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Ode To The Catcher on the Cusp of Spring Training

What follows is a commentary I delivered on Wed Feb 3 for a BAIP-Live Zoom based on Upper West Side of Manhattan.  Don't let BAIP - Bloomingdale Aging In Place - deceive you. These are the most engaged and lively people I know.  

 

90-year-old photographer Manny Kirchheimer, who was interviewed on the show, offered words to live by.  He said he keeps going on with his craft because his"work is fun." 

 

I present my talk in CAPS because that is how I read it and it brought back some fond memories of my radio days. 

 

I'M ONE OF THOSE BASEBALL NUTS WHO BELIEVES THAT THE GREATEST SENTENCE IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE IS "THE PITCHERS AND CATCHERS HAVE REPORTED TO SPRING TRAINING."  IN A FEW DAYS,  IF THE VIRUS IS UNDER CONTROL, THOSE WORDS WILL BRING SOLACE TO MILLIONS OF BASEBALL FANS ACROSS OUR BASEBALL-HUNGRY LAND. 

 

YOU SEE, PITCHERS AND CATCHERS NEED THE EXTRA TIME TO PREPARE BECAUSE THEY ARE INVOLVED IN EVERY PITCH OF THE GAME.  THEY ARE CALLED THE "BATTERY" BECAUSE THEY PUT A CHARGE INTO THE GAME.  

 

MORE GLAMOR HAS ALWAYS BEEN ASSOCIATED WITH PITCHING THAN CATCHING - THINK OF CHRISTY MATHEWSON, DIZZY DEAN, SANDY KOUFAX, TOM SEAVER, AND TODAY IN OUR TOWN,  GERRIT COLE AND JACOB DEGROM. 

 

BUT CONSIDER THIS.  THE CATCHER IS THE ONLY PLAYER WHO LOOKS OUT ON THE FIELD - THE OTHER EIGHT LOOK IN TO GET SIGNALS AND LOOK FOR LEADERSHIP.  THINK OF WHAT THE POSITION DEMANDS  - TO DO ONE'S THINKING IN A CROUCH, WHILE WEARING A BULKY GLOVE, HARD MASK, CHEST PROTECTOR, AND SHIN GUARDS.

 

THE MACHO, CONSERVATIVE WORLD OF BASEBALL DID NOT AT FIRST WELCOME CATCHING GEAR.  A FEW YEARS AFTER THE 1869 CINCINNATI RED STOCKINGS WON THE FIRST WIDELY-RECOGNIZED PRO BASEBALL TITLE,  ONE SPORTSWRITER WAS ALREADY YEARNING IN VERSE FOR "THE GOOD OLD DAYS":  

 

"WE USED NO MATTRESS ON OUR HANDS/ NO CAGE UPON OUR FACE/WE STOOD RIGHT UP AND CAUGHT THE BALL/WITH COURAGE AND WITH GRACE." 

 

IN 1907, WHEN NEW YORK GIANTS CATCHER ROGER BRESNAHAN FIRST PUT ON HIS INVENTION OF SHIN GUARDS, HE WAS BOOED BY FANS AND EVEN SCORNED BY PLAYERS, BUT THE INNOVATIONS WERE HERE TO STAY.  THOUGH SOME BRANDED THE GEAR "THE TOOLS OF IGNORANCE," IT BECAME OBVIOUS THAT A TEAM COULD NOT CONSISTENTLY WIN WITHOUT A

GOOD CATCHER.

 

IN THE GREAT POST-WORLD WAR II GOLDEN AGE OF NEW YORK  BASEBALL, WE WERE FORTUNATE TO WATCH THE WORK OF TWO FUTURE HALL OF FAME CATCHERS, YOGI BERRA OF THE YANKEES AND ROY CAMPANELLA OF THE DODGERS. 

 

THEY WERE FEARED HITTERS ON OFFENSE, BUT THEY ALSO CONTROLLED THE GAME ON DEFENSE. THEY KNEW HOW TO GUIDE THEIR PITCHERS THROUGH TOUGH SPOTS, AND HOW TO USE IDLE CHATTER TO DISRUPT THE CONCENTRATION OF OPPOSING BATTERS.  

 

IT IS NOT SURPRISING THEY BOTH LEFT A LEGACY OF MEMORABLE QUOTATIONS.  "IT'S NOT OVER UNTIL IT'S OVER," BERRA FAMOUSLY SAID, KNOWING THAT A SINGLE MISPLACED PITCH COULD TURN VICTORY INTO DEFEAT.  CAMPANELLA ADDED, "TO BE GOOD, YOU GOTTA HAVE A LOTTA LITTLE BOY IN YOU."

 

THE ART OF CATCHING HAS ALSO CAUGHT THE FANCY OF MANY A DISCERNING FEMALE OBSERVER.  WATCHING ON TELEVISION THE 1979 WORLD SERIES BETWEEN THE ORIOLES AND PIRATES, MAVERICK FEMINIST WRITER GERMAINE GREER MARVELED AT WHAT SHE CALLED "THE GROIN COMMUNICATION" BETWEEN ORIOLE CATCHER RICK DEMPSEY AND PITCHER MIKE FLANAGAN. 

 

SHE ALSO FOUND IT WONDERFUL THAT IN BASEBALL ALL THE AGGRESSION WAS "STYLIZED," AND THAT VIRILE MEN COULD PLAY THE GAME WEARING EYEGLASSES.

 

A FEW YEARS LATER  IN 1992, THE SCREENWRITERS OF "A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN," PENNY MARSHALL'S DELIGHTFUL INSIGHTFUL MOVIE ABOUT THE ALL-AMERICAN WOMEN'S BASEBALL LEAGUE, MADE A NOTEWORTHY ADJUSTMENT. 

 

THEY TURNED GEENA DAVIS'S MAIN CHARACTER, DOTTIE HINSON, INTO A CATCHER AT THE CENTER OF ALL THE ACTION - ALTHOUGH THE REAL LIFE MODEL FOR DOTTIE WAS THE OUTSTANDING FIRST BASEMAN DOROTHY KAMENSHEK. 

 

SO WHEN SPRING TRAINING SOON STARTS ANEW, DO KEEP AN EYE ON THE METS FREE AGENT NEWCOMER JAMES MCCANN TO SEE IF HE REALLY HAS COME INTO OWN AS A CATCHER.  

 

AND YANKEE FANS, DO CONTINUE TO WORRY ABOUT WHETHER YOUR OFT-MALIGNED  CATCHER GARY SANCHEZ  WILL EVER LEARN THE BASICS OF THE POSITION.   BECAUSE AS CASEY STENGEL SAGELY NOTED, "WITHOUT A CATCHER YOU WILL HAVE A LOT OF PASSED BALLS."

 

That's all for now.  Always remember:  Take it easy but take it!  and please stay positive in attitude, test negative with the virus.

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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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