(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.
* * * * * *
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.
* * *
(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.
* * *
(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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
I’ve written about Harold and Barbara and Maine:
Journalists often rely on first impressions, or only impressions, of people, whether famous or obscure.
I “met” Barbara Bush one time. Fittingly, it was in the White House, Feb. 15, 2011, minutes after her husband had been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
It was a day of accomplished people – Warren Buffett here, Jean Kennedy Smith there, Bill Russell up there, Stan Musial over there, and Yo-Yo Ma sitting in with a Marine chamber group, with his pal President Obama standing nearby.
The kind of magic day that a journalist remembers forever.
As the afternoon became more informal, I was in a bustling hallway and spotted former president George H.W. Bush in a wheelchair, after receiving his medal. Standing alongside him was his wife, with her Mount Rushmore presence.
My mind went back to a visit to the White House in Oct., 1989, when President Bush held a schmooze-fest with baseball writers, pulling a George McQuinn glove out of his desk drawer. I believe he had worn it in the College World Series when he was a .251 hitter for Yale.
Now, in 2011, I saw an opportunity to chat with the old first baseman.
“Mr. President,” I began, reminding him how he had displayed his prized glove more than a decade earlier. Did he, I asked, still have the glove?
He took my question seriously, but was unable to come up with an answer. Then he turned to the person he clearly relied upon, standing nearby.
“Bar,” he began. “Do you know where my old glove is?”
We were not introduced, it was all so sweetly informal, and now it was a three-way conversation, with Barbara Bush wracking her memory of where the glove might be.
They instantly became Ma and Pa, so vital, so human, trying to place one object in a life that veered from the waspy Northeast suburbs to the Texas oil fields, to China, to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., and now back “home” to Houston.
They were Everywoman and Everyman of a certain age, trying to track a baseball mitt – or an old coffee maker or a favorite sweater or a set of books. Maybe they said “attic” and maybe they said “storage” and maybe they said “downsizing.”
Bottom line was, they did not know, but they made eye contact with me, and gave me a civil answer, and then other people greeted them, and I politely moved on. I wound up using that quick encounter as my column that day about the importance of sport, as personified by Russell and Musial…and an old first baseman who didn’t know where his glove was.
So that is my permanent impression of Barbara Bush – the caretaker, the authority, the rock.
My wife reminds me that we heard Barbara Bush speak about adoption at a conference in DC, while she was First Lady. My wife, who was escorting children from India in those years, recalls how positive Mrs. Bush was about adoption, what a good speaker she was. Marianne has been a fan ever since.
That same aura comes through in the memories and obituaries today. I had been wary of Mrs. Bush years earlier when I heard she made a comment about the Magna Mater of my lefty family, Eleanor Roosevelt. But there is room for other strong people in this world.
The two George Bushes, pere et fils – how admirable, how stable, they seem these days – celebrate Barbara Bush, and, as a quick-study journalist type, I know they are right.
Another glimpse of Mrs. Bush: My friend John Zentay, a lawyer, is on the board of the National Archives, where Mrs. Bush gave a spirited talk a few years ago. Zentay said he and his wife, Diana, had recently visited Sea Island, Ga., where the Bushes honeymooned so long ago. Mrs. Bush emphatically said she and her husband had gone back recently and found it so expensive they would not go back. And she meant it.
I just read the wonderful obit written (I imagine, years ago) by a grand New York Times reporter, Enid Nemy, now 94, and I found out why Barbara Pierce happened to be born in my neck of the woods, Flushing, Queens, and I learned about the deaths of her mother and her young daughter.
f you haven’t read it already:
I think of that formidable woman I heard at a conference in D.C. and later met in a hallway at the White House, and I give thanks for the karma that put us in that same place, for a few fleeting moments. My quick impressions stack up perfectly with everything I have heard or read.
“Bar.” That’s what her husband called her. Three letters, and so strong.
* * *
From my friend Curt Smith, former speechwriter for President George H. Bush:
Barbara Bush was an extraordinary woman—much more complex than her public image. She was strong, a woman of great character, the rock of her expansive brood, the protectorate and center of her husband’s life, an enormous credit to her nation, loved around the world, and among the truly popular First Ladies in American history. In a book on her husband, I called her “Barbara Bush, Superstar.” She was. Bush would employ self-deprecating humor to suggest an identity crisis, living in her shadow. In fact, he knew what an enormous asset she was. She also read potential aides and real-life enemies more quickly than he did. She was tougher, in a way. As you know, their three-year-old daughter, Robin, died of leukemia in 1953. She ultimately recovered, at least on the surface, discussing it in the 1990s and 2000s. To this day, the President cannot discuss it without his voice choking, unable to proceed. Mrs. Bush knew this vulnerability, and was his most ardent—fiercest—defender, there always. She was always graceful to my wife and me, as she was to every American she met. She was a class act, in the classic American way. We don’t get nearly enough them of them anymore. Her religious faith made her face death with the same courage that she confronted life. God bless her.
---Curt Smith was a speechwriter who wrote more speeches than anyone for Pres. George H.W. Bush during his presidency. He is currently a senior lecturer of English at the Univ. of Rochester and is the author of 17 books, including a history of Presidents and Baseball, to be published in June.
It seems that the Bushes chose their wives well. A friend of ours is an Elizabeth Wharton scholar. She told us about how letters from Wharton were found in the attic of her housekeeper.
There was concern that when they were put out for auction a buyer might cut out Wharton’s signature and sell them individually. Laura Bush asked Yale to bid but was told that the university could not afford to. Laura said to buy the letters and not to worry about the cost. She found someone to finance the purchase.
Our friend later had access to the letters and wrote a book about them.
Several years latter, Sandi and I saw Laura on the Highline in Manhattan. As she passed we said, thanks for Wharton letters. In that brief second, she gave us a big smile. –Alan Rubin
Ed Charles played only 279 games for the Mets but he touched New Yorkers – really, everybody who met him – with his humanity.
This was apparent on Monday at a farewell celebration of Charles in Queens, his adopted home borough. People told stories about him, and I kept thinking of all the ways, Zelig-like, he popped back into my life.
His 1969 Miracle Mets teammate Art Shamsky told how he and Charles and Catfish Hunter and Jack Aker were making an appearance at a boy’s camp “up near Canada somewhere” and how Ed Charles drove – “one mile below the speed limit, always. Ed never went fast. That’s why they called him The Glider.” When they finally got there, the players elected Ed to speak first to the campers. After 45 poignant minutes, Shamsky said they had learned never to let that charismatic man speak first.
Everybody smiled when they talked about Charles, who died last Thursday at 84. His long-time companion, Lavonnie Brinkley, and Ed’s daughter-in-law, Tomika Charles, gave gracious talks, and his son, Edwin Douglas Charles, Jr., made us smile with his tale of playing pool with his dad, and how the old third baseman never let up, in any game.
A retired city police officer alluded to Ed’s decade as a city social worker with PINS – People in Need of Supervision – and how Ed reached them. People talked about barbecues and ball games and fantasy camps with Ed, how it was always fun.
As sports friends and real-life friends at the funeral home talked about Ed’s long and accomplished life, I thought about how we connected over the years, in the tricky dance between reporter and subject.
---The first time was between games of a day-nighter in Kansas City, on my first long road trip covering the Yankees for Newsday, August of 1962. Old New York reporters were schmoozing in the office of Hank Bauer, the jut-jawed ex-Yankee and ex-Marine with two Purple Hearts from Okinawa.
Ed Charles, a 29-year-old rookie – kept in the minors because of race and bad luck – came to consult the manager, maybe about whether he was good to go in the second game. I watched Bauer’s face, once described as resembling a clenched fist, softening into a smile. “Bauer likes this guy,” I thought to myself. “He respects him.” (I looked it up: Ed went 7-for-12 with a homer in that four-game series.)
--- We met in 1967 when the Mets brought him in to replace Ken Boyer at third base. During batting practice in the Houston Astrodome, the first indoor ball park, Ed summoned me onto the field, behind third base, shielding me with his glove and his athletic reflexes.
“Look at this,” he said, pointing at the erratic hops on the rock-hard "turf" -- one low, one high, a torment for anybody guarding the hot corner. I must have stayed beside him for 15 minutes and nobody ran me off. I have never been on a field during practice since. That was Ed Charles. Easy does it.
--- We had a reporter-athlete friendship, but there are always gradations. During a weekend series in glorious mid-summer Montreal in 1969, somehow there were three VIP tickets for a Joan Baez concert. I went to a brasserie with Joe Gergen of Newsday and Ed Charles and then we saw the concert, with Baez singing about love, and the Vietnam War.
--- The Mets won the World Series and Ed went into orbit near the mound, but then he was released, his career over, with a promotions job with the Mets gone over a $5,000 dispute in moving expenses. But I was walking near Tin Pan Alley in midtown in 1970 and there was Ed, working for Buddah (correct spelling for that company) Records. He was destined for Big Town. He later had some ups and downs in business but patched things up with the Mets and settled into his groove as poet/Met icon.
---When Tommie Agee died suddenly, Ed was working at the Mets’ fantasy camp, and he took calls from reporters to talk about his friend. Ed Charles, as this New Yorker would put it, was a mensch.
--- In 2012, the 50th anniversary of the Mets, Hofstra University recruited Ed to give a keynote talk on his poetry and his deep bond with the Mets. I was asked by my alma mater to introduce him, and I suggested to Ed that I could help him segue into his poems. He smiled at me the same way he had calmed down Rocky Swoboda and all the other twitchy Mets kids back in the day. “I got this, big guy,” he told me – and he did.
--- Last time I saw him, a few months ago, I visited his apartment in East Elmhurst, Queens. Lavonnie was there, and I brought some of that good deli from Mama’s in nearby Corona, plus enough cannoli to last a few days. Ed was inhaling oxygen confined to quarters. I saw sadness and acceptance, He let me know: he knew the deal.
On Monday, The Glider had his last New York moment. There will be a funeral in Kansas City on Saturday and he will be buried, as a military veteran, at the national cemetery in Leavenworth, Kans.
The funeral home Monday was a few blocks from the first home owned by Jackie and Rachel Robinson in 1949. The first Robinson home, on 177 St. in the upscale black neighborhood of Addisleigh Park, has been declared a New York landmark, as written up on the StreetEasy real-estate site (by none other than Laura Vecsey, a sports and political columnist.)
Ed Charles often talked about taking inspiration from sighting Jackie Robinson as a boy in Florida; the proximity of the funeral home and Robinson home was a sweet coincidence, the family said.
The karma was unmistakable. Like Rachel and Jackie Robinson, Ed Charles encountered Jim Crow prejudice, but came to New York and won a World Series, and left a great legacy of talent and character.
(The Charles family has requested that any donations go to worthy causes like: The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City or the Jackie Robinson Foundation in New York)
Big Al passed last Sunday morning.
What that means – what I think that means – is that I will not be getting any more emails out of the blue, like:
“Just asking. How good a clutch hitter was Yogelah, anyway? Ask your friend Newk.”
This was a very personal barb, aimed not just at me but at the admirable Don Newcombe, still working for the Dodgers out in LA, who got creamed by Yogi Berra for two – count ‘em, two – two-run homers in the seventh game of the 1956 World Series.
Oh, yes, Big Al remembered. And made sure to remind me.
Big Al was a loving member of his own family, but his special charm was getting on a point and pushing it. This made him a great lawyer for a major insurance company, according to Joseph LoParrino, for whom Al was mentor and friend.
“Al and I debated every major sports and news story since 1999 and since email was invented,” LoParrino wrote to me. “When the Tiger Woods scandal broke - my phone buzzed. His commentary made you fall over laughing. I could press his buttons in any category.”
Big Al was a master in button-pushing. My first contact with him was via his company envelopes and company stationery, before the advent of emails. Big Al would scribble – penmanship obviously not his forte in the public schools of East Queens – lengthy screeds about how I had insulted the current Yankees or, much much worse, The Mick.
Al – who was a decade younger than me – thought part of the problem was that I had attended Jamaica High in the 50’s whereas he had attended rival Van Buren High in the 60’s.
(He couldn’t blame college, since we both attended Hofstra as undergraduates.)
Al let me know, in six pages of briefs, that he knew more about sports than I did because he had played basketball and baseball for the demanding Marv Kessler at Van Buren.
I loved his descriptions of Kessler, vilifying him in Queens billingsgate, for sins committed in games or practices. (Many years later, Kessler praised Big Al as player and mensch; Al felt that praise was a tad late.)
Every journalist would be thrilled to have a critic like Big Al. We became mail pals, bonding over the long-lost Charney’s deli at 188th and Union Turnpike, and zaftig Queens girls, and Alley Pond Park, and the way the old Knicks played, and really what else is there?
Al became my Yankee Everyman, a stand-in for all of them. What he felt, they all felt. Eventually we met for a few dinners at the old Palm on the west side of Second Avenue. Al would deride me for ordering broiled fish and salad rather than the double primo beef and potatoes. Sissy. Weenie. And other Marv Kessler terms.
Sometimes he would order a full meal to bring home to his mother who lived in New Jersey.
He was such a Palm regular that his caricature was on the wall of valued customers, celebrities or just people who liked to eat beef. (Alas, that caricature seems to have been lost in the move across Second Ave.)
By then, Al was no longer the rail of a forward that Marv Kessler had berated back in Queens Village. He was Big Al, Manhattan bachelor, Eastside Al on one email handle. We would talk politics, and he would tell me tales about his service veteran/fireman/tradesman/paper hanger father who gave up his love of the Brooklyn Dodgers for his Yankee-fan wife, Ruth, who had seen Gehrig play.
Al was proud to tell me how his mother loved Andy Pettitte more than she loved him. He ascribed it to Pettitte’s schnozz but knew it was about Andy’s gentleness.
With no context whatsoever, Al dropped little e-bombs on me about or how Casey Stengel stuck with lefty Bob Kuzava against Jackie Robinson in the seventh game of 1952 and how Billy Martin raced across the windy, sunny infield to catch the popup. Always there was Yogelah, golfing homers off his shoetops, an endless loop of homers off poor Newk (one of the great people I have met in baseball.)
Al went silent one year, and I worried, so I sent a letter to his office, and somebody told me he was out on sick leave. When his mom passed in 2009 he took over her house in New Jersey and lived near his sister and her family -- and raved to his friends at work about the joys of the Jersey suburbs. Via the email, he never stopped taunting me, or raving about the Yankees and in particular The Mick. (He loved Sandy Koufax, too.)
One time he spoke for all New York fans who flocked to the ball parks on opening day over the decades:
Recently I sent an email: “Al, where are you?” His sister, Roberta Taxerman Smith, emailed me Monday morning saying Big Al had passed Sunday at 67 and the funeral would be held Tuesday in New Jersey. His paid obit was in the Times and on legacy.com:
I smiled when I noted that Big Al passed in the Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck. He was a loyal Jew, and a most ecumenical dude, as many of us were in Queens. He and I exchanged greetings at Rosh Hashanah and Christmas and the first day of pitchers and catchers and other holy days. He knew I had grown up with mostly Jewish friends and he called me “landsman.”
When I found out, via DNA testing, that I am 47 percent Jewish, via my father, who was adopted, Big Al's reaction was: I told you so. Then again, that was often his reaction.
Roberta Taxerman Smith told me Al believed, to the end, that the docs were going to take care of him and he never complained. He had saved his complaints for Joe Torre’s strategies, and we argued over that, too.
Here’s what I really hate about losing Big Al: he I were both looking forward to seeing Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton in the same lineup, the same pinstripes.
Murderer’s Row, 2018.
If there is justice, on Opening Day they go back-to-back.
Maybe Big Al will send me an e-mail.
My wife’s uncle, Harold Grundy, passed early Thursday at the age of 95.
He was an American hero – a carpenter who learned complex engineering skills, who kept Navy ships steaming in murderous waters in World War Two and later supervised the building of observation stations and nuclear plants.
He was a survivor – of bombs in the Atlantic and Pacific, of winters in the Arctic, a wartime storm off England, a typhoon in the Pacific, and of life itself.
His only child Roger came home wounded from Vietnam only to die from a car wreck on a Maine highway. His wife Barbara was wracked by diabetes -- and he took care of her, with the help of dear friends. Everybody knew him in Bath, Maine, Barbara’s home town.
After Barbara died in 2014, Marianne recognized the need to visit her uncle once in a while. At 93, Harold would have thick, rich chowder on the stove and fresh fruit pies baking in the oven.
Harold would take us on little outings from Bath – beaches and fish restaurants and back roads. He took us to coastal towns that looked like a setting for “Carousel” and fish-fry stands and old forts.
He talked about Barbara in the present tense: “Sometimes Barbara and I drive up this road in the late afternoon.”
His education had ended in high school. He and his older brother left Connecticut in 1940 for a job dredging the Kennebec River to accommodate the large warships being built for what was coming. From his cottage alongside the river, he would tell us about rowing explosives into the middle of the river.
In wartime, his acquired technical and engineering skills were essential to the military; he helped win one war and fight the Cold War. He was the last survivor who had served at observation posts in Greenland and Cutler, Me., and Guantanamo Bay, keeping an eye on our new best friends from Russia. However, because he was technically a civilian employee (ducking the same bombs as the military personnel), he was denied a pension by the U.S. government. Somehow, he was not bitter.
Harold moved all over the world, building sensitive structures. Recently, we mentioned that one of our daughters lives near the nuclear plants at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. “Don’t worry,” Harold assured us, “I can tell you we made them double strong.”
He had a Zelig-like way of being everywhere. He once chatted with a young senatorial candidate named John F. Kennedy in a train station in Boston; Winston Churchill popped out of No. 10 Downing Street and said hello to Harold and a few other tourists.
One time we were driving near the coast and Harold casually mentioned he had helped build a house for Margaret Chase Smith when she was a senator. With her politician’s memory, she once recognized him when she got off a government plane at Cutler, and asked him to accompany her on her visit. People seemed to detect the civility and knowledge behind his humble bearing.
He was so valuable to a construction company that they often flew Barbara to join him overseas, and they helped with her medical treatment.
When Harold was home in Bath, between projects, he and Barbara, with her crippling diabetes, expanded a house on Washington St. He built houses and boats and docks and staircases for banks and chicken coops that were more handsome and sturdy-looking than some homes along the highway. Harold and Barbara started a little woodworking business – in their spare time, you understand – which has become a major business for a close friend.
Harold and Barbara had a legion of dear friends who helped them: Cookie, Ace, Eric, Martha A, Martha B, Ann, Germaine, Diane, Rich and Suzanne, Bill, his nephew Dr. Paul, many caring medical people in the area, Kristi at the Plant Home, and people in shops and banks and drugstores, who fussed over them, in a real community.
Two years ago, the Peary MacMillan Arctic Museum & Arctic Studies Center at nearby Bowdoin College held an exhibition of 193 photographs Harold took when he was based in Greenland. Harold’s family – including siblings in their 90s and late 80s – came in from New England and Florida for a reunion, in Harold’s most public moment.
Harold came from hardy stock -- Quakers named Watrous and Crouch and Whipple who settled the eastern Connecticut coast and people named Grundy and Clegg and Schofield who thrived in Lancashire during the Industrial Revolution.
But even these rugged folk wear down. Harold was fading the last time we saw him, on his 95th birthday in September. He had moved into a lovely retirement home, but his energy was gone and he could not enjoy the party.
On Wednesday night, Cookie, a surrogate daughter to Harold and Barbara, who supervised their paperwork, was visiting from Connecticut, to be near him. Harold passed as a wintry storm roared up the coast.
Come spring, Uncle Harold will be interred in the lovely hillside cemetery where he used to take us to visit Barbara and Roger.
In recent weeks, as I thought about Harold and Barbara and Roger, my mind moved to a song about the release from pain – “Agate Hill,” by Alice Gerrard, recorded by the great Kathy Mattea.
As I type this in the snowstorm, I think of Roger and Barbara and Harold together, building and cooking and fishing on some celestial version of coastal Maine, and I hear a line from the song:
“Wild and free again, oh it will be as then.”
IN MEMORIAL, GERMAINE BOYNTON Harold often talked about his in-law Germaine who lived further up US 1. She invited us to lunch last spring and cooked a French-Canadian specialty and showed us the work and studios of hers and her daughter Diane, two formidable and artistic ladies. Germaine passed in hospice Saturday morning, two days after Harold.
While waiting for the Alabama results to solidify Tuesday night, I was reading the obit for Roy Reed.
Roy was the great stylist when I was a rookie on the highly literate National staff of the New York Times in the early ‘70s. He could describe the exotica of New Orleans, where he was based, with the same fervor and grace he had shown in the head-breaker Deep South of the Civil Rights decade.
For me, he was the correspondent to emulate. I even noticed the conservative dark-blue pinstriped suits he wore on more formal occasions, making him look like a senator.
Roy Reed was from rural Arkansas and he never forgot it. I know he would have loved the campaign in Alabama – a candidate who prosecuted the murderers of little black girls vs. a candidate who stalked teen-agers in shopping malls and outside public buildings.
Fortunately, the Times and other great journals have deep and talented staffs these days, to capture the ludicrous spectacle of a hustler from New York conning people out there in America.
Also fortunately, I was able to hear Howell Raines, another of those great southerners who have graced the Times, talking about his beloved rural Alabama on MSNBC Tuesday night and also via a recent op-ed piece in the Times.
There was a great tradition of writers on that National staff when I joined it in 1970. Gene Roberts, who had covered civil rights and Vietnam, was the national editor, expanding his staff, and he called this young baseball reporter and said, “I like the way you rot.”
I sussed out that this was the charming accent of a self-styled “freckle belly” from eastern North Carolina who meant “the way you write.” Gene sold me. He and his deputy, David R. Jones, sent me off to Louisville to cover Appalachia.
What a staff. Roy Reed in New Orleans. My dear friend Ben Franklin plus John Herbers and so many other good people in the Washington bureau. Jon Nordheimer and Jim Wooten in Atlanta. Paul Delaney in Chicago. B.D. Ayres in Kansas City. Jerry Flint in Detroit, John Kifner in Boston and so many others further from my region.
(There was only one African-American, Delaney, and no women; the only way I can explain it is, “It was 1970.” Further down the decade, under Dave Jones, the NYT added Grace Lichtenstein in Denver as the first female national correspondent and later Molly Ivins, Judith Cummings, E.R. Shipp and Isabel Wilkerson, who would win a Pulitzer under Soma Golden's editorship.)
In my years, a kind day editor, Irv Horowitz, in New York, kept track of us, and great copy editors had the time and mandate to ask you to rewrite something so it would read better.
We communicated by telephone – not email and not cell phones. Such a primitive era. I relied on these older professionals to teach me something, anything, by osmosis.
I would like to correct one statement in that obit concerning Roy Reed: It said he was down the road getting a soft drink when James Meredith was shot on his epic protest walk through Mississippi in 1966, and that Roy’s respectful colleagues later presented him with a Coke bottle trophy that said “WHERE’S ROY REED?” in memory of his brief absence.
The fact is, there was another day when Roy turned up missing.
Dave Jones, our ringmaster in New York, was trying to find someone to get to a story in the South that seemed urgent at the time. (I can no longer remember what it was.) Dave tried me in Louisville. No answer. Dave tried one of the Atlanta guys. No answer. Dave tried Roy Reed in New Orleans. No answer. Ever diligent, Dave solved the problem some other way, and the world went on.
A few days later, the mystery was solved. A delightful March zephyr had moved north from the Gulf into Louisiana, into Georgia, and even to the southern banks of the Ohio River in Kentucky. All three correspondents had been, shall we say, indisposed.
On the phone, I asked Roy where he had been when the office was looking for us.
In his Arkansas drawl, Roy said: “Hidin’ out.”
I adopted his phrase for times when I was unfindable. Bless the era before cell phones. Bless the southern phrases, the southern outlook, I learned to understand from my colleagues, better reporters than I ever would be. And bless Roy Reed, for writing about a region that continues to produce great stories, from the new generation.
Nina Simone was voted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this week. She passed in 2003; what took them so long?
Not sure what Simone would have thought about that, but she surely would have loved the vote in Alabama Tuesday night.
A candidate who was receptive to the integration of his high school back in the day beat out a religion-spouting accused pedophile who thinks slavery came during a good time for families in America.
Simone knew it all, put it into her music. She was an American treasure.
She mentions Alabama way up high in her signature song, “Mississippi Goddam.”
Ladies and gentlemen, Miss Nina Simone:
As he passed 80, Ray Robinson had an idea for a new book – the last recorded words of prominent people.
He knew how to write books, of course – the Lou Gehrig bio, the Christy Mathewson bio. He was a magazine editor and a freelance writer.
The book came out in 2003, when Ray was 83 – “Famous Last Words: Fond Farewells, Deathbed Diatribes and Exclamations Upon Expiration,” published by Workman Publishing.
It fits in the hand or the pocket. Perfect quick-take reading. Perfect little gift.
This is a blatant plug. Ray would approve.
Alas, Ray Robinson passed on Nov. 1. He would have been 97 on Dec. 4 and was to be honored by a coterie of baseball buffs who meet monthly in the city.
Ray’s last words? I don’t know, but I talked to him the night before. What was on his mind was a perfect guide to this grand old man of New York and Columbia University and publishing.
In our last chat he did not bring up seeing Fidel Castro in Havana or how he met Lou Gehrig as a young New York fan or how he spilt ink on Lefty Grove while asking for an autograph at Yankee Stadium, or his activism with the ALS Association of New York, in homage to Gehrig.
Neither did he tell the great story of how a precocious New York girl named Betty Perske called him a “cheap SOB” or maybe it was “cheap bastard.”
This underscored link will explain the brief meeting of Ray and the future Lauren Bacall.)
Among Ray’s last words to me:
Ray’s passing will leave a huge gap in our lives -- for Jerry, our token ball player, who escorted Ray to the doctor, and Ernestine, who fussed over Ray, and Darrell, one of the originals from 1991 (!), and Lee and Marty and Willie from our group, and Bob and Jeremy, the busy superstars, plus Al and Rosa, who knew Ray and Phyllis forever, and all the other buffs who sat around the table once a month and talked baseball and politics and everything else.
We’ll meet on his birthday, I’m sure, and try to remember some of Ray’s good stories.
It was my first visit to Las Vegas. I was covering a Mets trip to the Coast in 1966 or so, and there was a day off between LA and San Francisco.
My pal Vic Ziegel of the good old New York Post said, “Let’s go to Las Vegas.”
Vic had been there before.
Flights were cheap. Food was cheap. The only thing that wasn’t cheap was the gambling, but I don’t gamble. Long story. I watched Vic play blackjack and I watched life in Las Vegas.
The hotel lounge was also inexpensive. By doing the math in Rickles’ obituary in the Times Friday, I deduce that he was around 40, but in a way he was ageless. Bald. Profane. Cranky. What’s it to you?
He had a theme: Anybody who came to see him in that lounge was truly desperate.
He pointed out a young couple and wondered if they were married, or cheating on spouses.
He pointed out a young man: “He’s thinking, I’m in Las Vegas, I can get rid of my pimples.”
Then he recognized Vic as a member of the tribe. A landsman.
“Look at that nose,” he said. “What’s your name?”
Somehow, Rickles deduced that Vic was the sportswriter from the Post.
“Vic Ziegel!” screamed Don Rickles from Jackson Heights, Queens. (Queens boys are a yappy lot.)
“I love you guys!” – meaning the good old Post. (I did not count.)
Rickles thought about it for a while.
“What’s a Ziegel?” he asked the crowd.
Comedic pause. Then he touched his own beak.
“It’s an eagle. A Jewish eagle. A Ziegel.”
That’s all I remember, except laughing a lot. I’m sure Vic could re-create the entire dialogue but unfortunately Vic left the stage in the summer of 2010. He had introduced me to a lot of good stuff on the road – “Beat the Devil” in Cambridge, Mass., him chatting up jazz musician Roland Kirk in some all-night coffee shop on the square in Cincinnati. And Rickles.
In 2015, I saw an aging Don Rickles on the Letterman show; I noticed the immense respect Letterman had for him, getting him through the gig.
Now Rickles has bowed out. But every time I went back to Las Vegas – to write about boxing or an entertainer – I remembered Don Rickles in that lounge.
has filed an interview with, of all people, me.
It's on his blog. (Just past photo of rat!) My thanks for his interest. GV
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see: