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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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Yankee-Red Sox London Slugfests Bring Back Memories of Phillies-Cubs 23-22 1979 Classic Re-Told In Kevin Cook's "Ten Innings At Wrigley"

I have my doubts that the two end-of-June slugfests the Yankees and Red Sox engaged in at London's Olympic Stadium will "grow the game" in Europe as both players and owners claim.  It was somewhat entertaining if you like lots of run-scoring and bizarre plays. 

 
My favorite moment was the amazing catch of a foul pop-up by Red Sox rookie first baseman Michael Chavis in the final game of the two-game series. He's not really a first baseman but injuries to regular Mitch Moreland and his capable sub Steve Pearce forced Chavis into an unfamiliar position.  

 
In a stadium built for track and field, now used for soccer and never for baseball, foul territory is huge. Far larger than either Oakland's cavernous Coliseum or Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  After not making a play on a similar foul on Saturday, Michael Chavis calculated the distance better on his second chance.  

 
Starting from between first and second, he raced into foul territory like a sprinter, slid, and made the catch with room to spare before he hit the wall. Yet I sure hope before the next series in 2020 between the Cubs and Cardinals, they somehow reduce the foul territory.  

 
Red Sox manager Alex Cora was very honest after the Yankees swept the games, 17-13 and 12-8.  "They are better than us right now," he said.  The Sox did show spunk by making games of each tussle, but their bullpen is in disarray. 

 
There is now talk of putting oft-injured starter Nathan Eovaldi in the closer's role when he returns. Yet I wouldn't count out the defending world champions from making a run, at least at the first wild card.  They still have the Four Killer B's in the heart of their lineup - Benintendi, Betts, Bogaerts, and Bradley Jr., all home-grown by the way. And I haven't even mentioned the big bopping Trump-supporting J. D. Martinez.

 

The six-run first-inning haymakers delivered by both teams in the 17-13 must have shocked the British locals used to seeing low-scoring soccer. In blessed baseball, nothing is new under the sun.  

 

To my mind the game brought back memories of the 23-22 10 inning game in May 1979 in which the Phillies scored 7 in the first only to see the Cubs respond with 6 of their own. Later in that game, Philly couldn't hold 15-6 and 21-9 leads and needed a Mike Schmidt 10th inning homer off future Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter to give them the victory.   

 

Kevin Cook has brought that game back to life in "Ten Innings at Wrigley:  The Wildest Ballgame Ever, With Baseball At The Brink" (Henry Holt).  Cook, who recently authored the absorbing "Electric Baseball" about key characters in the 1947 Dodgers-Yankees World Series, is blessed with an almost pitch-perfect ear for pithy character revelations.  

 

Here is sportswriter John Schulian remembering  Cubs manager Herman Franks seated in his office "with his feet on his desk, eating chocolate donuts and smoking a cigar, ignoring questions."  There is Phillies manager Danny Ozark, the master of malapropisms, saying that an opening day ovation sent "a twinkle up my spine."

 

But when starting to feel the heat for failing to make the World Series with three straight playoff teams, Ozark branded Phillie fans as "the boo-birds of unhappiness."  To a player demanding more time on the field, Ozark scoffs, "His limitations are limitless."  


"Ten Innings" is a lively summer read, but what separates it from the usual light baseball reading are the sensitive stories of the players and their later lives.  Bill Buckner, who died just after the book came out, is remembered as a gritty ballplayer who played hard through nearly-crippling injuries. In a reflective moment before the start of the 1986 World Series, he even mentions a nightmare of missing a ball on defense.  

 
Dave Kingman, the other offensive power on the 1979 Cubs, is recalled as focused almost entirely on his home run output to the detriment of other aspects of his game.  He did draw many fans to Wrigley, prompting Cubs fan turned official team historian Ed Hartig to tell Cook, "He was bad in interesting ways."  Kingman's contempt for the press is well-described but he is now evidently living his life happily as a family man in Lake Tahoe. 

 

The most tragic story in "Ten Innings" centers on relief pitcher Donnie Moore who entered the game after starter Dennis Lamp was knocked out in the first inning.  (In one of the vivid details that permeate this fine read, Lamp's wife arrived late for the game and no one was eager to tell her what had happened.)  

 

Cook was able to interview Moore's daughter who provides many insights on the life of her talented tormented father who committed suicide in 1989 after failing to kill his wife. Observations from Moore's teammate and fellow moundsman Ray Burris are very moving, memories of happier times in Chicago 1979.    

 
That's all for now.  Next time I want to say a lot about the play "Toni Stone".  For now I just want to mention it is running through Aug. 11 at the Pels Theatre at 111 W 46th Street just west of Sixth Ave. in NYC.   The story of the first woman to play baseball in the Negro Leagues is extremely well-told, acted, and choreographed.  

 
Always remember:  Take it easy but take it! 

 

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