Tuesday, August 31, 2010

TV Quote of the Day (“Glee’s” Sue Sylvester, on Failure)

“I’m going to ask you to smell your armpits. That’s the smell of failure, and it’s stinking up my office.” —Sue Sylvester (played by Jane Lynch), Glee, “Acafellas,” Season 1, Episode 3, written by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan, air date September 16, 2009

Thank God Jane Lynch brought home an Emmy the other night. Can you imagine her creation barking out this command on national TV if she lost?

Monday, August 30, 2010

Quote of the Day (Sean Hayes, on His Flower-Delivery Job)

“For another $100, I helped when they were selling Mad About You into syndication. A friend and I drove a truck with flowers around to all these affiliates. We had to deliver them and say, 'Hi, I'm from Columbia TriStar, and I'm mad about you!' It was the worst job because it took so long. We started saying, 'Hi, I'm from Columbia TriStar, and I'm mad at you.'”—Sean Hayes, on delivering flowers, quoted in Tanner Stransky, “Sean Hayes: 5 Crazy Things I've Done For A Job,” Entertainment Weekly, April 23-20, 2010

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Quote of the Day (Luke Timothy Johnson, on How Best to Learn About Jesus)

“Jesus is best learned not as a result of an individual’s scholarly quest that is published in a book, but as a continuing process of personal transformation within a community of disciples. Jesus is learned through the faithful reading of the Scriptures, true, but he is learned as well through the sacraments (above all the Eucharist), the lives of saints (dead and living) and the strangers with whom the exalted Lord especially associates himself. Next to such a difficult and complex form of learning Jesus as he truly is—the life-giving Spirit who enlivens above all the assembly called the body of Christ—the investigations of historians, even at their best, seem but a drab and impoverished distraction.”—Luke Timothy Johnson, “The Jesus Controversy: Why Historical Scholarship Cannot Find the Living Jesus,” America, August 2-9, 2010 (available only to subscribers)

This portrait by Paolo Veronese, Jesus and the Adulteress (1585), illustrates “the strangers with whom the exalted Lord especially associates himself.” The incident, one of the most indelibly powerful among all four Gospels, also demonstrates the all-too-literal and deconstructionist tendencies in historical scholarship that take its cues from the “Jesus Seminar.”

For one thing, this story comes from the Gospel of John. As Johnson notes in his genial, but carefully measured critical analysis, the scholars associated with the Jesus Seminar tend to credit most the Gospel of Luke.

In fact, the Jesus Seminar calls this a “floating” or “orphan” story, one that the group wishes was true but cannot find in the earliest manuscripts related to the Gospels. I wish Johnson could have examined in greater detail some of the problems with what the new historical scholarship credits or calls into question (e.g., in a culture before the printing press, how much even ended up getting written down?).

I write this, as longtime readers of this blog realize, as someone fascinated by history, and, like Johnson himself, enthralled by the grace and charm of one of those associated with the Jesus Seminar, John Dominic Crossan. Yet historians, like scientists, have to learn to be humble about the limits of their knowledge.

Biblical historians, in particular, can, as Johnson observes, miss the big picture: how much the four Gospel writers, all coming from different backgrounds and writing at different times, still converge in attesting to the extraordinary influence of Jesus on those he touched in his three-year ministry, and, as an ineffable presence, in all the centuries since.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Flashback, August 1935: Out-of-Work Actors Look to DC for Help

Hallie Flanagan (in the image accompanying this post) undoubtedly wondered how she would balance employing thousands of out-of-work theater professionals and creating a vibrant national theater as she was sworn in as head of the Federal Theatre Project. It’s doubtful, however, that she expected that this new agency within the Works Progress Administration would become an early battleground over governmental funding for the arts, in a foreshadowing of the culture wars late in the 20th century.

The site of Ms. Flanagan’s swearing-in on August 27, 1935 must have seemed symbolic to her and all those who shared her hope of making theater a vital part of every corner of America: the University of Iowa, deep in the heartland of America, where the cornerstone was being laid for a new theater. She shared with playwright Elmer Rice, who had submitted a plan for the New Deal’s theater project, the vision of a decentralized theater, one that would be not a museum piece but taking its cue from the current times.

When it was all over four years later, Ms. Flanagan—who had taken leave from Vassar, where she had become a school legend for establishing a daring experimental theater—could look back with pride on the fact that the Federal Theatre Project had put to work approximately 10,000 theater professionals; that many of them had had their self-respect restored by being taken off the welfare rolls; and that at least 12 million people had attended performances by the numerous companies connected with the agency.

Yet this visionary woman, already at a handicap because she was, by her own admission, “totally lacking in administrative experience,” also felt frustrated about running interference between those like WPA head (and Franklin Roosevelt confidante Harry Hopkins) who wanted to provide “free, adult, uncensored theater,” and conservative critics who picked up on well-publicized examples of agitprop drama that were not necessarily representative of the agency.

This ideological clash was probably best described by John Rhys Moore, who, in a Kenyon Review article from 1968, explained how reaction set in:

“The depression created a sense of fraternity and common purpose among people who had never known such feelings, but it also sharpened distrust and hostility. New political alignments appeared with bewildering rapidity as angry saviors fell out among themselves.”

One play that particularly raised the hackles of conservatives was Marc Blitzstein’s musical The Cradle Will Rock. Its pro-labor, even frankly left-wing sentiments gave hives to timorous bureaucrats terrified of the right wing. It was a triumph for producer John Houseman and his boy-wonder director-partner, Orson Welles—just as their “voodoo Macbeth” had been—but exacted a price: one year after its premiere, Congress--with many members annoyed at the thought of funding attacks on capitalism, by this and other plays mounted by the FTP--drove a stake through the program’s heart, in an early example of "defunding the left."

Quote of the Day (Irving Thalberg, on Credit)

“Credit you give yourself is not worth having.”—MGM production head Irving Thalberg, explaining why he refused to allow his name to appear on the credits of films with which he was associated, quoted in Julie Lugo Cerra, Culver City: The Heart of Screenland (2004)

Irving Thalberg (pictured left, with movie-star wife Norma Shearer) inspired the creation of Monroe Stahr in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last, unfinished novel The Last Tycoon. He only let his name be put on one of his films: The Good Earth.

Nevertheless, Hollywood remembers this driven, sickly creative force at Oscar time with the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, given to “creative producers whose bodies of work reflect a consistently high quality of motion picture production.”

Friday, August 27, 2010

Quote of the Day (Chevy Chase, on “Caddyshack” Co-Creator Doug Kenney)

“Someone suggested that maybe I could help clean Doug up. I was the last guy to ask! We went to Hawaii. The point was to dry out. But why would that happen? Look at us at that age and the time. I had to go back to California, and within a couple of days Doug's body was found at the bottom of a ravine.”—Caddyshack star Chevy Chase, on the death of that film’s co-screenwriter, Doug Kenney, quoted in Chris Nashawaty, “Caddyshack,” Sports Illustrated, August 2, 2010

Thirty years ago today, one month after the opening of his hit Caddyshack, Doug Kenney—who had brought his irreverent, authority-defying brand of comedy from National Lampoon (where he was a founding editor) to Animal House—plunged to his death from a cliff in Hawaii. When his body was discovered a few days later, the news shook Young Hollywood—though, in a way, it shouldn’t have.

The Sports Illustrated oral history on the making of his last hit—from which Chase’s rueful quote comes--gives some hints on what brought Kenney to his sad end. Nearly everyone involved in that film (with Ted Knight being a notable exception) sampled the drugs being passed around like candy cars on the set.

Kenney’s influence can be seen through the types of entertainment that came in the wake of National Lampoon—not merely his own films, but also Saturday Night Live, SCTV, good friend Harold Ramis' filmography, Christopher Guest’s parodies, and P.J. O’Rourke’s work.

Robert Sam Anson’s Esquire October 1981 cover story on the life and death of the hugely talented and troubled Kenney nettled the screenwriter's many close friends. They preferred to focus on the good Doug, the warm, generous guy who made sure actress Cindy Morgan received two complimentary tickets to the premiere of Caddyshack when she’d been left off for no good reason—not the quarrelsome man who got into shoving matches with colleagues in post-production on the film.

