instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads

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!

 

1 Comments
Post a comment

First 2019 YIBF (Yours In Baseball Forever) Blog

“I can imagine a world without baseball, but can’t imagine wanting to live in one.”
The late great sportswriter Leonard Koppett expressed that spot-on feeling in 2002 a year before he died. (Quoted by his son David in the posthumous edition of “Koppett’s Concise History of Major League Baseball," p478.)

In less than a month the greatest words in the English language will ring true again: “The pitchers and catchers have reported to spring training.” Yet I must admit as an Orioles fan I am not too excited. It’s unlikely that a team that lost 115 games in 2018 and has no recognizable strength at any position will improve significantly.

Yes, there is new management that is drenched in the analytic “advanced metric” side of the game. And I have never dismissed out of hand new information about our wonderfully confounding and complicated yet sweet and simple game of baseball.

But I also adamantly believe that you must never lose sight of character issues and aspects of the game that cannot be quantified. So I'll wait and see what happens with the new breed of "decision science" brainiacs led by new gm Mike Elias, a former Yale pitcher, and his right-hand man Sig Megdal (pronounced May-dell), a former NASA specialist who worked on, among other things, models to enhance astronaut sleeping habits.

As I write in mid-January, there are still no new teams for the marquee free agents in this year’s class, Manny Machado and Bryce Harper, both only 26. Many in the establishment sports media are wailing about the broken free agency system.

In fact, I think the issue rests more in a player agent rivalry as much as in a broken system. Dan Lozano represents Machado, the same agent that conned Angels owner Arte Moreno into a 10-year deal with now-fading Albert Pujols.

Harper, who was on the cover of Sports Illustrated 10 years ago as a 16-year-old and his ego has soared since, is in the stable of Scott Boras. Boras' professed hero is Marvin Miller, the Players Association leader who was always confident some owner would break down and give what the player(s) wanted.

In 2019, however, it is light years from the heyday of Miller and his unheralded chief counsel Dick Moss who shepherded players through legal thickets to free agency.
Players now are far richer and perhaps sated, and managements are getting smarter.

After seeing Machado and Harper play for six years with their former teams (the Orioles and Dodgers for Manny, the Nationals for Bryce), it is clear that while both are great numbers producers, they are not the kind of leaders that make everyone on the team better.

If owners and managements are getting more careful about committing multi-million dollars in long term contracts, I am not complaining. As always, though, it is hard to side with the fat cat owners against players whose skills are extremely perishable.

So with well over a hundred serviceable veterans still unsigned, I hope it isn’t like last year when the Players Association had to hastily put together a spring training base in Florida for those still without contracts.

Turning to another big off-field subject, the Hall of Fame will announce next week the results of the regular voting for the Cooperstown class of 2019. Mariano Rivera will be virtually a unanimous choice.

Three other candidates have strong cases. Former stellar Oriole and Yankee RHP Mike Mussina compiled a 270-153 record with a 3.68 ERA. His walk-strikeout ratio was a superb mere 785 BBs and 2813 K's. His WHIP (combining walks and hits per inning) was an outstanding 1.192.

Even better stats were accumulated by the late outstanding RHP Roy Halladay who lost his life in his private plane accident in 2017. With the Blue Jays and Phillies, Halladay went 203-105, 3.38 ERA, WHIP 1.178, and an impressive BB/K ratio of 592/2117.

The case for the outstanding Mariners designated hitter Edgar Martinez is also strong but perhaps not as strong because his injuries confined him to a DH role for most of his career. He hit .312 for a career, very impressive in the age of multiple relievers. Slugging average of .309 with 2247 hits, 309 HRs and 2161. Also over his career he drew more walks 1283 than strikeouts 1202.

His stats to me are more favorable than Harold Baines were and Baines was elected
to the shrine last month in a vote by a special Veterans Committee. The former White Sox-Ranger-Oriole hit .289, slugged .465 with 384 HRs and 1628 in a 20-year career, much of it like Edgar M. limited to the DH role because of injury. He also had a negative BB/SO ratio of 1062/1441.

When eligible in the regular vote of the writers, Baines didn't receive even ten per cent of any vote. With his former White Sox manager Tony LaRussa on the veterans committee, it is hard not to see favoritism in his selection. (Longtime closer Lee Smith was also voted in last month, a less controversial choice but not one that I would have chosen.)

Baines' election brought back memories of decades ago when the affable genuine Hall of Famer Frankie Frisch openly and successfully lobbied for several of his former Giant and Cardinal teammates to get selected to Cooperstown.

A Hall of Fame should be for the truly great not the merely good or very good. But since selections almost always are turned into a popularity contest, there is not much that I can do about that.

Before I close, I am distressed to report that my alma mater college basketball teams, Columbia and Wisconsin, have hit hard times. The Badgers looked very good in the pre-Big Ten season, but they have lost their winning touch in league play.
Likely All-American fifth-year senior Ethan Happ can only do so much, especially since he has great trouble at the foul line and never shoots outside the paint.

Columbia lost its best player, gifted if erratic point guard Mike Smith, to a season-ending injury. Unlike the resurgent football team under coach Al Bagnoli that produced a winning season despite multiple injuries, basketball has not yet learned how to win.

Yet the cage season is not even half-over so I try to believe in change for the better, and, of course, I always root, root, root for my team.

That's all for now - always remember: Take it easy but take it.
 Read More 
Be the first to comment