Thursday, March 31, 2005

Rube Waddell, ca. 1909 Posted by Hello

Rube Waddell: The Peter Pan of Baseball

Happy April Fool's Day. On this date in 1914 Rube Waddell, one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history and one of my favorite personages, left this world.

George Edward “Rube” Waddell was baseball's most kaleidoscopic character. In 1903 he began the year sleeping in a firehouse at Camden, New Jersey, and ended it tending bar in Wheeling, West Virginia. “In between those events,” wrote Lee Allen, “he won twenty-two games for the Philadelphia Athletics, played left end for the Business Men's Rugby Football Club of Grand Rapids, Michigan, toured the nation in a melodrama called The Stain of Guilt, courted, married, and separated from May Wynne Skinner of Lynn, Massachusetts, saved a woman from drowning, accidentally shot a friend through the hand, and was bitten by a lion.”

The stories go on and on about this wild and crazy guy and, remarkably, most of them are true. Playing marbles under the stands at game time while his teammates searched for their starting pitcher; being paid his year's salary of $2,200 in one-dollar bills because he was so impulsive a spender; hurling both ends of a doubleheader just so that he could get a few days off to go fishing; calling his outfielders to the sidelines, then striking out the batter.

The Rube was not merely an oddball, like Germany Schaefer, or an entertaining tippler like Bugs Raymond, or a braggart like Art Shires, though he was all of these things and more. The eccentric “sousepaw” was an original, a boy who never grew up yet was a giant among men on the ball field.

A quick look at Waddell's career record reveals seven strikeout crowns, six of them in succession in 1902-07; a lifetime ERA of 2.16 with a single-season best of 1.48; and four straight 20-win seasons. But a closer examination shows just how awesome he was at his peak. In 1902 he won a commendable 24 games for the Philadelphia Athletics—but he didn't pitch for them until June 26, by which time he had already won 12 games with Los Angeles of the Pacific Coast League. He won 10 games for the A's in the month of July, a feat unmatched by any hurler since. His 24 wins for them came over a period of only 87 games played by the club, a percentage of team wins also unmatched since. In 1904 Waddell fanned 349 batters, a total not surpassed until Sandy Koufax came along in 1965; nearly one hundred years later, Waddell's mark is still the best by an American League lefthander. In 1955, at age 93, Connie Mack called Rube the greatest pitcher, in terms of pure talent, he had ever seen—and Connie had seen them all, from Hoss Radbourne and Amos Rusie through Cy Young and Walter Johnson, on up to Lefty Grove and Bob Feller.

In his six years in Philadelphia, Rube married four times. Although the aforementioned Miss Skinner, the second of his wives, left him after only three weeks of marriage, and he did spend some time in jail for throwing flatirons at each of his in-laws (an impulse with which some of us may empathize), this man-child had a good heart. On more than one occasion his penchant for running after fire engines led him to rush into a burning building to effect a rescue. And his premature death, at age 37 in 1914 (on April Fool's Day) resulted from a severe cold he contracted after standing for hours in icy waters up to his armpits, placing sandbags in advance of rising waters from a broken dam.

No one Waddellian tale conveys the heroic quality of the man; Rube's whole life had the quality of legend, the kind that sustained our nation in the years before The Great War. Before the frontier closed, before radio and rural electrification truly united our states into a homogeneous national culture, America gave rise to such icons as Paul Bunyan, the all-powerful lumberjack landscaper; Mose the Bowery B'hoy, the common rough, comic boor, and guardian angel of the underprivileged (and, like Waddell, pride of the volunteer fire laddies); and Sam Patch, the foolhardy millhand who won fame by jumping off bridges and immortality in his failed leap over Niagara Falls. (Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote of him, though the words might as easily have been applied to Waddell: “How stern a moral may be drawn from the story of poor Sam Patch!... Was the leaper of cataracts more mad or foolish than other men who throw away life, or misspend it in pursuit of empty fame, and seldom so triumphantly as he?”) These three, along with other folkloric figures of America's formative years, culminate in the form of Rube Waddell.

In baseball, he descended from a line of hell-raising, hard-drinking heroes like King Kelly, Arlie Latham, and Radbourne. When college man Christy Mathewson came along to contend with Waddell for favor in the first decade of the century, the moralists at last had a suitable role model in baseball; but the conformist Matty never captured the hearts of boys as the Rube did. While adults clucked their disapproval, Rube's sense of mischief and disregard for adult ways endeared him to youth. He was them, figured large, with the power not only to move about in the adult world but also to transform it, to make it uniquely his.

The arrival of Babe Ruth marked a restoration of the rebellious spirit in sport, as did Dizzy Dean. But while both were “naturals” like the semi-demented Waddell, the Babe was neither a clown nor a yokel, and Ol' Diz played the rube act with self-promotional cunning.

