Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Star Wars Wars

Shame on me for having so long avoided the subject of the construction of the George Lucas vanity museum known officially as the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. Frankly it's a subject that hasn't exactly piqued my interest. Unlike the Obama Library which I think would be a tremendous asset to the city and the people of Chicago, I'm lukewarm about the Lucas venture. And unlike the plan to build the presidential library in an existing historically significant park, a move I strongly oppose, plopping down the Lucas museum in the Soldier Field parking lot, or on the current site of the old McCormick Place building, doesn't irk me much at all.

Plop away I say.

The real problem as I see it, is that the controversy surrounding the construction of the museum has become yet another symbol of the dysfunction that has come to define the way this city has been run for the past several years.

In an article written in Friday's issue of Crain's Chicago Business, Greg Hinz asks the question: "Who gets the blame for the Lucas Museum fiasco?"

According to Hinz, just about everybody involved is to blame and for the record, I couldn't agree more.

Hinz's list begins with Mayor Rahm Emanuel for his failure to make a convincing case to build a privately owned venture on Chicago's most valuable public land. He also scores very low in Hinz's book either for not anticipating the inevitable dispute over that land, or his sheer arrogance in believing that by the power vested in him, he could just steam roll over a century's worth of opposition to building on the lakefront.

According to Hinz, Lucas and his wife, Chicago investment banker Mellody Hobson are to blame because they also failed to properly sell the museum to the public, acting as if their "philanthropy" alone were just cause to grant them their every wish, including the location and choice of the design of the building. That design, to my eyes resembles a headless Jabba the Hut, clad in gleaming white Storm Trooper garb. Oh I forgot, this is not supposed to be a Star Wars museum so any resemblance must be purely coincidental.

Rahm-bashers come next on the blame list; you know them as the folks who according to Hinz, believe that anything the mayor supports, "has to suck."

Last but far from least in Hinz's opinion is Juanita Irizarry, the director of Friends of the Parks, the organization who has filed a lawsuit against the city to stop construction of the museum on the grounds that it violates the public trust doctrine, which grants title to all land created out of formerly submerged portions of the lake. to the state whose responsibility is to preserve that land for public use. In this case, one would be hard pressed to view the proposed site, currently the parking lot between Soldier Field and McCormick Place, as public space. In addition to the building housing the museum, the new project would add public green space to the site where there currently is none.

According to Hinz, the intransigence of Irizarry and Friends of the Parks, whom he claims, bear the biggest responsibility for the impasse, is due to their arrogance and myopia. They are according to Hinz,  "so utterly stuck on their own view of the universe that they ignore any other reality or need." The Rev. Michael Pfleger goes even further. He claims they are racist.

Excuse me?

Pfleger might just be parroting the views of Ms.Hobson, who along with her husband, Lucas Skywalker, has given a substantial amount of support to Pfleger and his church over the years. Hobson claims that the real losers, if her museum is not built, will be the "young black and brown children of Chicago." On the Friends of the Parks' actions regarding the Lucas Museum, Pfleger, not known for subtlety, says:
...it is unacceptable that a group of un-elected, unaccountable elites have the temerity to stand up and say they speak on behalf of our city's "public trust." 
Let me be clear—the Friends of the Parks have proven that they are no friends of Chicago. They have shown that they speak not for my community, not for the people who are dying every day in our city's streets; rather, they speak for a small group of elites obsessed with preserving the past and imperiling our collective future.
Now I buy into the idea that building the museum will provide job opportunities, directly through the museum and indirectly through the added tourists who will come to the city to visit. It will no doubt engage in outreach programs for disadvantaged children, a handful of whom will be inspired by the experience to do great things with their lives, just as kids today who come to similar programs in all the other major institutions in the city. But I'm not clear how the museum would address the needs of the people who are dying every day in our city's streets. Perhaps the Lucas's hired gun Father Han Solo Pfleger believes potential victims will learn self-defense techniques from the museum's proposed Jedi in training program.

As for Princess Leia Hobson, if she were truly concerned about the "young black and brown children of Chicago", one would think it would be of little significance to her on which side of Lake Shore Drive her museum was built. I'm not suggesting as many have to build the museum in disadvantaged neighborhoods on the far south or west sides (as if that would ever happen), which would really have had an impact on the communities that Father Pfleger describes. Rather I believe a good compromise would be to build it just a few hundred yards to the south and west of the currently proposed site, say on the recently cleared site of the former Michael Reese Hospital, a patch of land ripe for development. There the Lucas Museum would be a tremendous anchor to a burgeoning new community. 

Some claim that since it's the Lucas's money, they should get to choose where their museum goes and what it should look like. Well perhaps, but then please don't call the "gift" of the museum an act of philanthropy, call it an act of self-aggrandizement. 

On the other hand, while deep down I respect the Friends of the Parks and their mission, I do believe that in this case, they are going overboard with their assertion that the museum violates the public trust doctrine in any practical way. Since 1960 with the construction of the original McCormick Place (an egregious violation of the public trust doctrine), the ten block stretch of lakefront between the Field Museum and the south point of McCormick Place has blocked the view of Lake Michigan if not access to it. There are many who believe this unfortunate situation can and should be rectified by the demolition of the underused second McCormick Place building, built after the first was destroyed by a massive fire in 1967. The problem with that plan is the cost of tearing down the enormous structure, which would be borne by the taxpayers, would run in the hundreds of millions of dollars, perhaps more. That would be a bitter pill to swallow, especially during lean times for the city and state coffers. If the Friends of the Parks win their lawsuit and prevent the construction of the Lucas Museum, it's more than likely that the site in question will remain in all its lackluster glory, barely distinguishable from the desert planet of Tatooine, for the foreseeable future.

Personally I believe the Lucas Museum would be a welcome if not particularly essential addition to the cultural landscape of Chicago. Judging from its PR conduit, its slick website, the Lucas people are bending over backwards to distance the museum from the Star Wars franchise. No, it is to be a museum featuring the vast art holdings of the Lucases, displayed with the intent of using them within the context of telling stories. The web site is vague in explaining how they intend to pull it all off, the only clue is the catch phrase: "this is to be a 21st century museum designed to change the way we think about museums."


All this talk about the cultural value of the joint is sure to sway some of the "elite" folks  derided by Father Pfleger. However I'm not so sure keeping Star Wars at an arm's length is such a good idea. If stimulating job growth and opportunity in this city by drawing as many visitors as possible to the place is the city's main concern, perhaps a Star Wars theme park would do a better job than a museum of narrative history. After all, George Lucas's place in history is as the creator of one of the most successful entertainment empires of all time, not as a museum curator. I'm sure name recognition alone will draw people to the place at the outset, but once word gets out that once there you can't participate in a mock light saber battle, enter a sound booth where you can change your voice into Chewbacca's, or experience hyperdrive behind the wheel of a virtual Millennium Falcon, people might lose interest.

If that were the case, it wouldn't be the end of the world if the museum doesn't get built in Cbicago. But as always, nothing is ever so easy. The failure of Mayor Obi Wan Emmanuel and the city of Chicago to secure the development of what should have been a no-brainer of an asset that would benefit many and harm no one, would send out to the world the unequivocal message that this city is an impossible place to do business. 

If that happens, rest assured the Friends of the Parks will bear the blame and their chairman, the dark lord Darth Juanita, will be placed in the unenviable position of being known throughout town as the person who crushed the hopes and dreams of the "young black and brown children of Chicago." Furthermore, the entire conservation/preservation community of Chicago will be held guilty by association for being impractical, unyielding, and an unwelcome obstacle to this city's development and progress. Rest assured that whatever credibility there exists between most of the people of Chicago and these groups will be lost.

For the Friends of the Parks, this is a battle of principle. To them, every inch of the lakefront must forever remain inviolate, regardless of the current status of the area in question. If the Lucas museum is built as planned, nothing of value will be lost, no dangerous precedent will be set, and if anything, the lakefront would gain public green space. If Friends of the Parks succeed in preventing the construction of the museum, the open lakefront movement would gain little if anything, other than bragging rights. I have nothing against fighting battles purely out of principle, but there are times when those battles are simply not worth winning.

In a short while. a federal appeals court will decide whether or not to proceed with the Friends of the Parks lawsuit to halt construction of the Lucas Museum. For the sake of the entire conservation/preservation community of Chicago, all the landmark parks, buildings and institutions in desperate need of our help saving, and especially for the sake of Friends of the Parks, I hope they lose this battle.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Jane Jacobs at 100

This past week we celebrated the 100th birthday of Jane Jacobs, the writer, urbanologist and activist, who challenged both the ivory tower's and city hall's notions of how to design and care for our big cities.

I wasn't aware of the big anniversary when I wrote it last week, but by happenstance, she appeared in my last post as she has numerous times in this space over the past seven years.

When I heard the news of her centenary, I planned on commemorating it with a post of my own, until a piece written by my friend, the architectural historian Francis Morrone was brought to my attention yesterday. For my money, short of her own writing, it's the best thing written on Jane Jacobs.

So the only sensible thing I could do was steal it.

From the September 20, 2007 edition of the New York Sun, here is "The Triumph of Jane Jacobs", written by Francis Morrone, the man who first taught me about Jane Jacobs, and so much else.


Saturday, April 30, 2016

Photographs of the Month

April is the cruelest month, at least here in Chicago, as the temperature flirts with spring and even summer temperatures one day, while the next day you're back in winter. Throw in a heaping helping of rain, and you have a typical April in Chicago. Here are some of the pictures I made this past month:


April 7, CTA Purple Line at Belmont Avenue

I had lunch with a friend at the Thompson Center and a discovered a view of the building I somehow missed after all these years:

April 13, James R. Thompson Center

We found ourselves on the south east side of Chicago in the neighborhood called Eastside for one of my son's baseball games. Later that day I decided to take a trip down memory lane to see some of the places I photographed over thirty years ago in the first bona fide photography project I worked on after I left school: 

April 16, South Avenue M, Eastside

These are two photographs I made while strolling with my daughter through Lake Shore East Park. The first is not of my daughter, but the picture did get her stamp of approval:

April 16, Lake Shore East Park

April 16, Apartment building entrance, North Westshore Drive

My favorite view of the Everett Dirksen U.S. Courthouse Building, in front of the west wall of the building that houses the Berghoff Restaurant:

April 18 Everett E. Dirksen Building

Normally a place of tranquility a block from home, tragically a young man was shot and killed a few feet from this spot last month:

April 21, Benedictine Monastery, Rogers Park

An image on the wall of one of the back entrances to our building created by a serendipitous series of events:

April 24, Casa Bonita, Rogers Park

The magnificent Louis Comfort Tiffany mosaic inside the former Marshall Field Department store building, it would be my nine year old daughter's first visit, a least in her recollection:

April 24, Marshall Fie... er I mean Macy's Department Store

Some lunchtime street photography in the Loop:

April 25, Art Institute of Chicago

and this:
April 25, Wabash and Jackson Streets

The cruelest month can produce some magnificent weather events as this photo illustrates. After I took this picture we headed straight into that storm which in some places produced lima bean sized hail. Somehow however, we managed to stay dry:

April 25, Lane Tech High School

Progress, 1963 Style

Courtesy of my Facebook friend Gregory Jenkins, a Chicago based architect, here is a link to a 2013 post on the blog "Historic Indianapolis.com"  that describes along with a heart rendering photo, the demolition of the French Second Empire Style Marion County Courthouse building in 1963. Behind the doomed building in the photo is the MCC's successor, the Indianapolis City County Building, The newer building is a typical example of the International Style or Mid-Century Modern, the style of design that would dominate commercial architecture all over the world for a generation.

The post doesn't tip the hand of its author's opinion over which building is better, or whether it was wrong to demolish the older building. Instead, it invites readers to decide in the comment section. In stark contrast to a couple social media groups on Chicago history I belong to, I was mildly surprised at the measured tone of the comments, which seem exclusively written by Indianapolites, (or whatever the proper term is for people from Indianapolis). For the most part, while regretting the loss of the old building, the comments were favorable to the newer building, One writer, a long time resident of the city wrote this:
I will preface this by saying that I, too regret that the old courthouse couldn’t have somehow been saved or adapted. In the late 1950s, my dad taught night school in another now long-demolished building across from the courthouse. His memories of the courthouse are not very nostalgic. He remembers it as a grimy, run-down building in a dangerous neighborhood. I don’t consider it’s demolition necessarily a crime or that the city planners were short-sighted as such. The new city-county building was simply a part of what was happening across the country at that time as cities expanded and modernized. My mom worked in the city-county building when I was a kid and I used to love going down there with dad to visit at lunch. Especially remember the great view from the observation deck. Like some of the other posters have mentioned, I have a spot in my heart for mid-century modern. It was part of the fabric of my background growing up. Much as I am sure people growing up in Indianapolis in the late 19th Century had a spot for the old courthouse in their hearts.
The writer has a very good point, being able to look at the situation from a 1963 rather than a 2016 perspective. My guess is that he and I are roughly the same age as both of us can remember a time when the general attitude toward architecture in this country was simple: the newer the better. That opinion changed drastically in the past half-century, but why?

Keep in mind that the folks running the show during the fifties and sixties lived through the hard times of the Great Depression and World War II. The mood of the general public of the time was to move forward rather than look backward. Furthermore, like all big cities in the US, here in Chicago, there were no sizable commercial building projects between 1934 and the construction of the Prudential Building, completed in 1955. The highly influential Mies van der Rohe 860-880 Lake Shore Drive apartment buildings were built in 1951. Not only did the construction boom of the fifties and sixties stimulate the economy and create new jobs, but new architecture, which at the time meant steel and glass boxes built in the style that Mies and others pioneered, symbolized forward thinking and embodied that virtue that drove architects, planners and politicians alike, progress. The general public bought into the idea that progress in whatever form it took, was a good thing.

From a 1963 perspective, the photograph in the Indianapolis blog post would have symbolized welcome progress. I can guess that only a handful of people in Indy mourned the loss of the MCC at the time, just as few in Chicago mourned the loss of Louis Sullivan's Garrick Theater and Old Stock Exchange buildings.

Of course progress is a double edged sword. As Nelson Algren wrote in his book, Chicago, City on the Make:
Chicago lives like a drunken El-rider who cannot remember where he got on nor at what station he wants to get off. The sound of the wheels moving below satisfies him that he is making great progress.
It would take years of tearing down historic old buildings, and replacing them with mostly second rate, character-less, knock off Mies, Mid Century Modern piles of crap, before most people began to realize the mistake we were making. It took true visionaries like Richard Nickel and Jane Jacobs who were willing to swim upstream against the current of popular opinion to show us the folly of our ways. By the time folks were ready to listen to them, it was too late, and much of the charm, character and history of our cities was lost.

But not entirely. Jacobs fought, and won against New York's ultimate mover and shaker, Robert Moses, by stopping the construction of an expressway that would have cut Manhattan in half. Her books, most notably The Death and Life of Great American Cities, were the inspiration for the renaissance of the American central city. Nickel through his intrepid work documenting vanishing Chicago, and his untimely death in the wreckage of Louis Sullivan's Stock Exchange Building, inspired the architectural preservation movement in this city that lives today.

On the right is an image of a cross section of Chicago architectural history. Here, Mid-Century Modern, represented by Mies van der Rohe's 1964 Everett Dircksen U.S. Courthouse, happily coexists with the 1890's in the form of the Italianate facade of the building that houses Chicago's venerable Berghoff restaurant. Like the Indianapolis City County Building, the complex the Dirksen Building is part of, replaced another glorious old building, Henry Ives Cobb's Chicago Federal Building.  It was one of those rare occasions in this city where a great building was replaced by arguably a greater one, in this case, three of them.

If you look closely, in the background, you'll see the eclectic Post-Modern, Harold Washington Library built in 1991, and behind that, a 2009, mixed use commercial, residential building called Library Tower. While this crazy quilt of styles might not be everybody's cup of tea, to me it represents a thriving city of infinite variety with a surprise around every corner. Wonderful as his work is, I couldn't bear living in a city filled with nothing but Mies van der Rohe buildings, or for that matter, nothing but any one of these particular styles.

It is not without a little irony that some of the mid-century works that supplanted earlier buildings, today themselves are threatened with defacement and destruction. Once again, the general public has little regard for these buildings; to many, steel and glass boxes have as much charm as a visit to the dentist's office. They are in that middle territory, too old to be up to date, and not old enough to be charming. And who should come to their defense but the preservation community who sees their rightful place in history, and yes, even their beauty.

The circle goes round and round; alas, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Ya Gotta Have ❤

It's time to get philosophical. Last night, the Chicago Blackhawks, the defending Stanley Cup champions, were eliminated from the National Hockey League playoffs by the St. Louis Blues. As you may remember, I've been a Blackhawks fan virtually all my life, probably since I was two years old and watching hockey from a crib or whatever contraption my parents stuck me into when they didn't want to bother with me.


Now you might think I'd be taking the news hard, but I'm not. You see, I grew up a Chicago sports fan and am used to bitter disappointment. In fact, disappointment is so natural to me, at least as far as rooting for sports teams goes, I'm never quite sure how to handle it when one of my teams actually wins something. Young people or folks who recently moved to Chicago don't realize what it's like to be a real Chicago fan. To them, this city is a bastion of champions. They think of the Blackhawks with their three recent championships, and the Michael Jordan Bulls who won six NBA championships in eight years. OK that happened last century but Jordan is still as much a part of this town as he was back then. The Bears were in the Super Bowl just a few years back when the late musician Prince did that helluva halftime show; they even won the thing once upon a time. Hard to believe it was thirty years ago, but people around town talk about that Bears team as if it were still together. Heck even the lowly White Sox won the World Series, ten years ago. Like the Bulls, the Cubs haven't won it all since last century (the beginning of it, not the end), but the current team looks promising not that we haven't heard that before.

Now back in my day...

Well let's put it this way, before there was something called the Super Bowl, the Chicago Bears won the NFL Championship in 1963. I was alive but have no memory of it. The next major Chicago team to win a championship, (sorry soccer fans, I'm not counting the long defunct Chicago Sting), was that 1986 Bears team who won the Super Bowl. That is my very first memory of a Chicago championship. I was 27 years old on that glorious day, January 26, 1986 to be exact.

That means during my formative years, the time when I was most interested and passionate about sports, the teams I followed, and my heroes who played for them, in other words, during my entire conscious childhood, there was nothing, zip, nada.  Oh there were the close calls, the '69 Cubs, the '71 and '73 Black Hawks, the '75 Bulls, the '83 Sox and '84 Cubs, when we were at the gates of the Promised Land only to have those gates shut on our fingers.

Well as they say, if it doesn't kill you it only makes you stronger. That's why I'm convinced people who grew up rooting for Chicago teams, at least until those Bulls teams came along in the nineties, were better equipped to deal with the slings and arrows that life throws at us from time to time. As my mother who knew a thing or two about losing Chicago teams always taught me, when you expect the worst out of life, you're never disappointed.

By contrast, young Chicago sports fans don't think of victory as something they might experience one day but only in their wildest dreams, they actually expect to win. When they don't win, look out.

Those are the folks who are moaning and groaning today, complaining that the Hawks dug themselves into too much of a hole to climb out of, that they let the Blues walk all over them, that they fell apart at crunch time, yadda, yadda, yadda.

I get a kick out of people who like me, never played a day of competitive sports, yet feel compelled to criticize men and women who have made a life out of them. Did the Hawks really intend to fall behind early and often to the Blues? Did Corey Crawford plan to let a few shots slip by him that he knew deep down he really should have stopped? Was Captain Jonathan Toews who was held scoreless in the series, lazy, preoccupied, or indifferent? Was Coach Joel Quenneville content to rest upon his laurels as one of the winningest coaches in NHL history?

Hardly. This Chicago Blackhawks team didn't win three Stanley Cup championships for no reason. Perhaps I'm going way out on a limb by saying this but I believe they are the best team this city has produced in over a century, and yes I'm including the six time champion Chicago Bulls of the 1990s. That was a great team dominated by one player. Take that player out of the equation, as they discovered in 1994, and most of 1995, and they were a pretty good team.

These Blackhawks on the other hand, have a core of six or seven players who make up the heart and soul of the team. You probably know their names, Toews, Kane, Hossa, Keith, Hjalmarsson and Seabrook. Those six have been with the team since they won the Cup in 2010. Rounding out that austere group is goaltender Crawford who became the team's starting net minder in 2012.

The rest of the team far from being a supporting cast as Michael Jordan liked to call his teammates, are a group whose members work seamlessly together, just like the different parts of a body. Because the rules of hockey dictate a strict salary cap, successful teams like the Blackhawks are forced to let go of good players every season, especially championship seasons. That is one reason why it is so difficult to win consecutive championships in the NHL. Winning a Cup almost always means losing some of your higher paid, better players, exactly what happened to the Hawks after last season.

Despite that, the Blackhawks have remained one of the handful of elite teams in the league, largely because of the influence of their core players, the brilliant wheeling and dealing of their GM, Stan Bowman, and the magnificent leadership of Coach Q.

I recently joined a Facebook group dedicated to ice hockey, whose members come from all over the US and Canada. Much to my surprise and delight, I discovered how many hockey fans despise the Blackhawks. Just as fans despised the Flyers in the seventies, the Islanders and the Oilers in the eighties, the Red Wings in the nineties, and the Canadiens for eternity, NHL fans despise these Blackhawks because they are really good. One comment which came after one of the Hawks' gutsy wins in this series went something like this:
I really hate the Blackhawks but you gotta admire them for their heart.
Their heart is what enabled them to come back after being down three games to one in a best of seven series. If one were to point fingers, that heart comes directly from their captain. It's true that Jonathan Toews didn't score a goal in the series, but he did get six assists. In perhaps the most important goal for the Blackhawks in this series which came in the second overtime period of game five, Patrick Kane made a point blank shot on Blues goalie Brian Elliot, then skated around the net and picked up his own rebound and flicked the puck into an empty net for the game winner. It was a miraculous play, something we've come to expect from Kane. Although he didn't make it into the score card on that play, it was Toews, by putting himself in harm's way in the goal crease that created enough havoc and distraction to make the goal possible.

But the Blackhawks found their match in the Blues. The team from St. Louis arguably has less talent than the Hawks, but make up for it in toughness. This series was as close as could be. All but one of the seven games were settled by one goal. Game one ended on a fluky St. Louis goal off a Chicago defenseman. In game two the Blackhawks benefited from a few questionable calls. St. Louis won both games on the road putting the Hawks down and almost out, three games to one. In game five in St. Louis, the Hawks let a two goal lead evaporate in the third period, but battled back in overtime which was settled by that brilliant Kane goal. In game six in Chicago, St. Louis scored three unanswered goals to take a two goal lead but the Hawks, still with their backs against the wall, battled back and scored five unanswered goals of their own in the only lopsided game of the series. That victory tied the series three games apiece.

At that point, the Chicago press and much of the national press as well had written off the Blues who blew a two game lead and apparently lacked both the talent and the experience of the Blackhawks. But the Blues showed they had more than enough heart of their own to match the Hawks. It was their turn to blow a two goal lead to the Hawks who tied game seven in the second period. From thereon the game was end to end with both goaltenders standing on their heads to keep their team in the game. Close to the end of the third period I resigned myself to the thought that this series would be settled by a fluke goal in overtime, just like game one.

Just as that thought crossed my mind, the Blackhawks suffered a defensive breakdown, allowing their former teammate Troy Brauer to roam unchecked into the goal crease where he buried the series winning goal into the net from two feet away.

Still the Blackhawks weren't finished. Brent Seabrook took a mean slapshot from the point that beat Brian Elliot, but hit not one, but both goalposts. The chances against hitting both posts without the puck going into the net are steep. It happened twice to the Blackhawks this series.

It was "divine intervention" as network announcer Doc Emrick called it. The hockey gods had their say. They ruled in favor of the Blues.

It was as great a series as any hockey fan could have hoped. Unfortunately, one team had to win and one had to lose. That's just the way the puck bounces.

But cheer up all you newbie Blackhawk fans, they'll be back and with a vengeance. The core guys, well most of them will return along with new stars like the two Russians, Artem Anisimov, and Artemi  Panarin, a Slovak, Richard Panik and a Finn Teuvo Teravainen. Things are looking pretty good with the farm club up in Rockford too so the future looks bright. Plus, no longer being the Stanley Cup champion means that every team in the league won't necessarily be bringing their "A" game against us next year.

Losing to the (with all due respect), despicable St. Louis Blues was a letdown for Blackhawks fans to be sure, but only a temporary one. If you're particularly bummed about this loss, take some advice from someone who understands this sort of thing: relax, take a deep breath, and finally, repeat as often as necessary the traditional mantra of the true Chicago sports fan:

Wait 'til next year.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Jackie Robinson

There is a revealing moment that comes toward the end of the new PBS documentary on the life and times of Jackie Robinson. I'm not thinking of the clips of the magnificent ballplayer stealing home against Whitey Ford and the Yankees in game one of the 1955 World Series, or the noble civil rights leader marching with Martin Luther King. Nor am I thinking of the indignant man battling injustice directed at him and his people, or the successful businessperson, or the loving father in the arms of his family.

In 1966, Robinson worked as a special assistant for community affairs in New York during the administration of Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Given Robinson's achievements up to that point, not to mention his support of Rockefeller during the 1964 Republican presidential campaign, he probably could have had his pick of positions in that administration. The film clip I'm thinking of was shot at a community meeting where frustrated African American citizens were bringing concerns about issues plaguing their community to the table. In his capacity as the representative of the government, Robinson appeared shell-shocked at the barrage of criticisms brought before him. Clearly frustrated at not having the answers to these people's problems, he left the meeting by saying: "we'll get back to you."

Robinson the bureaucrat is hardly the image of St. Jack most of us are accustomed to seeing. However when you think about it, a lesser man in that situation might have just thrown up his hands and said: "Hey I'm Jackie Fucking Robinson, I broke baseball's color barrier. I don't need this shit."

Another clip shows Robinson humbly telling a woman that while his athletic accomplishments came easy to him, his new found career in service to others was hard, and it took lots of learning.

After his baseball career ended, Robinson could have retired to a comfortable life resting on his laurels, and settling down in his Stamford, Connecticut home with his wife Rachel and their three children. No none would have thought the lesser of him.

But as we all know by now, that was not Jackie Robinson. This quote of his closed part one of the documentary:
If I had a room jammed with trophies, awards and citations, and a child of mine came into that room and asked what I had done in defense of black people and decent whites fighting for freedom, and I had to tell that child that I had kept quiet, that I had been timid, I would have to mark myself a total failure at the whole business of living.
Having said that, Robinson could have taken an easier road toward being an advocate for his people. He could have followed the orthodox ideological path many of his contemporaries took. But his convictions prevented him from doing that too. He understood that life is complicated, and you can't simply find plug-in answers to difficult questions. Through all the heartaches and struggles the civil rights movement suffered in the sixties, Jackie Robinson still believed it was important to work within the system rather than against it. Rightly or wrongly, he didn't buy into the notion of changing the world by any means necessary.

For that he was excoriated by members of the black community, many of whom felt he was an old man out of touch with the times. Despite all he did for the cause of civil rights, he was labeled an Uncle Tom by some of his own people. I can only guess those words were infinitely more painful than all the invectives hurled at him by white players and fans during his baseball playing days put together.

Jackie Robinson's widow, Rachel Isum Robinson approached Ken Burns about a decade ago, asking him to follow up his nine part documentary called Baseball, which prominently featured her husband, with a new film that would exclusively feature him. Previous commitments prevented Burns from immediately acting upon her request, but he enlisted the help of his daughter Sarah Burns and her husband David McMahon to assist with the production of the Robinson film.

The film they made is a cohesive portrayal of the man and the struggles he faced during his lifetime. The filmmakers avoided the pitfalls of turning their work into hagiography, as so many portrayals of the Robinson have turned out, including the one in Ken Burns's Baseball. There was even a token effort to get into the heads of some of Robinson's fellow ballplayers who balked at the idea of playing with or against a black man. Unfortunately Dixie Walker, Enos Slaughter and the rest of the players who objected to Robinson's presence in the big leagues are no longer around to speak for themselves. That task was given to Robinson's teammate, pitcher Carl Erskine, who without condoning their behavior, explained their position as being Southerners brought up in a society that sincerely believed it was morally wrong for black and white people to mix. Even the late Red Barber, beloved to generations of NPR listeners for his weekly, homespun interviews with radio host Bob Edwards, admitted in archival footage from the original baseball documentary that he once believed having blacks playing ball with whites was wrong, and seriously considered quitting his job as the voice of the Dodgers over the signing of Jackie Robinson. It took Branch Rickey's tremendous power of persuasion to convince him to stick around.

Along with seeing Barber again, one of the joys of this Robinson film was seeing Buck O'Neil one more time. O'Neil, unquestionably the star of the original baseball series, was Robinson's teammate on the Kansas City Monarchs during the very brief time that Jackie played in the Negro Leagues. O'Neil gave interviews (not included here) where he described the position of white ballplayers at the time in practical terms. The black players he said, who would be coming into the league would be competing for the white players' jobs. Small wonder few major leaguers were thrilled at the prospect of several dozen new ballplayers competing for what few roster spots there already were.

Despite efforts to be as balanced as possible, Team Burns did seem to have an agenda in the making of this film, bending over backwards to make sure that white people didn't get too much of the credit for the integration of baseball.

In an interview published in an ESPN article titled: Jackie Robinson documentary kills myths of civil rights legend, Ken Burns said, referring to his original baseball documentary:
We sort of postulated that Branch Rickey reached down and touched Jackie, like Michelangelo,. He was supposed to be God, and Jackie was Jesus...(1) It wasn't just Branch Rickey alone in the wilderness. It was a black press that had been active for decades pushing it. It was a left-wing press.
Well it's not very likely that the black or left wing press held much sway with white America, let alone major league baseball back in the forties, so that last statement of Burns is over-reaching at best. For his part, Branch Rickey readily admitted that in addition to sincerely believing it was the right thing to do, much of his inspiration for bringing black players into the big leagues was money. This was never much of a secret so I find it a little surprising that folks like the author of the ESPN piece seemed surprised that "Branch Rickey wasn't Abraham Lincoln as a Major League Baseball executive." Of course anyone with a sense of history knows that Abraham Lincoln himself wasn't exactly Abraham Lincoln either.

The article and film suggest that Branch Rickey acted when he did in order to avoid repercussions from Mayor Fiorello Laguardia's threats of sanctions against the three New York teams if they did not integrate. What the article and film fail to point out are the incredible lengths Rickey went to keeping his plans of breaking  the color barrier secret until the time was right, including creating a smokescreen by planting a story that he was scouting black players in order to create a new Negro League. I think it is very clear that without Branch Rickey, his devotion to the cause, and his masterful manipulation of both the press and major league baseball, the integration of the game would not have happened for at least another five years if not more. It is disingenuous for Burns or anyone who knows anything about the subject to suggest otherwise.

The film touches upon the Dodgers' insistence that Robinson testify in 1949 before the House Un-American Activities Commission in regards to singer Paul Robeson's comment that black people would not fight in a war against the Soviet Union and Communism. Robinson was reluctant to testify but feared his job and the future of blacks in the big leagues were at stake, so he gave in. Many people in the black community were bitterly disappointed by Robinson's supposed betrayal of Robeson, himself a great hero to the movement.

But Robinson's statement, which he allegedly had Rickey's help composing, turned the tables on the commission, stating unequivocally that it was not the appeal of Communism that was turning blacks against this nation, but the continued treatment of an entire race as second class citizens. He added that the fact that Communists were exploiting race problems in the United States for their own benefit, did not mean the causes for those problems did not exist. Unfortunately the Burns film merely glosses over the substance of Robinson's comments before the committee, focusing on only a few trite words about being more concerned about his upcoming contract with the Dodgers than politics. You can find his complete statement to the committee here.

It wasn't his words in the end but the fact that he appeared at all before a committee bent on condemning Paul Robeson that soured his reputation with many in the black community. What should have been one of his finest moments, turned into a very bitter experience which he regretted in his later life.

Well made as it is, like all Ken Burns films, with the exception of personal anecdotes, this film doesn't contribute much original research or insight into its subject. The fact that so many people were surprised by what they learned from the film, simply means they never cracked open a book on the subject. Jackie Robinson is one of the most celebrated Americans of the twentieth century, and the vast amount of published material on him, testifies to that fact.

Many were surprised for example that Robinson supported Richard Nixon over John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election. Robinson correctly surmised from talking to him that JFK was not informed, nor particularly cared about civil rights issues. He correctly believed that the choice of Lyndon Johnson as Kennedy's running mate was made to appease southern white voters. He also believed that the choice of Johnson would hurt black people. He turned out to be dead wrong on that one. He also turned out to be wrong about Nixon, and ended up once again being on the losing side when he endorsed Hubert Humphrey over Richard Nixon in 1968.

One issue that the film takes a different point of view from just about everyone else, concerns Dodger captain and shortstop Pee Wee Reese and his supposed public comforting of Robinson during his first visit with the Dodgers to an overtly hostile Cincinnati. Despite featuring the event in the original baseball series, Burns now claims the incident never happened. He is sure of this because "There is no image or write-up (of the incident) anywhere".

Well he's probably right. We'll never know for sure but Pee Wee Reese more than likely did not put his arm around Jackie Robinson's shoulder on May 13, 1947 in Cincinnati. Robinson remembers him doing it later, perhaps the following season. In the seminal book concerning the Robinson era Brooklyn Dodgers, The Boys of Summer, author Roger Kahn interviewed Robinson, Pee Wee Reese and several of their teammates. Reese talks about making similar gestures toward Robinson many times during their playing days with the Dodgers, but does not specifically mention Cincinnati or that particular game.

So at some point, in a show of solidarity, Reese put his arm around Robinson on the field. Given all the momentous events surrounding Jackie Robinson and the integration of baseball, why such a fuss over a trivial matter? (2)

According to Burns, we white folks like to hold on to "myths" like Reese putting his arm around Robinson in Cincinnati, or Branch Rickey being Abraham Lincoln, "because it gives white people skin in the game." Frankly I'm not quite sure what he means by that. I think most white people today understand that the exclusion of African American players in "organized baseball" (for lack of a better term), was a grave injustice that had to be addressed, not something given to blacks out of the kindness of the hearts of white folks. But in order for the major leagues to integrate, there had to be white people on board willing and able to make it happen. And yes, there were many white folks who did everything they could to not make it happen. But it was going to happen one way or other, regardless of those people.

In a parallel universe, there was a brilliant history of black baseball which produced some of the greatest players the game has ever seen. Without those players, we would not be talking about Jackie Robinson today; he stood upon their shoulders. Unfortunately, the minute Jackie Robinson broke into the big leagues, the Negro Leagues became irrelevant, and the livelihoods of thousands of folks whose lives were wrapped up in them, not just ballplayers, were lost. Despite that, I've never heard a report any of those players who were simply born at the wrong time, publicly gripe about Jackie Robinson's good fortune.

And then there was Jackie Robinson who devoted most of his life after his retirement from the game to the cause of civil rights, justice, and equality in this country. Ken Burns in his seemingly endless promotion of this film, presents Jackie Robinson as the "most important man in the history of baseball," That of course is an opinion to which he is entitled. As far as baseball is concerned, I consider Jackie Robinson the Neil Armstrong of the game. Both men were chosen to be the first at what they did, and both responded to the task in extraordinary fashion. But had it not been for those two individuals, someone else equally qualified would have been chosen, and more than likely would have done a magnificent job.

What sets Jackie Robinson apart, is his extraordinary life away from baseball. It takes a great man to humble himself  for a cause he believes is greater than himself. Robinson sacrificed everything, even the love and respect of his own people, because he believed in doing not what was popular, but what was right.

As the Neil Armstrong of the game, Jackie Robinson may not have been the most important person in the history of baseball, but I think it's safe to say that for his exemplary work both on and off the field, he is the most important baseball person in history.

Happy Jackie Robinson Day.


Notes:

(1) Not to nit pick, but the person in what I believe the painting Burns is referring to in his comment is Adam, not Jesus.

(2) If Burns were truly concerned about clearing up the falsehoods found in his earlier work, he should start by correcting the hatchet job he did on the characters of Ty Cobb and Charles Comiskey.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Opening Day: A Cautionary Tale

Hold on to your hat, we're on the verge of opening day of another major league baseball season, the brief time when there are no winners and no losers, just a bunch of teams and their fans ready to face a new season where anything can happen. Oh there are the predictions, my boy just read them to me in the car a few minutes ago. The team with the longest odds against them are the Philadelphia Phillies, a team that historically has been even more of a perennial loser than, ahem, the Chicago Cubs, who at four to one, are at the top of the charts to go all the way. On paper, they are the best team in baseball. After a splendid season in 2015, they have done nothing but solidify their lineup in just about every aspect.

To hear fly-by-night fans talk about the Cubs, you'd expect them to win 130 games this year and sweep through the playoffs and World Series despite having all their batters hitting from the opposite side of the plate than they normally do, just to give the other teams a chance.

Of course serious Cubs fans don't let any of that talk go to their heads. They've lived their entire lives filled with the hope that this might be the year in April, only to have that hope crushed to a pulp by June, or smashed more cruelly in rarefied seasons like last year, when (as I once put it so poetically if I do say so myself), the Wrigley Field ivy turns a lovely shade of bronze.  

The only thing having the best team on paper plus two dollars and a quarter will get you is a ride on the "L". As they say, that's why they actually play the game.

For my team, the White Sox, well the odds makers put them somewhere in the lower half of the pack, but they've made some moves of their own that should improve the team. Heck I even heard some folks predict them to win their division, a tall order considering that the two time American League champion and current World Series champs, the Kansas City Royals, come out of that division.

In other words, this season, Sox fans stand to be less disappointed come October than Cubs fans. If the Cubs don't win the 2016 World Series, (Vegas says four chances to one they won't), it will be a huge disappointment. By contrast, forty to one chances that the Sox won't win it all means all they have to do is show some improvement over last year and most fans will be pretty happy.

If I sound less enthused this opening day than in years past it's because I've come to realize my love/hate relationship with the game. In our family, baseball didn't hibernate for the winter as my son made his high school freshman team last fall and has been involved in 6am practices and after school conditioning ever since. His team's season began in earnest three weeks ago. Starting so early in Chicago means that most of the scheduled games have been rained out. Today's game was snowed out.

All that practice on top of the normal demands and rigors of high school has taken its toll. It's been hard, sometimes frustrating work and I am extremely proud of my boy in the pursuit of his dream. I've been thinking a lot about that dream for the past six or seven years, wondering especially when and how it will end. Baseball dreams after all, always end, and they never end happily. For the lucky ones, the dream fizzles out, to be replaced by some other, hopefully more attainable dream. For most serious players, the end of the dream is imposed upon them, when they find out they are not good enough to make it to the next level. Even for those who are lucky enough to make it to the highest level of the game, the big leagues, the end of the dream is still imposed upon them, either by superior competition, or that age old nemesis of every athlete, time. Yes, Joe DiMaggio did quit on his own terms, but only after his body told him he could no longer play like Joe DiMaggio. His was perhaps the happiest of baseball endings, 37 years old when he retired, a mere youngster in other walks of life, but ancient for baseball.

Kids read about the charmed lives of major league baseball players, the ungodly money, the glamour, the celebrity, and all the trappings that go along with those things. Most of all they see their heroes performing as heroes do, coming through in the clutch, winning the game and the season for their team, and watching the public adulation that follows. What kids don't realize is the higher the mountaintop climbed, the greater the fall to the ground.

With my son's dream in mind, I wrote the following piece a few years ago about one of those prodigious falls that are all too common in the great game of baseball:

On October 28, 1986, I heard the following joke:

First Person: I heard Bill Buckner attempted suicide last night.

Second Person: Really? That's terrible.

First Person: Yeah, but he let the train roll through his legs.

So you want to be a big league ball player? Well first you have to be good. Then you have to have parents or some kind of mentor willing to support your dream who will go the extra mile to play catch with you every day, teach you how to hit and throw the ball, pay for little league, then the traveling team, and be willing to get you to all the games, even if they're two or three states over.

Maybe if you're lucky, you'll make the high school team and if you're good enough, you could be the star of the team. If you're exceptional, you might be able to get a scholarship to go to college and play ball, or if you're phenomenal, you might even get noticed by a professional scout who just might sign you up for a tryout.

Beware though, there are lots of ballplayers out there who'd love to be in your position; make one slip up, and they will be in your position. But you're really good, have a terrific attitude and luck's been on your side. You've worked your butt off for years, suffering through some real asshole coaches and you've finally made it into the minor leagues. Slowly you work your way up through the ranks, schlepping yourself and your gear onto buses for endless rides to podunk towns.

Eventually you're lucky enough and good enough to get your chance at the Big Show. It certainly doesn't get any easier up there, the only exception being someone else gets to carry your gear and you travel from town to town in a plane. And oh yes, there's the money. Now, not only are lots of people hungry for your job, there are lots of others who are after your scratch as well.

Somehow, by hook or by crook, despite the injuries and the nagging pain you've been playing through for years, you built yourself a respectable career at the highest level attainable in your profession. Before you know it, you have more games behind you than in front of you and the twilight of your career is fast approaching. But you end up on a team with a shot at the Series and this will be your last chance at a ring, the dream of every kid who ever picks up a bat and a ball. That ring is so close you can taste it, you're two runs up and only one strike away.

Then things start to unravel; they tie it up but no problem, you have plenty of time to get back into the game. Next thing you know, the ball is hit to you, an easy roller to first, routine play, all you have to do is move a little to your left, pick up the ball and make an easy toss to the pitcher covering the bag, inning over. It hurts like hell but your gimpy legs get you there OK, you bend down and get into proper fielding position, glove square on the ground. Somehow the ball just seems to skip past the glove, you don't know, it all happened so fast. The ball goes between your legs and into right field, the runner scores from second, game over.

Never mind that your relief pitchers gave up two runs all on their own after two men were out in the inning with nobody on, one strike away from winning it all.

Never mind the wild pitch allowing the tying run to score that your catcher could have but didn't stop.

Never mind that the batter was running so hard down the line you might not have had a chance to get him anyway.

Never mind the team you were playing didn't win 108 games that year for nothing.

Never mind that your team had the chance to pick you up in the next game but blew a three run lead, and lost game seven of the World Series.

Never mind that your team probably wouldn't have gotten there in the first place without you.

It doesn't matter.

Despite having had a terrific career, jerks not worthy of carrying your jock strap will blame you for losing the Series, their children will taunt your children. Years later, fans of the team will have the gall to say they "forgive" you (as if there was anything to forgive), but they won't ever let go. In the end, you will go to your grave remembered as the guy who let the ball roll through his legs to end game six of the '86 Series.

Remember son, for every World Series hero, for every one Bill Mazeroski or Joe Carter, every Madison Bumgarner or Salvador Perez, there are dozens and dozens of Bill Buckners.

---

We've been through this before, baseball is a game designed to break your heart, and as a father, I'm just a little protective of my son.

I know, I know, this isn't the time for such talk, it's the beginning of the season when all hope... well you know the drill.

House league, baseball at its purest. I miss those days.
The truth is, the meaning of baseball at this point in my life lies entirely in my ability to share it with my son. Despite the gratification that comes with his advancing in the game,  I do miss the days when every at bat of his didn't mean the difference between getting more playing time or sitting on the bench. I miss the days when I could deep down root for his team as well as for him, as now his competition for a spot on the roster comes from his teammates, not their opponents. And I miss the days of playing catch with my son just for fun, without feeling compelled to critique his technique or remind him incessantly to listen to his coaches. I miss the days when baseball was just a game and all was right with the world.

But mostly I dread the day when his baseball dream will come to an end, as it eventually will. Only the date is uncertain. That's the day his heart will be broken.

On the bright side, when that day comes, well perhaps a little later, maybe we'll be able to fully enjoy the great game together again with no strings attached, as it was meant to be, just two gloves, a baseball, and a father and son.

Until that day comes, we'll just have to suck it up and play some hard ball.