The GWRBI

Baseball is a sport full of statistics, and there’s one weird footnote of a stat that was, from 1980 to 1988, elevated to prominence. This was the Game Winning Run Batted In. Defined simply as “The RBI that gives a club the lead it never relinquishes” , it existed but never felt that prominent. The career leader in GWRBIs during this period was Keith Hernandez.

“Normal” RBIs were one of the first stats that sabermetricians slammed, and with good reason. The stat is simply too context-dependent and reliant on how good at getting on base the players batting before the RBI hitter are. Rickey Henderson didn’t have that many RBIs because he was always a leadoff hitter, so the bases were either empty or he appeared after the team’s worst hitters. GWRBIs have that and the same “reliant on the other half off the inning” issue as pitcher wins. And while meant to embody the likes of Bill Mazeroski’s famous home run, the definition of a GWRBI means that a marginal player singling in the first run early in an 11-0 squash is also credited with it.

So few people mourned the stat when it was discontinued. Yet I have a strange affection for it, for while near-useless for evaluating players, it reveals a little about the paths of individual games.

Review: Storied Independent Automakers

Storied Independent Automakers

Charles K. Hyde’s Storied Independent Automakers tells the tale of the American-owned car companies that were not the Big Three. It’s a story worth telling, because they illustrated just how ruthless and consolidating the car industry is. These car companies went under or were bought out at the height of the domestic auto industry’s success (one ironic silver lining was that many of their left-hanging dealers turned to import brands and proceeded to make a fortune from them).

They had one brief moment of popularity due to a completely artificial boom when World War II resulted in years of pent-up demand. And now and then they managed to pull an innovation out that gave them a temporary edge (like compacts for AMC) until the big three caught up. But that was mostly it, and other than that it was all uphill. Hyde rightly points out it was impressive that they lasted as long as they did, and gives credit where it was due.

Though written in a history book tone (ie, it’s not exciting for anyone other than me), Hyde’s book is light enough to be readable while still containing lots of well-researched statistics on cars. It tells the story of an overlooked but important part of the auto industry’s history. Any enthusiast should enjoy it.

The Beginning of Conventional WW3 Plans

I’ve talked sometimes about the “you’ve seen so many imitators that the original doesn’t seem so original” effect with regards to fiction. When reading this translated, declassified 1969 Soviet lecture on conventional operations after the monomanical focus on nuclear weapons earlier that decade, I’ve found it applied to history as well. Because a lot of it just seems like later pieces on how a large force would fight conventionally. And there’s more interesting things to it as well.

  • “A future world war is first and foremost a nuclear war.” Similar pieces illustrate that while the Soviets had made plans under the assumption that a World War III would start conventionally, they did not believe that it would end conventionally.
  • This is for front and army level operations, with one frequently replacing the other. This I’ve seen a lot of in translated Soviet field regulations, to include two unit names being used interchangeably, one an echelon below the other. The assumption I’ve always had is that it’s a concession to heavy casualties because your “front” will quickly be worn down to the size of a paper-strength army, your army worn to a paper-strength division, and so on. I could be wrong.
  • The stated rate of advance is 35-40 kilometers a day, a slightly lower one than their later 40-60.
  • Airborne forces are to be used.
  • The “going over to nuclear weapons” section specifically brings up the opponent pushing the button as soon as they start losing badly.
  • With typical Soviet precision, the article estimates “A fighter bomber division is capable, in one day of combat with two to three sorties, of inflicting destruction (up to 20 percent losses) on one to two enemy brigades.”
  • As always, there’s the boilerplate necessary propaganda statements and the obligatory (if quite understandable) reference to World War II.

Review: Captain Beefheart

Captain Beefheart

One of my favorite strange musicians is Don “Captain Beefheart” Van Vliet, so I knew I had to get Mike Barnes’ biography of him. Barnes goes into great detail on the eccentric musician and his works. One thing that’s made clear is that his persona was not an act-van Vliet was truly eccentric and difficult to deal with, to the point where it’s quite understandable why he left music and spent the rest of his life as an artist, where he had much more complete financial and creative control.

Everything from Beefheart’s struggles with the labels to struggles with the various “Magic Bands” to his lifelong on-and-off friendship with Frank Zappa is covered here and covered well. Also covered is the very origin of the nickname, coming from a bizarre film project known as “Captain Beefheart vs. The Grunt People”.

The book is strangely at its weakest when it gets to the music itself. In part this is because any description in text of Beefheart’s music fails to do its” quirkiness” justice, but Barnes makes it seem particularly dull, which it is definitely is not. For instance, the description of “Kandy Korn”, my favorite Beefheart song because it manages to mix his weirdness with genuine melody, is long, pretentious, and doesn’t give a good impression of the music. That being said, this book isn’t bad as far as musical biographies go.

Review: Strategy

Strategy

B. H. Liddell Hart’s Strategy will always be a book I remember, although not necessarily for good reasons. It was one of the first history books where I’d become well-read enough to reasonably question its thesis. While Liddell Hart’s life and career has no shortage of controversy around it, I want to focus this review purely on this specific book.