Why do we glorify natural athletes when hard workers, conscientious practitioners of their craft, are so much more admirable as men? Because in their untutored excellence these fortunate few seem to be touched with the divine, the mysterious gift of the gods—a spirit of play akin to the inexplicable animating force of art.

Waddell was a legend while he was alive; that he has ceased to be one in death is testament to how our country has changed. Why are heroes today so colorless, so pale? Even great talents like Michael Jordan or Nolan Ryan are personally boring. Why do we still gravitate toward the bad boys, the rebels, even when their abilities are beneath those of the goody-two-shoes of the sports world? Conformists may be admired, but nonconformists are adored and/or feared.

Man's attraction to fame is like that of moth to flame. The moralists among us—like Hawthorne in his dispatch of Sam Patch—delight in the failure of heroes, affirming that man should not be so filled with hubris as to presume to deity. Thus is played the inevitable cycle of fame, paralleling that of life itself: hero to celebrity to commodity to trash. Rube Waddell sidestepped that descent by dying young, but perhaps more importantly, by never really enlisting as a functional adult. Like a messenger of God, or one who has struck a pact with the devil, in the cadences of conventional life Rube was always an outsider. He stood outside civilization, culture, rationalism, team play, the work ethic—all Western, Christian values. He was an individualist, nonconformist, rebel, hero—honored and scorned at the same time, for he was also a rube: a bumpkin, rustic, hayseed, farmer, yokel, hoosier, backwoodsman, fool.

The term “rube” derived from Reuben, a hinterlands name that provoked mirth among the city swells and traveling gents and those rural types who fancied themselves “in the know.” Waddell began pitching for his town team of Butler, Pennsylvania, at age 18, in 1895, later moving on to pitch for the Prospect nine. When he showed up at Franklin in 1896, green as any farmboy ever was but hoping for an audition, one of the Franklin men called out, “Hey, Rube!”—the circus/carny term used as a cry for help, or rallying charge, against outsiders, like those who would cut the canvas to gain free admission. (Often as not, the call “Hey, Rube!” would lead to a heyrube—a fracas or hubbub, what Red Barber and other Southerners came to call a rhubarb. The Franklin players were not only mocking the farmboy Waddell (“Reuben”) but also rallying the clan against an outside intrusion.*

Rube the farmboy was an outsider when he stepped onto the rural ballfield of Franklin, but perhaps less so when he went on to pitch for big cities like Philadelphia and St. Louis. The enclosed ballparks there were designed to give an increasingly urban populace a park within the city, a place reminiscent of the idealized farms that had sent all those rubes to the metropolis in the first place. After all, baseball itself is inextricably tied to the land, deriving as it does from a pagan rite of fertility.

And George Edward Waddell was also an outsider in that he was lefthanded (sinister, evil, endowed with sorcery) and dimwitted. The age of magic in baseball was in full flower during Waddell's career. Society at large feared the misshapen as manifestations of God's wrath, regarded the feebleminded as signs of God's humor, and imbued the lame and the halt with heightened goodness, like Tiny Tim in Charles Dickens' Christmas Carol. Major league teams employed mascots like Louis Van Zelst, a hunchbacked cripple, who drew luck to the A's until he died in 1915; dwarf Eddie Bennett, who brought pennants to the White Sox in 1917 and 1919, then to the Dodgers and Yankees; and the aptly named Victory Faust, a hayseed mental defective who “helped” the Giants to pennants in 1911-13. All of these mascots sat in uniform on the bench or, in the case of Faust, entertained the crowd before the game.

In baseball's version of the Faust legend, Douglass Wallop's The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant and the ensuing musical version, Damn Yankees, the devil stops time so that the aging process of a fiftyish salesman can be reversed, transforming him into the heroic Joe Hardy, savior of the downtrodden Washington Senators. For Rube Waddell, the aging process was simply halted--as it was for Peter Pan and the lost boys who died before reaching manhood. Waddell was the ultimate man-child, with the body of a man and the brain of a child, an emblem of what baseball is all about—to play, to play past when your mother calls you in for supper, to play and play and play until mortality itself is cheated.

Sam Crawford, who faced Rube Waddell many times in his years with the Detroit Tigers and went on to join Rube in the Hall of Fame, said in his later years: “Rube was one of a kind—just a big kid, you know. He'd pitch one day and we wouldn't see him for three or four days after. He'd just disappear, go fishing or something, or be off playing ball with a bunch of twelve-year-olds in an empty lot somewhere. You couldn't control him ‘cause he was just a big kid himself. Baseball was just a game to Rube.”

It was never just a game to him, of course; he was paid to play, and so he was termed a professional. But he was at heart an amateur, playing the game because he loved it. That was part of what made him a hero, and it is the same essential condition of heroics on the playing fields today: we admire proficiency, but we cherish the men who have retained their zest for play.

Green kids breaking into professional ball today are no longer called Rube. Maybe this is a good thing; it is a divisive name, a mean one. But it would be fine if baseball were again to be visited by an outsider who conveyed the Rube's message: honor your childhood, cherish a sense of play, and show a healthy disrespect for convention and order.

* According to Eric Partridge's Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, “Rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb” was “the muttering of actors when simulating the sound of a crowd.” Rube Waddell may thus be viewed as a man of the people or a demotic demigod.

--John Thorn

Monday, March 28, 2005

Hope springs eternal. Photo by Mark Thorn Posted by Hello

Keeping the Faith

From the Saugerties Times, March 17, 2005:
I've tried to be strong. I soldiered through these past snow-laden months, just accepting winter. I tried (on occasion successfully) to see the beauty in the spare landscape. I reveled in the concept of "sweater weather," and the opportunity to model my bulky collection of well-insulated clothing. Freezing pipes, ice storms, ungodly amounts of snow, car doors frozen shut - I weathered them all. Perhaps not with grace and style, but I did push through.

But now we've passed the Ides of March, and I'm done. I can no longer even pretend to be a good sport about this. I want to see green. I want leaves on the trees, my patchy lawn to come back and my garden to begin showing signs of life. I'm ready for the piles of gray snow to disappear, for temperatures to climb, and my windows to open. And yet I know that as many times as I close my eyes, click my heels and wish for spring, its not going to come. At least, not until after mud season.

Mud season. Two words that had been unknown to me before moving to this area. When I first heard mention of it, it conjured images of unwashed youth wrestling each other in pits of gooey earth. Last year, I got to experience what e.e. cummings described as "mud-luscious and puddle wonderful." An unfortunate tumble down my stairs meant I was on crutches for more than a month. Sheer serendipitous contretemps found me sinking inches into the ground as I hobbled about. Oh sure, I provided plenty of merriment for my friends, and got a great upper body workout to boot.

And eventually, just when I'd given up hope, the impossible happened. The verdant tips of iris leaves began to push through the remnants of the prior season's mulch. This year my heart leapt when I thought I spied some early efforts breaking through the snow, until I realized I had neglected to thoroughly put my garden to bed last fall. At this point, it's too late to trim the leaves back, and it would break my heart. That bit of green is what keeps me going some days, even as it is repeatedly covered with snow.

That green, or even the suggestion of it, is hope, or as Emily Dickinson would describe it, "a thing with feathers, that perches in the soul" For hope is what the season of spring is all about. The prospect that our faith shall be rewarded, and perhaps even renewed, helps us to slog through a seemingly endless morass of melancholy and its emblematic color, mud brown.
--Erica Freudenberger

The Best Laid Plans of Mice: Baseball's Intentional Walk

During the past few baseball seasons, Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants has taken the proverbial red pen to the record books: 73 homeruns and a slugging average of .863 in 2001; 232 walks and an on-base percentage of .609 in 2004 . Because of his annihilation of the many records, opposing teams rarely afford him desirable pitches, often thinking it wiser simply to award him first base. This historically unprecedented technique is justified by managers, players, and fans alike, claiming that a team’s sole responsibility is to win ballgames.

Though this argument may seem reasonable, the opposing viewpoint is stronger, not only upon statistical analysis, but also through logical reflection. Excessive use of the intentional walk bores the fans, unfairly limits a proficient player’s participation in the game and, preposterously, most often fails in its implied objectives of preventing runs and assuring victory. This ineffective and numbing strategy should be curtailed through the imposition of a new rule that limits the number of walks and/or presents greater penalties for those who persist in the practice.

In baseball’s original rules, pitchers faced no penalty for throwing outside the strike zone, as neither “walks” nor “balls” existed. Pitchers eventually learned to use this freedom to their advantage by throwing intentionally wide in hope of finally coaxing the batter into swinging at an undesirable pitch. To combat this devious maneuver, the National Association of Base Ball Players decided in 1863 that pitches outside the strike zone be designated as “balls,” and that after two warning pitches, nine balls thrown to one batter would constitute a “walk,” or an award of first base. Over time, fans grew weary of the often lengthy at-bats; the two warning pitches were eliminated and the number of balls required for a walk was reduced to four.

Directly after its introduction, receiving a walk was considered unmanly; it was thought that real men should make gains only through work. To avoid this subtle disgrace, hitters would swing at borderline pitches. Drawing a walk was not considered a talent as it is today, but rather the unfortunate if necessary product of a devious pitching approach. (Until 1909, walks were counted as errors, specifically “battery errors,” or those committed by either the pitcher or catcher. In the modern game, a great hitter may be rendered practically impotent by the walk; originally a safeguard against intentionally poor pitching and a guarantee for equal batting opportunity, the walk has now become yet another weapon in the pitcher’s arsenal.