His death—and the drug use that led to it (it’s still uncertain if he jumped or stumbled from the cliff)—hit far too close to home. After that, for far too long a time, his friends didn’t want to cooperate with other reporters or biographers.

Too bad—within two years of Kenney’s demise, they were doomed to repeat the cycle, as another one of their own, John Belushi, also fell victim, far too young, to drugs at the height of his fame.

The 33-year-old Kenney was especially mourned by fiancée Kathryn Walker, an accomplished actress who would later find happiness (for a time) as the second wife of musician James Taylor.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

This Day in Baseball History (Hack Wilson Passes Chuck Klein’s NL HR Mark)

August 26, 1930—It took only a year before the National League record for homers in a single season, set by Chuck Klein of the Philadelphia Phillies, was broken. In contrast, the new record, achieved by Hack Wilson of the Chicago Cubs during one of the greatest offensive seasons in baseball history, would last 68 years.

For a long time, I’ve wanted to write about the Cubs’ centerfielder. Part of it is because I’m a sucker for great sports nicknames, and the one given to Lewis Robert Wilson seems pretty fitting for a slugger who never stinted on a swing.

But I’ve also wanted to write about Wilson because the magnitude of his season of glory was inversely proportional to the brevity of his career—at least for someone of his great skills.

In a sense, Wilson was a far unlikelier athlete than Babe Ruth. The Bambino might have weighed a ton, too, but it was distributed on a 6-ft.-2-in. frame, and through most of his career it never affected his defensive prowess. Moreover, for all his bibulous activities, it’s not apparent that liquor seriously hampered his achievements.

None of this can be said about Wilson, who stood five ft. six inches but weighed 195 pounds. The man who covered the most ground of any position player in Wrigley Field was like a beer key chasing flying balls.

The 25,000 fans in attendance at Wrigley Field saw their hero near his zenith the day he surpassed Klein’s mark of 43 HRs. Wilson’s roundtripper formed part of his 4-RBI barrage that powered the Cubs to a 7-5 win, helping manager Joe McCarthy’s squad stay in first place. (No talk of futility in those days: the team had made it to the World Series the year before.)

For the rest of the 154-game season, Wilson amassed another 12 homers, giving him 56 for the year. While a number of NL hitters exceeded the 50-homer mark over the next half-century, nobody surpassed Wilson's achievement until the 1998 season.

Stop right there—I know what you’re thinking: It was McGwire and Sosa who broke it that year, wasn’t it? Well, they deserve to go into the record books, all right—as long as it’s with syringes next to their marks!

I’m with you on that, brother!

But there’s one record set by Hack that remains inviolable—his record for RBIs set in a season. Since 1938, no NL batter—not even in the steroid era—has come within 25 RBIs of Wilson’s 190.

Correction—make that 191. Hack is one of the few baseball players whose stats actually improved after he died. That amazing feat was accomplished when a modern statistician reviewed all the box scores for the season and decided Wilson had been been robbed of at least one run batted in.

It was typical of Wilson’s life that this bit of good news happened too late for him to enjoy it. The following year, peevish Rogers Hornsby rather than tough-but-fair Joe McCarthy managed—or, in the case of “The Rajah,” mismanaged—Wilson and the Cubs.

It’s true that baseball’s decision to “deaden” the ball that season would have led to poorer offensive totals for Wilson. But his boozing only exacerbated his power outage in 1931, as his 13 homers represented less than a quarter of those he belted in 1930. Moreover, Wilson was a chaotic, divisive presence on the field and in the clubhouse, with his antics finally leading to his suspension toward year’s end. By 1934, he was washed up and out of the game.

In his last years, Wilson came to enough self-knowledge to admit on a radio program that “Demon Rum” had shortened his career and adversely affected his relationships. When he died in 1948, his old drinking buddies had to pass the hat in their favorite pub to ensure that the penniless former slugger had a funeral.

It took another 31 years after that for sportswriters to ignore career offensive totals that look no better than ordinary. Instead, Cooperstown’s Committee considered what he did in his prime (1926-1930) and how he stood against the elite of his time, finally deciding this powerfully built, squad refugee from the coal region of Pennsylvania deserved induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1979.

Quote of the Day (Mother Teresa, on “Christ in the Poor That We Meet”)

“The other day I received 15 dollars from a man who has been on his back for twenty years, and the only part that he can move is his right hand. And the only companion that he enjoys is smoking. And he said to me: I do not smoke for one week, and I send you this money. It must have been a terrible sacrifice for him, but see how beautiful, how he shared, and with that money I bought bread and I gave to those who are hungry with a joy on both sides, he was giving and the poor were receiving. This is something that you and I - it is a gift of God to us to be able to share our love with others. And let it be as it was for Jesus. Let us love one another as he loved us. Let us love Him with undivided love. And the joy of loving Him and each other - let us give now - that Christmas is coming so close. Let us keep that joy of loving Jesus in our hearts. And share that joy with all that we come in touch with. And that radiating joy is real, for we have no reason not to be happy because we have no Christ with us. Christ in our hearts, Christ in the poor that we meet, Christ in the smile that we give and the smile that we receive. Let us make that one point: That no child will be unwanted, and also that we meet each other always with a smile, especially when it is difficult to smile.”—Mother Teresa, Nobel Peace Prize Lecture, December 11, 1979

Today marks the centenary of the birth of Mother Teresa, who devoted herself unstintingly to the poorest of the poor in the slums of Calcutta. Her message remains relevant in a broken world: to achieve peace, start at home—not just in local communities, but in the home.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

This Day in Theater History (Bernstein & Co. Change Direction on “West Side Story”)

August 25, 1955—At a poolside meeting in Beverly Hills on his 37th birthday, Leonard Bernstein (in the image accompanying this post) and creative partners Jerome Robbins and Arthur Laurents shelved their previous idea for a modern musical version of Romeo and Juliet—a clash of Catholics and Jews—in favor of a different set of characters: Anglos and Mexicans in Los Angeles. 

The switch was a pivotal transition point along the way to the violent “rumble” between native Anglo and immigrant Puerto Rican gangs that formed the crux of the landmark musical West Side Story.

Before the musical opened on Broadway in September 1957, it spent eight years being brought to life. In January 1949, director-choreographer Robbins proposed, as Bernstein noted in his diary, “a noble idea—a modern version of Romeo and Juliet set in slums at the coincidence of Easter-Passover celebrations….It all fits…but can it succeed?” 

Several years later, by their own admission, the answer was no. Librettist Laurents identified the problem eventually: the premise for what was then called East Side Story was simply a rehash of the 1920s comedy Abie’s Irish Rose, except without the laughs. 

(Two decades later, TV was more shameless about reworking an old idea, bringing to life Bridget Loves Bernie, with eventual husband-and-wife Meredith Baxter and David Birney.) 

So here Bernstein and Laurents were, soaking up the sun, when the composer suggested: “What about doing it about the Chicanos?” (That very day, in fact, the Los Angeles Times had a headline about gang warfare.) Excited, the two men called Robbins, who agreed. 

Before long, the concept did a transcontinental flip, partly because Laurents felt more comfortable with New York-based Hispanics than those in California, so that now it was about Anglos and Puerto Ricans on the West Side of Manhattan. 

Running like a thread through the whole thing, from start to finish, was the idea Bernstein had scrawled on the title page of his annotated copy of Romeo and Juliet in the early going: “An out and out plea for racial tolerance.” 

Some years ago, I remember hearing longtime New York deejay Vin Scelsa call West Side Story the first rock ‘n’ roll musical—or rather, he quickly qualified it, not so much the first musical with rock ‘n’ roll music but the first musical born of the spirit of rebellion that animates rock ‘n’ roll.

He was onto something: rock ‘n’ rollers did see something of themselves in the great musical tragedy. Todd Rundgren, for instance, did a live version of “Something’s Coming,” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Jungleland” features a teenage clash with inevitable echoes of the musical. 

But more basic to the musical than the idea of the rebel is that of the outsider. If they could move so easily from Jews to Mexicans to Puerto Ricans as the out-group, the quartet that created West Side Story—Bernstein, Laurents, Robbins, and, joining them that fall, the young lyricist Stephen Sondheim—were not just outsiders, but double outsiders.

All four were not just Jews—a group all too painfully aware, from the events of the previous decade, of their precarious nature in the world—but homosexuals. However well-known their sexual orientation might have been to entertainment professionals, it was a more closely guarded secret to the world at large. 

(In fact, Bernstein had married a woman, at least partially in the unsuccessful hope that by doing so he would sublimate his attraction to men.) 

In this context, the most heartfelt song for the quartet might have been “Somewhere.” Sondheim’s plaintive words and Bernstein’s soaring melody summon “a place for us,” where “We’ll find a new way of living/We’ll find there’s a way of forgiving”—a vision they must have felt still elusive in that age.

Song Lyric of the Day (Bruce Springsteen, on “The Hungry and the Hunted”)

“The hungry and the hunted explode into rock 'n' roll bands
That face off against each other out in the street down in Jungleland”—Bruce Springsteen, “Jungleland,” from the Born to Run LP (1975)

Thirty-five years ago today, amid breathless hype that some momentarily feared might cause a harmful backlash, Columbia Records released Born to Run, by Bruce Springsteen. It was, of course, his make-or-break moment, when he leapt from being one of the “hungry and the hunted” artists—the kind who are one step from being dropped by their labels—to the performer who appeared simultaneously a few weeks later on the covers of Time and Newsweek.

The album can also be thought of as his transition point. Rock critic Jon Landau, brought on board to help bring order to the frustrating recording sessions and to help Springsteen better realize his vision, pressed for shorter, tighter songs. Soon, he was clashing with the singer’s producer-manager, Mike Appel, who found himself on the outside looking in, then pressed a lawsuit that sidelined Springsteen for a couple of years.

On “Jungleland,” the final song and dramatic peak of the album, Landau and Appel combined to produce something unique in Springsteen’s career. The tight, cohesive production owed much to the molding of pianist Roy Bittan, drummer Max Weinberg and rhythm guitarist Steve Van Zandt into the rest of the E Street Band—an aim of Landau’s.

But the long, suite-like structure of the song was the type of work Appel favored on Springsteen’s prior two albums—and you’ll not see anything of this kind again on any of the artist’s subsequent work (particularly Clarence Clemons’ majestic, magical two-minute sax solo, still a highlight of any Springsteen concert).

Born to Run made me a Springsteen fan for life. For myself and for many others, it remains his seminal work.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Quote of the Day (Peggy Noonan, on the “New Obliviousness”)

“A lot of people seem here but not here. They’re pecking away on a piece of plastic; they’re withdrawn from the immediate reality around them and set up temporary camp in a reality that exists in their heads. It involves their own music, their own conversation, whether written or oral. This contributes to the new obliviousness, to the young woman who steps off the curb unaware that the police car with blaring siren is barreling down the street.”—Peggy Noonan, “Information Overload is Nothing New,” The Wall Street Journal, August 21, 2010

Monday, August 23, 2010

This Day in Theater History (“Oklahoma” Lyricist Hammerstein Dies)

August 23, 1960—Oscar Hammerstein II, who wrote the libretto and lyrics for Show Boat, then refined the so-called “integrated musical” with composer Richard Rodgers in the most successful musical-theater collaboration of the last century, died of stomach cancer at age 65 at his home in Doylestown, Pa.

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s astounding run from 1943 to 1959 resulted in shows that have been continually mounted somewhere in the world ever since: Oklahoma, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, and The Sound of Music. And unlike their later rivals, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, they don't appear to have wanted to kill each other.

Over the years, however, critical opinion has come to favor Rodgers’ earlier collaboration with Lorenz Hart. Boiled down to its simplest terms, Hart has achieved this superiority through: a) the biting wit and sophistication of his lyrics, and b) the greater room for creative latitude afforded jazz musicians by the Rodgers and Hart songs.

Rodgers, having tired of the depressive, alcoholic Hart’s exasperating work habits, would have harrumphed at the comparison, but that would be expected, given Rodgers’ reputation as a theatrical martinet. “Who cares what the critics say?” he might have scoffed. “Oscar and I matter to the only ones who really count—the public.”

The person who might have done more to raise Hammerstein’s critical standing is, oddly enough, the man who has repeatedly acknowledged him not only as a mentor, but even, throughout his troubled youth, as a kind of surrogate father: Stephen Sondheim.

Several years after their own dismal collaboration, Do I Hear a Waltz?, Sondheim raised Rodgers’ hackles by declaring that Hammerstein was “a man of infinite soul and limited talent; Dick is a man of infinite talent and limited soul.” Yet the first half of that famous quote might not have been as sharp-edged as the second, it contained, for all its surface affection, just as much ambivalence. Sondheim sounds characteristically sorry-grateful for Hammerstein's gifts.

Sondheim elaborated on his feelings toward the man who, following the divorce of his parents, treated him as something close to a member of his own family in a lengthy interview with The New York Times’ Frank Rich a decade ago:

“Oscar's lyrics are often flat-out sentimental, lacking in irony, which is the favorite mode of expression of the latter part of the 20th century. And I happen to love irony. He had a limited range of imagery -- too many birds in his lyrics -- stuff that is metaphorically what we all feel, but because they've been overused so much, and often by him, they lack force.”

The creative force behind Sweeney Todd went on to hail Hammerstein as one who made his “big contribution to theater…as a theoretician, as a Peter Brook, as an innovator.” And what impressed Sondheim the most in this regard? Perhaps the greatest flop among all the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical comedies, Allegro.

Talking about irony...

Quote of the Day (Katy Perry, on Not Completing Her Education)

“No, because spell-check exists everywhere.”—Pop star Katy Perry, on whether she ever regrets not finishing high school, quoted in Melena Ryzik, “A Vivacious Pop Cartoon Springs Out of the Playbook,” The New York Times, August 22, 2010

Maybe spell-check does exist everywhere. But so do entertainment bimbos who’ve exhausted their looks, the public’s curiosity, and their 15 minutes of fame.

Under those circumstances, certain skills—including math and literacy—become crucial. Let’s hope for her sake that Katy Perry doesn’t find out just how crucial.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

This Day in Baseball History (Marichal, Roseboro Brawl)

August 22, 1965—Cumulative tensions—from a duel of ace pitchers, from a white-knuckle pennant race, from a historic rivalry that hadn’t let up in intensity just because the two teams had relocated clear across the country from their New York beginnings—exploded in a 15-minute brawl between the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The nearly 43,000 Candlestick Park spectators and thousands more L.A. area TV viewers couldn’t believe what started it. First, there was an exchange of words between Giant pitcher Juan Marichal, taking his turn at bat, and Dodger catcher Johnny Roseboro; then Roseboro was on his feet with his mask off; then Marichal was hitting him on the head, twice, with his bat. (See the accompanying image.)

Across the nation, old baseball hands were trying to recall if they had ever witnessed another bat attack at the major league-level. They couldn’t.

A pitcher known for pinpoint control on the mound had completely lost it. What could have led him to do that?

Nothing raises ballplayers’ temperatures as much as the brushback pitch. Contemporary position players continue to take exception to it. It means a direct threat to their health (and—though not every player would admit to it—their continuing ability to amass millions in the free-agent market).

The brushback pitch was an even bigger part of the game in Marichal’s time. Pitchers such as Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale were unafraid to remind hitters that the strike zone belonged to them—all of it. Hitters crowding the plate received constant reminders that they did so at their own peril.

The Giant-Dodger rivalry had also featured this on prior occasions. Giant pitcher Sal Maglie became known as “The Barber” for his constant willingness to resort to “chin music.”

