Review of Steve Fireovid’s & Mark Winegardner’s The 26th Man

Review of Steve Fireovid’s & Mark Winegardner’s The 26th Man

How far would you go to chase a dream? How do you handle it when your dream dies? Those are the big questions behind Steve Fireovid’s The 26th Man (Macmillan, 1990, 221 pp.).

From 1978-1993, Steve Fireovid pursued his dream of pitching in major league baseball. And he made it – but only for a short time.

Fireovid’s co-author, Mark Winegardner comes from the same hometown – Bryan, Ohio. Winegardner wrote the good introduction to The 26th Man in which he recounts seeing Fireovid pitch 3 times – 1) in 1975 when Fireovid was the star of the local high school team, 2) in 1985 when Fireovid was with the Chicago White Sox, and 3) in 1990 when Fireovid was a “non-prospect,” filling out the roster for the minor-league Indianapolis Indians. The three games show the phases of Fireovid’s baseball career.

Another Baseball Diary

The 26th Man is a diary of that 1990 season. Fireovid pitches well in AAA baseball (one level below the major leagues), but is never considered for promotion. Younger players (who often haven’t performed as well as Fireover) are promoted, which Fireovid struggles to accept.

A baseball diary is hardly a unique idea. Jim Bouton’s tell-all Ball Four was a blockbuster bestseller. Sparky Lyle’s The Bronx Zoo dished the dirt on the 1978 New York Yankees. Unfortunately, both books are more interesting than is The 26th Man. Try as he might, Fireovid can’t make his book more than “pretty interesting.”

The 26th Man reminds me more of Pat Jordan’s A False Spring or Larry Colton’s account of his minor-league struggles in Goat Brothers. Fireovid’s is the story of a near miss, dealing with the fact that your dream isn’t going to happen. And he knows the score – knows he’s going nowhere – but can’t resist getting his hopes up from time to time.

Family & Minor-League Life

A recurring issue in the book – one to which any parent can relate – is Fireovid’s guilt over the extended periods of time he must spend away from his family. At the start of the book, Fireovid is married with 2 sons and a third child on the way. He agonizes about whether it is selfish for him to continue playing baseball while wife Patty does all of the work at home.

For hardcore baseball fans, The 26th Man has quite a bit to offer. For instance, Fireovid’s description of what it’s like to go to Spring Training as a non-prospect is depressing. The players sleep three to a room, two players have beds, the third has a cot. Players get their uniforms washed only every 2 days; they have to wear smelly jersey and pants half of the time. Such anecdotes continue throughout the book. But, too often, it’s slow going.

The Final Out

Casual fans will want to skip The 26th Man. There are are so many sports books out there that offer more return for the effort. I give it 6 out of 10.

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Review of Philip Carlo’s The Ice Man

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Front Cover

Review of Philip Carlo’s The Ice Man

Richard Kuklinski (1935-2006) was the Ice Man, a mafia assassin in New Jersey and New York. He was sentenced to several life terms in 1986 and would have slipped into obscurity had it not been for a series of HBO documentaries in which he discussed his nefarious “career” on the wrong side of the law. The HBO films made Kuklinski infamous and helped spur Philip Carlo’s 2006 book The Ice Man – Confessions of a Mafia Contract Killer (St. Martin’s Press, 402 pp.).

Ambivalent Reaction

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Front Flap

Few books that I’ve taken on are harder to review than is The Ice Man. On the positive side, Carlo keeps the story moving for 400+ pages. I think that the book is a bit too long, but it’s consistently interesting. Carlo does a good job of telling The Ice Man’s story from multiple perspectives (Richard’s, his family’s, law enforcement’s). The book also gives the reader some insight into the twilight world in which career criminals spend their lives –

“In the circles Richard was moving in, everyone drank and everyone gambled, everyone hustled, everyone lied and cheat[ed] and stole. He trusted no one; at the drop of a hat he’d kill” (p. 75).

Sour Notes

But the negative of this book is quickly apparent – how much of it is true? Carlo describes dozens of murders. However, most often the description is along the lines of “Richard was walking along. A guy looked at him the wrong way. Richard killed him.” The details are so scant that dozens of murders could qualify.

At other times, Carlo supplies quite a bit of detail –

  • Richard shot three men driving a pickup truck with a Rebel flag on it at a South Carolina rest area,
  • Richard murdered the owner of a porno theater in Los Angeles with a hand grenade,
  • Richard shot a guy nine times outside a pancake restaurant in Los Angeles.

These crimes are so unusual that it wouldn’t have been difficult for Carlo to check to see that a) the crime had occurred and remained unsolved and b) that Richard could have been the killer. If Carlo did any fact checking, it isn’t apparent in the book.

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Back Flap – with “About the Author”

Just as questionable are some of the more-famous hits that Carlo ascribes to Kuklinski. According to Carlo, Kuklinski murdered Jimmy Hoffa, two mafia dons (Carmine Galante and Paul Castellano), and the man who accidentally hit and killed John Gotti’s son in a traffic accident. A quick Google search reveals that many people have questioned whether Carlo tale is true. Carlo’s accounts of these well-known crimes are often at odds with what has been reported elsewhere and what has been uncovered by law enforcement.

Missed Opportunities

Last night, I was talking to my wife (The Mojowoman) about The Ice Man. She remarked that it was a shame that Kuklinski didn’t simply tell his true story because the verifiable parts of the story would make for a good book. Unfortunately, that’s not the book that Carlo wrote.

It’s hard to assign a simple 0-10 rating for The Ice Man. I give it a 7 out of 10 for entertainment; it’s a bit long and the graphic violence described is enough to turn your stomach. For quality reporting, I give it a 1 out of 10. Carlo owed his readers a better investigation of Kuklinski’s claims before publishing his book. On the whole, I’ll split the difference and give it 4 out of 10.

Mafia die hards will still want to read this one. Others should skip it.

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Back Cover – Kuklinski with daughters Merrick (left) and Chris

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Review of Mike Dauplaise’s Torture at the Back Forty

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Review of Mike Dauplaise’s Torture at the Back Forty

Outlaw Motorcycle gangs always hold a particular fascination for me. These “one percenters” live short, violent lives outside society’s conventions. Unlike other organized-crime groups such as the Mafia, motorcycle gangs don’t even pretend to be respectable.

The other day, I was sitting at home on the weekend and I needed a book. I didn’t want to go to the library, so I found a digital copy of Mike Dauplaise’s Torture at the Back Forty on Amazon for $7.95. I was pleased with my purchase.

Green Bay as Mayberry

Green Bay, Wisconsin’s claim to fame is the Packers football team. Otherwise, the small city enjoys a reputation of being something of a “modern-day Mayberry” – a nice place to raise a family. But, as with all places, there is another side to Green Bay.

Murder in 1983

December 27, 1983, was bitterly cold in Green Bay. A 35-year-old woman named Margaret Anderson went out drinking with a friend of hers, a local biker named Terry “Weasel” Apfel. After a long night of drinking, Margaret and Terry got into an argument outside a bar called The Back Forty. Terry became so enraged at Margaret that he shouted to some bikers who were in the parking lot “You guys can have her. I’m done with her.” Within a few hours, Margaret Anderson was dead.

Strong Points

While Torture at the Back Forty isn’t a great book, it has many strong points. One thing that I liked was that author Mike Dauplaise did a good job of discussing Margaret Anderson’s background in rural Montana. The stories help bring her back to life, reminding you that she had a family that cared for her. The book also contains graphic details of how badly Margaret suffered before she died. The details are uncomfortable, but make you want to see the bikers face justice.

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Margaret Anderson

One of the book’s big attractions is that you get to learn about the outlaw biker subculture. Two motorcycle gangs were involved in Margaret’s murder – The DC Eagles and The Drifters. The Eagles were an outlaw gang; 3 members were involved in Margaret’s murder. The Drifters were not a true outlaw gang; most of them had legitimate jobs, though they were a rough group. The owner of the Back Forty bar was a Drifter who was involved in Margaret’s murder.

The bikers proved to be surprisingly adept at evading the law. 2 of the bikers fled and it took much effort to find them. Justice didn’t catch up to the last of the bikers until 4.5 years later, when his case was one of the first to be featured on America’s Most Wanted. The story of how these guys survived “on the lam” is one of the most-interesting aspects of the book.

Don’t Ask Why

On the whole, the 4 were surprisingly cagey when it came to telling the story of what happened that night. All attempted to shift the blame. At the end of the book, the reader has a general idea of what occurred, but not 100% of the truth.

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The Back Forty Tavern

A frustrating aspect of the case is that the motive is murky, even to the 4 bikers. It was a crime of opportunity. The bikers had been drinking and taking drugs for hours, and – as a group – were capable of killing with little forethought.

Final Words

Torture at the Back Forty is a good, short read (about 160 pages). The story and Dauplaise’s writing are both better than what one finds in most true-crime books. I give the book 7.5 out of 10.

