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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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Chautauqua A Wonderful Way of Dealing With The Dog Days

A little googling has turned up the origin of the phrase “dog days”. It comes from the ancient Greeks who coined the term for the period from early July to mid-August when Sirius, the so-called dog star, rose just before the sun.

Dog days in baseball are obvious because players are dragging from the effects of the long long season. My Orioles are a vivid example. They are stumbling along looking like no more than a .500 team. Now they will have to do without key reliever Darren O'Day for the rest of the month, his second trip to the DL this year, this time with an ominous shoulder issue.

Yet except for probably the Cubs there are no super-teams out there so the last weeks of the season should be "fun" to watch, if one calls it fun to agonize with every pitch and possible pitfall.

Hall of Fame first baseman Jim Bottomley, the first great product of Branch Rickey's St. Louis Cardinals farm system, once offered this sage advice on how to deal with baseball’s inevitable ups-and-downs: "Win three, lose one, win three, lose one," etc etc. That way, he argued, there is no pressure from streaks, losing or winning." Of course, that is too rational a view. Fans live by passion and hopefully they are rewarded now and then.

My solution to the dog days this year was taking my first journey to the Chautauqua Institution in far western New York State 70 miles from Buffalo and just 15 miles from Erie, Pennsylvania. I co-taught Baseball and American Culture with veteran American Studies/Amer. Literature professor Mark Altschuler during the first week of August to an impressive group of 20 adult students.

They came from as far away as Mississippi and northern California, Ohio and Texas, Maryland and Kentucky. They learned a lot about Branch Rickey's long career from me and something about the importance of comedian Joe E. Brown's remarkable baseball passion.

Mark Altschuler had the brilliant idea of discussing the great interview with Wahoo Sam Crawford in Larry Ritter's classic oral history "The Glory of Their Times." He also led an exciting class on Jim Shepard's 1996 short story, "Batting Against Castro," set in pre-revolutionary Cuba (before Castro formed his guerrilla band in the mountains.)

Never missing a chance to see a minor league baseball game, my adventure actually started the previous Saturday night at Coca-Cola Field, home to the Buffalo Bisons, the Blue Jays’ Triple A affiliate in the International League. The Syracuse Chiefs, the Washington Nats’ top farm club, provided the opposition.

As always in minor league games, there was an interesting mixture of old and new, vets trying to hang on and prospects looking to make or return to The Show, the vivid term players use to describe the Majors.

Rehabbing infielder Ryan Goins showed some flash for Buffalo and soon he was back in Toronto--though he clearly is a sub now as talented Devon Travis has cemented his hold on the second base job.

Chiefs outfielder Brian Goodwin showed off the speedy tools that has left him for years on the cusp of a callup. And sure enough the Nats brought him up just last week for the first time.

There is always a poignant moment or two at a minor league game, a flash of yesteryear that comes along when you least expect it. Tonight it was seeing a Bisons pitching coach trudging off to the bullpen before the game. He had a little paunch and a fringe of longish gray hair framing the bottom of a largely bald head.

It was Bob Stanley, the longtime Red Sox reliever, who threw the pitch in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series that catcher Rich Gedman couldn’t handle before the infamous Mookie Wilson-Bill Buckner ground ball. Gedman’s passed ball tied the game but people only remember Buckner’s error that won it for the Mets who won the Series in Game 7.

I also saw stretching on the field before the game Chris Colabello, the disgraced ped user who was suspended for 80 games earlier this season. The first baseman-outfielder had been a feel-good story for last year's Blue Jays - rising from the independent leagues to become a productive major leaguer. But his success was tainted by the drug disclosure.
Toronto evidently has no plans to call him back to the majors.

On the Sunday before my classes began at Chautauqua, I paid a visit to the impressive Robert H. Jackson Center in nearby Jamestown, NY (home town of Lucille Ball where a Lucy and Desi museum stands - didn't have time to see it).

The Jackson Center is devoted to the life and work of the Supreme Court Justice appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt who served as chief prosecutor at the post-World War II Nuremberg Trials of Nazi war criminals. Center director Greg Peterson was gracious enough to tape an interview with me about my love of baseball and my work on Branch Rickey. It can be accessed at YouTube.

It is remarkable that Rickey, one of the leading Methodist lay preachers, never spoke at Chautauqua, an institution founded by Methodists after the Civil War as a retreat for Sunday school teachers. It quickly evolved into a center for all kinds of inquiry into culture and the arts.

"Cultivate Curiosity and Wonder" reads the sign on the wall of the giant Amphitheater that can seat 5000 people (though you must walk carefully going down the ramps to your seat.)
How true that statement is! I got to hear David Simon, creator of the classic HBO series "The Wire," talk about the futile war on drugs in his home town of Baltimore.

Most of all, I got to sense the special feeling of community that Chautauqua engenders. Once you get your gate pass that allows you in and out of the little town, you feel like you are in Brigadoon, the fantastic creation of the 1940s Broadway musical. I compare it to Cooperstown and Key West with water nearby and quaint houses everywhere and flowers and flowers galore.

Just two example of Chautauquan community - I told some ardent softball players who are intense fans of the Pittsburgh Pirates that I was an Oriole fan. The next day one of them gifted me with two 1965 Topps cards, one of Brooks Robinson and one of "Boog Powell outfielder"!

Second item - after indulging my metrosexual tastes with a massage and pedi-manicure,
the owners of the St. Elmo's Spa gave me some cherry tomatoes and organic corn on the cob from their garden. How tasty they were after my return to NYC.

For information of the nine weeks of Chautauqua in 2017, check out www.ciweb.org
Am making plans that some form of "Baseball and American Culture" returns.

That's all for now - always remember: Take it easy but take it!
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