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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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Extolling Cubs' Feel-Good Triumph Despite Trump's Feel-Bad Triumph

The Cubs winning the World Series after 108 years of futility started the month of November like a feel-good story for the ages.

The young Cubs were essentially a very likable team. The youthful veterans at the corners, third baseman Kris Bryant and first baseman Anthony Rizzo, were both productive and amazingly poised for relatively inexperienced players.

They were both home-grown and lived through the bad years to further appreciate the surge to the top. I will never forget Hall of Fame southpaw Tom Glavine making the same point to me years ago.

He said that the secret to the Atlanta Braves’ great playoff run of the 1990s and early 2000s was that they learned to lose together before they were able to win together. Glavine and fellow Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz and under-appreciated double play combination Jeff Blauser and Mark Lemke all came through the Atlanta farm system.

Though the everyday core of the Cubs’ promising future also came from astute amateur scouting, the key pitchers on the new World Champions were either trade or free agent acquisitions. Jon Lester, a leading contender for the National League Cy Young award, and John Lackey were both free agent signings though Cubs president Theo Epstein knew them both from their work in Boston.

Kyle Hendricks and Jake Arrieta were obtained in savvy trades. Hendricks, the Dartmouth economics grad inevitably nicknamed “The Professor,” was still a minor leaguer when obtained from the Rangers for fading pitcher Ryan Dempster. (Dempster has become a broadcaster who does a good imitation of the late legendary voice of the Cubs and previously the Cardinals, Harry Caray).

As we Oriole fans never forget, Arrieta came from the Birds along with valuable reliever Pedro Strop. The Orioles received journeyman pitcher Scott Feldman - who finished 2016 with the Blue Jays - and minor league catcher Steve Clevenger.
(The latter will probably be best remembered for his thinly veiled racist-misogynist tweet that caused his release late last season by the Seattle Mariners.)

No mention of the Cubs triumph would be complete without an homage to backup catcher David Ross. Nicknamed “Grandpa Rossy” by Anthony Rizzo, Ross announced his retirement before 2016 started.

As Jon Lester’s special catcher, Ross was summoned into World Series Game 7 in the bottom of the 5th along with the star southpaw. (Why manager Joe Maddon yanked effective starter Hendricks after a controversial walk is still a mystery. My guess is that once Lester warmed up and was ready to pitch, Maddon decided he had to use him.)

Ross’s throwing error on a tough roller and a wild pitch that he couldn’t corral turned a comfortable 5-1 lead into a 5-3 nail-biter.

YET BASEBALL IS ALWAYS ABOUT REDEMPTION!

Though Hollywood might have turned down the story of the last AB of Ross’s career, in the very next half-inning, the top of the 6th, Ross homered to dead center off Cleveland’s usually unhittable reliever Andrew Miller. The dinger provided a crucial insurance run. So when Rajai Davis homered in the bottom of the 8th it only tied the game.

And now for something completely different . . .

The 2016 World Series was both an artistic and financial triumph. 40 million people evidently watched Game 7 and the Sunday night Game 5 easily outdrew Sunday night football.

And then Election Day happened.

In hindsight, we should have known it would be close, especially in a year that
was volatile all over the world. None of the “experts” thought Great Britain would leave the European Union, but “Br-exit” forces won.

In baseball terms, I felt all along that the Clinton, Inc. organization reminded me of the worst aspect of Yankee entitlement. They virtually bragged about having the most money and supposedly the best “ground game” to get out the vote on Election Day.

Well, it turned out this election might be summed up as The Revolt of the Deplorables. Hillary’s unfortunate description of the worst Trump supporters was a tasty morsel served to the opposition.

A disappointed friend of mine offered this analogy: “Hillary was like the pitcher given a six-run lead who couldn't finish or win the game.” Given the rightward drift of the country and the uneasiness of so many people who feel left behind, that judgment might be a bit harsh.

Yet I certainly don’t look forward to what these next four years might bring politically. But as always baseball serves as a huge consolation for those who understand it. Swinging for the fences works now and then, but hitting up the middle and controlled slashing down the lines remains the best weapons for success. That's how Series MVP Zobrist got the big hits in both the NL Championship and World Series.

That’s all for now - always remember: Take it easy but take it.
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