About this blog

This isn't designed to be a blog per se, but just a place to store things I've written for easy reference. Most of it will be book reviews, with a few random essays about the stuff that interests me outside work (i.e. nothing on politics and government).

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Amazon Review of Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power
Jon Meacham
2012, 800 pp

Link to the Amazon review

Throughout our history Presidents as politically diverse as Lincoln, Wilson, FDR, Kennedy and Reagan have enthusiastically embraced the legacy of their predecessor, Thomas Jefferson. Recent scholarship on the Founding generation, however, has unfairly diminished Jefferson in Jon Meacham's view. Biographies of Washington, Adams and Hamilton have all tended to reduce Jefferson to the role of an intriguer lurking in the background, a foil for Hamilton and Adams in particular. In Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, Meacham reclaims Jefferson's prominence in setting America on her course, asserting that most of the Presidents who served between 1800 and 1840 were Jeffersonians, and holds Jefferson up as a role model for today's politicians struggling to reconcile political idealism with the realism needed to traverse the rough waters of democratic politics.

 The Art of Power is a very well written narrative and moves at a fast paced with chapters generally ranging from 10-15 pages. While Meacham clearly admires Jefferson, though, he is able to acknowledge Jefferson's failures and contradictions as well. However, there are several shortcomings that detracted from my enjoyment of the Art of Power.

First, while The Art of Power covers Jefferson's personal and political lives thoroughly, Meacham appears to have been poorly served by certain curious editorial choices. His summation of Jefferson's legacy appears in the Author's Note, and much of the detail necessary to inform the reader of vital details is contained in the nearly 200 pages of end notes. For example the text makes it appear as if there is no question whatsoever regarding Jefferson's paternity of his slave's children. Only in the footnotes will the reader learn of the controversy and evidence supporting both Meacham's conclusion and other possibilities. The complexities involved in other details of the Jefferson story sometimes also seem slighted in order to ensure the narrative pace remains speedy.

 Next, despite his theme of a politician who mastered the art of power to successfully reconcile philosophy with practicality Meacham treads lightly on Jefferson's philosophy (one of very few omissions in his lengthy bibliography, tellingly, is Jean Yarborough's study of Jefferson's political and moral philosophy). This is a shame because his portrait of a Jefferson that does not fit the libertarian mold is provocative and interesting. Meacham's Jefferson is less antipathetic to large government, federal and executive power and commerce than is commonly understood today, but Meacham does little to explore further Jefferson's thinking on these and other matters, nor does he attempt any explanation of why the Jefferson of common perception does not fit Meacham's own reading, which would have been very interesting to me. His is a Jefferson more of action than thought.

 Readers looking for a high readable introduction to the political events of Jefferson's time or personal life will enjoy this work, and it seems to fill the need for a good medium sized Jefferson biography to fill the gap between R.B. Bernstein's very perceptive short study and Merrill Peterson's 1,000 page tome. Those seeking a more rounded treatment of all Jefferson's facets may find themselves disappointed, however. Similarly, readers looking for a more robust treatment of the period may wish to utilize Meacham's exhaustive bibliography for further reading.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Amazon Review of The Greater Journey

David McCullough
The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris
2011, 576pp

Link to the Amazon review

The City of Lights captivates Americans like no other. As true as this has been in the 20th century, it was equally true in the 19th as well. For many Americans of education, culture and means during the 19th century, time in Paris was nearly indispensable. Not only writers, artists, sculptors, but medical doctors and many others went to Paris to broaden their tastes, perspectives and professional training. There they savored art, architecture, music, intellectual discourse and even the discovery of a more relaxed way to enjoy life, which were all available in far more abundance than America offered even in its larger cities. David McCullough's The Greater Journey looks at the many prominent 19th century Americans who spent part of their lives in Paris and catalogs the details of their sojourns.

 As he has done in numerous works, McCullough once again displays his great skill in inserting his reader into the story. He does not neglect the travel itself, explaining the nuances and rigors of 19th century transatlantic crossings and the coach rides needed to get his subjects to their destination. Once in Paris, we read of the city's many delights. Gastronomy, art, architecture, society, music, theater, etc. are all relayed in a vivid manner sure to delight many readers, particularly Francophiles. 

To be sure, Paris had its share of disappointments. Charles Sumner, later to become a US Senator and leading abolitionist detested the constant presence of soldiers in the city. Educator Emma Willard was distraught at the high rate of child abandonment and the sight of parentless infants in the hospital. Still, the vast majority of the book is consumed with the Americans' many delights in what the city offered.

 Rather than the travelers, however, the book's ultimate protagonist is the city of Paris itself. The capital of Europe in a sense, it was truly a mandatory destination not just for the arts but other learned professions during the 19th century. What's all too lacking, however, is WHY this was. McCullough slights the city's history and the reason for its great preeminence in nearly all facets of learning in most cases (medicine is an exception - the willingness of female patients to submit to examinations by male doctors and the easy availability of cadavers were the major reasons Paris was a major center for medical education). This detracted from my enjoyment of the book. In addition, he does not give us a great sense of how and to what extent "The Greater Journey" impacted American arts and letters (again, medicine is the exception). The Parisian influence on the US was surely significant given the importance of the Americans who traveled there and back, but McCullough doesn't always give us a clear idea of how or to what extent this was passed on after their arrival back in the United States.

 Interestingly, however, McCullough relates that their time in Paris often reinvigorated the Americans' self-identity and pride in their own homeland rather than adopting a view if French or European superiority as might be expected. Why this is, McCullough doesn't venture an explanation. Overall, however, readers will delight in the Parisian experience of the book's subjects and those without a background in 19th century American letters, arts and sciences (in this I count myself) will learn a great deal. One wishes for a writer of McCullough's gifts of clear storytelling and a little bit more analytical ability and inquisitiveness, but most will find the Greater Journey highly enjoyable, as I did.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Hardball Times Review of The Imperfect Diamond

The Imperfect Diamond
Lee Lowenfish
2010, 352 pp

Link to the Hardball Times Review

He goes where he is sent, takes what is given him, and thanks the Lord for the life.
-New York Giants shortstop John Montgomery Ward, reflecting on the life of the 19th century ball player

Today’s baseball fan is inundated with information about the Rule 5 draft, revenue sharing and similar concepts that deal with the business of baseball, because increasingly what we see on the diamond is shaped by off-field events. What happens in the offices of general managers, owners, agents and the commissioner is vital to how their team will play this year (and in the not-too-distant past, whether games would even be played at all).

It’s difficult to fully appreciate this off-the-field activity, though, without at least a passing knowledge baseball’s labor history and the long struggle players had to undergo to achieve a fair share of baseball’s gate. It is this history that Lee Lowenfish, a Columbia University lecturer and the author of 
a superb biography of Branch Rickey , recounts in The Imperfect Diamond: A History of Baseball's Labor Wars, recently released in an updated edition.

We’ve come a long way from when major league baseball players were the property of imperious owners free to sell players’ services without restraint and pay them little more than what was merely necessary to keep them playing baseball as opposed to laboring in some other endeavor. 

In contrast, today’s major league baseball player earned at least the league minimum salary of $400,000 in 2009, is eligible for free agency after six years in the big leagues and is eligible to have his salary determined by impartial third parties through arbitration after a mere three. How we got from the 19th century world of John Montgomery Ward and his hard laboring, mistreated colleagues to that of today is a long, complicated, often discouraging tale.

The Imperfect Diamond delivers on its subtitle A History of Baseball’s Labor Wars by providing a clear synopsis of the most significant labor disputes in the game’s past. At just over 300 pages, it explores the historically significant episodes where various players and outsiders attempted to challenge the onerous working conditions that existed for them throughout most of the game’s history.

The infamous reserve clause that purported to bind a player to the ball club that signed him so long as the club wanted him (at whatever salary it was willing to pay him), baseball’s judicially created antitrust exemption that propped it up and the fight to establish a pension fund for retired players and their families are just some of the subjects chronicled. With the third edition, Lowenfish is also able to update the story to include the 1994 strike, the attempts by owners to combat free agency via collusion, and the steroids controversy.

Despite any romantic notions we might have about a time when baseball was an innocent game, prior to being sullied by profits and the inevitable disputes they bring regarding their disposition, our story actually begins as early as 1885. The players, led by Ward, one of the superstars of the day, formed the first organization devoted to protecting them from the worst abuses they suffered; e.g., unpaid signing bonuses, players terminated with little or no notice, etc., the Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players.

This attempt was just the first of many such ill-fated efforts. The Players’ Protective Association, the Baseball Players’ Fraternity and the American Baseball Guild would all follow over the years. But none would succeed beyond the short term until the formation of the Major League Baseball Players Association in 1954.

The familiar stories are here—tales of the reserve clause and the abuses it engendered, ill-considered judicial opinions that credulous congressional committees were hoodwinked into letting stand, and similar sad affairs. It begins with the 1975 Messersmith-McNally arbitration that resulted in the effective elimination of the reserve clause as it had existed for decades. 
Curt Flood ’s pitiful saga is also recounted in great detail.

Other less well known, but equally important aspects of the story are also present. Among the most interesting is the case of 
Danny Gardella , whose 1947 federal lawsuit (stemming from an attempt by baseball to prohibit him from playing due to his participation in the Mexican League) resulted in a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals that could have effectively ended baseball’s monopoly had the owners not settled. For the Gardella case and some of the issues covered in his new epilogue, Lowenfish was able to directly interview some of the participants, making these passages some of the most compelling parts of the book, particularly the new material covering more recent events.

A good history tells you what happened and why. The "why" in The Imperfect Diamond would occasionally benefit from a deeper treatment of external events as a means of shedding light on why baseball’s labor history developed as it did. For instance, only occasionally does Lowenfish reference labor conditions outside of baseball. Additional discussion of other labor movements, developments in labor law and the public’s perception of labor unions in general would help the reader understand a little better why some players’ efforts succeeded better than others at different points in history.

The book contains a couple of factual errors, none of which undermine the book’s value as a comprehensive history of baseball’s significant labor disputes. For instance, 
Jimmie Foxx  was traded from Philadelphia to Boston in 1936 rather than 1933.

More glaringly, because of limitations placed on what could be altered in the original text, the third edition necessarily retains the now discredited story that Ford Frick placed an asterisk next to 
Roger Maris ’s 1961 home run record. (In fact, Frick had suggested that since 1961 represented the first year with a longer season (162 vs. 154 games) those who kept baseball records (which, incredibly enough, Major League Baseball did not at the time) should keep a separate set of records for the 162 game era going forward.) The myth of an actual, as opposed to a metaphorical, asterisk has been around long enough and deserves to be put to rest.

These are quibbles, however. For those looking for an introduction to baseball’s labor history, The Imperfect Diamond is a splendid choice. Lowenfish writes clearly, and he is transparent enough to acknowledge that he takes the players’ side for the most part. It’s hard to disagree with his position, however. Baseball owners were, like most magnates of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, imperious and impatient with their "laborers" and they saw ballplayers as no different than workers in any other industry.

Things have changed radically in the past century, however, and major league ball players are, ironically, no longer viewed as sympathetically; they have moved from being our neighbors to out-of-reach superstars living in gated communities. How they, and we, got here is the story Lowenfish tells well.

In the spirit of The Hardball Times, I’ll close with a "10 Things I Didn’t Know About Baseball Labor Relations Until I ReadThe Imperfect Diamond":

(1) “Revenue sharing” in its original context did not refer to teams’ sharing revenues among themselves, but compensating players by dedicating a percentage of the revenues to players’ salaries. Owners’ counsel Charlie O’Conner put the concept on the table in 1990, but MLBPA chief Don Fehr wasn’t interested (p. 272-273).

(2) The players fiercely opposed efforts by MLB to reduce use of illegal non-performance enhancing drugs in the 1980s (pp. 261-263). Also, Fehr’s predecessor lost his job, in part, for his tepid stance on the issue (p. 253). Could this partially explain why neither baseball nor Fehr took a harder line against the use of performance related substances during the 1990s?

(3) Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis had a fairly enlightened attitude toward the players, especially considering his era (pp.115-126). He made a number of important pro-player rulings aimed at allowing talented players to emerge, turning back owners’ efforts to keep many of them hidden in the lower leagues even while they were playing major league caliber baseball.

(4) In 2007, Commissioner Bud Selig made $17.5 million—more than all but three players (p. 299).

(5) Baseball’s august counselor at law, George Wharton Pepper, actually argued in court that the reserve clause was not legally binding, but merely an “honorary obligation.” (p.106). Rickey told a congressional committee that perhaps it constituted a “harmless illegality” (p. 175). Apparently someone forgot to tell that players that it was not a legally binding clause until the Messersmith-McNally arbitration of 1975.

(6) The reserve clause and similar elements of what was called "baseball law" were not universally as despised by players as might be thought. Many acknowledged baseball was such a peculiar enterprise as to require peculiar legal rules outside those that governed the non-baseball world (p.22). Even Ward stated that the reserve clause has virtue in that it “compels (rival managers) to keep his hands off his neighbor’s enterprise” (p. 32).

(7) Baseball not only banned players who had, in the view of owners, violated their contracts by jumping to the occasionally operating third leagues; e.g., the Federal League and Mexican League, but anyone who dared play against them even in an exhibition was similarly viewed as ineligible (p. 159).

(8) Kuhn, who would be derided throughout much of his tenure as commissioner, was widely viewed as a marvelous appointee when first named. The legendary baseball scribe Roger Angell opined that Kuhn had the potential to be the “best thing to happen to baseball since the catcher’s mitt” at the time of Kuhn’s appointment (p. 204).

(9) Although this is my conclusion, and not necessarily Lowenfish’s, the success of players in wringing concessions seems closely tied to the emergence of (or prospective threat thereof) of another league, e.g., the 1890 Players’ League, the Federal League, the Mexican Lague, the Continental League (which never actually got off the ground). Concessions made, however, would disappear once the threat dissipated. Baseball, it seems, may have been immune to the laws of man to a large extent, but not those of economics.

(10) The owners lived in fear that their legal arguments would eventually be discovered to be the shams they mostly were. Keeping baseball out of the courts, said Landis’ assistant Francis O’Conner, was Landis’ greatest contribution to the game for precisely that reason (p. 149). This was because Landis himself harbored grave doubts about the legality of a perpetual reserve clause, and O’Conner insisted that had a player requested a contract without one, it would have been granted by Landis (p.123). 

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Amazon Review of Colonel Roosevelt

Colonel Roosevelt
by Edmund Morris
2010, 784 pp

Link to my Amazon review

Edmund Morris's final volume of his magisterial biography of the "Republican Roosevelt" finishes well. As with the first two volumes, it is extraordinarily well written. Morris paints a colorful portrait of Roosevelt and his life, making the reader feel as if she knew Roosevelt intimately, and had experienced the events of his life as they unfolded. All told, it serves as a wonderful personal portrait of one of the most interesting men ever to serve as President. As he did in the previous volume covering the years in the White House, though, Roosevelt the political animal remains just outside of Morris's grip for the most part.

Colonel Roosevelt (his favorite form of address, even after departing the White House) opens with a stunning prologue detailing Roosevelt's post presidential African safari. It is here in his native Africa that Morris is at his best, describing the East African terrain and game as it existed in an almost primeval state at the beginning of the 20th century. He follows with a fascinating account of the subsequent whirlwind European tour, during which Roosevelt was treated as if he still were a head of state, even serving as Taft's special ambassador at the funeral of King Edward VII. Morris is not only interested in Roosevelt's actions and settings but his thoughts and intellect as well. Roosevelt's dynamic range of interests and extraordinarily educated mind are on display as Morris summarizes both his reading and writing on subjects having nothing to do with politics such as medieval history, nature and the relationship between science and history.

Morris's weakness as Roosevelt's biographer has always been his lack of a deep understanding of American political history, something that served to mar his biography of Ronald Reagan. One begins to understand Lewis Gould's (the author of a volume devoted to TR's Presidency) characterization of Morris's first volume ("Roosevelt's emergence as he (Roosevelt) would have described it"). Lacking an independent understanding of the period's politics, Morris is a bit too quick to present Roosevelt's perceptions as objective reality in many cases. For instance, opponents to his 1912 run for the Republican nomination are all "reactionaries" or simply bought men enjoying the patronage of the "Taft Machine." There is, simply, no principled opposition to Roosevelt in Morris's account. The 42 states without direct primaries are boss-controlled "democratic shams," as if there was nothing in between the direct rule by the people and the dictates of self-serving political bosses. Roosevelt would have likely viewed it this way and Morris is simply not in a position to evaluate his views or serve the reader as a guide on such matters. This is less of a problem in Colonel Roosevelt, however, as politics is no longer the dominant theme as it was in its predecessor volume.

Coming close to 2000 pages, Morris's three volumes will remain the most comprehensive account of Theodore Roosevelt's life we have. It is so well written that even those who aren't TR aficionados will likely enjoy reading at least some of it (I'd recommend the first volume). Still, Morris leaves much to say about many aspects and events of Roosevelt's life and times for future historians, especially in the political realm.

Introduction: In which I explain what I'm doing here.

Welcome!  This isn't meant to be a traditional blog, which I mainly associate with something regularly added to and focused on a particular topic.

Rather, it will be added to highly irregularly, and will contain my writings on a variety of subjects.  Most will be book reviews, but all will be material that has been published somewhere else on the web (even if its just on Amazon), hence the name "Alec's Archives."

What you won't see on here is anything of a political nature.  In a sense, politics and government is my career, and the related writing is of little interest to anyone other than my employer.

I enjoy writing, however, and like to explore topics such as history and baseball mainly by writing about them.  In a few cases, my writing had to be altered a little bit to fit a publication's format requirements, e.g. length, style, etc.  That's fine.  But what I'll post here is what I either submitted or would have submitted without those restrictions, so what you'll see here may differ slightly from the final published version.

For instance, Amazon in particular is a site where I try to limit my writing to about works out to one MS Word page.  People reading their reviews are trying to determine whether the book is for them.  They don't want a book summary nor a book essay.  They want to be told what's in the book and whether the person writing the review enjoyed reading it.  So, my Amazon reviews will be shorter and sharply focused on those questions.