Enemies, a Love Story by Josh Schollmeyer: a short review

This is a skinny little book consisting entirely of quotations from other people about Gene Siskel, Roger Ebert, or (most commonly) the both of them. It begins by describing their newspaper rivalry, then their show’s tentative beginnings and subsequent history. Siskel’s illness and death are considered, as is Ebert’s cancer.

This is nicely done, as Schollmeyer’s got a good sense of how to assemble a story from what seem to be interview responses. It’s not really a history of the show, but more a portrait of the relationship, and how that affected the show.

Be sure to read the footnotes.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Revision History:

Sparky and Me by Daniel Ewald: a short review

I didn’t know a lot about Dan Ewald before reading this book, except that he was one of the folks Ernie Harwell always credited at the end of a broadcast. It turns out Dan was Sparky Anderson’s gatekeeper, and this book is a memoir of their relationship. It’s cast as a long conversation occurring a few days before Anderson’s death. There are a bunch of stories about, and often told by, Sparky. The last fifty or so pages are a real tear-jerker. Ewald likely intends this as an inspirational book, and it can certainly be read that way.

Besides the Life Lessons, the book contains a quite a bit of biographical material, and a surprising amount of information and commentary about Sparky’s managerial methods. Sparky was more a motivator and molder than a tactician, as anyone who followed his teams knows. Ewald witnessed Anderson’s methods during his Tiger years, and heard yarns about his work with the Cincinnati team’s already-established egos. Also potentially valuable is the author’s discussion about the differences and commonalities between Anderson’s two personas–Sparky, the always-on-stage manager, and the homebody known to his friends as George. I’d long been aware of the Sparky/George division, but hadn’t previously seen it directly considered.

This book’s been the stand-in-line book on my smartphone for the past few months. It’s been a worthwhile companion. Recommended, particularly to Tigers and Reds fans, and to anyone who wants some clue about how baseball’s managers do their work.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

The Autobiography of Theodore Edgar Potter: a review

In 1890 I sold my Vermontville farm and bought another in the same county, located on the new line of railroad being built by the Pere Marquette Railroad where I laid out the present village of Mulliken, Michigan, and continued a few years longer as a farmer with an incidental lumber business. My Mulliken farm I soon sold to my eldest son and purchased a quarter interest in the Potter Furniture Manufacturing Company at Lansing, Michigan, which city has been my home for the past thirteen years.

I live on Potter Street in Mulliken, and that quotation explains why I read this book. I’m pretty sure that 1890 date is wrong, as the railroad line and settlement both date from 1888, but we’ll allow an old man that error. I stumbled across this while looking for something else, so I snagged an electronic copy of the book. It’s far better than I expected, though potential readers should be cautioned that it describes many brutal events.

Potter was a competent writer and a gifted story-teller. His memoir is largely concerned with the years from 1852 to 1865, during which the author joined the California gold rush, took part (after a fashion) in William Walker’s Nicaraguan filibuster, visited New York, New Orleans, and Saint Louis, and took up residence in southern Minnesota. He was a captain in the militia which defended New Ulm during the Dakota War of 1862; later he was a Union officer whose troops participated at the fringe of the Battle of Nashville–mostly they chased, and sometimes caught, partisan guerillas. Some years later he was involved in the apprehension of the Younger brothers gang, again in southern Minnesota.

Theodore Potter–it’s pretty clear his friends called him Ed–was born in Saline, Michigan, in 1832. His family moved to Eaton County (at or near what became Potterville) in 1845 and Potter spent his teen years in the area. The first chapter largely tells of his teenage escapades; these tales have a delightful grasp of the local geography. About half the book recounts his California adventure; in tone and in substance it’s much like Twain’s Roughing It, and enjoyable for pretty much the same reasons. The Minnesota portion of the book is largely devoted to describing the Dakota War and the Army’s subsequent efforts to quell the rebellion, and is an exceptional rendering of what folks call “the fog of war.” While the last chapter describes his encounter with the Youngers, it also provides a sketchy overview of his subsequent life (through, apparently, 1904; the book was published in 1913, three years after Potter’s death.)

A few notes: It’s fair to say that Potter was sympathetic to the plight of the plains Indians, except when they were threatening his family and neighbors. He had far less sympathy for the rebel cause. The author’s wife gets surprisingly little mention, though their marriage lasted over fifty years. And the book describes a surprising number of truly gruesome events.

In 1916 the Minnesota Historical Society published a version of Potter’s account of the Indian war, which is available here. (A casual check seems to show it to be nearly identical to the account in this book, with some changes.) The footnotes published with the MNHS account make it clear that while Potter’s memory of details cannot be fully trusted, his account is essentially true. One would reasonably suppose that to hold true for the rest of his story.

Ed Potter’s life wasn’t particularly remarkable, as he notes on the last page of his book. It was, however, not an untypical life for a man born on the American frontier before the Civil War, and he recounted it well. The book deserves more attention than it’s received.

This ebook is a 254-page Google scan, though my copy’s via the Internet Archive. The scan deserves a couple comments. The first 180 pages are excellent, with only the minor punctuation and capitalization errors which plague most OCR scans. These are followed by a half-dozen pages of often-garbled text, with usual result that the reader’s obliged to guess occasional words and to sometimes puzzle out the meaning of entire sentences. After this rocky stretch, the scan returns to the previous excellent rendering. Then from pages 244 through the end the scan remains excellent but the text retains the page headers that had evidently been edited out of the rest of the book. It is, all in all, an odd rendering that defies obvious explanation. Overall, though, it’s unusually readable for a Google scan.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Revision History:

Bill Veeck by Paul Dickson: a short review

An absolutely terrific biography, obviously well researched and equally well written. Although this book is a favorable portrait, it clearly shows the man’s flaws. Highly recommended, though I’m sure some will disagree, as Veeck remains a controversial figure.

I bought my copy of this book as a Google Play ebook, and need to comment on that edition. Google offers this book is only as a PDF. I expect this is also true of the Nook and Kindle editions, though neither retailer suggests anything unusual in their book descriptions. I found reading the book in PDF form on my Android tablet fairly painful, as I’ve grown accustomed to adjusting the fonts to accommodate my aging eyes. It’s far from clear that avoiding the now-common epub format brought any significant gain to anyone.

My initial guess was that the publishers had chosen to use PDF because they wanted to control presentation, probably because of the book’s image content. Except that explanation doesn’t hold water, as the PDF contains just two photographs (one of them repeated). Since the index lists 41 images, it’s clear that the actual decision was to cut most of the pictures from the ebook. This is seriously annoying, and this note is my complaint. (For whatever it’s worth, there is a similar complaint in a review of the Nook edition on the Barnes and Noble website.) The publishers, Walker & Company of New York, should be ashamed.

This review has also been published on LibraryThing.

Revision History:

Branch Rickey by Jimmy Breslin

Evidently Breslin was asked to write a Penguin Biography, then allowed to select his subject. I can understand that, but it seems an odd way to edit a series.

This is an odd book. It’s more a “Scenes from a Life” than a proper biography, and it largely concentrates on Rickey’s efforts to integrate baseball and his relationship with Jackie Robinson. There’s too little about Rickey’s other major impacts on the game, as the development of the minor league farm system is only lightly touched and Rickey’s involvement in the Continental League is only barely mentioned. Nor is there any serious discussion of the way Rickey actually assembled and administered baseball teams.

Frankly, I was hoping for something with more substance. That said, this book’s well-written, shows evidence of serious research, and tells the story Breslin wanted to share quite well. Worth reading, but incomplete.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Revision History:

Computing in the Middle Ages by Severo Ornstein: a review

This was definitely not the book I expected, but is well worth reading. Ornstein has things to say, and knows how to say them.

The author was involved in computing from the mid-fifties to the early eighties, and played fairly important roles in the SAGE, TX-2, and Linc projects, all of which are key to understanding how computing developed. He also was heavily involved in BBN’s pioneering Arpanet efforts, and moved on to Xerox PARC in its prime, where he helped design the first laser printer. So he had a first-hand view of the development of electronic computing in the period between the pioneering efforts and the beginnings of microcomputing. This is a different, quite personal, account of what his computing projects were like, and his assessment of the issues as they looked to the participants during the period.

So there’s little new here, but there’s a level of detail about specific efforts, and about the personnel involved, that the journalists and historians who’ve tackled the topics lack. There’s also a quite-deliberate recasting of the context, which is Ornstein’s excuse for writing the book; he thinks the more formal histories impose more design (or perhaps a destiny) on the efforts than was actually there. Interesting stuff, with wry humor.

The chapters have odd, amusingly victorian, titles. For instance, Chapter 5: “A piano enters the lab and comes up against TX-2. DEC is formed and there is an error on Page 217. Fourier is proven sound and we land on an aircraft carrier.” The book might be worth reading just for those.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Revision History:

Thomas Cromwell by J. Patrick Coby: a review

This book’s subtitle is “Machiavellian Statecraft and the English Reformation,” which pretty much sums up the author’s argument. It’s an adequate overview of Cromwell’s life and accomplishments, and does a satisfactory job of presenting alternative interpretations where the facts and interpretations are contested. Be aware that the author’s a political scientist; this book is much more about Cromwell’s politics than a proper biography. If that’s what you’re looking for, this book will fit your purpose.

All the same, it’s an odd production. The introduction says the intended audience is college students; one result is the discussion often assumes you’re nineteen, have read little history, and know little of politics. This is occasionally annoying. Evidently those nineteen-year-olds are allergic to academic footnotes, as many of the author’s assertions are unsourced and (more important) many of the academy’s disagreements are briefly described without adequate reference for those who might wish to follow up. This is somewhat mitigated by the last chapter, which is a fine essay on Cromwellian historiography, and by an annotated bibliographic essay. Neither, though, helps if you’re interested in following up a specific assertion.

Another strangeness: While there are no academic footnotes, the book’s full of asterisks which refer the reader to two glossaries–one of words and (often technical ecclesiastical) phrases; the other of short biographical sketches. This undermines, to my eye, any argument that traditional academic footnotes are overly intrusive.

The explanation is quite likely that this book began as a series of lectures, which cannot have footnotes but which might be provided with such reference materials. Better, in my opinion, to have supplied the notes retroactively.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

A Ball Player’s Career by Adrian C Anson: a review

An oddly interesting book. Now, more than a century later, Pop Anson’s remembered mainly for his racism, and because he had approximately 3,000 hits (the total depends on what you count, actually, and in this case it’s fair to debate the margin). In his time, he was considered a formidable player, and an excellent captain (manager), albeit grouchy and rough-edged. Neither is a well-rounded image.

Firstly: Anson’s racism was real, and shows in this book. He often calls black folks coons, and says nasty things about many people of color. (To be fair, he also says unkind things about many white folks, though they’re usually less offensive.) One question to ask is how different this was from his typical contemporary. (I’m not in a position to answer that.) Another question to ask is whether that fact alone is enough reason to ignore everything else in his life. I’d say not.

Secondly: Fully half of the book is devoted to describing the 1888 Baseball World Tour promoted by A.G. Spalding. Some of this portion of the book is interesting, other parts are not, except as they illuminate the author’s character. It’s definitely an unexpected feature in what is basically a fairly conventional autobiography.

Thirdly: While Anson denigrates his education, this is the work of someone who’s reasonably cultured and literate. The book is not formulaic in any way, shape, or form; instead, it’s an account of Anson’s playing career, with some asides to cover his non-baseball life. (There’s also a short digression about the origins of baseball which isn’t much different from the current consensus). While I presume there was a ghost writer, it’s clearly Anson’s book and the opinions are clearly his. So are the unexpected bits of cultural knowledge.

Finally: The last few chapters, which are mostly about Anson’s later career and his deteriorating relationship with Spalding, can only be called strange. A late chapter is about the founding of the American League, which perhaps pays for the mostly-unexpected bitterness of the preceding chapters.

All in all, a surprisingly interesting read.

I bought this nook ebook from Barnes and Noble; it was published by Quality Classics. Internally, it’s clear that the book was originally a Project Gutenberg effort produced by another project, called Lawson’s Progress. It’s a scan, and was poorly proofed–far weaker than the typical Gutenberg offering. The quality’s roughly equivalent to the best Google scans; easily readable, but annoying.

This review was also published on LibraryThing.

Revision History:

Pitching in a Pinch by Christy Mathewson: a short review

Perhaps the prototype for all “inside baseball” books written since. There’s some interesting stuff in here, but much of what Matty has to say is pretty cliched. Frankly I was hoping for more.

This short review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Revision History:

Ed Barrow by Daniel Levitt: a review

This is a terrific portrait of long-time Yankee GM Ed Barrow, his teams, and his times. Levitt’s research is impeccable, as are his interpretations of the material.

While this is primarily a biography, the book features the author’s enormous research effort about the way baseball’s conditions and working rules changed over the course of Barrow’s career. This is important because Barrow was constantly adjusting his work to accommodate those conditions and rules. It’s valuable because I’ve not seen a similar effort by any author.

I do wish Levitt had included footnotes in some way, shape, or form. But there’s a fine bibliography.

Delightful book. Well worth any serious baseball fan’s time.

Having praised the book, I need to rant about the ebook. The ebook version has been butchered, as the publisher (Nebraska) has omitted all but one of the book’s photographs, and roughly half of the statistical (mainly financial) tables that Levitt compiled in the process of writing the book. The surviving tables are unlabelled, and isolated in an appendix, which makes it painfully difficult to refer to them, even though they’re mentioned in the text. A better publisher would have included all the tables, and built hyperlinks from the references to the tables, and from the tables back to the text.

Treating ebook purchasers as second class citizens is simply irresponsible. In the long run, it’s a losing strategy.

The missing pictures and tables are all marked with the comment “Copyrighted image removed by Publisher”, a note apparently intended to give the impression that the copyright is at issue. That’s silly, and it’s insulting.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Revision History: