It's a wonderful feeling in life when one's expectations are exceeded. Such was my experience last week when I taught for the third time a Baseball and American Culture class in the Special Studies department of the Chautauqua Institution.
Chautauqua is an adult education and vibrant cultural mecca in the southwestern corner of New York State near the Pennsylvania border. It was founded shortly after the Civil War as a retreat for Methodist Sunday school teachers. (Am amazed that Branch Rickey evidently never came to Chautauqua though he was probably so busy with baseball and his Delta Tau Delta fraternal activities to come there.)
There's nothing like teaching and talking about what you love in front of students who appreciate your interests and genuinely want to learn more. I've long believed that a teacher always learns as much from students as they learn from him or her.
I felt good about talking about the rich if complicated history of baseball - from the late 19th century labor battles between John Montgomery Ward and Albert Spalding to the rise of the great management leaders Ban Johnson and his replacement as lord high commissioner Landis. And the pioneers Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson and the later labor wars surrounding Marvin Miller and Bowie Kuhn and Bud Selig.
But the happiest moments for me in teaching are always the unique responses of the students. Here are some examples:
**During the opening session everyone introduces themselves. One woman from western Michigan described how she fell in love with Sandy Koufax when he was a bonus baby starting out with the Brooklyn Dodgers. There was something about seeing him struggle on TV that made her a lifelong fan.
As an adult she made pilgrimages to LA to follow him live. She framed a photo of him and his onetime Brooklyn teammate Sal Maglie and placed it on her bedroom wall. Her husband wasn't too impressed - soon he was an ex-husband. (I don't do justice to her timing in telling this story.)
**Another priceless moment was a student writing down from my typed notes the words on an Irish towel that one of my first undergraduate students gave me as a present over a half-century ago:
"Baseball (as explained to a foreign visitor).
YOU HAVE TWO SIDES ONE OUT IN THE FIELD AND ONE IN.
EACH MAN THAT'S ON THE SIDE THAT'S IN GOES OUT AND WHEN HE' OUT HE COMES IN AND THE NEXT MAN GOES IN UNTIL HE'S OUT.
WHEN THREE MEN ARE OUT THE SIDE THAT'S OUT COMES IN AND THE SIDE THAT'S BEEN IN GOES OUT OAND TRIES TO GET THOSE COMING IN OUT.
SOMETIMES YOU GOT MEN STILL IN AND NOT OUT.
WHEN BOTH SIDES HAVE BEEN IN AND OUT NINE TIMES INCLUDING THE NOT OUTS
THAT'S THE END OF THE GAME (EMPHASIS ADDED)."
**Then there was the moving sight at my last class when 15 students stood up to watch on my little laptop with a weak sound system Buster Keaton's baseball pantomime from "The Cameraman," his last great silent film. Buster had hauled his equipment to Yankee Stadium looking for a story but had read the schedule wrong. NO GAME TODAY appears on the screen.
So Buster takes the opportunity to walk to the mound and imitate the pitcher and catcher and umpire and other players on the diamond. It's a classic clip of just a little over three minutes before a policeman chases him away.
I felt it was particularly appropriate to show some baseball comedy in my class because it was Comedy Week at Chautauqua. It was an event co-sponsored by the newly-established National Comedy Center in nearby Jamestown NY - the hometown of Lucille Ball who, by the way, has recently been honored with a more accurate and artful sculpture.
One of the great highlights of Comedy Week was the Smothers Brothers coming out of retirement to commemorate their law suit against CBS for kicking them off the air nearly 50 years ago. "I'm still pissed" were Tommy's first words to the appreciative audience.
Both he and younger brother Dick looked in amazingly good shape for people in their early eighties. They contributed a witty opening skit before discussing their careers with moderator NPR's David Bianculli. A good selection of skits from their heyday were shown.
It was announced that the Smothers archives will be going to the Jamestown center. The organization already has the papers of George Carlin and Richard Pryor and several other comedians. (By the way, I had to share the classic Carlin skit on "Baseball and Football" with my class.)
A panel on Ernie Kovacs, the great comic creator of early TV, was very informative and included trenchant commentary by "The King of Rant" Lewis Black and masterful veteran comic writer Alan Zweibel. Sirius radio host Ron Bennington and Bianculli also contributed very helpfully to the evening at the Jamestown center.
Also very valuable was a discussion of the legacy of Robin Williams that featured Lew Black again and Williams' longtime manager David Steinberg (not the Canadian-born comedian). During the question period Steinberg confirmed that Jonathan Winters had been a big influence on Williams during their "Mork and Mindy" days. (Yes, I did share with students a few YouTube selections of Winters' crusty baseball characters.)
I planned my Chautauqua gig this year around two musical performances that didn't disappoint. The first was John Corigliano's 1991 opera "The Ghost of Versailles" with a libretto by William Hoffman.
"Ghosts" is a free-wheeling time-traveling exploration of what would have happened if doomed Marie Antoinette had been saved by "The Marriage of Figaro" creator Beaumarchais. Happily, the fit-looking 80-year-old Corigliano was on hand to take some deserved bows at the end from the cheering throng at Chautauqua's impressive outdoor Amphitheater.
Last but not least, I saw the Chautauqua Symphony's performance of two pieces that promised to and indeed stirred my Russian-American blood, Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony and Prokofiev's Second Violin Concerto.
Both pieces have melodies that are reminscent of pop songs - a "La Vie En Rose" descending melody in the first movement of the Prokofiev - and a haunting six-note melody in the adagio late in the Rachmaninoff that I am still humming as I conclude this blog. (I think Chet Baker may have recorded it at one time but I am not sure about that.)
Looks like there will be some great pennant race baseball building in the last weeks of the season. More on that in the next blog. For now, always remember:
Take it easy but take it!