Monday, May 27, 2013

The Lone Samurai by William Scott Wilson

This volume reveals the salient features of probably the most celebrated and talented Samurai of Japanese history: Miyamoto Musashi.  This legendary figure has been the subject of nonfiction, fiction and films because his accomplishments are astounding and worth noting.

To appreciate Musashi, one must understand the feudal structure of Japan in the pre-modern period and see how this great personage developed into the independent figure of heroic proportions.  In feudal Japan there is a martial class of samurai that are retained by a local authority.  The lowest class, the farmer perhaps may break out of his lowly class by becoming a samurai, however, in general, one's class is cast.  Musashi is self taught and one never really understands which clan retains his services, thus being a Ronin, an independent.  He learns the art of swordsmanship alone without a teacher, preferring the two sword method of a short and long sword.  In samurai culture, to be a samurai means being challenged to bouts, the only way by which one gains a reputation of worth.  Musashi's career as a Samurai is sixty individual bouts and 4 battlefield campaigns.  He loses to no one!  His mastery of the sword is so skilled that after he turns 30 years old he matures and shows his determination not to kill his opponents.  With commanding presence, he counters the ability of his opponents to strike with authority.  As a result of his resolute determination his opponents concede the match: he cannot be beaten.

Musashi's life, however, is much more sophisticated then only being a skilled swordsman.  He becomes a truth seeker and delves into art and calligraphy.  He becomes a noted artist with keen insight and philosophizes about the martial arts.  He writes a magnum opus: The Book of Five Rings that explain that the purpose of a fight is to win at all costs, thus including all advantages.  For example, he shows the ways of psychology.  In one bout, Musashi deliberately arrives late on the scene knowing that his opponent will be irritated even angry.  When his opponent unsheathes his sword and casts away the scabbard into the sea, Musashi declares victory by saying "you have already lost because only a loser would no longer need his scabbard!"

He understands the need to be independent and he establishes his own dojo with only a select few students. He breaks with the Samurai notion that a good death is the goal.  Musashi believes in life so one may continue to serve.

This book is worthwhile for the introduction to one of the great personalities of world history.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Only Game in Town (volume 1): Baseball stars of the 1930s and 1940s talk about the game they loved by Fay Vincent

Former Major League Baseball commissioner Fay Vincent collects the memories of some of the great players of the bygone era before and after WWII, making a very readable history of baseball.  What stands out about this book are the testimonies of some of the players of events that have already been told before.  One gains a different perspective from listening to different voices.

For example, Eldon Auker tells of his Baseball 'all star' trip to Japan after the season in 1939 that included Moe Berg.  Now Moe Berg had a reputation of being very smart, and Auker tells how he did not fit in because he was so mysterious.  A Princeton graduate, Berg surprised everyone by being fluent in Japanese and became the interpreter.  Auker tells how Berg was very popular among the Japanese because he could speak their language.  Berg would slip away from the team and take pictures all over the country.  He even stays longer in the country so he could travel the country side.  Auker tells how nobody on the American team suspected that Berg was gathering intelligence for the US government.  As it turned out Moe Berg took pictures of almost the entire War complex of Japan that proved to be very useful after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  The catcher was a spy!

Bob Feller, Cleveland pitcher who pitched with velocity approaching 100 mph, tells how famed black home run hitter, Josh Gibson could not hit a curve ball!  Feller tells of the days of barnstorming (exhibition games) with the Negro Leagues and pitching against the great Black players.  He questions the claim that Josh Gibson would have made it to the Major Leagues.  Feller says adamantly that Gibson hit nothing off of him because he served up Gibson "with that big, what we called elliptical snake", a tough curve ball. Feller was close to some of the Negro players and claims that the racial rivalry only took place in the stands among fans and not among players.  Buck O'Neil's claim of the blacks winning their fair share against Feller's teams is questioned by Bob.  Claiming to have the score books as proof, Feller submits that the claim was more publicity to gain more attendance for a bigger share of money than the truth.

John "Buck" O'Neil explains the difference between Jackie Robinson and other Black players and he claims that is the reason Robinson was chosen to break the color barrier.  Robinson was a cut above the rest.  O'Neil explains the difference when his team was traveling in the South barnstorming to make money.  The bus came to a filling station for refueling.  After putting the hose in the gas tank, Robinson goes toward the restroom that is marked "Whites Only".  The attendant calls out to Jackie, "Where are you goin', boy!" and Robinson replies, "to use the restroom."  The attendant says sternly, "you can't go there" and Robinson without missing a beat tells his teammates to take the gasoline hose out of the bus.  The attendant immediately realizes that he will lose a big sale of close to a hundred gallons of gasoline!  With due consideration of seconds the attendant concedes and stops the hose from coming out of the tank and permits Mr. Robinson in using the facilities by saying "but don't be long!" O'Neil interprets this scene as a manifestation of the difference between Robinson and the rest of his team: While his teammates including Buck O'Neil are resigned to prejudice, Robinson is not willing to accept the status quo.  Jackie Robinson is seen as a fighter of prejudice.

The scene of Hank Greenberg going into the Chicago White sox locker room in his underwear with a baseball bat to confront the people who hurled anti-semitic barbs against him during the game, met with frozen Sox players is mentioned twice from different people.

Ralph Kiner credits Greenberg with his success as a Home run hitter.  Greenberg was willing to tutor Kiner when Greenberg was traded to Pittsburgh.

This is an excellent example of an oral history project.

Friday, May 10, 2013

A.G. Spaulding and the rise of Baseball by Peter Levine

I still remember my Spaulding outfielder's mitt with which I roamed Center Field in High School.  I remember the choices when I needed a mitt: Rawlings, MacGregor, Wilson (the 2000 model was very popular). There was never any real question as to which mitt to buy.  There is something special about a Spaulding.  It has been always associated with ball play.  The "pinky" used for stick-ball in my vocabulary is always called a "Spauldeen".  The Spaulding brand is practically synonymous with Baseball.  So, I bought a Spaulding.

