All championships are miracles, somewhere, if you think about it.
Even if a team assembles a lineup full of Galácticos and runs away with a championship, it seems like a miracle for that time, that place, those athletes, those fans.
But here in New York, the Greatest Little Town in the World, we know that our miracles are bigger and better, more stupendous than any other miracles, just because.
Take 1969 – precisely 50 years ago, when the Amazing Mets won everything, which is why there is a year-long (more, in the planning) of celebrations and evocations and memorials, to say nothing of a one-event boom in the publishing industry, just as there was in 1970.
I have just read – and enjoyed -- two of the lunar tide of books cresting this spring.
One is “They Said It Couldn’t Be Done: The ’69 Mets, New York City, and the Most Astounding Season in Baseball History,” by Wayne Coffey.
See what I mean about New York being the center of the universe?
Coffey’s book is delightful because it replays the surprising surge by a franchise known for its goofy, even charming, failures. (Casey Stengel! Marvelous Marv! Bedsheet banners!)
Coffey also catalogues how the Mets firmed up before our unbelieving eyes under the talents and Marine steeliness of manager Gil Hodges and franchise superstar Tom Seaver. Some reporters (me) never believed it until Cleon Jones caught the last out and went to one knee in what only could be construed as prayer.
But….the very best part of Coffey’s book is the work he did nearly half a century after the fans stopped ripping up the Shea lawn for souvenirs. Coffey, it turns out, was a schoolboy playing hooky, in that scrum, on that day of days. Later he became a good and versatile reporter for The New York Daily News. Now he writes books…and works at them.
I loved, absolutely loved, catching up with people I knew half a century ago. Coffey discloses a previous link between Hodges and the mid-season acquisition, Donn Clendenon, who has posthumously become a more vital part of those Mets. Also, Coffey discloses that Clendenon was mentored at Morehouse College by a graduate named Martin Luther King, Jr., and was often a guest in the King home.
By 1969, Clendenon was also a salty vet who hit the Met clubhouse motor-mouthing, heckling everybody, the way the 60s Pirates had done. He told Gil Hodges, Jr., the teen-age son of the manager, to man up and defy his Marine dad. Gilly was wise enough to tell Clendenon: no way.
Coffey pays attention to the bigger picture – Karl Eberhardt, the self-proclaimed Little Old Signmaker in the stands, and Jane Jarvis, the hip jazz musician who played the Shea organ with wit and talent, and two batboys from my high school (the late, lamented Jamaica High) who were mentored by Joe Austin, Mario Cuomo’s legendary amateur coach.
With Shakespearean breadth, Coffey describes the major players and also the Rosencrantzes and Guildensterns of the Amazing Mets. Yes, it was a miracle.
The other book I have read is “Here’s the Catch: a Memoir of the Miracle Mets and More.” If the book sounds like Rocky, earnestly thundering to epic catches and humiliating gaffes, that is because he has been writing it on his own for a while. He describes himself as an average-IQ human and middle-of-the-pack major leaguer but his curiosity and zest have made him much more, over the years.
Rocky, going on 75 and vibrant, tells about departed teammates and soul mates like Tug McGraw and Ed Charles and Tommie Agee – guys with whom he competed and talked and drank and ate ribs and gallivanted.
Having known him since he was a teen-ager in Met camp in 1965, I know Rocky to be an autodidact (one year of being a jock in college) who often demonstrates his eclectic tastes. He follows the music of the Marsalis Family of his adopted home of New Orleans, and he also mentions classical music…and the Globe Theatre of Shakespearean time….and Jackson Pollock…and Monet….and Don DeLillo and so on. He means it. That is Rocky.
Maybe the best part of Swoboda’s book is growing up in a working-class neighborhood of Baltimore – relatives with tempers and guns and wit and opinions, two of them working in the morgue, pulling gory pranks on cops. Then there was the family flasher. Plus, the Chinese cook his earthy grandmother married, who smoked and drank and drove erratically and taught him how to make and eat Chinese food.
Swoboda writes about his lovely redheaded wife, Cecilia, and how Casey and Edna Stengel, childless, fussed over the Swobodas’ first-born, and his active scorn for the Vietnam War and the instant rapport when he visited the troops over there, very close to combat.
He laments behaving like a jackass toward Hodges, who was not just resolute with big hands but also a wily manager. All sports memoirs should be this earnest, this real.
On my incoming table are books by Art Shamsky about 1969, plus Ron Darling’s book, mostly about 1986, which was, of course, another miracle.
They all are, but some are more miraculous than others.
The Pulitzer-Prize-winning architecture expert, writing about ballparks, past and present?
What a way to start the season.
An advance copy of Paul Goldberger's book, “Ballpark: Baseball in the American City,” to be published by Knopf in May, kept me sane through certain other events in the past week. I learned about ballparks I had never seen, and I learned about ballparks I have loved, or not loved.
Ballparks are quirky, just like ballgames. Each one – at least now that the Cookie-Cutter Era is over – has its own human follies, like the alternating Sun Deck/Moon Deck at the funky (and vastly under-rated, Goldberger tells us) Crosley Field in Cincinnati.
Goldberger, who has graced The New York Times and the New Yorker with his perceptions, says David Remnick, the sports maven who runs The New Yorker, encouraged him to write about the two very different new ballparks in New York in 2009.
This forthcoming book follows the new Yankee Stadium in the “theme park” category and the erratic jumble of references and conceits of the Mets’ ball park, known to me as New Shea.
He manages to give us a primer on urban architecture – how baseball thrived in the 19th Century when new urban dwellers appreciated the rus in urbe of a green spot in a smoky city.
This is not your normal baseball book, not with Goldberger praising urban planners like Andrew Jackson Downing, Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted – my wife’s master’s degree paper -- who dedicated Central Park to leisure and beauty rather than sports. (The softball fields sneaked in later.)
Goldberger follows the urban ballparks that grew bigger, moved from wood to stone and steel, some even having a clue about architecture.
My greatest takeaway from this book is praise for the beauty of Ebbets Field, created by an architect, Clarence Randall Van Buskirk, who had to hide the blueprints in his jacket to keep Brooklynites from sussing out the land grab in a hilly section known as Pigtown.
We Dodger fans had a boisterous inferiority complex, and we compensated with weirdos who played musical instruments wretchedly and spoke in a language called Brooklynese.
Turns out, Goldberger said, Ebbets Field featured “arches and pilasters and large, Federal-style double-hung windows with multiple square panes. There were concrete gargoyles and bas-relief medallions of baseballs, showing a degree of wit…”
He adds that “if Van Buskirk’s well-crafted, carefully wrought façade resembled anything, it was a cross between a civic building and a handsome, turn-of-the-century factory building. In this factory, the ornamental detail made it clear that the product was baseball.”
Who knew? We thought it was a lovable dump.
Goldberger also praises the rather majestic and urbane Shibe Park, later Connie Mack Stadium, in North Philadelphia. I must have covered 100 games there, and never noticed. Goldberger loves the funkiness of Cincinnati, with its 4-foot-high hill in left field, and spacious Forbes Field amidst the museums and campuses of the Oakland section of Pittsburgh. He has good things to say about Tiger Stadium (which I never noticed) and praises the two icons, Wrigley Field and Fenway Park, with all the hexes of the teams and the fans. He speaks of a “golden age” of stadiums.
He is not as complimentary of the next stage – utilitarian, lookalike stadiums designed for the incompatible baseball and American football -- but praises the following stage, epitomized by Baltimore’s Camden Yards, with the factory behind right field.
Goldberger sounds downright dubious about the current trend, the Disneyfied faux urban gestures in downtown St. Louis and the new Braves complex, somewhere out there in the white ‘burbs, beyond the minimal Marta train system. Action. Reaction. Just like life, and history.
I was already killing time 'til the opening of the season, and now Goldberger’s book has raised my appreciation for (some of) the ballparks of North America. I haven’t found reason lately to visit the pretentious Yankeeland in the Bronx but I have made a few forays, admittedly closer to home, to the food courts and open spaces behind center field, with fish sandwiches and sausages—even if you can’t see the center fielder making a catch against the wall. Nothing’s perfect, and certainly not the Mets.
I’m looking forward to ballgames – plus paying more attention to ballparks, thanks to the master architecture critic, Paul Goldberger. Play ball.
Do you have a favorite ballpark, or one you couldn't stand, whether past or present?
* * *
About the book:
Here are two pieces I wrote for the excellent NYC real-estate site:
There I was on the F train, creeping (and I do mean creeping) through my home borough of Queens on Tuesday.
I’ve been reading a lot of books lately.
I think I know why.
My latest has been a gripping history of the first settler to advocate local government and polyglot culture among people he labelled “Americans” -- a new concept in the mid-17th Century.
Adriaen van der Donck was perhaps the first “New Yorker” – except that it was still named New Amsterdam in his time.
Of course, my discovery is a trifle late. The book, “The Island at the Center of the World,” by Russell Shorto, was first published in 2004. I don’t know how I missed it, until our friends Ina and Maury gave us a copy recently.
New Yorkers know the names of Peter Minuit and Peter Stuyvesant, executives sent to the New World to regulate commerce for the Dutch West India Company. Van der Donck, trained in the law, was also sent to New Amsterdam to help the company make more money, but he saw the mélange of Dutch and England, French and Spanish, Africans and Native Americans, and he realized they constituted something far more than company workers.
Van der Donck was sent as a lawman to another Dutch region, Fort Orange, now Albany, where he learned Indian languages and encouraged trade and visited their villages. Native Americans were somewhat free to bargain, to visit, to argue and even sue.
Why don’t we know more about him, and more about the contribution of Dutch society? For that matter, why don’t we know about the petition signed on Dec. 27, 1657, by 31 English settlers, protesting the persecution of Quakers. (Not one signee was Quaker.) And, while they were speaking up for Quakers, the English protesters proclaimed:
“The law of love, peace and liberty in the states extending to Jews, Turks and Egyptians, as they are considered sonnes of Adam, which is the glory of the outward state of Holland, soe (sow? GV) love, peace and liberty, extending to all in Christ Jesus, condemns hatred, war and bondage.”
The petition was signed in the Long Island village of Vlissinge, today known as Flushing, the home of the Amazing Mets and a bustling Chinatown and the start of a thriving Korean diaspora moving eastward along Northern Blvd. (the roadway of Tom and Daisy Buchanan.)
The Flushing Remonstrance – issued at the end of the time of Adriaen van der Donck -- is one of the great statements in the history of North America. It has rarely been more relevant than now, when “sonnes of Adam” are being separated psychologically, as children are grasped from their parents by agents of an increasingly cruel state.
In a way, the current regime led me to read this book about Dutch settlers.
The puffy, petulant face of a child tyrant -- as well as his dissonant voice, the President as shrill earworm -- have driven me from the news channels (and the repetitiveness of most commentators, and the commercials for old-age “remedies.”)
Lately, I have taken to sitting near the evening music on WQXR-FM and reading books. My wife, as part of her family genealogy studies, just finished “Domesday: a Search for the Roots of England,” issued by Michael Wood in 1986, and also a classic television documentary.
One more point about books: one of the heroes of Russell Shorto’s book is Charles Gehring, an American scholar, who has spent much of his career on an un-numbered floor in a state building in Albany, translating historic Dutch handwritten documents into contemporary English.
This book adds to my immense respect for scholars like Gehring – and Shorto – and Wood. They help us see ugly times in the 21st Century, in perspective.
* * *
The Flushing Remonstrance:
When the lights went out in New York City on July 13, 1977, looters took over many streets, breaking into stores, carrying merchandise away.
The next morning, Alan Rubin, the owner of an electronics store at West 98th St. and Broadway, posted a sign in his window: “WE ARE STAYING.”
Order was restored from the blackout and the general good will of New York returned. Alan Rubin was but one of thousands of small-business operators committed to making a living in the neighborhoods of the city.
Now his daughter, Jen Rubin, has written a book about those days, and the feeling for people and the city that many New Yorkers have. Her book is titled: “We Are Staying: Eighty Years in the Life of a Family, a Store, and a Neighborhood.”
Rubin, who lives in Madison, Wis., is a regular on the Moth story-telling series.
She comes from an accomplished family -- her mother, Sandi, worked for the Jerusalem Foundation, and her brother, Josh, is an attorney for the city. Regulars on my site will be familiar with frequent posts by Alan Rubin.
His daughter uses his quotes in 1977 to explain why he stayed:
“I’m responsible for twenty-five families—the families of people that work for me,” Alan Rubin said. “What’s going to happen to them if I pull out? As bad as I got hit, there are other guys that got wiped out. What’s going to happen if they can’t reopen? What can the city and government do to keep people like us from leaving these neighborhoods?”
And she writes about his feel for his business, then known as Radio Clinic:
“Forty-three years earlier his dad, who had run for his life from Russia, put his stake down on this block and slowly built up the business. When Grandpa became ill with cancer, he passed the business on to his son and son-in-law. This was the family’s business, and my dad wasn’t budging.”
Alan Rubin kept his store going and retired in 2006. He and Sandi now live in the Berkshires, where he, a former star goalkeeper for Lehigh University, teaches the position to young people, out of his love for the sport.
Jen Rubin’s new book is available through her website:
I was going to write about a heinous new development in baseball -- but other events intruded.
As the Mueller investigation demands records from the Trump business, and the porno queen heads to court, the President shows signs of unraveling.
In his pull-the-wings-off-flies mode, Trump had his garden-gnome Attorney General dismiss an FBI official just before his pension was official.
On Friday evening, the retired general Barry McCaffrey issued a statement that Trump is a “serious threat to US national security.”
Gen. McCaffrey fought in Vietnam, whatever we think of that war; Trump had spurious bone spurs. McCaffrey was later the so-called drug czar for the federal government, which is how I came to value his knowledge.
So instead of writing about baseball, I am placing this note atop my recent posting because the ongoing comments are fascinating – from the Panglossian to the dystopian.
I think it is important and life-affirming to be able to spot danger. Gen. McCaffrey has it. The majority members of Congress seem to have lost that ability.
Meanwhile, Trump’s Russian pals keep pummeling the soft midsection of the U.S. while the President tweets and fires people long-distance, the coward.
(This was my previous posting; comments ongoing.)
I haven’t posted anything in 12 days.
Been busy. One thing after another.
On Wednesday I stayed with the Mets-Yankees exhibition from Florida, even when people I never heard of were hitting home runs off people who won’t be around on opening day.
But it was baseball, and really, in ugly times like this, isn't that what matters?
Keith Hernandez and Ron Darling were going on delightful tangents after Darling said Kevin Mitchell had just emailed him.
Kevin Mitchell – the guy the front office blamed for leading poor Doc Gooden and poor Daryl Strawberry astray? That guy. Terrible trade, Hernandez said.
Ron and Keith meandered into tales of a nasty fight in Pittsburgh, started by my friend Bill Robinson, the first-base coach.
The broadcasters recalled how Mitchell was destroying some Pirate, and both teams had to stop their usual jostling and flailing to save a life. The good old days.
I loved the filibustering about 1986. The best impression I took from the three hours was the sight of Juan Lagares playing the sun, the wind and the ball with knowledge, grace, speed and touch.
“That’s a real center fielder!” I blurted.
Curt Flood. Paul Blair. Andruw Jones. Dare I say it, Willie Mays?
Baseball. I was happy.
* * *
I need to write something but I keep getting distracted.
I turn on the tube and think I see a traffic cam of an addled old man trying to cross Queens Boulevard -- the 300-foot-wideBoulevard of Death -- in my home borough of Queens.
Is he carrying a baby as he lurches across 10 lanes of danger?
The wind picks up. His comb-over flies up.
Wait, that’s not any addled old man from Queens.
What’s he carrying?
It’s not a baby. He’s got the whole world in his hands.
I watch with morbid fascination as he lumbers into danger.
* * *
I need to write something but I keep getting distracted.
We’ve had two March snowstorms in a week. On Wednesday we lost power for five hours but my wife made instant coffee via the gas stove, and put together a nice supper, and we listened to the news on a battery-operated radio and then we found Victoria de los Angeles and “Songs Of the Auvergne," one of the most beautiful recordings we know.
The juice went on in time for us to catch up with latest news about the porno queen and the Leader of the Free World.
Gee, we didn’t have scandals like this with George W. Bush or Barack Obama.
I watched for hours.
* * *
I need to write something but I keep reading instead.
My old Hofstra friend, basketball star Ted Jackson, recommended I read “Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America,” by Patrick Phillips about rape charges and lynching and the forced exodus of blacks from Forsyth County, Ga., in 1912.
As it happens, I have relatives, including some of color, who live just south of that county, now re-integrated in the northward sprawl of Atlanta.
The denizens of that county in 1912 sound like the great grand-parents of the “very fine people” who flocked to Charlottesville last summer. It never goes away, does it?
* * *
I need to write something but I keep following the news.
At the White House press briefing Wednesday, Sarah Huckabee Sanders spat out, with her usual contempt, the little nugget that the President had won a very, very big arbitration hearing involving the porno queen and $130,000 the President's lawyer shelled out from the goodness of his heart.
Oops, the jackals of the press did not know about that. Thanks to Sanders, now they do. I got the feeling Sanders might be leaving on the midnight train for Arkansas.
I envision Sanders trying to hail a ride on Pennsylvania Ave. but a stylish woman with a teen-age boy in tow beats her to the cab.
That woman is leaving on the midnight plane for Slovenia.
* * *
I need to write something, but stuff keeps happening.
I stopped watching the Mets a month ago, when they reverted to 1962 ineptitude. I normally don’t watch the Yankees or network broadcasts, but I probably will check out the post-season.
Meantime, baseball remains the best writing/reading sport of all. Here are four new books I recommend, in season or out:
The Pride of the Yankees: Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper, and the Making of a Classic. Richard Sandomir. Hachette Books.
As a young Brooklyn fan and later as a young reporter, I could hear the melancholy echoes of Lou Gehrig’s farewell, echoing under the eaves of the old (the real) Yankee Stadium.
Gehrig remains a phenomenon for his 15 steals of home (all on the back end of a delayed steal but, with his thick legs, quite an accomplishment) and his 2,130 consecutive-game streak as well as the terrible way he died, from a disease that would bear his name.
The latest talented observer to write about Gehrig is Richard Sandomir, a friend and colleague from the New York Times, in his compelling new book, “The Pride of the Yankees,” which Sandomir calls “the first great sports film.”
Sandomir covered sports media for decades and now uses his talents in the prestigious obituary section of the Times. He conveys the man and the movie as a story for the ages, noting that producer Sam Goldwyn wanted to make a love story about a doomed man.
“Goldwyn didn’t see the value in a baseball story – a game he thought was played with twelve bases on a field,” Sandomir notes.
Goldwyn did not care that Gary Cooper looked like a 1962 Met when he tried to swing or throw or run. I learned in this book that Cooper, from Montana, had never played baseball, not once. But Sandomir quotes the noted director, Howard Hawks, as saying, “The grand thing about Cooper is that you believe everything that he says or does.”
Getting people to believe. How courant.
Sandomir brilliantly describes how myth-making is enhanced by bending reality.
Eleanor Gehrig was not the demure lass depicted by Teresa Wright; she was a daughter of privilege from Chicago who had done a bit of roaring in the Roaring Twenties before she met the shy mother’s-boy from a German section of Manhattan.
In real life, Gehrig, after months of stumbling on the field, told the manager in a hotel that it was time for him to stop playing. In the movie, Gehrig is replaced at first base in the middle of a game – because it is more dramatic.
Sandomir is the perfect writer to depict the murky border between reality and art.
Electric October: Seven World Series Games, Six Lives, Five Minutes of Fame That Lasted Forever. Kevin Cook. Henry Holt and Company.
Just as in a Shakespearean play, in a World Series involving Joe DiMaggio and Jackie Robinson, the minor characters are fascinating, too.
Cook depicts six characters in epic World Series – managers Bucky Harris and Burt Shotton, Brooklyn’s Cookie Lavagetto who broke up a no-hit attempt and beat Bill Bevens in the ninth; Bevens, who would never be the same; George Stirnweiss of the Yankees, a war-time regular who managed one good World Series when the stars came back; and Al Gionfriddo of the Dodgers, who made a great catch on DiMaggio in left field, the last play Gionfriddo would make in the majors. (I once stood next to Gionfriddo at a reunion in the early 80’s; he was tiny, 5-6 at the most.)
Cook’s best work is researching the rest of their lives, after that antic World Series – faith, failures, early death, and a few ripe old ages.
The Year of the Pitcher: Bob Gibson, Denny McLain and the End of Baseball’s Golden Age. Sridhar Pappu. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Wait, 1968 was the end of the Golden Age? Didn’t the Mets win the World Series in 1969? Sorry.
Pappu ably describes year of the pitcher, which forced baseball to lower the mounds from 15 inches to 10. Gibson was driven; McLain was corrupt; both were sensational. (Mickey Lolich became Detroit’s star in the Series.)
Pappu interviewed me at length about Gibson, whom I admire, beyond his testiness (or maybe because of it.)
Making My Pitch: A Woman’s Baseball Odyssey. Ila Jane Borders with Jean Hastings Ardell. University of Nebraska Press.
Borders managed to play in male leagues into high school, college and an independent league on a team owned by Mike Veeck in the late 90s. She had her moments as a pro and won the respect of most teammates and fans. Borders touchingly describes her personal and family life. I did not know much about her until this book and I have great admiration for her.
Enjoy the rest of the season.
My daughter Laura Vecsey is a New Yorker. She loves upstate and she loved Seattle. But she’s a New Yorker.
Her only criticism of Seattle was that nobody talked. Non-verbal. An entire city.
Maybe it was the rain. Or the e-culture. Or being the end of the line, south of Canada, east of the Pacific.
We loved Seattle, too. If she had stayed, my wife and I might have moved there.
But, geez, we are New Yorkers. She’s back on Long Island, horrifyingly aware that our “sleepy little fishing town” suburb is full of desperadoes who propel their fancy cars down the middle of narrow streets to express their rage at not being rich, or richer.
Laura’s a writer (also a poet). She’s been driving her daughter to summer school in a town near us, where she recently discovered a really good little Afghan restaurant. Today she decided to do some reading in one of the many magnificent libraries in Nassau County.
This is her stream-of-consciousness about the library:
* * *
by Laura Vecsey
Working at the public library in Hicksville today. Walked into the building with a familiar sense of gratitude: We pay taxes and pass special levies to pay for these places to continue to exist.
Sitting here for only a few minutes, in the air conditioning, with WiFi and outlet, amidst some book stacks and DVD collections, all I can hear are librarians talking at full volume; many unemployed 60-year-olds trying to master web applications on the free PCs offered. Lady next to me at the laptop desk drumming her long finger nails as she putzes around on her Kindle Fire.
I don't see anyone reading a book. FYI. I'm going to go read one. (Now the librarians talking about how one of their colleagues orders too much food at lunch. ("You should just go with the soup.") THERE WILL BE NO WORK FOR ME TODAY! Also, this short stint in the library has already confirmed that New Yorkers, especially Long Islanders, really do talk ....a lot.
I could have been in the Magnolia branch of the Seattle Public Library for 4 years before I heard this much talking. Make that 10, I mean. No one talks in Seattle. You have to use sign language in the libraries there or risk expulsion -- from the state.
The conversation at the librarian station is now shifted from lunch and soup to ... acupunture.
The lady with the Kindle Fire just said to me: "Why don't people whisper? I whisper when I'm here and all they do is talk loud over me!"
I was not actually complaining as much as ....very aware that this IS a community space, not a study hall. And it is amazing the service residents are given. Questions answered. Resources for jobs, notaries, computer help ... it is indispensable stuff!
It is also a fascinating place to observe what the heck people are up to and, frankly, how inept so many people are. I am not judging, per se. I am just ... amazed at how many things you assume people know … they don't. Hmmmm. Let me draw a parallel to the victory of a certain fraud elected to White House by these fellow Americans. ELITIST speaks!
The Hicksville High School Tech Squad is giving a seminar on computer programming. I am not joking: About 28 of the 30 kids in there are ... of Indian or Pakistani descent. Which is why Hicksville is pretty cool these days.
* * *
(The bustle in our libraries includes English as second language, storytime for children, current events discussions, as well as computer training. I can order up books from the entire county system; a book on my desk is from East Meadow, one of the best-stocked in our county.
And if there is a buzz, a hum, the services offered in our county more than make up for the my-half-out-of-the-middle SUVs and wagons blasting around our town. The suburbs pulse with life from recently-arrived cultures, people on the old main streets. We often drive half an hour to the thriving House of Dosas in Hicksville.
Laura, who knew the best pho joints on Aurora in Seattle, has found Thai and Colombian and Afghan places in sleepy old Nassau County. She insists her family is moving upstate one of these years. What – and miss the Aush-E-Boreeda at the Afghan place?)
Father’s Day is here; a good book is always in order.
I just read a lovely book, not exactly a greeting-card image of a father or a mother, but better yet, Richard Ford’s “Between Them: Remembering My Parents,” exploring what he can remember and what he can only surmise about Parker and Edna Ford.
Any book by this Pulitzer-Prize-winning author is always welcome.
He came to them late, a surprise only child after more than a decade of marriage. He tries to reconstruct what it must have been like for them to become parents. “Between Them” refers to what their life was like before him; and also how his needs, as infant and boy, inevitably placed him in the middle.
They accepted the responsibility like adults -- two people from the rural south with modest schooling and an ethic of doing their best. His father was a traveling salesman, out Monday morning, home Friday evening.
The son cannot remember much conversation with his father, just his earnest presence; he has no complaints.
His mother was more lively, more layered, with more family support. After the father died, Richard Ford was able to say “I love you” to his mother, ask about her life as a widow. She grew, found a job she loved, remained independent virtually to the end; he salutes her.
The backdrop – maybe even the real subject of the book -- is the back part of America that suffered terribly in the Depression. Yet his father always had work. Ford says he never heard his parents talk of the racial divide that must have been obvious in their geographically-central chosen home of Jackson, Miss. They lived in a country that had two – then three – citizens. The family.
He remembers, he reconstructs, he imagines, the hopes and dreams of two people who did not complain; he notes the family stresses both brought to the marriage.
The book includes several snapshots of a salesman and his wife with a car, hats and suits and dresses, their final suburban home, their post-war dream, fulfilled by a salesman with a failing heart.
The dead-serious faces of these Americans – long before the plague of selfies, everybody a star of their own reality show -- reminds me of the collaboration between writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” They caught the bravery and dignity of rural America, and so does Richard Ford.
Near the end, Ford notes that he and his wife do not have children. He admits he can only guess what it is like to be a father, a parent.
His parents did their best. What a lovely thing to be able to say.
* * *
Richard Ford’s book reminds me of Samuel Barber's haunting "Knoxville 1915,” based on Agee's memories of a hot evening at home, when he was a boy.
As with Ford, death lurks over the slow, sweet gathering as Agee recalls who is present. It ends: “One is my mother who is good to me. One is my father who is good to me.”
The older I get, the more I realize how my father and mother, in their own ways, were good to me.
Set to Barber’s music, Agee’s words never fail to make me mist up. Richard Ford’s memories touched me the same way. His mother and his father were good to him.
* * *
(As a companion to Richard Ford’s touching new book, may I suggest listening to the Eleanor Steber 1948 Carnegie Hall performance of “Knoxville 1915,” including the piano accompaniment by Edwin Biltcliffe.)
One of the more sordid scams in the history of book publishing began 50 years ago – and I had a modest part of it.
A bunch of us from Newsday collaborated on a tale of sex in the suburbs, titled “Naked Came the Stranger.” Some people bought it and read it and thought it was not so bad.
The legend does not die. The radio landmark, Studio 360, is recalling this assault on the reading habits of the American public in a podcast released Thursday evening:
The show was supposed to have been heard Thursday evening on WNYC-FM (93.9) in New York but apparently there was other news, and it was broadcast on Saturday.
It was fun to hear the able producer Sam Kim recreate the foolishness that began with a late-night conversation at a bar frequented by journalists, cops and criminals and other people who stay up late. (I was not there.)
From that conversation, Mike McGrady, a columnist, and Harvey Aronson, feature writer and wily manager of the Nightside softball team, decided to collaborate on a book about a woman looking for revenge on her philandering husband, by seducing every male in her Long Island suburb.
McGrady and Aronson set up some basic ground rules – mainly, descriptions of the main character's hair and figure – and invited people to contribute individual chapters of their fetishes and fantasies.
I found a request in my mailbox and assumed I was one of the chosen few. (Later I discovered McGrady and Aronson had stuck a copy in just about every mailbox at the office.)
They say writers should stick to what they know. I was (and remain) a rather boring husband and father with no personal knowledge of the “cheatin’ side o’ town,” as the country songs say. So I wrote about a schlubby suburbanite and his lovely wife, busy renovating their old house.
While tending to his lawn, he gets seduced.
Having taken typing in junior high school, I finished my chapter in half an hour. I wrote as artfully as I possibly could and turned it in. Weeks later, McGrady and Aronson told me my level of writing was exactly what they wanted. At the time, I thought it was a compliment.
Let me say a word about the Newsday of the mid-60’s, how it quivered with energetic young people, many recruited from the city. I still consider that Newsday as “we,” the way ball players talk lovingly about their first club, where they learned to play the game.
By 1969, I had moved on to the Times, as the book, doctored up (or down) by McGrady and Aronson, was emitted, under the name of Penelope Ashe, actually somebody McGrady knew.
We kept the secret as long as we could, while the hoax soared toward third on the best-seller list. A few reviewers even found literary merit – a piercing look at modern suburbia.
Sam Kim has tracked down some of my old pals who are still around to tell the tale, including Aronson, but Mike McGrady, so talented, has long since passed.
These two fine people had the idea and did most of the work, yet they shared the not-inconsiderable royalties equally among 25 people who contributed something. I rate this as one of the most generous acts in the cut-throat history of publishing.
Not everybody was charmed. A librarian in my town, Mrs Murray, would sigh and roll her eyes whenever she spotted me lurking in the book shelves.
A few years later, a movie was published under the same name but without the high literary quality of our book. My mentor, the whimsical sports columnist, Stan Isaacs, rented a hansom carriage to take us in style to the porn theatre.
I make no apologies for defiling the high standards of publishing. Mike and Harvey helped put our kids through college. I still mow my own lawn.
Who thinks about Casey Stengel these days?
Mets fans should, because he basically invented the Amazin's.
Just the other day, a hit rolled into the right-field bullpen and a Braves outfielder flung aside a garbage pail to retrieve the ball -- a garbage pail! -- and I recalled what the Old Man used to say:
"Every day in this game of baseball, you see something you never saw before."
Still I might have thought history contains all it needs about Stengel, the quintessential figure on all four New York teams – “the Brooklyns,” the Giants, the Yankees, and the Amazing Mets.
Casey let a sparrow fly out from his doffed cap as a Dodger; he hit an inside-the-park homer for the Giants in the World Series; he won 10 pennants in 12 years as the Yankee manager; and he managed the Mets for their first four seasons.
Now, my friend Marty Appel has found good new stuff about Casey – and his times – in a new book, “Casey Stengel: Baseball’s Greatest Character,” to be published by Doubleday on March 28, just in time for a new season.
Appel uncovered some gems about Casey’s childhood in 19th Century Kansas City and his playing career in a Brooklyn so long ago there were no hipsters.
He has used computerized libraries and files not available to previous biographers of Stengel, including the late Bob Creamer, a luncheon companion of ours.
For example: Appel discovered that the Stengel family lived in the same neighborhood as Charles (Kid) Nichols, a Hall of Fame pitcher who won 361 games from 1890 to 1906. When “Dutch” Stengel was a rambunctious teen-age ball player, the old pitcher advised him to always listen to his managers.
“Never say, ‘I won’t do that.,'" Kid Nichols said. "Always listen to him. If you’re not going to do it, don’t tell him so. Let it go in one ear, then let it roll around there for a month, and if it isn’t any good, let it go out the other ear.”
This is wonderful advice. I spent a lot of time around Casey from 1962 to 1965 -- in his office and late at night in bars – and I never heard him mention Kid Nichols. But I now know that Kid Nichols helped Casey learn as a player – and teach as a manager.
Appel tells a great story (new to me) about a prospect named Mantle, who could run but was slowed down by his habit of looking at the ground. Stengel told Mantle he was no longer playing football in Commerce, Okla., that the major leagues had groundskeepers who created smooth base paths and that he should keep his eye on the ball and the fielders.
It made Casey crazy to see blank looks on players. The Old Man also tried to teach “my writers,” in murky soliloquys very late at night. Just when you were about to give up (or doze off) he would grab you with a stubborn paw and say, “Look, you asshole, I’m trying to tell you something.”
Appel has learned about Casey’s wife, Edna Lawson Stengel through an unpublished memoir made available by Edna’s niece, Toni Mollett Harsh. Apparently, the Stengels considered themselves too old – in their thirties – to start a family, but they were affectionate toward the wives and children of some of the younger players. (He bought a ginger ale for my oldest child, Laura, in the motel bar in Florida after his managing days. She remembers it vividly.)
I learned something else. Appel amends the legend that Stengel’s wealth came through his wife’s family, which owned a bank and businesses in Glendale, Calif. In fact, young Casey paid attention to a teammate from Texas who talked him into buying oil rigs.
Casey often barked, “You make your own luck.”
Marty Appel reminds us all that Casey Stengel made his own luck.
We had 60 degrees Wednesday, a whiteout Thursday, frozen rain Sunday. But some of us take heart from the first robins of spring – pitchers and catchers sighted down south.
Then there are advance copies of baseball books, just being distributed to lucky media types like me.
My first CARE package was a literate and knowing little gem, “Off Speed: Baseball, Pitching, and the Art of Deception,” by Terry McDermott, from Pantheon Books, which will be on the shelves in May but has already rejuvenated me.
McDermott, a writer on other serious subjects like terrorism, is also a baseball buff, stemming from childhood in Cascade, Iowa. He describes his first big-league game – a Yankee doubleheader at Comiskey Park, June 28, 1959, on a road trip that reminds me of a boy’s rambunctious bus pub crawl with Welsh elders in the classic Dylan Thomas short story “The Outing.”
Once a year, McDermott writes, the men of Cascade “would charter a Burlington Line train – who knew you could even do this? -- out of East Dubuque, Illinois. They’d fill the train with Knights of Columbus, cold ham sandwiches, and Falstaff beer – or maybe Schlitz in a good year – and head east. My father, known to everyone as Mac took me along as an early birthday gift.”
McDermott adds: “It was my first game, my first train, my first taxi, my first bus, my first time seeing grown men pass out drunk.” Also, his first time seeing and hearing black Americans on the South Side of Chicago.
The hold of baseball -- a rural game played in urban settings -- reminds me of the great book, "The Southpaw," by Mark Harris I wrote about it for opening day in 2005: The young lefty from upstate New York goes to his first game in the big city where he will one day pitch.
In his first pilgrimage to another great baseball town, McDermott witnessed Yogi Berra catching both ends of a doubleheader loss. The great source Retrosheet does not allude to it, but McDermott is sure he saw a foul pop drop untouched near Berra just before an Al Smith homer, 58 years ago. Fans remember stuff like that.
Cascade is a small town, 15 minutes from where Kevin Costner wandered in the corn fields in “Field of Dreams,” and it fielded a weekend team which won 64 of 65 games one season. The star pitcher was obscurely known as Yipe; every male in Cascade had a nickname.
McDermott could have written only about the enduring pull of baseball in a small town (which still has a team) –– and that would have been fine, in fact, beautiful. But the book does much more, economically – the dissection of a perfect game by King Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners on Aug. 15, 2012 – sunny day game after a night game, McDermott duly notes.
He has taken four full seasons to reconstruct that game, talking shop with the scattered principals, lifers who remember every pitch. He uses each inning to illustrate one of nine different pitches in baseball’s arsenal. Some of the old masters include Walter Johnson, Three-Finger Brown, Candy Cummings, said to be the inventor of the curveball, and Cascade's own Urban (Red) Faber, Hall of Famer and next-to-last (legal) practitioner of the spitball.
And more: McDermott was a ballboy one night in Cascade when Satchel Paige 56 going on 1,000, pitched a few innings. Satchel winked and asked the boy to please not clean the dirt off the balls being rotated back into the game. Let’s have some fun, Paige suggested.
This book taught me some things: hitters who start 0-1 in the count bat .230 on that at-bat but hitters who start 1-0 bat .275. Thirteen pitchers have had their perfect game disrupted with two outs in the ninth. And, in this affluent era when barely-used balls are tossed to the fans, the average game consumes 120 balls.
McDermott provides touching digressions about the numerous shoes in his daughter’s closet, and the time his headstrong dad cooked meat on the lid of a garbage can. (It was for the dog, he quickly adds.) He has a great ear for the verbal excursions and minutiae and great truths that baseball produces, more than any other sport.
“Off Speed” will be out soon enough, but my privileged early peek assures me: baseball lives.
When Melania Trump “borrowed” chunks of Michelle Obama’s words last summer, she was found out in the flick of an iPhone.
She didn’t seem to know the difference.
Public figures are often caught using stuff from other people. Remember Joe Biden "borrowing" some material back in law school? And Tony Blair apparently re-channeling stuff from the movie “The Queen,” about him and Queen Elizabeth?
The Web makes that harder and harder.
Now it turns out that Monica Crowley, a former Murdochite on-air personality, scheduled to explain the complexities of national security for the Trumpites -- has used as many as 50 segments for a book under her name.
In this day and age, wouldn’t you think she would know caution, if not shame?
I say this, because just about everything is out there on the Web, easily checked.
Research no longer is limited to dusty books or files from the back corners of a library.
I know this, because in preparation for a talk I was thumbing through the 522 pages of “Look Homeward, Angel,” by my favorite author, Thomas Wolfe.
I wanted to refresh my impressions of a few sweet passages but after an hour of enjoyable searching, I came up empty.
Go to the laptop, dude.
---I knew there was a passage about a scholarly nun, examining a book at the bedside of a sleeping girl in a boarding school. I typed in “nun” and “book” and “sleep.” Found it. Still sweet and respectful.
---I knew Wolfe’s father liked to tell about being a 13-year-old, sassing Confederate soldiers in his village near Gettysburg. The Web reminded me that this epic section had been exorcised by Maxwell Perkins, Wolfe’s renowned editor, only to be revived decades later in an expanded version called “O, Lost.” I’ve requested it from our wonderful town library.
---I knew Wolfe often wrote about the lavish meals his father craved in his wife’s parsimonious boarding house in Asheville, N.C. – loving references to butter slathered on fat lima beans. I typed in a few words. Bingo.
One would think that somebody writing today – even a Foxite news person – would have a little fear about lifting bunches of stuff from other sources.
But anything flies these days. Just ask Kellyanne Conway, designated explainer and lookalike of the aforementioned Monica Crowley. Conway. says stuff with a straight face.
I certainly would not expect Trump to understand these subtleties.
* * *
Meantime, has anybody else noticed that Crowley and Conway appear to have been separated at birth?
And the seething Gen. Mike Flynn, who used to spew patently untrue “Flynn Facts” to subordinates, resembles the paranoid Col. Bat Guano, who shoots his way into the office in “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” – now coming true, in a universe near you.
Gus Alfieri still writes his own stuff – a rare accomplishment for any coach.
Alfieri won a championship as a college point guard and he coached a state high-school champion and he has, quite admirably, made himself into an author.
Alfieri’s latest book, just in time for the season, is “The Heart of a Champion: A Basketball Coach’s Memoir of a Championship Team” – about the 1973-74 season when he took St. Anthony’s from South Huntington, Long Island, to the new (and technically unofficial) state championship.
But the book could be about many coaches and many teams that jelled in that one magical year.
Alfieri was a hard grader as a coach and he remains one as a writer. He describes moving into coaching on Long Island, which was just beginning to produce basketball talent in the early 1960’s:
Larry Brown of Long Beach and Art Heyman of Oceanside, two strange birds from neighboring towns, took their personal animosity to North Carolina and Duke, respectively.
But they were seen as anomalies. When Alfieri, a Brooklyn boy, began coaching out on Long Island, Lou Carnesecca, who had replaced Alfieri’s beloved Joe Lapchick at St. John’s, wondered out loud if they were still using a square ball out there. (I had the same smug feeling, as a Queens boy, when I worked at Newsday in the same period.)
Alfieri describes a golden age way out there on the Island – Julius Erving and Mitch Kupchak and all the future coaches like Rick Pitino and Jim Valvano.
He also recalls a coach or two he thought was weak and he remembers taking over at St. Anthony’s and feeling that some of his upperclassmen were holding back, possessive of their starting positions.
Probably a few former players, well into middle age, will not be amused at Alfieri’s memories. But he built his own system, as coaches do, and he turned St. Anthony’s into a powerhouse.
His role model, as always, is Joe Lapchick, the courtly and angular coach of the Knicks and St. John’s, who advised his players to “walk with kings.” That first book clearly a labor of love, glows with the presence of Lapchick, and this new book retains much of the old coach.
As he coaches big games, Alfieri often refers to what Lapchick might do. In a tense locker room at the final game, a player asks to speak. Alfieri likes control, but his inner Lapchick guides him to let the senior address his teammates.
Alfieri is a hard worker. For his Lapchick book, he found a former teammate who had been guilty of dumping games and, after many decades, he asked him “why?”
In this new book, he does his homework and recreates the key plays in the rally over the very loaded Lutheran High.
(There is also good stuff about the machinations in creating the tournament, by the wily administrator Jim Garvey.)
But Alfieri’s work does not end with that championship and a subsequent state title. After coaching, he became a teacher, earned a doctorate, ran a basketball camp, and every November he organizes a charity luncheon, giving high-character awards to deserving coaches.
I always love the stories by the female coaches, who built their own traditions with minimal budgets and maximum heart.
This year’s award luncheon is Nov. 18 at the Wyndham New Yorker, across from Madison Square Garden. For information: http://www.characteraward.com/
Gus Alfieri will be speaking about his book at the wonderful Book Revue in Huntington, Long Island, on Oct. 18 at 7 PM. For information: http://bookrevue.com/GusAlfieri.htm
My previous piece about Alfieri and his Lapchick book: http://www.georgevecsey.com/home/honoring-gus-alfieri-player-coach-writer
For further information: www.gusalfieri.com.
Abby Wambach hurled herself into the scrum, raised her forehead above the crowd, and drilled home more goals than any player in American soccer history.
She took her hits, including a gruesome broken leg, but remained a towering presence even as a role player and leader in her last Women’s World Cup which she helped win in 2015.
Now she has revealed more about herself in a brave and revealing new book, “Forward,” written with the help of Karen Abbott. She talks about her use of alcohol and pills, and says she is clean and sober now.
(Disclosure: The editor of this book at HarperCollins is the talented Julia Cheiffetz, who brought a better baseball history book out of me than I ever could have done on my own.)
Wambach also talks about realizing she was attracted to women, and how she came out to family, friends, teammates and the public.
More than any athlete I have read about, Wambach is open about the touches and glances and courtships and breakups in her private life – plus, how her moods have disrupted her marriage to a former teammate.
Wambach also talks about the challenges of being large and athletic from an early age – taking the hits on the field, and off. At least once in college she jumped a football player who had made a comment about her.
The injuries and stress are right out of Peter Gent’s book, “North Dallas Forty,” in which football players need this pill to get going in the morning and that pill to go out on the practice field, and that other pill to mask the pain afterward.
The pain of soccer and the pain of her inner life seemed to overlap for Wambach, although she was fortunate to have a strong family, a close male friend since college, and several former companions and teammates who came to realize her torments.
In one of the strongest moments in the book, Wambach’s team roommate, Sydney Leroux, married and “straight,” realizes Wambach is crying in the next bed, and removes her ear plugs and then takes “careful steps to my bed. She lies down and makes room for herself, crying right along with me.”
Leroux and others offer wise intervention, but is it enough?
After several attempts at sobriety, Wambach stops drinking and abusing pills, which is where the book ends.
Having written a book with an alcoholic baseball player, Bob Welch, I am a strong supporter of organized rehab. Bob went through an emotional month at a center, and I later spent a week at the same clinic so I would understand Bob and the process.
The first step is admission of powerlessness. I think Wambach is saying she was powerless over alcohol and pills, so I wish she had put herself in an organized setting, to be confronted by trained counselors and recovering addicts and friends and family.
As she knows from her 184 goals, the best headers come from a buildup and skilled passes from teammates.
Abby Wambach is now doing television commentary and making speeches, being presented as a role model. I am rooting for this complicated and passionate person, as her story goes “Forward.”
You already know who the ridiculous is. So let’s start with the sublime.
I was in the library the other day at the “New/Non-Fiction/14 Days Only” section.
On a lower shelf, I spotted a book of essays by Annie Dillard, “The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New.” Somehow, I had gotten to be this old without ever reading anything by Dillard, so I picked up the book, and opened it in the middle, to a chapter entitled “The Weasel”
“The weasel is wild. Who knows what he thinks? He sleeps in his underground den, his tail draped over his nose. Sometimes he lives in his den for two days without leaving.”
Needless to say, I checked it out.
The weasel essay, six pages long, includes a 60-second encounter in the woods when Dillard and a weasel locked eyes. The essay also includes the tale of an eagle that tried to carry off a weasel, and got more than it expected.
The essay become an exhortation to grab life – whatever life is – with your jaws, and not let go.
That is pretty much what Dillard does in her writing, and in her life, by her own testimony. In one section, "An American Childhood,” previously published, she races through her family and her church and her boyfriends and her life.
Required reading for teen-agers.
I was knocked out by the two final essays.
One was about sand, and geology, and the Jesuit priest-paleontologist, Teilhard de Chardin, and love.
The final chapter by Dillard, a convert to Catholicism, was alternating segments about what she called the modern "hootenany" Mass and doomed polar explorers who went off unprepared. It ends with a fantasy of the two themes overlapping.
I am now a fan of Annie Dillard, maybe even a groupie.
* * *
The second book continues the furry, feral theme, considering the muskrat Donald Trump carries around on his head and in his head.
The book is “The Making of Donald Trump,” by Pulitzer-Prize-winning David Cay Johnston, seen often on the Web and the tube, warning us, “The Trumpites are coming! The Trumpites are coming!” The book hit No. 15 on the Times best-seller list last week.
Johnston is an investigative reporter, one of the best, and has been on the scent of Trump and the muskrat for decades.
He has put together verifiable details of the way Trump does business – the Polish immigrants who tore down a landmark building at nights, without safety precautions or attention to artwork; the vendors who got stiffed by Trump, the garish casinos in Trump’s name without his having any knowledge of how gambling works, the threats, the suits, the welching, and the lies about women he never dated.
Johnston’s book should be read – but won’t be -- by the fact-averse minority that considers Trump the great white hope.
Weasels sí, muskrat head no.
Until last fall, Bob Welch and C.C. Sabathia had one thing in common – the Cy Young Award, as the best pitcher in his league one year.
Now they have something else – rehab.
Near the end of last season, Sabathia sought out a treatment center to face the addiction to alcohol that he was ready to acknowledge.
“I started reading a lot while I was in rehab,” Sabathia wrote on March 7 in the Players Tribune website.
“The first book I read was called Five O’Clock Comes Early. It’s by a former major league pitcher named Bob Welch, and it hit so incredibly close to home. Bob became a professional when he was only 21 years old and dealt with a lot of the same anxieties that I had felt, so he’d turn to alcohol for confidence. He ended up checking into a rehab facility, and when he came out on the other side of treatment he was a changed man. He ended up going on to have a great career after he got help.”
Riley Welch read Sabathia’s story and alerted me. Riley is a ball player himself, a college and minor-league pitcher, now coaching pitchers in Honolulu. He’s always been proud of his dad, who died suddenly in 2014 at the age of 57.
“It brings my family and me great pleasure and joy to see that now, almost thirty years after Five O'Clock Comes Early's initial release date, it is still helping someone live a healthier life,” Riley wrote to me. “I’m very proud that the book was able to provide inspiration for someone during a rough period in his life.”
In 1980-82, before Riley was born, I helped Bob write his book, when his rehab was still raw and he needed to reinforce it every day – to verbalize that he was choosing not to drink when the guys were getting hammered in the back room of the clubhouse.
Over the years, I’ve received dozens of letters from readers – almost always men – who said they were staying sober – that day – because of what they learned from Bob.
I don't know if C.C. Sabathia knew Bob Welch. Bob won the Cy Young in 1990 with Oakland; Sabathia won his in 2007 with the Yankees. But baseball is a fraternity with frequent lodge meetings, and Sabathia grew up in the Bay Area, Bob’s long-time home, so maybe they did know each other.
More importantly, Sabathia is taking an example from a pitcher who saved his career, his life, when he was just getting started. I can only imagine Bob’s enthusiasm when he heard that a colleague had taken the big step.
Bob’s book was reissued in electronic form last year, with a new chapter I wrote after Bob’s passing. C.C. Sabathia’s testimony reminds Riley Welch that his dad is with us, with lessons to teach anybody with “the problem.” Riley added:
“I know my father would be proud of C.C. for getting help when he needed it.”
* * *
Riley also enclosed a recent story by Barry Bloom, about how Bob Melvin, the Oakland manager, has put the bench commemorating Bob in a prominent spot at the spring ballpark.
Jim Smith and I used to goof around in the Newsday sports department. He was going to college and covering high-school sports, just as I had started.
Then he came up with No. 34 in the draft lottery and wound up in Vietnam, first as a typist, then on guard duty, then covering the war for Stars and Stripes.
When he came back, he was different. They all were, the ones who came back.
Years later, in 1991, my wife and I were in Vietnam through her volunteer child-care mission, and I came back with new friends and mostly good memories. I saw Jim at a game, and offered to show him photos. He shuddered. Didn’t want to go there.
Now Smith is 67 and retired, and has written a touching and valuable book, “Heroes to the End: An Army Correspondent’s Last Days in Vietnam,” published by iUniverse, also available on e-book.
The words come back. Tu Do Street. Hootch. Charlie. Tunnels. ARVN. Words from history. Words people live with.
Jim is very clear about the journalism he produced, under orders to write only positive stories. But he has fleshed out the details with memories and notes he stashed and letters he sent home.
He makes it clear that he was no hero. He had only four months up close to the fighting, in 1972, when casualties had been downsized, and he only began inching closer to combat near the end, so he would know what it was like. He came under fire twice, never fired a shot.
Most Vietnam books go for the big picture – how LBJ and McNamara and Westmoreland and so many others ignored and misrepresented and lied.
Smith’s book concentrates on the people who did the dirty work; some thought they should go harder, others thought it was all a waste. Smith fluctuated from dove to hawk. He kept his hair fairly short, so officers would give him stories.
He concentrates on the mundane, the down time, the bitching, the carousing, but the old horrors creep in, nevertheless.
Mostly he saw the humanity – some young Americans who discovered they were quite good at firing a machine gun from the door of a helicopter or seeking out Vietcong in the brush. They were warriors. Others were not.
Smith was a reporter, glad to get back to base, to Saigon, to his apartment and civilian clothing and the girlfriend he almost brought home with him.
The closest thing to a big picture comes from meetings with Lt. Col. John Paul Vann, who questioned the war and later was the hero of Neil Sheehan’s Pulitzer-Prize winning book, “A Bright Shining Lie.”
“I had more respect for Mr. Vann – for that is what I always called him – than for anybody else I met in Vietnam.”
After Vann died in a helicopter crash, Smith held back from punching a captain who said Vann had been a showoff.
Smith displays admirable journalistic curiosity about the South Vietnamese, Montagnards and South Koreans he observed in combat.
Then he came home to cover local news and we resumed goofing around during a fractious school-board feud in Great Neck. (How petty it must have seemed to a reporter back from war.) He married a colleague from Newsday, Lynn Brand, and they have a son, Peter.
In retirement, Jim Smith is on the board of United Veterans Beacon House and is donating the profits from his book to veterans’ causes. He served. As he reminds us of that war, I would say he is inching closer to hero status all the time.
The latest output from the family is by David Vecsey, who normally spends days and nights editing others but occasionally exercises the writing part of the brain.
David made a journalistic foray into the heart of darkness known as sports fantasy gambling. He emerged with his shirt still on his back, plus a story describing mood swings based on the doings of athletes, some previously unknown until he drafted them. His article on Gothamist:
Then there is my wife’s cousin, Paul Grundy, MD and MPH, IBM's Global Director of Healthcare Transformation. He and two colleagues have written an entry-level primer on the mysteries of health care including trends toward industrial-size health complexes, concierge doctors and the vanishing of the actual family doctor. (You noticed.)
The book is: Lost and Found: A Consumer’s Guide to Healthcare by Peter B. Anderson, Paul H. Grundy, MD, and Bud Ramey (contributor).
Next is Laura Vecsey, former sports columnist and political columnist, currently covering the U.S. women’s soccer team, World Cup champs, on their victory tour of America, for Fox. Her latest article on Carli Lloyd’s candidacy for player-of-the-year:
The family legal wing is in Pennsylvania, where Corinna V. Wilson is the energy behind the consulting firm Wilson500.
Corinna helped write the Pennsylvania right-to-know act of 2008, and she flexes her writing skills when that important law is threatened by nervous politicians:
Finally, my book that has done the most good for others has been revived.
I helped Bob Welch write “Five O’Clock Comes Early: A Young Man’s Battle With Alcoholism,” first published in 1982 soon after Bob’s return from a rehab center, to be a star pitcher for more than a decade.
My friend Bob passed in 2014 – a lot of us are still reeling from it – but his book, updated, is a handbook for anybody, particularly the young who cannot believe they are powerless over addiction.
I’ve heard from people who say Bob's book helped save a life. The new e-book version is from Open Road Media:
Fortunately, some of us also have visual talents. Marianne Vecsey is a painter (above) and Anjali takes photos with her smartphone (below)
Nice to be re-discovered.
For many decades, Arnold Hano was one of the best magazine writers in America. He is best known for his slender jewel of a book, “A Day in the Bleachers,” which he wrote on impulse after witnessing Willie Mays’ catch in the 1954 World Series.
But he is so much more than that, a 1930’s guy who still talks about “the social contract” – the relationship between individuals and society.
“He met and talked with Babe Ruth, JFK and John Wayne, saw Mays’ iconic catch, Larsen’s perfecto, and successfully battled racism, land developers, big corporations, and the federal government. says Jon Leonoudakis, a California-based film-maker who was so taken with Hano’s body of work that he has put together a documentary about him.
“His story has flown under the radar of popular culture for nearly a hundred years -- until now,” Leonoudakis added.
Hano is 93 and living in Laguna Beach, Calif., with his wife Bonnie. They have been together for 67 years as he wrote about protecting wildlife from Disney and other developers.
Two baseball stars, Orlando Cepeda and Felipe Alou, testify in the film about Hano’s fair depiction of Latino players.
The Hanos also demonstrated against prejudice in their adopted beach town. And they joined the Peace Corps in their 60’s and built schools in Costa Rica.
The film-maker became entranced with Hano and began interviewing him, with Hano insisting there was no story. (Larry David would play him in the bio-pic.)
Leonoudakis rounded up a gaggle of admiring colleagues (including me) and added an artistic blend of original jazz, original art (not the usual sports schlock) and touching photos, including Arnold and Bonnie Hano, young and old.
The couple was back in New York the other day (at Bergino Baseball Clubhouse) to publicize the documentary. She was there on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, Sept. 29, 1954, when Hano – without any assignment or credential -- decided he would walk to the Polo Grounds for the opening game of the Series between the Giants and Cleveland.
Bonnie Hano, as wives do, told her husband not to be silly. He was never going to be able to walk up and buy a ticket. He did not listen to her, and stood two hours on line and paid $2.10 (he remembers all that stuff) to sit in the bleachers, the left-field side, so he could call balls and strikes from 500 feet away.
He started keeping score -- that’s what people did at ballparks before selfies -- and taking notes in the margin of his paper (The Times.)
Top of the eighth. Tie game. Nobody out. Runners on first and second. Then Willie Howard Mays began running toward Arnold Hano to track down a mammoth drive by Vic Wertz. Hano watched as Mays, arms outstretched, caught the ball as it soared over his shoulder, and then, in one fantastic powerful whirling motion, turned and dispatched the ball to second base, on a powerful arc.
Larry Doby did move from second to third, but Al Rosen had to go back to first because of Mays’ howitzer shot. .
(“Wertz flew to center field,” tersely reports the play-by-play on the invaluable Retrosheet.)
Hano watched the Giants win, 5-2, on Dusty Rhodes’ homer in the 10th. Then he went home and typed up his report, which turned into a small book that did not sell much at first but has become one of the classics of the sport.
I wrote about the book on the 50th anniversary of the Mays catch, in 2004:
Arnold and Bonnie Hano downgrade the book as something short of literature. They do have their opinions, which Hano has injected into the copious details and color and quotes -- one of the best dossiers of sports magazine articles, ever.
Now he has been captured in a knowing 53-minute film. Leonoudakis is seeking space on television and festivals and archives devoted to baseball – and journalism, and America.
The film is film is available on DVD from the film’s website:
It is also available for streaming:
Oh, yes, and check out the cover art (above). It figures in the delightful coda to the documentary. Carl Hubbell. That’s all I’m saying.
Written before Game 1: Somewhere, sometime, Colon helps win a game in long relief, like Ryan in 69 and Fernandez in 86. Royals play the game right -- good energy, make contact. Mets in 7.
I admit it. I blinked when I saw the title of Steve Kettmann’s book around Opening Day: “Baseball Maverick: How Sandy Alderson Revolutionized Baseball and Revived the Mets.”
It wasn’t the main title. I was willing to find out how Alderson was a maverick (computers, Mr. McGuire?) but what about the subtitle, the “Revived” part?
I was intrigued by Kettmann’s choice of that R-word as the Mets gamely staggered into July -- subs, AAA players, walking wounded, veterans, a few live arms, all playing hard for Terry Collins.
Then in a space of two weeks, darned if they were not revived, by Alderson, by Collins, by Cap’n Wright, by Cespedes, by trades and demotions and recuperations.
But you know all that. Writers care about titles -- and subtitles. I have been blessed with all-stars as book editors over the years, too numerous to mention, except for the most recent. When I was writing my soccer book, Paul Golob of Holt (working with Times Books) noticed my scattered mentions of the dictator of FIFA, Sepp Blatter, and his collaborators.
“Don’t forget to include the dark side,” Golob suggested. I agreed, and he came up with the title: “Eight World Cups: My Journey Through the Beauty and Dark Side of Soccer.”
As FIFA's legal charges added up, was I glad the editor had prodded me. I could go on talk shows and intone those book-writer words, “As I say in my book….”
I knew Kettmann, based on the Left Coast, had access to Alderson from covering the Oakland A’s. I asked Kettmann how he came up with his title and subtitle and he replied:
It's funny about subtitles. We tend to think of them as nearly invisible, like the subtitle to "One Day at Fenway," my first book, which was "A Day in the Life of Baseball in America." I'm not sure a single person ever cited that subtitle or made a point of it. Then again, that was 11 years ago, long before the age of Twitter.
I spent a lot of time going over the title and subtitle for my Sandy Alderson book with Jamison Stoltz, my editor at Grove Atlantic. We thought if there was going to be controversy, it would concern the title, "Baseball Maverick," since "Maverick" is a word that can mean different things to different people.
Some, we knew, would picture Tina Fey as Sarah Palin, talking about getting all "Mavericky." But I took the title from a quote given to me by Billy Beane, which he clearly meant as a tribute to his former mentor and to me, the important meaning was the original one, going back to the rancher Samuel Maverick, who left his cattle unbranded, meaning he would end up with all unbranded cattle, and he developed a reputation (rightly or wrongly) for being a free thinker who was just a little smarter than everyone else.
As for the subtitle, I thought then and think now that it was inarguable, at least among people interested in having an actual discussion, as opposed to flinging free association at each other on the Internet in short bursts. Alderson was one of a small group that "revolutionized" baseball and, given where the Mets had been in recent seasons, no question that by 2015 the team had been "revived."
That was the consensus at baseball's annual winter meetings in December 2014, and that was my view: The Mets had too much dominant young starting pitching not to make a major leap forward, and Alderson had always said that when they had enough talent to be competitive in the postseason, they would make midseason upgrades to improve further. I could not have known the Mets would have the magical season they have, but I was sure they'd make the playoffs. I was sure they'd be playing meaningful games into October - now they might be playing them into November.
Playing into late October, I think you would agree, qualifies as "Revived." .
I associate Roger Cohen with his skateboarding on a small ottoman, at risk of a broken neck, to celebrate a Chelsea goal on the tube.
I associate Tracy Kidder with his long legs racing around the bases on a softball party, decades ago.
Yes, serious writers, have their sports side.
I just caught up with books by both of them, touching the deepest issues in the world – genocide, inequity, identity.
Cohen’s book is “The Girl from Human Street: Ghosts of Memory in a Jewish Family,” published this year by Alfred A, Knopf. It is partially about the imbalance in many members of his family, which has made the trek from Lithuania to South Africa and onward. His mother became troubled shortly after emigrating from South Africa to England early in her marriage and never recovered.
The book also delves into what it means to be Jewish in a dangerous world, with some of his family escaping ahead of the murders in Europe, making a success in South Africa, but never feeling quite accepted in England – hearing the discreet lowering of voices and being described as “Jew” rather than “Jewish.” Later Cohen re-settled, for reasons he came to understand.
“One day, banking over New York City on the approach to LaGuardia, watching the serried towers of midtown, a single word welled up from deep inside me: home.” Cohen writes of the city of “incomers.” He has become one of journalism’s most staunch defenders of the marginal.
Tracy Kidder has also been exploring corners of the world, ranging from the emerging computer society to poverty in Haiti, often seeking people who take chances, who make a difference. His idealism is on display in his 2009 book for Random House, “Strength in What Remains: A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness.”
Kidder traces the wandering of a people, and an individual, Deogratias Niyizonkiza, a member of the Tutsi tribe in Burundi. Barely escaping a bloodbath while in medical school, Deo survives in Africa the same way some of Cohen’s family survived in Europe – through the grace and courage of others.
In Kidder’s book, the man called Deo lands in New York, is helped by a baggage handler named Muhammad, a former nun, and an intellectual couple from Greenwich Village – the parallel layers of strength that work so often in this city.
Kidder recreates Deo’s survival in Burundi, and moves toward the present, with Deo, now a poised 40-something New Yorker, running a medical facility back home in Burundi, where the prevailing custom is to not remember terrible things that have happened.
My conclusion is that there is no such thing as light summer reading. These books by Cohen and Kidder would make me think and care in any season.
Joseph Cornell was already well known for his collages in small boxes during the mid-50’s when I was in high school.
Our busy road (188th St.) dead-ends into Utopia Parkway just south of Cornell’s home, maybe three miles from my childhood home, but I don’t remember my cultured friends and teachers ever mentioning him.
The Jamaica High School paper interviewed famous New York people and probably could have gained an interview with this introverted soul but, like me, the editors had not discovered him.
I am thinking about Cornell because my daughter Laura just took his biography – “Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell,” by Deborah Solomon -- out of the library. It’s been around since 1997 yet it took me this long to read about this artist who lived with his widowed mother and his younger brother who was limited by cerebral palsy.
Cornell is stereotyped as the hermit who stayed home on Utopia Parkway, caring for his mother and brother, and when the world quieted down at night he would snip others’ work and blend them with memorabilia of France, or incongruous mundane objects to create new form.
I once met Louise Nevelson at a party. She made us roar by describing how she bellied into a dumpster to retrieve some artifact she could use in her sculpture. Cornell was no less driven.
Somehow, he managed to work at menial jobs in the city, to support his family, while haunting the art galleries and bookstores at lunch hour and then take the train back to Flushing. People called him a a recluse but really he was a Zelig of an Outer Borough who knew Dali and Duchamp and de Kooning. Tony Curtis came to his house in a limo!
Cornell sought out ballerinas and actresses, shopgirls and students. Audrey Hepburn sent back one of his boxes. Susan Sontag enjoyed his company. His work celebrates sensuality, small hotels in Paris, birds, mystery, beautiful women. He died in 1972 at the age of 69. The author informs us that his short, intense crushes were "platonic."
I liked Cornell even better when I read that he loved the haunting music of Erik Satie, who lived in a squalid little flat in the outback of Paris. Cornell's boxes and Satie's compositions are a perfect fit.
I have loved Cornell's work since my wife, an artist, introduced me to museums and galleries. Maybe I am particularly affected because I grew up in Queens, in a narrow house much like Cornell's. Next door, a few feet away, two brothers, waiters named Rocco and Luigi, practiced the scales and the arias on summer afternoons with the windows open, before going to work.
In Queens, we knew that “it” was just a subway ride away. And all that time, maybe three miles up the road, Joseph Cornell was caring for his family and making his boxes.
I was watching the Tour de France on Tuesday morning as it swept through the city of Charleroi, in Belgium.
My mind went back to a nasty morning in 2004, at a staging area in the very same Charleroi, when I had a taste of the grim war being fought by Lance Armstrong’s minions.
Totally by coincidence, I am reading the new book about the battle of Waterloo, by Bernard Cornwell. Another conqueror also passed through Charleroi that fateful month of June, 1815. His name was Napoleon Bonaparte.
So now they are fused in my mind, the man on horseback, the man on the bike.
As the Tour began in 2004, a new book came out, “L.A. Confidentiel: Les Secrets de Lance Armstrong,” by David Walsh and Pierre Ballester, containing many accusations of doping by Armstrong and his team. The book was only in French. I bought a copy at the Brussels Airport and was reading it as the Tour began in Liege.
One of the most convincing sections was about an Irish masseuse, Emma O’Reilly, who recalled how Armstrong had tested positive for steroids in 1999, only to have a doctor file a note saying Armstrong had been using a form of steroids to combat saddle sores, an occupational hazard.
If anybody knew whether Armstrong had saddle sores, it would be his masseuse, O’Reilly said -- and he did not. She described the panic in the Armstrong bus about the positive test, until a servile world cycling federation accepted the doctor’s ludicrous note, and Armstrong pedaled onward. I alluded to the negated positive. It did not go un-noticed.
That drizzly morning in Charleroi, Armstrong’s lawyer-manager, Bill Stapleton, sought me out as we enjoyed coffee and croissants before the day’s stage began. He pointedly told me that Lance had never tested positive. Yes, he did, I said, for steroids. That was not a positive test, he said. I understood his legal point but more important I realized, these people are serious, and they are going to fight on every point.
We all know how that ended, years later, with Lance’s confession on Oprah. I think about him while watching the Tour. I saw him win his last three titles. He was the greatest rider of his time. I suspect just about all of them cheated. I hear he has downsized, in his own private St. Helena.
Napoleon also held a staging area around Charleroi, 200 years ago. He had come back from exile and had re-claimed much of the French army and was convinced his decisions would always work out. He would feint one way, go the other way, and rout the English and the Prussians. . But they stood up to him, in terrible fighting, on the road north in an area known as Waterloo.
In July of 2004, I spent several nights in a motel near the battlefield but never had time to visit it. I was reading “L.A. Confidentiel” and riding in a press car with two copains and getting the cold eye from Lance’s perimeter defense.
Watching the current Inoculation Frolics, I was reminded of my recent reading of the superb biography, “Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman,” by Robert K., Massie.
In the spring of 1767, smallpox was rampaging through Russia. Catherine II, the German-born, French-speaking empress of Russia, saw a beautiful young countess die in mid-May. After that, Catherine took her young son and heir, Paul, into the countryside, avoiding all public gatherings.
Catherine was well aware that smallpox vaccination was being done in western Europe and the British colonies. (Thomas Jefferson, 23, the squire of Monticello, had himself inoculated in 1767.)
She sent for Dr. Thomas Dimsdale, 56, of Edinburgh, who arrived in August of 1768 and cautiously tried to inoculate other women before the empress, just to prove his process worked. (Massie notes that Dimsdale proclaimed Catherine, 39, “of all that I ever saw of her sex, the most engaging.”)
However, Catherine bravely insisted she go first and he took a sample of smallpox from a peasant boy, Alexander Markov, and inoculated the empress on Oct. 12, 1768. She developed the anticipated modest amount of pustules and illness but was back in public by Nov. 1.
The doctor inoculated 140 people in St. Petersburg and another 50 in Moscow, including Catherine’s son and grandson. Before Dimsdale returned to Scotland, she rewarded him with 10,000 pounds and a lifetime annuity. By 1800, over 2 million Russians had been inoculated.
The final word belongs to Voltaire, as it often does. The French philosopher was a regular correspondent with Catherine, although they never met. Massie writes:
“Catherine’s willingness to be inoculated attracted favorable notice in western Europe. Voltaire compared what she had allowed Dimsdale to do with the ridiculous views and practices of ‘our most argumentative charlatans in our medical schools.’”
Fortunately, in these enlightened times, we do not have any “argumentative charlatans.”
has filed an interview with, of all people, me.
It's on his blog. (Just past photo of rat!) My thanks for his interest. GV
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see: