The Mysterious Moe Berg

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Your inclination in reading about the fascinating life of Moe Berg, subject of the opening chapter of Sam Kean’s brilliantly told story of renegade scientists and spies who sabotaged the Nazi atomic bomb, will be to think that somebody should have made a movie about him.  A son of Jewish immigrants born at the turn of the 20th century, Berg attended Princeton University and Columbia Law School, but his passion was baseball.  Sure enough, filmmaker Aviva Kempner has explored the life and exploits of Berg in a documentary about the major league baseball catcher who is said to have spoken seven languages but was unable to hit in any of them, and served as a spy in the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), a World War II forerunner of the CIA.

Moe Berg Baseball Card

And if you’re tempted to doubt that the tale spun by Sam Kean sounds too Hollywood to be true, it is Snopes verifiable as accurate.  Here is a brief synopsis of Berg’s undercover role on a website documenting activities of the OSS:

“Major League Baseball player Moe Berg was recruited by the OSS in 1943 because of his language skills, assigned to the Secret Intelligence branch, and took part in missions in the Caribbean, South America, France, England, Norway, Italy, and the Balkans.  Later, Berg was briefed in nuclear physics, and sent to Zürich, Switzerland posing as a Swiss physics student, with the mission of attending a lecture at the Technische Hochschule by Germany’s top nuclear scientist, Werner Heisenberg.  His orders were to kill the scientist if he determined that the Germans were far along in their efforts to build an atomic weapon; he found that the scientist was not a threat.  Berg was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, but declined to accept it as he was forbidden from saying what he had done to receive the award.  He is the only former Major League Baseball player whose baseball card is displayed at CIA headquarters.”

Berg’s story was captured in part by ESPN Classic in this mini-documentary.

As Ralph Berger notes in his SABR piece, Casey Stengel, an eccentric man himself, called Moe Berg “the strangest man ever to play baseball.”  And while he will never be enshrined in Baseball’s Hall of Fame for his statistics, he is duly noted by the Atomic Heritage Foundation for participating in the Manhattan Project’s Alsos Mission that helped turn the tide of World War II.  Yet as the Jewish Week of New York observed this May, Berg was a mystery in so many ways.  Perhaps it was his intrigue with the espionage and counter-espionage that occurs so subtly in baseball that whet Berg’s appetite for the real thing.  Consider this excerpt from a penetrating article that he wrote about the sport for a 1941 issue of the Atlantic magazine:

“Signal stealing is possible in many ways. The most prevalent self-betrayals are made by the pitcher and catcher themselves. Such detection requires the closest observation. A catcher, after having given the signal, get sets for the pitch; in doing so he may unintentionally, unconsciously, make a slight move—for example, to the right, in order to be in a better position to catch a right-hander’s curve ball. But more often it is the pitcher who reveals something either to the coaches on the base lines or—what is more telling—to the hitter standing in the batter’s box.

The pitcher will betray himself if he makes two distinct motions for two different pitches—as, for example, a side-arm delivery for the curve and overhand for the fast ball. A pitcher may also betray himself in his windup by raising his arms higher for the fast ball than for the curve. In some cases his eyes are more intent on the plate for one pitch than for another. Usually the curve is more difficult to control. If a pitcher has to make facial distortions, they should be the same for one pitch as for another.

A pitcher covers up the ball with his glove as he fixes it, to escape detection. Otherwise he may reveal that he is holding the ball tigheter for a curve than for a fast ball, or even gripping the stitches differently for one than for the other. Eddie Collins, all-time star second baseman, was probably the greatest spy on the field or at bat in the history of the game. He was a master at ‘getting’ the pitch for himself somewhere in the pitcher’s manipulation of the ball or in his motion. This ability in no small part helped make him the great performer that he was.

Ball players would rather detect these idiosyncracies for themselves, as they stand awaiting the pitch, than get a signal from the coach. The coach, on detecting something, gives a sign to the hitter either silently by some move—for instance, touching his chest—or by word of mouth—‘Come on,’ for a curve. But this is dangerous unless the coach detects the pitches with one hundred per cent accuracy. There must be no doubt. Many times, in baseball, a club knows every pitch thrown and still loses. The hitter may be too anxious if he actually knows what is coming, or a doubt may upset him. And there is always the danger of a pitcher’s suspecting that he is ‘tipping’ himself off. He then deals in a bit of counter-espionage by making more emphatic to the opposition his revealing mannerism to encourage them, only to cross them up at a crucial time.”

There is supplemental material from Sam Kean’s Bastard Brigade book available online.  Have a look at the incredible photos here.  One is of the the the Major League Baseball all-star team that toured Japan in 1934. Babe Ruth is front and center, with Moe on the front row, second from your left with the catcher’s gear at his feet.

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Another touching photo is Moe (center) relaxed at spring training with the Washington Senators in 1933, immersed in his field of dreams.

Moe Berg Spring Training

In addition, there are supplemental notes that will give you a further taste of an intriguing life and story that should be more widely known.

 

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The Time Has Come Today

Consider this as a companion and extension to Dusting Off Skeletons, a coming of age period piece dating to 1971.  Any time I visit Manhattan after not having been there for awhile, I’m transported back to two epochs, the four year period during which I attended undergraduate school there and the fifteen year run I had as an Associate Professor and Chief of Service at S.U.N.Y. College of Optometry.

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Owing to the wedding celebration we attended last night, Miriam and I stayed over at the Edition Hotel, corner of 24th & Madison.  That gave me time to walk around early this morning, awash in nostalgia fore the surroundings of SUNY-O located in my days a block away at 24th & Park Ave. South.  As gets to the end of the long block between Madison and Park Ave. and looks back toward the Edition, the connection between the sister buildings bordering 23rd and 25th is evident in the property now owned by Credit Suisse – which I believe was owned by Met Life back in the day.

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And then, facing the intersection of 24th & Park, the majestically vertical building that was occupied by the College of Optometry before it’s move uptown to its current location across from the public library at 42nd & 6th.

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After a stop at Starbucks to read for a couple of hours, I headed back to the Edition for a morning brunch before a brief stop to admire the park between 23rd & 25th on Madison with the Flatiron Building in the background, which one can only do during daylight.

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Sadly something that hasn’t changed in all these years since I left SUNY in 1997 is the homeless situation in and around the park.

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The bounds and boundaries of time had come to mind while reading Maria Popova’s brilliant Brain Pickings piece about altered states of consciousness this morning.  Suffice it to say that the homeless problem in New York dates well back, prior to my college days between 1969 and 1973.  It was in the midst of that period that I explored a considerable amount of terrain both cerebrally and geographically, one memorable field trip being a concert at the Fillmore East headed by the Chambers Brothers on February 13, 1971.

 

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DDD: Danielle & David Draisin

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The AI Not Named Allen Iverson

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It was appropriate to finish the new memoir by Andre Iguodala over a cup of “Dunkin” this afternoon.   It’s a very curious book, with a marvelous writing style attributed to Carvell Wallace.  Describing his largely segregated upbringing in Springfield, Illinois, Iguodala relates the story of a booster at the University of Arizona who asked him where he was from:

“Oh, um. Springfield, Illinois.”

“Springfield!  Birthplace of Lincoln!”

Birthplace of Lincoln.  Every time someone asked me where I was from, they would respond, “Birthplace of Lincoln!” as though that had something to do with him.  What in the hell was I supposed to say to that?  Yes, I was born in the same place as a guy who became president when I would have been a slave.  Amazing coincidence, right?  That’s something I thought about a lot actually: Why was it that white people always mentioned that I was born in the same city as Lincoln?  I could never remember a black person bringing up a president who had been dead for almost 150 years right after asking me that question.  Black people ask me different things … Questions that have to do with my actual life.  Not some random factoid about a state.

You may get the impression from reading this that Andre Iguodala is edgy about racial matters, and that would be understandable.  When interviewed by a reporter after a tough loss to Minnesota as a Golden State Warrior, Iguodala was asked if he was worried.  Thinking about it for a moment, though admittedly perhaps not long enough, he replied: “What would a dumb nigga say?”  A black reporter then asked him if he was okay if coach Steve Kerr rested him for the game the next night to which Iquodala responded: “I do what Master say”.

Iguodala’s remarks prompted this scathing criticism the following morning from commentator Shannon Sharpe:

I distinctly recall Iguodala’s time in Philadelphia after he was drafted in the first round by the 76ers.  It might be fair to say that if Philly fans had a love-hate relationship with Iguodala, there was more hate than love.  As the scheduling gods would have it, after being traded to Denver in 2012, the Nuggets opened their season in Philadelphia and the fans booed Iguodala heavily on his return.  It might also be fair to say that Dre will not ingratiate himself to sports fans of Philadelphia when they read his take on the matter of Curt Flood refusing to report to the Phillies after being traded by the Cardinals.  It’s not just that Iquodala gets the date wrong (the book has the trade in 1963 but it occurred in 1969), but writes that Flood refused to go to the Phillies primarily because:  “a) the team sucked and b) the fans were racist.”  Suffice it to say that there was alot more to the story than that, which you can read about here.

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Iguodala is a bibliophile who prides himself on scholastic accomplishments in high school and college as much as he values his athletic prowess.  Perhaps it was his lack of flashy stats that caused Sixers fans to under-appreciate him, but he’s garnered a significant degree of respect – some would say Hall of Fame status – for his ability to elevate the play of his teammates.

But … on the heels of an Achilles injury to his teammate Kevin Durant that ended not only this but next season for him, and a dispute about the nature of his own injury, Iggy went on the Breakfast Club and served a healthy portion of controversy during his book tour for The Sixth Man.

This engendered a lively discussion on ESPN’s First Take, featuring Stephen Anthony Smith, who noted that no one has ever questioned Iggy’s integrity – but that the Warriors have a situation on their hand regarding how to address Iguodala’s claims.  As Stephen A. proclaimed, “Somebody’s lying here!”

The Warriors apparently dealt with this controversy not by addressing Iggy’s claims of injury misrepresentation, but by trading him to the Grizzlies ostensibly because of salary cap issues.  Rather than resolving Andre’s serious claims, Golden State has announced that they will retire his uniform.  Iguodala emphasizes in the book that he is always determined to be the best there is in any venture that he undertakes.  Might it be that he is merely following the script in promoting the type of marketing buzz that authors dream about on book tours?  I admire Iguodala on many levels, and I thoroughly enjoyed learning more about him through the book and its aftermath.  It does make one wonder, however, about the definition of success.

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Dusting off Skeletons

Cleaning out a closet a few weeks ago, I came across a box with my high school yearbook (more on that another day), expecting that my college yearbook would be close by.  There was no copy of Masmid, the yearbook of Yeshiva University, for my graduation year 1973.  But curiously there was a copy of the Masmid 1971, and as I started to leaf through it the controversy slowly came back to me.

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Masmid 1971 was a two volume paperback set that looked different from any previous version of Yeshiva University’s yearbook.  It looked different because, as its Editors-in-Chief David Leibtag and Howard Dorfman explain at the outset, they were determined to break with the stereotyped yearbook that was “a ragtag collection of group shots and glittering generalities about college life”.

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The entirety of the two volume set is digitized online, and you can access it here.  Volume I is a cross-section of student opinions and experiences.  Consider the contrast between two of the authors, Abraham Leizerowski – who subsequently became an attorney in Jenkintown, PA, and Heshie Billet who became Rabbi of Young Israel Woodmere.  Leizerowski writes:

“Whether it be a sleeping place in the Catskills. a meeting place in Brussels, or an eating place in Tel-Aviv, the question that one of approaching manhood is most often confronted with is “What college do you attend?”  There are approximately 3,000 possible American answers, 3,001 if one includes the near-impossibility today that one does not attend an institution of higher learning.  Of all these responses, not one gets nearly the reaction observed as the quiet, reticent, and almost silently lost response of “Yeshiva University”.  It immediately becomes quite clear that for some unknown reason, far beyond human comprehension, the Yeshiva student is a unique and wonderful phenomenon …

Yes, one can truly say that life at a Jewish religious school is unique, but the question is how so?  The problems which confront all the students of the seventies and those which confronted those students of the sixties are also very real ones at Yeshiva College. The religious questions, the drug problems, sexual conflicts, over-abundance of nonsensical requirements, quality and quantity of education, relevancy of education to future enterprises, states of national violence and pessimism, Vietnam and the draft, and the alienation between generations are also part of one’s Yeshiva experience. Yes, contrary to the myths, propaganda, and beliefs of all older Jews, these questions are not only their’s
— the rest of the world’s problems — but ours as well.”

Billet writes:

“I am a dreamer, a member of a nation of dreamers. For the past four years I have dreamt that I attended a unique kind of Yeshiva, I have dreamt that Torah was the ideal of this institution which at the same time was not afraid to confront the powerful forces of modern secular society and conquer them …

Today, I fear for my dream. Stormy doubts disturb its tranquility. Has my dream been a
fantasy? Does profane reality desecrate the Yeshiva of my dream? Has it placed the secular idol of Mada on a pedestal making but a poor attempt to maintain the facade of a Torah Institution? Is the Yeshiva I attended nothing more than a large theater filled with many actors? If so, who and where are the producers of this colossal production? Are the Botei Medrash and classrooms merely stages where professional and amateur actors lethargically go through the motions of a tedious daily script whose content never changes?  Are those who are committed to Torah being used without their knowing it? Are the bookcases filled with the same ancient, dusty, torn, dead books that Bialik saw when he returned to his Bais Hamedrash? Is the character of the Bais Hamedrash at night that of a Bais Hakevoros? Is it possible that the Yeshiva I have attended is not a link in the tradition of great Yeshivos?  I am a dreamer. I fear for my dream. Has it been a fantasy? Has RIETS been a fantasy?”

As if the student opinions didn’t engender enough controversy, Volume II offers a cross-section of faculty opinion that is eye-popping to say the least.  Take for example this excerpt from an interview with second year instructor of psychology, Harvey Bernstein:

Masmid:  Do you find that there is anything happening at Yeshiva that is pressing that you would like to talk about?
Bernstein:  Yes. One is that there are a number of lies that are perpetrated by the administration which I resent. For example, when Dr. Bacon, whom I don’t really know at all, but with whom my limited interaction has been all right, espouses the view that
the kids here get as good an education as the kids at Harvard, it is a big lie, a put-on. It is not happening within my department, for example, and to say that it is, is untrue. Kids are not able to take courses which they would be able to take at other universities. They
are not able to get the degree of exposure to different ideas which having different people on a faculty would present.

As challenging and thought-provoking as Bernstein’s entire interview is, the most intriguing interview may be one that you will never read.  In the Table of Contents you will note that there is a black line through the entry that begins on page 34.

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In my print copy, with the light at a certain angle, I can make out “An Interview with David Berger”.  In the Jewish Studies section, Dr. David Berger is listed as a Visiting Lecturer in History.  One can only imagine how sensitive his remarks must have been because the University took the unprecedented step of issuing the yearbook with the center page of his interview cut out, its remaining pages lined out in haste, and the remnant glued together.  Now, years later, the glue has lost its adhesive and exposes the extent of the cover up.

IMG_3384I am not alone in my intrigue about the infamous 1971 partially censored Masmid.  The On the Main Line Blog has an entry on August 18, 2010 titled “Aspects of 20th century Orthodox Judaism through the pages of Yeshiva University’s Masmid (now online)”.  In the comments following the post, Menachem Butler remarks:  The 1971 Masmid is one for the ages. I wonder if  an uncensored version will find its way online…”

To that, a commenter Nachum writes: “Yes, Menachem, even 71, which seems pretty much unedited. There is a blacked out line at one point which seems to be a typo. A lot of what we’d consider “objectionable” certainly made it in. It *was* 1971.”  To which Joel Rich adds:  “I have an uncensored copy-I really have no idea how I got it (I was ’73) … There was an interview with Harav David Berger that for some reason was found objectionable. Believe me, if you were there then, you’d laugh at what was in the article vs. what was going on on campus and in the world.”

The 1971 Masmid was a literary masterpiece, its centerpiece perhaps the homage to the Wrestling Team penned by Sheldon (Shelly) Miller as an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky.

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I’ll freely admit that as a member of the wrestling team I grappled with Miller’s piece at the time and only years later, in revisiting the original Jabberwocky, grasped the brilliance of what he wrote.  (We lost Rabbi Sheldon Miller too soon, felled by a heart attack in Teaneck at the age of fifty-five.)

At the bottom of the page was the team’s individual record …

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… followed by commentary which noted: “It was the year of the injury for the 1970-71 Wrestling Team … Despite the crippling injuries, the Ellmen were able to give a decent account of themselves.  The record may not show it, but these guys gave their heart and soul to every match.  Coach Ellman often had to substitute an inexperienced underclassman for an injured experienced veteran.  However the 3-9 record will probably be the last of the losing seasons for Yeshiva’s most exciting team, as the subs of this year have picked up valuable experience.”

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I came to be one of those inexperienced underclassman, influenced by my dorm acquaintance Gabor (Gabe) Klein to take wrestling as a gym the second half of my freshman year, progressing rapidly to being rooted on as a sophomore varsity member by avid supporters (mat level – teammate Gary Rubin, Coach Neil Ellman; scorer’s table left-to-right Dave Present, Ira Bauman, Gabe Klein, E.J. Shapiro, and Manager/Announcer Danny Kurtzer.  Masmid 1971 correctly predicted the future, as our team excelled for the next two years and beyond.  In my junior year I became co-captain with senior Noah Nunberg and in my senior year shared the honors with Reuben Koolyk.

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A clipping from the 1971 school newspaper citing Coach Ellman’s “rating” that I had stashed along with that year’s Masmid caught my attention.  Time was a precious commodity at Y.U., particularly when one was in the RIETS program.  From Talmudic studies with Rabbis in the morning, to Bible professors (such as Dr. Reguer) in the early afternoon, and on to secular studies and science labs into early evening, I had to find the time for conditioning before it was de riguer to be in the gym.

For a period of time after graduation I would bump into alumni from Y.U. days, and get the question as to whether I had kept up with wrestling.  My standard answer became that the only wrestling I did since graduation was wrestling with my conscience.  I suspect that David Leibtag and Howard Dorfman may have shared that same sentiment along the way.

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Good Energy at FirstEnergy Park

Scenes from FirstEnergy Park last night, as the Lakewood Blue Claws defeated the Delmarva Shorebirds 2-0 on the strength of stellar pitching, complemented by post-game pre-July 4 Fireworks.

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A Rose by His Own Name

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Pete Rose is certainly not without his share of controversy owing to a lifetime ban from baseball due to betting on games in which he was involved as player/manager for the Cincinnati Reds.  The name of the next-to-last chapter in his new book is “I Blew It, I Know That”.  The book is a marvelous read for fans of baseball in particular, and for students of the triumphs and frailties of life in general.

At the 5:00 minute mark of his retirement speech this weekend, Chase Utley remarked how Phillies fans, over the past two years, have repeatedly thanked him for the 2008 World Series victory.  And he remarks that he is thankful to the fans, who helped elevate him toward his lofty goals.  Chase was a hard-nosed player in the mold of Pete Rose.

Pete idolized his father, who was an accomplished amateur athlete.  He cites several of the fathers in his neighborhood who were role models for their sons.  One of those sons was Eddie Brinkman, known as The Babe Ruth of Cincinnati, who would go on to be the star player on Pete’s baseball team in high school (the same team that produced the Phillies’ Art Mahaffey a few years earlier).  It was Brinkman who attracted the scouts’ attention as a potential superstar, not Pete Rose.

Rose describes his father as loving but stern.  “So if I went 4-for-6 in a game and on the way home he ignored the four hits and wanted to talk about what I’d done the other two times, I might not have liked it, but I understood.”  One thing Pete’s dad didn’t tolerate was mental errors.  He knew that Pete would have to work harder than most of his peers due to being undersized. While that was something beyond his control, being focused at all times for game preparation and during the games was well within his control.  That awareness, intensity, and what some might call baseball IQ became Rose’s signature.

Another adult that Pete idolized was his mother’s brother, Uncle Buddy Bloebaum.   Rose considers him to have been the best baseball player in the family, but just as his uncle was about to embark on a career the Great Depression hit.  Uncle Buddy was a switch hitter, which Rose emulated, and it was Bloebaum – a scout for the Reds – who signed Pete to his first contract with the ballclub.

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As a young player, Pete largely got the cold shoulder from veterans on the major league club, who considered him to be a brash hot dog as he slid head first into bases and ran out walks to first base (isn’t running out a walk an oxymoron?).  But two of the team’s stars in the early ’60s, Frank Robinson and Vada Pinson, respected Pete’s grit and took him under their wing.  One of the more revealing passages in the book is that Pete was actually called into the Reds’ front office and told that he was hanging around with black players too much.  In no uncertain terms, Pete ignored the advice.

Cleaning out my closet earlier this week in preparation for a move, I came across some Phillies memorabilia.  One of the items was a monograph on Phillies baseball in the 29th century.

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Rose of course had an illustrious career in Cincinnati, but as the monograph notes the contract that he signed in 1978 with the Phillies would have a major impact on that club’s future.

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Rose writes: “When I joined the Phillies for the ’79 season, Mike Schmidt was the best player in the game three or four days a week.  He could be more than that, and when he watched me play over the course of a season, Mike became the best player in the game seven days a week  I spurred him on.  I made him understand that there are other ways to win than home runs.  You can lead with your defense   You can lead with your base-running.  You can lead with your leadership … I’d promised the organization if they signed me, we would make that last step and go to the World Series, and I delivered.”

Pete’s role in that Series is celebrated in a special supplement of the Philadelphia Inquirer that I kept, highlighting our version of the immaculate reception.

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In his book Rose adds: “For all the talent we had on that team, for all the great chemistry and competitiveness you felt every time you walked in that clubhouse, I still feel to this day that the reason we won it all was because our manager, Dallas Green, was the perfect fit for our club … He was vocal and no nonsense; he had rules and he wanted you to abide by the rules.  If you didn’t, he penalized you.”

Many baseball lifers have referred to “playing the game the right way”, but as in many other avenues of life the right way is a product of the cultural milieu.  Rose recognizes that expectations of players playing the right way is reflected in fans’ attitudes as well.  “If  you were on their side, all that extra stuff you did helped their team win, then they loved you.  If you were on the other team, they probably loved to boo you.  Before I went to Philadelphia, the fans hated me.  Oh, did they love to boo me in my years with the Cincinnati Reds!  But they never once booed me when I was there playing for the Phillies.”

I’ll leave you with a story Pete shared about his manager in Cincy, Dave Bristol.   “The job of a manager is above all to understand each and every one of his players and to know how to reach them.  My manager later on, the great Sparky Anderson, liked to talk about how there are three – and only three – ways to reach a guy: You kick him in the ass, you leave him alone, or you give him a pat on the back.  The trick was knowing which kind of guy a given player was.  That same month, July 1967, we were in a funk at the plate as a team, and Dave decided it was time to impose a fine on anyone who came up with a runner on third base and no outs or one out, and did not bring the runner home.  Guess who earned the first fine from the new rule?  Yours truly, that’s who.  I had four hits, including three extra-base hits, and we cruised to a 6-2 win over the Pirates, but in the seventh I came up with runners on the corners and one out, and bounced out.  After the game I walked right in to see Dave in his office and handed him twenty-five bucks in cash and a trading stamp catalog I’d won for being on a radio show.  Dave said he wanted the full fifty bucks and wouldn’t accept the catalog.  ‘Maybe he needs it for his wardrobe,’ I told reporters that night.  But I made clear that I thought it was a good rule, and I was happy to pay the fine.”

During his long and storied career, Pete Rose played in 1,972 games in which his team won.  As he notes, that, by a long shot, is the most ever by any player.  At the current moment, with our beloved Phillies in freefall (from 3.5 games in 1st place on May 29 to 6.5 games back in less than a month), Rose’s book is a delightful reminder of what it takes to win.

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