Friday, January 30, 2015

Thoughts on the 2015 BBWAA Baseball Hall of Fame Ballot

The 2015 Hall of Famers. From left to right, Craig Biggio, Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, and John Smoltz. Holy crap, Randy Johnson is tall.

This is the coolest picture ever. Tim Raines at Montreal's Olympic Stadium, 1980's. This is before they finished the roof that never worked right.

Mike Mussina throwing some heat for the Orioles.
For the first time since 1955, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America voted four players into the Baseball Hall of Fame this year. It was not much of a surprise that Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez easily cleared the hurdle of being named on 75% of the ballots. I was a little surprised that John Smoltz was a first-ballot choice as well, as he was named on 82.9% of the ballots. I thought that Smoltz would be an interesting Hall of Fame case to watch, since he had success as both a starter and a closer, but he didn’t have enough counting stats in either role to make him a sure thing. The BBWAA has had a tough time lately electing pitchers with fewer than 300 wins, but this year two of them, Martinez and Smoltz, made it in. I think that Smoltz is a fine selection for the Hall, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had been around 50-60% this year, and been elected in a year or two. I’m very happy that Craig Biggio finally got in on his third try, after falling just two votes short last year. I really don’t know why Biggio wasn’t a first-ballot Hall of Famer. It sounds like voters might have shied away from him because of rumors of steroid use. From what I read, the steroid allegations against Biggio come down to one writer saying, “I think Roger Clemens took steroids, and some other Astros did too.” Hey, sportswriter, do you have more proof than that? “Um, nope.” Biggio was a good power hitter, as he’s 5th on the all-time doubles list, and he has more than 1,000 extra base hits. But he never hit more than 26 home runs in a season. And Biggio is listed as being 5’11” and 185 pounds. He’s not exactly the muscle-bound hulk that we think of as being a steroid user. 

The problem with allegations of steroid use is that we will simply never know for sure whether players from the pre-testing era used steroids unless that player admits they did. And that’s a difficult thing to admit. It’s an issue that voters for the Hall of Fame have had to wrestle with in the last few years, and they will continue to wrestle with it as players from that era appear on the ballot. I can understand a lot of different arguments both for and against players accused of using steroids. Personally, if I were a member of the BBWAA voting for the Hall of Fame, I would not vote for someone that I thought used steroids. Of course, this brings up the question, how do I know? Well, based on all the allegations against Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds, I think they both used steroids, and I would not vote for them for the Hall of Fame. Of course, by voting for Frank Thomas or Craig Biggio or Mike Piazza, I might be voting for someone who was a steroid user who just got away with it. Those are the risks you take. The baseball writers who annoy me the most are the guys who say, “Hey, I’m not a gatekeeper; I don’t know who used and who didn’t.” Yes, I agree that we don’t know who used and who didn’t, but you ARE a gatekeeper! You are one of the people who get to vote for the Hall of Fame, that makes you one of the gatekeepers! You can use your votes however you want, but the fact remains that you are one of the people who opens or closes the gate to the Hall of Fame. Just accept the responsibility. 

For players who didn’t make it in this year, things look good for Mike Piazza, who jumped from 62.2% to 69.9% this year, putting him within range of 75%. Piazza should be elected in 2016, or 2017 at the latest. Tim Raines also made an encouraging jump, from 46.1% to 55%. Raines only has two more years on the ballot under the new HOF voting rules, so maybe those who were on the fence about him finally voted for him. I would like to see Raines voted in, so hopefully he can make the leap in the next two years. Raines has always been overshadowed by Rickey Henderson, who had the same set of skills as Raines, but just did everything a little bit better than Raines. Raines also spent the last six years of his career as a part-time player. He was still a good player, but he didn’t pass any milestones that would make him a lock for the Hall of Fame. By which I mean that Raines didn’t get to 3,000 hits. Side note: Are there any milestones besides 300 wins and 3,000 hits that really make a player a lock for the Hall of Fame? I don’t think there are. But playing until he was 42 did allow Tim Raines to play alongside his son, Tim Raines, Jr., for the 2001 Baltimore Orioles. 

Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds both continue to hold steady at about 35% of the vote. They haven’t gained at all in three years on the ballot, so at this point it doesn’t look likely that they will get into the Hall. I assume that last year’s rule change, which stated that players will be on the ballot for 10 years instead of 15, was aimed at getting the steroid guys off the ballot as quickly as possible. That being said, I think it makes sense to shorten the voting time. Let’s have those arguments about Tim Raines and Jack Morris spread out over 10 years rather than 15. And let’s spare guys like Don Mattingly and Alan Trammell those five extra years of lingering on the ballot with no chance of getting in. (Although I do think Trammell should get elected. Maybe the Veterans’ Committee will put him in.) 

Mike Mussina increased his total slightly, from 20.3% to 24.6%, but he still has a long way to go. I think Mussina deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. Mussina was an excellent pitcher throughout his career, but he doesn’t have the peak that Pedro Martinez had. Of course, few pitchers have had a peak like Pedro’s, but Mussina was more quietly excellent. Mussina won 15 or more games in a season 11 times, but it wasn’t until 2008, his last season, when he finally won 20 games. Mussina chose to go out on top rather than hang around for another 2 or 3 years and try to get to 300 wins. Had he done so, he also would have surpassed 3,000 strikeouts. I think something that hurts Mussina is that he just doesn’t have a very high profile. Although Mussina was the subject, along with Tom Glavine, of John Feinstein’s 2008 book Living on the Black. Maybe the most exciting fact about Mussina off the field is that he appeared in a documentary about crossword puzzles. Mussina’s lifetime winning percentage is the same as Jim Palmer’s, and Mussina has a higher winning percentage than Juan Marichal, Tom Seaver, Phil Niekro, Steve Carlton, Don Sutton, Nolan Ryan, Greg Maddux, and Tom Glavine. Hopefully the writers will see the light and vote him in.

Fred McGriff continues to suffer from a serious lack of support. I’d like to see the “Crime Dog” in the Hall, but he’s never even reached 25% of the vote. I would think that McGriff’s numbers, which are presumably untainted by steroid use, would appeal to voters weary of roided-up sluggers like Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds, but it hasn’t happened. 

I was surprised that Gary Sheffield didn’t do better on his first ballot, as he got just 11.7% of the vote. The dude has 509 home runs, 1,676 RBIs, and an OPS+ of 140. Why were voters not enthusiastic about him? I was surprised that Nomar Garciaparra got enough votes to stay on the ballot for next year. Nomar is one of those players who had a few truly great seasons, but just didn’t have enough of them to be a Hall of Famer. I was a little surprised that Carlos Delgado didn’t get enough votes to stay on the ballot. He hit 473 home runs! I know that’s not enough to be a Hall of Famer, but Delgado was an excellent player. 

That concludes my thoughts on the 2015 voting for the Baseball Hall of Fame. I’m already excited for next year’s ballot, which will feature first-ballot Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. The only question about Griffey next year is how high his percentage will be.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Fun Facts I Learned from Andrew Roberts' book Napoleon: A Life (2014)

Cover of Napoleon: A Life, by Andrew Roberts, 2014.

The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries, painting by Jacques-Louis David, 1812. According to the clock behind Napoleon, it's about 4:13AM. He's been awake all night working hard to keep you safe, French Empire! This painting is now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
In the course of reading Andrew Roberts’ excellent biography Napoleon: A Life, I learned a lot of random facts about Napoleon Bonaparte. Rather than try to fit them all into my review of the book, I thought it would make more sense to dedicate this post to sharing some of these fascinating Napoleonic tidbits. 

Napoleon wrote more than 33,000 letters during his 51 years on earth. (p.xxxii)

“More books have been written with Napoleon in the title than there have been days since his death in 1821.” That’s at least 70,500 books. (p.xxxii)

“Napoleon represented the Enlightenment on horseback. His letters show a charm, humor, and a capacity for candid self-appraisal…He personified the best parts of the French Revolution, the ones that have survived and infused European life ever since.” (p.xxxii)

When someone asked Napoleon why he didn’t take Frederick the Great’s sword when he visited Sans Souci, he replied, “Because I had my own.” (p.xxxv)

Napoleon wrote a novella in 1795 called Clisson and Eugenie. (p.62)

Napoleon took 167 “savants,” an assortment of scientists and intellectuals, with him on his 1798 campaign to Egypt. Perhaps their most significant discovery was the Rosetta Stone, which allowed hieroglyphics to be translated. (p.165)

During the first 3 months of 1807, Napoleon wrote 1,715 letters, an average of 19 letters per day. “Half went to military figures…and the rest were on diplomatic, administrative, family or personal matters. The subject of shoes and boots generated sixty-three letters.” (p.435)

Napoleon had either twenty-one or twenty-two mistresses that we know of. (p.437)

Napoleon once involved himself in a dispute between stage-hands at the Paris Opera. There was an argument over who was responsible for dropping a singer from a mechanical cloud and breaking her arm. Napoleon supported the deputy rather than the head stage-hand, writing, “I always support the underdog.” (p.449)

Johann Gottfried Schadow’s 1795 statue of Queen Louise of Prussia and her sister Frederike “was determined to be too erotic for public display.” (p. 460) Reading that sent me immediately to Google images, and fortunately we can all see the sculpture here.

Napoleon was never seen to be drunk. He only drank Chambertin wine. He ate his meals quickly, usually in less than ten minutes. (p.470)

After a long night of work, Napoleon would sometimes take his secretaries out for hot chocolate. This was one of my favorite facts from the whole book. (p.471)

Napoleon loved long hot baths. (p.471)

During the battle of Wagram in 1809, Napoleon took a 10 minute nap. He won the battle. (p.523)

After the battle of Borodino, Napoleon said, “After a victory there are no enemies, only men.” (p.609)

“Long ago it was said that priests and doctors render death painful.” Napoleon, in a letter to his brother Joseph. (p.698)

“I need to be comforted by the members of my family, but as a rule I get nothing but vexation from that quarter.” Napoleon, in a letter to Marie Louise, his second wife, when he thought that this brother Joseph was trying to sleep with her. (p.706)

During his first exile, while Napoleon was on the island of Elba, he “reorganized his new kingdom’s defenses,…read voraciously,…played with his pet monkey Jenar,…reformed customs and excise,…repaired the barracks, built a hospital, planted vineyards, paved parts of Portoferraio for the first time and irrigated land. He also organized regular rubbish collections, passed a law prohibiting children from sleeping more than five to a bed, set up a court of appeal and an inspectorate to widen roads and build bridges…His attention to the tiniest details was undimmed, even extending to the kind of bread he wanted fed to his hunting dogs.” (p.723)

“I do not allow myself to be governed by advice.” Napoleon, to General Antoine Drouot, who was trying to persuade him to stay in exile on Elba. (p.730) 

When Napoleon left Elba, he didn’t really have to escape; he just seems to have left. I guess he was on Scout’s Honor to stay there. (p.730)

When he got an invitation on St. Helena addressed to “General Bonaparte,” he said, “Send the card to the addressee; the last I heard of him was at the Pyramids and Mount Tabor.” (p.784-5)

The only medical operation Napoleon ever underwent was having one of his teeth removed on St. Helena. (p.793)

Those are just some of the many things I learned about Napoleon Bonaparte, one of the most fascinating men in history, while reading Napoleon: A Life.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Book Review: Napoleon: A Life, by Andrew Roberts (2014)

Cover of Napoleon: A Life, by Andrew Roberts, 2014.

First Consul Bonaparte, painting by Antoine-Jean Gros, 1802.

Historian and author Andrew Roberts.
Napoleon Bonaparte died on May 5, 1821. More than 70,500 days have passed since his death, and yet more than 70,500 books have been published with Napoleon’s name in the title. What is it about Napoleon that future generations have continued to find so fascinating? In his 2014 book Napoleon: A Life, Andrew Roberts chronicles Napoleon’s life from cradle to grave and gives us lots of insight as to what made Napoleon such an interesting figure. Roberts’ epic biography is an amazing piece of work. By the end of the book you come to feel as though you know Napoleon. Roberts is the first biographer of Napoleon’s to use his 33,000 surviving letters, which have been published over the last few years for the first time. Roberts does an excellent job of showing how compartmentalized Napoleon’s mind was, and how he was able to focus on so many different things. The term “micromanager” might well have been coined to describe Napoleon, as he penned letters on topics ranging from military strategy to settling disputes between stage-hands of the Paris Opera. 

Roberts peels away the layers of myth attached to Napoleon’s life, so he becomes more than just the stiff figure from historical paintings, he actually feels like a real person. Napoleon must have had an extraordinary charisma in person, as it seems as though everyone who met him was greatly charmed by him. Even Frederick Maitland, the British captain who accepted Napoleon’s surrender and who ferried him to exile on St. Helena, had kind words to say about him, writing of him: “…to such an extent did he possess the power of pleasing that there are few people who could have sat at the same table as him for nearly a month, as I did, without feeling a sensation of pity, allied perhaps to regret, that a man possessed of so many fascinating qualities, and who had held so high a station in life, should be reduced to the situation in which I saw him.” (Roberts, p.777) 

In Napoleon: A Life, we get to see all the different sides of Napoleon. We see the egotistical conqueror, but we also glimpse Napoleon’s sarcastic sense of humor and his indefatigable work ethic. Roberts has crafted a book that is a pleasure to read, and all 810 pages are gripping. Every military campaign that Napoleon embarked upon could easily fill an entire book by itself, but Roberts does an excellent job of bringing us the essentials. Roberts has visited nearly every battlefield that Napoleon fought on, and this depth of research makes the book rich and vibrant. 

If you want to read a biography about a truly fascinating man, pick up Napoleon: A Life.

Book Review: How the States Got Their Shapes, by Mark Stein (2008)

Cover of How the States Got Their Shapes, by Mark Stein, 2008.

Have you ever wondered why the Upper Peninsula of Michigan isn’t actually connected to the rest of Michigan? Why is South Dakota larger than North Dakota? Why is Delaware even a state? If these thoughts have ever crossed your mind, then Mark Stein’s 2008 book How the States Got Their Shapes is the book for you. Stein covers all of the borders of all 50 states, and tells us why those borders are where they are. 

How the States Got Their Shapes is an interesting idea for a book and it provides the answers to some really good questions, but the execution isn’t all that it could be. While Stein’s writing is succinct and workmanlike, it’s rarely vibrant. It’s tough to summarize all of this information in just a few pages for each state, but the never ending treaties and colonial charters quickly become a blur. How the States Got Their Shapes is interesting as I was reading it, but there’s little that will stick with me for very long. The nature of the book means that there will inevitably be a fair amount of repetition, as you will read about disputes involving Connecticut under several different states. It’s probably read best in small doses, and not cover to cover.

But, those reservations aside, there are still many interesting facts in How the States Got Their Shapes. Some of my favorites are:

No one knows if North Dakota or South Dakota was admitted to the Union first. President Benjamin Harrison deliberately shuffled the statehood papers on his desk so he didn’t know in which order he signed them. 

Wisconsin and Michigan had a border dispute about whether or not their border follows the East branch of the Montreal River or the West branch. This dispute has never been formally resolved, although I don’t think anyone in Wisconsin or Michigan is still that upset about it.

The town of Carter Lake, Iowa, is across the Missouri River from the rest of Iowa.

There are two tiny pieces of land on the New Jersey shore, just across the Delaware River, that actually belong to Delaware. This land was created when the Delaware River was dredged, but because they were created from areas on Delaware’s side of the river, they belong to Delaware. 

The area of Washington, DC, was originally supposed to be a square, and it was for a while. But in 1846, upon learning that DC might outlaw the slave trade, Virginia took its land back.

The “Southwick Jog” is a tiny little bite that Massachusetts took out of Connecticut so Massachusetts could have access to the Congamond Lakes.

Michigan got its Upper Peninsula as compensation for losing land along Lake Michigan to Indiana and along Lake Erie to Ohio, in order that those two states would have ports on the Great Lakes. Ohio and Michigan even fought the so-called Toledo War over the port of Toledo. (It wasn’t really a war, more like just some bad feelings.)

If those are the kind of historical tidbits you like, How the States Got Their Shapes is the book for you.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Ted Kennedy, Chappquiddick, and Joyce Carol Oates' novel Black Water (1992)

Ted Kennedy, around 1970.

The only picture of Mary Jo Kopechne I've ever seen.

Cover of Black Water, by Joyce Carol Oates, 1992.
The Presidential aspirations of Ted Kennedy ended during the night of July 18-19, 1969, when Kennedy’s Oldsmobile went off a bridge on the island of Chappaquiddick, just off Martha’s Vineyard. Kennedy was able to get out of the car, but his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned in the upside down car. Kennedy did not report the accident to the police until the next morning, after the police had towed his car out of the water and found Kopechne’s body. The accident at Chappaquiddick would forever cast a pall over Ted Kennedy’s legacy.

Joyce Carol Oates published Black Water, a short novel based on the events of Chappaquiddick, in 1992. Black Water tells the story of Kelly Kelleher, an idealistic young woman who meets The Senator, as he is always referred to in the novel, at a party on an island off the coast of Maine on July 4, 1991. Kelly and The Senator start talking, hit it off, and leave the party together. On their drive to the ferry, The Senator is driving too fast, misses a turn, and his car lands in murky black water. The Senator escapes the car, but Kelly is unable to, and drowns. Black Water is told from Kelly’s perspective, and the book flashes back in time as Kelly slowly drowns, thinking that The Senator will come back to rescue her.

Black Water is written impressionistically, almost like a poem, as various lines repeat again and again in the short chapters. The novel gives a voice to the voiceless, as we observe the thoughts of this doomed young woman. It’s quite a good book, and it inevitably makes one think more about Mary Jo Kopechne. Who was this young woman who died so tragically? A great deal of mystery still surrounds the events of Chappaquiddick, and there’s very little information to be found about Mary Jo Kopechne. I’m a collector of books about the Kennedys, and I’ve only ever seen one photo of Kopechne. It’s the same 1962 college graduation photo that was on front pages the day after she died. Didn’t anyone take a photo of her during the next seven years?

Oates does little in Black Water to distinguish The Senator from Ted Kennedy. The Senator is meant to be a portrait of Ted Kennedy in 1991, so instead of the dashing young man Kennedy was at the time of Chappaquiddick in 1969, The Senator is in his mid-50’s, and is a bit disillusioned with politics. As he tells Kelly, “It makes me angry sometimes, it’s a visceral thing-how you come to despise your own words in your ears not because they aren’t genuine, but because they are; because you’ve said them so many times, your ‘principals,’ your ‘ideals’-and so damned little in the world has changed because of them.” (p.139-40) The physical descriptions of The Senator are clearly applicable to Kennedy: “That dimpled grin, the big chunky white teeth,” with eyes “the blue of washed glass.” (p.20) “And his broad handsome-battered face, the eyes so transparently blue, the nose just slightly venous but a straight nose, lapidary, like the jaws, the chin, the familiar profile.” (p.39) 

In a 1992 interview with The New York Times, Oates said of the book, “I wanted the story to be somewhat mythical, the almost archetypal experience of a young woman who trusts an older man and whose trust is violated.” If Oates wanted Black Water to be mythical, then why did she stick so closely to the events of Chappaquiddick? Why not create a different, fictional scenario? If Oates’ interpretation of Chappaquiddick is that it was about a younger woman and an older man, I would disagree. Kennedy was only 8 years older than Kopechne, and Chappaquiddick was less about a man taking advantage of a woman than it was simply a terrible, tragic accident. Ted Kennedy certainly didn’t mean to drive off that bridge. 

Black Water is a fascinating book, and a quick read at 150 pages. I would recommend it for anyone who is interested in Ted Kennedy and the Chappaquiddick incident.