When we speak of spring and baseball, we speak of renewal. New shoots of grass, possibility, the warm rays in Florida. We rarely mention the game's antipodal force that dwells there too, a darkness that consumes joy—its unblinking saurian eyes unevolved for 37 million years, unregenerate in its predation on all hope. In the right light, it even appears vaguely human—the leering aspect of a German silent film villain, clad in the cheap dress shirts of an irritable substitute math teacher. I speak, of course, of Miami Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria.
A map of Loria's character would manifest as the wind on a 19th century Atlantic chart, a wide fat face gleefully wrecking clipper ships. This is a man who robbed Montreal of the Expos and saw his business partners sue him; who regularly hurls talent away from his roster with great force while pocketing revenue sharing money; who bilked his team's hometown for $2.4 billion for a white-and-pastel airbrushed baseball crypt with a sunroof, and who once wrote a guide to life. For children. Via comic strips.
I have read this book. Because if we are to have any hope of killing him, we must first learn to think like him.
Like the Marlins winning a championship under his stewardship, there is nothing about the existence of Jeffrey H. Loria's book What's It All About, Charlie Brown? that makes a lick of goddamn sense.
Published in 1968, What's It All About was likely written a year earlier, when its co-author (Wikipedia co-credits Pat K. Lynch) was 26 years old. Loria was already a Yale graduate, midway through a Columbia MBA, a successful art dealer and author of Collecting Original Art. That success notwithstanding, 26 is awfully young to be authoring a book of wisdom. But that's what the "It" is all about—existence, society, religion, family, the sorts of grand non-evil-clown things that "It" usually signifies. (Leave it to Loria to defy that last condition.)
Then we come to the structure of the book itself. At 110 pages, one would presume it offers enough food for thought for at least an hour, but between the large type and the generous reproductions of Peanuts comic strips as exemplars, you can blitz through it in 30 minutes. Despite ostensibly exploring Peanuts as means of understanding "the art of living in a complex environment," the lessons here cannot be mistaken as ones intended for adults or anyone who's heard of the artistic conceit of "gray" as something that ensues from mixing black and white. Loria can exalt the folk wisdom of Charles Schulz, but this is a book whose Manichean outlook is so simple that it sounds more sophisticated to claim that it was meant to indoctrinate children.
The answers given to the children, who are our future, won't surprise you. Everything upbeat about the book could be taken and paraphrased from any pamphlet of bromides any Chamber of Commerce has published any time in the last 65 years. Jeffrey Loria has the big answers, and they are family, religion, structure, tradition, education, and business. That the answers are even as specific as these owes more to the fact that it would be another 25 years before pollsters and strategists branded the value-neutral term "Values" as a political tool meaning all of the above. Jeffrey Loria values Values.
And what of the social and intellectual ferment of the 1960s? It's clear that, by 1967, Jeffrey Loria was manifestly the squarest motherfucker on planet Earth. He was barely a quarter century old and had already fast-forwarded spiritually to twice that age, becoming the kind of embittered husk who laments the broken legacy bequeathed to The Children. The lessons to be drawn from What's It All About, Charlie Brown? read like the bilious, reactionary resentments of a pomaded junior Nixon. Woodstock hasn't happened yet, and, at the time of writing, the Summer of Love probably hadn't either, but it's clear that Loria would have hated both as soon as he'd read a tedious finger-wagging Newsweek piece published about them months later. It's a wonder the dedication wasn't "To the Straw Man of a Hippie Dropout I'm Beating with Word Truncheons in My Imagination."
Instead, it's dedicated to Vincent Price.
Loria organized his book into 10 instructive chapters on individual topics, and all are mostly predictable and anodyne. For instance, his most complex thesis on religion appears on page 24, where he writes, "Goodness and respectability do not come from religion alone—and the kids know it. You don't suddenly become virtuous because you attend Sunday School every week." Good rules need to be translated into good works, and each kid must learn to interpret that goodness in a way that's meaningful to him or her. Fair enough.
Because the homilies found within are so generic as to be predicted by a reader, what stands out as profound are the topics that Loria assails seemingly without provocation. The real nuggets in Loria's writing all leap off the page like Facebook updates from that one friend who can relate almost anything, even an Academy Awards ceremony, to "Benghazi." The difference is that Loria's bêtes noires are, basically, fucking hippies. You can learn a lot about what he values by the implicit or explicit enemies of it.
The Peanuts are a more dependent lot. They love and respect the ties that bind. ... Few children today even take the time to talk with their grandparents. They are too busy applying body paint and reading about England's current singing rages.
