Thursday, July 30, 2020

The Hall Ball: The Ultimate Baseball Connection

Of the Hall of Fame's three missions--"preserving history, honoring greatness, connecting generations"--the last has always seemed the most important to me. When I worked at the Hall of Fame's library from 2002-2010, my own mission focused on helping visitors, many of whom regarded their visit to Cooperstown as a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to baseball's mecca, celebrate their own connections to the sport. Sometimes I found box scores of the first game they remembered attending, other times the records of ancestors who had played minor league ball, and occasionally artifacts that symbolized their own baseball legacy.

Most memorably, I met former ballplayers and their families or the descendants of long-gone Hall of Famers. I have talked with relatives (mainly grandchildren) of, among others, Babe Ruth, Lefty Grove, George Sisler, Harry Heilmann, Three Finger Brown, Lefty Gomez, and even Alexander Cartwright. Each of those meetings memorably connected me with players my father had told me about watching when he was young.

There is a special joy for those of us involved with baseball history in making those spiritual connections tangible. So much of baseball is tangled with myth, starting with its vague origins, that we crave physical objects which provide evidence that baseball is not just a field of dreams but a real world in which actual men have achieved wondrous things. Thus the baseball card and memorabilia explosion, however fraught it is with fraud and greed. It has satisfied fans' craving for objects that encapsulate both baseball's romance and reality.

I know of no single object that represents the joys of baseball connection more than The Hall Ball, so designated by Ralph Carhart and celebrated in his book of the same title,  published by McFarland. You should hasten to latch onto this book (which can be ordered at Do yourself a favor and share in Carhart's extraordinary quest to use one object--a used baseball his wife, Anna, spotted in the creek that runs past Doubleday Field during their own 2010 pilgrimage to Cooperstown--to unite all of the members of the Hall of Fame.

What did Ralph Carhart do? The book's subtitle is apt: "One Fan's Journey to Unite Cooperstown Immortals with a Single Baseball." He set out to photograph that baseball, with THE HALL BALL its lone adornment, in the hands of every living Hall of Famer and at the gravesite of every deceased one. This eight-year quest ultimately saw him seek out and immortalize all but a handful of the 323 Hall of Famers when he turned in 2018 from the quest to chronicling it in this terrific book.

A theater director and manager from New York City, Carhart used vacation time and long weekends to track down immortals in 34 states, Puerto Rico and, most memorably, Cuba, logging over 20,000 miles in his eight-year odyssey. His wife frequently accompanied him and shared in each connection commemorated, proving quite adept at locating poorly marked graves, and sometimes their two young children came along. All those helping hands are visible in one or another of the 320 or so photographs that are just one of the main treats of Carhart's book. Along the way, he created a website, blogging about his travels and posting photos along the way, turning this into something of a communal quest.

I'd be happy to rhapsodize over the quest itself, but this book review should focus on the book. The story is told chronologically, with separate chapters for each state visited, several chapters covering the living Hall of Famers, and a few special cases. It creates a half-dozen levels of exploration that proceed throughout the chronicle of more than 300 encounters, with only 60 or so involving living Hall of Famers. Here they are:

  • Protoball: Carhart begins his account of his travels in each state with a brief summary of what SABR folks call "Protoball," that is the history of baseball before it was played professionally. This grounds us in time and place, showing the grass-root basis of bat-and-ball games that grew into the national sport.
  • Travelogue: We come to know Ralph Carhart and his cohorts as they get from one place to another over 20,000+ miles. He doesn't burden us with unnecessary details and logistics, discussing them mainly to illustrate such things as quirks photographs and the sense of urgency that often overtook him as he completed ambitious missions on every trip. 
  • Access: Closely related to travel logistics is actual access to all these Hall of Famers. Getting to the living proved more difficult than reaching the dead, and we sympathize with Carhart as he deals with the hyper-commerce of card shows, a lamb among carnivores. In time, every photo he secures is a victory, and the looks on some of the Hall of Famers' faces tell us what tough adversaries they were.
  • Careers: Every Hall of Famer gets a paragraph about his achievements, statistical or otherwise, that got him into the Hall. This kind of thing appears in lots of books, and their treatment here is better than most I have seen. They are especially helpful for readers who don't know enough about the lesser immortals (even Carhart admits knowing almost nothing about Kiki Cuyler, for example). This is good history, placed in context, and written in entertaining fashion.
  • The Graves: Visiting over 200 graves, Carhart discovered a wide variety of resting places, from massive mausoleums to unmarked, communal graves. Each tells a story, and Carhart is sensitive to their souls as he describes how he located each grave, figured out how to take the photo (some are a dozen feet above ground), and commemorated the event. We learn so much about how these Hall of Famers fared in life, how important baseball and the Hall of Fame were to those who composed their headstones, and how well these places are maintained.
  • Photos: The taking of the photos is another strong part of the narrative. Location, weather, sunlight, and even a convenient place to put the ball often presented problems. Again, we are right alongside Carhart as he navigates the kind of thing all we amateurs experience in trying to capture a good photo or two of a baseball occasion -- but he achieves it nearly 300 times, all over the country. I also applaud the photo captions, one-sentence nuggets which add something to each Hall of Famer's story that is not mentioned elsewhere.
  • Ethics: Anyone who reads this book will admire Carhart's ethical approach to this project. He was straightforward with everyone he approached, explaining his goal of taking a photo of every Hall of Famer with the ball, dead or alive (prompting Pat Gillick's quip, "I'd rather you got me on this side than the other"). Many times, he questioned the propriety of what he might have to do in order to get a photo. As an author, he is forthright about everything that gave him pause, just one more way in which we find ourselves rooting for him to fulfill his quest. Thus, when toward the end he gives the ball to a man he just met who might get the photo he needs of Hank Aaron, we admire his faith in goodwill and smile at the resulting photo.
Above all, to amplify that last item, what Ralph Carhart did in his quest, and what he does in this book, is to "do right by" all the people he commemorated as well as those he encountered along the way. This is particularly true of some of the special cases he discusses. There's a great chapter of "symbolic" shots he staged for those who were cremated and did not have graves where he could stage a photo. These became mini-pilgrimages, for instance to the remote wildlife center established by Tom Yawkey, for a wonderful photo with an egret looking on. These personal homages include photos of third base at Wrigley Field for Ron Santo, statues of Kirby Puckett and Larry Doby, the abandoned Illinois coal mine where Al Barlick umpired his first games, and the beach in Puerto Rico where part of the plane that killed Roberto Clemente washed ashore.

How many baseball fans would go to that much trouble to make such meaningful connections with people he could never know? 

Ralph Carhart did it, and he tells the story in a book that abounds with neat details that make his journey seem both intensely personal and ultimately universal. He takes us along with him all the way, as the thing takes on a life of its own, a wide-open daydream at the start, hardened by travel and other difficulties and fueled by epiphanies and endless connections, eventually dwindling down to the end of the list (except for just a handful of White Whales). 

Epiphanies? Here's just one: Carhart played catch in Cuba at the memorial honoring Cuba's baseball greats--with Martin Dihigo Jr. Match that in your baseball travels! Well, Carhart can top it. The highest drama of the book also occurred in Cuba as Carhart and others unraveled the mystery of where Cristobal Torriente was buried. Having traipsed all over the New York area, where Torriente supposedly rested, Carhart found himself back in Cuba tracking down more leads, eventually holding in his hands what might well have been Torriente's skull.

