The Big O and the Merry Prankster

Oscar Robertson is an NBA champion, MVP, and twelve-time All-Star, and he was the first NBA player to average a triple-double over the course of a season. In college, he averaged 33.8 points per game for the Cincinnati Bearcats, and he left school as the all-time leading scorer in NCAA history.

The 1957-58 season was Robertson’s sophomore year at Cincinnati and the first in which he saw playing time for the Bearcats. Robertson immediately made his presence felt, to the tune of 35.1 points and 15.2 rebounds in 38.8 minutes per game, helping Cincinnati to a 25-3 record and a Missouri Valley Conference championship.

Meanwhile, up the road in Oxford, Miami University was on a run of its own. Behind future NBA player Wayne Embry, the RedHawks finished a respectable 18-9, but notably went 12-0 in MAC play, the last team to accomplish that feat and only the second-ever team to complete an undefeated conference schedule (the 1949-50 Cincinnati team was 10-0 in the MAC before leaving the conference). One of Miami’s reserves was Ken Babbs. Listed at 6’3″, the Mentor, Ohio native contributed eleven points and four rebounds in the ten games in which he appeared for the RedHawks that season.

On January 30, 1958, the RedHawks traveled to Cincinnati for a matchup with Robertson’s heavily favored Bearcats. A box score is not readily available, but Babbs recounted his memories of the game in a live interview streamed last night. According to him, Miami coach Richard Shrider, who was in his first season with the RedHawks, thought his team had no chance against Cincinnati and told his players as much, which rubbed the competitor in Babbs the wrong way. Miami planned a box-and-one defense against the Bearcats, with Babbs drawing the assignment of the “one” to mark Robertson. Determined to put up a fight, he said he planned to guard Roberston aggressively, “like stink on shit.” Then laughing, Babbs confessed: “I fouled out in two minutes.” Cincinnati won by twenty.

Both teams reached the NCAA tournament that spring. With their first-round win over Pitt, Miami became the first MAC team to win a tournament game. The Bearcats did not win any tournament games that year, but they made deep runs in Robertson’s two remaining seasons there, finishing third overall both times.

Robertson, of course, went on to professional basketball fame. Babbs, meanwhile, found fame of a different sort. That fall, after graduating from Miami, he pursued graduate studies in creative writing at Stanford. There, he befriended fellow student Ken Kesey, with whom Babbs and others soon would form the Merry Pranksters, whose culturally influential escapades with sound, film, and LSD were in part memorialized in Tom Wolfe’s memorable book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and would help propel the career of the Grateful Dead.

You can watch Babbs discuss his 1958 on-court encounter with Robertson and a later, off-court reunion here. A film of a Grateful Dead benefit concert supporting a Kesey-family creamery the Pranksters helped produce is available for a limited time below.


The only rule is you have to listen


You don’t have to if you don’t want to, of course, but if you would like to hear me on the latest episode of the Banished to the Pen Podcast, listening is required. Baseball discussion topics include my recent research on switch hitters and the defensive shift, as well as the new book from Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller, The Only Rule Is It Has To Work.

The podcast episode is available for downloading or streaming here.

Tennis Time


Most jr.-tennis coaches are basically technicians, hands-on practical straight-ahead problem-solving statistical-data wonks, with maybe added knacks for short-haul psychology and motivational speaking. The point about not crunching serious stats is that Schtitt . . . knew real tennis was really about not the blend of statistical order and expansive potential that the game’s technicians revered, but in fact the opposite — not-order, limit, the places where things broke down, fragmented into beauty. That real tennis was no more reducible to delimited factors or probability curves than chess or boxing, the two games of which it’s a hybrid. In short, Schtitt and [Incandenza] found themselves totally simpatico on tennis’s exemption from stats-tracking regression. Were he now still among the living, Dr. Incandenza would now describe tennis in the paradoxical terms of what’s now called “Extra-Linear Dynamics.” And Schtitt, whose knowledge of formal math is probably about equivalent to that of a Taiwanese kindergartner, nevertheless seemed to know what Hopman and van der Meer and Bollettieri seemed not to know: that locating beauty and art and magic and improvement and keys to excellence and victory in the prolix flux of match play is not a fractal matter of reducing chaos to pattern. Seemed perversely — of expansion, the aleatory flutter of uncontrolled, metastatic growth — each well-shot ball admitting of n possible responses, n^2 possible responses to those responses, and on into what Incandenza would articulate to anyone who shared both his backgrounds as a Cantorian continuum of infinities of possible move and response, Cantorian and beautiful because infoliating, contained, this diagnate infinity of infinities of choice and execution, mathematically uncontrolled but humanly contained, bounded by the talent and imagination of self and opponent, bent in on itself by the containing boundaries of skill and imagination that brought one player finally down, that kept both from winning, that made it, finally, a game, these boundaries of self.

David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest 81-82 (Back Bay Books, Nov. 2006) (1996).

In tennis, the better player doesn’t always win. Sometimes, she loses in straight sets.

Imagine if basketball, football or hockey games were decided by which team outscored the other in the most periods. Get outscored by 20 points in the first quarter, and it’s no problem, you just have to eke out the last three by a point each to take the game.

That’s sort of how tennis works. Win more sets than your opponent, and you win the match — even if your opponent played better throughout. These anomalous results happen rarely, but more often on grass, the surface of play at Wimbledon, which started this week.

Wacky outcomes like [Rajeev] Ram’s pair of lottery matches happen more often at Wimbledon than at the other Grand Slams. Since 1991, 8.8 percent of completed Wimbledon men’s matches have been lottery matches, won by the player who was less successful at protecting his serve than his opponent. At the other three Grand Slam tournaments, that proportion ranged between 6.4 percent and 6.6 percent, according to data provided by Jeff Sackmann of Tennis Abstract.

The sport’s time-tested scoring system has many virtues, even if total fairness isn’t one of them. Its symmetry makes players alternate the deuce and advantage sides, switch sides of the net, rotate serving and returning. It guarantees that a player trailing by a big margin gets all the time it takes to stage a comeback, provided she performs well enough to earn that time. It keeps matches that are lopsided short, and lets close matches take all the time they need.

Carl Bialik, “An Oddity of Tennis Scoring Makes Its Annual Appearance at Wimbledon,” (June 25, 2014, 7:31 a.m.).

Part of the reason baseball is so susceptible to statistical analysis is that the season is long enough for players’ and teams’ statistical averages to settle out and meaningfully describe their performance. Another reason is that the game itself is comprised of isolated interactions. No other sport is so susceptible, but the reasons appear to be different in each case. Basketball may be next up, held back only by our (diminishing, thanks to technology) inability to track and store data. Hockey statistics are thought to be less meaningful because the season isn’t long enough for the random bounces of the puck to settle out from the averages.

To my poorly informed knowledge, advanced statistical analysis has made few inroads into tennis. Part of the reason for this may be that tennis’ scoring structure, alluded to in the second passage above, does not as easily allow for the clean, direct reflection of averaged rates of good things or bad things in individual (and therefore aggregated) match outcomes. On the other hand, maybe looking to a statistical rationale for an explanation of statistics’ inability to aid in the understanding of tennis is futile. Or at least I think that’s what the first passage means.    Continue reading

Book Review: Up, Up, & Away

jonahkeriupup&awayJonah Keri has completed the keystone work of his young life with Up, Up, & Away: The Kid, The Hawk, Rock, Vladi, Pedro, Le Grand Orange, Youppi!, The Crazy Business of Baseball, & the Ill-fated but Unforgettable Montreal Expos. While Keri surely will continue to be one of the top baseball writers of this generation, he was born to write this book about his dearest baseball love.

The book tells the full story of the Expos franchise, beginning with pre-Expos baseball in Montreal, which included the minor league Montreal Royals, a team that counted Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente among its alumni, through the bitter end and the franchise’s departure to Washington, D.C. Readers learn about Montreal and the men who brought Major League Baseball to that city (and Canada) and administered it while it was there, but Up, Up, & Away really is a fan’s story of the talented characters who wore the red, white, and powder blue.

The Expos generally had two peaks in their thirty-five-year history. The first came in the early 1980s, Continue reading

Baseball Notes: The Crux of the Statistical Biscuit

baseball notes

The purpose of the interrupted Baseball Notes series is to highlight just-below-the-surface baseball topics for the purpose of deepening the enjoyment of the game for casual fans like you and me.

In the interest of achieving that casual purpose, this series generally will avoid advanced statistical concepts. One need not grasp the depths of wRC+ or xFIP to enjoy baseball, of course, or even to think about the give-and-take between baseball traditionalists, who eschew advanced statistics, and the sabermetricians, who live by them.

Moneyball famously highlighted this debate, such as it is, and it arose in the 2012 season around the American League MVP race between Miguel Cabrera (the eventual winner, and the traditional favorite) and Mike Trout, and again last season in the context of commentator Brian Kenny’s “Kill the Win” campaign against ascribing significant meaning to pitchers’ win-loss records.

The reason this “debate”– the “eye test,” wins, and batting average versus WAR et al.– isn’t really a debate is because the two sides have different descriptive goals. In short, the traditional group is concerned with what has happened, while the sabermetric group is concerned with what will happen. The former statically tallies the game’s basic value points, while the latter is out to better understand the past in order to predict the future. The basic stats on the back of a player’s baseball card aim to tell you what he did in prior seasons; the advanced statistics on Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference, or in Baseball Prospectus aim to tell you something about what he’ll do next year based on a deeper understanding of what he did in prior seasons.

The previous paragraph represents an oversimplification, and probably a gross one, but I think it accurately highlights the basic, if slight, misalignment of initial points of view from the two main groups of people talking about how we talk about baseball today.

Read more…

Book Pre-Review: The System

I recently started reading The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football, by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian. Keith Olbermann interviewed the latter on his new ESPN show, and the segment illustrates the flavor of the book:

At the very least, Benedict and Keteyian know their audience: While chapter one reminds college football fans why they love Mike Leach, chapter two reminds them why they hate Lane Kiffin. Chapter one isn’t Leach’s only appearance in the book– he’s back as quickly as chapter six, though on less happy terms, and he would’ve made it into chapter thirteen had the publishing date been slightly later– but it does offer new insight on Leach’s now-famous marital genesis story. As highlighted here, Leach’s first date with his wife, Sharon, saw him taking her to A&W and telling her to order based on the 2-for-1 coupon book he handed her. From The System we learn that Leach’s approach was even bolder: he and Sharon had only met the night before.

Look for a full review of this book sometime after I finish reading it.

Book review: Chicago Blues: The City & The Music

When strangers would ask me about the book I was reading, Mike Rowe’s Chicago Blues: The City & The Music, I described it as “an urban sexual thriller.” The truth is that no stranger ever asked me about the book I was reading, though, and Chicago Blues is about the farthest thing from a literary thriller of any variety since the Gutenberg Bible was set to print. With a plot arc that parallels the Encyclopedia Britannica, this book plods from the Mississippi cotton fields to Chicago via the Great Migration with an arm’s-length familiarity that conveyed less a lack of information and more a certain physical and conceptual distance from the subject. Amibiguous punctuation on the back cover introduction of the author as “Mike Rowe, a noted British blues historian,” but it confirms enough of the reader’s sense of an approach that is in at least some respect foreign.

Still, there is something to learn from the drumbeat of names and factoids that populate the meat of this book. In particular, I found the personalization of the movement from Mississippi to Chicago by way of West Memphis, AR, to be informative, as was learning about early blues leaders besides Robert Johnson, including Tampa Red and Big Bill Broonzy.

After that, though, Rowe’s methodological approach became all too clear. His portal into the Chicago blues scene was the record labels, probably because they offered the most ready source of documentary evidence of that scene. What they don’t offer much insight into, at least after a while, is the music (to say nothing of the city) itself. Recording histories and trends tell us something, but far from everything, about the music and the musicians. With barely any exception, Chicago Blues offers little insight into the personalities of the musicians, their interactions with their peers and competitors, their individual influences, mentors and habits, or their playing styles. Rowe almost never takes the reader inside a live performance, and when he does, it isn’t for very long.

The ultimate musical achievement: To be featured on a t-shirt worn by Derek Trucks.

As usual with these sorts of things, I have an eye out for mention of some particular item. Sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised, as I was when Keith Richards surpassed even my hopeful expectations by dedicating much type in his autobiography to his relationship with Gram Parsons. Here, though, the situation was much to the contrary, as the main piece of Chicago blues recording I knew and owned heading into reading the book, Junior Wells’ Hoodoo Man Blues, received no mention whatsoever. While the Parsons-Richards connection probably is objectively a bit obscure today and as an element of the Rolling Stones’ 50-year history, Hoodoo Man Blues “is essential listening for lovers of electric Chicago blues,” “one of the truly classic blues albums of the 1960s.” While I learned from Rowe’s history that the 1965 release would have come toward the end of the Chicago blues boom, rather than toward the beginning (as I had thoughtlessly assumed), I was kept waiting for some mention of the recording considered “one of the first to fully document, in the superior acoustics of a recording studio, the smoky ambience [sic] of a night at a West Side[, Chicago] nightspot” that was never to come. Rowe addresses some of the back and forth between Wells and harp rival Little Walter, and Buddy Guy’s (originally credited as “Friendly Chap” due to label conflicts) name appears in the book, but for a text so focused on recording and the record labels, the book’s omission of this recording is more than disappointing.

I wouldn’t not recommend Chicago Blues, but I might not recommend reading it straight through. As a touchstone text, though, it makes a good reference piece to add to your collection.

Movie review: The Rum Diary

Hot wings do not a dinner make, and, typically, the work of a good author does not a good film make. And yet, last Sunday night provided an experience to the contrary on both counts. Sort of. A dozen wings and double that in Budweiser fluid ounces, alone, will not commend anyone to longevity or short-term comfort, but the film adaptation of Hunter Thompson’s early, long-unpublished novel, The Rum Diary, is a success.

Johnny Depp reprises his role as a Thompson protagonist/stand-in from 1998’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to portray Paul Kemp, a mainland American journalist and aspiring novelist who lands in Puerto Rico in 1960 looking for some money and, he hopes, his voice as a writer.

Not quite a comedy, not quite a romance, not quite a political drama, not quite a history, The Rum Diary has everything and nothing all at once. I tried reading the book once, in Iceland, but I couldn’t finish it because it didn’t seem to have a plot. I later realized that I hadn’t understood it, but, having borrowed the book the first time around, I never finished reading. It isn’t unlike Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises as an account of what it was like to live in a place and a culture at a certain time, told from a particular perspective of a semi-outsider who largely took an observational posture but also wanted something for himself.

There’s no need to get pretentious about this, though– indeed, that’s pretty much the opposite of the point– even if the author of the underlying work was writing a book about writing that same book. The movie version of The Rum Diary had the Sunday-night audience paying attention, laughing, and enjoying the vistas– scenic and human– and well-crafted dialogue, even if they weren’t too terribly informed about the story’s origin.* Highly recommended.

* As the cameras are pulling back from the puertorriqueño scenery and just before the closing credits roll, the screen shows something like “In memory of Hunter S. Thompson 1937-2005,” to which the young gal behind us asked, “Is that a real person or something?” A good question.

Book Review: Life (via QuestionsPresented)

Book Review: Life Not to be confused with the movie of the same title, Life is the 2010 autobiography of guitarist and Rolling Stones co-founder Keith Richards. Finally catching up my reviews to some reasonable proximity to the subject book’s publication date, cf. here and here, I started reading Life about five weeks ago as an enjoyable distraction from the legal matters that had been commanding my time. How surprised was I, then, to read the opening lines of Ric … Read More

via QuestionsPresented