They have my article up and running over at Roads to the Great War about husband and wife team John Jacob and Edith Nourse Rogers. This was a fun piece to write.
People have been texting and emailing over the course of the day with the news and their thoughts on the passing today of Henry Louis “Hank” Aaron. I don’t know what I have to say about his career and life that others have not said already, so I won’t go in to them too deeply. Still I felt it necessary to take a few minutes and recognize the man and everything he represented, and I don’t mean merely on the playing field.
One of my most vivid memories as a baseball fan was watching him hit number 715 off Al Downing, the Dodger pitcher destined to become a trivia question. There is a great recording of Frank Sinatra doing a live show in New York City and mentioning to the audience from the stage that Aaron had broken Babe Ruth’s record. Sinatra even mention Downing by name. Like most people, I had no idea what the man was forced to endure. I remember being excited in the late 1990s when players like Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds were breaking home run records seemingly every year. In September 1998 a friend and I visited the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown and there in the front entranceway was McGwire and Sosa’s memorabilia. Did we happily pose for pictures in front of it all? Of course we did.
My friend and I were hardly alone in our excitement. Most Americans got caught up in it. Looking back with twenty plus years of hindsight it all seems so tawdry, and I don’t just mean because many players of the era were/are alleged to have taken performance enhancing steroids. I know that previous eras had their own similar scandals which, as with steroids, were often hushed up by people in position to do something about it. In the 1950s-70s that usually meant the amphetamines, or “greenies” as players called them, that some used to get through the grind that is a major league season. All that said, there was something obscene about so many players hitting so many home runs day in and day out as they were in the late 90s and early 2000s.
I love the photograph directly above of Aaron’s Braves uniform juxtaposed with that of Sadaharu Oh, the slugger who for the Yomiuri Giants in Nippon Professional Baseball hit more home runs than any other professional player. Football is America’s passion and soccer has always been the world’s leading sport. Basketball has come into it own over the past several decades on the international level–long gone are the days when the Americans could assume the Olympic gold medal. One however should never underestimate baseball’s cultural reach. Today one of baseball’s greatest and most dignified men has left us. It’s all very difficult to process.
(images: White House staff photographers, NARA; Motokoka, Wikimedia Commons)
This past Monday I read with sadness of the passing of Reggie Foster. The name may not be familiar to many, but Reginald Foster was one of the great Latinist of the past half century. Father Foster was born in Milwaukee in 1939 and died of COVID in an assisted living facility in the early morning hours of Christmas day in that same city. For decades this Carmelite monk had translated anything that came into the Office of Latin Letters of the Vatican Secretariat of State, toiling at a bare desk in a modest space for four decades stretching from 1969-2009. Foster—or Reggie as he was known to generations of Latin enthusiasts—was much more than that. A man of great intellectual capacity with a strong body constitution and an incredible capacity for work, for years he also taught as many as ten classes each academic year at the Pontifical Gregorian University to all levels of learners. His students included the lowest beginners to the most advanced trying to take that final step to mastery.
I myself had not known who Father Foster was until this past fall. Early this year, for reasons still unknown to me, I felt an urge and urgency to begin studying Latin. I started in earnest in early summer and when the busy fall semester began I found the time by studying from 6:00 – 7:30 am each morning before I began the workday. Foster’s name and life’s work came to my knowledge around September when I read Ann Patty’s poignant memoir “Living with a Dead Language: My Romance with Latin.” After reading that book I began the inevitable deeper dive into Foster, including a JSTOR search where I found several pieces of longform journalism about the man. Apparently someone is well along the way on a biography at the current moment.
What made Foster so respected and admired was his commitment to the language itself. He had little patience for anyone who saw Latin as a means of “self-improvement,” improving SAT scores, or any faddish motives that diminished the language itself. That’s why people came from around the world to study under him. Foster’s students admired and respected the man greatly, but his bosses at the Vatican and at the Gregorian University often found the outspoken priest difficult to rein in. The university let him go eventually because, well . . . he was telling students not pay for the courses. When anyone showed up he was always happy to have them if they took the work seriously. He spoke often and loudly also when he saw things in the Vatican that he believed were silly, ridiculous, or just plain wrong. His superiors did not like that, but he was just too good at his job as a Latin translator to let go. If an encyclical or other document had to go out quickly for release, and with assurance that there would be mistakes, the task inevitably fell to Father Foster. The final denouement came when he gave an outspoken on-camera interview to Bill Maher—standing in front of the Vatican—that appeared in Maher’s 2008 documentary “Religulous.” None of that meant Foster had lost his Faith, his love for the Vatican, or for the Discalced Carmelite itself. Far from it. He almost certainly would have gotten fired, but because he was so close to retirement his bosses let it go and he held on for the few months he remaining.
Foster returned to Milwaukee after his many decades in Rome. Health issues eventually confined him to a wheelchair and the retirement facility. Still he continued teaching classes, again almost always for free, to anyone who took the work seriously. There are many lessons to take from the life and experience of Reginald Thomas Foster: his belief in committing to and mastering difficult tasks is one of them; his work ethic and intellectual rigor are others. He found beauty in simple things and led an ascetic life dedicated to the search for truth and meaning. Though I never met him, I’m glad I learned who he was while he still alive. What is more, I will try in my own modest way to live up to his ideals.
Ooff. Long day. It was leavened somewhat when someone emailed me around noontime and told me that today was Dizzy Gillespie’s birthday. It had totally escaped me that today was the 103rd anniversary of Gillespie’s birth. In a nice piece of serendipity I was listening to Charlie Parker when I opened my friend’s message. In this case Bird was accompanied not by Gillespie but the young Miles Davis. Here is something I wrote on this date nine (!) years ago commemorating Dizzy Gillespie. My gosh, has he really been gone twenty-seven years. Though I never saw him live, I am glad I lived during his time. I stand by what I said all those years ago about Dizzy Gillespie being underrated and under appreciated despite the plaudits he received during and after his lifetime. Here is some listening for an autumn evening. . .
I was listening to the Brewers game last night when Bob Uecker declared over the radio that pitcher Tom Seaver had died. For the remainder of the game Uecker and his boothmate, in between balls and strikes, had a discussion about Tom Terrific’s influence on the 1969 Mets, and on baseball over the course of the past 50+ years more generally. I had noted with great sadness a little over a year and a half ago when Seaver’s family announced that he had dementia and was thus retiring from public life. It was a combination of the dementia, Lyme disease, and COVID-19 from which he succumbed. I remember like yesterday when he threw his no-hitter for the Reds again the Cardinals in June 1978. It is no wonder Sparky Anderson, the Reds skipper that season, once famously declared that, “My idea of managing is giving the ball to Tom Seaver and then sitting down and watching him work.”
A friend of mine from where we grew up in Florida remembers meeting Seaver at what we used to call Little Yankee Stadium in Fort Lauderdale. (The stadium was so-named because the Yankees used to hold their Spring Training there.) Back in the day Spring Training was more laid back and one could get closer, even walk straight up to, a player waiting to get on the bus or what you. Seaver was leaning against a poll working on a crossword puzzle when my friend, probably all of twenty at the time, approached and got a gracious five minute audience with the pitcher. Seaver’s final season was 1986 when he played in Boston. His record that year wasn’t very good but I always felt he was a stabilizing force in what was a tumultuous season for the Red Sox as they closed in on the pennant. Unfortunately he got injured and so did not play in the post-season against the Mets, which would have been something.
More than just a pitcher and ballplayer, Seaver was a cultural force. There was just something about him that appealed to people’s better and wiser sensibilities. People connected with and through him. I was emailing with someone about all this today, who said that Seaver, and the Mets more generally, were the sole cultural connections he had with his father-in-law, an immigrant who’d fled persecution in Europe and settled in New York in the mid-twentieth century.
(image/Sgt Randall A Clinton USMC, via Wikimedia Commons)
Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts on this date in 1817. The writer and philosopher lived an incredibly short life; he died in May 1862 just shy of his 45h birthday. To put that into perspective, his death occurred in the middle of General McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign. I have always wondered what Thoreau might have had to say about the Civil War had he lived through its entirety. Walt Whitman gave us “Drum Taps” and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” at the war’s end, and then went on to live another twenty-seven years after Appomattox. Thoreau was a mere two years older than Whitman.
Perhaps intellectually Thoreau did not have the sensibility to live in and understand Gilded Age America, much in the way Theodore Roosevelt’s 1919 death spared him having to live through the Roaring Twenties and Jazz Age, to which Roosevelt would have been constitutionally unsuited. So, maybe it’s for the best that Thoreau died when he did before the full tragedy of the war unfolded. This was we remember him as we do with the transcendentalists and for the influence he later had on Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and others.
A few weeks ago I began subscribing to The Atlantic. Given certain things taking place in our world today it has never been more important to support journalism. One of the things I find most beneficial about the periodical, in addition to its great stable of contributors, is its historical memory. The Atlantic has been in publication since 1857, the year of a great financial panic and depression. Three years later came Lincoln’s 1860 presidential victory and soon thereafter the Civil War. Here is the magazine’s online author page for one Henry David Thoreau.
(photograph by George F. Parlow/Library of Congress)
I read with great interest this morning James G. Basker’s remembrance of investor and philanthropist Richard Gilder, who died on May 12 at the age of 87. Those with an interest in the study of the past might know that Mr. Gilder was one half of the partnership that founded The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. The work they and their teams have done over these past several decades has been crucial to the dissemination and understanding of American history. One of their wisest moves has always been to focus on primary sources. Their emphasis has always been to let the people of the past speak to us in their own words via their speeches, letters, public broadsides, and recordings. At the institution where I myself work, we have applied for and won grants provided by the Gilder Lehrman Institute which have allowed us to discuss America and its role in the world and share it with the public. The ultimate investment is in people and knowledge.
Important though all that work was–and continues to be–Gilder accomplished more than that. He was instrumental to the renovation of Central Park in the hard years of the 1970s, and the revival of the New-York Historical Society among many other things. Getting older provides perspective. I have been a New Yorker long enough now to have lived through several eras and seen certain things change and change again, from the height of irrational exuberance to our current fraught moment. Has it been more than a decade and a half the Hamilton exhibit came to the Upper West Side? That was years before the Broadway play. The N-YHS slavery and Lincoln exhibits followed soon thereafter. I remember taking my late father-in-law to see the latter well over a decade ago. He and my father are now gone but they live on in the lessons I learned from both of them, combined with the places we visited and things we saw along the way.
I have been trying not to do too much today, which is not something that comes easily to me, but I would be remiss if I did not note that today marks the 75th anniversary of the death of Franklin Roosevelt. He died at the health spa he founded for the treatment of infantile paralysis in Warm Springs, Georgia on April 12, 1945. I am old enough to remember a time when there were still plenty of Americans–your teacher, the mailman, your Aunt Shirley, whoever–who regarded Franklin Roosevelt as essentially a family member. While I do believe it is unhealthy and unwise to venerate any public official to such a degree, it is not difficult to see why so many would have thought in such manner given the way Roosevelt had come over the radio into people’s living rooms offering a soothing, confident tone during the Depression and Second World War. One of the things that has been so devastating these past several years has been to see the erosion of everything that the men and women of the mid-century–Franklin & Eleanor, Harry Truman, George Marshall, Dean Acheson, and Dwight Eisenhower to name just a few–be undone thread by thread. Many today do not recognize how fragile the thing is and how difficult it was to put together to begin with.
I have been perusing some of the coverage and came across this piece by Kurt Graham, the director of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum, in which Mr. Graham recounts what Truman and Roosevelt were doing on this date seventy-five year ago: preparing their separate talks for the annual Jefferson Dinner to have been held the following day. None of that happened, of course. With Roosevelt’s death Truman ascended to the president and a new era had commenced.
(image/FDR Presidential Library)
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)
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.