Weekend Edition: 5-6

Bulletin Board

Interesting Reading in the Interweb Tubez

  • The Admission (“Was this really my life now? I couldn’t think of a greater failing than not being able to keep yourself alive.”)

Bookish Linkage

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There’s never enough time to do all the nothing you want.

Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes, October 10, 2011

Weekend Edition: 4-29

Interesting Reading in the Interweb Tubez

  • The More You Use Facebook, the Worse You Feel (“We found consistently that both liking others’ content and clicking links significantly predicted a subsequent reduction in self-reported physical health, mental health, and life satisfaction.”)

Bookish Linkage

Nonbookish Linkage

It is our attitude toward free thought and free expression that will determine our fate. There must be no limit on the range of temperate discussion, no limits on thought. No subject must be taboo. No censor must preside at our assemblies.

William O. Douglas, “The One Un-American Act

Book Review: One Nation Under Baseball by John Florio and Ouisie Shapiro

I grew up about 200 miles due west of Minneapolis. When I was young, a weekend family trip to watch the Minnesota Twins was almost a ritual. Like any elementary school boy, the players were among my first idols. Pitcher Jim “Mudcat” Grant was one my my favorites.

Given my age, I assumed his nickname had something to do an affinity for catfishing. His lore dates it back to 1958, his first year with the Cleveland Indians. He actually got the name four years earlier when he entered the minor leagues. Some white teammates began calling him “Mudcat,” saying he had the face of a Mississipi mudcat.

Racism was generally tolerated in the 1950s and baseball, “America’s Pastime,” was no exception. Yet civil rights would be a core subject for the sport as the country entered the Sixties. John Florio and Ouisie Shapiro proffer that baseball was a microcosm of America during that time. Their book, One Nation Under Baseball: How the 1960s Collided with the National Pastime, takes a chronological approach in seeking to portray the influence the decade had on baseball and vice versa. Often exploring political and cultural issues as much as baseball itself, they believe that by the end of the 1960s the sport “resembled a new America.”

Although Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line in 1947, the vast majority of spring training camps were in Florida, where Jim Crow laws prevailed. Housing and even seating in the ballparks were segregated. It was not until 1964 that every team had integrated housing for spring training in Florida. One Nation Under Baseball lays out who and what brought the values and objectives of the civil rights movement to the forefront in baseball. Integrated housing for ballplayers wasn’t the sole impact. The Atlanta Braves became the Deep South’s first major league baseball team when it joined the National League in 1966. To help obtain the franchise, the city prohibited segregated seating and facilities at sporting events. As one writer later observed, such events were “many people, black and white, first shared public restrooms, sat in the same sections … or drank at the same fountain.”

Yet racism wasn’t eradicated. The Minnesota Twins, originally the Washington Senators before owner Calvin Griffith relocated the team in 1961, was the last to desegregate spring training. In speaking to a Twin Cities service group years later about his decision to move the team to Minnesota, Griffith said black people didn’t go to ball games and the Twins “came here because you’ve got good, hardworking, white people here.”

Such comments also reveal the increasing divide between the owners’ 1950s thinking and the players. In addition to civil rights, the generation gap was also an element of how baseball and the country mirrored each other in the Sixties.

The conflict was perhaps most personified by Bowie Kuhn, legal counsel for the owners and later Commissioner of Baseball, and Marvin Miller, who became executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association when it was recognized as a labor union in 1966. Before Miller negotiated baseball’s first collective bargaining agreement in 1968, the minimum player salary was $7,000. The agreement would boost that more than 40 percent, just one step in the decade’s road to ending owners dictating player salaries.

Florio and Shapiro, who also wrote One Punch From the Promised Land: Leon Spinks, Michael Spinks, and the Myth of the Heavyweight Title, detail the role of the so-called “reserve clause” in the standard player’s contract. The clause essentially allowed a team to renew a player’s contract year after year if it didn’t sell or trade him to another team. Unless a player could negotiate a raise, his choice was to accept the contract offered by the team or quit, giving owners an overwhelming advantage in contract negotiations and enabling them to keep salaries low. The control it granted over a player’s life led some players to view it as a form of salary. One Nation Under Baseball examines the efforts of players like Dodger pitchers Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, who collectively held out before the 1966 season, and Curt Flood, who would sit out a year and later file but lose a lawsuit challenging the reserve clause. Although the reserve clause did not die until 1975, these were the crucial steps that would lead to players being able to control their own destiny through free agency.

The book also uses Jim Bouton’s Ball Four to exemplify the establishment vs. anti-establishment sentiment that grew in baseball. Although not published until June 1970, the book was a tell-all written during the pitcher’s time with the New York Yankees and Seattle Pilots in 1969. The book detailed real life in the majors, including teams providing amphetamines to players and players drinking and womanizing. Believing the book was a harmful kiss and tell, Kuhn launched a campaign to discredit Bouton. After an excerpt was published in Look magazine, Kuhn met with Bouton and Miller, wanting the pitcher him to issue a statement saying the tales in the book were exaggerated. Bouton refused. The book would spend 17 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and rank as one of the New York Public Library’s Books of the Century.

Clearly, the Sixties changed baseball and One Nation Under Baseball uses extensive research and sources to survey the time. The bibliography is 15 single-spaced pages, not counting nearly 60 personal interviews the authors conducted. At times, though, it feels as if Florio and Shapiro couldn’t quite decide whether to focus on baseball or social history. Granted, the book provides crucial information to demonstrate the role of the civil rights movement, the rock generation and politics in changing baseball. Yet tangential details abound, more than is perhaps necessary for the narrative. For example, there are lengthy excerpts from speeches by John Kennedy and Martin Luther King, stories of the Beatles in America, and accounts of Muhammad Ali’s fights and misfortunes. Certainly, these are part of the olio of the Sixties but the extent of detail overwhelms their correlation to the subject.

For those with some familiarity with 1960s baseball and its personalities, One Nation Under Baseball is a reflective and entertaining read. Likewise, those with a general interest in baseball history and the 1960s will find the book useful. Others, particularly those looking for a sharply focused analysis of the evolution of baseball during the time, may be disappointed.

What was really happening in baseball, and at arenas everywhere, was the sensibilities of the rock generation infiltrating sports.

Robert Lipsyte quoted in John Florio and Ouisie Shapiro, One Nation Under Baseball

Book Review: Ballad of the Green Beret by Marc Leepson

Decades, years even, are roller coasters. They undulate, smoothly at times, precipitously at others. You can catch a glimpse of America’s dizzying ride in the 1960s in about a six month period on the Billboard music charts. On September 25, 1965, Barry Maguire’s version of “Eve of Destruction” (“You’re old enough to kill but not for votin’/You don’t believe in war, but what’s that gun you’re totin'”) was the number one single in the country. Before winter ended, Barry Sadler would reach that top spot with “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” a song praising “Fighting soldiers from the sky/Fearless men who jump and die.”

At the time, the former seemed a slight dip in the roller coaster’s course. Banned by a number of radio stations in 20 of the country’s 50 largest radio markets, “Eve of Destruction” spent a grand total of a week at # 1. “Ballad,” however, not only spent five weeks there, it was the top single of the year. In retrospect, though, the song was a trough that today delineates the end of an era. It was the only notable and popular pro-military song of the Vietnam War era. And just as that war splintered the United States, the song wholly refashioned the life of Barry Sadler, the soldier who wrote and recorded it.

“Ballad” was released in January 1966, a year during which U.S. troop levels in Vietnam would more than double. It sold more than 2 million copies within a month of its release and made Sadler a household name. But other than knowing he served as a Green Beret in Vietnam, his life before and after is little known. Marc Leepson endeavors to change that with Ballad of the Green Beret: The Life and Wars of Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler from the Vietnam War and Pop Stardom to Murder and an Unsolved, Violent Death.

Thoroughly researched, Ballad of the Green Beret takes readers from Sadler’s hardscrabble and chaotic childhood and adolescence through his tour of Vietnam and the creation and success of his chart-topping song. Leepson also delves into Sadler’s life after “stardom,” which included a manslaughter conviction, a series of mass market paperbacks about an immortal mercenary that sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and an exodus to Guatemala, where a shooting left him all but paraplegic for the last 14 months of his life and led to an acrimonious family feud over his care.

Ascertaining Sadler’s story isn’t always easy. He had a tendency to tell people what he thought they wanted to hear. And, as Leepson notes, that Sadler’s own autobiography, released in 1967 when Sadler was only 26, not only was “often vague about dates and places” it was “cluttered with filler and other non-autobiographical chronology detours.” The task didn’t become easier as Sadler tried music, acting and writing careers, and allegedly was an arms dealer in Guatemala. His friends admit it was sometimes hard to tell where the truth ended and where “the legend Barry was creating around himself began.”

This includes the creation of his smash hit. Sadler told several versions but agreed the song went through numerous variations of the song as suggestions from others were added and discarded. Much of it, originally titled “The Ballad of the Green Beret,” was actually composed before Sadler served as a medic in Vietnam. He was there about six months before a punji stick pierced the side of his left knee in mid-May 1965. Following his return to the United States, Sadler sought to record the song. During this process he met Robin Moore, author of the novel The Green Berets, published in 1965. Moore suggested the last word of the title be changed to the plural for cross-promotion with his book. He also received a half interest in the song for writing a new third verse (interestingly, Leeson’s book doesn’t contain the song’s lyrics) and agreeing to do his best to promote the song. Sadler’s photo appeared on the cover of the paperback edition of the book released in 1966 but, ironically, the 1968 film based on the book used a choral arrangement of his song.

Sadler would end up in a recording studio on December 18, 1965. “Ballad” was one of a dozen songs recorded in nine hours that day. The single was released on January 11, 1966, and an album of the same name nine days later. Sadler appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show on January 30, By the end of the week the song began a five week run at the top of Billboard’s pop charts. In becoming the year’s top single, it bested songs now considered classics, such as The Beatles’ “Paperback Writer,” “Paint It Black” by The Rolling Stones and “Good Vibrations” by The Beach Boys.

The song’s popularity and surrounding media frenzy came in an America that overwhelmingly supported the Vietnam War. One Missouri newspaper reflected one of the stronger views of the song, opining that it might “inspire some of the pickets and peace demonstrators to put on a uniform and try to win the coveted green beret.” Of course, less than 2,000 U.S. troops died in Vietnam in the year before the song’s release; more than 34,000 died over the next three years.

The Green Berets immediately sought to exploit the song and Staff Sgt. Sadler to its advantage. He was reassigned to the Public Information Office and spent his last 15 months in the military making personal appearances throughout the country. The extent and thoroughness of Leepson’s research shows through in the three chapters examining this period and its effect on Sadler, who felt relegated to what he called a “glorified recruiter.”

Sadler released another album in May 1966. Two months later, it finally reached the album charts –at 132 — and dropped off entirely two weeks later. Yet even that was a bigger success than Sadler’s post-discharge efforts at music, acting and film careers and owning a bar. He spent all his royalties by the end of 1971 and the following year said, “If I had to do it all over again I’d probably throw the song in the trash can.”

Sadler took another shot at music when he moved to Nashville. But there his life would reach its nadir in December 1978. Here, again, Leepson’s meticulous research shows through. He efficiently dissects the events surrounding Sadler shooting and killing an ex-boyfriend of a woman he was seeing and his subsequent conviction for involuntary manslaughter. Some good fortune arose, though, as during this time Sadler managed to sell his eternal mercenary pulp novels.

In January 1984 he moved to Guatemala, where he continued writing and used his medic training to help local villagers. He also supposedly trained Contra rebels and dealt arms, claims Leepson ventures to evaluate. In September 1988, though, Sadler was shot in the head in a cab in Guatemala City. Friends arranged for him to be flown to the United States for medical care but he would remain brain damaged and wheelchair bound until dying in November 1989 at age 49.

Quite readable and straightforward, Ballad of the Green Beret is bolstered by the 70 different individuals Leepson interviewed and an extensive bibliography. This variety of sources and viewpoints leaves the reader pondering how Sadler’s life would have differed had he thrown his song in the trash and remained a medic. Just as Sadler’s one hit wonder today reflects a nation on the threshold of a massive cultural transformation, the book illuminates the law of unintended consequences in one individual’s life.

I’d like to play a medley of my hit.

Barry Sadler in Marc Leepson, Ballad of the Green Beret

Weekend Edition: 4-22

Interesting Reading in the Interweb Tubez

Lawsuit of the Week

Saddest Blog Headline of the Week

Bookish Linkage

Nonbookish Linkage

There will be moments when you have to be a grown-up. These moments are tricks. Don’t fall for them.

Jenny Lawson, Furiously Happy

Weekend Edition: 4-15

Okay, I’m going to try again to revive Weekend Edition. I occasionaly come across things that don’t prompt a blot post or that I’ve simply linked to on Facebook. Now both will appear here, although I don’t promise these will be weekly weekends. And this one may be a bit narrow as I only yesterday decided to resume.

Interesting Reading in the Interweb Tubez

  • Smartphones Are the New Cigarettes (“I have a dream, friends. I have a dream of a world where people can sit through long, dull conversations, without feeling the need to douse themselves with instant-gratification delivered through glowing plastic screens.”)

Bookish Linkage

Nonbookish Linkage

Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale