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Reflections on the Return of MLB + The Enduring Importance of Movies of the 1940s

Major League Baseball has returned, narrowly beating out the NBA and the NHL in the race to grab the attention of scores-starved sports fans. After the first weekend of the season, every one of the 30 MLB teams can claim a victory. 

 
No team has started 3-0 for the first time since 1954.  And my supposedly doomed doormat Orioles took two out of three at Fenway against the admittedly weakened Bosox whose pitching looks as questionable as Baltimore's.

 
The Birds already have two feel-good stories. Starter Alex Cobb picked up his first victory since 2018, and reliever Cole Sulser earned his first MLB save, a two-inning job that brought back warm memories of the days of Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, Sparky Lyle, and Bruce Sutter. 

 
'Twas quite a weekend for the Big Green of Hanover, NH. Sulser is a Dartmouth alum. So is Kyle Hendricks who pitched the Cubs' first complete game opening day shutout since 1974. With no walks, only three hits, and almost 10 K's, his Opening Day line was evidently the best since 1888.  

 

The glow from this good news faded when it was learned that over the weekend in Philadelphia, more than ten of the Miami Marlins had tested positive or shown symptoms of coronavirus.  

 
The first home games of the Marlins have now been postponed and so has at least the first game of the Yankees' visit to Philadelphia.  The clubhouse that the Marlins occupied all weekend has to be thoroughly disinfected. 

 
Who knows if this tenuous 60-game MLB season will be completed, let alone the expanded playoffs in which 16 of the 30 teams will qualify. 

 

The public health of the nation should override considerations of commercialized sports.  

 Sadly, I fear that decades ago we lost in this country any concept of what "public" and "health" really mean.


I just found a poem by Carl Sandburg written in 1918, around the time that World War One was ending and the flu epidemic was raging, that speaks so vitally to our current situation.  

 
It's called "I Am The People, the Mob" and one line goes: 

"Sometimes I growl, shake myself and spatter a few red drops for history to remember. 

Then - I forget."    

 
I think the search for a time when sacrifice meant something attracts me to movies of the 1940s, several of which I've seen recently on TCM.  Until the virus hit, I was supposed to teach at Chautauqua next week a class on baseball and American culture in the 1940s.

Please allow me a little historical reflection.

 

The 1940s are such an important decade in our history because even the most liberal historians admit that FDR's New Deal didn't get us out of the Great Depression but arming for World War II was the main reason. 

 
During the war, sacrifice was understood by almost the entire country.   Future Hall of Famers Bob Feller and Ted Williams willingly gave us their baseball careers to serve their country in World War II. 

 
Just as importantly, tens of millions of ordinary citizens, white and Black, risked and lost their lives in combat. And those at home, men and women and boys and girls, planted victory gardens and donated basic supplies to the war effort. 

 
Though wartime MLB was a diluted product, love of baseball remained a national glue. The opening scene from the early noir classic, "Laura" (1944), has Dana Andrews toying with a hand-held ball-bearing game called "Baseball" as he begns to tackle a mysterious murder case. That gesture has always symbolized for me the spell of the game on this country when it truly was the only national sport of any significance. 

 
But once the war ended after the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, the national mood changed.  The best movies really caught that change. 

 

In William Wyler's "Best Years of Their Lives" (1946), being a war hero means nothing to Lieutenant Dana Andrews when he returns looking for something better than a soda jerker's job in his Midwestern town. 

 
The subtleties abound in Robert E. Sherwood's script based on Mackinlay Kantor's novel.  Frederic March's sergeant - a lower rank in war than Andrews but a bank officer in civilian life - brings back a captured Japanese sword for his son who tells him his professor at school opposed the dropping of the A-bombs.

 
Two John Garfield films seen on TCM in past weeks have also really stayed with me.

"Pride of the Marines" (1945) was made when the war was not yet over. Salt-of-the-earth soldier Garfield can't come to grips with being blinded in battle, but nurse Rosemary DeCamp leads him towards acceptance.

(To modern ears, the use of the derogatory term "Jap" may jar in both movies, but given that the war was still going on, the language is understandable.) 

 
In Garfield's last Warner Brothers film, "The Breaking Point" (1950, directed by Michael Curtiz)), his character Harry Morgan has become a small boat captain because the post-war period hasn't been good to him.  "Every time since I took off my uniform, I'm not so great," he tells his wife (Phyllis Thaxter). He plunges almost inexorably into crime. 


Based on Hemingway's "To Have and Have Not," the film is more gritty and superior to the Howard Hawks' 1944 version with Bogart and 19-year-old Lauren Bacall.  "Breaking Point" was written by Ranald McDougall who got the main writing credit for "Mildred Pierce" (1945) and went on to create for Harry Belafonte that haunting vision of a post-nuclear war world, "The World, The Flesh, and The Devil" (1959). 

 
"The Breaking Point" was the last Eddie Muller Noir Alley TCM selection until after Labor Day and will give me plenty to think about over the summer. Writer McDougall created the memorable character of a son for Garfield's fellow sea worker Juano Hernan

dez, an excellent vastly underappreciated actor.  Patricia Neal as a femme fatale is rather unforgetable. too.

 

Two tips for TCM for end of July:  

Thurs July 30 11:15A - "Easy Living" (1949) directed by Jacques Tourneur based on a story by Irwin Shaw.  A football player with a bad heart (Victor Mature) is warned about his life-threatening illness by a cardiologist (Jim Backus in pre "Mr. Magoo" days.)

 

Victor's wife wants him to keep playing (Lisabeth Scott).  Owner of the team is played by Lloyn Nolan.  Sonny Tufts plays a teammate of Mature as does Kenny Washington who was the Jackie Robinson of the NFL in 1946 (and also played with JR at UCLA).  

 

Other Rams are in the film including Tom Fears, Fred Gehrke, and Elroy "Crazylegs" Hirsch..  Memorable touch guys Paul Stewart and Richard Erdman appear, Lucille Ball plays the team secretary and I kid you not - Jack Paar is the team PR man.

 

Then Fri July 31 at Noon -  a TV "Director's Cut" from 1955 - "Rookie of the Year". A sportswriter recognizes a baseball player as the son of a banned player from an earlier time.  

 

Well, that's all for now.  Be well and stay well and obey social distancing and mask wearing rules.  But still always remember:  Take it easy but take it!  

 

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Baseball and TCM Movie Musings On The Eve of Birthday 78

I celebrate my 78th birthday tomorrow Saturday June 27th. I think I was born around 530p in the afternoon because my mother told me her water broke when she was listening to "Information Please" on the radio and she had to miss the end of the show. (No head sets or new media back in 1942).  

 

(Last blog I raved about "Woman of the Year" that came out in 1942 and opens with an "Information Please" show being broadcast.  Could I have remembered that from the womb?

Cue "Twilight Zone" music, please.)

 

I'm not big on numbers except for computing batting averages in my head. To think that all year I've been talking about riding on 77 Sunset Strip when actually I completed 77 years on this planet a year ago. 

 

(For younger readers, "77 Sunset Strip" was a hit ABC TV show of the 1950s, starring Efrem Zimbalist Jr,. son of the world-famed classical violinist, plaiying a detective, of course.  His assistant was Edd Byrnes playing richly-coiffed Kookie and teeny boppers screamed at him, "Kookie, Kookie, lend me your comb!")

 
So this year I was actually spinning my records at 78 revolutions per minute, hoping that of course I stayed on the spindle and didn't careen sideways. I got through year 78 OK although I do continue to have some issues about losing my balance when walking and had some minor plumbing repair done in September.

 

I'm ready for whatever the "new normal" this year brings. I hope to be comfortably residing  at 79 Wistful Vista, home address of radio's legendary Fibber McGee and Molly, known in real life as Jim and Marian Jordan from Peoria, Illinois.  

 

As you probably know by now, there will be some semblance of a baseball season starting on either July 23 or 24. It will consist of 60 games with all of them in both leagues played regionally to minimize travel in a still-raging time of Covid-19.

 

So the Mets and Yankees will play their four division rivals 10 times each and their five cross-division rivals four times each. Details of the post-season are still being ironed out.  

 

To call the final matchup a "World Series" annoys me. But that is a minor criticism compared to the health risks to the players and the continuing distrust between owners and players. 

 

I hope there will be no serious injuries to rusty players who might over-exert themselves at the beginning of a short season.  I think I will watch some of the TV games more as a clinician than a fan.  

 

I still don't see leadership on either side of a sport that has declined in attendance the last few years and has a fan base whose average age is 57. It remains the most beautiful of sports, but the length of games and a now-boring routine of strikeouts-home runs-walks are serious problems.    

 

John Sherman is one owner who deserves great credit for agreeing to pay all his minor leaguers for 2020 even though there will likely be no minor league season.  Interestingly, Sherman is the newest owner on the block.

 

He was wise enough to listen to his general manager Dayton Moore who won a World Series in 2015 and knows the importance of minor league development. Unfortunately, MLB still wants to terminate a quarter of the minor league teams and the first of what I'm sure will be several lawsuits was filed last week to protest the short-sighted policy.

 

According to thorough reviews of all 30 owners in an Andrew Baggerly piece in the "Athletic" and a two-part Axios Sports study, Sherman is one of the least rich owners. Worth "only" a little over a billion dollars, made primarily in the hydrocarbon business.

 

John Sherman should not be confused with another less financially endowed owner, Bruce Sherman of the Marlins. This Sherman made a lot of his money buying newspapers and ultimately dissolving their companies. Derek Jeter has a slice of the team but not that much.  

  

I like Baggarly's trenchant phrase to describe most of the 30 men who own MLB franchises:  "Inheritance plus the magic of compound interest." It may be hard to believe, but guess which team's ownership group enjoys the most longevity in today's game? The Yankees. George Steinbrenner bought the team in 1973 and his younger son Hal, 51, is the managing partner. 

 

Another interesting tidbit in Baggerly's chronicle is that Phillies owner John Middleton traces the origins of his wealth to a cigar store that his ancestors founded in Philadelphia before the Civil War. A century and a half later, Middleton was the owner who before the 2019 season openly admitted to spending recklessly to sign free agents Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto.

 

Enough about the owners.  Nobody ever paid to see them, did they?  

 

With no games to watch or listen to on radio, and already getting out of the habit of searching scores on my radio on the quarter-hour, my great companion has remained TCM.  And the Monday and Thursday evening "Jazz on Film" series throughout June didn't disappoint.

 

I misspelled director/photographer Gjon Mili's name in the last blog.  As host Eddie Muller says, Mili's 10-minute "Jammin' The Blues" (1944) is the best short introduction to jazz.  The effortless flip of drum sticks from Sid Catlett to Jo Jones in the middle of a blues number remains one of the most compelling moments in both jazz and film.

 

Papa Jo Jones had one of the great smiles in jazz and it was an elegant touch for "The End" to appear over his smiling face. 

 

While on the subject of my boo-boos, I was mistaken that Hoagy Carmichael's lovely song 'New Orleans" appeared in the movie of the same name that aired last night (June 25).  

"Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans" was one of the featured tunes.

 

Although playing a maid in her only real full film role, Billie Holiday acted convincingly and sang of course with great conviction. Louis Armstrong was a strong presence in the film playing himself.  (He was called "Satchmo" in the film and it was a popular nickname but he much preferred to be called "Pops".) 

 

One of the enduring pleasures of TCM is that you can stumble into a film with no knowledge and be totally enraptured.  I knew nothing about Howard Hawks's  "I Was A Male War Bride" 1949.  If you can believe Cary Grant as a French army captain in post-WW II Germany, you will enjoy the belly laughs in this film.  Its satire of military bureaucracy is also quite telling. 

 

It was part of Ann Sheridan Tuesday nights in June, and it may be the best role ever for that spunky, alluring, and talented Texas who fought the Warner Studios for better roles, even once being suspended for a year.  She and Grant worked well with each other; he was a real trouper as the victim of most of the pranks.

 

The last Ann Sheridan night in June will be Monday June 30 at 8p  "City of Conquest" 1940, also starring James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart as a prize fighter willing to risk blindness to help his brother pay for his education.  Elia Kazan makes a rare appearance as actor.

 

Here are some tips for the first 10 days of July with Mondays being Tony Curtis Night.

On M July 6 at 1145p "The Vikings" is on in which I believe the man born Bernie Schwartz in Brooklyn says, "Yonder is the castle of my father."  Please correct me if I'm wrong.

 

The weekend of July 10-11 has some juicy double bills.

F July 10 8p John Ford's rare comedy, "The Whole Town's Talking" 1935 with Edward G. Robinson playing a mousy bank employee AND a gangster;  followed at 10p "Arrowsmith" 1931 adaptation of Sinclair Lewis' powerful novel.

 

Sa July 11 8p "Dr. Strangelove" 1964 followed at 10p by the earlier more light-hearted but still pertinent satire, "The Mouse That Roared".

 

That's all for now--please keep your cool both physically and politically and always  remember:  "Take it easy it but take it!"  

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

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