Posts Tagged ‘American’

The First Fan

Thursday, January 26th, 2017

William Howard Taft invented—unintentionally—the seventh inning stretch, Franklin Delano Roosevelt urged Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis to continue Major League Baseball during World War II, and George W. Bush skyrocketed American morale after the 9/11 attacks when he threw out the first pitch of the 2001 World Series.

Baseball pulsates through the presidency, indeed, whether it’s Ronald Reagan sitting in the dugout of an Orioles game or Harry Truman being the first president to attend a night game.

It all started with Benjamin Harrison in 1892.

On the eve of the Republican National Convention—which took place in Minneapolis from June 7-10, 1892—Harrison churned through his presidential duties, despite tension surrounding the possibility of not being selected to represent the party in the upcoming election.  The Washington Post reported, “If the President was worried about the turn of affairs at Minneapolis he failed to let that worriment be detected by any one who conversed with him.  Secretary [of Agriculture] Rusk, upon leaving the White House, said that Mr. Harrison was not at all disturbed by the rumors that had emanated from the convention city but was, on the contrary, in the best of spirits and had spent a very pleasant day.”

After an inquiry by [Secretary of State John] Foster about attending the Cincinnati-Washington baseball game at Boundary Field, President Harrison acquiesced.  Foster’s baseball fandom manifested in restlessness—the Cabinet member “paced up and down the big stone port of the White House, now and then glancing at his watch, fearful that he would be too late to see the first game,” reported the Post.  The Reds beat the Senators 7-4.

It was the first presidential visit to a major league game.

Harrison lost the 1892 presidential election to Grover Cleveland.  Had the political winds shifted in the Democratic Party, Harrison might have faced a baseball fan—Senator David B. Hill of New York ran for the nomination.  A Post profile of Hill on June 5, 1892 described the senator’s nighttime activities as a combination of work and play.  “Night is Hill’s favorite time for work, and he manages to do considerable after he is through with callers.  That is the general programme [sic] of the New York Senator’s days.  He varies them by going to the theater, of which he is more than fond, and he has patronized the Washington theaters continually.  Then he is a baseball crank, it must be confessed, and finds time to get out to hurrah for the diamond kings very often.”

When Cleveland resigned his post as New York Governor, Hill, a former New York governor, earned the ire of some quarters for holding dual offices. On April 7, 1892, the New York Times declared, “He showed a contempt for common decency in holding the office of Governor for ten months after his term in the Senate began, and he left his seat in that body vacant for more than a month after the season of Congress opened.  He used that time in carrying out the infamous scheme for stealing a majority in the State Senate, and afterward secured the elevation of his most subservient and useful tool in the performance to the bench of the Court of Appeals, thus putting a dark stain upon the judiciary of the State.  Since he took his oath as Senator he has hardly spent two consecutive days in the Senate, and has taken no useful part in any of its proceedings.  He showed himself intent only upon selfish political schemes of his own.  He tried to bully a committee of the House into making a report favorable to retaining one of his devoted henchmen in the seat to which he was plainly not entitled.  Then he went off on a trip to the South, the sole object of which was to drum up delegates for himself to the Democratic National Convention.  That hunt was a dismal failure and only resulted in exposing to the Southern people his lack of principle and courage and turning them against him.”

Harrison’s presidency included appointing four justices of the United States Supreme Court, admitting six states to the union, and codifying the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and the Land Revision Act.  While Harrison’s ignition of presidential attendance at professional baseball games began a ballpark tradition, the sports world enjoyed other landmark events in 1892, including the playing of the first basketball game, the founding of the Liverpool Football Club, and the creating of the Stanley Cup—thanks to a proposal by Lord Stanley of Preston.

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

Lou Costello: Behind the Laughter

Tuesday, January 10th, 2017

Who’s on First? is a comedy bit that is ageless, knowing no boundaries of laughter.  Little Leaguers, octogenarians, scholars, and every other demographic have an instinctive response to this legendary piece of humor performed by Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.  It’s a part of American culture, indeed.

Costello, painfully, tries to discern the names of the players on a baseball team while Abbott calmly recites them along with their positions:

  • First Base:  Who
  • Second Base:  What
  • Third Base:  I Don’t Know
  • Left Field:  Why
  • Center Field:  Because
  • Pitcher:  Today
  • Catcher:  Tomorrow
  • Shortstop:  I Don’t Care

The more frustrated Costello gets at not understanding that Abbott is telling the actual names of the players, the funnier it gets.

Abbott and Costello refined the comedy in the piece, its foundation of confusion having appeared in previous sketches of other performers, for example, on involving towns named Ware and Wye.  Although they conquered stage, films, television, and radio, Abbott and Costello spotlighted Who’s on First?, performing it innumerable times throughout their partnership, which began in in the mid-1930s and lasted for 20 years.  National success came when Kate Smith gave them a platform for Who’s on First? and other comedy bits on her radio show, starting in 1938.

Consequently, the team’s fame catapulted into orbit.

But comedy has a dark side, sometimes.  Abbott abused alcohol to escape his suffering caused by epilepsy.  Costello stayed in bed for a year because of rheumatic fever.  And on November 4, 1943, he symbolized the ultimate show business adage—The Show Must Go On—in the face of a tragedy that is every parent’s nightmare.

That night, Costello was scheduled to perform for the first time since being bedridden.  The Abbott & Costello Show was a radio hit, undoubtedly set to draw a huge audience for Costello’s return to performing.  He wanted his infant son—Lou Costello, Jr.—to listen to him and Abbott on the radio.  Tragically, it was not to be.  The baby escaped his playpen, crawled to the swimming pool, and drowned two days shy of his first birthday.  Stories vary concerning when Costello learned about it during the day.

Costello performed that night, hoping that his son, nicknamed Butch, wherever God took him, would recognize his voice.  The studio audience had no idea, not even an inkling, of the tragedy until Abbott explained it after the show.  In his 1977 book Bud & Lou: The Abbott and Costello Story, Bob Thomas recounted the chilling event in Abbott’s words: “Just a short time before our broadcast started, Lou Costello was told that his baby—one year old in two days—had died.  In the face of the greatest tragedy which can come to any man [sic], Lou Costello went on tonight so that you, the radio audience, would not be disappointed.  There is nothing more that I can say except that I know all join me in expressing our deepest sympathy to a great trouper.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on November 17, 2015.

61 in ’61

Wednesday, November 16th, 2016

In 1961, John F. Kennedy was inaugurated as the nation’s youngest elected president, The Dick Van Dyke Show débuted, and Alan Shepard became the first American astronaut in space.

1961 was also the year of Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle.  The M&M boys.

As members of the 1961 New York Yankees, Maris and Mantle chased the ghost of Babe Ruth, vying to break Ruth’s single-season record of 60 home runs.  Ruth set his magic number of 60 as a member of the legendary 1927 Yankees.  It was a seemingly unbreakable record.  But if Maris or Mantle broke the record—or if both of them did—it would symbolize the home run torch being passed to a new generation of power hitters, keep the single-season home run record in the Yankee family, and explode the myth that certain records are unbreakable.

Maris, an import from the Kansas City Athletics, won the 1960 American League Most Valuable Player Award in his first year as a Yankee.  Mantle, a Yankee who spent his entire career in pinstripes, had his share of achievements, including the Triple Crown Award in 1956. Mantle dropped out of the race in September because of an illness.  Yankee broadcaster Mel Allen referred Mantle to Dr. Max Jacobson, who gave Mantle a shot.  It made Mantle’s situation worse.  And he wasn’t the only celebrity to suffer, either.  In her 2010 book The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood, Jane Leavy wrote, “Mantle said he never knew what was in Jacobson’s syringe, and he never paid the bill, either.  Mark Shaw, the Kennedy family photographer, paid with his life, dying of amphetamine poisoning in 1969.  Tennessee Williams’s brother told the Times that the playwright had spent three months in a mental hospital that year as a result of taking drugs prescribed by Jacobson.  Truman Capote collapsed after a series of injections and had to be hospitalized with symptoms of withdrawal.  When Mel Allen was fired by the Yankees after the 1964 season, the infamous medical referral was widely cited as cause.”

Leave also reported that nearly 50 counts of “fraud or deceit” involving amphetamines led to the revocation of Jacobson’s  medical license revoked in the 1970s.

Sidelined, Mantle’s home run tally stopped at 54.  Maris broke Ruth’s record on October 1, 1961, when he smacked a pitch by Tracy Stallard into Yankee Stadium’s right field stands in a Yankees-Red Sox game—the last game of the 1961 season for the Yankees.

A faction of baseball enthusiasts believes that Maris did not technically break Ruth’s record.  This theory rests on the number of regular season games for each player.  Ruth had 154 games.  Maris, 162.  The American League’s expansion to Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. in 1961 prompted the addition of eight games.

Ruth also had less at bats in ’27 than Maris did in ’61.  But Maris had challenges that Ruth did not face, including night games, air travel, and black players increasing the depths of competition.

Tommy Holmes of the New York Herald Tribune reported that the paying crowd totaled 23,154, a figure far below the capacity of Yankee Stadium.  “The crowd kept yelling,” wrote Holmes.  “It wouldn’t stop until Maris—Not once, but twice—climbed the steps of the dugout, bared his crewcut and waved a smiling acknowledgment.  He looked a bit like Kirk Douglas at a moment of triumph in Spartacus.

Roger Maris won the 1961 American League Most Valuable Player Award.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 15, 2014.

All Aboard the Hooterville Cannonball! Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of “Petticoat Junction” (Part 5 of 5)

Thursday, September 26th, 2013

A Hollywood urban legend dictates that The Wild Wild West and Petticoat Junction used the same locomotive.  Like most urban legends, this one has a kernel of truth.  Jensen clarifies the issue by explaining the lineage of the trains involved.

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Uncle Robbie and the Athlete Dying Young

Tuesday, August 6th, 2013

Wilbert Robinson managed the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1914-1931.  Gentle and genial, Robinson earned praise from The New York Times upon his departure.  But Robinson was not always gentle and genial.

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The Lone Ranger and American Heritage

Thursday, July 4th, 2013

The Lone Ranger represents the American ideals of justice, strength, and courage.  His ruggedness, a staple of the hero prototype in American westerns, parallels John Wayne’s film characters, James Arness’ Matt Dillon of Gunsmoke, and the Cartwright boys of Bonanza.

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Too Old To Reinvent Your Personal Brand? That’s A Kroc!

Sunday, June 24th, 2012

Ray Kroc must have felt like the 19th century prospectors that struck gold when he fulfilled an order by Dick and Mac McDonald in 1954 for eight multi-mixers.  They were milkshake machines that could make five milkshakes at a time.

It happened in San Bernardino, California. “There he found a small but successful restaurant run by brothers Dick and Mac McDonald, and was stunned by the effectiveness of their operation.”

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