Posts Tagged ‘racism’

Softball, Nostalgia, and “Happy Days”

Wednesday, March 1st, 2017

When Happy Days premiered on January 15, 1974 as a mid-season replacement for ABC, it began a 10-year journey as a refuge from the barrage of daily headlines indicating malaise, frustration, and tension—particularly in the second half of the 1970s with inflation, gas shortages, and the Iran hostage crisis.  Based in mid-1950s Milwaukee, Happy Days revolved around teenager Richie Cunningham confronting the growing pains associated with his evolution from adolescence to adulthood.

Initially filmed as a one-camera show covering serious topics backed by humor—racism, the Cold War, the Quiz Show Scandal—Happy Days skyrocketed once it changed to a studio audience format in 1976.  Richie had two universes—his friends and his family, with the two sometimes intersecting.  Played by Ron Howard, Richie had a special friendship with Fonzie.  Where Richie was clean-cut, Fonzie was tough.  Where Richie was book smart, Fonzie was street smart.  Where Richie wore a letterman’s sweater, Fonzie wore a leather jacket.

Once Happy Days went before a studio audience, Fonzie became an iconic television character, played by Henry Winkler.  Fonzie’s trademark exclamation “Aaaaay!” became a fixture for Happy Days.

The genesis of Happy Days occurred on February 25, 1974.  Love and the Happy Day,” an episode of ABC’s comedy anthology Love, American Style, centered on the characters of Richie Cunningham and Potsie Webber.  Anson Williams played Potsie on both “Love and the Happy Day” and Happy Days.

Garry Marshall, the creator of Happy Days, spearheaded the cast’s softball team, which played games for charity across the country.  In a 1978 article for Associated Press, Dennis D’Agostino quoted Howard on the team’s makeup.  “Henry really wanted to get into this thing, and pitching was the thing we thought he could do,” explained Howard.  “Donny Most (Ralph Malph) is probably our most consistent [sic] hitter for average and power, and also very good in center field.  I’m the Tom Paciorek type myself.”

Paciorek, a journeyman outfielder and first baseman, played for several teams in an 18-year career, compiling a batting average of .282:

  • Dodgers
  • Braves
  • Mariners
  • White Sox
  • Mets
  • Rangers

Winkler basked in the atmosphere of the game.  “This is great,” said the New York City native. “We get to go out and play a little ball.  We’re winning.  A lot of people I’ve never seen are giving me a lot of warmth and I get to eat a stadium hot dog.”

Cathy Silvers played Jenny Piccalo, the flirtatious best friend of Richie’s sister, Joanie.  In her 2007 book Happy Days Healthy Living:  From Sit-Com Teen to the Health-Food Scene, Silvers wrote, “One day on the set Garry Marshall arrived with the exciting news that we were going to Germany and then to Japan on USO tours (United Service Organizations).  He said, ‘We’re going to pay our respects to the men and women stationed overseas, far from their families and homes, in service for the safety and protection of our country.  Anyone want to come?’

“Henry stood up and said, ‘We all do!'”

Happy Days spun off Laverne & Shirley and Mork & Mindy, two other juggernauts for ABC.  Joanie Loves Chachi…well, that’s a different story altogether.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 25, 2016.

Bill White: Player, Broadcaster, Executive

Saturday, January 21st, 2017

When Bill White hit a home run in his first major league at-bat, he began a journey of solidity that garnered career statistics of 1,706 hits, 202 home runs, and a .286 batting average.  Beginning his career in 1956 with the Giants, White also played for the Cardinals and the Phillies.  Although more than a decade had passed since Jackie Robinson broke the color line, White suffered racism into the early 1960s, along with other black players—and he refused to be silent about it.

In his autobiography Uppity, written with Gordon Dillow, White described an incident in 1961 involving the Cardinals during Spring Training—St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce’s annual “Salute to Baseball” breakfast excluded black players on the Cardinals.

“That was bad enough,” wrote White.  “Then I saw that the list included a couple of rookies who had never swung a bat in the majors.  The idea that the local bigwigs wanted to honor unproven players while ignoring proven players because of the color of their skin rankled me.

“No, it more than rankled me.  Combined with all the other crap that black players had to take, it made me furious.”

White told Joe Reichler of the Associated Press.  Reichler’s story hit newspapers, triggered threats of a black boycott of Cardinals owner Anheuser-Busch, and spurred an invitation to the event at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club; Elston Howard of the Yankees also received an invitation.  White refused.  “I hadn’t wanted to eat with those bigots anyway.  All I had really wanted, what all the black players wanted, was simply the opportunity to say no,” explained White.

For Yankee fans of certain ages, White is fondly remembered as an announcer on WPIX-TV, sparring verbally with Phil Rizzuto, who brought continuity from the Yankee glory years of the 1950s, further reinforced by Yankee icon Billy Martin managing the team.

Rizzuto’s non sequiturs about the best Italian restaurants in New Jersey and other personal items may have seemed goofy, or even annoying, had White not provided the slightly teasing manner necessary to let the viewers know that Phil’s personality ought to be embraced, not endured.  Frank Messer was the third broadcaster in the WPIX triumvirate, a “consummate professional” offering erudition, but not the same synchronicity with Rizzuto that White enjoyed.

“He genuinely liked Phil, and would play around with him on the air, but there was always a light tone of disapproval in it—and I think the listeners picked up on that,” wrote White.

When White took on the responsibility of the National League presidency, he confronted the Pete Rose gambling scandal in his first year.  White held the post from 1989 until 1994, when he resigned.  His hiring took place in the wake of a firestorm created by Al Campanis’s 1987 appearance on Nightline, when the Dodgers executive questioned whether black players “may not have some of the necessities to be a field manager or general manager.”  Further, Campanis opined that black players may not want a position in the front office after they retire from playing.  To some baseball insiders, it was a curious statement; Campanis roomed with Jackie Robinson during his playing days.

The incident ignited action; White became the first black National League president.  Dave Anderson of the New York Times wrote, “But no matter who the other candidates were, Bill White was as qualified as anyone else, and surely much more qualified than most.  If he happened to be the best black candidate at a time when baseball finally understood it needed a black executive, that is as historically important as it was 42 years ago when Jackie Robinson happened to be the best black candidate at a time when baseball finally understood it needed a black player.

“Of all of Bill White’s credentials, the most comforting is that he has been in baseball all his adult life.  He understands baseball and he understands its people.”

Among his many duties, White dealt with player suspensions, minority hiring, and National League expansion.

In his Foreword to Uppity, Willie Mays, a mentor of White, provided insight regarding White’s approach to baseball and life.  “But even as he got older, and his jobs changed, in some ways Bill was always the same as that young player in his first major league game way back in 1956,” wrote the Say Hey Kid.  “He was never loud or flashy about what he did, never thought that he was bigger than whatever team he was playing for or whatever job he had taken on.  He just went out every day and did his best—and he was never afraid to speak out for what he thought was right.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on December 26, 2016.

Robinson vs. Buckley

Wednesday, November 30th, 2016

Jackie Robinson, the black knight who rescued baseball from the claws of segregation, accomplished his mission neither immediately nor solitarily.  His was a burden of entrenched bigotry, racial taunts, and blind ignorance.  When Branch Rickey selected Robinson, his decision turned a corner of racism in baseball previously thought impossible to navigate. Robinson chose to do his talking with his bat, his glove, and his legs.  A man of unyielding dedication, he endured the bad so that others could benefit from the good.

After Robinson’s début year of 1947, major league teams siphoned players from the Negro Leagues, leading to their dismantling by the end of the 1950s.  The Boston Red Sox integrated last when Elijah “Pumpsie” Green took the field in 1959.  Latino players also became bedrock members of major league teams.  No longer under the umbrella of exclusion, minority players broadened the prospects for scouts and owners looking to amplify lineups with the best available players.

When Robinson retired after the 1956 season, one of his several post-baseball paths involved civil rights.  Robinson voiced his opinions in newspaper columns for the New York Post and the New York Amsterdam News.  Michael G. Long compiled an anthology of these pieces in the 2013 book Beyond Home Plate: Jackie Robinson on Life After Baseball.  Long’s annotations give context to Robinson’s missives.

In his August 22, 1960 Post column for titled “Just How Important Is Civil Rights,” Robinson wrote, “It seems to me it is very easy to tell others to stop rocking the boat and concentrate on the passing scenery when you are comfortably riding inside and the ‘others’ are struggling to get on board.  It should take no special spectacles to be able to see that people who are barred—often by law—from full and equal participation in our national life are naturally going to be more concerned about removing those bars than they are in joining the debate over eliminating the national debt or what shall we do about Castro.”

Robinson, a civil rights pioneer, chose to continue his battle for equality by leaning on his writing, speaking, and celebrity status.  On August 4, 1964, Robinson appeared on The Les Crane Show with Shelley Winters and William F. Buckley for a discussion about Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater.  Robinson was a Rockefeller Republican, i.e., a moderate conservative.

In his autobiography I Never Had It Made, Robinson explained his encounter with Buckley, a harbinger of the right wing, and his reliance on a sports strategy: “When you know that you are going to face a tough, tricky opponent, you don’t let him get the first lick.  Jump him before he can do anything and stay on him, keeping him on the defensive.  Never let up and you rattle him effectively.  When the show opened up—before Buckley could get into his devastating act of using snide remarks, big words, and the superior manner—I lit right into him with the charge that many influential Goldwaterites were racists.  Shelley Winters piled in behind me, and Buckley scarcely got a chance to collect his considerable wit.”

The Les Crane Show was a late night talk program on ABC during the 1964-65 television season.  Though the pioneer of a format later embraced by television icon Phil Donahue, Crane fell to NBC’s The Tonight Show, a national brand with a decade of broadcasting tenure, proved its dominance.  Donahue began his legendary career in Dayton in 1967, evolving into a daytime programming staple for nearly 30 years.

Crane’s daughter Caprice wears several writer hats, including screenwriter, television writer for the sequels of Melrose Place and Beverly Hills 90210, and author of five novels, including Confessions of a Hater and Stupid and Contagious.  She points out that her father used journalism to cover topics and people that others feared to explore.  “He created the shotgun mike,” says Crane of her dad, who passed away in 2008.  “He had guests who did not provide the typical fluff, for example, Malcolm X, Bob Dylan, and the mother of Lee Harvey Oswald.  He had the first publicly gay man on his show.  He was also an amazing listener who helped create a new television format that demanded more information for the listener.  The Les Crane Show didn’t last long because the person who tries the new thing always gets penalized.  People are afraid of the unknown until it becomes mainstream.”

A renaissance media man for the second half of the 20th century, Crane held interests and influences beyond journalism.  “My dad gave The Mamas and the Papas group its name,” reminds Caprice Crane.  “Casey Kasem credited him with inventing the Top 40 radio format at KRLA.  He also got into the computer business before it was big.  His company was Software Tool Works, which produced the Chess Master computer program.  He was always before his time.”

Crane’s innovative format allowed one of baseball’s biggest heroes to debate one of conservatism’s biggest allies.  Nowhere on television in the mid-1960s could audiences see this type of television fodder.  Unfortunately, The Les Crane Show fell victim to a common policy of television networks destroying tapes because of the shortsighted view that future generations would not be interested.  How wrong they were.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on August 20, 2014.

Rural Comedy, Racism, and “The Andy Griffith Show”

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2012

Today, the man that launched a thousand folksy proverbs passed away – Andy Griffith.

As Sheriff Andy Taylor on The Andy Griffith Show, he guided the fictional town of Mayberry, North Carolina with a gentle hand, a compassionate demeanor, and a folksy wisdom.

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