Sunday, August 23, 2020

What Now?

I'm getting to the age where making a bucket list, that is to say planning things to do before I kick the bucket, is starting to make sense. Finishing up old business is high on that list, one of which is fulfilling my age-old dream of learning to speak another language. I took a combined five years of elementary and high school Spanish, being able to pass my classes pretty much with flying colors. Despite that I still wasn't able to do practical things like read anything worthwhile or more challenging, being able to have a conversation with someone beyond telling them I like to eat apples. Since that time I've studied both Czech and German and never even got that far.

Around March of last year I decided to change all that, putting a working knowledge of at least those three languages on the old BL. I may never get there but at least I'll die trying. I decided to start with the language I got the farthest with, Spanish.

After about a year and a half of daily study, practice, and most important, living the language, speaking is still a bit of a challenge. My excuse: the five month hibernation period was a setback as I lost direct contact with my Spanish speaking friends at work. However I've gotten pretty good at reading the language. Something I read the other day which inspired this post, was a practice text geared at upper/intermediate readers such as myself, about life in Spain during the pandemic.  

I'll get to that in a moment.

It wasn't the first thing I've read about the subject. If you've been paying any attention to the world outside of the United States this year, you should know that by March, the two countries outside of China with the highest infection rates of COVID-19 were Italy and Spain. Beyond the obvious tragedies of sickness and death, hospitals in those countries were so overwhelmed that doctors were put in the heartbreaking position of having to separate patients whose conditions were treatable, from those whose desease was too far progressed for any reasonable chance of survival. Beyond being provided whatever comfort was possible, the latter patients were left to die. 

Contact testing in Spain determined that many of the infections could be traced directly to several public gatherings of tens of thousands of people in early March including a soccer match attended by 60,000 fans, a political rally, and the celebration of International Women's Day on March 8th which brought about 120,000 prople out into the streets of Madrid. In no time the infection rate, especially in the capital, soared. You may remember that the warning signs of the deadly virus had been known publicly since January, and the government of Spain was roundly criticized for dragging its feet by not cancelling or at least discouraging participation in these events. 

Here's a New York Times article published on March 13th, just days after the public events, that chronicles Spain's failure to take heed of the warning signs that had been around already for quite some time.

Spain however managed to drastically bring its COVID infections under control after implementing fairly draconian measures, forcing non-essential workers to remain housebound for all but the most urgent of necessities. As a result, Spain made a remarkable turnaround, the graph of the infection rate of that country between March and June fittingly resembles the profile of the Rock of Gibraltar, with the slope of the recovery slightly more gradual than that of the surge. 

Unfortunatly as the country began to open up, in July the infection rate began climing at an alarming rate, although the rate of deaths seems by and large to have been kept at bay, for now at least. Here's a graph from the World Health Organization to illustrate.

You may also remember that around the beginning of March, the United States still had very few infections and its president was declaring the desease to be little more than the flu or a bad cold. Despite the clear paradigm of Spain and other countries, with the exception of a partial travel ban from China, (this president REALLY LIKES travel bans), he ignored pleas to take reasonable action to prevent what happened there and in other parts of the world. Implying that concern for the virus was an over-reation, he went so far as to label COVID-19 a "democrat hoax" designed to discredit him. 

Meanwhile some governors and mayors across the country, miles ahead of the president, side-stepped the federal government and placed restrictions of their own on public gatherings like the ones in Spain. The first victims were St. Patrick's Day parades in Chicago and New York City, the announcements of their cancellation being anounced the very day the W.H.O. declared COVID-19 a pandemic.

That same day, March 11, 2020, the President of the United States, still downplaying the seriousness of the virus had this to say:

It goes away….It’s going away. We want it to go away with very, very few deaths.

Thy following day, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warned Congress that this country was ill-prepared for the coming outbreak in terms of means for testing. He said: 

The system is not really geared to what we need right now, That is a failing. Let’s admit it.

Meanwhile the president kept poo-poohing the threat of the outbreak and took credit for his administration's response up to that point, which aside from the travel ban, was essentially doing nothing. "I'd rate it a ten" the president said of his efforts.

Then something remakable happened. Almost as if by miracle, the president made a 180 degree reversal and said on March 17: 

I felt like it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.

Why the sudden about face? Well it could be that on March 16 there were 0 new confirmed cases in the United States reported that day. On the following day, St. Patrick's Day, there were 1,822. Since that day, with very few exceptions, the daily number of new infections reported in the U.S. has not fallen below ten times that number.  

If you look at the comparable W.H.O. map of incidents of COVID-19 in the U.S., you'll see a dramatic rise from March 16 until April 6, a day the country reported 33,510 new cases. April 17 was a particularly dark day as during that 24 hour period, this country lost 6,409 people to the virus, a record that stands to this day. 

By that time, much of the country had shut down as had the rest of the world, the difference being in the States, the severity of the restrictions was determined on a state by state basis. Unlike many other countries, few if any restrictions in this country were placed on people leaving their homes. And the president insisted that while the wearing of masks in public might not be a bad idea, it was not mandatory. Worse, the president refused to wear a mask himself, setting a bad example for millions of his supporters who foolishly claimed that mask wearing was a violation of their constitutional rights. (Just wondering, would they say the same about wearing pants in public?) 

Despite the overwhelming evidence that in the midst of a pandemic, wearing masks saves lives, millions of Americans chose to not wear them as a political statement in solidarity with the president. All over the country, fights broke out as customers claimed they had the right to enter shops and other private businesses without proper face-covering. 

As a result, while the infection and death rates in the United States declined ever so slightly  then flattened out from April to June, we never experienced the drastic downward plunge that Spain and other European countries did. Here's a link to the W.H.O. graph of the outbreak in the United States.

By late June, as this country began to re-open after three months of dormancy, just like Spain, infection rates began to take off in the wrong direction, but unlike Spain whose infection levels returned to at or near the levels they experienced during the height of their outbreak, in July our infection levels rose to unprecedented heights. On July 19, the daily number of new cases reported was a staggering 74,354. While the death tally is not as high as it was in the early months of the outbreak, at this writing, most days continue to see the number of COVID deaths in the United States to be over one thousand.  

Of course it has been well reported that the United States leads the world by far in the number of COVID deaths, 167,201*, about 60,000 more deaths than its nearest competitor, Brazil. All told, the COVID-19 deaths in the United States account for about 22 percent of all the COVID deaths in the world. Compare that to the fact that the population of the U.S. accounts for a little over four percent of the world's population. 

One does not need to be a statistician or epidemiologist to realize this is a staggeringly pathetic response on our part to the pandemic. Long before there was a single infection in this country, there were numerous paradigms of what to do and what not to do, tremendous success stories such as Taiwan and New Zealand, and missteps that led to success such as Spain, actions that could have easily been taken or avoided by this country. The playbook was already set out on the table, all we had to do was look at it.

Contrary to what this president claims, we were not blind-sided by the pandemic, we had plenty of time to prepare and adjust our response on the fly if need be. As a matter of fact, many states such as Michigan, New York and Illinois, had patterns of infections and recovery similar to that of Spain and other European countries. Other states who foolishly chose to follow the lead of the president, fared much worse. Were it not for the difficult but necessary choices of governors such as Gretchen Whitmer, Andrew Cuomo, Jay Pritzker, and mayors such as Lori Lightfoot of sweet home Chicago, the U.S. Covid numbers would be far higher than they are now. 

The numbers say it all, the proof is in the pudding. The proverbial manager of the local Dairy Queen would be thrown out on his ass if he turned out numbers like these for his business. 

It used to be that presidents took responsibility for what occured under their watch whether it was legitimately their fault or not. Harry Truman famously had a sign on his desk in the Oval Office that read. "the buck stops here." Not this president. He blames his predecessor so often for his own fuck ups that you'd think he had his own sign which reads: "the buck stops with Obama."

But can this U.S. president truly be blamed for a global pandemic? 

For the pandemic no, for the response, yes. Given the clear evidence that governments who took dramatic action including stay-at-home orders and mandates to wear masks in public had dramatically higher success rate than those who took a more laissez-faire approach, yes it is clear, especially given the precedents mentioned above, that this administration dropped the ball on several occasions, and keeps doing so. Its response to this crisis can best be described as tragically inept, at worst, criminally negligent.

The tragedy here is that tens of thousands of American lives could have been saved had more people worn masks or short of that, practiced common sense social distancing methods that were prescribed by professionals whose lives are devoted to studying such things. Instead, millions of Americans choose to listen to a president whose chief sources of information are his own hair-brained hunches such as the now legendary ingesting bleach method of curing the disease caused by the virus. 

This president likes to compare himself favoribly to presidents of the past, especially one. 

But imagine if in the middle of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln while dedicating the cemetery on the hallowed grounds outside of Gettysburg, instead of honoring the dead, used the opportunity to lambast the press and his political opponents for treating him badly as this president did at a military cemetery in France during the remembrance of the 75th anniversary of D Day. 

Imagine if Franklin Delano Roosevelt on December 8, 1941 had addressed Congress, assuring the American public that by April, 1942 when it gets a little warmer, World War II would, as if by miracle, miraculously go away.

Or imagine if George W. Bush, while standing in New York City before the smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center, in September of 2001 had said to those gathered: "It is what it is." 

Every president, good or bad until this one, has understood the awesome respnsibility placed upon his shoulders, or in the words of Barack Obama the other night, felt,  

...the weight of the office and discover some reverence for the democracy that had been placed in his care.

Every president, good or bad until this one, has understood the role that public responsibility and sacrifice play especially during a time of crisis.

And every president, good or bad until this one, has understood, especially during a time of crisis, the necessity of unifying the country.

But not this president who is focused on thing and one thing only, holding on to power. 

To those ends, this president knows that his one chance of winning the next election, just like four years ago, is to stir up the passions, the anger, the fear and the hatred that a minority of the American public have against the rest of us. 

As has been perfectly clear during his enitre public life and even more so during his presidency, everything this president has done has been purely for his own benefit, and that even in the face of the needless deaths of tens of thousands of Americans under his watch, he is incapable or unwilling of doing anything that might bring people together.

Which brings me to the article that inspired this post. 

During the very strict stay at home orders imposed on Spain (and Italy) between March and June, a wonderful tradition developed. At 8 PM every night, people all over those countries stopped whatever they were doing and stood on their balconies to cheer on the public health workers who had just finished their shift and were headed home. There is ascertainable evidence to prove this as internet usage dropped significantly each night between 7:55PM and 8:10PM in all regions of both of those countries. 

Residents of Barcelona cheering on health workers as they head home after their shift.

The writer of the piece, Ana Mantilla, said that the cheers echoing through the streets created a feeling of excitement and liberation, knowing that the whole country (well, at least a large majority of it) was united in support of these workers who were risking their own lives in the service of others. Above all the reaction in one unified voice of so many her fellow countrymen and women lifted the morale of the country as they "rose to the occasion in solidarity, generosity and courage."

Meanwhile in this country during the shutdowns, massive demonstations took place with gun toting, mostly maskless yahoos demanding that the restrictions be lifted, pandemic be damned, just so they could get back to their normal lives. One widely distributed photograph showed a woman in Chicago carrying a sign addressed to the governor of Illinois, (who is Jewish) that read: "Arbeit Macht Frei" the words that marked the gate of the Nazi death camp Auschwitz, under which passed some 1.3 million people, the majority of them Jews.

Nauturally the president expressed his support for these demonstrators.

But this president is not soley responsible for our disastrous response to COVID-19. The people who support him, well at least those who are old enough to vote, are supposedly adults who should know better. They are the ones who have allowed their fears and hatreds to be manipulated by a con-man who has his entire life proven himself to be a person clearly not to be trusted. Ask anyone who ever had buisness dealings with him if you don't believe me. 

Just this week, one of the president's top former advisors Steve Bannon, was indicted on fraud charges for allegedly pocketing money sent by true believers in the cause who thought they were contributing to the construction of the wall on the U.S./Mexican border. For his part, the president who directed 400 million dollars of Department of Homeland Security funds into Bannon's bogus operation, has a lot of "splainin'" to do. Not surprizingly he is doing what comes naturally to him, denying any invovement, distancing himself from Bannon and any responsibility, just as he has done with the plethora of higher ups in his campaign, his administration and his private life who have been charged, and in some cases convicted of committing felonies while in his service. 

The dust from the Bannon scandal hasn't yet surfaced but when it does, it's unlikely that the strong evidence that the president and his cronies are robbing them blind, still won't deter the true believers in the cult that has developed around this president.

I'm not one who goes in for internet memes but one I read recently was spot on. It said in effect, that the fear and hatred of the followers of this president far outweighs everything in the lives of these people, common sense, morality and sometimes even self-preservation.

Followers in the cult of this president would say that my bias against him makes me blind to "all the good he has done for this country." The truth is as much as I distrusted and disliked him four years ago, I did not wish him to fail as president as my love for my country prevented me from doing so. If he failed, then the country failed. And yet in all honesty,  I cannot believe that anyone who has been  paying attention to the events of the past four years can look at the state we're in and honestly say that this president has not failed this country.

My opinions of this president are based upon my own observations of the man over the past thirty five odd years as well as from reading accounts from multitudes of people who have had direct contact with him, including most recently, his neice Mary Trump. To anyone paying the slightest bit of attention, it doesn't take a student of psychology to realize that this president is not a well man. According to his neice who is a clinical psycholgist, much of that can be attributed to the way in which he was raised, which in a very small way excuses his deplorable behavior.  

But for the life of me I can't find an excuse for the shameless enabling of this president by Republican members of Congress, (who know exactly the kind of man he is and the dangers he poses to this country) fearful of his nasty tweets and of their constituents who will continue to blindly support this man come hell or high water.

History will not judge any of these folks kindly.

We love to talk of our parents' and granparents' generation, the one that lived during WWII. We call them "The Greatest Generation"  because of the sacrifices they made, both at home and on the front lines in Europe and the Pacific, to save the world from totalitarianism. 

Some of the members of that generation including my mother are still alive, and they are the people at the greatest risk from the pandemic. Imagine how these people who sacrificed everything so that the world might be a better place for their children, must feel looking at their children today who cannot be bothered with even the infinitessimally insignificant inconvenience of wearing a mask in order to help save the lives of others, or that we cannot come together as a nation to fight the war against this dreadful pandemic as one unified people.

We all ought to  be ashamed of ourselves. 

* The number, 167,201 was the number of COVID deaths in the U.S. one week ago when I began writing this piece. Today, one week later, that number stands at 174,246.



Sunday, August 2, 2020

Goodbye Columbus

Ah statues statues statues. Thirty years ago or more, inspired by the work of the American artists Augustus Saint-Gaudins and Laredo Taft, I developed an interest in public monuments. Admittedly, like many of the passions of my life, it was a bit of an old fogey, geeky kind of interest, something I had a hard time finding many people willing to share.

Who would have thought that decades later, public monuments would be all the rage, inciting passion and interest that arguably never existed before, not even when these works of art were unveiled to the public in most cases, well over a century ago.

I've written about the subject in this space on numerous occasions:

It all started in the spring of 2017 when the mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landreau ordered four monuments to Confederate leaders including Robert E. Lee be removed from public display in his city. In a move eerily similar to an event that took place several years earlier here in Chicago, Landreau had the statues removed in the dead of night, so as to create as little attention as possible.

In explaining his motivations, Landreau delivered an eloquent speech where he asked his fellow white residents of The Crescent City to put themselves in the shoes of their fellow citizens who happened to be black. How, he asked them, would you explain to your children why your city is honoring the legacies of men who fought for the denial of basic human rights to their your ancestors?

You'll find a link to Landreau's speech in my post titled Monumental Headaches. I finished up that post by warning that the removal of statues in New Orleans might open a Pandora's box of sorts, and advocated there not be a national mandate to determine which statues be removed and which not, but rather, using the example of Monument Boulevard in Richmond, (which at the time was considering ways of putting their Confederate statues in context rather than removing them), leave that decision up to individual communities as to how to deal with this controversial issue.

Unfortunately given subsequent events, the ship of context might have sailed.

That post inspired subsequent posts where I looked at several monuments in Chicago which could potentially create a stir, inspiring demands for their removal.

I started out with a two part post, You're Not Likely to Find the Likes of These Folks Down South, part one dealing with three famous Chicago monuments to Union Civil War generals, all of them controversial in one way or other.

Part two, The Likes of These Folks: Honest Abe, deals with the Chicago monuments to perhaps the most divisive president in history, present company excluded.

Moving Statues Around is a piece I wrote about the how the removal of controversial monuments is not at all a new issue.

In Should They Stay or Should They Go? I wrote about two controversial Chicago monuments that at the time I wrote the piece, were being considered as serious candidates for removal. As of this writing today, forgotten for the time being, they are still in place.

Last October, I wrote a piece called Revisionist History which starts out by mentioning one of the three statues that were actually removed from their pedestals last week.

And this January I wrote about some of the monuments to Indigenous Americans in Chicago and how their conception and design reflects the public sentiment of their subject at the time of their creation. That piece is called A Difficult Legacy.

The removal of three Chicago public monuments dedicated to Christopher Columbus in the past week has certainly stirred up a ruckus. The writing had been on the wall for a good number of years as far as the legacy of the alleged "discoverer of America" much of which is chronicled in my "Revisionist History" piece. Suffice it to say that when Mayor Landreau set the wheels in motion three years ago as far as evaluating public monuments, in these parts Columbus's name was mentioned as a candidate for the heave-ho from the get-go.

As is my custom, I'm going to refrain from making a definitive call on this one, as both sides have valid points. Columbus's legacy is indeed a difficult one, and I am all in favor of a rigorous examination into his deeds, mis, or otherwise. But even if we conclude that at least by our contemporary standards, the bad outweighs the good, is this alone a valid reason to remove the statues for good?

What we forget is that most public monuments in this country were not erected by the state, but rather by private individuals or groups who raised the money to commission these objects and petitioned their municipal government to find an appropriate place to display them. And in many of the cases in Chicago at least, the benefactors of these works represent the plethora of ethnic groups who make up this city, and their gifts serve as monuments to those groups.

The Norwegian community for example commissioned the Leif Erikson statue in Humboldt Park. In that same park which I am intimately familiar, the Polish community commissioned the great equestrian monument to Tadeusz Kosciuszko (which was moved to Solidarity Drive in the 1970s), and the German community commissioned two statues, one to the park's namesake, Alexander von Humboldt, and the other to publisher Fritz Reuter.

In other parts of the city you'll find monuments in the form of statues honoring the Czech/Slovak community and two of their own, Karel Havlicek and Tomas Masaryk, the Swedish Community honoring Carl von Linne, the African American Community honoring Black WWI veterans, the Great Northern Migration, Gwendolyn Brooks and Martin Luther King, and the Philippene community honoring Dr. Jose Rizal. This list only scratches the surface.

Other monuments honoring the ethnic groups who make up this city take on other forms such as the two massive Puerto Rican Flags spanning Division Street, also in Humboldt Park, the ceremonial arch welcoming visitors to the Mexican community of Little Village, and a similar arch spanning Wentworth Avenue in Chicago's Chinatown.

Chicago's LBGTQ community is honored by posts with the rainbow theme lining North Halsted Avenue and Chicago's Indigenous American community is honored by several public works created by Native American artists along the lakefront and elsewhere.

In that same vein of symbols of local ethnic pride, starting in 1892, Chicago's Italian community commissioned no less than three monuments to one of their favorite sons, Columbus, or if you prefer, Cristoforo Colombo. All three were removed in the span of a little over one week.

I think it's safe to assume that all of these groups mentioned above would be deeply troubled and hurt if any of the monuments representing them would be taken down by the city, in the middle of the night no less. The Italian community of Chicago is certainly no exception.


The statues were not destroyed nor permanently removed from their pedestals. The Mayor of Chicago, Lori Lightfoot's decision was based upon the attention the Columbus statues were getting from demonstrators who wanted to pull them down, and the Federal Government who is devoting seemingly limitless resources in preventing them from doing so. Caught in the middle, Lightfoot has made it clear that the decision to remove the three likenesses of Columbus was made out of prudence, in order to prevent violence leading to injury and the possible loss of life to both demonstrators and to law enforcement officials. To a much lesser extent, removing the monuments may also be justified in terms of protecting the monuments themselves.


Some argued that by removing the statues, the city is giving in to the demands of mob rule and is setting a dangerous precedent for the future. "What will be next" is the mantra heard most frequently from the save the statues at all costs crowd.

If these were normal times, I'd probably side with the leave the statues up crowd, at least until a proper dialog could be convened with all parties who have something worthwhile to say about this, especially the one group who has every right to be aggrieved by the statues' presence, the Native American community.


These are far from normal times.

It would be easy to pin the blame for the recent social unrest we've been experiencing as the president has, on the brutal murder of George Floyd at the hands of former members of the Minneapolis Police Department. But Mr. Floyd's murder was only one of countless atrocities where un-armed persons of color were killed by the police. What made this different was the video that showed virtually every moment of the tragedy, from a healthy Mr. Floyd being apprehended on the suspicion of committing a petty crime, until he was unconscious under the choke-hold of his murderer, then taken away from the scene by paramedics. He died shortly thereafter. One might be tempted to use the metaphor of the "straw that broke the camel's back" as far as public's reaction to the case was concerned. But this was no straw, the brutality of the murder rates a much harsher metaphor, perhaps a boulder or stick of dynamite.

But the righteous indignation over the dozens of similar recent atrocities, the hundreds or thousands that have taken place against people of color over the last several years, and the uncountable ones that have occurred in this country's history, all sparked by the murder of George Floyd, has had the impact of an atomic bomb as far as this country is concerned.

Add to that the resurgence of overt racism that has been enabled by a president whose sole purpose has been to divide this country in the deepest and most profound way, all for the purpose of gaining personal power.

Add to that the acts of a sociopath in the White House who as a show of force in order to make up for his own weakness and incompetence, sends a pretend federal army of military wannabies (because the real army refused to do it) into American cities to terrorize American citizens who are exercising their right to protest.

Add to that the fact that we're in the midst of a pandemic, which beyond the human tragedy it has wrought, has shaken the resources of government to its core.

No my friends, these are not normal times.

People in this country have every right to be pissed off. The monuments to Columbus at least to some, represent over five hundred years of genocide, slavery, oppression, degradation, broken promises and heartache.

I get that.

I also get the urge to in the words of the late John Lewis, go out and get into some "good trouble."

But personally I think going after statues is a foolish waste of time. First of all, I think attacking statues is playing right into the president's hands. He would give ANYTHING to have the excuse to send his pretend army to Chicago to bust some heads, for no reason other than to make some people think he's a tough guy. That would even earn him some votes from people who are disgusted by liberal people breaking stuff. We can get all snooty and blame those folks for caring more about statues than people, which seems to be true. But tell me this, what does knocking down these things  and genuinely pissing off a significant community in this city accomplish?  Is that really the good, useful trouble Congressman Lewis had in mind?

I don't think so.

If equal rights, social justice and the general welfare of human beings are truly your concern, and you're really interested in making a difference, get involved. Get involved in the numerous not-for-profit institutions whose mission is to promote fair housing, or equal employment opportunity, or prison reform, or helping to bring peace to communities paralyzed by violence. Get involved in a distribution center that provides food to the needy and shelter to the homeless. If politics is your thing, get involved in voter registration drives. Make your voice heard that you will not accept voter disenfranchisement. If you are particularly interested in art, work with groups who are involved with telling the stories of the countless communities who are not yet represented by public art in the city.

There is a mountain of worthwhile organizations working for the betterment of our community that could use your time, talent and treasure. These activities may not produce the same adrenaline rush as toppling statues or street fights with a pretend army, but in the end, the cause will be much better served, as will your health.

Maybe one day the Columbus statues will be returned when cooler heads prevail, or maybe they won't. Maybe as has been suggested, Chicago's Italian community will find other, less controversial heroes to commemorate. Chicago already has a monument to the unifier of Italy, Giuseppe Garibaldi. I might suggest a monument to the composer Giuseppe Verd,  Better yet, there could be monuments to one or more of the significant Italian women in history such as mathematician Maria Gaetana Agnesi, statesman Virginia Oldoini, educator Maria Montessori, or Chicago's own Frances Xavier Cabrini, a bona fide saint!

True these folks may not have the star power of a Cristoforo Columbo, but neither do they have the baggage.

My guess is that Mayor Lightfoot has bigger fish to fry than the fate of the statues in this city. I applaud her removing the Columbus monuments for the simple reason that it diffused what was already a very dangerous situation, and it could have saved at least a few lives. If you feel adamant that she should have left the statues up considering that risk, perhaps you might want to question your own priorities.

I would also guess that the Indigenous community has bigger fish to fry than worrying about statues as well. Maybe we can learn a lesson from this.

That is, remember to keep your eyes on the prize.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Opening Day

Baseball's back.


Now back to regularly scheduled programming.

Play ball!

Friday, July 10, 2020

In the Big Inning: The Baseball Creation Myth

1839 was a big year for discoveries and inventions.
Consider this, in 1839...
  • Paris, Louis Daguerre announces to the world his new invention, the Dagerreotype, marking the birth of photography.
  • London, Michael Faraday publishes Experimental Researches in Electricity , describing his experiments which defined the true nature of electricity.
  • Philadelphia, William Otis invents the steam shovel.
  • Springfield, MA, Charles Goodyear vucanizes rubber, while...
  • Cooperstown, NY- Abner Doubleday, nowhere to be found, does not invent baseball.
Wait a second... that last one, everybody knows that Abner Doubleday invented baseball, right? 

Abner Doubleday did a lot of things in his remarkable life.
Inventing baseball was not one of them. 
Well not really in fact, no, not at all. Let's go back to the year 1791:
September 5, Pittsfield, MA- At a town meeting on that date, a document written by town lawyer Woodbridge Little stated the following: 
The following ByeLaw, for the Preservation of the Windows in the New Meeting House in said Town...
Be it ordained by the said Inhabitants that no Person, an Inhabitant of said Town, shall be permitted to play at any Game called Wicket, Cricket, Baseball, Batball, Football, Cat, Fives or any other Game or Games with Balls within the Distance of Eighty Yards from said Meeting House; and every such Person who shall play at any of the said Games or other Games with Balls within the Distance aforesaid, shall for any Instance thereof, forfeit the Sum of five schillings to be recovered by Action of Debt brought before any Justice of the Peace to the Use of the Person who shall sue and prosecute therefor...
In other words, "No ball playing allowed."
That bit of legislation was presented to the Pittsfield council to stem the recent trend of damage to the windows of the then under construction First Congregational Parish church, caused by errant balls coming from the above mentioned games.
That mention of “Baseball” is the first known appearance of the word in writing.

But what exactly did they mean by baseball, surely not the same thing we've come to know along with eating apple pie and hot dogs, driving Chevrolets and blowing up things on the Fourth of July as our National Pastime?

Well not really but sort of. If you'll indulge me for a few moments, here's something I wrote a few years ago speculating on the origins of baseball and specifically the Abner Doubleday myth :

The origins of baseball can be traced back to the primordial soup of stick and ball games dating back to Ancient Egypt and beyond. The game's closest contemporary relative is cricket. Like baseball, cricket is a highly organized game with a stringent set of rules governing play. It employs fielders and pitchers (called bowlers) on the defensive side, and batters (batsmen if you prefer) on the offense. The goal of the offense is to hit the ball and score runs. Preventing them from doing so, the goal of the defense is to put the batters out. The game is divided into innings where teams alternate turns at the bat. While one could argue there are more differences between baseball and cricket than similarities, the relationship between the two games in unmistakable.

A case could be made for this man
to be dubbed "The Father of Baseball"
Henry Chadwick's enduring legacy was
as a tireless advocate of the game.
He is responsible for developing
the box score and the system of scoring
that is used to this day. It was his spat with
his boss Albert Spalding, that led to the
commission that came up with the
Abner Doubleday baseball creation myth. 
Now flash forward to 1903. One of the great chroniclers of 19th Century baseball, an Englishman named Henry Chadwick, commented that the American game was derived from the English game of rounders, something he played as a child. The elders of baseball at the time, led by former major league pitcher and sporting goods magnate Albert Goodwill Spalding would have none of it. Baseball they believed, was our national pastime, and as such, had to have been born and bred in the good ol' USA.

Such was the controversy over Chadwick's remarks that a commission to determine the true origin of baseball was convened. After three years of hard work, the conclusion of the Mills Commission (named after the chairman of the committee, A.G. Mills), was that baseball was invented in 1839 in Cooperstown, NY by Abner Doubleday.

Now Abner Doubleday was already a man of historical significance. As a US Army officer stationed in Charleston, SC, he was responsible for firing the first shot in the defense of Fort Sumpter, marking the beginning of the American Civil War. After the war he became one of the major investors in the San Francisco cable car system. The commission based its findings entirely upon two letters from an Abner Graves of Denver who stated that sixty five years earlier he was a personal witness to Doubleday's having invented baseball. According to Graves, Doubleday significantly changed and improved upon an already existing game called town ball. Graves also claimed to have participated in some of the very first baseball games. Graves concludes his first letter with this:
Baseball is undoubtedly a pure American game, and its birthplace Cooperstown, New York, and Abner Doubleday entitled to first honor of its invention.
Just in case his motives for writing the commission weren't clear from his first letter, Graves's second letter ends with this:
I would rather have Uncle Sam declare war on England and clean her up rather than have one of her citizens beat us out of Base Ball.
Graves's letters being all the evidence they felt they needed to prove that baseball was invented by an American, a Civil War hero no less, the Mills Commission ran with it. That was their story and they were sticking to it. Never mind that: 
  • Graves would have only been five years old in 1839, or that 
  • in 1839, Doubleday was not in Cooperstown but a cadet at West Point. 
  • Never mind that in all the diaries and correspondences left behind after his death in 1893, Abner Doubleday never once mentioned baseball. 
  • Never mind that Doubleday never once spoke about baseball let alone his involvement in its creation to any of his friends and acquaintances, including A.G. Mills himself, Chairman of the Commission and the former president of the National League! 
Despite very shaky evidence to say the least, the Mills Commission gave birth to a creation myth of baseball that lives to this day.

Contrary to the commission's findings, it's far more likely that baseball was not invented, but rather evolved over a period of time. Long before there was a sanctioned sport in this country known as baseball, there were other stick and ball games such as old cat and the above mentioned town ball, played mostly by children. These games bore as much resemblance to the current playground games of tag and dodgeball as they did to other stick and ball games; runners were "safe" so long as they stood at the bases (which were originally one or more stakes in the ground), but were fair game when running between them. Runners were put out by being hit (plugged in official terminology) by the ball thrown by the fielders. These games were informal contests and could be played by any number of players. Instead of two contesting teams it was often one player (the batter) against everybody else. 

Such was the case with the game that Abner Doubleday allegedly improved upon in Cooperstown. But there is good evidence that these changes were imposed on the game earlier, in varying degrees from region to region. As the game(s) evolved, more formal rules were put into place and adults got into the act. Different areas in the United States boasted their own versions of town ball. One of these versions, the one played in New York, eventually won out over the others and became the game of baseball as we know it.

That New York game was played not in Cooperstown, but on the West Side of New York City, and across the Hudson in Hoboken, NJ, by a men's club known as the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club. The Club was organized in 1845 by Alexander Joy Cartwright. The club adopted a set of twenty rules for the game they played, set down by Cartwright on September 23rd, 1845. Although the details are unknown, it's unlikely that Cartwright made up these rules on his own, rather he simply put down in words the details of the game he and his friends had already been playing. 

A daguerreotype of Alexander Cartwright, top center, with his fellow New York Knickerbockers.
Regardless, Cartwright's set of rules form much of the basis of the game we know today, including the layout of the baseball diamond, the establishment of foul territory, three (swung) strikes for an out, three outs per side per inning, batting in pre-determined order, even more obscure rules concerning the dropped third strike and balking. Also, the Knickerbocker rules put an end once and for all to the practice of plugging runners. 

What a shame.

Anyway, the establishment of rules for the game had far reaching results, some of them unintended. Sanctioned rules made the game respectable as an activity for adults, especially as the leisure pursuit for well heeled gentlemen such as the ones who made up clubs like the Knickerbockers. But just as cricket had drawn gamblers for centuries, the rules also opened up the door for serious wagering. The Knickerbocker rules soon became the standard rules of the game adopted by other groups of ball players across the country, serving as the catalyst for making base ball popular. 

But it was the gambling that turned the game from purely a recreational activity into a spectator sport, a big business, and ultimately our national pastime.


Gambling in baseball? I'm shocked, SHOCKED! 

But can you think of another reason why working people would spend their hard earned money (which they did) on their one day off of the week to just to watch dandies like the ones pictured above playing a children's game? The part of the game that truly evolved into what we have today happened two rivers across from the bucolic Elysian Fields of New Jersey, the playing grounds of the Knickerbockers, over in Brooklyn. 

But that's a story for another day.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

The Greatest Game Ever Pitched

July 2, 1963, Candlestick Park, San Francisco-  In baseball, there are many ways to judge a great pitching performance. One cannot argue that the pinnacle of accomplishments for a pitcher is to face 27 consecutive batters in a game without allowing a base runner, a perfect game. But perfect games are sort of like unassisted triple plays, they're freaks of nature. While a perfect game certainly requires a tremendous pitching performance, it also takes the perfect alignment of the stars to pull it off. Because they are so rare, some of the most famous pitching performances are the perfect games. But it could be said that the real test of a pitcher's mettle comes when he has to face adversity, having to pitch himself out of trouble in a close game, and still not allowing any runs.

There was a game along those lines that stands above the others, a game some people call the greatest game ever pitched. In that game, not one, but two future Hall of Famers faced each other. Each faced adversity, yet neither allowed a run until the very last play of the game. The game lasted sixteen innings and in the end, both starters figured in the decision.

It took place on a cool, windy evening (what other kind were there?) in Candlestick Park just before Independence Day. The two pitchers were entirely different from one another, yet mirror images. One was a right hander, the other a southpaw, one was black, the other white. One was at the beginning of his career; he would become the winningest pitcher of his decade. The other, his 300th win already two years behind him, would become the winningest left handed pitcher of all time. Both pitchers had ridiculously high leg kicks which prevented batters from seeing the ball until the moment if left the pitchers’ hands. Both were known for their tremendous control and ability to mix up pitches. And both featured a screwball in their repertoire.

In the 14th inning, during his third or fourth visit to the mound, just to check on the health of his young pitcher, Giants’ manager Alvin Dark was told by Juan Marichel:

Alvin, do you see that man pitching on the other side? He's 42 and I'm 25, and you can't take me out until that man is not pitching.

“That man” was Milwaukee’s Warren Spahn. The respective lineups the two had to face were not so bad either. They included the two men tied for most home runs in the National League that year. Marichal had to face the likes of future Hall of Famers Eddie Matthews, Henry Aaron, and Spahn himself, who was an excellent hitting pitcher. Spahn’s task on the mound was even more formidable. He had to face Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Felipe Alou, Orlando Cepeda and several other strong hitters in the Giant lineup. Despite Spahn giving up nine hits and Marichel eight, inning after inning both men just kept posting zeros on the line score. Not that there weren't chances. Willie Mays threw Norm Larker out at home in the fourth. The Giants got a couple of hits in the seventh but to no avail. The Giants’ Harvey Kuenn led off the 14th with a double. With Mays, McCovey, Alou and Cepeda to follow, the game looked all but over. But it wasn't. Spahn got out of that jam too. Finally after Marichel got the Braves out in the top of the 16th, Dark told him he was through. Devastated, he confided in Willie Mays that he would be outlasted by the old man. Mays who was scheduled to bat second in the bottom of that inning told Marichel not to worry.

Twelve years earlier at the Polo Grounds in New York, Spahn gave up rookie Willie Mays’ (who had been 0 for his first 12 at bats), first career hit, a home run. The rest of his life Spahn famously joked:

I'll never forgive myself, we might have gotten rid of Willie forever if I’d only struck him out.

After Spahn’s death, his son Greg said that out of all the pitches his father threw in his illustrious career, the last pitch to Mays on that early morning of July 3rd, 1963 in San Francisco, was the one he wanted back the most.

Mays’ walk off homer in the bottom of the 16th inning won the game for Marichel and the Giants in most likely the greatest pitching duel of all time.

Final score: Giants 1, Braves 0.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Baseball Mythology 101

October 1, Wrigley Field- One of baseball´s favorite legends is the story of Babe Ruth´s “Called Shot” during the 1932 World Series. Volumes have been written about it, all asking the important question, did he or did he not point his finger toward the outfield with the intention of telling everyone within eyeshot, that he would hit the next pitch for a home run.

Now if anyone in the history of the game were able to call a home run, it would be Babe Ruth. But consider this, in 1927, the year he hit the greatest number of home runs in his career, 60, he had 540 at bats. Accounting for walks and sacrifices, which aren't counted as official at bats, a conservative estimate would have the Babe facing about 2,800 pitches that year, meaning he hit about one home run for every 50 pitches he saw. Pretty incredible, but imagine the audacity of predicting emphatically to nearly 50,000 fans, and untold millions listening on the radio during the broadcast of the World Series that you were about to do something that back in your prime you were capable of doing only once in fifty chances. That would certainly take a lot of moxie. Did Babe Ruth have a lot of moxie? He certainly did.

