Wednesday, July 29, 2015

A Few Oddities About My Childhood Baseball Team

The team referenced would be the Philadelphia Phillies, particularly the years from 1979-83, when I was age nine to thirteen, and followed the sport most intently.

In 1979, the Phillies signed a soon to be 38 year old Pete Rose to a 5-year, 4 million dollar contract (a huge number at the time). This goes against every tenet of sound modern baseball analytics, according to which Pete Rose even in his prime probably would not be regarded as a superstar player. Yet looking back 35 years later, with all of the sober maturity and wisdom that developments in understanding baseball statistics have brought us, I still regard that signing as a great triumph, for the first two years alone. In '79 he was still the same Pete Rose he had been in Cincinnati for the previous 15 years--162 games played, .331 average (2nd in the league), 208 hits. In '80 his numbers slipped some, but the Phillies won their first ever World Series, which is what he had been primarily signed for in the first place, and as somebody who followed nearly every game that season I don't believe they would have accomplished that without Pete Rose. I have expanded more on this below. '81 was the strike year, and as such kind of a waste of time, but Rose still hit .325 and finished 2nd in the batting race at age 40. In '82 he began to drift towards mediocrity, but was still a plausible everyday player. It was only in the last year of the contract that the fans began to perceive that he might be a liability, and the team managed to win the pennant anyway.

While a lot has been written over the years about what an awful person Pete Rose is in addition to details of his crimes and sleaziness and moral offenses, I have always retained my affection for him as a ball player. I have no doubt that he has never cared much about other people's feelings or dignity, but as with a lot of successful people, I'm sure he would consider that those things are not his department. If you can't uphold your dignity on your own, better lie low in life and don't try to run with the big dogs, that sort of thing. I may well have hated him if my 9-13 year old window had coincided with his glory days with the Reds (as it was, I hated Gary Carter and Steve Garvey above all other players in this 1979-83 era, though I have had the satisfaction of seeing Garvey, aside from all the ridicule he later endured for impregnating too many women while still married, which I don't care about, have his regard as a great player thoroughly squashed by modern analysis). As a player on your team, Rose was very exciting, because he was a star with credibility, and he made every game feel like it was an important event because he was in it.* He also always made me feel like if the Phillies lost or failed it at least would not be because he was not inherently a choker or loser, as had been demonstrated over his long career with Cincinnati.

*(I say a star with credibility because he was regarded as such, or seemed to be, by the national media, even though the Phillies at the time he joined the team had two established superstars in the midst of Hall of Fame careers. Mike Schmidt had probably already been the best player, or in the top three anyway, in the National League for 4 or 5 years going into the 1979 season, but no one in the national media, and especially in the Philadelphia media, seemed to know this, at least that I could pick up on, the dominant narrative surrounding the team then being how they kept losing in the playoffs (and then finishing a dismal 4th in '79). Steve Carlton, the ace pitcher, who we will discuss later on, was generally acknowledged to be really good (though seemingly not as good as Tom Seaver or Catfish Hunter or other pitchers from more glamorous franchises), but he was a weirdo, and there seemed to be skepticism both in Philadelphia and around the league as to whether he could deliver in a playoff or World Series setting).        

I Never Heard My Baseball Team's Ace Pitcher During the Entirety of My Childhood Speak One Single Time. When one considers the current media environment and oversaturation of sports coverage, this is almost amazing, but it is true. Steve Carlton stopped doing interviews and talking to the press in 1974, well before my time, and he never went back on this while he was with the Phillies (later on some stories came out about him in which he revealed himself to be one of these paranoid people who built his house in an underground bunker and openly admits to believing that the world is controlled by a small clique of Jewish bankers, but this is irrelevant to my posting here). Of course every game was not on television in those days. Home games were only on on Sundays, and usually one game in each road series would be left off also. I listened to a lot of the games that weren't televised on the radio however, and through all of those years, the voice of by far the best pitcher on the team, and by that point in the entire league, was never heard, and by the late 70s it was so accepted that no one talked about it much anymore.

This Phillies at this time by the way had one of the all time great broadcasting teams, Harry Kalas and Richie Ashburn, who had been a star for the team during the 50s and would later be elected to the Hall of Fame. Both of these guys were still working when they suddenly died in the middle of the season, Ashburn around 1997 and Kalas in 2009. By all accounts the team has never been able to adequately replace them. In fact, the last time I was in Philadelphia during the baseball season, which was a couple of years ago, there was a big story in the paper about how especially with the team declining, following the games on radio or TV for all the fans who grew up on Kalas and Ashburn was almost brutal. At that time, they had three former players calling games on TV, at least two of whom struck me as being decidedly of the meathead type. (Ashburn, though an ex-jock, always exuded a relaxed, mature persona, I would say grandfatherly, because he actually talked a lot like my grandfather, who was also from the midwest and was about the same age, etc).

Back in the 70s Especially Teams Used to Keep Older Players on the Roster Who Were Most Notable For Being Clowns, or Friends of the Manager, or Whatnot. This has almost completely gone away due to costs and the emphasis/importance on always building for the future in all areas. No one has 38 year old bench players around anymore, though this used to be common, perhaps especially in the National League, where you usually need a pinch hitter at least once a game. Among the many ancient players long past their days as regulars who put on uniforms for the Phillies in this era were Jay Johnstone, Tim McCarver (Steve Carlton's personal catcher), Del Unser, Jose Cardenal and Tony Perez (Joe Morgan also joined the team at age 41 but he started at second base, with the 42 year old Rose as the other regular on the right side of the infield. That team still won the pennant). Tommy Lasorda and the Dodgers also always had guys of this ilk: Manny Mota, Mickey Hatcher, Rick Dempsey, who hit .179 and .195 at age 39 and 40, though I suppose he was still a serviceable catcher. Johnstone went and played for Lasorda after leaving the Phillies. The Mets had Rusty Staub, who had been good in the early 70s, but by the time I came along was an exceptionally fat and almost immobile pinch hitter (who could admittedly still work a walk).

I've got other topics I could bring up, but I'll save them for another occasion. A few clips on parting. First, Harry and Richie get warmed up for the decisive Game 5 against Houston in the 1980 NL Playoffs:

This is from the Chicago network, but these are highlights from the famous 23-22 game the Phillies won at Wrigley Field in May of '79. That's my team out there in about its purest state.


Saturday, July 11, 2015

Maybe the Most Classic Movie Post Yet (1933-1940)

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

I have never gotten around to reading the book yet (though it appears on all of my lists eventually), nor had I seen the movie until now. It was probably time for one of them. The film was satisfying to me. John Ford of course directed it, though I have still not had that moment of profound, I-see-the-light connection with his personal style. It is more that I like most of the studio productions I see from this specific period, the prewar pinnacle from '38 to '41 or so. The images and sensibility they present, of the landscape, of the people, of history, of literature, still inform the ideas of much of the common mind with regard to all of these subjects. It was a transitional period, which will be a theme throughout this post. For me at least, the people in movies in 1930 and the world they inhabit seem quite remote and foreign, but by 1940 these have become very recognizable--in many instances almost more so than the present.

I liked the presentation of the road trip--Route 66, passing the state capital in Oklahoma City, how the road was unpaved when crossing into Arizona, the roadside diner, the bridge at Needles, the desert. Some hardcore critics have complained, as someone always must, that the real hardships and poverty of the Okies were softened to be palatable for the public, but I think their circumstances as presented here are plenty grim. Movies that insist on being relentlessly miserable also tend to kill in me any hopefulness that improvements can be effected. I liked the beginning scenes in Oklahoma too, they they are reminiscent of the Kansas portions of the Wizard of Oz. I thought the tone was a good one to take, the emphasis on these people being Americans and having cultural and linguistic affinity with both the filmmaker and the audience, and the confidence that the government, representing the greater nation, could have a positive role in mitigating some of the really ugly consequences of the economic situation (as represented by the much more pleasant and competently organized government camp--with showers!--that the family is able to stay at near the end of the movie).

Mutiny on the Bounty  (1935)

Another real monument, eminently watchable and crowd pleasing. an early realization of the finely polished Hollywood product that we all know. We also have the irrepressible Charles Laughton starring as Captain Bligh, though while he still gets some good lines ('Clear the deck of this r-rrrabble"), he does not have quite the free range to completely take over the character of the film the way he does in many of his other roles. I really notice in this movie and the two below the jump, or break, as some might see it, that took place in film production from 1933 to 1935--those in the latter year seeming so much more modern in terms of dialogue, mood (superficially at least much less dark), humor, what constitutes attractiveness in women, the stars such as Laughton and Clark Gable still have a general resonance with modern audiences whereas some of the earlier stars do not. I mentioned in an earlier post (on Baby Face, I think) how I was struck by the general crassness and slatternliness of the pre-code era films in contrast with anything that has come since, even the self-consciously edgy movies of the post-1970 era. The Code doubtless is responsible for a lot of these changes, but perhaps, in certain areas, it had a positive influence. It did raise the tone of movies, and one suspects of public discourse in general, as far as the mass mind was concerned.

The part where the daily log is read when Bligh and those loyal to him in the castaway boat have been several weeks on the open sea and are out of food and water, with no immediate prospect of finding land, essentially dead men floating, and it is noted that all there is left to do is to pray to the Almighty for deliverance struck me as noteworthy, for this is precisely the kind of situation at which modern intellectuals, or the more comfortable ones at least, are fond of pointing out as a demonstration of the absurdity of the idea of a higher power, conscious or otherwise, that takes the slightest hand in human affairs. Yet it makes perfect sense that if a man were really reduced to the woeful state that the castaways found themselves in, that prayer, or something akin to it, would be almost the instinctive response. That does not mean that it is 'true' or that it proves the material or objective supernatural existence of anything, but the impulse in such instances is a profound one and means more in terms of the human experience than perhaps some people appreciate.

This was based on an at one time famous book as well, though I don't think it is read much anymore.

Dinner at Eight (1933)

Now in two years we are back practically in another era, not just in the movies of course but in American history, as doubtless along with the code the Rooseveltian political ascendance and the more hands-on, technocratic approach to governing and its underlying aims that Americans began to accept after 1933 had no small influence on the character of films. Based on a hit play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, who were big name writers at the time, the movie was an extravaganza full of huge stars who were at the peak of their fame at the time, most of whom however would be facing has-been status within a couple of years. John Barrymore, one of the greatest American actors ever and in my top ten favorite male stars, though I had only seen him before this in two movies (Grand Hotel and Counsellor at Law), in both of which he was magnetic, is in this, though he was not his usual awesome self such as I was expecting. And indeed, many historians of the movies note this particular film, in which he plays an alcoholic has-been actor having an affair with a woman half his age that apparently was a mirror of his own place in life at that time, as the beginning of his decline. This is my first time seeing Marie Dressler, a blowsy, overweight, middle-aged vaudeville veteran who was the number 1 box office star in the country in 1932 and 1933. Her persona in this was as a wise-cracking, seen it all, worldly wise artistic mother hen with a big heart. My impression was that her shtick was a little overplayed, but that was the vaudeville style. She actually died of cancer in 1934 at the height of her fame, but it is hard for me to see her maintaining her status as a top draw as the 30s wore on. Jean Harlow, who was one of the major 'sex symbols' (I thought today that this was an odd expression; but then as I don't especially like most of the people who are designated as symbolic in this way, it is perhaps because the term does not strike me with significant meaning) of the 30s, famous for her pussycat pouting, platinum hair, and the pointedly underdeveloped intellects of most of her characters, is also here. Not really my type. She died (at age 26!) in 1937, at which time she was still a pretty big star, though I have not heard of most, if any, of the movies she was in.

The story in this, as well as its tone, definitely belong to that side of the 1930s cinema that I find to be strange, of enormous doors and lavishly furnished rooms that look as if no one ever occupied them, of naked social climbing and social misery, and a certain blunt honesty about people's sexual and financial interests. The movie is of interest as a glimpse of its time, and of all of its so soon to be vanished megastars, and if Netflix ever sends me a DVD of it (I had to check it out on early 90s era VHS from the library) I will certainly watch it again and see if I can get anything more from it.  

King Kong (1933)

Probably more important and epic for the sci-fi/monster/special effects aficionado, but it is certainly historically iconic, and I feel like I have achieved the next level in my progression as a movie buff in having seen it. Speaking of seeing it, have the PC police checked this out lately? I would advise them to skip it, but I get the sense that a lot of them feel a thrill of righteousness and vindication in seeing what they know all white people really perceive exotic peoples and countries to be like anyway depicted on the screen.

There was quite a bit of material in the extras about the director, Merian Cooper, who was the kind of daredevil, hyperenergetic, independent, endlessly resourceful and creative American male specimen that seems to have especially flourished in the early decades of the 20th century, at least I am discovering more and more individuals who broadly fit the type. A fighter pilot in World War I, Cooper was shot down and taken prisoner, knocking him out of action for the remainder of the war. His appetite for fighting not quenched (thus joining Hitler as the only men I am aware of who did not get enough of World War I), he went and joined the Poles in their fight for independence against the fledgling Soviet Army, in which conflict he was taken prisoner again. He escaped from Soviet prison, where his life was only spared because they did not realize who he really was, and made his way back to the United States, where he and his friend and collaborator Ernest Schoedsack took up documentary filmmaking, making intrepid ventures to places like Iran and Thailand and Sudan that were scarcely on anyone's radar in the United States in the 1920s. In addition to producing many films, especially numerous of John Ford's classics, he became an off and on executive at MGM and other companies. When the United States entered World War II he immediately re-enlisted in the Air Force and directed numerous bombing raids in Japanese held areas of China, rising to the rank of brigadier general. One could go on, but you get the general idea. And this guy is not someone who is really all that well-known, even as the director of King Kong, which is what he is most famous for.

I also watched Odd Man Out again, as Netflix finally sent me a disc of it, from the Criterion Collection too. My second impressions are, above all, that it is one of the most gorgeous movies I have ever seen, which is all the more remarkable when you consider that much of it was shot in Belfast (with the remainder in London) in 1947, a time and place not thought of at the time as being beautiful, but in contrast with today's world there is an elegance in day to day common speech, clothing, cityscapes, customs and the like that hold a deep attractiveness to a person like me. This atmosphere, more so than in The Third Man (which was Carol Reed's next film after this) is what makes the movie what it is.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Some Brief Book Notes

I finished The Brothers Karamazov recently. It was very different from what I had always imagined it was. It is a fine book and all of that, especially in terms of characterization, but I was surprised by how little in the way of incident and episode the book consisted of. It did not exceed or really fulfill my expectations of it, which were extremely high, on a first full reading. Yet when I read the first 300 pages as a college student I remember feeling at every instant certain that it was the truly great book it is celebrated as being, and I did not really feel that going through this time--when I reached the 300 page mark, which is right around where the Grand Inquisitor episode starts, I noted that my sense of the book was completely different from the way I had remembered it and I wondered what had happened to me. Even the Grand Inquisitor section, so celebrated, did not resonate deeply with me. Maybe I am too cut off from the habits of life and thought needed to take in these books now, or I have grown to distrust them. I am going to be reading this again in a couple of years for my other list, and I plan on that occasion to immerse myself in it a little more deeply than I did this time, when I was more interested in seeing what effect it had on me and what I would get from it as myself, without making any special concessions or adaptations to understand it. But that proved to be not wholly satisfactory.

After finishing Karamazov I moved on to the lesser known Thomas Hardy novel A Laodicean (from 1881, almost exactly contemporary with Karamazov). I am something of a fan of Thomas Hardy at times. I like the atmosphere of the Thomas Hardy world, the slowness and almost eternal quality of it. A Laodicean is, ironically perhaps, in large part about the changes in the way life was lived during the 19th society, but the pace and scale of the change will strike the 21st century reader as modest, and, as recorded in the book, quaint and even kind of romantic. The story takes place in a castle that has been purchased from its owners since time immemorial by a railroad magnate, who has died, the possession passing to his intelligent and attractive twenty-something daughter. A telegraph line has been run into a cozy office set up in one of the castle's turrets, that comes crackling to life once or twice a day, and the young owner, since she has to live there at least part of the year, is contemplating a renovation of the decrepit castle to bring it up somewhat to a 19th century standard. The main occupants of this castle most days are the young owner, her friend and companion, who is a member of the dispossessed aristocratic family who formerly owned the castle, and the young (male) architect who has been employed to carry out the renovations, a process expected to take the better part of 2-3 years. All of these people are intelligent and attractive, and the minor characters--clergymen and other member of the local society--are reasonably bright and presentable as well. There are as yet none of the wretched, obviously doomed sort of person who occupies the more well-known Hardy books. I assume something excruciatingly awful is going to happen to someone eventually but it has not become apparent what this is going to be yet.   

I am tempted to try to wrestle more with the big contemporary political issues, especially all of those that in my heart of hearts and brain of brain I am on the wrong side of (which is most of them), but hopefully a time will come where I will hit on the right ideas to make my position intelligible to someone, for it must be that at some level. (See, I am falling asleep now, and I don't want to wait a month to post this while I sort through the origins and ongoing basis for my political beliefs and reactions...)