As a defensive ploy, the intentional walk has two main uses: it may be used to bypass a greater hitter with hopes of confronting a lesser one, or it may function to create a force play, or an out not requiring a tag. The earliest printed reference to an intentional walk occurs in the Washington Post on May 2, 1894 in an account of a game between the Boston Beaneaters and Washington Senators played on the previous day (“A Comedy Of Errors”). Washington Manager Gus Schmelz instructed his pitcher, Ben Stephens, to give an “intentional base on balls” to George Treadway, “with the object in view of retiring the side on a double play.” A more intriguing reference, however, took place only three days later in the same paper, recounting a game between the same teams (“Their Tenth Defeat”). “[Billy] Nash was given an intentional base on balls, and, as is the case nine times out of ten on this move, the next man up swatted the ball good and hard and brought two runs home.” This sentence not only tells us that the intentional walk had been practiced widely before 1894, but also shows the skepticism that had already arisen for the move as a defensive strategy. Why and when did this once dubious tactic become an article of blind faith?

By 1955, the intentional base on balls had become sufficiently commonplace to necessitate scoring it independently of conventional walks; in 1977, the practice was finally recognized and defined in the Major League Rulebook.

Often during early baseball, one of a team’s players would function also as its manager. This role was assigned to an experienced player who had a comprehensive understanding of the game’s intricacies. Eventually, the manager controlled player substitutions and strategies, but was by no means the most important man on the team; throughout baseball history, the players have always been not only the central attraction but also the prime determinant of a team’s success. With the recent intentional-walk craze, the function of the manager has appeared to become more important and, more alarmingly, the duties of the player seem dramatically reduced. The role of the pitcher, particularly, has been reduced to that of a pawn, submitting to his manager’s strategic whims. A characteristic exclusive to baseball among major sports has been the players’ levels of responsibility and independence; while football and basketball have frequent gaps in the action in which the coaches relay the players’ roles for ensuing plays, baseball players essentially rely upon their own judgment. Plays such as the intentional walk assign the roles of transmitter and receiver to the manager and player, respectively, thereby tarnishing one of baseball’s unique qualities.

Let us not forget that baseball is a spectator sport; one of its prime functions is entertainment. Should fans who come to the park anticipating the excitement of a Bonds swing be forced to endure a managerial chess game? While managers are supposed to apply their powers wholly to winning games, do they hold no responsibility to the fans who supply their and their players’ salaries? The answer became apparent when many fans of the teams opposing the Giants booed their managers’ decisions to bypass Bonds; at some level, they felt that the importance of their teams’ victories was outweighed by the diluted entertainment and cowardly spectacle of the intentional walk. "What does it say about this sport," asked Jayson Stark, "that it's considered perfectly acceptable to charge people negotiable American money to see the best player alive play — and then essentially prevent him from participating in any meaningful situation?”

Still more ludicrously, teams with no hope of late-season contention now abide by this unwritten code of unmanliness. It seems that since the technique’s introduction, it has slowly become the normal, acceptable way to face hitters such as Barry Bonds. Absurdly, the once extreme technique has become the conservative approach; it now seems an incredible display of audacity merely to pitch to Bonds at any time.

Many liken Bonds’s situation to events in other sports, namely the “Hack-a-Shaq” technique in basketball, which is intended to reduce Shaquille O’Neal’s scoring ability. When Shaq receives the ball, the nearest opposing player will foul him immediately, sending Shaq to the free-throw line, at which he is relatively powerless. This analogy, however, neglected two important considerations. While the “Hack-a-Shaq” method limited O’Neal’s offensive influence to his ability to make foul shots, the intentional walking of Bonds denied him any impact unless those who batted behind him in the lineup drove him in. Secondly, a basketball team receives a penalty for each foul exceeding the designated limit, while baseball provides no punishment for excessive walks; perhaps a comparable penalty in baseball would persuade managers and pitchers to confront Bonds. “Only…in baseball,” wrote Dan Daly in The Washington Times, “you can literally take an opposing player out of the game - and be hailed as a brilliant strategist for it.”

Managers justify the liberal use of the intentional walk by claiming that their only allegiance is to victory; as Marlins manager Jack McKeon related the consensus, “I know the fans come to see Bonds, but I want to come in after the game and say we won the game because we didn't just give in to what the fans want.” Managers like McKeon presume that the intentional walk is an effective defensive stratagem—but is this faith misplaced? Statistical analysts concluded that while an intentional walk may prevent a run or two in the inning of its use, its transient success is outweighed by its negative cumulative effect. The most precious commodity in baseball is the out—even the best hitters, including Barry Bonds, make outs roughly half of the time. By frequently awarding a player first base, let us say 192 times—the average for Bonds over the last three seasons—the teams opposing him concede roughly 96 outs over the course of a season; these non-outs translate into minimally 96, but actually far more, additional plate appearances for Giants, many for Bonds himself, that naturally materialize into runs and subsequent victories.

To combat the excessive use of the intentional walk, several baseball players, managers and analysts have made legislative propositions. Among the leaders of this movement is ESPN baseball analyst Jayson Stark, who collected the various suggestions circulating through the league and, along with his view on the subject, put them to paper. While all of the five proposed rule changes discussed in his column are interesting, they require classification into two distinct groups: the practical and the idealistic. The White Sox general manager, Kenny Williams, simply suggested a prohibition of the intentional walk altogether. In a perfect world, yes, this would alleviate the conflict; however, in the current situation in which players and their techniques are certainly less than straightforward, this rule would make for easy circumvention. Pitchers could simply resort to the “unintentional intentional” walk with no fear of punishment. The same loophole exists in two other of Stark’s five proposed strategies, including (a) limiting teams to one intentional walk per player per game and (b) advancing all runners on base upon an intentional walk. Another of Stark’s proposed remedies is to grant hitters the ability to decline walks. Unfortunately, this practice would exacerbate another current baseball problem—the games’ excessive durations. Allowing hitters to decline walks could yield fifty-pitch at-bats and subsequent six-hour games, and would essentially transform baseball to an inversion of its 1850s pre-walk state: tiresome at-bats in which the batter would finally cajole the pitcher into throwing a desirable pitch. The most practical of Stark’s solutions is to award the batter an additional base for each intentional walk he receives during that game. To prevent circumvention through the “unintentional intentional” walk, umpires would judge the pitcher’s intent and rule accordingly.

To avoid the cumbersome amendment process, there are several actions that the Giants organization can take to counteract this underhanded pitching approach. By placing him fourth in the lineup, current Giants’ manager Felipe Alou did not capitalize fully on Bonds’ misfortune; had he batted Bonds in the lead-off position, he would have exponentially increased his team’s offensive production, both by allowing the heart of the Giants’ lineup to bat with Bonds on base and by granting Bonds approximately eighty more plate appearances over the course of a season. Another option for the Giants, although requiring money, would be to acquire several other strong hitters who would bat behind Bonds, thereby providing pitchers with greater incentive to keep Bonds off the bases.

Finally, we must ask ourselves: what is sport? Is there a criterion that irrefutably qualifies an activity as a sport, as opposed to a game or a spectacle? Perhaps etymology will lend a clue. While in its traditional usage, sport refers to recreation, it can be used also as in the phrase, “sport of the litter,” to mean “the unexpected.” And that is the essence of sport—the unexpected. Its unscripted, fickle nature not only provides excitement, but creates an environment with a true element of risk, an environment contrary to planned actions such as the intentional walk. The more baseball abandons its unscripted nature, the more it dilutes the sense of authenticity, of danger, the further it betrays the notion of sport.

Barry Bonds holds the all-time record for intentional walks with 604, while the runner-up, Hank Aaron, has merely 293. Are Bonds’ recent exploits truly dominant enough to elicit such a level of caution? Some claim that the tactic is a product of racial prejudice, as white players such as Mark McGwire received many more hittable pitches during their seasons that were comparable with Bonds’ recent performance. While this theory should probably be dismissed as unworthy, it is probable that Major League Baseball would have hastened its amendment process had a white player been the recipient of Bonds’ misfortune.
--Mark Thorn


My membership in SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research, provided me with access to databases of newspapers tracing back into the early nineteenth century. While searching for references to the intentional walk from different time periods, hoping to decipher its level of popularity (or notoriety) throughout baseball history, I stumbled upon the May 2, 1894, Washington Post reference to the “intentional base on balls.” This entry refutes the previous theory of the first intentional walk, which credited Kid Gleason of the New York Giants as the first manager to use the walk as a defensive strategy in the 1895-1896 seasons.

My Big Fat Greek Olympics

From "Play's the Thing," the Woodstock Times, August 13, 2004:
At what point did things begin to go wrong with the Olympics? The bombing at the Atlanta Games in 1996? Allowing professional basketball players to compete in 1992? The cold-war boycotts of the Los Angeles and Moscow Games in the 1980s? The horrors of Munich in 1972? Was it 1936, when Avery Brundage cozied up with Hitler in Berlin? Or when Jim Thorpe was stripped of his medals after the Stockholm Games of 1912?

Can’t anybody here just play? When politics and terrorism haven’t occupied center stage, seldom has it been the athletes. Now the International Olympics Committee, with its omnipresent sponsors and its credulous media partners, remind us, at every turn, that this bloated XXVIIIth Olympiad of the modern era is about them. And don’t you love the use of Roman numerals — for Greek games, no less — to connote gravitas? This year we can look forward to Super Bowl XXXIX and Jack Benny’s XXXIXth birthday. Once beloved of the gods, the Olympics have now lost all human scale.

In the first century of the Christian Era, when the Olympics were in their ninth century and already perceived to be in decline, Epictetus was more stoical in his judgment. “There are enough irksome and troublesome things in life; aren't things just as bad at the Olympic festival? Aren't you scorched there by the fierce heat? Aren't you crushed in the crowd? Isn't it difficult to bathe? Aren't you bothered by the tumult and shouting and other nuisances? But it seems to me that you are well able to bear and indeed gladly endure all this, when you think of the gripping spectacles that you will see.”

There’s no denying that each Olympiad provides great athletes and stirring feats. Athens 2004 will be no exception, even if a few medal-favorites are shelved for steroids use or the Greek Olympic Baseball team is composed largely of superannuated Americans. Despite my evident crankiness, I confess that as one of a historical bent I was sort of looking forward to Lollapalooza XXVIII as a return to roots … even though Athens isn’t Olympia, where the games are documented to have commenced in 776 BC. The Olympic Games may be older than that, yet still not be the oldest of Greek religious festivals marked by competition; the Pythian Games, known for their musical and literary contests, are almost certainly older, although sport may not have been an element until the sixth century BC.

When the Olympic Games were revived in 1896 — no Olympiad had been staged in 15 centuries — the agreed-upon site was Athens because the remnants of Olympian glory had been twenty feet underground until German teams began excavating the site in 1875. Now, with the return of the games to Athens, it may be worth reviewing how they began, why they were abandoned in the year 393, why they were started up again and, in “modernizing” the ancient festival, what has been gained and what lost?

History, as Jacob Burckhardt observed, is the one field of study in which one cannot begin at the beginning. Yet no matter how distant a starting point we choose for the Olympic Games — 776 BC and the Olympian Sanctuary or the halcyon days of Zeus and Kronos — the story is continuously about religion, fertility, combat, and loot. Today we may think of the ancient Olympian ideal and practice as “sport for sport’s sake” — with a garland of olive or laurel as adequate compensation for an amateur’s victory. And accordingly, we will rue the modern entrance of professionalism, paid endorsements, and cheating. Grantland Rice wrote “When the One Great Scorer comes to write against your name/He marks — not that you won or lost — but how you played the game.” He was dreaming about Olympian ideals applied to modern athletics, but he couldn’t have been more mistaken about the former.

From the very beginning, Greek athletes were not interested in honor without profit, for they knew that risk without reward was not rational. Second and last place merited equal scorn upon their return home (as Pindar wrote, “the loser's hateful return, the jeering voices, the furtive back alleys”), while victory could mean a statue in the village square, hundreds of amphorae of olive oil, an ode in their name, and a lifetime free from want. (One Olympic champion, Oebotas of Achaia, underwhelmed by the honors offered by his hometown, cast a curse on the city. Despite sending contestants to the next 74 Olympic Games—296 years—not one of them won. Not even Boston and Chicago have had to suffer so.)

Like a Don Larsen or Paul Henderson, an athlete could parlay the achievement of a moment into a lifetime of fame. The Greeks were a practical people, and just as they gave no gift without expectation of ultimate if not immediate tangible return, they engaged in sport, as they did in battle, for plunder. These ostensible amateurs were professionals under the skin. Even the labor-management structure entered the Olympics early on, as the prizes for supremacy in chariot races went not to the salaried drivers but to the vehicle’s owners.

Like the other major festivals — the Pythian, Isthmian, and Nemean, each held every four years in cycle with the others — the Olympics were connected with vegetation rites, the return of the seasons, and the magic of primitive cultures for whom the daily death and rise of the sun symbolized the certainty of human afterlife. Funerary games were played in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia as well as in Homeric Greece, not merely to honor the dead (notably, Patroclus in the Iliad) but to ease their path into the next life. Play was the province of youth (in Sparta “youth” and “player” were the same word) and symbolic play just might serve to make the recently deceased forever young.

By adding games to the recurring religious festivals, the Greeks may be said to have regularized sport and, by adding training and the pursuit of excellence, to have invented athletics. Primitive play — like art, purposeless even if purposeful — precedes culture. When an element of risk and even wager is added, play extends to become sport; indeed another meaning for “sport” is the random intrusion of a chance element. When regularity and a quest for achievement come in, sport in turn becomes athletics, as the spirit of play is hardened by the reality of work. Pindar describes the athlete as one “who delights in the toil and the cost.”

Play is about escape, emulation, and sublimation. We are always doing something serious when we play. In sport, martial instincts (aggressiveness, wiliness, repression of fear) are sublimated; physical attributes useful in war (foot speed, strength, archer’s accuracy) are emulated; and the humdrum demands of daily life are eluded. But it is in the spiritual quality of maximal physical exertion that athletes approach the ecstatic transport, or joy, that marked the earliest religious rites — the Bacchic, orgiastic celebrations and incantations, deep in the woods, that in the new Christian era came to define the threat of paganism. Athletes who are “in the zone” may be said to have entered a state of ecstatic transport, too, ceasing to act rationally as they single-mindedly pursue their goal.

And here we arrive at why the Olympic Games of 394 AD were canceled by Theodosius I, the Byzantine emperor beset by Arian and Manichaean heresies among his fellow Christians, and countless polytheist mystery cults marked by what Christians termed vice. The Olympics, sanctioned by Rome since 2 A.D., still embodied their origins as a pagan religious festival, conducted by naked men in an echo of even older traditions of phallic display that signaled aggressive intent and instilled fear among enemy combatants.

Fifteen centuries later no one was concerned any longer about inadvertently raking Pagan embers into flame. Pierre de Coubertin and his Greek allies couched the new Olympian ideal in terms of international respect, peace, and harmony. Solid and sometimes spectacular contests at Athens in 1896, Paris in 1900, St. Louis in 1904, London in 1908, and Stockholm in 1912 gave real promise, even though the quadrennial meets were not without their squabbles. But when the 1916 Olympiad was canceled due to World War I, a major part of the Olympic tradition crumbled: the festival-inspired truce of the ancient games was no longer possible.

Athletics in their most spirited form have always inspired us, inflated us, encouraged us to aim higher in our own lives. In aspiration we test limits and, more often than not, fail. Yet aspiration may be said to be the human condition, our glory and our curse.

These truths link the ancient games with the modern. But sport does something for us in the modern world that was unnecessary in the ancient one, when whole cultures, let alone major events, went unrecorded. As Daniel Boorstin observed in his 1961 book, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, sport provides “one of our few remaining contacts with uncontrived reality: with people really struggling to win, and not merely to have their victory reported in the papers. The world of ... sports is a last refuge of the authentic, uncorrupted spontaneous event.” In a world of ever more convoluted artifice, from pollsters and pundits to reality TV and terror alerts, sport seems to offer us “an oasis of the uncontrived.”

Now more than ever, we need sport to provide us with an authentic experience of life as it was and fundamentally still is. We need sport to give us a glimpse of the life beyond our bodily confines. We need sport to connect us with joy, a delight of mind and body, not merely with visceral fun. The ancient Games did this, in both its intentional and accidental vestiges of primitive, direct experience. In today’s distended Olympics one may still hear the clash of ghostly champions, but it grows ever more faint and calls for faith.
--John Thorn

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Steroids: The Fault Is Not in Our Stars

From "Play's the Thing," the Woodstock Times, December 9, 2004:
Did he or didn’t he? What did he know, and when did he know it? Did he violate Federal law, his contract with his club, or his implicit pact with the fans? Are his accomplishments rendered suspect? Is his health at risk? How could he? Why would he?

The steroids issue in baseball, dominating the press these days, is a tangled mess that neither lawmakers nor pundits, neither owners nor players, seem able to address squarely. Each faction seems intent upon answering a question not posed, while evading the basic pragmatic problem of what to do now. Whispered below the din of owner hypocrisy, editorial cant, and political grandstanding, the players might well be saying, “But we thought you wanted this.”

Up until the leaked testimony of grand-jury testimony by Jason Giambi and Barry Bonds – in which the former confessed to knowingly injecting and ingesting steroids while the latter admitted to unwittingly using two substances that may, with the benefit of hindsight, have been designer drugs – the baseball world had been resolutely blasé about hints that steroids were making players into androids. Only when the game’s biggest star, indeed perhaps its greatest player of all time, seemed to have stuck his foot in a bucket of slime did the press commence its imitation of Claude Rains (“I am shocked … shocked … to find gambling in Casablanca”).

Previously it had been in everyone’s interest to appear to be against performance-enhancing drugs without actually being against them. The fans liked the home run, and after the ruinous strike of 1994 the owners were so happy to give it to them that they made the ballparks smaller while encouraging the players to get bigger. They lowered the top of the strike zone from the shoulders to the belt buckle, making dinosaurs of those pitchers with rising fastballs. A steady diet of breaking balls thrown a foot off the plate proved no impediment to the new behemoths that could belt a drive into the opposite-field stands or even to deepest center field. Multimillion-dollar salaries encouraged topflight players to condition themselves year-round rather than loll about in the offseason; this combination of improved training and pecuniary incentive kept skill levels high at ages formerly thought ripe for the rest home. Mickey Mantle had retired after the 1968 season at age 36, a spent wreck, and later joked, “If I’d-a known I was gonna live this long, I’d-a taken better care of myself.” Yet Barry Bonds seemed to start a second career at that age, even though like Mantle he had already won three Most Valuable Player Awards and was a lock for the Hall of Fame.

In recent days, as the legal arguments about performance-enhancing drugs became confused with moral and ethical and pragmatic considerations, many of my colleagues in the 7,000-member Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) attempted to straighten out the mess and to call things by their proper names. Once Bonds became a suspect, the mood among the public and the press was reminiscent of The Ox-Bow Incident (“hang ’im first, ask questions later”). As Richard Zitrin wrote to the SABR list-serve, “Tim Kurkjian was the only reporter I heard yesterday who was even remotely fair to Bonds. The ESPN poll – over 60% think there should be asterisks next to his numbers and more think steroids are worse than gambling – was absurd, but egged on by a slanted press. ESPN actually had several people say Giambi should be complemented for being a stand-up guy when he was the one who admitted guilt.”

