“Why has our pitching been so great? Our catcher,
that’s why. He looks cumbersome but he’s quick as a cat." —New York
Yankees manager Casey Stengel, quoted in Jeremy Stahl, “Yogi Berra Wasn’t Trying to Be Witty,” Slate, September, 2015
Casey Stengel, who died 40 years ago today, knew a thing or two
about how a comical persona can camouflage innate baseball intelligence. One
senses, then, a deep affinity between him and his catcher, Yogi Berra, who likewise bridled at the image reporters created of
him—until he learned how to play them as much as they played him, in the form of humorous ads (like the Aflac commercials) in his old age..
I wish I could say my noticing the nature of this
relationship was unusual, but the marvelous sportswriter Jimmy Cannon, who
covered both on a daily basis in their heyday in the 1950s, beat me to it. In
one of his last columns before his death in 1972, Cannon observed the
difference in style between manager and player (Casey, “excitable and
flamboyant”; Berra, “slow and patient”), before shrewdly outlining their
“Why are they so alike, yet so different? They are
both cunning and unafraid. Neither worries much about anything. Their luck
holds, too. People couldn't believe it when Stengel was originally brought to
the Yankees as their manager.... He was a marvelous entertainer, but they put him
down to be a minor league manager. He had no dignity. George Weiss, the great
baseball man who then ran the Yankees, understood him. Stengel was sharp with a
hick’s stealth which he disguised with his comedian’s routines. Berra and
Stengel share the ruthlessness a manager must have. It is the acceptance that
failure can’t be tolerated. Neither pampers players. Like all humorists.
Stengel has a streak of cruelty in him. He can be devious and savage in his
estimates of players. Innocence dilutes Berra’s appraisals, but they can hurt
because his candor can be brutal. They are both secretive. But Stengel conceals
a private opinion in a cascade of words; Berra merely shuts up.”
Forget all the “Yogi-isms” you read before and after
his death last week; probably at least a fifth were invented, either by friends
like Joe Garagiola who wanted stories for the chicken-dinner circuit, or by
sportswriters who found it easier under deadline simply to invent a good story
rather than to verify an existing one.
What was not
invented about Berra was his place in the record books. Central to his
achievement were his three Most Valuable Player Awards; the three no-hitters he
caught (including Don Larsen’s perfect game, the only one ever taught in the
World Series); and an unprecedented—and still unmatched--10 World Series rings won
as a player.
What gets overlooked about Berra nowadays may be
even more important: his field generalship. Only baseball insiders or contemporaries of his could
appreciate it. In his 2009 biography, Yogi Berra: Eternal Yankee, Allen
Barra observed that Yogi not only mastered the catching lessons taught by the Bronx
Bombers’ brilliant retired backstop, Bill Dickey, but also that, in the wake of
Joe DiMaggio’s devastating injury in the first half of 1949, Stengel had relied
heavily on the 24-year-old as his stopgap RBI producer until Joltin’ Joe
returned to action.
The Yankee manager became famous for his
“Stengelese” potpourri of non sequiturs, doubletalk and tomfoolery, but he
could speak perfectly plainly when it came to his catcher—or, as he put it, his
“assistant manager.” He relied on him to pounce on bunts, “quick as a cat,” and
to throw out baserunners; to indicate where players should shift on the field;
to get a pitcher through a dangerous opposing lineup when he didn’t have his
best stuff; and to distinguish, in a close game, when a pitcher could still get
outs and when he was running out of gas.
The “Ol’ Perfessor,” who introduced “instructional
school” in training camp, could react sharply if a player didn’t absorb lessons readily enough (the prodigiously talented Mickey Mantle came in for
special grief at his hands). But he never had reason to complain about Berra,
which he let the press know in a direct fashion highly unusual for him:
“They say Yogi Berra is funny. Well, he has a lovely
wife and family, a beautiful home, money in the bank and he plays gold with
millionaires. What's funny about that?"
