Friday, December 6, 2013

Remembering Mandela

"...a man who took history in his hands and bent the arc of the moral universe toward justice..."

Friday, November 8, 2013

So, this is 50

I've never been the sort to wish I was a different age.

When I was 10, I genuinely liked being 10 and didn't want to be anything other than 10. If later years happened to come my way, I'd accept them, but I was in no rush to reach them. As I passed through my teens and into my twenties, I found reasons to enjoy those years too, but never really wished to stay in any of them longer than my allotted time. When I hit 30 and then 40, I experienced no yearning to go backwards to childhood or teenage or young adulthood. Been there, done that.

(I am convinced, by the way, that those of later years who yearn to return to childhood, failed to truly experience childhood because they spent those early years wishing to be older. Just can't please some folks.)

So, here is 50. I've heard many of my peers speak of the age with dread and quite a few with outright denial. Doesn't seem a bad number to me.

In fact, I like 50. And with good reasons:

- It's the number of states in our Union; it's among my very favorite speed limits; it is elegant (perhaps that should read, "L-egant") as a Roman numeral; read as Five-O, it links to a classic television program with an excellent theme song; put together with a dash and a copy of itself it represents the fairest possible split.

- Fifty is mathematically special. It's a Harshad number (at least in our commonly used Base-10). While "Harshad" sounds a lot like "harsh," it isn't. The term comes from Indian words meaning "joy-giver" (how special is that?) and it applies to numbers divisible by the sum of their digits. Less than half of ages from 1-50 are Harshad numbers. It is also a "magic number" at least in the physics of atoms.

- The number 50 is important to the history of our national currency. Our 50-dollar bills continue to honor Ulysses Grant, who played such a major role in holding our country together (the bills do this despite misguided efforts by some to insert in them the face of a B-movie actor who played a major role in splitting our country apart). Our 50-cent pieces were the last American "silver" coins to actually contain any silver.

- In sports, 50 was the number worn by two other November-babies who became big-league pitchers: John "Candy Man" Candelaria played on the 1979 World Champion Pirates; Jamie Moyer, who will still be 50 years old until the 18th of this month, set the record as the oldest pitcher in MLB history to win a game and played for eight teams through portions of four decades. Fifty was the number worn by Chicago Bears great Mike Singletary. I wasn't a fan of his, but he did wear the number. It was also worn by linebacker (and occasional tight end) Mike Vrabel of the Patriots, and I certainly was a fan of his.

- Fifty, as in the year 1950, marked the best color cinematography oscar of the great John Wayne western "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," and also the start of the Kefauver Committee hearings, the birth of the Charles Schulz comic strip Peanuts and the invention of mobile pagers. Looking back a century to 1850, the year marked the swearing in of that great American president, Millard Fillmore, last Whig to occupy the White House and one of only five men to hold the top U.S. office without ever winning a Presidential election.

Fifty is also memorable, which is a good thing where age is concerned. When you're in your middle and late forties, you tend to lose track of birthdays and are liable to be momentarily embarrassed when someone asks you your age. (Your eyes roll back as you mentally subtract birth year from current year and try to recall if you've celebrated your current-year birthday yet.) Once you hit 50, you will surely know your correct age for the next twelve months.

The age of 50 comes with some privileges. While it isn't quite old enough to begin telling strangers how to raise their children, it does entitle you to membership in AARP and a bunch of AARP-card-related discounts. Many of these discounts relate to car rentals, hotel stays and other vacation-oriented spending. These aren't especially interesting to me, as I don't travel very much. But, with AARP card in hand, any 50-plus-year-old is entitled to a free Dunkin' Donuts doughnut with the purchase of a large beverage. I'm sure to take advantage of that one. And I might actually visit Denny's for an occasional late-day meal just to get my 20% off. (There are also discounts at Papa John's pizza restaurants. We have no local Papa John's, and that actually suits me fine, as I think the owner's a jerk and wouldn't eat there anyway.)

All things considered, 50 is a very likable number. And those who fear attaining it should consider that it has been out of reach of many talented and influential people. Martin Luther King Jr., John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Princess Diana, Alexander the Great, Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun, even Jesus Himself didn't make it to 50. John Lennon, Jim Croce, Freddie Mercury, Elvis Presley and Mozart never got there. Marilyn Monroe, John Belushi, Patsy Cline, Jiles "Big Bopper" Richardson, Jayne Mansfield, Lenny Bruce, "Mama Cass" Elliot and many others from the entertainment industry didn't even get close. And let's not forget Edgar Allen Poe, George Orwell, Vincent Van Gogh... With all they accomplished, blowing out 50 candles on a birthday cake was a feat that eluded them.

Probably we all have relatives and friends who didn't make it to 50, though they really deserved to. But getting to 50 is as much about plain, dumb luck as it is about anything else.

I suppose a big part of liking your age, whatever it happens to be, is understanding and feeling connected to the history that coincides with your lifetime.

I arrived - with some help from Mom and Dad, of course - in early November of 1963. At the time, Joe Valachi had just begun telling anyone who would listen all he knew about the American Mafia. John Kennedy was still President and would be for another couple of weeks. The Dodgers had just swept the Yankees in the World Series.

Earlier in the year, the debut album from The Beatles thrilled music fans, Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" frightened moviegoing audiences and the motion picture general release of "To Kill a Mockingbird" (rated "Not Suitable for Children") delivered powerful messages and left lasting impressions. Other movies of the year were Cleopatra; It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World; Dr. No; Bye Bye Birdie; and 55 Days at Peking. The Beach Boys (Surfin' USA, Surfer Girl), the Chiffons (He's So Fine), Peter, Paul and Mary (Blowin' in the Wind), the Four Seasons (Walk Like a Man), the Miracles (You've Really Got a Hold on Me), the Drifters (Up On the Roof) worked their way up the pop music charts. And Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Dion, Bobby Darin, Elvis and Ray Charles were getting plenty of play on radio as well.

On television, Americans watched Dick Van Dyke, Andy Griffith, the Flintstones, Petticoat Junction, the Beverly Hillbillies, Mister Ed, and a relatively new late-night host named Johnny Carson. Just two months before I entered the world, the CBS network gambled by increasing its nightly news program from 15 minutes to a half-hour. It was a fairly risky decision, as the program's host, Walter Cronkite, had only first sat down in the anchor chair a year earlier.

The world's first geosynchronous satellite was put into space by NASA in 1963, and it was almost immediately used for worldwide communications and low-quality television transmission.

The second period of the Second Vatican Council was under way in Rome, led by Pope Paul VI. Among its goals was the initiation of a dialogue between the Catholic Church and the contemporary world (apparently still a work in progress). The council's first period, led by Pope John XXIII, had ended in 1962. (Pope John XXIII died in June 1963.)

The American Civil Rights Movement was hitting its stride in 1963. The March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech took place that year and were very recent memories at the date of my birth.

About a year before my arrival, the first popular computer game was invented - the two-player "Spacewar." It was written on a DEC PDP-1 "mini-computer." ("Mini" at the time meant that it did not entirely fill a room.) Microcomputers, like the one you are using right now, were merely a fantasy at that point, but the seeds of what would become the global Internet already were beginning to sprout.

It turns out I am very much a product of my history, and I suspect we all are. I haven't the time (or, frankly, the desire) to cover all the life-changing and perspective-altering events of the half-century between 1963 and now. But I know that they are all recorded within me somewhere. Today, I am 50, and all the experiences of my (first?) half-century of existence comprise what I am. They influence to some degree what I say and do, the music I listen to, the books I read, the folks I vote for, the things I value and dream for and despise.

I hope that I have managed to convince a few people that reaching the half-century mark isn't bad and that 1963, now slipping into our distant past, was nevertheless a great time to be born. I'm sure a number of my peers will continue to feel anxiety over nearing/reaching/passing age 50. But, for me, it is a good number. And it is the only number that truly suits me at this moment.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Series win just wasn't in the Cards

Almost anything can happen when two teams compete on a baseball diamond. And we saw much that was unexpected in the just-ended Red Sox-Cardinals World Series: improbable fielding errors, baserunning miscues, controversial calls by umpires, unbelievably strong pitching performances and some miraculous hitting. Perhaps the most surprising thing about the series is how unsurprising - even predictable - the end result was.

The teams entered the postseason with identical 97-65 regular season records, and sportscasters constantly referred to the Red Sox and Cardinals as very similar in strength and as the best regular season teams in their respective leagues. As far as overall regular season records go, they were correct. However, there was a difference between the two that most failed to notice. Despite the fact that the World Series is an interleague competition, virtually no one discussed the teams' regular season interleague records.

Or course, merely glancing at interleague wins and losses to predict a World Series outcome is a terribly simplistic approach. It fails to consider all of the variables of pitcher vs. batter, of speed and power and fielding prowess and consistency and endurance, of bullpen vs. bullpen, of homefield advantage, etc. It's superficial almost to the point of being irresponsible. Yet, this year, it's all you needed to do.

The Red Sox were highly proficient in interleague games during the regular season, posting a 14-6 record (a .700 mark - what baseball inexcusably calls a "percentage"), the best of all American League teams. The Cards, on the other hand, were just 10-10 (.500) in interleague play. That was good for just ninth place among the 15 National League ballclubs. Among NL playoff teams, the Pirates, Dodgers, Braves and Reds all had better interleague records than the Cardinals. And even the non-playoff Nationals, Diamondbacks, Mets and Cubs did better against AL opponents.

Does that mean the 66-96 Cubs would have done better in the Series than the 97-65 Cardinals did? Of course not (but... maybe). It's important to note that Major League Baseball record comparisons are very much apples-to-oranges these days, as teams play different collections of opponents during the season. And 20 games of apples-to-oranges interleague play isn't much of a sample. But it may be just enough of a taste to detect a lemon.

Within our small sample of 20 games, the difference between the records of the Boston and St. Louis ballclubs actually amounted to just FOUR games. If Boston had won four fewer or if St. Louis had won four more, their interleague records would have been the same. So, what can four little games mean?

Quite a bit, actually.

While the Red Sox did not lose an interleague series all year, those four additional losses caused the Cardinals to drop half of their interleague series. The opponents in those four games are also quite telling. St. Louis had trouble with AL teams with winning records and managed only one win in six tries against elite AL clubs that turned in 90 wins or more on the season. Boston had more limited action against elite NL clubs, but posted a 2-1 record against the 92-win Dodgers.

When overall regular season records are considered, it turns out that the interleague opponents of both St. Louis and Boston were about the same - in the .485-.486 range. And nearly 1,000 game results - a much greater sample - go into the calculation of those records. So, maybe this year, we're not looking at apples and oranges, but just apples. Despite their identical regular season records, Boston devoured the apples while St. Louis gagged.

The Red Sox, as everyone certainly knows by now, took the World Series in six games - four wins, two losses, for a winning mark of .667.  That's exactly the same mark they posted in interleague games against playoff-bound NL teams (Dodgers). The St. Louis World Series mark of .333 is just what the Cards turned in against their playoff-bound AL opponents (Athletics).

Surprise: Sometimes the simplistic approach works.


CARDINALS interleague 2013, 10-10 (.500) #9 in NL

Regular season
3W 1L (.750) against the Royals 86-76 (.531)
3W 1L (.750) against the Astros 51-111 (.315)
2W 1L (.667) against the Mariners 71-91 (.438)
1W 2L (.333) against the Angels 78-84 (.481)
1W 2L (.333) against the Athletics 96-66 (.593)
0W 3L (.000) against the Rangers 91-72* (.558)
*-For some reason, MLB counts the one-game playoff
between the Rangers and the Rays in the regular season.

AL regular season opponents overall: 473-500 (.486)

Among Cardinals AL opponents, only the Athletics entered
the postseason. The Cardinals were 1-2 (.333) against 
them. The Cardinals posted a record of 1W 5L (.167) 
against 90-plus win AL teams. The Cardinals were 6-4
(.600) against teams with records below .500. They 
were 4-6 (.400) against teams with records at .500 
or above.

World Series
2W 4L (.333) against the Red Sox 97-65 (.599)


RED SOX interleague 2013, 14-6 (.700) - #1 in AL

Regular season
3W 0L (1.00) against the Padres 76-86 (.469)
3W 1L (.750) against the Rockies 74-88 (.457)
2W 1L (.667) against the Diamondbacks 81-81 (.500)
2W 1L (.667) against the Giants 76-86 (.469)
2W 1L (.667) against the Dodgers 92-70 (.568)
2W 2L (.500) against the Phillies 73-89 (.451)

NL regular season opponents overall: 472-500 (.485)

Among Red Sox NL opponents, only the Dodgers entered 
the postseason. The Red Sox were 2-1 (.667) against
them. The Red Sox posted a record of 2W 1L (.667) 
against 90-plus win NL teams. The Red Sox were 10-4
(.714) against teams with records below .500. They
were 4-2 (.667) against teams with records at .500
or above. 

World Series
4W 2L (.667) against the Cardinals 97-65 (.599)


Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Biography of Buffalo Mafioso Joe DiCarlo

Michael Tona and I just completed work on the two-volume historical biography, DiCarlo: Buffalo's First Family of Crime.

Mafioso Joseph J. DiCarlo was once known as “the Al Capone of Buffalo” and as western New York's “Public Enemy No. 1.”

DiCarlo - Vol. I
Son of the region's first known Sicilian underworld boss, DiCarlo was rejected as heir to his father's criminal empire. After spending troubled years as a vassal of the influential Stefano Magaddino, DiCarlo and his underlings wandered, seeking their fortunes in Youngstown, Ohio, and Miami Beach, Florida, before returning home to witness the bloody disintegration of western New York's Mafia organization.

Through the two volumes, DiCarlo's colorful and violent life story becomes a window into the history of the powerful Magaddino Crime Family and the American Mafia network. Volume I covers the period through 1937. Volume II focuses on the period 1938 to 1984 and includes an epilogue describing events as recent as 2012.

DiCarlo - Vol. II
A great deal of research went into DiCarlo. In fact, Mike spent decades accumulating information on underworld events and DiCarlo family history before I even joined the project. Following a chance online meeting in summer 2006, Mike and I began working on organized crime history articles the following winter and partnered on the DiCarlo project in December 2007.

A partial list of sources - including police, court, prison and FBI files; birth, death, marriage and baptism records; personal interviews; thousands of newspaper and magazine articles; and many books - can be viewed on the book's website. Anyone desiring more information on a particular subject will be happy to hear that DiCarlo includes more than 3,100 endnotes with interesting details and source citations.

We have also provided more than 100 photographs in the two-volume biography.

DiCarlo is available in hardcover, trade paperback and e-book (formats for Amazon Kindle and for Barnes and Noble Nook/Apple iBooks) versions. Visit the book's website for more information.