Historian Peter Levine investigates the founder of the Sporting Goods company and concludes that Albert Goodwin Spaulding successfully grew professional Baseball from a pastoral country game into a urbanized sport.  Mr. Levine shows how the USA grew to an economic power house after the Civil War through its cities and how Baseball rose out of that rural country and was brought to the cities.  Spaulding successfully brings a pastoral existence to the hustle and bustle of the cities!

Spaulding was a very success pitcher and gained his fame as a result.  He was, however, more than a ballplayer, he was a visionary.  He saw the potential of this great pastoral game as a vehicle of recreation and business.  As a variety of teams formed and traveled throughout America for exhibitions, Spaulding conceived of a league and an organization which eventually was fixed in big cities.

Spaulding by nature was a salesman, indeed a "pitch man" and developed a catalog of sporting items first of baseball equipment and then many more outdoor equipment.  He successfully exploited the transition of a pastoral game to an urban business.  This slim volume is worth the read to gain an understanding of how Baseball gained popularity and became the "national pastime" but really all along was developed into a business with the capitalistic ambition that characterized America in the late 19th century.  Mr. Levine includes a discussion of the creation of the famed "reserve clause" that essentially meant that teams owned their players and players could not act as their own agents.  This was a collusion of owners that would not change until after Curt Flood challenged the clause in 1969.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

From Ellis Island to Ebbetts Field by Peter Levine

This volume explores the assimilation of the American Jewish community through the vehicle of Sports.  The book discusses boxing, football, basketball, and baseball, all the professional sports and their Jewish adherents in the first half of the 20th century. Personages like Barney Ross, Sid Luckman or Marshal Goldberg, Dolph Schayes, and Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax are highlighted.

There is a very moving scene of return when Barney Ross comes back to his old neighborhood in Chicago and is called up to the Reading of the Torah.  His rabbi recognizes his errant member and warmly says "you've come back!" and even though Ross' return is not back to a Torah lifestyle, nevertheless, his Jewish identity is not shorn. 

Greenberg struggled with the dilemma of playing on the High Holidays receiving some sort of rabbinical permission for the New Year but personally chose to sit out the game on the Day of Atonement.  By the time Sandy Koufax comes around the choice is not novel but nevertheless inspiring to most Jewish Americans.  Professor Levine intimates that Koufax might have had a tinge of self hatred since in his personal life he never identified with the Jewish community or with Jewish causes.  It took him years to come to terms that he was a hero to most Jewish kids.  Koufax always wanted to be remembered as a Ballplayer not a Jewish Ballplayer!

Levine's thesis is simple: Sports were a vehicle to become American and when the Jewish community came of age, came out of the immigrant experience and were accepted as Americans the novelty and plethora of Jewish sports figures waned. In almost each case Levine's thesis rings true!  Sports help one assimilate it does not help one develop a Torah lifestyle.

This book is excellent scholarship very readable and very insightful about how the Jewish community came of age.

Unquiet by Joseph Gollomb

An excellent selection of historical fiction about life on the Lower East Side of New York City is Unquiet by Joseph Gollomb.  Gollomb met success as Hollywood screenwriter, however, before mastering his craft as a writer he penned an authentic, if not autobiographical novel in 1935 about an immigrant Jewish family trying to succeed in the ghetto of the famed East Side of downtown Manhattan.

The story begins in Vilno where the pious antecedents live with the emerging winds of socialist  revolution sweeping Tzarist Russia.  The emigre family of 5 course their way through the labyrinth of life that takes them to the Jewish section of Manhattan to a rude introduction of poverty and squalor.  The heroic efforts of father and mother to eek out a living and provide a good life for their three children remind me of my own grandparents.  The book describes the filth and debauchery of the ghetto and how in spite of the negative environment, the family members persevere to achieve an education and an assimilation to American life.  The book is a discussion of the social ills that manifest a minority existence, an existence of not only class distinction between the rich and poor but also the hatred of Antisemitism.

Rachel Levitt, the mother struggles to calm her excitable husband who has trouble making a living.  Her whole existence is that of a wise, insightful selfless person.  She identifies with the world view of Socialism that the poor should not be exploited but cannot accept that her pious orthodox father and rabbinical brother are on the dark side of humanity.

Her oldest son, David the real protagonist struggles with his familial obligations over his desire  to lead an independent life.  He longs to be a writer and reporter, to assimilate into real society, however, his parents impress upon the need for practicality and push for a degree in teaching that would provide a steady income.  Along the way, one learns of the class differences between the heavily Jewish populated commuter school of City College of New York and the privileged private school of Columbia University. One lives through David's adventures and tragedies, his moments of love and despair.  Ultimately, David comes to terms with his situation that family obligation trumps his personal happiness and can't free himself from his family and neighborhood.

Judaism plays no role in this story except in a cultural way.  The Jewish ghetto is just another section of a diverse city with Italian, Irish and Chinese neighborhoods.  When David meets and falls in love with a non-Jewish girl, their is no explicit discussion of religious/cultural differences, however, there is tacit concern for the differences between the rich and poor.  Only when the protagonist's father dies and there is a funeral does the reader understand that there are serious differences between downtown Jews and uptown Non-Jews.

The story's title is disturbing because the immigrant experience is a highly pressurized existence that demands Americanization without the dispelling of one's cultural identity.  David's soul is "unquiet" because he is never master of his own life: support of family takes precedent over one's personal 'selfish' desires.

This is an outstanding volume, an authentic voice of the assimilating Jewish American.