Tom Seaver, 1944-2020

Tom Seaver throws first pitch at City Field inaugural, 11 April 2009

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)

Remembering the March on Washington

National Mall, Washington D.C., August 28, 1963

I am currently about 150 pages into Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963, the first volume in his trilogy about the United States in the 1950s and 60s seen through the lens of the Civil Rights Movement. I am currently in the chapter on the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Branch’s series has been on my radar for decades, without ever quite making it to the top of my reading list until now. There is something extraordinary when a historian researches and writes a story with such authority and grace. It is all the more rewarding, even humbling, when the subject matter is worthy of the writer’s skills.

Today is the 57th anniversary of the March on Washington. Over the years I’ve read and watched many first hand accounts of people who were there, including Bob Dylan, Nat Hentoff, Bill Russell, and Jackie Robinson just to name a few. Broadly speaking, I have always found the first half of the 1960s more socially, politically, and culturally intriguing than the second half. The later events may have been more dramatic and played out more graphically on television, but the seeds for them had been planted in the years immediately beforehand. These are events in our history that seem so far removed and yet so near at the same time.

(image/photographer Marion S. Trikosko for U.S. News & World Report, via Library of Congress)

Remembering the Negro Leagues, part two

Today is the second and concluding section of our look at the history and legacy of the Negro Leagues, which began play one hundred years ago in 1920. In August 1945, just weeks after the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the Second World War, former Negro Leaguer and veteran Jackie Robinson signed a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers that ultimately signaled the beginning of the end of Negro League baseball.

If you have not already, read part one here.

Baseball declined in talent during the Second World War when many players traded their baseball uniform for a military one and substandard replacements took their place. Returning players, black and white, resumed play in the summer of 1945 and baseball quickly regained its popularity. Major League Baseball remained strictly segregated however, despite the deep pool of African-American talent. White and black players were nonetheless familiar with each other because they played frequently in exhibition games. These might be games between two teams from different leagues or contests between collections of black and white all-stars. There is consensus among baseball historians that the best Negro players would have been stars in Major League Baseball. Calls to integrate baseball in the years just prior to the Second World War stalled once America joined the conflict. Demands for integration became more intense after the war as African-Americans demanded equal access not just within baseball but across society.

Larry Doby 1951 Bowman Gum card

African-American Jackie Robinson had been a standout in baseball, football, basketball and track at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) before serving in the Army as a second lieutenant during the Second World War. He played briefly for the Kansas City Monarchs after his return before signing a contract with Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers on August 28, 1945. Robinson played for the minor league Montreal Royals in 1946 and led the team to the International League title. He made his Major League debut at Ebbets Field the following season on April 15, 1947 against the Boston Braves. Larry Doby became the first African-American to integrate the American League, when he appeared for the Cleveland Indians on July 5, 1947. Robinson, Doby, and the two other African-American players who broke baseball’s color barrier that season endured cheap shots from opposing players, taunts from fans, and even death threats over the course of the season. Baseball teams continued integrating and African-Americans, many of them former Negro League players, quickly became standouts. An African-American won the National League Most Valuable Players award eight out of ten times in the 1950s.

By the 1960s both the American and National Leagues were fully integrated and African-Americans were making major contributions to the game. Retired Boston Red Sox outfielder Theodore “Ted “ Williams used his July 1966 National Baseball Hall of Fame induction speech to express his hope that someday ballplayers like Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson might be added to the Hall “as a symbol of the great Negro players that are not here only because they were not given the chance.” Major League Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn formed a Negro League Committee to determine what players to induct. One month later Satchel Paige became the first Negro League player inducted into the Hall. The committee continued its work until 1977 and inducted several additional players. In 2006 the Hall of Fame created a committee of historians to examine the cases of other Negro players, owners, and executives who might also merit inclusion.

Curt Flood

African-Americans contributed off the field as well. Star player Curt Flood sued Major League Baseball for refusing a trade from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies in 1969. The case eventually went all the way to the Supreme Court in 1972, and while Mr. Flood lost the decision his trial helped end the “reserve clause” system that kept players contractually tied to one team at the owners’ discretion. The Flood Decision helped bring about arbitration and free agency. African-American participation in professional baseball waned in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries as other sports grew in popularity. While blacks comprised over 25% of major league players in 1975, the percentage is today less than 15%. Conversely, players from Latin America, the Caribbean, and Asia comprise a larger percentage of players than previously. Major League Baseball has spurred interest in the game through such programs as the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program, which began in 1989.

Paseo YMCA, Kansas City Monarchs mural

The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum (NLBM), located in Kansas City, Missouri, was founded in 1990 and opened to the public in a modest space one year later. Today the NLBM shares a state-of-the-art facility with the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City’s historic district. The Paseo YMCA, two blocks from the Negro Leagues and Jazz Museums, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1991. It was at The Paseo, in the heart of Kansas City’s bustling African-American community, that Rube Foster and others founded the Negro National League in 1920. The Paseo is now the home of the Buck O’Neil Education and Research Center (BOERC). Mr. O’Neil (1911-2006) was a star player for the Kansas City Monarchs and later a coach and manager in the Negro and Major Leagues. He was integral to the founding and growth of the NLBM.

(images from top: Love of the Game Auctions, Bowman Gum, St. Louis Cardinals/MLB, Mwkruse via Wikimedia Commons)

 

 

 

Remembering the Negro Leagues, part one

Tomorrow, Sunday August 16, Major League Baseball is observing the 100th anniversary of the Negro Leagues. Part of that observation will include the wearing of throwback uniforms, which I love. In July 2018 I wrote an encyclopedia article on Negro baseball for a project that eventually got cancelled. For two years I have been waiting to find a spot for it somewhere, and that tine has come. Today is part one, which brings the story up to 1945; tomorrow will cover the succeeding seventy-five years. I hope you enjoy reading the piece as much as I enjoyed researching and writing it.

Bud Fowler (top middle) with Keokuk, Iowa professional baseball team, 1885

Baseball originated in America in the decades immediately prior to the Civil War. No one person invented the game. Instead players created different rules independently of each other in different locales. Baseball also evolved from such European games as cricket and rounders. African-Americans too enjoyed playing baseball and were active in the game’s growth. Freepersons and slaves fielded teams during the years of the game’s development. Union and Confederate alike played the game in their respective camps during the Civil War, further spreading and standardizing the game. Black and white squads barnstormed after the war, playing games as they could. In 1869 the first white professional team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, was founded. The Cuban Giants, formed in 1885, were the first African-American professional team. As the game grew more institutionalized during the Gilded Age black and white players played in a number of predominantly segregated baseball leagues. Some of these now long gone affiliations of clubs are considered major leagues up to the present time.

In 1876 the National League came into being. The American League was founded in 1901. Determining the role of African-Americans in the early years of organized baseball can be difficult given the scarce data and varying criteria. John W. “Bud” Fowler is believed to be the first African-American to break professional baseball’s color barrier, playing for a number of minor league clubs from 1878 to at least 1895. Scholars usually credit Moses Fleetwood Walker, who played the 1884 season for a Toledo team in the American Association, with being the first African-American to play for a major league team.

Rube Foster (right) then of the Chicago American Giants playing against a white Joliet, Illinois team in 1916

Though there were six dozen African-Americans playing minor league or independent ball in the late nineteenth century, major league baseball, like the nation itself, was entirely segregated by this time due to the so-called “gentlemen’s agreement” among owners to exclude blacks. African-American teams and leagues nonetheless remained popular and were common in the early 1900s. African-American baseball began a new era when Andrew “Rube” Foster founded the National Negro League on February 13, 1920. Properly understood, Foster’s creation was the origin of what is today called the Negro Leagues. The Negro National League was initially quite successful with teams primarily in the Midwest fielding such stars as Leroy Robert “Satchel” Paige, third baseman William Julius “Judy” Johnson, slick fielding shortstop John Henry “Pop” Lloyd, and center fielders James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell and Oscar McKinley Charleston. However, organized black baseball faced increasing hardship as African-American communities struggled financially in the late 1920s. The NNL further floundered with Foster’s declining health and eventual death in 1930. The Great Depression hit the Negro National League hard and the organization disbanded in 1931.

A newly reconstituted Negro National League began in 1933 and a competing Negro American League started play in 1937. The new Negro National League now played in the Northeast; the Negro American League was concentrated in the Midwest and South. The champions of these leagues played a Negro World Series from 1942-48. Previous African-American leagues in the 1920s had played what organizers called the Colored Championship of the World. The 1930s and 1940s are considered the golden age for Negro League baseball. Stars of this era included not only many holdovers from the previous era but new standouts such as slugger Walter “Buck” Leonard, Monford “Monty” Irvin, Roy Campanella, and Jack Roosevelt “Jackie” Robinson. The annual East-West All-Star game was an especially popular feature in Negro League baseball. Prominent Negro teams spanning various eras and leagues included the Birmingham Black Barons, Chicago American Giants, Hilldale (PA) Daisies, Homestead (PA) Grays, Indianapolis ABCs, Kansas City Monarchs, Newark Eagles, and Pittsburgh Crawfords.

Meanwhile baseball was growing beyond the borders of the United States as American influence expanded. Cubans had played baseball to a limited degree in the nineteenth century. Esteban Enrique  Bellán of Havana became the first Latino to play major league baseball in the United States when he played the 1871-1873 seasons for the Troy (NY) Haymakers and New York Mutuals of the National Association. Cubans in turn introduced the game in the Spanish-speaking country of the Dominican Republic. The game quickly gained popularity in other Latin American countries, across parts of the Caribbean, and in Mexico as well. Baseball in Cuba was waning by the time of the Spanish-American War. The American presence after the conflict rejuvenated interest in the game, leading to a baseball renaissance on the island that continues up to the present time.

Babe Ruth in Vancouver aboard the Empress of Japan on October 20, 1934 as part of all-star contingent heading to Asia

Baseball also spread across the Pacific. The Japanese began playing the game as early as the 1870s. American teams, usually comprised of all-stars, began visiting in the years shortly after the Russo-Japanese War. The most famous of these goodwill tours was a 22-game visit to the Far East featuring such American players as Jimmie Foxx, Vernon Louis “Lefty” Gomez, Lou Gehrig, and George Herman “Babe” Ruth playing against Japanese and other Asian all-stars in 1934. Many of these countries in the Caribbean, Latin America and the Far East developed their own leagues and built ballparks of professional standards. There were always at least a few Hispanic baseball players in the various major leagues from Bellán’s service in Troy in 1871 up through the full integration of colored players into Major League Baseball after the Second World War.

Click here for part two.

(image: top, National Baseball Hall of Fame, National Baseball Library; middle, RMY Auctions; bottom, Stuart Thomson photographer)

 

Hiroshima, August 6, 1945

Hiroshima, 1945

I don’t know if I have anything particularly insightful, new, or especially revelatory to say about it, but I would be remiss if I did not mention that today is the 75th anniversary of the dropping of Little Boy on Hiroshima.

Truman had been in office less than four months at this time. Roosevelt had kept the Manhattan Project a secret from his vice-president, who learned of the race to build the atomic bomb only after Roosevelt’s death in April. Imagine hearing about such a thing for the first time, and knowing you would be the one who would have to make such a decision. The history, creation, and use of the atomic bomb is a story that resonates on the individual and universal level. Very rarely do tipping points in history come so sharply and clearly as they did seventy-five years ago today. There was no turning back or putting the genie back in the bottle for humankind after August 6, 1945. The world had unambiguously entered a new age.

(image/Truman Library Institute)

“Brown Broadway”

Newsboys on LA’s Central Avenue, 1939

One Sunday afternoon in March 1989 my brother and I attended Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s final game in Houston against the Rockets. That was now more than three decades ago and my memories are naturally fuzzy, but as I recall I don’t think we knew when we bought the tickets that it would be the great center’s final game in Space City. Before the game they had the typical ceremony where the aging soon-to-be-hall of famer receives accolades and usually some cheesy gifts. Abdul-Jabbar said a few uncomfortable words and then the game was on. Houston was an important city in Kareem’s career: in the 1980s his Lakers lost twice to the Rockets in the Western Conference playoffs and in January 1968 then-still Lew Alcindor’s #2 ranked UCLA Bruins lost to the #1 ranked Houston Cougars 71-69 in the so-called Game of the Century before a nationally televised audience before tens of thousands in the Astrodome. (In March the Bruins would defeat Dean Smith’s North Carolina Tar Heels in the NCAA Finals.)

Abdul-Jabbar has always played a role in my and my brother’s popular culture narrative. Though sports mean less to me than they once did, you could not be a Boston sports fan in the 1980s and not think of Los Angeles Lakers. In retrospect I understand that our infatuation was partly based on our being uprooted from the Northeast and transported to the grim, humid Sunbelt in the 1970s; torn from our roots, we clung as we could to was there, which for us included the Red Sox, Bruins, Patriots, and–especially–the Celtics. These were the days before the internet or, for us, even cable television, and we often called the local newspaper in the late evening to ask the final score of this or that game before the next morning’s paper.

Abdul-Jabbar always seemed a shy and reserved man, less comfortable in the spotlight than Earvin Johnson. Magic’s affability and gift of gab probably took a great deal of strain off of the great center, which could only have been a relief. In the mid-90s I was working at a large chain bookstore in Houston when we were planning for some book signing event. That led to a discussion in the break room of previous public figures who had passed through in recent years, usually before my arrival on the job. One of them was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who my co-workers told me left though the backdoor halfway through the signing. If that even happened, who know why? Arrogance? Shyness? Social anxiety? Condescension? People are complicated.

A thoughtful and insightful individual, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has kept busy writing books and articles for much of the past thirty years. He recently wrote this fascinating story about Black Los Angeles for the LA Times. It especially covers the LA jazz scene, something that the retired basketball player turned writer knows more than a little about. Lew Alcindor grew up in Harlem and his father both a NYC transit cop and Julliard-trained musician who knew and played with most of the greats of the mid-twentieth century. Do check it out.

(image/photographer, Fred William Carter; Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library)

 

 

Newport 1965: Dylan plugs in

Bob Dylan performs an acoustic set at St. Lawrence University, November 26, 1963, just days after the Kennedy assassination and a year and a half before “going electric” at Newport in July 1965

Today is the 55th anniversary of Bob Dylan’s so-called plugging in and going electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Dylan at Newport in ’65 is one of those now Well Told Tales, recounted today by hundreds of thousands but witnessed in real time by a fraction of that number. The story has been mythologized, and to a large degree overblown, for more than half a century now. In the standard telling fans were outraged that Dylan would deign to forgo his folk roots and pollute the purity and sanctity of Newport with electronic sound. That doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. For one thing, there had already been electric music played at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival; the Paul Butterfield Blues Band had done that very thing, as had others.

What is more, Dylan’s most ardent followers would have already known the directions he was already taking; his fifth album, the half-electric Bringing It All Back Home, had been released four months earlier in March. It seems the real issue with any booing–and it’s not really evident that there was that much–had to do with the sound quality of the stage set. The festival had been growing exponentially each succeeding year and organizers were having difficulty accommodating the thousands of listeners who converged on that New England seaside community fifty-five summers ago.

Nineteen sixty-five was a tipping point in the decade. Malcolm X had been assassinated in February, the Johnson Administration was escalating the American presence in Vietnam, Watts burned just two weeks after the Newport Festival. By the years’s end the Beatles would release Help! and Rubber Soul, and Dylan himself came out with Highway 61 Revisited. I was talking to someone a few days ago about this heady time when the Beatles and Dylan were taking over popular culture and he described it saying that it felt like the world was transforming from black-and-white to color, which in many ways it was via photography and television. It is no wonder people remember–and misremember–the moment so “clearly.”

(image/1964 St. Lawrence University yearbook)

 

Opening Day 2020 redux

Baseball field before Healy Hall, Georgetown University 1900

Opening Day of the truncated sixty game MLB schedule starts tonight when the Yankees face off against the Nationals in Washington D.C. I’m turning the game on the radio in a few minutes. I posted on what was supposed to have been Opening Day in late March, almost four months ago now. I was talking to someone the other day about potential anomalies that might occur due to the truncated schedule and other issues. We speculated that someone, or someones, may even hit .400. It’s not unusual for someone to hit above that mark for 2+ months at the start of a normal season before the longevity of a full complement of games brings them back to the statistical norm. While any batters hitting .400 for the first time since Ted Williams nearly eighty years ago would not really constitute a record of any sort, would there be some type of asterisk in the recognition of the achievement? Who knows? The wait-and-see uncertainty is strangely apropos and symbolic of 2020 itself.

(image/Georgetown University Library)

 

Rufus King, part two

King Manor, Jamaica Queens circa mid-twentieth century

The editors at the Journal of the American Revolution have posted the second and concluding article I wrote about Rufus King. This article brings King from 1789 to 1805, the year he purchased the house we see above. It worked out well because the scope of the JAR ends in 1805. Anything beyond that isn’t so much part of the Revolutionary or Early American periods. In 1805 King had another third of his life to go, but that’s a story for another time and venue. Work has been progressing on the manuscript about the King family in which I am in the early stages of writing. When the pandemic ends, I intend to visit archives in Massachusetts, Milwaukee, and elsewhere to track down the lives and times of his children, grandchildren, and beyond. Thankfully, there is also a large amount of material related to various Kings here in New York as well.

I love this image that we see above of King Manor. It comes from the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) report. It never quite occurred to me until I wrote the article linked to above that Rufus and wife Mary purchased this hime in 1805 inspired not just by Rufus’s childhood experience in Scarborough, Massachusetts (today Maine), but by the grand manors they would have seen in England when Mr. King was the U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James’s.

(image/Library of Congress)

 

Henry David Thoreau, 1817-1862

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.

Henry David Thoreau, August 1861

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)