Wednesday, January 30, 2013

1970s Football

I haven't done an annual college football post this year. There was plenty of scandal and disgrace that I could  weigh in on, but I don't feel moved to do so. I was more depressed than angry about the Penn State fiasco--I only seem to be able to get angry when something seems wrong to me and nobody else is seeing it; but in this instance lots of things were wrong and everybody saw it, so I guess whatever it is that arouses my fury felt like it didn't needed to be generated. I did think that a lot of people were probably overconfident in their own moral fortitude, in that what seemed to be obvious responses and courses of action in the aftermath were evidently not that obvious to dozens of people whose circumstances involved them, certainly most unwillingly, and usually in some unfavorable position with regard to their power or personal prestige, in the case. It is very clear to everyone how they should have acted now, of course, but that proper course of action does not seem to have struck anyone in a position to do anything as obviously favorable to their own credit until several days after the scandal had begun to receive substantial media coverage.

Notre Dame's re-ascension likewise was accompanied by several  unsavory incidents that it was strongly implied should dampen enthusiasm for their season. I can't bring myself to watch college football games after New Year's Day, but their game against Alabama in which they were badly beaten was also painful to hear about at third hand--I cannot imagine what it must have been like to watch it as a fan. So this is going to be mainly about old pro football.

Some genius (or perhaps several of them working independently) has been putting up NFL Films game highlights from the 1970s on Youtube. At around 2 to 3 minutes each, the fan whose primary emotional attachment to the sport resides in that era can easily lose a precious hour, or even more, gorging on these internet bonbons. The overall athleticism and quality of play in these now ancient games when compared with the present state of pro football is quaint, to say the least, but I enjoyed the games in that era a lot more--I don't watch too much football anymore, but when I do I find it joyless and emotionally unsatisfying compared to the total package on display in this classic from 1973:

I have seen at least a dozen other highlight reels from this era where the field is in a similarly hideous condition. Other observations on 1970s football.

The short passing game more or less didn't exist, presumably because defensive backs were allowed to beat receivers up off the line of scrimmage, which they cannot do now, though maybe the coaches of the day weren't advanced enough to see the advantages. When quarterbacks dropped back to pass in this era, which they did about half as often as they do now, they were looking downfield. Completion percentages, and completions, were low--often less than 50% for the former, and 10-15 a game for the latter, 20 being an astronomical total--but the average yards per completion were very high. I have seen numerous of these games where quarterbacks threw for well over 200 yards on 12 completions, and receivers averaged more than 20 yards a catch on 5 or 6 receptions.

Kicking, which has advanced to the point now where almost all pro kickers are essentially automatic inside 50 yards, was still almost primitive in the 70s. As late as '75/'76, almost all of the kickers were still classic straight-on types, but by '82/'83 Mark Moseley was the only member of that tribe still active. And if you think kickers are unathletic today, some of the guys they were strutting out there in the 70s looked like they didn't even do a minimum of aerobic exercise. The most ridiculous of many ridiculous plays in the selection above was the obese San Diego kicker Ray Wersching (who incredibly was still playing for the 49ers as late as '81) trying a field goal from the 50-yard line on a field that was nothing was muck and of course losing his footing before he could even get to the ball. In many of these films a made field goal will often be featured as a major highlight, as it often the only successful attempt out of three or four that came up in the course of the game. There also seemed to be far more blocked punts in this era than there are now--I don't think people even try for them much anymore, techniques for preventing them having become so advanced. Another thing you see quite a bit in these clips that you don't see much anymore are laterals, especially by defensive players on turnovers. Buddy Ryan encouraged this when he coached the Eagles in the late 80s, and they scored a few extra touchdowns off of it, but even by that time coaches had decided that they preferred to secure possession the ball and give it over to their quarterback. Specialization. Sucking the joy out of everything since at least 600 B.C.

I just looked at a highlight where two teams combined for 1 touchdown in 14 red zone possessions (Harry Kalas, who was the narrator on the film, called it by the old, or baseball name of "scoring position"). There were 7 field goals at least.

As a Philadelphia Eagles fan I always hated the Dallas Cowboys, but after watching several hours worth of these highlights it is easy to see why the latter won so much during this era. They look like a team of actual trained professionals on the field compared to almost everyone they played against. About half of the teams scarcely look like they are running scripted plays, or don't have any effective ones. On defense too the old Cowboys rarely seem to be caught badly out of position or lose track of people as is continually happening with other teams. Even when the Eagles became better for a couple of years under Dick Vermeil ('79-'80) and actually beat Dallas a few times, with the exception of the NFC Championship game in 1980 I never had the feeling that they were truly the stronger team. It shows you how much the game changed between 1980 and 1986 or so because in the first year Tom Landry and the rest of the organization were still considerably ahead of the rest of the league in these professional type matters, but by the second year the game was perceived to have "passed them by".

Studying the other dominant teams of the decade--and there were only a handful of them--Pittsburgh and Minnesota seem to have been impossible for most of the teams they played against to score on, while also having above average offensive talent. The secret of Miami's superiority I haven't been able to form an impression of yet, because most of the game highlights I have seen of theirs so far are against the Jets, and the Jets at this time were not good.

Joe Namath obviously was a legend, but by the mid-70s he looked awful, he could barely move, and his team was one of the worst in the league. Nonetheless I am piqued to seek more footage from the late 60s when he was supposedly actually good (if I can find any; most of this stuff from the 70s was just put up recently), because the commentators in all of these clips were still reverent of him.

Another guy getting the deity treatment from the announcers in this series is O.J. Simpson, who was a stylish and impressive-looking player. One oddity of O.J.'s football career is that he was the #1 draft pick coming out of college in 1969 but did not reveal himself to be a particularly good professional running back until his fourth year in the league, at which point he became for about 4 or 5 years possibly the best player in the league. Would a running back that good take 4 years to establish himself as a top player now? Would he be given the opportunity? Yet quite a few big name players in this period had career arcs that would probably be impossible today. John Riggins was a good running back through the early part of his career, though not a star, before rushing for a career high 1153 yards at age 30, following which he promptly sat out the following year in a contract dispute. He came back with a OK year at 32, then at 33 was the MVP of the Super Bowl, ran for 1347 yards and 24 touchdowns at age 34, 1239 yards at age 35, before slowing down to 677 yards at 36, after which he retired. Today he posts videos of himself chopping wood and discoursing on the state of the world and for a 63 year old who carried the ball over 3,000 times in the NFL he looks pretty darn good--I assume he must have some kind of chronic pain, but nowadays any retired football player you practically expect to see them in a wheelchair.

Speaking of late bloomers, I find it notable that both Roger Staubach and Joe Theismann, highly touted college stars, Super Bowl winners, and in Staubach's case a Hall of Famer, did not become full-time starters in the NFL until their 8th year out of college. They did not all of those years sitting on the bench, Theismann played 3 seasons in Canada and Staubach spent five years in the Navy after graduating from the Academy, but still, it is hard to see that happening today. Staubach, especially, was probably the best quarterback of the decade of the 1970s, and he barely played before he was 30.