My $7.95 digital copy was money well spent.

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Review of Hank Nuwer’s Wrongs of Passage

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Front Cover – The young people pictured are (from top) Chad Saucier, Donna Bedinger, Michael Davis, Gabe Higgins, and Chuck Stenzel

Review of Hank Nuwer’s Wrongs of Passage

Last I week I rode down to the Mobile Public Library’s main branch on Government Street and picked up Hank Nuwer’s Wrongs of PassageFraternities, Sororities, Hazing, and Binge Drinking (University of Indiana Press, 1999, 236 pp.). While I enjoyed reading the book and it gave me much to think about, I think that it’s a very-uneven read so I can give it only a 6 out of 10.

Nuwer’s Crusade

In the Prologue to Wrongs of Passage journalist Nuwer notes that he published an article on hazing in Human Relations in 1978. Since then, he has devoted much of his career to fighting hazing deaths. Surprisingly, Nuwer states that he thought his reporting would stop hazing just as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle stopped abuses in the meatpacking industry.

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Front Flap

Nuwer notes that hazing still appears to be a major problem on campuses. In the 20 years or so since the publication of Wrongs of Passage, he has continued to write and speak on hazing and maintains an interesting website on the topic (hanknuwer.com).

Chad Saucier

The book opens on a very strong note with a report on the December 1993 death of Phi Delta Theta pledge Chad Saucier at Auburn University. Saucier was from Mobile and I remember well when he died. Perhaps the most-amazing thing to me about the Saucier case was that Auburn did not expel the Phi Delt chapter, but handed it only a three-year suspension. Nuwer recounts that Saucier’s mother, Rita, became an anti-having activist after Chad died. (Sadly, when I Googled Chad’s name, I saw that Rita died a few weeks ago. I hope that she found some measure of peace after Chad’s death).

Focus Slips

Unfortunately, Nuwer cannot maintain the book’s momentum. Rather than cover the contemporary Greek scene, he goes back in history to recount both the history of hazing and the history of the Greek system in the U.S. The digressions aren’t all bad, but they disrupt the book’s flow, giving it a choppy quality. Nuwer has terrific knowledge of the topic; but, surprisingly (given that he is a professional journalist), he doesn’t always take that knowledge and shape it into a compelling story.

No Easy Answers

The book’s other shortcoming is Nuwer’s attempt to solve the hazing crisis. His extensive research shows that hazing has existed for centuries across many cultures. Certainly, it is not particular to Greek organizations. But Nuwer never addresses this conundrum. If hazing has some intuitive appeal to young males, it stands to reason that Greek organizations may be only the symptom rather than the root cause.

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Back flap

The book’s close (Chapter 9, pp. 194-236) contains Nuwer’s proposed solutions to the hazing crisis. It’s weak, poorly written, and often poorly reasoned. For instance, Nuwer suggests that in order to rid themselves of problem Greeks, universities may have to expel from one-third to one-half of fraternities (p. 218), then ups the number to 80% (p. 224). There is no explanation of how Nuwer arrived at these numbers.

Also in the close, Nuwer suggests that fraternities should “Keep drinkers, hazers, and risk takers from joining fraternities” (p. 225). Along these lines, Nuwer discusses the national fraternities’ efforts to change the fraternity culture. In effect, Nuwer and the national fraternities are discussing turning fraternities into service organizations. This argument ignores the fact that service organizations already exist at colleges and aren’t what fraternity rushees are seeking.

A larger, unexamined problem in Wrongs of Passage is that many American men are skipping college. Recent figures show that women make up about 57% of U.S. undergraduates. With colleges’ apparent lack of appeal to many young men, Nuwer’s anti-fraternity crusade would make college less appealing to the men who do choose to attend.

Back to Campus

I don’t know why – perhaps it is because Fall Semester is nearly upon us – but campus life has been on my mind for the last few weeks. Or perhaps I’ve just reached middle age, when one starts to look back. For what it’s worth, I was a fraternity pledge for about one week in college. Then I quit. I wasn’t hazed and – given the fraternity’s reputation – I doubt that I would have been had I stayed. I left because the time commitment from pledging was overwhelming and I knew that I needed to do better in college than I had done in high school.

(Nuwer writes in the footnotes that he was a fraternity member at SUNY-Buffalo and states that he had admitted in a previous book (titled Broken Pledges) that he was hazed and that he hazed others (p. 293)).

Too Harsh Toward Wrongs of Passage?

Reading over my review, I think that it sounds a bit harsh. On the whole, Wrongs of Passages is highly uneven and often disjointed. At the same time, since the book’s publication, hazing deaths have continued and the total numbers of young people involved in fraternities continue to be high.

The problem is fixing the fraternity system. Elite private colleges where Greek life is not particularly popular can eliminate fraternities with minimal fuss. But public universities with huge Greek populations don’t have any easy options. The “nationals” controlling the fraternities can try to change the “bro culture” in the houses, but – in doing so – they risk destroying the appeal of organizations that young men join for social bonds and partying.

In summary, Wrongs of Passage is worth reading as food for thought, but you might want to thumb through some of the less-appealing sections.

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Back cover

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Review of Adam Kennedy’s The Domino Principle

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Front Cover

Review of Adam Kennedy’s The Domino Principle

“No, but I saw the movie” is a cliche about books that have been adapted for films. It makes me wonder, not for the first time, if I’m going through life backwards. I like to find books that have been adapted into movies, then read the books. I’ll see the films if I get around to them.

Thrift-Store Lit

Back in 1977, Hollywood released a Gene Hackman – Candice Bergen film based on Adam Kennedy’s 1975 novel The Domino Principle. It had been on my “to-read” for a while when I saw a 50-cent paperback copy over at America’s Thrift Store in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, in June.

I bought the book and I’m really glad that I did. The Domino Principle is a tightly-written (197-page) thriller the holds the reader until the final page. The book centers on Roy Tucker a prisoner stuck serving a long prison sentence in Indiana. Before going to prison, Tucker was a lethal killer for the U.S. Military during the Vietnam War.

At the beginning of the book, a shadowy group comes to Tucker with “an offer he can’t refuse” – he can get out prison if he’ll just do what they tell him to do. But he’s not allowed to ask any questions about what they want from him. Tucker has no other good options, so of course he accepts.

Thelma & Candice

A well-done subplot involves Roy’s wife, Thelma. Roy and Thelma both went to prison for killing her rich husband (who was Roy’s boss). Of course, Roy and Thelma were falsely accused. As the book opens, Thelma is out of prison, but Roy is trying to end their relationship so that Thelma can pursue a meaningful life instead of pining for a prisoner. Kennedy does a decent job with Thelma, but Roy is the better-written, more-fully-realized character.

As an aside, I can’t begin to see Candice Bergen as Thelma. Sissy Spacek or Sally Field would have been a good choice. Perhaps the movie’s producers thought the same thing. Imdb.com states that Bergen’s character is named Ellie in the film.

Malaise

The Domino Principle is a post-Watergate, post-1960s novel that reflects the “malaise” that then afflicted the U.S. In the novel, The American Dream is a sham and the joke’s on anyone who believes in it. The book’s strong opening provides the reader with a good idea of what is to come. It is in the picture below –

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First page

The philosophic bent of the novel gives it something extra, something that pulls it out of the pack of other mystery and suspense novels. Author Kennedy keeps the action moving, as Tucker moves from prison to Costa Rica to California. However, one thing that surprised me were the numerous small mistakes in the text. (For instance, Kennedy refers to “Forth Worth, Texas,” instead of “Fort Worth”). The book must have had close to zero proofreading.

The Last Domino to Fall

The Domino Principle is a strong thriller, much better than the average offering in the field. I give it 9 out of 10. Who knows? Maybe I’ll catch the movie on the late, late show some time.

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Back Cover

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Review of Megan McArdle’s The Up Side of Down

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Front Cover

Review of Megan McArdle’s The Up Side of Down

There is the feeling that Americans are becoming a bunch of “softies,” that we no longer have what it takes to deal with life. Humorist P.J. O’Rourke has said that American are now content to lead “…the Whiffle Life: the life in which nothing can go seriously awry” (p. Xi).

Journalist Megan McArdle explores our increasing aversion to failure in her 2014 book The Up Side of Down. To McArdle, “The metaphor for our age is the disappearance of high monkey bars from playgrounds across the country. We have made it impossible for children to fall very far – and in doing so, we have robbed them of the joy of climbing high” (p. Xi).

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Front Flap

McArdle thinks that we need to change the way that we think of failure. To her credit, she uses her own failures as an example. She focuses on 2 major failures in her life – a doomed relationship with a man and her difficult attempts to build a career after getting her MBA from the University of Chicago. In both cases, she shows that her ability to respond to a failure left her in a much better place.