Pitchers’ ability to control the game became a central concern as Marichal faced off against the Dodgers’ Sandy Koufax that day 45 years ago today. Suspicions of tit-for-tat retaliation had been growing since the first of the four-game series two evenings before.

When Maury Wills’ bat had touched the glove of Giant catcher Tom Haller on the backswing, the Giants thought the Dodger speedster had leaned deliberately so that Haller would be called for catcher interference. Matty Alou‘s similar maneuver the next day did not earn him first base, as Wills had received, but it did raise the ire of Roseboro, who was behind the plate at that at-bat and yelled angrily at the Giant bench.

Tensions continued to mount on Sunday, as the Dodgers scored two quick runs in the first and second innings. Marichal, not only annoyed at Wills for his Friday maneuver but now for an attempt to bunt against himself, proceeded to flatten him his next turn up. Ron Fairly also got one high and inside.

As I write this, it occurs to me that the escalation of tensions between the Dodgers and Giants were a kind of small-scale version of those between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in that decade of the Cold War. Early on in this game, one player did his best to keep matters in check: Sandy Koufax.
Roseboro signaled for a “message pitch” in retaliation for Marichal making Wills hit the dirt. As Roseboro admitted later, he should have known better than to expect that from the great lefty. Koufax delivered the message a mile over the head of Marichal, who was never in from the great fireballer. (A good thing, too, since Koufax’s speed was such that serious damage could have occurred.)

"Koufax was constitutionally incapable of throwing at anyone's head," Roseboro wrote in his 1978 autobiography, "so I decided to take matters into my own hands."

On his throw back to Koufax, Roseboro whipped the ball within a millimeter of Marichal’s ear. The pitcher thought he’d been nicked. When he asked Roseboro why he’d done that, the catcher rose and moved toward him.

Marichal, believing that Roseboro was about to attack. launched a preemptive strike—make that two—with his bat. Then Roseboro had charged him, and the benches emptied.

Matters would have been far worse but for Giant superstar and captain Willie Mays. Wanting to end the fight before it got worse—and genuinely fearing for the safety of Roseboro, one of his best friends—he crossed team lines and pulled the catcher away from the melee, the blood from the wound staining his own uniform. Dodger outfielder Lou Johnson spoke for many when he said, “They can thank Mays that there wasn’t a real riot out there.”

To everyone’s relief, the attack, which opened up a two-inch gash at the top of Roseboro’s head, did not lead to a concussion for the veteran catcher. It did, however, affect the pennant race between the two teams, as well as perceptions of Marichal.

Marichal ended up being ejected, fined $1,750 and suspended eight games, meaning that he missed two starts. That year, the Giants ended up two games behind the Dodgers for the pennant. Naturally, many people have argued that Marichal could have been the equalizer in that race.

Old School” blogger Robert Rubino of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat has taken a contrarian position, noting that two Marichal losses down the stretch probably had more to do with the Giants’ disastrous slide that year than the righthander’s suspension.

Rubino is right, in the sense that wins in both games would have produced a tie (and, amazingly, a repeat of the “Miracle at Coogan’s Bluff Game” 14 years before ended by Bobby Thomson’s legendary home run). But, as provocative and well-argued as his position is, I don’t think it ends the matter.

Pitching rotations can be precarious, and a dependable starting pitcher’s absence can cause trouble (see, for instance, the heart palpitations produced in Rex Sox and Yankee fans by sidelined pitchers Josh Beckett and Andy Pettitte). It might have been worse in Marichal’s era, when four starters were the norm, than now, when five is the preferred number. Marichal’s absence forced manager Herman Franks to juggle the lineup, so that, in the immediate aftermath of the incident, the Giants went 4-12—a run that turned out to be unexpectedly costly in the end.

The incident also threatened, for awhile, to stain forever the reputation of Marichal. Previously known as the “Dominican Dandy” for his stylish, calm manner off the field, he now found himself tarred as a symbol of violence.

In his first two years of eligibility for the Baseball Hall of Fame, Marichal fell short of the required 75% of the vote. Based on statistics alone—a 16-year career that included a 243-142 record, a 2.89 ERA, 52 shutouts, 244 complete games and six 20-win seasons—and a reputation as the most dominant National League pitcher in the 1960s after Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson—he should have been voted in on his first attempt.

The implication was inescapable: Cooperstown voters were still penalizing him for the fight. He had not been involved in similar controversial incidents after that, so it was beyond his own power at this point to sway voters in his favor.

The person who did so was Johnny Roseboro.

This was hardly an expected outcome for the first few years after the incident, when Roseboro pursued a $110,000 lawsuit against the pitcher, coming away with only a reported $7,000 in February 1970. Several years later, however, when Marichal was dealt to the Dodgers at the tail-end of his career, an assurance by Roseboro—by now retired—that he bore the pitcher no ill-will did much to assure acceptance by the Dodger “family.”

Several years later, meeting at an old-timers game, the two discussed the incident at length, then shook hands. The relationship grew steadily warmer as they met again at other old-timers games and charitable events.

After Marichal’s second failure to enter Cooperstown, Roseboro made clear, through public gestures—including posing with him and visiting him in the Dominican Republic—that he’d let bygones be bygones. The next election, Marichal finally made it to the Hall of Fame.

When Roseboro died in 2002, his widow asked Marichal to be a pallbearer at the funeral. In his eulogy, the Hall of Famer told fellow mourners that Roseboro's forgiveness was “one of the best things that happened in my life."

Today, in terms of the politics of the Hall of Fame, the closest thing to the Marichal-Roseboro controversy is the case of Roberto Alomar. Like Marichal, Alomar’s statistics placed him among the top five or so players at his position during his time. And, like Marichal, an ugly incident—spitting at umpire John Hirschbeck after a third-strike call, followed immediately after the game by an even uglier, personal reference to how Hirschbeck had become “real bitter” after his son’s death—left a terrible impression in the mind of the public and many potential Cooperstown voters.

Like Marichal, Alomar has made amends with his former adversary, including a donation to fight the disease that claimed Hirschbeck’s son.

I believe that, like Marichal, Alomar will eventually enter Cooperstown. Other factors, however, run the risk of delaying this a while longer. For one thing, he does not have Marichal’s basically warm disposition. For another, he did not win the approval of his teammates—nor leave the game with the grace--that Marichal summoned.

Giant teammates marveled at the way the righthander with the high kick looked out for them. And, in 1975, after two starts that left him believing he had come to the end of his career, the pitcher told Dodger president Peter O’Malley, “I can't take your money anymore if I can't pitch the way I want to."

In contrast, when he left the Mets following subpar seasons when his former skills had mysteriously disappeared, Alomar had acquired a reputation as an overpaid, sullen, toxic presence in the clubhouse. Moreover, a nasty recent lawsuit, in which an ex-girlfriend claimed the former athlete had unprotected sex with her despite being HIV-positive, has left a continuing cloud over his character.

Quote of the Day (Thomas a Kempis, on Love)

“Nothing is sweeter than love, nothing stronger, nothing higher, nothing wider, nothing more pleasant, nothing fuller or better, in heaven or earth.”—Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Quote of the Day (William Wordsworth, on the “Best Portion of a Good Man’s Life”)

“These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man's eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and 'mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind,
With tranquil restoration: -- feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man's life,
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love.”—William Wordsworth, “Tintern Abbey” (1798)
The image accompanying this post, by English painter Richard Carruthers, shows Wordsworth in the kind of pensive mood embodied in this poem.

(Thanks to my friend Brian for the suggestion)

Friday, August 20, 2010

This Day in Literary History (Balzac Buried, Hailed by Hugo)

August 20, 1850—Worn out from two decades of perhaps the most prolific output of any major novelist, the body of Honore de Balzac was laid to rest at the Cemetery of Pere-la-Chaise, as a large Parisian crowd—including pallbearers Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas—followed in a rain-drenched procession from the funeral mass at the Church of Sainte Philippe du Roule.