This segues, mercifully, into my last topic for today regarding 1970s (and 60s) football, the quarterback who started for his team forever without achieving very much success. I live in New England, where Tom Brady's failure to win a Super Bowl in the last 8 seasons and 7-7 record in his last 14 playoff games has some fans wondering if "he can get it done anymore", I am reminded of players like Jim Hart, who was the starter for the Cardinals for 15 years (1967-81), in which he managed 5 winning seasons and 2 playoff appearances with an 0-2 record in those games. Jim Hart was probably an average quarterback on a below average team for most of his career. However it is safe to say that a player with his record would not be permitted by the fan base, press and ownership to hang around as a starter for 15 years nowadays. There were a quite a few guys like this. John Brodie was the primary starter for the 49ers from 1961-71, and had a couple of good statistical years, but the team never made the playoffs, or had an especially good record, until making runs to the NFC Championship game in the last 2 of those seasons--his 14th and 15th in the league. Archie Manning started for the Saints for 11 years, during which he compiled a record of 35-91-3 (he went 0-10 as a starter for two other teams at the end of his career).. A lot of people at the time thought he was handicapped by a terrible team, but watching some of these highlights, I don't know. Even in the 70s being held under 100 yards total offense, as happened in one game of his I saw recapped, was indicative of not the highest competence....I'm sure there are others, but I'm going to leave off here. Is there anybody even close to being in this situation among current players? Tony Romo maybe, in that he hasn't had any playoff success over a 7 year career, though his regular season record is 55-38, and a lot of people still think he is good and the organization is dysfunctional. Carson Palmer has been around 9 years with what are considered to be poorly run organizations, has a losing record and has never won a playoff game. I don't sense that anyone is very high on the likelihood of him achieving great things at this point though.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

1951 Movies

Five of them here (though it looks like one might really have been from 1952). I don't remember this year being often mentioned as one of the landmark years in cinema history, but it produced a hogshead's worth of classics. I have already noted here in passing having seen, from that year, A Streetcar Named Desire, The African Queen, A Place in the Sun, and the Alistair Sim Christmas Carol. Besides those featured in today's post, there are still quite a few more celebrated titles from this year presumably to come. Based on my listkeeping, it looks to date like the champion year for the number of individual movies that have merited the highest rating in mainstream publications.

An American in Paris

Won the Oscar for Best Picture in that highly competitive year. The choice seems to have been considered an upset at the time, Streetcar and A Place in the Sun being the favorites going in. I enjoyed the movie very much, though of course I am a mush-brain. I am surprised by how well-regarded it still seems to be by many people who seem to be demanding, the sort who not only talk about things like the Real Paris, but have intimate knowledge of it. Obviously there is a sophisticated way to appreciate it requiring legitimate mental seriousness as well as a mindless one; however, all that I am able to get from it seems inconsistent with all my sense of what sophisticated people would be impressed by. And the film certainly has its share of detractors, though again, mainstream opinion seems to have accepted it as a classic on its own terms. My own take is that it is better than its detractors, most of whose arguments against it are almost too obvious to be convincing, would have it, but it is not Great great.

The saying that all good Americans, when they die, will go to Paris, is no less pointed because it is over-quoted. Indeed, I suspect that this promise is likely is not true, and am rather downtrodden in mood because of it. I suspect we are not talking about the Real Paris, especially that of the present day, that alternate place which has the genuine good food and is supposed to be far more interesting, because everything and everyone in it is held to and lives always by high standards in which Truth is the dominant governing element; but of something more like the Paris of this movie, though hopefully a little more populated and less stagy. The opening sequence of real footage--from a distance, aloft--of the city circa 1950 with its sparse auto traffic, slightly less worn out monuments and suggestive glimpses at the miles of streets and boulevards of (for Americans) dirt cheap rents and endless carafes of wine, is getting pretty close to the fantasy. What do I ask of Paris but to give me a few sensations. That I am an artist, or at least that I appreciate beauty and all of those wonderful things. That I have a mind. That I like to drink and eat well and enjoy life, without the necessity of being a prig about it because I can take it for granted that my victuals are of acceptable quality. That I am capable of being a subject of romantic interest. This is the whole extent of it really. Is it such a joke to desire these things? Well, yes, if they haven't any grounding in truth, it is. The experience of "Paris" is not a gift or reward given for earnestness and good behavior, especially to outsiders.

Forbidden Games

This is the one I think is in fact from 1952. My book said '51 but everything else says otherwise.

This is a French movie, very different, not only from the image of France depicted in American in Paris, but even from most other famous French movies, that I have seen anyway. It reminds me more of an earlier or mid-career Ingmar Bergman movie like The Virgin Spring as far as its themes and cinematography go than anything else I can think of. It also takes for a direct subject the death and destruction, indeed the fact itself, of World War II, then still quite recent and in France especially painful to have to recall. I probably should have watched it a second time. There was nothing obviously wrong about it, and I am sure it is as great a film as it is supposed to be, but nothing about it absorbed me or made any kind of emotional connection with me either. The affection that developed between the children would have been the likeliest route to my heart and sensibility but I just wasn't up to feeling it on this occasion. I will have to try to see it again. Sometimes the second viewing is the charm.

The Idiot

This, on the other hand, was exactly the kind of thing I was looking for, the more so as it was completely unanticipated. Despite the presence of cinema legends Akiru Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune in the project, it must not be among their top 6 or even 10 most celebrated collaborations in this country, as I was previously unaware of it. And then upon discovering that it was an adaptation of Dostoevsky, I just assumed it was set in Samurai times, another two hours and 46 minutes of the rituals and other formal cultural trappings of that genre, which I am learning, I think, to appreciate more as the years go by, though it still involves some work for me. However the movie is set in the modern world, in Hokkaido, the big northern island of Japan, where, as I remember from one of Paul Theroux's travel books in which he went there, it really does snow as much as it does in Switzerland or pre-global warming Vermont. It has great atmosphere, and a deliberateness of pace that however never fails to be interesting and makes for a pointed counterpart to hyper-distracted contemporary digital life. I should have kept it a little longer and watched it a second time, so taken with it I was.

The Idiot is one of the great stories of the post-1500 world, I believe. The dramatic background of the saintly man who is not insipid, the sickly man who is not (entirely) weak, the innocent man who is not wholly ignorant of the world, who indeed at the outset of the story is himself returning from abroad, where he has presumably been engaging with life at some serious level after his own fashion, I find to be highly affecting to the imagination. All of its main characters, and most of its minor ones, are superior representations of humanity than their counterparts in actual life, as are the incidents and settings of the plot. While the story is ultimately unhappy, I suppose, the experience of it as art marks a high point in one's mental biography that is usually to be but too rarely replicated, especially it seems as one ages. I recommend it (the book, but the film gives something of the same sense in miniature) to anyone unfamiliar with it, particularly in the dregs of mid-life, who is feeling sluggish and disengaged mentally from all of the higher currents in life.

The Magic Box

Almost four years ago I wrote about how I was unable to find this movie anywhere. Finally I discovered a couple of months back that someone had uploaded a copy of a television broadcast of it, presumably from England, to Youtube, where in exactly 1 year (January 24, 2012) it has received the rather paltry total of 738 views. So I have now seen it on the computer at least.

I noted on the other post that this was the British film industry's contribution to the 1951 Festival of Britain, that it was shot in Technicolor, that it starred the great actor Robert Donat and featured cameo appearances by numerous other British acting luminaries of the day including Laurence Olivier, and that its subject matter is a man named William Friese-Green who may or not have been the inventor of the movie camera but who according to the film at least invented a machine that produced moving pictures independently of whatever else was proceeding in that area at the time. The film is good, especially in its depiction of the main character's obsessiveness regarding his inventions, to the point of ruining his finances, his and his family's social position, both of his marriages, and any relationship with his sons, the elder three of whom feel obligated by the family's circumstances to enlist in World War I, which in British movies especially is so readily understood to be a death sentence that they don't even have to insert a scene later on in which the mother gets the bad news or refer at all to it having happened; the boys just don't return to the movie. And Robert Donat as William Friese-Green doesn't seem to be affected by any of this in his pursuit of invention. He repeatedly borrows large sums of money from anyone he can get to lend it to him, with no real effort undertaken to ever pay it back, and clearly thinks it an injustice when one of his creditors finally cuts him off. There is a tradition, that this is the attitude visionary and creative people have to have, and that normal types can't understand what goes on in the mind of such a person. In Europe especially that the visionary dies unappreciated in poverty and obscurity is almost preferable. Americans generally want to see some kind of payoff or vindication in the end, at the very least recognition, or reconciliation with friends and loved ones. Otherwise, how do we know the person is worth celebrating with a movie?

I am obviously not a visionary, but I did have, and still have, a certain amount of this impractical nature. It is quite amazing how long into my adult life, almost until I was in my mid-30s, that I believed I would eventually  be accepted by the greater world as some kind of writer or other intellectually-oriented line of work and be paid for it in line with other middle class professionals. Even today I don't really know or have a clear sense of how I am likely to come by money enough to live reasonably on for the rest of my life. Though the alternatives eventually happen and take on a life of their own, they always remain to some degree unthinkable, and to this day I cannot really face the reality of my situation and acknowledge it as anything significant. As this, I have noted many times here, it has rendered completely unable to function socially. In this I am completely the opposite of the Idiot.

Both of the actresses who play the beleaguered wives of William Friese-Green are of exceptional attractiveness in this particular movie, especially the one who plays the first, the Viennese-born Maria Schell.

The River

In keeping with the (loosely) overarching French theme here, this was a later project of directing icon Jean Renoir, though in English and set in India, based on a novel by a writer named Rumer Godden, with whose work I am not familiar but who I am guessing falls quite distinctly into the category of 'colonialist literature'. It was notable at the for being, I am pretty sure I remember this correctly, the first Western feature film shot in India. It is a strange and often discordant movie, which combined with the fame of its director's genius, persuades one that its art value must be high in a way that is inaccessible to the casual viewer, which I assure you is a disappointment for him. None of the actors in this movie that I am aware of when on to achieve much notoriety, and several of them are actually quite awkward in their performance. I don't know how comfortable Renoir was with English but he does not appear to have been deeply intimate with this language's spoken theater traditions (which a few short minutes of the Magic Box will serve to refresh your acquaintance with). The attitudes towards things like European colonialism and the place and nature of women vis-a-vis men are pretty close to what was consensus mainstream opinion at the time. A little English boy is killed by a cobra he is trying to charm. There was a very British Colonial speech made in the wake of the boy's death that did not go in for the sentimental or woebegone view but emphasized the duty of those surviving to move forward. I thought it made some sense at the time but obviously the argument hasn't stuck with me.

There was a mid-90s documentary included on the DVD about the then 88 year old Rumer Godden, who grew up in the English community in what is now actually a part of Bangladesh, but returned to India, or so it said, for the documentary, which I also found strange and in fact I did not finish it. I didn't like Rumer Godden. I grant that she was really old and having to go around an India that she really didn't recognize or have much affinity with by that time, but still, there was a deeper than usual air of coldness and cynicism about her. She was a real artist and turned in completed and well-received books on a regular basis, which should be more than satisfactory to me, and it is. Still, she had the air of someone who had some number of bad nights too many at the English club...

Friday, January 18, 2013

Volutatibus Him Plathai Echei Ouden

Over the life of this blog I seem to have completely lost the ability to write an introductory paragraph; so I am just going to dive straightforward into the subject and hope I can get out some of the points I wanted to make in a reasonably coherent manner.

I am going to write about baseball cards.

They are special baseball cards however, in that I got them at the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1981 (the set consists of all of the members of the Hall at that time) and many of them are autographed by the players depicted on them. I had never realized that in fact they are rather garish. I was going to put up pictures of them but I am having issues at the moment both with my camera and the amount of space on my computer for storing pictures, plus I packed up the box again and shoved it back into the bottom of the linen closet. So I think I will skip the pictures.

The Baseball Hall of Fame was in the news this last week, and in recent years, between the combination of the advent of modern statistical analysis and the widespread suspicion of steroid use by superstar players in recent decades, the institution has been undergoing one of its more pronounced existential crises in the face of disputes over who belongs in it and who does not, and what I detect to be a general lack of love for it among the most sophisticated modern fans. All of this led me to take out my box of old baseball memorabilia that I have looked at maybe 3 times in the last 30 years this week.

From 1981 to about 1984, but mainly during about an 18 month period from the fall of '81 to the winter of '83 I wrote to several hundred old ballplayers, most from the pre-1945 period, asking for autographs. This was just before the time when people figured out that famous players anyway could charge money for autographs, so, perhaps surprisingly, most responded. Of course I suppose there is no way to authenticate that the actual guy signed the card, but I suspect in most cases the signature is genuine. Not that it matters a great deal to me at this point anyway. I was able to write to all these players because I had (and still have) this book:

(This is not the exact edition I have, but it's close enough)

The idea of writing to players asking for autographs was really my father's, although I wrote all of the letters, and once the initial enquiries were returned, my enthusiasm and confidence in the project were greatly invigorated. My father being my father, he thought I should first send out all of the cards from the Hall of Fame set to those players who were still alive, so we started, in effect, at the top. Not every guy responded, but looking over the set, it is quite remarkable how many did. That was going to be the object of the post, to go down the list, and note who wrote back, who didn't, and any special impressions I might have about a particular player, with (for my own benefit) follow-up biographical updates--basically when guys died, as I have not kept up with that.

Carl Hubbell--Yes (i.e., he responded to my letter). Died in 1988, aged 85.

 I am going to go on about Carl a little bit. One of the more annoying aspects of the explosion of advanced baseball statistics, combined with the ability to pontificate on the internet regarding the same, is that inevitably you start to come across people whose breaking down of the numbers have convinced them that Carl Hubbell is a borderline Hall of Famer at best. As with all movements that one picks up on in youth that don't peter out, I seem to have been left behind in the last few years by the ongoing advancements in baseball statistical measurement. I have enjoyed nearly all of Bill James's books over the years, and generally found little in his conclusions that struck me as outrageous. Especially in his earlier books, he tended to clarify or expand upon things that one had already suspected or known, but had not examined with much sophistication, such as that Larry Bowa was one of the worst offensive players of all time who had a ten year career, or that too many of Frankie Frisch's mediocre teammates had gotten voted into the Hall of Fame when Frankie was the head of the Veteran's Committee. His study of the statistics was a supplement to watching thousands of games intently as well as being immersed in the sport's historical literature, aspects which seem to be missing in the current crop of baseball philosophers, who seem to lack much of a feel for the game as it unfolds on the field and across eras, and expect their various pet statistics to be the final word on players hardly anyone living ever saw play, and who by conventional measurements were often not merely good but dominant players.

Carl Hubbell was almost certainly the best pitcher in the National League during the 1930s, and other than perhaps Lefty Grove, there is no obviously superior candidate in the American League during that era either. Satchel Paige might have been the greatest pitcher in the world during this period, or he might not have been, but popular opinion of the time suggests that he ought to be admitted as a contender. The second best pitcher in the National League during this decade was Dizzy Dean, an iconic figure of the Depression and superstar pitcher for about four years whose story also leaves many modern statheads, who consider his body of work unworthy of his Hall of Fame status, cold. Had the Cy Young award existed in the 1930s, Hubbell would almost assuredly have won it in 1933, 1936 and 1937, and Dean in 1934 and '35. This is especially true as Hubbell actually won the MVP award in '33 and '36, and Dean in '34. According to the tabulators of WAR, the top pitcher in the league in 1935 was Cy Blanton of Pittsburgh (18-13, 2.58 4 shutouts, 7.89 hits/9 innings; Dean was 28-12, 3.04, 29 complete games, 325.1 innings pitched, 190 strikeouts) and in '37 was Jim Turner of Boston (20-11, 2.38. 24 complete games, 5 shutouts; Hubbell was 22-8, 3.20, 159 strikeouts). I suppose there is an argument for Turner, though I suspect the voters would have given Hubbell the award, as his year was equal to the naked eye both statistically and in terms of impression made during the course of the season, not to mention that everybody by 1937 thought of Carl Hubbell as a great pitcher compared to the Jim Turners of the world. I think it is safe to say that nobody who was alive in 1935 considered Cy Blanton to have had a superior season to Dizzy Dean, and I don't either.

Hubbell still holds the major league for consecutive decisions in which he was awarded a victory (regular season) with 24, over two seasons, 1936 & '37. Pitcher "wins", as traditionally recorded, are not held in the high esteem they used to be by up to date statistics analysts, due to their being the result of circumstances that are inadequately consistent, but I still think if you are consistently able to achieve them, that it is an indication of significant quality. Hubbell had 253 such wins during his career, 195 during the decade from 1929 to 1938.

From 1927 to 1939 the New York Yankees appeared in 7 World Series, won all of them, 5 via sweeps, and racked up a combined record of 28-3 in these 7 series. Carl Hubbell was 2-2 against them in this span, the rest of the National League 1-26, with the other win being in a high scoring extra inning game. This contributed to the high esteem in which Hubbell was held in his time, as no other National League pitcher offered any effective resistance to the Yankee juggernaut throughout the whole of this period. In the other World Series in which he appeared, in 1933 against the less imposing Washington Senators, Hubbell won 2 complete game victories, the second in 11 innings, as the Giants won in 5 games. This guy is not a Hall of Famer?

Charlie Gehringer--Yes. Died 1993, aged 89.

I always liked Charlie Gehringer too. He was from the North (Michigan) and attended the University of Michigan, though I don't think he finished. Still, very few ballplayers in that generation went to college at all, and it gave him a little polish compared to the most of the players. He was interviewed for one of the oral histories of old time baseball that came out in the 1960s and 70s that were among my favorite books at the time, and he struck me as one of the more intelligent and insightful contributors, in a understated way (By the way, the book Gehringer was in was Baseball When the Grass Was Real, which came out in 1975 and covered the decades of the 1920s and 30s. Ironically the grass in baseball is mostly real again, I believe Toronto and Tampa Bay being the only teams now that still play on Astroturf. Baseball on Astroturf is one of those things that was lamented as a catastrophe throughout most of my childhood, was a major issue in player's careers--the carpet in Montreal was supposed to have destroyed Andre Dawson's knees for example--and then was largely corrected throughout the late 90s and early 2000s without anybody seeming to notice. Another big development of my youth I remember old-timers hating, or at least being considerably annoyed by, was batting gloves. The opinion on these was they were somewhere between extravagant and unmanly, but nobody saw the need for for them because Ted Williams had never used them and he had a .344 lifetime average.

Bill Dickey--Yes. Died 1993, aged 86.

First Yankee on the list. Appeared as himself, along with Babe Ruth and several other players, in The Pride of the Yankees, along with Gary Cooper and Teresa Wright, in what I am quite sure is the greatest baseball movie of all time.

Bill Terry--Yes. Died 1989, aged 90.

First guy born in the 1800s on the list. High batting average player, succeeded John McGraw as manager of the Giants while still a top player. I always considered him a solid Hall of Famer, but I feel like the statheads have their issues with him. Their objections I think would qualify as nit-picking however.

Joe DiMaggio--Yes. Died 1999, aged 84. Joe DiMaggio answered his fan mail, or at least saw that it was answered. I wonder if his iconic status is not declining. Most the media footage of him that exists is neither very revealing nor exciting by our standards. He was much beloved by his own generation and the one just after it who were young during the 1930s and 40s, both for his personality and his ballplaying but these cohorts are rapidly dying out. He was by all accounts a most riveting player, but he retired in 1951, which in sports, and especially sports media terms is a really long time ago now.  In his various television and commercial appearances on Youtube the further you go back in time the more genial and comfortable with the world he seems, perhaps because people understood how to treat him and talk to him. The more he is removed from own time the more inaccessible he seemed to become.

Ted Lyons--Yes. Died 1986, aged 85.

Not my actual card, but I do have one of these, out of around ten cards I have from the 1933 Goudey series. Mine has a crease in the middle. This was one of my favorite cards on account of the armpit holes. I was fascinated by them.

Joe Cronin--Yes. Died 1984, Aged 77.

When I saw his card, I thought, wow, Joe Cronin is a completely forgotten man. I had not myself had occasion to recall the man in many years, though he was ubiquitous within the sport for decades as a Hall of Fame shortstop, "Boy Wonder" player-manager of the Senators, longtime player-manager and then manager, and then general manager, of the Red Sox, and eventually president of the American League for 14 years. This career ran unbroken from 1926 to 1973. His name still resonated as that of a big man in the game when I first became aware of him. But he has faded.

Hank Greenberg--Yes. Died 1986. Aged 75.

Great slugger. I don't have any especial anecdotes regarding him though.

Bob Feller--Yes. Died 2010, aged 92.

After sending my letter with cards enclosed to Rapid Robert Feller, I did not get a response for about six months and figured, well, he was a major star and is probably a busy person. One day however I arrived home from school and found a mysterious little packet waiting for me. Enclosed was a note from Bob Feller apologizing for having misplaced my cards and two 8x10 autographed glossy photos, one a blown up image of his 1953 Topps baseball card (in color), and the other a black and white picture of him running off the field and being congratulated by his teammates after his opening day no-hitter in 1940, which at that time was the only such no-hitter in history, and still may be. One of the greatest pitchers of all time. Missed four years in his absolute prime (ages 23-26) during WWII and still won 266 games.

Edd Roush--Yes. Died 1988, aged 94.

Prime was at the tail end of the dead ball era. Batting champ 1917 and '19. Played on winning side in doomed 1919 World Series.

Luke Appling--Yes. Died 1991, aged 83.

Burleigh Grimes--Yes. Died 1985, aged 92. Some of these ballplayers are pretty darn long-lived.

Last pitcher legally permitted to throw the spitball--unlike Daisuke Matsuzaka's gyroball, this was a real pitch. I am glad there is a place for the likes of Burleigh Grimes in the Hall of Fame, because he was quite a remarkable pitcher in his own unconventional fashion. I wonder what his pitch counts were like. Looking at one sample year, 1923 say, he went 21-18, 3.58, with 33 complete games in 38 starts, toiling for 327 innings, allowing 356 hits and 100 walks. That was actually his best year at keeping guys off base in a 6 year span.

Ted Williams--Yes. Died 2002, aged 83. Unfortunately the card has gone missing during the 20 year interval that I was without my collection.

In his youth of course, Ted Williams was considered to be about the biggest jerk in the game. As he aged his image evolved into that of the gruff old-timer, a war hero and active outdoorsman who shot straight and reminded us of the days when men were men. He grew more palatable because while he was still quite a bit of a know it all jerk, I think he reminded people of their grandfathers. He never really came across as a snob, dismissing or mistreating people outright based on their status, which had begun to grow predominant in the society. One of my favorite stories about the older Williams involved an interviewer who went down to his house in Florida to find the old man in an apparently foul mood, lamenting that he had agreed to the interview and so on, and promptly getting up and leaving the room without explanation, returning after a few minutes with a plate of cheese and crackers for the reporter that he had apparently thrown together himself, after which he seemed to feel better and went on to talk quite a bit. His garrulity as he got older was in contrast to his formerly far more popular rival Joe DiMaggio, who became increasingly reticent and seemingly bored with the world in his old age and was reputed to have become an obsessive miser.

Red Ruffing--No! Died 1986, aged 80. My first rejection. He was never supposed to be a very nice guy, but then neither was Ted Williams or Bill Terry or several other players who did respond. Also of course he was old and may have been ill, though I think I have read somewhere that he never responded to autograph requests.

Lloyd Waner---Yes. Died 1982, aged 76. I must have written to him just a few months before he died. He was one of only two Hall of Famers to sign the card on the back. Widely considered now to be among the worst players in the Hall, and I won't argue against that, though I think his brother, who was already long dead by the time I was writing to players, was a bona fide H of F'r.

Roy Campanella--Yes. Died 1993, aged 71. Roy Campanella was of course paralyzed in a car accident in 1957 so his signature came back in the form of a rubber stamp. This card has gone missing too. Very highly regarded player in his time, won 3 MVP awards ('51-'53-'55) as catcher on beloved "Boys of Summer" Brooklyn Dodgers teams, gets less love from modern statistics interpreters. Didn't reach big leagues until age 26 due to color line. Grew up in Fishtown neighborhood of Philadelphia to a black mother and Italian father.

Stan Coveleski--Yes. Died 1984, aged 94. One of the players interviewed for the seminal Glory of Their Times, the original of the series of oral histories and the one which dealt with the pre-1920 era, which came out in 1965. Several of the players featured in the book, Coveleski among them, were subsequently elected to the Hall of Fame, likely as a result of the book's popularity. Coveleski was the son of Polish immigrants in a coal-mining town in Pennsylvania who himself entered the mines at age 12. His was one of the more memorable stories in the book. It was truly a different country, but there is a lot that is still largely recognizable, the culture of baseball and sports in general being among them, which I think contributes to the book's interest.

Waite Hoyt--Yes. Died 1984, aged 84.

Stan Musial--Yes. Stan Musial is the first guy on this list who is still alive. He is currently 92. It is often opined that the general public has forgotten how good he was. He is a legitimate candidate for the greatest living baseball player. He was a Kobe Bryant or LeBron James level celebrity during the 1940s and 50s. Here is a television appearance either from late 1963 or early 1964. John F Kennedy is already being referenced as "late" but Musial is being treated as if he were not yet retired, though he never played again after the 1963 season.

Lou Boudreau--Yes. Died 2001, aged 84. Last player-manager to both to win the MVP award and the World Series, of course, in 1948. Up until 1940 both of these accomplishments were fairly frequent.

Satchel Paige--Yes. Died 1982, allegedly aged 75. Another one I must have just caught by a matter of months. For what it's worth, all of the living Negro League Hall of Famers I wrote to replied. The players with a reputation for being more ornery, such as Josh Gibson, tended to have died young.

Yogi Berra--Yes. Yogi is the other guy who signed the back of the card. Yogi lives on, though at 87, I believe he may finally have retired from coaching.

Lefty Gomez--No. Died 1989, aged 80. Teammate of Red Ruffing. There is some question about his Hall of Fame worthiness at well, but there is a good chance he would have won 2 or 3 AL Cy Young Awards, ('34 and '37 definitely, and there was another year--'32, '33, '38?--where there was no overwhelming favorite that he might have been able to garner enough votes to win), and he was 6-0 in the World Series.

Sandy Koufax--Yes. Still living, 77 years old. Hasn't pitched in 47 years. Time moves on.

Buck Leonard--Yes. Died 1997, aged 90.

Early Wynn--Yes. Died 1999, aged 79. Didn't sign my card because he had not authorized the company that distributed them to reproduce his likeness and I guess was in a dispute with them, but he did send a signed photo of himself in his capacity as a broadcaster for the Toronto Blue Jays.

Monte Irvin--Yes. Still alive, now 93. Didn't make to the regular big leagues until he was 30 due to the color line. In the Hall of Fame on account of his Negro League career at the tail end of that era. Had a couple of very good seasons with the Giants in the early 50s, but his major league numbers don't really indicate a Hall of Fame player. Probably one of the least known players in the Hall, as far as what kind of talent he was, especially among those still living.

George "Highpockets" Kelly--Yes. Died 1984, aged 89. Another popular contender for worst player in the Hall. They really should not have put this guy in.

Warren Spahn--Yes. Died 2003, aged 82. Analogous to Stan Musial as an iconic player of the 50s who played in the midwest, lacked color or whatever it is that constitutes star power by modern standards and has become somewhat forgotten (although in the clip above, Musial comes off as rather suave. It goes to show you how much dressing like an adult and carrying yourself according to a higher standard of social expectation than what prevails among us will do for the impression you can produce on other people). Warren Spahn won 363 games, was a 20 game winner 13 times, and was a constant presence at the top of the league in all the traditional pitching stats throughout the 50s and early 60s. I understand the point about pitchers' wins being a deceptive statistic when somebody like John Burkett rips off a 22-7 season, and I know we are not supposed to look at them too reverently, but surely 363 of them, and a consistent 18-20 a year for two decades must mean something in the grand scheme of baseball history. By the numbers:

Spahn led the league in WAR, the most honored statistic of the moment, just once, in 1947, (and actually he tied for the lead with Ewell Blackwell). He was 21-10, 2.33 in that season. He led in ERA+ twice ('47 & '53). He led in wins 8 times, including 5 years in a row from 1957-61. He led 3 times in straight ERA, 9 times in the now totally irrelevant statistic of complete games, including 7 years running from '57 to '63. He led in innings pitched only 4 times, but threw at least 259 2/3 innings in 16 out of 17 years (with 245 in the 17th). He led in strikeouts 4 straight years ('49-'52) early in his career, though he never reached 200 in a season. None of his single seasons are terribly spectacular in themselves, but seeing all 17 of them piled up one after the other is still impressive.

Cool Papa Bell--Yes. Died 1991, aged 87.

Jocko Conlan--Yes. Died 1989, aged 89. In the Hall as an umpire, though he did play in 128 games for the White Sox before he took up that calling.

Whitey Ford--No. Still around at age 84. According to Baseball, Whitey Ford never led the league in WAR. In 1961, when he went 25-4 and won the Cy Young Award, they claim the league leader in this category to have been Jack Kralick, who went 13-11, 3.61 for the Twins. But don't think I am laughing at or doubting WAR. It is evidently an amazing tool for measuring real performance, though I do not quite see what there is about it that is so completely satisfying to contemporary analysts.

Mickey Mantle--No. Died 1995, aged 63. Interesting that all four of the guys so far who did not reply so far were Yankees.

Earl Averill--Yes. Died 1983, aged 81.

Billy Herman--Yes. Died 1992, aged 83. Another guy who was interviewed for Baseball When the Grass Was Real whose story was relayed in a manner that was more than usually perceptive. Another midwesterner, from New Albany, Indiana. Given name William Jennings Bryan Herman. He think he may have come to the big leagues just a little too late to have faced Grover Cleveland Alexander. His granddaughter is the wife of the current governor of Indiana (she is actually married to him for a second time, after taking a four year hiatus during the 90s when she was married to somebody else).

Judy Johnson--Yes. Died 1989, aged 89.

Ralph Kiner--Yes. I thought he had died, but evidently he is still around, now 90. He is another guy from the World War II generation who was not well-loved as a person in his playing days, but who, as the country evidently became more acclimated to whatever characteristics he had that so irritated people in the 40s and 50s, seemed less obnoxious as he grew older. He did TV commentary for the Mets on WOR-9 in the 80s--we got this channel in our first cable package, with the box and all of that--and he seemed perfectly fine to me. Of course at the time the announcer I most wanted to see dangled by the ankles over a vat of boiling oil was the sainted Vin Scully, so I may not be the most trustworthy judge in these matters.

Bob Lemon--Yes. Died 2000, aged 79. Not counting Bob Feller, who was past his prime by that time anyway, Bob Lemon was overall the best pitcher of the vaunted Cleveland staff of the 1950s. Nothing about him ever really caught my imagination though.

Robin Roberts--Yes. Died 2010, aged 83. At the time he was the only living Phillie in the Hall. A truly great pitcher, he even led the league in WAR 6 times, including 5 straight seasons from 1950-54.

Ernie Banks--No. Still living, now 81 years old. I was a little surprised when Mr "Let's play two", the friendliest guy in baseball, did not eagerly respond to my letter to him.

Al Lopez--Yes. Died 2005, aged 97.

Joe Sewell--Yes. Died 1990, aged 91. Wrote a nice note back to me verifying that Babe Ruth did indeed call his shot in Game 3 of the 1932 World Series, and that I should have no doubts on that subject. So I do not.

Eddie Mathews--Yes. Died 2001, aged 69. I always think of Eddie Mathews as a very 50s kind of guy. He had the look, and of course it probably didn't hurt that he played in Milwaukee.

Willie Mays--Yes. Willie Mays is 81. Sworn by many who saw him play to be the greatest player ever. Considering how near he is to us in time there is remarkably little variety in the film footage of him that seems to be available. There's the legendary catch in the '54 World Series, the stickball game in the streets of Harlem, and the sad clip of him falling down as an old man (well, my current age as it happens) in the '73 Series. Do we have anything else?

Duke Snider--Yes. Died 2011, aged 84. The Duke was another guy considered surly as a young man, and an underachiever to boot, whose stock both as a personality and a player has risen in recent years. I am getting the impression that young men of superior natural ability who were also cocky were not liked much in the 1940s and 50s. It went against the ethos of the time. Of course we, or at least our media, have in our day no problem with this type of character. Indeed, it is what we expect. People who express genuine humility risk being ridiculed as weak. I realize that many golden boy types--Mickey Mantle comes obviously to mind--were idolized during the period. Mickey Mantle did often present himself as a kind of aw-shucks-not-especially-brilliant type of guy, which the press of the day liked.

Al Kaline--Yes. He is still around, is now 78.

These are other players I got autographs from who were now Hall of Famers at the time but were inducted later:

Johnny Mize, the Big Cat. Died 1993, aged 80. One of the more underrated hitters of all time. Took a very long time getting into the Hall. Had monster seasons from 1937-40, and again in in '47-48.

Travis Jackson. Died 1987, aged 83.

Hank Aaron. 78 years old.

George Kell. Died 2009, aged 86.

Brooks Robinson. 75 years old.

Rick Ferrell. Died 1995, aged 89. One of the more dubious Hall of Famers.

Pee Wee Reese. Died 1999 aged 81.

Enos Slaughter. Died 2002, age 86. Enos Slaughter did not give up the game easily, hitting .171 in 85 games as a 43 year old in 1959. That is what is called reaching the end.

Leo Durocher. Died 1991, aged 86. Another legendary a**hole who took the time to answer his fan mail.

Richie Ashburn. Died 1997, aged 70. Was along with Harry Kalas the broadcaster for the Phillies my entire childhood. I am a fan of both guys. Ashburn had an outstanding sense of the relative importance of various issues that would come up during games, both inside and outside of the box.

Jim Bunning. Age 81 now...

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Scouts

My two older sons, one of them especially, had been asking for several years to join the Cub Scouts. I kept putting it off because I thought we were busy enough and didn't need another set of activities to keep up with, and also because it has long been one of my unconsidered, passivity-inducing attitudes to avoid anything that might demand of me either fundraising or mild interaction with strangers. However, as they continued to bring the subject up frequently enough to indicate that their interest in it, whatever form that took, consisted of something genuine, I told them last fall when school started that they could sign up. When I went to get the uniforms I was a little regretful that I had made them wait until they were 10 and 9, as they have already aged  beyond the blue-uniform Cub Scout years, besides being well behind the other kids as far as obtaining badges goes. We were predictably busy in the fall and our attendance at the meetings was haphazard, and I eschewed the fundraising completely; though when my wife found out, after the deadline had passed, that I had shirked this, she admonished me and said that if the children were part of the pack, they had a responsibility to do their part in the fundraising. This view of the subject had never occurred to me. I had always thought of fundraising as a form of harassment towards which one should adopt the most suspicious and hostile attitude at one's disposal, and was truly shocked that anybody friendly to me could view the matter in a different light. Besides this the local pack is not the most crisply efficient in terms of organization--and I am not of that class of super parents who would be of much help in correcting this--but as with everything we undertake, our involvement is becoming more regular and we are slowly becoming full-blown members of the troop.

This said, I was quite unprepared for the scene at the first few meetings. Most progressive parents nowadays shun the scouts, and do so with a fair amount of zest, because of their position on homosexuals--this being that, if you are openly gay, you can't have anything to do with official scouting--so consequently there are no such families involved in it, at least where I live. I know I should be indignant about this policy too, but I don't seem to be able to get very worked up about it. I have not yet come around to the conviction that every institution in society, even those whose purpose is dedicated to fostering the development of competence and leadership in boys, is obligated to endorse, tacitly or otherwise, an acceptance or approval of homosexual behavior. The scouts' position is perhaps a little extreme--I do not know that you need to bar gays unequivocally, if they are willing to respect the mores of conduct that the organization considers dear to the atmosphere and philosophy of young manhood it wants to promote--but I increasingly have the sense that from the gay standpoint, any hint that their sexual preferences and desire to publicly proclaim them, even where these are tolerated, are less than 100% embraced as wonderful and appropriate in every situation, is unacceptable, and merits to be attacked with sarcasm and vitriol. But getting back to the meetings, the crowd of adults that one encounters there is a mixture of rightish-leaning, or what is more probable, liberal-disliking, patriotic, and blue collar--several of the fathers are policemen. There a couple of libertarian families. All of the parents seem to be married, which as you know is becoming rare at this socio-economic level. There is a definite ideological undertone running through this group that society, and particularly young boys, is suffering from the lack of strong and proper masculine leadership in the family and community, and that they at least are not going to fall prey to this. I know I rant about this stuff all the time, but at the same time I don't really know how or have the fire to be an authoritarian parent and husband the way some of these guys are. Various ceremonies such as doing the scout pledge and salute, and of course all of the rituals involving the American flag, which would probably be seen as silly by most white collar professional types, are treated by the leaders as matters of the utmost seriousness. I'm not used to being around people who think and act this way anymore, and at first I felt really out of my element. However, as I say, I am getting used to the other parents now, and they are starting to perceive, I think, that I am not going to try to impose a more namby-pamby attitude on the proceedings, and the children, to my admitted surprise, seem to like the uniforms and the ceremonies, and are not creeped out by the earnestness with which they are undertaken in the least, and I don't even think that is necessarily terrible, because the older two at least I just don't see having the temperaments to become rigid and obsessive anti-progressivists.

We did skip Scout Night at Monster Jam last Friday. Everybody has his limits and Monster Jam is one place where I have to draw the line and say, I just cannot sit through four hours of this or however long it is. Sorry.

I am glad to see that Mad Men star and heartthrob of all the sexually restless wives and mothers of my generation Jon Hamm has also developed an obsession with the Lennon Sisters. This makes it cool, right? And before you try to argue that I am referencing the National Enquirer, remember it was they who broke the John Edwards love-child story; so they are a legit news organization.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Brief Notes on Secondary Reading

Seeing as I am about 4 years behind on the notes on my primary reading you would think that would be a higher priority. And I am going to try to bring that somewhat up to date over the next few months. This post could also be skipped, since none of these books I thought was especially good, and two of them were more or less abominable, but I feel like I should examine my complaints about them and why I have not been able to do markedly better. In any area of life.

The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud

I have not been reading many novels in my official list for the better part of two years now--long poems, Victorian biographies, philosophical treatises and some works of the Fathers of the Church have filled up the space once dominated by them--and at a certain point in the late summer or early fall I was craving one. Why I chose this I cannot logically account for; every now and then I am overcome by an urge to look into something contemporary, this was named one of the top 10 novels of the year (2006) by the New York Times and was longlisted for the Booker Prize, and it apparently even sold decently. It was supposed to be an accurate depiction of a certain influential and refined milieu. I hope for the sake of the milieu in question that it was not.

Successful literary types often love to recount moments when some joker wannabe reads something by one of the legitimate geniuses of his own generation and realizes he cannot compete in that league, but Claire Messud has something of the opposite effect. She reminds the contemporary would-have-been author that the pool of literary talent in his time was evidently so thin that anybody possessed of even modest ability should have had a golden opportunity not only to break into the field but to become a substantial figure in it. That is how abysmal this book is.

Now it is true that I read it all the way through. This was in part because I wanted to be sure that I was not utterly deceiving myself about the book's quality, but the main reason was that, insipid and insubstantial as the  rich, good-looking, expensively educated, fashionably dressed, culinarily sophisticated, Manhattan residing cultural creative characters were, I am of course obsessed enough with such people to try to find out what the secret of their grip over so much of our national artistic and intellectual life is, because it does not appear to be stupendous intelligence or learning. Apart from snobbery towards provincials and working class people, and maybe the details of clothes and lunches with the smart set, the book is pitifully weak in detail and giving much sense of what being alive on a minute to minute basis in contemporary New York is like, unless the sum of all mental and visual sensation of living there now results in a kind of cumulative emptiness. There is no story, or part of a story, or character, or scene, that is remotely gripping. I suppose the likes of me can take heart that in modern creative class New York there are apparently no straight American-born men. I only noted 2 in the book, one a fat loser from the provinces who primarily subsisted on Coca-Cola and potato chips and did not bathe regularly (no sex for him, needless to say), and the other a prominent liberal intellectual in his 60s who, as if to underscore the dearth of men in their 30s and 40s who are both acceptable to modern educated women and are sexually inclined in their direction, did have a robust affair with one of the main characters, a well-endowed 30 year old working in television. This absence was so blatant in fact that after I got through the book I made an outline for a short comic novel tentatively titled A Heterosexual in New York, in which a character like myself 15 years ago manages to become a force on the young New York literary social scene just by exerting a little heterosexual energy; but of course I haven't gotten going with writing any of it yet.

For what it's worth, Claire Messud is married to James Woods, whose current ranking among the most important literary critics in the United States would put him safely in the running for a BCS bid with a real shot at getting into the title game. She also attended Yale, and one of the characters in her book refers several times to an old professor whose theories happen to be the same as Harold Bloom's, so it is not implausible to presume that she was a student of this luminary's as well. She is also listed as a fellow with the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin (Institute for Advanced Study). She is obviously well-steeped in almost the highest literary and cultural circles our society has to offer, or at least that the general public is vaguely aware of, yet the dominant characteristics of her work are banality and a general lack of vigorous talent. She has a good grasp on the construction of sentences, I suppose we can grant her that. There is no meat or power in the sentences though.

The September 11, 2001 terrorist attack features in the book. I admit that the events of that day as they seem to have been experienced by people who were in New York at the time have never really gripped my imagination. My own memories of the day, from afar, granted, are of a kind of absurdity. The media was apparently telling people to give blood, so we had people showing up at the hospital where I work rolling up their sleeves and demanding that someone draw their blood, screaming "Do you know what is happening?" and that sort of thing. The organization was not set up to service all of these donors on the spot but they did schedule a blood drive for a couple of days later to appease the mob, which ended up being cancelled because of course there weren't any survivors who needed it. My sense with writers trying to write about the catastrophe is that something about it always seems incongruous with what it really was, not that I know what it really was either, but I don't think the note that is taken by most authors on the subject has been the right one.

King Rat by James Clavell

From 1963. Best Seller. Opposite situation to The Emperor's Children, in that the premise of the story and the main character have real literary potential, but I found the writing something of a chore to get through. It was somewhat like Forever Amber, in that when I would take it up and get into it I could plow through 30 or 40 pages in a sitting, but I was never all that eager to take it up again until several days interval had passed. The Emperor's Children I actually got through fairly quickly--fairly quickly for me meaning 15-20 pages a day--and on a regular schedule, even though the book was lousy. I think I felt like its very existence was such an indictment of myself and my whole lousy literary generation that I was compelled by association, however tenuous, to wallow in the shame that it represented for as long as it lasted. There was a part in King Rat that, while typical of its time and not especially well-written, arrested me, about one of the loser lower-middle aspiring to middle-middle class character's agony over his inability to persuade his wife to willingly have sex with him. All of his desperate requests and attempts at seduction are met with a frigid "No" and the night before he is to leave for duty--the book is set in a Japanese prison camp during World War II--he violently tears apart the expensive dress she has put on to go out somewhere and I suppose it is implied that he raped her, though I don't have the book in front of me anymore and don't remember whether that was implied or if he just gave up when he realized she was completely uninterested in having relations with him. That one passage about frustration really stuck with me. And the King is really an excellent character, though my memory of details where he is concerned seems to be fading already.

The movie based on this that came out in 1965 is very good. I got it expecting it to be one of those lumbering 1960s World War II films, because it is not especially celebrated, so I was surprised by how well it worked as a movie. Even my wife, who is not the target demographic for World War II prison camp movies, thought it was good, and handled its subject matter tastefully (maybe this is why it has not been more highly rated by the critics). The King was played by George Segal, who seemed positioned around this time to become a fairly major leading man if one or two of his films, such as this one, had taken off, but that did not quite happen. His timing was unlucky I think in that he had a kind of classic All-American look and demeanor which became suspect in the minds of many serious art people just at the time he emerged on the scene. I have not seen him in much, but I've generally liked him, perhaps because he never did make that ascent to superstardom. The co-star and foil of the King is Tom Courtenay, who starred in a number of notable British movies of the early 60s like The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Billy Liar.

Carlo Cipollo--The Economic History of World Population

From 1962. A very short book (117 pages). Demography is one of my peculiar fascinations, and interesting readable books about it are fairly rare, so whenever I come across anything on the subject that looks interesting I give it a try. I found my copy of this in the donations bin at the supermarket.

I always enjoy reading books from this time period because I find the tone and point of view which the authors of the era usually take to be more agreeable than that of contemporary writers. They may even be saying the same things, but they tend to be less hysterical about them. Carlo Cipollo for example, talks about the necessity going forward of adopting a more global point of view and the eventuality of resource depletion, but he manages to write about these matters, it seems to me, without the accusatory or imperious attitude that people promoting these positions feel compelled to inject into their statements on these subjects today. I am certain that he probably had such attitudes--his essays on human stupidity apparently rank among his better known works--but he was able to temper the urge to express them in his published work. Indeed, according to his Wikipedia page one of his tenets regarding stupidity was that "The probability that a person will be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person" which strikes me a sensible observation that people have totally lost sight of today.

The 1960s was, it strikes me, kind of a golden age of popular anthropological writing. I remember as a child my father's having numerous books that presented the story of prehistoric man in his journey from hunter and gatherer to maker of tools to his discovery of agriculture and language and primitive art and his eventual development into a creature vaguely resembling ourselves. It seems to me that this narrative regarding our human origins is not as prominent, or vivid in the collective consciousness anymore. Cipolla has a whole chapter in this vein which took me right back to the era of The Naked Ape and The Epic of Man and the opening scene of 2001 and the similar productions and imagery from that time.

Cipolla was quite concerned, and rightly so, at the time, about overpopulation. At the time he was writing, even though birth rates in the West had declined considerably since 1800 or so, they were still well above the replacement level everywhere, and of course in the third world they were absolutely astronomical. There seemed no likelihood that the birth rate would ever drop to a level low enough to meaningfully slow the rate of population growth, let alone stabilize it, though that did happen all across the West within a few years of the book's being written, and has since happened across much of the rest of the world, apart from sub-Saharan Africa and several (though not all) Islamic countries.

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

I wouldn't even consider this to be a real book. It's one of those ubiquitous modern non-fiction exercises where a bunch of disparate examples are thrown together--this one had employee training at Starbucks, the Montgomery bus boycott, Paul O'Neill's reviving of the fortunes of the Alcoa corporation, the deadly London Tube fire of 1987, the excruciating process of figuring out how to market Febreze, middle-class people who are dumb as rocks but somehow have access to hundreds of thousands of dollars to blow at casinos, and the relentless mining of personal spending data by all major corporations--in support of a not especially compelling idea. Given that most of the chapters are concerned in some way with a triumph derived from some application of the principles of habit delineated in the book that resulted in soaring profits for some mega-company, I am assuming it is aimed at the business crowd. The depiction of the world it offers I think would be too depressing for anybody else to contemplate. The author is a reporter for the New York Times. He seems to find the corporate vision for human life going forward to be acceptable, legitimate and perhaps even interesting. His whole 90s Ivy League package--that includes his picture as well as his style of writing--is as if calculated to be extremely annoying to me anyway. I don't know these people at all. I don't know why you would write a book like this.

Bonus Recommendations: Children's Books

My older boys are reading the Great Brain series of books by John Fitzgerald, which originally came out in the 1960s and 70s. I never knew about them at the time, though they are the kind of thing I would have read. They are reminiscences of the author's childhood in Utah at the turn of the 20th century, at which time that part of the country was still very much on the frontier in many ways, though amenities of civilization like running water and mass market toys have already begun to make their insidious inroads on the theretofore unsullied lives of the settlers. Indeed, one of the big events in the series is when the author's family (the Great Brain is the author's elder brother) gets the first flush toilet in town. Republican types will like it, as all of the boys in the book--girls aren't referred to much throughout the series--are resourceful when it comes to satisfying their material needs, and naturally entrepreneurial. If there is some desirable item that you want, your parents aren't just going to go out and buy you the identical thing, or give you enough money to ever get it yourself, so your only hope of obtaining it is to either swindle it away from another kid who has it, or device a scheme to relieve your peers of their own allowances. The Great Brain--who has a lot of similarities to King Rat now that I think of it--is the master of devising such enterprises. The series loses a little steam as it gets into the later volumes--there is less of a sense of continuity binding one episode to the next, and the tone of the stories becomes less warm, I think--but I think they make for more entertaining reading than the various fantasy/magic/kids versus dark forces of evil books that are so popular now, and that my own children also like quite a lot.

The Pink Refrigerator by Tim Egan is a book for 3-5 year olds that I confess to liking. The premise is that there is this middle aged male creature of some kind who owns a junk shop. He lives alone and has been stuck in a routine for years. He never misses his favorite television shows though he usually falls asleep in his chair in front of the set. It is never implied that he is unhappy, just that he is not living life to the fullest. One day a mysterious pink refrigerator shows up in his junkyard. It has an old rusty magnet on it that has a different message every day. It also has something new inside it every day. One day it was a set of old literary classics. Another a set of paints. On the third a horn of some kind or other. One day there was a globe. At first our marmot-man does not know quite what to do with them, but they seem to exert magic powers. He puts the books in his shop window for sale, but finds he is unable to part with them when someone wishes to buy them. At length even the urge to watch television is overpowered. By the end of the book he is closing up his shop and setting out on a trip. It speaks to me. The guy who sleeps and watches television all the time is not a hopeless moron who needs a major intervention to reach enlightenment, he has just become lazy and needs a nudge, a reason, to engage in some degree with mental life again.

I completely missed the Christmas season. I couldn't find any Christmas videos this year that I just loved, so I guess I will skip that for 2012 and see if anything strikes my fancy next year.