On April 15, 2013 — Jackie Robinson Day — I snuck off to a local movie theater here in the Appalachian foothills to watch the new film, ’42.’ It was an otherwise miserable day that began with a bombing at the Boston Marathon. Things were more stressful than usual at home, too, so I went out for a ride that night to spend a few hours by myself. I’d really wanted to see the movie, so that’s where I wound up, a few minutes before the 9:30 show.
The movie did not disappoint. Beautifully shot and very well acted by Chadwick Boseman as Robinson. I loved it. And there was value added to the experience. It became an interesting night. There was a large group of students in their uniforms, from a private school that had been founded, decades earlier, as a whites-only answer to school integration. A so-called ‘segregation academy.’
But it hadn’t been that kind of school for some time and it was encouraging to see teachers expose their students to this story, which I considered to be required learning in my house. Anyway, these students were leaving from an earlier showing and gave the film a thumbs up. During the late show, there was just me and an African-American couple, sitting a few rows up, in the dark theater. After the movie we compared notes — he (the husband) had read the same Robinson biographies I had read.
The three of us loved the movie, were pleasantly surprised at the job Harrison Ford did as Branch Rickey, were horrified (but impressed) by Alan Tudyk as the Phillies racist manager Ben Chapman, charmed by Nichole Beharie’s grace as Rachel Robinson, and absolutely delighted with Boseman’s turn as Jackie.
He played the part with humor, intelligence, intensity, daring — it was just a movie, but I thought he did an excellent job capturing the spirit of the one of the most influential figures in baseball history and 20th century America. Not an easy part to play. Then again, throughout his career Boseman made a habit of committing artistically and expertly to a range of heroic roles. Maybe I misunderstand the craft, but he sure made it look easy. And he’s gone way too soon. Chadwick Boseman, I remember you.
I just heard that Todd Nance, Widespread Panic’s stellar drummer for so many years, has gone to the great gig in the sky. This is really sad news because Todd was such a terrific guy. Had a chance to meet him a couple of times, and got to sit down with him once for an interview. That was 10 years ago. A lot can happen in 10 years. For one thing, Todd left WSP and was replaced by Duane Trucks, who is a fine drummer. But he’s no Todd Nance. Anyway, here’s a story about Todd from that interview in another age.
Todd Nance’s pupils are full moons shining out of his sockets as we settle into the cool basement of Widespread Panic headquarters at Brown Cat Inc., located in a renovated Athens warehouse. Dude’s eyes are barely contained by the lids. And he’s bigger than I thought.
“Just got back from the eye doctor, and I’m a little pie eyed right now,” the drummer says, lighting a cigarette, which means I can light up, too. He’s telling me about joining the band, how Michael Houser was the ticket.
“Mikey and I met in 1979. We lived in Chattanooga. Went to different high schools, but he and I played in bands together in high school, rock and roll bands. He taught me how to play guitar over the telephone,” recalls Todd. “I’d take a belt from a bathrobe and tie the phone to my head and he’d sit there on the other end and listen to me play. He taught me to play 2112 Overture by Rush. It’s all bar chords. But he could hear me and he’d say things like, ‘OK, go down two frets.’
“Mikey and I learned music together. We played cover songs, used to try to write our own songs, too. We had a feel for each other.”
And all these years later, whenever Nance the drummer writes music, he does it on a guitar.
Todd and Mikey lost touch for a while after 1981. Mikey went to Athens, where he met John Bell in a University of Georgia dorm, and they started performing as a duo, then Dave Schools joined in, and the pieces were coming together. Todd remembers that he was living in Atlanta and walking out the door on his way to night school when the phone rang.
It was Houser. He told Todd that he’d met some guys and they were playing music and would Todd like to join them, “so I came to Athens, listened to it, thought it was pretty good, went back to Atlanta one more time, and the next time I came to Athens, I stayed,” Nance says. “Called my roommate in Atlanta and said, ‘just sell my shit and have a Todd-ran-away-from-home party. See you later.’”
Mikey, JB, Schools and Nance played the first ‘official’ Widespread Panic gig in February of 1986. Sunny Ortiz was enlisted shortly thereafter, as soon as he arrived from Austin, Texas. Todd recalls, “His buddy owned the club and asked if [Sunny] could sit in. We said ‘sure!’ We really liked what we heard and asked Sunny if he could bring more stuff the next time. Basically, he drove in from Texas, got out of the car, walked in, and he was in the band.”
Sunny played with the band as a de facto, freelance member of the band before making Panic his permanent home, and after that T Lavitz was added on keyboards, a job John “Jojo” Hermann took on in 1992 and has held ever since.
The concept of a ‘music business’ was grasped early on, when the band was making very little money. When Sam Lanier came aboard as manager, the musicians made the most of their regular paychecks, even if it was only about $70 every two weeks. Lanier didn’t want to go on the road with the band, but had to because the guys couldn’t handle something simple like bringing back receipts for stuff they bought.