One important by-product of The Hall Ball's journey was Carhart's growing awareness of how time and neglect have tarnished the eternity of so many forgotten baseball greats. Carhart soon become involved with SABR's Negro Leagues Baseball Grave Marker Project and later helped create the 19th-Century Grave Marker Project. Thus his commitment to the memories of these men became more personal, taking him well beyond his original purpose of gathering photographs. And here's where he and I have a one-of-a-kind connection: Carhart composed the text that accompanied the stone placed at the grave of Sol White; I composed the text of White's plaque after his 2006 election to the Hall of Fame. 

Wisely, Carhart does not try to force each photo's story to serve all of those ongoing narratives. Not every experience was profound; some were distinctly unpleasant. One thing that charmed me was how often Carhart's brief interactions with Hall of Famers matched my own impressions. Our good guys included Jim Thome and Joe Torre (also high on his list was Pedro Martinez, whom I've never met); bad impressions were made on both of us by Johnny Bench, Whitey Herzog, Whitey Ford, and Jim Bunning. He takes his tales as they come, letting the narrative threads accumulate where they will.

Whether Carhart got what he wanted in a few minutes or it took hours, we know how he felt about it. I knew nothing about The Hall Ball before this year, but now I feel like I've known Ralph and Anna Carhart for a long time, and that is a decidedly good thing. You'll be glad to share in their travels as they prove once again that in a long trip toward a distant goal, what you experience along the way is far more vivid and rewarding than what awaits you at the end. Fittingly, what Carhart expected to happen to The Hall Ball did not happen, and The Hall Ball ends with that artifact headed for a place that seems just as perfect as its journey.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

A Lifetime of Witnessing Greatness

A couple of weeks ago, to celebration my birthday on a day when no public events were scheduled, I posted a list of famous and outstanding performers I have seen in person during my lifetime. I wanted to celebrate the greatness I have beheld, which after all is one of the genuine pleasures of this world. We don't have time to achieve everything, hence the vicarious pleasure of seeing what other people can do by devoting themselves to this or that talent.

The list contained 69 performers, one for each year of my life. Naturally, after it was posted and got lots of responses, I thought of another 10-20 people who should have made the list.

I had been fairly conservative in order to hold that list down to 69 athletes, actors, and musicians. I listed only four of the 20 groups I saw at Woodstock, and not more than a half-dozen baseball Hall of Famers, when I've seen dozens. I wanted to diversify the list. In this blog, I want to expand that list, add a couple of other lists, throw in a few numbers, and tell a bit more about about all these fantastic performers I have managed to see over the course of a half-century and then some.

First up is the original posted list of 69. All I posted was their names, but here I'll add where and when and sometimes why.

Hank Aaron – at Polo Grounds and Shea Stadium
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – I was there when he broke Chamberlain's career scoring record -- in Las Vegas!
Chuck Berry – Fillmore East, 1968 or 1969
Larry Bird – most memorably from court level at Phoenix in 1981
Blue Man Group – NY City, 2001
Victory Borge – Royal Albert Hall, London, 1979
Bill Bradley – Knicks, Madison Square Garden
George Carlin – Las Vegas, late 1980s
Roberto Clemente – 1964 All-Star Game
Van Cliburn – New Jersey, c. 1957 – I just remember him sitting there
Bob Cousy – old Madison Square Garden, 1962
Cream – Madison Square Garden, 1968
Rodney Dangerfield – at his nightclub in Manhattan, New Year’s Eve, mid-70s
Judi Dench – early 1970s, London, Royal Shakespeare Company
Joe DiMaggio – I saw him hit a double at a Yankee Stadium Old-Timers Day in the late 1950s
Eddie Feigner – Hawley, Pennsylvania, late 1970s, an astonishing performer
Ella Fitzgerald – San Francisco, 1982, St. Francis Hotel, I think
Pancho Gonzalez – mid-1960s, Madison Square Garden pro exhibition
Wayne Gretzky – with LA Kings, once saw him and Lemieux in same game
Alec Guinness –London 1971, “A Voyage Around My Father” (with Jeremy Brett)
Lionel Hampton – Los Angeles, big outdoor venue, late 1980s
Jimi Hendrix – Woodstock, Monday morning
Earl “Fatha” Hines –Village Vanguard, NY City, 1977
Anthony Hopkins – in “Macbeth” in London, 1973
Howlin’ Wolf – nightclub in Manhattan on my 18th birthday in 1969
Ichiro Suzuki – Seattle, 2006, one of seven people on this list I have spoken with
Magic Johnson – lots in LA in the 80s
Janis Joplin – Woodstock, from right in front of the stage
Deborah Kerr – London, 1971
B.B. King – Central Park, 1969
Billie Jean King – tournament in London, 1971
Sam Kinison – twice in Las Vegas, late 1980s
Leo Kottke – twice in upstate NY, 2006 and 2011
Rod Laver – in London in 1971 tournament
Led Zeppelin – old Pavilion at NY World’s Fair Site, 1970 or 1971
Mario Lemieux – at LA, late 80s
Jack Lemmon – in a drama called “A Sense of Humor” in LA, early 1984
Meadowlark Lemon – Madison Square Garden, sometime as a kid
Greg Maddux – several times, most memorably in Atlanta, 1998
Mickey Mantle – I witnessed his last great game, 5-for-5 with two HR, Memorial Day, 1968
Juan Marichal – winner of the 1964 All-Star Game, and the most gracious Hall of Famer I’ve met
Steve Martin – believe it or not, a performance in Missoula, Montana, in 1978
Willie Mays – many times, from his days as a NY Giant to a HR at Candlestick Park in 1970
Paul McCartney – Las Vegas Silver Bowl on my birthday in 1993
Ian McKellan – as Hamlet in London, 1971, and as Salieri in “Amadeus” in NY, late 70s
Yehudi Menuhin – London 1979
Dudley Moore – London 1971, in a revue titled “Behind the Fridge,” forerunners of Monty Python
Mothers of Invention – Central Park, 1969
Jack Nicklaus – National Pro-Am at Pebble Beach, early 1990s
Leonard Nimoy – in “Equus” on Broadway, around 1979
Laurence Olivier – twice in London in 1971, first as Shylock and then in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” 
Max Patkin – Las Vegas, 1980s, incomparable
Vanessa Redgrave – at the Young Vic in 1971
Diana Rigg – as Lady Macbeth to Anthony Hopkins’ Macbeth
Oscar Robertson – old Madison Square Garden
Frank Robinson – Polo Grounds
Pete Rose – many times, but notably when he broke the NL record by hitting in his 38th straight game,  Shea Stadium, 1978
Bill Russell – old Madison Square Garden, 1962
Dolph Schayes – the same night as Russell, an old-time NBA doubleheader
Paul Scofield – the best performance I saw in London,1971, in “The Captain of Kopenick”
Tom Seaver – many times
Ravi Shankar – Edinburgh Festival, 1971
Maggie Smith – London, 1971
Isaac Stern – London, 1979
Patrick Stewart – many plays in London 1971, in Royal Shakespear Company
The Who – Fillmore East, Woodstock, and a one-day rock festival in 1971 at the Kensington Oval cricket ground in London – that was quite a semester
Luis Tiant – Fenway Park, my first game there in 1974
Steven Wright – Las Vegas, 1988
Neil Young – many times in California and NY state--solo, with Crazy Horse, and in 2016 with       Promise of the Real

That takes care of the original list. Since my birthday was the 14th, here are 14 more special performances, or at least 14 omitted from the original list, a few out-of-the-way performers who are worth writing about. I'll present those in chronological order:

  • 1963: I'm pretty sure that the only Hall of Famer I ever competed against was Ed Marinaro, a member of the College Football HOF. We played Little League ball together in New Milford, New Jersey. I remember him very well, the tallest kid in the league, an unhittable pitcher in my book. I also saw him compete in 1970 when he was at Cornell and I was at Colgate. He rushed for his usual 200 yards, but Colgate won.
  • 1969: I do have to mention the most surprising performance at Woodstock. I think most of the attendees who stayed near the stage like I did knew most of the performers, but the crowd had thinned out by 6:30 AM Monday morning. Paul Butterfield had performed awhile ago, and I had dozed off while perched on a narrow board perched atop two garbage cans, about 30 yards from the stage. I was started out of my catnap by harsh shouts of "Tough! Tough! Tough!" That was Sha-Na-Na testing their microphones, and for an hour we were energized awake by their hilariously choreographed and beautifully harmonized send-ups. Totally unexpected.
  • 1971: How often does a fan get to hear a competitor say something hilarious in the heat of battle? At that tennis tournament I attended in London in 1971, one day I was one of five or six spectators for an early-round match between Tom Gorman (later the US Davis Cup captain) and Egyptian star Ismael El-Shafei. I was sitting in the front row over the end of the court where Gorman was. Nobody else was near me. They got in a very long rally, back and forth, and El-Shafei hit a terrific shot to Gorman's backhand corner. Gorman made this running, lunging, desperate backhand passing shot right down the line. The umpire did not hear the linesman's call, and just as Gorman passed below me to grab a towel, the umpire called out, "Was that shot good?" Only I could hear Gorman mutter to himself, "No, it was fuckin' great!" 
  • 1971: Remember Werner Klemperer, who played Colonel Klink on "Hogan's Heroes"? His father, Otto Klemperor, was a renowned conducted, one of the European greats. Born in 1885, he was nearly burned to death in 1939 and later suffered a number of strokes. When I saw him conduct in London, he was 85 years old and mostly paralyzed. I will not forget the sight of him being carried on stage by two attendants--he was a gaunt 6'5"--and deposited in a high stool from which he conducted. A conductor's job is done mainly in rehearsal, hence the need for Klemperer to do little more than wiggle the baton. The music was wonderful.
  • 1975: When I went to graduate school in Eugene, Oregon, I became a track and field fan like everyone else there. So I could add a dozen or more huge names in that realm to my list of fantastic performers. But I'll single one out here because the meet was so special, the kind of thing you'd see only at Hayward Field in Eugene. It was a two-day, three-country decathlon meet: the US, USSR, and Poland. Two dozens or so decathletes, and that was it. The USSR had the second-best athlete at the meet, Sergei Avilov, who pushed the winner to a new world record: Bruce Jenner.
  • 1978: PDQ Bach is an acquired taste, and I acquired that taste early. I appreciate the combination of deadpan humor and musical ingenuity; PDQ Bach was portrayed by Peter Schickele, a Juilliard professor who wrote the score to one of my favorite cult films, "Silent Running". I had memorized a few of his albums by the time I saw him during his annual week at Carnegie Hall just before New Year's. I was hoping he'd perform "The Stoned Guest" but happily settled for "Iphigenia in Brooklyn". 
  • 1979: One obituary called Carmelo Bene "the enfant terrible of Italian stage and screen," an avant-garde figure best known for his controversial deconstructions of Shakespeare. I happened to see his most famous performance in Rome, his version of "Othello," an absolutely riveting performance (though I didn't speak Italian). He spent most of Act V playing with handkerchiefs. If you don't believe me, here's an eight-minute snippet:
  • 1983: You knew I'd get some more baseball in here, and here come two items. The San Diego Padres put their AAA minor league team in Las Vegas in 1983, and it was a great place to watch hitters feast on the desert air. I saw a performance that has not been duplicated often in the world of baseball: John Kruk hit for the cycle plus an extra triple! Try that at home. 
  • 1985: June 4, to be exact, when I witnessed the best pitching duel I can recall. It was Fernando Valenzuela vs. Dwight Gooden at Dodger Stadium, 1-1 through seven innings on a pair of solo homers. In the bottom of the 8th, the Dodgers loaded the bases with nobody out, and Gooden got the next three Dodgers on a strikeout, foul popup, and strikeout. In the top of the 9th, the Mets loaded the bases with nobody out--and they got three runs, the last on Gooden's RBI single. He went the distance, fanning 12 to win, 4-1.
  • 1987: I've gone to only one pro football game, but I have gone to two bowl games. This one was the Fiesta Bowl, Penn State vs. Miami (with Heisman winner Vinny Testaverde). I went with three Penn State alums and saw Penn State intercept Testaverde five times to upset them for the national title. After the game, we danced on the 50-yard line with the Penn State cheerleaders, singing the lyrics I had written for the occasion, to the tune of "Walk on the Wild Side" (I still remember the start: Vinny came from Miami, F-L-A/Passin' his way across the USA/A touchdown here, a Heisman there/But Tempe's where they said, "Hey Vinny, take a seat on your backside!")
  • 1988: I went with some friends to the Comedy Store in LA. In front of the stage was a table with six drunk, heckling lummoxes. They heckled everybody. Bill Maher got out there, sparred with them for 30 seconds, said "fuck it," and walked off. I can picture the scene backstage as the comedians are in a dither about those hecklers. One voice rings out: "I'll handle this!" Next out on stage was Paula Poundstone, who reduced the whole bunch of them to noiseless rubble in just a couple of minutes. Fantastic.
  • 1991: I grabbed a sandwich one day and headed over to Doubleday Field in Cooperstown to sit in the stands and enjoy some sun. The field was empty, but pretty soon a bus pulled up, and out piled twenty or thirty women. I didn't realize it until later, but I was witnessing the reunion of players from the AAGPBL (1943-1954), which was held in conjunction with the filming of scenes in Cooperstown for "A League of Their Own". (You can add Penny Marshall to the big list, since I watched her direct a scene from the film in the museum.) For a couple of hours, I watched these women work out, pitching to each other, hitting, fielding, throwing, some of them for the first time in decades. It was a glorious day for them, and joyous for me simply to watch them having so much fun getting to play some ball again, just like in the good old days.
  • 2000: One more baseball celebration caps this excursion. I had heard about Eddie Frierson's one-man show, "Matty," for a long time before I was lucky enough to catch a performance in San Francisco. Eddie is still presenting his superb portrayal of Christy Mathewson here and there, and catch it if you can. The highlight is his exhibition of Charles "Victory" Faust's initial tryout with the Giants, racing around the bases on-stage and sliding into a splintery home plate. Seeing it was a special treat for me, as Faust was the subject of my first book, which was published earlier that year.
  • 2006: I probably should mention the only Nobel Prize winner I've seen in person, a guy who never moved from his piano and never looked at the audience during the first concert ever held at Doubleday Field. I was much more impressed by the opening act, a friendly fella named Willie Nelson. 
All right. That takes us up to 83 names that I've dropped, so I may as well round it out to an even 100. I'll just throw the names at you, and if you want to know more, just ask. Here you go: Lewis Black, Blind Faith, Doyle Brunson, Haystacks Calhoun, Cirque du Soleil, Tim Curry, Sabrina Ionescu, Roland Kirk, Frank Langella, Moody Blues, Jim Parsons, Christopher Plummer, George Shearing, Maureen Stapleton, Alex Trebek, and Stu Ungar. I'd better stop there. 

Since I can't help playing with numbers, I have tallied a few to give some idea of the depth of my obsessions with assorted outlets of talent over the years.

Baseball Hall of Fame: I know I've seen 54 Hall of Famers play, plus assorted managers and umpires. I have interviewed five: Marvin Miller, Joe Torre, Juan Marichal, Goose Gossage, and Dennis Eckersley. In the course of my job at the Hall of Fame, I had conversations with a couple of dozen Hall of Famers and future Hall of Famers. The only two which were distinctly unpleasant were with Johnny Bench and Whitey Ford.

Basketball Hall of Fame: By counting coaches and a few other non-players, I saw at least 50 of them in action. I wish I could be sure that I saw Wilt Chamberlain, but I can't count him, just as I can't summon specific memories of some baseball immortals I'm sure I must have seen, like Nolan Ryan, Duke Snider, and Warren Spahn.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: I was a bit surprised that I've seen only 29 acts enshrined in Cleveland. Only about one-third of them were at Woodstock.

Poker Hall of Fame: In my previous incarnation as a poker dealer (on and off from 1980-2000), I dealt five years at the World Series of Poker. As a result, of the 56 inductees in the Poker HOF, I dealt to 35 of them. Two special poker legends, Doyle Brunson and Stu Ungar, are listed above. 

Oscars: I have seen 14 Oscar winners perform on stage: Peggy Ashcroft, Judi Dench, Olympia Dukakis, Alec Guinness, Anthony Hopkins, Ben Kingsley, Jack Lemmon, Helen Mirren, Laurence Olivier, Christopher Plummer, Vanessa Redgrave, Paul Scofield, Maggie Smith, and Peter Ustinov.

The final note concerns the only time I was ever interviewed by a Hall of Famer. It happened twice, once for each of my first two books: Victory Faust and Unhittable! The interviewer was a fellow New Jersey native I saw play a zillion times on television, though not indelibly in person. Nevertheless, he was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1987. Of all the several radio hosts who interviewed me on the air, this guy was the most enthusiastic as well as by far the most likely to ask questions based on having read and absorbed the book. I still have cassettes of those two interviews from the early 2000s. Thank you, Rick Barry.

And thank you for joining me on this nostalgic journey through memories of greatness.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Catching Up With Neil Young at Woodstock

Ten minutes from now is the moment I’ve been waiting for all weekend while enjoying the marathon broadcast of Woodstock “as it happened” 50 years ago. That’s when Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young will take the stage, and I’ll get to hear the only performance I regretted missing the first time around. I’m sure the wait will be worth it.
There are two reasons why I didn’t catch CSNY back at Yasgur’s Farm. There’s no excuse for one of them. I simply didn’t know who they were. It was only their second concert--“we’re scared shitless,” Steven Stills assured us in the clip from the movie which has been as close as I’ve come to knowing what I truly missed—and I didn’t realize that it was a necessity. The other reason is, in retrospect, understandable. CSNY took the stage at 3AM on Sunday night, after I had gotten almost no sleep for 36 hours—until the previous act. On Sunday night, my routine was to go up somewhere on the hill between acts and lie down. Hay bales had been brought in after the afternoon storm, so I could lie cowboy-style on the straw, gaze up at the sky, listen to Chip Monck’s soothing announcements of dire emergencies, and rest or even catnap. Eventually, the next act would tune up, and snatches of melody might help me guess who was on next. Almost every time, once I found out, I hauled ass down through the muck to station myself in the first few rows of people right in front of the stage. This time, it was Blood, Sweat and Tears. I stayed on the straw and dozed off midway through their set. It felt good. The next time, it was Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, names that did not register. I dozed.
I wish I could say that in half-sleep in the middle of the night, I heard the gorgeous version of “Blackbird” which I’m listening to right now, their most exquisite harmony. That got a huge response from the crowd. I hope I heard them. They opened with “Suite, Judy Blue Eyes”and now it’s “Helpless Hoping,” and the crowd is already awed by that mix of voices. Those harmonies—Nash and Crosby are two of the best, and these last two songs have had just a single acoustic guitar accompaniment. That sets them apart from the bulk of the groups I saw those last two day/nights at Woodstock.
Through the 1970s, partly because of the CSNY songs which did make it onto the “Woodstock” albums, I did buy several of their albums, just CSN after awhile. Actually, I was hooked on them after they recorded “Ohio”. However, I was a late arrival on the Neil Young bandwagon, not until the 80s. Once on, I never got off. Both of my wives reserved the right to leave me for him and nobody else, after all. 
Judy turned me onto his solo albums in the early 1980s. Like Linda later, she went nuts over “Harvest” most of all—well, like just about everybody. Among those early favorites with Judy, I preferred “American Stars and Bars”. Later, Linda and I listened to “Unplugged” nonstop in the car for two or three months. That encouraged me to do something I have almost never done: learn the lyrics to a rock song and sing along with it. The song was "Pocahontas".
They’re playing “Guinnevere” now, and a story goes with it. In 2000, Judy and I went to see CSNY at the United Center in Chicago, the big arena. We sit in the front row of the balcony; I was on the aisle. Great seats and a fantastic concert, except for the yahoo a few rows behind us who was letting a buddy enjoy the concert via a cell phone, punctuating the music every few minutes with some loud blurting. Nobody sitting near him said anything to him about it, or nothing that got him to stop. Not a word. Until the lads played “Guinnevere,” possibly their quietest song. Here came that cackle--“this concert is the greatest”—and that’s when I turned around and blurted up the steep row of steps, “it would be if you’d let us hear it.”
I turned back to the music without waiting for a response, and Judy was appalled. “Why did you do that? If he’s that big an asshole in the first place, you just gave him an excuse to come down here and attack you.” I dismissed that. But not more than a minute  later, here came something heavy crashing against my right shoulder and the back of my head and neck—and again, another crash, softer, a body banging against me—I wasn’t hurt, but holy shit, Judy was right, I thought. After the third crash, I dared to turn and look. I found myself just a few inches from a little miniskirted ass attached to a lovely young lady who had tripped drunkenly on the stairs and fallen against me. Without any further introduction, she skedaddled. I shrugged at the man sitting behind me and said, “If I’d known that’s what it was, I would’ve enjoyed it a lot more.” Even tonight, I can’t hear that song without thinking of that concert.
I see. They played a half-dozen songs as just CSN, then brought Young out and did a couple of Buffalo Springfield songs, starting with “Mr. Soul,” and now they’ve promised another song or two with acoustic guitar—they’ve done more than a half-hour already—before they crank up the electric toys, which will be Young and Stills rasslin’ for attention, I’m guessing. I’ll find out soon enough. What stands out so far is the voices. As Nash just put it, it’s just about the music and the songs. If any group’s lyrics stood for their value system, it was CSNY, so yeah, just let the songs tell the story. Now it’s time to get electric and for Stills to get silly, starting with “Pre-Road Downs” with Stills on vocal, then Crosby doing “Long Time Coming.” I’ve wondered just how good they were in their second gig in front of people. They are very damn good.
The other time I saw CSN with Judy was in the late 1990s, at the Fillmore West in San Francisco. Don’t ask her about it. She would’ve been all right with the booze and drugs she smuggled into the concert, but someone else gave her some home-mixed gunk to drink, and she got so wasted that I had to deposit her back in the van before the intermission. She missed a helluva concert. I stood in front of the stage, just like old times, and when they played “Ohio,” Neil Young drifted onto the stage, pounded out a ten-minute guitar solo, and drifted back into the wings. Perfect.
Linda and I saw Neil Young perform several times, and never with the same support. One was an acoustic concert, probably my favorite. One was with Crazy Horse in Bridgeport, Connecticut, shortly after Psychedelic Pill came out. The high point that night was meeting and talking to Young’s son Ben, shortly after reading Young’s book detailing Ben’s remarkable life.
But our last Neil Young experience is the one I’d like to leave you with, as a measure of the kind of devotion that he engenders in his fans. Fittingly, this one took place in the summer of 2015 at the Bethel Woods venue. Just one field over from the site of the 1969 festival, it was the ideal place to catch up with him.
At the time, Linda was recovering from serious leg surgeries, and she was using one of those walkers with a seat which she could relax on while I pushed her around. Push it I did. Times had changed, though the landscape hadn’t changed much. This day, we parked at the racetrack in Monticello and took a shuttle bus to Bethel Woods. From the bus, I had to push Linda and that walker over a hundred yards to the top of the hill where we could sit. That was quite a haul, but it was Neil Young. We found a spot only a dozen feet down the hill; we had binoculars if we wanted a close view. The opening act featured Norah Jones, an unexpected treat, and then it was time for Neil.
After a ton of applause which involved a standing ovation of sorts, the band—this time, Neil performed with the newly formed Promise of the Real, including two sons of Willie Nelson—was ready to go, and people sat down. Everybody, that is, except one fortyish woman about fifteen feet down the hill, who stood and swayed with the first notes, completely blocking Linda’s view of the stage. Some people called to the woman to sit down, but she ignored them. Linda was much less happy than she had been a moment earlier. A few more shouts reached the woman and bounced off.
Having learned my lesson at the United Center, I marched down the hill and stood next to the woman. “You’re blocking our view,” I said simply. She was still moving with the music, but she wasn’t moved by my words. “I’ve been waiting a long time to see Neil Young, and I can see him better standing up.” I made another attempt, but she didn’t budge from her gist.
Off I went in search of security, up at the top of the hill. That took a moment, and soon I was explaining the problem with the woman who was blocking our view. I got quickly to our gist, which was that “my wife is in a walker, she can’t walk, that’s her spot, and now she can’t see.” The security person understood. “Where is she?”
I turned to point—and there was Linda, standing toe to toe with the woman and explaining why she ought to sit down. The woman sat down.
Linda was happy again. And that’s why I’m so happy listening to CSNY right now.
Yes, definitely worth the wait.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

The Miraculous Mets

I just finished reading Wayne Coffey's They Said It Couldn't Be Done, one of many books about the 1969 New York Mets to come showering down upon readers like confetti at a ticker-tape parade. Like many books about specific years and teams, it is solid enough to stand on its own merit with curious members of the general public, but it means much, much more to partisans, especially those who lived through it.

I'm reporting--in hindsight, of course, as we approach 2020--from the front lines on this one, a bona fide veteran of the 1969 Mets who grew up less than ten miles from Manhattan. Like my parents, I became a Mets fan before the team ever played a game, and it hasn't worn off yet. I go back to Roger Craig's losing streak, "yo la tengo," and Marvelous Marv. In fact, I was at the Polo Grounds the day Marv Throneberry missed first and second base en route to what should have been a triple. That happened in the bottom of the first inning on June 17, 1962; in the top half, Lou Brock became one of a handful of men to slug a home run into the center field bleachers. I remember it all, remember where we sat, high above third base, but not as high as Brock's drive.

Coffey's book is nicely written, covers all the necessary bases, quotes all the right people--including long-time broadcasters Howie Rose and Gary Cohen, who were also there as youths in 1969--and is as plausible as any other book in accounting for what happened in that startling baseball year. It's in a league with Maury Allen's After the Miracle, written for the 20th anniversary of what the Mets did in 1969. Now the events are a half-century distant, but the joy for me in reading Coffey's book was realizing just how vivid those memories are.

One fellow Coffey interviewed mentioned being at a particular Mets game at the Polo Grounds in 1962. He remembered the Mets trailing, 11-1, and making it 11-9 before Don Zimmer made the last out--during his notorious 0-for-34 slump. Wait a second--I was at that game! I thought it was 10-9 and remembered Zimmer taking a called third strike to end the near-miracle comeback. No, it was 11-9. Thanks, Retrosheet.

It was probably the first Mets game I went to, though I had been to the Polo Grounds before the Giants moved away (I'm just old enough to have pulled off that feat). The loss dropped the infant team's record to 1-12. They were already in mid-season form. My mother took me to the day game, where we were joined by Reta Weissbrot, her best friend, and Reta's son, Gary. They lived in Forest Hills, close enough to Shea Stadium for cheering crowds to be audible seven years later.

We had box seats behind the first-base dugout, and when a high popup clearly was headed right for us, both mothers ducked for cover and screamed for their sons to save them. The ball dropped safely a few rows behind us. I wish I remembered the three-run, pinch-hit home run by Ed Bouchee that made the game close enough for Zimmer to send the crowd home truly disappointed.

The memories from 1969 are much more vivid, of course. I graduated from high school that spring and began college in September, where one of my dorm neighbors hailed from Chevy Chase, Maryland. An Orioles fan, he magnanimously offered me 7-5 odds on the World Series. Not long after I collected my five bucks, he dropped out of school.

In his prologue, Coffey notes that in 1969, when two men walked on the moon, 400,000 people congregated in the Catskills to listen to music, and the Mets won the World Series, "The last of these developments was the most unforeseen." I'll go with him halfway on that, which brings me to the actual subject of this blog:

                              WAS IT A MIRACLE OR WASN'T IT?

I agree with Coffey that at the start of 1969, the last development would have seemed the most unlikely. NASA had already sent craft to the moon, so a landing seemed inevitable. A few rock festivals had occurred, most notably Monterey, so something like Woodstock was a possibility in 1969. But you would have been hard-pressed to find more than a few daydreamers who thought the Mets--whose franchise-best season, 1968, brought a 73-89 record but still left them just win out of last place--were a good bet at even the 100-to-1 odds quoted in Las Vegas. Unless you were a member of the New York Mets.

The old cliche, "They'll put a man on the moon before the Mets win a pennant," was coined early in the franchise's existence, though in 1962, those three events were equally unforeseeable. Rock music didn't even exist, and John Glenn had orbited the Earth only a couple of months earlier. That was it. The Mets winning a title was just as unthinkable, and Coffey's point is that seven years later, when the other two events became reality, it was even more unthinkable that the Mets' daydreams were also on the verge of fruition.

But was it a miracle? Coffey carefully uses the word "astounding" to describe the season in the book's subtitle, and he titles his Epilogue Please Don't Use the M-Word. He quotes the OED definition: "an extraordinary and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore attributed to a divine agency."

Don't tell Jerry Koosman it was a miracle, Coffey warns us. "There's nothing miraculous about us," said Gil Hodges, who went to Mass every Sunday and knew about those things. I know what Coffey means. To the players, to the players involved with the daily fate of the team, the events are quite explicable by natural or scientific laws. The Mets won the 1969 World Series because they worked hard, because Hodges guided them to maximize their skills and found the best ways to utilize them, because they became a smart, opportunistic team, an effect that mushroomed as their confidence was validated--all of which phenomena come under the "natural law" heading--and mainly because they had terrific pitching that lived up to its potential, following the scientific law that good pitching defeats good hitting.

The people involved with the Mets at the time understand that no matter how it appeared, these things didn't just happen. The Mets didn't win despite playing poorly. That would have been a miracle. They didn't receive gift after gift and suddenly, miraculously, wake up one day with a World Series ring. They worked for it. They made it happen, as good an example as there is in baseball history of a savvy manager molding together a team which performed better as a group than they could have been expected to perform as individuals.

And that, as every Mets fan who lived through it knows, is precisely why is was a fucking miracle.

The miracle was that these these players--wearing these uniforms--performed so magnificently. They were much the same group that won 73 games in 1968, and though the corps of young pitchers was clearly formidable, the lineup had averaged barely three runs a game in 1968. As the season began, the brightest thing on the horizon appeared to be a guaranteed rise from ninth place to sixth--the new last place in the six-team East Division.

There's no need to do more than mention a few of the more astounding events that caused George Burns, playing the title role in Oh God!, to note that the '69 Mets were one of his neatest miracles.

  • Ron Swoboda's two home runs defeat Steve Carlton, who strikes out 19 Mets in September
  • Starting pitchers Jerry Koosman and Don Cardwell drive in the only runs in a 1-0, 1-0 sweep of the Pirates, also during the pennant drive, a circumstance unique in baseball history
  • Tommie Agee's two catches in Game 3 of the World Series
  • J. C. Martin getting away with interference on the game-winning bunt in Game 4
  • the whole fiasco with hit by pitches and scuffed baseballs in Game 5
Those were certainly astounding at the time, but less so now. Three of them were just good baseball, and the other two were bad umpiring. Of everything that happened to the Mets in 1969, only one seems to me entirely miraculous, inexplicable, enduringly mystical a half-century later. 

Image result for ron swoboda catch image

You have to appreciate just how bad a fielder Ron Swoboda was to appreciate how impossible is was that HE made this most impossible catch. And you had to see Brooks Robinson smash that line drive to know instantly, with such assurance, that it was a hit, a routine smack, a routine clean single. Swoboda must have been prescient and then some, making an adrenalin-charged, all-out dash and dive, propelled by some unseen force with a swiftness and sure direction that he never displayed before or after, and even then it seemed like the ball found the glove more than the glove snaring the ball just an inch or so above the turf in right-center that would be torn to shreds for souvenirs the following night.

That catch was a miracle. The rest is history.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

How I Inspired Don Larsen

One thing most people don’t know about me is how big a part theater played in my childhood. My parents, Harold and Tanya, began their theater lives before I was born. They were in the first wave of inhabitants of the original Levittown on Long Island after World War II. I was born in nearby Glen Cove Hospital, where Roy Campanella was taken after his car crash in 1958. 
The year I was born, my parents wrote the score for the Levittown Follies of 1951, performed as a benefit for local chapter of the Jewish War Veterans, "proceeds for Civilian Defense" according to the program. My mother performed in the opening number, "Our Town". I wish I had the sheet music for the score, since the song titles present an array of diverting, early suburban concerns: "Rockin' 'n Rhythm," "Pick a Bone," "A Levittown Car Pool," "You Don't Know What You're Missin'," "A Restful Sunday," "The Lumpett Home of 1960," "Election Day in Levittown, a ballet titled "Waltz Des Fleurs," the "Village Green Polka," and a number called "Hindu Boogie," featuring the show's choreographer, Belle Berkowitz, which must have been something to see. 
In 1952, when I was one year old, my parents escaped New York City, making it all the way across the George Washington Bridge and eight miles beyond, to the town of New Milford. That same year, they joined the Bergen County Players, which was already a couple of decades old. The BCP has long inhabited the Little Firehouse Theater in Oradell. It’s a three-story firehouse with a 200-seat theater which has seen eight or nine productions a year for nearly a century and is still going strong.
My mother acted in upwards of a dozen plays, usually character roles like Mrs. Gibbs in Our Town. My father worked backstage with lights and sound; he didn’t get the only role that would have put him on the stage, Nicely-Nicely in Guys and Dolls. They had seen the original production on Broadway three nights before I was born, and "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" was my father's favorite song to sing while driving.
More than that, my parents wrote the original score for a musical produced by the BCP in 1953. A Western titled Stake Your Claim, it features my father’s music and my mother’s lyrics. My father had gone to New York in 1930 to stake his own claim to a place as a songwriter. That career didn't happen, but he found his love and his lyricist instead. They idolized Cole Porter and Frank Loesser for their wit, and my mother’s lyrics were cleverly Porteresque. 
I not only have the sheet music for Stake Your Claim, I have the cast album. Linda and I listened to it many times. Her favorite was the song about a bashful cowboy, "Orson, Quit Horsin' Around," I lean toward one of the love songs, "How Did This Happen To Me?" 
I'm appending her lyrics to "When 3-D Comes To TV," performed during one of two "TV Interludes" (there's a later radio interlude). Like Cole Porter, it was built around a risque theme, intricate rhymes, and topical references. If any of the historic ladies doesn't ring a bell, you'll be happy to checked them out on Google Images. And you'll see what my mother was getting at. 
                                                               *            *              *
The Bergen County Players became the social hub of our lives. Every month, the BCP dress rehearsal was "players night," when members brought their families. If it was a comedy, my mother was required to sit in the last three rows; her laugh was so robust and loud that it disconcerted the actors at close range. I often attended rehearsals and still remember Herb Hackbarth sitting in a chair with no lines to speak. All he had to do was smoke a cigarette and sip a scotch. Absorbed in the drama in front of him, he absent-mindedly took a sip with the cigarette dangling from his lips and almost choked to death. 
Opening nights were a big deal if my parents were involved, and I'd either watch my mother act from the front row or sit in the back with my father and help with the light cues. Afterwards, everyone repaired to Hagler's, the bar across the street. I broke a toe during one post-opening night party at Hagler's when some adult stepped on my foot; I was seven or eight. 
One of the members, Bob Schmitt, worked at one of the big television networks in NYC and had access to the film library. During winters, one night a month was ”silent movie” night at the theater, packed with members and families. That’s where I first saw Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, and Langdon. I especially remember a lot of Chaplin one-reelers like "The Rink" and "One A.M." There were pool parties in the summer, a big Christmas party at the theater, and all those plays.
                                                                *            *            *
I recently found my old hometown newspaper—the Bergen Record—online for the first time, and my first search was for my parents’ BCP doings. What a bonanza! First, the review of Stake Your Claim claimed that it had “humor, heart, melody, and pace,” which is how I would describe the cast album. It’s good stuff.
Among my coolest finds were photos of my mother in two of the productions: You Can’t Take It With You and The Middle of the Night, a Paddy Chayefsky play. I have her Samuel French copy of the Chayefsky, which we used so I could "read lines" to her. She played a substantial role, making a well-meaning but misguided attempt to find a woman for her grieving brother, a role created on Broadway by Edward G. Robinson. 
I found uniformly fine notices for her. The reviewer of The Fifth Season wrote, “As his wife, Tanya Schechter is attractively appealing in a modern version of Ibsen’s doll-wife, Nora.” A 1961 review noted that she and another actress “have given a long list of memorable performances in past seasons.” My favorite is the review of Our Town, in which she and the actress who played Mrs. Webb were commended even though the reviewer found them "too young to be convincing as mothers." At the time, my mother was 42 years old and had an eight-year-old son.
                                          My parents and I in 1963, when my mother was 46.  
Those were all preliminary findings, however, compared to the big quest—anything I could find about my one appearance on the stage. When I was five years old, I was in the BCP production of The Seven Year Itch, a Broadway hit which had been made into a popular movie remembered mostly for the iconic shot of Marilyn Monroe’s white dress getting ruffled.
I remember the experience well. I had to wear shiny shoes and a dress jacket, but they let me carry a toy of my own, a model car. I had four lines in the opening scene, where the hero sends his wife and son off to New England for a summer idyll while he toils away in the city. The idea is that he’ll be miserable—unless Marilyn Monroe moves in, but I didn’t know this. Two of my four lines were “poor Daddy,” and I remember having to feel really, really sorry for him. Here I am:

My four lines done, off I went to the chauffeured. . .excuse me, to the family Ford, to be whisked home and readied to go to bed. I was only five, after all. I never did see the play, and by the time I got around to seeing the movie, I could appreciate it fully.
Did the Bergen (County) Record have a record of my theatrical equivalent of a ballplayer’s cup of coffee? You bet it did, and that’s where a mystery arose. The first thing I found was the review, headlined “Players Open New Season With Well-Acted Laugh Hit.” After running through the anonymous reviewer’s praise of the six performers who carried the play, I found this:
Special mention must be made of the outstanding performance of young Gabriel Schechter, who portrays Ricky, the Sherman’s [sic] son, with brilliance and sincerity.

In four lines? I have already testified to my sincerity with “poor Daddy,” but how brilliant could the other two lines have been? Look at me. Sincere, yes, but sedentary at best. It's a declamatory posture I don't recall seeing in any Olivier bios. Or was something else going on? 
The plot thickened when I found the item that appeared in the Record a few days earlier, the morning before opening night, the first of a dozen performances as the BCP began a new, ambitious policy of three performances a week. The 1956-1957 season also featured productions of Gigi and The Little Foxes. This preview was, I’m sure, written by someone at the Players, undoubtedly a friend of my parents. Listen to this hype:
Others in the cast include Judy Lash, Joan Cole, Doris Wheeler, and Ted Lash, with 5½-year-old Gabriel Schechter threatening to steal every scene in which he appears.
Excuse me? How many scenes was that? It sure sounded like more than four lines. I was a hyper little kid, so maybe I was like a Marx brother, running wild during rehearsals and stealing scenes I wasn’t even in. Did little Ricky have several scenes which I overwhelmed so thoroughly that they were dropped from the final production? I didn’t think so, because the memory of going home right after the scene has always been pretty strong. On the other hand, I couldn’t dismiss the possibility that the director realized that if he cut me down to just the opening scene, they wouldn’t have to deal with me the rest of the night.
My theory was that the publicity maven thought, “nice touch—Harold and Tanya will get a big kick out of that.” The Lashes, Joan, and Doris should have gotten a better agent. I’m sure my parents did get a kick out of it, though probably not as big as I did 62 years later.
                                                               *          *           *           
It took me awhile to get my hands on a copy of the George Axelrod play so I could clear up the mystery of just when and how often I stole what. It arrived yesterday, and the suspense lasted only while I thumbed through it. For once, memory won--I had exactly four lines, and I disappeared from the play after the first five pages.
Ah, but what lines! I thought "poor Daddy" was my second and fourth line, with the other two lines equally brief and scintillating. But no. That lament was the entirety of my final two lines, the last delivered as the light fades and the scene returns to Ricky's father. However, the first two lines consisted of three sentences and a whopping 19 words. 
Richard Sherman is a 38-year-old Manhattan businessman, perfected on Broadway by Tom Ewell, who also wooed Marilyn Monroe in the film version. He's reflecting on the scene yesterday when he sent his wife and son off to New England for the summer. He recalls little Ricky being "really upset when they left for the station. It was very flattering. I thought the kid was going to cry. . .
RICKY: But what about Daddy? Isn't Daddy coming with us?
HELEN: Daddy'll come up Friday night.
RICKY: But, Mommy, why can't Daddy come up with us now?
She explains that Daddy has to stay in the city and make money, so he'll only be able to visit them on weekend. Poor Daddy. She tells him that not only does Daddy have to work and make money, he's giving up cigarettes and alcohol for the summer. That brings the final, plaintive "poor Daddy. . . ."
Plenty of room for sincerity, and no doubt I nailed it. The "Who's Who" in the program assured patrons that "Gabriel Schechter, of New Milford, is making his debut in this production. His flare for dramatics comes natural, being the son of members of the players." The little scene-stealer! I retired my flare after that, auditioning for one BCP show as a teenager. Some other time, I'll tell you about the short film I starred in during grad school.
                                                              *          *           *
There's an odd postscript to my quest for the truth about The Seven Year Itch. The review appeared in the Bergen Record published the morning of October 8, 1956. As my baseball friends know, that was the day Don Larsen pitched his perfect game in Game 5 of the World Series at Yankee Stadium. Don Larsen lived in Bergen County. In fact, we had the same physician, Dr. Philip Pollack, who got Larsen to sign a postcard to me that winter.

If I were writing a novel, we would see Larsen at the breakfast table, eating a hearty meal while reading the review. He exclaims to his wife, "By golly, that little 5 1/2-year-old kid was brilliant, wasn't he? I never saw anything like it. Maybe I can do something special at the ballpark today." That would have been complete fiction, of course, for several reasons (starting with "by golly"). Larsen stayed at a Manhattan hotel during the World Series and went out drinking that Sunday evening. Besides, he didn't even know he was starting Game 5 until he got to the ballpark on Monday.              
Still, I can imagine it all I want. I can even think that somewhere out there is a person who attended both performances, or there was. The cosmic connection will stay with me always. Thanks, Don.                                   
                                                              *          *           *
When 3D Comes to TV

Just focus your attention on this brand new invention
TV in three dimension is coming at you.
Now gals with good proportions will not suffer from distortions
And our most delightful portions are projected at you.
Just pick your favorite station and gals from every nation
Will make your imagination run away from you.
In very close proximity our utter femininity
Will rouse your masculinity in a way that’s new.
From the pages of hist’ry some ladies of myst’ry
With figures so blistery will pop into view.

When I’m Madame Du Barry
Ev’ry Tom and Dick and Harry
Will imagine that he’s Louis on the throne.
Ev’ry man from here to Dallas
Will be sleeping in my palace
But he’ll never, never, ever sleep alone.

Imagine when Salome
Does her dance in veils so foamy
And she starts to take the veils off one by one.
When she gets to number seven
Then 3D will seem like heaven.
Well, until the sponsor cuts into your fun.

I hear Marlene Dietrich
Who’s a very, very neat trick
Will make her 3D debut any day.
When she sings her famous tune
About the boys in the back room
Why there’s no telling what requests will come her way.

Mae West would be a riot
Ev’ry able man would try it
When she says “come up and see me, dear, sometime.”
And if Gypsy Rose is willing
She can make a 3D killing
And she wouldn’t even have to speak a line.

When Dagmar shows her glamour
On the screen in Cinerama
That’s when two dimensions look like more than three.
And you fellas from now on will
See a mountain, not a molehill
When you get that double vision on TV.

So focus your attention on this brand new invention
TV in three dimension is coming at you.
Just pick your favorite station and the gals from ev’ry nation
Will make your imagination run away with you.
TV will be more pungent and necklines that were plungin’
From now on will be lungin’, boys, directly at you.
We’ll change the nation’s habits and men who think they’re Babbitts
Will start to act like rabbits adding two and two.

We’ll give you a variety of subtle impropriety
As subtle as a rabbit
adding two and two and two and two and two.

Lyrics by Tanya Schechter, c.1953

Monday, February 18, 2019

The Big Fella Connects

I was a late arrival to the Jane Leavy party. Though her first baseball book, a much-acclaimed study of Sandy Koufax, one of my favorite players from childhood, was published in 2002, it took eight years for me to get around to reading it. It was well worth the wait.

Also in 2010, The Last Boy, her even more acclaimed book about Mickey Mantle, was published. Another eight-year gap followed during which I acquired the book but never got around to reading it. Last summer, I read it and saw why so many other people had responded to it. Like the Koufax book, it reflected Leavy's dogged research and a desire not only to pin down nagging questions about her subject's career and life, but also to frame these discoveries in terms of what they meant to the subjects themselves. One other thing--both books revealed Leavy to be a very fine writer.

I didn't dawdle this time. The Big Fella, Leavy's 2018 book about Babe Ruth, tackles an even bigger subject than Koufax and Mantle, idols of their times. The original sports icon, Ruth has always been a gargantuan target for authors, and Leavy's treatment of his oversize life and legend is correspondingly more far-ranging and depth-plumbing than the earlier books. If it isn't the definitive book about Ruth, we aren't likely to find its successor in our lifetimes, if for no other reason than the increasing scarcity of living people who knew Ruth.

I will lend my voice to the chorus of reviewers who marvel at Leavy's success in tracking down people who intersected with Ruth in some way. Not only did she find them, she unearthed their own life stories to see how an encounter with Ruth might have colored entire lifetimes. For instance, there are the brothers who insisted that they were in a photo taken with Ruth, displaying copies of the photos in various businesses and offices for decades, until learning that the photo was taken somewhere else, three years before the day they saw Ruth. The son of the man who had identified himself as the boy in the photo with the black eye and the cold sore decided to leave the photo on display. Ninety years after that day when Ruth came to town, people still cherish links to Ruth. One of the many beautiful things about this book is seeing how dramatically Ruth affected those who idolized him.

There is a wonderful two-word phrase in this book which Leavy uses to describe the birth of advertising and public relations in the 1920s--just in time to capitalize on Ruth. She calls it "opportunistic connectivity," a phrase which instantly brought an echo in my brain of that Shakespearean description in Julius Caesar of "multitudinous seas incarnadine," another polysyllabic summarization. She refers to the phenomenon of someone like Ruth creating an almost uninterrupted source of material for anyone who wanted to make money off his deeds and his fame. In fact, the phenomenon still exists in the two branches of Ruth's descendants, both mounting websites to claim their pre-eminence as the branch which should most benefit today, 70 years after his death.

One of the many highlights of this book (don't get me started on the delightful saga of Lady Amco) is Leavy's thorough--and thoroughly demoralizing--history of the Baby Ruth candy bar. Though demonstrably intended to exploit Ruth's name, the candy never earned a penny for him and his descendants, not even when the brand was sold a decade ago for $2.8 billion.

I'm a morning reader, and I have spent the past five mornings happily diving into the excesses, the glories, and the ultimate sorrows of Ruth's life. There is a wealth of detail here, and Leavy pinned down so many things. Her work on untangling various issues of parentage and cohabitation is probably heroic. If she didn't touch on something, it must be because she decided it was covered sufficiently elsewhere, such as Ruth's infamous piano or relations between Claire Ruth and Eleanor Gehrig during their shared status as revered widows. Still, I'd like to know more.

In a similar vein--that is, much like someone who has just devoured a feast worthy of a Babe Ruth breakfast, capped by six pieces of apple pie a la mode, yet still wishes there had been pecan pie as well--I want to say something about the photos. They are all remarkable and telling in various ways, and informatively captioned. The problem is that there aren't enough of them, only sixteen. A book like this should have had at least twice as many, particularly because Leavy goes to the trouble of giving readers vivid descriptions of many photos not on display here. As wonderful as her several hundred words are, the photos would have told us still more.

When I worked at the Hall of Fame library and gave tours that included the photo collection, I always showed off just one file, the one with photos of Babe Ruth and children. It wasn't the thickest Ruth file but it contained dozens of photos, many of which had never been published. Many were taken on barnstorming tours like the 1927 post-season tour around which Leavy frames her narrative. At every stop on the tour, Ruth's manager, Christy Walsh (given his full due for services rendered to Ruth over the years) arranged visits to hospitals and young groups (including Boys Town in Nebraska), at which Ruth obliged anyone who wanted to photograph him doing anything.

There was no pose too silly or trivial for Ruth, whose affinity for children is well-documented here and elsewhere. When I went through the file with people on tour, Ruth's childlike joy jumped out at us from so many photos--doing chin-ups with five-year-olds, playing Santa Claus, cheering sick kids--that it became an instant antidote to the urge to make something superhuman out of a man who, as Leavy shows us in many ways, couldn't stand being alone and had the most fun around people who were happy to see him, chiefly kids and fans.

Here's what Jane Leavy and I know about a different kind of connectivity from the opportunistic slant of the hucksters of the past century:  many of the photos in that file were donated by people in them. One I always think of showed Ruth on the field with a young girl who gazed raptly up at him. I recall the name of the girl as Jean Farrington, and the photo was taken during Ruth's career, perhaps on the tour chronicled in Leavy's book. It was donated to the Hall of Fame in the 1990s--by Jean Farrington.

Think about the lifetime that passed between the day she gazed up at Ruth and the day she decided to share her wonder with the Hall of Fame--and unknowingly with an uncountable number of people who have looked at it and will look at it. That is the meaning and the legacy of Babe Ruth, and that is what Jane Leavy has captured with sensitivity and eloquence in The Big Fella, the extraordinary tale of a man in whose aura we continue to bask.