Archive for the ‘Things in General’ Category

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.”

Book Review: “Beyond the Flight of the Arrow” by James Bradford Taylor

August 1, 2019

Author Brad Taylor

Sometimes, you just want to escape. Get away from here. Have a rollicking, swashbuckling adventure in a far-off land.  Meet your childhood hero or the girl of your dreams.  Tell their story – no, live in their story the way you imagine it was in days of old.

Here’s one way to do it. Make this book by James Bradford “Brad” Taylor part of your summer reading list. Take it to the beach, willingly suspend your disbelief, unsheathe your trusty sword, and offer battle to the forces of evil.

The book, Taylor’s first, is an autobiographically-flavored fantasy fulfillment.  As the book’s hero, Andrew “Finney” Jackson, he is a cinema owner who gets the chance to prowl around the offices and warehouse of a long-dead Hollywood movie mogul.  He falls down some cellar stairs and is transported, Twilight-Zone fashion, back to Sherwood Forest, where his adventure begins.

As a lad growing up in Winthrop, Massachusetts, Brad Taylor stoked his imagination with one of the town’s biggest and best-organized troves of DC Comic books.  Superman and Batman were staples, but he was also a big fan and authority on the likes of Green Lantern; Hawkman; Green Arrow and Speedy, and just about anyone else who was good enough to make the roster of the Justice League of America.

Olivia de Havilland as Maid Marian and Errol Flynn as Robin Hood, 1938

When Brad outgrew the comic book heroes and began to notice girls, he developed a “thing” for Olivia de Havilland. She played Maid Marian in the 1938 film “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” with Errol Flynn in the lead role and other familiar names like Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains, and Alan Hale in the supporting cast. It was the first color film by Warner Brothers studios.

I don’t think it’s revealing too much about the book to say that our hero Finney falls in love with Maid Marian, rescues her, kidnaps her for ransom, but ultimately doesn’t wed her.  He points out that she always went off with Errol Flynn, so he lets Robin Hood marry her in the end.

The book’s subtitle is A Fantasy Adventure Concerning Robin Hood, Errol Flynn, and One Finney Jackson.  Nope.  It should be something like An Adventurous Story of Unrequited Love for Olivia de Havilland by One James B. Taylor.  But that little misdirection notwithstanding, I have to give Brad credit for honesty about his feelings for Olivia. Who among us did not have such fantasies as we stumbled through adolescence? I recall similar crushes that I had on Daniela Bianchi as Tatiana Romanova, and on Katharine Ross as Elaine Robinson.  (Now I rather dig Mrs. Robinson. But I digress.)

Here’s what Brad/Finney had to say after initially encountering Maid Marian in boy’s clothing, disguised as a page, and being the first of the Merry Men to recognize that she was a woman:

“Not only was she a woman, she was incredibly beautiful as well. How did I know this ‘page’ was a woman? Well, when you have seen one of the most beautiful women in the world, you don’t forget her face, even if the next time you see her she’s dressed as a boy. Yes, I had seen this woman before. Not once, but many times.

“She had made the biggest impression on me, however, when she co-starred in The Adventures of Robin Hood as Maid Marian, for this ‘page’ riding on the trail below us was none other than Olivia de Havilland…Perhaps it would be more correct to say she was the living, breathing image of Olivia de Havilland; for Robin was the exact double of Errol Flynn, yet he was Robin Hood and not an actor…

“When I was twelve years old I first saw The Adventures of Robin Hood on television, and I fell instantly in love with Olivia de Havilland as Maid Marian. It was my first adolescent crush, and I never really got entirely over it…To me, the beauty of Olivia de Havilland was perfection in every way with her dark hair and those eyes of hers. Those eyes! Has any of God’s creatures ever possessed such eyes?

“She could only be mine when I saw her in The Adventures of Robin Hood; and then she always went off with Errol Flynn…This time, though, I was in a position to determine whether there could be something between us in reality. As far as I was concerned, there would be.”

Well, there is something nice that develops between our hero and the lovely woman. They become good buds.  But that’s all. Along the way Robin stumbles badly and for a while seems most unworthy of her. Our hero Brad/Finney becomes of the realm’s premier swordsmen. He seems to emerge as a contender for Maid Marian’s heart.  However, as previously noted, Robin and Marian eventually wed.  Though the author refashions parts of the Robin Hood legend and rewrites some of the script of the Errol Flynn movie to suit his fancy, he leaves the legend’s essentials intact.

During his daring escapades, Brad/Finney also gets in some commentary on the history of the period. In the movie, King Richard the Lion-Hearted (a big misnomer, actually; he was a nebbish) the scummy Prince John was not yet on the throne of England. Robin Hood and his boys robbed from the rich, gave to the poor, stymied the evil Sir Guy of Gisbourne, and kept Prince John off the throne.

In this book, John has been the king for sixteen years. And it’s Brad/Finney who intervenes with the Archbishop of Canterbury and brings about King John’s reluctant signing of the Magna Carta.

Basil Rathbone as Sir Guy of Gisbourne, Claude Rains as Prince John in the 1938 film.

Robin has already told his new recruit to the Merry Men the truth about the present and previous monarchs of the realm.

“A woeful reign it has been for his subjects. He taxes everyone heavily. And those who cannot pay in gold must pay in crops. It was a foul wind that blew that accursed Norman [Gisbourne] to England’s shores seven years ago. Until then King John wasn’t so bad, but Gisbourne’s intrigues have made everything worse. The King is his puppet.”

That latter story isn’t history, because Sir Guy is fictional; he’s simply a villain who shows up in most of the retellings of the Robin Hood legend.  But by that point of the book we’re beyond letting facts get in the way of a good story.

At the end, before he’s whisked back to the present, Brad/Finney gets to kiss Marian, the bride, at her wedding. But just prior to that little wish-come-true, Robin Hood gives him a small stone, a talisman, which had been a gift to him from Little John.

“It signifies a great friendship,” Robin says. “There are only two things on earth that go beyond the flight of the arrow. One is the love that comes once in a lifetime between a man and a woman. The other is friendship between two men that no force on earth can overcome.”

I’ll raise a tankard of Sherwood Forest’s finest ale to that one.

A Post for the First Day of Summer 2019

June 21, 2019

(This blog post originally appeared in 2011. It’s a favorite of mine, so here it is again, slightly updated.)

“Solstice” means “Sun Stands Still.” This year the summer solstice took place, and summer officially began, at 8:00 EDT, June 20.

“Midsummer Night’s Dream” was all about events in and around the summer solstice.

Kansas City Ballet’s performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

Hippolyta remarks:

“Four days will quickly steep themselves in night;

Four nights will quickly dream away the time;

And then the moon, like to a silver bow

New-bent in heaven, shall behold the night

Of our solemnities.”

 

And  Theseus, soon to wed her, directs his servant Philostrate:

“Stir up the Athenian youth to merriments;

Awake the pert and nimble spirit of mirth;

Turn melancholy forth to funerals;

The pale companion is not for our pomp.”

 

The ancients called the Midsummer moon the “Honey Moon” for the mead made from fermented honey that was part of wedding ceremonies performed at the Summer Solstice. Perhaps the most enduring modern ties with Summer Solstice were the Druids’ celebration of the day as the “wedding of Heaven and Earth“, resulting in the present day belief of a “lucky” wedding in June.

They also celebrated Midsummer with bonfires, when couples would leap through the flames, believing their crops would grow as high as the couples were able to jump. The bonfires were also thought to protect against evil spirits, which were thought to roam freely when the sun turned southward again.

Da Vinci’s Saint John the Baptist and his Wort

To thwart the evil spirits, pagans often wore protective garlands of herbs and flowers. One of the most powerful of them was a plant called ‘chase-devil’, which is known today as St. John’s Wort and still used by modern herbalists as a mood stabilizer.  Some people believed that mid-summer plants, especially Calendula, had miraculous healing powers and they therefore picked them on this night.

Religious party-poopers couldn’t stay away, though. In the 7th century, Saint Eligius (you remember the hospital named after him in St. Elsewhere) warned recently-converted inhabitants of Flanders against the age-old pagan solstice celebrations.  He said,  “No Christian on the feast of Saint John or the solemnity of any other saint performs solestitia [summer solstice rites] or dancing or leaping or diabolical chants.”

As Christianity entered pagan areas, midsummer celebrations came to be often borrowed and transferred into new Christian holidays, often resulting in celebrations that mixed Christian traditions with traditions derived from pagan Midsummer festivities. The Gospel of Luke said that John the Baptist was six months older than Jesus, and because Jesus was born right after the winter solstice, Saint John had to have been born right after the summer solstice. Saint John’s Day is June 24.

Many medieval Catholic churches were also built as solar observatories. The church needed astronomy to predict the date of Easter. And so observatories were built into cathedrals and churches throughout Europe. A hole in the roof admitted a beam of sunlight, which would trace a path along the floor. The path, called the meridian line, was often marked by inlays and zodiacal motifs. The position at noon throughout the year, including the extremes of the solstices, was also carefully marked.

Sherm Feller

So, as the Jamies sang, in the song written by long-time Red Sox public address announcer Sherm Feller,

“It’s Summertime Summertime Sum-Sum-Summertime!”

Happy summer!

History I Never Knew: The First Lighted Christmas Tree

November 29, 2016

According to Smithsonian magazine, strings of Christmas lights brighten up the December evenings of about 80 million homes in America. They account for six percent of the nation’s electrical load during that month.

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Edward Hibberd Johnson

Seems like there have always been Christmas tree lights, but that’s not so. For a few years, starting in 1882, there was only one lighted Christmas tree in America. It was at the home of Edward Hibberd Johnson, 136 East 36th Street, New York. This is the rest of the story.

Johnson was the president of the Edison Company for Electric Lighting. That company was founded by Thomas Edison, whose goal was to provide illumination for the streets of New York.  Johnson was a sharp guy and a go-getter – “part businessman, part engineer, part Barnum” as Smithsonian puts it. He had been manager of the Automatic Telegraph Company in the years following the Civil War.

Johnson hired the 24-year-old Edison in 1871. He quickly saw what a brilliant prodigy Edison was, and when Edison left to form his own company, Johnson followed and went to work for him. Johnson’s job was to find ways to market Edison’s inventions. The first of these was the phonograph, invented in 1877. Johnson took the machine on tour and charged people to listen to it.

The Edison Lamp Company was born in 1880 after Edison secured a patent on the light bulb. The two of them along with other investors, launched it after raising $35,000 in seed capital. It would be some years before electrical power was widely available, but Johnson and Edison were on their way.

By the time that the Edison company was founded, Christmas trees were already an established tradition, albeit a relatively new one. In 1841, Queen Victoria’s husband Albert introduced the Christmas tree to Britain – the “tannenbaum” of German origin.  In 1856, a Christmas tree appeared in the White House during the presidency of Franklin Pierce.

The practice of bringing a Christmas tree, decorated with pretty ornaments, spread rapidly. The nicest looking trees were the ones that were lighted – with candles. Real candles. Quite a fire hazard.

Then Johnson had an idea. Why not replace the candles with electric light bulbs? Bingo.

johnsonedward-firstelectrictree1882

The first lighted Christmas tree, 1882

He set up a tree in his front window and hand-wired 80 red, white, and blue light bulbs in six separate strings connected by copper bands. The connections could open and close as the tree rotated on a base that was powered by a small dynamo, also invented by Edison.

Johnson then went out and solicited coverage from the media and got a glowing, effusive article from W.C. Croffut of the Detroit Free Press, who wrote, “..it was brilliantly lighted with…eighty lights all encased in these dainty glass eggs…one can hardly imagine anything prettier.”

Crowds flocked to 36th Street to see Johnson’s tree each year. In 1884, he had 120 lights on the tree. The display wasn’t cheap – $12 for the lights alone, which would be about $350 in today’s money.  In 1894, president Grover Cleveland had the first lighted Christmas tree in the White House.   And the price of the lights rapidly came down to affordable levels. By 1914, a string of lights cost $1.75.

But it all began with that “Miracle on 36th Street.” Now you know the rest of the story.

A View from the Top of the Hill

November 22, 2016

My grandfather George V. Brown, Class of 1898, and my uncle Walter A. Brown, Class of 1923, were inducted into the Hopkinton High School Top of the Hill Class of 2016 this evening. Top of the Hill  honors graduates of the school whose careers were marked by both high achievement and contribution to society.

I had the privilege of accepting the honor in their names and of speaking in their behalf.  The following is my address to the gathering.

nov-22-2016-1In Hopkinton you have a saying. “It all starts here.” That’s true, when you’re talking about the world’s most prestigious road race.

But that’s not the entire story of Hopkinton and sports. Not at all. Hopkinton has given much more to the world of sport, both in America and abroad. Better to say “It all started here.”

It all started with two of the men that Hopkinton honors this evening for achievements and contributions to society. George V. Brown, my grandfather, and Walter A. Brown, my uncle, were two of our country’s finest sportsmen. They were founding fathers and pioneers.

So much that was good in the world of sport, over more than 60 years of the 20th century, came about because of them.

Regarding their achievements – it would take a long time to list them all. I will mention just a few. But before doing so I want to point out that these gentlemen were not sportsmen as we understand the term today. They didn’t enter their professions as wealthy men. Sports were their livelihood, not their hobby. They were very good at what they did. But more importantly, they were good people. They were men of their times, but they were men for all seasons and for all time.

George Brown went into sports coaching and administration right after Bryant and Stratton Business School. By 1899 he was working at the Boston Athletic Association, and became its Athletic Manager in 1904. The BAA was a prime source of athletes for America’s Olympic teams. George was at the 1904 St Louis Olympics and at every Olympic games until his death, as a coach or an official.

He also was hired to run the rebuilt Boston Arena in 1919. Hockey flourished at all levels in Boston. The Bruins played there. He launched Boston University’s program. He started the CanAm games. His son Walter was his right-hand man.

In 1933, the BAA’s financial leader Henry Lapham took over the Boston Madison Square Garden and made George general manager. When George died at the age of 57, in 1937, Walter succeeded him. George is enshrined in both the United States and the National Hockey League Halls of Fame.

Walter was already a leader of American ice hockey when he became the Garden’s general manager at age 32. He had coached the first American team to win the World Championship: the Massachusetts Rangers, in 1933. They defeated Canada in the championship game in Prague – the first time anyone had ever beaten Canada in international play.

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With Boston College-bound Hopkinton High senior Olivia Sparr, whose class co-hosted this evening’s ceremony.

Walter coached the Bronze medal winning Americans in the 1936 Olympics. The opening event of those Winter Games was hockey: the United States 1, Germany 0, played in a snowstorm before a crowd that included all the high-ranking members of the Third Reich. That was the first time the Americans would defeat and disappoint their hosts. It wouldn’t be the last. A few months later, Jesse Owens and the track team – with George V. Brown as one of the coaches – would do it again.

Walter stayed a leader of American and International hockey up until his death – including running US Hockey when we won the Gold Medal at Squaw Valley in 1960. The Walter Brown Award goes to the best American-born college player in New England.

The BAA fell on hard times in the 1930s. Walter took over as president and ran the organization from the Garden. He kept the race alive in Boston. Nowadays, the BAA is back. It’s a superb, professionally administered operation that more than pays its own way and does many great things for the community. But it wasn’t always like this.

There’s another wonderful tradition around the Marathon that I must mention. I and all of my family members are most grateful to the BAA and Hopkinton for it. Every year since 1908, except for one, a descendant of George V. Brown has fired off the gun to start the Boston Marathon. And since 2008, George, in his statue, has been right there to watch.

Walter is probably best known in Boston as the owner of the Celtics. He bought them from the Garden in 1949 for $2000. In 1950, he was responsible for breaking the color line in the NBA when he drafted Chuck Cooper of Duquesne…and he told those present, those who objected, “I don’t care if he’s striped, plaid, or polka-dot. Boston drafts Chuck Cooper.”

The Celtics, as we know, became a dynasty with Red Auerbach, Bob Cousy, Bill Russell and all the rest. But it took a while, and it took a total personal commitment from Walter. In 1952, he took out a $20,000 mortgage on his house in Newton to keep them afloat.

Like his father, Walter died much too young. He was 59 when he had a massive coronary and passed away in 1964. As the newspapers stated, “Grown men cried that day.” Walter is enshrined in the National Basketball Hall of Fame and three hockey halls of fame.

What I’ve just told you is only the beginning of their achievements and contributions to society. I hope it suffices to say here that these two sons of Hopkinton were overachievers and substantial contributors.

But I’ve just recited a list of things. I don’t think these achievements are the true measure of George and Walter Brown.  Please let me point out what some people who knew them wrote or said.

Of George V. Brown:

“No other Boston man, excepting the late George Wright and Dr. Walter Kendall, has framed so many sport scenes with his personality.  He refereed football games before Jim Thorpe came as an unknown novice on his first visit to the Harvard stadium. He made the B. A. A. Winter Games a winter mecca for indoor athletes of the country and made the Boston Marathon the criterion of the world.”

“Hopkinton’s George Brown and the citizens of Milford were among the relatively few Americans to honor native American Olympic Games winner Jim Thorpe before he was unjustly stripped of his medals…George Brown felt none of the animosity toward Native Americans which other U.S. citizens harbored in those days…As far as Brown was concerned, the measure of a man was not his nationality or race. Rather, Brown expected an athlete to do the best he could in the Olympic Games competition, nothing more, and nothing less.”

“He held his friends through life. What better epitaph.  His word was unfailing. What better wreath to lay on his tomb. He helped the young. What better memorial to hang in his halls.”

And of Walter Brown:

“If none could enter the Boston Garden except by presenting a personal account of a gift of this man’s time, talent, counsel or money to some person or some cause in need of human kindness and help, not a seat in the Garden would be empty.

“And many such there will be in every audience that ever gathers, and they will all remember. And they will pass on to their children the memory of a man who felt that every charity or worthy cause had a claim upon him.  He was the embodiment of civic responsibility in the city where there are many common virtues. He was the exemplar of civic duty in a community where it is sometimes appealed to in vain. To these public virtues were added the virtues of gentleness, kindness, thoughtfulness, humility, and love for his family.

“In a city that had only residents, he was a first citizen. In a life that was crowded with conflicting claims, he was a citizen first.

“What he was, what he did, what he said, and what he thought for the good of his fellow man, each time the lights go up in the Boston Garden down through the years, he will be freshly remembered.”

I thank you for the privilege of addressing to you on behalf of my grandfather and my uncle.  I speak in gratitude for my mother Margaret, for the rest of Walter’s siblings, and for their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

Tonight I can’t help but recall the words of President John F. Kennedy – “We must judge a country not only by the men it produces. But by the men it honors. By the men it remembers.”

In remembering George V. Brown and Walter A. Brown as you have, along with our other distinguished honorees Fred Harris, Michael Shepard, Kelly Grill, Sunni Beville, and Libby Bischoff, Hopkinton tells the world, “These are our beloved sons and daughters. We nurtured them. We sent them forth. By honoring them, we bring honor to ourselves and all that we stand for.”

“Those Who Do Not Learn the Lessons of History…”

October 31, 2016

October 31, 2016

A History Note — written as we approach the end of one of the most contentious, divisive, and damaging presidential election campaigns of all time.

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Frances Perkins

November 9, the day after Election Day, is the 78th anniversary of Kristallnacht – “Night of the Broken Glass.” On November 9, 1938, all across Germany, Jewish-owned businesses were trashed and looted, 1,000 synagogues were destroyed, and some 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps.  The excuse for this Nazi-sponsored pogrom was the killing, in Paris, of a minor German diplomat by a Jewish youth.

This horrific event, too large and widespread to be hidden, demonstrated to the world that negotiations with Adolf Hitler and the Nazis were futile. To engage in diplomacy with such a regime is a cruel charade – always has been.

Germany’s intentions with regard to Jewish people were laid bare.  The world saw what was happening and was shocked – shocked. But only America took the step of recalling its ambassador. That was one good and worthy step by Franklin Roosevelt, but he couldn’t bring himself to speak the entire truth. He said that the news from Germany was scarcely believable in a 20th-century civilization, but still he would not use the word “Jews.”

Nor did FDR propose any additional measure for helping the hundreds of thousands of European refugees, and he caved in to fear of provoking anti-Semites in Congress by affirming existing immigration quota limits.

One of the few truly “good guys” in the American government during this horrible era was Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins (depicted), the first woman to be appointed to a Cabinet position.  She saw through Hitler right from the start and fought the good fight, often futilely, as FDR bobbed and weaved and split differences to protect his precious New Deal.

After Kristallnacht, finally, Perkins had a minor triumph when she met with FDR and persuaded him to extend indefinitely the visas of thousands of German Jews who were already in the U.S.  One of the few world leaders who endorsed FDR’s move and who took positive steps to help Jewish refugees was Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King.

Roosevelt agreed to do so over the objections of the State Department, saying that it would be inhuman to force Jews to return to Germany.  He had an opening and took it, because the laws were unclear on whether or not he had the authority. But he declined to press Congress to raise the quota for immigrants.

Two months later, a Roper poll showed that 83% of respondents opposed opening America’s doors to European refugees; only 9% supported such a bill.

Not a “Profile in Courage,” that FDR.  His heart was probably in the right place, but he would never risk any of his political capital.

Not a shining moment for America, either.

Let’s see – covering our political derriere; refusing to “speak truth to power;” ignoring the plight of people “over there”… have we learned anything at all from Kristallnacht?

Why I Do What I Do

June 30, 2016

Cover front2Charlie Sullivan, Boston College ’42, passed away a few months ago at the age of 97. He was the oldest man whom I interviewed for Tales from the Boston College Hockey Locker Room.

I’ve already posted a message in this space about how much Charlie enjoyed reading the book and recalling the old-timers who were his contemporaries from pre-World War II days.  His daughter Shauna had given it to him for a 97th birthday present. She quoted him as saying “If I had a son, I would want on just like [BC coach] Jerry York.”

That original message gave me a nice feeling – so nice that I wanted to share it with you. But it wasn’t the end of the story for me.

I recently received an email from Charlie’s daughter Shauna. She said that, during his final week when they knew the end was approaching, he admonished her, “Keep that book in the family.”

She went on to write, “… again just letting you know how much your book meant to him and how important he felt it was to keep the memories of his life with his grandchildren. Dad lived a great life and was an amazing father and grandfather. I am lucky my children were close to him and hopefully his life will influence who they become as adults…Thank you for making Dad’s humble memories immortal.”

That’s why I’m a writer. If I can change things or preserve memories in some small way that will benefit others, I’ll consider myself a success. I don’t have to write a best-seller or win a Pulitzer.  This is enough.

Professionally, I’m a disciple of William Zinsser. His book On Writing Well is as good a guide as you’ll ever find. He states, “I always write to affirm.  I choose to write about people whose values I respect; my pleasure is to bear witness to their lives.”

I realized, after getting Shauna Sullivan’s second message, that my work of bearing witness will never be complete. There’s always more to tell.

Some BC-related stories from Charlie didn’t make it into the book. One of them was about how he passed his final exams and earned his bachelor degree.  Like many member of the Greatest Generation, Charlie went off to war before completing all of his courses. He returned to campus in 1946 and met with Father Long, the priest who’d kept him in school back in 1941 by giving him a hockey scholarship.

The good father asked Charlie if he was ready to take his oral exams.  When Charlie replied in the affirmative, the priest said “Recite the Our Father in Latin.”  Charlie promptly prayed the Pater Noster. That was the final exam for all of his courses. He aced it to earn his bachelor degree.

That’s a nice little anecdote, but it’s not what I want the world to know about Charlie Sullivan. I want, instead, to be sure that everyone knows about the quietly heroic life he led after college.

I never realized, until hearing from Shauna, that Charlie’s wife had died of breast cancer at the age of 31. Charlie, then 42, was left with three daughters. They were 5, 4, and 20 months old, respectively. Charlie raised them and never remarried.

Charlie Sullivan was a true hero.  I didn’t tell his family story in the book, but I’m telling it now. I’m still bearing witness to his life. That’s my job. That’s what I do.

More History I Never Knew: The Story of Financier Haym Salomon

May 15, 2016

"Star of David" configuration on dollar bill.

“Star of David” configuration on dollar bill.

…and perhaps a little legend in the guise of history.

I’d never heard of Haym Salomon, so when I got an email from a regular correspondent about him, I investigated.

That email said that the configuration of stars (depicted) on the Great Seal of the United States is in the shape of a Star of David, arranged that way by order of George Washington. The story goes that Washington asked Salomon, a wealthy Philadelphia Jew, what he would like as a personal reward for his services to the Continental Army. Solomon said he wanted nothing for himself, but he would like something for his people. The Star of David was the result.

That’s a cool tale and it may well be true. There’s no evidence for it, but it’s certainly plausible. This is the rest of the story.

The email also said that Salomon gave $25 million to support Washington’s forces during the dark days of the Revolution. Not exactly true – but there are records that show a combination of Solomon’s personal lending and fund raising resulted in $650,000 for the cause. That’s somewhat north of $16 million in today’s dollars.

For the Record

The Congressional Record of March 25, 1975 reads:

Haym Salomon

Haym Salomon

“When [Robert] Morris was appointed Superintendent of Finance, he turned to Salomon for help in raising the money needed to carry on the war and later to save the emerging nation from financial collapse. Salomon advanced direct loans to the government and also gave generously of his own resources to pay the salaries of government officials and army officers. With frequent entries of “I sent for Haym Salomon”, Morris’ diary for the years 1781–84 records some 75 transactions between the two men.”

George Washington would have good cause to be grateful to Solomon, especially for his efforts before the decisive Battle of Yorktown, where the British finally surrendered.

Financing the Final Blow

It was August 1781. The Continental Army had trapped Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown, a community of the coast of Virginia. Washington and the main army and Count de Rochambeau with his French army decided to march from the Hudson Highlands to Yorktown and deliver the final blow. But Washington’s war chest was completely empty, as was that of Congress. Without food, uniforms and supplies, Washington’s troops were close to mutiny.

Washington determined that he needed at least $20,000 to finance the campaign. When Morris told him there were no funds and no credit available, Washington gave him a simple but eloquent order: “Send for Haym Salomon”. Salomon raised $20,000, through the sale of bills of exchange, and Washington conducted the Yorktown campaign, which proved to be the final battle of the Revolution.

That instrument, the bill of exchange, was Haim Salomon’s thing. It’s similar to a promissory note and is traditionally used to finance trade orders. He had come to New York from England in 1775 and set himself up as a broker for merchants engaged in overseas trade.

Fleeing Persecution and Antisemitism

He was born Chaim Salomon in 1740 to a Sephardic Jewish family. Their forebears had migrated to Poland due to the Spanish Inquisition of 1492. He traveled throughout Europe as a young man, gained expertise in finance and on several languages. He went back to Poland but left in 1772 after the Polish partition.

Salomon sided with the colonists during the revolution and joined the New York branch of the Sons of Liberty. In September of 1776, he was arrested as a spy. The British pardoned him, but only after requiring him to spend 18 months on a British boat as an interpreter for Hessian mercenaries – German soldiers siding with the British. Salomon used his position to help prisoners of the British escape and encouraged the Hessians to desert the war effort. In 1778, he was arrested again and sentenced to death. He escaped and fled to Philadelphia.

He opened up shop as a broker in Philadelphia. He also became the agent to the French consul and paymaster for the French forces in North America. In 1781, he began working extensively with Morris, the newly appointed Superintendent for Finance for the Thirteen Colonies.

Commemorative Postage Stamp, 1974-75

Commemorative Postage Stamp, 1974-75

Salomon negotiated the sale of a majority of the war aid from France and the Dutch Republic, selling bills of exchange to American merchants. Salomon also personally supported various members of the Continental Congress during their stay in Philadelphia, including James Madison and James Wilson. He requested below-market interest rates, and he never asked for repayment.  Madison once confessed that “I have for some time … been a pensioner on the favor of Haym Salomon, a Jew broker.”

Salomon was also an important mover and shaker in the Philadelphia Jewish community.  In 1782 he made the largest individual contribution towards the construction of the Congregation Mikveh Israel’s main building.

In 1783, he was one of the prominent Jews involved in the successful effort to have the Pennsylvania Council of Censors remove the religious test oath required for office-holding under the State Constitution. These test laws were originally written to disenfranchise the Quaker, who objected to taking oaths at all.

Salomon’s friend Robert Morris was the one who introduced legislation to end the test laws in Pennsylvania. In 1784, Salomon answered anti-Semitic slander in the press by stating: “I am a Jew; it is my own nation; I do not despair that we shall obtain every other privilege that we aspire to enjoy along with our fellow-citizens.”

Like Morris, Salomon spent time in prison after the war. Salomon died suddenly and in poverty on January 8, 1785 after contracting tuberculosis in prison. Due to the failure of governments and private lenders to repay the debt incurred by the war, his family was left penniless at his death at age 44.

A Grateful (?) Nation

The hundreds of thousands of dollars of Continental debt Salomon had bought with his own fortune were worth only about 10 cents on the dollar at the time of his passing. When his son petitioned Congress to recover money he claimed his father was owed by the government, various committees refused to recognize the family’s claims.

Memorial Marker in Philadelphia

Memorial Marker in Philadelphia

In 1936, Congress voted to erect a monument to Salomon in the District of Columbia, but funds for the actual construction were never appropriated. In 1974-75, the country did issue a commemorative postage stamp for him, as one of the “Contributors to the Cause.”

Next time you hear some candidate for political office bellowing about “Wall Street,” try to imagine if we’d even have a country, had we not been able to call upon people with financial acumen like Haym Salomon.

And next time you hear talk of the Founding Fathers of our nation, remember Haym Salomon. This was a man who, within five years of his arrival in Philadelphia, advanced from penniless fugitive to respected businessman, philanthropist and defender of his people.

He risked his fortune, pledged his good name and credit on behalf of the Revolution, and stood up for religious liberty. A true American patriot, indeed. It’s too bad he’s not better known through the teaching of American history.

I finally know about him. And so do you. We both now know the rest of the story.

Sports Shorts

January 25, 2016

BRadyManning“Disa and data” as one old-time Boston sportswriter used to label his note columns. I forget who that was. There was also “Here and There” and “Hither and Yon” subheads for this sort of fare. Anybody remember them – and were they in the Record, the American, the Herald, the Traveler, the Morning Globe, or the Evening Globe?

Rivalries
Excellent Bob Ryan column in the January 24 Sunday Globe about the Tom Brady-Peyton Manning “rivalry.” Bob has seen it all during his sportswriting career. He is spot-on when he says that this Tom-Peyton thing just ain’t the same as long-running, head-to-head competitions like Russell-Chamberlain, Bird-Johnson, and Evert-Navratilova.

As Bob points out, Tom and Peyton chart parallel courses. They don’t play defense. Ryan calls this a “manufactured” rivalry, and to a great extent it is. It’s largely, though not entirely, a creation of the television producers.

Not long ago, a producer told me that one of his primary tasks in planning the broadcasts was figuring out the “story lines” they’d follow during the game. There are usually two or three that TV tries to play up so as to add a little extra drama to the coverage.

Examples of these hoped-for story lines might be a recently-traded player returned to town to confront his former teammates; coaches who clearly don’t like each other glaring into the cameras; the best offense runs up against the best defense; a player’s comeback from a debilitating injury, etc.

In the case of Tom and Peyton, the TV people hardly even had to work at it. They just put up all those graphics with the statistical comparisons. The only things that were more numerous on the AFC Championship show were the cell phone service ads.

Sometimes the contest evolves the way they want; sometimes it doesn’t. This time it didn’t. It wasn’t a quarterback shootout. The real story was the way the Denver defense overwhelmed the Patriots’ offensive line. Another unexpected twist was having one of the best kickers of all time blow an extra-point try.

But back to the “rivalry.” As football goes, and as Ryan also states, this is as good as it gets. Tom and Peyton are two of the best ever. They are in the twilight of their careers, and they won’t ever again get a chance to perform on the same stage with so much at stake.

And we in Boston have been lucky to have ringside seats for this and for the Larry-Magic and Russell-Chamberlain.

So our guy and our team didn’t come out on top this time. That’s okay. This is Peyton’s last shot. I hope he wins the Super Bowl. And the sun will come up tomorrow.

Coaches

It’s almost time for the Beanpot. Will we finally see a Harvard-Northeastern championship game? This could be the year.

The college hockey world has been justifiably lavish in its praise of Boston College coach Jerry York. Jerry has another very good team this year, and he just earned his 1,000th career victory.

But on a shorter horizon, let’s not overlook the fantastic job that Jim Madigan is doing at Northeastern this season. The Huskies lost three of their best players – Kevin Roy, Dalen Hedges, and Dustin Darou – during the first half. At one point, the record was 1-11-2. It was enough to make any team lose heart and to start mailing it in.

But “Mad Dog” somehow held it all together. He dipped into his reserves, shuffled his lines about constantly, and kept the team working hard. Since losing 4-3 to BC before Christmas, the Huntington Hounds have won seven games and tied one – as of this writing. Roy and Darou are back in the lineup.

Northeastern was in the Beanpot final last year against BU and lost in overtime. The two of them play in the second game of the opening round this year. The Terriers, Eagles, and Harvard are all having good seasons. The Huskies are the only one of the four teams that will enter the 2016 tournament with an overall losing record.

But it’s long past time (since 1988) for Northeastern to win another Beanpot title. If ever there was a dark horse, it’s this year’s Huskies.

History I Never Knew: The Invention of Duck Tape (Yes, it’s Duck Tape, not Duct Tape!)

November 19, 2015

It was a mother’s love, helped by the open-minded outlook of the president of the United States, that led to the invention of the most useful fastening material the world has ever seen.

stoudt

Vesta Stoudt, the tape she suggested, and the president who listened.

That mother was Vesta Stoudt. That president was Franklin Roosevelt.

After World War II broke out and Vesta’s two sons went off to serve in the Navy, she – like thousands of other women – pitched in to the war effort on the home front. She went to work in the Green River Ordnance Plant in Illinois, where she inspected and packed the cartridges that launched rifle grenades.

The cartridges were packed eleven to a box, and the boxes were taped and waxed to make them waterproof and damp-proof. The box flaps were sealed with thin paper tape. A tab of tape was left loose so that it could be pulled to release the waterproof wax coating and open the box.

But the thin paper tape wasn’t strong enough. The tabs tore off when soldiers and sailors pulled on them to open the ammo boxes. They were often under enemy fire while doing this, and their lives were put at risk as they scrambled to claw the boxes open.

Vesta Stoudt came up with a solution: seal the boxes with a strong, cloth-based waterproof tape instead of the thin paper tape. She suggested it to her supervisors and got nowhere. So Vesta went right to the top. She wrote to Roosevelt:

“I have two sons out there somewhere, one in the Pacific Island the other one with the Atlantic Fleet. You have sons in the service also. We can’t let them down by giving them a box of cartridges that takes a minute or more to open, the enemy taking their lives, that could have been saved had the box been taped with a strong cloth tape that can be opened in a split second.

“I didn’t know who to write to, Mr. President, so have written you hoping for your boys, my boys, and every man that uses the rifle grenade, that this package of rifle cartridges may be taped with the correct tape.”

The letter got the attention of the right people. Because Johnson & Johnson was experienced in making surgical adhesive tapes, the War Production Board asked that company to make the tape that Stoudt had suggested.

The material was name “Duck Tape” because, as the story goes, it was 1) waterproof, like a duck and 2) it was made with cotton duck fabric. The tape soon became known as “100 Mile an Hour Tape” in the military. Because it was strong and waterproof, soldiers used it to repair just about everything.

Vesta Stoudt received a letter from President Roosevelt and earned the Chicago Tribune’s War Worker Award for her idea and her persistence.

Sometimes it’s the little things, and the little people, that make the biggest difference. Well done and thank you, Vesta Stoudt.