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Reflections On Another Memorable Chautauqua Experience + TCM Tips

There is nothing like time spent at the Chautauqua Institution to recharge one's batteries and affirm one's belief in life and culture.

 

During the first week of August, I taught again my Baseball and American Culture class on the venerable lovely campus in far southwestern New York State near Jamestown, the site of the National Comedy Center and the Lucy-Desi Museum. (Lucille Ball grew up in nearby Celeron and I am happy to report that since 2016 a new and far better statue of Lucy has been erected.) 

 

My Chautauqua students as always ran the gamut of backgrounds: Houston Astro and Cleveland Indian fans. Devoted lovers of college baseball. A fellow who grew up in the same building where Carl Furillo lived when he starred for Brooklyn's Boys of Summer. A woman whose grandfather played for Connie Mack's Philadelphia A's and whose mother as an infant was held in the arms of Ty Cobb. 

 

My theme this year was that despite the Black Sox scandal, baseball remained dominant through the Jazz Age, the Great Depression, World War II and the first Cold War Years. 

By the 1950s, westward expansion of the major leagues was long overdue, but an enormous wound was inflicted on New York when Walter O'Malley engineered the shift of the Dodgers and Giants to Los Angeles and San Francisco. 

 

I continue to be amazed that WESLEY Branch Rickey never spoke at Chautauqua which was founded after the Civil War as a retreat for Methodist Sunday school teacher. I guess he was too busy building farm systems in three major league cities and doing volunteer work for his alma mater Ohio Wesleyan and his fraternity Delta Tau Delta.

 

I was able to do the next best thing - show my students "The Old Ball Game," a 45-minute documentary about baseball history narrated by Rickey in 1964 a year before his death. It's readily available on YouTube.

 

I was also pleased with the student response when I showed "Elmer the Great" (1933), the second of Joe E. Brown's baseball trilogy. Produced at the height of his fame in the 1930s,  

"Elmer" was Brown's favorite among the dozens of films he made in Hollywood.

 

No wonder. He gets to display his skills as a lefthanded-hitting second baseman that were good enough in his earlier days to attract pro scouts.

 

He brings a tenderness to Elmer Kane that is a needed balance to his other side, the egomaniacal athlete.  "Elmer" was based on Ring Lardner's "Hurry Kane" as was 1935's "Alibi Ike," the third of the baseball trilogy that had young Olivia deHavilland as Brown's love interest and Bill Frawley (the future Fred Mertz in "I Love Lucy") as Brown's manager. ("Fireman, Save My Child," the first in the trilogy, is now also available on DVD.) 

 

As far as seeing live baseball in the Chautauqua area, I missed by one day seeing the Jamestown Tarp Skunks in the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League playoffs.  A huge crowd of 1400 saw the Skunks fall one run short of advancing to the final round but its first year of competition was a huge success. 

 

I didn't have easy access to television during my blissful week in Chautauqua, but I did follow at times on my computer the exploits of the plucky underdogs Team Israel and Team USA in the Olympics.  Though Team Israel won only one game in five, they fought valiantly and will savor the experience forever.  

 

It must be noted that the loss of their final game was excruciating.  International rules call for not one "ghost runner" in extra innings but TWO.  With runners on first and second in the bottom of the 10th against South Korea, a relief pitcher threw just two pitches, each one hitting a batter and thus ending Team israel's inspired run.

 

Team USA surprised the pundits by getting all the way to the final game against host Japan.  But in a score identical to the women's softball loss to the Japanese, 2-0, the Americans lost.  Again with nothing to be ashamed of.  

 

The Woerioles have plenty to be ashamed of but I won't go there. Too much to love about life in the dog days of August.  Wide-open race in NL East as Mets fall behind Braves and Phillies.  Second wild-card up for grabs as Padres falter and Reds fitfully make their move.

 

Yankees still very much alive despite gut-wrenching losses.  Games against the Red Sox starting Tu Aug 17 will be important. Oakland still with chance to catch Houston in AL West and holding second wild card at the moment. 

 

Can't stop talking about the Chautauqua experience so here's some more comments.  

The lecture and musical offerings were as always bountiful.

 

My favorite morning lecture was delivered by world-renowned primatologist Frans de Waal, a leader in his field, an entertaining lecturer, and the author of the current book, "Mama's Last Hug" and earlier "Chimpanzee Politics."

 

The Chautauqua Opera Company performed two memorable operas.  "Scalia and Ginsburg," Derrick Wang's witty and incisive one-hour creation, made its debut in 2013 when both late Supreme Court justices and opera lovers were able to attend.  

 

Mezzo-soprano Kelly Guerra as RBG and Chauncey Parker as Scalia inhabited their roles with aplomb. As did the crucial third character, Michael Colman as the Commentator.  I think the role was conceived as a homage to the ominous Commandant in Mozart's "Don Giovanni".

  

"As the 'Cosi' Crumbles," the debut opera, is a humorous examination of what standard opera would look like if the voices were shifted. Although I was disappointed that the beautiful trio, "May the Winds Be Gentle," from Mozart's "Cosi Fan Tutte," was not part of the production, I thoroughly enjoyed the idea of singers getting the chance singing arias written for different voices.  

 

The selections from "Madame Butterfly" were particularly moving. Burly stentorian baritone Yazid Gray's rendition of "Cara Nome" from "Rigoletto" was memorable. A bluesy back beat in the final measures added to the fun and frolic.  

 

After singing Scalia, Chauncey Parker directed "Cosi Crumbles". Kelly Guerra and Michael Colman were again in the cast along with spectacular soprano Chasiti Lashay, tenor Jared Esquerra and baritone Yazid Gray.  

 

Overall director Cara Consilvio has put together an impressive staff. Steven Osgood conducted both operas and gave informative introductions. The original music for "Cosi Crumbles" was created by Jasmine Barnes, Sage Bond, and Frances Pollock.

 

Pollock's seven-minute piece, "God is Dead, Schoenberg Is Dead, But Love Will Come," was premiered with the excellent Chautauqua Orchestra conducted by Rossen Milanov on Thursday night August 5.  She mixes effectively mournful strains composed during the height of the pandemic with fragments of "Smile," the song created by Charlie Chaplin for his classic 1936 film "Modern Times."   

 

Before I close, here are some tips for TCM viewing in the weeks while Eddie Muller's Noir Alley is off for "Summer of Stars" programming. He returns on Sep 5 - see below. 

 

There are not many films with sports themes remaining in August but bearing mention are:

W Aug 18 530p "The Natural" (1984) based on the Bernard Malamud story with Robert Redford, Kim Basinger and Glenn Close.

 

Sa Aug 21 2p "Woman of the Year" (1942), the first Tracy-Hepburn collaboration with Spencer as a sportswriter and Katherine as world-traveling journalist (inspired by Dorothy Thompson)

 

For Noir devotees and esp. Gloria Grahame fans, catch this binge-fest!

Tu Aug 17 4p "Odds Against Tomorrow" (1959, set on location in NYC and Hudson NY)

6p "Human Desire" (1954 with Glenn Ford, Broderick Crawford, dir. by Fritz Lang)

8p "The Big Heat" (1953 with G.Ford, Jocelyn Brando - Marlon's sister -, dir. by Lang)

10p "In A Lonely Place" (1950, Bogart as temperamental writer, Frank Lovejoy/Jeff Donnell as his friends, Grahame in key substantial role as Bogie's girlfriend - dir. by Nicholas Ray).

 

Su Aug 22 1245p "Witness for the Prosecution" (1957) twists galore in this classic based on Agatha Christie story and directed by Billy Wilder.  With Marlene Dietrich, Charles Laughton, Tyrone Power, that suave sinister character actor Henry Daniell, and others. 

 

8p "Blood and Sand" (1941) T. Power returns and has to deal with Linda Darnell and Rita Hayworth - it's a hard job but someone had to do it.  Dir. Reuben Mamoulian of NY stage.

 

M Aug 23 12:15a  Power again as a carnival performer in "Nightmare Alley" (1947)

945a "At The Circus" (1939) the Marx Brothers in not one of their best but Eve Arden is in it

 

W Aug 25  Jane Wyman Day has 4p Hitchcock's "Stage Fright" (1958)

8p "Johnny Belinda" (1948) Wyman's Oscar

 

Tu Aug 26 10p "The Mating Game" (1959) with Debbie Reynolds and Tony Randall.  Probably Paul Douglas's last film. He had signed for Wilder's "Apartment" but died and Fred MacMurray got the role as the louse. 

 

F Aug 27 215a  "Night Song" (1947) Dana Andrews as blind concert pianist, Merle Oberon pretends to be blind to get close to him.  Hoagy Carmichael/Artur Rubinstein perform.

 

Sa Aug 28  late 1960s shoot-em-ups for the Vietnam era starring Lee Marvin and others

8p "Point Blank" dir. John Boorman with Angie Dickinson and post-Bat Guano Keenan Wynn

10p "The Professionals" dir. Richard Brooks

 

Sun Aug 29  3:45p  Hitchcock's "Gaslight" with I. Bergman/G. Peck/Ch. Boyer

6p "Casblanca" (1943)

 

M Aug 30 James Cagney Day incl. 12N "Midsummer Night's Dream" (1935) with cast of

stars including Mickey Rooney as Puck, Olivia DeHavilland, and Joe E Brown stealing show as Flute

4p "White Heat" (1949) the post-World War II Cagney gangster.  In prison dining scene look for Jim Thorpe as an extra.

 

Tu Aug 31 8p "Best Years of Our Lives" (1946) - still hard not to cry and sigh at this one 

Th Sep 2 8p "The Comic" Carl Reiner directs Dick Van Dyke, Michele Lee, Mickey Rooney

 

Su Sep 5 12M, repeated at 10A - return of Noir Alley - Robert Preston in "Cloudburst" (1952)

 

That's all for now.  As always, take it easy but take it, and please: 

STAY POSITIVE, TEST NEGATIVE

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Can Baseball's Obsession With "Analytics" Be Controlled? + Potpourri From The Baseball Scene

On the first Saturday in June I happened to flip the channel in time to see the top of the ninth inning of a close game between the Chicago Cubs and the SF Giants. With the Giants holding a two-run lead but the Cubs threatening, veteran third baseman Evan Longoria instinctively dove to his left on a hard smash towards the shortstop hole. 

 

Because of one of these new-fangled shifts, shortstop Brandon Crawford was positioned very close to Longoria who must have not been aware of it.  Crawford also went for the ball and the two veterans collided head-on.  Longoria got the worst of the deal, and he has shoulder damage that could keep him out for over two months.  

 

As far as I know, none of the Giants made a public comment questioning why Longoria and Crawford were aligned so close together.  Manager Gabe Kapler, one of more analytic-obsessed managers, did say afterwards that it was a "very emotional" clubhouse when they learned that team leader Longoria, the former Tampa Bay Ray with World Series and regular playoff experience, would be out for such a long time. 

 

Ballplayers are tough guys especially a gamer like Longoria so I hope he returns sooner than expected. But it raises the question of why so many players are abandoning traditional defensive positions in the supposed search for more statistical certainty.  

 

The basic double play is rarely seen now because infielders are shifting way out of their normal positions. There is now the frequent bizarre occurrence of a third baseman positioned near second base before a pitch. So to catch a routine foul ball, he must run like a 60-yard dasher to have a chance at corraling it. 

 

Analytics and shifting are getting out of hand and I don't know what it will take to bring that rarity known as common sense back to the game.

 

One thing I would do is to ban all players from carrying crib sheets of "tendencies" in their pockets and caps.   Baseball shouldn't be an "open book" exam!

 

The lord high commissioner Manfred just announced on June 15 a ban on foreign substances pitchers have been using on the baseball to increase movement and spin rates. Such a prohibition has been in the official rules for decades.  We'll see, of course, how it is enforced by the umpires.  

 

Let me repeat my call for another reform:  BAN THOSE CLIFF NOTES!  

 

Back to the Giants and how they may deal without Longoria for a good chunk of the summer. One of his replacements will likely be the former Met Wilmer Flores who is a versatile guy to have on your team. 

 

For me, Wilmer is the poster boy for "Yes, There Is Crying in Baseball!"  No one in the NYC area, Mets fan or not, can ever forget Flores weeping on third base when he thought he was being traded to the Milwaukee Brewers at the July 2015 trading deadline. 

 

It turned out to be a false alarm. He wasn't traded after all, and the valuable utility player, who had signed with the Mets as a teenager out of Valencia Venezuela, helped the team move on to the 2015 World Series.

 

Here's one last gripe against analytics.  Do we really need to know the percentage of swings and misses on different pitches from a pitcher?  Baseball is a very hard game and there is such a thing as TMI Too Much Information. 

 

TMI is a plague that is affecting writers, broadcasters, fans, and worst of all, players who forget about the "feel" of a game and how sight and sound are more important than those damned crib sheets they carry in their pockets and caps.

 

The fun element in baseball should never be forgotten. So let's hear it for one of the better new nicknames in the sport: the Jamestown (NY) Tarp Skunks in the Perfect Game Wooden Bat Collegiate League.

 

A tarp skunk is a regular denizen of that southwestern New York town near the Pennsylvania border and the Double-A Erie Sea Wolves.  The animal is an underdog that only sprays when faced with danger so it is an apt name for a scrappy team of collegians. They will be playing until the end of July, and early August if they make the playoffs.

 

THIS 'N' THAT FROM VARIED LEVELS OF BASEBALL:

**Update on Masahiro Tanaka still pitching well in Japan for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. In the last blog I did not give the full correct name of his team so here is the correction.  

 

Although his record is only 2-4 and he hasn't won since early May, he has been an innings-eater. He has averaged seven innings in his last five starts and his ERA is 2.90.  Most important, the Golden Eagles are in first place.

I leave it to Yankee fans to decide if he would have fared better than Jameson Taillon or the now-injured Corey Kluber. 

 

**Remember Mo'Ne Davis from the Little League World Series seven years ago?  She is now a softball infielder for the historical black college Hampton University in Virginia. In the off-season, she is broadcasting games of the DC Grays in a summer college league and aspires to go into the media business.

 

I learned about this story in Barry Svrluga's fine piece in the June 9 Washington Post..

Speaking of the WaPo, the brilliant columnist Thomas Boswell will retire on June 30 but hopefully not stay away from sports permanently.  He certainly has left an enviable legacy of game stories under deadline pressure and thoughtful commentaries.  Some appeared in such books as "Why Time Begins On Opening Day". 

 

**Here's hoping for a memorable College World Series starting on June 19-20 in Omaha.  I still find the sound of  aluminum bats jarring, but the pairings look very enticing.  All games to be aired on the "family" of ESPN networks.

 

The double-elimination tourney starts with red-hot Stanford vs. North Carolina State who knocked off #1 national seed Arkansas despite losing the first game 21-2.  Shades of the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates against the Yankees! 

The second game will feature perennial contender/former champion Vanderbilt vs. Arizona. 

 

Sunday's pairings are Mississippi State, which came from an 0-1 deficit to knock out Notre Dame, vs. Texas

Followed by Tennessee vs. perennial contender/former champion Virginia.

 

**And here's a salute to Bryant (Rhode Island) catcher Liam McGill who led all of Division I with a .471 batting average.  The former Columbia star certainly put to good use his last year of eligibility.

 

Here's hoping that all Ivy League sports return starting in the fall.  The loss of two full Ivy League baseball seasons has been one of the most hurtful consequences of the pandemic.

 

That's all for now.  Always remember:  Take it easy but take it!     

 

 

 

 

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