Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Beer and Whiskey: There Used to be a Ballpark Part II

We left our tour of major league ballparks past and present at Miller Park, home of the Milwaukee Brewers, a team named after the industry that made its home town famous, playing in a ballpark named for one of the biggest companies in that industry. It's entirely appropriate that this should be so. While it's not mentioned in either the refrain or any of the twelve or so verses of the game's official anthem, "Take Me Out to the Ballgame",  beer has been an integral part of baseball for all, well almost all of the game's history. Here it might be prudent to have a brief refresher in beer and baseball.

The first major league, the National League was founded in 1876 when William Hulbert, owner of the Chicago White Stockings, decided to put together a serious league of professional ballplayers rather than what already existed, a loosely held together association of teams with erratic schedules, no system in place to keep players from jumping teams, and perhaps most important, no discipline in regard to player or fan conduct.

In that respect we must remember that back then, baseball had to compete with sports like dog fighting and rat baiting for the public's attention and what made those activities popular, beyond their obvious artistic value, was wagering. In that sense, baseball was no different; back then it was a tough sell to convince a workingman to spend his hard eared money and one day off watching grown men in knickers playing a children's game, just for the fun of it. Gambling was the reason baseball became a spectator sport in the first place, as it emerged from the pastoral game played by elite clubs like the New York Knickerbockers in the Elysian Fields of New Jersey, to the more rambunctious game played in places like rough and tumble Brooklyn, and ultimately our "national pastime", the game we know today.

Beyond more than occasional lapses of honesty on the part of players not necessarily trying their best to win games, all the gambling that went on in the open lent a certain air of disreputability to the game of baseball. And what should come as no surprise to anyone who has ever attended a ballgame, so did drinking to excess which believe it or not, people did every once in a while when they got the chance back in the day. William Hulbert wanted no part of any of that.

To make his new league respectable in that particularly rowdy era, drinking and gambling would be strictly prohibited at all National League games. In order to assure players would be paid well enough to resist the temptation of being bought off by gamblers who still plied their trade, just not in the open, the admission price to every ballgame would be fifty cents, steep for those days. Oh and one more thing, there would be no games played on Sunday.

All those restrictions did indeed attract the clientele that Hulbert desired for his new league. Those haughty, mid to upper-crust early National League fans were just as happy not to have to rub shoulders with the working stiffs who were kept away in droves because Sunday was their only day off, they couldn't afford the steep price of admission, and last but far from least, they liked their beer.

Enter the American Association (no relation to the current American League) which was founded in 1881 and began play the following year. The charter franchises of this new league represented big cities, mostly old river towns like Pittsburgh and St. Louis, whose shall we say, "worldly values" set them apart from the rest of Puritan America. One of those cities was Cincinnati whose team, the Red Stockings, was expelled from the National League for defying its ban on beer and Sunday ball. Most of the sponsors of this new league were brewers and distillers which inspired the pejorative term "Beer and Whiskey League", imposed on them by National League owners. As has happened so often in the game of baseball, a term intended to be a slam against a team or in this case an entire league, became a symbol of pride for the offended party. The American Association made no bones about being the league of the working man, who was free to drink all he wanted at their games, especially on Sunday. It should be noted that in those days, fans or "cranks" as they were called, were almost always men.

One of those members of the imbibing industry who entered a team into the American Association was a fellow by the name of Chris von der Ahe, the owner of the St. Louis Browns. Von der Ahe, an immigrant from Prussia, owned a saloon on the north side of town. He knew virtually nothing about the game of baseball except that beer sales at his bar rose considerably whenever the team located down the street at the corner of Grand and Dodier played ball. So he bought the team.

By either sheer brilliance or just dumb luck, von der Ahe signed Charles Comiskey to play first base as well as manage his newly acquired team. Comiskey who today is better known as the founder and long time owner of the Chicago White Sox as well as one of the founding fathers of today's American League, turned the struggling Browns into the powerhouse of the AA, winning four championships out of the ten seasons the league was in existence. The two men had a great run together, Comiskey's brilliance as a baseball man brought success on the field while von der Ahe's talent for promotion, showmanship and giving the customers what they wanted, brought fans into the stands in record numbers.

For starters, von der Ahe charged a quarter to get in to his park, half the going rate of the National League. Not only did he allow the consumption of alcoholic beverages in his ballpark, he set up concession stands to sell the stuff, further advancing his bottom line. Without question, games would be played on Sunday, although open gambling was still verboten. Above all, Chris von der Ahe understood that sometimes it took more than a good team on the field to bring in the crowds. Always the master showman, in the days before there were clubhouses at ballparks, he would have his team dress in his saloon, or their hotel if  they were on the road. Wearing a silk hat and accompanied by his two greyhounds, Snoozer and Schnauzer, he proudly lead his team like a Prussian general as they walked in parade formation to the ballpark. Von der Ahe was the first baseball owner to offer promotions and creating a carnival atmosphere at the ballpark, the true forebear of baseball impresarios such as Bill Veeck and Charlie Finley.

Von der Ahe also believed it was prudent to have AA teams participate in exhibition games outside of officially sanctioned league games, something the National League frowned upon. One exhibition series the  NL could not turn up its nose at was a championship between between its pennant winner, and that of the renegade league. The first of these "World Series" took place in 1884 when the NL Providence Grays defeated the AA New York Metropolitans three games to none. The next two of these championship series pitted von der Ahe's Browns (today's Cardinals) against the White Stockings (today's Cubs), starting what would become one of the most enduring rivalries in all of sports. If you're interested in bragging rights, the first series ended in a tie when Comiskey pulled his team from the field after a disputed call with the series ties at three games. St. Louis won the second series four games to two.

The final resting place of Chris von der Ahe
as well as the statue he had cast of himself
which once stood at the entrance of his
St. Louis ballpark.
Part maverick and part buffoon, von der Ahe didn't know when to leave well enough alone. He became subject to ridicule when he had a statue of himself placed in front of his ballpark. A sportswriter sardonically dubbed the it, "von der Ehe discovers Illinois." His constant meddling with the team exasperated Comiskey who eventually left for the Cincinnati Reds, sending the St. Louis nine into a tailspin from which they wouldn't recover for thirty years. Von der Ahe may have known how to make money but he didn't know how to keep it. He ended up losing his personal fortune and spent the last years of his life tending other people's bars and depending on the kindness of friends, including Charlie Comiskey who sent him a monthly sustenance check until his death in 1913. He is buried in Bellafonte Cemetery in St. Louis underneath the statue he had built for himself.

Despite the early success of the AA, in the end the owners of the NL had deeper pockets and were better able to endure difficult economic times and threats from another league that formed in 1890, the Players' League. The AA folded in 1891. Four of its teams, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Brooklyn and Cincinnati were absorbed into the  National League, where they remain today respectively as the Cardinals, the Pirates, the LA Dodgers and the Reds.

As I mentioned above, von der Ahe's Browns didn't fare too well after Comiskey's departure. Hoping for a fresh start, the team exchanged their brown stockings for those of a crimson hue. Not long after that, someone connected the color with the red bird known commonly as the Eastern Cardinal and the name stuck. Alas the team's color and name changed but its fortunes did not.

In 1901, yet another major league was formed, the American League. Ironically it was billed as a respectable alternative to the National League which with Hulbert having been dead for two decades, had degenerated into everything its founder tried to avoid. One of its original members was a team from Milwaukee, nicknamed the Brewers. That team lasted all of one year in Brewtown before it moved to St. Louis where they picked up another traditional name, the Browns. These Browns are known for one thing, they were the most God-awful team in major league history. The three most famous players in AL St. Louis Browns history were a bona-fide Hall of Famer, (first baseman George Sisler), a one armed outfielder, and a midget who had one major league at bat.

The AL Browns moved into the old ballpark at Grand and Dodier, a site where baseball had been played in one form or other since the 1860s. Chris von der Ahe had moved his team away from that site to a facility he built next to an amusement park in 1890. In 1909 the Browns rebuilt their ballpark up to the same standards as other major league ballparks of that era, using steel and concrete as the primary structural components rather than wood. As such, Sportsmans Park became one of the classic ballparks in the major leagues, along with Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, the Polo Grounds in New York, Fenway Park in Boston, Comiskey Park and Wrigley Field both in Chicago. The Cardinals continued to play in their dilapidated old wooden ballpark until 1920 when they moved to Sportsmans Park and became tenants of the Browns.

In the 1920s, the Cardinals' fortunes began to change because of the fruits of the labor of one man, Branch Rickey. Rickey, the general manager of the team understood that the woefully underfunded Cardinals could not compete against the likes of the New York Giants or the Cubs when it came to attracting established talented players to their team. So Rickey came up with the brilliant idea of buying up minor league clubs in order to develop talent from the ground up. It took several years but eventually Rickey's implementation of the farm system paid off and in 1926, the Cardinals won their first modern day World Series, defeating the mighty Yankees in seven games. They have been a force to be reckoned with ever since; as far as championships go, they are the most successful club in National League history, and second only to the Yankees in MLB history.

As for the Browns, well not so much. They spent most of their existence in the second division of the American League. Despite the disparity of talent, the Browns held their own with the Cardinals in terms of fan support. When the time of reckoning came and it became obvious in the fifties that St. Louis couldn't support two teams, it was a virtual coin toss which team would leave. Once again, beer played a pivotal role in history as the brewing company Anheuser-Busch bought the Cardinals. Bill Veeck who owned the Browns knew he couldn't compete with Budweiser and threw in the towel, even though the Browns owned the ballpark and the Cardinals were their tenants. The Browns headed east, without Veeck to become the Baltimore Orioles. Once the Cards were the only game in town, they purchased the ballpark and renamed it after their owner, but the name never stuck with the fans.

Sportsmans Park or Busch Stadium I if you prefer, lasted until 1966 when the Cardinals moved into what would become Busch Stadium II, a downtown multi-purpose stadium, the first of the "cookie cutter" bowl shaped stadiums built in the sixties and seventies for both football and baseball. That stadium lasted less than forty years when it was replaced by the current retro style, baseball only ballpark with the fabulous view of Downtown St. Louis and the Eero Saarinen's iconic Gateway Memorial Arch pictured below.

Busch Stadium III, current home of the St. Louis Cardinals

Baseball has been played at this site continuously for 150 years
and counting. That must be some kind of record.
The last game at Sportsmans Park took place on May 8th, 1966. After the game, home plate was dug up, placed aboard a helicopter and flown to the new stadium downtown. That might have ended one hundred years of continuous baseball at Grand and Dodier but not quite. The Busch family donated the land to charity to become the Herbert Hoover Boys and Girls Club. The club continues to maintain the field for baseball and other sports meaning that baseball has continuously been played on that site going on 150 years and counting.

One would be hard pressed to pick one out of the many memorable events that took place at the Corner of Grand and Dodier in North St. Louis. Ten modern World Series were played at Sportsmans Park, as well as four nineteenth American Association/National League championship series in its predecessor. Dozens of baseball immortals played on that field, you can read some of their names on the plaque marking the site of the old ballpark below. Two names not on the plaque are Pete Gray, the one armed right fielder who played for the Browns in 1945 during the closing years of WWII, and Eddie Gaedel, the 3'7" midget Bill Veeck sent up to the plate as a gag in a meaningless game on August 19, 1951.

A few of the stats about Sportsmans Park as noted on the
plaque posted on the Herbert Hoover Boys and Girls Club
of St. Louis, the site of old Sportsmans Park.
Giving it considerable thought, my choice for the most memorable moment in Sportsmans Park would be the 1944 World Series which pitted the Cardinals against the Browns, an all St. Louis World Series. In a year where just about all the good ballplayers were off fighting a war, the Browns fielded a team of senior citizens, featuring an all 4F infield. But doggone it, they had the best, old, mentally unstable, half blind, flat footed players in the league that year and they won their one and only American League pennant. The Cards did have one legitimate major leaguer who would´t enlist until the following year, Stan Musial. He and the Cardinals took the Series in six from the once and future hapless Browns. Regardless of the circumstances, for a brief moment in the fall of 1944, St. Louis was truly the center of the baseball world.


Sportsmans Park was not the only ballpark to host a World Series all by itself. From 1913 to 1922, the Polo Grounds in New York City was the home to both the Giants and the Yankees, and in the last two of those years, the National League Giants played the American League Yankees in the World Series, the Giants winning them both.

Today the words New York City and baseball when combined, are so synonymous with the Yankees, it's hard to imagine that the Bronx Bombers were Johnny-come-lateliess when it comes to baseball in the Big Apple. William Hulbert's original National League included a New York team, The Mutuals who were around almost as long as organized baseball itself. They played in 1857 as amateurs (as all ball clubs were at the time) against the Knickerbockers in the storied Elysian Fields of Hoboken, mentioned above. The Mutuals would re-locate to Brooklyn and came along with Hulbert when he created his new league. But things didn't go so well for the Natioanl League Muts as Hulbert's team the Chicago White Stockings dominated the league on the field. The New York club and the Philadelphia Athletics who were in the same predicament, decided it wasn't worth the time, money or effort to play out the remainder of their season on the road. For this affront, the imperious Hulbert banished the teams from the league. Amazingly, the three most populous cities in the US including Brooklyn, an independent city at the time, would not have representatives in the major leagues for six years, until the American Association was formed six years later. They and the National League desperately wanted a New York franchise to join their ranks and both leagues made offers to an independent club called the Metropolitans. The owners of the Mets said yes, to both offers.

With a little slight of hand, they produced two teams, the Mets would enter the AA, while an existing National League team from Troy, NY disbanded, and most of their players, and the team's space in the league, became the New York Gothams, who ultimately became the Giants. That team won the NL pennant in 1889 and played the AA champion Brooklyn Bridegrooms (today's LA Dodgers), in the early incarnation of the World Series, marking the beginning of the second oldest extant rivalry in baseball.

By the turn of the twentieth century, the Giants were firmly established as New York's team. Such was their clout, they were able to use their leverage to prevent the fledgling American League from establishing a team in New York City. So the team intended for the city of New York ended up in a different city but with a very familiar name, the Baltimore Orioles. That situation only lasted a couple of years and the team ended up back in the town which it was intended, playing in a ballpark in Washington Heights, the highest point in Manhattan. Appropriately enough, they were originally called the Highlanders.

The New York American League team had a promising start but never finished better than second place in their first five years of existence. Then that old ennui set in with the owners who were more interested in other activities and rarely invested in their team. In 1915, the team, now known as the Yankees was sold to the man with the most improbable pf baseball names, Tillinghast L'Hommedieu Huston, along with his partner, Jacob Ruppert who was in the (you guessed it) brewing business. It was this pair of well to do businessmen, genuinely interested in baseball who were able to make the deal that would forever change the course of Yankee and indeed baseball history, and would make the name Harry Frazee, the most reviled name in Boston since Benedict Arnold.

You probably know the story. Frazee, a theatrical impressario who moonlighted as the owner of the Boston Red Sox, needed cash for a theatrical production. So he sold his incorrigible star pitcher who was also pretty good with the bat to the Yankees. The player's name was George Herman (Babe) Ruth. 

As they say, the rest is history...

It's a bit of a minomer to call the era before Ruth's, the "Deadball Era." The assumption that home runs were scarce because the balls were less lively in those days has been overstated, There were actually fewer home runs during that era because batters weren't  trying to hit them. The approach they took could be summed up in the words of Wee Willie Keeler, an early Yankee star who famously described his approach to hitting this way: "you gotta hit 'em where they ain't" The greatest hitter of the Deadball Era was Ty Cobb who to this day holds the record for greatest lifetime batting average. His scientific approach to hitting enabled him to take advantage of weaknesses in the defense, and his take no prisoners style of base running made him the most dangerous offensive player of his time.  Babe Ruth had a different approach, he swung the bat as hard as he could every time he came to the plate.

It would not be an overstatement to say that Babe Ruth single-handedly changed the game of baseball. What was once a game of small ball played mostly on the base paths featuring daring base running, sacrifice bunts, the hit and run and spikes in the air, became the game at the plate with sluggers trying to do it all with one swing of the bat. Old timers like Cobb and longtime Giants manager John McGraw may have berated the new style, but the fans loved it. When the acrimony between the Giants and the Yankees became unbearable, the Yanks built themselves a new ballpark just across the Harlem River from the  Polo Grounds less than a half mile away. It was nicknamed "the House that Ruth Built", but the great Bambino was just as responsible for the expansion of many American League ballparks, including Chicago's Comiskey Park, whose outfield grandstands were built specifically to accommodate the crowds that Babe Rut inevitably drew when the Yankees came to town.

Yankee Stadium was both the last of the classic ballparks to be built, and the dawn of the modern baseball stadium. It was completed in time for the start of the 1923 season, and in its first year hosted the World Series, same two teams as the two previous years, however the outcome was reversed. The torch had been passed. It was the definitive blow to the deadball era, Baseball for better or worse, would never be the same.

Like the Cardinals, the Yankees brilliantly developed players in their farm system and became the most successful franchise in major league history. The Stadium with its distinctive arch motif fascia witnessed several Yankee dynasties. Their single greatest era took place between 1947 and 1964 when they appeared in fifteen World Series and won ten of them. During that time they won an unprecedented five consecutive championships. That record more than likely will stand for eternity.

It's from that era of gaudy glory, when the Yankees were expected to win it all every year, that I'll pick my most memorable moment at old Yankee Stadium. In a game that took place on October 4th, 1955, Elston Howard faced Johnny Podres and grounded out to Pee Wee Reese, thrilling Yankee haters the world over as the Bombers lost the World Series that year to the Brooklyn Dodgers.

It would be dem Bums' (as the Dodgers were known affectionately by their fans) only championship. They would pack their bags, along with the Giants, and head for the west coast three years later leaving a void in that town some people believe (the Mets notwithstanding) has never been filled.

My boy and I didn't make it to the sites of Ebbets Field or the Polo Grounds on our recent visit to New York this summer. Much to his chagrin, we didn't make it to Citi Field, home of the Mets either. There is a housing project named after Jackie Robinson where Ebbets Field once stood at 55 Sullivan Place in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. The old stairway in Harlem where fans would descend Coogans Bluff to get to the Polo Grounds is still there. Other than that from what I can tell, save for a few plaques, there is little indication of all the glorious summers that took place on those sites, hardly anything to remind us of Willie Mays's Catch in the '54 Series, the day Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, the Shot Heard 'Round the World, or the time three Brooklyn Dodger runners all ended up on third base. 

Heritage Field, left and new Yankee Stadium. If you squint hard enough, you can almost imagine...

The same can't be said for the site of old Yankee Stadium in the South Bronx. The original house that Ruth built was demolished after New Yankee Stadium was built across the street. The new park looks more like Yankee Stadium than the old one did after it was defaced during its unfortunate renovation in the seventies. In the biggest most expensive city in the country, the most successful team in baseball could have built a parking lot for its fans on the site of the baseball shrine, or sold the property for a fortune to developers. Instead they outdid every other ball club when it came to honoring the site of their old ballpark. They built a public park on the site accessible to all, day and night. Fragments of the old fascia are mounted to a wall where center field once was, making you realize exactly where you are. Of course the main feature of the park are ballfields where kids from the neighborhood gather to play the game in the footsteps of Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Maris, Jackson and Jeter .

Kids of all ages play baseball on the field where immortals once trod.
Perhaps one day they will join them.

Baseball, our national pastime is as alive and well as ever on that hallowed ground. It's almost enough to make an old Yankee hater fall in love with the team.


Next up, Saving the best for last, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Stay tuned...

Monday, August 29, 2016

Our National Anthem

The controversy du jour is whether or not a football player has the right to not stand as The Star Spangled Banner is played before a pre-season football game. As you can imagine, the media, social or otherwise has gone all aflutter over the matter of San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick's decision to literally sit out the anthem as it played before his team's game last Friday against the Green Bay Packers. Here's Kaepernick's explanation:
I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.
Kaepernick here is speaking of the recent publicity surrounding black men being killed by police officers, and of his support for the "Black Lives Matter" movement.

His critics claim that as a privileged highly paid athlete, Kaepernick should shut up, mind his Ps an Qs, and just be grateful for his good fortune to live in a country that allows him to make several million dollars per year to play a game. The flag and the anthem they feel, is a symbol of the men and women who have served this country in the armed forces. Showing disrespect for those symbols they feel, is tantamount to showing disrespect for our servicemen and women.

Quite honestly I haven't had the chance to hear the opinions of people who support Kaepernick's statement, but I can imagine they are saying that he has every right to protest a situation that he feels is unjust. By making such a controversial statement so publicly, Kaepernick they feel is doing a great service to the oppressed people of this country.

In supporting their quarterback, Kaepernick's team, the 49ers essentially said that by refusing to stand for the anthem, Kaepernick is actually doing more to support the ideals our flag and our country stand for, than the people who are trying to vilify him.
The National Anthem is and always will be a special part of the pre-game ceremony... It is an opportunity to honor our country and reflect on the great liberties we are afforded as its citizens. In respecting such American principles as freedom of religion and freedom of expression, we recognize the right of an individual to choose and participate, or not, in our celebration of the national anthem.
I agree with them. Similar to the issue of making an amendment to the constitution that bans the burning of the flag, the fuss over standing for the national anthem is quite ironic. What this country stands for more than anything else is liberty, and what could be a greater expression of liberty and freedom than allowing people to take an unpopular stand, or in this case, an unpopular sit?

As for the anthem at sporting events, I myself stand, doff my cap if I'm wearing one, and even place it over my heart if the spirit so moves. I do so out of respect for the hard working people of this country, both in the military and not. I do so out of respect for the other team and their fans showing solidarity with them as fellow citizens of my country. And if I am at an international event standing for the national anthem of another country, I do so out of respect and solidarity with the people of that country and the fact that we are all citizens of this planet.

I say this because something the radio guy said this morning struck a nerve. Talking indignantly about the Kaepernick kerfuffle, he brought up standing for the anthem at "sporting events like (Chicago) Blackhawks games." Now I'm as big a Blackhawk fan as the next guy, but I do feel a little uncomfortable about their approach to the anthem. Several years ago at Hawks games at the old Chicago Stadium, some fans began spontaneously cheering during the anthem. What started as a bunch of drunken rowdy fans cheering on their team during what was supposed to be a solemn moment, grew and grew until it became a cherished tradition. Nowadays everyone at the United Center is on their feet screaming their lungs out to the point where it is impossible to hear the anthem. Everyone talks about the "electric atmosphere during the anthem at the UC during Hawks games." How this translates to respect for the anthem, the flag or the country, I have no idea. This tradition has spilled over to other NHL cities where Blackhawk fans hoot and holler during the anthem while the fans of the hometown team remain silent. Clearly this boorish behavior is more directed at supporting a team than a country.

Yes sports fans, I detect no small amount of hypocrisy out there when it comes to respect for the flag and the anthem.

For the record, while I appreciate Kaepernick's concern for those less fortunate than himself, I don't agree with the histrionics in his statement, which oversimplify the issue of killings at the hands of police to an almost laughable degree. I also believe that sitting out the Star Spangled Banner is nothing but an empty and misguided symbol in itself.

Like it or not, symbols do matter and even though I don't believe that his actions dishonor our servicemen and women, many people in this country do, even many of the people he claims to support. Colin Kaepernick has every right to not stand for our national anthem. What that means is this: he should not under any circumstances be arrested for making his statement, as that would be a direct violation of the First Amendment of our Constitution.

On the other hand it does not mean that by making his statement, he should be exempt from criticism or from sanctions placed upon him by his employers, the 49ers and the NFL, should they chose to do so. As an employee and public representative of those organizations, he is responsible for following their rules and mandates. If he fails to do so, he bears the responsibility for any consequences brought upon himself. Kaepernick seems prepared for that possibility:

If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.

My guess is the bottom line for those two organizations is money rather than liberty, and there is a very good chance that both the league and the team will at some point buckle under public pressure to sanction Kaepernick for his actions.

Then we'll see if Kaepernick is willing to put his money where his mouth is. If he is, then all power to him. If not, then he can be dismissed as just another publicity seeking yahoo.

We'll just have to wait and see who blinks first.   

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

There Used to Be a Ballpark

Now the children try to find it
And they can't believe their eyes
`cause the old team just isn't playing
And the new team hardly tries
And the sky has got so cloudy
When it used to be so clear
And the summer went so quickly this year
Yes, there used to be a ballpark right here
Those are the words that sum up Joe Reposo's maudlin tune about the loss of innocence. Written for Frank Sinatra, the song was titled There Used to Be a Ballpark.

Baseball of late has become a bittersweet passion for my son. My boy the high school ballplayer is learning the harsh reality that the higher up the mountain he climbs, the weight of each step becomes heavier and heavier, as the air sustaining him becomes thinner and thinner.

Yet the flame burns within him as bright as ever.

Meanwhile, my son the rabid baseball fan is in the process of "collecting" major league ballpark experiences, an interest I also had at his age. Unlike me however, he has a father who is almost as passionate about the game as he, and is willing to frame summer vacations around visits to ballparks. This summer has been particularly fruitful as we made it to three new parks (for us), bringing his total including the two hometown parks, to seven.

In addition to the extant parks, my passion extends to visiting the sites described in the Reposo song "where the field was (once) warm and green and the people played their crazy game with a joy I'd never seen."

I wrote about two such sites on this blog. In a post from 2012 called "In Their Footsteps" I wrote about the thrill of standing upon a spot where something important happened. In this case the spot was the former left handed batters box of Old Comiskey Park in Chicago, where luminaries such as Joe Jackson, Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson performed their magic. The significance of that spot was not lost on my then eleven year old son. The site of the old lost ballpark with a monument marking where home plate and the batters boxes once sat is now the parking lot for the new(er) ballpark across the street.

A month later I wrote a piece called "The Corner" about the patch of land at the intersection of Michigan and Trumbull Avenues in the Detroit neighborhood of Corktown. At the time of that writing, control of the site where two ballparks stood, was bitterly contested by the city of Detroit who wanted the site reserved for potential commercial development, and a group of baseball enthusiasts who hoped the site could be used as a public space devoted to baseball. That group, who called itself the Navin Field Ground Crew, much to the chagrin of the powers that be, took over the abandoned site, brought the field back to playing condition, and encouraged passionate, like-minded fans to come back to the park to play ball, get married, even scatter the ashes of loved ones on the hallowed ground where their beloved Tigers played for over 100 years. It remained that way until this year when the site was taken over by the Detroit Police Athletic League who plans to build their headquarters on the land formerly occupied by Tiger Stadium's grandstands, and retain the playing field, making it accessible to the public on a limited basis.

The three cities my son and I visited this summer were New York, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Last year we visited St. Louis. The current ballparks in those cities were built in the retro style, doing their best to emulate the classic ballparks of old while providing visitors modern amenities such as luxury skyboxes and up-to-date concession stands designed to separate fans from their money as efficiently as possible.

Miller Park, Milwaukee
Way back in 2010, we went to a game up in Miller Park in Milwaukee. You can read about that visit here. That park in contrast to those mentioned above, while paying lip service to the past in the form of superficial design elements found on its outer facade, is a thoroughly modern ballpark complete with a retractable roof. Miller Park was built to replace the fifties vintage Milwaukee County Stadium, which stood only a few feet away.

From 1903 until 1953, Major League Baseball was remarkably stable. During that period there was no expansion or contraction, and all sixteen teams in the two leagues stayed put in the cities in which they played. Several things changed after the Second World War. More and more people were moving out of the big cities and into the suburbs, and the automobile became the primary means of transportation for many Americans. The old ballparks built in a bygone era where people got around by streetcar, were ill equipped to handle people coming from the 'burbs in their cars. Making it worse, television and other amusements were competing for the public's attention. Adding to that, games were broadcast on the tube making some people feel no need to go down to the ballpark.

As you might surmise from its name, Milwaukee County Stadium was built with public funds and administered by the local government. It wasn't the first major league ballpark to have that distinction, more on that later, but it does have the distinction of being the first "build it and they will come ballpark", constructed with the expectation that it would attract a big league team to its city. They built Country Stadium atop a defunct stone quarry on the outskirts of town, on a site with acres of land, perfect for lots of parking spaces.

By the fifties, Major League Baseball was in trouble and it was becoming clear that cities like Boston, Philadelphia and St. Louis could no longer support two teams. So in 1953, the oldest team in baseball, the Boston Braves headed west for greener pastures in Milwaukee. That move proved to be a huge success as Milwaukee's new team set attendance records year after year. Their success at the gate was matched by their success on the field. In the thirteen year existence of the Milwaukee Braves, the team never had a losing record, a feat never duplicated in baseball. These Braves, led by baseball immortals Warren Spahn, Eddie Matthews and Henry Aaron, were one of only two teams who beat the Yankees in the World Series in the fifties. If anything, the Milwaukee Braves were victims of their own success. In the mid-sixties the owners, well aware of the success of their original move, looked to make even more money by exploiting a then untapped resource, the south. So in 1966, the Braves packed their bags again and headed down to Atlanta. Five years later, Milwaukee snagged another struggling franchise, the Seattle Pilots, who have played in Brewtown ever since. They were christened with a nickname that has adorned the uniforms of players on several teams in that city since the mid-nineteenth century, the Brewers.

Pretty much a no frills ballpark, there was nothing particularly beautiful about County Stadium as a building. It was a deceptively large ballpark, at its maximum it could hold well over fifty thousand fans. Despite all that, it was beloved for its intimacy; it didn't look all that big and the fans were never far away from the action. As it was set in a ravine created by the old quarry, it sported a lovely view of the Story Hill neighborhood, which sat beyond team mascot Bernie Brewer's chalet in the center field stands, from where he would slide into a huge beer stein after every Brewer home run.

Ballparks are not designed to last forever, their typical life expectancy is about fifty years. County Stadium exceeded that by seven years. Lots of memorable games in that ballpark in those years, I even saw a couple of them. But the craziest game had to be the one that took place on May 26, 1959 when "Hard Luck" Harvey Haddix of the Pirates, (more on him later), retired the first 36 Braves he faced in the game. In the bottom of the thirteenth inning, an error on a ground ball to third hit by Felix Mantilla broke up his twelve inning perfect game. Eddie Matthews sacrificed the runner to second, then Hank Aaron was intentionally walked. Haddix next faced Joe Adcock who blasted a home run to right-center field, but it wasn't quite over yet. As the Braves were running the bases, Aaron headed for the dugout, thinking Adcock's ball hit the outfield wall for a double which would have ended the game with Mantilla's run. As Aaron left the base paths, Adcock kept running his home run trot, passing up disappearin'  Hammerin' Hank, making both men out and nullifying his home run. However since Mantilla crosssed the plate before the infraction and the third out occurring, his run was ruled to have counted thereby ending the game, the no-hitter, and a chance for a "W" for Haddix. Final score Braves 1, Pirates 0. The Committee for Statistical Accuracy in Baseball would later decree that a no-hitter constituted  "a game in which a pitcher or pitchers complete a game of nine innings or more without allowing a hit." Since Haddix did not complete the game without allowing a hit (Adcock's home run would eventually be ruled a double), any reference to a no-hitter, let alone a perfect game would be washed away in the record books. Sadly all that Harvey Haddix would have to show for one of the greatest performances in the history of the game, at least in the record books, was a tough luck "L".

Helfaer Field, built atop the infield of old Milwaukee County Stadium
Unlike the sad memorial to Comiskey Park in the middle of a parking lot, the folks up in Milwaukee got it right by building a little league ballpark on the site of old Country Stadium. Today, youngsters can play the game at Helfaer Field in the shadow of the statues honoring the great Milwaukee Braves and Brewers players their parents and grandparents rooted for, a true field of dreams. Perhaps even the spirit of old Harvey Haddix is there rooting them on.

Next up: New York and St, Louis

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Lesser of Two Evils?

Time to fess up, I voted for Ralph Nader in the 2000 presidential election. Like many people today, back then I didn't like either candidate presented by the two major parties, so rather than not voting, something I have never done and would never do, I decided to cast my vote for a candidate I knew would not win.

I took a lot of heat for that decision, especially after an extremely close election that was decided by recounting the votes of selected precincts in Florida. Remember the infamous hanging chads? "Dubya won because of people like you" I was told by many liberal friends, acquaintances and family members who were appalled that I simply "wasted my vote." "Your vote..." (assuming it would have been for Al Gore) "...could have made a difference as the election was so close." they told me. Actually that's not true thanks to the electoral college, (a separate topic for another post). Gore won the state in which I live so no, my vote would not have made a difference. Had I lived in Florida it would have been another story.

Regardless, as far as I was concerned, my vote wasn't wasted. I sincerely felt, having been turned off by what I felt were misdeeds and the overall cynicism of Bill Clinton and his administration (including Al Gore), and no particular love for George W. Bush, that it didn't really matter if Bush or Gore became president. Both candidates in my view were equally bad. Come election day in the year 2000, I did not want to support a candidate whom I felt did not deserve my vote. With perfect twenty-twenty hindsight, had I known then what I know now, I would have voted for Al Gore as I truly believe that given the circumstances, he would have made a better president than George W. Bush. However given what I knew at the time, I stand by my decision.

Sixteen years hence we are in the midst of a presidential election unprecedented in the annals of American politics, where both candidates suffer from unpopularity ratings well over fifty percent. Consequently many voters feel as I did in 2000, that neither Hillary Clinton, nor Donald Trump deserves their vote. Some voters will either choose not to vote, or be looking as I did for a third party candidate with no chance of winning. Others taking a more pragmatic view, will vote for one or the other major party candidates based on that candidate being "the lesser of two evils."

For what it's worth, I am doing none of the above this year, I am resolutely supporting the candidacy of Hillary Clinton. Granted Mrs. Clinton is not without her drawbacks. She has a track record of wheeling and dealing with questionable characters and has had her share of scandals over her years in public life. She has not always been 100 percent on the up and up with the American public, has acted carelessly at times and foolishly at others. In short she is not the perfect candidate. However I must say that in all the presidential elections in which I have been eligible to vote, starting with the 1980 election, I have never once encountered the perfect candidate, one who has never been involved in an indiscretion, made a bad decision or fucked up in one way or other in the course of his or her career. I dare say, such a candidate has not existed in my lifetime, nor in the history of this nation.

That said, I know of no politician who has been examined, probed, scrutinized, sized up and down, x-rayed, investigated, castigated and eviscerated more than Mrs Clinton. Actions in her past that would have been overlooked or glossed over for other politicians have been brought center stage with this candidate. On a daily basis she is labeled a compulsive liar, a thief and even a murderer by her opposition. The fact that she survives that, let alone endeavors to persevere knowing it's only going to get worse, is a testament to her conviction, her tenacity, her courage and her chutzpah.

We can judge Donald Trump up and down by what has been written and said about him, about his shortcomings as a businessman and as a human being. But all it takes to turn against him is simply to listen to what he has to say. We've all heard the litany of mean spirited, racist, misogynist rants spewed during the course of this election. In his party's convention in Cleveland, he played on the emotions of fearful Americans, portraying this country as a dystopian Gotham City, fraught with bad guys lurking around every corner. According to Trump, our military is a frightful mess from top to bottom, unable or unwilling to meet the challenges it faces. Trump the demagogue claimed to be "the voice" of disaffected working men and women in this country, particularly ironic given his business history of stiffing working Americans time and again. In his twisted view, by virtue of his "knowing the system" presumably by understanding how to keep politicians in his pocket, only he can fix our problems. Trump has shown little or no knowledge or interest of our constitution, especially concerning how it defines the position he hopes to occupy. He has shown pitiful ignorance of world affairs including which countries are our friends and which most definitely are not. Perhaps most troubling is his epic thin skin which causes him to go ballistic at the slightest offense lobbed his way, not only from the high and mighty, but also the low and meek. This is not what people are saying about him, this is the image he openly presents of himself.

I have always prided myself on being open minded and willing to listen to every candidate no matter the office, to give him or her the benefit of the doubt. For the first time in my life I find a candidate for whom I cannot come up with a single reason to support. That is truly saying something for a dyed-in-the-wool contrarian. The bottom line is this, Donald Trump is not qualified nor capable of the demands of the job of president.

I should know something about being unqualified for the job, I would make a terrible president. With a population of over 300,000,000 Americans, I'd say about 250,000,000 of them would make a better president than me.

But not Donald Trump.

I would make a better president than Donald Trump because unlike him, I realize that I don't have the answers to all the world's problems and also realize that there are lots of people who are smarter than me. I would base the selection of my advisers not upon ideology, party affiliation, or quid pro quo, but on their experience and qualifications for the job in which they are being considered. Above all, I would pledge to LISTEN to what they have to say, all the while understanding that as chief executive, I alone would be responsible for the policy and decisions, both good and bad, that come out of my administration. If I screw up, which I promise would happen a lot, I would pledge not pass the buck.

I would make a better president than Trump because I respect the office as a sacred trust between the American people and the person they hire to be their ultimate public servant. I would endeavor to maintain that trust, understanding that the role of president is above all a responsibility to serve the people, not a mandate to rule over them.

I would be a better president because I would do my utmost to heal the terrible divide in this nation that Donald Trump has been exploiting and exacerbating to his advantage.

It is my personal belief that our constitution, the set of laws that binds this nation together, is a living, breathing document, as was the intent of its creators, not a code that was set into stone over two hundred years ago. However I understand that view is not held by all and as a president who values diversity of opinion, I would encourage a lively debate on the role the constitution plays in 21st century America. I would support, uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States by nominating judges based upon their legal skills and their knowledge of that document, not upon whether or not they share my opinions.

I would make a better president because I believe the way to defeat ISIS and other groups who are intent on destroying us is NOT by making enemies of a quarter of the world's population. Contrary to what he wants us to believe, no, ISIS, ISIL, Daesh, the assholes, or whatever you wish to call the terrorist group, does not fear Donald Trump. If anything they welcome his presidency as the hatred he promotes would be a tremendous asset for them to recruit new members and encourage them to come up with ever more cruel and sadistic ways to dispense with people they don't like.

Simply put, I would make a better president than Donald Trump because if I were to put my hat into the ring, I truly believe, however misguided, that I would do so in order to make this country and the world a better place. I do not believe the same can be said of Donald Trump. Since I began writing this post a few days ago, Trump came up with a couple doozies that were so insane and destructive to his campaign, they make one of two things absolutely clear. Either he has no desire to actually be president (as opposed to becoming president), or that he is certifiably crazy. Personally I don't think he's crazy. Trump said something that was very telling during the Republican primaries a few months ago. Expressing amazement at his success, he said that he could stand in the middle of New York's Fifth Avenue, shoot someone, and not lose any supporters. In other words, he's clearly saying that his supporters are so stupid, they'd even vote for him if he killed someone in cold blood. Now maybe I'm just a sensitive guy but I'd have second thoughts about supporting someone who thought I was stupid just for supporting him. The fact that there are still Trump supporters out there perhaps proves he's right.

I would make a terrible president because I lack the experience, the intestinal fortitude, and above all the insane desire to be president. That's the one thing Trump and I have in common. Despite my good intentions, voting in a theoretical election between Donald Trump and me would indeed be a choice between the lesser of two evils.

In my mind, Hillary Clinton is not an evil, far from it. I believe she has the experience, the character, the strength, the moral fiber, the intelligence and the ability to be a fine president. Yet there are many Americans who truly despise her. As I said before, she has left behind a trail of dubious actions that cloud an otherwise distinguished history of public service. Understandably those actions, if one were to take time to study them while not falling prey to the incessant barrage of infantile social media memes, could make some reasonable people wary of her, especially as a candidate for president. But they certainly do not justify the outright hatred we have been seeing. To me the gut-wrenching revulsion some Americans have for Hillary Clinton is based on superficial aspects of her personality; in other words, a lot of people just don't like her. Unlike the Obamas, her husband and Ronald Reagan, she does not have a gift for public speaking. It's not that she has a problem getting her point across, she does that just fine, The problem is she has a pedantic, humorless, preachy approach to public speaking that rubs people the wrong way. When she does try to inject some levity into her speeches, her timing is miserable. I don't think it's intentional, but she tends to talk down to her audience which makes her come off as snooty, disingenuous and unlikable. I must admit to cringing whenever I hear one of her speeches coming over the airwaves. No, it's not her voice which is perfectly fine whenever she is speaking one on one rather than giving a speech. And no, it's not because she is a woman, at least as far as I'm concerned, I feel same way about several male politicians as well.

On the other hand, I do believe her gender plays a huge role in the way she is judged by the public. The most important asset needed to survive the grueling process it takes to become president is ambition. Many people find ambition in a woman, at least an abundance of it, to be unattractive and threatening. Over and over I've heard the word emasculating (obviously out of the mouths of men) used to describe Hillary Clinton. Clearly these people would have a problem with any woman running for president. As for her women critics, again I've heard several times over: "I can't stand Hillary Clinton because she didn't divorce that man." of course referring to her husband's sexual escapades. Beyond her personal life, which to me is none of our business, I would imagine most of the women who castigate Mrs. Clinton for not leaving her husband, believe she did so, so as not to jeopardize her own political aspirations, that is to say, her ambition.

Personally I have no problem with her ambition, I wouldn't vote for her or any other person who didn't have the ambition it took to be president.

Unless Trump pulls out of the election, which seems to be a real possibility, the way it stands at the moment, either he or Hillary Clinton will be our next president. We may wish we had more viable candidates from which to chose, we may decry that the two party system is not fair, lends itself to corruption or is undemocratic, but folks let's face it, it's what we've got at the moment and it's certainly not going to change by November. A vote for a third party candidate is a protest vote, no more, no less, as that candidate no matter who he or she is, cannot possibly win. You might not like it, but that's just the way it is.

Trump as president, using one of his favorite words, would be a disaster. That is becoming clearer and clearer every day. The idea that there would be no difference if he or Hillary Clinton is elected in November is absurd.  Whether you like her personality or not, Hillary Clinton is a strong, viable candidate whom I truly believe has the best interests of the country in her heart and mind.

Perhaps you are looking for change in our political system. That is a reasonable desire. But the kind of change Donald Trump promises would only lead us to ruin as a nation. Given the statements he's made about his supporters, even he believes that. We must do everything we can at the polls to prevent him from becoming president, even if it means having to listen to a few bad speeches over the next four or eight years.

It's a small price to pay.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Photographs of the Month

The Dog days are upon us, summer has reared up its hot and humid head, the end is in sight. Not that I want it to end, My son and I have been enjoying sleeping in, me until 6:30 rather than 5:45 in order to get him going for school. He gets to sleep in until all hours of the morning, sometimes even the afternoon. We figure it's probably the one and only time of his life when he'll be able to do that so what the heck. July was an eventful month for us. Baseball was hot and heavy early in the month, then it crash landed by mid-month with both his regular teams losing early in the playoffs. He wasn't there for either of those losses as his dad brought him along to New York on a business trip, his first visit. For me it was my first visit in ten years. The exciting thing for this post is that for the fist time since I've been doing these monthly surveys of photography, I get to list a place other than Chicago in the captions. Shall we begin?

After a special Pony League baseball game at Curtis Granderson Park, the college stadium for the UIC Flames, the boy and I ventured into the old Italian neighborhood and Taylor Street where we found this crowd waiting to by Italian Lemonade on a hot summer afternoon.

July 10, Taylor Street, Chicago
The following day my mom invited the boy and me to lunch at the venerable Walnut Room of the former Marshall Field Store on State Street.

July 11, Walnut Room, Chicago
I commented when I posted this picture on my Instagram account, "And to think I once considered this to be a gratuitous intrusion on the urban landscape." Needless to say, I no longer do.

July 12, Crown Fountain, Millennium Park, Chicago
Our grand entrance into the city, crossing the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan. My son's first visit.

July 15, Brooklyn Bridge, Brooklyn, New York
The House that Ruth built. Well not exactly, the original one across the street was torn down a few years ago, but this one looks more like it did during the age of the Bambino than the old one did after it's seventies makeover.

July 15, Yankee Stadium, Bronx, New York
The unmistakable spiral ramps of Frank Lloyd Wright's Gugenheim Museum, trying to rekindle my son's interest in architecture and FLW. Not sure if he succeeded. 

July 16, Guggenheim Museum, New York
New York City not only has two big league baseball teams, it also has two minor league clubs. We took my friend's brilliant suggestion to visit this ballpark steps away from the ferry terminal to see the Staten Island Yankees play. Quite honestly it was way more enjoyable than watching the big league Yanks play. Way cheaper too, not to mention the view.

July 16, Richmond County Stadium, Staten Island, New York
My friend told me that since he moved to New York over thirty years ago, ridership on NYC subways has doubled. I concur. Here's a little family moment on one of the less crowded trains.

July 18, Lexington IRT Subway, New York
Fun with the iPhone panorama feature in busy Times Square.

July 18, Times Square, New York
One of the grandest interiors anywhere, I cursed the tourists who blocked the stairways to get this shot, until I became one of them.

July 18, Grand Central Terminal, New York
Next to the Brooklyn Bridge, this is my favorite New York Bridge, the Queensboro. We found Sutton Place, not pictured here, where Woody Allen and Diane Keaton sat on a bench overlooking the bridge in his film Manhattan.  New York at its most romantic. Our parting shot.

July 19, Queensboro Bridge, New York
Back home in Chicago and my favorite view of Millennium Park, the little river and walkway that bisects Lurie Garden looking toward the Modern Wing of the Art Institute.

July 30, Lurie Garden, Millennium Park, Chicago
And now its time for August which will bring lots of work and hopefully another trip, this time with the entire family, Stay tuned and stay cool.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Mr. Khan

Take a good look at this face, it is the face of America. It is the official US Army portrait Captain Hunayun Khan who was killed in a car bombing in Iraq in 2004. As the suspicious vehicle entered the compound in which Captain Khan was stationed with the soldiers under his command, Khan told his troops to stand back while he checked out the vehicle. He took ten steps toward the car when it exploded. By sacrificing his life he saved the lives of those under his charge. Khan was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, the hallowed ground across the Potomac from the Lincoln Memorial, along with hundreds of thousands of others who served their country, many of them paying the ultimate sacrifice.

This year's presidential election is different from those that came before it. For starters, for the first time ever, a woman is the nominee of one of the two major parties. However the historical significance of that is overshadowed by the extreme nature of her opponent, a man who has never held political office. That in itself is not a first, in 1952 the Republican party nominated as its candidate the five star general who served as commander of Allied Forces during World War II, Dwight David Eisenhower. The current Republican presidential nominee has a much different resume than Eisenhower.

As we all know, Donald Trump is a real estate developer with a knack for self promotion. Long before he became a reality TV star, Trump was already well known for his glitzy buildings, Atlantic City casinos and his conspicuous display of wealth. Never holding a job in public service does not mean that Trump does not have political experience. Like many in his line of work, for decades he has been deeply connected to politicians, especially the mayors of New York City. That's why at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland last week, Trump was able to say that he "knows the system", which produced an uneasy chortle from the crowd.

The nomination process for both major parties has changed considerably in the sixty four years since Eisenhower was nominated. Gone are the proverbial "smoke filled rooms" where deals were brokered by party leaders who would be largely responsible for selecting the person who would lead the ticket in November. That system was replaced by the slightly more transparent primary system where most states hold public elections to choose delegates whose numbers determine the candidate.

It would be hard to argue that this is a more democratic process to select a candidate. On the flip side, it has resulted in the nomination of Donald Trump, a man who has been held at arm's length if at all, by most of the Republican leadership.

Trump's greatest skill is publicity. He knows how to get attention which is why he was able to win his party's nomination by spending a fraction of the money his opponents spent. Under the philosophy that any publicity, good or bad, works to his advantage, he did this mostly by making controversial, outrageous statements such as all Muslims should be banned from the United States.

That is where Captain Khan comes in. He was a Muslim. On his gravestone at Arlington is the Star and Crescent, the symbol of his faith, just as crosses mark the headstones of Christians and Stars of David, those of Jewish soldiers.

This week, many of us saw Captain Khan's mother and father on TV, addressing the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Khizr Khan. the dead soldier's father spoke for the two of them. If you didn't see it, please click to follow this link.

Mr. Khan spoke briefly and eloquently about honor and patriotism. As he spoke, chants of "USA USA" rose up from the crowd. If you had your eyes closed and didn't know the particulars, you may have guessed his words and those chants were coming from a Republican convention of bygone days. But open your eyes and you saw, like Captain Khan's, the face of America in all glorious shades of color, ethnicities, and religious creeds.

This election is unfortunately different as well as both candidates are highly unpopular. Most choices, at least at this point seem to focus on which candidate for whom NOT to vote. At the RNC, the incessant "USA" chant was often replaced by chants of "LOCK HER UP", in reference to the kerfuffle over Hillary Clinton's lack of email acumen.

Of course the Democrats, from Hillary Clinton on down spent much of their time lambasting Donald Trump. Vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine shouted out the mantra, "believe me" in mocking reference to one of Trump's favorite catch phrases. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said "God help us" in reference to Trump's alleged business acumen as a qualification for office. President Obama in one sentence equated Trump, the "home grown demagogue" with jihadists. Here's the quote:
That’s why anyone who threatens our values, whether fascists or communists or jihadis or home-grown demagogues will always fail in the end.
But nobody at the convention came as close to destroying the character of Donald Trump as Khizr Khan. He spoke of true heroism, courage, sacrifice and liberty, all things in his mind, Donald Trump knows nothing about. Mr. Khan said that his son stood for and lived those values, while if Trump had his way, Captain Khan, who came with his family from the United Arab Emirates as a child, would not have been allowed into this country. Then came the piece de resistance. Addressing Trump directly, Mr. Khan asked the candidate if he had actually read the United States Constitution. This produced a wild cheer from the crowd which hadn't let down when he pulled out a copy of our most sacred document from his jacket pocket. Then he said with the crowd still cheering "because if not, I'll be glad to lend you my copy."

It was brilliant theater which left not a dry eye in the house. Unfortunately for Mrs. Clinton who would speak later that night, she couldn't match the intensity or emotion of that moment. On the other hand, I don't think anyone possibly could have.

Mr. Khan's six minutes were the highlight of the convention, if not the entire election.


Donald Trump had a few choice reactions to Khizr Khan's address to the DNC, especially his claim that he, Trump sacrificed nothing for this country. Trump claimed that he did indeed sacrifice by becoming very successful and creating thousands of jobs. He then went on to lambast Captain Khan's hijab clad mother who stood by her husband's side at the convention but didn't speak. Trump postulated that her religion prevented her from speaking her mind.

It turns out Ghazala Khan can speak her mind thank you very much. Since Trump's asinine remarks, she has given interviews and written an op ed piece for the Washington Post. You can read that here.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

I see London, I see France...

I was listening to a radio piece the other day about the way our clothing reflects how people react to us, specifically young black men wearing particular items of clothing such as hooded sweatshirts that project a threatening image to some people. The "hoodie" controversy came to a head a few years ago after Trayvon Martin, an African American teenager was confronted by George Zimmerman, a self proclaimed one man citizen police force in his gated community in Florida.

The confrontation ended with  Zimmerman shooting to death the unarmed Martin whom he described as a suspicious character, namely because of his attire, you guessed it, a hooded sweatshirt.

In the aftermath of the Martin shooting and the initial failure of the police to press charges against Zimmerman, major campaigns featuring celebrities and public figures including President Obama sprung up all over the world that questioned the stereotype of people who choose to wear this particular item of clothing.

In the radio piece mentioned above, the narrator, a young African American man, interviewed an African American mother who did everything she could to discourage her teenage son from wearing hoodies and other items of clothing she feels could get him into trouble simply by wearing them. Because she forbade her son the right to wear whatever he pleased, the narrator expressed his inability to come to terms with the mother whose actions he felt contributed to the stereotype and the racism that is inherently part of it. After a long and exhausting conversation, both the interviewer and his subject began to understand one another, she finally came to terms that her son, as a young black man, is treated differently in our society than people of other races.

For his part, the interviewer admitted he began to understand that all the mother was really interested in was her son's welfare. My initial reaction to this startling revelation was "duh." Then I had a revelation of my own, the guy obviously has no idea what it's like to be a parent.

As the parent of two children, a 15 year old boy and a 9 year old girl, not a day goes by without experiencing some degree of fear over the welfare and safety of my children. Living in a city where donning the wrong color shoelace in the wrong neighborhood could get you killed, you'd better believe I'm not going to let my children leave the house wearing inappropriate clothing regardless of their perceived "right" to wear whatever they please. But it goes beyond that. The way we present ourselves to the world has a great deal of impact upon how we are judged. That may seem petty and superficial; we all like to claim that all that really matters is what the person is like on the inside, not the outside. But like it or not, first impressions play a big role in our opinions of others. The way we carry ourselves, dress and speak really does matter.

Here I'm reminded of a piece I wrote several years ago that mentioned the brilliant comic George Carlin and a routine he did called "the seven words you can't say on TV". His point was that those seven words, I'll leave it up to you to figure out which ones they are, are just that, words, no more, no less. They describe things, namely body parts and bodily functions, that other perfectly acceptable words describe. According to Carlin, what's the big deal about them, words are just words right? Please indulge me the opportunity to quote myself for a moment:
...Carlin was wrong. Words are by far our most powerful tool, more powerful than any weapon. They have the power to shape lives, inspire people to greatness and to despair, to inspire love and to inspire hate, to create and to destroy people as well as nations. Certain words in every language are reserved for the purpose of expressing unmitigated anger, to incite, to arouse or to disgust. They serve a very useful purpose (as we all know when we hit ourselves on the thumb with a hammer), when their use is limited.
I went on to say that once cuss words sneak into the common lexicon, they lose their effect and other, nastier words take their place.

To a lesser extent, what we wear speaks volumes about who we are, and how we wish to be judged. Just as certain words are inappropriate in certain situations, the same holds for our attire. Wearing tank tops, shorts and flip flops, while perfectly appropriate at the beach, would be considered the ultimate symbol of disrespect at a funeral.

Respect is what it all boils down to. Unless he is going to Jimmy Buffett's funeral, our hypothetical tank top, flip flop wearing funeral going friend may believe he is making a statement or grand gesture in his choice of attire, but all he is really doing is showing a lack of respect for those around him, and perhaps more significantly, a lack of respect for himself.

What got me thinking about all this was an incident that happened this morning. As I was taking my daughter to her summer camp, a teenage boy passed us sporting the not so recent trend in street fashion, sagging pants. Calling this kid's pants sagging would be a gross understatement as they were pulled up just above his knees not only exposing his boxer shorts, but his legs beneath the underwear.

Every generation comes up with its own kind of attire designed with the specific intention of pissing off its parents. In my day it was long, disheveled hair, ripped jeans and army jackets. To this day my mother still talks about the way I looked in high school. Today, it's almost inconceivable to encounter a person in his or her twenties or thirties without a tattoo and multiple body piercings, something that continues to make me cringe even though I'm beyond used to it. A few generations before me it was the Zoot Suit. In the Wikipedia entry on the subject, the author said:

Wearing the oversized suit was a declaration of freedom and self-determination, even rebelliousness.

Like many fashion trends, the Zoot Suit was born in the African American community, and later became popular with cross-cultural hepcats. The hoodie and sagging pants also became fashionable among non-blacks.

At the risk of sounding like an old prude, I have to say that unlike all other teen fads, sagging is "fuck you" fashion taken to its extreme As ridiculous as so many teenage fashion statements over the years have appeared, what sets sagging apart in my opinion is the willingness of the sagger to humiliate himself (saggers are always hims) in public. There is a primal revulsion toward seeing someone's undergarments, so much so, small children invented the mocking chant to ridicule someone exposing his underpants, the beginning of which is the title of this post. Freedom, self-determination and rebelliousness, all of which are a part of the logic behind sagging as well as every other youthful fad ever invented, in this case take a backseat to a willingness to give up all sense of dignity and self-worth. In essence the sagger is telling the world that he doesn't give a shit about you, about society, and most importantly about himself.

So this morning the sagger my daughter and I witnessed, proceeded to squeeze his extremely skinny body through the turnstiles and up to the L platform without paying a fare. My initial reaction was explain to my daughter that his bad behavior was an isolated incident, that she shouldn't judge other people dressed like that by this guy's conduct, yadda yadda yadda. Instead I chose to let it go; my daughter is too smart for such pedantic explanations; she knows full well that guys who don't care enough about themselves to pull their pants up, certainly aren't going to care a lick about what people like her think of them.

The narrator of the radio piece would certainly object to that sentiment, especially coming from an old white guy. He might say I was perpetuating racism through stereotypes. But I beg to differ. If there is such a stereotype, it was the kid with the pants pulled up to his knees who snuck through the turnstile who is embracing it. That no doubt is the reason why I hear complaints about sagging far more often from black people than white people. As a group of people who feel a general lack of respect from community at large, it must be particularly painful to see some of their young people with such little respect for themselves.

All I could feel when I saw Mr. Underpants today was pity. I could only imagine that he lacked parents, like the woman featured in the radio piece, who loved him and tells him every day that his life means something. That woman's son was lucky because he had someone who loved and cared enough about him to tell him to pull his damn pants up.