Liddell Hart talks up the “indirect approach” big time, listing a huge number of historical examples. Unfortunately, the history is a cherry-picked list of questionable ones. Even when much younger, I remembered Liddell Hart skipping over several attempted indirect approaches in the American Civil War that failed and brushing off the battle of Guadalcanal (while falsely saying it was a project of MacArthur. It wasn’t.)

As for the theory, well, this kind of “maneuver warfare” talk is the kind of thing that’s uncontroversial in general principles yet doesn’t always translate to specific goals. Sometimes a “direct” approach is desireable. Many more times it’s necessary, for better or worse. What one can see Liddell Hart going for is wishful thinking, where fancy footwork alone can break an enemy without the need for any kind of attritional phase. This is utopian.

Is this book totally bad? No. I’d say it’s useful if you know the context. With that in mind, it’s useful for looking at how one school of thought approaches history and doctrine. But it shouldn’t be anyone’s first book on the subject.

The Oderpocalypse

This could only have been produced in a very short time period, after the Berlin Wall and end of the Warsaw Pact but before the actual breakup of the USSR. Because of this, this RAND report looks interesting, especially in its “long-term” ramifications.

Having an intact, hostile USSR but no Warsaw Pact means that to threaten Germany, it has to move through Poland first, can only put two fronts against Germany directly due to Poland not being that wide (the third has to either be a reserve/second echelon or swing through the Czech Republic), and puts the initial front line considerably farther to the east, with the Oder river being the first big obstacle. It’s an interesting piece.

Review: British Battleships

British Battleships

Oscar Parkes’ 1957 British Battleships: Warrior to Vanguard is exactly what it says: A gigantic encyclopedia on every large armored warship the Royal Navy operated from 1860 to the then-present. This has been one of the oldest, rarest, biggest, and most expensive books I’ve owned, and it’s amazing. This is a big, comprehensive look at British capital ships, from the famous ones of the World Wars to weird 19th Century contraptions.

The mid/late 1800s are the most interesting time period as battleship design zigzagged around, but every part of the book is effective. There are numerous cutaway drawings, and they’re well done. The writing is descriptive and engaging as well.

Yes, being made in the 1950s means a lot of it is dated now. Yes, it’s a little more broad than it is deep, a consequence of having to cover so much ground. But it is still an amazing, incredible history book. When published, the age of the battleship had just ended, making this book a fitting tribute.

The Conventional War In The Air, 1970s

I’ve come across a declassified CIA document from 1972 illustrating a speculative Soviet air campaign in a Cold War turned conventionally hot. Having just emerged from the nuclear monomania of the past decade, it shows the weaknesses of the Soviet air forces in what was new territory for them. Almost everything was either too short-ranged, too vulnerable, carried too small a bomb load for conventional war, or a combination of the above.

That being said, it still would be very formidable to oppose, especially by the standards of “we only need to hold the air above the North German Plain for a few days”.

Review: Fallen Soviet Generals

Fallen Soviet Generals

Aleksander A. Maslov’s Fallen Soviet Generals is a long, detailed, historical list of how general officers died in World War II. It’s a book I’ve mentioned before on this blog, but it deserves a full review of its own. Because the subject is interesting to me (for some reason), I enjoyed the book in spite of its obviously morbid topic.

This has the weakness of a dry history book. It’s not very lively or engaging for someone not into the subject matter, and it’s not helped by the book both being originally written in another language and being translated/edited by David Glantz, a legendary historian whose prose is nonetheless sometimes, er, flat. But it also has the strengths, meticulously categorizing how, where and when every single Soviet general died in the war.

The topic is interesting to me because, especially to an American (the US lost only twenty generals in World War II, less than a tenth the Soviet total) used to technology where they theoretically should be at less personal risk, the loss of a general officer seems like a strange aberration. Yet it clearly wasn’t, and there are many conflicts where it would be. Even for conflicts of a different technological type, Maslov’s book remains an excellent resource for how and why general officers could die in battle.

The Hall of Fame And The Hall of Herb

One of the most amusing things that I look at in sports history is to see how many Cooperstown plaque-holders can match the title record of Herb Washington-one. A little background is in order.

Herb Washington was a track athlete who was hired by the Oakland A’s as a “designated runner”. His lack of baseball knowledge meant that in practice, despite his speed, he couldn’t steal bases effectively. The trend of pinch-running specialists continued throughout the 1970s (in 1976, the A’s had two, Larry Lintz and Matt Alexander), but those were actual baseball players who could run fast. Washington, on an excellent three-peating A’s team, appeared in the 1974 World Series-and promptly got picked off at first. But he still got a title that many Hall of Famers didn’t have.

Just in the inaugural 1936 class, only one inductee (Babe Ruth) exceeds Herb Washington in championships (with seven). Then you have Ty Cobb (zero), and Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, and Walter Johnson, all with one, “equaling” Herb Washington.