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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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Report from NYC Hot Stove League Dinners

The winter in New York is taking on fearsome qualities with no end in sight. Ice on the ground may be here indefinitely, bringing back mercifully forgotten memories of my five winters in Madison, Wisconsin during my graduate school days in the 1960s.

Hot stove league baseball banquets thus provide great solace because I have long believed that winter with its saving grace of increasing daylight reinforces the love of baseball in us defiant addicted baseball nuts.

So here are some highlights of the 92th annual NYC Baseball Writers Association of America dinner and the 50th annual New York Pro Baseball Scouts Hot Stove League dinner that took place within six days of each other in the last week of January.

A highlight of the writers’ gathering was Dodgers southpaw Clayton Kershaw who flew in to New York from Texas where the day before his wife delivered their first child. The reigning NL MVP and Cy Young award winner gave homage to virtually all his teammates including ones traded this off-season. He also thanked the clubhouse personnel and trainers by name and ended with a tip of his cap to the St. Louis Cardinals “who taught me that I am not as good as I think I am.”

A lovely conclusion to the evening was the 50th anniversary celebration of Sandy Koufax’s last perfect game in which he bested the Cubs’ southpaw Bob Hendley 1-0. Kudos to the writers for inviting Hendley too - he allowed only one hit that night and on the dais he noted that a week later he beat Koufax in Chicago, 2-1, throwing a four-hitter to Koufax’ five-hitter. (In a fascinating side note, Hendley, who labored for non-contending teams, went 3-1 in matchups against Hall of Famer Koufax.)

For a man who doesn't like to speak in public, Sandy Koufax exudes charm and class on the podium. In introducing new father Kershaw, he announced the most important statistic: "Six pounds and ten ounces."

At the scouts dinner the following Friday at Leonard’s restaurant in Great Neck, Long Island. event organizer Cubs scout Billy Blitzer proudly listed 11 players from the NYC metropolitan area who made their MLB debut in 2014. They included:

**Joe Panik, a World Series hero for the Giants, signed by John DiCarlo (son of the late Joe DiCarlo who signed among others Al Leiter for the Yankees)
**George Springer, a coming star outfielder with the Astros signed by John Kosciak
**Eric Campbell, Mets’ utility player signed by Art Pontarelli, and
**Nick Greenwood, Cardinals’ LHP signed for the Padres by Jim Bretz

Blitzer also paid homage to Long Island’s Jeff Biggio who starred at Seton Hall and was just elected to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

Pride in New York-area baseball has always been a theme at the Pro Scouts dinner.
For good reason. Tilden HS of Brooklyn grad Willie Randolph received a rousing ovation. Emcee Ed Randall voiced his disbelief that Randolph has not returned to the managerial ranks after leading the Mets to the brink of the playoffs in 2006 and 2007. (Of course Willie was also a key part of the 1976-78 Yankee pennant-winners and 2-time WS champs.)

Willie gave homage to scout Dutch Deutsch who signed him for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
(Before the 1976 season the Yankees made one of their best trades ever by obtaining Randolph - still a minor league second baseman - and pitchers Ken Brett and Dock Ellis
for pitcher George "Doc" Medich.)

Former Mets gm Omar Minaya, a product of Queens Newtown HS, thanked the late Ralph DiLullo for giving him the chance to play pro ball. Recently hired as a Latin American liaison for the MLB Players Association, Minaya implored scouts to always give an opportunity to players.

“I couldn’t hit and he couldn’t hit,” Minaya said pointing to Seattle Mariners scouting director Tom McNamara who was named scout of the year, “but we had a chance.”

Tom McNamara was born in the Bronx and a large contingent of his family came out to support their favorite son. In well-chosen remarks McNamara gave tribute to the late scout Bill Lajoie who advised him early on "to watch, listen, and learn."

While working for the Milwaukee Brewers, McNamara signed slugger Prince Fielder,
son of the late-blooming home run hitter Cecil Fielder. When McNamara told Cecil that he had played one year of pro ball, the elder Fielder replied, "At least you smelled the dirt."

As I listened to the heartfelt comments this evening that concluded with a final elegy to New York baseball by St. John's coach Ed Blankmeyer, I recalled the wisdom of one of the first scouts I got to know, the late Twins scout Herb Stein. “The moment you sign a letter he is automatically a better player because the monkey is off his back,” said the man who who inked Rod Carew, Frank Viola, and 1991 World Series-hero Columbia Gene Larkin.

That's all this time from my YIBF (Yours In Baseball Forever) journal. With spring training only a couple of weeks away, Always remember: Take it easy but take it!
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