Posts Tagged ‘America’

Sputnik

Wednesday, October 4th, 2017

60 years ago today, the world marveled, reeled, and responded to Russia’s launch of Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite.

And so mankind’s journey towards manned spaceflight began.  Time described the chirping sounds coming from Sputnik as “those chilling beeps.”  Suddenly, the need for America to dominate the Russians in technological progress became a necessity.  A year later, NASA began operations.

Russia’s official statement informed that the 184-pound satellite, 23 inches in diameter, circled Earth at a height of 500 miles:  “The successful launching of the first man-made satellite makes a tremendous contribution to the treasure house of world science and culture.  The scientific experiment staged at such a great height is of great importance for establishing the properties of cosmic space and for studying the earth as part of our solar system.”

What once was fascination represented in comic books, movie serials, and novels became, if not a certainty, then a reality within grasp.  Bureaucracy and boasting, the twin banes of progress in any endeavor, became a sticking point.  E.P. Martz, Jr., a scientist described in the Washington Post as having “played an active part in U.S. missile development, decried, “We see extensive worldwide propaganda from our country about our plans long in advance of any readiness for an actual launching.”

For scientific prestige, the Russians were a giant leap ahead of the United States.  It, in turn, ignited frustration, if not ire, in certain factions of Washington.  Senator Richard Russell, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman, pointed out that the military factor was one of great concern, calling it a “new and terrifying danger,” but cautioned “this is no time or place for panic or fright.”

Four days after the Sputnik launch, President Eisenhower met with advisers, including Deputy Secretary of Defense Donald Quarles.  A memorandum indicates that Quarles had “no doubt that the Redstone [missile] had it been used, could have orbited a satellite a year or more ago.”  But that capability was not realized because the American approach to space exploration differed greatly from Moscow’s.  “One reason was to stress the peaceful character of the effort, and a second was to avoid the inclusion of materiel, to which foreign scientists might be given access, which is used in our own military rockets.”

Sputnik provides the backdrop for a critical scene in the 1983 movie The Right Stuff, based on the novel of the same name by Tom Wolfe.  Jeff Goldblum races down a hallway to a meeting between President Eisenhower, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, and other advisors.  It is a fictional counterpart to the October 8th meeting, perhaps.

Johnson compared the conquest of space to the Roman Empire’s world leadership because of roads and the British Empire’s because of ships.  Also chronicled in the book, Johnson’s statements indicated an urgency for America to get further involved in spaceflight.  NASA selected its initial seven astronauts for the Mercury program on April 9, 1959.  10 years later, an American flag was planted on the Moon.  The Russians never made it there.

Cooperstown’s Hall of Fa(r)mers

Tuesday, April 18th, 2017

Given America’s roots as an agrarian nation, it is appropriate that the legend of baseball’s birth begins in a Cooperstown cow pasture; Doubleday Field, just a baseball throw from the Hall of Fame, occupies the spot where the myth—long since debunked—of Abner Doubelday inventing baseball began.  It provides, at the very least, a nexus between farmers and the village’s world-famous icon located at 25 Main Street.

Goose Goslin worked on his family’s farm in southern New Jersey before journeying to the major leagues, which began by playing for DuPont’s company team.  Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1968, Goslin retired in 1938 after 18 seasons.  Among his career statistics:

  • .316 batting average
  • 2,735 hits
  • .500 slugging percentage

The Hall of Fame web site quotes Goslin regarding his humble beginnings:  “I was just a big ol’ country boy havin’ the game of my life.  It was all a lark to me, just a joy ride.  Never feared a thing, never got nervous, just a big country kid from South Jersey, too dumb to know better.  Why I never even realized it was supposed to be big doin’s.  It was just a game, that’s all it was.  They didn’t have to pay me.  I’d have paid them to let me play.  Listen, the truth is it was more than fun.  It was heaven.”

Tom Seaver tasted success with a World Series championship, three Cy Young Awards, and 311 wins.  His palate presently determines quality of wine in Seaver Vineyards.  In a 2005 article for the New York Times, Eric Asimov profiled Seaver’s venture.  “I wanted to keep my name off it, so the wine could make its own name.  My daughter said, ‘Dad, you’re not living forever.  Your grandchildren will be running it one day.  You’re putting your name on it,'” Seaver explained.

Carl Yastrzemski spent his formative years working on his family’s Long Island potato farm before embarking on a career spent entirely in a Red Sox uniform.  He became a Boston icon, racking up:

  • 3,419 hits
  • .285 batting average
  • 452 home runs

On Yaz Day at the end of the Red Sox slugger’s last season—1983—Yastrzemski reminded, “I’m just a potato farmer from Long Island who had some ability.  I’m not any different than a mechanic, an engineer or the president of a bank.”

Ty Cobb, a member of the first Hall of Fame class, inducted in 1936, had farming in his DNA, thanks to the Cobb family farm in Georgia.  Knowsouthernhistory.net reveals that the future star gained respect from his father during one summer when he worked extra hours as punishment for pawning two of his father’s books—he needed the money to fix his glove.  “The fields looked good, and were growing well.  For some reason, this brought about a change in the older man’s attitude toward Ty, one that the young man never forgot.  W.H. began to confide in Tyrus about the market for cotton, the work animals, and the crops.  Thrilled with the sudden change in treatment from his father, Ty hurried out and won himself a job at a local cotton factory.  He ate up the information about growing, baling, processing, and marketing the crop and shared all that he learned with his father.  In turn, the Professor was happy with the boy making an effort to mature, and their bond strengthened.”

Tragedy struck the Cobb family when Ty’s mother mistook her husband for a burglar and shot him dead.  She was acquitted at trial.

In addition to Cooperstown’s farm connection, films have used farms as settings.  In the 1991 film Talent for the Game, Angels scout Virgil Sweet discovers Sammy Bodeen, an Idaho farm boy.  Bodeen’s promise is heightened in the public’s mind by a marketing campaign designed by Angels management.  It looks to be futile when Bodeen suffers a horrible first inning in his début before settling down, thanks to Sweet, who dons catcher’s gear for the second inning and calms Bodeen with empathy in a conference on the mound without anyone else figuring out his masquerade; Sweet catches Bodeen’s first career strikeout, presumably, the first of hundreds.  Thousands, perhaps.

In the 1984 film The Natural, the story of Roy Hobbs ends with a shot of him playing catch with the son of his paramour, Iris, on her farm.  The poster for The Natural depicts a photo of this scene.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on October 14, 2016.

Hank Aaron’s Last Home Run

Monday, April 10th, 2017

As America recovered from its Bicentennial hangover, Hank Aaron clubbed a home run in the Brewers-Angels game on July 20, 1976.  It was not, in any way, a cause for ceremony.  It was, however, highly significant.

Aaron’s solo smash off the Angels’ Dick Drago was his last home run, though nobody knew it at the time.  Hammerin’ Hank followed George Scott’s solo home run, one of 18 blasts that Scott swatted in 1976.  Jerry Augustine got the win for the Brewers—his first in more than a month—scattering five Angel hits in seven innings.  It capped a streak of five consecutive losses for Augustine, who had a 9-12 record, 3.30 Earned Run Average, and WHIP of 1.299.

Aaron, Scott, et al. belted 12 hits against the Angels; Von Joshua, Tim Johnson, Darrell Porter, and Robin Yount scored the other Brewer runs.  Johnson, the Brewer second baseman, had an outstanding 3-for-3 day.  In the eighth inning, relief pitcher Danny Frisella replaced Augustine.

When Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record on April 8, 1974 by hitting his 715th home run, every dinger afterward became, simply, icing on top of frosting.  His round-tripper in the Brewers’ 6-2 victory over the boys from Anaheim was his 755th home run; Aaron hit 10 home runs, batted .229, and racked up 62 hits in a rather uneventful 1976 season for the Brewers—a 66-96 record garnered 6th place in the American League East.

At age 42, Aaron retired after the 1976 season with outstanding career statistics:

  • 3,771 hits
  • 2,174 runs scored
  • 13,941 plate appearances
  • .305 batting average
  • 2,287 RBI (major league record)
  • Led the major leagues in RBI four times

Henry Louis Aaron clocked his first major league home run on April 23, 1954.  Throughout the next two decades and change, Aaron faced the pitching gods of Major League Baseball—Don Sutton, Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, Steve Carlton, Fergie Jenkins, Don Gullett, Roy Face, Don Drysdale, Nolan Ryan, Vida Blue, Sandy Koufax, Robin Roberts.  When he went yard, it was the definition of power against power.  Tom Seaver’s page on the Baseball Hall of Fame web site recalls Aaron’s statement of Seaver being “the toughest pitcher I’ve ever faced.”

Aaron’s last home run occurred during the year that the Yankees reached the World Series for the first time since 1964; Chicago Cubs outfielder Rick Monday snatched an American flag from two trespassers about to burn it in the Dodger Stadium outfield; the Chicago White Sox played in shorts for one game; Ted Turner became the sole owner of the Atlanta Braves; the second incarnation of Yankee Stadium débuted after two years of renovations; Philadelphia Phillies third baseball Mike Schmidt knocked four home runs in a game against the Cubs; original Houston Astros owner Judge Roy Hofheinz sold the team that began its life as the Colt .45s; Dodgers manager Walter Alston resigned after 23 years at the helm in Ebbets Field and Chavez Ravine; and the Seattle Mariners and the Toronto Blue Jays began selecting players for the following year’s American League expansion.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on July 20, 2016.

Bobby Bonilla’s Payday

Friday, April 7th, 2017

At the turn of the 21st century, while the world scrambled to confront a Y2K threat to computers, Bobby Bonilla and the management of the New York Mets came to an agreement regarding salary—defer it.  Well, a lot of it.  From 2011 to 2035, Bonilla gets annual compensation somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.19 million.  This financial ritual happens every July 1st—a nice way to start the second half of the year for the Bronx native, a multiple defensive threat at third base first base, and right field.

Bonilla was owed $5.9 million by the fellas in blue and orange; his last year in a major league uniform was 2001.  Apparently, the Mets believed that the time value of money combined with comfortable returns from Bernie Madoff’s handling of accounts made the deferment a wise maneuver.  It was a financial mistake—serious, if not epic.

Madoff, of course, proved to be an expert disciple of the Ponzi School of Fraud, with a major in Deceit.

Bonilla’s was not the first deal to backfire.  And it will not be the last, certainly.  Desi Arnaz negotiated the rights to the negatives of I Love Lucy.  CBS acquiesced, figuring that nobody would watch an episode once it aired.  I Love Lucy became a juggernaut in reruns.

IBM calculated that profits came from the sale of computers, not computer software.  Consequently, it dismissed an opportunity to be a part of a little company started by a spectacled Harvard dropout from Washington state.  Microsoft.

And there’s Peter Minuit getting Manhattan Island from the Dutch for 60 guilders—$24 in beads.  Or so the legend goes.

Bonilla’s original deal, which closed in 1991, made him the “highest-paid player in team sports” because of an organization “with a flair for the dramatic and an unprecedented expenditure of cash,” wrote New York Times sports scribe Joe Sexton, who broke down the terms: guaranteed five-year contract, $27.5 million in base salary, and $1.5 million in a “promotional arrangement.”

It appeared to be a signal of a new era.  Eddie Murray, as much a fixture of Baltimore as the Fort McHenry National Monument, signed with the Mets in the same off-season.  “Bonilla may not be a colossal talent, but his acquisition registers an enormous impact on the Mets, the shifts that result likely to be felt in everything from the club’s public perception to its daily lineup,” opined Sexton.  “For Bonilla is both an engaging personality—his charisma can infect a clubhouse, his unaffected self-confidence can defuse the pressures of performance—and an intriguing offensive force.”

Bonilla had a 16-year career, playing with eight teams:

  • Pirates
  • Mets
  • Dodgers
  • Orioles
  • Marlins
  • Braves
  • Cardinals
  • White Sox

His career stats, though not in the Cooperstown sphere, are formidable:

  • .279 batting average
  • 2,010 hits
  • 408 doubles
  • 287 home runs
  • 1,084 runs scored
  • 1,173 RBI

Further, he cracked the barriers of a .300 batting average three times and 100 RBI or more four times.

For America, the beginning of July indicates the annual celebration of the country’s independence from Great Britain.  An omnipresence of memorabilia colored red, white, and blue envelops us, as do red and green five months hence.

For Roberto Martin Antonio Bonilla, the beginning of July indicates a seven-figure payment from a deferred compensation deal that will conclude in 2015.  No windfall, this.  It’s simply a creative structuring of salary.

Somewhere, Jack Benny is smiling.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on July 1, 2016.

Beyond ’69

Monday, March 6th, 2017

When the New York Mets took the field for the first time, America was awash in a tidal wave of promise.  The year was 1962—John Glenn had become the first American to orbit the Earth, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy had taken viewers on an unprecedented televised tour of the White House, and Dodger Stadium had marked a new standard for ballparks.

Respect eluded the nascent Mets, however.  Inheriting the Polo Grounds and the interlocking NY logo from the Giants—who abdicated New York City for San Francisco after the 1957 season—the Mets lost their first game.  It was, indeed, an inauspicious beginning for the National League squad bearing Dodger Blue and Giant Orange as its colors.  At the end of the season, the Mets’ tally read 40 wins, 120 losses.

Subsequent seasons followed a paradigm of mediocrity.  It shifted in 1968, when Gil Hodges took the reins after managing the Washington Senators for five seasons—the Mets went from 61-101 in 1967 to 73-89 in Hodges’s first year at the helm.

In 1969, the Mets exorcised their ghosts.  With a 100-62 record, the “Miracle Mets” defied expectations with a World Series upset of the Baltimore Orioles, thereby securing 1969 as a season of glory; Mets fans get wistful at the mere mention of the year.

Lost in the nostalgia is the decade after the miracle—the 1970s Mets were, for the most part, a formidable team often overlooked in accounts of baseball in the Me Decade.  Surely, the Yankees drew more attention with three consecutive World Series appearances resulting in two championships, not to mention drama of Shakespearean proportions.

In Oakland, the A’s—also known as the Mustache Gang—carved a dynasty with three consecutive World Series titles, later suffering a shattered team when owner Charlie Finley broke it up.

In Cincinnati, the Big Red Machine set the bar high for National League power, with a lineup including Pete Rose, Tony Perez, and Johnny Bench.

But the Mets, consistent rather than dominant, compiled winning seasons from 1970 to 1976, except for 1974.  Further, the Mets battled the powerful A’s in the 1973 World Series, falling to the fellas from Oakland in seven games.  Gil Hodges, unfortunately, did not live to see that second grasp at a World Series—he died from a heart attack right before the 1972 season.

At the New York Mets 50th Anniversary Conference hosted by Hofstra University in 2012, the impact of Hodges’s death on the 1970s Mets was a point of discussion on a panel populated by Ed Kranepool, Art Shamsky, and Bud Harrelson—all agreed that if Hodges had survived his heart attack, they would be wearing a few more World Series rings.  More importantly, perhaps, Hodges might have been able to prevent the darkest point in Mets history.

Tom Seaver won the Cy Young Award three times—all in the 1970s.  When the Mets traded Seaver to the Reds for four players in 1977, fortunes plummeted.  After an 86-76 record in 1976, the Mets closed out the remainder of the 1970s with losing seasons:

  • 1977:  64-98
  • 1978:  66-96
  • 1979:  63-99

In contrast to the optimism permeating Shea Stadium at the beginning of the decade, frustration became an unwanted friend as the Mets piled on loss after loss.  This streak continued into the 1980s, finally reversing with a 90-72 record in 1984.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on March 7, 2016.

56 Games

Thursday, January 19th, 2017

Joe DiMaggio once declared, “I’d like to thank the good Lord for making me a Yankee.”  When the Yankee Clipper stepped into the batter’s box, denizens of the Bronx felt the same way.

In May 1941, Americans watched the premiere of Orson Welles’s masterpiece Citizen Kane, ate a new cereal called Cheerios, and, through newsreels and newspapers, followed the terrible exploits of Nazi Germany in Europe.  While scanning the sports pages, they might have noticed an entry on May 16th indicating DiMaggio getting a hit in the previous day’s game against the Chicago White Sox.

It was the first of 56 consecutive games in which DiMaggio hit safely, a record.

DiMaggio’s hitting streak ended on July 17, 1941 in an Indians-Yankees contest, which the Yankees won 4-3.  Had DiMaggio reached 57 games, he would have had a lucrative promotion deal with Heinz because of its “57 varieties” slogan.  Or so the rumor went.  Ira Berkow of the New York Times negated the rumor by quoting DiMaggio in a 1987 article.  “I never believed that,” said the Yankee slugger, who hit .357 in ’41.  “After all, I got a hit in the All-Star Game, which came about midway in the streak.  And they could always have said that that made it 57.”

Cleveland responded to the moment that brought finality to a feat capturing the fascination of fans.  Rud Rennie of the New York Herald Tribune wrote, “There was drama in DiMaggio’s failure to stretch his streak into the fifty-seventh game.  It…enthralled the biggest crowd of the year, which was also the biggest crowd ever to see a night game.  After it was apparent that DiMaggio would not have another turn at bat, the Indians rallied and made two runs in the ninth, in a breathtaking finish in which the tying run was cut off between third and the plate.”

67,463 people in Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium saw the end to DiMaggio’s epic run.  In a 2011 Sports Illustrated article, Kostya Kennedy—author of the 2011 book 56:  Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports—described DiMaggio’s approach to baseball as unchanging in the firestorm of dramatic tension.

“Even with the hitting streak surely finished, DiMaggio did only what he would have done at any other time,” wrote Kennedy.  “After crossing first base, he slowed from his sprint, turned left and continued running toward shallow center field.  Still moving, he bent and plucked his glove off the grass.  He did not kick the earth or shake his head or pound the saddle of his glove.  He did not behave as if he were aware of the volume and the frenzy of the crowd.  He did not look directly at anyone or anything.  Not once on his way out to center field did DiMaggio turn back.”

DiMaggio’s hitting streak prompted St. Louis Post-Dispatch sports editor J. E. Wray to propose that the Yankees honor the achievement by changing the slugger’s uniform number—”56″ instead of “5” would remind fans of the streak every time DiMaggio took the field.

Eight years before the 1941 streak, which stands as a record for Major League Baseball, DiMaggio hit safely in 61 consecutive games for the 1933 San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League.  DiMaggio’s ’33 streak is a PCL record.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on December 24, 2015.

Tactical Strikes: Baseball and the American President

Tuesday, October 25th, 2016

When President George Walker Bush threw out the first pitch at that most hallowed of baseball cathedrals—Yankee Stadium—on October 30, 2001, the eyes of the world focused on him.  The setting was Game 3 of the World Series between the New York Yankees and the Arizona Diamondbacks, just a few weeks after the blindsiding 9/11 attacks and just a few miles from Ground Zero in downtown Manhattan.  It was a surreal moment that demanded an elevation beyond ceremony.

President Bush threw a perfect strike.  And a tactical one, as well.

It was a symbolic act showing the world that America would neither be intimidated nor dissuaded.  Not by terrorists.  Not by wartime.  And the baseball setting was appropriate as a step toward healing.

In the movie Field of Dreams, James Earl Jones captured the essence of baseball’s connection to the country:  “America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers.  It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again.  But baseball has marked the time.  This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray.  It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again.”

A former owner of the Texas Rangers, President Bush had a tangible connection to the National Pastime.  Other presidents also enjoyed a genuine nexus to baseball.

President George Herbert Walker Bush—George W. Bush’s father—played on the Yale baseball team.  As president, he went to an Orioles game with Queen Elizabeth in a gesture of social diplomacy.

President Taft unknowingly invented the 7th inning stretch when he rose from his seat during a game.

Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon threw out first balls from their box seats for the hometown Washington Senators.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt perpetuated baseball during World War II.  With the country absorbed in the daily actions of American forces in Europe, North Africa, and the South Pacific during World War II, Major League Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis wrote a letter dated January 14, 1942 to President Roosevelt inquiring about continuing the leagues’ operations during the crisis.

FDR responded the next day.  He gave Landis a green light to continue baseball for morale:  “I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going. There will be fewer people unemployed and everybody will work longer hours and harder than ever before.  And that means they ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work even more than before.”

Baseball suffered a drain of its players, however.  Ted Williams, Hank Greenberg, and Stan Musial reported for duty along with more than 500 other players.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on April 30, 2013.

 

The Chronicles of Bob Greene

Monday, June 15th, 2015

RemingtonIn 1964, the Beatles made their first live television appearance in America on The Ed Sullivan Show.

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The Big Three

Friday, February 27th, 2015

RemingtonIn the 1980s, America’s three television networks changed hands.

ABC to Capital Cities.  NBC to General Electric.  CBS to Loews.

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You’ve Gotta Be A Football Hero

Tuesday, February 17th, 2015

In 1964, Brian Piccolo was the top college football rusher in the country.  His success capped a terrific college football career at Wake Forest.  Surprisingly, his credentials did not impress any NFL team during the draft.  Fourteen teams.  Twenty rounds.  No draft pick.  Ultimately, Chicago Bears owner George Halas signed Piccolo as a free agent.  Piccolo soon discovered that he had cancer, specifically, embryonal cell carcinoma; he died in 1970 at the age of 26.

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