At the gravesite, Hugo delivered the eulogy for Balzac, paying tribute particularly to the deceased’s astonishing achievement in the more than 90 novels, novellas and short stories that Balzac collectively titled his La Comedie Humaine (The Human Comedy):

“All his books form but one book…a book which realizes observation and imagination, which lavishes the true, the esoteric, the commonplace, the trivial, the material, and which at times through all realities, swiftly and grandly rent away, allows us all at once a glimpse of a most sombre and tragic ideal. Unknown to himself, whether he wished it or not, whether he consented or not, the author of this immense and strange work is one of the strong race of Revolutionist writers. Balzac goes straight to the goal.”

With Dickens in London and Dostoyevsky in Moscow, Balzac pioneered the great realistic urban novel of the 19th century. His grand opus was filled with nearly 2,500 named characters from all walks of life, a number of whom reappear throughout. 

In their attempt to depict a particular place or society with exactitude, Tom Wolfe, John O’Hara and even the modernist William Faulkner can be thought of as his literary heirs.

Balzac needed every bit of his enormous energy to sustain not only this incredible achievement, but his gargantuan appetites for nearly everything. No sooner was he done pouring his heart out in a letter to a mistress than he’d take his maid—far closer to hand—to bed. 

If he could describe so well the instinct to acquire money and possessions, it was because he himself was gripped so tightly by it.

The most common image I summon of Balzac is of him working through the night—part of a punishing 15-hour-daily writing schedule—his eyes squinting because of his dim candlelight, downing one cup of thick, black coffee after another to stay awake.

Balzac’s description of the beneficial aspects of coffee deserves to be quoted at length:

“Ideas quick-march into motion like battalions of a grand army to its legendary fighting ground, and the battle rages. Memories charge in, bright flags on high; the cavalry of metaphor deploys with a magnificent gallop; the artillery of logic rushes up with clattering wagons and cartridges; on imagination's orders, sharpshooters sight and fire; forms and shapes and characters rear up; the paper is spread with ink - for the nightly labor begins and ends with torrents of this black water, as a battle opens and concludes with black powder.”

In such a state, Balzac could reach a kind of creative chaos, his pen scratching out entire pages of inserts that printers would puzzle over. You would think he’d have had mercy on his poor printers, since he had briefly been one himself. 

Nothing doing: that first 60,000-franc investment in the business left him with nothing except more debts than he’d ever be able to repay, along with a typically defiant statement of his condition: “A debt is a work of the imagination which no tax collector can understand.”

When he descended from his creative, caffeine-induced peak, Balzac could assess the physiological impact of his hastily consumed black brew:

“You will fall into horrible sweats, suffer feebleness of the nerves, and undergo episodes of severe drowsiness. I don't know what would happen if you kept at it then: a sensible nature counselled me to stop at this point, seeing that immediate death was not otherwise my fate.”

“Immediate death” wasn’t his fate, but what followed was bad enough, a list of medical ills almost as long as his bibliography:

* a slight “brain congestion” and dizzy spills, eventually diagnosed as arachnoiditis;
* stomach cramps;
* high blood pressure;
* hypertrophy (abnormal enlargement) of the left ventricle of the heart;
* facial twitches;
* hepatitis;
* headaches;
* poor eyesight;
* bronchitis.

Amazingly, amid all this physical trauma, Balzac produced some of his best work, including two late novels about poor relations, Cousin Bette and Cousin Pons

In a 1946 essay on these two novels, collected in the anthology The Pritchett Century, British man-of-letters V.S. Pritchett perceptively assessed how the French novelist caught but transcended his time:

“Balzac arrived when the new money, the new finance of the post-Napoleonic world, was starting on its violent course; when money was an obsession and was putting down a foundation for middle-class morals. In these two novels about the poor relation, he made his most palatable, his least acrid and most human statements about this grotesque period of middle-class history.”

The authors I mentioned earlier as being heavily influenced by Balzac probably come as no surprise, but one who might is Henry James, whose growing obsession with every single word in his work is more reminiscent of Gustave Flaubert than the older French novelist. 

Why, then, in a celebrated 1905 piece, did James call Balzac “the only member of his tribe really monumental…the father of us all”?

Part of it is due to the fact that the two men were exploring the same territory, what James called “the money passion.” Both men came to adulthood in eras when a new economy overthrew all old moral restraints. 

It makes me wonder, in the era of “the Celtic Tiger” (and now, of course, that tiger’s toothlessness), who is—or is ready to become—the Irish Balzac?

Quote of the Day (Ralph Waldo Emerson, on What Is Lost and Gained in Experience)

“For everything you have missed, you have gained something else, and for everything you gain, you lose something else.”—Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Compensation,” in Essays: First Series (1841)

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Quote of the Day (James A. Garfield, With a Presidential Leadership Style Followed Rarely)

“I would rather believe something and suffer for it than to slide along into success without opinion.”—President James A. Garfield (1831-1881), quoted in Allan Peskin, Garfield: A Biography (1978)

Calvin Trillin once wrote that every succeeding Presidential administration made people nostalgic for the preceding one. In the Reagan administration, he noted, this might take the form of people crying, “Come back, Bert Lance—all is forgiven!”

At last, that instant nostalgia is allowing for a partial rehabilitation of George W. Bush. It’s manifesting itself in the reaction to President Obama’s poll-driven, whiplash-inducing observations concerning the proposed location of a mosque near Ground Zero.

The commentariat are not only pointing out the differences between Dubya—who quickly announced that Islam was a “religion of peace” after 9/11—and today’s GOP, but even between Dubya and the candidate most perceived in 2008 as the un-Bush, Barack Obama. Some are even calling for the former President to speak out on the mosque and call his party back to its better instincts.

For God’s sake, even Maureen Dowd, whose Bushworld collected her daily (sometimes repetitious) attacks on “Bushfellas,” found nice things to say about the eloquence-challenged former President in her recent New York Times column, “Our Mosque Madness.” At least he understood, she noted, that “you can’t have an effective war against the terrorists if it is a war on Islam.”

Amazed that the “misunderestimated” ex-President could be far more clear about this matter than Obama, she urges him to “get his bullhorn back out.”

Meanwhile, back in Texas, the former President is grinning. Why should he offer an opinion on this? What’s the upside?

Like Albert Brooks in Lost in America, so angry at his wife for gambling away their “nest egg” that he won’t allow her to say the phrase or even any part of it, today’s GOP doesn’t want to hear a peep from the man whose wars abroad and recession at home ensured the loss of their hegemony in the capital. Because losing makes you even more a pariah in politics than moral turpitude, Bush might be even more of a non-person for his own party than for the Democrats, most of whom will always know him, following the 2000 election, as the Commander-in-Thief.

Garfield’s comment above is a little unfair to other Presidents, slightly ironic in his own case (he was assassinated only a few months into his Presidency, so he had little time to be buffeted by public opinion), and somewhat myopic (most Presidents lead by steering public opinion as it's just beginning to coalesce, not getting out far in front of it).

In the fullness of time, Obama will be judged, as his predecessors have been, by how well he performed on one or two issues related to peace and prosperity rather than on the latest imbroglio of the 24-hour news-cycle. He’ll probably look better to his critics, whether Republican or Democrat, than he does now. He might even chuckle at his successor's troubles.

As dismaying as it may be to watch the President scramble for cover as the flak comes in over the mosque issue, it’s amusing to watch another set of true believers—just like those in previous administrations of both parties—bewail the unwillingness of their champion to, in Garfield’s phrase, “believe something and suffer for it.”

Profiles in Presidential courage may be all well and good, but no occupant of the Oval Office has ever wanted to be a masochist.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Flashback, August 1915: Georgia Mob Lynches Leo Frank

In Milledgeville, Ga., arguably America’s most famous convict, Leo Frank, was dragged out in the middle of the night from a state prison hospital. His 25 captors then managed to escape detection from the prison gun tower, as well as police in multiple jurisdictions, as they completed the second half of a journey to Marietta, hometown of his alleged victim, where Frank was strung up from a tree and lynched.

How Frank’s murderers—credibly rumored, even at the time, to include some of Atlanta’s most prominent citizens—could escape notice was only one of many mysterious aspects of this case, one of the worst miscarriages of justice in American legal history.

These days, Milledgeville would, I think, much rather be known as the longtime adult home of writer Flannery O’Connor, whose family farm, Andalusia, lies just outside the town outskirts.

But O’Connor—who, as a Roman Catholic, shared outsider status with the Jewish Frank in predominantly Protestant Georgia—wrote a book whose title carried uncanny resonance for this horrible crime: The Violent Bear It Away.

American anti-Semitism was not—and is not—rare. But Leo Frank appears to be the only known American Jew ever lynched. And it was for a crime he never committed—the murder of a 13-year-old girl, Mary Phagan, who had left her home 2 ½ years before to pick up her wages at the pencil factory he managed, and who never made it to her planned next destination: the local Confederate Day Parade.

Frank’s distress when police told him of the crime, along with his acknowledgement that he had given her her wages on the day of her death, made him the last person known to have seen her alive. But it was Georgia’s ambitious solicitor general, Hugh Dorsey, who made Frank’s own death a certainty: ignoring or suppressing exculpatory evidence, whipping the populace into a murderous frenzy with tilted testimony from others, by:

* Telling the grand jury that Frank was both homosexual and a molester of little girls;

* Comparing Frank to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde;

* Informing the grand jury that a rape had occurred, when that determination had been made not by a medical examiner but by a police officer and undertaker;

* Inducing the police to arrest people who made statements favorable to Frank, then holding them in custody until those statements were retracted;

* Persuading another grand jury not to indict an African-American janitor at the factory, Jim Conley—who would become his star witness against Frank—for the murder.

The case was stacked against Frank, from misleading trial testimony, to sensationalist newspaper coverage, to a populist-turned-demagogue (future Senator Thomas Watson) using the case to help revive the Ku Klux Klan, to a judge so fearful of angry mobs that he sentenced Frank to death.

Most extraordinarily, in a society in which an African-American’s word was never taken over a white’s at a trial—and in a case in which this particular African-American gave four different versions of events to the police—the state chose to accept Conley’s word over Frank’s. In fact, it was the first time in the racist South that a black man's testimony was used to convict a white man. The closest thing to a motive for this was offered by historian Leonard Dinnerstein, who noted: “At this particular time and in this particular case resentment against a symbol of alien industrialism took precedence over the usual Negro prejudice.”

Surmounting his original jittery responses to police questioning, Frank—an alien in Southern society—grew increasingly strong in his protestations of innocence. Those responses continued through the night of his death. Some of his captors were persuaded at that point that he was telling the truth, but they ended up acquiescing in the larger group’s murderous rage.

For more than 70 years, the conviction steadily mounted that Frank was innocent and Conley was lying. Finally, in 1984, the most telling blow yet to Frank’s conviction was dealt by the deathbed tale of 85-year-old Alonzo Mann, who had worked as an office boy in the factory and, he said, had stumbled upon the murder scene by accident at the time.

Mann had returned to the factory to retrieve something when he spotted Conley carrying Phagan’s corpse over his shoulder. Grabbing the boy with his free hand, Conley threatened to kill him, too, if he ever said anything about it.

At the urging of his parents, Mann kept silent throughout the trial and the ensuing decades. Finally, his conscience would not allow him to die without speaking the truth about the controversial case.

Fans of film, television and theater will likely have at least some familiarity with this notorious crime. Within a year of the lynching, a full-length silent feature and a documentary short had been released. But the most prominent examples of its influence in popular culture include the following:

* The 1937 Mervyn LeRoy film They Won’t Forget, a thinly fictionalized treatment of the tale, featuring 17-year-old Lana Turner in her movie debut as the murder victim;

* The 1988 television miniseries The Murder of Mary Phagan, starring Peter Gallagher as Frank and Jack Lemmon as Gov. John Slaton, a profile in courage who, believing that Frank had been railroaded, commuted his sentence—and paid the price at the polls by losing the next gubernatorial election to none other than Dorsey;

* The 1998 Broadway musical Parade, with a book by Alfred Uhry and music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown.

Quote of the Day (Rosanne Cash, on Her “Worker-Bee Mentality”)

“I have a real worker-bee mentality. Just show up, just do it. Even if you feel like s--t and you think you’re terrible and you’ll never get better and it will never go anywhere, just show up and do it. And, eventually, something happens.”—Singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash, quoted in Jim Windolf, “Country in the City,” New York Magazine, August 9-16, 2010

Rosanne Cash could have coasted on being the daughter of country great Johnny Cash, but her “worker-bee mentality” saved her—just as, I’m sure, it got her through cocaine addiction more than two decades ago, and, more recently, divorce, the death of her father, mother and stepmother (June Carter Cash), and brain surgery. She narrates all of this in her new memoir, Composed.

Cash’s account might just as easily been titled Surviving Sane—hardly easy to accomplish in either the entertainment business in general or the Nashville scene in particular. Good for her. She inspires all of us other wanna-be worker bees.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Quote of the Day (Eric Sevareid, on America’s “Biggest Big Business”)

“The biggest big business in America is not steel, automobiles, or television. It is the manufacture, refinement and distribution of anxiety.”—Eric Sevareid, This Is Eric Sevareid (1964)

Monday, August 16, 2010

This Day in Revolutionary War History (Gates Retreats Into Infamy at Camden)

August 16, 1780—Like so many other engagements of the American Revolution in the Southern colonies, the Battle of Camden became a full-fledged disaster for the Continental Army. A patriot force that outnumbered British invaders by more than three to two, fighting on its own South Carolina soil, suffered more than six times as many casualties as their opponents, along with the loss of much transport and ammunition.

But the most astonishing result of the engagement, it appears now, might have been addition by subtraction. American commander Horatio Gates (in the image accompanying this post), it is true, had not only joined the first set of militia that fled the field, but had kept galloping for three days and 180 miles before he figured he was out of harm’s way and could file a belated, self-justifying battle report. Better that such a divisive figure be sidelined than that he pose an even greater threat to the Continental high command.

The 53-year-old general’s precipitous flight brought out the incipient smart aleck in one of George Washington’s young aides-de-camp. “It does admirable credit to the activity of a man at his time of life,” joked Alexander Hamilton.

Like other staffers, Hamilton had been appalled that Gates had been seriously considered by many in the Continental Congress as a possible replacement for Washington. That notion was pretty much disposed of by Gates’ conduct at Camden. No matter how many or how difficult his defeats had been, the Virginian had kept his army together as a fighting force against all odds. And it was simply impossible to accuse him of cowardice.

Reading about Gates’ war years, you can’t help notice the similarities with a Civil War general, George B. McClellan:

* Both men were brilliant at organization—i.e., the business of outfitting, training and motivating an army—and probably made their greatest contribution to the war effort in the earliest days;

* Both men were hugely popular with soldiers because of genuine concern for their welfare;

* Both men quarreled with other generals and gained reputations as schemers;

* Both men ran afoul of the two towering American figures of their times: Gates, with Washington; McClellan, with Abraham Lincoln;

* Both men saw their greatest weakness as commanders—a failure of nerve—cruelly exposed on the field of battle.

And both bemoaned the task they were given: in Gates’ words, taking on “command of an army without strength, a military chest without money, a Department apparently deficient in public spirit, and a climate that increases despondency instead of animating the soldier’s arm.”

To hear his supporters talk, there wasn’t anything he couldn’t do. That frequently unthinking support may have led him to a continual insistence on his rights that led to clashes with others: first, with General Philip Schuyler, whom he supplanted as head of the army’s northern department, then with Benedict Arnold, who had helped to turn the tide of battle at Saratoga with a brave dash across the field, only to see Gates grab the glory.

But Gates really became a center of controversy as a result of “the Conway Cabal,” a shadowy movement within the Continental Congress to replace Washington. Gates' circuitous denials of involvement in this movement, along with his victory at the Battle of Saratoga (which many credited more to Arnold and Daniel Morgan than to himself) and election to the Board of War set up by Congress, made him a rival to Washington. Relations between the two men cooled.

General Benjamin Lincoln’s surrender at Charleston opened up a vacancy in the Southern Department of the war, and Gates’ political supporters predictably bypassed Washington’s choice for the post, Nathanael Greene, and appointed Gates to fill it. Now Gates would show what he could and couldn’t do when left largely to his own devices.

Gates’ most disastrous move in the battle was overreliance on militia. In a more free-floating, guerrilla style of operation they might have functioned well, but not as the prime defense against battle-tested British troops under Lord Cornwallis. One cheer, one volley and an exuberant bayonet charge by the redcoats crumpled up first the Virginia militia, then its North Carolina counterpart, on Gates’ left wing. He spurred on his horse and not only joined, but surpassed them in his urgent flight.

Belief in militia was not the only illusion to die hard at Camden. Washington’s enemies now realized, after this disaster, that Gates was a false savior for the Continental Army. Instead of being named head of the army, he was relieved of command and, for more than a year, sat out the decisive turn in the war, as the Continental Congress first ordered a court of inquiry into his conduct at Camden, then rescinded it.

Quote of the Day (Graig Nettles, on the ‘70s Yankees)

“When I was a little boy, I wanted to be a baseball player and join a circus. With the Yankees I’ve accomplished both.”—Third baseman Graig Nettles, on playing for two-time World Series champion New York Yankees in the late 1970s, quoted in Kenneth McMillan, Tales From the Yankee Dugout: A Collection of the Greatest Yankee Stories Ever Told (2001)

Though Reggie Jackson usually grabbed the headlines with something he said, it was two other Yankees early in the Steinbrenner Era, I think, who better deserved a place in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. One was Mickey Rivers, who responded thus to a slumping Jackson, who had just scoffed at his teammate’s near-total lack of interest in reading: “You best stop reading and start hitting.” The other player, smooth-fielding Graig Nettles, might be better known for his capsule description of reliever Sparky Lyle (“From Cy Young to sayonara”).

I suspect that many Yankee fans of my age and older chuckled when they recalled the tumultuous events that sparked the above “circus” quote (at least three-quarters of these incidents, I think, involved some combination of Steinbrenner, Jackson, or Billy Martin, with the latter two, of course, appearing in the accompanying image). But over the last few days, as I read about Johan Santana and Francisco Rodriguez, I thought that substituting “Mets” for “Yankees” felt perfectly appropriate.

The Seventies Yankees were throwbacks to the likes of the early Seventies Oakland A’s (which, not so coincidentally, also had Jackson) and the St. Louis Cardinals “Gas House Gang” of the 1930s. Somehow, those groups of rambunctious bad boys converted their energy from pummeling each other into beating opponents.

Today’s Mets follow a more familiar pattern: Losing increases frustration, which leads to friction, which leads to bad behavior. Like Notre Dame fans, New York fans feel entitled, and they’re going to take names and call for the guillotine like so many little Robespierres.

If, God help you, you take sportswriters seriously, when a manager today wins, he’s like Connie Mack of the late 1920s Philadelphia A’s: a master molder of men, destined not merely for the World Series but for Cooperstown. When he loses, he’s like Mack in the last two decades of his life: out of touch, ready for the scrap heap.

The Mets’ up-and-down fortunes this season have created the circus-like atmosphere that Nettles observed about his own team. I’m a Yankee fan, but I don’t like seeing how their Gotham rivals have become media mincemeat.

This is a team that has had an unbelievable amount of bad breaks, particularly in the form of injuries. With one or two players enjoying career years, they could very easily have been leading their division right now.

Last weekend, I heard ESPN sportscasters note that for all their injuries, the Boston Red Sox still could not be counted out of the playoff race. Here’s the odd thing: Until this past weekend, the Mets were roughly the same distance back, but you didn’t hear that said about them.

Sportswriter-vultures are circling Jerry Manuel now, trading the Bronx Zoo for Citi Asunder. It would be comical to watch, except that I have enough of a sense of history to remember prior managerial death watches for Willie Randolph, Art Howe, Bobby Valentine, Jeff Torborg, Bud Harrelson, and Davey Johnson. “They’re losers,” the refrain went. “Anyone else would do better.”

Well, they kept getting “anyone else,” and the Mets still kept losing. Now, there’s also talk of bringing back one of the old “losers,” Valentine.

Baseball managers are a bit like U.S. Presidents, receiving far more credit than they deserve when winning and far less when they’re losing. So you won’t find me claiming that Jerry Manuel is some kind of genius. But you also won’t find me peddling the ridiculous notion that the walks on the wild side taken by K-Rod, Santana and Co. are somehow all his fault, as at least one sportswriter I read this weekend claimed.

The best thing that could happen to today’s Mets would be a more extreme version of what occurred with the Yankees in 1978. That team’s ascent, as I recall, began with a newspaper strike. The sudden disappearance of those screaming backpage headlines about George, Reggie and Billy allowed a team that had suffered a rash of injuries to heal, to re-discover their strengths, to regroup, and to begin the ascent that led to the Yanks’ one-game playoff against the Red Sox.

Nowadays, of course, a simple newspaper strike won’t be enough to ensure a blackout on bed news. (Heck, the digital revolution is silencing more newspapers than a raft of strikes ever could!) You’d also need the disappearance of the sports-radio-and-TV jocks.

But anything can happen in baseball—and with the addition of the wild card, that possibility increases. In any case, here’s hoping that the Mets reinvent the same tired old narrative of the past few years, that they show that history can be a progression rather than a closed loop of savagely dashed expectations, that it’s still possible to say, “You gotta believe.”

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Flashback, August 1935: FDR Signs Social Security Act

President Franklin D. Roosevelt brought into being one of his most enduring domestic domestic-policy achievements when he signed the Social Security Act. With a stroke of the pen on August 14, 1935, he established a floor beneath an American labor force that had been in free fall since the start of the Great Depression. 

The epochal legislation ensured old-age benefits for workers, benefits for victims of industrial accidents, as well as aid for dependent mothers and children, the blind, and the physically handicapped. 

If you want to identify the rise of the so-called “welfare state” at the federal level, this is about as good a starting point as you can get. 

Particularly over the last 30 years, it’s become more common to read about Social Security as a) giant ponzi scheme in which today’s young are taxed to subsidize the elderly, and b) an anachronistic scheme inexorably headed, because of major demographic changes, towards insolvency. 

At the time of its creation, none of the latter was necessarily inevitable. It was only after 1950 that increasingly generous modifications of the program were voted into law, allowing for the size of the Social Security system to exceed welfare benefits. 

Nevertheless, for all its problems, Social Security remains an almost politically untouchable program, and for a good reason: it’s impervious to the shocks that a private program, subject to the vagaries of a volatile stock market, would endure. 

The drubbing that George W. Bush suffered when he decided to expend his political capital after the 2004 election was a necessary corrective to a profoundly foolhardy idea. As horrifying as the Great Recession has been, matters would have been infinitely worse if Congress had voted in favor of Bush’s scheme for private investment accounts. (Imagine bailing out all of that.) 

It’s interesting to note a few other aspects of the passage of Social Security: 

* Social Security was not a Socialist scheme, but instead an attempt to ward off Socialism and other forms of “thunder on the left.” In this sense, FDR’s motives resembled those of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in Germany. Bismarck could hardly be called a radical, but his championing of old-age pensions, accident and health insurance took the steam out of much of the socialist movement in Germany in the 1880s. While not an authoritarian in the Bismarck mode, FDR needed to deal with similar leftist challenges at home by the middle of his first term. In particular, he wanted to co-opt a scheme then raging—the so-called Townsend Plan, calling for $200 per month to every citizen age 60 or older (at a time when the average monthly wage in 1935 was only about $100 per month)—with one he judged to be more economically and politically feasible.

* Social Security was not a carefully conceived plan from the beginning of the New Deal, but rather a reaction to events. In his first inaugural address, FDR had called for “bold, persistent experimentation,” a process of testing to see what worked and what did not. By the time of his fireside chat two years later calling for passage of the Social Security Act and the Works Progress Administration, however, he was defending these as part of a unified program. If this address contradicted a point he made in the most memorable fashion at the start of his term, however, it made another that couldn’t be more appealing to the younger unemployed: The program, he noted, would “help those who have reached the age of retirement to give up their jobs and thus give to the younger generation greater opportunities for work and to give to all a feeling of security as they look toward old age.”

* Social Security made a major dent in the often high poverty rate among the elderly. Before the Great Depression, poverty had been a steadily rising among those 60 and older. That concern has gradually ebbed with the passage of Social Security and its amendments over the years. 

 * Passage of the legislation featured a high percentage of bipartisan support. In contrast to Obamacare, which passed with skin-of-its-teeth margins, Social Security received affirmative “yea” votes from 81 House Republicans and 16 Senate Republicans.

Quote of the Day (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, on What God Does and Doesn’t Give Us)

“God does not give us everything we want, but he does fulfill all his promises, i.e., he remains the Lord of the earth, he preserves his church, constantly renewing our faith and not laying on us more than we can bear, gladdening us with his nearness and help, hearing our prayers and leading us along the best and straightest paths to Himself.”—German Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, letter written while in prison, August 14, 1944, in Letters and Papers From Prison, edited by Eberhard Bethge (1970)

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Quote of the Day (Patricia Neal, on Survival)

“I can’t see from one eye. I’ve been paralyzed. I’ve fallen down and broken a hip. Stubbornness gets you through the bad times. You don’t give in.”—Actress Patricia Neal (1926-2010), quoted in Aljean Harmetz, “Patricia Neal, An Oscar-Winner Who Endured Tragedy, Dies at 84,” The New York Times, August 10, 2010

Every time you feel sorry for yourself, read about the life of Patricia Neal. Her private struggles were so multitudinous—so mountainous, come to think of it—that they almost made you forget the immense talent and dedication she brought to each of her roles onscreen.

For a long time, I thought Elizabeth Taylor was the gold standard, as far as survival of calamitous events was concerned. Now, I think Neal’s difficulties were even more astounding.

I first became aware of Neal’s work when I watched her Oscar-nominated performance in The Subject Was Roses (1968), in which she played a mother, battling, with a lioness’ quiet but unmistakable fury, with her husband over the affection of their son, a returning young WWII vet. It was a shift away from the more glamorous roles she had played previously, but it was imbued with much of the force of her life experience.

You see, having brought five children into the world, she had learned even more about loss than love. Consider:

* Her four-month son by writer Roald Dahl, Theo, suffered brain damage when his baby carriage was crushed between a taxicab and a bus.

* The couple’s seven-year-old daughter, Olivia, died two years later of measles encephalitis.

* A year after winning her Best Actress Oscar for Hud (she's in the image accompanying this post, with the co-star she admired so deeply, Paul Newman), pregnant with another child, she suffered three devastating strokes that put her in a coma for three weeks. She learned to walk, speak, and work (despite an impaired memory) again through intensive therapy and the relentless prodding of Dahl.

And there were her catastrophes in love. At the beginning of her film career, Neal had an affair with her married co-star of The Fountainhead, Gary Cooper. At his urging, she aborted her pregnancy—an action she regretted for the rest of her life.

Later, three decades into her marriage, she ended up divorcing Dahl after she discovered he had cheated on her with a longtime friend.

She survived it all, and complemented her great work onscreen with charitable activities for the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center in Knoxville, Tenn., a facility for treating stroke, spinal cord and brain injury patients.

For a fine appreciation of the legacy of this actress—whom I, like so many of her other fans, wish had made many more than her approximately 30 movies—see this post by the unsurpassed film blogger “Self-Styled Siren.”

Friday, August 13, 2010

This Day in Yankee History (Mickey Mantle Dies)

August 13, 1995—Hall of Fame centerfielder Mickey Mantle, a hero to thousands but a disappointment to himself, died of liver cancer at age 63, after a public admission of alcoholism and attempt to redeem the little time he had left.

Long into retirement, but before he sought help for his alcohol problem, Mantle related a continuing nightmare he had: He had come to Yankee Stadium in his uniform, ready to play, even hearing his name on the loudspeaker. But unable to go through the gate, or even squeeze through a hole in the fence, he could not get through to teammates waiting on the other side.

The dream spoke volumes about the problems of adjusting to life when his old career—and youth—had passed, but also to the camaraderie and sense of responsibility he felt to teammates as run producer throughout his career. He was the Achilles of the New York Yankees, a figure of breathtaking physical strength and inner resolution who continually led his team into the autumn World Series wars--but suffering, like the mythological hero, from a weakness in the lower part of his body.

The known stories about Mantle’s alcoholism are many; the ones that have not seen the light of day might well be legion. At the end of his life, Mantle felt like a failure: to his estranged wife, to his family, even to his talent, which, he believed, he might have been brought to its ultimate fulfillment had he taken better care of himself.

I think he was harder on himself than he deserved. Those of us who have known alcoholics in our own lives are all too keenly aware that, for all the damage they might have caused themselves and those in their orbits, so much worthy of love still exists inside them. In this regard, Mantle was no different.

In choosing an image for this post, I thought at first of one from his last months, showing the exhaustion brought on by the slugger's medical struggles. In the end, I picked this one, of Mantle with his long-suffering wife Merlyn, the woman who for years endured the consequences of his self-destructive behavior.

The photo not only shows the vibrancy that drew so many to this young couple, but also restores to them something of the dignity they might have felt had melted away in the cauldron of fame and self-doubt.

One of the formative books I read as a child was Mantle’s The Quality of Courage (1965), ghostwritten by the fine future Babe Ruth biographer Robert Creamer. It had a simple but ingenious device: taking a cue from the recently deceased President Kennedy, it offered, in effect, profiles in courage of 19 baseball players, including Jackie Robinson, Jimmy Piersall, and Ted Williams.

In our revisionist age, the rage is all for debunking heroes. But imperfection is not an argument against their existence. In fact, I’d say, it’s part of the definition of the term. As far as you can get from godlike, heroes are those who face the demons and carry the burdens, day in and day out.

In October 1964, David Halberstam observed that Mantle might have been more of a hero to his teammates, who could see, right in the locker room, the ferocious effort it took him to suit up, than to fans. But, as his physical frailty increased, those in the stands, too, began to embrace him in greater numbers, as they came to understand the staggering weight of expectations on the back of the limping Yankee giant.

Still later, understanding grew of the double shadow lurking behind the fleet young slugger with the impossibly sunny smile: not just the burden of following Joe DiMaggio (who had treated him coldly in his first season) in center field, but also the haunting fear that he was fated to die young from Hodgkin’s Disease, the medical condition that claimed the lives of Mantle's father, grandfather, two uncles, and son.

Several years after his death, Mantle’s family revealed, in A Hero All His Life, an additional psychic burden he had carried his whole life: he had suffered child sexual abuse at the hands of a half-sister. Recent decades have amply revealed the emotional damage such abuse inflicts, including the alcoholism from which Mantle suffered.

Given all this, it is remarkable that Mantle carried on—indeed, that he achieved so much. Here, for instance, are Allen Barra and Allen St. John, assessing him in the December 4, 1998 issue of The Wall Street Journal:

“At peak value - five or six top seasons - Mantle was better than any postwar player. ... Not only was Mantle the greatest power hitter between Ruth and McGwire in terms of home runs per at bat, he hit for spectacular averages and drew a staggering number of walks. ... His on-base average was only ten points lower than that of Ty Cobb. ... The Mick was a Gold Glove-calibre centerfielder who could switch hit and bunt. His base-stealing percentage is virtually even with Ricky Henderson."

It was the Yankee Clipper rather than The Mick who was lucky enough to count a Nobel Prize-winning laureate as a friend. Nevertheless, for all of “the great DiMaggio’s” sterling qualities as a player, I think it was Mantle rather than the other Yankee centerfield legend who best epitomizes Santiago’s observation in Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea: “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”