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Reflections on Stan Musial's 3000th Hit, "Woman of the Year" on TCM, and Pianist Igor Levit

I'm posting this blog on the night of May 13, 2020.  62 years ago in the daytime at Chicago's Wrigley Field - before lights came to desecrate that baseball pantheon - Stan "The Man" Musial stroked his 3000th hit, only the eighth to do so and the first since Paul Waner had done so for Dodgers in 1942.  

 
Somehow in the This Day in Sports History section of the NY Times today, Musial's milestone was omitted. Stan The Man, named in grudging genuine respect by Brooklyn Dodgers fan for how he wore them out in Brooklyn, just doesn't get respect. Maybe because he was basically Midwestern nice and didn't exhibit the rage of Ted Williams or the cool grace of Joe DiMaggio.

 

There is a wonderful saying:  "If consistency were a place, it would be lightly populated." Well, Musial would be a treasured resident in that hallowed hall.

3630 career hits, 1815 at home, 1815 on road, .331 lifetime BA, 1951 career RBI, 1949 runs scored.  At the time, 3630 was second to Ty Cobb in most career hits. 

 
Musial was more than his stats, though.  He could run and throw and his story should be a warmly remembered one.  He started out as a left-handed pitcher but his permanent shift to outfield early in the 1941 minor league season propelled him to the big leagues and a 22-year career.  

 
Biographers James Giglio and George Vecsey have done an admirable job in recent years bringing Musial back to our attention. Let's remember his achievement and not get hung up on big city East Coast West Coast delusions of grandeur.

 


NOW LET'S GO TO THE MOVIES!

As readers of this blog know, watching largely black-and-white old movies on the TCM cable channel has kept me somewhat sane during the pandemic.

 
So last night - May 12th - I caught "Woman of the Year" (1942), not realizing until later that it was the first Spencer Tracy-Katherine Hepburn movie pairing.  Eight more were to come as well as a long-lasting off-screen relationship (though devout Catholic Tracy never divorced).

 
The concept of a grizzled sportswriter falling in love with an internationally-acclaimed activist-reporter that looks down on sports was a good one.   The film, written by Ring Lardner Jr. and the brothers Kanin, Garson and Michael, was directed crisply by George Stevens who had worked with Hepburn earlier in her career.

 

In any memorable film, the supporting cast has a huge role in its success.  Minor Watson plays Hepburn's father.  He congratulates Tracy for having the courage and stamina to marry someone as independent and talented as his daughter. 

 

(In 1950 Minor Watson would offer a good portrait of Branch Rickey in "The Jackie Robinson Story". Not as good as Harrison Ford's in "42" (2013) but still believable.)  

 
William Bendix as the bartender-manager of Tracy's favorite watering hole is hilarious as an ex-boxer ready at a moment's notice to describe how he knocked out Braddock in the seventh round.  It feels nice to give a plug to Bendix after his unfortunate title role six years later in the "Babe Ruth Story".

 
Near the end of the flick, Tracy delivers one of my favorite lines after secretly watching Hepburn's farcical attempt at making breakfast:  "It's fourth down and time to kick."  

 

The ending of the film does wimp out with Hepburn literally on her knees promising to be a more domestic wife for old-fashioned Tracy.  Nobody working on the film was happy with the ending, but M-G-M under Louis B. Mayer was not going to take a chance on an ambiguous ending esp. as World War II loomed.  (It opened in early Febuary 1942 at NYC's Radio City Music Hall and no doubt was completed well before Pearl Harbor.)   

 
Stephanie Zacharek in her April 21, 2017 essay in criterion.com makes a couple of very penetrating observations.  She writes that the Tracy-Hepburn pairing showed that "the secret to happiness is finding joy in the corners." She adds if we're unhappy with the hokey ending, "It's an invocation to write our own better one - one that we can ourselves can live." 

 
Amen to all that!  Certainly watching Hepburn in "Woman of the Year" - a title she receives in the film for her international journalism - made up for the incongruity of seeing her earlier yesterday on TCM.  It was in a film three years later, "Undercurrent" (1945, directed by Vincente Minnelli.) 

 
After a horse kills her no-good husband Robert Taylor (who had almost killed her), she is pictured on a sofa listening rapturously to Taylor's kinder brother Robert Mitchum (!) playing Brahms on the piano.  There have been stranger scenes in Hollywood films but this one ranks in the top ten IMHO. 

 
One last cultural tip -  check out the May 18, 2020 New Yorker magazine for Alex Ross's probing profile of gifted young pianist Igor Levit.  He is portrayed as someone who not only delivers the goods as a musician - with wide open ears willing to embrace all kinds of popular music. But he insists on being a social activist for all the good causes. 

 

Levit even tells the story of being overwhelmed by the goodness and intelligence of Monica Lewinsky when she came backstage after a rare Levit NYC performance.  As a big coalition man myself, I'll take workable coalitions wherever they may appear. 

 
That's all for now.  Always remember:  Take it easy but take it!  

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On Mike Piazza, "Angels in the Outfield", Gabriel Faure, and Shirley Knight & The Solace of Baseball, Movies, and Music In A Time of Unease

The enforced isolation of sheltering in space has allowed me to taste many dishes these days from the worlds of baseball and music and movies. Here's a rundown of some highlights and recommendations for the next week or so.

 

On Fri aft Apr 24, MLBTV replayed the Mets' thrilling 3-2 victory over the Braves on Sep 21, 2001, the first game in NYC after the 9/11 bombings.  I attended the game and thrilled to the Seventh Inning Stretch rendition of "New York, New York" with Liza Minnelli singing and leading a kick line with various members of the police and fire departments and other uniformed personnel. 

 
I was way up in right field that night so could see the show much better on TV today. Liza was really hyped up to put on a great show despite problems with the PA system.

 

She always reminded people that the song was written for her, not Frank Sinatra though his version is almost always played.  In fact, for many years the Yankees only played Liza's version of "New York, New York" when the team lost.  They have stopped that indignity but now don't ever play her rendition.

 

When you watch the "All Time Games" on MLBTV, you realize how every game has turning points and chances for redemption. Earlier in the game, Mike Piazza had been unable to catch a throw at home plate from right field, allowing hustling Chipper Jones to score the first run of the game from first base.  

 

In mid-game Piazza also stranded a runner at third with two out by grounding out to third.  But he rose to the occasion in the bottom of the 8th with a game-changing two-run home run off New York-born Steve Karsay.

 

There was no over-the-top celebration of the homer by either Piazza or his teammates.  They were happy, of course, but I sensed a feeling that it was a statement of affirmation after such a jarring blow to the city delivered by the suicide bombers.

 

Hearing "New York, New York" again and watching the happy ending, I was yet swept by the bittersweet feeling that it will be a long time before we can experience the joy of watching in capacity crowds.  Not forever - we can't think that way - but it will be a long time. And wisely so until the scientists and sensible public health officials get a better grip on the problem.


So let's take some solace in watching some old baseball movies. Mark down this Tuesday April 28 at 1p when TCM shows the original "Angels in the Outfield" from 1951. It is directed crisply by Clarence Brown (1890-1987), who holds the unenviable record of the most Oscar nominations without a win at six.  

 
"Angels" stars Paul Douglas as the crusty beleaguered manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates.  Janet Leigh plays a newspaper reporter specializing in society stories who tries to civilize him.  Keenan Wynn, 13 years before his memorable turn as Bat Guano in "Dr. Strangelove," plays a cynical sportswriter. 

  

The title comes from a little girl who roots so hard for the Pirates that she imagines angels in the outfield helping them. And whatdya know? They are real. The ever-cheery and bubbling Spring Byington plays a nun who helps facilitate the miracle. 

 
I can envision many hard-boiled sophisticated baseball fans running away from the TV before the film is even shown.  I say give it a try.  In my first seeing, I found it not as sentimental as it sounds.  

 

Even if not buying into the movie, fans can enjoy the baseball sequences filmed at Pittsburgh's Forbes Field. Look for cameo appearances by Ty Cobb, Joe DiMaggio, Ralph Kiner wearing #4, and Bing Crosby, who owned a share of the Pirates at the time.  

Sam Narron plays a rival Philadelphia coach - Narron was one of eight Narrons from a baseball family in North Carolina that played professional baseball. 

 

Paul Douglas is one of my favorite actors.  He delivers athletic portrayals naturally because he briefly played pro football in the pre-NFL days and was a sports announcer for many years.  He had also been convincing as Ray Milland's catcher in the charming "It Happens Every Spring" released in 1949 ( that film was written by Valentine Davies who the year before had created "Miracle on 34th Street" with Edmund Gwenn as Santa Claus and young Natalie Wood). 

 

On the musical front, if you tune into wqxr.org on line or 105.9 FM, this Sunday night Apr 26 at 10p, the piano music of Gabriel Faure (1845-1921) will be highlighted in David Dubal's absorbing "Reflections from the Piano" series. It is a repeat of the Wed at 10p show.

 

Faure's melodies always are inviting and many of his harmonies are haunting. Oddly, some of his gently dissonant notes somehow reminded me of the much later jazz great Thelonious Monk (1917-1982).  There will be a second Faure show on W Apr 29 at 10p, repeated on Su.

 

Remember, too, that during the daytime Th Apr 30 will be Eve Arden Day on TCM. Unfortunately, they are not showing "Anatomy of A Murder" in which she plays James Stewart's secretary.  It would have been timely since on April 29 Duke Ellington, who wrote the music for the film, would be 121.

 

They are showing films I've never seen - "Unfaithful" at 10a, "Comrade X" from the critical period of 1939-40 at 2p, and the classic "Mildred Pierce" at 345p. The last one at 6p is the so-so filming of her classic radio-TV "Our Miss Brooks". It does have the novelty feature of

direction by "Grandpa" Al Lewis of Munster fame. 

 

Sorry to end on a somber note but it was an eerie coincidence that actress Shirley Knight passed away last week on April 21nd on the same night that TCM was showing "The Group," based on Mary McCarthy's incisive novel about Vassar's Class of 1933 and their first years in the real world.

 

Knight gave an outstanding performance as she always did.  I had forgotten that she had created the role on both Broadway and Hollywood of Reenie in William Inge's achingly beautiful play, "The Dark At The Top of the Stairs."  

 

She always provided a seemingly placid but deeply emotional coloration to all her roles. In some ways she  reminded me of Sissy Spacek before Sissy Spacek came on the scene.  Shirley Knight was 83 and she died at the home of her daughter Caitlin Hopkins who chairs the theatre program at Texas State U in San Marcos.  

 

That's all for now.  Always remember:  Take it easy but take it (even if you have to wear a mask a lot of the time.) 

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