Monday, 30 April 2012

Losers and winners

WASHINGTON -- Mitt Romney's privileged background and personal wealth will not prevent Americans from voting for him in November's presidential election, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said on Sunday morning.
"The American people do not want to vote for a loser," Boehner told CNN's "State of the Union with Candy Crowley." "They don't want to vote for someone who hasn't been successful."
How about a failed haberdasher?
Or a country lawyer?

Saturday, 28 April 2012

"The unconquerable doing the impossible"

In a recent post I related my radio memories of Jackie Robinson's unphotographed, untelevised, unfilmed, season-saving catch and game-winning homerun on the last day of the 1951 season in Philadelphia. Here's part of Dick Young's report in the New York Daily News, October 1, 1951:

Before he could win the game with his no. 18 seat-smasher, Robby had to save it. He did it with as self-punishing and spectacular a money play as the 31,755 attending fans, thousands of whom had poured down from Brooklyn, will ever see... Eddie Waitkus shot a low, slightly looped liner to the right of second. It seemed ticketed for the hole, labeled Hit..... Game....Pennant.....But Robby diving face-first speared the ball an instant before he hit the ground. As he struck, his elbow dug into his stomach and he lay there in a crumpled heap. Many fans failed to realize he had held the ball until, in his pain, Robby rolled on his side and flipped the pill clear... And here he lay, for several minutes, while trainer Harold Wendler administered to him, trying to restore Jack’s breath, and clear his dazed head. Finally Robby wobbled to his feet and walked off the field to an ovation...

The photo above was taken moments after the catch. Pee-Wee Reese is ministering to Jackie, soon to be joined by Gil Hodges (14). Pitcher Don Newcombe described the scene:

[Robinson] dives after the ball, he catches the line drive in the webbing of his glove, and then hits the ground. His elbow hits him in his stomach. He rolls over, and then Pee-Wee runs over, and Gil runs over and then I run over from the mound to see if Jackie is all right... We don’t see the ball. We don’t see the ball at all. The umpire hasn’t yet made the out call. Jackie is laying on his stomach with the ball in the glove. When Pee-Wee got there and I got there, Jackie said, ‘I’ve got the ball.’ He was hurting because his elbow hit him in the stomach and he held onto the ball. God bless him... We worried about him whether or not he was unconscious. It could have been at least a minute before the umpire made the call. The umpire had to find the ball. Nobody could see it. It didn’t ricochet off Jackie. There was a roar from Dodger fans when Jackie got up, he had the ball.

As usual, Pulitzer Prize-winning sportswriter Red Smith said it best:

The ball is a blur passing second base, difficult to follow in the half light, impossible to catch. Jackie Robinson catches it. He flings himself headlong at right angles to the flight of the ball, for an instant his body is suspended in mid-air, then somehow the outstretched glove intercepts the ball inches off the ground... Of all the pictures left in memory, the one that will always flash back shows Robinson stretched at full length in the insubstantial twilight, the unconquerable doing the impossible.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Is there a doctor, or a Latin scholar, in the house?

I don't know what to say about this item from this morning's New York Post sports section, except that medical diagnoses sure are a lot more detailed than they used to be.

BOSTON — There are legitimate concerns in the Yankees’ hierarchy about Michael Pineda’s right shoulder. Pineda’s first minor league rehab start was cut short Saturday after 15 pitches because of weakness and pain in the hinge.

Of course I am concerned,’’ said general manager Brian Cashman, who sent Jesus Montero and Hector Noesi to Seattle for the 23-year-old Pineda and 19-year-old Jose Campos with the idea that Pineda eventually would develop into a top-of-the-rotation starter. Pineda was examined in Tampa Saturday and was sent to New York, where he will undergo a dye contrast MRI exam MonLorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Integer eu dolor. Integer aliquam, ipsum a lobortis vestibulum, metus libero fermentum sapien, auctor faucibus dolor justo nec dui. Nunc ultrices volutpat ipsum. Aenean velit felis, fringilla ut, tempus sit amet, tempus a, arcu. Aenean quis neque tristique ligula ornare hendrerit. Quisque ac ante. Duis fringilla massa at nisl. Quisque a velit. Donec in tortor. Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Donec nec lacus. Aliquam erat volutpat. Nam placerat. Proin eget mauris in augue consectetur dictum. Cras aliquam consequat

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Jackie Robinson postscript

As soon as I finished my Jackie Robinson tribute, I realized I'd omitted the most heroic performance of his career, in the last game of the 1951 regular season against the Phillies in Philadelphia. It's a game I must write about, because no one else does. The game is almost totally forgotten today, eclipsed by the ensuing three-game playoff against the Giants which ended with Bobby Thomson's famous (make that infamous) "shot heard 'round the world." There are no photos or film clips of Jackie's exploits that day in Philly. It wasn't on television; there's no kinescope; not even an audio clip of the radio broadcast. (Believe me, I've searched.)

The stakes couldn't have been higher. The Dodgers and Giants started the day tied for the league lead. The Dodgers had rallied from a 1-6 deficit and tied the score at 8 with three runs in the eighth. As the game went into extra innings, the Giants had already won their game in Boston, so for Brooklyn it was either win or go home.

I think it was the 11th inning. The Phils had the potential winning run in scoring position with two out. Eddie Waitkus hit a line drive destined to be a season-ending single to center -- until Robinson intervened with a miraculous diving catch. I remember Red Barber went to great lengths, using his wonderful descriptive gifts, to paint a picture of Robinson's catch. I can't recall Red's exact words, but the gist of it was that Jackie had (in the parlance of pro football) sacrificed his body to make that season-saving catch. He was flat-out horizontal, suspended in mid-air, when he closed his glove on the ball. More on the catch here.

The game went on and on, still tied at 8. We were listening while eating dinner. With the stomach-churning tension mounting by the inning, I doubt if I finished my plate that evening. Don Newcombe, normally a starting pitcher (and a warrior if there ever was one, but that's another post), had come in from the bullpen and pitched five and two-thirds innings of one-hit shutout ball. Then in the top of the 14th, Jackie hit the game-winning homerun off Robin Roberts, a monster shot to the left-field upper deck at Shibe Park. Years later Red Barber called Robinson's game that day the greatest clutch performance he ever saw.

So much has been written about Robinson's life over the last 65 years, we know a lot more about the quality of his character now than we did when he was playing. If I were unlucky enough to be a soldier in wartime, under fire and hunkered down in a foxhole where my life might depend on the teamwork and courage of the guy next to me, I'd want that guy to be somebody like Jackie Robinson.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

The way Jackie Robinson played the game

Another anniversary, the 65th, of Jackie Robinson's debut in the major leagues has come and gone. Attention has rightly been paid to his historic importance, and his courage in facing the trials he endured. Jackie's ordeals happened mostly behind the scenes; we learned the details in accounts written after the fact. What I can add here is what we saw with our own eyes at Ebbets Field and on television, a Brooklyn kid's-eye-view of how Jackie played the game, day after day, from 1947 to 1956. Shown above is my favorite photo of Jackie, tormenting the pitcher by dashing down the third-base line. It's my favorite because it encapsulates his style of play, which revolutionized major-league baseball.

Robinson was the most fiercely intense competitor I've ever seen in any sport, and the best baserunner I've ever seen in baseball. As a 28-year-old rookie in 1947, he'd lost much of the sprinter's speed from his track-and-field days at UCLA, but he still had the instincts and agility of an all-American halfback (which he was), the all-round athleticism of an outstanding basketball player (which he was), and the calculated aggressiveness of a high-stakes poker player.

His baserunning was electric. He did things on the basepaths we'd never seen before. Whenever he reached base, which was often (how does a lifetime on-base percentage of .409 sound to you?), the ballpark buzzed with excitement and anticipation. Even when he wasn't stealing bases, his dancing off the bag -- just the threat of a steal -- had an unnerving effect on opposing pitchers.

More than a few times I saw him escape safely from rundowns, a practically impossible feat requiring lightning-fast reflexes and agility. Try playing Running Bases and see how often you can do it. Barring a bad throw or a dropped ball, my guess is never. But that was the point: Jackie's aggressiveness and baserunning instincts forced errors like bad throws and dropped balls.

More than once I saw him advance two bases on a sacrifice bunt. The first time was in his rookie season. We're sitting in the upper deck behind third. Jackie's on first and somebody lays down a bunt to the third baseman. The routine putout is made at first, but Jackie doesn't stop at second; he doesn't even slide. In fielding the bunt the third-baseman has left the bag uncovered, so without missing a stride Jackie runs to third uncontested. The stage direction would read: "Slack-jawed amazement from all in attendance, followed by delirious cheers."

Jackie had a baserunning ploy for which there was no defense. He's on first base and somebody lines a single to left. A no-brainer: with the ball hit ahead of him, the baserunner advances one base, right? Not necessarily. Jackie would round second and go almost halfway to third, as if by mistake, his eyes fixed all the while on the left-fielder. If the left-fielder throws to third, Jackie simply retreats to second; but if the left-fielder takes the bait and throws to second, Jackie easily advances to third. He pulled this off on numerous occasions, the most memorable of which was in a World Series game against the Yankees. The unfortunate left-fielder was Elston Howard (playing out of position). I can still see it: Jackie on first, line single to left; Robinson rounds second, heads for third and stops. Thinking he's got Robinson trapped, Howard throws behind him, to second base, and Jackie does not run to third base -- he saunters to third base with that unforgettable pigeon-toed trot of his. I'd never before heard the sound of 34,000 people laughing and cheering at the same time.

To me the most daring, electrifying play in sports, and one of the rarest, is the steal of home -- not as part of a double steal with runners at first and third, but the pure steal of home. Today the play is nearly extinct because pitchers use the stretch, i.e. they come to a full stop, with a runner on third. In the 1940s and 50s, pitchers still used the full wind-up with a runner on third, making the steal of home possible, though still immensely difficult. We've seen countless reruns of Jackie's steal of home off Whitey Ford in the 1955 World Series, hotly disputed by Yogi Berra:

What most fans don't know -- because there are no film clips or kinescopes -- is that Jackie stole home nineteen times in his career.

Stealing home against the Cubs, 1952. The batter is Preacher Roe.

Baserunning was just one aspect of Robinson's game. I could also rhapsodize about his defensive abilities, but Bill James, the guru of Sabermetric statistics, has already done that. At the beginning of his rookie season, with no advance notice, Robinson, a natural middle infielder, was handed a first-baseman's glove and told, "You're now our first-baseman." (Eddie Stanky was holding down second base at the time.) After doing a creditable job at first in 1947, Robinson was the league's best defensive second-baseman from 1948 to 1952. In 1953 when Jim Gilliam broke in, Robinson was shifted to third base. According to Bill James, wherever Robinson played defensively, "he's off the charts. Nobody else (post-1940) is even in the same zone." Later in his career, Robinson played some left field. Even there, in James' book, "he rates as sensational."

"Robinson may in fact have been a far better defensive player than most people think he was," writes James. "If it's a statistical illusion of some kind, it's an illusion that chases him all over the diamond. Never underestimate the power of intelligence, particularly when that intelligence is combined with athletic ability, determination, and a formidable competitive instinct."

I have one final, corrective note to add. Everyone loves Jackie Robinson -- now. In his time he was loved by many, but considered a royal pain in the butt by many others, and not just by bigots or opposing teams or partisans of opposing teams. Jackie was combative, always pushing, always impatient for racial progress, never satisfied. When more black players arrived in the major leagues, he wanted to know why there weren't any black coaches or managers. When blacks started entering the managerial ranks, he wanted to know why there weren't any black owners. Barely-concealed resentment of Robinson flowed regularly from the baseball establishment and The Sporting News. A certain Hall of Fame pitcher in the American League called him an ingrate, unappreciative of all that baseball had done for him. Certain sportswriters for New York tabloids hated his "pushy" attitude. They are all forgotten now. Jackie Robinson is remembered.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Ethel Waters: "Bread and Gravy"

Shocking, shameful, unconscionable that I've been blogging for over a year without posting any Ethel Waters.

Although Brooklyn Girl, to whose nutritional knowledge I owe my health, would not approve of the diet limned by the title, this neglected Hoagy Carmichael song is a favorite of mine. The only other recording of it that I know, a stunningly beautiful one, is by the late Barbara Lea.

Bread and Gravy could easily have remained undiscovered. It was written in 1935, shortly before Carmichael severed connection with publisher Ralph Peer, but it wasn't until 1939 that Peer got around to copyrighting it, along with some other Carmichael songs he had on hand. Fortunately, the publisher made the inspired decision to have Ethel Waters record it for Bluebird. The accompanying band is led by Waters' then-husband Eddie Mallory, with Shirley Clay on trumpet, Tyree Glenn, vibes, Danny Barker, guitar, and Milt Hinton (still sorely missed by BG, by me, and by everyone who ever met him) on bass.
Ethel Waters once said, "A song is a story--that's how it is to me--and I sing it so it tells the story." I like the way Dick Sudhalter, in his Carmichael biography Stardust Melody, has described the story of Bread and Gravy: "[It] celebrates a happiness achieved after times of poverty and slender means, and sustained by faith. The protagonist is black, but the vision, the 'message,' applies to anyone struggling to keep his head up in Depression-era America. Hang on, it seems to say; work hard, and the good life will be yours."