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On Mike Piazza, "Angels in the Outfield", Gabriel Faure, and Shirley Knight & The Solace of Baseball, Movies, and Music In A Time of Unease

The enforced isolation of sheltering in space has allowed me to taste many dishes these days from the worlds of baseball and music and movies. Here's a rundown of some highlights and recommendations for the next week or so.

 

On Fri aft Apr 24, MLBTV replayed the Mets' thrilling 3-2 victory over the Braves on Sep 21, 2001, the first game in NYC after the 9/11 bombings.  I attended the game and thrilled to the Seventh Inning Stretch rendition of "New York, New York" with Liza Minnelli singing and leading a kick line with various members of the police and fire departments and other uniformed personnel. 

 
I was way up in right field that night so could see the show much better on TV today. Liza was really hyped up to put on a great show despite problems with the PA system.

 

She always reminded people that the song was written for her, not Frank Sinatra though his version is almost always played.  In fact, for many years the Yankees only played Liza's version of "New York, New York" when the team lost.  They have stopped that indignity but now don't ever play her rendition.

 

When you watch the "All Time Games" on MLBTV, you realize how every game has turning points and chances for redemption. Earlier in the game, Mike Piazza had been unable to catch a throw at home plate from right field, allowing hustling Chipper Jones to score the first run of the game from first base.  

 

In mid-game Piazza also stranded a runner at third with two out by grounding out to third.  But he rose to the occasion in the bottom of the 8th with a game-changing two-run home run off New York-born Steve Karsay.

 

There was no over-the-top celebration of the homer by either Piazza or his teammates.  They were happy, of course, but I sensed a feeling that it was a statement of affirmation after such a jarring blow to the city delivered by the suicide bombers.

 

Hearing "New York, New York" again and watching the happy ending, I was yet swept by the bittersweet feeling that it will be a long time before we can experience the joy of watching in capacity crowds.  Not forever - we can't think that way - but it will be a long time. And wisely so until the scientists and sensible public health officials get a better grip on the problem.


So let's take some solace in watching some old baseball movies. Mark down this Tuesday April 28 at 1p when TCM shows the original "Angels in the Outfield" from 1951. It is directed crisply by Clarence Brown (1890-1987), who holds the unenviable record of the most Oscar nominations without a win at six.  

 
"Angels" stars Paul Douglas as the crusty beleaguered manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates.  Janet Leigh plays a newspaper reporter specializing in society stories who tries to civilize him.  Keenan Wynn, 13 years before his memorable turn as Bat Guano in "Dr. Strangelove," plays a cynical sportswriter. 

  

The title comes from a little girl who roots so hard for the Pirates that she imagines angels in the outfield helping them. And whatdya know? They are real. The ever-cheery and bubbling Spring Byington plays a nun who helps facilitate the miracle. 

 
I can envision many hard-boiled sophisticated baseball fans running away from the TV before the film is even shown.  I say give it a try.  In my first seeing, I found it not as sentimental as it sounds.  

 

Even if not buying into the movie, fans can enjoy the baseball sequences filmed at Pittsburgh's Forbes Field. Look for cameo appearances by Ty Cobb, Joe DiMaggio, Ralph Kiner wearing #4, and Bing Crosby, who owned a share of the Pirates at the time.  

Sam Narron plays a rival Philadelphia coach - Narron was one of eight Narrons from a baseball family in North Carolina that played professional baseball. 

 

Paul Douglas is one of my favorite actors.  He delivers athletic portrayals naturally because he briefly played pro football in the pre-NFL days and was a sports announcer for many years.  He had also been convincing as Ray Milland's catcher in the charming "It Happens Every Spring" released in 1949 ( that film was written by Valentine Davies who the year before had created "Miracle on 34th Street" with Edmund Gwenn as Santa Claus and young Natalie Wood). 

 

On the musical front, if you tune into wqxr.org on line or 105.9 FM, this Sunday night Apr 26 at 10p, the piano music of Gabriel Faure (1845-1921) will be highlighted in David Dubal's absorbing "Reflections from the Piano" series. It is a repeat of the Wed at 10p show.

 

Faure's melodies always are inviting and many of his harmonies are haunting. Oddly, some of his gently dissonant notes somehow reminded me of the much later jazz great Thelonious Monk (1917-1982).  There will be a second Faure show on W Apr 29 at 10p, repeated on Su.

 

Remember, too, that during the daytime Th Apr 30 will be Eve Arden Day on TCM. Unfortunately, they are not showing "Anatomy of A Murder" in which she plays James Stewart's secretary.  It would have been timely since on April 29 Duke Ellington, who wrote the music for the film, would be 121.

 

They are showing films I've never seen - "Unfaithful" at 10a, "Comrade X" from the critical period of 1939-40 at 2p, and the classic "Mildred Pierce" at 345p. The last one at 6p is the so-so filming of her classic radio-TV "Our Miss Brooks". It does have the novelty feature of

direction by "Grandpa" Al Lewis of Munster fame. 

 

Sorry to end on a somber note but it was an eerie coincidence that actress Shirley Knight passed away last week on April 21nd on the same night that TCM was showing "The Group," based on Mary McCarthy's incisive novel about Vassar's Class of 1933 and their first years in the real world.

 

Knight gave an outstanding performance as she always did.  I had forgotten that she had created the role on both Broadway and Hollywood of Reenie in William Inge's achingly beautiful play, "The Dark At The Top of the Stairs."  

 

She always provided a seemingly placid but deeply emotional coloration to all her roles. In some ways she  reminded me of Sissy Spacek before Sissy Spacek came on the scene.  Shirley Knight was 83 and she died at the home of her daughter Caitlin Hopkins who chairs the theatre program at Texas State U in San Marcos.  

 

That's all for now.  Always remember:  Take it easy but take it (even if you have to wear a mask a lot of the time.) 

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How Can April Be The Cruelest Month With The Return of Baseball and It's Also Jazz Appreciation Month?

Thelonious Monk once had a wonderfully pithy answer to the question, “What Is Jazz?” “New York is jazz. It’s in the air.”

I can testify to that on my recent wanderings through my hometown of Manhattan, named the Big Apple by jazz musicians long ago. The other day on the way downtown by subway, a jazz combo at the 103rd Street station of the #1 train greeted me with the infectious strains of Maceo Pinkard’s immortal tune “Sweet Georgia Brown”. All that was missing was the Harlem Globetrotters’ dribbling and passing. (For you recent movie buffs, that 103rd St. station is where Natalie Portman waits for the train to Lincoln Center in her Oscar-awarding ballerina portrayal in Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan”.)

Just this past weekend I was coming back from a swim at the nearby Columbia University pool when I heard a sax-bass duo belt out a swinging “September in the Rain” at the corner of Broadway and 110th Street (aka Cathedral Parkway because one block east resides the majestic Cathedral of St. John the Divine).

The song title might not fit for early April but we sure have had our share of rain in the Big Apple and frigid temps more like fall and winter. The great thing about swinging jazz music is that the best tunes transcend transient woes like the weather and one’s own foul moods.

“September in the Rain” just exudes happiness. With music by Harry Warren and lyrics by Al Dubin, the song was written in 1937 for the movie “Melody for Two” starring James Melton. I first heard it on a MUGGSY SPANIER recording. Cornetist Spanier has been gone since 1967 but he lives on in many of his cornet-led tunes.

They say that he got his nickname Muggsy from his love for the New York Giants baseball manager John “Muggsy” McGraw (a name you wouldn’t say of course to McGraw’s face). As a Chicagoan Spanier was a Cubs fan and he occasionally would lead his band wearing a full Cubs uniform.

Ah the great connection between baseball and jazz that was especially alive in the hard years of the Great Depression and World War II. There is no doubt in my mind that the beauty and drama of both baseball and jazz, its challenges and consolations, kept the U S of A on a reasonably even keel during those cataclysmic decades.

So as an unpredictable baseball season unfolds in all its glories and gut-wrenching downers, it is good to keep these thoughts in mind. I went to Orioles Opening Day in Baltimore on Friday April 5th and was thrilled by their gritty victory capped by the red-hot Chris Davis’ bottom of the 8th grand slam. Then they proceeded to lose two winnable one-run games to the Minnesota Twins, a team determined to return to the winning side of baseball’s ledgers after some recent horrible seasons.

The great historian of the U.S. Charles Beard once said, "History never exactly repeats myself," and it is true of baseball. The Orioles lost only 9 one-run games all last year and already in 2013 their three losses are by one run.

Let’s calm down, I tell myself, and enjoy the day-by-day game-by-game pitch-by-pitch drama of baseball. And keep our eyes and ears open for sounds of jazz, too.

Two recommendations for early April with a baseball and jazz connection:

Wed April 10 at 8p and 9:45p Pianist ART LANDE leads a quartet into KITANO JAZZ
the south side of East 38th Street a little bit east of Park Avenue. The brilliant pianist-improviser rarely appears in New York though he’s a Long Island native and longtime Mets fan.

Sun April 14 at 3p SHERRIE MARICLE and DIVA: THE ALL-WOMAN’S BIG BAND at the Mayo Cultural Center on State Street in Morristown, New Jersey. Drummer Maricle and her talented 18-piece band are celebrating their 20th anniversary. The band was founded by drummer STANLEY KAY, a long-time manager of Buddy Rich. Kay in his last years served as George Steinbrenner’s New York Yankees’ musical director. I saw them at IRIDIUM last week and they were a knockout in every sense.

That’s all for now – always remember: Take it easy, but take it!  Read More 
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