But they were always serious about the work of making music, Nance says. “We just wanted to get gigs, write and record songs, whatever it took. And we kind of recorded on our own terms.”
Basically, that meant writing and performing the kinds of songs that have distinguished the band, but made them scarce on the radio.
“People say, ‘why aren’t you on mainstream radio?’ And the thing of it is, a lot of successful bands on the radio – they achieve that through a producer and other means we don’t prescribe to, or subscribe to,” Nance says. “We don’t play the same song every night, we don’t write with the radio in mind. We try to be adventurous, not monotonous.”
Traditionally, the band used rehearsals as a time to write songs (and not necessarily rehearse), according to the drummer. Or at least, it seemed that way for a long time, until Jimmy Herring joined the band as lead guitarist in 2006, four years after Mikey died.
Nance is genuinely stoked to finally be playing upstage-left of Herring on a fulltime basis, after knowing the guy for decades and sharing the occasional gig. Jimmy went to boot camp with Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit under.
“[Bruce is] our musical daddy, we learned a lot from him and ARU,” Nance says. “We did a lot of shows with those guys and they’re still the best band I’ve ever seen. We used to take our licks, because they’d play first. Imaging having to follow that!”
Before those days, back when Panic was taking its licks at frat parties and the small Athens clubs, Nance says they stunk. But having an audience changed that.
“The kids saw something in us, and they kept coming back the next week, and the week after that,” Nance says. “And we got better.”
In summers, after the college students migrated home, the band had to scramble to eat and pay bills. JB worked for a florist. Sunny and Schools delivered flowers. JB and Todd also did some house painting, when Nance wasn’t trying to sell Sweet Pickles children’s books over the phone. Strangest of all, Nance says, was Mikey.
“When school closed, there were no gigs – it was, ‘good luck, hope you survive the summer.’ Luckily, we found other work. Mikey was the fastest Domino delivery guy in town,” Todd says. “What’s funny is, Mikey’s movement could be called sloth-like, so nobody could figure out how he did it, how he got so fast. They used to call his car the ‘time machine.’”
Nance recalls with a smile the time he took Houser to an Environmental Protection Agency for a job interview.
“He had a degree in chemistry, and his parents were not too keen on the whole band thing at that point, so he promised he’d go for the interview,” Nance says. “I had to tie Mikey’s tie for him. So he goes into the interview, and of course he had no intention of working there – he was just doing it for his parents. Yeah, we all did what we had to do back then.”
Now Todd has joined Mikey again, two old friends, eternal souls, gone from here, but together forever. Todd Nance, I remember you.
A Tale of ’73: Yep, those are three treasures from the 1973 Topps set along the top row, in various states of brilliance and/or decay. They and the brochure/program thingy wrapped around them in an L-shape tell a story. Well, of course they do.
It’s partly a New York Mets story but it’s mostly a Henry Aaron and Tony Grillo story. In 1973 Henry gave furious chase to Babe Ruth’s career home run record. And what a season he had: 40 home runs in less than 400 at bats at the ripe old (for baseball) age of 39.
Tired of the hate mail and threats from rednecks, and fueled by his own internal flame (and, I like to think, those of us who were rooting hard for him), he doggedly pursued the Babe, finishing the season on a tear, with six hits in his final seven at bats of the season, lifting his season batting average to .301 and OBP to .402.
He hit his 40th dinger of the year and 713th of his career to move one behind the Babe in the Braves’ penultimate game of the season, a Saturday win over the visiting Houston Astros. That left one more chance to catch Ruth in 1973, and my father (Tony) and I were there, about 25 rows up along the first base side on the final Sunday of the season.
This was a special event, as evidenced by the brochure thingy stadium personnel were giving away that day. When you folded it out (as pictured), you could see every home run that Aaron had hit in his career to that point, including who the pitcher was, the inning, how many runners were on base. A pretty cool keepsake, which I’ve kept.
Henry didn’t disappoint, getting three singles his first three times up. In the bottom of the eighth he came up for the last time that season. Dad and I and thousands of others stood on our feet ands got hoarse screaming for Henry to hit one out. Alas, he hit a rainmaker that Houston second baseman Tommy Helms squeezed for the final out of the inning. With the Braves losing, knowing this was most likely his last time at bat for the season, we gave Henry a long, well-deserved ovation. I still feel the chills.
Fast forward a few weeks. The Mets, the team I liked second best, after the Braves (we are from New York, after all) were playing the Oakland A’s in the World Series. I’d placed a few bets on the Mets at middle school (probably a quarter here and there). But mostly, I’d been bragging loudly about how the Mets were going to beat the A’s. Of course, they did not, and the 13-year-old me was crushed.
I was facing taunts and teases the next day at school, after the Mets went down. I was really depressed. Dad knew this, but he had to head out of town early on a business trip, so he left me a note (which I’ve also kept) on the kitchen table. Basically it said to keep my head high and laugh it off, that it was just important to know how to lose with class as it is to win.
Dad reminded me of how difficult it had been for Aaron that season, what with all the white supremacist nut jobs giving him hell. And my father wrote one line that I’ll never forget: “Remember the ovation Hank Aaron got when he didn’t get the 714th – I’ll bet it wouldn’t have been any better if he did.”
That note, especially that one line conjuring the memory of a great slugger falling just short after a valiant effort, got me through the day. It’s gotten me through many other days since then.
On a hot day in late August 1974 the Atlanta Braves beat the New York Mets, 4-3, when Norm Miller walked (against Mets reliever Bob Miller) with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 10th, forcing in Darrell Evans. It was a nip-and-tuck triumph for a good Braves team in the middle of a decade when they were terrible most of the time. Energized by Henry Aaron’s Babe-busting home runs the first week of the season, the Bravos cruised to 88-74 that season. They woulda tied the Pirates for first in the National League East, but it was only good for a distant third in the West, dominated (as usual back then) by the Dodgers and Reds.
On this particular day, the Mets took a quick 2-0 lead on a Rusty Staub home run off Braves starter Carl Morton, who pitched a masterpiece the rest of the way, going all 10 innings to win his 13th game. My cousin Matt, a Mets fan visiting for a few weeks from New York, was glad to see one of his heroes, Rusty, go deep. Matt’s dad (my Uncle Sammy) had passed away recently, so this was supposed to be a healing kind of vacation for my cousin. My father wanted to show the kid a good time while he was in town, so we went to the ballgame.
And we were rewarded with a fine contest. We also saw a Ralph Garr home run for the Braves, a decent pitcher’s duel as Morton out-dueled Tom Seaver. Darrell Evans had three hits. But none of that was the highlight of the day, and quite honestly, I’d forgotten all of that stuff — thank you, baseball-reference.com for helping me reconstruct my memory. No, the most memorable thing about that day is what happened before the Braves and Mets took the field — this was the day we all got to meet Stan “The Man” Musial.
The Braves were hosting an old timers game that featured a collection of Hall of Famers, future Hall of Famers, and other legends. In addition to Stan, there was Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Yogi Berra, Ralph Kiner, Monte Irvin, Johnny Mize, Luke Appling, Enos Slaughter, and a bunch of others, including Braves broadcaster and former pitcher Ernie Johnson and Clyde King, who had pitched for the Brooklyn Dodgers and had recently replaced Eddie Mathews as the Atlanta manager. Even though Mays was my favorite player, it was the prospect of seeing Stan “The Man” that thrilled me most, because of the magic business card Dad kept in his wallet.
Dad worked for Brunswick Corporation at the time, flying or driving up and down the East Coast, helping bowling alley managers from Buffalo to Miami spread the gospel of league bowling, thereby improving their bottom lines. Dad was a genius at selling the game of bowling.
On a trip to Donora, Pennsylvania, Musial’s hometown, Pop stayed in a Holiday Inn owned by an old friend of Stan’s, Rose Calderone (I’ll never forget her name). Dad told her that he was planning to take us to the game in Atlanta in a few weeks to see the old timers, including Stan. So Rose gave him the business card and said we should present it to Stan at the game, and he’d meet with us.
On the day of the game, a feeding frenzy of kids with pens and balls and scraps of paper crammed the tight angles around the Braves dugout, begging for autographs. With my older brother Steve plowing through the bodies and clutching the card over his head like a precious totem, we made our way to the railing that separated us plebes from the immortals on the field. After much shouting and begging, we got the attention of a field crew guy and convinced him to take the business card to Stan, who was chatting with other players in the dugout.
We watched as the guy timidly approached Stan and pointed us out. Musial went to the dugout steps and peered in our direction, squinting in the glare, looking at the card, then back at us, and there was the famous smile. And The Man walked over to us.
“Hiya boys. How’s my friend Rose?” We told him about Dad and Donora, and he waved up at Dad, holding that business card in the air. Dad waved back at The Man from 20 rows up. Stan shook our hands and signed autographs for us, and then got stuck signing for the dozens of other kids who were giddily stunned that we could summon a clean-up hitter from Mt. Olympus.
We thanked Stan, now signing busily for the growing throng, and floated back up the stairs to where Dad was sitting. I like to think that Stan signed for every one of those screaming kids. Maybe he did. Probably he did.
I don’t know about my cousin or brothers, but I’ve kept that autograph, and the story of how we met Stan Musial became family legend. It’s hard to believe that my father died just 13 years (almost to the day) after that event. In fact, Stan Musial was the last thing my father and I ever talked about. Maybe he’d been listening to a ballgame on the radio, or was visited by some happy shadowy memories from his past, or whatever dreams come to a man when he is dying.
He didn’t want to talk about being sick, so he talked baseball. About how bad the Braves were playing that summer of 1987, but how they could still turn it around and finish respectably. Then he asked, “hey, remember that time you guys met Stan Musial?” I told him, “how can I ever forget?” Dad had always been a Stan fan. As he lay there in bed, his voice weak and quiet and earnest, he told me how Stan used to murder Brooklyn Dodgers pitchers at Ebbets Field. Dad was a Yankees fan, but he’d lived in Brooklyn (saw an effigy of Casey Stengel burned outside his apartment after one of the Dodgers’ annual autumn tragedies) and spent some happy hours watching Musial earn his nickname, The Man, from the respectful Brooklyn fans.
Of course, we’d gone over all this ground before, but I wasn’t going to stop my father from revisiting these glorious memories of happier times. “He feasted on Dodger pitching,” Dad said. “And those Brooklyn fans, they could be so tough on the visiting club. But they loved Stan Musial. They hated the Cardinals, but they loved that man.”
That’s how my Dad, the best man I’ve ever known, remembered Stan, one of the best men baseball ever knew. Dad died two days after we had that random conversation, which has only grown in importance with each year, or each telling. I’ve missed him every day since. Both men are gone now, but I’m forever comforted and grateful to be the son of one and a big fan of both.
Every year around this time I flash back to a simpler, psychedelic day when, as a young man, I followed in the hovering, four-dimensional footsteps of Dock Ellis, the late, great Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher who threw a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres while tripping on LSD on June 12, 1970. This story happened in June 1984.
I figure it’s safe to ask for forgiveness. It’s been 36 years. Most of the people I worked with back then are old men now. Some are retired. Some are dead. In my defense, it was supposed to have been a day off — the game was already afoot by the time Charlie Clark called me, asking if I’d cover the Suffolk County (Long Island) high school baseball championship series for the next day’s edition of Newsday. In other words, my unplanned trip at the ballpark had already begun.
A bright day in June was about to get to get much brighter (thanks to pupil dilation, and also my state of mind). The college semester was over. My brother and I and a few friends had plans to drop acid and spend the day at one of the nearby beaches, enjoying the sun, cold beer, and rainbow colored water. Over the phone, Charlie was more conciliatory than usual: “Grillo? Charlie Clark. Shaw’s sick. Can you cover the Suffolk County baseball championship? Kings Park and Commack North. Game starts at …”
At Newsday I’d joined a crew of a dozen or so part-timers in the massive sports department, most of us college kids or slightly older, who were generally pitted against each other in competition for the few writing assignments that existed for untested punks (that’s what Charlie usually called us, “punks,” or “finks,” still part of the angry old man lexicon in those days).
This was the cusp of two eras. We still had editors typing memos on clackety-clack manual typewriters and pretty much every desk had a video display terminal (VDT). The sports department, like most of the building, had done smoke-free, but there was at least one old writer who was allowed to smoke in the office (with an ashtray that supposedly sucked up the smoke). But these were great days for me, personally, working among some truly talented wordsmiths, men and women whose stories I’d enjoyed reading for years.
The part timers worked three or four nights a week, taking scores or chasing them down over the phone (Charlie’s assistant, Jim Barbanell, knew every phone number of every coach, once telling me how to reach the Mepham fencing coach at his favorite pub). Or we’d write the high school and college round-ups, compile agate, and sometimes take dictation from one of the writers out on assignment (Marty Noble is one I remember fondly because he was a nice guy and always phoned in with the upbeat greeting, “Noble here.”).
Charlie was the editor in charge of high school and local sports, I think. Truth is, I’m not sure what his title was. He’d covered about 500 Indy 500s. He’d been around newsprint twice as long as any of us had been alive. We were a bunch of know-it-alls. He’d done better things and now he had to deal with me and Shaman and Smales and Tennenbaum and the rest of the bums and finks on the part-timer crew. So sure, he generally hated us and was nearly impossible to please. But I was eager to try when he called me early on that lovely June day, right after I ate a little square with Mickey Mouse’s picture on it. I said, “sure, Charlie, you can count on me!”
My comrades went to the beach and I took off down the highway to Commack, my brain or spirit soaring faster than my little blue Pinto could possibly carry me. Would I be able to tolerate the languid pace of a baseball game? Along with the feeling of high adrenalin euphoria, the reality and thrill of a real writing assignment (with a tight deadline) kicked in, triggering a sense of confidence and invulnerability as manicured blades of grass sang the “Hallelujah Chorus” while giving off ultraviolet waves and the umpire yelled, “play ball!”
I had too much energy to sit in the bleachers. Instead, feeling the candy-coated cocktail churning inside of me (and dripping from my pores), I kept score while repeatedly circling the baseball diamond – again and again and again, filling my pad with notes both useful and incomprehensible, something about the strong limbs of indifferent trees set against an azure sky that stretched out in every direction, and the bittersweet taste of calliope music that no one else could hear, and something about the arc of Pete Harnisch’s curveball.
Yeah, one of the things I remember clearly about that day was seeing Pete Harnisch, the Commack North High School pitcher who would go onto have a fine major league career. Also playing that day, for visiting Kings Park High, was future Baseball Hall of Famer Craig Biggio. After the game I somehow managed to interview the young stars and the coaches, and I was still higher than Ben Franklin’s electrified kite when I pulled into the Newsday office. Here, finally, was the real trick: maintaining composure and writing a simple game story while surrounded by grown men who actually did this sports writing stuff for their livelihoods, men who had little time or patience for punks or finks tripping balls.
The VDTs stretched out like green-tinted reflections of reflections and I found one near the back of the now surreal sports department, and began hacking away. The story ran in the next afternoon’s paper and there wasn’t a single mention of sky, tree, grass, music. All-in-all, it was a straightforward piece. Your typical game story. I even managed to include the score and explained (with some effort) how Commack North managed to win.
The next day I covered Game 2. Commack North won, clinching the series. I wasn’t high and that story had the same simple, inverted pyramid shape as the first story, which proved to me the existence of another force in the universe, an internal autopilot that helps navigate the twisting terrain of thought and language to uncover useful words that, when linked together, form comprehensible sentences and stories. And as long as I don’t get in the way of that force, my sentences will have happy landings. Mostly. Hopefully.
Happy anniversary, Baseball Hall of Fame. Once, you were almost my neighbor.
In 1986 when I was 25 and the sports editor of a three-times-a-week newspaper in South Carolina, I decided to leave journalism to join the family printing business and office supply store – business cards, letterhead, flyers, staplers, and the occasional office suite that my brothers and I would have to install, etc.
But leaving newspapers was harder than I thought it would be. It was like losing an arm that hadn’t even reached full strength yet, and the void felt like a demanding itch. I wasn’t in the family biz for six months before a moment of weakness took me and I answered an ad in the magazine Editor & Publisher for what I imagined might be the perfect job for me in a part of the world I’d always fantasized about.
By then, the classified ads in the back of E&P were favorite reading material. This was how a number of ink-stained wretches found jobs in those days. Most newspapers subscribed to E&P – it was the leading trade journal for the publishing industry, newspapers in particular (it still exists, by the way). Before JournalismJobs.com and Mediabistro.com and some of the other journalism job sites, this was where many young writers and editors looked for their next job, particularly if they didn’t know someone with influence who could help them land that job they thought they wanted.
As a young wretch, I applied to a number of E&P ads and actually got my first full-time job through one of these classifieds. I left that sports editor job after almost two years to move to Georgia and learn how to operate an offset duplicator (sheet-fed printing press), and make negatives, and a lot of other stuff. But after six months of that, I was really missing the writing and editing work, and was already getting tired of being tethered that old AB Dick. I was thinking of getting back into the world of broadsheets and 10-point type and writing deadlines.
The local library happened to subscribe to E&P and I started looking at them. It was the summer 1986 when I saw the add that called to me, unbidden and unexpected. WANTED: Editor for ‘Freeman’s Journal,’ award-winning family-owned weekly newspaper in beautiful, historic Cooperstown, N.Y. I had to read it a few times and pinch myself then throw water in my face. The ad was still there.
See, by then and for a long time, I’d fantasized about Cooperstown the way I’d fantasized about Middle Earth. The big difference being, of course, that Cooperstown actually exists on this planet and I’d even visited a couple of times, and it had exceeded my youthful expectations. It was a wonderland for me, the outsider, the infrequent visitor.
Here was the mythological birthplace of baseball, the idyllic-looking rural village in upstate New York – George Bailey country, by God; home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. I wasn’t thinking clearly. I knew the demands of the weekly newspaper editor, knew I’d be working 60 hours a slow week, knew that the demands of the job would probably keep me from enjoying the aforementioned baseball Valhalla very much.
But mostly I thought, “Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Mickey Mantle, Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, and new inductees year after year after year, forever and anon.”
After a couple of telephone interviews the owner of the newspaper, Bob Miller, actually offered me the position, sight unseen. I was going to live in the village of my dreams! The only problem is, I wasn’t an “I” any more. I was a “we.” Jane and I had gotten married and left New York a few years earlier to start our lives in the sultry South, and she, for one, did not miss the cold winters up north. In fact, she told me, “I know how much you love Cooperstown, and I’ll love it, too – in the summer.” She allowed that the winters would be torture for her, but she would make the move to upstate New York if it was I really wanted.
Time to agonize over a decision. I didn’t agonize long. I called Mister Miller and thanked him, but said, “no, thank you.” It was too early in the game to leave the family business. It was too risky to move my wife back into the cauldron of cold. It was too self-centered to make a 1,000 move to pursue something that was more a fantasy than a dream.
There have been days when I’ve regretted the decision, but not many. What would I have missed? Plenty. For starters, we’d just found out that Jane was pregnant (Samantha was on her way). Then, not long after turning down the job (which would have started in the fall, a lovely time of year, followed quickly by winter, Jane’s most dreaded time of year), we found out my father, who’d started the printing business, had cancer. It turned out he had less than a year with us on Earth. He got to spend a few precious months getting to know his first grandchild, Sam. I wouldn’t have traded that for a gig in Middle Earth, let alone Cooperstown.
Moving right then to Cooperstown, N.Y., with everything that was about to happen would have been a bad move, I think.
We stayed in Georgia and started a family. I satisfied my sports writing jones with freelance work at The Athens Observer and we ran the print shop for several years until we ran it out of business. When Dad died, the entrepreneurial spirit that drove us died.
But today is on the anniversary of the dedication of the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, which celebrated with a gala grand opening featuring speeches from the first great players inducted. On this same day in 1939, Lou Gehrig (who would soon be inducted into the Hall through a special election) was playing for the last time in an New York Yankees uniform (an exhibition game – he’d already taken himself out of the lineup).
So, this is a momentous day for Cooperstown, where baseball history is preserved in a wonderful museum that I last saw about 38 years ago. It’s changed a lot since then, I’m told; only gotten better, I’m certain. Someday, I’ll go back there and take my family. But I’m glad to have visited twice already, visits that filled my heart and sent my head spinning: Once with my father and little brother (and cousin and uncle), and a few years later with my older brother and wife-to-be Jane.
And then there was that one time that I almost went there to live, in baseball heaven. But to paraphrase John Lennon, life had other plans. I’m better than OK with that.
The story of Jake Powell has haunted me for years. What would compel a man who was playing baseball at the highest level for the best team on the planet to say what he said during a live radio interview the summer of 1938? This isn’t a rhetorical question, and the answers lie at the root of what ails our nation even today, 82 years later.
Powell was an outfielder for the New York Yankees at the time. He was the star of the 1936 World Series, after coming to the Yanks from the Washington Senators, midseason. He batted .455 in that Series, scored a bunch of runs and paced the Yankees of Gehrig and DiMaggio to the title over Carl Hubbell and the New York Giants. That was 1936.
By the summer of 1938 he was apparently unraveling. Before a game with the White Sox in Chicago, Jake was interviewed on the radio. And he shared the following (this is paraphrasing): “I’m a police officer down in Ohio, and I like to stay in shape during the offseason by cracking [plural of the disgusting ‘N-word’] over the head.”
This was nine years before Jackie Robinson would break the color barrier in Major League Baseball. Black people were still being lynched and the U.S. Congress was arguing over an anti-lynching bill (which did not get passed). Powell’s remarks caused an immediate uproar, particularly in the black community. The lily-white, overtly racist and now embarrassed baseball establishment took note and Powell was suspended for a short time.
Powell had plenty of apologists, white reporters in the media who defended him as a whacky sort who was just trying to be funny. But they couldn’t whitewash the man’s dark and apparently tortured soul. The 1938 season was essentially the beginning of an extended decline for Powell the human being. Ten years after his remarks on a Chicago superstation he ended his life in a Washington, D.C., police station. After being arrested for passing bad checks, Powell pulled a gun from its hiding place and shot himself twice. No more Jake.
For me, Powell’s story is more interesting than his one ill-conceived and idiotic and nasty (if telling) radio interview. It’s not what I think of as a happy life. This guy was responsible – perhaps even more than the legendary Babe Ruth sale – for the heated rivalry between the Red Sox and the Yankees (for the brutal brawl he started with Joe Cronin, also in 1938). He once broke Hank Greenberg’s wrist with a bit of dirty base-running, ruining an entire season for the Detroit slugger. He stole a bunch of shit from a hotel room and tried to get away with that while in the minor leagues. He left his family in Ohio to run around with another dame while passing bad checks, then killed himself in the middle of police headquarters in the nation’s capitol.
Oh, and he never really was a police officer, like he claimed. The police department in his Ohio town wouldn’t have him. Powell clawed his way out of the Washington, D.C., area sandlots and ascended to the highest peaks in the game. Then came a sharp descent, hastened by his wrongheaded comments and generally off behavior. The thing is, he’d played many times against teams of black ballplayers, exhibition games to make extra money during the offseason. There’s no record of him ever committing an act of violence against a black person. So why did he light-heartedly brag about doing such a thing?
Who knows. It’s likely that Jake Powell was struggling with mental illness. He obviously “wasn’t right.” But we can all learn lessons from his example as a ballplayer and a human being, lessons of what not to do, and how not to be.
The story of Jake Powell always takes me back to something my dear friend and mentor and playwright Jo Carson wrote for a character that I actually played on stage – a mixed-up soul sitting at the bar in Purgatory. The character, Jimbo, based on a real man, faced a question from his old horse (yes, a horse). “Were you bad or stupid?” Jimbo’s answer answer would determine how he would spend eternity. In our play, the character doesn’t answer but exits, pondering his choice, stage right. As the lights go down, the audience is left wondering if he went upstairs or downstairs.
In the case of Jake Powell, well, he said and did stupid things (his remarks on the radio, the other stupid stuff), and ultimately did a really bad thing (shot himself to death). So based on what we know, if Jake were facing this question, his honest answer would have to be, “both.”
Note: This is just an opinion piece, but I’m working on a proper, short biography of Jake Powell for the Society of American Baseball Research, because even the lives of miserable human beings deserve examination. Lest we forget.
I am a privileged white man in America who is in full sincere agreement with the copy/paste memo that’s been going around in the midst of the continued senseless and cruel racist reality of our blood-tarnished nation, the memo which names and “tags” victims who have suffered at the hands and whims of other privileged white men.
Like so many others who want and feebly try to do better, my heart breaks. I’ve shed tears and written words and taken actions and it’s smaller than small potatoes because … well, you know.
But I am also a baseball geek of unusual proportions and so today I celebrate the memory of Eddie Klep, who became the first white man to play negro league baseball on May 29, 1946. In a sense, Eddie was Jackie Robinson in reverse.
My friend Chuck Brodsky wrote a song about him and it included the following wonderful lyrics: “So while Jackie played for Brooklyn and wore the Dodger blue, Eddie crossed the color line, the one without a queue.” Give a listen!
On this day in 1946, Eddie made his debut with the Cleveland Buckeyes, pitching seven innings of an 8-6 win over the Chicago American Giants, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He pitched that year in the Negro American League, and then a few years later in Rockview State Prison (Pennsylvania). Eddie wasn’t what I’d call a privileged white man, per se. He had a pretty tough life overall, finally taking his backstage pass to the universe in 1981.
But I think that Eddie’s story is particularly relevant now, in light of all we know about white privilege in a country where a black man can still be murdered by the police just for being black.
Somewhere way, way down on the list of “important stuff” is the notion of an equal playing field, regardless of race, in baseball. That didn’t quite exist in Eddie’s time, though that segment of humanity concerned with baseball was getting closer to the ideal (Jackie Robinson had integrated white baseball by the time Klep integrated black baseball, and was starring for Montreal of the International League in 1946).
So here’s to Eddie Klep, the man who broke baseball’s color barrier in reverse, and his teammates in the Negro American League, who were very supportive. Now, enjoy Chuck’s song.
I’ve always had a conflicted relationship with the Pete Gray story. On the one hand, it’s very inspirational. It’s about persevering in the face of overwhelming odds. It’s one of the great underdog stories: A determined young man loses his arm in a childhood accident, grows up during the Great Depression, then fulfills his dream to play big league baseball. Who doesn’t love that?
Actually, I can think of lots of people who probably didn’t love it at the time. They played baseball in what was called the “negro leagues,” because they were barred from playing so-called “organized ball.” That’s the other hand.
Pete Gray grew up in northeastern Pennsylvania, coal mining country. He was a natural right hander before losing his arm in a wagon or truck accident when he was seven or eight. But he became a bona fide superstar in the minor leagues and then played a year in the American League with a good St. Louis Browns team. Granted, this was during World War II, when Major League lineups were depleted as men went off to war or to play baseball for one of the service teams or both. So if ever there was an opportune time for a one-armed outfielder (or a good St. Louis Browns team), this was it.
But still – a one-armed outfielder! Pete Gray was a miracle in cleats, who developed a foolproof (for him) technique to play defense, catching flies and rolling the ball across his chest, sticking his floppy glove under his stump while rolling the ball into his throwing hand, seamlessly; or bouncing ground balls into the air with his glove, then dropping it and grabbing the ball as it hovered in front of him then firing it back to the infield, all of this in the same time it took a two-handed man (if not faster).
He was equally incredible at bat. Swinging from the left side of the plate (of course), he batted a mere .218 in 77 games for the Browns, but this was still the Major Leagues, and he did hit .333 and stole 63 bases in 1944 as a minor leaguer. He legitimately had game, and I’ve been in awe of Pete Gray since my father first told me about him almost 50 years ago. But not very long after that, as I descended ever deeper into baseball geekdom, I developed a decent grasp of the game’s social history. And I started wondering.
I wondered why “organized baseball” would take in and promote a one-armed man – even an immensely gifted man like Pete Gray – but would not consider hiring proven superstars like Josh Gibson or Satchel Paige or Jackie Robinson or Monte Irvin or Buck Leonard or Cool Papa Bell or any of the excellent players from the negro leagues. Pete Gray broke into whites-only “organized ball” in the early 1940s, several years before Branch Rickey signed Robinson.
There was plenty of first-rate talent available, for many decades before the war and during the war and before Jackie Robinson, all considered off limits for the most ridiculous and hateful of reasons. Racism. Baseball’s white ruling class would rather hire a one-armed outfielder, or a one-legged pitcher (Bert Shepard for the Senators in August 1945), or 15-year-old pitcher (Joe Nuxhall for the Reds in June 1944) – all of them white, all of them remarkable athletes, but none of them better than a Gibson, a Paige, or an Irvin. Or a Robinson.
So, I honor the memory of Pete Gray (who died in 2002) as a truly marvelous and inspirational baseball player – I’m a fan for life. But his story tells me as much about the sanctioned senseless (and yes, evil) policies that once ruled the game, as it does about Pete’s indomitable spirit and amazing athletic skills. And for almost 50 years I’ve been plagued by a nagging rhetorical question: What the hell?
I wanted to wait until after Memorial Day to post this because Memorial Day honors and recognizes military personnel who died while serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. Therefore, my father, who served in the Navy for a few years following World War II, then came home to meet my mother, get married, have a family, and live the American dream, wouldn’t qualify as one of the honored dead. And I want to honor him.
Dad was a patriotic American and a member of the ‘greatest generation.’ He never knew his father, grew up poorer than most in the heart of the Great Depression, the youngest child in a family of seven kids with a single mom who barely spoke English. He ran the streets of the Lower East Side of Manhattan with a gang of other mostly Sicilian kids, back when New York had three Major League baseball teams within its city limits.
Look at the dates on his plaque. He turned 16 in January 1945, when the war was still very much alive, still raging and taking lives at a horrifying pace, in Europe, in Asia, everywhere. My father had older brothers in the service. He had older friends in the service, and at least one older member of his gang who’d been killed in action. He didn’t want to miss this moment in history. The son of immigrants, he was fiercely proud to be an American, and so …
… Dad lied about his age. He told the recruitment office he was 17 (the minimum age to enlist) and fooled his beloved, hard-working (mostly-illiterate) mother into signing a permission slip for him to join the Navy, telling her it was a form from his high school. And for a little while, at least, Dad thought he was going to war.
But he was busted. No dice, young man. Come back in a year. And that’s what he did. The war ended as Germany surrendered in May 1945, and Japan followed suit after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were obliterated by atomic bombs in August that year. Dad, an artist, had started his own graphics (i.e., sign) company that was (unbeknownst to him, a creative if naive 16-year-old entrepreneur) a front for an illegal (mob connected) gambling ring.
So when Dad turned 17 and enlisted on the up-and-up, it was as much to escape the sign-shop escapade as it was to do his part for post-war America, serving his country as an administrative clerk (Y3 is yeoman third class) in the U.S. Navy, on land and sea.
OK, so he wasn’t Sergeant York (even though he told us stories about great battles and adventures when we were kids — to hear Dad tell it, he singlehandedly defeated Imperial Japan and rescued my mother for his own in the process, while battling dinosaurs as well, of course). But it wasn’t from lack of trying.
Dad was never a war hawk. He never had a desire to kill for his country. He only wanted to do his part. He believed in America as the place where dreams come true. He believed America was great and always evolving. He adhered to the Dale Carnegie school of thought. He was a Roosevelt/Truman Democrat who loved JFK and voted for Jimmy Carter and was not a hateful man — if he hated anything, it was bullies (and maybe Bill Mazeroski, but it wasn’t personal).
If Dad were alive today he wouldn’t hate this president — Dad was a very funny man, expert at whistling past the boneyard. As long as he had his family, Dad was usually happy. He’d laugh at this president. But Dad was no fool. He would have recognized Trump for the profoundly dangerous and self-serving putz that he is, and would have been patiently disappointed by the shambling wreckage of humanity that elected this coward. But Dad said more times than I can count, “this too shall pass, my son.”
So I don’t think he would have wasted too much time wailing and gnashing his teeth. He would have things to do. Dad would have voted against this president and his halfwitted followers, and then he would have forgotten and discarded them for the self-loathing detritus they are, because Dad was always a progressive-minded man. He’d want to move forward.
Today, though, I’m looking back … back on the life of a great American hero who was self-conscious of his heroism but never took it very seriously (except, perhaps, on Father’s Day), a man who served his country, married my mom, raised a family, and left us way too soon. Dad, I remember you.