Enthusiasms of my youth - newspapers, politics and baseball - have intersected recently but in total disharmony in a disturbing book.
Foul Ball by Jim Bouton, former pitcher and author of the classic baseball book, Ball Four, both angers and saddens at the same time for the way it depicts the sorry state of a local newspaper, hometown politics and sports greed.
Boutons story is very personal in the sense that he wrote it not only to purge his own rage but seemingly for me.
It is the story of his attempt to bring a baseball team to Pittsfield and at the same time rescue, with private funds, venerable Wahconah Park, site of professional baseball as far back as 1892, from the scrap heap.
He failed, fought at every step of the way city politicians and members of a shadow government who viewed him and his partners as threatening outsiders and by the local newspaper, the Berkshire Eagle, which had its own complicated agenda.
Foul Ball resonated powerfully for me because, many years ago as a young reporter for the Berkshire Eagle, I covered city politics. While the names have changed and time has passed, Boutons story was almost all too familiar to the community I came to know even though todays Berkshire Eagle is very different from the one that employed me to find out and tell readers what was going on in their government.
Written mainly in the form of a journal, Boutons book chronicles his efforts and those of his partner, Chip Elitzer, to persuade Pittsfield officials to grant them a lease on city-owned Wahconah Park in order to bring a new minor league baseball team to that city.
Bouton and Elitzer began mobilizing their efforts in the wake of an announcement that at the end of the 2001 season the owner of the current occupant of the park, would be moving his Class A New York-Penn League franchise to a newly-built municipal stadium in Troy, N.Y.
Drafting a plan that they circulated to interested parties, Bouton and Elitzer offered, as an alternative, to put their own and other private money - up to $250,000 a year - into renovating Wahconah Park and bringing in a professional team, but one not affiliated with a Major League club. In exchange, the Bouton group would need a long-term lease on the park in order to protect their investment and get the park and club on a solid local footing.
From the outset, Bouton and Elitzer met a cool-to-hostile reception. They were viewed as outsiders - Elitzer from far off Great Barrington 12 miles south, and Bouton, from remote North Egremont, another 6 miles south of Great Barrington.
A more immediate incentive for Boutons quest was the June 5, 2001, defeat of still another referendum question - by a 54-45 margin - of a proposal to create a Civic Authority with the powers of eminent domain to build an $18.5 million stadium. Two earlier attempts to convince Pittsfield residents to dig into their pockets for money to build a municipal stadium had also been defeated by angry voters.
The city of Pittsfield is a community in economic distress, as a result of the slow but relentless abandonment by its largest employer, the General Electric Co. Over the years, a new stadium was hyped as a necessary form of economic development, similar to Springfield Mayor Michael Albanos unsuccessful bid to sell a city stadium to reluctant citizens of that dispirited city not so many years ago.
As argued by Bouton, all of Pittsfields movers and shakers - Mayor Gerald Doyle, a majority of the City Council, the residual corporate voice of GE, the Berkshire Bank and the Berkshire Eagle - remained wedded to the idea of a new stadium despite public loathing for the scheme. And interestingly, the new stadium would be built on property owned by the Berkshire Eagle just west of the downtown.
Early in his account Bouton explores in some detail the recent history of the clever, but mostly cynical way, rival baseball club owners and public officials have whipsawed communities into believing that their only hope for having a team was to spend scarce public funds on building new parks.
With the June 5 defeat of the Civic Authority proposal, Bouton and his partner geared up in earnest to sell their idea to citizens and officials of the city, rolling the rock up the hill against all odds that summer, only to see it plummet down; yet again redoubling their efforts, only to wind up exhausted and defeated.
In setting the stage for his first journal entry - June 13 - Bouton writes: A historic ballpark soon to be abandoned, a government that ignores its citizens, a newspaper at war with its readers, the curious involvement of General Electric, and the shots are being called by a guy in Denver? (W. Dean Singleton, out-of-town owner of the Eagle). It was about this time that I began taking notes.
The ensuing account is a virtual day-by-day account of the web of interests and players - politicians, reporters and editorial writers, sleazy baseball entrepreneurs - who frustrate, undermine and eventually torpedo Bouton and Elitzers dream, their hard work and commitment. The details of their struggles could become tedious were it not for Boutons habit of poking fun not only at his adversaries but at himself.
As the journal relates the story from Boutons singular perspective during that summer and fall until the last entry on October 4, it seems clear that the deck is stacked against Bouton and his grand design for baseball in the Berkshires.
While there is strong support from activist citizens for saving Wahconah Park and embracing the Bouton plan, the back-channel efforts of those operating on the edges and in the shadows - GE, the business community, and very prominently, the local newspaper - ultimately prevail.
All of this taps deep into my experiences as a reporter for the Berkshire Eagle between 1961 and 1965, a resident of Great Barrington and Stockbridge, as the Pittsfield City Hall reporter and as a baseball fan.
In Boutons account, many political discussions of the issues take place not at City Hall but at a tavern on Newell Street, still operated by Remo Del Gallo, whom I covered when he was City Council president and later acting mayor in the early 1960s. And, I might say I spent more than a little time at the Newell Street joint.
Similarly, Peter Arlos, a county commissioner and supporter of Boutons, was regularly a source of inside dope on political issues I reported on during that period.
It was as if I was being taken on a guided tour by the author of an earlier time in my life.
Bouton and Elitzers on-going trench warfare with owners, editors and reporters at the Berkshire Eagle reminded me, if I needed a reminder, of the dangers to a community when the bottom-line driven media conglomerate comes to town and gets grafted to the local power structure. The newspaper is hardly disinterested. It becomes an active player in the life of the community, not as auditor and reporter or God Forbid truth-teller and whistle-blower.
And there is no worse media outfit than that run by W. Dean Singleton, who has made a name for himself by buying up troubled newspapers at tag sale prices all over the country and squeezing out what little revenue and substance remains in their husk.
It was especially galling to me and others who once toiled for the Eagle, that the pride of New England newspapering, distinguished by its strong editorial voice and breadth of local coverage, should have wound up in Singletons hands. But a few years ago, facing financial ruin because of mismanagement by the third generation of Miller family members, the paper was sold to Singleton and his minions.
Boutons book is Exhibit A, B and C of the bitter consequences for a community of a newspaper without principles.
An equally sordid addendum to the story occurs when Bouton finished writing his book and was ready to make final editorial changes. He was told at the 11th hour by the publisher that he had to document in detail or remove all unfavorable references to GE - i.e. its long history of willfully and recklessly burying toxic wastes (PCBs) throughout the city of Pittsfield and dumping them as well into the Housatonic River. Otherwise, the publisher - Public Affairs Press - would not proceed with the book. Bouton refused, believing the publisher was yielding to pressure from GE. Public Affairs then pulled out of the deal, requiring Bouton to publish the book on his own.
After reading the book, I sent a letter off to Bouton saying Id welcome a chance to travel over to the Berkshires to sit down and chat with him, given my own experience in Pittsfield and at the Eagle.
He called late one night to say he did not have time for such an encounter given the time need to go on the road to promote the book and make a living giving motivational talks. And did I write for anyone other than my web site, he asked, implying that my minor league web site was not large enough in the media firmament to do his story justice.
No, I had to confess, I write just for myself and a few old friends. And thats okay with me.