Wednesday’s Book Review: “Intimate Universality”

cvr-intimateIntimate Universality: Local and Global Themes in the History of Climate and Weather. Edited by James Rodger Fleming, Vladimir Jankovic, and Deborah R. Coen. Sagamore Beach: MA: Science History Publications, 2006.

Although nearly a decade old now, Intimate Universality is a collected work that James Rodger Fleming, Colby College, has edited along with Vladimir Jankovic, University of Manchester, and Deborah R. Coen, Columbia University, that still has great value. The eight chapters of this book offer a set of fascinating snapshots of historical episodes suggesting a broad perspective on the manner in which humans have understood climate since the Enlightenment. While all of the essays were quite useful I found a few of them especially provocative.

Well familiar with the work of William Herschel in astronomy, I was taken by Greg Good’s analysis in chapter 2 of Herschel’s climatic studies. Equally helpful were the two chapters by Roger Turner and Greg Cushman tying together the need for accurate weather prediction and the development of aviation in the Western Hemisphere. Cushman’s linkage of atmospheric sciences and aviation technology to American colonial aspirations in the first half of the twentieth century is an especially intriguing idea that should not be accepted blindly but offers truly exciting prospects for future historical investigation.

Then there is perhaps the signature contribution of the volume, Fleming’s “Global Climate Change and Human Agency: Inadvertent Influence and ‘Archimedean’ Interventions,” which comments on the nature of global climate change, and especially actions being debated in the public policy arena to counteract our warming planet. He discussed how some have advocated the use of giant sunshades in space or “geoengineering” with orbiting dust and other proposed countermeasures as countermeasures to the pattern of global warming that scientists warn about.

I was reminded in reading this essay of the remarks of Al Gore at the X-Prize Executive Summit that I attended on October 19, 2006. He said of these schemes, “In a word, I think it is nuts. If we don’t know enough to stop putting 70 million tons of global warming pollution into the atmosphere every day, how in god’s name can we know enough to precisely counteract that?” He had even stronger words for those who denied the reality of global warming. “Our planet has a rising fever. If the crib catches fire you don’t say: ‘Hmmm, how fast is that crib going to burn? Has it ever burned before? Is my baby flame retardant?’”

I think Fleming also sees a similar danger in the public policy considerations of global climate change, noting that the proposed cure through geoengineering may be worse that the disease. Better would be invoking the first law of holes, when you are in one stop digging. As his analysis shows, continued pollution of our planet should be curtailed, stopped entirely in the near term, and counteracted in a more distant future.

This foray into public policy history and analysis is a welcome addition to an important and useful book. I congratulate all those responsible for the publication of this fine volume. I am certain that it will become an important benchmark in the historiography of climate change and weather studies.

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A Short History of Air Rescue in World War II

The idea of establishing a specialized and elite force for the rescue of downed aircrews grew out of three interlocked circumstances just before the Second World War: (1) a deep‑seated European belief in the sanctity of life, (2) the high expense of training replacement aircrews for those lost in combat, and (3) the greater effectiveness of aircrews who believed that there was a reasonable expectation of surviving a bailout or crashlanding.

Heinkel-59 Floatplane.

Heinkel-59 Floatplane.

These factors led the German Luftwaffe in 1935 to establish a sea‑ based unit, eventually being named the Seenotdienst (air‑sea rescue service) under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Konrad Glotz at Kiel for the sole purpose of recovering aircrews in the ocean. By 1939 the Luftwaffe had expanded this rescue force by adding Heinkel‑59 float aircraft specifically modified for this mission.

The Germans also pioneered the development of equipment and techniques during the years before 1940s. Its Heinkels were equipped with medical supplies, respirators, electrically heated sleeping bags, a floor hatch with a collapsible ladder, and a hoist to lifted injured aircrew members. The exteriors were painted white and sported a red cross to distinguish them from combat aircraft. They also introduced unmanned large buoy‑type floats, outfitting them with all manner of equipment that could be used by downed flyers of all nations.

Each Luftwaffe aircraft, in addition, contained inflatable dinghies, survival equipment, and green dye which could be released in the ocean to aid in spotting survivors. By the time of the Battle of Britain in 1940, there­fore, the Germans had in place for the English Channel and the North Atlantic a rescue system in which a downed aircrew member had a reasonable chance of survival.

The British efforts early in the war were haphazard. The  (RAF) relied on its coastal defense force for the rescue of crewmen, although by March 1940 a communication system was established to give priority to distress signals. With the heavy attrition in men and materiel in July 1940 wrought by the Battle of Britain, Air Vice Marshal Keith R. Park, commanding No. 11 Group of Fighter Command, acquired 12 Lysander patrol aircraft and the services of seacraft to search and recover downed airmen.

RAF Air Sea Rescue Launch.

RAF Air Sea Rescue Launch.

The next month the British formalized this arrangement by forming a Directorate of Air‑Sea Rescue at the Air Ministry to coordinate rescue efforts. In August 1941, executive control of all rescue operations were vested in the commander of Coastal Command. From this beginning, rescue operations became increasingly efficient throughout the remainder of World War II, at least for airmen lost in areas other than those held by the enemy.

Like its allies, the United States entered the war without any organized air‑sea rescue capability. As casualties from the bombing campaign became to mount, however, General H.H. Arnold, the Commanding General of the Army Air Forces made rescue a priority. In September 1942, the British and American forces agreed to cooperate and coordinate rescue operations. Although the British dominated the rescue program in the European Theater of Operations (ETO), the United States assisted and made special efforts to properly equip aircrews and train them for survival in a crash or bailout. It also employed seaplanes for search and rescue over water, although its short 800‑mile radius of action limited its viability.

51st Rescue Squadron SB-17s at Narsarsuaq Air Base, Greenland, in the 1950s.

51st Rescue Squadron SB-17s at Narsarsuaq Air Base, Greenland, in the 1950s.

Later, other aircraft, such as modified bombers were used for these operations as well. For instance, the United States modified some of its B‑17s to carry mahogany‑laminated, plywood boats under its fuselage which could be dropped to airman in the water. The boat was stocked with food, water, clothing, other supplies, and two small motors to allow the airmen to travel home. This B‑17 was christened the SB‑17, the first American aircraft modified and used specifically for rescue. Its first operational mission took place in April 1945, just as the war in Europe was about to end.

The success of air‑sea rescue operations in the ETO was sufficient to elicit excited response from most airmen. A total of 1,972 American airmen were saved in the water around Britain through March 1945. The Eighth Air Force’s rescue efforts saw only a 28 percent save rate in 1942, compared to a 43 percent rate by April 1943. Indeed, by the end of the war allied combat aircrews from all theaters could reasonably expect to be picked up if shot down.

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Announcing the Space Policy and History Forum #21

The next the Space Policy and History Forum will feature Amy Kaminski, Program Executive for Prizes and Challenges at NASA Headquarters, presenting “Sharing the Shuttle with America: NASA and Public Engagement after Apollo.” The forum will be held in the Director’s Conference Room (DCR) at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C. Please RSVP (, if you plan to attend.

Sharing the Shuttle with America: NASA and Public Engagement after Apollo

Space Policy and History Forum #21

June 5, 2017

by Dr. Amy Kaminski

Program Executive, Prizes, and Challenges, 

Space Technology Mission Directorate

National Aeronautics and Space Administration


Little research exists on the roles of American citizens outside of government organizations and aerospace firms in shaping NASA space exploration choices and achievements.  Studies have centered largely on NASA’s public relations efforts to “sell” the American and global publics on the awe of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo human spaceflight projects during the 1960s.  But does casting American citizens in the aggregate as mere observers and consumers of space flight activity comprise the complete story of how various segments of society have influenced NASA’s human space program?  How and why has NASA sought to relate to citizens in the four decades since astronauts first reached the Moon’s surface?  This work casts a fresh light on NASA’s ties with the American citizenry by critically examining NASA’s approach to public engagement with human space flight as the agency transitioned to its next major program, the Space Shuttle.  I argue that securing political approval and public support for an Apollo follow-on program led to a wholesale change in NASA’s vision of how to serve and engage American citizens with its human spaceflight enterprise.  Promulgating the Shuttle as a versatile, democratized technology promising something for everyone, NASA sought to engage citizens in ways appealing to their varied interests rather than assuming a singular American citizenry of unquestioning supporters.  NASA achieved these aims through new outreach efforts to make the vehicle more broadly accessible to the general public, initiatives to solicit and serve an eclectic set of satellite and experiment launch customers, and recruitment of flyers with a variety of gender, racial, and ethnic backgrounds and ranging from corporate scientists to Congressmen to teachers.  Social, political, and technological challenges in democratizing the Shuttle and satisfying various publics’ interests were ever-present, and NASA’s commitment to opening the Shuttle to more public involvement diminished following the 1986 Shuttle Challenger launch disaster which killed NASA’s first “citizen in space,” teacher Christa McAuliffe.  Examining how NASA engaged disparate publics with the Shuttle throughout the vehicle’s lifetime – and how those publics responded – nonetheless, shows that one cannot consider the evolution of the Shuttle as separate from the agency’s approaches to public engagement in this program.  While this study illuminates the tensions NASA faced in opening human space flight to broader participation, it simultaneously suggests a strong value in involving external publics as contributors to future space program activities.


Amy Kaminski currently serves as program executive for prizes and challenges at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC, where she works to develop strategies to expand the space agency’s use of a variety of open innovation methods in its research and exploration activities. She served previously as senior policy advisor in the Office of the Chief Scientist, where she led an initiative to support and expand NASA’s involvement of citizens as contributors to the agency’s research activities.  Before joining NASA, Kaminski served as a program examiner at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), where she was responsible for analyzing NASA programs and making recommendations to White House policymakers makers about budgets and ways to improve the performance of NASA programs.  She also has held positions in the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of the Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation and at the National Space Society.  She also served as editor of the American Astronautical Society’s Space Times magazine. Kaminski earned her Ph.D. in science and technology studies from Virginia Tech, where she examined NASA’s relationships with publics outside of traditional government and industry space policy developers.  She holds an M.A. in science, technology, and public policy from The George Washington University and received her B.A. from Cornell University in earth and planetary sciences.

Date and Time

June 5, 2017 (Monday), 4:00-5:00 P.M.

Location, Parking, and Access

The presentation will be held at the National Air and Space Museum, 600 Independence Ave. SW, Washington, D.C., 4:00-5:00 p.m. Space is limited to 50 attendees, so please RSVP to get your name on the list. This will be for access to the 3rd floor of the Museum, where we will be meeting in the Director’s Conference Room. You may check in and obtain a badge for access to the building at the guard desk just to the right as you enter the Independence Ave. doors. If you have any questions regarding access, please contact Teasel Parking is not available in NASM, and is limited elsewhere; we recommend using the Metro system for travel to the National Air and Space Museum—the Smithsonian and L’Enfant Plaza stops on the Orange and Blue lines are close by.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “A Little History of the World”

A Little History of the World. By E.H. Gombrich. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985 ed.

When A Little History of the World first appeared in 1942 it caused quite a stir. It was viewed as an excellent introduction to world history; an accessible narrative that could be rewarding for readers of all stages. I suppose by the standards of the early 1940s it might be considered an appropriate short, general history. By the standards of the early twenty-first century, however, it is far removed from acceptability.

I don’t want to be unfair in my assessment, so let me point out some of its strengths. The author writes in a very informal manner, and this is quite effective for younger readers. The use of slang, at least slang common in the 1940s, is present at points in the narrative and perhaps that helped a bit with communication. It also attempts to tell the story of humans around the world so it moves from Europe, by far the emphasis in the book, to Asia, to America, to Africa, and back. It is a tall order to successfully incorporate all of these threads of the narrative together, and Gombrich does this relatively well.

But there are troubling aspects to this book as well, prompting me to question its use as a general history in the 21st century, even as it might have been a pathbreaker when first published. First, it overemphasizes the European experience at the expense of other aspects of the story. While there are chapters on Asian developments and some in America and Africa as well, those other regions get far less attention than to my mind they deserve. I would think that this has something to do with the fact of European hegemony throughout much of the World at the time that Gombrich wrote this book. In reality he seemed to view global developments through the lens of a European, albeit a very cosmopolitan and broadminded European.

Second, the emphasis throughout the book is on the story of princes and leaders, kings and warriors, principalities and nations. It’s not that this should not be included in this story, but I was surprised that there seemed to be such little effort to discuss large social issues, etc. He did write about the rise and decline of feudalism, the Enlightenment and the age of revolution that followed, and Karl Marx and his ideas on utopia, so that is a plus but he rarely got into an analysis of everyday life and styles. I failed to see virtually any influence of the Annales school of history, even though it was well established in Europe when Gombrich wrote his work. That school, led in the pre-WWII era by Lucien Febre (1878–1956) and Marc Bloch (1886–1944) emphasized social rather than political, military, or diplomatic themes and led to a revolution in understanding about the past.

Finally, trends that we would now call “transnational,” especially colonialism, have little place in this volume. Even more troubling, such persistently embarrassing themes as racism and slavery receive virtually no sustained discussion. If such issues are not important and defining themes in the history of the world, even as they are decidedly difficult to deal with, I don’t know what is.

In sum, there are praiseworthy elements of this history, but also several areas where it is less useful than I would have liked. If I were teaching a global history course this is not a book that I would use.

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An Intimate Past?

A debate has been taking place among historians for many years about the nature of the past and perceptions of it, both by historians and by the larger public. Some have insisted that it is, and I find this term both compelling and confusing in equal parts, “a foreign country” because of its strangeness to those of the modern era.

Such a characterization gets to the heart of the periodic news stories we have all seen about the inability of students to place the American Revolution in the correct century and to name the the first president of the United States. In response, we typically bemoan the future and the kids that will lead us into it only to return to our football games on television without doing much of anything more.

But is history such a “foreign country,” or are we just more entranced with a consciousness of the past that is more about collective memory of close and local events than about the overarching national narrative? Collective memory is a powerful force for any person and group. Through linkages with such memory we identify and define and connect ourselves. I have seen, as have others, an intensely personal relationship with history among Americans. Far from Americans being disengaged from history, as has been routinely thought because of their detachment from national themes, many people seem to have supplanted interest in these broader themes to the history of family and locale.

This is borne out by my own experience as a curator at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., and I see this concern for local and personal history expressed by visitors routinely at the museum. The National Air and Space Museum is the most visited museum in the world, and it certainly seems that an important part of its attraction is the result of the immediacy of the subject that it interprets. Repeatedly, visitors come looking for an artifact to which they, or a member of their family or a friend, had a personal connection. Often this is something from military service or even a commercial air transport once flown on and remembered with a certain fondness for the discomfort of the trip.

Steve Lubar, who curated the “America on the Move” exhibit at the National Museum of American History in Washington made the same point by observing that for all of the exhibit’s otherwise spectacular features, the majority of visitors only really pondered its later parts where their personal memory allowed them to connect to the artifacts and story in a deeply personal and idiosyncratic manner. He noted that of the 15 sections of this exhibit, most people breezed through the first 12, and mostly stopped for extended periods in sections more recent in time and with artifacts, such as the Chicago elevated rail car or a used car showroom from 1949 or a traffic jam with numerous recent vintage and quite cherry automobiles to which they had a relationship.

Dik Daso, a curator who worked on “The Price of Freedom” exhibit about U.S. military history also at the National Museum of American History, similarly remarked on the popularity of the Vietnam War section of the exhibit as veterans attending the exhibit’s opening ignored most of the artifacts and gathered around a large map of Vietnam and shared their experiences with one another. Their stories, furthermore, were highly personal; interlinking spheres of memory to find common ground in an unlikely setting. Like politics, to paraphrase Tip O’Neill, all history seems to be local.

The connections between sweeping national historical narratives and the intimate and personal experiences of those who encounter them seem critical to fostering a broader historical awareness. This is a challenge that affects confined presentations of the past. For example, what links the adventurous story of the Apollo Moon landings of the 1960s and early 1970s to the people of the present? As time passes this experience has faded in memory. Fewer than half of the world’s population was alive when those flights to the Moon took place, and while they were stunning achievements requiring heroic actions to make real they yielded little in our world that is tangibly linked to that bygone era. The technologies that made them possible have been scrapped or superceded. The science, for all of the knowledge that results, has not impacted many lives on Earth. Even the political climate that spawned the Moon landings—the Cold War—is long gone and largely ignored by the current generation. Making strong connections between the Moon landings and current society will be critical to the success of any exhibition on this subject; could this be done through personal, intimate history rather than grand national narratives?

This begs the question, how do teachers of history relate larger themes in the American past to the intimate interests of those who must understand and hopefully use it? This is critical to the education of the next generation of Americans, but it is also important for the lifelong non-classroom learning that every individual is involved in. What might museums, historic sites, television documentaries, written histories, and related efforts do to help focus interest and enhance the diffusion of greater understanding? At least some of those answers revolve around the closer linkage of national and world history with personal and local concerns. How to accomplish this most expeditiously, of course, presents a challenge not without difficulties. But it is noble task, and I applaud those who undertake it. What do you think?

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Mormonism and the Founding of Nauvoo

A map of Nauvoo, Illinois, at the time of the Latter-day Saints in the early 1840s.

During the bitter winter of 1838-1839 some 5,000 Latter-day Saints crossed the Mississippi River from Missouri and settled in western Illinois. Since the organization of the Mormon church almost ten years before, this group of religious pioneers, led by Joseph Smith Jr., had received the brunt of political rhetoric, social ostracism, and in some cases mob violence. These people came to Illinois in 1838 and 1839 not as ordinary settlers, but as refugees from neighboring Missouri, where the state’s population had expelled them following a brutal and deadly conflict.

In Illinois during the early 1840s these people built one of the most impressive and powerful cities in the region, the community of Nauvoo, erected by the Mormons on a limestone flat by the banks of the Mississippi River some fifty miles north of Quincy. Throughout the first half of the 1840s Hancock County was dominated by Nauvoo, with its wealth, population, cultural achievements, and military and political power.

For most of the Latter-day Saints, the rise of this mighty religious commonwealth was the fulfillment of the shattered dreams of previous church-dominated communities at Kirtland, Ohio, and Independence and Far West, Missouri. They believed that God had finally enabled them to begin the establishment of His kingdom on earth, which they called Zion.

The Mormons began construction of the city of Nauvoo during the summer of 1839 and continued a massive building program until the church abandoned the site in 1846. By the end of the first year in Nauvoo, the Saints possessed what was essentially an overgrown wilderness community of log homes, a few shops, and an infant mercantile and manufacturing economy. In December 1840 they obtained a city charter from the state of Illinois, which made possible both the providing of essential services to Nauvoo’s residents and the protection from outside difficulties that had plagued the church since its origin.

Building and immigration in Nauvoo seemed to be taking place on every side. George Miller, later a bishop in the church, captured the vitality of Nauvoo in the summer of 1840, by commenting that the community “was growing like a mushroom (as it were, by magic).” Near the same time Joseph Smith, Jr., remarked, “The number of inhabitants is nearly three thousand, and is fast increasing. If we are suffered to remain, there is every prospect of its becoming one of the largest cities on the river, if not the western world. Numbers have moved in from the seaboard, and a few from the islands of the sea.”

The city continued to grow rapidly thereafter. According to newspaper editor Thomas Gregg of Warsaw, Illinois, during the heyday of Nauvoo, the Latter-day Saints built about “1,200 hand-hewn log cabins, most of them white-washed inside, 200 to 300 good substantial brick houses and 300 to 500 frame houses.”

Joseph Smith Jr.

Nauvoo was, in essence, a boom town, and no one was a greater booster than Joseph Smith Jr. In December 1841, he wrote to Edward Hunter, a recent convert to Mormonism from Pennsylvania, about business prospects in the city. “There are scarcely any limits which can be imagined to the mills and machinery and manufacturing of all kinds which might be put into profitable operation in this city,” he boasted, “and even if others should use a mill before you get here, it need be no discouragement to either you or Brother Buchwalter, for it will be difficult for the mills to keep pace with the growth of the place,…”

His enthusiasm seemed justified, for Nauvoo appeared to many Mormons the most remarkable place on earth. Nauvoo’s population doubled every year between 1839 and 1842, and continued to rise until 1846. Most of the inhabitants were Mormons, and they were intent on bringing to fruition the spiritual and secular community that they had long sought.

Historic rendering of Nauvoo Temple from the 1840s.

The most important expression of the community’s meaning was a majestic temple, symbolizing not only the substantial nature of the church in the 1840s but also a rapidly developing Mormon theology that differed substantially from orthodox American Christianity. Excavation for the foundation began as early as the fall of 1840, but the real impetus to build the temple came on January 19, 1841, when Joseph Smith proclaimed a revelation commanding the building’s construction. Thereafter work on the religious building continued by the Mormons with zest for the next five years. Built of gray limestone, the temple came to dominate Nauvoo from its perch atop the bluffs overlooking the city. It stood 165-feet high, measured 88 by 128 feet, and cost something over $1 million; an enormous sum for the time.

The demands of temple construction, as well as all the other building taking place in Nauvoo, strained the resources of the Mormons almost to the breaking point, but it also sent an ominous signal of what the Mormons could accomplish for other residents of the region. It revealed something of the numerical and economic strength of the community, and also symbolized the religious, especially theocratic, tendencies of the Saints. They were willing to sacrifice everything they had to accomplish the work that defined as critical by the institutional church. When that emphasis on local theocracy was combined with an interest in county and regional politics, the situation became explosive as the 1840s progressed.

Posted in Community of Christ, History, Mormonism, Personal, Politics, Religion, Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Wednesday’s Book Review: “The Whites of their Eyes”

The Whites of their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History. By Jill Lepore. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010.

There is a war being waged over American history. Sorry if you weren’t aware of it, but it has been raging for a while now and there is no end in sight. It may be that we are living at a time when Americans are seeking to reassert an identity that seemed in jeopardy in the aftermath of the Cold War, the social turmoil of recent social reform movements, and the anxiety of economic and political transformation. As Jill Lepore makes clear, the current conservative trend in the United States seems to have appropriated the American Revolution, Lepore’s specific area of specialization, for its own purposes. These efforts have relentlessly shaped this past as exceptionalistic, nationalistic, and triumphant.

