History I Never Knew: Massachusetts Representative Edith Nourse Rogers and Her Heroic, Doomed Attempt to Save Jewish Children from The Holocaust

February 8, 2021

February 9, 2021, marks the 82nd anniversary of the submission to Congress of the German Refugee Children’s Bill (S.J. Res 64 and H.J. Res 168). Its sponsors were Senator Robert Wagner, Democrat of New York, and Representative Edith Nourse Rogers, Republican of Massachusetts.  I had not known of this bill, and while I had heard the name of Edith Nourse Rogers somewhere in the distant past, I had no idea of her character or her accomplishments. She was the first woman to represent Massachusetts in Congress, and she was arguably the best and most influential of all of them.

Edith Nourse Rogers, Republican of Massachusetts

                So I’d like to tell you the story of Mrs. Rogers and the law that she and Senator Wagner crafted. The bill’s story is a tragic one. It’s tragic because it didn’t pass, and 20,000 orphaned Jewish children died as a result. The story is also infuriating, because it didn’t have to happen. It shouldn’t have happened. But it did, and I hold the then-president of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, responsible.

                As you may know, I have a particular interest in the history of The Holocaust. Six million Jewish people lost their lives in the killing machine of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. I have often heard, and I still hear, that “the United States didn’t do enough” to help the Jews of Europe. How so? The Allies should have bombed Auschwitz and its railway lines, once we heard of what was going on there.

                That’s a defensible argument. Bombing those rail lines might have slowed down the Auschwitz murder machine. It should have been done. But that was 1944. By that time, the horrible mass killings, 15,000 people per day at the extermination sites of Operation Reinhard – Treblinka, Sobibor, and Belzec – had ended.  Thinking only in terms of long-range bombing missions that never happened obscures the more important part of what America did – or didn’t do.

The doors of America were locked and barred to Jewish refugees long before World War II broke out.  Immigration quotas based on national origin had been enacted in 1924. They were not wholly abandoned until 1965. There was no separate provision for refugee admissions.   Once it did erupt, the State Department’s Visa Division under the despicable Breckinridge Long, an old Navy buddy of FDR, erected barriers and bureaucratic roadblocks to Jews. Historians disagree about degree of blame that Roosevelt should bear for these sins of omission.  He did have to deal with widespread and virulent anti-Semitism, stoked by such adversaries of the New Deal as Father Charles Coughlin.  Roosevelt had given significant aid to Britain, with controversial programs such as Lend-Lease. He had to anticipate charges that he and the Jews were dragging the United States into another European War. “America First” was originally the slogan of Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh.

Piloting an aircraft, 1929

Yes, it is true America didn’t do enough. But it wasn’t a failure on the battlefield. It was a failure in the halls of Congress and in the corridors of the White House. It was an abdication of leadership and human decency in politics. And there is no more striking example of that than the killing of the German Refugee Children’s Bill.

                There’s no room here to recite chapter and verse of the Visa Division’s entire hateful chronicle, possibly the worst part of the American involvement in World War II. Nor is there room to go into detail on why I believe what I do about Roosevelt – that he really had no use for Jews and other people who didn’t look like him, a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. I admit that I come to this blog post with my bias against the guy already firmly established. This sad story about Mrs. Rogers’s failed effort to do a right and noble deed simply strengthens my convictions about FDR.

                But enough about him for now. I really want to salute and honor Edith Nourse Rogers.  Most of the information about Mrs. Rogers comes from an unpublished paper based on her papers, which are in the Schlesinger Library. This superb archive of American women’s history is part of the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard.  The author of the unpublished paper is Kate Auspitz, who wrote an alternative history of the Abdication of Edward VIII, Wallis’s War, a Novel of Diplomacy and Intrigue (University of Chicago Press) and a serious history, The Radical Bourgeoisie:  the Ligue de l’Enseignement and the Origins of the Third Republic (Cambridge University Press.

                I’m grateful to Kate for pointing me in this direction and for giving me many other pointers and suggestions for reading and research. I also want to say that she does not share my feelings about Franklin Roosevelt. She believes that, as Lincoln, criticized, even vilified, for emancipating slaves in the states of the Confederacy but not in Kentucky or Missouri, he acted to win the war.

                So who was Edith Nourse Rogers?

She was born in Saco, Maine to Franklin T. Nourse, the manager of a textile mill, and Edith France Riversmith.  Both parents were from old New England families, and their daughter got the best education – private tutors; Rogers Hall School in Lowell, Massachusetts; and Madame Julien’s, a finishing school in Paris.

                Edith married John Jacob Rogers, a graduate of Harvard Law School. In 1912 he was elected as a Republican to the 63rd United States Congress as the Representative from the 5th District of Massachusetts. When World War I broke out, John Rogers traveled to the United Kingdom and France to observe the conditions of the war firsthand.  Edith Rogers first volunteered at the YMCA in London. But soon she was in the thick of the war zone.

Presiding at the House of Representatives, 1926

                President Woodrow Wilson authorized her to oversee field hospitals in France.  She saw the dead and dying and understood the costs of war.  She also witnessed the conditions faced by women employees and volunteers working with the United States armed forces. Except for a few nurses, they were civilians, and received no benefits including no housing, no food, no insurance, no medical care, no legal protection, no pensions, and no compensation for their families in cases of death. In contrast, the women in the British Army loaned to the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) in France were military, with the attendant benefits and responsibilities.

                 Edith’s experience with veteran’s issues led President Warren G. Harding to appoint her as the inspector of new veterans’ hospitals from 1922 to 1923. Her salary was one dollar a year. Her appointment was renewed by both the Coolidge and Hoover administrations. She became known as the “Angel of Walter Reed.”

Her first experience in politics was serving as an elector in the U.S. Electoral College during Calvin Coolidge’s 1924 presidential campaign.  John Rogers died in March, 1925. She ran for his seat in a special election and took 72 percent of the vote, making her the sixth woman to serve in Congress.  Throughout her career, she was a champion of veterans, especially disabled veterans.

In May 1941, Rogers introduced the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) Act, to create a voluntary enrollment program for women to join the U.S. Army in a non-combat capacity, as medical care professionals, welfare workers, clerical workers, cooks, messengers, military postal employees, chauffeurs, and telephone and telegraph operators. In 1942, the WAAC Act was signed into law. A year later came her Women’s Army Corps Bill, which granted official military status to the volunteers by creating the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) within the Army.

                Edith was always an outspoken foe of racism and xenophobia. She was also fiercely vocal about patriotism and an ardent proponent of immigration. On Patriots’ Day in 1937, she declared she was proud to represent Lexington and Concord, but the day and the sacred ground belonged to “me no more than to you.”  The whole world is freer today and the condition of mankind is better for the events of that day.  Throughout her career in the House, she sought to make the day a national holiday, not just for Massachusetts but for all Americans, despite any classifications which may be made by some as to race, creed, or color.

True patriotism, she believed, depended on shared beliefs and principles, not common ancestry.   She maintained that thousands of people from foreign lands have been attracted to our shores by that freedom, seeking  “the right which is every American’s  —  the right to think, to believe, or disbelieve, to speak, to choose…With rights go privileges and responsibilities,  they have become men, not puppets to be moved at the will of  a dictator.”

With an outlook like that, it was hardly surprising that she teamed up with Senator Robert F. Wagner (D-NY) to put the German Refugee Children’s bill before Congress.  Even while she was fully engrossed in that mission, she found time to take on the Daughters of the American Revolution. That organization, loudly and vocally patriotic in its own fashion, had not yet gotten the message about its own racism when Edith called them out in the spring of 1939.

Senator Robert Wagner, actress Helen Hayes, and Representative Edith Nourse Rogers meet in support of German Refugee Children’s Bill, 1939

The DAR had barred Marian Anderson, a woman of color whose glorious voice was world-famous, from performing in their Washington venue, Constitution Hall.  The DAR had a “whites only” clause in every one of its contracts. Eleanor Roosevelt resigned her DAR membership and arranged for Anderson to deliver an outdoor concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, April 9.  Fifty thousand people attended.

Edith Nourse Rogers addressed the DAR on April 20.  “All of you are fond of fine music,” she began, and she continued, evoking   “…130 million people of different races, speaking many languages…What are these but the component parts of a great symphony of civilization?   Just as the orchestra becomes great with unity and cooperation, so does the nation…in the United States, race cooperation must replace race hatred.”

                Rogers took on race hatred in February 1939 with her co-sponsorship of the German Refugee Children’s Act.  A little background on the events leading up to the Act will help here.

                Hitler came to power in 1933 and immediately began the persecution of Jews. The world could no longer turn a blind eye to what was happening to Jews in Germany after November 9-10, 1938. That was Kristallnacht, the “night of broken glass,” when SS-directed rioters throughout Germany looted and smashed windows in homes, shops, hospitals, and synagogues. More than 100 people were killed outright and thousands were subsequently arrested.   Among other atrocities, mobs destroyed a Jewish orphanage in Berlin, leaving 200 children homeless. 

Great Britain responded immediately with the Kindertransport program. It offered non-immigrant visas to orphaned or “unaccompanied” children, many of whose parents were in concentration camps.  These were not yet “camps of annihilation,” established to carry out genocide. Rather, they were places to intern, torture and interrogate political dissidents and other “undesirables,” such as communists, socialists, Roma, homosexuals, and union activists as well as Jews.

After Kristallnacht, Jewish parents still at liberty anticipated worse persecution would follow. Many chose to send their children to safety, even if it meant parting from them.

America was ready to help. The bill submitted by Nourse Rogers and Wagner would have  admitted 20,000 Jewish children into the country, 10,000 in 1939 and another 10,000 in 1940, over and above the highly restrictive limits and country quotas that had been in place since the early 1920s.

But America’s political leaders were not ready to step up in any way.  Yes, there were racists, anti-Semites, “America Firsters” and xenophobes abroad in the land and too-well-represented in Congress.  They ended up winning the day, but they shouldn’t have.  And with a word of support for the Americans of good will, even a mere suggestion of it, from Franklin Roosevelt, those evil forces would not have prevailed. But Roosevelt never uttered a peep. The Act, submitted in February, was delayed and tabled until September by bigots in Congress. That month, Hitler attacked Poland, the war was on, and getting anyone out of Europe became impossible.

It’s not as if Americans were against helping the kids. Concerned citizens had established the Non-sectarian Committee for German Refugee Children.  The American Friends Service Committee, the Unitarians, and several important Catholic clergymen, including George Cardinal Mundelein of Chicago, all cooperated with Jewish groups.  They understood that their work must be bi-partisan and appeal to all Americans, regardless of, as it was then expressed, “race, creed, or color.” 

Eleanor Roosevelt and Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor, whose department was then responsible for immigration, urged passage of the law. So too did former President Herbert Hoover, along with Governor Alf Landon and Frank Knox, 1936 Republican candidates for President and Vice-President. Hollywood heavyweights also were in favor. The great actress Helen Hayes testified on behalf of the bill, referring to herself as an “American mother” and using her real name, Mrs. Charles MacArthur.

It was a truly bi-partisan effort. It even overcame a traditional hurdle to all matters related to immigration, the opposition of organized labor. Throughout the 1930s the labor unions, with unemployment chronically high, opposed the opening of America’s doors to any newcomers who would compete for the few jobs available. Not this time, however.

John L. Lewis, President of Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which had four million members, ridiculed the notion that 20,000 children under the age of 14 would worsen unemployment. 

Nor could anyone claim that letting the kids in would cost the taxpayers money.  Thanks largely to Edith Nourse Rogers, 5000 American families offered to care for the refugee children.  One of their prominent leaders was Grace Coolidge, the widow of Calvin Coolidge. Several of her neighbors in Amherst, Massachusetts, also stepped up and were ready.

I do know that fans of FDR will maintain that he always had to tread lightly, bobbing and weaving and doing things by indirection because of those awful racists and bigots in Congress, whose support he needed. He really had the Jews’ interests at heart, but he couldn’t tip his hand.

Sorry, I don’t buy it. There’s a point where reticence becomes cowardice, where inaction becomes action. FDR never told anyone what he really felt about anything. With him especially, we have to look at what he did, not at what he said. Americans were ready to save the Jewish children, thanks to the wonderful Edith Nourse Rogers. By not weighing in on behalf of the Jewish kids, which he could have done at no political cost to himself, FDR was responsible for sending them to their deaths.

So that is the sad story of the German Refugee Children’s Bill. This is the kind of history that should be known, and pondered, and used as a reason to say “never again.” 

But let us not allow the negative sentiments expressed herein to lessen our appreciation and esteem for the life and works of Edith Nourse Rogers, Republican Congresswoman of Massachusetts. She was one of our finest of all time.

Sports History I Never Knew: How “K” Came to Stand for the Strikeout

January 13, 2021

Henry Chadwick, enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 1938, is sometimes called the father of the modern game of baseball.  He never played it or managed it, but he probably did more than any other individual to preserve its memory for posterity.

He was a fascinating guy from a fascinating family. Add Henry Chadwick to the list of “People I’d Love to Have a Beer With.”

His grandfather, James Chadwick, started out as a teacher in Manchester, England. One of his students was John Dalton, who “discovered” the atom via his atomic theory.  James became a radical journalist, moved to France during the French Revolution, and lived for a while with Thomas Paine. The latter was a force during that Revolution; his Rights of Man was a rallying cry for the radicals who wanted to overthrow the monarchy.  Paine, who became a member of the National Assembly, ended up by arguing unsuccessfully for preserving the lives of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and he spent some time in prison himself for his views.

One of this man’s grandsons, namesake Sir James Chadwick, put that atomic theory into action. Educated at the University of Manchester under Ernest Rutherford, “the Father of Nuclear Physics,” Sir James won the 1935 Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of the neutron. In 1941, he wrote the final draft of the MAUD Report, which inspired the U.S. government to begin serious atom bomb research. He was the head of the British team that worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II.

Henry Chadwick’s half-brother Edwin was a lawyer in England, and he was not a particularly nice man. He was a political operative, secretary of the Poor Law Commission, and author of A Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain. That book was a best-seller.  His work on the Poor Law of 1834 led to a national system of workhouses and made him one of the most reviled figures in the land. London had not yet figured out that its deadly cholera epidemics were due to unsanitary conditions; people drank water that was polluted by human waste.  Henry Chadwick espoused the “miasma” theory, which attributed the sicknesses to foul odors.  Just get rid of the poor, dirty neighborhoods and the people in them, he thought, and you get rid of the disease.

Edwin Chadwick wasn’t all bad, though. His subsequent work led to the Public Health Act of 1848, under which the British government started to assume overall responsibility for sanitation. They centralized the sources of London’s water supply. Ten years later, the Brits were ready to grapple with the matter of sewage disposal that “The Great Stink” of 1858 made into a national crisis.

Yuck. Fortunately for us, Henry Chadwick took a different career path. He became a sportswriter. His family moved to America in 1837, when he was 13. He became a cricket reporter for the New York Times, and he later moved to the New York Clipper and other papers.

In those days before computers, sabermetricians, and filmed replays, it was Henry Chadwick who devised the ways to record the achievements of both teams and players. He invented baseball statistics. He edited The Beadle Baseball Player, the first baseball guide, and the Spalding and Reach annual guides.  He served on baseball rules committees and campaigned against the influences of alcohol and gambling on the game.

The 1861 Beadle guide listed totals of games played, outs, runs, home runs, and strikeouts for hitters on prominent clubs. It was the first database of its kind and it gave numerical evidence of which players’ performances helped or hurt their teams. Chadwick also thought up and quantified batting averages and earned-run averages.

So, what about the “K” for strikeout?

As his Cooperstown plaque states, Henry was the inventor of the baseball box score.  He modeled it, unsurprisingly, on the scorecard for a game of cricket – a grid with nine rows for players and nine columns for innings.

He needed abbreviations to put in all those little boxes. Many of the abbreviations contained an “S.”  He needed something different when a batter struck out.

He decided on “K.” Why? Because it’s the final letter in “struck.”

As for that Chadwick family, author Bill Bryson points out that Henry’s grandfather James was a direct link between the discovery of the atom, Thomas Paine and the French Revolution, the sewer system of London, and the origin of professional baseball.

But as far as we’re concerned, Henry’s work was far more important than that of James, Edwin, and Sir James. After all, it was about baseball. Yes, I’d love to have a pint with Henry. I’d buy.

Now you know the rest of the story.

The Olympics of 1936: Profiles in Courage and History I Never Knew

December 31, 2020

It’s one of the most treasured stories in the history of sports in America. And rightly so.

Jesse Owens, the sharecropper’s son, outshines all other track and field performers in the 1936 Olympic games. He takes home four gold medals, vanquishes all the evil competitors from Nazi Germany and the allegedly superior Aryan race. He so embarrasses the evil host, Adolf Hitler, that the dictator and soon-to-be mass murderer flees from his trackside throne so that he will not have to congratulate the dark-skinned American. The people of Germany share their Führer’s disdain and are full-throated in their jeers and condemnation of the man who defeats their beloved favorite, Lutz Long. Owens returns home to the welcoming arms of a grateful nation that adopts him as its new hero.

There’s truth to that story. But it’s not the whole truth, not the whole story. Jesse Owens deserves his niche in America’s athletic pantheon. He was the best trackman of his time, and he did win those four golds. Hitler did not greet him personally, as he had many other winners. But it didn’t happen in quite the way it’s been passed down. The history has been re-written, or at least has been highly selective, to airbrush out the parts that may be embarrassing to certain people of high official stature.

Nazi Games: The Olympics of 1936” by David Clay Large, is a full chronicle of the 1936 Olympics – its planning, execution, and aftermath. The book is excellent, granularly detailed history of an event that was one of the most masterful exercises in propaganda that the world has ever seen. The 1936 Olympics was an evil regime at its deceitful best.

I’ll get to Jesse Owens in a subsequent blog post.  He deserves one of his own. But let’s start out by saying that he never should have been there in Berlin.  Nor should have any other American athlete been there. Had the American Olympic Committee done the right thing and joined in a boycott of the games, other democracies like France and Britain would probably have gone along with it.

The absence of those nations and possibly others would have deprived Hitler of his propaganda triumph. And maybe – just maybe, could be wishful thinking – it would have stemmed the tidal wave of his popular support in Germany, shined a light on his horrific treatment of Jewish people, and crimped his ability to launch his war.

That boycott almost happened. For at least two years, officials like U.S. ambassador to Germany William Dodd and chief consul George Messersmith had been reporting on Germany’s disgraceful treatment of Jews. The president, Franklin Roosevelt, hid in the White House and never said a thing, pro or con the boycott or about the Nazi regime.  Support for staying out of the 1936 Olympics kept building in America and elsewhere as the games approached and as more and more stories about Nazi oppression of Jews leaked out of Germany.

Had anybody of high stature – the president of the United States, the pope – used his bully pulpit to tell the unvarnished truth rather than seeking to placate Hitler, history may have been very different.  But neither FDR nor Pius XII did the right thing, either about the 1936 Olympics or later on about Germany’s horrible mistreatment of the Jews.

In the battle over the boycott, the bad people won out in the climactic 1935 meeting of the Amateur Athletic Union in New York. Facing off were AAU president Jeremiah Mahoney, a supporter of the boycott, and the president of the U.S. Olympic Committee, construction mogul Avery Brundage. The reptilian Brundage played the anti-Semitic card. He stated that only five percent of Americans were Jewish, and less than one percent of the athletes were Jewish, but that there was a larger percentage of Jews than that who were present at the meeting, and therefore “responsibility for actions of this kind, right or wrong, would be charged to the Jews.”

Brundage’s supporters in the AAU gave him a victory of 58.25 to 55.75 against a resolution calling for an investigation of conditions in Germany. To compound the disgrace, Brundage’s supporters made him the new AAU president and kicked Mahoney out. That effectively made Brundage the king of amateur athletics in America.

The corruption, discrimination, and paybacks didn’t stop there. A Swedish buddy of Brundage’s on the International Olympic Committee, Sigfrid Edstrøm, cabled his congratulations for “outmaneuvering the dirty Jews and politicians” and added that he hoped to see Brundage that summer as a colleague on the IOC.

That happened too. Brundage was elevated to the International Olympic Committee in the summer of 1936. He replaced another American of integrity and a profile in courage, Ernest Lee Jahncke. One of three American members of the International Olympic Committee, Jahncke is the only person ever to be kicked off the IOC. He courageously refuse to acquiesce to OIC president Count Henri de Baillet-Latour’s plea to “convince your people that the IOC has upheld the rights of everyone concerned and that the the unanimous decision [to stage the games in Berlin] was the only wise one.”

Jahncke, who had been assistant Secretary of the Navy under Herbert Hoover, would have none of it. An American of German descent, he was dismayed at what Hitler had done to his former country. He knew all about the Nuremberg Laws and that Germany was discriminating against its Jewish athletes.

Jahncke’s letters to Baillet-Latour said, in effect, don’t give me this bull about the Olympic ideals of founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin, because “precisely [his – de Coubertin’s] devotion to this idea has caused me to do just the opposite of what you so confidently ask of me. ..[I will] do all I can to persuade my fellow Americans that they ought not to take part in the Games if they are held in Nazi Germany” and that the Nazis “are continuing to violate every requirement of fair play in the conduct of sport” and that no foreign nation could participate in the Nazi games “without at least acquiescing in the contempt of the Nazis for fair play and their sordid exploitation of the Games.”

Strong stuff. And the right stuff. But it’s the kind of stuff that gets you fired. That’s what happened to Jahncke. The IOC’s 35th Congress came in July of 1936. Rudolf Hess welcomed the delegates on behalf of the Führer. Baillet-Latour complimented himself for “keeping religion and politics out of the games.” And the IOC unanimously approved a motion that Ernest Lee Jahncke, the only American IOC member who criticized the Nazi games, be summarily expelled.

For his unwavering advocacy of all things Nazi, Brundage received a contract to build a new German embassy in Washington. At least that didn’t happen.  The war prevented it. 

A very small measure of justice towards Brundage cropped up recently. The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco had been prominently displaying a bust of Brundage; most of his art collection is at that museum. In June 2020, the museum removed the bust and placed it in storage. His personal history of antisemitism, racism, and sexism prompted the move.

As an article in The Nation stated, “The removal of Brundage’s bust is long overdue. His toxic concoction of -isms and his perma-frown belong in the dustbin of history.”

While I’m not fond of today’s “Cancel Culture,” I can’t disagree with that. But I wish also to raise a glass in memory of Jeremiah Mahoney and Ernest Lee Jahncke, great Americans both, who paid a heavy and undeserved price for their courage. Would that we had more people like them.

Coming soon: The full story of Jesse Owens and America’s other black Olympians of 1936.

Book Review and Reflection: “Masters of the Games: Essays and Stories on Sport,” by Joseph Epstein.

November 30, 2020

What sports team do you love to hate?  Against which team will you root, no matter what?

If you’re a Red Sox fan, the Yankees. If you’re a BC football fan, Notre Dame. If you’re a National Football League fan anywhere but where I live, the Patriots.  Of course. You hate to see that rival win any game, and you most hate to lose to them.

Joseph Epstein doesn’t feel quite that way. He has a different reason for rooting against Duke in basketball. Or at least he once did. And I must say that, as an English major, I’d be inclined to agree with him.

“I tended to root against Duke not only because they were such consistent winners, but because it had (and, so far as I know, still has) one of the most wretched English departments in the country, filled with Marxists, deconstructionists, and other assorted goofies…I also thought of Duke as a school for spoiled children, which is what, on the West Coast, they call USC (University of Spoiled Children).”

But – credit where it’s due – he changed his mind, citing the many players that Duke sent to the National Basketball Association “who have shown impressive discipline on the court and don’t do egregious things off it. Coach K. [Krzyzewski] must be teaching something worthwhile besides the imperative of beating North Carolina.”

These passages come from “Masters of the Games: Essays and Stories on Sport.” It is his 25th book. I’d seen his op-eds in the Wall Street Journal, but I had no idea of how prolific an essayist he is, or of how much of a sporting enthusiast.

Reading Epstein on the people of the sporting world is a little like reading Truman Capote about the beautiful people of show business.  They both have an inimitable way with words, they know whereof they speak, and they both have no compunction about tweaking noses and making enemies.

Joseph Epstein

Epstein is a college professor, not a sports writer. He has taught English and writing at Northwestern University since 1972. He must be a rather rare bird in that universe, because he disdains the political correctness that has overgrown the groves of academe. He was editor of the “The American Scholar” for 24 years before a Phi Beta Kappa senate removed him in 1998 for, he maintains, “being insufficiently correct politically.”

He coined the term “virtucrat,” which he defined as “any man or woman who is certain that his or her political views are not merely correct but deeply, morally righteous in the bargain.” Later, he wrote that a virtucrat was a person “whose politics lend them the fine sense of elation that only false virtue makes possible.”

Ouch. No PC there. I suspect that being a professor and essayist on many subjects, rather than a full-time sports writer, gave Joseph Epstein a little more freedom to speak his mind about sports people.   

The essay in which Epstein needles the Duke faculty is called “March Sanity.” He tells the readers where his sympathies lie during the NCAA basketball tournament and in college football; he has no use for certain coaches:

“…I was against Rick Pitino, a coach I’ve watched regularly trade in loyalty for dollars – nothing, let it be noted, singular about him in this – but also yell at his players in public in an unattractive way. Like a number of other coaches, Pitino is averse to sitting down during a game, and attempts to direct play standing up at the sideline, a distraction to everyone.”

“The salaries for college coaches at the highest levels are up there in the millions, and these salaries are not given for character building or instruction in elegant manners. Watching them on the sidelines, red-faced, screaming at referees and umpires, calling out their own players, the phrase that comes to mind to describe most college coaches is ‘ugly customers.’ There have always been such coaches – Jerry Tarkanian at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Bobby Knight at Indiana, Woody Hayes at Ohio State – but nowadays they seem to preponderate.”

“One of the things I shall be cheering for during the NCAA basketball tournament is that certain coaches don’t make it to the Final Four. That John Calipari and his Kentucky team aren’t even in the tournament this year is cause, in my view, for hiring a small marimba band in celebration. Because of their coaches, I’d like to see Kansas ousted early – so too, Louisville and Ohio State, and a few years ago I would have added Duke.”

You don’t read observations like that, or like some of the other unvarnished truths as Epstein sees them,   from people whose regular beat is sports.  He’s clear eyed in acknowledging that times have changed in sports and society, and that the good old days – which weren’t all that good, but we believed they were – aren’t coming back.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t pine for them nostalgically. I don’t know if you do that, but I do.

Epstein grew up in Chicago, a city that reveres the memory of George Halas and his Chicago Bears. While noting Halas’s skill as a coach and innovator, he goes on to state,

“Much piety surrounds the name George Halas in Chicago. Halas himself grew pious in his old age, certain that a seat near the 50-yard line awaited him in heaven. He was in fact a bleak and unpleasant man.”

Consider issues of class and manners, and how they have evolved. Epstein writes the following of tennis, a sport in which he excelled in high school, winning the Chicago City High School Doubles championship.

“I would have to say that I had stylish strokes, was not all that effective, but very well dressed. From the beginning, I was swept away by what I took to be the intrinsic elegance of the game. Although it would be years before I read her, so was Edith Wharton, who wrote that ‘It seems to me such a beautiful game – without violence, noise, brutality – quick, graceful rhythmic, with a setting of turf and sky.’ Just so.

“Good that Edith Wharton is not alive today to hear Maria Sharapova grunting away, making each long rally sound like something happening behind doors at a Masters and Johnson laboratory.”

This simile is a perfect example of what I mean by “a way with words.” So too is Epstein’s description of Andre Agassi’s wardrobe, below.

As for the connection between how tennis players dress and how it affects their manners and their game, he remarks

“At least Andre Agassi’s denim shorts never caught on, worn in the days when, also weighed down with heavy duty stubble, long hair, earrings, hat, and over-large shirt, Mr. Agassi looked like nothing so much as a gypsy on the way out of town with two stolen chickens in his bag.”

He prefers instead, tennis where the “old WASP standard has combined with a deeply democratic spirit…the reign of the remarkable generation of Australian players, among them Rod Laver, Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall, Neal Fraser, Roy Emerson, and John Newcombe. These were all young men from less than wealthy homes who, while playing brilliantly, always acted gentlemanly. They were intensely competitive without being, a la John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, pigs of competition. And they all wore white.”

There’s a great deal more – musings and commentary, fiction, personal reminiscences, and profiles of athletes  – to inform, delight, and even irritate you in this book.  I devoured it in a couple of days. The title would lead you to believe that it was largely a book of feature articles on individual athletes. There are only a few, but they’re worth the price of the book.

Hank Greenberg

The profile of Bob Love, a basketball player about whom I knew nothing, is wonderful. The piece on Hank Greenberg, who along with Sandy Koufax was a genuinely great ballplayer, says that “Greenberg may be quite as famous for being Jewish as for what he did in the batter’s box.” This, even though Hank had 189 RBIs in 1937, hit 58 home runs in 1938, and twice won the American League MVP Award while playing for the Detroit Tigers.

Greenberg only played nine years in the majors and missed four seasons while serving in the Army in World War II. He was a peerless hitter but struggled in the field, both in the outfield and at first base.  His biggest struggle, though, must have been with antisemitism.

Detroit, where he had to play, was the city of the viciously Jew-hating Henry Ford and Father Charles Coughlin.  The slurs came from everywhere; they got so bad that one day, during a game against the White Sox, he marched into the Sox’ clubhouse and declared “I want this guy who called me a yellow Jew bastard to get to his feet and say it to my face.”

Had Hank Greenberg not gone off to war in the prime of his life, his career statistics of 331 home runs and lifetime average of .313 would undoubtedly have been better. He’s in the Hall of Fame, but he wouldn’t make the all-time starting lineup ahead of Lou Gehrig at first base, or in the outfield.  He definitely would be, as Epstein dubs him, the designated mensch.

The chapter on Joe DiMaggio, titled “Where’d He Go?” is more a critique of a book about Joe by Richard Ben Cramer than it is about Joe himself.  It’s well known that Joe was not a particularly nice man, aloof and rather lonely and possessing “an Olympian contempt for anyone who contributed to his team’s defeat or failed to meet his personal standard.  He was famously rivalrous with Ted Williams, who was probably better as a hitter but at no other aspect of the game. “He throws like a broad, and runs like a ruptured duck,” was DiMaggio’s assessment of Teddy Ballgame.

Joe DiMaggio

Cramer’s book, “Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life,” is a despicable takedown, according to Epstein. “In Richard Ben Cramer’s pages, Joe DiMaggio does almost nothing decent. He is a bad father, a worse husband, a poor friend, a cheapskate, selfish, humorless, a prude operating on a sexual double standard, a solipsist of the highest order.”

Epstein goes on to show that there were mitigating factors all along in Joe DiMaggio’s personal life. “He was not the deep creep presented by Cramer, nor will it do to make him out to be just a dumb jock. He was more complicated than that.”

Maybe Richard Ben Cramer is a sportswriter version of the virtucrat, which Epstin defined in another context. He concludes this chapter in a blistering assessment of that author himself:

“Richard Ben Cramer, cool and with-it though he strains to be, plays the virtue card throughout….In scoring off Joe DiMaggio in all these various ways, in smoking him inside, Cramer’s own position is implicitly one of moral superiority. But if the biographer is the morally superior man, why does he seem so much less interesting than his subject and finally so unconvincing? The short answer is that his moral superiority exists only on paper.”

From the annals of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

October 7, 2020

Coincidental, indeed, is the headline of this month’s blog post. It is 171 years old, having been coined in 1849 by French journalist and critic Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr in the January 1849 issue of his journal Les Guêpes (“The Wasps”).

I had decided on that title after reading a passage from Alexander Herzen’s memoir, My Past and Thoughts. Herzen, a Russian émigré nobleman who has been called “the father of Russian socialism,” had made his way to Paris during the revolutionary year of 1848. You don’t have to buy his entire outlook and philosophy to appreciate his literary skills and his powers of observation.

The following passage was written after Herzen attended an evening of drinking and scheming at the Café Lamblin. I quote it without further commentary, other than to opine that he could just as well have been writing about a sizable cohort of the denizens who prowl and streets and the Twitterverses of 2020.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. You bet.

“In the café the various habitués of the revolution were sitting at a dozen little tables, looking darkly and consequentially about them from under wide-brimmed felt hats and caps with tiny peaks. These were the perpetual suitors of the revolutionary Penelope, those inescapable actors who take part in every popular demonstration and form its tableau, its background, and are as menacing from afar as the paper dragons with which the Chinese wished to menace the English.

“In the troubled times of social storms and reconstructions in which states forsake their usual grooves for a long time, a new generation of people grow up who may be called the choristers of the revolution; grown on shifting, volcanic soil, nurtured in an atmosphere of alarm when work of every kind is suspended, they become inured from their earliest years to an environment of political ferment – they like the theatrical side of it, its brilliant, pompous mis en scène

“Among them are good, valiant people, sincerely devoted and ready to face a bullet; but for the most part they are limited and extraordinarily pedantic. Immobile conservatives in everything revolutionary, they stop short at some programme and do not advance.

“Dealing all their lives with a small number of political ideas, they only know their rhetorical side, so to speak, their sacerdotal vestments, that is the commonplaces which successively cut the same figure, à tour de rôle, like the ducks in a well-known children’s toy – in newspaper articles, in speeches at banquets and in parliamentary devices.

“In addition to naïve people and revolutionary doctrinaires, the unappreciated artists, literary men, students who did not complete their studies, briefless lawyers, actors without talent, persons of great vanity but small capability, with huge pretensions but no power of work, all naturally drift into this milieu.

“The external authority which guides and pastures the human herd in a lump in ordinary times is weakened in times of revolution; left to themselves people do not know what to do.

“The younger generation is struck by the ease, the apparent ease, with which celebrities float to the top in times or revolution, and rushes into futile agitation; this inures the young people to violent excitements and destroys the habit of work…One must not be left behind, there is no need to work: what is not done to-day may be done to-morrow, or may not even be done at all.”

Sports History I Never Knew: The First Double Axel in the Olympic Games

September 6, 2020

Sonia Henie, the “Golden Girl”

It was the free-skating event, the final program of the competition at the 1936 Winter Olympics at Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Germany. Sonja Henie knew that she was in trouble.

The “Golden Girl,” Norwegian-born winner of the skating competitions in the previous two Olympics at Lake Placid and St. Moritz, was the big favorite for a three-peat. But in the previous program, the compulsories, a young upstart from England named Cecilia Colledge, nearly bested her. Henie threw a temper tantrum and ripped the judges’ scoring sheet off the wall, claiming she had been cheated.

Colledge, at age 11 in Lake Placid, was the youngest woman ever to compete in the Olympics. She was the first woman to execute a double-rotation jump in competition, a salchow at the 1936 European championships in Berlin. She also invented the camel and the layback spins and the one-foot axel jump. Henie had never faced such a challenger.

Cecilia Colledge, 1937

The two were close on points going into the free-skating program. Colledge went first, and she was superb, using all the creative and exciting leaps and spins in her repertoire. Henie had to be better, or her gold-medal streak would end.

And that’s what the Golden Girl did. She topped Colledge with a double “Axel Paulsen” jump. Invented in 1882, it was so risky that it had never been tried in the Olympics. Paulsen was world champion speed skater from 1882 to 1890. He also invented modern speed skate, with the blade fixed to the boot.

In the double Axel Paulsen jump, the skater takes off in a forward direction from one foot, rotates one and a half times in the air, and lands backwards on the opposite foot.  Henie took the chance; she leapt, spun, landed on her skates, and ended with a split and a cover-girl smile. She kept her gold medal.

After Germany’s propaganda triumph in the 1936 Olympic Games, the skaters went their separate ways. Henie went pro – officially, as she’d made a lot of money with “amateur” exhibitions in Europe already. She came to America in 1937, became a U.S. citizen in 1941, and made 47 million dollars in film and through skating exhibitions.

Axel Paulsen

Henie also acquired a massive collection of diamonds.  She turned her back on her countrymen and refused to contribute to the resistance fighters who were battling Nazi occupation.  She also became the biggest booster of a new-fangled ice-grooming machine invented by an American named Frank Zamboni. She ordered two for herself; if she was going to skate at your arena, you had to have your own Zamboni.

Colledge returned to England and continued to compete as an amateur. She drove a civilian ambulance in London during the blitz. Her brother Maule became a flight lieutenant in the Royal Air Force. He never returned from a September 1943 mission over Berlin.

Colledge became a professional skater in the late 1940s, appearing in ice shows. She settled in the United States and coached elite athletes at the Skating Club of Boston from 1952 to 1977. She died, at the age of 87, in 2008 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Colledge never married and had no survivors.

And what of Axel Paulsen? He returned home and, after the death of his father, took over the family coffee shop until his death in 1936. The daring jump he invented is now known as the axel – just as all ice groomers are now Zambonis.

Now you know the rest of the story.

Sonia Henie’s touring Zamboni

Henie and her Zamboni, in photo autographed for inventor Frank Zamboni.

The double axel jump

Sonia Henie and George “Superman” Reeves, 1954

Books, Music, and Divine Inspiration: A Reflection on Madeleine L’Engle

August 16, 2020

Author Madeleine L’Engle

One good thing about this infernal shutdown…you can find a little more time for the reading that you’ve always meant to do but somehow never got to.

That’s what happened with me. I re-read A Severed Wasp by Madeleine L’Engle (1918-2007). But before doing so, I wanted to read its prequel, The Small Rain, which was written 37 years previously.

I had intended that this blog post be just a review of those two books. But it’s turned out to be a little more than just that. It morphed into a reflection on Madeleine, one of my favorite authors. And I’ve got to make full disclosure about Madeleine L’Engle. I start every day with her.

Glimpses of Grace: Daily Thoughts and Reflections is a fixture on my morning reading table.  It has 366 entries, all of them excerpted from L’Engle’s literary career that included 60 books along with poetry, journals, and speeches.  She was a devout Anglican, so it’s not surprising that Glimpses has both overtly theological musings as well as some less-direct but spirituality-filled thoughts for the day.

L’Engle was a woman of deep religious faith. But her writings communicate her messages without being the least bit preachy.  And reading her every morning has been, I’ve found, is as good a morning prayer as any I’ve ever made.

Here’s just one sample of religion in L’Engle’s writing. I don’t know about you, but I find things like this spiritually nourishing, and I don’t feel like I’m being preached to.  This is from her book Camilla:

“Listen, Camilla Dickinson, do you believe in God? Tell me about your God. What kind of God do you believe in?”

“Well,” I said at last, “I don’t think it’s God’s fault when people do anything wrong. And I don’t think He plans it when people are good. But I think He makes it possible for people to be ever so much bigger and better than they are. That is, if they want to be. What I mean is, people have to do it for themselves. God isn’t going to do it for them.”

As part of my morning ritual, I also read a daily entry from The Book of Common Prayer and a page or two from one or more of the books of advice and meditations for those who’ve lost a loved one. These latter books were given to me by some kind friends after Mary Ellen, my wife of nearly 44 years, died in December of 2019.

When I told a friend that I’d just finished two books by Madeleine L’Engle, and that they’d given me a tremendous appreciation for the power of music and what it really takes to be a musician, he said that he thought L’Engle only wrote children’s books. Not true, but understandable that he’d think this way.

The book that made her reputation was A Wrinkle in Time, published in 1962. It won the Newbery Medal, the highest award for children’s literature.  But L’Engle had a hard time finding a publisher, even though she’d already done some well-received books for young adults. The knee-jerk knock on “Wrinkle” was that it was too religious. Fortunately, her agent approached John Farrar of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. He was a churchgoer, so he published the book and it “paid for the rent in the offices” according to an article in the New Yorker.

One of the 26 publishers who rejected “Wrinkle” told L’Engle’s agent that he might be turning down Alice in Wonderland.  Indeed he was. The book has never been out of print and has sold more than six million copies.

L’Engle didn’t want to be known as a writer of children’s books. Whenever that label came up in conversation about her work, she’d say to just “write your story,” and not try to target a young audience.

Newlyweds Madeleine L’Engle and Hugh Franklin, 1946. She became a renowned author and he a star of stage and screen.

In addition to knowing her music and her theology, L’Engle is well acquainted with both church politics and the world of show business, both concert music and the Broadway stage. She was librarian and writer-in-residence at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine on New York’s Upper West Side.  The Cathedral is the site of A Severed Wasp. She was married to actor Hugh Franklin (1916-1986), who starred as Dr. Charles Tyler in the long-running TV soap opera All My Children.

Just an aside here…Religion is good business, in my humble opinion. People want it. They may not be official, practicing adherents to any of the major churches or confessional faiths, but they want it. They want to know that they’re part of something much larger than they are. They want to know that their lives have meaning in the “whole vast configuration of things,” as George Bailey put it.

The movie version of Wrinkle, a 2018 production that starred Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, and Mindy Kaling, was a disaster.  Don’t bother with it.  On “Rotten Tomatoes,” 191 of 300 people rated it “rotten.” The site’s overall rating was 26%. The summary blurb concluded that the film was “wildly ambitious to a fault, and often less than the sum of its classic parts.”

Duh. What do you expect when you cancel the core value, the religious sensibility?

But I’ve digressed. Too much, as usual. Now to the books that I’ve just finished.

The Small Rain – Lengle’s first novel written in 1945, is about the youthful trials of Katherine Forrester.  The title comes from this anonymous poem fragment that dates back to the Middle Ages:

“Western wind, when wilt thou blow,

The small rain down can rain?

Christ! That my love were in my arms

And I in my bed again!”

The book ends with her being sent to a boarding school in Europe to study piano with Justin Vigneras, the one teacher who inspired her during her boarding school days in America. Her father, divorced and remarried to a Broadway actress, is a composer. Her biological mother is a famous concert pianist.

Katherine aspires to be as good at the piano as was her mother.  As most coming-of-age books seem to be, there’s much autobiography here.  It includes difficulties in being accepted by peers, youthful angst, boarding schools, living for a time in Greenwich Village, a less-than-idyllic home life.  There are overbearing teachers, lecherous guys, and betrayal in an early love affair.

One of the poignant passages about love is this one. The speaker is another professional pianist who once fell madly in love with Katherine’s mother:

“I believed in her right from the first night I met her, in May, in a small café under the chestnut trees. Beautiful and romantic. Only she never fell in love with me. I was desperately in love with her. It’s a strange thing, how you can love somebody, how you can be all eaten up inside with needing them — and they simply don’t need you. That’s all there is to it, and neither of you can do anything about it. And they’ll be the same way with someone else, and someone else will be the same way about you and it goes on and on – this desperate need — and only once in a rare million do the same two people need each other.

“Those are cheerful words, aren’t they, child? But I’m afraid they’re only too true.”

When we come to A Severed Wasp, Katherine Forrester Vigneras has retired from a distinguished career as a concert pianist. She has returned home to her New York roots, and she’s had a request to give a benefit concert for Saint John the Divine Cathedral. The requester is an old friend, Felix Bodeway, who has retired from his post as Episcopal bishop of New York.

Felix was a character in The Small Rain.  It is hard to imagine him as a bishop in any church. He had been “that lightweight young man she had known a half century ago when they were both living in the Village.” Still, she was open to his approach and wondered “if he would still awaken the long-ago pain which has been part of the past to which Felix belonged. But so much deeper pain had come in the intervening years that all she felt was a vague nostalgia for her youthful anguish.”

The book gets its title from an excerpt from George Orwell: “[A wasp] was sucking jam on my plate and I cut him in half. He paid no attention, merely went on with his meal, while a tiny stream of jam trickled out of his severed esophagus. Only when he tried to fly away did he grasp the dreadful thing that had happened to him.”

As the book progresses from that initial meeting between Katherine and Felix, we learn the stories of their lives in the intervening fifty years.  She, now widowed, had married Justin Vigneras in France just before the war broke out.  The Nazis captured them in Paris. Both survived, although Justin was maimed in Auschwitz. Unable to play piano or to father children, he became a composer.  It’s a mystery, not solved until the end, just who was the father of their two children, and just who was that severed wasp.

There is a wealth of detail about Katherine’s preparations for the concert, which she’ll give on the cathedral’s Bösendorfer piano.  Some person or persons does their best to sabotage things, attempting intimidate Katherine by sending horrible things to her in the mail and by breaking into her apartment and slashing an irreplaceable painting.

Felix’s successor, Alwood Undercroft, the new bishop of the Episcopal diocese, bears a strong resemblance to the German army officer who was Katherine’s captor during her imprisonment throughout the war.  There’s also a long-standing postwar friendship and counseling relationship with Wolfgang von Stromberg, a Catholic cardinal whom she and Justin knew as Wolfi.

All in all it’s an entertaining and absorbing tale that succeeds in delivering its moral lessons while, as a blurb on the back cover states, it “weaves the world of music and the international concert stage, the claustrophobic life of a great cathedral close, and aspect of the threatening street life of New York.”

I won’t spoil everything by telling you how the mysteries and questions get answered. But because the title of the last chapter is “Music in the Cathedral,” I guess it’s okay to say that she does go forward with the benefit concert after all.

It’s at the end of the book and at several points in the book that the author’s love of music, and of its awesome power and beauty, shine through. I could appreciate this part even though I know nothing about the musical pieces she cites – or how, for instance, her getting up in the middle of the night and soothing herself by playing Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier must have sounded and felt.

At such places in the book, L’Engle’s words call to mind many of her meditations that I read daily in Glimpses.  She sees God’s handiwork everywhere – clouds and galaxies up above, oceans and streams and sun-warmed rocks and insects here below. To inspirations like these, I can relate.

And though I have no artistic talent, I can also relate to the words of Bishop Undercroft, spoken to Katherine at a welcoming dinner:

“I am often awed by the artistic temperament. It sometimes seems to me to be a battleground, a dark angel of destruction and a bright angel of creativity wrestling, and the bright angel dominates, out comes a great work of art, a Michelangelo David or a Beethoven symphony.”

As for the musical life of the book’s protagonist, this is a memory of her husband that comes back to her when she’s playing The Well-Tempered Clavier, followed by the Prelude and Fugue, before she can return to bed:

“Justin had turned to composing as well as nurturing Katherine’s talent, maturing her, expanding her, never forcing or manipulating, but helping her serve the gift for which she had been born.”

I’ll close by quoting the last couple of paragraphs of the book. I suspect that this feeling of Katherine’s is one that’s felt by many performing artists as they take the stage. It’s something that I’ve never felt and will never feel, but that’s okay too. I did so vicariously as I put this book down.

“Katherine…glanced once more at all those people she’d known for only a few months. Between them all they held a great many secrets. Between them all they had worked out as much peace as the human being is likely to have.

“She turned her mind away from them and focused it on music. The rustlings in the stalls and throughout the crowded nave stopped, and there was anticipatory silence.

“For Katherine, as she held her hands over the keyboard, there was nothing but the piano, and she and the sensitive instrument were no more than living extensions of each other.

“When the music had fully entered into her, she began to play.”

The New Normal is a Big Whiff

August 6, 2020

Nobody asked me, but…

I don’t like the “New Normal.” And I’m not talking about this virus matter.

I’m talking about baseball.

The Boston Red Sox won yesterday, 5-0 over Tampa Bay. The press is crowing about the well-pitched game by Martίn Peréz. Hey, good for him. But it’s not a game he pitched. It’s barely more than half a game, five innings.  Same for Ryan Yarbrough, the losing pitcher.

Peréz was declared the winning pitcher because he was the pitcher of record when the winning run was scored by his team. And he pitched five innings. A starter still has to go five innings to get a win. At least he did the last time I looked. Whatever.

Pitching Summary Boston vs. Tampa Bay August 5, 2020

Look at the accompanying box score. Identical patterns in innings pitched. The starter goes five. Then comes a parade of nearly-anonymous denizens from the bullpens. One inning each. LEGO pieces. Pitching by committee.

And don’t forget that pitch count!

This doesn’t do it for me.

Nor does the designated hitter. But that horse is long gone and the barn door is still hanging open. So too, I’m afraid, is horse that was once known as “complete game.”

And while we’re at it, let’s not forget the character known as the closer, and the ersatz accomplishment known as the “save.”

To wit (from MLB.com):

“A relief pitcher recording a save must preserve his team’s lead while doing one of the following: Enter the game with a lead of no more than three runs and pitch at least one inning. Enter the game with the tying run in the on-deck circle, at the plate or on the bases. Pitch at least three innings.”

Blech. Talk about a non-achievement.

“Lies, damn lies, and statistics.” Benjamin Disraeli supposedly said this, but whoever actually did was right. Had to be a baseball fan.

Finally – and Yankee fans gonna hate this – had I been on the Hall of Fame Committee I don’t know if I would have voted for Mariano Rivera. He was probably the most renowned closer of all time, with 19 years and 652 saves.

But he was a one-inning-only marvel. He pitched 1283 total innings, or 67 innings per season.  Hardly a workhorse. If the opposing team happened to score on him, he was in deep doo-doo. So was his team. Just ask Kevin Millar, Dave Roberts, and Bill Mueller.

Okay, I probably would have come around to vote Mariano in. He did last 19 years in the majors. That’s impressive. But my vote would have come his way been because he was such an outstanding guy, the kind of professional athlete that everyone who plays sports should aspire to be. Nobody represented baseball better than Mariano Rivera.

So he has his niche in the Hall of Fame. I hope he’s the only one of his category – the closer – who ever makes it.

And who knows. Maybe we won’t ever see another pitcher from this New Normal era enshrined. Pitchers used to be the crème de la crème , the hoi aristoi. Now they’re the great unwashed, the hoi polloi.

“Search the public parks and you’ll never find a monument to a committee” goes another unattributed but pithy quote. In future years, it ought to be

“Search Cooperstown and you’ll never find a monument to a bullpen.”

Baseball’s New Normal. That’s all I have to say about that.

Personal Memories of Arnie Ginsburg, Boston Radio’s Legendary D.J.

July 3, 2020

It is hard to overstate just how popular, how much of a teenage idol, disc jockey and radio personality Arnie Ginsburg was during my youth. Arnie died on June 26, 2020 at his home in Ogunquit, Maine. He was 94 years old and had suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease.

In addition to being the top guy on Boston radio back in the 50s and 60s, Arnie “Woo Woo” Ginsburg was a truly nice man.  I speak from experience – I got to meet him up close and personal.

One Saturday morning, probably around 1961 or 62, I was prowling around the Kenmore Square area with my late friend Bobby Sheppard. We found the WMEX studio, which was a small suite on the second floor of a nondescript building near Fenway Park.

We knocked on the door and asked if Arnie was around. He wasn’t, but the guy on duty suggested that we write him a letter and ask if we could visit him.

I went home and wrote that letter. My Palmer Method penmanship was horrible, as always, but apparently it was legible enough.  I do remember my very tactful closing line: “How about it?”

Within a week or two, I got back a nice note from Arnie. He said he would be happy to have me visit with a friend or two. We should just come right before air time and show them the copy of his letter.  Then they would let us in to see his show.

We got there just as Dan Donovan, the “Six to Eight Your Dinner Date” guy, finished up. Over on the back wall above a small stage, we noticed, was a maroon banner with spangled lettering: “The Jerry Williams Show.”

Arnie moved into the studio chair that Dan vacated.  He sat down, with the boom-suspended microphone dangling from above and two big record turntables on the counter. The records that Arnie played would sit on a large metal platter. They turned, along with the rubber turntables beneath them. He would cue up the record to the exact beginning spot, hold it stationary, and then release it so that it started off at full speed. This avoided what they called the “Wow.”

Old “Aching Adenoids,” as he called himself, also had an assortment of toys and noisemakers, like the trademark squeaky carrot and the device that sounded like a car horn.  He was a real pro and thoroughly enjoyed what he was doing.  He moved effortlessly from spinning platters to pitching products.  Just before he played “Till There Was You,” that sweet song from “The Music Man,” he introduced it with “Till there was Woo.” And there was another promotional intro for him, “We Love You Arnie,” taken right from “We Love You Conrad” in “Bye Bye Birdie.”

Of course we heard the famous “Adventure Car Hop” jingle. There was also “Go down to Del’s, 500 Gallivan Boulevard, in Dorchester.  Need a new antenna? A rear-seat speaker too? Del’s will fix it while you wait. Everything will be just great at Del’s.” Arnie “sang” that one himself.

Arnie didn’t mind having three wide-eyed teenagers – Bobby, Steve Doherty, and I – standing right next to him.  He even gave us a piece of air time.  At the end of a live-voice pitch for the Gillette adjustable razor, he asked “Whaddya get?”  And he looked at us expectantly. We weren’t anticipating that, but we all managed to shout “Gillette!”

My mother drove in to pick us up. She was not happy at all that I was out so late on a school night. In fact, she was thoroughly pissed off at me. They wouldn’t open the studio door for her while we were on the air, so she glared through the glass and kept beckoning for us to leave.

We didn’t get to stay until the 10:00 ending time. It was probably around 9:30 that we had to go, so we didn’t get to express our thanks to Arnie in person. I don’t think we truly appreciated at that time how unique an experience we’d just had. I didn’t have the savoir faire to write him a thank-you note either.

But many years later, not all that long ago, I did get to thank him. He was a guest on somebody’s talk show on a Boston station. I pulled the car over, dialed in, got through, recounted this story, and told him how much of a thrill it was and how much I appreciated it.

And now I’ll say it again. Thank you, Arnie Ginsburg. You were the greatest DJ, and the greatest guy too. May you rest in peace.

Remembering Johnny Majors and an Extremely Proper Introduction

June 4, 2020

June 4, 2020

Coach Majors, preparing to take the field,

Johnny Majors passed away yesterday at the age of 85. The good ol’ boy could certainly tote a football and coach a team. May he rest in peace.

Johnny’s departure brought back a memory of a curmudgeonly little move by yours truly.  It was September 15, 1979. That was at the start of my fourth year as the stadium announcer for Boston College football.  The Tennessee Volunteers had come to town to play the Eagles.

Johnny Majors was a big, big deal in those days. And rightly so. In a four-year span, he had coached a moribund Pittsburgh program to a national championship. Then his alma mater, Tennessee, came calling. He decamped to Knoxville in 1977. The Volunteers started to appear on television again.

Sometimes, coach Majors would bring his actor-brother Lee, the Six-Million Dollar Man and husband of Farrah Fawcett, to stand on the sidelines with him.  Broadcasters and reporters kissed his ring and lapped up his every word. Yes, it was Johnny Majors, Johnny Majors, Johnny Majors all day every day in college football.

The game was a nighttime one, televised nationwide. It was hyped and it was huge. This was the start of Johnny Majors’ third season at Tennessee. The Vols were ready to soar. The network – undoubtedly ABC – wanted a dramatic introduction.  And so, and as it turned out for the only time in my 42 years as BC’s stadium voice, I was called on to introduce the starting lineups. On national television.

I had to do something special, something distinctive, for our distinguished guest.  And I did. I used his correct name.

As the visiting team, the Volunteers were introduced first. One by one, they trotted out onto the field. Cued by the ABC guy at my elbow, I introduced each in turn – position, number, name.  Then, out  from under the stands jogged the coach.  Dramatic pause. Nudge from the cue guy.

“And the head coach of the Volunteers…(another dramatic pause)….John…Majors.”

Not “Johnny Majors!” as I’m sure ABC expected and hoped for. Just plain old, Sherm-Feller-style, deliberately underwhelming “John…Majors.”

No big splash. Just a tiny kerplunk. I could almost feel the broadcast booth deflating like Tom Brady’s footballs would, many years later.

I didn’t, or couldn’t, bring myself to do the same for the Boston College coach. “Edward Chlebek” would have sounded weird.  And I didn’t want to tweak Eddie’s nose either. He had troubles enough in his disastrous three seasons as BC’s coach.  In the previous year, BC had gone 0-11. So my final introduction, before the game began, was “And the head coach of the Eagles, Ed Chlebek.

The game was actually a pretty good one. Tennessee was indeed on its way to a bowl year. But BC gave them a tussle. Despite their awful, recent record, the Eagles did have a lot of talent. The final score was an eminently respectable 28-16, a “moral victory” for the home town team.

But that night I had my own little moral victory before the game even began. I got a fiendish little bit of satisfaction out of that sly editorializing that I guess I saw as the p.a. guy’s equivalent of damning with faint praise. And I’ve not told anybody about it. Until now.

And now you know the rest of the story.