“If I’s 51, they’d have to hide the women.”—Pioneering
rock ‘n’ roll hellion Jerry Lee Lewis at age 76, quoted in Rick Bragg, Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story(2014)
Jerry Lee Lewis was born on this date 80 years ago in Ferriday,
Louisiana—within one year, in the same town as, cousins Mickey Gilley and Jimmy
Swaggart. That fact probably tells you that from the start, he would be involved in
a seesaw lifelong struggle between the sacred and the profane.
The women, the guns that are part of the not-so-private man of legend are all
there as told to Bragg. But any consideration of him starts with this legend at
the piano, as in this YouTube clip of Lewis in a live performance of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On,” where “Killer”
truly had “the bull by the horns.”
Lewis is now on his farewell tour--and I, for one, can't believe that he hasn't sold out his October appearance at B.B. King's in Manhattan yet. I can't imagine he won't leave the audience something to remember him by.
up, Maggie, I think I got something to say to you
late September and I really should be back at school.”—Rod
Stewart and Martin Quittenton, “Maggie May,” performed by Rod Stewart from his
LP, Every Picture Tells A Story (1971)
heard this song over the weekend yet again, introduced by WFUV-FM deejay Don McGee
in the simplest but most evocative fashion: “It’s late September.” A whole
world was summoned for me of the first time I heard it, back as a tween.
May” may be the second-best-known cougar in rock ‘n’ roll history, after Simon
and Garfunkel’s Mrs. Robinson. The record that immortalized her was composed and produced on the fly,
with all the raw heartache that Rod Stewart could summon in what has become his familiar, raspy voice. (It involved only two takes--in contrast, The Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations" and Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" each went through six months.) The
rowdy British rock ‘n’ roller has had many hits since then, but I don’t think
he’s ever been better.
song was inspired by an incident that happened to Stewart, at age 16,
at the Beaulieu Jazz Festival in the early 1960s: “I'd snuck in with some mates
via an overflow sewage pipe,” he recalled in his 2012 bestseller, Rod:The Autobiography. “And there on a secluded patch of grass, I lost my
not-remotely-prized virginity with an older (and larger) woman who'd come on to
me very strongly in the beer tent. How much older, I can't tell you - but old
enough to be highly disappointed by the brevity of the experience." (Less
than half a minute, if you really must know—a rather inauspicious start for one
of pop music’s most notorious lotharios.)
to say, but Stewart would not, from the song that made his career, pay out more
than a standard musician’s session fee to Ray Jackson, who played the mandolin
on the song. In fact, Stewart rubbed salt into the wound—and probably ensured
that Jackson would sue him (unsuccessfully) for songwriting credit years later—with
the following tossed-offcredit on the
original liner notes: “The mandolin was played by the mandolin player in
Lindisfarne. The name slips my mind."
that I know this session player, I will, from here on forward, mentally tip my hat to this
musician who provided one of the most exhilarating closing instrumentals that I
have ever heard on a rock ‘n’ roll song.
“What would be a road hazard anyplace else, in the
Third World is probably the road. There are two techniques for coping with
this. One is to drive very fast so your wheels ‘get on top’ of the ruts and
your car sails over the ditches, gullies and pot holes. Predictably, this will
result in disaster. The other technique is to drive very slow. This will result
in disaster. No matter how slowly you drive into a ten-foot hole, you’re still
going to get hurt. You’ll find the locals themselves can’t make up their minds.
Either they drive at 2 mph — which they do when there’s absolutely no way to
get around them. Or else they drive at 100 mph — which they do coming right at
you when you finally get a chance to pass the guy going 2 mph.”—P.
J. O’Rourke, “Third World Driving Hits and Tips,” in Holidays in Hell: In Which Our Intrepid Reporter Travels to the World's Worst Places and Asks, "What's Funny About This" (1988)
I'm a librarian (no, NOT a "cybrarian" or "information scientist" or any of the other trendy terms the profession has come up with), as well as a freelance writer/researcher; my political leanings are contrarian, much to the dismay of friends on the left and right, and so I will give anyone looking for my vote exactly what they deserve -- the back of my hand