But did he call that home run in the fifth inning of the game three of the 1932 World Series? This is what we know for certain:

The Cub players both on the field and sitting on the bench in their third base dugout, as well as the fans were riding the Babe mercilessly during that at bat. And the Bambino returned the compliment. Charlie Root, the pitcher for the Cubs, threw two fastballs in quick succession to Ruth which the slugger took for strikes. Ruth made some kind of pointing gesture (some suggest expressing displeasure for Root´s quick delivery between the two pitches). The next thing you know, Root come low and inside with a changeup which Ruth hit with a vengeance, a screaming line drive which landed between the scoreboard and the flagpole about 490 feet from home plate. And a legend was born.

The headline of an article written by Joe Williams of the New York World-Telegram reporting on the game the following day stated:


(It was Ruth´s second home run of the game). After the game Ruth was asked if he intended his gesture to signal that he would hit a home run on the next pitch. He said no. However the legend would not die. There were several notable witnesses that day who said yes indeed he called the home run.

Lou Gehrig who was on deck at the time swore that Ruth called the hone run. Another very credible witness was no less than a future Supreme Court Justice, John Paul Stevens who had this to say: “My dad took me to see the World Series and we were sitting behind third base, not too far back. Ruth did point to the center-field scoreboard. And he did hit the ball out of the park after he pointed with his bat. So it really happened.”

Contrary to logic, as time went on, memories of details of the event got clearer and clearer. Nearly forty years later, long time Cubs PA announcer Pat Piper who was sitting close to the action, told reporter Steve Forrest that there was a fan sitting within earshot of Ruth who was taunting the slugger. Piper recalled Ruth turning to the fan and telling him: “I´ve heard enough from you. This next one´s going out...“ Then Piper recalled Ruth stretching out his arm saying: “...right over there.“

Ruth´s memory of that early fall afternoon in Chicago also became crystal clear as time went on. With each telling of the story The Sultan of Swat was able to recall more and more details, including precisely what expletives were said by and to whom. Here´s one account directly from the mouth of Babe: “Well, I looked out at center field and I pointed. I said, ´I´m gonna hit the next pitched ball right past the flagpole!´ Well, the good Lord must have been with me.”

The grainy photograph on the right can be reliably attributed to the moment. It shows the Babe in the batter´s box pointing his right hand. It´s impossible to say exactly where he's pointing but to my eyes it looks like he's pointing down the third base line toward left field, or possibly to the Cubs´ dugout. The home run he hit was to deep center field. Babe Ruth was certainly capable of hitting a home run in the direction he was pointing, but it´s unlikely if it was his intention to call a home run, that as a left handed hitter he would point to left field. In the picture, he´s holding his arm straight out, as if he´s pointing directly at someone, the third baseman possibly? Could he have been telling Stan Hack that he was going to hit the next pitch down his throat? Perhaps. But not a very good story since his drive seconds later missed the Cub third baseman by at least one hundred feet.

For his part, Charlie Root didn't buy any of it. He was a 200 plus career game winner in the big leagues but went down in history for that one pitch. This was his take:

“Ruth did not point at the fence before he swung. If he had made a gesture like that, well, anybody who knows me knows that Ruth would have ended up on his ass.” I´m guessing the same would have been the case with most other big league pitchers.

So do I think Ruth called his home run shot off Charlie Root? Well as Babe Ruth himself said to Root after the pitcher asked the slugger years later about the incident:

"No, but it made a hell of a story."

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Pumpsie Green

July 21, Comiskey Park, Chicago- Twelve years, three months, and six days after Jackie Robinson played his first game for Brooklyn, utility infielder Elijah "Pumpsie" Green made his debut with the Boston Red Sox as a pinch runner.

The Red Sox have the dubious distinction of being the last team in Major League Baseball to integrate. Not that they didn't have their chances; the team had a tryout for Jackie Robinson in 1945 and a few years later another for Willie Mays. They passed on both superstar players.

One might attribute the team’s reluctance to integrate on Boston itself, a city with a checkered reputation when it comes to race. However the crosstown Braves were one of the first MLB teams to integrate, signing Sam Jethroe in 1950. Some place the blame for the Red Sox dragging their heels squarely on the shoulders of long time team owner Tom Yawkey. Yawkey apologists say perhaps it was his manager Joe Cronin, or his GM Eddie Collins, both long time veterans of the racially restricted major leagues, or perhaps the team’s farm system which was comprised primarily of clubs that played in the South.

In a Sports Illustrated article published in 1965, staff writer Jack Mann wrote an article about the years of Red Sox futility. Mann got an interview with Yawkey for the piece. Interspersed with questions about the topic at hand, Mann got to the subject of race. Yawkey asserted that the team was only concerned about finding good ballplayers and there were simply no black players available who were good enough to make the team. Here’s a snippet of the wisdon of Yawkey from that article:
They blame me... and I’m not even a Southerner. I’m from Detroit....I have no feeling against colored people, I employ a lot of them in the South. (where he spent his winters) But they are clannish, and when that story got around that we didn't want Negroes they all decided to sign with some other club. Actually, we scouted them right along, but we didn’t want one because he was a Negro. We wanted a ballplayer.
This may or may not be the smoking gun pinning the team’s institutional racism upon the man at the top. But it does give the reader a good idea of where he was coming from. Either that or he and his staff were just remarkably inept at scouting talent.

Pumpsie Green had a five year major league career with a lifetime .246 batting average and a respectable .357 on base percentage. His may not be a household name but he will go down in history as the man who completed the painful process of integrating the Major Leagues.

Mr. Green retired after many years of teaching and coaching baseball. He lived in California with his wife of 50 plus years, Marie until his passing last year at the age of 85.

Here is a tribute to him that aired after his death: