In the midnight hour on a murky Saturday night in late October of 1986, Shea Stadium was going mad.
A squiggly grounder by Mookie Wilson had somehow kept the Red Sox from winning the World Series that night – and fans were screaming, and nearly a dozen New York Times writers were pounding away at their laptops, shouting into phones, bustling noisily to update their early stories for the last print deadline of the evening. Enlightened cacophony.
The sports editor, Joseph J. Vecchione, sitting behind us in the pressbox, was coordinating with the staff in the office, making dozens of decisions, on the spot.
Then it was over. We had gotten it done, on deadline.
A young Times news reporter, doing spot duty to cover fan madness, police activity, etc., watched the sportswriters (so often maligned as “the toy department”) do their jobs. When things quieted down, the young reporter said casually to the sports editor, “Wow, that was impressive,” or words to that effect.
And Joe Vecchione said drily: “We do it every day.”
If Joe had added, “Kid,” he would have sounded just like Clint Eastwood in “The Unforgiven.”
That professional pride epitomized Joe Vecchione, my friend and advisor in my early days of writing the sports column. Joe passed Friday evening at 85, after years of suffering from Lewy body disease, cared for by his wife, Elizabeth, a wise and devoted nurse. They are parents of Elissa Vecchione Scott and Andrea Vecchione, with three grandchildren: Joe’s aura of family man was clear to people around him. He was a boss with values.
I got to know him as a terse, decisive voice on the phone, in the 70’s, when he was an editor in the photo department, and I was a news reporter. Sometimes I was at breaking news and I had to coordinate with the photo editors. Joe was authoritative and efficient.
Then he was plucked by Abe Rosenthal and Arthur Gelb to help form the new SportsMonday section, and he was there in 1980 when sports editor LeAnne Schreiber recruited me to be a reporter, filling in for Red Smith or Dave Anderson here and there. When LeAnne moved on, Joe became sports editor, and when Smith died in 1982, it was Abe Rosenthal’s decision to hire a new columnist, and it turned out to be me.
Here is where the kindness and shrewdness of Joe Vecchione took over. I had been conditioned by 10 years as a Times news reporter, to keep any trace of myself out of the copy. Give sources. Quote authorities. No opinions. That was the old, gray NYT – and I was one of the foot soldiers, thoroughly indoctrinated. As a columnist, I knew the subject matter, and could write and report, but I was trying too hard to find a voice, hinting at my opinions. I was being too cute.
Joe had some advice (and I paraphrase:)
“Be yourself. Tell us what you think. People want to know how you feel, what you know, what is right and wrong. Don’t hold back. This is the way things are going these days. You have freedom.”
He removed a decade of thoroughly valid reportorial rules, freeing me up to be a columnist.
Joe also had an instinct for hiring and enabling good people, hiring columnists Ira Berkow and Bill Rhoden, relying on deputy editors like Bill Brink and Lawrie Mifflin, and he backed up his columnists.
I benefited from this in 1990, when I was writing columns from the World Cup of soccer, held in Italy. The young American team, in its first appearance in 40 years, managed a taut 1-0 loss to the Italian team – a huge accomplishment. But I pointed out that Italy did not have great strikers – that is, players gaited to score goals from up close – and I wrote this was because their great national league imported scorers from Germany and Argentina and Brazil. I wrote:
“The home-grown players do not develop the knack of scoring. Mussolini once lamented that his was a nation of waiters. It is not stretching the truth to say that Italy is currently a nation of midfielders.”
The next day, the sports department got a call from an Italian-American reader who felt using the remark attributed to Mussolini was prejudicial. (Fact is, I love Italy and root for the Azzurri, except when they play the U.S.)
The person in the office, taking the call, told the reader that the sports editor was okay with my comment.
And who is the sports editor?
“Joseph J. Vecchione.”
That pretty much ended the conversation.
Joe could be tough, and he had to make a lot of decisions. I once was whining in the office about something or other, and Lawrie Mifflin, the deputy sports editor and loyal friend of Joe’s and mine, told me, in effect, “You have no idea how much he has to handle every day” – including complaints from leagues, teams, player unions, sponsors, agents, public officials, fans, to say nothing of staff members. In Joe’s regime, we let it fly, and Joe fielded the complaints, kept most of it from our ears.
Joe was sports editor for a decade, then moved back into the mainstream of the paper. He retired at 65 and the editors promptly brought him back to help the transition to the new building a few blocks away.
Over the years, I was impressed by the masthead names, the serious people (some of whom condescended to sports personnel), who were his social friends. They trusted him – for core values, like honesty, like thoughtfulness, like culture. That is no small statement about a Times official, my friend, who helped move the sports department into the future.
(Any insights/anecdotes about Joe? Please add them in Comments, below.)
Stan Einbender, Jamaica ’56 and Hofstra ’60, passed on June 10. He had turned 83 on June 1, and had been in failing health for months, lovingly cared for by his wife, Roberta.
This is a hard one for me to put together because Stan and I were in the same school for nine straight years -- Halsey Junior High and Jamaica High in Queens, then Hofstra College in Hempstead.
Then Stan went to dental school and served as a dentist as a captain in the Army at Fort Lewis, Wash., and settled into his practice in New Hyde Park, marrying Roberta Atkins, helping her with their two children, driving around to dog shows all over the place, in with their English Mastiffs -- a big guy showcasing his big pets.
We became much closer in the past two decades, as old Hofstra basketball and baseball guys (and one aging student publicist) got together at Foley’s in NYC.
I would drive into the city and back, sometimes with other front-liners, Donald Laux and Ted Jackson. Basketball was our common denominator.
Stan had a great souvenir of his season as a 16-year-old senior on the Jamaica varsity -- a scar on his forehead, from the city tournament in the old Madison Square Garden when he was hammered by Tommy Davis of Boys High. When Tommy became a star with the LA Dodgers, I would remind him that an endodontist on Long Island was looking to get him back.
I was at courtside on a sleepy January afternoon in 1960 when Hofstra lost on a long basket by Wagner at the buzzer. It turned out to be the only loss in a wonderful season – 23-and-1, but not good enough to get into a post-season tournament.
Half a century later, we caught up with the villain who had beaten Hofstra with that long jump shot – Bob Larsen and a couple of teammates met a few old Hofstra guys at Foley’s, and I wrote about that in the Times.,
In our old age, basketball was the link. Stanley had two season tickets at the Hofstra gym, right above the scorer’s table, and sometimes he would invite me. He became friendly with the coaches, first with Mo Cassara, then with Joe Mihalich, two basketball lifers who loved our old stories about the memorable coach, Butch van Breda Kolff, the old Knick.
(Crude and also insightful, Butch was oddly formal, often calling his players by their full first names—Donald, Curtis, Stanley. As the publicist, I was “Grantland.”)
Every October, Joe would invite us to a practice, let us sit behind the basket, give us frank insider critiques of his team. He called Stanley “Doc.” For one afternoon, my guys were part of the team, part of the school, again.
I remember at one October practice, the star of the team, a shooting guard at 6-foot-3, also from Queens, was chatting with us, and was politely bemused that Stanley was the star rebounder at the same height.
(I wrote about those sweet annual visits to our alma mater.)
Just before the pandemic, Stan stopped getting around, because of Parkinson’s disease and other problems. We would talk on the phone and he would talk about Roberta’s art work and how well she took care of him…and proudly about their family: son, Harry, who had taken over the endodontist practice, (“better hands than me”) and his wife Macha and their children, Max and Remy, and Stan and Roberta's daughter, Margaret Morse, and her husband Richard and their children, Olivia and Henry. He always knew what they were doing.
When I visited them last week, Roberta was masterfully managing a hospice operation. (I never heard him complain about his bad breaks with health, and he was always upbeat about the home care from aides like Kenia.) We sat by his hospital bed and we talked about the old days and our dwindling Hofstra guys, and his Yankees and his Rangers….and I praised how inclusive he was about his basketball world.
This is what I told him:
A decade ago, my wife and I were visiting our friends, Maury Mandel and Ina Selden up in the Berkshires, and Maury’s kid brother Joe and his wife Jean were also there. I suddenly blurted to the younger brother, ”Hey, I know you – from junior high school.” Turned out, Joe had been in the same class as Stanley – and had played on the same class team (Stanley was also on the school team.)
I ostentatiously pulled out my cellphone and called Stanley: “I got Joe Mandel here, from Halsey.” They started chatting, more than six decades later, and Stanley told him, “You were a good point guard on our class team.”
As any old schoolyard player knows, there is no higher compliment than being praised by a college star. Generous guy, Stanley. Then they started talking about the girls in their class.
We continued that conversation the other day -- basketball and girls in our grade -- and for a few minutes, it was very nice to be 13 again.
(It's so nice to see comments or emails to me, from old friends. Ken Iscol from junior high. Jean White Grenning and Wally Schwartz from Jamaica. A lot of the Foley's gang. Just to drop a few names. Roberta (I knew her brother, Jerry Atkins -- in grade school!) has held things together, admirably. The funeral is Monday at 11:30 AM at Beth David Cemetery, 300 Elmont Rd., Elmont, N.Y. 11003.)
For the moment, please feel free to remember Stanley…and say hello to Roberta and the family… here…. They are monitoring the lovely comments here on this site. Thanks. GV
Ever since Roger Angell passed last week, friends have been e-mailing about how great he was, and asking how well I knew him.
Let me say, he was grand company in a pressbox watching a game. I always thought he seemed liberated by his mid-life discovery, his strange hobby, writing about baseball.
It began as his left-brain, right-brain activity, when he wasn’t editing temperamental fiction writers or conducting in-house business at the New Yorker or dealing with the vicissitudes of life. He enjoyed the hell out of this other world, and it showed.
He also loved paddling his kayak or sailing along the Maine coast when he wasn’t writing about Pete Rose or Reggie Jackson or the baseball denizens of the Pink Poodle, his hangout in Arizona during spring training, or editing what any sportswriter would respectfully call “real writers.”
Now and then, he would pop into Yankee Stadium or the Mets’ ballpark, without the weary pack-mule trudge of the beat writer or old-fashioned sports columnist (been there, done that) lugging a laptop, expected to produce profundity on deadline, halfway through the season, 81 up, 81 to go, plus the endless autumn trek.
As we all said in our alibis for why we were not Roger Angell: we had deadlines.
While we were pecking away, he could hang back and chat up a ball player who grasped that this older guy knew the game and was not looking for a few quick quotes. I admired the working friendship he developed with, let’s say, Dan Quisenberry, a submarine-style relief pitcher with the Kansas City Royals, who was cool enough to explain his technique.
Roger also took seriously the first female writers in the press box and – gasp – the locker room, who were professionals, just like men, if you can imagine.
So, how well did I know him? I got off to a dumb-ass start. It must have been 1968 when I sat next to a guy near 50 and we introduced ourselves and he said something about “New York” and I thought he meant the new weekly magazine so I wished him luck with the new publication. To his credit, he did not correct me, nor did he back away from this dolt.
Later I deduced that he wrote for the New Yorker and began subscribing, not just for his occasional baseball pieces but for the great eclectic literacy of the magazine. I still subscribe to the New Yorker in the age of Editor David Remnick – a great guy who started as a daily sportswriter, for goodness’ sakes. The arrival of the New Yorker—the print version – is a highlight of this pensioner’s life.
Did I learn anything from Roger Angell? The best part was the way he thought independently and observed the sub-marginal things and had the time and space and license to elaborate. Plus, he had talent -- could play with themes and details, knowing exactly what he was doing.
He was a model, but then again, in our collective world, no journalist should lack for models. My parents were journalists and I came along in the pioneer Newsday sports department in the 60s, with crusty old editors and the new breed of chattering younger types, known as Chipmunks.
And then there were books that made me want to write longer and better. In the early 60s, I sought out “Bull Fever” by Kenneth Tynan, a London drama critic who roamed to the corridas of Spain, or “Cars at Speed,” by Robert Daley (son of the noted Times columnist, Arthur Daley), who had bolted to Europe to write about the Grand Prix – and life in the old world – and ignited my wanderlust.
In the same period, I read “Night Comes to the Cumberlands,” by Harry Caudill, a lawyer from an old Kentucky family, whose lament for the defaced mountains made me want to go to Appalachia and see what was left.
So many great writers, out and about, dealing with current issues, from their heart, from their eyes, from their brains, writing at entertaining length.
Over the decades, I was always happy to spot Roger Angell in the press box. I cannot remember what we talked about, but it was fun.
When I retired at the end of 2011, I kept up by phone when I particularly loved something he had written, and I called when he had a death in the family.
When my wife and I started visiting her elderly uncle in coastal Maine, I called to tell Roger how much we loved his other world. My wife says I should have told him that some Angells popped up in her sprawling family tree from New England in the 17th and 18th Centuries.
Finally, a confession: Every year, readers would look for Roger’s annual Christmas poem, hailing and pairing people with exotic and yet topical names.
For decades, every December, I scanned the poem for my name, but it never appeared. I never told him how sad I was.
Other than that, Roger Angell was, just as you imagined, great company as well as great reading.
* * *
In case you missed:
Obit by Dwight Garner:
Tyler Kepner’s appreciation:
And a labor-of-love sampling of Roger’s work, from Lonnie Shalton, lawyer in Kansas City and a true lover of baseball:
I called her Pretty Girl whenever she sat by my side.
She must have known I was smitten, because she let me pet her
and talk to her even if her immediate family members were right there.
She was a Blue Merle Australian Shepherd, a highly desirable breed, tooled to chase sheep up a steep incline, sorting out dawdlers.
She could muster her speed and power when let loose in safe terrain but she was gentle and domesticated in Dave and Joelle’s house, near us.
She had beautiful color and soft hair and a sleek face. She could have been a model.
She was named Blue, for her right eye, alongside her darker left eye. Exactly -- just like Max Scherzer, the traveling pitching star, currently with the Mets. When I see Scherzer blowing hitters away, I think of Blue.
(The web says 5 per cent of Blue Merle Australian Shepherds have one blue eye, a genetic variant.)
(The web also says a small percentage of humans has one blue eye, from a common ancestor 6-10,000 years ago.)
I never saw Blue show a temper, even when Isabel’s cat or Greta’s cat sauntered by. Blue tolerated the felines, shared food space and floor space. She was beautiful; she had nothing to prove.
I am not a dog person (and my wife has major dog allergies), but I did love our highly neurotic and foul-smelling cocker spaniel named Ebony, adopted while I was out of town, and good sport that I am, I walked her and washed her, and in turn she cuddled at my feet when I was reading or napping.
I always referred to her as “my last dog,” but I still get sad when I think about her (and think I smell her, two decades later) whenever I lie down on my couch for a nap.
Most of my family loves dogs. My mother adored Taffy, whom she walked for exercise while gallantly fighting back Multiple Sclerosis, and my sister Janet and brother Peter both have dogs these days.
Laura and Diane had Griffey, a springer spaniel who could haul driftwood out of heavy surf north of Seattle. When Laura was a sports columnist out there, she knew and liked Ken Jr., who asked why she named her dog Griffey. “Annoying….and cute,” she said, and Ken seemed okay with that.
More recently, they had a little Lhasa Maltese mix, whom I nicknamed The Yapper, in homage to Donnie Iris and the Jaggerz and their hit song, “The Rapper:”
The Yapper used to snap and snarl at me, even when I was feeding her or taking her for a walk. But as she got older and wiser, she sat at my feet and let me pet her.
Peter and Corinna had Ginger, an English bred Yellow Lab whom Corinna took for long pre-dawn walks in the neighborhood, and when Ginger was fading, she was replaced by Finnbar Octavian, whom they also love.
David and Joelle adopted Blue 10 years ago from the great North Shore Animal League, near us in Port Washington. She was said to be six months old, but maybe she was older, because she was so mature.
In her first years, Blue had the energy of a teen-ager. We’d go in the back yard and I would boot a soft soccer ball into a far corner. and she’d bolt to get it, as if it were a wayward sheep.
A couple of years ago, I sent a ball into a corner and she gave me a baleful look, one blue eye and one dark eye, as if to say, “Uh, I don’t do that stuff anymore.”
Either way, she was still beautiful.
A month or two ago, she stopped eating much, and began losing weight and her coat became splotchy and she mostly sat and watched. Her family sought good veterinary care, and the verdict was stomach cancer.
While Blue could still get around, David took her to Bar Beach, where she loved to romp at low tide, and Dave posted it on Twitter.
I came by to hug her one more time, and on Friday family members received a photo from Dave, of an empty collar with the name "Blue" on it.
"She’s running up the mountain, free again. ❤ to her, on her way."
Speaking of hills to climb again, may I offer this song, by Alice Gerrard, sung by Kathy Mattea.
For Blue: "Agate Hill."
(This is one of those pieces I hate to write, but am compelled to do.)
It was March in 1953 and I bumped into John Vinocur in the GG subway, the local that ran underneath Queens Blvd.
John was a year behind me in Junior High 157 but we had gotten to know each other on the daily ride to Rego Park.
The headlines in the papers – everybody read a paper in those days – The Daily News! The Times! The Trib! The Mirror! – and these were just the AM papers -- were about the death of Joseph Stalin on March 5.
The question was, would the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the U.S. be lessened or heightened by whoever came next, a fun discussion in any decade. John was a news junkie and so was I and we chatted animatedly, and no doubt loudly and ostentatiously, until the GG local had arrived at our stop.
I thought of that subway ride when I read that John passed Sunday in Amsterdam, yet another great city he knew from his time as reporter and editor at the Associated Press, International Herald Tribune, New York Times and Wall Street Journal.
He lived the dream that was perhaps in our brash Queens minds on that March morning of 1953.
The obituaries tell of his accomplishments and hint at his bluster. I know somebody who worked in the Paris office of the IHT for a year in the early 80s – “dashing and vibrant” were the words she used.
That was when the IHT was an eccentric wing of the Times, its office never far from the Champs Elysées, its product a must-read for ex-pat or vacationing Americans, long before the Internet. News from home! Sports scores! It was the offshoot of the paper being hawked by Jean Seberg – “New York Herald Tribune!" – in Paris, as Jean-Paul Belmondo sharks her, in the 1960 movie “Breathless.”
That was the same world sought out by John Vinocur, who had played a little basketball at Forest Hills High, went to Oberlin, and then off to France, where he played semi-pro basketball. The hoops were part of his rep, and he often mentioned it to me, knowing I would be properly impressed.
At some point, John went to work for the Associated Press in Paris, earning good assignments like the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. Here is eager young John Vinocur, covering the massacre of Israeli athletes, described by another deceased pal of mine, Hubert Mizell, late of the St. Petersburg Times.
"A native New Yorker, he… matriculated to backwater France, learning the language from natives and picking up money playing semi-pro hoops.”
Hubert then describes how John “ignored police warnings and scaled a fence to get close to Building 31.”
That would be John from Queens, scaling a fence.
I can find no reference in his obit to how John got his job at the Times, but as I recall it, John was working for the AP in Paris when the movie “Last Tango in Paris” came out, portraying the club world of Paris in all its seediness, and John went to one of the raunchier clubs and wrote about it, and somebody at the NYT noticed. That’s how it worked: somebody likes your clips.
John worked in the home office of the NYT for a while but my guess is he was used to being The American in Paris, so he went back. We ran into each other over the years, and would share opinions of New York sports, our Queens voices the loudest in any brasserie or café, still bonded from the GG local subway.
If you can leap the paywall, you can find Sam Roberts’ obituary of John Vinocur here:
And just to get a feel of the dream, Paris in the 60s, here is the clip from “Breathless:”
Henry Aaron. Tommy Lasorda. Jim (Mudcat) Grant.
Poring over the magnificent two-page spread in the Times, honoring prominent people who passed in 2021, I realized I could write reams about stars I knew from the locker rooms.
I could also recall famous people I met here and there – Colin Powell, streetwise New Yorker ---- Vartan Gregorian, kind Armenian wise man -- and Larry Flynt, seedy champion of pornography, who happened to be a hilarious and incisive interview.
But my heart, at year’s end, is remembering relatives and friends I got to know up close, who have left a personal gap. As Arthur Miller wrote: Attention must be paid.
Aunt Lila. She was my wife’s aunt – helped raise her -- but she also became my aunt, jolly and chubby with a beautiful smile and a generous hug, over the decades, sidling up to me and asking about our children, our work (she had an admirable curiosity), and whether I knew the Lord. Her children and grandchildren cared for her in old age, shuttling her from northeast Connecticut to suburban Long Island, keeping her going, medically and socially. At a reunion last summer at a daughter’s home, Aunt Lila was wan, low on energy, and Marianne sat by her all afternoon, sensing this might be the last time, which it turned out to be. But Aunt Lila’s smiles and hugs and kind acceptance linger on.
Captain Curt. Once a point guard on very good basketball teams at Hofstra, Curt Block became a publicist at NBC and had other memorable gigs. (As a young reporter, he interviewed young Cassius Clay, and had the presence of mind to keep the rudimentary tape, re-discovering it in old age.) When aging baseball and basketball players (and one scribe, me) began to meet periodically at Shaun Clancy’s great place, Foley’s, Curt took the slow train up from Philadelphia and became the greeter, the treasurer, the captain, sitting in the middle, enjoying everybody else’s stories, moving the ball around, as he had against Hofstra’s opponents, back in the day. He quietly alluded to impending heart surgery, and last summer he went to sleep and did not get up. Because of the pandemic, the old boys have not been able to meet since, to uniformly mourn our quiet leader.
Neighbor and Nurse. Ann Schroeder was a nurse in the Bath-Brunswick area of Maine. She got to know my wife’s Uncle Harold (older brother of Aunt Lila) and she became a volunteer guide to his old-age miseries. We got to know her through her detailed emails, explaining Harold’s health problems, what was being done, so we could assure his relatives that he was surrounded by skilled, loving friends in that wonderful area that has become our own sentimental home. After Harold passed, we stayed in touch – via health newsletters Ann sent. She casually alluded to her own breathing issues, and last summer she noted that she was now on hospice, and then the e-mails stopped. In keeping with this understated woman, her service was private.
Mentor to Surly Luddites. Howard Angione was a reporter who somehow wandered into the emerging technology age at The New York Times, in the mid-1970s. With the reserved air of a theologian, he had to introduce temperamental reporters to the bulky Harris terminals now placed around the City Room. Sometimes these terminals would swallow articles whole, provoking profane tantrums from cranky news reporters like, well, like me. Howard’s motto was: “If I can teach Vecsey, I can teach anybody.” Which he could. After his missionary work in the City Room, Howard went to law school and specialized in elder law, until he became an elder himself. The NYT did not note the passing of the tutor who helped modernize the paper, but the Portland (Maine) Press-Herald did.
Zone-Buster Poet. Stephen Dunn was a rather shy jump shooter who could beat down a zone defense. On one road trip, he heard two older Hofstra teammates discussing a novel, and he realized jocks could also be scholars – and later he began to write poetry, ultimately gaining a Pulitzer Prize. His later years were spent fighting Parkinson’s disease, which got so bad that he could not recite his own work. Our friend, once known as “Radar,” was deservedly included in the NYT’s gallery of notables in Friday’s year-end necrology.
My Cousin Artie. From my earliest memories, I admired Art Spencer, my oldest cousin. He was so cool – riding a two-wheeler, driving a car one summer in rural Pennsylvania, with friends who had musty, mysterious barns amid lush corn fields, going to college, going into the military, marrying, starting a family. At family gatherings – some joyous, some sad – I had to practically pry out of him that he and Shirley had a flourishing crafts business, designing house signs – staples at weekend crafts exhibits near Ocala, Fla. The women in his family cared for him lovingly in his final months, and then staged – sign of the times – a Zoom service to honor an understated and artistic life.
Agent and Friend. Philip Spitzer was my agent who negotiated a durable contract with a publisher and the manager of Loretta Lynn – a project in 1974 that turned out to be the book and the movie, “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” I can still see Philip -- suave, part French, athletic, sitting on Berney Geis’s rooftop patio in Manhattan, holding his own, word by word, paragraph by paragraph, with two legalistic sharpshooters. We became family friends, his three children, my three children, good memories, even if the guy would never, ever, let me win a tennis set or a basketball game. Even after we did not work together, we stayed in touch, and as his health deteriorated, he passed the Loretta project to his capable oldest child, Anne-Lise Spitzer.
This magnificent seven stands in for all the people in my life who passed in 2021. As far as I know, Covid did not figure in any of their passing – just the inevitable erosion of time, long and good lives, now ended.
Our best wishes to all who read this tribute.
As one often hears in corners of New York: Be Well.
Long before he won the Pulitzer Prize, Stephen Dunn helped win basketball games.
His soft jump shots from the outside floated into the basket, often enough to earn him the locker-room nickname, “Radar.”
His game was soft, gentle. His poetry had the impact of a subtle elbow, making its point.
He found himself along the road from the Queens playground to the Hofstra College gym to the gatherings where he read his poems.
We watched him soar, higher in poetry than he ever did in basketball, but always one of us, a bunch of Hofstra jocks – student-athletes, actually – plus, one former student publicist who became a journalist.
The quiet bloke at our table at Foley’s, the great sports pub, was a big-timer, with the 2001 Pulitzer to prove it, not that he ever brought it up. Radar was always quiet, modest, observant, and accurate.
The last time I talked to him, months ago, he allowed as how he was now confined to a wheelchair from Parkinson’s Disease, and his voice was so badly shot that a good friend would have to read his latest work at some Zoom poetry gathering. Then it got worse, and Stephen Dunn died Thursday on his 82nd birthday.
Stephen was another advertisement for the Hofstra of the late ‘50s – when Hofstra was stretching from a suburban commuter college, making a pitch for city kids – Francis Coppola from Queens, Lainie Kazan from Brooklyn, Tony Major from Florida and Harlem, and Stephen Dunn from Forest Hills, Queens.
Stephen won a starting job as a sophomore, was the second highest scorer, but always quietly, hesitant to roar. He was a first-generation college kid, and did not know how it all worked.
But on one of our big-time road trips all the way to Allentown or Gettysburg, he was listening to two older teammates, Sam Toperoff and Dick Pulaski, talking about "Moby-Dick," talking with enthusiasm and insight and opinions.
Wow, Radar thought. He began to pay more attention in class, began to work at his writing. That was one epiphany.
The other epiphany was next season, matching up with a new player on the team, from a basketball family. “He could block my jump shot. He could steal the ball from me,” Stephen wrote in an essay, “Basketball and Poetry: The Two Richies.” (This lovely essay is in “Walking Light; Essays and Memoirs,” W.W. Norton and Co., 1993.)
“No one could free me from Richie Swartz. Richie Swartz turned me inward to where doubts are, and doubts, while good for the poet, are bad for the athlete.”
(The “good Richie” was another teammate, Richie Goldstein, who once fed Stephen for 45 points in a Press League game.)
When Stephen Dunn was a celebrated poet, he would often read from this essay, and when he was finished lauding Richie Swartz, Stephen would add: “You son of a bitch,” but lovingly.
Stephen was still a core player on the 1959-60 team that won 23 games and lost 1, and crushingly was not invited to any post-season tournament. Stephen surprised himself by playing a season in the Eastern League, crowding into a car with more celebrated former college players, for weekends in Williamsport and Sunbury, Scranton and Camden. He was a pro. Then circuitously, he became a poet.
Dunn’s life and career are best appreciated in the obituary by Neil Genzlinger, in The New York Times:
Stephen Dunn lived his final decades in an aerie outside Frostburg, Md., with his wife, Barbara Hurd, also a writer, specializing in nature.
They held occasional soirees, with friends from around the region, people who liked to write and read and listen and talk. And his legs gave out, and his voice gave out, and on Thursday, all of him gave out.
Happy Birthday, Radar. You can get off your feet, your jumper arching perfectly, into the basket.
(I was gearing up to write something about my despicable ex-neighbor from Queens, who is trying to take the country down with him. Then I read the obits of two people who enriched my life, in several senses of the word, and realized I need to pay homage to Michael Apted and Tommy Lasorda.)
* * *
I was afraid of what Hollywood would do with Loretta Lynn’s book, and her life, and her roots in Eastern Kentucky. Having been the Times’ Appalachian correspondent, I was blessed to get to know her and be asked to write her autobiography, and have her tell me great stories that made the book “Coal Miner’s Daughter” so easy to put together.
Then the book was marketed to Hollywood. From a vast distance, I heard rumors that this producer or that director wanted to put out a steamy version, a Beverly Hillbillies knockiff, of her colorful life. But then, way out of the loop, I heard that the Hollywood gods had lined up producer Bernard Schwartz….and screenwriter Tom Rickman….and British director Michael Apted.
I exaggerate sometimes that when I say that I was invited to an early private screening in Manhattan and brought a fake mustache and a wig and a raincoat I could put over my head like gangsters do when they are arraigned. I did fear the worst.
Then the movie began in the little screening room and I saw Levon Helm, as Loretta’s daddy, coal dust all over his face and hands, coming home from the mine and being met by his daughter, played by Sissy Spacek, and instead of goofus cartoon figures they were tender father and daughter, giving thanks that he had survived another shift underground.
I could breathe. No disguises necessary.
“The good guys won,” Rickman told me later.
Michael Apted, best known for his “Up” documentaries, was a principal good guy. He has died at 79.
I got to meet Apted a few months later at the “grand opening” in Nashville, where my wife and I were treated like one of the gang. Levon, Sissy and Loretta (if I may call them by their first names) gave an impromptu concert at the hotel, and the next day “we” took a chartered bus up to Louisville.
I chatted with Apted for a few minutes and told him how much I loved the movie, how fair it was to the region and how it lived up to what we had tried to do with her book.
I still remember one sentence: “I am no stranger to the coalfields.” Later, I looked it up and saw he was born in posh Aylesbury and grew up in London, but the point was, Michael Apted was a serious film-maker who traveled and learned and listened. For a more distinct Appalachian feel, he incorporated some locals into the movie, just as Robert Altman did in the movie “Nashville.”
I never met Apted again, but I am eternally gratefully to him and Schwartz and Rickman and the talented performers.
* * *
I knew Tom Lasorda better. I met him in the early 80s when he was already a celebrity manager with his monologues about “bleeding Dodger-blue blood.” He made it his point to know the New York sports columnists and including us as bit actors in his own personal production..
One time he told me that “Frank” had been at the game the night before. I guess I looked blank and he sneered at me and shouted, “Frank! Frank! Frank Sinatra!”
Wherever he was, Lasorda’s clubhouse office might be home to show-biz or restaurant types, plus Mike Piazza’s father, Vince, Lasorda’s childhood pal.
One time, in a big game in LA, the Dodgers had a lead in the late innings and there was a commotion in the dugout as Jay Johnstone ran out to right field and waved off some directive. Later we asked Lasorda what happened, and he said he tried to send Rick Monday out to play defense – a normal tactic -- but Johnstone had run past him, saying, “F--- you, Tommy, I’m not coming out!” Lasorda told it -- laughing, proud of Johnstone’s stand – particularly since it had not cost the Dodgers.
I was working on a book with Bob Welch, the pitcher and my late friend, about his being one of the first athletes to go through a rehab center for alcoholism. I knew Lasorda had made a brief visit to the center during Bob's family week, and I wanted his recollections, but Lasorda was evasive. Finally, on the road, he agreed to talk to me in his hotel suite, blustering, raising his voice, as if somebody were listening in the next room.
“He’s not an alcoholic!” Lasorda shouted. “He can take a drink or two! He just has to control it!” – totally against what recovering addicts know to be true.
I will give Lasorda credit for giving me the time…and his point of view. Whenever we met, he always said hello. Whatever his personal life was like, he loved wearing Dodger Blue. In his bombastic showboat way, he incorporated peripheral types, like a New York sports columnist, into his world, and he made us enjoy our little part of it.
* * *
Richard Goldstein and Tyler Kepner have told many great tales of Lasorda’s life:
One of my favorite “teachers” passed on the turnaround between wretched 2020 and overburdened 2021.
Richard Thornburgh, a former governor of Pennsylvania and U.S. attorney general, died on Dec. 31, at 88.
I met him when I was a news correspondent in the Appalachians, and through the years I reached out a few times for comments and background – for a column on drug testing in baseball, for my biography of Stan Musial.
Richard Thornburgh seemed to me a just person, a good teacher, a great storyteller who shared with me a close view of Musial, his boyhood hero in western Pennsylvania.
Our first meeting was in Pittsburgh in 1971 when I was working on a story about a pollution case, involving acidic runoff from a factory into the Monongahela River, a few miles upstream from the confluence with the Allegheny to form The Beautifiul Ohio.
The offending company was of modest size, but waiting in the docket were offenses attributed to huge corporations that contributed to Pittsburgh-area people holding their noses 24/7.
Thornburgh was the federal prosecutor for Western Pennsylvania, appointed by President Nixon. He knew the Times was covering, and suggested I attend jury selection, and we would talk later.
After a long morning session, we repaired to the bar at the Pittsburgh Hilton, with its scenic view of the confluence and the rugged hills, and Thornburgh gave me a quickie seminar on jury selection:
-- Why had he excluded the woman with glasses who was reading a hard-covered book in a front row of jury candidates? Precisely, he said. He did not want people who might think outside lines he would be setting. Okay.
-- Well, in that case, why had Thornburgh chosen, for foreman, a dean for a state junior college? Precisely, he said. He wanted somebody who worked in a structure, who was favorable to some form of law and order. Okay.
As my seminar continued, I spotted two faces from my previous life – Al McGuire and Jack McMahon, basketball players and coaches from St. John’s University, my childhood team. They pulled up chairs, and the smart and gregarious McGuire began grilling Thornburgh on the case, and law, and other cosmic subjects. Thornburgh got in a few sage questions for McGuire, and seemed delighted that I knew these characters, from a vastly different world. The NYT was buying.)
The case meandered onward after my little story, and eventually, polluters began to clean up their acts – courtesy of Thornburgh. Pittsburgh is a cleaner place today because of cases like that.
I kept up with Thornburgh as he became attorney general and governor, when he was hailed for his leadership during the Three Mile Island nuclear threat. Later, he returned to private practice.
During the drug scandals in baseball in the early 2000s, I found an essay Thornburgh had written about the complications of testing, citing his Yale friend A. Bartlett Giamatti, the baseball commissioner who had expired days after banishing Pete Rose for rampant gambling offenses.
While I was researching the Musial biography, I ran across Thornburgh’s name as part of a merry band of Americans who had met in Rome during the reign of the Polish Pope John Paul II. (James Michener, the writer, had described this confluence of superstars.) Musial had been Thornburgh’s favorite player during his childhood in Pittsburgh – and Thornburgh could imitate Musial’s batting stance as well as his autograph.
We corresponded another time or three and then – bad news on the doorstep -- I picked up the paper on New Year’s morning and saw he has passed. I learned that his first wife had been killed – just like Joe Biden’s wife – in a car accident.
Richard L. Thornburgh seemed to be a public servant in the best sense of the word. When I covered his pollution case, I got the feeling he believed companies really should not be pouring their crap into the river. Thank you, sir.
* * *
(Somewhere in my mental notebook, from one-off glimpses as a reporter, I keep a list -- a short list -- of Republicans I Have Seen Up Close and Respected: Richard Lugar of Indiana, Howard Baker of Tennessee, Fred Thompson of Tennessee, in his younger days. Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey. John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky -- despite his hiring an amoral slug named McConnell -- Tom Davis of Virginia. John McCain of Arizona, with whom I spent two glorious hours in his Senate office. Plus, Fiorello LaGuardia, NYC mayor when I was a little kid, who read “the funnies” to people on Sunday radio. And Richard L. Thornburgh of Pennsylvania, my “mentor” in law and government service.)
* * *
Thornburgh’s life is described by the master of NYT obits, Robert D. McFadden.
The Musial biography, with anecdotes from Pittsburgh boy:
Three Mile Island Recap:
Diego Maradona died two weeks before Paolo Rossi, but they were already linked -- two scamps who hijacked separate World Cups.
Rossi got there first by four full years, more of a surprise than when Diego Armando later commandeered the 1986 World Cup. Maradona was expected to produce a World Cup in his career, but Rossi came from essentially nowhere, from Limbo, from ignominy.
I was at both World Cups, my first and second of eight. Rossi’s rampage stunned me, a Yank who had no clue about world soccer, but was curious.
Brazil was always the favorite and the experts also mentioned Argentina with El Pibe de Oro (The Golden Kid), West Germany, of course, and, reflexively, there was always England, only 16 years past its host-nation glory of 1966.
Instead….instead….Italy came roaring into the World Cup in Spain, like kids on Vespas, roaring into a genteel piazza, grabbing unattended purses from table top -- the dreaded Scippatori.
Italy, the Azzurri, came as a shock after a gambling scandal a few years before. Rossi apparently knew of the coup, but said nothing, and was suspended for two years – at the peak of his career, as an opportunistic forward who found unguarded entryways to the goal.
Rossi was reinstated – what a coincidence – only months before the World Cup because the chatty manager, Enzo Bearzot, wanted him on the squad. I had not arrived at the World Cup in Spain for the first round, and Rossi barely arrived for the three matches, rusty and so insecure that he was waiting for Bearzot to bench him. However Bearzot kept telling him to get his stuff together, he was playing.
The engine was tuned up by the second round – a bizarre three-team round robin quarterfinal. Argentina, which had won in 1978, was touted to win, this time with chunky spectacular Maradona. Brazil, the perennial darlings who played with a flare, was also touted to win, with brilliant offensive players named Socrates, Zico and Falcao.
Italy played Argentina in the first match, and a swaggering defender named Claudio Gentile, known in Italy as Qaddafi, not only because he had been born in Libya but because he tended to hurt people. Non-molto-Gentile mugged Maradona early and often, rendering him pointless, insensate. (That is Gentile, Qaddafi, shirtless, in the video above.)
Meantime, vroom, vroom, here came Italy, players operating in space they never saw in the nasty defensive-minded Serie A of Italy. They moved the ball upfield and then, out of nowhere, came Paolo Rossi – still in the starting lineup? --che sorpresa – operating in wide open lanes that could have accommodated six lanes of Italian autoroutes.
Rossi did not score, but was a threat, and Maradona hobbled off, and Gentile swaggered in victory.
Next, Italy played Brazil, which moved the ball so magically for 75 or 80 yards but then stumbled into Italy’s defensive chain – Il catenaccio.
I remember one moment. The Brazilian right back, Leandro, wanted to get into the fun of moving the ball upfield, so he took off downfield. His swath of unguarded field suddenly was invaded by 12 or 14 Vespas, motors roaring, vroom-vroom.
Italy won, and Rossi scored three goals, I was beginning to get the point. Rossi scored twice in the semifinals against Poland, whose best player was banned for too many yellow cards. Then in the finals, with West Germany’s best player hobbled with a leg injury, Rossi scored once and Italy won, 3-1.
Rossi was voted the star of the game, and while I was in Madrid, writing about the match, my friend Thomas Rogers of the Times, back home in New York, wrote a lovely Man in the News profile of the surprising Paolo Rossi:
I will always love the Brazil of 1982 – the best team ever to not win a specific World Cup – but I was now a wannabe Italian.
Other teams, other stars, come and go: Zidane’s beautiful final in 1998, the U.S. getting cheated by a blatant handball by Germany in 2002, Spain’s coming-of-age in 2010, Germany’s nearly-perfect meshing in 2014.
Now that I am retired and free to root, I wait for the United States to mature (which it is doing with magical frequency from young stars like Reyna and McKennie and Pulisic in Europe)
But I always have a second team – Italy – the blue shirts, the merry little tarantella of an anthem, the legends of maestri like Roberto Baggio and Andrea Pirlo and Alessandro Del Piero, and always going back to Paolo Rossi, who came from disgrace and took over a World Cup. Vroom-vroom
You always remember your first.
* * *
(Obit of Paolo Rossi in The Guardian.)
The first Yankee player I ever met was Whitey Ford, who died Friday at 91.
I was a kid at Newsday, the great Long Island paper, covering the high schools, and my mentors would occasionally take me to Yankee Stadium, the only New York ballpark open during what I call the Dark Ages.
Either Jack Mann, the sports editor, or Stan Isaacs, the columnist, introduced me to Ford, in a corner of the clubhouse.
Ford lived in Lake Success, just over the city line, and he was identified as “the crafty Long Island southpaw.” We wrote about him a lot because he was a great pitcher and because he was friendly. Not all the Yankee players were.
I was not disappointed in the introduction. Whitey Ford offered his hand and fixed his alert eyes on me – a Queens guy, with accent to match.
“Nice to meet you,” he said, and he made small talk, and I got the impression that I could talk to him, win or lose, and I was not wrong. For the rest of his career, Whitey Ford was available. He liked the coverage he got from his hometown paper, of course, but he also deserved it. For six of his first seven seasons, the Yankees won the pennant.
I’m sure the Times and other papers will give proper respect to Ford’s marvelous career. I’ll stick to personal memories of Edward Charles Ford:
--- When Ralph Houk replaced Casey Stengel in 1961, one of the first things he did was use Ford in 283 innings, the highest of his career. Perhaps Casey had been wary of Ford’s modest size, did not want to wear him out, but Ford became more of a workhorse through 1965. Houk rarely gave incisive answers to young reporters – known as Chipmunks because we chattered so much – but one day the manager visited Ford on the mound, as if to take him out, but instead he left him in, with good results.
When we asked Houk later, he said: Whitey always told him the truth. If he was out of gas, he said so. If he still had something left, he said so. Houk’s answer seemed to me the ultimate affirmation of Ford, as pitcher and competitor and team player.
-- Distinct memory of Whitey Ford from my first year or two: I cannot replicate it from the records, but I know I saw it: Two outs. Two strikes. A runner or two on base. My boss, Jack Mann, nudged me: “Watch this.” A hellacious curve broke in on the lefty batter, who lunged at the ball, as Elston Howard caught it – and sprinted to the dugout – as the visiting manager screamed bloody murder from the dugout steps. The manager said the ball had been doctored by Howard’s ultra-sharp belt buckle, but when asked later by intrepid reporters, Elston and Whitey knew nothing. Nothing. Ford's stuff and brain were enough on 99 percent of his pitches. He said it was Howard who named him "The Chairman of the Board."
--- Ford was a good friend of Mickey Mantle, at all hours and all seasons – the city boy and the country boy. They called each other “Slick.” Ford would never try to explain his moody pal, but sometimes he could joke with Mantle, get him into a mood to talk to reporters. Life was so much easier that way.
-- In those days, reporters traveled on the same charter flight as the Yankees – it made travel easier, and Newsday and the Times paid their own way, of course. The Yankee plane came back from Kansas City or Minnesota long, long after midnight, and at the baggage claim, I offered a ride home to Ford, and Hector Lopez, who lived on the way. I just needed to get my car in a nearby parking lot, while they guarded my suitcase. But when I got to my car, there was a flat tire – and my spare was shot – so I needed help. There were no cellphones in those days, kids, so I couldn’t notify Ford and Lopez that I was stuck. Needless to say, they – and my suitcase – were not at the terminal when I finally swung by. Okay. Next morning, at a reasonable hour, I got a call….from Whitey Ford….who said he had my suitcase at his house, and I could pick it up when convenient. That made him a major-league mensch in my book. May I just say that not every ball player would be as thoughtful.
-- Ford’s body fell apart in 1966 and ’67 and he was sanguine about it. One day, in New York smartass humor, I jokingly called him “the game southpaw.” He twinkled as he corrected me: “the gamey southpaw.” But his career stats and his Hall of Fame stature smell like roses.
-- Ford and Mantle were friendly with a chatty clubhouse attendant out of Fordham University named Thad Mumford, who was smarter and funnier than any ball player or any reporter, for that matter. Munford moved on, but at subsequent Old Timers Days, Mantle and Ford would spot him and the badinage would pick up, all over again. One year, Mantle drawled, “Hey, Thad, would you get me a beer?” Ford, with city-cat patronization, advised Mantle, “Hey, Slick, Thad writes for “M*A*S*H,” and Mantle blushed beet-red, as he sometimes did. Munford loved it – and went to get a beer for his old pals. Mumford would have occasional bouts of nostalgia out in California, and would call some old-time contacts. Thad passed two years ago; he counted Ford as one of his best Yankee friends.
Now the Chairman of the Board is gone, but his records remain, and so does the twinkle from a friendly corner of the long-vanished Yankee Stadium.
* * *
Bob Gibson passed Friday of pancreatic cancer.
He was one of the most competitive athletes I ever covered – a fierce, purposeful flame.
I wrote about Gibson (below) 26 months ago when he disclosed the fearsome diagnosis.
I would also recommend today’s obit in the NYT by my friend Rich Goldstein:
Also, you might want to see the piece I did in 2009 when Gibson and Reggie Jackson were promoting a book they had written (with Lonnie Wheeler) about the eternal struggle – that is, between pitchers and hitters.
I watched the rivalry play out over a power breakfast in New York, and when I asked a question Gibson considered cheeky, he verbally buzzed me, high and inside. I thought Reggie was going to choke on his oatmeal, or whatever he was eating. His look said: “And you writers think I’m a hard guy.”
I consider myself fortunate to have been around Gibson, in the tight little sanctums of the Cardinal clubhouse in the old, old ballpark. That kind of access to athletes is gone during the pandemic, with writers minimally getting sterile, mass interviews with a few principals, and I’m just guessing it never comes back. No writer today will see a star like Gibson, up close, the way I did in the tense last weeks of the 1964 season and World Series.
Finally, a word about superstars. My admired colleague Dave Kindred has a mythical mind game called “The Game to Save Humanity,” meaning “we” get to play Martians, or whatever, one game, Pick your team. My pitchers are Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson, lefty and righty, even beyond numbers and longevity, but just, well, just because. I saw them.
RIP, Hoot. It was an honor to observe you.
From July, 2018:
Don’t Mess With Bob Gibson
Bob Gibson is fighting pancreatic cancer – “fighting” being the operative word.
Everybody knows Gibson’s combative pose as the best right-handed pitcher in the universe, starting in 1964.
I was lucky enough to be present when Gibson morphed from very good pitcher to legend, in 22 epic days at the end of that season.
He had been underestimated by his first manager, Solly Hemus, who had lost his black players by using a racial taunt to taunt an opponent in 1960. Gibson was still very much a work in progress after Hemus was canned in 1961, and replaced by Johnny Keane, who reminded me of the kindly commanding officer, Col., Potter, in the classic series, “M*A*S*H.”
After mid-season of 1964, Gibson pitched eight straight complete games – a statistic that probably would default the computers of today’s analytics gurus. Yes, really good pitchers really did finish a lot of games.
As the Phillies started to fold, the Cardinals and Reds put on a run.
On Sept. 24, Gibson lost a complete game in Pittsburgh. On Sept. 28, he beat the Phillies, going 8 innings. On Oct. 2, with the Cardinals in first place on the last Friday of the season, Gibson lost, 1-0, to the lowly Mets as Alvin Jackson pitched the game of his life.
Then on a very nervous Oct. 4, Gibson pitched 4 innings in relief, gave up two runs, but was the winning pitcher, as the Cardinals won their first pennant since 1946.
I can still see him on the stairs to the players-only loft.
“Hoot, how’s your arm?” a reporter asked.
“Horseshit!” Gibson said. Then he was gone, up the stairs.
When Manager Keane gave his pennant-winning media conference, somebody asked why he went so often with a certifiably fatigued pitcher.
“I had a commitment to his heart,” Keane said softly.
Those words gave me a chill as Keane spoke them; they remain one of the great tributes I have ever heard from a manager of coach about a player. Keane’s faith, his shrewd understanding of the man, helped Gibson demolish the stereotype that many black players had to overcome.
Gibson then started the second game (8 innings, lost to Jim Bouton), won the fifth game in 10 innings) and the seventh game in 9 innings to won the World Series.
He had pitched 56 innings in 22 days, become a superstar after some delay, just as Sandy Koufax had done earlier. In over 70 years as fan and reporter, I will take the two of them over any lefty-righty pair you want to pick.
Gibson never put away his testy edge. He was rough on rookies, rough on how own catchers and pitching who trudged out to the mound to counsel him. “You don’t know anything about pitching, except you can’t hit it,” he told Tim McCarver, who has relished that taunt ever since.)
He did not observe the fraternity of ball players, even chatty types like Ron Fairly of the Dodgers.
One time Fairly stroked a couple of hits off Gibson, who then hit a single of his own. But Fairly made the mistake of engaging Gibson in a collegial way. I always heard that Fairly praised Gibson for his base hit, but Gibson insisted that Fairly had raved about Gibson’s stuff and wondered how he had possibly made two hits off him. Either way, Gibson glared at Fairly. Didn’t say a word.
Next time up, Fairly observed Gibson, glowing on the mound, and mused to the catcher, Joe Torre, that he did not think he was going to enjoy this at-bat, was he? Torre wasn’t going to lie about it; he just smiled as Fairly took one in the ribs.
That is Gibson. Don’t mess with him. Torre later brought Gibson to the Mets as his “attitude coach,” as if you can coach attitude.
Gibson remains competitive. A decade or so ago, he and Reggie Jackson collaborated on a nice book about the age-old yin/yang of pitcher/hitter. They met me for a power breakfast in New York to discuss their book, and it went fine until near the end. Working on a book on Stan Musial, I asked Gibson if I could ask one question about Stan the Man.
“Absolutely not,” Gibson snapped. He and Musial had the same agent, and he knew that Musial had put out a fatwa against friends and family discussing him with writers.
Gibson’s abruptness caused Reggie to nearly choke on his bagel as he tried not to laugh.
This is the guy who is going to fight a formidable disease.
Knock it on its ass, Hoot.
* * *
(Below: video of Christopher Russo interviewing Gibson (Reggie in background) about the friendly little incident with Fairly, back in the day.)
Bad enough that epic ballplayers are passing. Now it’s Toots.
Our oldest, Laura, caught him two summers ago in Albany, the gateway to Almost Heaven, Adirondacks.
“Bucket list item for me,” Laura typed Sunday from Upstate, when we heard about the passing of Toots Hibbert, age 77, the lead singer of Toots and the Maytals, classic reggae group, which was around for, oh, forever.
I remember when I became aware of Toots. I was a regular listener on WNEW-FM, since it became the great pioneer rock station in 1967.
For years, Dave Herman had the morning drive-time show that ended at 10 AM. One morning he said he would have, live in the studio, the great Toots Hibbert. And kept telling us, as the final hour ticked away.
Finally, about 9:50 or so, Toots arrived in the studio. Only thing was, his mind and his voice had not yet arrived. Brother Dave tried to engage him on why he was in New York, where he was playing, plug his latest album, etc. etc., but Toots emitted only monosyllables.
About 9:58, Toots started talking…and talking….a deep-throated but lilting monologue, right up to the signoff music the universal signal that the station is about to move on to news weather, the next host.
Ultimately, click, the engineer cut Toots off, mid-sentence.
“I think I like this guy,” I said, and I went out and found his cassette (yes, it was that far back), “Funky Kingston,” with songs like “Pressure Drop” and ”Time Tough,” plus the adaptation of John Denver’s song, “Country Roads,” but in the Maytals’ version it becomes “Almost Heaven, West Jamaica.” I loved it, just as much as I love the ruined mountains of Appalachia, and I loved Toots from afar. Never saw him, but the cassette endured. Laura says she has replaced her copy two or three times.
Toots had a sound – I’ll let the pop music critics explain.
He wasn’t Bob Marley, whom I regard as musical divinity, but Toots’ earthly voice and rhythm told of joy and pain, good times and bad times. And made you want to move.
I never caught him live and never will, but Laura and Diane drove down to the Capitol Region in August of 2018 to catch Toots.
“Toots. Free concert. Diverse Albany crowd. Weather,” Laura messaged on Sunday morning as we commiserated.
The band had driven all the way from California and barely got there on time. The band played Toots in for a good 5-10 minutes before he finally walked on from the back. Then. It was ON. He was older and somewhat stiff but still totally commanding and powerful and totally adept at working the crowd.
I typed, “Got any photos?” and the cellphone quivered and hummed and buzzed.
She added: "One of the great nights out. Ever."
I was trying to write something about Tom Seaver that had not been said in the past few days.
Then our-son-the-newsman texted me on Sunday afternoon: “Omigosh, now Lou Brock.”
Immediately, immediately, I thought of a falsetto voice in the cramped old Busch Stadium clubhouse, piercing the hubbub of a great team:
“Chris going to America! Chris gonna find Lou Brock!”
That was Bob Gibson, the crabby but funny straw boss of the Cardinal clubhouse, emitting the punch line of Flip Wilson in his epic routine about Christopher Columbus:
Queen Isabel -- Elizabeth Johnson, that is -- is underwriting the mission of Columbus, and she is down at the dock cheering him on -- in American Black patois:
“Chris going to America!” the queen shrieks. “Chris gonna find Ray Charles!” (*-see below)
By inserting Brock, Gibson paid tribute to the player whose legs and brain and will helped the Cardinals win three pennants in the mid-60s, and for a while made Brock the all-time stolen base leader.
Lou Brock, who died Sunday, was the final piece of the 1964 Cardinals, coming over in a one-sided trade with the Cubs. (You got it: for Ernie Broglio.)
He gave the Cardinals one more star to go along with Gibson, Bill White, Curt Flood, Dick Groat, Tim McCarver and Ken Boyer, one of the great teams (and clubhouses) I ever covered.
Brock also gave Stan Musial one of his favorite punch lines during the World Series of 1964. Musial had retired after the 1963 season, and the Cardinals landed Brock in mid-June of 1964.
Why were the Cardinals celebrating in October of 1964?
“We finally got a left-fielder,” Musial would say with his giggle.
Brock did not come from nowhere. While the Mets were still waiting for The Youth of America, in Casey Stengel’s prophecy, the Cubs already had talent but negated by bad management.
In 1962, the Cubs promoted Brock to the majors, to his surprise. On His first at-bat in a Sunday doubleheader in the Polo Grounds, he lofted a drive that landed directly on top of the bleacher fence -- only the third player in history to hit a home run into those bleachers.
“You won’t ever do that again!” shouted Alvin Jackson, the Mets’ lefty, who gave up the homer. Brock agreed, he never would. (Two college men from the South they became friends.)
Brock soon acquired the reputation of an under-performer who was skittery in left field. The Cubs gave up on him in 1964, and the Cardinals’ manager, Johnny Keane, did the same thing with for Brock that he was doing with Gibson. (“I had a commitment to his heart,” Keane once said about Gibson, one of the most beautiful statements I have ever heard from a coach or manager. Overlooking old racial stereotypes was part of Keane’s life vision.)
After the Cardinals won the 1964 World Series, I had dinner with Brock in Chicago, for a profile of him for Sport Magazine.
“They needed a lift,” Brock said. “I had a history of not being able to help anybody. I think the ballplayers felt this. Nobody said anything to me but I could feel it.”
By 1967, Brock was an established all-star who had never seen Seaver closer than 60 feet, 6 inches. Their first encounter in the National League all-star clubhouse is a wonderful story that Seaver told many times over the years. (The Brock-Seaver part is about 60 seconds into it:)
Brock and the “kid” eventually faced each other 157 times, more than either faced any opponent. The record shows that Seaver got the better of Brock. (But Brock played in three World Series.)
Many years later, Brock made a great contribution to the Mets, without meaning it. He was a soothing older teammate to a hard-driving young Cardinal named Keith Hernandez, telling him to relax and play his game.
When Hernandez became the infield straw boss of the Mets in the 80’s, he often referred to Brock’s kindness and encouragement. I am sure Hernandez is gutted today, because his mentor has passed, after losing a leg to diabetes years ago.
Two giants, a few days apart. I was lucky to be around the Cardinals and Brock, just as I was proud to cover Tom Seaver on some of his epic days. I can’t claim I knew him well, but I had plenty of opportunity to observe. One of my last impressions was Seaver’s inner Marine joining Manager Gil Hodges to give the Mets’ self-image a posture adjustment in the late 60s. I wrote about it last year:
In this weird, truncated season, these two Hall of Fame players, linked by familiarity in their careers, are linked again.
*- Here's the origin of the Columbus/Queen Isabel (Isabel Johnson) /Ray Charles riff.
Mike Moran was one of the giants in sports – a spokesperson for the United States Olympic Committee for decades who told the truth either with facts or with a sardonic tone and a pronounced rolling of the eyes. He was “in the room” when the 1980 Miracle on Ice transpired, and he was there when Nancy Kerrigan was whacked and when Tonya Harding was allowed to skate in Norway and he was there to explain the grandiose statements of George Steinbrenner and other bumptious officials passing through the hierarchy.
Mike was the Deep State of Olympics, and thank God for that.
He passed on Tuesday at the age of 78 after a sad few months of feeling himself go downhill. He stopped e-mailing political columns and other snarky writings by others, and that was a dire sign.
I could go on, but other people knew him better than I did. One of them is Bob Condron, one of the best people I know in sports, himself a professional publicist and great company in some Olympic site. Bob went on Facebook to extol his boss and friend, and I am going to desist right here and let Bob tell you about Mike Moran:
By Bob Condron:
A friend of mine died today. He was the library of the Olympics, as it pertained to the United States. He was the spirit of what good there was in having Olympic Dreams and reading and hearing about them.
His name was Mike Moran, the spokesman of the U.S. Olympic Committee who guided the organization’s mindset for a quarter century. He was my boss. He brought me from college athletics into the Olympic Movement and my life was so rich for 30 years because of it.
Mike had a variety of titles: editor of the Olympian Magazine, director of communications, Chief of Communications Officer, whatever. He came at a time the U.S. Olympic Committee had just formed by an act of Congress. The USOC was a Park Avenue kind of Travel Agency in New York. But, the Amateur Sports Act of 1978 changed all that. And it came to Colorado Springs. And its headquarters was at the old ENT Air base, the new Olympic Training Center just off downtown.
Baaron Pittenger and Col. Don Miller talked Mike into coming to the USOC from the University of Colorado where he was the sports information Director. A football power with Mike riding the Buffalo wave. The USOC organization was new, the training center was new, the attitude was new. And Mike changed his life and he launched a new philosophy of trying to get the media to pay attention to the Olympics and the athletes of the United States who had dreams.
He built a foundation in the early days to make sure the American media had a contact, someone who cared about small hometowns of athletes, the colleges they came from, the stories of their lives, coaches, moms and dads.
But, Mike became more than that. He was the guy who stood at the podium when the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. His heart broke because of it and the nastiness that came from the powers to be in the Carter administration.
And he was at the podium when there was Payback four years later when the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc said NO! to Los Angeles and the 1984 Olympics.
And he was the man in the TV lights when Nancy Kerrigan was whacked in the kneecap by the Tonya Harding camp at the Olympic figure skating trials in Detroit before the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer. He called the 1 a.m. press conference in Norway with 1,600 media in a space that probably seated 500.
He was the man at the Podium for all kinds of calamities for the USOC: possible bankruptcy, investigations that wanted to make the USOC a farm club of Congress, Drug busts, George Steinbrenner, drug positives, athlete deaths, fake bios of USOC leaders, conflicts of interests by officers…fun stuff.
He’d take the podium, the lights, explain things and might say…”we need to do better. Can I answer any questions?” And a hundred waving palms would rise into the air, blood vessels enlarging, right to know things, screaming at Mike.
He was calm on top. Paddling like crazy underneath. But he stayed the stay. Answered every question. Met for one on ones later. He was accessible, he was the man with the quotes. Sometimes with leaders. Sometime without. Stuck on an island.
He was the man who set the standard for the USOC of old. The man the media depended on to be available…at that moment. No matter whether it was the New York Times, USA Today or Bonnie Blair’s hometown paper in Wisconsin.
He made this profession proud. He made me proud. He made this nation proud.
He’s pain free now. Not lonely from all of his mornings at the coffee shop with six papers all prohibited by this god-awful pandemic. The poison in his body from pneumonia and organ shutdown is gone. . The 6-4 body of a former AAA pitcher that once hit Curt Flood in the family jewels as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals is forgiven. At least by God.
After l:37 pm. Tuesday, he’s reading the papers now. Having coffee. Wishing the Colorado Springs Sky Sox was still a farm club of the Rockies. Writing to all the media who might have gotten credentials in Heaven .
And waiting for us.
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A reporter's appreciation of Mike Moran, by Phil Hersh, long-time Olympic correspondent :
NOT TO BE MISSED: Thomas Beller's loving depiction of Jerry Stiller as Hasidic elder, from the West Side, one neighbor writing about another.
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(From me:) As a New Yorker who has never lived in an apartment, I am fascinated by friends’ buildings.
Friends were said to live in the same West Side building as a singer I love. Whenever we would visit for a Seder, I would imagine getting on the elevator with the singer. Never happened.
Another friend lived in the same Village building as a noted writer and doctor. My wife had some questions for him, if we ever got on the same elevator. Never happened.
However, two friends of ours did live in the same building as Stiller and Meara. One summer in the 80’s, our friends, sisters, threw a Sunday 5 PM cocktail party on the penthouse patio – classic New York. Noted rabbi. Noted historian, female, who wanted to talk about Pete Rose (before Pete had been found out.)
And Stiller and Meara, one of the gang, chatting with everyone. She was gorgeous, and friendly. He, not so gorgeous but equally friendly.
I could not resist. I told them how much I admired their work, which, to me, consisted of their ultra-droll commercials for Blue Nun, a semi-sweet wine formerly known as Liebfraumilch.
Never do this. But I did. I told them my favorite Blue Nun commercial was about a radio-detective type sitting in his office when a mysterious redhead appears.
I am ashamed, but I wasn’t then, to semi-imitate their voices, as I recalled the dialogue:
He: “From the moment she walked into my office, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She had legs that went from here to there – and back again.”
She: “You’ll have to excuse me for not sitting down, but I’ve got legs that go from here to there and back again.”
(Anne Meara was indeed way taller than Stiller, surely part of the attraction. Somehow a detective and long legs led to a pitch for Blue Nun wine.)
They both gave me deadpan looks, shook their heads.
Sorry, each said, I just don’t remember that one. (The point being, there were so many.) Then they asked me about the Yankee game I had just attended. They fit right in. West Side neighbors.
I never met Anne Meara again but I used to bump into Jerry Stiller at The Garden. This was before his Seinfeld renaissance, and he was just another West Sider, saying hello at halftime.
I reveled in the success of their daughter and son, plus his success on Seinfeld, grouchy and loud, at the next table in a deli. (We all remember that bustling ambience, don’t we.)
Anne passed in 2015. Jerry passed the other day, at 92.
The NYT ran a lovely obituary – of the two of them, really – with classic Seinfeldian sub-plots about a fitting obituary, and a killer last line by Peter Keepnews.
Better you should read it for yourself. Meantime, farewell to that classic West Side couple, Stiller and Meara:
It's Black History Month in the U.S. -- time to acknowledge people who have succeeded despite the shackles of slavery and segregation -- America's original sin, still hanging over us.
By sad coincidence, two of America's great strivers passed within days of each other, and have been honored in lavish and literate obituaries by two star writers in The New York Times.
Katherine Johnson and B. Smith both had singular success in demanding fields, breaking barriers and stereotypes.
Mrs. Johnson escaped segregated schools to qualify as a mathematician for NASA, and later made the pre-computer calculations that helped take American astronauts into space.
(My Appalachian buddy, Randolph Fiery, points out in a Comment below just how difficult it was for Mrs. Johnson's parents to seek a high level of education for their precocious daughter, involving a long trek over the mountains of West Virginia.)
Katherine Johnson and her black female colleagues were later depicted in the movie “Hidden Figures.” She died at 101 on Monday in Virginia and was honored in an obituary by Margalit Fox.
“NASA was a very professional organization,” the obituary quoted Mrs. Johnson telling The Observer of Fayetteville, N.C., in 2010. “They didn’t have time to be concerned about what color I was.”
B. Smith began as a model, wrote and was a television host and designed household goods, but was best known for the restaurant bearing her name in the Theater District of Manhattan. She died at 70 on Saturday on Long Island.
The obituary by William Grimes told how Barbara Smith from Pennsylvania was a dynamo in childhood: “I inherited a paper route, I sold magazines, had lemonade stands, I was a candy striper and into fund-raising,” she told The Times in 2011. “I’ve always enjoyed being busy.”
She had her self-image, and she was not shy about describing it:
“B. Smith’s brand is about is bringing people together," she said, speaking of herself in the third person, as basketball superstars do on occasion. "I think that if Martha Stewart and Oprah had a daughter, it would be B. Smith,” she told National Public Radio in 2007.
The success and resolve of Katherine Johnson and B. Smith, as they ignored stereotypes, would be inspiring anytime. In Black History Month, the accounts of their accomplished lives lit up my day.
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(The obits are too long to reproduce here, so I am enclosing the links to the NYT website. People who do not subscribe can pull up a certain amount of free links per month. Other obits of these two achievers will surely be on the web -- GV.)
Say what you will about the I-Man, this alternately cruel and shy character who passed Friday at 79, he kept me alive many years ago.
I had paid him no attention until he popped up on the new sports talk station, WFAN -- 660 on the AM dial – in the late 80’s. Most of the station was devoted to hard-core sports babble but his four hours in the morning – “the revenue-producing portion of the day,” I think he called it – was a snarling, sneering refutation of sports, plus music critiques and skits.
One of the best things I have ever heard on the radio was a skit in which Princess Diana visits America to get away from that strange bunch she had married into. (I forget the name of the woman who portrayed Diana.) Somehow or other, Diana is invited to Imus’ home in Connecticut, for a hot-dog roast with real people, that is to say, the I-Man. She is so enthralled by his informality that she pleads for asylum, asking in a plaintive voice, “Please, may I stay here?” Oh, if only she had.
Imus grew on me, with his frequent praise for his favorite musician, Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys. He also acted as a one-man media critic of the noble knights of the keyboard back when newspapers and sports sections and columnists played to the snarky taste of the New York region.
He was vicious toward his station mates, calling Mike Francesa and Chris Russo “Fatso and Fruit Loops.” He derided his literary agent and consigliere, Esther Newberg, referring to her as, of course, “Lobsters.” He regularly berated the plugged-in sports columnist of the Daily News, Mike Lupica, and sometimes when he had nothing else to do, he picked on me.
(Let it be noted that Lupica and I are clients of the sainted Ms. Newberg.)
One time Imus relayed a new item about an elderly gent who was left, in a wheelchair, I believe, by his guardian at some rural dog track. This became the Imus standard for irrelevancy, for being past it. He often would ridicule my masterpieces and state the obvious: “Dog-track time for Vecsey.”
One time my sister Janet rang up the station to blast the I-Man and he put her on the air, and was oh, so civil to her. That was the I-Man, a human mood swing. I met him a few times, hanging out in a baseball press box, making no fuss. In person, the radio tough guy would softly say hello and kind of look sideways at me.
How did Imus save my life? My wife was on a trip somewhere and I thought it made sense for me to drive our car from south Florida to Long Island – straight through, overnight (with a couple of 15-minute naps at rest stops.)
I got near Baltimore, the sun rising, and to keep awake I punched the dial seeking Imus going on the air at 6 AM.
But I was sleepy. Very sleepy. I could feel the car starting to edge onto the rough border of the inside lane. I righted the steering wheel and willed myself to stay awake. But I was sleepy.
Just then, Imus began a tirade against a failing columnist who had just written another piece of foolscap. In his basso voice of denunciation and doom, Imus pronounced: “Dog-track time for Vecsey.”
That got my adrenaline surging – who doesn’t like attention? – and I gripped the wheel and listened to Imus for the next four hours until the revenue-producing part of the day was over, and I got home, alive.
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I’d like to say that my debt to the I-Man made me a listener for life, but that’s not true. He and his radio sidekicks increased their racial crap and their creepy comments about women until one day he made ugly comments about the mostly-black players on the Rutgers women’s basketball team, competing in the Final Four. That was it. I turned Imus off, and never listened to him again.
In a way, Imus was a predictor of where we are today. However, unlike some public figures I could name, he appeared to be generous, to have a heart. According to the obituaries, the I-Man hosted young people at his Imus Ranch and raised funds for Iraq veterans, and his wife Deirdre has her own charity at a New Jersey hospital. It seems he affected thousands of lives – plus one sleepy driver, edging off the Interstate on a warm sunrise.
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Here’s a treat: the NYT’s star, Robert McFadden, on the I-Man:
I was busy working on something else when I heard about Alvin Jackson Monday, so I kept going, with a heavy heart. Then I received emails from three pals, one an old ball player from Brooklyn saying, “From what I know, he was a class guy,” and one e-friend from West Virginia saying, “He sounds like a fine fellow,” and one pal at the Times, saying “I’m sure you knew him.”
Yes, I knew Alvin Jackson from April of 1962, knew him from games he won and games he lost, and I also knew him as a wide receiver in touch football. True.
You can read the lovely obit in the Times and learn a lot of the details of his life:
I was a young sportswriter in 1962, first year I traveled. Jackson was a steady pitcher on a team that lost 120 of 160 games. Casey liked him for himself and also because Casey, who was childless, was proud of the Mets' considerable number of "university men," many of them pitchers.
By Casey's standards, Jackson was a university man, but Jackson could also keep the ball low and he never lost his poise. When we interviewed Alvin after losses, he kept it inside, which I attributed it to the caution of a black man from Waco, Tex., who has learned not to show too much of himself. He also had occasional whooping laugh that he allowed to escape.
We never got serious about much, but on Aug. 28, 1963, I watched Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech from the Mall in Washington, on the TV in my hotel room in Pittsburgh, and when I went down to catch the team bus to the ball park, I got into a conversation with Alvin and Jesse Gonder, the catcher, and Maury Allen of the (good old) New York Post. We agreed that something momentous had happened that day and I felt we all had gotten a glimpse of the others’ heart.
Alvin was living on Long Island in the off-season, and one of my colleagues at Newsday mentioned that we played touch football once or twice a week at a park in Hempstead. Jackson and most players had the same economic level as reporters, so sometimes he worked at a winter job, but most game days he showed up, ready for a run, ready to break a sweat.
In 1963, another Met, Larry Bearnarth, who was living nearby, joined the game.
They got their tension during the season. What they wanted was a workout. They never big-timed us, tried to call plays or ask for the ball. Joe Donnelly, who had a great arm, and I, who had no arm at all, were usually the quarterbacks. Let me say, it was a trip to be in a mini-huddle, calling a play involving somebody who pitched in the major leagues.
I think Alvin and Larry were in the game on Nov. 22, 1963, when the fiancée of one of the players came running across the parking lot and delivered the terrible news. We all just went home.
By 1964 Alvin was a club elder:
"Wonderful gentleman," Bill Wakefield, a very useful pitcher on that squad, wrote to me in an e-mail. "He was very nice to me. Treated me (a rookie) like I was a veteran of the original Mets vintage. Great smile and laugh! Good pitcher. Not overpowering stuff, but knew how to pitch. Good guy."
Jackson pitched one of the most masterful games of that first Mets era on the final Friday of the season, in St. Louis: He shut out the Cardinals, who were fighting for the pennant, by a 1-0 score, bringing the chill of winter into the city, but the Cardinals survived on the final day.
As Alvin’s career dwindled, he moved on, and then he was a pitching instructor for various organizations, including the Mets in later years. When we ran into each other, he was cordial; not all ball players remember your face. Once in a while, I would see him and make the motion of a quarterback throwing long, and he would give his whooping laugh, not needing to add, “as if you could.”
He stayed on Long Island a long time. I never knew that his wife, Nadine, a lovely presence, was the chairwoman of a business department in a Suffolk high school. I just knew they were a dignified couple -- a university man and woman.
Alvin Jackson brought dignity and discipline that rubbed off on teammates, on reporters in the locker room, and even on fans who could tell, from a distance, that he was indeed a very nice guy.
Only a few months ago, Tony Major was playing 3-on-3 basketball in an over-75 tournament.
He could get off his feet, could pop jump shots from the corner. Sent videos back north so his friends could see.
He was an athlete and an actor and now a teacher and documentarian at the University of Central Florida, working on a film about Trayvon Martin.
He was looking forward to June 17, when he would rejoin some old baseball teammates from Hofstra, when their 1960 team will be inaugurated into the school’s athletic Hall of Fame.
Instead, Tony passed suddenly on May 27, at 79. We just heard about it, and a lot of us who knew him back in the day are gutted by this news.
Tony made a quickie visit to campus last October, after half a century. He spent part of the day with old jock friends, another part getting a tour of the new communications building from two nice officials and also visiting the playhouse where he had learned to speak Shakespearean. We were all invigorated by his youthful presence.
At lunch, he told us about his life. We knew him as somebody who played three sports, but he felt Hofstra was not ready for a black quarterback and he was not big enough to star in basketball. He was a useful member of the 1960 baseball team that won the grand old Met Conference but could not play in the NCAA tournament because of exams.
A son of Florida, he had commuted every day to Long Island from Harlem where his mother now lived. He told us about how he gravitated to the great drama department, had tried out for roles in the annual Shakespeare Festival.
Laughing at the memory, he described how a black man from the South had learned to shape his speech into the cadence and pronunciations of Shakespearean English. But he did it. And he kept acting, in the city at first. Later, he graduated from New York University Tisch School of The Arts and also taught film production and producing at NYU for two semesters.
His baseball ability and knowledge got him a minor role as the backup catcher in the 1973 movie “Bang the Drum Slowly.” He saw young Robert De Niro playing a dying catcher, crouching behind the batter, extending his hands too far. Tony told us how he had passed along some tips about not getting fingers broken by the bat or a foul tip.
He moved to Hollywood, playing some bit parts, but also learning about television production. One year he worked with the Dolly Parton show – and raved to me about her intelligence and kindness.
And then he moved to Florida, where the university was expanding in Orlando. He began making documentaries, often with an African-American theme. He married late, a woman from Africa, and they had two children, both still in school.
“That’s why I’m still working,” he said, laughing.
He had so much going on, and now he was reconnecting with some old teammates, plus me, a student publicist who sometimes traveled with the baseball team.
Tony had a gentle soul, did not hide the sting of stereotypes. He felt he was used as a pinch-runner in baseball when he could have played more. He recalled road trips to the Mason-Dixon Line, circa 1960, when black players were restricted in the team hotel. And after that, he created a joyous persona, a productive life and career.
Early this year, Tony sent me some photos and videos of the over-75 basketball tournament in Florida. There he was, off his feet, getting a rebound, putting it back in. And there he was guarding Sid Holtzer, a former Hofstra basketball player, also still in good shape.
In one staged photo, Tony was waving his hand in Sid’s face. Sid never liked that, Tony said. Still didn’t. He giggled at his own mischief.
We were looking forward to his next trip north, on the 17th. Instead, there was a funeral on June 8 in Orlando. If there is any lesson to this, it is: reconnect with old friends sooner, and treasure them.
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Note: Sid Holtzer, another athlete and friend from Hofstra, attended the service and thoughtfully sent photos from the program.
(From the University of Central Florida:)
Birch Bayh called me at the Times about a decade ago. I was curious why a former US senator wanted to talk to a sports columnist, and of course I called him back.
Now I can’t remember the reason he called. His obituaries this week praise him as a major force on Title IX, which has enriched sports for women – for everybody – in America, but I don’t recall him presenting himself as the Title IX guy.
Whatever it was about, we schmoozed for a bit. I told him I had covered his re-election in 1970 and I determined that this son of Indiana was now living on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
As long as we were chatting, I had a question for him. It went something like: “Senator, could I ask you a question about politics? I’m looking at all this Tea Party business, and it seems that some of the new members of Congress hate government, can’t even stand being in Washington, just want to shut things down.”
He was diplomatic, did not go fire-and-brimstone on me. After all, he was known as a very moderate Democrat; he had to be, to win in Indiana. But he allowed that he had never seen anything like the antipathy between Democrats and the new Republicans, wandering around brandishing mental pitchforks. He recalled with a tinge of sadness that he always had friends across the aisle.
That made me think about legendary friendships between Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch, Lyndon Johnson and Everett Dirksen, Dick Durbin and John McCain (once again being vilified by Donald Trump.)
On the phone, Birch Bayh sounded reflective, maybe even sad, recalling better political times, and then we said goodbye. But his brief comments fueled my sense that things were not as mean in the 1970s when I had a brief fling as a national correspondent. There were giants in those days, on both sides of the aisle.
I keep a mental list of Republicans I met, or covered, and admired, mostly from Appalachia and the border states I covered:
I covered the retirement announcement of Sen. John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky, a thoughtful gentleman. (One of his aides back then was a young guy named Mitch McConnell, whom I consider one of the most empty and destructive people I have ever seen in public life.)
I ran around Tennessee one glorious September afternoon in 1972, covering the re-election campaign of Sen. Howard Baker, who was accompanied by his assistant, Fred Thompson. They were good company, rational people, and Baker became a giant during the Watergate proceedings.
When I lived in Louisville, Richard Lugar was a constructive Republican mayor of Indianapolis, just to the north on I-65; later he became a highly positive Senator.
Later, I observed Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, during the baseball steroids hearings -- a thorough gentleman who later got sick of the nasty politics and retired.
In that same period, I spent an hour in the office of Sen. John McCain, during a hearing on Olympic reform, and I retain a strong impression of him as an American hero, despite Donald Trump’s blather – with no retort from Trump’s new best friend, Lindsey Graham. How far we have fallen.
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Two farewells to Sen. Birch Bayh:
Two daughters who adored their fathers.
Julia Ruth Stevens died Saturday at 102. She was the adopted daughter of Babe Ruth and, as long as she lived, referred to him as “Daddy,” as Richard Goldstein notes in his masterful obituary.
Dan Jenkins, one of greatest sportswriters, died Thursday at 90. He was eulogized by many admirers in his business, the best coming from, of course, his daughter, Sally Jenkins, sports columnist at the Washington Post.
Sally, terrific writer that she is, described the hectic and eccentric life of a sports columnist who was usually at a golf tournament or football game when the family gathered for Thanksgiving and other holidays.
Her dad was as glib about the indignities of old age as he was about golfers who mis-read the terrain of the course. Sally tells about her dad wheeling himself down the hallway of the hospital heading toward a presumed quadruple heart bypass.
When he emerged, he was told he had needed only a triple.
"I birdied the bypass," he pronounced.
That’s it. I’m not going to try to duplicate the Jenkins family, father or daughter. Read Sally’s tribute to her dad. The Washington Post has a pretty strong paywall, bless its heart, but you might be able to read it there, or the Chicago Tribune. Or pay for it.
Plus, Bruce Weber’s excellent obit in the NYT:
Babe Ruth’s daughter also receives a brilliant tribute in the Monday NYT. She was the daughter of Babe’s wife, Clare Hodgson, and was adopted and treated royally, as a daughter by the gregarious, larger-than-life Babe.
No doubt she witnessed, and heard about, examples of Babe’s excesses, even after he stopped playing. As subtle as a diplomat, she discussed “Daddy” as she saw him – a man who made egg-and-salami sandwiches and took her golfing out in Queens. And when she started dating, he insisted she be home by midnight. Imagine: The Babe. Enforcing a curfew.
They lived on the Upper West Side, in a 14-room apartment; whenever I am in that neighborhood I envision The Babe, with a cap on his head, walking on Riverside Drive or thereabouts, just another West Side burgher.
She was an ambassador not only for “Daddy” but for baseball itself, waving to adoring crowds at the closing of “The House That Ruth Built,” waving to adoring crowds at Fenway Park, where The Babe first pitched shutouts and hit home runs.
When my alma mater, Hofstra University, held an academic conference on The Babe in 1995, she and her son, Tom Stevens, represented the Babe and gave out Babe Ruth bats to a few lucky people, including me.
But that’s enough from me.
Better you should read Richard Goldstein’s obituary of Mrs. Stevens:
We were watching MSNBC Friday evening, when they segued into quickie telephone tributes for George H.W. Bush, followed by Lester Holt narrating the prepared tribute.
One of the film clips was of a little boy in a back-yard rundown, lovingly getting tagged out by the right, gloved hand of an elder, presumably the Bushes we now know as 43 and 41.
It was so sweet, people playing the American game with great big smiles and sweeping tags.
Mister, I’m a baseball man--Ry Cooder.
My conduit to President Bush, the baseball man, came via Curt Smith, a speechwriter during the Reagan-Bush years, who in 1989 invited a gaggle of sportswriters and broadcasters to the White House for a baseball schmooze-fest. I wrote about the President’s glove in his desk drawer.
When I heard about President Bush’s passing, I immediately thought of Curt Smith, and his admiration for his former boss.
It is well known that President George H.W. Walker was a crier. Wept easily. Smith once told how he was assigned to write a speech for the visit to Pearl Harbor on the 50th anniversary of the attack that kicked off the Pacific war on Dec. 7, 1941.
On Saturday I asked Curt for his recollections of No. 41 – and the speech. This is what Curt Smith wrote back:
Bush truly loved the game: played, coached it in Texas, mentored players, captained his team at Yale. He made the first two College World Series in 1947-48. He accepted Babe Ruth’s copy of the Babe’s memoir in 1948 as Yale’s captain as Ruth was dying of cancer. He coached all four of his sons in Little League. He took Queen Elizabeth to a baseball game, staged a great event at the White House to honor Williams and DiMaggio on the 50th anniversary of their magical 1941, invited Musial and Yastrzemski to the White House as he prepared to go to Poland to, among other things, christen Little League Baseball there, on and on and on. He and I talked baseball, he had my Voices of The Game at Camp David. Our first meeting he told me, “I’d rather quote Yogi Berra than Thomas Jefferson,” and meant it. He knew more Berraisms than I did!
Pearl Harbor evolved from the fact that I generally did “values, inspiration, patriotic” speeches for Bush. I had always read a lot about World War II and was very conversant with Bush’s role in the War. I knew of his great modesty. As I kid he hit a couple homers once. His mother Dorothy eyed him and, referencing the grand Protestant hymn, said, “Now, George, none of this ‘How Great Thou Art’ business.”
Bush was naturally self-effacing and deferential, two of the reasons he drew people toward him. He hated to use the word I in speeches. Try writing speeches that way! In any event, our speech staff was constantly frustrated at how the country didn’t know the Bush we did—because of Bush’s dignity, innate reserve, feeling that the President should set an example. (What a concept!)
I wanted the country to see the man that we did. In talking with the President, I tried to subtly make this point. Bush, on the other hand, had been 17 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, a Sunday. He had friends who had died. He had gone next day, a Monday, and tried to enlist. The draft board said, in essence. “Sonny, you’re too young. Come back when you’re 18.” He did, enlisting the day he turned 18.
Bush, at heart a very sentimental, emotional man—a softie, as he and we knew: again, a reason so many of us loved him — was concerned he would not get through the speech. “I don’t want to break down,” he said. I didn’t tell him I wanted him to break down: that would have been unseemly. I did say that “This will be a chance for you to talk about an event that will show the Nation the kind of person you are.”
As things turned out, he didn’t break down, but did choke up; his voice faltered; he was clearly moved. In retrospect, Bush, who almost to the end was unsure whether he could give the speech, was very glad that he did. And in the next 25 years, as a former President, the country came to see almost precisely Bush as we had—sentimental, giving, kind, funny, patriotic—one terrific person.
(With great thanks to Curt Smith)
Curt did not include this Pearl Harbor story in his terrific recent book, “The Presidents and the Pastime: The History of Baseball & the White House,” published by the University of Nebraska Press. Bush, a .251 hitter at Yale, was surely the best player and biggest fan of all presidents who have tossed out ceremonial baseballs on opening day.
They were baseball people, the Bushes, part of the carriage trade that made the New York Giants the elite team of the big city. George Herbert Walker, Jr., uncle of the future No. 41, owned a piece of the Mets, starting in 1962 – a clubby gent who, as I recall, was fine with sportswriters calling him “Herbie.” They were easy to be around, the Bushes.
I was lucky enough to meet No. 41 twice, both in baseball settings. I wrote about my second meeting when Barbara Bush passed last May:
However, I did not get as close to No. 41 as my boyhood pal, Angus Phillips, did for the Washington Post. Invited to a dawn fishing trip on the Potomac, Angus reported to the White House a few minutes early and somehow was ushered into the living quarters where he discovered the leader of the free world padding around a hallway, clearly just out of bed. Angus’s classic tale of the visit…and the fishing….is included here:
George H.W. Bush was the last World War Two veteran to serve as president.
He kept his old George McQuinn mitt in his desk drawer in the White House.
Whatever else he was, he was a softie. And a baseball man.
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The New York Times also prepared a magnificent spread on No. 41:
In her final days at home, Marie DeBenedettis propped herself in the kitchen of the fabled family delicatessen – Mama’s of Corona, Queens – and devoted herself to teaching her kid sister, Irene, how to cook.
Not an easy task, Irene would say. The three sisters had their roles. Carmela Lamorgese was now La Nonna, Grandma, caring for her own family after years of helping run the business. Marie was the chef. Irene had taught school and now her job was to “run around and talk a lot” – that is, coordinate the deli and their awesome throwback pastry shop two doors down.
It revolved around Marie – the sweetest person I have ever hugged, optimistic and positive, but a taskmaster in the kitchen as she tried to impart her knowledge to Irene and a few assistants.
“One day she said to me, ‘Irene, basil, lots of basil in everything, that’s what makes it taste so good.’”
So, that is the secret of life on 104th St. – the reason the tomato sauce, the daily specials, all taste so good.
Irene was trying, knowing their sister was not well, could not easily budge from her perch in the cramped kitchen.
I dropped into the deli in late spring and asked Marie how her protégé was doing.
“All right,” Marie said.
“She’s tough on me and the girls,” Irene said later. “She wants us to know everything.”
The time came for Marie to go to the hospital a month or so ago.
One night Irene counted 17 workers -- younger women with roots in the Bari area of Italy and Latinas from Corona – visiting Marie in a group.
“I didn’t know she had that many people working here,” Irene said.
One of the workers told Irene, “She keeps saying ‘cavatelli, cavatelli’” -- small pasta shells often stuffed with garlic and broccoli or broccoli rabe.
Irene deduced that Marie was reminding the assistant to prepare cavatelli for the regulars who would expect it on Thursday.
“She knew who liked what,” Irene told me the other day at the wake. “She would see somebody coming in the door and she would tell the girls to prepare an egg-and-sausage hero.”
All that love, all that skill that was Marie DeBenedettis passed away on Sept. 4. The funeral was held on Tuesday, Sept. 11.
The Mets, a mile away, where Mama’s has an outlet, held a moment of silence before a game last weekend, via Jay Horwitz, PR man and loyal keeper of the Met flame. David Wright, the captain, dropped into Mama’s to offer his condolences. The prince of Corona, Omar Minaya, who introduced me to Mama’s in 2006, is back where he belongs -- with the Mets.
(My first visit with Omar – here.)
Mama’s is a family place – new neighbors speaking Spanish, Italian and English, old neighbors who moved away but come back for mozzarella and cannoli, and a steady clientele from the FDNY, the NYPD, the schools and churches and seminaries, and assistant district attorneys from nearby Kew Gardens. (Mama’s is the safest place in Queens.)
The institution will go on. Mama’s is officially named Leo’s Latticini, for Frank and Irene Leo, who began the dynasty in the 1930s. “Mama” was their daughter, Nancy, who ran the store with her husband, Frank DeBenedettis. Nancy, who passed in 2009, was such a force in the traditional Italian neighborhood that the public school up 104th St. has been named in her honor.
(Please see the lovely article by Lisa Colangelo in that civic treasure, the Daily News:)
The family tradition continues. Carmela's daughter is known as Little Marie....and
she and her husband, Fiore Difeo, named their first-born Gina Marie, followed by Anthony and Dominic.
Mama's has reminded me that I am a Queens boy. I have introduced friends and family to Mama’s, watched World Cup matches (featuring Italy), chatting with my friend Oronzo Lamorgese, Carmela’s husband, as a guest in the private dining room behind the pasticceria – lavish plates, prepared by Marie and staff.
I am sure Marie was as good a teacher as she was a cook. Mama's goes on, with basil. My love and condolences to La Famiglia.
Uncle Harold took us on great drives around coastal Maine – the beaches, the woods, the little towns.
The tours invariably ended near Oak Grove Cemetery in his home town of Bath.
“Why don’t we just drive in,” he would suggest.
We would park on the narrow lane and walk to the single tombstone for his wife Barbara and their son Roger. Harold’s name was waiting for the date of his death.
Roger had died in a car accident near home, after surviving a bullet and malaria in Vietnam. Barbara had lived a long and active life, caring for others, although wracked by bone disease and later diabetes.
Harold often talked about her in the present tense, as in “Barbara and I take this road to Boothbay Harbor for the fried fish.”
My wife, his niece, and I started visiting Harold Grundy after Barbara passed in 2014. We fell in love with that part of Maine, and at my own advanced age I found myself a new hero, as he casually told stories about surviving combat in the Pacific and building electronic surveillance outposts in Greenland and Guantánamo Bay.
But he was wearing down, and it took a village of loved ones to usher him through pain and confusion before he passed on Jan. 4.
People in cold climates cannot bury their dead in mid-winter. Harold, stubborn by nature, modest from his Quaker background, precise from his construction career, specified no ceremony, no fuss, for his burial.
His two faithful surrogate children, Ace and Cookie, now living in Arizona and Connecticut, arranged for a no-frills burial on May 11. Eric came in from Florida. My wife and I were asked to represent the family, scattered and getting on in years. A few locals heard about the burial, and then a few others, and they got to the cemetery, some using walkers and canes to reach the casket, with the American flag neatly folded on top.
The sun was bright, the breeze was chilly, and the funeral director read a few prayers -- as quick and simple as Harold had mandated.
A very fit military guy in a red flannel shirt, who had worked with Harold at the surveillance base in Cutler, Me., stood at attention and whispered to me: “Best man I ever met.”
Later, eight of us met at a tavern alongside the glistening Kennebec River. We toasted the family, and told a few stories.
Ace told how Barbara and Harold used to take him along on so many family outings when he was a kid.
And Ace told how Harold approached the mathematical challenge of building basement stairs: “He wasn’t telling me what to do. He was teaching me.”
People smiled as they recalled how Harold always had fresh pies and pungent chowders on the stove for company.
My wife, the oldest of her generation, remembered a Christmas right after the war, when three young couples were sharing a small house on the Connecticut shore, and how she witnessed Uncle Harold using a tiny saw on a wooden bowl. On Christmas morning, she found a beautiful bed for her doll’s house.
Harold always made things. He and Barbara used to peddle his home-made toys at flea markets in the region, and later his friend Eric made a thriving web business out of wooden objects.
Nobody wanted to leave the lunch. Cookie, so loyal and capable, who did the paperwork for Barbara and Harold for decades, proposed that our little community meet again next year.
We went our separate ways, knowing that Harold was up on the hill at Oak Grove Cemetery, with Barbara and Roger.
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I’ve written about Harold and Barbara and Maine:
(Why We Still Hunker)
“….this is really an old person’s disease now. That was true at the beginning of the outbreak, but it’s becoming even more true now. It’s quite possible that we’ll see increasing relative vulnerability among the old, which is to say people who are in middle age are going to feel pretty safe living a totally normal life. But people of their parents’ generation may not ever. That’s because they have a much harder time building up immunity, which means they lose the benefits of the vaccines and previous exposure much more quickly.
---Jonathan Wolfe, The New York Times, daily Coronavirus Briefing, Aug. 3, 2022
Should Donald Trump Be Prosecuted?
Rep. Liz Cheney, on ABC TV:
“Ultimately, the Justice Department will decide that. I think we may well as a committee have a view on that and if you just think about it from the perspective of what kind of man knows that a mob is armed and sends the mob to attack the Capitol and further incites that mob when his own vice president is under threat, when the Congress is under threat. It's just -- it’s very chilling and I think certainly we will, you know, continue to present to the American people what we found.”