A Fine Place for a City by Nick Kekic: a review

This is a far better book than I expected. While it can be viewed as a biography of Kalamazoo’s founder, Titus Bronson, structurally it’s five short essays exploring aspects of his life and character. Along the way you get a lot of information about the early history of Kalamazoo County, learn a bit about Kalamazoo’s other founders, explore probably more of the history of English Puritanism than you perhaps want, and get a good description of the busiest land office in history. Nicely done.

And the map on the cover–Bronson’s original plat of the village–is just delightful.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Louis Armstrong, Master of Modernism by Thomas Brothers: a review

Not so much a review as a recommendation.

This book’s a biographical study of Louis Armstrong’s development as a musician in the 1920s and early 1930s, discussing his influences and musical vocabulary more than the details of his everyday life–though those everyday events are necessarily a part of Brothers’ story. The best parts, though, are the author’s analysis of how Armstrong constructed his recorded work, how the recordings related to live performance, and how those things changed over time. He presents a vision of Armstrong as musically literate, consciously developing as a musician to meet the needs of his career, and perhaps a different sort of genius than he’s often been presented. Brothers explicitly rejects the notion that Armstrong “sold out” when he began singing popular songs, and argues that musicians, analysts, and critics who’ve presented that thesis have pretty much missed the point.

This is not a general biography–it’s a musicologist’s biography, and best read as such. Those looking for a general biography of the artist would probably be better served by reading Terry Teachout’s fine Armstrong biography, Pops.

All that said, this is a great book, and highly recommended.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

The East India Company, 1784-1834 by C.H. Philips: a short review

This is a terrific book. The focus is the interactions between the East India Company directorate (called the Court) and the Parliament’s Board of Control (generally with the Board’s president, as the board rarely met), so the emphasis is on the internal dynamics of the Court and on the ever-changing relationship between the two authorities. This is, therefore, essentially a book about politics, writ large and small.

Moreover, the book’s primarily about the principal actors in the negotiations; minor players are often mentioned but are rarely given more than cursory notice. It helped a whole lot that I was already familiar with some of the figures participating; even so, I needed to review the biographies of Henry and Robert Dundas, and to remind myself of the Indian roles of the Wellesleys.

All that said, this wasn’t the book I’d hoped to read. I was hoping for more about the routine activities of the merchants and shippers. While there’s certainly information about those ventures in this book, it’s pretty much incidental to the main discussion. I may have to hunt down another book.

Just a short note on the ebook conversion….

This was originally an academic work published in 1940. The ebook is built from an excellent scan, and in general the conversion went well. But–what to do about the footnotes? The original manuscript had footnotes on each page, numbered from 1 to whatever. Preserving that format was clearly not an option, so instead the notes became chapter endnotes–with their original numbers. This was likely a mistake, as a routine result of following a hyperlinked footnote is to find a page with two or three footnotes numbered 2 (or whatever). Figuring out which note was relevant to your interest can be a bit problematical.

Better, I’d think, to change the numbering system. It’s not like abandoning the original numbers would damage the book.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Base Ball Pioneers and Base Ball Founders by Peter Morris et al, editors: a short review

Here are two impressive, and rather bulky, companion books, written by a couple dozen authors who’ve been researching the origins of the sport. Both concentrate on the years when base ball was developing from its New York roots into the National Pastime. Both books are excellent, and the overall project is a delight. These books begin around 1850 and end around 1870, though those dates were clearly treated as guidelines rather than boundaries. Base Ball Founders considers the development of the game in the northeast, while Base Ball Pioneers covers clubs in the rest of the country.

Generally speaking, both books are organized geographically. For each city or region considered, there’s an overview essay about development of the sport in the area, followed by notes about clubs that played in that vicinity. While there’s some slight variation in format, the typical club essay begins with an overview describing the club’s beginning, its ending, the social origins of its membership, the most important members, a number of specific games and/or seasons, and an assessment of the club’s importance in the sport’s development (or, in some cases, in local society). Most club essays are followed by biographical sketches of the club’s members. All have short bibliographical notes, and sometimes-interesting footnotes.

Each club essay is designed to be self-contained, which generates a certain amount of redundancy, but that turns out to be relatively painless. Although the books have a large number of authors, there are no jarring stylistic or organizational changes from essay to essay, which speaks well of the editors. The important differences between the club sections result from varying documentation–while some clubs are extensively documented, others left only light paper trails. (There are similar differences in the biographical essays, which is aggravated by the difficulty of researching the lives of folks with common names.) For those interested in such things, watching these researchers cope with varying resources is part of the enjoyment; these folks are quite aware of their sources, and discuss some of them at great length. And a surprise: The authors’ extensive use of quotation shows that “national pastime” became part of the sport’s lexicon much earlier than I’d expected.

These books are primarily about clubs who played early baseball–that is, the New York game. The Massachusetts game gets some coverage as many New England clubs began playing that version before accepting the national consensus, and other varieties of the sport get occasional mentions, but except in a couple club essays there’s little discussion of the reasons the New York game prevailed. This is a book about clubs and regions, and only incidentally about the sport’s roots and rivals.

All in all, two excellent books. Both should be in the library of anyone with a serious interest in the early history of the game baseball.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Revision History:

The Baseball Analyst Issue 8, edited by Jim Baker: a review

Bill James published 40 issues of The Baseball Analyst in the 1980s. All are available on SABR’s website.

The eighth Baseball Analyst, dated October 1983, is quite strong. It featured six analytical pieces and a delightful “letter to the editor” by Dallas Adams commenting on Issue 7 (more favorably than I did, by the way). And this is the issue that Bill James used to launch Project Scoresheet, which eventually wrought a revolution in baseball analysis. All in all, it’s a difficult issue to fault.

The first “real” article in the issue was by Barry Mednick, who did some scoring sequence analysis of play-by-play data he’d collected during the season. The study of course suffers from sample issues–all the data was from A’s or Giants games–but it’s an interesting early pbp study, with a bit of analysis and a couple pages of numbers. Mednick finds some interesting differences reflecting the characters of the two ballclubs in the study. A good start.

Warren Johnson’s “On Handedness and Pitchers’ Fielding” was a followup on Mark Lazarus’ study reported in Issue 4 of the Analyst–specifically, Johnson was reacting to a question Lazarus raised about “junk-balling lefties” and team defense. Johnson concludes that some relationship exists–a result he’d not expected–but that the effect is both weak and different from Lazarus’ hypothesis. He also finds that there’s a league effect involved. This is an excellent study, far more than just an extension of the Lazarus paper, and worth seeking out.

Clem Comly–credited here as C. Comly–offers a single-page exploration of pitchers’ range factors which fits quite nicely as an addendum to the Johnson piece. Comly’s main intention is to show the shape of the data, so he (and we) would have a better grasp of the capabilities of individual pitchers.

Dick O’Brien’s contribution to this issue is a study of K/HR ratios for power hitters. This is similar to his work in earlier issues of the Analyst, but by now he’s discovered that adding more explanation to what he’s exploring is worthwhile, so the article’s easier to follow. One of his conclusions is that truly high strikeout rates cannot be balanced by production.

David Aceto’s short essay explores the mathematics of a single ballpark effect–the impact of an enlarged foul territory on batting average. The math looks OK, but the conclusion that it takes about 8 foul outs per game for a team to lose 20 points on BA seems, well, wrong–at best it’s the correct answer to the wrong question. The author notes the study is flawed because he has no data to test his hypothesis (which he apparently borrowed from Bill James). I’m guessing that the reality is more complicated than the author’s model. Perhaps someone followed up with real data.

The final sabermetric essay is John Schwartz’ very short exploration of the advantage a left-handed batter has on the basepaths. He’s mostly raising questions with this one, but the small table he provides is worth a look.

Jim Baker’s second issue’s far more interesting than was his first. Besides the notes from Bill James and Dallas Adams, mentioned at the top of this review, he’s sandwiched the issue with requests for material from the readers. The first reimagines the periodical as a supermarket tabloid paper; the other as a Max Patkin movie. They’re not really worth the price of admission, but they probably tell us something about Baker.

The Baseball Analyst Issue 7: a review

Bill James published 40 issues of The Baseball Analyst in the 1980s. All are available on SABR’s website.

The seventh Baseball Analyst, dated August, 1983, has to be called a disappointment. Not only was there no outstanding piece of research in this edition, what did appear can mostly be characterized as uninteresting. Most of the contributions rehash issues already discussed in earlier editions. It happens that the seventh issue was the first edited by Jim Baker, but it’s certainly not his fault that the submissions were weak. This issue, as do many, begins with a plea for more material. Young Jim was perhaps too polite to ask for better material.

Dick O’Brien repeated the study on Batting Order Position production he’d reported in Issue 2. Adding more data turned out to pretty much reproduce the original result. This is worth reporting, but it’s hardly exciting.

Dallas Adams’ contribution, “On the Probability of Hitting .400,” we’ve seen before–I briefly mentioned it in my review of the 1981 Baseball Research Journal (which I posted a few days ago). The two essays are substantially the same, but this version appears to date from 1977–it had presumably been hiding somewhere in Bill James’ office for six years. Despite the redundancy, this article’s quite good.

Gary Brown’s “A Trend Analysis of Batting Averages” is simply weak. It’s mostly a commentary, with a few graphs, about changing tendencies in BA over time. His main point is that professional ball makes occasional adjustments to keep offense and defense in balance. The essay would have had some value at two pages; at ten pages it’s got to be considered filler. The Adams piece made similar points, in far fewer pages, with far better analysis.

John Schwartz offered a one-page note on the relative values of relief wins, losses, and saves, framed as a way to improve the TSN and Rolaids “Firemen” awards. The math here looks good, but it’s not clear that the exercise was worthwhile.

Finally, Pete Palmer’s brief examination of “The Distribution of Wins” briefly summarizes the literature on the subject, extends it a bit based on his own research, and throws in a statistics lesson based on a Dallas Adams contribution from Analyst Issue 1. All told, though, this is more interesting as a window into Palmer’s mind than as a contribution to baseball research. Pete was building a system for analysis; this was one of his blocks.

Baseball Research Journal 1981 edited by Bob Davids: a review

This BRJ edition is available online via the SABR website.

The tenth Baseball Research Journal, published late in 1981, is perhaps a step down from the previous edition, largely because it doesn’t contain any classic research essays. What it does contain is mostly solid research, well presented, on a wide variety of topics.

This edition’s first two articles, Emil Rothe’s “Was the Federal League a Major League?” and Raymond Kush’s “The Building of Wrigley Field” are not really related, but their topics overlap a bit and because they led off the issue I rather expected more Federal League material. Rothe, by the way, gives his question a qualified “Yes” answer. The evidence is mixed, as he shows.

The issue contains two biographical essays built around interviews–Allen Quimby on Red Lucas, and Eugene Murdock on Leroy Parmelee. Jim Riley and John Holway profiled black players Dave Barnhill (a Negro Leaguer) and Jose Mendez (an early 1900s Cuban barnstormer). Robert Cole told about radio broadcaster Al Helfer, who did “Game of the Day” broadcasts on the Liberty and Mutual Networks after the Second World War. The edition’s best profile is of Ray Fisher, written by Dave Proctor, who examines Fisher’s playing career, why he got blacklisted by the Commissioner, and his subsequent life, most prominently as coach at the University of Michigan. The Fisher profile may well be the longest piece ever published in BRJ–but it’s quite excellent. Others profiled include Walter Johnson (by Ron Liebman), Hurricane Hazle (Tom Jozwik), and Ted Lyons (Thomas Karnes)

Sabermetric efforts included William Akins’ attempt to identify the best fielders of the late 1800s and Dallas Adams’ nice attempt to draw the parameters necessary to study the probability of hitting .400. Bill Rubenstein’s useful extension of the Dick Cramer study (in the 1980 BRJ)–Cramer demonstrated increasing major league batting skill over time–identifies a few significant issues (and there’s a response from Cramer at the end). Cliff Frolich and Garry Scott contributed an exploration of “Where Fans Sit to Catch Baseballs”–this study’s weaknesses include some sampling issues and a less-than-fully-explained methodology, but their conclusions seem reasonable. James Skipper’s examination of player nicknames has a sabermetric appearance–tables and numbers–but is all in all unsatisfying, as I quibbled with his definitions and learned less than I’d hoped. The same is true of James Maywar’s examination of strikeout pitchers, which just seemed misguided.

A personal favorite article in this issue is John Pardon’s “A Bizarre Game of Baseball.” Not only was the game played in a predecessor of the Midwest League, it was absolutely preposterous. (Read Pardon’s item here; I’ve quoted it elsewhere for other purposes.) The issue’s other minor league piece describes a Minor League All-Star Game played at Cooperstown in 1939, and discusses why the effort didn’t continue.

There were fewer entries in the List with Explanation category in the 1981 edition. Ray Gonzalez’ “Pitchers Giving Up Home Runs” is a pioneering effort in that direction, and as usual with this author is quite well done. William Akins’ fielding study, mentioned above, fits the list pattern but this list is pretty short. Joseph Donner listed all the major league cycle hitters. Bob Davids’ piece on steals fits the pattern, too. Another short list was James Maywar’s examination of strikeout pitchers, which I dismissed a couple paragraphs ago.

For the record, I found this edition of Al Kermisch’s “Researcher’s Notebook” to be weak. It read more like an assigned piece than actual research notes.

The issue ends with a look at the 1892 season, which (like 1981) was a split season, and examines the parallels, differences, and consequences. I’m guessing this unattributed article was composed by Davids.

All in all this is a fairly strong issue, but there’s nothing really special here.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Nature and Revelation by Jeanne Halgren Kilde: a review

Nature and Revelation is a delightful book. Jeanne Halgren Kilde wrote the book for two perhaps-incompatible audiences: Folks with Macalester College connections, and readers interested in the development of private college/liberal arts education in North America. For the Macalester audience she addresses nearly all of the expected issues a member of the Mac community would expect (I list most of those here) and adds many things we members may or may not have asked. For the academic audience she offers a case study, with enough context and enough detail to make the case useful for further examination and discussion. For both audiences she’s produced an excellent work.

The book concentrates on collegiate governance, with occasional looks at the school’s often-troubled relationship with the Presbyterian church. The result is that the author provides fairly detailed accounts of the views and activities of most of the college’s presidents and a handful of other officers, with similar portraits of some key trustees. There’s considerable discussion of Macalester’s relationship with the church (and the local churches), which is often presented in terms of the school’s changing interpretation of the word nonsectarian. Naturally the school’s relationship with Dewitt Wallace is explored at some length, as that also changed over time. All of this is presented well, and is surprisingly interesting. There’s more here than I perhaps expected about what college fundraising entails, and on the impact those efforts have on the shape of the college as an institution. All in all, I found these discussions enlightening and worthwhile.

The author’s treatment of Macalester’s 1970 budget crisis is revealing. She attributes many of the difficulties to inadequate accounting, to structural issues resulting from restricted funds (ie, donations to support buildings and programs), and to the administration’s inability to raise funding to support daily operations. The clearly-important role of college trustee and Wallace advisor Paul Davis is both confusing and frustrating; that Kilde is unable to fully explain the apparent contradictions in his behavior is likely due to her inability to gain access to key Wallace family documentation. That Davis’ analysis of the school’s financial situation is similar to Kilde’s is clear. Why he lost faith in the school’s ability to find solutions is unclear, as is his motivation for his subsequent undermining those efforts.

The author’s emphasis on the school’s presidents and fundraising has an opportunity cost. This book pays little attention to campus life. Few professors are mentioned, and those mentions are usually more about their impact on the school’s mission than on their classroom demeanor. Curriculum issues are mentioned mostly in terms of their relationship to giving–it’s easier, as the book shows, to raise money for programs than for everyday funding, and that fundraising emphasis impacts the curriculum. There’s little in this text about residential life, about arts and sports, or about the daily grind faced by students. Indeed, very few students are mentioned, either by name or by implication. An exception is a fairly superficial recognition of the impact of the ’60s counterculture, and a discussion of the somewhat-related Mac Free College experiment. An interesting omission, considering the author’s established reputation as a student of church architecture, is the total lack of analysis–and nearly complete lack of mention–of the college buildings. I’d really like to see what she could do with that topic.

All that to say that there’s room for another book about Macalester, with perhaps more emphasis on the changing structure of the curriculum, the faculty’s ever-evolving membership, and changes to student life (and the student body’s makeup) which occurred over time. Nonetheless, Kilde’s book is valuable as written, and quite a gratifying read.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Portrait and biographical album of Barry and Eaton counties, Mich. by Chapman Bros: a review

This book–like all Chapman Brothers books with similar titles–is pretty much what the title says: a collection of biographies of folks and families who lived in Eaton and Barry Counties in 1891. The local biographies are preceded by a couple hundred pages of biographical sketches of the presidents of the United States and governors of Michigan.

The Chapman Brothers mass produced similar books for many Midwestern counties by selling subscriptions and sending out questionnaires. If you paid the subscription fee and returned the survey your biography would be printed in a book, which would arrive for you to place on your bookshelf. Chapman’s staff members in Chicago turned the questionnaires into very formulaic biographies, which were gathered into the book in no evident order. The resulting bios are as reliable as their sources–which varies, of course–and as interesting as the information the sources provided. Any impression one might get of local history or local geography is incidental and unintentional. That does not much meet my research interest.

For my purposes, the book is pretty frustrating. With no historical overview in the book, no deliberate organization, and neither maps nor other geographical clues, trying to glean any understanding of local history is difficult. Moreover, the template used to compose the biographies becomes pretty aggravating after the third or fourth example–you get a brief overview of the subject’s life, then reviews of his parents’ life stories, then back to the original person’s bio with more detail and perhaps a story or two. Unless you’re otherwise familiar with the person whose life’s being summarized, by the time you get to the meat of the composition you’ve often forgotten the subject’s name.

Another issue is the subscription model. Lacking either a geographical or alphabetical organization, I made searches for people and places I was aware of in both counties. These searches often came up empty, even for families I know to have been resident in the area around 1890. This, of course, indicates that the Dow and McCargar families, to pick two prominent Roxand Township clans, were uninterested in subscribing–which is OK, to be sure, but it leaves important gaps in the story. Side issue: This book consistently calls this township Roxana, and never calls it Roxand. I’m quite tempted to do so myself.

I do not mean to imply that this book has no value. I found a (somewhat) useful biography of Sylvanus Peabody, for instance, and now know a bit about him; this is information I’d not found elsewhere and knew I wanted. Which is a clue about the book’s usefulness: If one of the biographies is someone who’s interesting to you, it’s probably useful. That’s reason enough to locate a copy, and keep it around. But if you’re looking for an overview of local history, the Chapman books likely won’t meet your need.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Pretty Good for a Girl by Murphy Hicks Henry: a short review

Banjo player Murphy Henry looks at women in bluegrass, and discovers that there are, and always have been, more woman players than everyone thinks. She also reports that they’re not exactly accepted, as most have either been related to another member of the band or have belonged to all-woman ensembles. The author’s particularly concerned that few women have ever been supporting musicians (dare I say “sidemen”?) with major bluegrass bands. She mentions this matter regularly, and examines it fairly thoroughly in the chapters profiling Missy Raines, Alison Brown, and (especially) Kristin Scott Benson. She sees change, but less change than she’d like. But the book’s far more about the biographies of specific performers than about how things might be differently arranged.

Pretty Good for a Girl is organized as roughly 40 profiles, usually of individuals but occasionally of bands. These are arranged more or less chronologically, with an occasional overview chapter to set things into context. This arrangement works surprisingly well, and the result is a very good history of bluegrass music as played by woman performers. There’s some room for quibbling about the selection of musicians–I’d not have included the Dixie Chicks, for instance, and might have replaced them with, say, Emma Smith–but these are editorial choices, and don’t really damage the overall effort. This is an excellent book, and highly recommended.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

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