-2 when he was at the game. There were times when he was absent from the squad (such as when he had a brief engagement doing his routines as part of a vaudeville show) and the Giants went 3-7 in those games. Most games he spent warming up so that he would be ready to pitch if McGraw needed him.

Finally, once the Giants clinched the pennant, McGraw relented and let Faust appear in a couple of games, pitching an inning each time. Faust also got to bat once, which the opposition took as seriously as they did his warmup appearances. Faust was hit by a pitch and then was allowed to steal second and third, partly to allow him to demonstrate his awkward sliding skills.

Faust's good luck didn't show for the World Series. The Athletics defeated the Giants and so the fortune teller's prediction for Faust didn't hold. Faust had a brief run in a vaudeville show during the offseason but then began preparing for the 1912 season. Faust tried to return in 1912, even teaching himself to throw left-handed to make himself more valuable. His antics had lost their luster, though, and he started to become threatening and creepy.

Faust found his way out west, perhaps to hunt for Lulu, and ended up dying in an insane asylum in 1915.

Faust may have gone unhidden for a long time if not for an interview with Fred Snodgrass that appeared in Lawrence Ritter's The Glory of Their Times. That interview inspired Schechter to research the life of Faust. Faust's short life and brief impact on the game of baseball made research material hard to come by. As such, this book is as much a review of the 1911 season as it is a biography of Faust. It's a fascinating story and told well. I was disappointed by the lack of notes although many of the newspaper stories mentioned are cited in the text. I was also really disappointed in the general treatment of Faust by the folks of his era. It was obvious that he either lacked intelligence, suffered from a mental illness or both. While at the height of the Giants' success, he seemed to be treated well by the players, he was also abused and made fun of and treated as an object more than a person. That always bothers me.

All in all, Schechter's book is one of the better baseball reads I've encountered and I recommend it for fans and non-fans alike.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Yankee Doodle Dandy

As I said in my last review, I'm on a bit of a horse racing kick right now. After picking that novel, I decided I wanted to read about a jockey. The pickings are slim in our system and I opted for this book, Yankee Doodle Dandy, about Tod Sloan. I felt good about this pick because within an hour after putting in the request for it, I checked Baseball-Reference's This Day In History section and there, on that very day, was something about jockey Tod Sloan buying a billiards parlor with New York Giants manager John McGraw. I figured if he was a business partner of McGraw's, he has to be an interesting fellow.

After reading the book, it's hard to say. Despite being touted as a biography on Tod Sloan, the majority of it is a history of horse racing through the end of the 19th Century. I think the author did this to flesh out the book since there wasn't a whole lot of source material on Sloan.

Sloan was most noted for supposedly being the fellow who popularized the current style of riding a racehorse; leaning forward and being up around the neck and head. Before Sloan, riders sat upright back in the saddle and rode like you see in Westerns.

Most of Sloan's success came abroad, even serving as the jockey for Edward, Prince of Wales's entry in the Epsom Derby. His success was rather short, though, as the British Jockey Club accused him of taking money from owners as gifts and wagering on races. He was banned from racing in England and the ban was enforced in America as well ending Sloan's career.

Sloan was such a popular figure that George Cohan wrote a musical, Little Johnny Jones, that was based on Sloan. This is the musical that gave the world the songs "Yankee Doodle Boy" and "Give My Regards to Broadway".

I found the book somewhat interesting but wish it had been honest in it's title. It's really only the last couple of chapters that deal significantly with Sloan. There's one chapter in which Sloan merits only a single chapter. What bugged me the most about the book was the lack of citations and how it tied in to Dizikes' writing and research. I thought Dizikes' writing was pretty bland and a large amount of his writing is cobbling together fragments of sentences from newspapers. He then sometimes cites them (citations were really haphzard) in clusters in the endnotes. So you'll read a paragraph which contains four or five quotes of a few words apiece, turn to see from where they came, and just find a list of newspapers with no indication of what came from where. I thought it was really lackadaisical and unprofessional, especially from a college professor who also has won the National Book Critics Circle Award. While not an awful book, it annoyed me enough not to recommend it.

As an aside, the link above is not the version I read, it is the softcover edition. The hardcover dustjacket has a famous caricature of Sloan on the cover. It gives the book, which is small in size, the feel of a book geared towards kids. Nice to see that they changed the cover for the paperback, even though the image has nothing to do with Sloan.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Art of Losing

I'm on a bit of a horse racing reading kick right now and it started with this book. i was fooling around with the "card catalog" at work and decided to look for novels with the subject of gambling. In addition to 3,423 books by Dick Francis, this one came up. I requested it from one of the other branches and plowed through it.

The Art of Losing is a very dark book. One of the darker ones I've read. The main character, Michael Jacobs, is a documentary filmmaker who makes decent films but they do not generate enough interest to be profitable. This shouldn't really matter since Jacobs comes from a wealthy family who are encouraging of his occupational choice and who like his movies. Nonetheless, Jacobs cannot bring himself to rely on assistance from his folks.

Jacobs' friend and producer, Sebby Laslo, has a problem with gambling. He has indebted himself too much with the wrong kinds of people and comes to Mike with a broken thumb and a pitch for how to get them both on track.

Sebby has a friend who is a jockey. The plan is to get another jockey involved and have the two jockeys conspire to fix a race on which Sebby and Jacobs have wagered heavily. In order to do this, though, and get the kind of odds they want, they have to place the wager with an illegal bookmaker. In order to get a bookmaker (or more bookmakers) to give them odds on a big bet like that, they have to establish that they are chumps and have to lose money in advance; money neither of them has.

If this doesn't bode well to you in my review, well, that foreboding feeling isn't go away if you read the book either. Dixon does not create an inspiring atmosphere. You have a sense that those best laid plans are certainly going to go awry.

Even with the bad vibe, the book moves you along. There is a glimmer of hope....maybe...or maybe it's the sense that you're about to view a train wreck. Something keeps you moving ahead with the book. And it's good. Surprisingly good given that I picked it solely based on a card catalog subject heading. Just don't go reading it on a day where you could use some optimism.

Monday, January 10, 2011


You could quantify my interest in reading a story about a WWII POW, or really that of any war's Prisoner of War, with the number zero. Just not something that interests me. On the other hand, if you asked me my interest in reading a book about paint drying, I'd say I'm totally for reading a book about that as long as Laura Hillenbrand wrote it.

I finally got around to reading Hillenbrand's book on Seabiscuit last year and it was the best book I read in 2010. Although I had no interest in the topic matter of her second book, Unbroken, I opted to read it because she is such a fantastic writer.

A good choice it was as I expect this will fall in my top ten books of 2011 come next December.

The book follows the story of Louie Zamperini. Zamperini was an obnoxious kid until he took up running. He developed into an incredible runner and became one of the world's best, competing in the Olympics for the United States in 1936 at age 19. He went on to set the collegiate record in the mile two years later and was training for the 1940 Olympics. The host city was Tokyo and with World War II, the games were initially transferred from Tokyo to Helsinki and then canceled. Zamperini joined the U.S. war effort in 1941 and became a bombardier.

One of the more fascinating things I read in this book was the primitive state of aircraft during the war. The number of crashes and injuries during training activities was incredibly large. Zamperini ended up a victim of such a mishap. He and his crew were sent out to look for a missing plane in the Pacific, their plane suffered a malfunction and they ended up crashing. Zamperini and two other crew members survived and were afloat at sea on a life raft for 47 days during which they were shot at by a Japanese plane, attacked by sharks and suffered from starvation and dehydration. The one crew member died but the other and Louie washed ashore in Japanese occupied territory.

The two were then placed in prisoner of war camps where conditions were probably worse than they were on the raft. Zamperini is regularly abused by a camp guard, the prisoners are starved and suffer from diseases, and when the Allies appear to be winning the war, the Japanese kill many prisoners of war rather than letting them be rescued.

Somehow Zamperini survives all his ordeals and returns home. He marries but suffers from alcoholism and is tormented by his memories. Through religion, he overcomes his hauntings and he is still alive and well at age 93.

Insprining though this book is, I also continue to be inspired by Hillenbrand herself. She suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome and is often bedridden. Her being able to conduct the research for this book and write this book is amazing given her condition.

As I said, I love her writing. She also does a great job with research and thoroughly cites everything. My one problem with the book is that it does rely primarily on interviews with Zamperini (over seventy of them in total, yet, amazingly, they have never met in person). Memories are tricky things and there were many times in the book where I had to question happenings as being exaggerations or faulty memories. The instances weren't too bad (Zamperini didn't invent the internet while he was a POW or anything) and primarily involved his youth. And I may be wrong and every bit of them may be true. I'm a documentation kind of guy, though, and would like to have some sort of corroborating evidence.

Nonetheless, this is an incredible book and is a definite recommendation.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The umpire and the stone gargoyle

The weirdness continues. I woke up this morning at 10 AM. I never, ever, ever sleep that late. It's especially difficult to do so on a Sunday because the church bells from the nearby church will wake you up. Somehow I slept through them. But as if that wasn't enough, I woke face down in a pool of my blood. Why I woke face down is beyond me, too, since I never sleep that way. But apparently I had a bloody nose at some point, a considerable one at that, and I just laid there.

But as if THAT wasn't enough, my first thoughts this morning were, instead of a song (which is usually what's in my head first thing), baseball jokes involving a stone gargoyle.

Why did the umpire call the stone gargoyle out?
Because he stood there looking at a third strike.

What did the stone gargoyle say when the umpire rang him up?
Nothing, he's a stone gargoyle.

Why did the Yankees sign the stone gargoyle?
They wanted better range at shortstop.

Why did the BBWAA elect the stone gargoyle to the Hall of Fame?
Because statistics can't measure the intangibles the stone gargoyle brought to the game. Also, they saw him play and he was feared.

Why did the Royals sign the stone gargoyle?
Because he's part of Dayton Moore's Plan.

Why did the Athletics sign the stone gargoyle?
Because he's one hell of a soccer player.

Why did Jose Canseco not like playing with the stone gargoyle?
The needles kept snapping when he tried to inject steroids into the gargoyle's rear end.

Why did the Nationals sign the stone gargoyle to a 30 year, $2 billion contract?
So that Jayson Werth's contract looks good.

See? Weird.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Contest winnings

Matthew at #5 Type Collection had a contest where everyone was to submit three defunct major league teams from which they would like to have baseball cards. he then randomly selected five of us and I was fortunate enough to be chosen.

Desiring Expos, I added the Wilmington Quicksteps and the Louisville Colonels to my list of wanted teams to make sure I only got Expos (I would have been pleasantly suprised to pick up a 19th century card for free, though). Matt sent me fifteen Expos of which this trio I was especially grateful.

I think there is something wrong with a person when they open up a pack of cards, see the top one, and exclaim "ALL RIGHT, BILL ATKINSON!!!".

Thanks a lot, Matthew. I appreciate the cards.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Odd day at the library

I'm at work this morning when some woman starts banging on the door at 9:40 AM. We don't open until 10. I go over and see what she wants as she looks like she's going to pee her pants. She has a trio of books and wants to give them to me to check in because she's afraid if she puts them in the drop box, they won't be checked in until tomorrow. That's wrong since the first thing we do once we open is clear out the drop box. I take them from her, though, and then check them in.


What, that 26th day was going to make a difference?

Later in the day, which, if I read every calendar right is January 7, 2011, I helped out a patron. That's 2011. 2-0-1-1. You know, the Modern Era. The internet, smartphones, wireless connections, HD television. You know what I did for that patron today, January 7, 2011? I formatted his 3.5" floppy disk.

I'm expecting that on Monday someone will want me to help them get over their cold by leeching them.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Blockade Billy

Blockade Billy kept drawing me back to it. I would see it on our new book shelf at the library, pick it up, see it's baseball theme and it's slim size, think about it, then set it back down. Stephen King has never done much for me. The only work of his I can say I enjoyed was Needful Things. I have his book on being a Red Sox fan on my shelf, Faithful, which is co-written by Stewart O'Nan, another author of which I am not fond, and it will likely remain unread.

Getting back to Blockade Billy, I was transitioning it from the new book shelf to the general fiction shelf, changing stickers, altering the location of the book in the computer system, and I finally opted to take it home and read it.

The best thing I can say about this book is that it is a quick read. I read over half of it as I cooked dinner and knocked out the remainder soon after.

The book is perplexing. It is set during the 1957 baseball season and King mixes actual major league teams and players with fictional ones. In the opening game of the season, Ted Williams inexplicably steals a base. Williams never stole a base that season and rarely stole any. The timing of said stolen base is baffling and is followed up by him being removed by a pinch-runner who tries to score from second on an infield hit. Really? When does this happen? Oh, wait, in the movie Major League, the game is won in that fashion. Otherwise, I don't see it happening. It's not like the pitcher is in the on-deck circle. Even if he was, the game was in the ninth inning. Pinch-hit. You don't try to score from second on an infield hit. Ridiculous.

Needless to say, I wasn't keen on the baseball content of the story. I wasn't keen on the story in general. The book is told like one big oral history coming from the coach of the team who King has gone to interview at a retirement community, or as the coach likes to call it, a "zombie hotel". I worked for a firm that surveyed elder care communities and in thousands upon thousands of surveys, never came across anyone who called it a "zombie hotel". It almost seems like a phrase a horror movie writer might make up, doesn't it?

Since it is one big story, there are no chapters. It's 112 small pages that jut run on. The story is about a catcher, Blockade Billy Blakeley, named so because of his blocking the above mentioned runner from scoring. Triple B is brought up to the big leagues from Iowa after both catchers for the New Jersey Titans are hurt at the end of spring training. Triple B is an instant star even though he's obviously not all there in the head. His dark secret is exposed which results in all the games in which he has played to be expunged from the official record (perhaps the stupidest thing I've ever heard).

You know what? I'm going to spoil it for you. If you don't want to read the big secret, just move on. I really didn't like the book and even given it's length, I don't want you bothering. Blakeley isn't Blakeley. He's a farmhand who kills the real Blakeley, his family, and their cows to take Blakeley's place and become a big leaguer.

Oh, I forgot. This book also has creepy black and white illustrations.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Possessed

If you like to read, there are few websites as wonderful to browse as The Millions. It was on there that I came across this review/interview with Elif Batuman, the author of The Possessed. Elif is a six foot tall Turkish woman who is a scholar of Russian literature. Her book is about her experiences as a graduate student in that particular field.

As a wee lad (OK, in high school and college), I enjoyed Russian literature. So I thought I would enjoy this book. The title comes from Dostoevsky's book of the same name (which also goes by the title The Devils or The Demons, depending on your translation) and Dostoevsky is my favorite Russian author so all the more reason to like it.

I was right. I really enjoyed it. Two thoughts kept running through my head as I read it, though. My first thought was, "How on earth did this book get published?". While it is incredibly entertaining and does not require a vast knowledge of Russian literature, I do think knowing a bit about Russian stories helps increase the enjoyment level. That being said, who would pick this up? Why would a publisher think this topic had enough appeal to be made into a book? I'm still not entirely sure but I know how it got published.

It got published because Batuman is a very talented writer who has written for a number of publications including n+1 and The New Yorker. As a matter of fact, some, if not all of this book, has been previously published in those publications. Batuman also knows how the academic system works. She seems able to finagle grants and funding for her projects and I don't think it's a stretch for her to be able to finagle a book deal as well.

Regardless, it got published and it is good. The book is part travelogue, part literary criticism, part autobiography. The stories are very entertaining, if sometimes a little self-absorbed. Batuman shares details about herself and her friends that sometimes seem a little too personal or a little too unnecessary.

I had also hoped that this would make me want to read more Russian literature. It did. Unfortunately, much of the literature unfamiliar to me that she mentions is unfamiliar because it hasn't been translated into English. That's a bit of a problem. And as usual, I'm disappointed that a non-fiction work is not cited. She lists references used at the end but I like citations, darn it.

Which brings up my second thought that plagued me during this read, "How good is this book?". I did like it a lot. It made me laugh. It made me want to learn more about the subject. It is well-written. I could, and did, put it down quite often, though, opting to move onto other books. Maybe it was the mindset I was in, maybe it was something lacking in the book. Ultimately, I opted to make this a one-star book. But it's close. I think it's a fun read for anyone but a must read for fans of Russian literature.

Oh, and the magazine The Week, one of the few I enjoy, named it among their top-five non-fiction books of the year. So there's that, too.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Glad Mordecai Brown isn't alive in 2011

I came across an ad for where they use what your hand looks like to help match you with people.

How would poor Mordecai Brown ever find someone?

Monday, January 3, 2011

A baseball related item from my youth

Rob Neyer linked to an article today where a fellow cited what he considered the best in-stadium giveaway ever. Seeing that made me think about one of the few possessions of mine that I still retain (and use) from my youth.

Back in 1987, a buddy of mine and I would frequent a used book store. This book store was pretty amazing but had one big problem. It's paperback fiction section, which was vast, was in no order whatsoever. We went to the owner and told him we would alphabetize it for him in exchange for store credit. It took an entire weekend but we did it. One of the books I acquired with my credit was my second baseball book: Bill James Presents the Great American Baseball Stat Book.

Everyone knows who Bill James is now but back then, his Abstracts had just recently begun being published by Ballantine. This Stat Book was put out by an organization called Project Scoresheet. They, in an effort to break the monopoly the Elias Sports Bureau had on baseball statistics, had developed a network of volunteer scorers to score ballgames, accumulate the data, and release it in this book. I thought this was cool and joined the Project.

The following summer, a handful of scorers from the Philadelphia area got together for a baseball game. We knew one another from newsletters and phone calls but had not met in person (at least I had not met them). One of the fellows, Pete DeCoursey, was an extremely nice fellow, one of the nicest people I've ever known, really. He was also a sight to behold. As you can see from his Wikipedia page, Pete has a look all his own. In addition, he is about 9 feet, 13 inches tall. So we're at this game scoring it, having fun, and Pete has to go. He gives me his clipboard and tells me to keep it. Here it is:

I still use it to this day. This evening, as a matter of fact, I was writing belated holiday cards on it. It has been to classes, ballgames, stream evaluations, meetings. I have gotten a lot of use out of it.

In addition, the clipboard protected me. I was scoring a baseball game in college from the dugout. A batter lined a ball into the dugout and I got the clipboard up in time to protect me. You can see the crack in the photo where the ball hit.

Being as Pete gave it to me in-stadium, I'll consider it my best in-stadium giveaway ever. Thanks, Pete.