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:

RUTH CALLS SHOT AS HE PUTS HOME RUN NO. 2 IN SIDE POCKET.

(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:


Saturday, May 30, 2020

Curt Flood

At the end of the 1969 season, the Phillies traded Dick Allen, Cookie Rojas and Jerry Johnston to the Cardinals for Tim McCarver, Byron Browne, Joe Horner and Curt Flood. Flood, a star with the Cardinals, was a twelve year MLB veteran, not counting two years in the beginning of his career up and down with the Reds. In late 1969, Flood wrote a letter to then Commissioner Bowie Kuhn stating his objection to the game´s reserve clause system, which bound a player to his team for perpetuity. Flood´s letter began this way:
After twelve years in the major leagues, I do not feel I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes.
Flood went on to state that he deserved the right to consider offers from other teams, in other words, to become a free agent. Not surprisingly, his request was turned down. Despite division among the players, the baseball player´s union headed by Marvin Miller, took on Flood´s case and along with Flood sued Kuhn and MLB.

Former US Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg represented Flood arguing, ultimately before his former colleagues that the reserve clause unfairly restricted players´ rights to be compensated fairy through he governance of the free market, and violated the government´s anti-trust laws. MLB argued that the reserve clause was preserved “for the good of the game ” In a 5-3 decision, the Court ruled in MLB´s favor, based strictly on the results of previous court decisions; however the Court warned that baseball´s claims for exemption from federal anti-trust laws was tenuous at best.

Despite losing the battle, the player´s union would ultimately win the war. In 1970 the National Labor Relations Board decided that baseball came under its jurisdiction and three years later ruled in favor of two ballplayers, Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally who after sitting out one season, became eligible to re-negotiate new contracts as free agents.

This precedent began a new era in baseball and the other professional sports as well where players, after a certain amount of seniority would become eligible for free agency, thereby determining their own destinies. Needless to say it also set in motion the explosion of players´ salaries, but that´s a story for another day.

For his part, Curt Flood lost a lucrative contract and essentially his career. He came back to play for the Washington Senators in 1971 but fizzled and retired. Years later when asked about the wisdom of his actions, he said he understood the risks and did it for those who followed him.

Curt Flood died in 1997, aged 59.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

OVERVIEW: MINNESOTA TWINS

In case you were wondering, yes this blog has been hijacked by some guy who thought about filling the void of a spring and summer without baseball, by posting stories about baseball. I'll be back posting the drivel that that normally appears in this space, when and if baseball ever returns. In the meantime, here's a story written several years ago for another site, about the franchise that currently plays up in the great state of Minnesota:

The Minnesota Twins franchise, one of the eight charter member teams of the American League, began its life in the Major Leagues as the Washington Senators. In 1909, the great baseball writer Charles Dreyden coined the phrase that would follow the team through its time in the nation's capital and by extension, the expansion team (today's Texas Rangers) that replaced it:

Washington: first in war, first in peace, last in the American League.

The original Senators were so famous for their losing ways, they even made a Broadway musical about them. Damn Yankees is a modern day Faust story about a Senators fan who sells his soul in exchange for a chance to help his beloved team win the pennant against the eponymous Bronx Bombers.

But it wasn't all gloom and doom for the Senators; unlike the St. Louis Browns, (today's Baltimore Orioles) who were truly an atrocious team for practically all fifty years of their existence in The Gateway City. In that same period of time the Senators boasted three American League pennants and one World Series title, all during the twenties and early thirties, competing directly against those Damned Yankees who themselves were fielding some of the most storied teams in the history of the game.

In 1907, the best player the organization has ever put on the field joined the team. He was a 6'1" pitcher from Humboldt, KS by way of Fullerton, CA, with an easy looking side-arm delivery which belied the incredible speed of his fastball, the likes of which no one had seen before, and few have since. His name was Walter Johnson. Baseball writer and statistician Bill James among others, rates Johnson, with some reservations, as the greatest pitcher in the history of the game.

Through thick and thin, Johnson, aka ”The Big Train,” spent his entire playing career, all 21 years of it, with the Senators. He pitched just shy of 6,000 innings, finishing his career with an astonishing 2.17 ERA and a winning percentage of .599 which given that he played half of his career pitching for losing teams, is saying something. In 1914, Johnson accounted for 40 percent of the victories for his team, 36.

Another name indelibly linked to the organization is Griffith. Clark Griffith, a former major league pitcher and player/manager with the Reds and the Highlanders (Yankees), was hired as manager of the Senators in 1912, buying a percentage of the team in the process. That year, Griffith took a team that never had anything close to a winning record, to a second place finish and a 91-61 record, virtually inverting their previous year’s record. It would take twelve more years of ups and downs, but the Senators finally won their first pennant in 1924, as well as their only World Series title when they beat John McGraw’s New York Giants in seven games. The Big Train, who lost his first two starts in that Series, won game seven coming in as a reliever, pitching four scoreless innings despite giving up that triple shown in the video below to Giant second baseman Frankie Frisch in the top of the ninth. The President and First Lady Grace Coolidge, herself a huge baseball fan, were at the game:



By that time Griffith owned controlling interest of the team, and he would remain in charge for the rest of his life.

Upon Clark Griffith’s death in 1955, ownership transferred to his nephew (and adopted son), Calvin Griffith. Like his adopted father, the young Griffith, also a former ballplayer, was a baseball man through and through, known for his remarkable scouting talent. Unfortunately the younger Griffith was less skilled at PR; he was a king of the malaprop, and a life-long sufferer of foot-in-mouth disease. After the glory days of Walter Johnson and the team’s success in the twenties and thirties, the team languished, seldom making it out of the second division of the American League. Attendance in the fifties at Griffith Stadium was also abysmal and as several major league teams opted to leave their cities in search of greener pastures, Washingtonians feared the same fate would befall their Senators. Not to fear Calvin told them. In 1958 Griffin wrote:
I have lived in Washington, D.C. for about 35 years. I attended school here and established many roots here. The city has been good to my family and me. This is my home. I intend that it shall remain my home for the rest of my life. As long as I have any say in the matter, and I expect that I shall for a long, long time, the Washington Senators will stay here, too. Next year. The year after. Forever.
Two years later, he moved the team to Minnesota.

As a cash-strapped organization for most of its existence, the Senators/Twins organization did have a strong farm system which was starting to produce promising talent in the their waning years in Washington. Harmon Killibrew came to the attention of Clark Griffith in 1954 on a tip from then Idaho senator, Herman Welker. The 17 year old slugger was hitting .847 in semi-pro ball in his home state, and the Senators scooped up the youngster, beating out other interested parties by signing him as a Bonus Baby. Other excellent young players developed in the Senator’s farm system who made the trip to Minneapolis were pitchers Camilo Pasqual, Jim Kaat, shortstop Zoilo Versalles, and outfielder Bob Allison.

Like the St. Louis Browns before them who moved to Baltimore, the change of scenery did good for the former Senators, now the Minnesota Twins. With a nucleus of solid players, in their 1962 sophomore season in Minnesota, the Twins won 92 games, their best record since 1933. It was that year the organization signed yet another young prospect who would become a star, a right fielder from Cuba by the name of Tony Oliva. Oliva would join the the big club in 1964. The following year, the Twins came out on top of a tight three way pennant race, winning their first pennant in Minnesota, the organization’s first since 1933. In a classic World Series, it took a brilliant game seven shutout performance by LA Dodger great Sandy Koufax to defeat the Twins.

Although the Twins would remain competitive for a number of years, they failed to win another pennant under the ownership of Calvin Griffith. Despite some brilliant moves including the discovery and signing of a young Rod Carew, Griffith found it difficult to compete in the new age of baseball free agency.

Cut out of the same cloth as his adopted father as well as other long-gone baseball owners such as Charles Comiskey and Connie Mack, Griffith was the last major league baseball owner who depended entirely on the game for his income. Likewise, his methods of running the team were based more on the 1920s model. For example, he refused to spend money that he didn't have. Perhaps in his opinion his greatest accomplishment, something he always took pains to point out, was the fact that his Twins never owed anybody a cent. His tight-fisted running of the team, (“He throws around nickels like they were man hole covers” was one of the cleaner descriptions of him), was blasted by fans who longed for a winner and couldn't understand why the their team could not compete against teams with owners with deeper pockets such as the Yankees.

Griffith’s mouth certainly didn't help matters. In 1978 before a gathering of the Lions Club of Waseca, MN, Griffith was quoted as saying this about the team’s move to Minnesota:

It was when I found out you only had 15,000 black people here. Black people don't go to ball games, but they’ll fill up a rassling ring and put up such a chant it'll scare you to death. It's unbelievable. We came here because you've got good, hardworking white people here.
For his part, Griffith claimed he made those remarks while trying to get a chuckle out of the crowd after a few drinks. He'd spend the rest of his life apologizing for them, but it didn’t matter, from that point on in the eyes of Minnesotans, Griffith was not only a cheapskate, but a racist too, a combination that didn’t fly in progressive Minneapolis.

Other than the inane remark, the exact contents of which are questionable, there isn’t much evidence that Calvin Griffith was an honest to goodness bigot. He was simply an out of touch man who refused to change along with the changing world around him. In 1976 when his pitcher Bill Campbell became a free agent, Griffith offered him what he considered a generous $8,000 raise to his $30,000 contract.

Campbell turned Griffith down, choosing to accept a $1,000,000 contract form the Red Sox instead.

The Griffith family sold the Twins in 1984 to Carl Pohlad, a wealthy local banker for $32 million.

Turns out, Pohlad got the team for a song.

In 1987 and again in 1991, the Twins went to the World Series, this time winning the championship both times. The seven game ’91 Series against the Atlanta Braves is considered by many to be one of the greatest Fall Classics of all time. Star players from those teams included pitcher Frank Viola, first baseman Kent Hrbek, and center fielder (and Chicago native) Kirby Puckett, all of whom were products of Calvin Griffith’s eye for talent, and his beloved farm system.

The Twins haven’t been to the Big Dance since.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

The Art of Fiction is Dead...

October 15, Dodger Stadium- Consider Ernest Thayer's poem Casey at the Bat. Imagine at the end of the tale where “the air is shattered by the force of Casey's blow”, the protagonist had made contact with the ball instead and sent it flying out of the park, winning the game much to the delight of the bedraggled fans of the Mudville Nine. Would we still be reading the story well over one hundred years after its creation?

I seriously doubt it. It probably would have been tossed into the trash along with the copies of the San Francisco Daily Examiner where it was first published in 1888. Great hope springing eternal only to be smashed to pieces in the end by bitter disappointment is the typical lot of the baseball fan, and if the story had a happy ending, no one would have taken it seriously.

That's why if what took place on that night of October 15, 1988 in Chavez Ravine had been a work of fiction, it would have been dismissed as drivel, a predictable tale of feel good nonsense, the stuff of dime store novels or second rate children's literature.

But the story is true, that much I can testify having seen it unfold before my eyes that Saturday night nearly thirty two years ago.

The Oakland A's were far and away the best team in baseball that year. They won 104 games, and steamrolled through the American League Championship Series against the Red Sox. They were a complete team, featuring good defense, the big bats of Dave Henderson, Don Baylor, Mark McGwire and Jose Conseco, excellent starting pitchers Dave Stewart, and Bob Welsh, an untouchable 45 save closer, Dennis Eckersley, and were led by one of the best minds in baseball, Tony LaRussa.

The Dodgers by contrast were overachievers that year. A team built around pitching and speed, they scored 160 fewer runs then the A's in 1988. The highlight of their season was the overall performance of Cy Young Award winning starter Orel Hershiser (23-8, 2.26 ERA) who at one point in the season, pitched 59 consecutive scoreless innings. Their one offensive threat was Kirk Gibson whose impressive batting stats were enhanced by the fact that most of his hits seemed to come in the clutch. His performance that year earned him the National League MVP award.

Unfortunately, the aging Gibson was hurt. In seventh and deciding game of the National League Championship Series, where Hershiser shut out the Mets, Gibson who was already suffering from a pulled hamstring, sprained ligaments in his knee. His status was doubtful for the World Series. He wasn't even introduced to the home town crowd before Game One of the Series, Most folks felt they should just give the trophy to the A's.

It didn't seem any better after Jose Conseco hit a grand slam off LA starter Tim Belcher in the second inning of Game One. The Dodgers did manage to score three runs off Dave Stewart and their pitching kept the powerful A's at bay into the ninth.

But the Dodgers could only look forward to facing the most dominant closer of the year in the bottom of the ninth. In addition to his 45 saves, Dennis Eckersley had a phenomenal 70/11 strikeout to walk ration in 72 innings pitched. Meanwhile, Kirk Gibson sat in the Dodger clubhouse watching the game on TV. He listened as play by play man Vin Scully said: “Kirk Gibson, spearhead of the Dodger offense, will not see any action tonight for sure.” As if on cue, Gibson got up and started hitting baseballs off a tee. He told the batboy to go and tell his manager, Tommy Lasorda that he'd be ready in case he needed him.

Out on the field, Eckersley did what he always did that year, got batters out. There would be no point in bringing Gibson into the game unless there was a chance to win it, he'd only be good for one at bat and in his condition, he might not even survive that. Gibson sent the message to Lasorda that he would only come up to bat if somebody got on base, and now with two outs, that looked very unlikely. The Dodgers' last hopes rested with outfielder Mike Davis who Lasrorda put in to pinch hit for shortstop Alfredo Griffin. At bat, Davis started playing mind games with Eckersley; after every pitch he'd step out of the batter's box and take a few practice swings. Given the pitcher's impeccable control, this seemed pointless, but it began to pay off. Davis' antics threw the reliever's timing off and Eckersley got behind in the count. Before you knew it, Davis was on first base, the beneficiary of only the 12th Eckersley walk of the season. The crowd began to rumble. Lasorda pulled Dave Anderson from the on deck circle without someone to replace him. There was an awkward moment with no one ready to bat for the Dodgers. “You've gotta have a batter Tommy” said the home plate umpire. There was no batter visible because Kurt Gibson was in the tunnel limping from the clubhouse to the dugout. When he finally emerged and hobbled to home plate, the home town crowd went wild.

Despite the heroics, Gibson looked terrible. He quickly fell behind the count 0-2; Eck knew Gibson's condition and figured he'd just blow fastballs by the ailing slugger who'd never be able to catch up to them. He was right.

Now 0-2 is a pitcher's count and Eck thought he'd waste a pitch, placing the ball just outside the strike zone hoping that Gibson might chase a pitch that he couldn't possibly hit in his condition. Gibson did bite, he hit a squibber down the first base line. He hobbled toward first as fast as his ailing legs could carry him. Fortunately the ball eventually rolled foul. With new life, Gibson took the next pitch which was exactly in the same place. The ump called ball one. After that, Gibson managed to work the count to 3-2. Like Mike Davis before him, Gibson called time and stepped out of the batter's box. When he took his place back in the box,, He put all his weight on the front leg, the opposite of what every batter is taught. He was looking for the backdoor slider which cuts into the plate from the outside on a left handed hitter. Eck's 3-2 pitch was just what Gibson expected, a slider in at the knees.




It was the perfect pitch, for Gibson. He had no legs but plenty of upper body left which he put to good use. His swing was all hips and arms, actually one arm as his trailing left hand let go of the bat midway through the swing. It was the ugliest swing imaginable but it got the job done. The ball cleared the right field fence and on TV, Vin Scully let the crowd reaction do the talking as Gibson gingerly circled the bases while pumping his fists. When Gibson finally touched home after what seemed an eternity, the first words out of the Hall of Fame Broadcaster's mouth were: “In a year that has been so improbable the impossible has happened.”

It would be Kurt Gibson's last at bat that World Series. What makes our story even more improbable is that without him, the Dodgers went on to beat the A's four games to one.

Writing a generation earlier about the same team but in a different city and an entirely different outcome for them, the baseball writer Red Smith wrote this:

The art of fiction is dead, reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressively fantastic, can ever be plausible again.

In other words, you just can't make this stuff up. But our story doesn't have an entirely happy ending. You see, I was rooting for the A's.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

There Used to Be Two Ballparks Here

Aerial photograph of Shibe Park, bottom and Baker Bowl, upper right,
Philadelphia, September, 1929.
Photograph by George D. McDowell
I love this photograph. It shows not one, but two Major League ballparks at the time concurrently in use in the North Philadelphia neighborhood of Swampoodle. For some reason I don't think they call it that any more. Anyway, it may be surprising, but this isn't the only such photograph,

Yankee Stadium was built in the Bronx, just across the Harlem River from the Polo Grounds, home of the Giants and later the Mets. Those two parks co-existed less than a half mile apart as the crow flies, until Shea Stadium was built in 1964, replacing the venerable old Manhattan ballpark.

In St. Louis, on the corner of Grand and Dodier which has seen baseball played continuously for longer than any spot on the planet, stood the ancestral home of the St. Louis Cardinals known as Sportsman's Park. That original park became run-down and in 1893, the team built a new facility Robinson Park,  a few blocks away. Then in 1902, the Milwaukee Brewers, one of the charter members of the then fledgling American League, moved to St. Louis and took over the Cardinal's original name, the Browns, and their former ballpark. The two St. Louis teams played in ballparks a couple blocks away from each other for twenty years until the Cardinals moved back to Sportsman's Park which was re-built in 1909 as a permanent steel and concrete structure as was the new trend at the time. 

That trend began in Philadelphia.

Shibe Park, also built in 1909, would become the home of the American League Philadelphia Athletics. It  usually gets credit for being the first Major League ballpark to have been built of steel, brick and concrete. But actually its neighbor five blocks to the east, National League Park, later more famously known as Baker Bowl, the one time home of the Phillies, is the true holder of that distinction.

Baker Bowl was built in 1895 on the same spot as its predecessor which was destroyed by fire. That was the ultimate fate of most ballparks to date as their wooden grandstands would ignite at the slightest provocation, often resulting in catastrophe. An 1894 fire that began during a game at the South End Grounds in Boston, probably originating from a carelessly discarded cigar, not only destroyed what was perhaps the most ornate ballpark ever built, but twelve acres of the residential neighborhood surrounding it!

Baker Bowl not only has the distinction of being the first "fireproof" ballpark to take advantage of new construction techniques and materials, it also was the first to feature a cantilevered upper deck grandstand.

Despite its technical innovations, Baker Bowl was one of the most idiosyncratic ballparks in the big leagues. The playing field was never level, due to a railway tunnel which ran underneath. The acute rectangular site the park was built upon resulted in odd dimensions. The foul lines ran nearly parallel to the stands resulting in enormous foul territories. That boon to pitchers was mitigated by the tight right field which measured only 280 feet from home plate. To prevent ridiculously cheap home runs, a sixty foot high wall was constructed to keep balls that would be easy outs in other venues, from landing on Broad Street. That wall which measured thirty feet higher than the beloved Green Monster of Boston's Fenway Park, provided the park's most memorable feature, a giant advertisement for Lifebuoy Soap. The copy on one of the iterations of the sign read: "Safe from B.O., The Phillies use it!" That provided the running joke for the decades of the sign's existence, uttered by the notoriously hostile Philadelphia fans: "The Phillies may use Lifebuoy but they still stink!"
   
Baker Bowl, I'm guessing in the early twenties. This photograph illustrates the seamless relationship between the ballpark and its surrounding urban environment, a common feature of ballparks of the day. The building in deep center field was actually part of the ballpark and served as the clubhouse for both teams. Note the figure in the foreground with the megaphone, the ballpark's PA announcer.
                 
Innovations of Baker Bowl notwithstanding, Shibe Park rightfully deserves the distinction of being called the paradigm of the classic Major League ballpark, all of them built within a little over a decade. Of those, only two exist today, Fenway Park and Chicago's Wrigley Field. You can tell from the photographs that Shibe Park wasn't just a set of stands quickly thrown up to seat paying fans surrounding a ball field, it was a serious work of architecture. I love the aerial photograph because it shows how the ballparks of a century ago were built to fit into their urban surroundings. Perhaps there is no better example as these two ballparks take advantage of every inch of their sites as determined by the pattern of the city streets. 

Shibe Park blended in with its surroundings so well that for its first decade or so, from a streetwise view walking up Lehigh Avenue, the street running up and down in the photograph, one would have been hard pressed to know exactly the function of the building. Architectural critic Paul Goldberger calls Shibe Park:
...the first true palace of baseball...the most fully realized architectural statement baseball would make in the first decade of the twentieth century. 
In his book Ballpark: Baseball in the American City, Goldberger continues:
...more than any ballpark before it, (Shibe Park is) a statement about the role of the ballpark as a civic building, as a public gathering place, and as a civic institution worthy to take its place beside museums, courthouses and concert halls. 

Shibe Park shortly around the time of its opening in 1909. For its first few years,
its most distinctive feature, the cupola was visible from the playing field.
That would change after the grandstands were substantially expanded in the twenties..

From the inside, like its smaller neighbor five blocks to the east, the most distinctive feature of Shibe Park, not yet built when the aerial photograph was made, was its right field wall. However it wasn't the distance of 324' down the right field line that necessitated the construction of a massive wall, it was the neighbors. Just as Wrigley Field, from their homes, Shibe Park's neighbors on 20th Street had a perfect view of the ballpark. Originally this was only a slight irritation to the ball club, especially after the neighbors constructed grandstands on their roofs, (sound familiar?) and charged folks half the price as the ballpark to see a game. But in the twenties the Athletics were perennial challengers with the  mighty Yankees for the American League pennant. In fact shortly after the aerial  photograph was made, Shibe Park hosted the World Series where the Athletics beat the Cubs in five games. The ballpark was selling out anyway so what difference did it make that the neighbors were reaping benefits? That all began to change in the following years as the A's began slipping in the standings. More significantly, the Great Depression meant fewer people were coming out to the ballpark. To make matters worse, the "rooftop owners" were actively soliciting fans in line to buy tickets at the box office, attracting them with their half price seats.That was the last straw and in the winter between the '34 and '35 seasons, the owners of the team, the Shibe family along with the most famous name in Athletics history, Cornelius McGillicuddy. better known as Connie Mack, constructed a thirty foot wall to block the view of the neighbors.

It would become known as the "Spite Wall" and its construction all but destroyed the team's relationship with the community, which never healed. Making matters worse, Connie Mack who also managed the team, (he was the last person to manage a team from the dugout wearing street clothes), shortsightedly traded or sold off all his star players.

Meanwhile Baker Bowl which had never been properly maintained, was slipping year after year into decrepitude. Borrowing a page from the Cardinals who began sharing Sporstman's Park with the Browns in the twenties, the Phillies abandoned their old home in 1938 in favor of renting the ballpark owned by their cross-town, or more accurately, down-the-street rivals the A's.

With a few exceptions, as Connie Mack grew older and less with it, the Athletics languished in the second division of the American League until 1954 when they pulled up stakes and headed west to Kansas City. They did a lot  more languishing there until finally finding success in Oakland in the seventies. 

Ironically, the year the Athletics moved to KC and Mack was effectively pushed out of the business, Shibe Park was renamed Connie Mack Stadium. Old man McGillicuddy continued to hold court in his opulent office in the cupola of the ballpark at the corner of Lehigh and 21st that now bore his name, until he passed away in 1956, aged 94. The Phillies would continue to play at Connie Mack Stadium which itself was showing its age, until they played the final game there on October 1,1970. Like so many of their fellow MLB teams, the Phillies abandoned their beautiful, classic ballpark for a nondescript, doughnut-shaped multi-purpose stadium which itself would become obsolete in not all that many years.

That monstrosity known as Veterans Stadium was replaced by a new ballpark, Citizen's Bank Park that was, as was the trend at the time, built to resemble the look and feel of you guessed it, the classic ballparks of 100 years before.

.   

Saturday, May 2, 2020

The Iron Horse

Portrait of Lou Gehrig by Charles Conlon
On this day in baseball history:

May 2, 1939, Briggs Stadium, Detroit- The beginning of the end came a few days earlier after a routine ground ball. The first baseman struggled to get to the ball, then flipped it over to the pitcher Johnny Murphy covering first base. “Good play big guy”, Murphy said to his teammate. It occurred to Lou Gehrig that he was being patted on the back for making a play he used to be able to make in his sleep, but now was an effort. Gehrig had been declining for a few years, perhaps that case of lumbago he suffered back in 1934 was an early sign but no one knows for sure. His collapsing at spring training earlier that year was certainly an indication of what was to come.

But up until that day in Detroit when he told his manager Joe McCarthy that he was taking himself out of the lineup, Gehrig had played an astounding 2,130 consecutive games, earning him the nickname, The Iron Horse. In his prime, getting beaned by a pitch and rendered unconscious for five minutes didn't keep him out of the next game. Neither did that excruciating case of lumbago, nor the several fractures he sustained during his career, confirmed by the numbers of X-rays taken when the doctors were trying to find out what was wrong with him.

Everybody knows the rest of the story. The doctors at the Mayo Clinic discovered that Gehrig had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the disease of the central nervous system that would take his life two years later.

Lou Gehrig Day
Yankee Stadium
July 4, 1939
July 4, Yankee Stadium- Gehrig would not play another game after that day in Detroit but would remain on the bench for the rest of the season serving as the team captain. Independence Day would be “Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day” in New York. The ceremony took place between the games of a double header. Babe Ruth came back to his old digs to pay tribute to his friend. Mayor LaGuardia gave a speech, as did the Postmaster General. Gehrig gave his famous “Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth” speech and there was not a dry eye in the house.

Perhaps the most touching moment however came when Joe McCarthy holding back the tears, spoke directly to his stricken player and said:

...it was a sad day in the life of everyone who knew you when you came into my hotel room in Detroit and told me you were quitting as a ballplayer because you felt yourself a hindrance to the team. My God man you were never that.

On September 1st of that year, Hitler invaded Poland; two days later, France and Britain declared war on Germany and the world would never again be the same. Even though the War was still a couple years away for most Americans, winning the World Series that year by sweeping the Reds, must have seemed quite empty indeed to Yankee fans.




Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Ancient Wisdom

I might have mentioned that I've been studying Spanish for the past year, trying once and for all correct my lifelong shame of not being able to speak a language other than English fluently. Some may argue that I can't even do that but that's beside the point. 

One of my methods for learning the language is getting my hands on anything I can read that is at my reading level, around mid to upper intermediate. (Speaking is another story). Last week I googled "short stories in Spanish" and came across a site that contained classic short stories of the ages, the lion's share of which were a selection of Aesop's Fables. One of these ancient tales whose payoff is moral of the story, struck me as being relevant in our day.

The story was the "Goose that Laid the Golden Egg", except in the Spanish version, the ill fated bird was a gallina, a hen. In case you don't know the story, one day a farmer walks into his hen house (I'm telling the Spanish version of the story), and discovers that one of his hens has laid an egg of gold. Thinking this to be an anomaly, much to his surprise, the next day he returned to find another golden egg,  the third day, the same and on and on for a few more days. "Hmmm..." the farmer thinks, "I could go on and on collecting eggs every day and eventually I'll become rich, or I could just kill the hen now, retrieve all the gold inside of her, and be fabulously rich now!"

So that's what he did. And he found nothing inside the hen other than your basic run of the mill chicken guts.

That's the story in its entirety, you probably don't need the moral spelled out for you.

Naturally the story reminded me of Donald Trump.

You probably don't need to have that spelled out for you either. The fact is, Donald Trump is not all that hard to figure out. His kind has been portrayed in children's stories to great literature, theater, opera, film, you name it from time immemorial. After all what would be melodrama be without diabolical, self serving, one dimensional, greedy bastards?

I'm not talking about classic villains like the Grinch or Scrooge, both of whom turn out to be somewhat complex characters who get redeemed in the end. Donald Trump is not the least bit complicated. It's funny how people accuse him of dishonesty and yes it's true he does lie a lot, but nobody, not even his supporters take his lies seriously. They are so numerous, so obvious and blatant that it seems as if even he is in on the joke.

For example, last week in one of his press "briefings" he contemplated the effectiveness of ingesting toxic bleach and disinfectant to kill the COVID-19 virus. Naturally he was pilloried by all but his most devout sycophants, and even some of them raised their eyebrows. The next day when questioned about it, he said he was being "sarcastic." He then refused to take responsibility for the several people who had to be hospitalized for following his suggestion, not thinking he was being sarcastic at all.

Actually Donald Trump is not the least bit dishonest, at least about is himself and the fact that he is an unrepentant schmuck.

With him there is no subtlety, it doesn't take much time observing him to know he's up to no good. He's more of a cartoon villain like Snidely Whiplash from the Dudley Dooright series, the guy who's always tying the fair maiden to the railroad tracks. There is no remorse from or redemption for him. Nor is there for Old Man Potter from the film It's a Wonderful Life. His character is not quite believable because he does not have one shred of decency in him, well at least not as portrayed in the movie.

Then there's Baron Scarpia, the chief of Police in Rome in search of the escaped political prisoner Angeloti in Puccini's opera Tosca. In the first act, Angeloti seeks refuge and the help of his friend and sympathiser Mario Cavaradosi. When the two meet and Angeloti brings up Scapia's name, Cavaradossi responds:
Scarpia? Bigotto satiro che affinacolle devote pratiche la foialibertina e strumentoal lascivo talentofa il confessore e il boia!La vita mi costasse, vi salverò!  
Scarpia? That licentious bigot who exploits the use of religion as refinements for his libertine lust, and makes both the confessor and the hangman the servant of his wantonness! I'll save you, even should it cost my life! 
Now THAT'S melodrama. And not a bad description of Trump either.

There is nothing Shakespearian about Trump.

Consider the following, which US president said these words:
One of the most cherished goals of our democracy is to assure every American an equal opportunity to lead a full and productive life. 
In the last quarter century, we have made remarkable progress toward that goal, opening the doors to millions of our fellow countrymen who were seeking equal opportunities in education, jobs and voting. 
Now it is time that we move forward again in still another critical area: health care.
Without adequate health care, no one can make full use of his or her talents and opportunities. It is thus just as important that economic, racial and social barriers not stand in the way of good health care as it is to eliminate those barriers to a good education and a good job.
The same president accomplished the following:
  • Signed the first S.A.L.T. talks with the former Soviet Union, dramatically reducing the number of nuclear weapons
  • Dramatically increased salaries for federal employees
  • Implemented integration of public schools
  • Instituted “Wage and Price Controls” in an effort to slow down the rate of inflation (about as anti-Free Market a policy as there is)
  • Created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
  • Created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
  • Created the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
  • Passed the Clean Air and Water Act 
  • Expanded funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities
  • Appointed three Supreme Court Justices, all of whom voted in favor of Roe v. Wade, which was decided during his term.

That president was Richard Nixon.

Now there was a complex man. According to writer Nolan Dalla who describes Nixon as "perhaps the last great liberal president since FDR":
...behind his utter disregard for the U.S. Constitution...and the crimes which eventually became known as the Watergate scandal, (Nixon) was a highly-accomplished man of tremendous intellect and great potential.
Nixon and his fall were truly Shakespeareian.

Here's a Slate post about another severely flawed president, Bill Clinton.

The author, Jacob Weisberg contends that Clinton's character can't exactly be found in the pages of Shakespeare:
He has Falstaff’s appetites for food and fornication (without his humor or ironic wisdom). He has Prince Hal’s political ambition and disloyalty to his old friends (without his heroism or rhetorical eloquence). But Shakespeare isn’t right for Bill Clinton, who even in collapse lacks the grandeur of the Bard’s tragic heroes and the absurdity of his comic ones.
According to Weisberg, Clinton meets his match in the work of Phillip Roth:
Alexander Portnoy, after he outgrows his autoerotic obsession, works for the liberal John Lindsay administration in New York City and does his best to demonstrate his concern for the poor and the oppressed. Meanwhile, however, he is shacked up with a girlfriend he calls the Monkey, who fulfills his sexual fantasies but leaves him living in fear of tabloid scandal. Like Clinton, Portnoy is highly intelligent, mother-obsessed, and pretty much out of control. Another similarity: Portnoy flees to Israel when faced with crisis. Drawbacks: Portnoy is more of a neurotic and less of a liar.
Nixon and Clinton were flawed men who left mixed legacies, but even in their failures, they were still figures of great substance, men worthy of lofty, if not altogether flattering literary comparisons.

Trump on the other hand will leave no mixed legacy, that much I know. Storytellers going all the way back to Aesop's time and probably before have warned us about people like him.

His enduring legacy is that he will forever be remembered as the president who killed the chicken who laid the golden egg, nothing more, nothing less.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Dr. Ezike

Who is this Dr. Ezike we keep hearing over the radio and TV every day, standing alongside Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker and having the unenviable task of telling the good people of this state how many people have contracted the COVID-19 virus and how many we have lost in the past day?

Here's a brief bio that I came across on the web in of all places, the website of the Illinois Criminal Justice Authority:
Ngozi Ezike is acting director of the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH). Dr. Ezike is a board-certified internist and pediatrician who comes to IDPH from the Cook County Department of Public Health (CCDPH), where she served for more than 15 years. She also was medical director at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. Prior to joining CCDPH, Dr. Ezike served as Austin Health Center medical director where she actively engaged with the community on a variety of health initiatives. She also has delivered inpatient care at Stroger Hospital and primary and preventive care in community and school-based clinics. 
Dr. Ezike is a national policy advisor on juvenile correctional health topics. She received a medical degree from University of California at San Diego and a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Harvard University. Dr. Ezike also holds a management certificate from Harvard Business School and is an assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Rush University.
Impressive credentials indeed, clearly this is a person who should be listened to, and is exactly where we need her to be as the voice of authority and reason to the people of this state, offering in a very comforting voice, at least in my opinion, hope for the future, and above all, the facts.
And she does this in English and Spanish.  
Beyond this I know absolutely nothing about Dr. Ezike, there's no Wikipedia entry on her, at least not yet, nor any easily tracked profile about her from any of the local news outlets. This to me is a bit surprising as in our media saturated society, practically anyone who gets their 15 minutes of fame for any stupid reason gets their insignificant story and their mug plastered all over the web.
Yet Dr. Ezike has gotten at least five minutes of statewide coverage every day since the governor declared his shelter-in-place order to this state over one month ago. I'm not going to do the math, but she's gotten way more than her allotted 15 minutes.
My guess is that she's perfectly fine with that, simply doing what she she sees as her role as a public service with no other agenda, keeping us informed in as clear, calm, and compassionate manner as anyone on God's green earth could possibly do.
Nothing more, and nothing less. 
A grateful state thanks you so much Dr. Ezike.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

And Yet, Some Things Never Change

In my last post I commented on how the world changing in unimaginable ways since I last put fingers to the keyboard in this blog last month, made much of what I wrote utter nonsense. And yet...

I didn't get quite everything wrong in the last two posts of February, 2020.

For example in this post, I wrote about the importance of the African American vote. Lo and behold, Joe Biden who was all but left for dead when I wrote the post, won the South Carolina primary by a landslide against Bernie Sanders, largely thanks to the African American voters who turned out for him. In the same fashion, he won every other primary held in southern states as well as Michigan and Illinois. I also wrote that if African Americans turn out for the Democratic presidential candidate in the swing states of Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania anywhere close to the way they did for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, the Democrat will win the election.

Therefore the turnout in the African American community in the primaries must be positive news for the Democrats, except apparently Bernie Sanders supporters.

I wrote last month that many supporters of Bernie Sanders don't seem to be interested in voting for the Democratic candidate, if it is not Bernie Sanders. I said that does not bode well for the Democrats in November. Nearly a month later, with their candidate squarely against the ropes, little seems to have changed. I'm reading more Biden bashing from Bernie supporters than from Trump supporters.

The irony is that when Sanders was winning states and delegates early on in the Democratic primaries, both Sanders and his supporters demanded that the winner of the nomination be the candidate who ended up with the most primary votes, not the candidate hand picked by the Democratic National Committee. Now that Biden has a plurality of the vote, clearly a bona fide mandate, steadfast Bernieites are claiming there is still a conspiracy among Democrats which resulted in all the other serious candidates suspending their campaigns and throwing their support to Biden. But they fail to mention that even Sanders' most reliable base, young people, have all but abandoned him at the polls, even without the one candidate in the race who had a chance to siphon votes away from Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, who has not as yet offered an endorsement.

It's anybody's guess if the possible resurgence of the African American vote will offset the number of Bernie supporters taking their toys and going home by sitting out the election, but chances are they will because many Sanders' supporters did just that four years ago.

I'm adamant about this because the most important issue of our day by a long shot, the Coronavirus pandemic, has only emphasized the gross incompetence of the current president. Once again, given a golden opportunity to step up to the plate and prove his meddle as a leader, Donald Trump has struck out with two outs and the bases loaded.

Let me say at the outset, Trump is NOT responsible for the pandemic. That much is obvious. Less obvious is that he is not responsible for the current collapse of the stock market, although it would only seem fair that since he took so much credit for the good economy he inherited from his predecessor, he should take the blame for its downward swing under his watch. Don't hold your breath for that one folks.

But no, the pandemic is responsible for the current fall of the stock market, not Donald Trump.

That said, I do believe he hasn't helped at all either, and has probably exacerbated both.

First of all, two years ago his administration disbanded the National Security Council's entire global health security unit, the office set up by his predecessor after the Ebola outbreak. Had it been in place, it would have been an essential resource to coordinate government efforts in recognizing the problem early, and taking adequate measure to insure necessary items such as test kits medical masks and other personal protection equipment essential to keep the people on the front lines, health workers safe, would be readily available at a moment's notice. Well its turns out that we are behind the eight ball at the moment, as there is a critical shortage of all those items. Of course hindsight is always twenty-twenty and I'm sure there were valid arguments at the time to close or re-arrange duties in an office that may have become top-heavy. But when asked about the disbanding of the office at a press conference, Trump said that was a nasty question, and that he didn't even know the office had been disbanded. Naturally videos emerged from a couple years ago showing Trump announcing the closing of the office.

Much more serious is that evidence points to the fact that Trump understood the severity of the pandemic as early as January, yet he publicly denied that Coronavirus was any more serious than yearly strains of influenza, until two months later. One could argue that the president didn't want to cause panic among the American people. On the other hand as has become obvious, by not acting sooner, by not influencing the public to avoid large public gatherings from the outset, the virus has indeed gained a foothold in this country that it wouldn't have had we acted sooner.

Here is a timeline of Trump's public comments since the time the severity of virus became known to him:




Granted this is a biased video benefiting from the magic of selective editing. But these are all public comments, he said little or nothing else to claim that COVID-19 was more than just a walk in the park until very recently. You can also find clips of Fox News celebrities mirroring Trump's comments, calling the virus a hoax designed to undermine the president, until Trump finally admitted on March 11 that yes folks, we have a problem here. Not until Trump's address to the nation from the Oval Office that day did his official propaganda wing at Fox change their tune.

This Friday I witnessed two events that clearly demonstrate the difference between real leadership, and the clown show the administration in Washington has always been. At Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker's announcement  that his state was to enforce a stay-at-home policy, one of the speakers at that press conference was the chief epidemiologist at the University of Chicago, Dr. Emily Landon, As the Governor and the Mayor of Chicago stood at a respectable distance and listened attentively. Dr. Landon gave a blunt, impassioned, and brilliant address about what we could be in for if we don't act now. She relayed an anecdote from the 1918 influenza pandemic which killed millions around the world. It turns out that while the city of St. Louis enacted a stay-in-place order to stem the spread of the deadly virus, the city of Philadelphia hosted a large parade to send off soldiers headed off to WWI. One week later, Philadelphia hospitals were overrun and thousands died, far more than in St. Louis.

As we are seeing today in New Orleans who allowed their celebration of Mardi Gras to take place a couple weeks ago, that city is now seeing a greater increase of new cases of COVID-19 than other cities around the country.

On the same afternoon as Governor Pritzker's draconian announcement that he was forced to choose between "people's lives and their livelihoods". the president of the United States held a similar conference at the White House. At the dais, going against all pleas for social distancing, was a slew of people huddled together as if they were in a rugby scrum. The president, still trying to paint a pretty picture of a pandemic, touted his enthusiasm about an anti-malaria drug that might have positive results against the "Chinese virus" as he referred to it. He was challenged by an NBC reporter who asked if his over-optimism about the drug was doing a disservice to the American people who deserve to know facts, not just the president's hunches. (my words not his). "I'm a smart guy, I feel good about it" was the president's response. After a back and forth between the reporter and the president, the reporter asked, "with nearly 200 dead and 14,000 sick, what do you say to the American people watching you right now who are scared?" The president's response was: "I'd say that you are a terrible reporter. I think it's a nasty question and a very bad signal that you're putting out to the American people." He accused the reporter of "sensationalism" and then went on a brief tirade about the news organizations of NBC and COMCAST.

Now to be fair, watching the unedited version of the exchange instead of just the soundbites that made their way across all platforms, the reporter was goading the president on for several minutes before the outburst. That said, annoying as the reporter may have been to him, there is no room for childish outbursts from the supposed leader of the free world in response to a pandemic. To add insult to injury, one of the reporters asked if Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who was standing behind Trump at the press conference would comment on the drug. Politely, trying to speak the truth yet not wanting to directly contradict the president, Dr. Fauci said that while not discounting the possibility that this vaccine may prove helpful, any evidence to that effect was purely anecdotal, that testing was still underway, and that a "cure" as the president claims is still several months if not a year away. Incidentally since that day, Dr. Fauci has not been heard from at one of Trump's daily press briefings.

Today, two days later, the president still doesn't get it, or simply doesn't care. Despite unanimous consensus from scientists and health care professionals all over the world who assure us that the pandemic will get much worse before it gets better, and that the only way to reduce the amount of carnage, is for all of us to avoid social contact and stay home for two or three months at the very least, today the president told his nation that he expects that everyone will be back at work in two weeks.

Meanwhile his premature announcement about the anti-malaria drug, chloroquine , has caused a massive run on the medication, causing shortages and an astronomical increase in price, leaving people who take it for other illnesses, such as lupus, left without a medication they depend upon. Others have died taking the drug (which has serious side effects) without a doctor's supervision, assuming it would cure them of COVID-19.

For three years, Donald Trump's malfeasance, gross negligence and incompetence have done a great deal of harm to our country, to its credibility its democratic institutions, and perhaps most significantly, to its unity. Up until two months ago, most reasonable Americans could breathe a sigh of relief that at the very least he was not at the helm during a real crisis. Well he his now and people are dying because of his initial inaction, his indifference to the severity of the situation, and his insistence on lying to cover up the true nature of the pandemic.

The sad thing is that during times of crisis, the people turn to a president to provide leadership, comfort, and above all, the truth. During such times, a president's approval rating usually goes through the roof. Not so with Donald Trump. A good sixty percent of Americans believe he is not to be believed or trusted. The good news is those sixty percent at least, will not be taking anything this president says seriously, and despite his rants about how "the cure can't be worse than the disease", will work to protect themselves and the rest of us. The ones who do take him seriously well all I can say to them is, good luck to you, just don't go anywhere close to me or my loved ones.

God willing Trump will not be president come next January, but since we're stuck with him at least until then, the least he can do is provide some useful information to the people of this country to help get us through this crisis.

Short of that, maybe he could just shut the fuck up and let the adults in the room do the talking.   

Sunday, March 22, 2020

The Difference a Few Weeks Make

Never in all my years on this planet, have I experienced such drastic change as we have in the past month. I look back at the time when I wrote my two last posts, just about three weeks ago, with a certain blissful nostalgia. Yet how could I have been so wrong and naive?

The wrong part came in the first post where I wrote that the president's "perfect phone call" with Vladimir Zelensky, while leading to his impeachment, also...
...all but killed Joe Biden's life-long dream of being the principal occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Thank goodness I added the "all but" because as of today. Biden is the presumptive nominee of the Democratic party in the upcoming election. What I didn't see coming was the effect Biden's landslide victory over Bernie Sanders in the South Carolina primary would have in subsequent states. Up to that point, the primaries had been held in non-diverse states with largely white populations, with the exception of Nevada which has a significant Latinx presence. Sanders won all but one of those states with Biden coming in a distant third or fourth. It appeared that Sanders' momentum could very well carry him on to becoming the party's standard bearer, with the only real challenges coming from Pete Butigieg or possibly Mike Bloomberg. It seemed as if the only person in the world who believed Biden had a chance was Biden himself, who alone understood the critical importance of the African American vote, which carried him over the top in South Carolina, all of the southern states that have held primaries, and Illinois and Michigan. Sanders won the biggest state of them all, California, but as of this moment, it's Biden's contest to lose.

However as we've seen in the past month, who knows what the future brings?

Needless to say, the election is peanuts compared to the global crisis of COVID-19 and Coronavirus .

In my final post of last month, while I recognized the seriousness of the virus, I was still in denial about the impact it would have on the world. After all, we've been through countless epidemics,  SARS in 2003, H1N1 in 2009, and Ebola from 2014 to 2016, just to name a few. Yes thousands of people perished all over the world from those deadly viruses, but those of us who didn't, the vast majority of people on the planet, got through those crisis without experiencing much disruption of our lives.

Previously I thought about what we are about to face over the next several months as a being terrible inconvenience. I became irritated when I heard folks likening this experience to the Depression and WWII. That is until I heard my elders, people who actually lived though the Great Depression and the great war, make that very comparison.

The truth is, none of us knows what this virus may bring nor how many of our loved ones, or even ourselves will survive. Our very survival depends on tremendous sacrifice from all of us, giving up many of the things that back in those wonderful days of the first two months of 2020, we took for granted.

The Governor of Illinois, J.B. Pritzker, declared that his state, the state in which I live, will be on shut down until further notice. Only people whose jobs are deemed essential to maintain health, safety, and provide the basic necessities for living, will be allowed to go to work. People have been instructed in no uncertain terms that with only very limited exceptions, we are to stay at home . He told the people of his state that he was in the very unenviable position of having to choose between "people's lives, and people's livelihoods."

It was an ominous message, but one that needed to be heard, and a truly courageous move on his part.

Many people will die as a result of this virus. Those of us who survive will suffer hardships, some of them terrible. While (the collective) we will certainly survive this in the long run, our immediate future is very cloudy indeed.

The American Vice President made a particularly un-helpful comment the other day. He said that during this time of crisis we should all spend more time on our knees rather than on social media. Including the inevitable vulgar responses that comment will inspire, the truth is that while prayer may be a comfort to many, we need social media now more than ever. As we're holed up in our homes trying our best to not kill our immediate loved ones, (don't lie, you all know that thought will cross all your head sometime in the coming weeks and months), social media will enable us to reach out to our loved ones afar, our friends, colleagues, acquaintances and perfect strangers all over the world, all of whom will let us know we're not alone in our time of trial.

Despite the cliche, we're all in this together, and seeing folks in at least five continents outside of our own experiencing what we are, that is fighting a common enemy, may, just may help to in the long run help make the world a smaller place and bring us all a little closer together.

One can only hope in silver linings.

Much love from Chicago. Stay safe and well.

Friday, February 28, 2020

The More Things Change...

Coronavirus which is dominating the news cycle at the moment is a big deal. I've been poo pooing it for a few weeks now but have been informed in no uncertain terms that's wrong. There's nothing funny about the nearly 3,000 people who have died so far at this writing and the eighty plus thousand individuals around the world we know of who have contracted the disease. That's a lot of people, true a small percentage of all the people in the world, but that percentage surely will go up as so far there are no vaccines to stem the spread of the disease. By all indications it is a tremendously infectious virus whose end is nowhere in sight.

So by all means take every reasonable precaution. As a public service, here is a link to the site of the World Health Organization with some tips on what to do and also what not to help keep yourself and others safe.

Listening to the radio this morning I heard an epidemiologist with some dire warnings sharing much of the same advice you'll find on the WHO website. But he added another important bit of advice.

Don't panic.

It would appear that lots of people are not heeding that advice and are letting fear and ignorance get in the way of rational decision making. A while ago before the outbreak of the disease was made public, I saw a brilliant cartoon that describes much of the current state of the world. In the cartoon, a laboratory beaker with a substance labeled as "ignorance" is heated by a burner labeled as "fear". The resulting condensation of the vapor collected in an adjacent test tube was labelled "hate".

A couple days ago in my own city of Chicago, there was a group of good people who put together a public outing to patronize the restaurants of this city's Chinatown, as despite there not being one report of an infection here, those business saw a dramatic drop in business since news of the outbreak which began in China reached these shores.

I reiterate, Coronavirus is nothing to, pardon the pun, sneeze at. But that reaction in Chicago and elsewhere harkens back to a story my mother was told by the nuns when she was a child in Catholic school in the early forties. The story went something like this:

There was a high school couple who were ice skating on the frozen lagoon in Humboldt Park in Chicago, back in the day before climate change made that impossible. The girl fell on the ice and cut her lip. The boy used his handkerchief to help stop the bleeding. Shortly thereafter the girl contracted syphilis. As these were two good Catholic kids, they certainly could not have been up to any monkey business right? Certainly not. Fortunately for the reputation of the two, it turns out that the handkerchief had recently been laundered at a local Chinese laundry, most certainly the source of the dreaded disease which at the time, was still a few years away from a cure.

Mystery solved.

As absurd as that story is, it left an indelible mark on my mother and her classmates about Chinese people. Remember this was the time when we were sending American citizens of a particular ethnicity to concentration camps because we were at war with their ancestral relatives. And for no reason other than physical resemblance, some Americans had to assure their fellow countrymen that they were of Chinese ancestry not Japanese.

German Americans whose ancestral relatives were also at war us, and folks who merely resembled them did not have the same unfortunate experience.

Clearly there is a long history of bigotry in this nation and recent events have shown that not much has changed.

Now you might say I'm over-reaching, as the two stories are completely un-related. Coronavirus is highly contagious, transmitted through moisture droplets suspended in the air. In other words, you can get it through very casual contact with people while syphilis is only transmitted sexually. Coronavirus originated in China and that is where the majority of its victims live. You might say it only makes sense that limiting one's exposure to Chinese people is simply a matter of sensible risk management.

Fair enough.

But let me add that as of this writing, the country with the third highest total of Coronavirus infections is Italy.

I wonder if pizza restaurants are taking a hit.


Thursday, February 27, 2020

The Milwaukee Way

The most memorable scene from an otherwise forgettable movie was shot inside of one of Chicago's most spectacular interiors, the sanctuary of Our Lady of Sorrows Basilica on the West Side. The sacred space provides a brilliant contrast to the conversation that takes place. It's from Brian DePalma's 1987 The Untochables, and features Sean Connery as grizzled Chicago police officer Jim Malone, explaining to a still green FBI agent Elliot Ness, played by Kevin Costiner how things work in this city:.




"You wanna get Capone..." Malone says, "...here's how you get 'em. He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue.

"That's, the Chicago Way."

I'm reminded of this by last week's train wreck of a debate in Nevada between six of the hopeful nominees for the Democratic candidate for president. With the exception of about 60 million Americans, the majority of people in this country would prefer to see another person taking the oath of office on the steps of the Capitol Building come January 20th of next year. Despite that, it's looking increasingly clear that's not going to happen.

And if things turn out as I fear, the Democrats, and everyone else who would like to see a change in the White House will have nobody to blame but themselves. Perhaps we should ask ourselves, like Mallone asks of Ness, "what are we willing to do to win this election?" It appears at least at this moment, not enough.

The real problem I fear is that the Democrats are doing everything in their power to lose the election, just as they did four years ago. For starters, there are the supporters of Bernie Sanders. As you may recall, in 2016 the current leader in the race for nomination lost the nomination to Hillary Clinton. So incensed by their man losing the nomination, many of his supporters chose to rather than vote for Clinton, sit out the election, or vote for a third party candidate. One might think that everyone would have learned the lesson that enough of them doing just that won the election for the current president. One would think wrong, I'm hearing much of the same uncompromising rhetoric from the Sanders camp that I heard during the last election. I'm convinced that a very significant number of Sanders supporters have no intention of voting for the Democratic candidate if it is anyone but Bernie.

Then there's the candidate himself. One of his rivals for the nomination, former NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg said that win or lose the nomination, he will contribute a large portion of his fortune to the Democratic candidate in order to defeat the current president. Bernie Sanders has made it clear that if offered to him, he will turn down that money.

Well isn't that special.

If Sanders does win the nomination, his Republican opponent will have no such qualms about where his money is coming from. The sad fact is that money, and lots of it, is essential in winning an election in this country. The Supreme Court in its highly controversial 2010 ruling Citizen's United vs. FEC has guaranteed that.

Bloomberg who had not until last week participated in any debates and still has not run in any primary, has saturated social media and the air waves with commercials and memes promoting himself as the only candidate who can defeat the president. In the process he has already spent a fortune and his incredibly deep pockets as the eighth richest man in the world ensure he will have plenty more in reserve. Without having done the hard, nose to the grindstone work that his current rivals have, Bloomberg has still succeeded in developing a significant growing base of supporters. If Bloomberg is sincere about his pledge to donate money to the Democratic candidate win or lose, Sanders would be a fool to turn that offer down because if he is the nominee, he'll need all the help he can get.

I'll go on record here and say of the six people who stood upon that stage in Las Vegas last week, Bernie Sanders probably has the least chance of beating Donald Trump. "But look at the polls..." his supports insist, "... most of them have Sanders beating the president." Again we apparently haven't learned much of a lesson. Four years ago, by looking at the polls, the idea of Donald Trump being elected president was unimaginable.

There's good reason why this president has been relatively and uncharacteristically silent on the subject of Bernie Sanders. There's also a good reason why the man who probably knows this country, its politics, our habits and our foibles more than anyone else, Vladimir Putin, has chosen to root for Sanders to run against Trump.

The fact is that Sanders is the president's (and Putin's) dream opponent in the upcoming election, as Trump will have a field day if the 78 year old senior senator from Vermont gets the nod from the Democrats. Yes there will be all the rhetoric about Socialism and Communism, but never mind all that. What will really sink Sanders in the general election is his real if not well advertised plan to significantly raise taxes on the middle class and of course the rich. His justification is that the savings from his proposed one payer, universal health care and free college tuition plans will more than make up for the money lost to income tax. Well it might for some people but there are an awful lot of folks in this country who are satisfied with their current health insurance plans from work and/or don't have college age children. It's going to be a hard sell to convince all but the most altruistic of these people to vote for a candidate who promises to significantly raise their taxes while offering them little or nothing in return. Like it or not, self-interest plays a more significant role in determining whom to support in a presidential election than altruism.

Should Bernie win the nomination, you can count on the Republicans running ads featuring the likes of Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Nicholas Maduro, and scores of other Communist leaders past and present chanting slogans like "Death to Capitalism", "Death to Free Enterprise", and "Death to America", inter-cut between clips of Bernie advocating for Socialism, for the "Redistribution of Wealth" in this country, and having nice things to say about Fidel Castro. And for good measure, the ads will remind voters that Sanders plans to raise the income tax rate to ninety percent for every man, woman and child in the country.

It will all be bullshit of course, but very effective. Like a spectator hollering "He's Guilty!!" in the middle of a criminal trial, no matter how much a judge instructs the jury to disregard the comment, the damage will have been done. Those ads will piss off and scare the bejesus out of a great deal of folks who would otherwise vote for anyone but Trump.

I said above that Sanders is perhaps the least likely candidate of the six (I'm not counting Tulsi Gabbard and Tom Steyer who are technically still in the race but are extreme longshots) who could win in November. But frankly as things stand now, I don't see much hope in any of them bringing enough people together to beat Trump. I bemoaned that to a friend who works as a political strategist for the Democratic Party. Yes he told me, trying to find a silver lining, but that is only an indication of how diverse the Democrats are as a party. I suppose he's right, so long as by November 3rd, that diverse crowd is able to come together and at least during that one day, come to an agreement as to whom should be our next president or at the very least, who should not.

On the other hand, I looked at the six candidates standing together on that stage in Vegas. Yes there was some diversity there, and the election of any of them would be precedent setting. Two are women, we've never had a woman president, two are Jewish, we've never had a Jewish president, one is openly gay and we've never had an openly gay president. If elected, Pete Buttigieg  also would be by five years, the youngest president elected. At the other end of the spectrum, four of the six if elected would be the oldest president ever elected to a first term, and two of those, Sanders and Bloomberg will have beaten that record by a whopping eight years!

Yet something is obviously missing from that group and herein lies the biggest missed opportunity, there no candidate of color. For a party that claims diversity to match the diversity of this nation, that is utmost unthinkable. Yes indeed the road to the presidency is a long and arduous one, and political parties no longer deem from on high, well at least not entirely, who gets to be their standard bearer.

But as it stands, it will be nearly impossible for a Democrat to win the upcoming presidential election without a great deal of support from people of color. That's not to say a white candidate cannot attract the support and bring out the vote of minority communities. Up until a few months ago. it looked as if Joe Biden would be the president's most formidable opponent based largely upon his support in the African American community.  Then came that "perfect phone call" and the subsequent impeachment that in an alternate universe would have doomed the president. Instead it only bolstered his support and all but killed Joe Biden's life-long dream of being the principal occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Formidable as the odds of Trump winning a second term are, he's not a shoe in, not yet. It's true that he did win the electoral college by a landslide against Hillary Clinton in 2016 (while losing the popular vote by three millions votes), but in reality, turning around a few key states by a relatively few number of votes could very well turn the election around. Those states, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, all have metropolitan centers with large minority populations. Black voters in cities such as Cleveland, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Milwaukee came out to vote for Barack Obama in both of his successful elections. Foolishly Hillary Clinton chose to overlook this essential demographic in 2016.

Here is a recent article from the New Yorker speculating on how the African American population in the city of Milwaukee could play a pivotal role in the upcoming election. Despite living in desperate poverty in what is considered to be one of the worst places in America to be black, the article suggests that the current situation puts that population in a place of considerable political power, if everyone plays their cards right that is.

We can complain until the cows come home that the Electoral College is an unfair, undemocratic institution that was invented to appease slave holders and has no place in contemporary politics. However as long as one party feels it benefits them, there is no chance it will be gone anytime soon.

As much as we'd like the political process to be above board and pure, it is anything but. How wonderful it would be to simply debate issues and select the candidate we feel best represents our values and ideals. But when the opposition will stop at nothing, and I mean NOTHING to gain an advantage, the other side has to modify its ways and focus on winning above anything else. That's the only way it will happen.

It would be impossible to out-cheat or to go lower than the Republicans have of late. But given the vagaries of the Electoral College, there is a razor thin difference between winning and losing if you look in the right places. That Trump base we've heard so much about is formidable because they vote, but it's also static. Trump and the Republicans have made no efforts to expand it. Likewise the Democrats have a strong base who will not be moved. Most of them including myself would vote for a roll of paper towels before they'd vote for Donald Trump. In reality, there are probably very few Americans who are on the fence in the November election, the difference is getting the vast majority of of them who do not support this president out to vote for the only viable alternative, the Democratic candidate. Whomever that may be HAS to appeal to as diverse a population as possible, and for God's sake, will not forget places like the north side of Milwaukee.

Will the Democratic Party and opponents of this administration heed that advice?

If they don't it's going to be a very long and dangerous four more years for anyone who cares about this country and our democratic republic.

Let's not screw it up this time.