“Opening Day” 2020

U.S.S. Maine December 1897 Navy Baseball Champions

There will be no baseball played today but I could not let what was scheduled to be Opening Day 2020 go unmentioned. Baseball will return before long. I thought I would share this extraordinary photograph of the U.S.S. Maine baseball tram taken shortly after they won the December 1897 Navy Baseball Championship is Key West, Florida. Two months later all of these men except J.H. Bloomer.were killed in the explosion in Havana. A very cursory search of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle for December 1897 shows the North Atlantic Squadron, of which the Maine was part, leaving for Key West in what the Navy Department was describing as routine maneuvers, the squadron apparently moving to warmer climes when winter set in. How true that is is hard to tell without greater digging. Tensions with Spain over Cuba were already escalating rapidly and it is equally feasible that the McKinley Administration was moving men–like the ones seen here–to South Florida in case things boiled over.

Major League Baseball is hosting today what it is calling Opening Day at Home. Despite the social distancing one can listen and watch the thirty classic games, one for each team, at MLBTV. Whatever you are doing today, working at home or what have you, stay safe. And remember, baseball will return before we know it.

(image/Wikimedia Commons)

Rod Serling’s Cold War comedy comes to radio

Reds slugger Ted Kluszewski, seen here on his 1953 Bowman card, may have been an inspiration for Rod Serling’s 1955 teleplay OToole from Moscow.

The Major League Baseball season was to have begun tomorrow but obviously has been postponed due to the ongoing health crisis. Baseball fans can get a taste of the National Pastime tonight and moving forward by listening to Cincinnati Public Radio’s 91.7 WVXU and the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music’s collaborative reboot of Rod Serling’s O’Toole from Moscow. Serling’s teleplay originally aired on NBC television in December 1955. It appeared on a Monday afternoon at 3:00 PM, was not taped or recorded in any way, and then disappeared entirely.

The project is a thirty year labor of love from Cincinnati Inquirer journalist John Kiesewetter, who worked for that newspaper for four decades before getting downsized in the parched landscape that is our sadly disappearing local journalism. Rod Serling lived in Cincinnati for a brief time after attending school at Antioch College seventy-five miles or so down the road. Upon graduation Serling earned his bones in local Cincinnati broadcasting. He soon moved his growing family to Connecticut to break into the big time in New York. The Twilight Zone began in 1959. O’Toole is set in the Cold War and premised on confusing the Cincinnati baseball Reds with the Communist Soviet Reds. Serling’s teleplay is all the more fitting because Cincinnati has a great baseball heritage; the Reds are the first professional baseball team, having begun play in 1869.

Mr. Kiesewetter searched for decades to find the lost script and when he found it in the archives retooled it for radio. He had the blessing of Rod’s daughter Anne, who narrated the radio presentation. I am curious to see how it has all turned out. Though he was remarkably witty and quite the jokester off-camera, comedy was was never Rod Serling’s forté. Kiesewetter actually acknowledges that in this podcast but says the O’Toole is an exception. I have no reason to doubt him and look forward to the broadcast. It is great too that there is something new relating to Rod Serling right now; Carol Serling, his widow and the matriarch of the family, died earlier this year. I met her at the Twilight Zone Conference in Ithaca in October 2009 and she was most gracious. That O’Toole was completed with the participation of their daughter Anne makes it that much more meaningful.

O’Toole from Moscow debuts March 25 at 8:00 pm Eastern time. In the local Cincinnati area check it via radio at either WVXU 91.7 or WMUB 88.5. Outside Cincinnati one can also online at Cincinnati Public Radio’s 91.7 WVXU. After tonight’s initial broadcast the show will be archived online and also distributed across the country to National Public Radio stations.

(image/Metropolitan Museum of Art)



Rufus King, 1755-1827

Rufus King as portrayed by Gilbert Stuart circa 1820

Founding Father Rufus King was born on this date 265 years ago today, March 24, 1755. I do not want to write too much about King right now because I am currently working on a project relating to this forgotten early American, a drafter of the Constitution, and want to save my thoughts for that undertaking. In the meantime check out this piece I wrote last summer about visiting King Manor in Queens. I had intended to write about King more this past winter but got caught up in other things. I’ll say one about the self-isolating thing: it helps one be productive and get some work done. I was texting yesterday with a friend of mine, an intelligent person who works at a New York cultural institution currently closed due to the health crisis, saying I felt I must spend this time as fruitfully as possible amidst so much turmoil and loss. He said he understood and was doing the same.

Hopefully by summer everything will be back to normal, or at least a semblance of what passes for normal in our current historical moment. Among other things I want to return to Queens to see the King family’s final resting place around the corner from King Manor. The church grounds where they lay is only open certain hours in the morning, which I did not know at the time of my first visit. I saw the graveyard itself but had no way from the sidewalk on the other side of the gate where specifically he and his family within the grounds. People walk past every day without knowing that in their midst lies this Constitutional framer, three-term U.S. senator from New York, vice-presidential and presidential candidate.

(image/National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)

“The Best Cure for Panic is Information.”

Public transit conductorettes wearing masks in NYC during 1918 influenza pandemic

I hope everyone is safe and making out okay in these difficult times. I myself am working from home today, trying with my colleagues to ensure that the remainder of the semester goes as effectively as it can once classes resume again virtually this coming Thursday. Over the weekend one of my colleagues authored this piece about the 1918 influenza pandemic, and with her knowledge I am sharing it here at The Strawfoot. I have always found it curious how little knowledge and public awareness there is of that worldwide health crisis. There is surpsingly little consensus even among scholars about its scope and scale; estimates of the number of people killed range from a low of twenty (20) million to a high of one hundred (100) million. Putting it mildly, that’s a pretty wild fluctuation. It may be different in subsequent editions but at one point the Encyclopedia Brittanica afforded the Spanish Flu pandemic a total of three sentences, while its U.S. counterpart, the Americana, gave it a mere one.

As my colleague points out, the best cure for panic is information. For one thing, we are unlikely to have those types of numbers today. Let’s remain calm, practice social distancing, and use our common sense. Remember, too, that many resources are still available to us. While most libraries and museums have closed their doors for the immediate future, note that the electronic and other resources are still available at most school and public libraries. Databases are still available, as are many ebooks and other electronic materials. Academic and public librarians are working hard right now to ensure that the virtual experience goes as smoothly as it can. Again, please do read the article linked to above for more insights on how New York City managed its way through a similar experience a short century ago.

(image/National Archives)

Searching for an Historian: Researching the Poughkeepsie Post Office Mural of the NY State Ratification of the U.S. Constitution (July 1788) painted by Gerald Foster

This past November I received an email from Bob Crothers, an independent scholar who had my article in the Journal of the American Revolution about Isaac Roosevelt and was reaching out to tell me of his research relating to New York State before, during, and immediately after the Revolution. Bob received his B.A. in Economics from Brown and M.B.A. from Harvard Business School before a long career on Wall Street and Madison Avenue. Now retired, he is pursuing his interest in History full-time researching and presenting on various subjects. Among other topics, Bob has an interest in the New Deal Era mural in the Poughkeepsie post office depicting the 1788 New York State Ratification Convention that took place in that city. Bob and I finally met in person last month when he came to Federal Hall on Presidents Day. Last week he traveled to Washington D.C. to conduct research on the post office mural. Here is his guest article on the experience.

By Bob Crothers

I’m preparing a talk to be given in the fall of this year on the debate and compromise of the New York State Ratification Convention. This Convention took place June 17-July 26 1788 in the then-third Court House of Poughkeepsie, which burned down in 1804. In November 2019, the day after Thanksgiving, I visited the only memorial to this long-forgotten event. That memorial is a late 1930s mural located on the second floor of a Depression Era-built Post office painted by a New Jersey artist named Gerald Foster.

The mural shows 23 of the 67 delegates to this convention and focuses on a handshake between Alexander Hamilton, the most well known Federalist, both state and nation-wide, and Governor George Clinton, probably the most dedicated Anti-Federalist in the nation at this time. Clinton was the first non-royal New York governor; he would go on to serve twenty-two years in the post; he also served as Vice-President in Thomas Jefferson’s second term. Clinton subsequently died in office as James Madison’s first term Vice-President in 1812.

Two more dedicated political enemies than Hamilton and Clinton (perhaps excluding Hamilton and Burr) would be hard to find. Governor Clinton, first elected in June 1777, had done a remarkably effective job of protecting the state’s interests and keeping taxes low, taking full advantage of the great harbor growing in NYC.

The mural memorializes the July 26, 1788 breakthrough in the Federalist/Anti-Federalist debate and stalemate threatening to keep New York State from ratifying the U.S. Constitution. The stalemate was finally broken when the prominent Anti-Federalist Melancton Smith, a one-time sheriff of Poughkeepsie but at the time a NYC resident, brought his mentor, Governor Clinton, to an agreement with Federalist Alexander Hamilton, to ratify the Constitution. The key to this was the pledge that the first American Congress, set to meet in NYC would pass, in its first assembly, both 1) a Bill of Rights and 2) the promise of another Constitutional Convention within two years. This handshake ended by far the most difficult negotiation between these first two identifiable political parties in US constitutional history. Under those terms, New York became the eleventh state to ratify the US Constitution.

Foster’s mural as depicted on a 1987 United States Postal Service special cancellation commemorative card

As I studied the mural, it seemed to me unlikely that the painter would have known of this history and thus been able to choose the participants depicted in this painting, But who could have advised and directed him? I had a candidate in mind, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but needed to find a way of gaining more information.

I knew FDR to be a serious historian, particularly of his own Dutch Colonial family and of Dutchess County, where his branch of the family had resettled in the early 19th Century, following the arrival and settlement of his family in New York City in the 1600s.

I enlisted two potential resources: 1) the FDR Presidential Library in Hyde Park NY to trace FDR’s involvement and 2) the Smithsonian Institution’s Archive of American Art in Washington, DC, which holds the papers of the artist, Gerald Foster.

The FDR Presidential Library suggested I send them an email outlining my interest, which would be assigned to one of their several archivists, who would respond to me within two weeks. Precisely two weeks later, to the day, I received a healthy packet of materials from Mr. F., my archivist, which contained two particularly interesting items, The first was a copy of a manuscript letter dated May 28, 1939 from Foster to the head of the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Section of Fine Arts (“the Section”), the funder of the mural, pertaining to ”the subject matter and the characters portrayed” in his Ratification Mural. One sentence reads: The idea for this group was suggested by Pres. Franklin D, Roosevelt. Another reads: Authentic old portraits were found for eighteen (out of 21) of the figures shown.

The second item was a copy of a typewritten letter from the chief of the Section of Fine Arts to the President of the United States, dated April 29, 1939, dealing with a jury of local Poughkeepsie arts experts, including a “Miss Reynolds” concerning the approval of designs for several Poughkeepsie post office murals. A sentence reads: “Since Miss Reynolds is not in agreement with the jury, and as there are four or five designs which appear to us to be of merit, I would appreciate very much your reviewing the designs.”

So FDR was clearly involved in this mural development and there was a Cherchez La Femme individual named Reynolds making trouble. Shades of Alexander Hamilton’s affair many years earlier! (Further research turns up many references to Miss Reynolds as FDR’s great friend and fellow historian at the Dutchess County Historical Society, Helen Reynolds. Mystery solved!)

Bob Crothers’s work station at the Archives of American Art as he went through microfilm researching Foster’s mural, March 2020

This past week, I explored the painter’s side of the occasion and found several interesting references in the microfilm of Gerald Foster’s papers at the Archives of American Art in Washington D.C. The first was a typed memo describing Foster’s recollections and personal details of his meeting(s) with FDR on this and two other, less significant, murals done by the painter. Another was a handwritten note on the verso of an unidentified sketch noting FDR’s involvement in the details of its preparation. And lastly there is the local Poughkeepsie newspaper’s page one announcement on May 18, 1938 of the Ratification mural’s dedication.

QED, the Ratification mural in the Poughkeepsie Post Office was conceived and directed by our then-president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, aided by his fellow Dutchess County Historical Society correspondent Helen Reynolds, and executed by muralist Gerald Foster in 1937/38.

McCoy Tyner, 1938-2020

People have been emailing and texting these past 24 hours with the news of the passing of jazz pianist McCoy Tyner. He is the final member of the John Coltrane classic quartet to pass away. In one email back and forth I mentioned to a friend, a very observant individual and part of the New York jazz scene in the 1970s, how one can scarcely if at all articulate in words what the Coltrane classic quartet created, that they tapped into a Higher Force or whatever one might choose to call it. My friend and I wondered if even the four of them were even able to put the experience in words, or if the force passed through them and they accepted it. Years after it was all over, when asked how they accomplished what they did, the drummer in that quartet, Elvin Jones, told an interviewer, ‘You gotta be willing to die with the motherfucker.” It is not clear that Jones was joking. Maybe that’s as close to the articulation as one can get.

Here is that classic quarter playing “Naima” in Belgium in 1965. This footage is near the very end for the Tyner, Jones, Garrison, Coltrane lineup. Tyner for one would strike out on his own not long after this and pursue his solo career. Coltrane died two year later.



Women’s History Month at the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace


If you are looking for something to do in recognition of Women’s History Month in the coming weeks I might suggest the above programs at the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace on these successive Saturdays. A guy with my initials even goes off on the 21st.

These past few weeks I have been pulling together my presentation, which focuses on the Roosevelt family’s response to the American Civil War. Young Teedie’s parents supported different sides during the conflict. His mother Mittie was a Georgia belle from a slave-owning family with a brother and several half-brothers in Confederate uniform; Theodore Roosevelt Sr. was a Union man, a friend of Abraham Lincoln’s personal secretary John Hay, who had his mail sent to the White House in care of Hay while out in the field registering men of the Army of the Potomac up for the allotment of their pay to their families back home. I tell the story in more detail in the manuscript of “Incorporating New York,” my history of Civil War Era New York City that will hopefully get published sometime in the future.

There is a rich assortment of speakers lined up for the house on East 20th Street in the coming weeks. Come out and take part in Women’s History Month in these waning days of winter.

The Boston Massacre 250th

Paul Revere’s interpretation of the Boston Massacre

I do not have much to say about the events of March 5, 1770 at the moment but I would be remiss if I did not at least briefly mention that today is the 250th anniversary of the Boston Massacre. I don’t believe it is saying too much to aver that we are now fully in the American Revolutionary War sestercentennial. There will be many events over the next six years, climaxing of course in July 2026. That seems far away but will be here before we know it. I am old enough to remember the bicentennial of the Revolutionary War in 1976. That 200th anniversary was just two years after Watergate and one year after the Fall of Saigon. Talk about the need for a usable past.

While I was too young to understand at the time how scholars used the 200th anniversary as a moment to explore our understanding of the war, I was very much aware of how the commemoration played out in the public consciousness. You couldn’t miss it in 1976; it was just all around you. I know that many communities are already preparing for events coming over the next six years. Publishers, too, are no doubt planning on releasing numerous works that will add further nuance to our understanding. Our current moment is an opportune time to study and reflect on the events of the 1770s, so far away and yet closer and more relevant than ever, and take to heart the lessons that the men and women of that time–our forbears–learned at such great cost.

(image/Library of Congress)

February 27, 1933: the Reichstag burns

I would be remiss if I did not stop and at least briefly note that today is the anniversary of the Reichstag fire, the burning of the German parliament building in Berlin one month after Hitler’s ascension to the chancellorship. The exact circumstances of the fire remain in dispute almost eight decades after the incident, though Nazi arson is often given as the most likely cause. What is clear is that Hitler used the incident as a means to secure greater control of his tenuous coalition; immediately following the conflagration, with the ashes still smoldering, they persuaded President Paul von Hindenburg to issue the Decree for the Protection of People and the Reich, known also as the Reichstag Fire Decree, clamping down on freedom of the press and other civil liberties. I have never understood why people do not take what public figures say at face value, especially when said figures are perfectly clear about their intentions. In Hitler’s case he had already made his objectives clear in the autobiography he had published in the mid-1920s. With the Reichstag fire the new German chancellor was one step closer to those goals.

(image/National Archives)

a “New Valley Forge”

Here are a few more images from my presentation this past Monday at Federal Hall on Presidents Day. Here we see an announcement for a Washington Birthday Democratic fundraiser held in Fort Worth, Texas on February 23, 1942. This was less than two months after Pearl Harbor in those tense days when the United States was getting up to speed in its war effort. The U.S. had been the “arsenal of democracy,” manufacturing tanks, bullets, jeeps, and whatnot for the Allies long prior to Pearl Harbor. Now American fighting men themselves would join the fray. As we see from the announcement the dinner was held on February 23, not Washington’s actually birthday, because the 22nd fell on a Sunday.

New York Times, February 23, 1942

Roosevelt himself did not attend the dinner, though as we see the Texas Democratic leadership was not hesitant to use his likeness, and on equal footing with President Washington no less. One must remember that Texas in this era was part of the Solid South, comprised, like the rest of the region, of Dixiecrats who since the Civil War eighty years previously had stood against the Party of Lincoln. In the 1930s these leaders, and those who voted for them, were part of the fragile New Deal coalition supporting FDR in cooperation with the Democratic machines of the northern cities. That coalition would hold another three decades until fracturing in the chaos of the Vietnam War and bitterness of the Civil Rights Movement. Roosevelt’s vice-president in his first two terms had been John Nance Garner, a Texan and former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. The tension and unease in their relationship were representative of the strains within the New Deal coalition itself.

Garner was gone by 1942 and now Roosevelt was facing the war in his unprecedented third term. What we see here is the snippet of an article from the February 23, 1942 New York Times describing the mood on Washington’s birthday in those weeks just after Pearl Harbor. The first public observation of George Washington’s birthday had been at Valley Forge in the winter of 1778. Now America was facing a “new Valley Forge.” Attendees at the Fort Worth soiree did not meet Franklin Roosevelt, but they did hear him. That night he gave one of his fireside chats over the radio outlining the progress and stakes of the war, and the lessons to be learned from the experience and difficulties of Washington and the men of his Continental Army all those years earlier.