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Still Aglow from My Third Chautauqua Experience

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!

 

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Orioles Salute JJ Hardy + My National Anthem Thoughts

Late 19th century Hall of Famer John Montgomery Ward once sagely noted that baseball without sentiment would be a very empty game.

Oriole players and fans in Baltimore proved that point again on Sunday afternoon Sept. 23 when they showered shortstop J.J. Hardy with multiple ovations at the last home game of the Birds. Blue Jay fans gave the same loving treatment to Jose Bautista likely playing his last home game in Toronto.)

The icing on the cake for Hardy was hitting a two-run homer to give the O’s the lead in a game they won 9-4 over the Tampa Bay Rays. The Bird season went up in smoke weeks ago when the combination of historically horrible starting pitching and a homer-or-bust offense exploded the myth of contention.

A healthy JJ Hardy might have somewhat stopped the slide, but he was out since mid-May after suffering a broken wrist on a pitch from the Cardinals’ Lance Lynn. Last year Hardy missed considerable time after suffering a broken foot on a foul ball.

Hardy is not that ancient in baseball terms, having turned 35 in August. But the injuries and the decline in his above-average-for-shortstop home run power has been evident for some time. The acquisition of 27-year-old shortstop Tim Beckham from Tampa Bay, the 2008 number one draft pick in the entire country, has likely sealed Hardy’s departure.

Though not blessed with great speed, Hardy will always be remembered for his understated defensive brilliance and quiet clubhouse leadership. O’s manager Buck Showalter has called him “the best tagger I have ever seen.”

I saw a vivid example of Hardy's team-first attitude on a recent Oriole telecast. The clip showed Hardy demonstrating in practice his tagging techniques to his likely successor Beckham.

After a record-breaking August offensively, Beckham came down to earth in September. But it seems likely it is his job to lose come spring training.

Second baseman Jonathan Schoop, the deserved Oriole MVP of 2017, has been effusive in his praise of Hardy's helping him grow defensively. So has Manny Machado.

I hope Hardy's career continues somewhere in 2018 because he brings so much to the game. The son of a tennis pro and a golf pro has really made a great contribution.

Before I close today, let me put in my two cents about the protests around the National Anthem. Americans love symbolic gestures and ceremonial solutions that in my humble opinion generate more heat than light.

If I had my way, I wouldn’t play a National Anthem before EVERY game. Doesn’t it mean more when it is played infrequently only on special occasions? Every now and then, a sports team has even had the creativity to substitute the martial song of Francis Scott Key for the far more lyrical “America the Beautiful.”

I know this is unrealistic blathering by yours truly so let me offer this suggestion: Let’s keep the National Anthem rendition to under 90 seconds, OK? And it should be about the song not the singer.

The best rendition I ever heard came at Yankee Stadium about 15 years ago. The brass section of the U. S. Air Force Band performed it in 75 seconds. They called themselves
The Players To Be Named Later.

That’s all for now. Next time more detailed thoughts on the playoffs with an explanation of my sentimental hopes for a Washington-Cleveland World Series.

In the meantime my visceral fan's focus is now on football rooting for my two alma maters. Columbia is off to a 2-0 start for the first time in 9 years. It faces its first Ivy League challenge at Princeton on Sept. 30.

Wisconsin after a bye week will be trying to up their 3-0 record at home against tough Big Ten foe Northwestern on Sept 30.

BTW during the Badgers' 40-8 shellacking of Brigham Young in Utah, one of the announcers said that freshman running back Jonathan Taylor has developed genuine admiration for science expert Neil DeGrasse Tyson. That's the kind of tidbit I like to hear.

Always remember: Take it easy but take it. ( Read More 
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