Sunday, April 24, 2022

Inconvenient Facts

This is a continuation of my previous post, if you haven't read that yet, you can find it here if you like.

Or if you don't like, I'll sum it up for you.

That post was about a story centered around the American singer Pete Seeger that has been circulating around the web for a bit. The story has Seeger defying the authorities in Francisco Franco's Spain in the early seventies when they demanded he not sing a number of his songs at a concert planned for Barcelona in front of an audience of over 100,000. So he didn't sing any of those songs. Instead he invited the crowd to sing (as the authorities never mentioned anyone else singing them), while he accompanied them on his banjo.  

It would be a terrific story if only it were true. 

I so wanted it to be true that for a while I ignored my original doubts about its credibility, namely that Seeger, a long-time critic of the Franco regime, would have been allowed to perform in a massive venue during the regime in Spain in the first place. But those doubts got the better of me and I found out from reliable sources that could be backed up, that Seeger did perform in Spain during that period, only to much smaller crowds. And not in Barcelona where his performance there, planned for a small college, not a soccer stadium as the story claims, was shut down by the police. 

After the death of Franco and his totalitarian regime, Pete Seeger returned to Barcelona where he did perform in front of many tens of thousands of people. 

And it's very likely that he did at some point in his career, in defiance of some authority or other, invite his audience to sing his banned songs instead of him. 

So the story while itself not true, was woven together with bits of pieces of actual facts. 

Then I summed it all up by saying in the big picture, at this late date it hardly matters. No harm, no foul, the story only contributes to the legend of a remarkable man. 

I ended the post with this bit of a cliff hanger: "on the other hand..." 


Here is the other hand:

Our world is coming apart at the seams helped in great part by false narratives, misinformation, and outright lies. The cause of the criminal insurrection at the U.S. Capitol last year was the outright lie of a president who insisted without evidence, that an election was stolen from him. More devastating, Vladimir Putin has the support of much of the Russian people because of the lie he created surrounding his invasion of Ukraine. 

Much like the Pete Seeger story, Putin's lie weaves together disparate facts in order to create a false narrative. Here are some indisputable facts:

  • Ukraine was once part of Russia and later, the Soviet Union.
  • Ukraine has shown great interest in joining the European Union and NATO.
  • There are Russians living in Ukraine.
  • There are Nazis and Nazi sympathizers in Ukraine.
  • The United States supports Ukraine in its current struggle against Russia.

And here is Vladimir Putin's narrative based upon these facts which he is selling quite successfully it would seem, to the Russian people:
  • Ukraine is not a legitimate independent nation with a culture of its own, but a historic, integral part of Russia.
  • As a member of NATO, Ukraine, bordering Russia, would be a threat to the security that country.
  • The minority Russian population living in Ukraine is oppressed by the "so called" Ukrainians.
  • Ukraine is under the rule of Nazis.
  • Since The United States supports the government of Ukraine, it follows that the United States is supporting Nazism.

Therefore, Putin's war, (not "special military operation" as he insists on calling it), according to this reasoning, is not an unprovoked invasion of a sovereign nation, but a mission to first, give back to Russia what is rightfully theirs, second, to remove a direct threat to the national security of Russia, and third, to liberate the oppressed Russians living in Ukraine from U.S. backed Nazis. Depending upon whom Putin is talking to, not necessarily in that order.

If you buy into that argument, you might have a credible case for Russia's grievances, if not the war, and certainly not the barbaric actions of its soldiers that we've seen in the recent weeks. 

However the first two bullet points I listed of Putin's can only be called pure nonsense, I dealt with them in a previous post. And to the best of my knowledge, there is no credible evidence of point number three, that the Russian minority living in Ukraine is in any way oppressed.

Much of the world is scratching its head in incredulousness over point four. 

Volodymyr Zelensky the president of Ukraine is Jewish, therefore how can Ukraine be led be Nazis? 

While also not true, this is where it gets a little tricky.

My guess is that like my original skepticism over the Pete Seeger story, this paradox is not an obstacle so much as a rhetorical speed-bump in the minds of most Russian people. 

I don't think it's too much of a reach to say that if the average non-Jewish Russian today thinks about The Holocaust at all, he or she would put it in context of the Russians' own suffering. In other words, the number of Jews who died during the Holocaust, roughly six million people, is less than one quarter the number of Russians who died during World War II. One may argue that the Russian casualties are not quite the same as they were casualties of war and not the result of a deliberate act of genocide. This is a naive argument. Hitler had a "final solution" in mind for the Slavic people of Eastern Europe as well, he just never had the opportunity to carry it out. 

Small wonder the Russians call World War II, "The Great Patriotic War."

Given that, it should come as no surprise that the accusation of "Nazi", is particularly triggering to the Russian people, just as it is to the Jewish people.

Ukraine's relationship with the Nazis is more complicated. Ukraine which had been under the hegemony of various countries for centuries, became a part of the Soviet Union in 1922. In the thirties, a great famine, known as the Holodomor, spread through the Soviet Union, and Ukraine was hit particularly hard, losing up to five million people due to starvation. To this day there is not a consensus among historians as to whether that disaster was caused by a combination of bad weather and horrendous decision making in regards to food distribution by the higher ups in Moscow, OR a deliberate attempt by Joseph Stalin to eradicate the troublesome Ukrainians. If the latter is true, which it may very well be, then it would be counted as one of the gravest acts of genocide in history.

As some say: "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," so it's probably not surprising that when the Germans marched into Ukraine in 1941, they were met by many of the locals as liberators. 

This from a 1981 New York Times article on the German invasion of the Soviet Union:

Across the years, German soldiers recall those first weeks of the invasion as a halcyon time  ...when villagers in the Ukraine - an intensely nationalist, even separatist, region - came out with bread and salt in the traditional Slavic welcome.

It was on the outskirts of Kyiv days after its capture by the Germans in September of 1941, where one the most horrific single atrocities of the war, (that's really saying something), took place. It is known as the Babi Yar Massacre.

Shortly after the Germans took Kyiv, Soviet secret police bombed several buildings occupied by the Germans in the city. The Nazis used that act as a pretext to slaughter the Jews of Kyiv. The executions took place in a ravine just outside of the city, called Babi Yar. Nearly 34,000 Jews were shot and buried there over a period of two days. Once the Jews of Kyiv were gone, those killing fields continued to be put into service for the disposal of people with mental handicaps, the city's Roma population, Russian prisoners of war, and other human beings the Nazis declared undesirable. After the Russians retook Kyiv from the Nazis, they estimated the total number of people killed at Babi Yar to be 100,000. 

If you can stomach it, here is a detailed account of the massacre of Babi Yar.

To be sure, the massacre was the act of the Nazis, but its horrific efficiency could never have been accomplished without the cooperation of numerous Ukrainian collaborators. The same can be said unfortunately about similar atrocities that took place in other countries occupied by the Nazis.

The most inconvenient truth of all is that hardly any country in the world, including the United States, (who built its own concentration camps to deal with some of its citizens), has clean hands in regards to grievous abuses of human rights committed during those terrible times. 

Much of the three quarters of a century that followed World War II has been devoted to a reckoning of what was done and what was not done during that conflagration, and every nation involved in that struggle has had to come to terms with its own acts of commission, omission, or both. 

Along with the fervent chant of "never again" heard out of the mouths of the civilized world, the term "Nazi" has for good reason, come to symbolize the absolute worst the human race has to offer. 

Some people disagree.

In my life, there have always been Nazis and Nazi sympathizers in the United States. Until recently however, they were considered fringe groups and often the butt of jokes including this one, a clip from the 1980 movie The Blues Brothers

Consequently, most Americans of that particular mindset, kept it to themselves, lest they be the subject of derision and worse, ridicule.

But the last administration declared open season on the public display of hatred and racism, and since then a significant number of individuals came out of the woodwork to publicly proclaim their devotion to Adolph Hitler and his degenerate cause. Symbols of hate groups such as the Nazis and the KKK began to pop up regularly in the United States, and people were no longer laughing. 

The Ukrainians have not been laughing at neo-Nazis for much longer. The ultra-nationalist, populist right wing party Svoboda (Their official name in Ukrainian: Всеукраїнське об'єднання «Свобода») was founded in 1995, not long after the breakup of the Soviet Union. They are against immigration, free trade, globalism, and a slew of other issues close to the hearts right wing extremists across the globe. Recruitment of skin heads and their use of Nazi iconography early in the group's history led many to rationally surmise that the party was neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic to the core. Although of late there have been attempts to soften the group around the edges by kicking out avowed Nazis, Svoboda (which means "freedom" in most Slavic languages) still espouses extremist right wing-nationalist views.

As does the Azov Battalion which to this day does little to hide its ideology, including their official symbol which bears an unmistakable resemblance to that of the Waffen SS. The ultra-nationalist Azovs came to the forefront in 2014, the beginning of the current hostilities between Russia and Ukraine, fighting against Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine. The group has been financed in part by Ukrainian oligarchs, including some of Jewish descent. As quite the effective fighting force, the Azov brigade has been controversially integrated into the Ukrainian National Guard. 

Until Putin's most recent invasion, Svoboda, the Azov Battalion and other groups of a similar mindset, had been most conspicuous during the celebrations of the birthday of Stepan Bandera, one of the most controversial figures in Ukrainian history. Bandera was a staunch nationalist and leader of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), a terrorist group that collaborated with the Germans against the Soviets at the outset of the Nazi occupation of the USSR. In addition to being sympathetic to the German invasion as a means to liberate Ukraine from the Soviet Union, the OUN under Bandera's influence also shared the Nazis' views on the Jewish people as the prime instigators of Bolshevism, and were active participants in the persecution and murder of the Jews of Western Ukraine. 

The group hoped to set up a German-friendly, independent Ukrainian state with Bandera as its leader, something along the lines of the Vichy government of France. But the Germans had no interest in an independent Ukraine and when the OUN's usefulness waned after the Jews had been wiped out, they arrested Bandera, sending him for a brief time to a concentration camp, only to release him in 1944, hoping that by doing so they could again garner support from the Ukrainians as they were retreating from their massive defeat at the hands of the Soviets.

Bandera survived the War and settled in Munich where he continued his work against the Soviet regime including working for a time with British intelligence. He was assassinated by the Soviets in 1959.

In Ukraine, Bandera in some circles is celebrated as a great patriot and national hero, while in others, denounced as a fascist war criminal. The parades that celebrate his birthday where celebrants display their full regalia of Nazi inspired paraphernalia, have been condemned the world over, as well as by President Zelensky.

They also provide fodder for Putin and pro-Putin commentators, including those on the extreme American right, to prove the influence of Nazis in Ukraine.

Another inconvenient fact, while ultra-right-white supremacist groups represent the views of a small portion of the Ukrainian population, they are nonetheless on the front lines, currently fighting to save their country along-side their countrymen who find their views repugnant.

So why would President Zelensky condone the presence of these groups in positions of power in his country?

Well think of it this way, if your house was on fire, would you weed out firemen who arrive at your doorstep based upon their political ideology?

Putting it another way, virulent ultra-nationalists who are willing to kick ass and even die for their cause are kind of good to have around when your country is being ruthlessly attacked. Perhaps in the future when the war is over, everybody can get together and work out their differences, or not. But in Ukraine, there may be no such future. There is only the present.

If it weren't all so tragic, it would be laughable that Putin and people like his valuable American mouthpiece Tucker Carlson are denouncing neo-Nazis in Ukraine while Putin's army is currently committing acts of depravity against Ukrainian civilians that would make real Nazis quake in their boots.

But the tragedy of Putin's criminal war doesn't stop at the Russian-Ukrainian border. Look at this photograph:

Leonid Savin with his family. Photo provided to the New York Times by his brother.

Countless photos like this exist everywhere in the world, documenting a family sending one of their own into military service and an uncertain fate. As such these families are filled with pride that their loved one will be bravely serving their country, yet trepidation that they may never see him or her again. You can see all those emotions in the faces of Leonid Savin and his family in the picture. This particular family probably had less trepidation than most as their son and brother who was conscripted into service, was to serve on the biggest, baddest ship afloat in the Russian Navy, its flagship, the invincible missile cruiser Moscow, or if you prefer, Москва, (Moscva).

If you remember, the Moscow was involved in one of the first salvos of the war. On the first day of the invasion, February 24, the Moscow and a patrol boat attacked Ukrainian territory, tiny Snake Island on the Black Sea, population 30, protected by 13 border guards.

Russian sailors aboard the Moscow radioed the guards demanding they surrender in return for their safety. 


Again, from the Moscow in what sounds like a quite literal translation:
Snake Island, I, Russian warship, repeat offer: put down your arms and surrender, or you will be bombed. Have you understood me? Do you copy?
To which the response, in a more liberal translation was:
Russian warship, go fuck yourself!
True to their word the Moscow opened fire on the island. It was originally reported that the guards were all killed in the strike, but it has since been revealed that they survived the attack, (putting to rest more misinformation), captured, then later returned in a prisoner exchange. 

But the phrase, "Russian warship, go fuck yourself", has become the mantra and rallying cry for the Ukrainian people in their time of anguish.* Ukraine even issued a postage stamp with the image of the Moscow at sea in the background, while in the foreground, a solitary soldier gives the ship the one finger salute.

Another bit of joyous news to everyone who like me is on the side of Ukraine in this most stupid of wars: today, the mighty Moscow, pride of the Russian Navy, sits at the bottom of the Black Sea, most likely the victim of a Ukrainian missile attack. 

On the flip side, and there is always a flip side in war, Leonid Savin and an unknown number of his crewmates went down with that ill-fated ship.

The Kremlin reported that the entire crew of the Moscow successfully abandoned ship before it sank. But families of the crew, desperately awaiting news of the fate of their loved ones, were given conflicting information. According to the New York Times article I linked to above, in the case of Savin's family, a crewmate originally contacted Leonid's mother and told her that he saw her son perish as he was helping another crewmate escape the flames. The same crewmate later changed his story and said Leonid was caught in an explosion. A third communication came from the sailor who, said, never mind, no one knows what happened to Leonid, he's just missing. 

Like all pathological liars, Vladimir Putin instinctively lies, even when it is not necessary and does not serve his purposes. The official Kremlin explanation for the loss of the Moscow was that a fire aboard the ship ignited an ammunition magazine, setting off several explosions. They denied that the ship was hit by Ukrainian missiles, a vastly more likely scenario. Now I suppose admitting a successful enemy missile strike would expose a vulnerability in the Russian Navy's defense capabilities. But claiming the catastrophe was self-induced, exposes a much more serious vulnerability, gross incompetence and negligence on the part of their commanders, and a grave failure of the fundamental operational and architectural design of their fleet.

We've been told the reason why so many Russian people are behind this war is because they have been force-fed misinformation, false narratives, and outright lies coming out of the Kremlin, while having all news from outside sources blocked from them. The truth is there's no way of knowing how many Russians support the war or indeed if any of them do. Imagine living in a country where you can be sent to prison by simply suggesting that Mr. Putin's "special operation" is a war. Then you get a call out of the blue from a stranger who says he's "conducting a poll" on people's opinion of the situation in Ukraine. Need I say more?

The Russian people are nothing if not suspicious, skeptical and cynical by circumstance, and given that many Russians are publicly livid, demanding revenge on Ukraine for sinking their battleship, it's pretty clear they're not buying all of Putin's lies, just the ones they choose to believe.

Meanwhile the families of the crew of the Moscow are still looking for answers as are the families of the estimated 40,000, (40,000!) Russian service members who have been killed, injured, captured or are MIA in Putin's latest war. 

Every one of those casualties of course has a story to tell like Leonid Savin, who for his part didn't believe in this war and in his last letter to his family, expressed deep concern for the palm tree he planted in his family's garden before setting off on his final journey. 

Those soldiers, sailors and their families deserve a full account of what happened to them and why. Obviously, so too do the people of Ukraine whose country has been raped, pillaged and plundered by Russia under Putin. But Putin has neither the will, the balls, nor the decency to be accountable to his own people, not even to those whose loved ones gave up their lives in his name, let alone to the people of Ukraine. 

Which makes me grateful to live in a society where our leaders are held accountable for their actions, at the very least every four years at the ballot box. 

As Winston Churchill said: "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others." We may or may not be willing to fight and die for our democracy, but if we care about it, the least we can do is completely reject misinformation, false narratives and lies, even, check that, especially the ones that appeal to us, as they are the enemy of democracy.

Furthermore we must do our utmost to stick to reason, good judgement, critical thinking and especially facts, even if they happen to be inconvenient ones, as they are the mortal enemy of so called "strongman" dictators like Putin and all those who want to be like him.

Most likely, accountability for Vladimir Putin won't come until the day someone, perhaps he himself, puts a bullet through his head. 

Our system is better. 

Sorry to be so blunt. 

But goddamnit, Leonid Savin was only twenty years old, a year younger than my son whose face I see every time I look at that picture of the young sailor. 

So yeah, it's kind of personal.


* After publishing this I learned that the phrase "Russian Warship, go fuck yourself" has been adopted by Russians as well. I learned this from the latest episode of the NPR program "This American Life", created, produced and hosted by Ira Glass. You can listen to the episode here.  The portion in question is "Act Three: Alyona and Oleg" but I highly recommend listening to the whole episode.

Monday, April 18, 2022

What a Story

As a newspaperman of old once said:

When facts get in the way of a legend, print the legend.  

The other day I came across a story that filled my heart with joy. 

It centers around someone I admire greatly, the legendary American folk singer, songwriter and social activist, Pete Seeger.

First a little background:

In the early seventies, Spain was still under the totalitarian regime of Francisco Franco, the last of the cabal of European dictators that included Benito Mussolini and Adolph Hitler in the first half of the twentieth century. 

Franco and his party came to power after the devastating Spanish Civil War, whose struggle between republicanism and totalitarianism has been described in some circles as the "dress rehearsal" for the Second World War. 

Due to the devastation wrought by the Civil War, Spain played a secondary role in World War II and unlike their (ideological if not strict) allies Germany and Italy who lost the war and whose governments fell in line with those of the victors, Spain managed to isolate itself from its neighbors and Franco's repressive regime remained in power until the dictator's death in 1975. If you're a fan of the original Saturday Night Live broadcasts, here's some breaking news for you: Generalisimo Francisco Franco is still critically dead.

OK the story goes something like this:

By the seventies, there was a growing democracy movement in Spain and a group of anti-government activists asked Seeger, who was at the time, well known in Spain for his songs opposing war and oppression while promoting freedom, justice and equality, to come to their country.

Seeger was invited to perform at a soccer stadium in Barcelona which seated over 100,000. As he was preparing for the show, the authorities handed him a list of songs they told him he was prohibited to sing, He looked at the list and noticed it included virtually every song on his playlist. 

Unfazed, he took the stage, banjo in one hand, the list of banned songs in the other, and addressed the crowd. Showing them the list, he told the assembled that he had been informed he was not to sing a number of the songs he was planning to perform. 

"But...", he added with a sly grin on his face, "they never told me YOU can't sing them." So, he put his banjo strap over his shoulder and began to play the chords to songs like "If I Had a Hammer", "We Shall Overcome" and "Viva la Quince Brigada" (a song praising the efforts of the Spanish Republicans against the Franquistas during the Civil War), without opening his mouth, while the crowd who knew all the songs' lyrics from memory, sang their heart out.


I love this. It's the kind of story that makes you believe all will be well with the world, despite the obstacles we face. It especially rings true in our day, assuring us that the will of the people will ultimately prevail over the brutal forces of authority with the means and desire to quash it at their choosing.

The only problem with the story is that it never happened; it is as far as I can tell, fake news.

It does however, sound like something Pete Seeger would have done. He was after all, no stranger to taking up unpopular causes that often got him in trouble. 

As a teenager, Seeger was already involved with activism, joining the Young Communist League in 1936, (he later renounced Communism, at least the Soviet variety), and was a vocal supporter of the Republican cause in Spain. In 1940 along with the group The Almanac Singers, Seeger participated in the creation of the album, Songs of the Lincoln Brigade, named for the international group of volunteers who went to Spain to fight on the losing side of the Civil War, the Spanish Republic. 

In the fifties, he stood up to the United States House Committee on un-American Activities, telling them directly to their face that they had no right to ask American citizens to publicly declare their political ideology. For his efforts in support of the First Amendment, he was charged with contempt of Congress and sentenced to a year in prison. He was later acquitted of the charges. 

But like so many creative people of the day, Seeger was black-listed and much of his livelihood was taken from him.

For nearly 17 years he was banned from appearing on television. When he finally returned in 1967, around the tipping point of the Vietnam War, Seeger was invited to perform on the nationally televised Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, which itself was soon to be cancelled due to its controversial nature. On that program he performed a cynical anti-war song and thinly-veiled attack on President Johnson and his policies on the Vietnam War. The song was called Waist Deep in the Big Muddy. Too hot to handle for network TV, it didn't make it past the CBS censors. But Seeger was invited back a few months later, after the point had been tipped. This time it made the cut, and you can hear it here, capping off an anthology of folk songs dealing with war, going back to the American Revolution.



Heavy stuff for a comedy show. Ah those glorious sixties!

I so wanted to believe the story of the performance in Barcelona that I ignored my doubts, triggered by something that didn't make sense, namely the fact that repressive regimes don't get to be that way by allowing well-known critics of theirs, to perform in a soccer stadium filled with like-minded people.  

Eventually the skepticism got the better of me and I went online to check it out. Indeed there were a number of sites that featured the story including this YouTube video of the late folk singer Scott Alarik using it to illustrate the power of folk music.

The funny thing was that all the accounts of the story I found online including Alarik's, were the same story, verbatim. 

I thought it was strange that no one relaying the story bothered to tell it in their own words. Weirder still, given such an extraordinary act of defiance that allegedly took place not all that long ago attended by 100,000 souls, that no one present would have found it significant enough to have written their own account online. I'm still looking.

Ah you say, but most of the people in that crowd were Spanish, and in those days under Franco, English wasn't widely spoken in Spain, certainly not as it is today. Therefore any first-hand accounts of the concert must have been written in Spanish. So I googled: "Pete Seeger en España." Still nothing.

But I did find some revealing articles that led me to what really happened. 

Turns out Pete Seeger did sing in a soccer stadium in Barcelona, just not while Franco was alive. 

And he did travel to Spain during the Franco regime, in 1971. He did so at the request of the Valencian folk singer Raimon, who wrote this account for the Spanish newspaper El Pais. At first, Seeger was apprehensive with the idea of performing in Spain, given the political situation there at the time. But Raimon persisted, telling Seeger that if he didn't come, the people of Spain would be led to think the world outside of their country produced nothing more than the insipid pop music that the Franquistas allowed to be imported.

Traveling with Raimon, Seeger performed with little incident in small venues in three cities, Seville in the south, San Sebastián in the Basque region near the French border, and Terrassa in Catalonia, the same province as Barcelona. Things didn't get dicey until they got to Barcelona. Seeger's performance there was scheduled to take place not at the stadium, but at the School of Engineering on Barcelona's major thoroughfare, Avinguida Diagonal. 

There, Seeger, his sponsors including Raimon, and about would-be 100 concertgoers, were met by a squad of mounted police, on hand to stop the performance. But that wasn't all. The police decided to try out a newfangled anti-riot device in their arsenal, a water cannon. Unfortunately for the police, when they tried to blast the folk music loving miscreants into submission, all that came out of their mighty cannon was a trickle of water, the equivalent of a garden hose without its spray attachment. The crowd did disperse, laughing hysterically all the way. 

The incident inspired the section title of this article: "When the Franco regime pissed on Barcelona." 

In order to recoup the losses from the missed performance, and to help pay for Seeger's return trip home, an alternate concert was arranged the following day at a bar owned by the father of one of the organizers. Along with members of the crowd from the previous night who weren't intimidated by the pissing police, the joint was filled with regulars playing cards, Parcheesi and dominoes who hadn't a clue who the entertainment for the evening was.

Here is the recording of that performance made on February 15, 1971 at the Bar-Bodega Llopart in the neighborhood of Sants in Barcelona, recorded on cassette tape, along with commentary in Spanish and Catalán:

As  you can hear in his introduction, Seeger speaks of the incident that occurred the night before, attributing it to the "bad weather", which sparked a chorus of ironic laughter. He went on, "Someday I hope to return to this beautiful city and sing all the songs I want to." Which of course he did.

While the Parcheesi playing bar regulars that night didn't understand a word Seeger was singing, they eventually stopped playing to listen. "Hey this guy's pretty good, he must be important!" some were heard to say.

I'm not sure who the source is for the misleading account. As I wrote above, Seeger did perform in Barcelona during the Franco regime, and he did perform at a huge venue in that city, just not at the same time. And if you've ever seen him perform before a live audience you know that he wasn't averse to just playing banjo or guitar while the audience sang the lyrics.

Perhaps someone inadvertently put those disparate events together to weave the story, or did so purposefully to make a better story than the real one.  As the Scott Alarik video recorded in 2013 testifies, the story was written before Seeger's death in 2014, so perhaps it was Pete himself who made it up.

At this late date it probably doesn't matter, so maybe the quote at the top of this post, stolen from the 1962 John Ford film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, rings true. It just makes the legendary singer even more legendary,

On the other hand...


Thursday, April 7, 2022

Opening Day

Sitting at the breakfast table this morning as has been my routine for nearly the past two months, I read an article in the New York Times about the latest goings on in Ukraine and Russia. While reading an account of a Russian citizen insisting his fellow countrymen are justly fighting American-backed Nazis in Ukraine and adding: "wouldn't it be simpler if Moscow just nuked the United States and got it all over with...", a voice came over the radio noting that today is Opening Day of the baseball season. 

Part of me thought, how completely frivolous to think of baseball at a time like this, while the other part of me thought, God how I need to hear that right now. 

On January 15, 1942, barely one month after the attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States' entry into World War II, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt wrote a letter to Kenesaw Mountain Landis, then Commissioner of Baseball. The president responded to Landis's letter of the day before, offering to suspend all baseball operations for the duration of the war. The following are excerpts from Roosevelt's letter to Landis:

I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going. There will be fewer people unemployed and everybody will work longer hours and harder than ever before.

And that means that they ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work even more than before.

Here is another way of looking at it - if 300 teams use 5,000 or 6,000 players, these players are a definite recreational asset to at least 20,000,000 of the fellow citizens - and that in my judgment is thoroughly worthwhile.

It is said that Roosevelt's "Green Light Letter to Baseball" written at the onset of one of the greatest crises in American history, perhaps more than anything else, solidified the game's status as "Our National Pastime". It could be argued that as the first major victory in the battle over civil rights in the United States, baseball's integration five years later with the signing of Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers, set the stage for the sweeping changes in this country that took place in the subsequent decades. 

An impromptu game of baseball in the States, a rarer and rarer sight these days. New York, 1986.

Perhaps baseball isn't so frivolous after all.

On the flip side, the dearth of U.S. born black players on major league rosters today, does not necessarily signal baseball's going into retrograde as a vehicle for equal rights, but rather its decline in popularity especially among, but not limited to the African American community.

Nonetheless, baseball is still referred to as "our National Pastime", I think more out of nostalgia than anything else. Judging by TV viewership, American football is by far the most popular sport in the United States. Perhaps more telling, while Little League Baseball still rules the roost as far as organized youth sports go in this country, as far as "pickup" games go, the games kids (i.e.: the future) play on their own, baseball doesn't hold a candle to touch football, basketball and even soccer in the parks and playgrounds across America. 

So the burghers of baseball have decided that something must be done to correct that. Some folks object, saying that baseball has not, should not now, nor should ever change. To that I offer another excerpt from Roosevelt's Green Light Letter:

Baseball provides a recreation which does not last over two hours... and which can be got for very little cost. 

The truth is, the cost of taking a family of four to a Major League Baseball game these days could run into the hundreds of dollars, prohibitive for many families including my own. And honestly when's the last time you've seen a two hour, nine inning MLB game? 

In your dreams perhaps. 

Unfortunately MLB doesn't seem too concerned over the ever increasing cost of their product, but they sure are worried about the length of their games.  

There are many reasons why baseball games played today are much longer than the ones played back in the day, but one reason is obvious just by watching an inning or two of a game played in the past. 

For example, this one perhaps one of the greatest games ever played, unless that is, if you're a Yankees fan. 

If you're used to watching baseball today, you might be a little jarred at seeing the rhythm of the 1960 game, namely the amount of time it takes between the time the pitcher receives the ball from the catcher and the next pitch. I'd say the average is roughly ten seconds in this game, fewer if there are no runners on base. 

Today between pitchers rubbing the ball while circling the mound, batters stepping out of the box, pitchers shaking off signs from the catcher, and numerous other delay tactics from both sides trying to throw off the opposition, thirty seconds is not an unusual amount of time for the pitcher to hold on to the ball between pitches. Those ten to twenty extra seconds between pitches add up when you consider that the average total number of pitches in a baseball game is close to 300.

A simple solution for this is a pitch clock. If a pitcher doesn't make a pitch within the allotted time, say 20 seconds, the batter is awarded a ball in the batting count. Likewise if the batter calls time with less than five seconds left on the clock, the pitcher is awarded a strike.

Kind of makes sense doesn't it? On the other hand, baseball is a game famously NOT ruled by the clock. As such, while pitch clocks may not present an existential threat to the game, they do threaten the clockless perfection, the rhythm, the groove, the mojo, the je nai se quoi, and most important, the what-have-you of the game. Worse yet, pitch clocks displease the baseball gods, I know that for a fact, maybe not as a mortal sin but definitely a venial one. 

Besides, there is evidence that pitch clocks don't shorten games that much if at all. 

Nevertheless, expect to see them in a couple years in the majors. 

This year we are about to see the introduction of another brilliant idea, communication devices between catchers and pitchers that will eliminate all those primitive finger signs catchers used to use to call pitches. The real purpose of the technology is to eliminate something that has gone on from time immemorial, the stealing of signs.*

The hope is this system is going to solve once and for all this age-old problem as it's inconceivable that anyone could possibly hack into it right? 


The other alleged reason for implementing these doohickies is to shorten games by eliminating the need for all the complex coded signs catchers need to flash in order for them not to be readable by the opposition.

We'll see how that all works out. How the baseball gods will react to this is anybody's guess, my feeling is they're probably already laughing their heads off.

What's really sending the gods off the deep end is the National League's decision to implement the designated hitter rule. The DH has been a regular feature in the American League since 1973. 

Next to whether or not Pete Rose should ever be inducted into the Hall of Fame, this is perhaps the most hotly debated topic in baseball. It seemed that the nearly fifty year history of one major league adopting the DH while the other did not, was a reasonable compromise. I have a good friend who gave up being an American League Chicago White Sox fan in 1973  in favor of the National League Chicago Cubs because of his abject hatred of the DH.

Now he's in a quandary over where to find "real baseball", as the DH will be in effect practically everywhere, even in high school ball.

The debate over the DH was illustrated perfectly this morning on the radio as the host suggested to his guest that the designated hitter is frowned upon by many managers who will mourn the loss of the classic conundrum of whether or not to pull a pitcher who is doing well in the crunch time of a game for a pinch hitter, something that he, the host will miss as well. To which the guest, a baseball writer for the Washington Post responded: "perhaps, but the pitchers will appreciate the fact that they will be able to remain where they belong, on the mound." 

To which I, not a fan of the DH myself, would reply: excuse me, but pitchers like everyone else on a baseball team, are baseball players first and foremost. Baseball is not a game of pure specialists like football, and asking a pitcher to hit is not like asking a field goal kicker to play nose tackle. Besides, most big league pitchers played outfield in high school and even college as the kids who were pitching to them back then, more than likely long ago burned their arms out trying to throw curve balls before their arms were developed enough for it. And being outfielders, today's big league pitchers were most likely once the best hitter on their team. 

God, if only these were the worst of our problems. The nice thing about sports is that we can argue endlessly over such trivial matters, yet remain friends at the end of the day. 

Alas, the same can't be said about practically anything else these days. I can't agree to disagree for example, with someone who believes that the January 6th, 2021 insurrection at the Capitol Building was valid political discourse. And not until hell freezes over if then, will I ever agree to disagree with someone who argues that we need to understand Russia's point of view regarding their invasion and rape, both figurative and literal, of Ukraine. 

But if you like the pitch clock, the catcher-pitcher thingy and heck, even the designated hitter, so be it, as long as we both agree to play ball.

After all, even during a time of war, life goes on.

* It's possible that one of the most famous moments in baseball, NY Giant Bobby Thomson's 1951 ninth inning come-from-behind, three run walk-off home run in a win-the-pennant-or-go-home playoff game off Brooklyn pitcher Ralph Branca, was the result of a sign stolen off Dodger catcher Rube Walker. In those days the Giants were allegedly using an elaborate sign stealing system (which was not illegal at the time), starting with a coach or team member sitting in the Giant clubhouse 600 feet away from home plate in the Giants' Polo Grounds center field clubhouse, using a telescope to read the catcher's signs, then relaying them via an electric switch that set off a buzzer in the phone in the Giants' dugout that the batter could hear, one buzz for fastball, two for an off-speed pitch. Or was it the other way around?

In either case, that home run was among other things dubbed: "The shot heard 'round the world." Indeed it was. The Korean War was going on at the time and U.S. troops who happened to be baseball fans tuned into the game from half way around the world. One particularly poignant story I read was about a letter received by Bobby Thomson in the 1990s. It was written by one of those veterans. Here's an excerpt:

I was in a bunker in the front line with my buddy listening to the radio. It was contrary to orders, but he was a Giants fanatic. He never made it home and I promised him if I ever got back I'd write and tell you about the happiest moment of his life. It's taken me this long to put my feelings into words. On behalf of my buddy, thanks, Bobby.