THOMSON, BRANCA, STOLEN SIGNS AND THE HOME RUN THAT MADE BASEBALL HISTORY
The passing of Ralph Branca last week at the age of 90 effectively closes the book on live interviews with all directly involved with Bobby Thomson’s Shot-Heard-Round-the-World home run that won the 1951 National League pennant for the New York Giants against the Brooklyn Dodgers. While I was a witness to the event on television as an almost nine-year old, it still seems a bit strange to say New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers, despite both teams being fully ingrained in my childhood as a New York baseball fan. It was that long ago.
But now Branca, Thomson, managers Leo Durocher and Charlie Dressen are all gone, as are most of the others on both teams from that grand era – Jackie Robinson, Monte Irvin, Gil Hodges, Alvin Dark, Pee Wee Reese, Eddie Stanky, Roy Campanella, Wes Westrum et al. Thankfully, the wonderful Willie Mays still survives. But what won’t ever die is what happened on that October 3, afternoon, 65 years ago at the old Polo Grounds in New York. And with it, there remains a bit of controversy.
I’m writing this from a very personal standpoint. In 1990 a friend contacted me, told me he had met Bobby Thomson and asked if I’d be interested in writing his story if Bobby agreed. He felt it was important to get Bobby’s story out as the 40th anniversary of his home run would be celebrated the following year. We met Bobby at a restaurant in New York City and, over lunch, talked about him doing a book. He was polite and obviously humble. He said it was not easy for him to talk about himself and didn’t think he wanted to do it. But when my friend explained to him that a book could serve as his legacy for his children, grandchildren and their children, he finally changed his mind. I wrote the proposal and we sold it quickly.
Once I began working on what was going to be his autobiography I soon hit a roadblock. Bobby was extremely modest and very careful, and he didn’t really seem to open up. He was hesitant to say anything that could be construed as remotely negative about anyone. I soon began to see a book that would be dry, bereft of colorful anecdotes from a great era in baseball and, to be honest, not all that interesting. An example. I was working with him at his home in New Jersey one day and asked him how he felt when he learned the Giants had traded him to the Braves prior to the 1954 season. In his usual dry fashion, he began to say, “Well, you know, it’s part of baseball. . .” His wife, Winkie, an extremely sweet woman, was sitting across the room, knitting. When she heard what he had said she spoke up for the first time, never taking her eyes off her knitting or missing a stitch. “Bob,” she said. “Tell him how you really felt. You were devastated.”
But he still wasn’t giving me enough. That’s when I decided to change the focus of the book – ultimately called The Giants Win the Pennant! The Giants Win the Pennant! – to a degree. I decided to alternate chapters, telling Bobby’s story in the first person, then recreating the entire pennant race in third person. I wound up interviewing about 35 other individuals from that long ago season, members of both the Giants and Dodgers, and others associated with both teams. It turned into a labor of love, talking to players I had watched as a kid and it made for a much better book.
Ralph Branca and Leo
One of the highlights of doing the book was getting Leo Durocher to write the Foreword and Ralph Branca the Afterword. Leo was in California so we talked to him by phone. He only agreed because it was Bobby and he obviously had a great fondness for him. When we called him, me on one end and Bobby on the other, he answered with a gruff Hello! It was the irascible Leo so many people knew. But as soon as he heard Bobby’s voice on the other end he softened and was very amiable, even after he was introduced to me. Leo died in October of 1991, and I’m pretty sure it was one of the last interviews he did.
Then there was Ralph Branca. I met Ralph in person and couldn’t have been more pleased. I’m sure many of you have read much about him in recent days, about the class and dignity he exuded and how well he handled giving up perhaps the most famous home run in baseball history. I liked him from the moment we met. He was open and forthcoming, charming and funny, and he told stories. I had nothing against Bobby. He was also an extremely fine man, but I remember thinking how much more interesting and fun it would have been to have been working with Ralph on the book. He and Bobby were good friends by that time and when the book was published the following fall, they did several book signings together in New York City. Ralph, of course, was paid something by the publisher to appear. After all, it wasn’t his book. But he had no problem signing the books along with Bobby, talking about that fateful day and giving buyers something special to remember. He never ran and hid.
Bobby, on the other hand, wasn’t an aggressive promoter. He was on every radio and TV sports talk show that fall, sometimes appearing with Ralph. But when he was alone he wouldn’t even mention the book unless he was asked. The publisher probably wasn’t happy, but knowing Bobby as I did by then, I realized it was just part of his personality. In fact when he was trying to decide what to do after his baseball career ended, he began referring to himself as Robert Thomson, as if he was trying to hide from his baseball playing days and the home run. It wasn’t until the memorabilia craze began some years later that he realized it was to his advantage to once again be Bobby Thomson, the guy who had hit one of the epic home runs in baseball history.
The Sign Stealing Controversy
Now here’s something that sticks in my craw a bit. Maybe it shouldn’t and there are probably some baseball people and baseball historians who won’t agree with me. But it’s something I feel I have to discuss.
When the 50th anniversary of The Shot Heard Round the World approached in 2001, HBO was planning a documentary to commemorate the event and invited me to participate. At the same time, the publisher decided to reissue the book. It would be the same book that came out ten years earlier with the exception of one addition. They asked me to write something about what had become something of a controversy. A reporter from the Wall Street Journal had written a story in early February that the paper broke as startling news. The story declared that during the second half of the 1951season the Giants were stealing opposing catchers’ signs in games at the Polo Grounds. It said there was a “spy” in the center field clubhouse with a powerful spyglass. He would spot whether the pitcher was going to throw a fastball or breaking ball, then buzz the bullpen identifying the coming pitch. Someone in the pen would signal the hitter. Often it was backup catcher Sal Yvars who told the hitters to watch him. He would be holding a baseball in his hand. If the upcoming pitch was a fastball he would do nothing. If it was a breaking ball, he’d flip the ball in the air.
The implications of this were simple. Did Bobby Thomson know that Ralph Branca’s second pitch was going to be a fastball and did that help him hit his famous home run? If so, would Bobby be considered less of a hero and Ralph less of a goat? And if true, was one of the iconic events in baseball history about to be tarnished?
But was this really a “scoop” coming to light a half century later? I never thought so.
In fact, in my original 1991 book I spoke to sign stealing, something that had gone on since the beginning of baseball. Every team did it or tried to do it, among many other things they did to get an edge. Manager Leo Durocher was a win at all costs guy and during his entire career, as both a player and then manager, he always looked for ways to get an advantage over the opposition. Supposedly the shenanigans started in the second half of the season, especially after the Giants trailed the Dodgers by 13 ½ games after Brooklyn won the first game of an August 11, doubleheader. After that, the Giants embarked on a 16-game winning streak and played .800 ball the rest of the way, leading to a tie at the end of the regular season and the best two-of-three playoff.
In my original text I referred to a two-game sweep of the Dodgers by the Giants September 1st and 2nd that cut the lead to 5 games. In those contests, Don Mueller set a record by hitting five home runs. Mueller was far from a slugger and had just 65 home runs in a 13-year career. In 1951, he had a career best 16, not exactly in Babe Ruth territory. But after that game there was a story that Leo had someone in the center field clubhouse with binoculars stealing signs The story said Mueller knew every pitch that was coming or he never would have hit the five home runs. Remember, this was a story from 1951, not a “scoop” 50 years later.
Dick Williams, a rookie with the Dodgers that year and later an outstanding manager, said that “Leo definitely had a guy in the clubhouse stealing signs with a spyglass. He’d beep it to one of their guys in the bullpen, who would then relay it in.” Two former Giants, Willard Marshall and Walker Cooper, also corroborated the story. “There was a lot of sign stealing going on back then,” Marshall said. “When I was with the Giants we had Bill Rigney in the clubhouse with a spyglass. The funny part was that there were guys who still couldn’t hit the ball even when they knew what was coming. I remember one game when we were stealing signs against Pittsburgh and they still shut us out.”
Walker Cooper, a fine catcher in his day, added this. “Sure, the Giants were stealing signs from the clubhouse. But other teams were doing it, also. I remember a game with the Cubs before I left the Giants. We were calling their signs from our clubhouse and they were stealing our signs from their clubhouse. And we lost, 6-0.” The guys still didn’t hit even when they knew what was coming. In Comiskey Park they used to have a guy out in the scoreboard stealing signs. The guy would use a towel to signal his team. Believe it or not, Leo wasn’t the only manager in the league with a spotter.”
There were other ways as well. Runners on second would often steal signs or learn the catchers sign sequence. And there were times when runners would signal the hitter from second base, which was an even faster way to do it. Bobby Thomson said that teammates Alvin Dark and Eddie Stanky were real good at it. Dark and Stanky flashed the signals with their feet. If their first move off the bag was with the right foot it meant a fastball was coming. If it was with the left or a cross-over step, it was a curve. Remember, this was all included in my original book in 1991.
Obviously, much of the same thing occurred before 1951. While the Wall Street Journal story surprised a lot of people from contemporary times, those who played in that bygone era knew sign stealing was expected, the norm rather than the exception. And it wasn’t even illegal then. Even the use of a telescope or spyglass broke no rules. Sign stealing using mechanical means wasn’t outlawed until 1961.
Some hitters didn’t even want the signs. Hall of Famer Monte Irvin, who had a huge year in 1951, admitted to me that sign stealing was indeed happening. “Leo asked me if I wanted the signs,” Irvin said. “Wouldn’t you want to know when a big fat fastball was coming?” was the way he put it. Irvin replied, “Yeah, if I was one-hundred percent sure; nobody is.”
Another fact to note was that during their incredible drive to the pennant, the Giants had a better record on the road than at home, when they weren’t stealing the signs unless it was on the bases. So much for the big advantage. They were a red hot ballclub that seemed to do nothing wrong. Streaks happen in baseball all the time. A hot team will win, whether stealing signs or not.
The Shot Heard Round the World
Can you make a case that the Giants’ sign stealing played a role in Bobby Thomson’s epic home run? I guess that depends on your point of view. Remember, the batter still has to hit the pitch and that isn’t easy. There’s evidence of that in the aforementioned comments above. And I’ve always wondered about the timing. A hitter has to concentrate fully on the pitcher. As soon as the catcher gives the sign, the pitcher goes into his windup. If at that point someone was buzzing the pitch to the bullpen – which was located in fair territory out in left field at the Polo Grounds – would the batter really be able to take his eyes off the pitcher, look down to the pen nearly 300 feet away for someone sitting still or flipping a ball, then look back at the mound when the pitch was about to be delivered or maybe already on the way? That’s what has always bugged me about the story. It couldn’t have been easy to get the sign that way and still be ready to hit.
But how did the two principals react when the Wall Street Journal story broke? Pretty much as you’d expect from two decent and honorable men, by then very good friends. Ralph Branca put it this way:
“I’ve known [about the sign stealing] since 1954, but I never said anything. When I was traded to Detroit that year a guy on the Tigers, who had a friend who played on the 1951 Giants, told me about the sign stealing. But until now, Sal Yvars . . . was the only other guy who ever mentioned it to me.
“When I was told, I knew I would never say anything. I would sound like a sore loser. For one thing, as time went on, [the home run] became one of the legendary moments in sports, and I didn’t want to tarnish it. Two, Bobby became a good friend, and he’s a humble guy with good values. I don’t want to tarnish what he did. I think he hit a tough pitch.”
But Ralph did admit that the story which broke in 2001 gave him a crack in the door to put his foot through. “I’m ambivalent,” he said. “I don’t think it ruins the number one moment in baseball history, but it opens it up for me to talk. I’m glad to talk. I get tired of being introduced as a good pitcher who’s known for throwing one pitch.”
You can’t blame Branca for that inch of wiggle room. It doesn’t change history but maybe it changed the perception of him, if just a little bit. As for Bobby, he was in an even tougher spot in some ways. But he also didn’t back away from the inevitable questions. “Sure, I’ve taken signs,” he admitted, adding, “obviously, in the not-very-nice way the Giants did it. Stealing signs is nothing to be proud of.”
At the same time, Bobby continued to maintain that he didn’t have the signs during that last, epic at bat. “It would take a little away from me in my mind if I got help on the pitch. My answer is no. I was too busy concentrating on what I had to do when I got to the plate. I told myself, ‘Give yourself a chance to hit, you son of a bitch.’ I got back to fundamentals. I waited and watched for my pitch, and I was always proud of that swing.”
But then again, does it really matter? Sign stealing was the norm back then, one way or another. As with everything else, some pushed the envelop more than others. But Leo Durocher wasn’t the only one using the spyglass method. And there were other ways as well. Crafty managers, coaches and players are always watching the opposing pitcher for any sign or “tell” that might indicate what his next pitch is. Some pitchers have been burned by “tipping” their pitches. It’s all part of the game and back then none of it was illegal.
The epic confrontation between Bobby Thomson and Ralph Branca wasn’t only a meeting between hitter and pitcher. It was also a meeting between two genuinely good and honorable men. Proof of the pudding is the way they later became lifelong friends. Branca may have had the short end of the stick. After all, he threw the fateful pitch. But it’s hard to imagine anyone handling it any better, and in such a dignified way, for so long a time. Both lived long lives. Bobby died a couple of months shy of his 87th birthday in 2010 and Ralph last week at the age of 90. There was nary a bad word ever said about either of them. Looking at it in this way, at the kind of human beings both were, you can make a case that each, in his own way, was a hero. They will surely be missed, but their moment in baseball history will live forever.
— Bill Gutman
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VIN SCULLY – THE LAST OF THE CLASSIC ANNOUNCERS
If you’re an old time baseball fan you’ve got to love Vin Scully. It’s that simple. To listen to the esteemed Mr. Scully call a baseball game is sheer joy – an exercise in concise, informative poetic description. He levels the playing field between the game and the fan, let’s you see (on television) or hear (on radio) exactly what is happening on the diamond. He’s never intrusive or over-the-top, doesn’t scream or make sure he includes forced “signature calls.” In other words, he does the job the way it was supposed to be done. Calling a game on radio he can paint a beautiful word picture of the action. On television, he let’s the camera do the job and augments it with his accurate and astute commentary. And until Sunday, he had done it every single season since 1950. That’s an incredible 67 years in the broadcast booth. He certainly deserves to be called the best ever. He has truly earned it.
With Vin Scully’s retirement at the age of 88, baseball fans have not only lost a true treasure, but also the last of the classic announcers. The way the media is set up today almost insures there will never be another. For baseball fans like myself, who began following the game in the early 1950s, that’s a damned shame.
When Bronx born Vin Scully, fresh out of Fordham University, was hired by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1950, he couldn’t believe his good fortune. Not only would he be calling baseball games, but would be working with a couple of veteran announcers – Red Barber and Connie Desmond. Barber was one of the best and Desmond wasn’t far behind. Baseball on television was in its infancy then and most of the classic announcers had cut their teeth on radio. That meant they had to pay attention and let the listeners know everything that was happening on the field. Fans depended on them to describe how the players looked, how they ran, threw and hit, and how each play came down. To do it well was an art, as was the transition to television, where they had to learn when not to speak, though in those days there were no multi-camera angles, slo-mo and certainly not five or six showings of the same play. So the announcers had to be very accurate in their depictions.
Young Vin Scully apprenticed under the best. And he undoubtedly listened to some of the other greats of the day such as Mel Allen, Russ Hodges, Ernie Harwell, Bob Prince, Jack Buck, Harry Caray. Jim Woods and others. Not only were they all fine announcers, as were those who came directly after them or during their long tenures, but they all had their individual styles. No two were alike. So Scully joined the baseball broadcasting fraternity at perhaps the most opportune time. He listened, learned and honed his skills. And when the Dodgers moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles after the 1957 season, he went with them and soon became a living legend and a west coast institution..
Much has changed in the broadcasting world since those halcyon baseball days of the 1950s. One tradition Vin Scully kept alive, only by the virtue of his immense talent and the fact that his bosses wanted to keep him happy, was that he worked solo. No two and three-man broadcasting booth for him. He didn’t need an analyst to intrude with almost every pitch. That’s how it usually was in the old days. If there were two team announcers in the 1950s, one would broadcast the television feed, the other would be on radio. Every three innings or so they would switch. Not today.
Today it often seems the philosophy is the more, the merrier. There are at least two people in the broadcast booth for a televised game, more often three, and several on radio as well. That means they’re all vying for mike time. The play-by-play guy keeps it pretty straight and then gives way to the analysts who pick apart every aspect of the game. They tell you why the pitcher threw each pitch, why it was or wasn’t successful, and why the hitter succeeded or failed. They are usually talking right up until the next pitch is thrown. They analyze the pitchers’ motions and the batters’ stances. Some make it sound as if they know more about the game than the players themselves.
Often there are one or two former players in the booth. That they want to become broadcasters after their playing days end is fine. Some did it in the old days, going back to the great Dizzy Dean. But more often than not today, they swap old war stories, relate anecdotes about their own playing days, and sometimes even talk about their families or what they did during the day before game time. Don’t get me wrong, they can also contribute by imparting their baseball knowledge in a concise manner, but all of it together just adds to the constant talk, talk, talk during a televised game.
Then there are the signature calls. So many broadcasters today make sure they develop a signature call as a source of identity for them. Whether it’s a home run call (the most common), or simply a particular phraseology on a fly ball or a diving stop, they always do it the same way, usually while yelling and screaming. And sometimes that signature call gets in the way of accuracy. Maybe they should be reminded that the game isn’t about them.
One intrusion today that is not the fault of the broadcasters is the endless number of commercials they must read, especially on the radio. Every movement on the field has a sponsor. A trip to the mound has a sponsor, a call to the bullpen has a sponsor, giving the score of another game has a sponsor and so on. It never ends and has become yet another way the game is compromised for the true fan. But commercials make money for the home team and radio station so it can only get worse.
And finally there are the new statistics, sometimes called analytics or sabermetrics. Today there is a statistic for everything and many of today’s broadcasters have either bought into it on their own or have been told to use and discuss analytics when on the air. Teams now employ many of these stats to evaluate young players and prospects, and front offices are now driven by these endless computerized stats. That’s fine and really a story for another time. For instance, in many cases, the General Manager has more power in running the day-to-day operations of the team than the manager. That’s just the way it is.
But when the broadcasters and analysts in the three-person booths begin using stats incessantly, well then it intrudes upon the game. We all knew basic stats when growing up with the game – batting average, runs batted in, earned run average, etc. But today it’s expanded to initialized stats such as OPS, GPA, ISO, WAR, WHIP, BABIP, and more. I guarantee most old time baseball fans don’t even know what they mean and won’t take the time to learn. I know I won’t. They simply don’t enhance the beauty of the game for me.
Who really cares what the “exit velocity” is when a batter hits the ball? Or the miles per hour when an outfielder throws to home plate? And why would anyone want to know how successful the route to the ball taken by an outfielder is by percentage when he is making or trying to make a running catch? These stats are often presented with all kinds of crazy on-screen graphics. Unfortunately, today’s broadcasters are probably told to make the new stats part of their repertoire. For veteran fans like myself, the constant combination of statistical yap and on-screen graphics gets in the way of enjoying what used to be just a baseball game.
Vin Scully did none of this, not in 66 years behind the mike. When I listened to him call his final game on Sunday it was almost like listening to him in Brooklyn a lifetime ago taking the mike for a couple of innings from Red Barber, his mentor. He always stayed true to himself and true to the game. In all respects, he is the last of the classic announcers.
His final sign-off was simple and to the point. He closed his broadcast by telling viewers, “I have said enough for a lifetime and for the last time I wish you a very pleasant good afternoon.”
But for many old baseball fans like myself, a lifetime of Vin Scully still is not enough.
— Bill Gutman
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MUHAMMAD ALI AND THE LAST GREAT ERA IN BOXING
The recent death of Muhammad Ali in a sense heralded the end of the last great era in boxing. At least for me. Having never met him, I certainly can’t say anything about Ali that hasn’t already been said. But in keeping with the theme of my blog, I can look back at his career in the context of my many years as a boxing fan and as someone who saw a majority of the great fights from the mid 1950s into the 1980s.
I began watching the fights early and, in the mid-1950s, there were plenty to watch on TV. You had the Wednesday Night Fights, sponsored by Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, and the Friday Night Fights brought to you by Gillette Blue Blades. Many of the top fighters of the day appeared often so that we quickly got to know them and their various skills in the ring. You could also catch some fights from St. Nicholas Arena in New York on Saturday nights. So boxing back then was a major attraction on television.
We watched all the fights we could. Didn’t matter if they were lightweights, welterweights, middleweights or light-heavyweights. But back then, the most glamorous division without a doubt was the heavyweights. In fact, many from that period still felt that the heavyweight boxing champion held the most prestigious title in all of sports. The lineage was a great one, starting with John L. Sullivan and Gentleman Jim Corbett, then moving on to Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano. Those last four are always positioned very high on the endless lists of the greatest heavies ever.
My memories of the heavyweights go back to the late 1940s. In June of 1948 I remember sitting with my grandfather listening to the Joe Louis/Jersey Joe Walcott title fight on one of those old console radios that was taller than I was at that time. I didn’t know a whole lot about boxing then, but I certainly did some eight years later. On November 30, 1956 I was 14 years old and having what was then known then as a boy/girl party at my house, all kids I knew from school. My best buddy and I actually left the party (and the girls), went upstairs and sat with my father watching Floyd Patterson win the vacated heavyweight title at the age of 21, defeating the ageless veteran and former light-heavyweight king, Archie Moore. Floyd quickly became a favorite and from then on the heavyweights were special. And, looking back at it all, this is where the link to Muhammad Ali began.
Floyd was a good fighter, far from a great one, an undersized heavyweight weighing in the 180’s. He probably would have been better off as a light-heavyweight. His signature punch was a leaping left hook and his Achilles heel was a glass jaw. He was still the champion in June of 1959 when he fought a contender from Sweden named Ingemar Johansson, who claimed he had a right hand like the “hammer of Thor.” He did. He decked Floyd seven times in round three and took the title.
This was about the time the biggest fights were no longer available on free home television. Before the era of pay per view cable, you had to see them in a movie theater or an arena, where they were shown on big screens. A couple of friends and myself drove from Stamford, Connecticut, to the Hartford Civic Center in Hartford, Connecticut, to watch the Patterson/Johansson rematch on June 20, 1960. There was a lot of nationalism in the crowd that night and when Floyd KO’d the Swede with a patented leaping left hook in the fifth round, we all went nuts and cheered wildly. It was a great night and perhaps Floyd Patterson’s finest hour.
That same year, a young light-heavyweight named Cassius Marcellus Clay would win a boxing gold medal at the Rome Olympics with not much national fanfare, though those who watched saw a good-looking, engaging young man with a winning smile and a world of speed in the ring.
This is where things became interesting and the memories are vivid. Patterson would stop Johansson again in a rubber match in March of 1961. By September of 1962, he signed to meet a new top contender – Charles “Sonny” Liston. If there ever was a good vs. evil fight, this was it. Liston was a burly man with a permanent scowl on his face and a checkered past. He had an abusive childhood, turned to crime early and wound up in prison, where he learned to box. Even as he climbed the heavyweight ranks there was talk about underworld associations. His birth date was hazy, but he was at least 30 years old when he finally got his title shot. One other thing was certain. Liston packed a wallop with either hand. He had a pulverizing left jab and a pile-driving right. Now he’d be fighting Floyd Patterson for the title.
At the time, I was at Washington College on the eastern shore of Maryland. My buddy got tickets for the fight at a movie theater in Baltimore. I drove for two hours to see two minutes and six seconds of action. Liston walked through Floyd as if he wasn’t there stopping him easily in the first round. In July of 1963 they had a rematch. We were home from school for the summer and this time drove to the White Plains Civic Center to see the fight. This one lasted longer. Four seconds longer. Liston again destroyed Floyd, this time at 2:10 of the first round. Boxing now had a heavyweight champion who looked indestructible.
That fall, we traveled to a resort in the Catskills to watch Liston train in person. With that scowl still on his face, he jumped rope to the James Brown hit, Night Train, then sparred with a couple of members of his stable. We watched in awe, all of us thinking that no one could possibly defeat this big, angry man who looked ready to destroy anyone or anything in his path.
At the same time, young Cassius Clay had turned pro. He made his debut in October of 1960 and was now fighting as a heavyweight. He had tremendous hand and foot speed, and by the end of 1963 was unbeaten in 19 fights. He was already showing the world – at least the world of boxing – his brash personality. He could be engaging and funny, but was also full of braggadocio and often denigrated his opponents, spouted is own brand of poetry and often predicted the round in which he’s win. People weren’t sure quite what to think.
Finally, he was matched with Liston and most felt the kid from Louisville was in for a comeuppance. I was among those who felt this way, especially after seeing Liston train in person. The fight took place on February 26, 1964, and may well have altered the whole history of boxing. Young Clay won when Liston didn’t come out for the seventh round. Many felt Liston was overconfident and out of shape. True or not, he couldn’t deal with Clay’s speed and ended up quitting on his stool.
Boxing had a new champion and, very soon after, the champion had a new name. Cassius Clay announced shortly afterward that he had converted to Islam, was affiliated with the Nation of Islam, and eventually changed his name to Muhammad Ali. Because it was in an era of increasing black militarism, many whites began looking at him as the enemy because groups such as the Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam frightened them.
In May there was more boxing business, a return match with Liston. This was the strange fight that was moved to a tiny venue in Lewiston, Maine, and featured the “phantom punch,” a short right that put Liston on the canvas in the first round. To this day some feel the fight with either fixed, or that Liston took a dive. The quick right that Ali threw was even missed by many at ringside, and those who saw it didn’t think it had the power to put a big man like Liston down . . . and out. I know I didn’t. But he had won again and was definitely the champ. Only by changing his name and adopting Islam as his religion, boxing’s young champion had traded potential popularity to become a polarizing figure.
The rest of the story is well known. Ali continued to mesmerize in the ring, beating all comers until March of 1966. A year earlier he had refused induction into the military at the height of the Vietnam War and the next year was stripped of his heavyweight crown. He wouldn’t fight from March of 1967 until October of 1970. He had also been convicted of draft evasion and sentenced to five years in prison. But he remained out of jail pending appeal and the conviction was eventually overturned.
Ali had lost almost four years of his prime and was 28 years old when he finally returned to the ring. In the interim a tough, left-hooking banger named “Smokin’” Joe Frazier had become champ. Ali won two fights – against Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena – before signing to meet Frazier for the title on March 8, 1971, at Madison Square Garden. Both were unbeaten and the contest was billed as “The Fight of the Century.”
Ali could still fight, but the dazzling foot speed that characterized his pre-stripped career was only present in flashes. Yet he still pummeled Frazier in flurries, while Smokin’ Joe kept coming, bobbing and weaving, and throwing that devastating left hook. It was a close fight into the 15th round when Frazier landed a Sunday punch, a left hook that put Ali on the canvas. He got up quickly, took the eight count, and finished. Frazier won a close, but unanimous decision to retain his title as Muhammad Ali suffered his first loss.
There’s really no sense going fight to fight from this point. The bottom line is this. Big George Foreman would KO Frazier to take the title. During this time Ali kept campaigning, but now there was a difference. He began to take more punishment, being hit harder and more often, his dazzling foot speed in evidence only in flashes, but no more. Before being stripped of the title, few opponents could lay a glove on him. He was the fastest heavyweight I had ever seen.
Against a rugged heavy named Ken Norton, Ali had his jaw broken and lost for only the second time in his career. He would avenge that defeat in yet another bruising bout. He also fought Joe Frazier a second time, winning a unanimous decision as the two adversaries pummeled each other once again. Then in October of 1974 he finally got another title shot, this one in the African country of Zaire against George Foreman. It was dubbed the Rumble in the Jungle. Most felt the power-punching Foreman would catch the now less mobile Ali and KO him. Instead Ali, the overwhelming crowd favorite, used a new strategy. He just rested against the ropes, covered up and allowed Foreman to keep punching at him but never getting a clean shot. He called his style of resting on the ropes the Rope-A-Dope. It worked.
By the eighth round Foreman was exhausted and Ali came off the ropes to knock the big guy out. He had regained the title and probably should have retired right then and there. But he didn’t, defeating three lesser contenders, then agreeing to a third fight with old rival Frazier to be held in October of 1975 in Manila, the Philippines. Many felt Smokin’ Joe was finished and it would be an easy Ali victory. Instead, it would be forever known as the Thrilla in Manilla.
For 14 rounds the two pounded away at each other. No matter what Ali did Frazier kept coming at him and throwing those left hooks. It was anyone’s fight, but when both of Frazier’s eyes were almost swelled shut by the end of the 14th, his trainer wouldn’t let him continue. Ali had won a fight held in almost 100 degree heat and said later, “It was the closest thing to dying I know.”
Again he should have retired, but he would stay in the ring until 1981. In 1978 – 36 years old and out of shape – he would lose the title to former Olympian, Leon Spinks, an unschooled banger who had just seven pro fights at the time. Then he won it back in a lackluster return match, becoming the first fighter to win the heavyweight title three times. Soon after that bout he did announce his retirement, but in October of 1980 after a battle to prove he was fit to fight, went up against the new champion, Larry Holmes, and took a bad beating until the fight was stopped in the 11th round. Ali would go to the well one more time, in December of 1981, losing a decision to journeyman Trevor Berbick. By this time he was a sad shell of his former self and many were beginning to fear for his health.
In a sense, this is a story of two Muhammad Ali’s on several fronts. As a boxer, none of us who saw him before he was stripped of his title will ever forget him. His speed and movement in the ring were a thing of beauty. He was rarely hit hard, had a great left jab and extremely quick hands. Despite knocking out Liston with the phantom punch in Lewiston, he wasn’t a one-punch knockout artist. He wore his opponents down.
When he returned to the ring in 1970 the foot speed was only evident in short bursts, and that made him more of a target. Then as he moved past the age of 30 his reflexes began to slow and the foot speed diminished even more. What he proved then was that he had a granite jaw and could take a punch. That isn’t necessarily a good thing, because it allows the punches to pile up. Most feel that the punishment he absorbed after returning to the ring in 1970 and staying for another 11 years contributed to his eventual health problems and physical decline.
But something else happened during this period and beyond. The boastful Ali, the one who insulted and denigrated his opponents, began to fade away, replaced by a more candid and humble athlete who still called himself the greatest, but in a more playful manner. And the militant rhetoric of the Nation of Islam and other black power groups from the 1960s also began to abate. Now Muhammad showed more and more that his conversion to Islam wasn’t a ploy and that he wasn’t a puppet for someone else’s agenda. He genuinely believed in his religion and began to speak more about understanding and peace between various religious groups, as well as for continued equality between the races. He also often traveled worldwide and was greeted everywhere with love and adoration. He became was not only the most popular athlete in the world, but also one of the most well-known people in the world. In retirement he had become a true American icon.
Unfortunately, while boxing can give much to its champions, it can take from them, as well, especially when they stay too long at the dance. What might Muhammad Ali accomplished had he been in full health these past 20 years? Alas, we’ll never know. Though he continued traveling at first eventually he was slowed terribly by his illness. And that’s a shame.
I continued to follow and watch boxing as great fighters in the lighter divisions came to the fore. Robert Duran, Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns, Marvin Hagler, Oscar De La Hoya, Felix Trinidad, Aaron Pryor, Alexis Arguello, Bernard Hopkins and others put on some great fights and brought back the excitement that Muhammad Ali had created. But once the sun began setting on this group, my lifelong interest in a sport once called the “sweet science” also began to fade.
Maybe it was my own age catching up. Having watched a sport that is basically brutal for so many years was no longer quite so appealing. I also tired of the many champions in even more divisions as the various governing bodies all had a belt to give out. In the early days there was one champ in each and you knew them all. The lack of the sport on television also didn’t allow the familiarity with the fighters that we had years ago. And the rising prices for pay-per-view bouts that might be good or bad was yet another turnoff.
The sport just wasn’t the same, losing much of its popularity to the even more brutal mixed martial arts fights, something I had little interest in watching. So for me, the age of Muhammad Ali and the aforementioned fighters who came along as he was beginning to fade constitutes the last great era in boxing. I won’t lie and say I didn’t enjoy it over the years. I did, including the excitement that young Cassius Clay brought to the sport as he morphed into Muhammad Ali and forged a legacy that will never be forgotten.
— Bill Gutman
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Blog Challenge Reflections
This was my first A to Z Challenge and there was no doubt in my mind that I would complete it. When you start something, you finish it, even if it becomes a chore. Fortunately, it didn’t. Though it was work, I enjoyed it very much.
Why was it work? Because I believe in writing well thought out blogs that tend to be on the longer side, usually between 1,000 and 1,500 words. My theme was Looking Back, and having some 73 years under my belt, there was quite a lot at which to look back. Many of my blogs contained personal remembrances and reflections, while others focused on people I have known, admired, or researched for writing projects.
After I decided to participate in mid-March, I wanted to get a jump on things by writing a number of blogs in advance and then staying ahead of the game. But as usually happens, life gets in the way. An old friend needed my help in shaping and editing a proposal she was preparing for a possible TV sitcom. It was a paid job so I couldn’t turn it down. And later in the month I had to check over some edits of an update I wrote for a 10-year-old book that is being reissued later this year. So by the end of the Challenge I was writing the blogs the day before they had to be posted. But it still worked out well.
What surprised me, however, once I began randomly looking at others, was how short many people made their blogs. I saw blogs that consisted of just two or three paragraphs, and actually saw a couple that were just one-liners. I was also told by someone that people don’t like long blogs because they want to read through as many as they can. That might be fine for some but I found I couldn’t work that way. I’ve never believed in style over substance, thus my blogs continued to be the length I described above.
The longer blogs and the other work that I had prevented me from reading as many others as I would have liked, and perhaps that is why not that many people seemed to read mine. But I enjoyed the Challenge and the theme I chose, and have no regrets about doing it the way I wanted.
Will I do it again? I guess it depends on my workload next year when the Challenge rolls around. If I decide to participate, I’m sure I’ll do it the same way I did this year. For me, it’s the only way.
— Bill Gutman
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A TO Z BLOG CHALLENGE
Z is for Al Zarilla
Well, we’re finally at the end of the line. The final blog in the Challenge, the letter Z. This is probably one of the tougher ones for many people unless they want to write about the zoo. When I was thinking about it a name popped into my head, one from very long ago, some time in the 1950s. Al Zarilla.
Al Zarilla? Just who is this guy? Maybe a few longtime baseball fans will remember. He was journeyman player whose career ran from 1943 to 1953 with a year off in 1945 while he was in the service. He played for the old St. Louis Browns, the White Sox and Red Sox during those years, making two separate stops in St. Louis and Boston. While he is considered little more than an average player for his time he did have some solid seasons. His best was probably 1948 when the outfielder hit .329 with 12 homers and 74 runs batted in for the Browns. He had several other seasons with comparable numbers and retired with a .276 lifetime average and 975 career hits. Not bad.
Zarilla, whose nickname was Zeke, has a very unique distinction. He may be the only player in major league history who had to buy a ticket to get into his first ever major league game. It happened on June 30, 1943, at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis. Zarilla had just been called up to the big club and arrived on a special day. It was the first of a series of games called “Baseball for Victory.” Proceeds from these games went to the National War Fund. To collect the maximum amount of money every fan, player, umpire and member of the press was required to buy a ticket. Thus rookie Zarilla had to pay in order to make his major league debut. He wound up getting a pair of hits as the Browns beat the Philadelphia Athletics, 3-1. Looking back on that day five years later, Zarilla said, “Best money I ever spent.”
But that’s still not why I chose Al Zarilla as the subject of this blog. I remember the circumstances perfectly, only I’m not 100 percent sure of the year it happened. It could have been 1950, ’51 or ’52. But I remember laying in bed with the Yankee game on the radio. Zarilla was playing right field for either the Red Sox or White Sox, depending on the year. While the exact date is somewhat hazy, my memory of the incident is not. One of the Yankees hit a sinking liner or short fly to shallow right field. Here’s pretty much what I heard the announcer say.
“The ball is hit to shallow right. Zarilla comes in . . . Zarilla dives . . . and Zarilla is hurt.”
That was it. I can’t recall whether he caught the ball or not, or any of the circumstances of that long ago game. Then why do I remember the play and the call? I think I know the answer to that one. I was probably between the ages of eight and ten when it happened. So I was just really becoming a big baseball fan. What I didn’t realize then was that baseball players could get hurt. For whatever reason, they must have seemed like supermen to me at the time. Because when the announcer said – “And Zarilla is hurt.” – it really caught my attention. Wow. These guys are human, after all.
So that’s how I remember Al Zarilla. Funny how some things stay with you, even after 60 some-odd years. I probably didn’t hear his name much at all after that. When his big league career ended in 1953, he did what so many players did back then. He returned to the minor leagues, playing two more seasons in the old Pacific Coast league. Pretty much a baseball lifer, he later became a scout and a coach, and always loved working with young, upcoming players. Al “Zeke” Zarilla died in 1996 at the age of 77.
And that, my friends, concludes the final entry in the A to Z Blog Challenge. It has been fun, been interesting, and has taken a bit or work. But all in all, it’s been a pleasure.
— Bill Gutman
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Y is for Yogi
When Yogi Berra died on September 22, 2015, at the age of 90, America wept. Over the past decade or so, Yogi had gone from a former player, manager and Hall of Famer to a national treasure. He was no longer just an iconic New York Yankee, whose “Yogisms,” and non sequiturs (“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”) made us all laugh, but a revered elder statesman who represented so much that was good and honest in America. Though increasingly frail in recent years, his passing was mourned by many more than Yankee fans who remembered him from his playing days.
And make no mistake, Yogi Berra was some player. Many people today tend to forget that simply because they never saw him and he didn’t look like a ballplayer. Standing just a squat 5’7” and weighing 185 pounds in his playing days, he was nonetheless a rugged catcher and astute handler of pitcher, as well as a dangerous clutch hitter who clubbed 358 home runs during his long career, and who retired with a respectable .285 career batting average. All that and his three American League Most Valuable Player Awards made him an easy choice for the Hall of Fame. And that doesn’t take into account the 14 World Series in which he played during the heyday of yet another Yankee dynasty.
I can remember a game my father took me to sometime in the mid-1950s. I was a huge Mickey Mantle fan by then, but also loved Yogi because he was so good. Imagine my disappointment when I learned that both were out of the lineup due to minor injuries. The game came down to the bottom of the ninth inning. The Yankees had the tying run on first with one out. The bottom of the lineup was due up when the Stadium suddenly erupted. There was Yogi coming out of the dugout swinging a pair of bats, as he always did. He would be pitch hitting. As he made his way toward plate the crowd erupted for a second time. Coming out on deck, also to pinch hit, was the Mick. As a kid I was also going crazy. How could the Yankees lose?
Yogi stepped in, wig-wagged his bat, and waited for the first pitch. The crowd was still screaming in anticipation when the pitcher delivered. Yogi swung and hit the ball right on the head – a hard line drive that seemed headed for the rightfield corner. Only it never made it. The first baseman speared it, stepped on the bag to double off the runner and the game was over. Just like that. The suddenness of the ending produced a collective groan and then almost silence. For a kid, the disappointment was beyond words I figured Yogi would get a hit and if he didn’t tie the game or win it, then Mickey would. Yogi had hit it hard as usual in a clutch situation, only this one found an unwanted home in the first baseman’s mitt.
Playing in 14 World series during his Yankee career (1946-63) made Yogi an almost magical player as well as a record-setter. During the 1950s the Brooklyn Dodgers had a great catcher of their own in Roy Campanella, also a three-time MVP and Hall of Famer. So New York baseball fans were always in for a treat, especially when the two catchers faced off in the World Series, which happened on four occasions during the decade.
After his career ended, Yogi became a manager and, for a time, the magic ended. There’s an old saying in baseball that managers are hired to be fired, and Yogi experienced that more than once. After retiring in 1963 he became the Yankees’ skipper the following year as manager Ralph Houk moved into the front office. The team finished 99-63 in 1964 to win the American League pennant. But there had been an ugly incident on the team bus in August when a utility infielder named Phil Linz began playing the harmonica after the team had been swept four straight by the White Sox. Yogi told him to stop and when he didn’t the manager became enraged and swatted the harmonica way. That October the Yanks lost the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals and, a day later, Yogi was fired. The reason supposedly was that he was managing guys who were his teammates just a year earlier and the front office didn’t feel it was a good combination. He tried to come back as a player in ’65 with the expansionist Mets, but that experiment lasted just four games.
Yogi would wind up managing the Mets from 1972 into the 1975 season, following the death of the team’s skipper, Gil Hodges. He got them into the World Series in 1973 after they squeaked into the playoffs with an 82-79 record, but they lost to the A’s. I met Yogi briefly during that time. I was working with a new kids’ sports magazine and we were doing a story on the Mets’ batboys. We went into the locker room after game and I got to say hello to him. To be honest, he always seemed a bit uptight as a manger, as if he was waiting for the ax to fall again. And it did in ’75. Worse yet, the Yankees rehired him to manage in 1984. The team was 87-75 that year, good for third place, but the following year after just 16 games (a 6-10 start) George Steinbrenner fired Yogi again. It was the end of his managerial career and the beginning of a period of estrangement from the Yanks. He was so hurt that he refused to go back to the ballpark, even for Old Timers Day. The two didn’t bury the hatchet until 1999 when Yogi finally returned to the Stadium and became a presence at all special events.
In December of 1998 Yogi opened the doors to the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center on the campus of Montclair State University in New Jersey, the project that became near and dear to his heart. Not only did the museum house artifacts relating to baseball and his great career, but also attracted educators for special events. Here is part of the museum’s mission statement.
The Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center preserves and promotes the values of social justice, respect, sportsmanship and educational excellence through inclusive, culturally diverse sports-based educational programs and exhibits. The Museum is committed to educating and inspiring all people to fulfill the values reflected in Yogi Berra’s life and accomplishments. We provide a creative and enjoyable educational environment for learners, especially children, so they understand how baseball and other sports teach social and cultural values that are as important off the field as on.
In November of 2015, two months after his death, Yogi was a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, perhaps the crowning achievement of a good and honest life. Everyone was reminded of his military service, when he was part of the D-Day invasion in 1945, and the good things he had accomplished with his museum and learning center. He was deserved of the honor, though it’s a shame it had to come posthumously.
And never forget, he was a helluva ballplayer, too.
— Bill Gutman
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X is for Xylophone
Years back, many of us were given a toy xylophone to play. It had perhaps eight or ten bars, usually made of plastic, each tuned to a different pitch. They were fun, and I see they are still available as toys for young children today. So some, that’s what a xylophone is, just a toy. But to those of us who love jazz, the xylophone and its descendant, the vibraphone, is simply a great instrument with a beautiful sound, and in the hands of some of its top practitioners, an instrument that fits in perfectly with the music.
For openers, a quick look at the difference between the xylophone and vibraphone. Both are percussion instruments with bars tuned to the pitches of the musical scale. Both are played by striking the bars with mallets with the performer standing The xylophone is characterized by wooden bars with forms of the instrument hundreds of years old. The vibraphone (sometimes called the vibraharp or just vibes) is similar, except that the bars are metal. The bars are paired with a vertical resonator tube that has a motor-driven butterfly valve at the upper end. The valves produce a vibrato effect. The vibraphone also has a sustain pedal, similar to that on a piano. With the pedal in the up position the bars are damped and produce a shortened sound. With it down, the bars sound for several seconds.
The xylophone was used by some early jazz bands and also in vaudeville with it’s sound fitting right in with the syncopated dance music of the 1920s and early 1930s. But the xylophone was soon surpassed in popularity by the vibraphone, which was first developed in the 1920s. Paul Barbarin, a drummer with the Luis Russell band, is generally considered a pioneer of the vibraphone. He can be heard playing it on recordings with Henry “Red” Allen in 1929, and also on some recording with Louis Armstrong. Barbarin recorded with Allen on a 1929 track called Feeling Drowsy and with Armstrong the same year on Rockin’ Chair. The only major figure who played the xylophone before switching over to vibes was Red Norvo. So it’s actually the vibraphone that is heard the majority of time within the history of jazz.
Let’s take a quick look back at some of the great practitioners of the vibes. Any list, long or small, has to begin with Lionel Hampton. Born in 1908, Hamp began as a drummer who not only played well, but also dazzled audiences by doing twirls and tricks with his sticks while never missing a beat. During this same period he began using his spare time to practice on the vibraphone. Louis Armstrong heard him in 1930 and asked him to play a couple of numbers with him. Soon after, the vibraphone became Hamp’s main instrument and he is largely given credit for popularizing it.
In 1936, the Benny Goodman Orchestra traveled to Los Angeles where, a year earlier, his band had made a huge hit at the Palomar Ballroom, an event said to have heralded in the Swing Era. Back in the area this time, John Hammond took Benny to hear Lionel Hampton play the vibes. Goodman was so impressed that he hired Hampton to make the Benny Goodman Trio into a quartet. It was a small group within a big band and was significant for a couple of reasons. With Benny on clarinet, Gene Krupa on drums, Teddy Wilson on piano and now Hamp on vibes, they were one of the best small groups around. And secondly, since both Wilson and Hamp were African-Americans, they were part of one of the first ever integrated jazz groups. On top of that, it brought Hamp and the vibes to the forefront of the jazz world.
Lionel Hampton was an outstanding player, proficient on both up tempo numbers and ballads. He later formed his own orchestra and often took a turn at both the drums and piano, becoming a complete entertainer who always exhibited pure joy at playing his music. One of the longest lived performers in jazz, Hampton was still playing the vibes into his early 90s. He died in August of 2002, at the age of 94, leaving a great legacy behind.
Kenneth Norville, aka Red Norvo, was born in Beardstown, Illinois, in 1908. He began playing the xylophone first, then switched to the more versatile vibraphone. His career began in Chicago in 1925 with a band called The Collegians but he soon began to make a reputation throughout the jazz world. In the ensuing years he played with the likes of Paul Whiteman, Benny Goodman, Charlie Barnet and Woody Herman. He was a reliable player and good soloist, and his skills made him attractive to both big bands and small groups, and also to backing a number of singers, including Billie Holiday and Dinah Shore.
Norvo was married for a time to singer Mildred Bailey and they performed together as Mr. and Mrs. Swing, recording prolifically in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Bailey was a fine, understated singer and the two performed very well together. Like Lionel Hampton, Red Norvo certainly helped popularize the vibraphone as a jazz instrument.
In the late 1940s and 1950s Norvo even began performing with some of the young bebop musicians and quickly showed he could fit in well with their new kind of music. Then, in 1959, he led small group that accompanied Frank Sinatra during several concerts in Australia. Sinatra was known for only performing with the best and that is also a tribute to the talents of Red Norvo. In fact, some have said that if you doubt that Sinatra could be a jazz singer, all you have to do is listen to the recording that came out of the Australian tour with Red Norvo.
Red continued to be a prolific performer in clubs, the concert hall, on television and even the movies into the mid 1980s. That’s when he suffered a stroke that effectively ended his career. He died in 1999 at the age of 91.
There was also a vibraphone player who helped bring the instrument to the forefront of the bebop movement beginning. His name was Milt Jackson and he was universally known in the jazz work as “Bags.” He was born in Detroit in 1923 and began playing drums and violin, plus sang in the school choir. He began playing the vibraphone at age 16 after hearing Lionel Hampton play with Benny Goodman’s band. That’s how he began to carry on the tradition.
His jazz career really started when Dizzy Gillespie hired him for his sextet in 1945. Soon he found himself working with the likes of Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and Woody Herman. And, obviously, they all liked the contribution he was making on vibes. But it was working with Gillespie later in the decade that led to the formation of one of the most iconic groups in jazz history – the Modern Jazz Quartet.
Gillespie formed a small group within his big band and had Bags perform with pianist John Lewis, bassist Ray Brown and drummer Kenny Clarke. The four finally decided to form their own group, at first called the Milt Jackson Quartet, but they changed it to the Modern Jazz Quartet (the MJQ) two years later. By then, Percy Heath had replaced Ray Brown and sometime later Connie Kay replaced Kenny Clarke. But they were a groundbreaking group with Milt Jackson on vibes often playing the lead.
The MJQ stayed together until 1974, becoming one of the most popular groups in jazz, one that made many recordings together. They broke up because Bags wanted more improvisational freedom and to play more blues. Pianist Lewis favored a more controlled environment for many of his own composition.
Jackson’s vibes had a deep, sonorous sound. He recorded with many of the greats, including John Coltrane, and firmly established himself as a singular jazz great. In 1981, the MJQ reunited and stayed together until 1993. After that, Bags toured with other groups and top jazz performers, often making time for brief MJQ reunions in between. His composition, Bags’ Groove, has become a jazz standard. Milt Jackson continued performing almost up to his death in 1999.
Lionel Hampton, Red Norvo and Milt Jackson were just three of the men who brought the xylophone/vibraphone to the forefront in jazz. This is not meant to slight others, outstanding players like Terry Gibbs, Gary Burton, Cal Tjader and Lem Winchester, among others. All have contributed to perpetuating this wonderful instrument and it’s place in jazz, as others continue to do today.
— Bill Gutman
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W is for Winter
How many people who live in the northeast have uttered these words sometime between the onset of middle age and when they become senior citizens. “I’d love to move to Florida.” I know I’ve heard it many times over the years. The reason is usually the same. Warm/hot Florida is a year round thing. But living where they are now – whether it be New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine – exposes them to that increasingly cruel torture called winter. Winter, with it’s sub-freezing temperatures, the threat of major snowstorms, icy roads, being stuck inside. Wouldn’t anyone in their right mind take sunny Florida over that?
To be honest, the thought of moving to Florida never crossed my mind. Not once. Not even for a split second. Not Florida. In fact, not any year round warm climate. The reason is simple. I love the seasons and I’ve always held a special affinity for winter. Obviously, you look at winter differently as the seasons of your own life pass by. Now that I’m considered a senior citizen and burdened with a couple of bad knees, winter isn’t as easy or as much fun as it used to be. But there’s still something about it that I find attractive. Maybe it’s just that I’ve experienced it for so many years. And I still don’t want to move to Florida. So let’s take a look back at some of the winters of my life.
I’ve never really minded the cold and always tell a story about my grandmother. We lived with her the first several years of my life while my father was in the service. She told me that on the coldest days of winter she would bundle me up, put me in a carriage and take me outside. She would then stand there with me for about 45 minutes. She felt it was a healthy thing to do. I’ve always felt that was the reason the cold weather never has really bothered me.
The first snowstorm I remember was the blizzard during the winter of 1947. We had just moved to Connecticut and I was five years old. I wasn’t allowed outside at first because the snow was probably almost as deep as I was tall. But I recall being fascinated by all that snow and couldn’t wait to go outside and play in it.
Growing up we always kept busy in winter. Kids played outside back then and it didn’t matter how cold it was. We had snowball fights, built snow forts and snowmen, learned how to sleigh ride with the old running start, falling onto the sled as you ran at full speed. Later we would often ice skate in the winter, play a little hockey. I always looked at winter as a fun time and loved it when I came inside and there was a roaring fire in the fireplace.
Once I got my driver’s license it was a challenge to drive in the snow. As dangerous as it was, we never hesitated to go somewhere while it was snowing. Because my father had an auto parts store I always kept a set a chains in the car and learned early on how to put them on. I would use chains when necessary for years and never had a problem going anywhere in the snow with those chains. They were great.
Back then, when I would hear people talk of moving south, or going to Florida to get away from a harsh winter, I always thought about moving north. For some reason I had an urge to go where it was colder and there was even more snow. Whenever I heard about a blizzard in some portion of the country I had the strange feeling of wishing I was there.
There was one storm I couldn’t beat. When I first became sports editor of Greenwich Time, I lived in Stamford, the next town. I was still living at home then and my mother and sister had gone away for the week. I always had to go in to the office on a Sunday to check on the stories that had been left there for the next day’s paper. It started snowing that morning but by early afternoon I started the drive in. I had a Volvo then with a stick shift and snow tires, so I figured I could make it. I went to a local store to pick up the Sunday Times, then started toward Greenwich. I went about mile when I noticed the snow was getting so deep that the car was slipping from side to side. For once I used common sense, turned around and went home.
The next morning the snow was so deep that the plows couldn’t even get onto our road. I shoved the driveway, but no way I could get out. I called the office and told them I couldn’t make it. I guess others didn’t, as well, but they managed to put out a small edition of the paper. The next morning it was the same. The snow hadn’t been plowed and was still a couple of feet deep. That’s when my editor called and told me in no uncertain terms to get my butt into the office. We had a paper to get out. He found a guy who had to drive on the main road near me. That was plowed, so I had to walk about a half mile though the deep snow to get out to the main road for a ride. All the while I couldn’t help thinking that had I made it to the office on Sunday I would have been stuck there for two days at least.
But big snowstorms were always a challenge for me. Years later, in the late 1990s, we were having one of those snowy winters. It seemed as if every weekend another storm hit until it was piled up five or six feet on each side of the walk. I kept the fireplace burning almost constantly, had to shovel a portion of the lawn for the dogs and keep shoveling a path to the basement entrance so I could carry wood into the house. Since I loved the exercise then, none of it bothered me. The more snow the merrier.
That’s basically how it has always been. The problem now is that age has crept in and my bad knees from all the years of exercise keep me from even walking through a modestly deep snow. No more chopping and lugging wood or shoveling. Fortunately, we now live where I don’t have to do those things. But would I consider moving to Florida? Never. When I do go outside on a cold winter day it still feels good and doesn’t bother me at all.
And when I hear about a blizzard in some section of the country I still have that lingering feeling somewhere deep inside me that makes me want to be young and be there. And the thought of moving north is still stronger than any thought about moving south. Of course, at my age, I ain’t going anywhere, and now I’m fine with that.
— Bill Gutman
V is for Valaida Snow
I’ve been listening to jazz for more than a half century, but it was only in the last couple of years that I became aware of Valaida Snow. Who was this woman who sang, danced, and played a variety of instruments, including the trumpet? And she played the trumpet well enough to be nicknamed “Little Louis,” after you know who. In fact, Louis Armstrong himself called her the the world’s second best trumpet player. She was so good that the great pianist/arranger, Mary Lou Williams, said of Valaida, “She was hitting those high C’s just like Louis. She would have been a great trumpet player if she had dropped the singing and dancing, and concentrated on the trumpet.”
There seem to be some discrepancies about the year of her birth. She was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, from 1902 to 1907 depending on the source you find. But being born into a show business family to an African-American mother and white father, she not only learned to sing and dance, but also to play cello, bass, banjo, violin, accordion, saxophone and trumpet. Her father apparently had connections within the music industry and she was playing professionally by the time she was 15. That’s quite a talent. By the 1930s she was known mostly for the trumpet, her Armstrong-like sound and phrasing earning praise from the master and her complimentary nickname.
The racial mores of the time made her mixed race looks very appealing for both Broadway and nightclub appearances. In 1924 she performed in the Noble Sissle/Eubie Blake show Chocolate Dandies, which toured for six months and then made it to Broadway. Both Lena Horne and Josephine Baker were among the chorus girls in the production. She also appeared in the Ethel Waters show, Rhapsody in Black. In the 1930s she began showcasing her trumpet skills, playing with the likes of Count Basie, Earl Hines and Fletcher Henderson at various times.
The decade of the 1930s were her busiest as she not only played with the aforementioned jazz giants, but led a number of all-female jazz bands. She was a good-looking, energetic presence on stage and her talents and jazz skills were undeniable. She also exhibited what some said was eccentric behavior, traveling in an orchid-colored Mercedes while dressed in an orchid suit and with a pet monkey also dressed in orchid, as was her chauffeur. In addition, she began making frequent trips to Europe, as many African-American jazz artists did then. They were often treated better and with more respect than in their own country, where racism and segregation often put them in degrading and dangerous situations.
It was in Europe, however, that Valaida Snow was involved in a situation that to today remains somewhat murky and controversial. She began an extended tour of Europe in 1939 just as conditions were deteriorating rapidly as the German war machine was on the march. She supposedly did not pay close attention to the political situation though it was said that her friend, Josephine Baker, who had achieved her greatest fame in Europe, advised her to stop touring and return to the the United States. Valaida apparently didn’t heed the warning.
In 1941 she was in Denmark when the country was occupied by the Germans. This is where the story becomes somewhat muddled. The story you find today in most stories and articles in which she is profiled is that she was arrested by the Nazis sometime in 1941 and sent to a concentration camp. Because it’s well known that the Germans viewed blacks as inferior, the story would seem to be believable, something that indeed could happen.
One version of the story says she was held in the camp for more than a year, enduring starvation, torture and frequent whippings. That version was printed in the Amsterdam News on April 10, 1943, after Valaida had returned to the United States in May of 1942, supposedly via a prisoner exchange. It was said she weighed just 65 pounds when she was released. Articles written today still refer to her internment and mention she was so devastated by the ordeal that she was never quite the same, though she continued performing into the 1950s.
But there is still another side of the story. Mark Miller penned a biography of Valaida, High Hat, Trumpet and Rhythm, The Life and Music of Valaida Snow, that was published in 2007. Miller interviewed a number of people who knew her and also analyzed her movements around the time of her internment. Miller wrote that she had become addicted to opiates, possibly morphine, and was taken into custody by Danish authorities in March of 1942, perhaps for her own protection. According to Miller, she was shuttled between a prison and hospital in Copenhagen until Danish authorities could arrange safe passage home for her through neutral Sweden just two months later.
It’s also a fact that there were no German concentration camps in Denmark. Miller’s conclusion was that the whole story was a publicity ploy to gain attention for her musical comeback. Author Jayna Brown, writing in the Amsterdam News, also said the concentration camp story was designed by Valaida Snow’s manager for comeback purposes. She concluded it was “nothing more.” But as mentioned earlier, the story of her confinement in a Nazi concentration camp is still printed as fact in many articles and profiles that continue to turn up with internet searches.
No matter what happened in Denmark, Valaida Snow never did regain her popularity and perhaps her full talent after she returned. She continued to perform and on May 30, 1956, while backstage at the Palace Theater in New York, she suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died, a tragic end to a major talent whose career could have been so much more.
But we still have the music, the records and videos, and they show the kind of entertainer and talent that was Valaida Snow. No matter what really happened in Denmark – and we may never know the entire story – you can still listen to her perform and enjoy. What better testament is there than that?
— Bill Gutman
U is for Ulnar Collateral Ligament
Baseball is in the midst of an epidemic. Not just major league baseball, but baseball at all levels above Little League. For any young pitcher today, the three words they dread hearing the most are ulner collateral ligament. Because if they hear those words it’s probably within a sentence that says, in effect, Your ulnar collateral ligament is torn.
Whether it’s a full or partial tear, the end result is usually elbow reconstruction surgery, almost always referred to as Tommy John surgery. The surgery, put simply, involves using a tendon from another part of the body to replace the torn ligament. Recovery usually takes 12-18 months and while no surgery is foolproof, a large percentage of pitchers make a full recovery and pitch to their former skill level.
What’s appalling is the frequency of TJ surgery today. At the major league level the numbers of pitchers going down are downright scary. In 2015, 30 big league pitchers underwent the surgery; the year before 29 and the year before that 25. In 2012, there were 46 hurlers on the shelf due to UCL replacement surgery. And there were many before that. Add it up. That’s a lot of careers put in jeopardy, and while most return to effectiveness, they’ve still lost a season to a season-and-a-half. And many say it takes a full season back before they regain their full effectiveness. In addition, a few run into complications and it can take longer, or in some cases, a second surgery may be required. Others have gone back for a second and even a third surgery several years after the first.
I’m just talking major leagues here. When you factor in minor leagues, college and high school pitchers, and even some as young as 12 or 13, you can see why this is considered an epidemic. The injury and resultant surgery seems to have no bounds. Exciting young pitchers like Washington’s Stephen Strasburg, the Mets’ Matt Harvey, the Marlins’ Jose Fernandez and the Rangers’ Yu Darvish have all gone down in the last several years. The Yankees high-priced Japanese import, Mashiro Tanaka is pitching with a partially torn ligament which has the team holding it’s breath every time he takes the mound.
And lest we forget, the surgery is named after the first player to have it, Tommy John. He began his big league career in 1963 at the age of 20. By 1974 he was with the LA Dodgers and seemed to be really coming into his own. He had a 16-7 record the year before and was 13-3 after his first 22 starts in ’74, one of the best pitchers in the league. Then the elbow went. At that time a blown out elbow ligament was rare, but usually meant end of career. But the Dodgers’ team physician, Dr. Frank Jobe, wanted to try a new procedure with Tommy, replacing the torn ligament. It had never been done before.
Tommy had the procedure done and was told by Dr. Jobe that his chances of returning to the mound and regaining his effectiveness were 1 in 100, or one percent. I’ve spoken with Tommy John several times over the years and even he never thought he’d pitch again. Slowly, the elbow began feeling better and he started to throw. He missed all of the 1975 season and finally returned in 1976. He still didn’t know how well he would pitch but ended up making 31 starts, throwing 207.1 innings and finishing with a record of 10-10.
But that was just the beginning. Tommy John went on to pitch until the age of 46, winning 20 or more games three times after the surgery and finishing his career with 288 victories. He actually won more games after his surgery than before. And while Tommy isn’t in the Hall of Fame many, including myself, feel he should be.
At the time of Tommy’s surgery the odds of him pitching again weren’t very good. Now, those having Tommy John surgery are said to have an 85-92 percent chance of making a full recovery. That’s the good news, but the bigger question is why are so many pitchers going down and why hasn’t organized baseball tried to do something about it?
Let’s look back a bit. In the late 19th century and early in the twentieth century there were workhorse pitchers who threw many more innings than today’s pitchers, and they did it year after year. A few pitchers had arm problems, sometimes related to the shoulder, sometimes just called a dead arm. Back then, there was no way to really diagnose the problem. But so many of the great ones then, including Cy Young, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Grover Cleveland Alexander and other early Hall of Famers threw and threw and threw. Many threw hard and never blew out there elbows. Neither did greats like Lefty Grove, Bob Feller, Warren Spahn and others who shouldered a heavy mound workload year after year. And there were no pitch counts and innings limits imposed, which is about all teams do now in an effort to prevent pitching injuries.
In the 1960s and 1970s another group of great pitchers emerged and began Hall of Fame careers, guys like Tom Seaver, Jim Palmer, Juan Marichal, Ferguson Jenkins, Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton, Don Drysdale, Gaylord Perry, Nolan Ryan, Bert Blyleven and Sandy Koufax. Many of them worked close to or over 300 innings a year at times and were all big stars. Some had injuries occasionally. Koufax retired early due to an arthritic elbow, but none of them every blew out their UCL. There were other workhorse pitchers in those days, as well, maybe not quite Hall of Fame, but workhorses who stepped up every fourth day then and did it for years. Not one major starting pitcher back then lost his career to a blown out elbow. And that’s what would have happened pre-Tommy John surgery.
Than what is it today that is causing so many young pitchers to undergo ligament replacement surgery, many in their teens and young big leaguers in their early twenties? What is different from 40 or 50 years ago when pitchers worked more often in four-man rotations rather than five? And by the way, short relievers today are also blowing out their elbows, guys who work only one or two innings at a time.
There are several theories that make some sense. One is that young kids with obvious talent are throwing too much from an early age. They’re already concentrating on baseball and pitching, and playing so often that they don’t have time for other sports. That opens them up to repetitive use injuries. Instead of using a variety of muscles needed to play a variety of sports, they’re using their arm to pitch, hard and often, and sometimes all year round. And with today’s emphasis on “power arms,” they’re throwing as hard as they can trying to impress the radar gun. So the wear and tear on the UCL starts early, even before the muscles, tendons and ligaments are fully developed. And if the young pitcher also starts to incorporate breaking pitches early, there is even more stress on the elbow.
Pitchers in the old days played a lot of baseball as kids, but most also played other sports. They also didn’t play with as many organized teams. Today they have elite travel teams in many towns and cities for the best players where they are always competing at the highest level against others in their age groups. And that means the pitchers have to go all out in stressful situations. In the old days kids often played among themselves and took turns at pitching.
The older players also threw very often, but didn’t always throw at full speed. They also did their running for their legs, but not the variety of exercises today’s pitchers do. They also threw between starts and sometimes relieved as well as started. And many of them were true pitchers. They didn’t just try to throw fastballs past every hitter. They were obviously doing something right because they threw more innings each year, threw complete games, pitched on less rest and weren’t restricted by pitch counts. And virtually no blown out elbows. In fact, Tommy John is the only one I can recall back then.
Most of these older pitchers from the 1960s and ’70s that I’ve mentioned early have spoken out against the babying of pitchers, using innings limits and pitch counts. But many of today’s teams are becoming slaves to analytics, or advanced statistics, and claim it shows that too great an increase in innings each year opens the pitcher to injury. Has no one noticed that Hall of Famer Bob Feller, one of the great power arms in baseball history, threw 277.2 innings in his third season at age 19 in 1938. The following years he threw 296.2 innings, then 320.1 and 343 innings before going into the service during World War II. His first full year back in 1946 he logged 371.1 innings, then 299 and 280.1 the next year. No elbow problems. Today, if a pitcher reaches 200 innings they act as if it’s a real achievement and also a danger signal. Then they monitor his innings very closely.
What I don’t understand is why Major League Baseball hasn’t formed a committee comprised of these great Hall of Fame pitchers to find out just what they did in their baseball lives that enabled them to pitch so much and so often for so many years, achieve greatness and not blow out their elbows. That would seem to be a better way to solve this problem then all the statistics and even the doctors’ assessments of the situation. These are guys who have been there, done that and have done it successfully and without career-threatening injury. Let them tell MLB just how they did it from childhood through the end of their careers.
Makes sense to me. I’ll even bet when Tommy John had that first surgery back in 1974 he never thought the operation would ultimately be named after him and, because of that, having so many young pitchers dreading the sound of his name.
— Bill Gutman
T is for Texas Guinan
Her real name was Mary Louise Cecelia Guinan and she was born in Waco, Texas, in 1884. She could have lived and died there and few would have ever known her. But Mary Louise had more ambitious plans. She made her way to New York City around 1906 when she was 22 and some years later took the name of her home state for herself. Mary Louise Cecelia Guinan created a new persona and Texas Guinan was born.
By that time she had already been drawn to show business and entertainment. She studied music in Chicago and tried to make her mark as a professional singer. Soon after she began touring with some regional vaudeville shows. When she reached New York she obviously had her eyes set on big time show biz. Back in 1906 the entertainment business was very different than it would be just 20 years later. Texas first found work as a chorus girl and then moved on to some national vaudeville shows and finally a few theater productions in New York. In 1918 she had a starring role in a silent film, a western called The Gun Woman. She became the first movie cowgirl and was nicknamed “The Queen of the West.” But the film also solidified her identity as Texas Guinan.
Texas not only had good looks, she was also smart. She saw that her movie career wasn’t really taking off and didn’t want to be stuck in vaudeville forever, so she began thinking of other ways to make her mark. Then along came what turned out to be her best friend – Prohibition. Texas, along with so many others, knew that if people couldn’t drink legally they’d find another way to get their booze and have a good time. As soon speakeasies began to open, Texas Guinan knew where she belonged. For most of the decade of the Roaring Twenties she became a high-profiled hostess at a number of the swankiest clubs, aka speakeasies, in the city.
Probably the most famous was the 300 Club, which was located at 151 West 54th St. It was a club to which the wealthy and the famous came and where Texas found her true calling. There were always stories that some of her partners were gangsters and the clubs were sometimes raided by the Feds. But Texas always managed to walk and went right back to doing it all again after whatever fines were levied had been paid.
What made the 300 Club such a hot spot? Texas for openers. She was always dressed to the nines, flapper style, and greeted her customers with a raucous, “Hello suckers!” She wanted them to spend and spend big, and that they did. She also called the obviously wealthy men who came into the club her “butter and egg men.” The club also had scantily clad dancers and entertainment, with Texas directing the whole shebang.
Some of the famous people frequenting the 300 Club included Al Jolson, composers George Gershwin and Irving Berlin, Mae West, Clara Bow and Rudolph Valentino. Ruby Keeler and George Raft were discovered as dancers at the club, while famed newspaper columnist Walter Winchell always gave Texas credit for opening the Broadway scene to him and introducing him to cafe society, thus bolstering his long career as New York’s number one gossip columnist.
But why am I blogging about Texas Guinan? It certainly wasn’t just an arbitrary decision because I was looking for an interesting subject beginning with the letter T. When I began writing The Mike Fargo Mysteries, which are set in 1920s New York City, part of the idea was to combine real characters with the fictional. In the novel Murder on Murderer’s Row, the one an only Babe Ruth became a murder suspect when a groundskeeper was killed at Yankee Stadium in 1927. Of course, the Babe didn’t do it, but he became a suspect in a second murder before he was cleared. He then remained an integral part of the story right to the very end.
So when the germ of the idea for the novella Seven Days to Murder came into my head, I decided to make Texas Guinan a major character, with one of her hostesses disappearing from the aforementioned 300 Club. As a writer, you have to do your research, learn all you can about the person you are putting into your book and then try to portray them as accurately as possible. I knew a great deal about Babe Ruth because of what I had both read and written over the years. Once I began researching Texas Guinan, I found her a fascinating character who was a major figure during New York City’s Prohibition days.
As with the Babe, I had Texas interact throughout the story with Mike Fargo, my protagonist detective, and stay a major part of it right down to the final scene. And also as with the Babe, I hope I have kept her in character and portrayed her in a positive light. She obviously was an interesting person, a real part of the New York City scene in the 1920s and someone I would have liked to have met.
What happened to the real Texas? My story is set in 1926 when Texas was already past 40 but still apparently quite attractive. She continued hosting clubs almost to the end of the decade and by some accounts earned a whopping $700,000 during a 10 month period alone in 1926. So her suckers and butter and egg men were dropping plenty of cabbage – as they used to call money then – in her clubs.
But nothing lasts forever. She left New York before the end of the decade and actually made a couple of movies, playing versions of herself. One was called Queen of the Night Clubs and came out in 1929; while the other was Broadway Through A Keyhole (1933). By the time the second film debuted, much had changed for her. It is said she lost a great deal of her fortune in the early years of the Great Depression. From there, things suddenly went downhill.
She wanted to go to Europe, but with the reputation she had from her nightclub days, she was denied entry at every port she visited. Finally, she launched a satirical review of her European plight called Too Hot for Paris. She took the show to Chicago where she came down with amoebic dysentery during an epidemic. Yet she still carried on and traveled with the show to Vancouver, British Columbia, where she again became very ill. Sadly, Texas died in Vancouver on November 5, 1933, at the age of 49. Ironically, she died just one month before Prohibition – the law that helped make her reputation – was repealed. And in another twist of fate, her mother lived until 1959, finally passing at the ripe old age of 101.
Texas has been portrayed on the screen a number of times. One film, Incendiary Blonde (1945) was about her life and starred Betty Hutton. She was also portrayed by Phyllis Diller in Splendor In The Grass (1961). And the character Panama Smith in the movie The Roaring Twenties, which starred James Cagney, was loosely based on her days in the ’20s. Actress Gladys George played the character in that one.
Despite her relatively short life, Mary Louise Cecelia Guinan left her mark as one of the most interesting people to emerge from Roaring Twenties New York. She will live on in the city’s history and mythology. Maybe the best way to sum up Texas Guinan is to let my character, Mike Fargo, do it. Talking about Texas in Seven Days to Murder, Fargo said:
“She was one corker of a dame.”
— Bill Gutman
S is for Sports
Sports. Now that’s a far-reaching subject, one that could easily be broken up into individual sports, the top athletes, the great moments, biggest upsets or a wealth of other related topics. But I’m not here to do that. Nope. Rather I’m going to look back again and talk about the way sports have changed over the years. And, why, as a lifelong sports fan who started following baseball first, then the others when very young – and then wrote about sports for 40 years – am I now being turned off by what sports have become and the direction in which they’re going? It won’t be a rant, but more of an expression of my personal feelings about what used to be games and is now an enormous business.
For openers, I’m not trying to make a case that the old days were better, even though in some ways they probably were. I’m as aware as anyone that times change and there are certain things that are dictated by the modern world. But, in my mind, professional sports as well as big time college sports, has become, first and foremost, a money grab. And it’s working. Professional leagues such as the NFL, NBA and MLB are generating billions of dollars in revenues each year. But, hey, we’re in a free enterprise system and, as a good friend of mine says, it’s just “biz.” So let’s see where the “biz” has led sports, both on and off the field.
When I was a kid professional sports was already a business, but a very different kind. The ballplayers were, in essence, blue collar workers who didn’t make a great deal of money. There were always the superstar exceptions, but the average player still had to get a job in the off season to make ends meet. I’ve interviewed many former players from the 1940s and ’50s over the years and most of them wanted to win a championship very badly. Only it wasn’t for the gold, diamond encrusted ring or even the bragging rights. Baseball players, for example, wanted to be on a World Series winning team so they could get the winners’ share of the payoff, maybe an extra $2,500 added to their paychecks. To them, that was not only a big deal, it was HUGE.
Many of the stadiums in those days were old and run down. The Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field in New York and Brooklyn were prime examples. But they were also great places in which to watch ballgames, as was the enormous old Yankee Stadium. Back then, everything was affordable, including the tickets. And the amenities? A hot dog was 20 cents,a bag of peanuts a dime. Same with Crackerjacks. Beer and soda were also very reasonable and that’s about all you could get to eat. But you were there to watch the game and the players. That was all that mattered.
I’ve also spoken to many ballplayers from the past who simply loved the game so much that they would have played for free. And, of course, there were no agents to negotiate their contracts. An old Brooklyn pitcher from the 1950s, Clem Labine, once told me that he brought a friend, an attorney, to sit in on his contract negotiations and the Dodgers wouldn’t even let him in the door. With no free agency, the owners had the hammer over the players and wielded it to the hilt. So sports back then certainly wasn’t player friendly, but the guys loved the game so much that they made the best of it.
But what is it about sports today that has turned me off so much? This is a blog, not a book, so I may not touch on everything. Let’s see if I can sum it all up at least fairly succinctly.
As I said, I really see sports today as a money grab. Everything is overpriced, from tickets, to parking, to the food, to the merchandise that is being hawked constantly and unabashedly. In some cases fans are asked to pay upwards of $1000 or more to see a ballgame. One ballgame! Of course, those are the priciest seats at big market venues like Yankee Stadium and Madison Square Garden. But right across the board it’s hard to see how the average fan can afford to go to more than a game or two a year. Yet attendance remains high in all the major sports.
Days of a hot dog and bag of peanuts at the ballparks are long gone. There is now a wild variety of foods available, all exceedingly overpriced and much of it a recipe for a heart attack. When a plain hot dog costs five bucks or more, and special two-foot long hot dogs go for about $27, you’ve got to wonder. A beer at some venues is ten bucks or more. It can cost a family of four going to a baseball game in a big city venue probably at least $400 for the day, maybe more.
Then there’s the merchandise. It’s all over. If a team wins a championship there are hats and jerseys being sold on TV with an hour of the game ending. Special autographed bats, balls, photos, jerseys, whatever, are incredibly overpriced. As for so-called “collectibles,” to me that’s another scam. There are so many of them out there that they’ll never be worth much more than someone pays for them. Sure, if you find a mint baseball card from 1917, it’s going to be worth big money. But there have been so many cards sold in “collectible” sets for the last 20 years or so that their value will never really escalate. If people feel comfortable paying big bucks to wear an official jersey with their favorite player’s name on the back, that’s certainly their business. But for the most part, they’re being ripped off.
Today’s modern ballparks and arenas are great, with comfortable seating, plenty of food, other things for kids to do and plenty of extraneous noise. I prefer to call them amusement parks. You can do so many things there, eat so many different foods, and listen to all kinds of loud music. What about watching the ball game? Veteran sports fans will tell you over and over again how much more intimate the old parks were and how you felt you were really part of the game. In New York, even the Yankees players have said there was more excitement and fan noise in the old stadium than the new one. Same with Shea Stadium versus Citi Field. Is it the construction of the stadiums or is that that there are so many distractions that the fans don’t get into the games in quite the same way?
The only positive thing coming from the big bucks is that the players are now paid millions of dollars a year. And if things stay the same, the salaries will escalate even more. Unlike so many players from yesteryear, who had to struggle after retirement, a player who is smart with his money will never have to work a day after retirement, if that’s what he chooses to do. You can’t blame the players or their agents for asking for the world. It’s there for the taking.
The only players really paying a price for their money are those in the NFL. It’s apparent now that the brain disease CTE is a consequence of constant head trauma and concussions. It’s also apparent that the NFL hasn’t exactly been forthcoming in warning the players of the danger. Now there seems to be an increasing numbers of players retiring prematurely, many citing a concern for their health in another 20 or 30 years. You have to wonder if this trend will continue. Yet this is a league rife with money, a league that some say was built on gambling (which someday soon will probably be legal), and a league that makes fans pay a PSL fee just for the privilege of buying their season tickets. The game can still be exciting. It has become a quarterbacks’ league built around passing because that’s what the modern fan seems to want. And if you give them what they want, they’ll keep on paying.
I no longer watch the NBA. I simply don’t like the product, the way the game has changed. It has become a game of shooting threes and dunking. That’s what the kids like; that’s the game the young players learn, and that’s how the game has been marketed – along with cheerleaders, loud music, uniforms that mimic the clothing on the streets, and players covered with tattoos. Again, that’s an individual choice. I just don’t like the style of the game, though I’ll readily admit the players are great athletes. But even the older players lament the loss of the complete game. There are also many regular season games in which the players just go through the motions. The intensity of play is raised maybe ten fold in the playoffs. In earlier days, that same intensity existed in the regular season, from start to finish, and continued in the playoffs. I just find today’s game repetitive and difficult to watch. Yet like the other sports, the league continues to prosper.
Television is one reason sports are prospering so much. The amounts of money the networks and stations like ESPN will pay to air sports and playoffs is staggering. And many local sports teams now have their own networks, like YES and SNY in New York. These local and regional networks are also helping to bring mega-bucks into the team and league coffers.
I’ve really just scratched the surface here, but I think you know where I’m going. The only sport I continue to watch regularly is baseball, probably because the game on the field is pretty much what it has always been. Sure, there have been changes, but between the lines it’s still a great game. I just don’t like the extras that go with it.
I was a kid who loved sports so much that when my father brought the paper home after work each day, I immediately opened it to the sports pages. One day he said to me, “You know, there are other things to read besides sports.” I told him I couldn’t envision a day when I wouldn’t turn to the sports page first.
Well, that day has come. My sports memories run deep and sports has been a big part of my writing career. Thus I’ve also made a good part of my living from sports. That, I appreciate. But when I look around today, I just don’t like what I see on so many levels. What surprises me the most is that people keep paying and keep coming. That just shows you how deeply sports is ingrained into the American fabric. It has been that way for a long time.
— Bill Gutman
R is for Radio Days
They call it the Golden Age of Radio. That’s the period from the mid-1920s, when radio broadcasts began hitting their stride, to about the mid-1950s, when television supplanted radio as the newest big thing. But those of us lucky enough to remember some of the great AM radio from at least part of those days have a memory of an entertaining, informative and great medium. My own memories of radio run deep and have never faded, even though they go back more than 60 years.
Once radio began in earnest by the mid 1920s, it spread very quickly. More and more people bought radios and with the expansion of programming into the 1930s, entire families gathered around a big radio console and listened to a variety of programs. During the next 20 or so years, people could listen to nearly everything on radio – plays and dramas; mysteries, crime shows and action adventures. There were also soap operas, situation comedies, variety shows, quiz shows, live concerts, play-by-play sports, kids programs and the news. Radio ran the same gamut that early television would soon emulate.
Maybe the best example of how radio could influence the population came on Sunday, October 30, 1938, when Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater presented modern version of H.G. Wells’ 19th century drama War of the Worlds, which depicted a Martian invasion of earth. Though Welles introduced the show as a drama, many people weren’t tuned in at the outset. They were listening to the comedy of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his “dummy,” Charlie McCarthy. But when a rather obscure singer came on about 8:12, many turned the dial to the station where Welles’ broadcast was in full force. All they heard, in a very realistic news format, was that Martians had landed in a field in New Jersey and, a few minutes later, at several others points around the country.
So realistic was the broadcast that widespread panic ensued. In New Jersey, cars jammed the highways as people tried to get as far away from the alleged landing zone as possible. They had heard that the Martians had killed off a National Guard force of 7,000 and were using poison gas to kill more people. It was estimated that a least one million people were tuned to the broadcast and many felt it was the real thing. When Welles heard about the panic he broke in to repeat it was a fictional drama and word slowly spread that there was no invasion. But for a good amount of time that night, many people around the country thought they were about to be killed by invading Martians. Such was the power of radio back then.
(You can listen to War of the Worlds by clicking link below.)
When I look at those radio days I go back to the late 1940s. I can remember listening to shows with my grandfather before we moved to Connecticut in late 1947. About six months later, in June of 1948, I recall listening to the Joe Louis/Jersey Joe Walcott heavyweight championship fight on one of those big console radios we had at the time. I found it very exciting. I also remember listening to crime shows such as The Shadow, Johnny Dollar, and Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons, as well as classic shows that would later make their way to television, such as Gunsmoke and The Lone Ranger. Like I said, radio had something for everyone back then.
Even as television became more established in the mid to late 1950s and began to change the face of AM radio there were still great things to hear. I has a small, old-fashioned tube type radio on a shelf right above my bed. When I should have been sleeping because I had school the next day I was often listening. I don’t know how old that radio was, but it worked great. I would often listen to night baseball games, which back then were great on radio because the announcers were so good. They painted word pictures of the players and the games, didn’t just over-analyze and read commercials as they do today. When I began getting into jazz I found some great late-night programs. Two were out of New York and hosted by “Symphony” Sid Torin and Al “Jazzbo” Collins. But because AM radio signals would “drift” at night, you could also pick up far-away stations. I would listen to The Harley Show, a dixieland jazz show from Baltimore, and another one from Indiana. You could also hear baseball games from Chicago and St. Louis some nights.
There were also good talk shows on then. I would often listen to a humorist named Jean Shepherd and a talk show hosted by Barry Gray, both longtime New York radio staples. And then there was [Ward] Wilson, [Marty] Glickman and [Bert] Lee, one of the first radio sports talk shows. Lee was later replaced by former tennis star Gussie Moran, one of the first women to be on a sports talk show. And there was also good music, like the Make Believe Ballroom, hosted by William B. Williams, who played songs from the Great American Songbook. To say that I really enjoyed radio for almost 15 years would be an understatement. And that was even before FM radio came to the fore.
You could write a book about all the old radio shows and the famous personalities who built their reputations on radio, some after beginning in vaudeville. From there, many went on to television and the movies Some of the great comedians who were on radio regularly include Jack Benny, Jimmy Durante, Fanny Brice, Burns and Allen, Bob Hope, Abbott and Costello, Groucho Marx, Fred Allen, Red Skelton and Ed Wynn.
Other radio shows that transitioned to television included The Cisco Kid, Meet Millie, Our Miss Brooks,Captain Midnight, The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, a number of soap operas, The Voice of Firestone, Amos ‘n Andy, The Burns and Allen Show and The Jack Benny Program. So radio was a real spawning ground for future television programs and stars.
If you grew up with great radio, as I did, you always miss it in some ways. Those growing up with television probably can’t understand how a play, western, crime or action adventure show could be effective on the radio where you can’t see the actors or the action. But it worked. I can remember always loving the sound effects. They had one for everything. Footsteps approaching or leaving, the sound of a door opening or closing, horses approaching, the sounds of two people fighting, a fist hitting a face. Even if someone was sitting down or standing up there was a sound — a grunt, a sigh, the chair moving. In other words, it all sounded real and if you had any kind of imagination, you “saw” it.
(You can listen to many old radio shows by clicking the link below.)
Radio, of course, is still here, with music and talk shows, all news stations. There’s even a station where I live that plays all jazz. But in many cases, the personality is missing. People who were trained in radio were special, even the DJ’s, sportscasters and newscasters. They had a special flair that is largely absent today. I know I miss it. Always have; always will.
— Bill Gutman
Q is for Questions
I’ve always asked a lot of questions. When I was young it almost appeared to be a bad habit. Even a number of my classmates in junior high school wrote in my autograph book (a tradition way back then) about asking so many questions. One even called them my obnoxious questions. I don’t quite remember the kinds of questions I asked back then and at times I tended to be somewhat of a class comedian, but I’d like to believe it was the beginning of an inquisitive nature, one that has continued to this day.
But school wasn’t the only time I asked questions. I did it at home, as well, and my parents never told me to stop. They simply answered to the best of their ability. I remember in the early 1950s when my father and I would drive from Connecticut to the Bronx to attend a baseball game at Yankee Stadium. We would talk baseball all the way in and part of the way home, until I fell asleep if it was a night game. My father was a longtime baseball fan and I was quickly becoming one. How did I learn more? By asking him all the questions I could think of as we took the hour-long drive, including the history of the game and players he had seen when he was young.
I slowly learned that there were questions I could answer myself by reading, going to the library, watching the news on television or through any other sources that were available at that time. And often times answers to questions would lead to more questions. Not that I was a great student back in the early days. But I did have an inquisitiveness that never seemed to abate.
I soon learned that there were questions that either had no easy answers or could only be answered by time and experience. They were often questions you asked yourself while trying understand all the changes you went through as you grew and matured. Why didn’t I do that? Why didn’t I speak up? Why do I like that kind of music so much? And, of course, the big question when you’re young. What do I want to be when I grow up? There are others, of course. These are just examples of how the questions always keep coming in so many different areas of your life as you search to find the person you are and the person you want to be.
Once you get in the habit of asking questions you never seem to stop. Learning is a lifetime thing, especially if you have multiple interests, interact with a variety of people, continue to do creative work and follow the events of the world. Most of the questions I have now are within my own mind. The answers aren’t always easy, not always readily available by surfing the internet, and sometimes the questions I have simply can’t be answered. Yet I notice that more times than I can count each day I find myself asking questions, and many of them begin with that universal word. Why?
— Bill Gutman
P is for Phones
Today it sometimes seems as if smartphones rule the world. I don’t know the raw numbers, but it often appears that most people, especially those under the age of 50, have a smartphone that goes everywhere with them. If they aren’t talking, they’re texting. If they aren’t texting, they’re taking pictures. If they aren’t taking pictures, they’re on Facebook or surfing the internet. And if they forget their phone or are someplace where they’re required to turn it off, it’s as if the world just stopped. And for them, maybe it has.
Sometimes I wonder what would happen to smartphone users if they were suddenly transported back to the late 1940s and had to start their telephone days from there, as I did. Let’s take a look back and see how it was then and in subsequent years.
My first real recollection of a telephone goes back to 1947 or ’48, when I was five or six years old. We had the old dial phones then and most of them were black. We also had what they called “party lines.” That meant that at least two families shared the same number. You could pick up the phone to make a call and hear other people using it. It was common courtesy not to listen to their conversation, but I’m sure some people did. The real inconvenience was not being able to make or receive calls any time you wanted. If the other party talked long and often, it could be a real problem.
Then there was the “operator.” You had to dial 0 every time you wanted to make a long distance call. You would tell the operator what city you wanted to call and the number. She would make the connection for you. You could also call the operator if you were having trouble making a connection or thought there was a problem with the phone line. Today, operators are a thing of the past.
Once the party line disappeared it probably seemed the phone had entered the modern age. More streamlined phones appeared, came in different colors, but still had the dial and the operator in waiting. When I was in high school one of the best presents any of us could have was our own phone with our own number. That would mean two phone lines in the house, but back then it was affordable. The only caveat used to be that if your grades slipped, the phone would come out. I loved having that phone on my desk and at my disposal. That was probably tantamount to getting your own smartphone today.
The phone lines were different back then, not as technologically advanced. I remember a local radio station having a program called “Request Party.” They played all the popular Rock ‘n Roll songs of the day and asked people to call in their requests. Seems as if every teenager in town wanted to hear his or her name mentioned on the air for calling in a request. When you would dial the number you wouldn’t just get a busy signal, you get a whole bunch of voices talking in the background at the same time. None had reached the radio station but you could actually talk to each other as if it were one big party line.
One night I decided to be a wiseguy. Disguising my voice as best I could I pretended to be from the station and began asking others on the crowded line to give me their requests. At first, they were skeptical, but soon I had several giving me their song choices and names. I must have been doing it for 15 minutes or so when another voice came on, recognized my voice and blurted out my name. Whoops. I got off the line in a hurry. Fortunately, there were no repercussions, but such was the craziness of the phone lines back then.
After that, telephones were pretty much stagnant for maybe 30 or 35 years — except perhaps for push buttons replacing the old dials — until the next development came down the line, the cordless phone. Now you could walk around the house while you talked, or take the cordless into another room for privacy. You could even go outside if you didn’t get out of range of the sending unit. There were a couple of drawbacks. Someone nearby with a police style scanner could find the frequency the early cordless phones and listen to your conversations. And by carrying the phone under certain circumstances you could have an accident, like the time my wife was giving one of the kids a bath while talking and dropped the phone into the bathtub. That was the end of that phone.
Of course, the cell phone changed everything. At first it was little more than an added convenience. You could take it with you when you were out in the car and unless you were out of range of a cell tower, could call for help if you got in trouble. Or you could just talk with friends, keep in touch with home or conduct business. I think it was the cell phone that more or less ended the CB radio era in cars. There were even cellphones that doubled as walkie-talkies, but with a much longer range. That, too, was a real convenience. Though people wanted their phones with them, there still wasn’t the addiction it has now become with the smartphone.
The do-everything smartphone has really changed the world since it’s all at your fingertips. There’s an app for everything and that little phone can pretty much guide people through their daily chores, their work, their play. But let’s look at the other side of smartphones. Some of what has resulted isn’t exactly pretty.
Texting while driving has resulted in many lost lives, including innocent ones. Even talking continually while driving is considered a dangerous distraction. Yet people continue to do it. Texting while walking has resulting in people falling or walking into things. It also makes them more susceptible to being assaulted or robbed, since they’re not paying attention to people around them, especially on crowded city streets. A variety of ring and text tones has disrupted plays in the theater to the point where actors have sometimes stepped out of character to tell the audience the show will not continue unless phones are shut off. And people are being hit by baseballs and bats flying into the stands during ballgames because they are staring at their phones instead of watching the field and staying alert.
But let’s face it. Nothing will stop the proliferation of these phones or technological advances in what they can do. Just this week some movie theaters announced they will designate certain seating areas for people who want to text during the movie. Apparently some people cannot go without texting and without their phones long enough to watch a movie, so they’re staying away instead. And think about the last public place you’ve been in – whether a restaurant, a sporting event or a concert – where there are no phones ringing and no one talking or texting. Bet you can’t.
The funny thing thing is that years ago, when television was in its infancy, we had to watch on small, eight or ten-inch screens. Every time a bigger screened TV came into the house we got excited. It was the bigger the better. And while there are now huge flatscreen televisions with beautiful high-def imaging, many people are spending a good part of their day staring at those small screens and typing on tiny keyboards. It surely is a strange world.
I can remember watching old movies as a kid and seeing even older phones, like the wall phones where you had to turn a crank just to get the operator and ask to be connected to another phone. And I always wanted one of those standup desk phones where the microphone was mounted on the top of the phone and you held the earpiece to your ear. As I kid I wanted one of those as a toy but the closest I came was one that my parents found that had been converted into a lamp.
So telephones have been part of my life for a very long time. I guess I’m old school in that I still prefer to talk on what has become known as a land line, a desk phone. I don’t own a smartphone because I don’t really need one. We have a small, basic flip phone that we just take with us in the car for emergencies. If I was younger and had to travel for work then I might own one. But I find it annoying when the kids come to visit and the first thing that comes out and is put on the table is the smartphone. Then the texts and calls start coming in, or they start looking through their many pictures to show some off. It really makes old-fashioned conversation a bit difficult.
So that’s my take on smartphones, folks. Guess you could say it time for the old fogy to hang up and sign off.
— Bill Gutman
O is for Oh
I’ll bet many of you are puzzled by the title of this blog. O is for Oh. Am I going to write about the expression, Oh my God! Or the threat, Oh no you don’t! That would be kind of silly, wouldn’t it? Yet many of you may not know the person I’m going to write about, someone familiar to me as a baseball fan of long standing. It’s about a ballplayer who hit 868 home runs in his professional career, yet not a single one in the major leagues.
I’m talking about Sudaharu Oh, the greatest slugger in Japanese baseball history and a player known as The Babe Ruth of Japan. Oh played 22 seasons for the Yomiuri Giants of the Nippon Professional Baseball league, from 1959 to 1980. Had he come to MLB at that time he would have played in the same era as such home run kings as Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Henry Aaron. As it was, Oh’s accomplishments were often mentioned by American broadcasters and writers as the American sluggers made their way up the home run ladder, Aaron eventually eclipsing Babe Ruth’s longtime career mark of 714. His name surfaced again when Barry Bonds topped Aaron’s 755 round trippers and finished with 762. It’s hard to believe that Oh hit over 100 more home runs than the American record during his Japanese career.
In recent years, American baseball fans haven’t heard that much about Sudaharu Oh, Since more Japanese players have been coming to MLB and making their mark here, guys like Hideki Matsui, Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka, the name of Sudaharu Oh has been largely forgotten. So let’s take a look back at slugger who made his name across the Pacific. This is a guy who loved baseball and said this in his autobiography.
“I had reached the point where I simply lived to hit. How can I say it without sounding foolish? I craved hitting a baseball in the way a samurai craved following the Way of the Sword. It was my life.”
Sudaharu Oh was born on May 20, 1940, the son of a Japanese mother and Chinese father. He grew up in Tokyo and like another famed slugger, Babe Ruth, he began his baseball days as a lefthanded pitcher, something he continued to do right through high school. But when he signed his first contract with the Yomiuri Giants in 1959 the team felt he just wasn’t good enough to make it as a pitcher. But they saw he could hit and decided to give him a chance at first base.
Like all the great ones, Oh was an extremely hard worker. In his rookie season he couldn’t even hit .200, finishing with a dismal .161 batting average and not giving much indication that he was a home run champ in the making. But working with a coach named Hiroshi Arakawa, he developed a distinctive leg kick when the pitch was on the way and his hitting improved dramatically. By 1962, the southpaw swinging Oh really hit his stride and thrilled Japanese fans by belting 38 home runs. Two years later he would set a league mark when he slammed 55, the first of three times he went over the 50-home run mark. By that time he was well en route to becoming Japan’s most popular player ever.
Once Oh began putting up big home run numbers year after year it was almost inevitable that he be compared with the two premier sluggers in major league baseball – Mays and Aaron. At that time, with virtually no Japanese players in MLB, there was something of an elitist attitude. Foreign players simply couldn’t be as good as their American counterparts. In Sudaharu Oh’s case critics pointed to the inferiority of Japanese pitching, smaller ballparks and a slightly smaller and lighter baseball used by the Nippon league. But, in reality, there’s no way to really make this kind of comparison. Oh never had the opportunity to bring his talents to America.
Years later, another renowned Japanese slugger, Hideki Matsui, did have that chance by joining the New York Yankees in 2003. Known as “Godzilla” in Japan, Matsui didn’t quite become the same kind of home run threat with the Yanks, but he did hit as many as 31 in a season and proved and outstanding player and clutch hitter, finishing his Yankee career in 2009 as the Most Valuable Player in the World Series. Chances are that had Sudaharu Oh been given a similar chance he would have excelled.
On November 2, 1974, there was a distinguished guest in Japan. Henry Aaron was visiting the country following the 1974 season. Aaron was 40 years old then and had just finished a season in which he hit 20 home runs, the second of which had given him 715 for his career, breaking Babe Ruth’s longstanding 714. Prior to an exhibition game at Korakuen Stadium, Aaron and the 34-year-old Oh – who already had the Japanese record of more than 600 homers – faced each other in a home run derby. Aaron won it by a score of 10-9, but Oh had certainly not been embarrassed.
Oh played until 1980, retiring at the age of 40 with a .301 lifetime batting average, 2,786 hits, 2,170 runs batted in and those amazing 868 home runs. Nearly one-third of his hits left the ballpark. He hit a home run every 10.7 at bats, better than the 11.8 for the Babe, 12.9 for Barry Bonds and 16.4 for Aaron. He also had the best walks-to-strikeout ratio of the top sluggers, having walked 1,071 more times than he struck out. Among his other achievements were 13 straight Central League home run titles with 15 overall, nine Most Valuable Player awards, and during his tenure the Yomiuri Giants won the Japanese World series eleven times. Not bad for a 5’10”, 175-pound former pitcher who could hit a little.
After his retirement, Sudaharu Oh became manager of the Giants until 1988. He later returned to manage two other teams from 1995 to 2008. He remains a living legend in Japan and will be 76 years old on May 20. With so many Japanese players now succeeding in the Major Leagues the question will always be asked about Sudaharu Oh.
What would have happened if. . . .?
— Bill Gutman
N is for Newspapers
In the eyes of many people today, newspapers are dying a slow death. Far too many have already gone belly up and, as far as I’m concerned, if they all eventually go it will be a shame. Not only did I grow up scouring newspapers for a wealth of information — as so many of my generation did — but I also worked for one as a reporter and sports editor. Newspapers are an American institution with the hustling, wisecracking reporter going up against the curmudgeon of an editor a staple of many movies and shows over the years. And, in reality, that was exactly what many were – hard-drinking, hard-charging men (and eventually women) who would do anything to get that scoop so their paper would be the first to have the story out on the street.
The first successful newspaper in America was the Boston News-Letter, which was published initially in 1704. By the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783 there were 43 newspapers in print and nearly 100 years later, in 1880, the census recorded 11,314 newspapers in the country. Some 30 to 40 years later, in the decade of the 1910s, the basic features that make up the modern newspaper were in place. And in the New York City of the Roaring Twenties, the age of modern tabloid journalism emerged, with papers like the New York Graphic, New York Daily News, and New York Mirror all competing for the most sensational stories they could find. No wonder reporters were hard drinking and hard-charging. They were under tremendous pressure to break the next big story. And it stayed that way, in one form or another, for many competitive years.
As a kid in Stamford, Connecticut, my parents would get the local Stamford Advocate delivered each day and my father also brought home the New York World Telegram & Sun, a paper he liked. But he just as easily could have brought home any number of New York City newspapers. There was the New York Times, New York Herald Tribune, New York Journal American, the Daily News, Daily Mirror, New York Post, New York Newsday and a number of others. You could pick and choose during the 1950s. In addition, there were great reporters and columnists carrying on a long and honorable tradition.
I got my taste of it in 1967 when I became a reporter with the Greenwich Time, a five-day a week daily in Connecticut. I started by covering the police beat, then moved to general reporting and finally to sports editor. It was a grind, but a very enjoyable one. As sports editor, the page had to be ready by 9:30 in the morning so that the paper could be on the street that afternoon. That meant I had to be in the office by 7 a.m. Sometimes I had to write several stories for that day’s paper before doing the page layout. I learned to write quickly because there was no other way. But I thoroughly enjoyed the entire process, met a lot of people, many of whom were extra friendly because they wanted press coverage for themselves, their organizations or family members. A few also got angry because they didn’t get what they wanted, but it all came with the territory.
The schedule wasn’t easy. As a reporter I often had to go out nights to cover a meeting, or a dinner, and even a show. As sports editor I worked seven days a week. I had to cover games at nights and on weekends, go to awards dinners, interview coaches and high school athletes. Thanks to the chief of police, I got tickets to watch the Mets clinch the 1969 National League pennant and wrote a fun column about the entire day. I always had to go in to the office on Sunday to see what stories had been left for me and make sure there weren’t too many to write early Monday morning. On some Sundays I had to stay a couple of hours to get some of them done early.
Though Greenwich Time was considered a small town paper, there was still a classic newspaper feel to it. We had an editor who was never without a cigar in the corner of his mouth. Some mornings he’d drop one on my desk when he came into the office. There was the constant sound of typewriters clattering and a teletype room where stories came in on rolls of paper all day long. And we had a local bar that we all frequented after hours in true newspaper tradition.
Of course, it was a different world back then and for my seven-day-a-week effort I was paid all of $140 a week with an additional seven dollars for gas. Imagine that with today’s prices. Seven dollars for a week’s worth of gas! That was the reason I eventually left the newspaper business. I was planning to be married and no way I could make it on $140 a week. So I quit a job I really loved and a profession, had I stuck with it and moved on to a big city paper, that might have eventually been very different financially. But that was my decision and I wound up being a freelance writer and doing some books that were every bit as interesting as my newspaper work.
But what about the newspapers? They were fine for a couple of decades after I left the fold, though a few began going out of business as television news became more prominent, especially with the advent of the all-news cable stations. But the biggest reason that newspapers are now in trouble has been, by far, the internet, followed by the technological advances that led to the tablet and the smartphone. With more and more people getting their news electronically, ad revenues dropped and many family-owned papers began to fold. Some were bought out by chains, while others survived by going on-line only. Some of the major, big city newspapers continue to publish, but are losing money annually.
New York City now has just the big three of the Times, the News and the Post. Newsday also continues with a print edition. The News had some major layoffs a few months ago and is supposedly up for sale if a buyer can be found. Let’s put it this way. This is certainly not a golden age for newspapers.
There was a time if you rode a commuter train out of New York City that almost everyone on the train was sitting there reading a newspaper. I only rode the train occasionally, but used to marvel at the way many folded and held their papers as not to disturb the person also reading alongside them. Today you’re more likely to see smartphones, tablets, even small computers being used on the train.
There will certainly always be a way to get news. TV broadcast and cable stations always have reporters in the field. There is more than an abundance of news on the internet, and many people read newspapers on their computers. I’ll admit to also doing that each morning, checking out two or three papers. It is a convenience.
But I’d hate to see the print editions of almost all the papers disappear. The newspaper has been so much a part of Americana for several hundred years. There’s a kind of romance to it that can’t be recaptured on television or on a computer. It isn’t quite the same. In fact, some predicted that very thing about books years ago, that someday there would be very few as paper editions. People would be reading almost solely on tablets, computers and phones. That hasn’t happened and probably won’t. Hopefully, there will be some newspapers continuing to survive in print editions.
I’d like to think that those classic reporters are still out there somewhere, hard-charging, hard-drinking, looking for the next scoop or exclusive. I was only part of it for several years, but it was a time I’ve never forgotten. You worked hard, but for the most part it was total enjoyment and a great profession.
— Bill Gutman
M is for Moving
I’ve always said that moving is the world’s worst job. Sometimes it seems that all my life I’ve either been helping friends move or moving myself. Even if you’re going to be in a better place, the act of moving is difficult and tedious, especially if you’re doing it yourself and with the help of family or friends. I’ve never had the luxury of hiring professional movers and just sitting back watching the work get done. And neither have many of my friends. When you’re young and don’t have that many possessions, you don’t even think of hiring someone. You are the muscle. As you get older, it gets more difficult and you eventually have to downsize, as well. No matter how you cut the pie, moving is a real chore.
Preparation includes arranging to have services such as electricity, gas, phones, internet, television turned off at the place you’re leaving and turned on at your new place. Then you’ve got to worry about changing your address, notifying the post office, telling friends and maybe business associates that you’ll have a new address and phone number, if you still have a land line, which I’ve had all my life. Next comes the physical part – packing. In come the boxes, the rope, the tape, newspapers in which to wrap dishes and glasses, and that also means deciding what you’ll take with you and what can be sold, given away, or tossed out. But all of us who have moved know these things by heart.
I’ve had some pretty wild moving experiences with friends. One good friend lived on Bleeker Street in the Greenwich Village section of Manhattan. He was moving to West 10th St. in the west village and asked me to help. I was still living in Connecticut, drove in to the city where we rented a U-Haul that I could tow behind my car. We loaded up – taking his stuff down by elevator – and drove to the new apartment. What my friend neglected to tell me was that the apartment was a third floor walkup, and each flight of stairs was about 20-steps.
Imagine lugging all his furniture, books, bric-a-brac and everything else up two longs flights of stairs. We were in our twenties then, so we got through it, finishing about 11 p.m. That’s when we realized we hadn’t eaten since lunchtime. I remember us getting Chinese takeout, plenty of it, and chowing down like we hadn’t eaten in weeks. It almost felt as if we ate more than we moved.
Another friend was moving into an upstairs apartment in a two-family house. It was the middle of winter and the entrance was an outdoor metal staircase in the back of the house. What we didn’t know is that the staircase was icy. How we got furniture and everything else up that slippery staircase without getting hurt is still a mystery. I remember being in the middle of it with a heavy piece of furniture, both trying hard not to slip. Suddenly we began laughing at how ridiculous the whole situation was. We laughed so hard we had to put the furniture down or there would have been a disaster. Being young took the sting out of both those situations, though it still wasn’t easy.
Of course when you have a family it becomes even more of a hassle. Then there are schools to change, more of everything to move. In addition, once everything is in the new place, the real fun begins. That means setting everything up, hanging pictures, finding places to put and store things and doing the little things to make a house a home, to make it livable. Again, if you’re young enough you get through it and keep moving forward, and hopefully it all turns out to be a positive experience.
It’s when you get older that moving or the possibility of moving actually becomes more than the worse job in the world. It becomes daunting and a potential nightmare. If you like where you are, you just don’t want to move. Yet you know the time will eventually come for one reason or another. I look back at all the people I’ve helped move over the years and the moves that I’ve made and it has been quite a journey. Never fun, but at least when you’re young you can joke about it and recover quickly.
The lucky ones, in most cases, are those who stay in one place for 50 or 60 years. But my guess is that’s pretty rare. Sometimes economics changes things; sometimes it’s health; and occasionally it’s just the desire to be in another place, maybe a warm climate if you live in a seasonal one. So I guess, in retrospect, moving is part of life. Like it or not, you’re going to be doing it yourself or helping friends and family enough times over the years. But you never quite get used to it.
— Bill Gutman
L is for Looking Back
When I began looking for a topic to write about using the letter “L” as a starting point something quickly came to mind. Why not blog about my overall theme, Looking Back? After all, it isn’t the kind of theme you see too often and much of what I’ve been writing concerns my personal recollection as I settle in to my eighth decade on the planet. I’ve even looked back at people and happenings prior to the year of my birth, things I’ve studied and learned about along the way.
Why do we look back and when do we begin? I guess you can say we begin looking back almost from the start. If you fall off your bike as a kid, the next time you get on you’ll look back at what happened, if for no other reason to try to be sure it doesn’t happen again. If you have a bad experience at school, whether it’s being bullied or failing a test, that’s something that will stick with you and that you’ll look back upon, sometimes in fear or trying to cope, and sometimes to try to figure a way to improve your situation.
But I’m really not here to talk about childhood since I’m pretty far removed from it. But I will tell you something. No matter how old, you will find yourself looking back at your childhood, sometimes just to relive fond memories of the things you did or perhaps of family members who are no longer here. I would think the same holds true whether it was a good childhood or a bad one. The memories may be different, but under normal circumstances, it’s something you don’t forget.
Much of looking back involves reminiscing, especially when it’s about fun times and good things. Nothing beats talking to old friends from years ago and looking back at the times you had when you were young, or much younger. It certainly doesn’t make you young again, but for a little while you can feel that way when you talk, laugh and reminisce. In my case, several of my good friends are in different parts of the country. I’m in New York, one is in California, another in Rhode Island, yet another in North Carolina. We talk by phone fairly often and sometimes just gab about things that are happening with us and our families now. But all it takes is a word, a name, an event – something that suddenly transports us back to the “good old days,” and we’re looking back with fond memories that are even better when shared. I can’t count the number of times, when talking with them, that a sentence begins with, “Remember when. . .”
We don’t, however, always look back upon good things. Everyone has had bad things happen in their lives. It could be the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, a life-threatening illness and just a mistake you made that you wish you could do-over, something that perhaps could have changed the course of your life. All those things are out there, part of the whole, and you never know when something will trigger a look back, even with events you prefer to forget. But look at it this way, you can learn from the bad just as you enjoy looking back at the good.
Looking back, without a doubt, is a big part of everyone’s life. In fact, you can even look back at events that happened and people who lived before you were born. That’s what I’ve already done in these blogs, looked back at Babe Ruth, Duke Ellington, the Keystone Kops. That comes from following your interests, learning, and having a sense of history. Knowing history only expands the way you can look back and that expands your mind. Does it mean you are living in the past? Sometimes, perhaps, but it isn’t a bad thing if it helps you deal with the present.
In some ways, looking back is also a reaffirmation of your life, the things you done, the people you’ve met and the choices you’ve made along the way. None of us is perfect and all of us have some regrets. That’s just part of life and so is looking back. So never fear that rear view mirror. It’s there for you. Look into it whenever you choose.
— Bill Gutman
K is for Keystone Kops
What to do with the letter K? That one was a puzzler for awhile. My theme is looking back, so whatever I chose had to jibe with that. And I finally came up with one, especially since I felt it was time for some laughs. Can’t always be serious. With the police in this country coming under so much fire lately I thought of a police force like no other. They were the Keystone Kops. Yes, it’s usually spelled with a K. The Keystone Kops were part of early silent films produced by Mack Sennett at his Keystone Studios. Sennett was sometimes called the “Father of Comedy” and the idea of a group of bumbling cops intrigued him.
Apparently, Sennett felt that in the earliest days of film, beginning a couple of years after 1910, much of the new audiences consisted of working class people and immigrants, and he felt this blue-collar types would enjoy seeing figures of authority – in this case the police – lampooned on the silent screen. He was right, and the first film in which the Keystone Kops played a major role was The Bangville Police in 1913.
What, then, exactly were the Keystone Kops and what did they do? They were, in essence, bumbling buffoons, totally zany, running around like crazy in the epitome of slapstick comedy. Pretty soon there was a standard way to present the Kops. With each film in which they appeared there was always a chase, sometimes involving cars, trucks and trains. The action was filmed at slow speed so that it would appear much faster than normal when it was played on the screen.
The Kops never ran in a straight line. They would always run in a zig-zag manner as if they were avoiding or bouncing off invisible barriers. The film editors always removed one of every four frames to give the chases a kind of herky-jerky motion. And while there were a ton of pratfalls, collisions and other kind of wild disasters, everyone jumped right up and no one was ever hurt. But it sure was funny.
The Kops had a major role in The Bangville Police and then again in Fatty Joins the Force, also in 1913. After that, however, they became more or less supporting players, often appearing at the end of a film to take part in a climactic chase scene, the wilder the better. They did have a major role in a few shorts, which were sometimes shown on early television, especially on kids shows. The Kops continued to appear in Sennett comedies throughout the 1920s, but with less frequency. And by the time the talkies arrived, the popularity of the Kops was on the wane.
There were often repeating themes that showed up in the Sennett comedies, including those involving the Kops. These themes included rubes vs. city slickers, flirting husbands and exasperated wives, and sometimes romantic rivals seeking revenge, all parodied and in the comedic vein. After their debut, Sennett began using the Kops to support his major players, such as Charlie Chaplin, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Marie Dressler and Mabel Normand. Ironically, both Arbuckle and Chaplin appeared as Keystone Kops in some earlier movies before they were stars. Other Kops, including Chester Conklin, Edgar Kennedy, Mack Swain and Al St. John, would become popular character actors in the talkies that followed the silent era.
When I first saw the Keystone Kops as a kid, probably in the late 1940s, I laughed as anyone my age then would have. Who didn’t like goofy, slapstick comedy? Looking back now, the Kops came to the fore more than 100 years ago. But to me, they’re still funny. Perhaps more importantly, it was a time when people could laugh at anything, including Mack Sennett’s lampooning of the police. Today there is so much controversy over the actions of the police, so much emphasis on what is and what isn’t politically correct, that much of the humor and the ability to laugh has been lost. I don’t even know how the Police Academy films would be greeted today.
Of course, much of what is happening in today’s world simply isn’t a laughing matter. No argument about that here. But a little laughter can’t hurt. It still may be the best medicine. And when you look back at the Keystone Kops, I think you’ll know just what I mean.
— Bill Gutman
J is for Jazz
Let’s start with a hard fact. I’m addicted to jazz. I absolutely love the music and have for more than 50 years. There I go dating myself again but hell, it’s reality. And the problem here is that I could sit for hours and write a small book about the musicians I admire, the music itself, and how good listening to it makes me feel. But we’re dealing with a blog, so once again I’ll keep to the theme and look back, especially to the late 1950s and early1960s, a time when jazz was flourishing in New York City.
But first. . .
In 1955, Bill Haley and the Comets had a huge hit song called Rock Around the Clock. In a way, it heralded in the Rock ‘n Roll era, a new kind of music that kids could dance to, relate to, and loved. I remember buying the record and a few others. But soon, something else came into my life. Sometime in 1957, when I was still 14, I brought two jazz albums, The Great Benny Goodman and Count Basie’s One O’Clock Jump. I can’t quite recall what triggered it, but I do know what happened next that helped make me a jazz fan forever.
On December 8, 1957, two months after I turned 15, there was a special on CBS television called The Sound of Jazz. It is still widely considered today the best live jazz program to ever appear on the tube. And I sat there and watched. What I saw was a parade of jazz greats in a relaxed, informal atmosphere doing what they did best, play great music. There was Red Allen, Count Basie, Thelonious Monk, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, Rex Stewart, Gerry Mulligan, Vic Dickenson, Ben Webster, Jo Jones, Jimmy Rushing, Billie Holiday and more. The music ranged from Dixieland, to big Band, to bebop, to the blues. To say I was completely enthralled would be an understatement. It all clicked. You could see the joy on the musicians’ faces as they played, reacting to each others improvised solos and playing with the kind of emotion I didn’t see or feel in other kinds of music. I still watch the show on You Tube from time to time and have the music on CD. It’s as great as ever.
That was just the start. Before long I was buying jazz albums whenever I could afford to, especially after I reached 16 and had a summer job. One of my early purchases was a three-record set of Billie Holiday’s early Columbia recordings. Soon, I was listening to them over and over again, along with the other albums. And there was jazz on the radio back then. Symphony Sid Torin and Al “Jazzbo” Collins were two of the jazz DJ’s in the New York area. I soon found I loved it all, the early music from the 1920s – New Orleans and Dixieland – music from the big band era of the 1930s, and also the young lions of bebop, the piano virtuosos and the great singers. The more I listened to it the more I wanted to see it.
Starting in 1958 when I was just 16 I began going into New York City with friends to a variety of jazz concerts. I lived an hour or so from the city in Stamford, Connecticut, and fortunately my parents trusted me and the guys I hung out with. They knew we just wanted to hear the music. It was also a different time then. Cities didn’t pose quite the same dangers as they do now. So we took the train in whenever we could.
We often went to a concert venue called Town Hall where I saw the likes of the Miles Davis Sextet and Ornette Coleman in one of his first New York concerts. The audience loved Miles, but Ornette was going in a new direction and his free jazz took a lot of us by surprise. I also saw the Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall. That one took place on February 28, 1959. I know the date because I have the CD of the concert. Monk usually played with a quartet, but this was a big band and it was great. They were recording that night and the highlight for many was a rousing piece called Little Rootie Tootie. When the concert ended but before the audience could leave, they announced that there was a problem with the recording equipment and they would have to play an encore of Little Rootie Tootie. Needless to say, the audience went nuts and we all got a bonus by hearing the piece all over again.
That wasn’t all. For the next several years I continued to make frequent trips to New York City. I went to the famed Birdland, where I saw the Count Basie Orchestra and the John Handy Quartet. We also used to stop in at the Metropole Cafe where the house band consisted of the great trumpeter Red Allen and clarinetist Buster Bailey. We weren’t old enough to drink, but all we wanted to do was hear the music. I also saw a great jazz festival at Madison Square Garden that featured the likes of Louis Armstrong and Sarah Vaughan, as well as the Woody Herman Orchestra. Went to another that was held at Randall’s Island below the Triborough Bridge. New York City was jumping with jazz back then. We were too young for some clubs and really only scratched the surface, but they were not only days I’ll always remember, they helped fortify my growing love for the music.
Jazz also came to the suburbs back then. I saw both the Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman Orchestras in my home town of Stamford, as well as the great Lionel Hampton. Almost all the names I’ve mentioned here are gone now. When I tell the stories to some of my younger jazz friends on social media, they always react by saying they wish they could have been there, just as I wish I could have been there to see jazz greats of an earlier time. Those who love this music all feel the same way about it. They can’t get enough of it. The music and the performers get inside you and it never lets go.
With the exception of a few years during the Big Band Era, jazz has never been America’s popular music. But it lives on with a cadre of hardcore fans like myself. Since I’ve been communicating with other jazz lovers on social media I do notice that many are of my generation. But there are enough younger fans as well as younger musicians carrying on the tradition to make me think that this great music will never die. After all, it has been called America’s only original art form. And make no mistake, it is art.
I’ve always said that jazz is the most immediate art form of them all. It can take a writer years to pen a great novel or a painter many hours to produce a masterpiece on canvas. Yet a jazz musician can put his horn to his lips or his hands to the keyboard and in a matter of minutes produce a solo that is creative, emotional and beautiful all at the same time. Just listen to some of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings from the mid-1920s. Pops was doing things no musician had done before and his solos on songs like West End Blues and Potato Head Blues, just to name two, are still considered classics.
Well, I guess that’s enough for now. Except to say that after 50 years of listening to jazz I’ve never gotten tired of hearing it, not for one minute. My appreciation of the music and musicians has grown over the years and with the state of the world being what it is today, jazz has become more important to me than ever. I just want to hear as much of it as I can and listen to great musicians that have come and gone, but whose recorded work will live forever.
And by the way, I’ve been listening to Billie Holiday singing during the entire time I’ve been writing this blog. It can’t get any better than that.
— Bill Gutman
I is for Internet (Typewriter to Computer)
I always loved to type. From the time my mother taught me to touch type by covering the keys of a Smith-Corona portable when I was in the ninth grade, I enjoyed working at the typewriter. She taught me initially because I had lousy handwriting and she felt it would help me with my schoolwork. So I typed everything through high school and college, banging out papers on that old Smith-Corona. At that time I had no inkling – and I don’t think many did – that someday there would be something that would replace completely that wonderful invention called the typewriter.
A few years after graduating from college in 1965 I got a job on a daily newspaper in Greenwich, Connecticut. Waiting for me at my desk was a huge old typewriter that looked as if it was of World War II vintage. I fell in love as soon as I began typing. These old canal boats were great. You could type extremely fast with them and they made a great sound. To hear a whole bunch of them clattering in the newsroom at once was a sound you can’t duplicate today. I can still hear it in my mind.
When I finally began freelancing full time around 1972 I went back to the old Smith-Corona that I began with in the ninth grade. It still worked fine. I never wanted an electric typewriter, though some said they were the next big thing.
I was writing many sports books then, biographies and profiles of professional athletes for children and teenagers. The research was more difficult than the writing. I had to make many phone calls to teams, colleges and professional leagues to ask for material. Sometimes they would send it; sometimes not. I would often have to go to local libraries and make copies of magazine stories, sometimes from an antiquated transparency called microfiche. I also kept boxes of magazines and clipped several newspapers a day if I thought the articles would be a help. I always kept clips of the World Series, NFL and NBA playoffs each year. It was quite a cataloging job to be sure. Boxes upon boxes in closets and basements.
I also had to travel to New York City fairly often to either go to the main public library or to NFL headquarters. At that time, the NFL kept an extensive clipping file on every single player and their PR department was always cooperative. They would give you the files on the players you wanted, then set you up in front of a copying machine. Sometimes I’d stand there for two or three hours just copying clips and articles I thought I might need. That’s what I meant by the writing was easier than the research.
As much as I enjoyed pounding on a typewriter there were times when it could become a chore. I remember having to retype an entire manuscript on a weekend because of a deadline. Those many hours of typing left me with hands that were cramping up and I was using the white out and correct-o-type constantly. It wasn’t always easy to deliver a clean manuscript. And then there was editing. Sometimes I would edit a manuscript by hand, then have to re-type the entire thing. It was a tedious process that often took a great deal of time.
Then one day I was at my local library, a small place in a small town, when the librarian told me they would soon be getting access to the “the information superhighway.” I didn’t know what she meant at first. I was too busy to be reading about all the technological advances that were apparently just around the corner. The information superhighway was, of course, the internet.
My transition came slowly. As computers began to appear I resisted. Then in the late 1980s I took a job with a weekly newspaper in the area since book projects had slowed. They were using computers and at that time you only had about 11 lines at one time on the screen. I learned quickly that I had to re-train my mind. I actually brought a typewriter up to the office, would write the lead to the story on it, then go to the computer. Of course, that didn’t last long. Pretty soon it became easy to work on the computer and for my work at home I bought a small, portable word processor. It was so slow that it couldn’t keep up with my typing. So the day was coming and, by 1990, I bought my first computer. By then I was back to freelancing full time and the computer age and the internet were upon me.
It didn’t take long to realize there were some real advantages to using the computer over the typewriter.
In 1991, when NBA star Magic Johnson announced he was HIV positive and retiring, I was asked to do an instant book on him. In other words, write a complete biography in a week. I had most of the material because I was already under contract to write a kid’s book about him, but that was canceled after his announcement.
This was something that could not have been done on the typewriter. Even with the computer you couldn’t simply attach a document and email it then. There was a more complex way to transfer electronically by modem. But I was sending in two or three chapters as I finished them and got it done. The book was completed on December 10, and was on the shelves the day after Christmas. Instant book. It could not have been done that way without the electronic age.
With the technical advances that followed, my transition was complete. Now research could be done on line. Stories and articles, or anything else you needed, could be saved and printed out. No more trips to libraries or New York City to stand in front of a copying machine. No more driving yourself crazy with white out and correct-o-type. The computer and internet could be the writer’s best friend with certain kinds of projects.
But you know what. I’ve still got a typewriter in my closet. It’s not the old Smith-Corona. That one finally wore out after more than 20 years. I have an Olympia portable which I used the final years of my typewriter days. Every now and then I pull it out and type a page or so for old times sake. Why not? So many fond memories come with it.
— Bill Gutman
H is for HOME RUN (The Shot Heard Round the World)
It was October 3, 1951. I was six days away from my ninth birthday and already a big baseball fan. That’s why I rushed home from school that day. I knew the New York Giants were playing the Brooklyn Dodgers in the third and final game of a playoff to decide the National League pennant and the team that would meet my team, the Yankees, in the World Series. I walked in the door and rushed up the stairs. My mother had the game on and I quickly assessed the situation, realizing I had arrived home just in the nick of time.
The Giants were up in the bottom of the ninth inning with the Dodgers leading, 4-1. I got upstairs just in time to see the Giants score to make it 4-2. There were runners on second and third with one out. As the Giants’ Bobby Thomson was coming to the plate and relief pitcher Ralph Branca was on the mound, I turned to my mother and said, “Only a home run will save the Giants now.” Of course, a single could have tied it, but as a neophyte baseball fan, I was looking for the sure thing – the home run.
There’s one thing you’ve got to understand about growing up a baseball fan in the 1950s. New York had three teams and if you rooted for the Yankees, you automatically hated the Dodgers. They were the arch-rivals. To the Giants, you were more or less neutral. You wanted them to beat the Dodgers, but would root for the Yankees against them. What I didn’t understand then was that there was no greater rivalry in sports than that of the Dodgers and Giants when they were in New York.
Anyway, every real baseball fan knows what happened next. On Branca’s second pitch Thomson hit the ball into the lower left field stands at the old Polo Grounds for a pennant-winning, three-run homer. The blast is still considered one of the top three most dramatic home runs in the history of the game and it has long been dubbed The Shot Heard Round the World.
Now we fast forward to 1990. I’m 20 years into my career as a freelance writer when I get a call from a guy I knew who had hired me to do a previous book. He said he had met Bobby Thomson and there was a good chance we could do a book about his life and the home run since the 40th Anniversary of the event was coming up the following year. We met Bobby at a restaurant in New York City. He was open and friendly, but seemed cool to the idea of the book. Seems he was an extremely humble man who simply didn’t like talking about himself. Finally my friend explained to him that the book could serve as legacy for his children and their children, and he finally agreed.
I worked with him on the proposal and we got it sold. Then I began the book. What I soon learned was that Bobby was very reticent, so much so that he wasn’t giving me the kind of material I needed for a full autobiography, one with color and interesting details. So I changed the focus to combine his story with a re-creation of that great pennant race of nearly 40 years earlier, one which saw the Giants come from 13 ½ games back on August 11, to tie the Dodgers and force a best-of-three playoff. It sure increased my workload because I interviewed dozens of former players and others associated with the pennant race. Getting to speak with players that I watched so often in my youth was fun, exciting and enlightening. I wrote alternating chapters, going from Bobby’s first person account of his life to a third person account of the pennant race. The Giants Win the Pennant! The Giants Win the Pennant! was probably one of the best books I’ve ever done, the title coming from announcer Russ Hodges’s famous call of the home run.
I also did one of the last interviews ever with Giants’ manager Leo Durocher, who did the Foreword, and also with Ralph Branca, who threw the ball that Thomson hit. He did the Afterword. He and Bobby had become good friends over the years and were doing autograph shows together as the baseball memorabilia business was growing.
Interestingly enough, Bobby didn’t want to capitalize on his famous homer once he retired from baseball. He eventually became a paper goods salesman and always referred to himself as Robert Thomson. That’s how humble he was. It wasn’t until years later when he realized how much his home run had meant to baseball that he finally came out of that shell and once again became Bobby Thomson. It served him well in his later years.
Ten years after its initial publication, in 2001, the publisher issued a new edition of the book to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Shot Heard Round the World. HBO was doing a special on it and I was invited as a participant. Just about that time the Wall Street Journal published an article that stated the Giants were stealing signs in 1951, and that Bobby may well have known just what pitch Ralph Branca was going to throw (a fastball) before he hit the homer. The story said that the Giants had stationed someone in the window of their centerfield clubhouse at the Polo Grounds with a high powered telescope. He also had a buzzer set up alongside him. He would see the catcher’s sign, then buzz the pitch to the Giants bullpen where backup catcher Sal Yvers supposedly would do nothing if the pitch was a fastball, but toss a ball in the air if the pitch was a curve.
The story was true and perhaps it vindicated Ralph Branca a bit. But here’s the thing, and I wrote about it in the second edition of the book. Almost all teams in the league were stealing signs then. It wasn’t even illegal. And some of the Giants hitters, like Hall of Famer Monte Irvin, said he didn’t want the signs. And the Giants actually had a better record on the road than at home when they made their final pennant push. They weren’t stealing the signs on the road. In fact, I had written briefly about sign stealing in the first edition of the book. Why it was looked upon as the coup of the year I still don’t know. It was part of the game then and while Leo Durocher might have pushed the envelope with his telescope, I always found it hard to believe that was the reason Bobby Thomson made history. Even if you got that sign in the second between the catcher flashing it and the clubhouse attendant relaying it to the bullpen, you still had to hit the pitch.
One other thing. Being a sports hero was a lot different back then. A dramatic home run like Bobby’s could be marketed into millions of dollars today. Bobby had one offer. After the clubhouse celebration he was asked to appear that night on the Perry Como show. Como was a popular singer who had a 15-minute live TV show. They offered Bobby $500. He said no, that he wanted to be with his family. But when they upped the ante to $1,000 he couldn’t refuse. Ballplayers just didn’t make that much money then. Bobby asked a friend to drive his car home to Staten Island and was driven to the show.
After the show the biggest sports hero in New York took a cab and then rode the Staten Island Ferry home. He walked alone down the darkened streets to the local firehouse where his brother had night duty and he knocked on the window. His brother came out and the two just stared at each other for a minute. Then Jim Thomson said: “Bobby, do you realize what you did today? Do you realize something like this may never happen again?”
Up to that point he truly hadn’t. And there wasn’t much time to think about it. He needed some sleep. You see, the Giants had a game the very next day, the opener of the World Series at Yankee Stadium. Bobby Thomson, the biggest hero Giants fans had in years, didn’t have much time to revel in The Shot Heard Round the World.
— Bill Gutman
G is for Madison Square Garden
To longtime New York City sports fans, it’s simply called The Garden. None would confuse it with the New York Botanical Garden. This one is Madison Square Garden, a place with a long and rich history and a venue that has undergone several location changes. There have been four Madison Square Gardens, the first opening in 1879 and the current one in 1968. I’d like to talk about Madison Square Garden number three, which stood on Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets from 1925 to 1968. That’s the place I went to very often in my youth.
The old Garden sat more than 18,000 people and was built up. Today’s Garden is built out, taking up more space, but you are further away from the court or the ice. In the old Garden you were closer to the action and felt more a part of it. I loved the ambiance of that building. By the second half of a basketball game or a boxing match, you could see the cigar smoke hovering in the air. It was loud and raucous, as many of the old arenas were. I’m not making a statement about smoking or not smoking, just recalling what it was like in those days.
I first went there as a kid when my mother took me to see the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey circus.
But my real memories of the Garden started in the late 1950s and 1960s. Here’s a rundown of some of the events I saw in person and have never forgotten.
I was at the Garden the first time Bill Russell came in with the Boston Celtics during the 1956-57 season. Russell joined the team late because he participated in the Olympics. You could tell immediately that he was going to great. My most vivid memory. During warmups Russell was dunking the ball in spectacular fashion. This was way before slam dunk contests and few dunked during games. The Knicks had a 6’11” center named Ray Felix and the crowd began yelling for Felix to dunk as the Knicks warmed up at the other end. Finally Felix took the ball, barely left the court, and dunked rather timidly. The applause that followed wasn’t exactly in admiration. Ray Felix was no Bill Russell. Few, if any, were.
On December 30, 1964, some friends and I went to the Garden to watch Princeton, led by Bill Bradley play number one ranked Michigan, led by Cazzie Russell, in the then annual Holiday Festival basketball tournament. No one gave Ivy League Princeton much of a chance, but Bradley put on a one-man show that had the crowd in a frenzy. He was all over the court, scoring from the outside, driving to the hoop, and playing a lights-out game. With 4:37 remaining in the second half Princeton was up by 12 when Bradley fouled out. He had already scored 41 points. That’s when Russell and Michigan rallied and Cazzie hit the winning shot in an 80-78 victory. But no one who was there would ever forget Bill Bradley and the incredible show he gave the fans that night.
I saw my first hockey game at the Garden during the 1966-67 season. I remember that because it was the year that veteran star Boom Boom Geoffrion joined the Rangers. He was one of my favorites then. The game produced quite a surprise. We were sitting in the mezzanine on the side of the rink. As soon as the game began everyone sitting in front of us stood up. Okay, maybe something exciting happened. Only they didn’t sit down. Then I realized that because of the way the Garden was constructed you couldn’t see the action at the near boards below us. Unless you stood. So we stood the entire game, leaning forward with our legs against a railing. It was a good game but the next day both my hamstring muscles were totally sore from standing against that railing for well over an hour. That was the old Garden.
I went to a second hockey game that same year and for a very special reason. The Boston Bruins were coming in with one of the most heralded rookies to ever come along, 18-year-old Bobby Orr. From the moment he hit the ice you knew he was already a great player. You just couldn’t take your eyes off him. He just glided over the ice, was in the thick of the action and dominated the game. It was the only time I saw him in person, but I watched him many times on TV and always read about his exploits. To this day I feel that Bobby Orr, not Wayne Gretzky, was the greatest player in NHL history. He was a defenseman who scored like a forward and revolutionized the game.
Then there was boxing. I had a friend who worked at Sport Magazine and he would get tickets for many fights at the Garden. Two stand out. The first was in March of 1967, a lightweight bout between Ismael Laguna of Panama and Frankie Narvez from Puerto Rico. There were fans from both countries there, with the Panamanians occupying many of the ringside seats. We were in the press box. Laguna won the fight easily, but when the decision was announced someone threw a cup, then someone threw a bottle; then a chair. Before you knew it, a full scale riot had broken out. Fans were fighting and throwing things into the ring, which was littered with debris. Fortunately, we had the safety of the press box and were shielded from anyone behind us. We finally left very carefully, but that really was fight night at the garden.
I’m going to step over the line on this last one. It took place on March 4, 1968, less than a month after the new Garden opened. It was clean and neat, but lacked some of the great atmosphere of the old building. We were there to watch the Joe Frazier/Buster Mathis fight. Muhammad Ali had been stripped of his title by then and the winner of this one would be declared the new champ. Both were unbeaten and Mathis had defeated Frazier twice in the amateurs. But this time Smokin’ Joe and his relentless style wore the 240-pound Mathis down and Joe stopped him in the 11th with one of his patented left hooks. It was a good fight, but what I remember is that afterward, when we were outside the Garden, Frazier came out wearing an all-red suit and mingled with fans who were congratulating him. The old Garden was gone, but boxing had a new champ.
Those are just some memories of a great venue. It was old and a bit dirty, smoked-filled and often with the smell of stale beer. But it was a legendary place where many great sporting events took place and I’m glad I was able to be there for a small part of it.
— Bill Gutman
F is for Food
Well, yes, I’m really here to talk about food. Only I’m not about to offer up mouth-watering recipes that I think you should try. Nor am I pushing the latest cookbook to hit the shelves or the newest fad diet that will cure all your ills. And I’m certainly not going to offer up the next magic bullet that will allow you to lose that extra weight you’ve vowed to lose for years. Nope, this is none of those things. It’s just me looking back again, this time from the standpoint of someone who has always loved to eat, has a big appetite and for quite some time was on the wrong road as far as diet was concerned. So this more of a journey, of learning, evolving, compensating and continuing to enjoy good food.
My grandmother was a great cook, an old school woman who totally enjoyed cooking, feeding her family and watching them eat. We lived we my grandparents for the first four years or so of my life while my father was in the service during World War II. I certainly don’t remember everything we ate, but I saw how she cooked over the years, so I know I was off to a good start. And, of course, back then there were fewer processed foods and food additives.
My mother, on the other hand, didn’t really enjoy cooking. For years, we ate a meat and potatoes diet with canned veggies and no salad. As I’d learn later, it was a diet devoid of fiber, among other healthy things. I also began forming some bad eating habits on my own. I loved hot dogs and would eat them whenever possible. The same for sandwiches, which were often filled with processed meats like bologna. This continued right through high school years and I began fighting the battle of the bulge to some extent, a tendency to put on weight around the middle. Some people even predicted I was going to be a fat guy some day.
College was probably even worse. Institutional food at best is adequate; at worst is awful. Ours bordered on the awful, but at that time it didn’t matter. It was food. When they served hot dogs, I gorged, once eating six at a setting, something I duplicated at Yankee Stadium around that time. We also went to the snack bar where I ate my share of bologna and cheese subs. Throw in the addition of beer and I was probably doing what many of my age at that time were doing. Eating very poorly. It was the kind of diet that will catch up to you sooner or later. My only saving grace – if you could call it that – was I never had a sweet tooth. I didn’t eat a lot of candy or icing-topped cakes.
Nothing much changed when I got a job as a newspaper reporter and eventually sports editor of the Greenwich Time in Connecticut beginning in 1967. I worked six or seven days a week and often ate on the run, which means the usual gamut of junk foods. And in the true newspaper tradition, we had a favorite bar we visited often. It was only a few years later, when I left the paper and eventually began life as a freelance writer, that things began to change.
There was no sudden epiphany, or a moment when I “saw the light.” Rather, it was a gradual transition. I began reading more about nutrition. Pretty soon I began taking vitamin supplements, something I’ve continued to do my entire life. Back then you were considered a “vitamin nut,” as not very many people were taking them. Some time later I decided to become a vegetarian. I ate dairy products, but no meat or fish. I probably continued that for at least five years or more, lost weight, maybe too much, but felt good and was very healthy. I also enjoyed having large vegetable gardens at my disposal.
Though I eventually began eating some meat again my diet and lifestyle had pretty much changed. I then added running to my regimen as well as other forms of hard exercise, and had pretty much completed my the transition from my days of eating hot dogs and sandwiches. I still had a big appetite, but by running and not eating sweets or junk food I kept my weight in check. The biggest addition to my diet in recent years is yogurt. This is due to working on a book project with a nutritionist who spoke intelligently about the need for probiotics. As always, I also did my own research, which I continue to do, and became convinced of the importance of adding probiotics. Now I eat yogurt every night before bedtime. And always full fat dairy products. Nothing that says “diet,” “low fat” or “no fat.”
No diet is perfect. We all indulge from time to time in foods that might not be the best for us. Yet I continue to read and learn about nutrition. My wife often calls me a preacher when I talk to others about diet, people who usually don’t listen. C’est la vie. For the most part I eat oatmeal quite often for breakfast with honey, not sugar. Meat is eaten in small portions. I try to stick to whole wheat breads and pastas, eat many vegetables, drink unsweetened ice tea with dinner, green tea in the evening. Virtually no soda, another change from childhood. I stay away from processed foods and don’t even eat out very often because of things I’ve read about restaurants.
Like I said, I still indulge in some comfort foods. But I make my own pizza, do my own shopping and my own cooking. I like to cook and learned long ago because I didn’t like some of the things my mother cooked or the way she cooked them. Does that me a fusspot? Maybe. But it worked out pretty well, especially for a guy who still enjoys eating.
There is, of course, no simple answer and maybe no “best” diet. The so-called Mediterranean diet certainly makes sense, as do some others It’s up to each of us to pick and choose, make our own decisions. But there’s certainly enough evidence today about what is good for you and what is not. All you have to do is read.
But I’d better stop now before I’m accused of preaching again. We don’t want that, now do we?
— Bill Gutman
E is for Economy Music Shop
Well, this sure must sound like a strange one. The Economy Music Shop. It’s a place long gone, but one that still affords me fond memories beginning with my high school years. For each time I take out one of my early jazz records – which date back more than 50 years – I see a faded stamp on the back. EMS. Economy Music Shop. That was a way to show the record was theirs in case you had to return it.
And when I say the word record, I’m talking about vinyl, a format many of today’s music lovers are not at all familiar with. But when I got my first “Victrola” as a kid, popular songs were still being sold in the 78rpm format. Big, 12-inch, highly breakable records. Soon after, the 45’s came out with that big hole in the center. But by that time there were also long playing (LP) records with the turntable spinning at just 33 1/3 rpm, That allowed for longer recordings, more complex arrangements, and more live performances being captured on vinyl.
My first record player, which we still called a Victrola, looked like a small suitcase or perhaps a typewriter case. You could close it up and carry it around by a handle. When you opened it there was a turntable with a single speaker built into the top half, which was open at a right angle. The turntable had a spindle so you could stack several 78s or LPs and one would drop on top of the one playing as soon as it was finished. For 45’s you needed an adapter, usually a plastic circle with a small hole in the middle. It would go down the spindle onto the turntable. Of, if the spindle was removable, right on top of the small spindle on the turntable. If you wanted your 45s to be stacked on the spindle you had to fit each one with a thin plastic adapter that would snap into the large hole in the center of the record. Later you could get a thicker 45 adapter spindle that would also drop the records.
Of course, there were much more complex record players then. Some were large consoles with bigger speakers, and this was before the days of stereophonic sound. My aunt had one that even turned the record over automatically. I was fascinated by that mechanism when I was a kid. My grandmother had one of those old fashioned record players that had to be wound with a hand crank and had that big cone of a speaker extending above the turntable.
With the advent of stereos, the complete “system” was created, with amplifier, speaker and turntable all separate components and the day of the “big sound” was upon us. But vinyl was the one constant since the earliest records were made. The advent of the compact disc (CD) changed all that, but we won’t go there now. Nor will we touch on mp3 files, which changed everything, for both better and worse.
Of course, vinyl has not been forgotten. For awhile you could only find old records at tag sales or at used book and record shops. But thanks to that modern scam that is marketing, vinyl is back, and at inflated prices. The old vinyls are now being sold as collector’s items and new records are being marketed to kids in both CD and vinyl format with vinyl being far more expensive. Many kids think they’re cool.
But ask anyone who grew up with vinyl. Most, including myself, will tell you there was something special about them, a kind of mystique about that record spinning around on a turntable. As time passed, there was almost a romance to them, especially for those of us looking back over many years. We didn’t even mind the scratches and tics.
Which brings me back to where I began, at the Economy Music Shop. Before I got my driver’s license in October of 1958, when I was 16, I was buying some records at a small music shop within walking or biking distance of my home. I bought some rock ‘n roll 45s since that was the new rage with teenagers then. In 1957, I discovered jazz and for whatever reason, it just clicked with me. I was hooked, as I still am today. I bought a couple of jazz LPs and once I was able to drive, I quickly discovered the Economy Music Shop in downtown Stamford, Connecticut. To me and my jazz friends, it was a gold mine.
For openers, there was always something special about thumbing through bins of stacked records, whether 45’s or LP’s. It was especially adventurous to go through the jazz bins. The 1950s and early ’60s were a great period for jazz, with a ton of live venues in New York City and performers even making their way to the suburbs. And there were record labels like Prestige, Blue Note and EmArcy that were devoted to jazz, along with the more traditional labels like Columbia and RCA. So when you thumbed through those stacks of records, you never knew when you come across a gem, something you knew you just “gotta have.”
But why was the Economy Music Shop so special to me? The owner was jazz guy. He played tenor saxophone locally and loved the music. He was of Italian ancestry and had a very long last name. But everyone shortened it and just called him Skig or Skiggy. No one ever used his given name of Vincent. Skiggy allowed us to spend as much time as we wanted in the store, whether we wound up buying something or not. Most times, if we had the money, we did. He had a large turntable mounted behind the counter connected to a pair of speakers on the wall and if we wanted to hear a record, or even a track or two from an album, he’d play it for us without hesitation. Of course, he figured it we liked what we heard we’d buy it, but Skiggy also loved the music and loved to talk about it. So it was a learning experience as well.
If I went into the shop with a friend or a couple of friends, we would sometimes spend an hour or two there, perusing the records, listening to some of them, just talking with Skiggy about the music or whatever else happened to crop up. We’d ask him where he was playing next and sometimes went to see him. He never became bored talking with us or asked us to either buy something or leave, as they would do in some stores. We were always welcomed with a smile and all of us were on a first name basis. Even after I went off to college, the Economy was one of the first places I’d go when home on vacation and often during the summer.
As I said, I still have quite a few LP’s that I bought at the Economy Music Shop so many years ago. They have that hand stamp of EMS still visible and a handwritten price of $3.98 or $4.98 on the back. Because I already loved the music it was always a total joy to walk through those doors, get a big welcome from Skiggy and begin thumbing through the albums. And those vinyl records are tough. Though they’ve been played many times over the years, moved around and even stored for a period of time, they still play beautifully when I spin them on a new age turntable and listen on computer speakers or with headphones.
I almost feel sorry for young kids today. They simply won’t have the pleasure of an Economy Music Shop. Like I said, vinyl is making something of a comeback, but will probably be relegated to the category of specialty item. There might be a few record shops trying to survive here and there, often with used vinyls. But most youngsters won’t have the pleasure of going through those bins loaded with records of all kinds. Let’s face it, there’s no way you can thumb through a bunch of mp3 files.
— Bill Gutman
D is for Duke
Ah, Duke. Let’s see. Just who can I be looking back at here? Could it be the Duke of Edinburgh? Nah. What about Duke Snider, the legendary Duke of Flatbush and a Hall of Famer who played for the old Brooklyn Dodgers? Would be fun, but not this time. Or maybe it’s Duke Kahanamoku, the famed Hawaiian swimmer and Olympic Champion? Interesting character, but not on today’s agenda.
The Duke I’m referring to here is Edward Kennedy Ellington, one of the greatest musicians, bandleaders and composers of the twentieth century. Am I a fan? Damned right. I’ve loved Duke Ellington’s music almost since I began listening to jazz back in 1957. That’s a long time, yet I still listen to him very often and have quite a collection of his music at my fingertips. I also had the privilege to write a book about his life shortly after he died in 1974. Though it was geared for a junior high-high school audience, it was nevertheless a labor of love and I got to speak with a few of his former band members and people who were close to him, including his official biographer, Stanley Dance.
While researching and writing the book provided me a more complete understanding and appreciation of the Duke it is still listening to his music that gives me the most pleasure. Born in Washington D.C., in 1899, Duke was pretty much part of the growing and developing jazz scene from the beginning. He had a band by the early 1920s and honed his craft as a pianist by attending Harlem Rent Parties, where the likes of James P. Johnson and Fats Waller held court, along with an array of local “tinklers,” all of whom contributed to the development of jazz piano.
Duke’s big break came in late 1927 when trumpeter King Oliver turned down a gig at Manhattan’s famed Cotton Club and the Ellington band got the call. Duke named his early band the Washingtonians, and while at the Cotton Club made some recordings under the name The Jungle Band. He was, in a sense, acquiescing to the social mores of the day as the Cotton Club – though located in Harlem – was a segregated venue. The audience was white only and the performers African-American. The show, complete with dancing girls, was often choreographed to simulate savages and the jungle.
But Duke did what he had to do. He had found a wider audience, had the opportunity to perform with the band on national radio, and began making a real name for himself while remaining at the Cotton Club for several years. And he also began composing prolifically at this time, writing such early hits as East St. Louis Toodle-oo, The Mooche, and Mood Indigo, just to name three. And all the time he was thinking bigger and better things.
When the big band era began in the mid-thirties, Duke Ellington was firmly established at the forefront of a movement that included Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Chick Webb and many others. And by then, Duke was carefully choosing his sidemen to get a variety of sounds and styles that he would consider carefully when writing his compositions. His band was loaded with stars, great soloists like Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster, Harry Carney, “Tricky Sam” Nanton, Lawrence Brown, Jimmy Blanton, Cootie Williams, Rex Stewart, and others.
By then Duke’s lifestyle was firmly established. The band was on the road most of the year, like others often traveling from gig to gig, one night stands at various venues. Duke would lead the band, play the piano, act as master of ceremonies and charm the audience. He was a tall, regal man who spoke elegantly and always told his audience, “We all love you madly.”
But when the night’s performing was over and many of the men went out on the town to party a bit, Duke would find a secluded place with a piano and often spend the entire night composing. In 1938, while performing in Pittsburgh, he met a young man named Billy Strayhorn. The two hit it off musically and Strayhorn became a permanent part of Duke’s life. The two composed together while Strayhorn also wrote on his own. One of his compositions, Take the A Train, became the band’s theme song. And another, Lush Life, is now considered a classic. It was a completely successful musical collaboration. As Duke once said:
That was Duke Ellington’s life for more than 50 years. When the big band era ended after World War II, Duke kept his band together while others were forced to break up. He said the band was his instrument to test his compositions and he needed them together. They also kept playing one-nighters in an often grueling schedule. And Duke continue to compose. Along with Billy Strayhorn he turned out classics, ballads like Solitude, In a Sentimental Mood, Solphisticated Lady, All Too Soon and Day Dream, all now standards and part of the Great American Songbook. He also wrote longer pieces such as A Drum is a Woman, The Perfume Suite, The Far East Suite and Such Sweet Thunder. His three part composition, Black, Brown and Beige was written as a tribute to the history of African-Americans. Duke was very well aware of his ethnicity and felt he has a responsibility to reflect that in his music. And, as all great composers do, he was always testing and extending his limits.
In additional to all that, his band could really swing. They completely broke up the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival with an elongated version of the Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue, two of his older tunes. They were separated by a rousing 27-chorus interlude by tenor saxophonist Paul Gonzalves that not only whipped the crowd into a frenzy but ended up putting Duke on the cover of Time Magazine and helped revive his career once again.
So let’s see. I’ve been listening to Duke Ellington’s music for more than 50 years and had the pleasure of writing a book about him. But guess what? I also got to see him in person. It was in the summer of 1963 or ’64. Excuse me for not remembering the exact year. I was home from college and living with my family in Stamford, Connecticut, when I read that the Duke Ellington Orchestra would be performing at an outdoor venue in Stamford, the Ezio Pinza Theater. Pinza was a Broadway star, most remembered for his role in the show South Pacific. He was a resident of Stamford and the theater was named after him.
I called a friend who also liked jazz and we got tickets. I can still picture Duke, then in his sixties, talking to and playing with the audience, announcing the numbers, calling out his sidemen and taking his usual turn at the piano. The band played a variety of his older tunes and some new ones and even then I knew I was watching a living legend. Though Duke had been doing this since the 1920s there was no sign of fatigue in either him or the band, no sense that they were just going through the motions. With jazz, each performance is fresh and different, creative and inspiring. It is something definitely worth looking back at. And needless to say, seeing him in person was an impetus for me to go out and buy more of his records.
Fortunately, there are a huge number of Duke’s recordings still available. He recorded prolifically and you can hear the various versions of his band at each stop along the way. There are also a number of recordings of his solo piano work. As a pianist, I’ve always felt he was somewhat underrated. The man could play with the best of them. You can also hear his sacred music, which he wrote late in his career, again testing the limits of his talent and creativity. What jazz musician writes sacred music? Well, Duke Ellington, of course. So there is a wealth of material from which to choose, a real treasure trove for both Ellington devotees and those just beginning to listen.
I don’t have to look back to know that Duke’s name will always be up among the greats of not only jazz, but all of American music. He was one of the rare triple threats – a top pianist, a brilliant composer and a successful band leader. Duke could do it all and he always worked hard at it. In the early 1970s someone once reminded Duke that he had been on the road continuously for more than half a century. He then asked why Duke didn’t just retire. His answer was not only classic, but showed just how much much music had meant to him and would always mean to him.
“Retire to what?” Duke Ellington asked in return. He was already doing what he loved the most.
— Bill Gutman
C is for Childhood
I always wanted to ride a horse, probably because I loved western movies so much as a kid. That was one thing I never got to do. I think I had one of those “pony rides” once, where an old pony walks you slowly around a circle. That was the extent of me becoming the next Tex Ritter or John Wayne. But it was part of my childhood way back when, at a time when childhood was very different from the way it is today.
What was childhood like back then? It might have been markedly different had my family not moved from the Bronx to Stamford, Connecticut in 1947. It’s Stamford that I now relate to, a medium sized city still more rural than urban at that time. It’s that time, however, that governs what we did and how we played.
For openers, I remember radio before television as a kid. So there weren’t hours spent in front of the tube when I was very young. I can clearly remember listening to radio dramas with my grandfather, cop shows like Johnny Dollar and Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons. Future television staples like Gunsmoke and The Lone Ranger, were also on radio first and I remember hearing them. I can also recall listening to the Joe Louis/Jersey Joe Walcott heavyweight championship fight on one of those big console radios that was probably taller than I was in 1948. So radio was my first exposure to mass media and something I remember enjoying immensely.
Television began with small screens, maybe eight or ten inches, and everyone was excited when new TV’s came out with larger screens. The bigger the better, and when it finally went to color, better yet. Ironically, today people spend half their lives looking at the small screens of tablets and the smaller screens of smartphones. That’s what today’s kids are growing up with, part of a childhood filled with electronics.
To us, childhood meant being outside. Unless we were sick, that’s where we wanted to be – after school, on weekends, and all summer long. And pretty much from the time we were very young right through college years. Whether it was riding bikes, playing ball, ice skating, sleigh riding or just making up goofy games, so much of childhood back then meant being out in the fresh air. And the air in general was a lot fresher then.
I can remember when I was very young having these small plastic cowboys and horses. You could play with them inside, but I often took them outside and built a corral out of toothpicks in the dirt to hold the horses. We had to be creative. No built in video games where we just had to push buttons. Another time, when I was a bit older, I installed a five-hole miniature golf course around part of the house. I would dig out the dirt and and put an empty can in it so the hole would keep its shape. Not sure my parents appreciated the holes, but it was fun. Once again, we used our ingenuity. Even when we played inside we would make up games. It might be just using dice or creating imaginary sports teams to play on a small, manual “pinball” machine. None of the toys required a plug and an electrical outlet, or a rechargeable battery.
Back in the 1950s our bicycles were the primary means of transportation. We rode all over. No one wore helmets then, but we somehow survived. We’d ride on the roads, some with traffic, sometimes race foolishly, or ride our bikes to the store to pick up a few items for mom. When I was 15 and still too young for working papers or a driver’s license, I would ride my bike across town to my father’s auto parts store where I would work for a couple of hours. Then I’d ride the bike home. Must have been a 35-40 minute ride. I can also remember a frigid winter’s day when I wanted to go ice skating on a pond at a golf course a couple of miles from home. I just hung the skates over the handlebars and rode the bike. After skating for several hours I rode home in the dark. It was ice cold that night but it didn’t matter. I was used to being outside and used to riding the bike. It was pure fun.
And then there were guns. Toy guns. Sure, there was plenty of violence in the world then. We weren’t that far removed from World War II when the Korean conflict erupted in the summer of 1950 and lasted until the summer of 1953. But we grew up with toy guns, cap pistols, and often went outside to play cowboys and Indians. Back then, the Indians were the bad guys. You went to the movies as a kid and cheered when the cowboys or the cavalry killed the wicked Indians. No one worried about being politically correct because back then Native Americans weren’t always treated with respect. And until we learned the truth in school some years later, it was okay to cheer for the “good guys.”
Then there were those cap pistols. For some reason, we didn’t fully equate them with real guns. We would just put a roll of 50 or so caps into the gun and blast away. It was bang, bang you’re dead, but it wasn’t real. In fact, when you went to the western movies in the 1950s, someone could be shot five times and fall down dead, but without any blood or any holes in him. There wasn’t the realism the movies have today that show someone getting shot in a very realistic manner. Obviously our parents didn’t think the toy guns would do any harm either or they wouldn’t have bought them for us. Today, guns are a different story, totally different.
And, of course, we lived in pre-inflation days. Prices and costs in the late 1940s and early 1950s weren’t all that much different from the 1920s. You could mail a postcard for a penny; a letter for a nickel. A bus ride cost a dime, a hot dog 20 cents, a hamburger all of a quarter. Gas when I started driving in 1958 was about 35 cents a gallon. I can remember buying a pack of cigarettes for my father for 21 cents and once got into a movie in the Bronx for 18 cents. So when we were kids if someone gave us a dollar, as my grandmother always did, WOW. We could do quite a bit with it.
Nothing was very expensive. Comic books, sports equipment, trips to the movies. I remember my mother dropping my sister and me off at a movie theater to see a Jerry Lewis film. She gave me a dollar. It was 30 cents admission for kids. That left us 30 cents for some popcorn and candy, and a dime to call home from a phone booth for a ride. Imagine my surprise when it became the first movie to raise the kids’ admission to 50 cents. I checked my pocket and fortunately found a dime. I could still call home for a ride. So we went in. What hurt the most? No popcorn.
I guess you could say that childhood back then was a lot more innocent that it is today. Maybe there simply wasn’t enough reality. But it certainly was fun and devoid of the worries many kids have today. We went everywhere on our own without the fear of being assaulted, shot or kidnapped. We certainly knew that bad things happened in the world, and had happened throughout history. But I guess in our minds back then, they just didn’t happen to kids who always played outside and had a blast.
— Bill Gutman
B is for the Babe
Though he’s been gone since 1948, Babe Ruth continues to be revered as an almost mythical figure. Even those who aren’t true baseball fans know about the Babe, who was also called the Bambino and the Sultan of Swat. He is the man still considered by many to be the greatest slugger who ever lived. But the Babe is remembered for more than just hitting home runs. He was a man perfectly suited to the era in which he achieved his greatest fame – The Roaring Twenties. Let’s take a look back at a period sometimes referred to as The Golden Age of Sports, and why the Babe ruled supreme.
The facts are well known. George Herman Ruth began his career as a left-handed pitcher with the Boston Red Sox at the age of 19 in 1914. Pitching regularly a year later, he won 18, then 23 the next season and finally 24 games the year after that. He also had a 3-0 record and 0.87 earned run average in a pair of World Series. In a nutshell, by the age of 22 he had become one of the best pitchers in baseball, having won 65 games over the previous three seasons. At six-feet, two-inches tall, and weighing more than 200 pounds, Babe was one of the biggest men in the game back then. And before long the Red Sox realized he could do something else very well besides pitch. He could also hit. And when he connected, the ball went a long way.
By 1918 he was playing some outfield to get his bat in the lineup more often and didn’t pitch as much. He promptly led the league with 11 homers in what was still called the dead ball era. Some of the old ballparks had huge dimensions and the baseball simply didn’t carry that far. That’s why the baseball world was astounded in 1919 when the Babe blasted 29, a new record, as he still swung back and forth between the mound and the outfield.
Then, prior to the 1920 season came the event that not only changed the course of baseball history, but also helped create a legend. Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold the Babe to the New York Yankees for $100,000 and some other financial considerations from Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert.
This is where the story becomes something more than just baseball numbers. There was a new ball put in play in 1920, one that carried further than the old one. No more dead ball era. Playing with the Yanks at the old Polo Grounds, which the team shared with the Giants, the Babe obliterated all the records by blasting 54 home runs. A year later he was even better, whacking 59. He was hitting more home runs by himself than other teams were hitting collectively. To say he had become a living legend very quickly is something of an understatement.
At the same time, he was tantamount to a man-child who was suddenly smack dab in the middle of the liveliest city in the country with more money than he knew what to do with. You see, Babe had been raised in a reformatory and orphanage, the St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys in Baltimore. He went there in 1902, branded an “incorrigible” at the age of seven, and stayed for another twelve years. But he did have a mentor in Brother Matthias Boutlier, who helped teach him to play baseball as well as take care of himself. But once he hit New York City of the 1920s, the Babe was like the proverbial kid in a candy store.
He played as hard off the field as he did on it, reveling in the night life of the city. The Babe had an appetite for everything the city had in abundance – food, drink, women – and he often over-indulged in all three. He was known as a big tipper, could be loud and coarse in both his language and personal habits, and he often had a big cigar pasted in the corner of his mouth. He was totally secure and confident in his ability on a ball field and he played his New York Yankees stardom to the hilt, and to the point where it drove Yankees manager Miller Huggins crazy.
On the other side of the coin, the Babe could be generous with his time and money. He was constantly visiting kids in hospitals and orphanages, donated money to St. Mary’s and even bought Brother Matthias a Cadillac. The Yankees won a couple of pennants in 1921 and ’22, but lost to the rival Giants both times in the World Series. And in 1922, the Babe’s on-field behavior resulted in a suspension. He threw dust in an umpire’s face and also went into the stands after a heckler. Some wondered if he was so out of control his career would wind down early.
Then in 1923 the Yanks moved into their brand new stadium in the Bronx. Yankee Stadium was the most magnificent ballpark built to that time, and it’s short right field dimensions were tailor made for the Babe’s and later Lou Gehrig’s home runs, since both were lefty swingers. But the ballpark’s nickname, The House that Ruth Built, showed the reverence for the Babe. And sure enough, the Yanks won the World Series their first year in the new park. Once again Babe was the toast of New York.
There were still ups and downs, like the big bellyache of 1925, when the Babe collapsed in North Carolina as the team came north at the end of spring training. He was in the hospital for six weeks. To this day, no one knows exactly what happened. Some said it was caused by him gorging on food and drink. Some said it was just an alcohol problem. Babe’s weight at the time had ballooned to 260 pounds and his expanding waistline was evident. He finally returned to the team but only played in 90 games and hit 25 homers. Though he was just 30 years old, many now thought his years of high living in New York City would end his career prematurely.
But among his other traits, the Babe always had the flair for the dramatic. He worked hard over the winter to get himself back in shape, then led the Yanks to three straight pennants and a pair of World Series wins. In 1927 he set a new home run record with 60 and before the 1928 seasons signed a contract that would pay him $80,000 for the season, an unheard amount of money for a ballplayer back then. Now Babe the legend was set in stone.
As mentioned earlier, it was a Golden Age for Sports. Baseball was bigger than ever, the National Football League had started in 1920, and there were sports heroes everywhere. Red Grange, the galloping ghost, was a star running back at Illinois who went to the NFL Chicago Bears. Big Bill Tilden had become a huge tennis star, while a golfer named Bobby Jones was rewriting the record books. There was even a superstar horse named Man ‘o War. And then there was the athlete probably second to the Babe in popularity, heavyweight boxing champ Jack Dempsey. They all helped make the twenties roar.
The Babe continued to star into the early 1930s. His fabled “called shot” home run came in the 1932 World Series against the Cubs, and about that time someone remarked that he was making more money than the President of the United States. That’s when he uttered his classic remark, “Why not. I had a better year than he did.”
Ruth’s Yankee career came to an end in 1934 when he was 39 years old. Age had caught up with him. When you factor in the way he lived, it’s amazing it took that long. He hit just 22 homers that year and batted .288, well below his lifetime average of .342. The Yanks released him. In 1935 he joined the Boston Braves as a player, but there was supposedly a promise that he would eventually manage the team. He played just 28 games and hit six home runs, the last three coming in one game as he turned back the clock. They were the last of his 714. When he knew he’d never manage the team he called it quits.
The Babe’s post-career dream was to someday manage the Yankees. It wouldn’t happen. The question always asked was how could he manage a group of men when he couldn’t manage himself? That could have been true of the young Babe, but his life had stabilized when he married Claire Hodgson in 1929. She proved the perfect complement to the big guy, keeping him in line and managing his money. But he never got to realize his dream of managing.
Unfortunately, the Babe didn’t live that long in retirement. He died of cancer in 1948 at the age of 53. As was fitting, he lay in state in an open casket at Yankee Stadiums as thousands filed past for a last look at a legend. Many of his former teammates were there on a hot, humid August afternoon. One remarked that he could sure go for a cold beer. Another quickly quipped, “So could the Babe.”
The Babe’s legend has never died. Whenever someone approached and finally topped his home run mark of 60, his name was evoked all over again. There have been movies, documentaries, books about him. Japanese soldiers during World War II would yell across at the Americans, “The hell with Babe Ruth!” Babe had actually barnstormed in baseball-loving Japan before the war. And, of course, he is always remembered at Yankee Stadium. It’s a new ballpark now, but still remembered as The House that Ruth Built.
As a longtime sportswriter, I also had occasion to write about the Babe in several books. And when I began writing The Mike Fargo Mysteries, the beginning of the story came to me as a one-liner as I was riding home on a train from New York City. The sentence just popped into my head. What if there was a murder at Yankee Stadium in 1927 and Babe Ruth was a prime suspect? Sure, it’s fiction, but I wrote Murder on Murderer’s Row with the Babe in mind. Of course he wasn’t the killer, but he remained a character throughout the story. I hope I did him justice.
— Bill Gutman
A is for Aging
Aging. Is this really an appropriate topic with which to kick off the A to Z Blog Challenge? Let’s face it, many people not only fear, but dread aging. It’s a downer, something people don’t like thinking about. Unfortunately, no one can escape the truth. With each passing day we’re getting older and father time is waiting. The X-factor, of course, is health. If you maintain your health, then you have a leg up on aging. You may delay it, but you can’t postpone it. It’s coming and, knowing that, you might as well accept it. Look at it this way, the longer you live the more you’ll have to enjoy and look back upon.
I’ll cut right to the chase. As of today, I’m 73 years old, moving up on 74 in October. Yet when I say the number, or even write it down on the page as I’ve done here, it doesn’t seem real. Yes, I’ve been fortunate with my health, though that’s something I’ve worked hard to maintain. Maybe too hard, because I’ve got a couple of bum knees from years of running on the roads, playing basketball, heating with wood and other forms of hard exercise. I did that to offset my everyday seat at first a typewriter and later a computer. More than 40 years of writing amounts to a lot of time on one’s derriere. But I also studied nutrition, worked with a nutritionist on some book projects, and always listened to what they had to say.
But there are other reasons the number doesn’t always seem real. It’s that by looking back – something I tend to do both consciously and subconsciously – the passage of time often becomes compressed. Some years ago I had my 95-year-old grandfather living with me. His mind was still clear and he would regale me with stories about his own childhood and life at the turn of the 20th century. One night, when he was telling me yet another long ago tale, he suddenly stopped and looked straight at me.
“You know,” he said. “It really is a fast ride.”
If I didn’t know quite what he meant then, I certainly do now. If 95 years was a fast ride then all of it must be a fast ride. I’m blessed with a good memory and can recall people and events from my early childhood in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Some days these things seem as if they occurred yesterday. That may be a cliché, but it’s true. High school and college life seem all the closer. I still speak by phone to several high school and college buddies who live in various parts of the country. When I hear their voices it takes me right back to those years and I begin reliving them in my mind. Their voices sound the same as I remembered, as I’m sure mine does to them. One of those good friends sent me a picture of himself several years ago. That’s when I knew that looking back was indeed going back. When I next spoke with him I said, “If I literally bumped into you on the street, knocked you down, picked you up and dusted you off, I wouldn’t have had the slightest inkling of who you were. Unless you spoke, of course.” Time changes us, but the mind can compress years in a moment, no matter how fleeting.
Sometimes looking back causes a kind of calendar shock. Take three of my areas of interest – sports, music, movies – and it happens with each. Here’s what I mean. When I was in my teens and saw veteran actors like Gable, Cagney, Bogart, Katherine Hepburn or Bette Davis, I knew they were from an older generation and, as I aged, it didn’t surprise me when they began to die off, or were already gone. Same with the earlier sports figures that I saw when young or read about. When I became interested in jazz the bebop players like Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins were the young guys, older than I was, but still considered young men. And I can still picture myself at Shea Stadium as a young sports editor when the Mets clinched the National League pennant in 1969. Again, the players were of my generation, some a few years older, others a few years younger. And actors like Robert Redford and Clint Eastwood, that I grew up watching, were also considered part of my generation.
Where am I going with this? When you look back at these icons, those close to your generation, you still think of them as young, as you were then. And if they are still alive – like Redford and Eastwood, or Willie Mays – for a split second every now and then you can’t believe how old they are – all three past 80. That’s because for that same split second you don’t picture yourself as 73 or 74, or any age in that neighborhood. And when you hear that someone from that generation has died and read that he or she was 78 or 81, or even your age, the first thing that crosses your mind is, How did that person become so old so fast. Or I can’t believe he was that old. The old fast ride again.
That’s what looking back can do and what happens when time is compressed. Reality, of course, is always there and that’s a good thing. But the passage of time can certainly play some tricks on your mind, especially when looking back. Whenever something I think about seems like yesterday, I simply think of all the things I’ve done, the people I’ve known, and all that has happened since the event I’m looking back at. Then yesterday becomes today.
The aging process is certainly unique and, if you allow it, rather interesting. It takes work to stay healthy and vital. And maybe some luck. As with so many people in creative fields, retirement is not an option for me The juices keep flowing and you continue to learn and work. You do what you always have done, in my case for nearly half a century since I became a young newspaper reporter back in 1967, which also sometimes seems like yesterday. Today I enjoy myself by writing The Mike Fargo Mysteries, about a detective working in 1920s New York City. It’s a period I’ve always loved and I not only enjoy creating the mysteries, but also the required research, which includes intertwining real and fictional characters.
But that isn’t all. The more you age the more you can listen to music that you love, enjoy your family, watch movies with long gone actors you’ve always admired, and keep in touch with old friends, who are also aging. And when you talk to them, you have that wonderful opportunity to look back together and relive those long-ago events of your life. Doing all this precludes sitting around and wondering what happens next. And through it all the curious mind continues to learn, no matter how the calendar reads.
If I had to sum up aging and the aging process I guess my advice is rather simple. Don’t fear it; but rather embrace it. It keeps you young.
— Bill Gutman
A to Z Challenge — 2016 Theme Reveal
This is my first A to Z Challenge. At first, I thought I would blog at random, touching on a variety of things that were of interest to me. But the more I thought about it, the more a specific theme began crystallizing in my mind.. My theme is LOOKING BACK, and that pretty much describes what it will be. Not only have I been in this business for some 40 years, but I also grew up in the 1950s, lived through the turmoil of the 1960s and started my writing career as a young newspaper reporter in 1967. So my memories of that period run deep. My interests in sports, music and history also led me to look back even further, learning more about the period from the 1920s through the 1940s. It also didn’t hurt having a grandfather who was born in 1886 and lived to the age of 98. He often entertained me with vivid memories of his own childhood and the turn of the 20th century. Living history. Now I’m writing about a New York City detective working in the Roaring Twenties, so I think you can see where all of this makes a looking back theme a natural. I’ll be blogging about those times, about things I saw and did that no longer exist or have changed dramatically, and about people I’ve met and seen, many of whom are long gone. I’m looking forward to it and hope those reading my blogs will find them interesting, informative and fun..
— Bill Gutman
You can email me at:Bill@mikefargo.com
There is a Leave a Reply box at the bottom of this blog page. Simply scroll to the bottom and it will be there. Sorry for any inconvenience.
Note: When Sarah Zama asked me to contribute to her Blog Tour, prior to the publication of her novella, Give In To The Feeling, I was only too happy to comply. Since we are both writing about the 1920s we have much in common. My Fargo mysteries are set in New York City and Sarah’s book takes place in Chicago. And when she asked me to write about the 1920s jazz scene in New York, that really sealed the deal since jazz has been a passion of mine for more than 50 years. So in helping to introduce Give In To The Feeling, I give you New York City and jazz in the Roaring Twenties..
NEW YORK CITY AND JAZZ, A PERFECT 1920s MATCH
To most, it’s known today as the Roaring Twenties, but the decade between 1920 and 1930 also had another name. Some called it the Jazz Age. One of the reasons I’ve always been attracted to that wonderful era is my love of jazz and music. The twenties, however, was also a decade in which the lights of Broadway began burning brightly, the movies would begin to talk, and sports started to flourish big time. Then there was the newly liberated women – known as flappers – who loved to smoke, drink and dance the night away to the Charleston, Varsity Drag, Black Bottom and the Shimmy. Yes, it was a changing world, reflected most in the nation’s biggest cities, New York and Chicago.
So much was new during that wild decade, where Prohibition – the law making it illegal to manufacture, store, transport or sell alcoholic beverages – helped define the changes in society, giving birth to the speakeasy, hip flasks and bootlegging. All this fit in perfectly with the advent of the flapper and the growth of the new music – jazz. These are the elements I found most fascinating when I began writing The Mike Fargo Mysteries, stories about a detective working in 1920s New York City. And I’m sure Sarah Zama had similar feelings when she decided to write her soon-to-be-published novella, Give In To The Feeling, set in 1920s Chicago. In many ways, we’re kindred spirits.
In fact, both New York and Chicago became the focal points for some of the best jazz music that was developing rapidly in the 1920s. The great Louis Armstrong, for example, came to New York with Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra in 1924. But a year later he was in Chicago, where he had first played with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band in 1922. Only this time he was in an Okeh Records recording studio where he began making the seminal Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings in which he began to showcase his great improvisational talents that helped revolutionize the genre. But for the purposes of this blog, I’m going to concentrate on the New York jazz scene, which really came to life during the second half of the decade.
The seeds were planted early. New York City had already become the hub of popular music. Most of the major music publishers were located in the same area, on West 28th street between Fifth and Sixth avenues, an area that was dubbed with a rather unflattering name, Tin Pan Alley. But if you walked the block you would hear song pluggers banging away on pianos as they tried to sell the publishers’ sheet music to the public.
With composers like George Gershwin and Irving Berlin beginning to turn out hit songs, many for Broadway Shows, the era of the Great American Songbook had begun in earnest. Those two would soon be joined by the likes of Cole Porter, Jerome Kern and others, though their music – while reverberating all over New York City – wasn’t really jazz. When Gershwin wrote his Rhapsody In Blue, which the Paul Whiteman Orchestra debuted at Aeolian Hall in New York on February 12, 1924, some felt that jazz was coming of age. In fact Whiteman, whose orchestra would eventually gravitate to jazz, said that the Rhapsody would “make a lady out of jazz.”
Rhapsody In Blue is a beautiful piece that I have listened to many times over the years, but it isn’t jazz. While Gershwin admittedly incorporated the “rhythms of jazz,” which he also used in many of his popular tunes, it wasn’t the kind of jazz that was being played by the likes of the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra , Duke Ellington, King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Armstrong, the Bennie Moten Orchestra and Sidney Bechet, to name some of the best early proponents of the genre. But there was a reason for this early division in the jazz ranks. Though New York City was about as far from the deep south as you could get, there was still a overt separation of the races during the early 1920s.
Paul Whiteman would ultimately hire such esteemed jazz musicians as trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke, who would become a legend, and saxophonist Frank Trumbauer, Bix’s running mate. Both were white. All the musicians I mentioned in the above paragraph were African-American. And during this period, never the twain did meet, unless it was perhaps at an after-hours jam session not open to the public. It was the same reason no African-American baseball players were in the major leagues. The separation was part of the social mores of the times, a pattern that would continue throughout the decade and into the late 1930s when some of the walls would finally begin to come down.
In the meantime, nightclub and speakeasy life during the twenties was totally conducive to music and jazz. Again, it was along racial lines. In most cases, if the musicians were black the audiences were white. Some venues remained all-white; others all black. Even the floor show, singers and dancers, played along these same racial lines. But the place where pure jazz was really thriving was in the area of Manhattan known as Harlem.
THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE
Harlem is a neighborhood in upper Manhattan stretching from the East River across town to the Hudson River, bordered by 155th Street to it’s north and 96th Street east of Fifth Avenue and 110th Street west of Fifth Avenue to the south. The area was inhabited mostly by African-Americans. In the 1920s Harlem experienced a renaissance in all the arts, including music, with many gifted people living and working there. And it was in Harlem where jazz really began to flourish in the second half of the Roaring Twenties.
There were jazz bands coming into many of the clubs and speakeasies in Harlem during the period, playing music for dancing that was different from the music played in other parts of the city. That, of course, is a generality. But there are three specific activities and venues I’d like to mention here that both point out the quality of the music being played and the way the social mores of the time were slowly beginning to change.
The Harlem rent parties of the 1920s have become almost legendary to anyone who loves jazz and its history. They not only helped people who were having difficulty making the rent, but presented an incredible exchange of musical ideas between a number of jazz giants as well as local talents long forgotten. The concept was simple. Either a single tenant or even a group of tenants who were having trouble making the rent would arrange a party where a band or individual musicians would perform. They could either charge admission or pass the hat for guests to contribute, the proceeds going to help the tenants pay their landlords.
But what the rent parties are most remembered for today is the confluence of great piano players that came together and often wound up having “cutting contests,” each trying to outdo the others at the keyboard. Some of those who participated are now looked upon as all-time greats, starting with James P. Johnson, known as the father of stride piano. He was the first to really open the piano up from the constraints of the older ragtime style. One of his best disciples was Thomas “Fats” Waller, who became not only a brilliant piano player, but a great entertainer as well. Then there was the likes of Luckey Roberts, Cliff Jackson and Willie “The Lion” Smith. All took part in rent party cutting sessions leading any of us who love jazz to utter a universal lament. I wish I could have been there.
Another who attended some rent parties was Duke Ellington. While Duke already had his orchestra and was beginning his career not only as a band leader but also as a composer, he came to the rent parties so he could learn from the best. Then there was local talent at these parties, “tinklers” who could really play. They had colorful names such as Speckled Red and The Beetle. The music coming out of Harlem’s rent parties helped jazz piano to grow and evolve, with many of the participants becoming even bigger stars than they were at the time.
THE COTTON CLUB AND THE SAVOY BALLROOM
Two of Harlem’s most famous 1920s venues not only provided some of the best jazz heard at the time, but also represented contrasting social settings and situations that would eventually begin breaking down as the 1920s rolled into years of the Great Depression of the ’30s. Someone frequenting both places would certainly notice the differences in an instant or, as they say, in a New York minute.
The Cotton Club has a fascinating history. In 1920 Jack Johnson, the former heavyweight boxing champion, rented the upper floor of a building at the corner of 142nd St. and Lenox Avenue, where he opened a supper club he called the Club Deluxe. It sat 400 guests, but was roomy enough for even more. Once Prohibition became law, a bootlegger and gangster named Owney Madden took over the club, and did it while he was serving time in Sing Sing prison in Ossining, New York. Madden had the club expanded to a capacity of 700 with room for a band and a floor show. And, of course, he had big plans to sell his booze.
But it was the house rules that made some take notice, especially since the club was located in Harlem. The Cotton Club was segregated, with a whites only audience paying premium prices to be there. The entertainers, on the other hand, were black and not allowed to mingle or fraternize with the paying customers. Not only was the club segregated, but it also perpetrated stereotypical racist images. The dancers were dressed in skimpy outfits that simulated the jungle or, to be more accurate, savages. The women had to be young, tall, and light-skinned. The males could be darker. The prices tended to make the audience upper class swells with money to spend. And the booze flowed. Was that setup typical of the times? In many cases, yes.
Then there was the music and, in retrospect, it is the Cotton Club’s greatest legacy, that it contributed to development of jazz. Fletcher Henderson brought the first band into the club in1923 and, at that time, his might have been the most well known and best big jazz band around. There were others over the next couple of years, including some innocuous house bands. Then in December of 1927, all of that changed. The club wanted to bring in famed trumpeter King Oliver and his Creole Jazz Band. But Oliver turned the gig down and next in line was Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington.
It’s no secret that Duke would go on to become one of the true giants of jazz, a triple threat talent as leader, pianist and composer. He and his band would perform at the club for nearly four years, until June of 1931, giving him a venue to begin building his repertoire, to perform, record and play his music live and over the radio to a nationwide audience. Duke was also smart. He went along with what those who ran the club wanted, giving them a “jungle” sound and even making some early recordings under the name The Jungle Band. Being at the Cotton Club raised his profile and enabled him to have early hits that would become classics, compositions such as “Mood Indigo,” Black and Tan Fantasy” and “Creole Love Call.”
When Duke Ellington left the Cotton Club in 1931 the wild ride of the 1920s had ended and the Great Depression was about to begin. During his tenure, the Duke gave New York City some of the best jazz and best music of the time, and launched an amazing career that would continue right up to his death in 1974. As for the Cotton Club, the big names continued. Cab Calloway followed Duke and in 1934, the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra took over for Cab. Both top flight jazz bands. The club closed in 1936 and later that year reopened at a new location, Broadway and 48th Street. But there’s little doubt that its heyday was in the Roaring Twenties when it offered New York City the best in jazz, but not quite the same in the area of race relations.
THE SAVOY BALLROOM
Unlike the Cotton Club, the Savoy Ballroom was for dancing. Lots of dancing. It opened in March of 1926 at 596 Lenox Avenue, between 140th and 141st Streets, just a stone’s throw from the Cotton Club. The ballroom was huge, some 10,000 square feet, and could accommodate upwards of 4000 patrons. It had two bandstands so that the music wouldn’t stop, one for a large band and the other for a smaller group.
The Savoy was owned by white entrepreneur Jay Faggen and Jewish businessman Moe Gale, and it was managed by an African-American businessman named Charles Buchanon. That trio alone separated the Savoy from the Cotton Club. So did club policy. The dance floor was open to everyone, both black and white as Buchanon’s stated goal was to run “a luxury ballroom to accommodate the many thousands who wished to dance in an atmosphere of tasteful refinement, rather than in the small stuffy halls and foul smelling, smoke laden cellar nightclubs . . .” Or to make it even simpler, the Savoy was available to anyone who could dance.
On opening night, March 20, 1926, the music started and the Savoy was packed, to the point where they had to turn some 2000 people away. It was like that almost every night, seven nights a week, so the Savoy not only became extremely popular, but also hugely profitable. It was much less expensive than the Cotton Club. Entrance fees ranged from 30 to 85 cents, depending on what time a person arrived. There were nights when the clientele was 85 percent African-American and 15 percent white, but on other nights it was closer to 50-50, truly a club opened to everyone.
Before long patrons were doing a new dance, the Lindy Hop or Jitterbug, and the best dancers in the city would hit the floor to compete with each other. The music never stopped and neither did the dancing. Though the music was top flight, none of the bands could duplicate the achievements of Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club. Ironically, the Savoy’s major contributions to New York City jazz came in the 1930s.
In 1932, the great soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet and trumpeter Tommy Ladnier brought a group into the Savoy. Other Savoy bands in the thirties were led by Erskine Hawkins, Lucky Millinder, and Cootie Williams, all of whom made their marks in jazz. And then there was Chick Webb, the diminutive drummer who led one of the top swinging bands in jazz history. By the latter 1930s, when the swing era was sweeping the nation, the Savoy became the site of big band cutting contests and Chick Webb’s band was tough to beat. Others participating in these big band battles included Benny Goodman and Count Basie. Once again you can’t help thinking, I wish I could have been there.
There’s even a song named after the Savoy. In 1934, Edgar Sampson, a saxophonist in Webb’s band, wrote Stompin’ At The Savoy. Both Webb and later Goodman had huge hits and the song continues to be a staple of jazz bands today.
The Savoy Ballroom stayed in business in one form or another until 1958 when it was closed permanently. It may have never reached the heights of the late 1920s and early 1930s, but it’s name will always be associated with New York City, dancing and jazz. As Count Basie said when the ballroom closed, “With the passing of the Savoy Ballroom, a part of show business is gone.” And also a part of New York City’s jazz history, which began during the Roaring Twenties.
When you look back at the 1920s, read about Prohibition and bootlegging, speakeasies and flappers, New York City and Chicago, you can’t help but think about jazz. It was always there, played by artists who were at the forefront of a great tradition that would evolve and grow. Because so many early jazz innovators were African-American, their experiences also reflect the social conventions of the times, something that music and jazz certainly helped change.
While there’s much to love about the 1920s I always come back to jazz and the effect it had on the culture of the times, and I’m sure Sarah Zama feels the same way. The period was so colorful in many ways – including the only time in the history of the United States when Prohibition was the law of the land. But not even banning the sale of liquor could stop the changes and the never-ending evolution. In a way, it enhanced it, making the period even more colorful and attractive. And through it all, the music never stopped. It just kept getting better and better and better.
– Bill Gutman
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THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES
Okay, maybe I’m channeling my inner Bob Hope. Thanks for the Memory was a song written for and introduced by Hope and Shirley Ross in the movie, The Big Broadcast of 1938. It would later become Hope’s theme song because the melody was so adaptable to a variety of topical lyrics. And yes, Bob Hope is a memory, one of many that comes with being born in 1942 and growing up in an era now slowly retreating into the past and, seemingly, on the road to being largely forgotten by today’s generation.
I could go on ad infinitum about all the differences growing up in the late 1940s and 1950s compared with today, such as kids playing outside whenever they could instead of sitting inside with video games and looking at small screens on smartphones and tablets. It’s kind of ironic that we began watching eight and ten-inch television screens and begged for something larger. Now people everywhere seem to be spending half their waking hours staring at screens even smaller. But the pros and cons of the technological age are for another day.
Rather I’m here to talk about memories, the kind that my generation will always carry with us. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that each generation has memories all its own. Those born between 1840 and 1850, for instance, would certainly have lifelong memories dominated by the Civil War, some of them undoubtedly too close for comfort. But in sharing thoughts with others of my generation, I’ve come to conclude that the memories many of us have are special and unique – especially for those interested in history, sports, music, movies and the performing arts.
Because the second World War was so close to us, we invariably learned about the first, the so-called war to end all wars. Didn’t happen, of course, and wars in one form or another have continued to today. But learning about World War I brought us quickly to the Roaring Twenties, a decade in which sports, music, Broadway Shows and movies began to grow and evolve quickly. That, however, isn’t the only reason members of my generation feel so connected to the past.
My grandfather, for example, was born in 1886, just 21 years after the Civil War ended. He lived to see a man walk on the moon in addition to telling me endless stories about life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. First hand oral living history. When I was born, there were still Civil War veterans alive and once I began reading about the old west I learned that Wyatt Earp’s wife, Josie, was also still kicking when I made my debut. If things like that don’t make you feel connected to what many perceive as the distant past, nothing will.
And now to the memories. When you become interested in something you also want to know its history. At least I do. Spending time with groups of friends that had similar interest in sports, movies and music, we soon realized we were living at a pivotal time for all three of these American institutions. Each began growing up in the 1920s. The major sports were already organized for the most part – basketball being the exception – but very different from what they are today; movies went from the silents to the talkies, while music was evolving on several fronts. Jazz began proliferating and changing, American composers began writing the wonderful melodies and lyrics that would eventually make up the Great American Songbook, and the lights of Broadway were growing brighter by the year.
I became a baseball fan early, by age seven or eight, and immediately began learning about the history of the game. I can remember seeing Joe DiMaggio on television in the 1950 All-Star game and, a year later, ran home from school just in time to watch Bobby Thomson hit his Shot-Heard-Round-The-World home run to win the pennant for the New York Giants against the Brooklyn Dodgers. Years later, I would work with Thomson on a book about his life and that epic pennant race, talking to many players from that bygone era and rekindling memories from my childhood. In the early 1950s I also began going to Old Timers’ games at Yankee Stadium with my father and can still see the image of both Cy Young and Ty Cobb coming out on the field as old men. I already knew about their careers, but seeing them in the flesh was another connection to the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Going to the old baseball parks as kids, we concentrated on the games and the players because these places lacked the many distractions the amusement-park-stadiums have today. And we didn’t have smartphones. As a result, we knew everything about the players – their body language, batting stances, the way they ran and threw. We copied them, emulated them and remembered them, the kind of memories that never fade. With three teams in New York then, it was a kid’s dream. Mickey, Willie and the Duke. Though I was not yet five when Jackie Robinson broke the color line, I soon learned about his courageous struggle and, better yet, saw him play. In fact, I saw all the early African-American stars – Larry Doby, Luke Easter, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Roy Campanella, Monte Irvin, Don Newcombe, Henry Aaron and others. Then there were two early black stars from Cuba and Puerto Rico, Minnie Minoso and the great Roberto Clemente. The game was changing rapidly and, as I watched, the memories of it all were firmly cemented in my mind.
It was the same with football, basketball and hockey. Starting to watch in the 1950s not only allowed me to see all the stars in these sports, sports that already had great traditions but were also changing rapidly. I watched Jim Brown run the football, John Unitas throw it, was at Madison Square Garden when Bill Russell came in with the Celtics for the first time, and watched Bobby Orr skate at the Garden as an 18-year old rookie – all incredible athletes. I was fortunate enough to watch the 1958 Giants/Colts NFL title game, still called by many “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” And I saw all the great athletes who came into these sports from the 1950s forward. Fantastic memories that kids today can only read about.
Becoming a sports writer by the late 1960s only deepened my knowledge of sports and the individual athletes. I had the privilege to interview many from past days, including pioneer basketball players Nat Holman, Elmer Ripley and Bennie Borgmann, all of whom began playing in the 1920s, as well as many baseball, basketball and football players who toiled in the 1940s. Most of them are gone today, accessible only in books and in films. You Tube, for example, can give young sports fans today a taste of what was like. I was fortunate to see much of it first hand, often in person, and continue to follow sports today, even talking about it on a weekly Blog Talk radio show of which I am a co-host. Quite a legacy of sports memories.
Music, for me, is a whole ‘nother story. It began around 1957 when I was 14 and most kids my age were fawning over a new style of music called Rock ‘n Roll. I listened, as well, to a movement that began when Bill Haley and the Comets did a song called Rock Around the Clock a couple of years earlier. But then something else happened. I bought a jazz record, The Great Benny Goodman, then another, Count Basie’s One O’Clock Jump. That December I watched a live show on national television called The Sound of Jazz, one I’ve never forgotten. It featured a large number of all-time great jazz musicians – the aforementioned Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Ben Webster, Gerry Mulligan, Roy Eldridge, Rex Stewart, Jo Jones, Red Allen, Pee Wee Russell, Thelonious Monk, Vic Dickenson and Dickie Wells among others. It’s still considered the best live jazz show ever aired on the tube and I was hooked. I fell in love with the music and have remained in love with it since. At that time, I was barely 15 years old.
Not only did I begin buying records that encompassed the entire spectrum of jazz – from Louis Armstrong through the big band era and into the world of bop – but I began going into New York City from my home in Stamford, Connecticut, and hearing live jazz in the concert hall, at clubs such as Birdland and the Metropole Cafe, and at area festivals. Over the next several years I saw many of the greats in person – Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, Lionel Hampton, Thelonious Monk, Red Allen, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Ornette Coleman and others. I soon realized I was watching living history, creating the kinds of memories that stay with you. Today, when I converse with younger jazz fans on Twitter and tell them about the greats that I saw they always tell me how envious they are because by the time they discovered the music, the majority of those greats were gone.
Along with jazz, I also fell in love with the songs that comprise The Great American Songbook, those written by the classic composers, most of whom began working in the 1920’s – Gershwin, Porter, Berlin, Kern, Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael, Ellington and others. There are so many beautiful songs, with both lyrical and lively melodies, and lyrics that are clever, witty, brilliant, urbane, poetic and sometimes even suggestive. Today they are called standards and fortunately continue to be sung and played by cabaret singers, in Broadway revivals and by jazz singers and musicians. I love listening to them performed by the great jazz singers such as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Anita O’Day. And then, of course, there’s always Sinatra. Unfortunately, many young people today – seduced by pop culture genres with names like hard rock, heavy metal and rap – may never even know or fully appreciate these beautiful songs that are are part of the American musical fabric. Again, I’m thankful for the great memories I have, what I’ve learned about those writing and performing the music, and also the simple fact that I can still listen to that music every day.
MOVIES (AND TELEVISION)
I don’t think anyone will argue the fact that movies today are not the same. Nor is television. We live in a world of computer generated special effects, of alien invasions, zombies trying to control the world when the vampires are not, and all kinds of gratuitous violence. What happened to story driven films? But I won’t go into the history of the movies here. This is about memories. When you love the old movies you become acquainted with films and acting performance you don’t see today. Soon you find yourself watching so many – from the pre-code movies of the early 1930’s, to the escapist films of the Great Depression (think Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers), film noir, the great westerns and so many story-driven movies from, say, the 1950s through the 1980s. Without realizing it you have forged a legacy of great movies and great performances. All have become indelible memories.
If I mention Jean Harlow, James Cagney, Barbara Stanwyck, Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Astaire and Rogers, Humphrey Bogart, Myrna Loy, Cary Grant, Bette Davis, James Stewart, Betty Grable, Henry Fonda, Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, Gary Cooper, Lauren Bacall, Burt Lancaster, Claudette Colbert, Kirk Douglas, Ingrid Bergman, Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland . . . Wow, what a list and I certainly haven’t named nearly all of them, including the wonderful character actors who showed up all over the place so often. But if I were to repeat these names to the average teen or young adult today, how many will even know them, let alone have memories of them or their films? Sure, there will be a small number who will become fans of classic movies, do their research and watch. They even may champion the past, but their memories won’t be quite the same as ours for the simple reason that we lived through a good part of that era and also came to feel strongly connected to the dozen or so years before we were even born. We feel it more strongly because the times were different then, making it much easier to identify with period films.
It’s no different with television, a medium our generation embraced from its infancy, usually after becoming familiar with lost years of early radio. We began watching small-screened black and white sets, but that didn’t matter. First there were kids shows, then sports, old movies, live dramas, sitcoms that featured classic comedians like Jack Benny and Burns and Allen, Sid Caesar, Lucille Ball and Jackie Gleason, as well as variety shows like Milton Berle’s and Ed Sullivan’s, where other great comedians and entertainers performed. And we loved watching late night superstars Steve Allen and Johnny Carson, whose shows featured great skits and great guests almost nightly. That was the television my generation grew up with.
I know I’m dropping a ton of names, but that’s not the real purpose here. I’m looking back more than 60 years and thinking about the people I saw, spoke with, watched, enjoyed and admired as either athletes or artists. I’m looking back at the history I’ve both learned and watched unfold during my lifetime. I’m looking back at events that moved, shocked and sometimes disgusted me – a full spectrum that comes from living for more than seven decades, in my case seven-plus particular decades.
It’s memories like this that become even more vivid as you age and begin to think of your life in its complete context. When it comes to music and movies you can continue enjoying that which you always loved. With sports, you must turn to an entity such as You Tube to again see the stars of your youth and those who came before. But even without that, they remain firmly embedded in your mind.
I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that after some 40 years of writing all kinds of books for both children and adults – including many biographies, sports histories, as-told-to tomes and some juvenile fiction, I’m now writing a series of novels and novellas about a New York City detective working in the 1920s. The Mike Fargo Mysteries. It was a wild decade with Prohibition spawning a new industry – the bootlegging of illegal liquor – and the growth of organized crime amid an array of larger than life characters. As mentioned earlier, it was also an era when sports, movies, music and Broadway were growing and evolving. To write about it and be able to combine fictional with real characters is a total joy, a labor of love.
So in my eighth decade I find myself spending much of my time, figuratively, in the 1920s, an era I’ve always loved but now fully embrace. As most writers will tell you, once they dig deeply into a story, they feel as if they are actually there, living in that era if only in their minds. Mike Fargo c’est moi. Everything that has happened up to now – all those wonderful memories – has brought me back to the Roaring Twenties. So once again borrowing from Bob Hope’s theme song, I can only say, with appreciation . . .
. . . Thanks for the memories.
— Bill Gutman
BASKETBALL – A BEAUTIFUL GAME GONE
Okay, let’s get this over with right up top. I’m not one of those longtime sports fans who’s always touting the greatness of the “good old days.” Sure, I’ve been watching sports since about 1950 and began writing about them in 1968, so we’re talking about many years, many games, many great athletes and a ton of wonderful memories. But I also like to feel I’m still objective, can identify a great player for what he or she is in the context of today’s games which, in all the major sports, are quite different from when I was introduced to them.
So there’s really no way to say one is better now than it was 30, 40, even 50 years ago, or vice versa. They are different. And you can’t argue when it’s said that today’s athletes are, on the whole, bigger, stronger and faster than their counterparts of the past. Maybe some of that is due to the creativity of chemistry, but that’s an issue for another day. The matter of “better” is one of personal preference. Some old timers will insist the games they knew back in the day were better. Others will insist they enjoy today’s versions more. Again, that’s fine, the way it should be.
With the NBA finals recently completed, I’d like to turn my attention to basketball, a game that has been in existence for more than one-hundred years. Yet unlike major league baseball, the NFL and NHL, which were all up and running by the early 1920s, the National Basketball Association per se didn’t begin until the 1946-47 season. It was called the BAA (Basketball Association of America) then and changed two years later when the league merged with the NBL (National Basketball League) to become officially the NBA. So, in effect, I began watching just a few years after the league was formed.
There were certainly some great players in those early days. Big George Mikan, at 6-10, was the league’s first great center, and then there was Dolph Schayes, Bobby Davies, Neil Johnston and Bob Cousy, just to name a few. The game then was slow and deliberate, with teams often freezing the ball for minutes on end until the advent of the 24-second clock in 1954. The Minneapolis Lakers were the league’s first dynasty, winning five championships in six years between 1948 and 1953. Then George Mikan retired, and those both in and outside the league fully realized what a dominant center could mean.
You can make a case that the modern NBA began during the 1956-57 season when Bill Russell, fresh off two NCAA championships at the University of San Francisco and an Olympic Gold Medal, joined the Boston Celtics. Russell was 6-10, like Mikan before him, but was fast, extremely quick, and had a basketball IQ second to none. He quickly showed the NBA what a truly gifted center could do, especially one who loved to play defense. From the moment he took the court he was the league’s best rebounder and a shot blocker nonpareil. He not only changed the game, but would lead the Celtics to eleven championships in thirteen years, including an unprecedented eight in a row.
Following Russell were more great players ready to put their stamp on the game. In the late 1950s and through the 1960s came the likes of Elgin Baylor, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, John Havlicek, Jerry Lucas, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and many more who played the game at such a high level that they could probably still play in the NBA of today. I thoroughly enjoyed that NBA, whether watching on television or in person at Madison Square Garden. The resurgence in the 1980s with Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and then Michael Jordan not only revitalized a sagging league at the time, but produced three more all-time great players who wanted to win every time they stepped on the court.
What happened, then, to lead me to include the phrase “a beautiful game gone” in the title of this blog? I’d like to point to three things that I feel have changed the game almost radically. They are:
1. The lack of regular season rivalries.
2. A game played without true centers.
3. Very few complete ballplayers or teams.
Let’s look at these points one at a time. To many real basketball fans, the regular season has become a bore, a long 82-game prelude to the playoffs. It’s no secret that many teams go through the motions in regular season games, the better teams doing enough to win or maybe turning it up in the fourth quarter of a close game. There is a decided lack of intensity in the regular season, often on the defensive end. Why else would so many fans and media people talk about the increased intensity in the playoffs, where the athleticism of the players can be seen, especially on defense? After all, there’s an old adage in sports that says defense wins championships. All true.
But I’ll tell you a little secret. It wasn’t always this way. In the past, there were intense rivalries during the regular season to the point where almost each and every game was a war. The Celtics during the Bill Russell dynasty years hated to lose. When they did drop a game they were determined not to lose two straight and played like demons. Every time the Celtics with Russell went up against Philadelphia with Wilt Chamberlain the game was an event. There were also combative coaches back then, guys like Al Cervi of the old Syracuse Nats and Red Auerbach of the Celtics. They pushed and prodded their teams to give their all each night. And that was a time when players listened to their coach.
One of the great rivalries of the late 1960s and early ’70s were between the New York Knicks and the old Baltimore Bullets. Every game the two teams played was a start-to-finish battle, regular season and playoffs. The matchups were almost perfect. Walt Frazier of the Knicks versus Earl “The Pearl” Monroe at one guard spot, Dick Barnett and Kevin Loughery at the other; Bill Bradley versus Jack Marin at one forward (and they didn’t like each other), Dave DeBusschere and Gus Johnson at the other; and a pair of tough, strong centers – Willis Reed of the Knicks and Wesley Unseld of the Bullets. The games were exciting, hard fought, usually close and totally enjoyable to watch. These rivalries continued into the eighties when the Celtics and Lakers went to war with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, as well as a great surrounding cast. They weren’t the only ones. Did Michael Jordan ever mail it in during the regular season? No way. Yet very little of that exists today in the regular season where loud music, cheerleaders and laser light displays are part of the entertainment package as much as the players and the game.
All this pomp and circumstance seems to be enough for today’s fans who regularly fill the arenas to cheer, wave their pompoms and enjoy all the various entertaining sideshows as much as the game itself. Back in the days I just described, fans got their moneys worth and more at most regular season games. They got competitive basketball.
And then there were the centers, the operative word being were. For upwards of a half century, the dominant center was a big part of the pro game, with nearly all the title teams having that guy in the middle. It began with the aforementioned George Mikan in the late 1940s, then continuing with a lineage of great big men. Just look up the names. Russell, Chamberlain, Nate Thurmond, Walt Bellamy, Bob Lanier, Kareen Abdul-Jabbar, Willis Reed, Wesley Unseld, Bill Walton, Moses Malone, Dave Cowens, Robert Parish, Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Shaquille O’Neal. There were others, as well, a cut below these top guys, but true centers nevertheless.
With so many great and near-great centers, the big guys played each other straight up and had some epic battles. They also defended in a way that you don’t see today. If you watched the recent NBA playoffs you may have noticed how many times the middle – the paint – was wide open. A player would then drive straight to the hoop and either dunk or get hit by a converging defensive player with a hard foul. The middle was never open in this manner when Russell, Chamberlain and the other true centers played. Blocked shots weren’t an official statistic then, but Bill Russell was a master. A player driving the lane might think he had a clear route to the basket only to find Russell, with his impeccable timing, leaping in the air and blocking his shot cleanly.
But Russell didn’t just block the shot by slamming into the fifth row of the crowd to elicit ooohs and aaahs. Rather he would block it with a purpose, often deflecting the shot to a teammate in order to start a fast break. His work in the middle was a thing of beauty. Chamberlain, with his great size and physical presence, was also an outstanding shot blocker, as was Nate Thurmond, Bill Walton and several of the other big men of the time.
Many of these big men were also great scorers. Wilt was an unstoppable force on offense, once scoring 100 points in a single game and averaging better than 50 points a game for an entire season. Sure, he dunked a lot and converted offensive rebounds. But he also perfected a turnaround shot that he would bank in off the glass. And one year, when critics said all he could do was score, he eschewed his scoring to pass more and wound up leading the league in assists. Then there was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, whose sky hook is still considered the single most unstoppable shot in the game’s history and was beautiful to watch. Kareem retired as the league’s all-time leader in points scored. Does any big man have a hook shot today?
Russell and Chamberlain were also the premier rebounders of their time, holding almost all the league’s rebounding records. Both Russell and Baltimore’s Wesley Unseld were particularly adept at grabbing a rebound, immediately spotting an open teammate, and throwing a quick outlet pass that would result in a fastbreak. It’s no secret that while almost all the championship teams back then were built around a dominating center, they were far from one-man teams. The Celtics won 11 titles in 13 years not only because of Russell’s presence, but because there were other great players on the floor with him, their success orchestrated by a great coach in Red Auerbach and, after his retirement, Russell himself as player-coach. Above all else, they played as a complete team. Together.
Today, the dominant center has gone the way of the dinosaurs. The game has changed and while there are still some talented big men, they often play away from the basket and often take long jumpshots instead of developing the inside game of the big men of the past.
My third complaint about today’s game is the lack of complete players. Yes, there are certainly many great athletes in the NBA, but they play the game the new way, with the elements they have loved watching since they were kids. They can certainly handle the ball and have all all the fancy tricks, going between their legs with the dribble, using both hands with equal aplomb and they have the athleticism to change direction on a dime. The fact that they often dribble in a way that years ago would be called palming or carrying the ball – a violation – is completely overlooked today. Many can shoot the three very well and everyone loves to dunk. For today’s audience, it is the spectacular, acrobatic play that brings everyone to their feet and elicits the most screams of approval to adoring young fans. Even the big men today play a versatile game, able to go outside for a jump shot or inside for a jam. But in truth, the game has evolved into one of primarily three-point shots and dunks
So what’s missing? Years ago I interviewed some of the pioneer basketball players who were active in the 1920s and 1930s. One of them told me that on the court “you moved the ball and you moved yourself.” That’s still one of the staples of the game. Only back in the 1960s and 1970s, there were more set plays, more great passing, as well as more exciting fast breaks. Players perfected the pick and roll, set double screens, knew each others moves and played a cohesive, total team game. With no three-point line, they knew how to maneuver for the highest percentage shot possible, and that meant working their way closer to the basket. Many so called perimeter players knew just how to navigate toward the hoop for a 15 or 20-foot jump shot. And, of course, they knew just how to play off the big guy set down low, or in the pivot as they used to call it. Watching the old Celtics or the 1969-70 Knicks was a thing of beauty – great players orchestrating a highly-competitive team game. The players came into the league knowing all the game’s basic fundamentals and just had to fine tune them as professionals. Perhaps the only team of the last decade or so that plays this kind of game is the San Antonio Spurs, and that team has been built around a big man, first David Robinson and then Tim Duncan. Look at the success they’ve had.
I actually stopped watching the NBA completely for several years because the game had become to me very predictable and boring in the regular season. I began watching again when I was asked to do a book about Jeremy Lin during the height of Linsanity when he was with the Knicks. Now I watch when necessary (rarely in the regular season) because I’m part of a weekly sports talk show on Blog Talk radio. But my opinions of the game haven’t changed.
There are certainly great players today, starting with LeBron James – who would have starred in any era – and the kids coming in from the colleges (often after just one year) are fine athletes. But have these teenagers really had time to fully learn the game?
Most players in the eras I’ve discussed came in after four years of college ball where they were taught the game by veteran coaches who knew all phases of play. Oscar Robertson was so good that he was like a man playing against boys in college and, in just his second year in the league, he averaged a triple double for the season. For the season! Today, when a player achieves a triple double in a game it makes headlines. The great players coming into the league between the late 1950s to the 1980s for the most part had mastered all the fundamentals and knew how to play the whole game.
Take a look at this all-star team made up of players who came into the league from the late 1950s to the middle 1980s. Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareen Abdul-Jabbar at center. Julius Erving, Larry Bird, Elgin Baylor, Karl Malone, Rick Barry at forward. At the guards, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Walt Frazier, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. The last of this group to enter the league was Karl Malone, 30 years ago. So these are definitely all “old timers.” Yet if these players, all in their primes, went up against an all-star team from today’s NBA, which team do you think would win? Fans today might not like the game they’d play, but I believe they’d wind up with the most points nearly every time out.
I don’t doubt for a minute that the modern fan loves the game he or she is watching today, a game that is most likely here to stay. But in my eyes, the basketball from the 1960s through the 1980s – the game my all-star team played – was a beautiful, well-rounded team sport. And today, that game is all but gone.
— Bill Gutman
Note: You can listen to me on HWTP Sports Talk Radio every Wednesday night at 9 pm EST. The link is: www.blogtalkradio.com/hwtpsportstalk
A LOVE AFFAIR WITH LADY DAY
Had she lived, Billie Holiday would have celebrated her 100th birthday this past April 7. Of course, there was absolutely no way the woman who became known as Lady Day could have lived that long. Life was just too hard, with too many indulgences and bad people between the music. The era in which she performed – the 1930s through the 1950s – was not an easy one for jazz musicians. The liquor flowed freely, there was much marijuana use followed later by heroin and, for so many, the hurtful stares, taunts, restrictions and, sometimes, violence of racism.
But through it all, Billie Holiday produced some of the most wonderful, artistic and emotional music ever heard. That it is mostly categorized as jazz is just incidental. Lady Day was an artist of the first rank, her oft-troubled life pouring out through her music. Using her voice much like a horn she often took improvisational liberties with the melody, would bend notes and always make a song her own, often by virtue of her unique and sometimes suggestive phrasing. From her groundbreaking work in the 1930s there was never any doubt about her place in the music world. And it didn’t hurt that she was often accompanied by some of the greatest jazz musicians that ever lived.
I discovered Billie way back in 1957 when barely 15 years old, no small feat in those days when most teenagers were gushing over and dancing to a new kind of music called rock ‘n roll. I bought my first two jazz LPs that year – The Great Benny Goodman and Count Basie’s One O’Clock Jump. Then on December 8, I watched a live TV program that, in a sense, changed the musical direction of my life. It was called The Sound of Jazz and is still widely considered the finest live jazz show to ever appear on the small screen. It featured many of the greatest jazz artists of all time, including Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Red Allen, Rex Stewart, Roy Eldridge, Count Basie, Thelonious Monk, Gerry Mulligan, Vic Dickenson, Jo Jones, Pee Wee Russell, Ben Webster and others. The musical numbers were not only great listening, but you could see the joy on the musicians’ faces as they played off one another in a jam session atmosphere. It registered quickly in my mind that I was witnessing something extraordinary, and that this was a special kind of music.
And then there was Lady Day. Singing a blues called Fine and Mellow, she quickly had me mesmerized, glued to the TV screen. I’d soon learn that she didn’t sing pure blues very often, though she often sang “blue.” On this occasion I was not only attracted to her voice and her phrasing, but also by the way she listened to the solos of her fellow musicians, smiling and nodding her approval as they played, allowing their music to envelop her and become part of the overall performance. It was a kind of musical kinship I would later come to understand. And while I didn’t know it at the time, in less than two years she would be gone.
Soon after, I went out and bought a three-record set called Billie Holiday: The Golden Years. The sides covered highlights of her Columbia recordings, from 1933 to 1941. The majority of songs were from the popular music genre – some already standards, others obscure tunes rarely heard today – but she put her own special spin on each of them. She sang mostly with small jazz combos, allowing her to be accompanied by many greats, notably the tenor saxophonist Lester Young and the pianist Teddy Wilson. I found myself listening to these records over and over again and soon became a total Billie Holiday devotee.
After her death in 1959, I began reading how the Columbia years constituted her greatest work, the most musically creative. Many who wrote about her seemed to feel that the hard life she continued to live began to take a toll from about the mid 1940s right to the end, and that the work she did in the 1950s represented a period of gradual decline until she was just a shell of her former self. Though she never had the great vocal range of Ella Fitzgerald and especially Sarah Vaughan, the two other female jazz vocal giants of the time, that range slowly dissipated and narrowed, and her voice became weaker and raspy. Back then, however, I still didn’t have a complete frame of reference and accepted this oft proffered thesis as the truth.
But slowly my Lady Day collection grew. I acquired many of the Decca sides from the 1940s and eventually the wonderful eight-record Verve series that Norman Granz produced in the 1950s. I also found the late, full-orchestra album called Lady in Satin and a disc aptly named Last Recordings. By adding additional CD’s, some from live performances, and listening to even more via You Tube, I’ve slowly assembled a large catalog encompassing her entire career. That’s a lot of Billie Holiday, but in my mind when it comes to listening to her sing, there’s no such thing as too much.
Where am I going with all this aside from the fact that I love listening to Billie Holiday? As her centennial celebration approached, I began to notice more and more articles appearing about her life and work. In some ways, she seemed to be more revered a half century after her death than she ever was in life. No argument from me. She should be remembered for the music she produced and how her life as a black woman often mirrored the tenor or the times. But I also noticed that the analysis and sometimes over-analysis had begun again in earnest. Every aspect of Lady Day’s life and career was being dissected to the bone.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with people expressing their opinions, or even bringing musical scholarship to a higher level. Critics, biographers and magazine writers will analyze a notable singer’s voice quality, tone and range, while breaking down almost every song to the very last note. It’s similar to the new analytics in baseball, the over reliance on statistics, or sabermetrics as it’s often called. Today baseball historians, writers and commentators often use stats to tell you how good a player is or was. Real fans, especially the older ones, still rely on the “eye test” for those same answers. It isn’t much different with music. Those of us who react emotionally to jazz – and jazz is a music that attacks the emotions like no other – the music we love is that which passes the “ear test.” That’s all the counts – the way the music grabs you and gets inside your heart, mind and your soul.
I’ve read recently where someone said that Billie’s albums became increasingly difficult to listen to as her voice hardened. I won’t repeat the metaphorical description of her voice, but it was singularly unflattering. That, and other similar comments, made me wonder just what singer these people were listening to and by what standards they were passing their judgments? Was it just a case of writers writing, taking the long-standing company line about Lady Day’s decline, or was it coming from people who never really had a complete understanding or appreciation of Billie Holiday to being with?
I have listened to her Verve recordings many, many times over the years. In fact, I almost have a need to hear them periodically. They cover the years 1952 to 1957, and are comprised mostly of standards from the Great American Songbook. Not only are these recordings artistically beautiful, they continue to show Lady Day’s overriding talent as a consummate singer. Yes, the voice is raspy. Yes, it has lost some range. But beautiful voice quality and an impressive range were never Billie Holiday’s strong suit. She always had what can be described accurately as a thin voice. But it is the timbre of her voice combined with the way she uses it to structure a song that makes her who she is.
You can hear the gradual change in her voice during the five year period of the Verve recordings. But at the same time there is no change in the way she approaches a song and presents it to the listener. I have also read recently that someone said she had learned many vocal tricks over the years that she used to mask her decline. Sorry, that doesn’t wash. Billie Holiday never needed vocal tricks. She always sang songs from the inside out, from the heart, and no matter what happened in her personal life – the alcohol, the drugs, the bad men – that never changed. No one had to tell her the meaning of a song or how to sing it. She simply did it in a way no other singer could ever duplicate. Once you connect with her and she gets inside you, she stays. That’s the way it has been with me, from her first recordings in the early 1930s right up to the last. She was always Lady Day. The best.
— Bill Gutman
FROM JOE D. TO JETER – BASEBALL’S ENDLESS CYCLE
Looking back, the earliest baseball game I remember visually was the 1950 All-Star Game. I was watching on a small, black and white television set at a neighbor’s house and can recall Joe DiMaggio drifting under a fly ball. Seeing Joe D. I kept referring to the American League as the Yankees, despite someone correcting me. But give me a break. I was just seven years old.
By the next year I was a full-fledged fan, totally aware of baseball, especially in New York where the three best teams resided in 1951 – the Yankees, Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants. On October 3, of that year, I raced home from school to catch the end of the third and final pennant playoff game between the Dodgers and Giants. I ran up the stairs where my mom had the game on. Bottom of the ninth inning, Dodgers leading 4-2, and Bobby Thomson of the Giants at the plate facing Ralph Branca of the Dodgers, with two on and two out. As soon as I realized the game situation I said to my mother:
“Only a home run can save them now.”
Them was the Giants. If you were a Yankees fan in those days you automatically hated the Dodgers. I didn’t want to see them win, though I figured the Yankees would take the World Series, as they always seemed to be doing back then. Anyway, I held my breath and watched. That’s when Bobby Thomson delivered his Shot-Heard-Round-The-World home run to win the game and write his ticket to baseball immortality. I was less than a week from my ninth birthday. Forty years later I was fortunate to be able to work with Bobby and write the story of that pennant race and home run, as well as Bobby’s baseball life. The Giants Win the Pennant! The Giants Win the Pennant!, the title echoing Russ Hodges’ epic home run call, was a book I thoroughly enjoyed writing because it also took me back to my own childhood and the absolute joy I had watching baseball then. That, and speaking with players I had seen perform so long ago when I was a wide-eyed kid who absolutely loved the game.
That’s part of the magic of baseball. If you become a lifelong fan early, the sport becomes one of milestones – a kind of guidepost for your life – maybe never quite as front and center after you reach the age of reason, yet always lurking beneath the surface as you follow the progression of teams and players. But when you’re still young and growing up, ah, the wonder of it all.
It was 1955 when the Yankees and Dodgers were again doing battle in the World Series. The Yanks won the first two at Yankee Stadium and then the Dodgers rebounded, taking the next three at their wonderful little ballpark in Brooklyn, Ebbets Field. Yet I was supremely confident that the Yankees would still win it all, even more so when they took the sixth game. I was in junior high then, right on the brink of my teenage years. Because our school had literally burned down one night we had to attend classes at the high school in the afternoon, double sessions. All World Series games then were played during the afternoon, so I couldn’t watch the finale. That hurt. But it soon got worse. I remember sitting in class late in the day when the PA system bell rang, meaning an announcement was coming. It was the vice principal, and I can still hear the sound of his voice in my head.
“I guess you’re wondering about the World Series,” he said. “Well, the Dodgers won.”
Just like that. Needless to say I was shattered. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. The whole order of the universe had been suddenly overturned. The Brooklyn Dodgers were world champs for the very first time. Today, I look back at those Dodgers teams with fond memories of Jackie, Pee Wee, Campy, Newk, Oisk, the Preacher, the Reading Rifle, the Duke and Gil. If you’re a longtime baseball fan you’ll know just who I mean.
When the Dodgers and Giants broke hearts and moved to the West Coast before the start of the 1958 season, I was one of the many who didn’t believe it. How could they? But baseball was on the brink of expansion then and this was one of changes that opened the door to a coast to coast sport. At the age of 15, I would often lay in bed late at night and listen to a great broadcaster named Les Keiter recreating the now San Francisco Giants games from the coast. I should have been sleeping with school the next day, but the games captivated me. Sitting in a New York studio, Keiter would receive the play-by-play action over a teletype machine, then tap a block of wood to simulate the bat hitting the ball. The crowd noise was also canned, but Keiter still made the games exciting. I can remember him describing the great Willie Mays hitting a triple. His voice rising, he painted a perfect word picture of Mays circling the bases, telling us the Say Hey Kid lost his cap between first and second and, as he rounded second, Keiter screamed, “You should see Willie run!” The fact that he couldn’t really see him didn’t matter. I could see him in my mind because I remembered his every movement and nuance so well from New York days.
Flash forward to the summer of 1963. I was home from college and watching a Yankees game one weekend afternoon. It was a game in which Mickey Mantle returned to pinch hit after being out two months with a broken foot, and he promptly belted a home run. I cheered so loudly that my parents, who were in the backyard, came running into the house to see if something was wrong. There wasn’t. The Mick had hit a home run, so all was right in the world. Another of those milestones you never forget.
Mickey came up to the Yankees in 1951 when I was still eight years old. I literally grew up with him and, to those who remember, he was the perfect hero. No one ever looked better in a baseball uniform. That was long before the realities of Mickey’s off-field activities surfaced. So it shouldn’t be surprising that I was still cheering for the Mick twelve years later at age 20. When Mickey retired prior to the 1969 season I was 26 years old. Think about it. Mickey Mantle was a constant in my life for nearly 18 years, from the time I was in elementary school to when I was out in the working world and the sports editor of a daily newspaper in Greenwich, Connecticut.
That fall, I was at Shea Stadium when the New York Mets defeated the Atlanta Braves to capture the first ever divisional playoff and earn a ticket to the World Series. The Mets were a huge story that year, brushing aside seven years of futility to win the pennant. The finale with the Braves was the first game in which the fans stormed the field and actually tore it up, ripping out chunks of sod for souvenirs. Outside the ballpark I saw a fan with a hunk of turf trying to sell it, claiming that Mets’ manager Gil Hodges had actually stepped there. The story gave me the opportunity to write a fun column as well as memories to last a lifetime.
Not surprisingly, life and the real world eventually claim some of your childhood enthusiasm for the game. No more idolizing players, just admiring their skills. When your team wins a big game you’re still happy and, if they win a championship, you let a little bit of that kid lurking somewhere inside you to come out. Eventually becoming a freelancer, I found myself writing about baseball quite often – biographies, histories, and books that required me to speak with older players, such as the aforementioned Bobby Thomson. So I was able to keep up and learn more about a sport that I had loved for such a long time.
Now we come to one Derek Sanderson Jeter, who retired in September after a yearlong farewell tour filled with as much or more fanfare and respect than any player this side of Mariano Rivera. His was truly a great career, one that will land the Yankees’ longtime shortstop in the Hall of Fame five years from now. And while I followed Jeter’s career and rooted for those great Yankees teams that won five more World Series with him at short, it was markedly different from the way I rooted for Mickey Mantle during my formative years. What attracted me about Jeter was his skill, competitiveness and consistency, as well as the way he conducted himself both on an off the field. Like I said, there were no longer idols, only an appreciation for great players.
But in an important way, Jeter’s long career has served as yet one more notch in that guidepost and created another milestone in my life. When he won the shortstop job in 1996, I was not yet 54 years old, but still able to run three or four miles several times a week, something I felt helped to keep me fit and in my prime. His retirement, however, has brought me to another place. While Jeter has said that retirement transformed him from an old 40 as a ballplayer to a young 40 in any other walk of life, it has reminded me that the length and breadth of his career had taken me from age 53 to 72. Mickey Mantle, by contrast, accompanied me from age eight to 26. But when you put them together, the numbers are a bit daunting.
From the beginning of Mantle’s career to the end of Jeter’s you have the passage of 64 years, a veritable lifetime, replete not only with life’s ups and downs, but all kinds of baseball memories along the way. I’m still going strong today, however, except for a couple of bum knees from all the years of running. Symbolically, this past summer I updated a book I originally wrote five years ago called Yankees by the Numbers. Since old writers never quit I’m still at the keyboard and the Yankees remain a part of my life, only without the emotional ties of childhood and the rabid enthusiasm that comes with it. But they are there, just as baseball is always there with its endless cycle, one that that renews itself without fail each spring.
And now there is yet another link in this long chain. I’m currently writing a series of mysteries involving a detective working in the New York City of the 1920’s. The first novel in The Mike Fargo Mysteries series is titled Murder On Murderer’s Row, and you can guess which team had that nickname. Yep, it’s the Yankees again. The story is set in 1927 and a major character throughout – as a murder suspect no less – is none other than Babe Ruth. Talk about coming full cycle and then going back again, way back this time. Somehow I’d like to believe that only baseball has the magic to do that for you.
— Bill Gutman