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Reflections on the Return of MLB + The Enduring Importance of Movies of the 1940s

Major League Baseball has returned, narrowly beating out the NBA and the NHL in the race to grab the attention of scores-starved sports fans. After the first weekend of the season, every one of the 30 MLB teams can claim a victory. 

 
No team has started 3-0 for the first time since 1954.  And my supposedly doomed doormat Orioles took two out of three at Fenway against the admittedly weakened Bosox whose pitching looks as questionable as Baltimore's.

 
The Birds already have two feel-good stories. Starter Alex Cobb picked up his first victory since 2018, and reliever Cole Sulser earned his first MLB save, a two-inning job that brought back warm memories of the days of Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, Sparky Lyle, and Bruce Sutter. 

 
'Twas quite a weekend for the Big Green of Hanover, NH. Sulser is a Dartmouth alum. So is Kyle Hendricks who pitched the Cubs' first complete game opening day shutout since 1974. With no walks, only three hits, and almost 10 K's, his Opening Day line was evidently the best since 1888.  

 

The glow from this good news faded when it was learned that over the weekend in Philadelphia, more than ten of the Miami Marlins had tested positive or shown symptoms of coronavirus.  

 
The first home games of the Marlins have now been postponed and so has at least the first game of the Yankees' visit to Philadelphia.  The clubhouse that the Marlins occupied all weekend has to be thoroughly disinfected. 

 
Who knows if this tenuous 60-game MLB season will be completed, let alone the expanded playoffs in which 16 of the 30 teams will qualify. 

 

The public health of the nation should override considerations of commercialized sports.  

 Sadly, I fear that decades ago we lost in this country any concept of what "public" and "health" really mean.


I just found a poem by Carl Sandburg written in 1918, around the time that World War One was ending and the flu epidemic was raging, that speaks so vitally to our current situation.  

 
It's called "I Am The People, the Mob" and one line goes: 

"Sometimes I growl, shake myself and spatter a few red drops for history to remember. 

Then - I forget."    

 
I think the search for a time when sacrifice meant something attracts me to movies of the 1940s, several of which I've seen recently on TCM.  Until the virus hit, I was supposed to teach at Chautauqua next week a class on baseball and American culture in the 1940s.

Please allow me a little historical reflection.

 

The 1940s are such an important decade in our history because even the most liberal historians admit that FDR's New Deal didn't get us out of the Great Depression but arming for World War II was the main reason. 

 
During the war, sacrifice was understood by almost the entire country.   Future Hall of Famers Bob Feller and Ted Williams willingly gave us their baseball careers to serve their country in World War II. 

 
Just as importantly, tens of millions of ordinary citizens, white and Black, risked and lost their lives in combat. And those at home, men and women and boys and girls, planted victory gardens and donated basic supplies to the war effort. 

 
Though wartime MLB was a diluted product, love of baseball remained a national glue. The opening scene from the early noir classic, "Laura" (1944), has Dana Andrews toying with a hand-held ball-bearing game called "Baseball" as he begns to tackle a mysterious murder case. That gesture has always symbolized for me the spell of the game on this country when it truly was the only national sport of any significance. 

 
But once the war ended after the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, the national mood changed.  The best movies really caught that change. 

 

In William Wyler's "Best Years of Their Lives" (1946), being a war hero means nothing to Lieutenant Dana Andrews when he returns looking for something better than a soda jerker's job in his Midwestern town. 

 
The subtleties abound in Robert E. Sherwood's script based on Mackinlay Kantor's novel.  Frederic March's sergeant - a lower rank in war than Andrews but a bank officer in civilian life - brings back a captured Japanese sword for his son who tells him his professor at school opposed the dropping of the A-bombs.

 
Two John Garfield films seen on TCM in past weeks have also really stayed with me.

"Pride of the Marines" (1945) was made when the war was not yet over. Salt-of-the-earth soldier Garfield can't come to grips with being blinded in battle, but nurse Rosemary DeCamp leads him towards acceptance.

(To modern ears, the use of the derogatory term "Jap" may jar in both movies, but given that the war was still going on, the language is understandable.) 

 
In Garfield's last Warner Brothers film, "The Breaking Point" (1950, directed by Michael Curtiz)), his character Harry Morgan has become a small boat captain because the post-war period hasn't been good to him.  "Every time since I took off my uniform, I'm not so great," he tells his wife (Phyllis Thaxter). He plunges almost inexorably into crime. 


Based on Hemingway's "To Have and Have Not," the film is more gritty and superior to the Howard Hawks' 1944 version with Bogart and 19-year-old Lauren Bacall.  "Breaking Point" was written by Ranald McDougall who got the main writing credit for "Mildred Pierce" (1945) and went on to create for Harry Belafonte that haunting vision of a post-nuclear war world, "The World, The Flesh, and The Devil" (1959). 

 
"The Breaking Point" was the last Eddie Muller Noir Alley TCM selection until after Labor Day and will give me plenty to think about over the summer. Writer McDougall created the memorable character of a son for Garfield's fellow sea worker Juano Hernan

dez, an excellent vastly underappreciated actor.  Patricia Neal as a femme fatale is rather unforgetable. too.

 

Two tips for TCM for end of July:  

Thurs July 30 11:15A - "Easy Living" (1949) directed by Jacques Tourneur based on a story by Irwin Shaw.  A football player with a bad heart (Victor Mature) is warned about his life-threatening illness by a cardiologist (Jim Backus in pre "Mr. Magoo" days.)

 

Victor's wife wants him to keep playing (Lisabeth Scott).  Owner of the team is played by Lloyn Nolan.  Sonny Tufts plays a teammate of Mature as does Kenny Washington who was the Jackie Robinson of the NFL in 1946 (and also played with JR at UCLA).  

 

Other Rams are in the film including Tom Fears, Fred Gehrke, and Elroy "Crazylegs" Hirsch..  Memorable touch guys Paul Stewart and Richard Erdman appear, Lucille Ball plays the team secretary and I kid you not - Jack Paar is the team PR man.

 

Then Fri July 31 at Noon -  a TV "Director's Cut" from 1955 - "Rookie of the Year". A sportswriter recognizes a baseball player as the son of a banned player from an earlier time.  

 

Well, that's all for now.  Be well and stay well and obey social distancing and mask wearing rules.  But still always remember:  Take it easy but take it!  

 

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YIBF (Yours In Baseball Forever) Journal - Late August Dog Days Edition

It caught my eye while recently surfing the internet. Toronto left-hander Mark Buehrle was tipping his cap to White Sox fans in Chicago after being knocked out of the box in the bottom of the 6th inning.

Buehrle was signed and developed by the Chisox and was a key mound stalwart when they won the World Series in 2005. He left for the Florida Marlins as a free agent and then was traded to Toronto but obviously a lot of his heart was left in the Windy City.

It seemed that Buehrle was fighting back tears as he saluted the Chicago fans, who also cheered his first inning appearance on the mound. His emotion reminded me of something wise that Ken Griffey Sr. said as his son – the fabled Ken Griffey Jr. – was contemplating leaving Seattle for free agency. “The team that signs you cares the most about you,” Griffey Sr. noted sagely.

The younger Griffey ultimately opted to OK a trade to Cincinnati where he grew up. However, because of accumulated injuries and the ravages of age, he never had the impact that he had in Seattle.

David Price, the Rays’ southpaw ace traded to Detroit at the July 31st deadline, received a similar heartwarming welcome on August 21 when he pitched in Tampa for the first time as a member of the opposition. Whatta game Price pitched, too, a one-hitter but he lost it 1-0 on an unearned run in the first inning.

Tampa Bay was the scene for another poignant baseball moment a week ago when Alex Cobb of the Rays faced off against Brandon McCarthy of the Yankees. Both pitchers have bounced back, literally, from being hit on the head with line drives – Cobb last year in June and McCarthy in September 2012 while pitching for the Oakland A’s.

Never underestimate the courage of pro athletes in any sport to get out there on the firing line as soon as possible from an injury, however serious. It is what is meant by being a competitor and “getting it.” Kudos to David Adler, a writer for mlb.com in Tampa Bay, who made a point to note the back story of the Cobb-McCarthy matchup that Cobb won though McCarthy pitched very well. Cobb, whose front leg gyrations are even more pronounced than most Japanese pitchers, was the hurler who bested Price 1-0 in that classic recent game.

COULD THE DEADLINE DEALS BE BACKFIRING?
Too early to bash media darling general managers Billy Beane of the A’s (who traded center fielder Yoenis Cespedes for ace southpaw Jon Lester) and Dave Dombrowski who traded his center fielder Austin Jackson for Price. Both A’s and Tigers have struggled mightily since the deals but plenty of time to correct their ships. After all, it is still August with more than three dozen games (two NFL regular seasons) to play before the playoffs start.

There remains a wise old adage, "Sometimes the trades you don't make are the best ones."
And never forget that players are not robots and may not seamlessly fit into their new environment. Nor forget the side-effect of trades being telling your existing players that they may not be good enough to win it all.

EARLY THOUGHTS ON THE NEW COMMISSIONER
On the labor relations front in baseball, the election of Rob Manfred to replace Bud Selig as commissioner is good news for those who never want the continuity of the baseball season to be disrupted again.

There was a last-minute attempt, evidently masterminded by White Sox and Chicago Bulls basketball owner Jerry Reinsdorf, to prevent the seamless transfer of power from Bud Selig to Manfred. It got no traction and the vote to approve Manfred was made unanimous by the 30 baseball owners before their meeting broke up in Baltimore on Thursday August 14.

Manfred is an experienced lawyer who arrived in baseball in the early 1990s. He was witness to the nuclear summer of 1994 when the players went on strike and in early September the owners unilaterally cancelled the playoffs and the World Series.
Manfred soon rose to power as the chief management labor negotiator and has been instrumental in the two decades of labor peace that ensured and looks like will continue for the foreseeable future.

He has kept his personal preferences close to the vest. It will certainly be interesting to see where he comes down on such issues as the increasing length of games, the continuing failure to attract younger audiences to the game, and the four-decade-old-and-still-counting split on the designated hitter used in one major league and not the other.

Personally I have never liked the DH but with interleague games every day now it becomes an increasing disadvantage for American League pitchers to hit when they are not trained to do so. Also I have been convinced by the argument that since the DH is not utilized in World Series game in National League parks, it does put the American League at a distinct disadvantage.

As for increasing the pace of the game, I'm all for a clock to be utilized at all major league ballparks limiting a pitcher's dallying before throwing a ball. Such a clock exists in college conferences these days - 12 seconds in some cases - and it would be a good start.

That’s all for now – next edition of the YIBF Journal comments on my travels on the road to varying baseball spots from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, Washington DC to Manchester, New Hampshire and the New York outer boroughs.

Always remember: Take it easy but take it!  Read More 
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