The Up Side of Down is short (268 pages) and very readable. McArdle has strong opinions of how individuals and societies should treat failure. She does a good job of drawing on research and is quite opinionated on how to fix “bad failures,” while encouraging “healthy failures.”

For instance, one of her central points is that the United States – quite by accident – has devised bankruptcy laws that allow failed entrepreneurs to try again. In doing so, the U.S. Has created the most-dynamic economy in the world. Other nations, she uses Denmark as an example, make it very hard to recover and inadvertently squelch innovation.

Two passages of the book really hit me –

The first concerned how to deal with situations in which failure is common. McArdle looks at the differences in unemployed people who managed to find new jobs and those who did not. The biggest difference was that those who found jobs were able to persevere in the face of failure by using a system. The use of a system was more important than were its particulars.

At the same time, McArdle states that successful job searchers often incorporated the following elements into their systems –
1. “Set specific goals for input, not output
2. Record your effort,
3. Use a script,
4. Surround yourself with other people who are going through the same thing” (p. 174)
As I read, I made a note to write down those four steps so that I would have a reference the next time I want to take on something challenging.

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Back Flap

In the second passage, McArdle writes about the efforts of Judge Steven Alm in Hawaii to deal with the seemingly-intractable problem of prison parolees who fail to complete probation and end up back in prison. Alm’s solution is pretty simple – lock ’em up. Every time a parolee breaks the rules there is a punishment.

But there’s a twist – the punishment depends on how the parolee deals with the failure. If a parolee admits the mistake right away, the punishment is light. If the parolee runs away or fails to admit the mistake, the sanction is much harder. The key is the consistency of punishment and making the punishment fit the parole violation. In the traditional parole system, violators tend to receive a) no punishment or b) the toughest punishments available without either consistency or incentives to confront minor problems. Judge Alm has improved success rates among parolees through his system.

McArdle’s book on failure is a big success. As I said, McArdle’s opinions are strong and I wasn’t always sure that she had the perfect answers. At the same time, her book provides great food for thought. I got a lot out of The Up Side of Down and give it an 8.5 out of 10.

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Back Cover

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Review of James Renner’s True Crime Addict

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Review of James Renner’s True Crime Addict

In 2004, a University of Massachusetts student named Maura Murray ran her car into a New Hampshire snowbank. A local resident came and asked her if he should call 911. Maura said “No.” Back at his home, the man called 911, anyway. By the time people got back to Maura’s car, she had vanished. Years later, Maura became one of author James Renner’s obsessions and then became the focus of his 2016 book True Crime Addict.

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Front Flap

At first, I really had my concerns about this one. The title and subtitle reveal a lot – True Crime Addict – How I Lost Myself in the Mysterious Disappearance of Maura Murray. In the book, Renner is writing two stories, not one. Often, true-crime authors who want to use their books to write about something more than crime end up failing on all levels.

But Renner makes it work. The book opens in 2009 with Renner describing how he got into a lawsuit with the alternative paper that he once worked for in Ohio. He also goes into his growing fascination with the Murray case and his frequent trips to New England to investigate Maura’s disappearance. (Renner leaves behind his wife and family; I can’t imagine asking my wife to “hold down the fort” with the kids while I roamed around hunting clues on an old disappearance).

What makes the book go is that Renner has 2 good stories to tell. Renner’s investigation reveals that there was a lot going on in Maura’s life. As a reader, I enjoyed the details, but I felt bad that all of her secrets were laid bare. Also, Renner considers just about every male who had contact with Maura as a potential suspect; one of these guys might have had some nefarious role in her disappearance, but the others don’t deserve what he puts them through in the pages of True Crime Addict.

The other side of the story is a surprise. It’s Renner’s life in Ohio. He reveals that a child predator attempted to accost him when he was a boy. Renner tracks the man down. Also, he explains how true-crime cases have fascinated him for years. One wonders if Maura is the latest in a continuing line of “damsels in distress” whom Renner adopts after they disappear.

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Back flap

True Crime Addict is opinionated, which helps hold the reader’s attention. For instance, Renner despises the Republican Party and goes out of his way to denigrate GOP politicians. On the whole, he’s a walking argument; in addition to his lawsuit, he ends up serving some jail time after a confrontation with Ohio officials.

Despite my objections, I really like True Crime Addict. It’s a different sort of a book. At times, I wasn’t sure that Renner would pull it off, but he never bored me. I give the book 9 out of 10. I will look for more from Renner in the future.

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Back Cover

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