Wednesday’s Book Review: “The Home Run Heard Round the World: The Dramatic Story of the 1951 Giants-Dodgers Pennant Race”


9780486480589_p0_v1_s260x420The Home Run Heard Round the World: The Dramatic Story of the 1951 Giants-Dodgers Pennant Race. By Ray Robinson. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2011 ed.

This is a classic work of baseball history. Originally published in 1991, it tells the story—and it is a very journalistic account as written here—of the 1951 National League pennant race in which the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers battled for the chance to meet the New York Yankees in the World Series. Of course the Giants earned the pennant, and were dispatched in the World Series by the Yankee juggernaut led by future Hall of Famers Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle, and Yogi Berra.

To get to that point, however, the Giants made a dramatic come-from-behind late season surge to tie the Dodgers for the National League title. Both the Giants and the crosstown rival Dodgers finished the regular season with identical 96-58 records. They then had to play a best-of-three game extension of the season to determine who advanced to the World Series. It was in the last game of that extension that Bobby Thompson hit his dramatic bottom-of-the-ninth homer to defeat the Dodgers 5-4. Giants broadcaster Russ Hodges captured the euphoria of the moment in his in-air chant, “THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT, THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT, THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT.” It was the perfect response to a great moment in baseball history.

Getting to that point was not easy, however. As of August 11, Brooklyn held a commanding 13½-game lead over the Giants. They managed to catch the Dodgers by winning their next 16 games, and 37 of their last 44 games, while Brooklyn played the rest of the season at a 26–22 clip. The Giants then tied the Dodgers for the league championship on the last day of the regular season when they beat the Philadelphia Phillies, only one year removed from their pennant-winning “Whiz Kids” season in 14-innings to force the best-of-three-games showdown. The Giants and Dodgers split the first two games of this series, and the Giants come-from-behind win in the third sealed the deal.

This is an excellent narrative of that epic struggle. It was written by a veteran baseball writer with a real feel for the telling anecdote and the dramatic scene. Republished in 2011 by Dover, after having been out of print from HarperCollins for many years, it now reappears at the time of the 60th anniversary of this most stunning of all walk off homers, excepting perhaps only Bill Mazeroski’s 1960 World Series homer, in major league history.

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Redirect: “Apollo Lunar Landings Multiscreen” Video


This is pretty neat. This video depicts simultaneously the landing of all six Apollo missions that reached the lunar surface between 1969 and 1972. The compiler took all of the video from the Lunar Module and realligned them to 45 degrees to show what image that the Lumar Module Pilot saw during the the descent. The compiler then added audio from the landings, splicing together pieces from each of the missions, to create a new account. The result is inventive. Enjoy!

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3-D Scans of the Apollo 11 Command Module


downloadTo mark the 47th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing mission, the Smithsonian has made available a stunning, high resolution 3-D scan of the Command Module Columbia. This is available here: http://3d.si.edu/apollo11CM. Now anyone with an internet connection can explore the entire craft, including its intricate interior, a feat not possible when viewing the artifact in the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution — in collaboration with Autodesk |Smithsonian.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “Inventing George Washington”


Inventing George WashingtonInventing George Washington: America’s Founder, in Myth & Memory. By Edward G. Lengel. New York: HarperCollins, 2011.

How have Americans dealt with the immortalization of the commanding general of the Continental Army of the United States of America and the nation’s first president. George Washington, like so many of the nation’s founders was a study in contrasts and contradictions, but few understand that as the case. This is in part because of the concerted hagiography and misinterpretation of this incredibly significant figure. Edward G. Lengel, editor of chief of the Washington Papers, offers in this short and accessible study the manner in which Washington the man has been reinterpreted for the benefit of U.S. citizens over the ages. He finds that two distinct portraits have emerged. He is first the “Father of His Country” and serves as an eternal symbol of all that the nation views as virtuous. His private life, however, has been elusive and poorly understood.

Both the public and the private man have been vital to American identity for more than 200 years, but these themes compete and conflict with each other give rise to separate mythologies that duel for primacy. Accordingly, was Washington the persevering enlightened man who championed and then guarded the progress of the American democratic republic or was he the wealthy slaveholder who accepted an evil system, perhaps not even fully understanding its corruption of himself? Of course, he was both.

At sum, by exploring how Washington has been interpreted over the life of the nation, Lengel offers a valuable exploration of the individual who lived and breathed and loved and hated and succeeded and failed just as all do. He also illuminates how the nation has embraced and distanced itself from him over time. This is an important and helpful book. If one either reveres or reviles Washington, this will help to establish balance in perspective. Lengel gives Washington his due, but also challenges extreme arguments of virtue or criticism of the first U.S. president.

 

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Vikings 1 and 2 and the Failure to Detect Life on Mars


This first panoramic view by Viking 1 from the surface of Mars in 1976 depicts an out of focus spacecraft component toward left center is the housing for the Viking sample arm, which is not yet deployed. Parallel lines in the sky are an artifact and are not real features. However, the change of brightness from horizon towards zenith and towards the right (west) is accurately reflected in this picture, taken in late Martian afternoon. At the horizon to the left is a plateau-like prominence much brighter than the foreground material between the rocks. The horizon features are approximately three kilometers (1.8 miles) away. At left is a collection of fine-grained material reminiscent of sand dunes. The dark sinuous markings in left foreground are of unknown origin. Some unidentified shapes can be perceived on the hilly eminence at the horizon towards the right. A horizontal cloud stratum can be made out halfway from the horizon to the top of the picture. At left is seen the low gain antenna for receipt of commands from the Earth. The projections on or near the horizon may represent the rims distant impact craters. In right foreground are color charts for Lander camera calibration, a mirror for the Viking magnetic properties experiment and part of a grid on the top of the Lander body. At upper right is the high gain dish antenna for direct communication between landed spacecraft and Earth.

This first panoramic view by Viking 1 from the surface of Mars in 1976 depicts an out of focus spacecraft component toward left center is the housing for the Viking sample arm, which is not yet deployed. Parallel lines in the sky are an artifact and are not real features. However, the change of brightness from horizon towards zenith and towards the right (west) is accurately reflected in this picture, taken in late Martian afternoon. At the horizon to the left is a plateau-like prominence much brighter than the foreground material between the rocks. The horizon features are approximately three kilometers (1.8 miles) away. At left is a collection of fine-grained material reminiscent of sand dunes. The dark sinuous markings in left foreground are of unknown origin. Some unidentified shapes can be perceived on the hilly eminence at the horizon towards the right. A horizontal cloud stratum can be made out halfway from the horizon to the top of the picture. At left is seen the low gain antenna for receipt of commands from the Earth. The projections on or near the horizon may represent the rims distant impact craters. In right foreground are color charts for Lander camera calibration, a mirror for the Viking magnetic properties experiment and part of a grid on the top of the Lander body. At upper right is the high gain dish antenna for direct communication between landed spacecraft and Earth.

The first truly successful landings on Mars took place in 1976 when the Viking mission used two identical spacecraft, each consisting of a lander and an orbiter. Launched on August 20, 1975, from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Viking 1 spent nearly a year cruising to Mars, placed an orbiter in operation around the planet, and landed on July 20, 1976, on the Chryse Planitia (Golden Plains). Viking 2 was launched on September 9, 1975, and landed on September 3, 1976. The Viking proj­ect’s primary mission ended on November 15, 1976, 11 days before Mars’s superior conjunction (its passage behind the sun), although the Viking spacecraft continued to operate for six years after first reaching Mars. The last transmission from the planet reached Earth on November 11, 1982.

One of the most important scientific activities of this proj­ect involved an attempt to determine whether ­there was life on Mars. Although the three biology experiments discovered unexpected and enigmatic chemical activity in the Martian soil, ­they provided no clear evidence for the presence of living microorganisms in soil near the landing sites. According to mission biologists, Mars was ­self-­sterilizing. ­They concluded that the combination of solar ultraviolet radiation that saturates the surface, the extreme dryness of the soil, and the oxidizing nature of the soil chemistry had prevented the formation of living organisms in the Martian soil.

Carl Sagan with the Viking lander mock-up in Death Valley, California, on October 26, 1980.

Carl Sagan with the Viking lander mock-up in Death Valley, California, on October 26, 1980.

The failure to find evidence of life on Mars devastated the optimism present for astrobiology in an era of great expectations. Collectively, these missions led to the development of two essential reactions. The first was a questioning by a significant minority of scientists that complex life might not exist elsewhere in the Solar System, but that did not mean that it was not present throughout the universe. While scientists grew discouraged, it was a disappointment that did not remain for many of them. JPL director Bruce Murray believed that the legacy of failure to detect life, despite the billions spent and a succession of overoptimistic statements, would spark public disappointment and perhaps a public outrage.

An aftermath of the Viking landings in 1976 was that the prospects for discovering extraterrestrial life on Mars had been oversold. Planetary scientist and JPL director Bruce Murray complained at the time of Viking about the landers being ballyhooed as a definite means of ascertaining whether or not life existed on Mars. The public expected to find it, and probably so did many of the scientists, and what would happen when hopes were dashed? Murray argued in his memoir that “the extraordinarily hostile environment revealed by the Mariner flybys made life there so unlikely that public expectations should not be raised.” Carl Sagan, who fully expected to find something there, accused Murray of pessimism. Murray accused Sagan of far too much optimism. And the two publicly jousted over how to treat the Viking mission.

Murray, as well as other politically savvy scientists and public intellectuals, argued that the legacy of failure to detect life, despite billions spent on research since the beginning of the space age and overoptimistic statements that a breakthrough was just around the corner, would spark public disappointment and perhaps an outrage manifested in reduced public funding for the effort.

The Viking Lander.

The Viking Lander.

The failure of Viking to find evidence of life on Mars revealed a core problem of overselling possibilities for extraterrestrial life and its discovery. The disappointment was palpable, at least if missions are sparked by success. Thereafter, no spacecraft went to Mars for more than twenty years after Viking. Not until 1988 did the Soviet Union, just a year away from collapse and the end of the Cold War, sent Phobos 1 and 2 to Mars, while one failed en-route the second completed part of its mission prior to failure. The Mars Observer launched by the United States on September 25, 1992, fared little better. Intended to provide the most detailed data available about Mars as it orbited the planet since what had been collected by the Viking explorers of the mid-1970s, the mission was progressing smoothly until August 21, 1993, three days before the spacecraft’s capture in orbit around Mars. Suddenly and without warning, controllers lost contact with it.

The engineering team working on the project at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory responded with a series of commands to turn on the spacecraft’s transmitter and to point the spacecraft’s antennas toward Earth. No signal came from the spacecraft, however, and the Mars Observer was not heard from again. The loss of the nearly $1 billion Mars Observer probably came as a result of an explosion in the fuel lines of the space vehicle. One wit offered an alternative explanation, suggesting that after the landing by the Vikings in 1976 the Martians had developed a planetary defense system and it was now knocking out everything aimed at the red planet.

We now know that was never the case, of course, but the question of life on Mars at some time in the distant past remains open.

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Baseball Is… A Lot of Fun


What an enjoyable little book! My good friend Paul Dickson, well known for his writing on the history of baseball and other aspects of American history, has assembled a witty and sometimes funny collection of comments from a range of people characterizing the game we all love, whether we know it or not. Baseball has long been used as a metaphor for life, meaning, the universe, God, and anything else anyone can think of. I have heard it used to teach lessons in the bedroom, the board room, and the bar; in the church and in the community center; and even on the all knowing, all seeing television.

Here are just a few of my favorite statements from the book:

  •  “Baseball is simple but never easy”—Roger Angell.
  • “In the great department store of life, baseball is the toy department”—Anonymous.
  • “Baseball is the slowest sport this side of long-distance needlepoint”—Russell Baker.
  • “Baseball is ninety percent mental. The other half is physical”—Yogi Berra.
  • “Baseball is the only sport where you can do everything 100 percent right and still fail”—Wade Boggs.
  • “Baseball, my son, is the cornerstone of civilization”—Dagwood Bumstead.
  • “Baseball is not unlike war, and when you get right down to it, we batters are the heavy artillery”—Ty Cobb.
  • “Baseball is a romance, marked by good days and bad, heartaches and thrills, ups and downs, but always with each day promising something new”—Michele Walters Costa.
  • “Baseball is very big with my people. It figures. It’s the only time we get to shake a bat at a white man without starting the riot”—Dick Gregory.
  • “Baseball is the only game you can see on the radio”—Phil Hersh.
  • “Baseball is the most important thing in life that doesn’t matter”—Robert B. Parker.
  • “It is said that baseball is only a game. Yes, and the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona”—George Will.

I also enjoyed one from Nuke Laloosh in the classic baseball movie Bull Durham: “A good friend of mine used to say, ‘This is a very simple game. You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains.’ Think about that for a while.” I also like that he included a quote from Annie Savoy from the same film: “Baseball is never boring. Which makes it like sex.” Just great!

Buck up baseball fans, this book is for you. It contains a loving set of statements about baseball and its meaning. Some of them are trite, some silly, some compelling, some enlightening, and some provocative. All of them are entertaining.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “Viva Baseball”


Viva BaseballViva Baseball: Latin Major Leaguers and their Special Hunger. By Samuel O. Regalado. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997.

This very well-done book chronicles the rise of Latin American baseball players from the nineteenth century to the 1990s. As the beginning point in this study, Viva Baseball is a major step in historical scholarship concerning a major aspects of the socio-cultural aspects of the American Pastime. By the time that Regalado published this book nearly twenty-years ago Latin American players had emerged as the dominant ethnicity of all players—some 20 percent of all major leaguers and more than thirty-three percent of minor league players—and their numbers have growth since that time.

Viva Baseball takes a chronological approach to this subject, noting that in the nineteenth century a few Latin players such as Cuba’s Esteban Bellan made their way to the United States and played for MLB teams. Not until World War II, however, did large numbers start to arrive. First from Cuban and then from Puerto Rico and other parts of the Caribbean. Some of them became stars and household names. Bobby Avila from Mexico, Venezuela’s Luis Aparicio, and Cubans Vic Power, Minnie Minoso, Luis Tiant, and Tony Oliva, were among the first. They were followed by many more—Juan Marichal, Felipe Alou, Orlando Cepeda, Rico Carty, Dennis Martinez, Rod Carew, Manny Sanguillen, and Tony Perez, among others—all of them making an indelible mark on the game and the socio-cultural landscape.

Roberto Clemente deserves a special place in this pantheon, as the Latin player of the 1960s that most redrew the landscape of baseball. Playing in relative obscurity for much of his career for the Pittsburgh Pirates Clemente never achieved the level of stardom he deserved until his remarkable performance leading the Pirates over the Baltimore Orioles in the 1971 World Series. The showcase established his legend after years of difficulties with MLB management, sportwriters, and some fans. His tragic death on January 1, 1973, which flying supplies to victims of a devastating earthquake in Nicaragua cast a mythical status on his entire life and career.

Regalado seeks to equate the experience of these Latin players to the larger aspects of all Hispanics in America. He notes that they were always strangers in the land, without knowledge of the culture, the language, and the mores of the racist U.S. society. Some adapted to it well, learned what they needed to get by, and the U.S. their permanent home. Others had more difficulty, were homesick, fiercely lonesome, and returned to their families each winter. Luis Aparicio made the point of learning as much English as possible, explaining that the bat and the ball are the same regardless of where he plays but the language is different and he needed to master that as well. Others, such as Felipe Alou went on to leadership with several different teams over the years.

Largely, Regalado finds that Latin MLB players are a microcosm of the larger Hispanic culture in the U.S. They face the same issues, prejudices, and roadblocks. Sometimes, they serve as rallying points for Hispanic society. His chapter on “Fernandomania” in 1981 is a case in point. Fernando Valenzuela’s remarkable pitching performance for the Los Angeles Dodgers galvanized millions of Hispanics who cheered for his success. And he delivered, leading the Dodgers to a World Series victory over the New York Yankees.

While there is much to praise in this book, I find the author’s lumping together of the divergent Hispanic culture into a single entity a bit unnerving. Mexican baseball is different than that played in the Caribbean, different than Cuban or South American baseball. The players come from different cultures, although they may all speak Spanish. What differences exist? How are Puerto Ricans, who are after all U.S. citizens, differ from other groups? Might we also effectively analyze those differences?

Regardless, this is an excellent entrée into a complex topic.

 

 

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In Remembrance: Molly Macauley


Macauley_5x7

I was both shocked and saddened to learn over this last weekend that Molly K. Macauley, whom I worked with many times over the years, was murdered while walking her dogs in Roland Park in Baltimore, Maryland, on the night of July 8. Molly was an excellent economist who specialized in science and technology, and did considerable work on the economics of spaceflight. The news story from the Baltimore Sun is here. Marcia Smith has a fine recollection of Molly’s life and contributions to space economics here.

I first met Molly not long after beginning work at the NASA Headquarters as the Chief Historian in 1990. She urged me to pursue historical projects that had an economics element. Ultimately, she said, everything is about economics. She was right and over time convinced me to emphasize more of the economics story into the history of spaceflight. I have tried to do that to the present.

Her tragic death is a loss to all of us involved in space policy and history. My condolences to her family and friends.

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Announcement of Public Lecture: 40th Anniversary of Viking Landings on Mars


viking40-76

Join us for a series of presentations at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 19, Virginia Air & Space Center, Hampton, Virginia, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Viking landings on Mars.

Open to the public

Admission is free.

In this special Sigma Series lecture, a panel of experts will discuss the historic Viking mission.

  • Bill Barry, moderator, NASA Chief Historian
  • Roger Launius, Associate Director for Collections and Curatorial Affairs,  National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution
  • Erik Conway, Historian, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
  • Glenn Bugos, Historian, NASA’s Ames Research Center

The Virginia Air & Space Center is NASA Langley’s official visitors center.
Read more about NASA Langley’s Sigma Series lectures.

A 2 p.m. version of the same panel discussion will be streamed live at http://livestream.com/viewnow/viking40

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games We Love”


I have just finished reading Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games We Love (Scribner, 2010) b y Washington, D.C., sports writer Dave Zirin. I have enjoyed his columns for The Nation for years, but his books I find even more useful. They serve as an important antidote to the nostalgia and saccharine life lessons that are so much a part of sports writing in the United States. He brings a liberal slant to the story and offers a useful corrective to the conservative ideology expressed by much of the sports journalism establishment. His earlier books took on the labor system, athletic activism, and the like. Bad Sports is an outstanding muckraking book that filets the owners who are intent on taking our money in publicly-funded stadium deals and giving us less than their best in return. It might appropriately have been titled “Owners Gone Wild.”

No professional league is left standing in this solid journalistic account of modern sports franchises and their owners. All of the major team sports in the U.S.—MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL—and soccer in the U.K. are skewered by Zirin’s prose. He singles out for abuse—or perhaps they singled themselves out with their ridiculous behavior—such owners as George Steinbrenner, Peter Angelos, Charlie Monfort, David Glass, and Bud Selig in MLB; Clay Bennett, James Dolan, Dick DeVos, and Donald Sterling of the NBA; Dan Snyder and others in the NFL; and Tom Hicks who bought the Liverpool FC soccer club but also owns the MLB Texas Rangers and the Dallas Stars of the NHL.

What do all of these people, as well as others profiled in the book, have in common? They all own professional sports franchises, they all take taxpayers’ dollars in the form of stadiums and other types of transfer payments, they all seek to control everything about the world around them including bullying players and other employees, and they all put on the field less skillful teams than should by rights be offered and demanded. Case in point, David Glass owns the Kansas City Royals, a franchise created in 1969 with Ewing Kauffman as owner and within less than a decade was a contender every year in the American League West, winning division titles in 1976, 1977, 1978, and 1984, the AL pennant in 1980, and the World Series in 1985. Once Glass took over, however, the team has endured losing seasons every year since 1995 with Glass pocketing revenues rather than investing in the team.

This type of activity is repeated many other places. Zirin has the goods on lots of owners and their shenanigans. For sheer outrageousness, he narrates the story of Donald Sterling and LA Clippers, a woeful team that has been pillaged by Sterling for decades. The team has the worst record of any NBA franchise since Sterling bought it in 1981, a distinction that prompted writers at ESPN.com to name him the “nation’s worst owner” in a field with many contenders, while Sports Illustrated named the Clippers “the worst franchise in professional sports.”

Dave Zirin

OK, so Zirin chronicles the horror stories of owners behaving badly, and that is interesting, entertaining, and innervating but I have to ask what we might take away from this book? There are four major messages that I got from reading Bad Sports.

First, as Zirin writes, “we need to make demands about how we expect our teams to be run” (p. 181). He believes we have every right to make demands on the owners since we who live in cities where they exist help pay for their upkeep through our tax dollars for stadiums and infrastructure. We can debate whether or not the public should be subsidizing the activities of billionaires, but since we are Zirin believes we should have a say in what happens with the team. “We should have the right to withhold tax money for a stadium unless a public advocate is added to a team’s board of directors” (p. 181), writes Zirin. A whole series of other rights should flow from that. Zirin even goes so far as to argue that a municipally-owned team such as the Green Bay Packers should be the norm rather than the exception in all of these sports activities. He recognizes that these leagues will never allow this unless they are on the verge of collapse but this should become a long-term objective.

The second message that Zirin offers is that fans should no longer accept an owners strategy of holding up taxpayers to buy expensive stadiums that benefit the owner when turn around and gouge those paying to their their teams play. While owners, and their handpicked politicians, asser that new publicly-financed stadiums stimulate the economy and help rebuild areas of urban decay, the results are less than spectacular. Moreover, what jobs that are created are often minimum wage and seasonal. And all the while money that might have been used for schools, other city services, and infrastructure are diverted to these monuments to sports.

Third, Zirin argues that that the greater the socialism present in the sports league the greater the success of the league overall. most socialistic, because of its revenue sharing, is the NFL. This has allowed a team like the Green Bay Packers to be successful even though they play in the smallest market in the U.S. with a major sports franchise. And parity is good for the fans and the leagues. MLB has also advanced in its socialistic agenda with much greater revenue sharing in the last decade. The result has been the greatest era of parity among the teams than ever before in the history of the baseball.

Finally, Zirin highlights that with owners behaving so badly why is there such a poor effort by the leagues they are part of to discipline them? There are constant calls for the players to comport themselves with dignity and honor. And they receive punishment when they violate those rules. Fair enough, but it’s not just players who get into trouble. Where is the same discipline when it comes to owners? And it’s not just individual misbehavior, there are conspiracies for which they should be brought to account. The most striking example in the last 15 years has been the conspiracy from top to bottom in MLB concerning the use of performance enhancing drugs. Of course, the players deserve punishment whenever they cheated or broke the law. But where were the owners, the general managers, the managers, the clubhouse people, the trainers, etc. who were a part of the MLB establishment? Why did they take no action whatsoever even after it had become obvious to everyone, and that happened at least by the time that Ken Caminiti came out about the abuse of steroids in 2002? I don’t think there is any doubt; they turned a blind eye to this issue.

Among all of the other rotten things that MLB owners have done—and as the co-author of a biography of Oakland A’s owner Charlie Finley, I’ve chronicled a lot of those rotten things—the steroids conspiracy ranks as one of the top three most unconscionable collective actions by owners in the history of the sport. The most dispicable was the top to bottom conspiracy to ban African American players from the MLB for more than 70 years, and the collusion to hold down salaries is also among these.

Bad Sports is a fascinating book. It is a work of journalism, muckraking journalism to be sure, and not a work of history. It should, and I’m sure it will, raise your ire. That’s its purpose. Sports writers like Zirin serve an important role in society. I wish there were more like him.

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