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.