This effort essentially represents a battle for control of the national memory, as Lepore makes clear. The effort became something of a crusade; they attacked the mainstream assessments of this history and presented alternative understandings of it. This has been seen quite broadly, but the critical component of it has been experienced in the context of American Revolution and formation of the United States. Most recently, the Tea Party movement has sought to appropriate the Revolution for its own purposes. Its name harkened back to a defining moment in the march toward independence, and in Lepore’s words the American Revolution “conferred upon a scattered, diffuse, and confused movement a degree of legitimacy and the appearance, almost, of coherence” (p. 14). The modern Tea Party movement drew strength from the eighteenth century version, to be sure, but Lepore sees more at play here.

Much more than an analogy, she argues, the Tea Party asserts that modern America has forsaken the Founding Fathers. They possess, according to Lepore, “a set of assumptions about the relationships between the past and the present that was both broadly anti-intellectual and, quite specifically, antihistorical, not least because it defies chronology, the logic of time” (p. 15). Lacking any complexity or ambiguity, they subscribe to a strident form of “historical fundamentalism” that eschews any uncertainty whatsoever in favor of a conflation of constitutional originalism, evangelicalism, and easy answers from heritage tourism. The American Revolution has been simplified into a narrowly defined set of maxims considered timeless, sacred, and deserving of worship. They have also been redefined in such a way as to omit inconvenient issues, such as the embrace of slavery by virtually all of the so-called founders. This allows such Tea Party darlings as Michelle Bachmann to announce that “the very founders that wrote those documents worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States” while ignoring the fact that many of the most celebrated founders—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison among them—were slaveholders themselves and even ensconced the institution in the U.S. Constitution. When Lepore writes about anti-intellectual and anti-historical attitudes this is one example among many that may be cited.

Lepore juxtaposes in this book the Tea Party’s use of the American Revolution in its activities with narrative about actual events. A relatively short and easy to understand volume, The Whites of their Eyes offers a commentary on what she considers the reactionary perspective of the Tea Party on this history. She finds that there is a real nostalgia for a simple past in which we were all one, rather than the seemingly complex and fractured present. This perspective offers the Tea Party room for only a narrow presentation of historical facts and little latitude for interpretation. Interpretation, of course, is the “stuff” of historical investigation and imagination; this approach represents a blatant pursuit of a “one nation-one people” approach to history and strives for consensus and continuity. It represents one more attempt to control the story, as well as the message, of the American past. It is, in the end, a yearning for a history that never was.

This approach is also troubling since it is dangerously antipluralist, in addition to being anti-historical and anti-intellectual. In such a setting the ever striving for greater justice in this American nation is lost in a seemingly perfect past that can never be questioned.

Professor of American History at Harvard Jill Lepore speaks at “Tea Party” a panel discussion at the 2010 New Yorker Festival at DGA Theater on October 2, 2010 in New York City. (October 1, 2010 – Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images North America)

Jill Lepore has been on the receiving end of attacks from Tea Party advocates and the larger conservative movement for what she writes in this book. That may be expected and even embraced as appropriate in a pluralist society such as the United States in which all are entitled to their own beliefs. Of course, Lepore makes clear that the misuse of history is inappropriate in any instance. She would subscribe to Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous dictum, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts.” When the facts of history are misused, whether by the Left or the Right, they should be called to account. Additionally, Lepore calls to account the professional historians who have been complacent in this debate, and therefore complicit in this abuse of history. I see this book as an attempt by a professional historian to engage in this debate, to combat misuse of history, and to enrich understandings about a complex and poorly understood past.

Most important, this is not a work of advocacy in the way that so many books that relate to the modern political situation are. This is an analysis of the manner in which one group of partisans in the political process uses history—Lepore documents how this is more misuse rather than use—to buttress their positions. It calls for more reasoned use of the story of the American Revolution, and is remarkably open to a broad approach to it.

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My Favorite Weird Baseball Promotions

My longtime friend Mike Green and I recently discussed the weirdest, strangest, most ridiculous promotions we could think of. Since we had collaborated on a biography of Charlie Finley, published last year by Walker and Co., we had a lot to work with since Finley was famous for his wild promotions. Here are my top five promotions that are the weirdest ones, some of them are Finley specials, others not.

Hot Pants Day at the Oakland Coliseum in 1971. Charley Finley is the catcher in this scene.

Hot Pants Day—Held on June 27, 1971, this was a Charlie Finley special. During a doubleheader with the Kansas City Royals, remember those, every woman who came to the game in hot pants was admitted free. Out of an attendance of 35,000, some 6,000 women gained participated. Between the two games they held a fashion show and A’s beat reporter Ron Bergman told us how “we all looked forward to Hot Pants Day and the women would parade on the second deck, you know, they’d walk from the right field corner to the left field corner like they used to for parades, except for hot pants.”

10 Cent Beer Night—This one is in a category by itself. Perhaps it was not so much weird as it was a stupid decision on the part of the Cleveland Indians’ front office. In a game between the Cleveland Indians the Texas Rangers at Cleveland Municipal Stadium on June 4, 1974, drunk fans got into fights, rioted and then went after members of both teams. Police had to restore order; it goes without saying that the Indians had to forfeit the game. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured. But what a screwy attempt at a promotion! Tim Russert, the late host of Meet the Press was a student attending the game. He recalled, “I went with $2 in my pocket. You do the math.” What did the team’s leadership think would happen? It ranks as one of the all-time wildest promotions in the history of Major League Baseball. And here is a great video about it.

Eddie Gaedell at bat.

Eddie Gaedel Pinch Hitter—One of the most famous baseball stunts of all time, although not quite a promotion, was Bill Veeck’s sending of Eddie Gaedel to bat in a doubleheader between the St. Louis Browns and the Detroit Tigers on August 19, 1951. After the first game Veeck had a large birthday cake rolled onto the infield and announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, as a special birthday gift to manager Zack Taylor, the management is presenting him with a brand-new Brownie.” Then out of the cake popped three-foot seven-inch Eddie Gaedel wearing a tiny Browns uniform with the number 1/8 on the back. Veeck had hired Gaedel from a talent agency for $100 for a single appearance at the game. After the Tigers failed to score in the top half of the first inning, Gaedel went to the on-deck circle and took several menacing swings with a trio of pint-sized bats. As the umpire yelled, “batter up,” manager Zack Taylor scratched starting center fielder Frank Saucier and inserted Gaedel as a pinch hitter. The Tigers protested his play, but the Browns produced a legitimate major league contract and the umpire signaled that Tigers pitcher Bob “Sugar” Cain had to pitch to him. Gaedel stepped up to the plate, crouched as low as possible, and waited for Cain’s delivery. With a strike zone of about three inches, Cain walked him on four pitches. The manager then took Gaedel out for a pinch runner. The Tigers, despite Gaedel’s pass to first base, won the game 6-2. The great Eddie Gaedel caper probably proved the undoing of Veeck as an American League owner. From that point on his fellow owners worked unabashedly to oust him, even refusing to allow him to move the franchise in 1953 when every economic indicator demanded it.

Automotive Industry Night—This was another Charlie Finley special. When the A’s were in Kansas City in the 1960s, owner Finley staged all types of giveaways. Jim Schaaf, who ran the A’s promotion department, told us about it. “We’d have Automotive Industry Night. Charlie had a lot of these ideas. He came up to me one time and said,…‘we want cars we can have painted and do things to dress them up, and we’re going to give’em away as prizes during the game.’ We would call tickets in certain locations and fans would win a car. What he promised was you could drive the car off the lot…those types of promotions that he was really involved in…he [Finley] got a big kick out of them. The fans got a big kick out of them too.” These weren’t new cars, just clunkers they had pulled out of the junk yard and got running, at least for a while. Schaaf added: “They laughed like heck and sometimes, the person would get in the car and start driving off…and the car would just break down half-way out of the gate.”

Stanley Burrell

MC Hammer Bobblehead Night—Finally, I think the promotion on July 17, 2011, by the Oakland A’s deserves comment. On that night, the A’s hosted MC Hammer Bobblehead night in the Oakland Coliseum. Behind it is the fascinating story of Stanley Burrell, whom Charlie Finley first met in 1973. Burrell was then an eleven-year-old kid, and in his own words “doing a dance with ten friends…just being crazy and Mr. Finley walked over and said I looked like Hank Aaron. Then invited me up to his box.” So strong was the resemblance, in fact, that Finley reportedly gave Stanley Burrell Aaron’s nickname, “Hammer.” Hammer became a fixture in the A’s dugout and front office, picking up numerous odd jobs around the A’s organization. He helped the clubhouse managers, ran errands, and provided Finley with telephonic play-by-play broadcasts of the A’s games back to his offices in Chicago. As time went on, Finley gave Hammer an honorary position as a club vice president. Several years later, Stanley Burrell, who once dreamed of playing major league baseball, became an international superstar as an acrobatic rap singer and dancer known to world by his nickname:  MC Hammer. It’s great that the A’s honored Stanley Burrell, aka the Hammer, with his own bobblehead giveaway.

I think these are great stories. What are your favorite ones?

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A Tour of Ancient Rome

This is a really fascinating, and in some instances breathtaking, computer generated fly-around of ancient Rome. It is a must see video.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “Keeping Score: The Economics of Big-Time Sports”

Keeping Score: The Economics of Big-Time Sports. By Richard G. Sheehan. South Bend, IN: Diamond Communications Inc., 1996.

Although it is now more than 20 years old and sports have changed significantly since the mid-1990s, there are several important insights in this book about the economics of sport in America. At the time this was written the author, Richard G. Sheehan, was a professor of finance and business economics at the University of Notre Dame, and his knowledge of statistical analysis and economics proved invaluable in writing this book. I recently read this book and found it illuminating when considering the nature of the sports business.

Sheehan leads with individual chapters on the major team sports in the United States—Major League Baseball, the NBA, the NFL, college football, and the NHL—tracing their individual situations and economic circumstances. In essence, MLB is largely capitalistic and everyone for themselves while the NFL is a socialistic system in which revenue sharing dominates everything. Both extremes, and everything in between have their pros and cons, which Sheehan lays out. Sheehan also lays out the manner in which salary caps, revenue sharing, salaries and arbitration and free agency, and competitive balance work.

In the case of MLB, my specific area of interest, he recommends against a salary cap as being counterproductive but comes down in favor of greater revenue sharing. That approach has worked well in the NFL, allowing teams in such small markets as Green Bay to be successful.

Sheehan finds that one of the greatest problems of all professional sports is that owners have divergent priorities. He boils this down to a scale in which there are two different extremes, winning games and championships on one end and maximizing profits on the other.

Sheehan asserts that almost all sports teams make money, some make an ungodly amount of money, but a few—a very few—lose money. If as an owner you want to win championships then you must spend more on the franchise, which cuts into your profits. If you are willing to forego championships, you can use the team as a cash cow. There are examples of owners that do one or the other. Most want both; most can’t have both all the time.

There are four conclusions that Sheehan reaches about sports in America. As he writes: “First, all four leagues on average have been and remain very profitable. The average return to major league professional franchises has been greater than the average return on stocks. Second, profits are not evenly distributed. In each league, some franchises barely break even or lose money.…Third owners have different motives for buying and owning a professional sports franchise. Some are in it primarily for the money while others are in it primarily for wins or ego or civic pride. And fourth, not all franchises are competently managed” (pp. 155-56). No kidding.

Sheehan also pooh-poohs arguments about small market versus large market teams and their inability to compete with each other. This seems to have taken hold in MLB largely because of the dominance of the New York Yankees, even as other large market teams have failed to be nearly as successful.

If market size was really the determining factor the Yankees, the New York Mets, the Chicago Cubs, the Chicago White Sox, the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim would dominate the championships every year. They don’t. The Dodgers and Angels have fielded some very good teams and won some championships, as did the White Sox in 2005, but they have hardly been dominant.

As Sheehan writes, “Market size may play a small role, but it is a long way from the whole explanation of profits, wins or anything else. Whether a team wins and whether it is well run both contribute more to financial success” (p. 161). That helps explain the success of the St. Louis Cardinals over the years, a team that has enjoyed good seasons and championships for years.

When it comes to labor relations, stadium deals, and the like Sheehan has some very pointed comments about the ridiculous position of owners: “Putting it most baldly, restricting free agency only restricts the players from selling themselves; it does not restrict owners from selling them. It should not be surprising that owners like that policy. However, it has no economic justification. The owners can only be viewed as a gaggle of greedy hypocrites as long as they simultaneously play one city against another or one TV station against another to wring the best contract possible, and yet say that players should be denied the unfettered ability to pit owner against owner to wrest the best possible contract” (p. 186).

Richard Sheehan’s Keeping Score: The Economics of Big-Time Sports is a thoughtful and useful book about the economics of sport. He has one final comment that I found particularly apropos: owners should stop belly-aching about their bottom line and how they are losing money, etc., etc., etc., until they open their books and allow audits. In other words, prove it. Virtually none do so.

Failure to take this action, Sheehan believes, should result in government at all levels “pull[ing] the plug on all subsidies. In a nutshell: no information—no tax breaks, no anti-trust exemption and no municipal subsidies” (p. 327).

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