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The Joys of Chautauqua And In Memory of Bob Wolff and Lee May

I just got back from a blissful week at the Chautauqua Institution in southwestern New York State past Jamestown and not far from Erie, Penna. For the second straight summer, I was privileged to teach a class in Baseball and American Culture.

My students were a diverse and fascinating group that included former concession workers at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field and Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field, lawyers, businessmen, psychologists, a mystery writer, and one of the co-owners of the Hickory Crawdads of the South Atlantic League (the famous “Sally” League).

I was touched when the Crawdads co- owner Charles Young told me that when he got back to North Carolina he was going to put on the team clubhouse wall the five questions that the late Cincinnati Reds scout Julian Mock used to ask every prospect before he decided to recommend him:

**Do you love and have a passion for this game?
**Are you willing to work harder than you ever have worked in your life?
**Are you willing to learn?
**Are you willing to have some fun every day? (Because baseball is such a hard game
based on losing as much as winning.)
**And will you never forget where you came from?
(Source: P. J. Dragseth’s fine book of interviews with scouts, “Eye For Talent,” p.165).

Chautauqua is one of the oldest meccas of adult education in the U.S. Originally started after the Civil War as a retreat for Methodist Sunday school teachers, it is now also a center for secular studies as well as a great cultural haven.

Last week’s theme was The Supreme Court. Among the morning speakers were Harvard Law school professor/biographer of Thomas Jefferson, Annette Gordon-Reed, and Pres. George W. Bush’s Solicitor General Theodore Olson. He won the Gore v. Bush case but also joined Gore’s lawyer David Boies in successfully arguing against California’s ban on gay marriage.

Music is everywhere at Chautauqua. Not just from the bells that toll every quarter-hour on the tower clock on Lake Chautauqua. A guitar-bandoneon trio led by Pablo Ziegler, the longtime pianist for the late Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla, gave a stirring 90 minute recital of his own compositions and those by the tango master Piazzolla.

One noontime at the recently renovated renowned Chautauqua amphitheatre, I was thrilled to hear organist Jared Jacobsen give a recital of works by Edvard Grieg including his Holberg Suite.

Grieg is special for me because in the last stages of writing my 600-page bio of Branch Rickey, I regularly listened to Emil Gilels’ piano recording of the Norwegian master’s “Lyric Pieces” to find the serenity to complete my massive tome.

Chautauqua runs through the end of August, and the themes for Chautauqua 2018 are already selected. Beginning with "For Love of the Written Word" on Week 1 (June 23-30) and including "The Art of Play" Week 3 (July 7-14) and ending with "The Impact of Cinema" Week 9 (Aug 18-26) .
More information on this magical place available at chq.org/2018

I mentioned my Branch Rickey "tome." I will always remember that word when thinking about Bob Wolff who in his generous way so described my biography.
Bob was a renowned broadcaster who after 78 years on the air, starting as a student on Duke University radio, passed away on July 15 in Nyack, NY at the age of 96.

Wolff’s call of Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series and Alan Ameche’s 1-yard game-winning plunge in the 1958 NFL championship for the Baltimore Colts are among the most famous in sports history. He also was the voice of the Washington Redskins and Senators and later the New York Knicks covering their championship year of 1969-70.

Wolff loved sports history and his interviews with baseball legends, including Ty Cobb and Walter Johnson and later Bob Feller and Nellie Fox, will live on at the Library of Congress. Some of his work will also be housed at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

Wolff actually got on tape Babe Ruth giving this remarkable elegy to baseball: “It keeps the boys occupied, their minds occupied, and makes them live clean. And by doing so, they turn out to be clean-living men.”

Wolff, a kind and giving soul, always tried to help people starting out in the business. He was still doing a local sports show on Long Island’s Channel 12 until February 2017.

Another great loss to the sports world happened on Saturday July 30 when Lee May passed away in Cincinnati at the age of 74. In a 18-year-career mainly with Cincinnati, Houston, and Baltimore, Lee hit .267 with 354 HR and 1244 RBI.

Whatever the impressive numbers, they don't come close to explaining the impact Lee May had on anyone who ever encountered him - teammate, opponent, fan.

He was one of the few bright spots for the Reds in their 5-game 1970 World Series loss to the Orioles, hitting .389 with 2 HR and 8 RBI. That 1970 Series is remembered for third baseman Brooks Robinson’s great defensive showcase.

After the 1971 season May was traded to Houston (part of the infamous trade that brought Joe Morgan to Cincinnati), but in 1974 he became Robinson’s teammate on the Orioles.

May nicknamed Brooks “Hoover” for his vacuum-like glove at the hot corner. I will never forget being in the crowd when Robinson retired late in the 1977 season, May came out on the field to present Brooks with a vacuum cleaner. “Like you, Brooks,” May quipped, “it has a lot of age on it.”

I never had a conversation with May but he played an important role in my evolution as a writer. I had a dream in which May was swinging a baseball bat back and forth. The closer I looked he was holding not a bat but a censer used in an orthodox Russian church. My shrink and I agreed that baseball was really a religion to me.

The Orioles emerged as a contender again in the mid-1970s with May and another trade acquisition Ken Singleton as key contributors. My nephew, not yet a teenager, came down to see the Orioles against Kansas City I think. The Royals won the game but he still talks about the two home runs that May blasted into the night.

Manager Earl Weaver had high hopes for a Mexican League project Andres Mora, another right-handed power hitter. It moved me to write a song based on "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?" from "Finian's Rainbow". I called it "How Are Things with Andres Mora?"

The closing lines went: "And we tell you Oriole fellows/Fans back you all the way/
And to feisty manager Weaver, 'Let them play!'
How are things with Andres Mora and Lee May?"

Maybe it is best that I never had that conversation with Lee May! But Oriole players and fans will never forget the vital quiet role he played in the development of future Hall of Famer Eddie Murray.

As a rookie in 1977, Murray was utilized mainly as a DH while May still played first base. Murray leaned on May’s wisdom until he took over the first base job the following season. May’s role in the 1979 pennant-winning Orioles was a smaller role, and his career ended in Kansas City in the early 1980s where he later served as an effective batting coach.

At the 2005 “Baseball Forever” conference at Frostburg University in western Maryland, his Baltimore teammate Al Bumbry gave a wonderful example of May's clubhouse wit.

Teammate Pat Kelly, who once had enjoyed the nightlife but now had become a born-again preacher, started to evangelize in the clubhouse. (It was Kelly who once told crusty Earl Weaver, “You gotta walk with the Lord,” and Weaver snapped, “I’d rather have you walk with the bases loaded.”)

As Kelly went on and on, May interrupted. “Pat, you can take us down the Susquehanna," he said, "but please don’t go down the Mississippi.”

RIP Bob Wolff and Lee May. You will not be forgotten.

Until next time, “Take it easy but take it.”
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