Charlie and his pals certainly do not have much in common with today's high-school and college dropouts. For dropouts school is associated with conformity, the "Establishment." And they reject the "passport" into middle-class prosperity and mores that education offers. They would rather choose their own conformity—communal living in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury or New York's East Village. They reject universal education for themselves to leave time to discuss universal love. ... The Peanuts accept administration's rules and regulations. Lucy and Peppermint Patty choose inoffensive skirt lengths. The boys choose appropriate school attire and civilized hair lengths.
The end of this is not merely a "Beatles haircuts! Grrrr!" argument but part of a generally retrograde attitude toward women's sexuality, even for a young cosmopolitan author in the late 1960s. Loria summarizes his ideal outcome for women thusly: "The feminine mystique is foreign to the Peanuts girls. As far as Sally and Violet are concerned, women are born to have homes and families." What agency he does allow women devolves into paper-thin tropes of assertiveness easily bested by a strong man's indifference. To wit:
Although far from being equally crass, Sally and Lucy are very similar to the James Bond breed of woman—the woman who knows what she wants, stalks her man, but inevitably loses the prize. Schroeder and Linus, James Bonds in their own firm way, are good matches for these minuscule superwomen.
It's OK, the girls take it in stride. "Sally is a loser, like her brother. She reacts violently, but verbally, to the news that Linus has slipped from her clutches. Yet she broods on her loss without resorting to sleeping pills." One can't tell if Loria means to suggest that spurned women in the 1960s couldn't sleep without rendering themselves comatose or instead resorted to suicide, and it says a lot about his attitude that either answer is plausible.
Meanwhile, not only do Peanuts women responsibly see themselves as merely adjuncts to men, they respectfully observe American holidays just as they eschew REEFER MADNESS:
On February 22nd, doesn't every grammar-school girl want to play Martha Washington in her husband's birthday pageant? ... Today's teeny-boppers and their older counterparts never get their holidays confused. They know months in advance—and to the minute—when each holiday will begin. And when that minute arrives, judging from the chaos at airports and train terminals, as many as can pile on the first planes and trains to Fort Lauderdale, Nassau, and Bermuda, and points south. ... A milk chocolate bunny is certainly better than surviving on pot, LSD, and banana peels under palm trees to the tune of "Mellow Yellow." The little folks will gladly hunt for Easter Eggs. Easter wasn't meant to be a ten-day excursion into the psychedelic. It seems that some easter "trip-takers" need marijuana and sugar cubes to loosen them up for a little fun or to activate their imaginations. Not the hearty Peanuts crew.
And the Peanuts women—like the Peanuts men—observe the mores of their time by not seeking love outside their own denomination, race. or social stature. There will be rice. There will be tulle. There will not be any self-penned vows or certain folk sitting in pews at the front of the church:
In our free-swinging society, young people very often seek mates their parents find unsuitable, inappropriate, and often impossible. The members of this revolutionary generation, however, do what they wish and not always what their religious or ethnic backgrounds would lead them to do. ... Today's hip generation has lost sight of churches, synagogues, and flowing white lace and orange blossoms.
It's tough to parse the above passage in a way flattering to Loria, because he offers no out, not even a vague chance to find one. The text is assembled in simple, declarative sentences—like someone building a Lego house out of those parts of the book where Hemingway wanted the male protagonist to seem gruff, war-torn, disenchanted, penis-having. Noun, verb, grunt. When Loria inveighs against "hip" kids who have lost their way by marrying people of different religions or ethnicities, that's all you have to work with. That must just be bad.
But if race- and religion-mixing is bad, all the 1960s equivalents of "ARE OUR TEENS SEXTING?" trend pieces that Loria must have read were much, much worse. For a man writing a life guidebook for children by talking about a bunch of ink-drawn grade schoolers, Loria imagines the sexual dimensions of their lives an awful lot. It's not enough to project sexual futures onto a bunch of seven-year-olds; one must insist on projecting the right ones.
When discussing how the Peanuts exemplify the "courtly love ... once discussed by Friar Cappelanus, chaplain of Eleanor of Aquitaine," especially via the "gallantry" of Charlie Brown, Loria writes, "The kids don't give up. They won't settle for communal living and loving. Sharing husbands and swapping wives is not for them."
Look, Jeffrey Loria is not going to brook any disagreement on this. Get. It. Straight. The kids in Peanuts do not wife-swap.
If there are two things we can agree that Jeffrey Loria knows, they are art and sports, though his expertise in the former makes his familiarity with the latter seem at best ontological. Loria runs the Marlins like someone who understands that sports exist as, like, a thing. It stops there.
Looking at the author and these topics, one would assume these chapters would be richest of all, yet the one addressing art feels especially unsatisfying. Loria notes that the Peanuts have fairly classical tastes. In Schroeder's case, that's a literal distinction; he loves Beethoven. In terms of visual arts, Snoopy collects Van Gogh and Andrew Wyeth. Loria himself enjoys challenging, modern art; look to Marlins Park's pieces and the "Home Run Feature." Yet there is no part of this book like Vonnegut's passage about Rothko and a beam of light in Breakfast of Champions. Despite all he knows about art, Loria refuses to deviate from a conservative text and explore further. The kids like essentially mainstreamed art; here's the art they like; I think art is good. Onward.
It's once we reach sports that Young Loria starts to impugn the man he will become—the meddlesome owner, the grifter, the vulturous aristocrat who uses the stature of his baseball stadium and his position as one of 30 people in the world to showcase his art enthusiasms and ringing Jeff Loreates. Consider:
Making games, or any single game, a way of life would demonstrate a loss of proportion to the little folks.
Yet many adults today use sports almost exclusively as a means of attaining social status and business success.
Charlie really likes baseball. His pursuit of the game, even with minor neurotic undertones, is above all sincere.
For the Peanuts clan you own the gear only if you play the game.
Regardless of Charlie's and Snoopy's ulterior motives, they both enjoy the game. How many of today's adults—or even kids under the adult influence—still participate in sports for fun, for the simple spirit and enjoyment of the game?
How indeed? Can you imagine Charlie Brown pocketing a single dollar of revenue sharing if it meant not signing a free agent who could improve his team and the fans' experience? Can you imagine his having a say in designing team gear if he weren't wearing it? Can you imagine his evincing a moment of insincerity? Can you imagine his using a baseball team as a revenue vehicle and a stadium as a partial monument to his tastes? Can you imagine Charlie Brown grandiosely exhibiting a life this disproportionate to ahumble meaning of life? Or, better still, luxuriating in the privilege of owning a stadium-cum-gallery that many humble kids and dads can—a few times per year—merely afford to sit in?
Until this point, Loria's book—furious, prematurely elderly rants about the culture wars aside—is mostly about community. It's as much an exercise in civitas as anything. Family, responsibility, obeisance, loyalty, community observance. It's easy, amid the homiletics, to mistake this as the work of a man who believes in a collective duty to one another. One can read this and, in its affirmations of mutual consideration, feel appalled that the author would later let a city hang over $2 billion of future obligations round its neck for the private profit of a man appealing to the public euphoria of baseball success while demonstrating zero commitment to providing it.
Then you get to the business chapter.
Big business is a necessary evil that provides for many luxuries and extra joys in living. The important thing, and the kids know it, is to play the game the company way.
It is perfectly all right to promote harmless causes. But if you have strong feelings about religion, politics or sex, forget them.
The devoted corporate man cannot afford to offend anyone.
Haggle for your price. A shrewd businessman never accepts the first offer. He works toward his price—and gives up only when he sees the back of a head walking away from his "business deal."
In business and politics honesty and sincerity often have a way of working against you.
The kids are savvy to all the benefits of the business world. And like any hard-working businessman, they will take their profits whenever and wherever they can get them.
Who wants to reject our society as materialistic, militaristic, and capitalistic? Big business is here to stay! And the Peanuts know it and accept it.
Although it does not appear as much so now, Peanuts was, when it ran originally, a fairly progressive comic. Charles Schulz integrated his kids' lives with their black peer Franklin, introduced a pointed class element with the perennially filthy Pigpen and challenged gender norms with a self-actualized and no-nonsense tomboy in Peppermint Patty. Shulz even put girls on Charlie Brown's baseball team. Those additions post-date the writing of Loria's book, which makes it unfair to lambaste him on that account, but it's still accurate to say that the man wrote a book about an entire fictional society while completely missing the fucking point of it.
What's It All About, Charlie Brown? explains the Peanuts universe while also somehow asserting that it proffers the statement, "In business and politics honesty and sincerity often have a way of working against you." It says that one should forget one's strong feelings to get ahead, to play the game the company way irrespective of what it's all about. These are the spiritual zero-sum exercises that an alleged adult drew from Peanuts. Insincerity, profit, the muzzling of conscience in favor of advancement—relentlessly fucking the other guy only until the moment he walks away from the deal. This is Charlie Brown throwing his arms out at his sides, yelling, "Aaaauuuuughhhh!" and, like Atlas, shrugging.
This is what Jeffrey Loria learned from a story about children who love each other, who strive to be loved, who feel misunderstood, and who yearn for understanding. Reading What's It All About, Charlie Brown? is the literary equivalent of finding a cache of clown paintings by John Wayne Gacy made before he started stowing victims' bodies in the crawlspace.
Jeb Lund wrote the America's Screaming Conscience column for Gawker, is a contributor to Sports on Earth and founded MrDestructo.com. He last reviewed old books for Deadspin with "How to Watch Football on Television" and last wrote for Deadspin about the future of thoroughbred racing. You can follow him on Twitter.
Image by Jim Cooke, source photo via Getty.