Thus personalized, the issue became at once larger (more heat if not more light) and smaller (almost all of the talk focusing on Bonds). Were his civil and legal rights (and Giambi’s of course) violated? Of course. But who would stand up for something as un-sexy as due process when schadenfreude (one’s delight in another’s misery) was in bloom? While I recognize as well as anyone the societal value of scapegoats and burnt offerings, I must point out that we have all gone quite mad, and neither baseball nor the world as we know it will change anytime soon, let alone come to an apocalyptic end.

As Zitrin continued, “Even if the cream and the clear (the two medications that not only Bonds but also Yankee outfielder Gary Sheffield had received from the same trainer) had been identified and added to the [Federal] controlled substance schedule, nothing in those sections prevents the POSSESSION, just the making or distribution. This means that Bonds’ use of the steroids, and indeed Giambi’s acknowledged KNOWING use of the steroids, were almost certainly not crimes. Since this use was not against baseball ‘laws’ either, as no MLB policy banned these newly fashioned substances, neither will be suspended. Nor should they be, any more than [Mark] McGwire should have been [for using androstenedione, a substance now banned as a steroid but sold over the counter back in 1998 when he established a new home run record of 70]. You can be suspended for breaking a rule, not for breaking a future rule.”

President Bush had made baseball’s drug problem a bully-pulpit issue in his State of the Union address, and Senator John McCain of Arizona recently “suggested” that Congress would be happy to clean baseball’s house if baseball could not do so itself. SABR member Mary Groebner wondered whether Federal intervention in baseball’s business was even possible, given the landmark ruling by the Supreme Court of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1922 that baseball was not an interstate business, but rather a series of localized exhibitions by vagabond players.

Larry W. Boes, an antitrust litigator and counselor for about thirty years, ncluding a case on baseball, offered this view to the SABR listserve: “Thus, just as Congress has comprehensively banned ‘controlled substances’ in interstate commerce (except under strictly limited medically prescribed safeguards), so also it might attempt to require drug-testing of all professional athletes competing ‘in interstate commerce.’ This has traditionally been viewed very broadly. Recent decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court have put some outer limits on that authority, for example, in United States v. Lopez, 514 U.S. 549 (1995), the Court held unconstitutional a law making it a federal crime to possess a gun within some distance of a school, holding there had to be some connection with or effect upon ‘interstate commerce’ in order to make this a federal crime. But here, there is no doubt that Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, Victor Conte and others pursue their trades and business in interstate commerce and that their sale, use or distribution (or not) of anabolic steroids might adversely affect that trade and commerce. If such a law were enacted (or even seriously threatened), any MLB or union opposition would melt like ice cream in a southwestern sun.

“Has anyone seriously questioned mandatory federal drug-testing of truck drivers, locomotive engineers or heavy-equipment operators (or in my village our municipal garbage truck drivers), even when they might never cross a state lane in their trade or business? The danger of drug use (say, amphetamines) on interstate highways or even state or local highways might seem more dangerous than the use of anabolic steroids to aid an already skillful batter get more weight, pop and sustained speed in his swing, but if this legislation is drafted and hearings held, we’ll hear a lot about players as national role models for youngsters and the corrosive and unforeseeable effects of steroids on the long-term health of countless athletes. One might express some skepticism about such claims, but given the present furor on the subject, such a law would be difficult for any legislator to oppose (or not enthusiastically support). As a matter of fact, did anyone seriously complain when anabolic steroids were added to the list of federally controlled substances?’”

This is surely the path by which players and owners will come to the same conclusion: that external regulation is inevitable if they decline internal responsibility. Until this past week, the players’ union had quite properly resisted opening up a collective bargaining pact that had another two years to run. And the owners had been properly sensitive to the civil rights issues surrounding drug testing, in which all are presumed guilty until proved innocent. Sub rosa, they had been highly sensitive as well to the prospect of their regulations working to deprive them of some their best assets, through suspensions or even exile.

In this regard, the drug situation is reminiscent of the 1919 Black Sox Scandal, in which not only Buck Weaver had guilty knowledge that a “fix” was in, but so did Charles Comiskey, the club’s sole owner, who knew that his successful “investigation” only meant the destruction of his family’s fortune. Furthermore, the owners and players’ bullheadedness had brought baseball to the brink of disaster in 1994, when the season was stopped on August 12 and the World Series was canceled. It was not until this past year that baseball attendance surpassed, on a franchise-equivalent basis, the figures of a decade ago. What had returned the fans to their seats was the home-run duel between the Cardinals’ McGwire and the Cubs’ Sammy Sosa, and then the heroics of Barry Bonds commencing in 2000 and running up to the present day. It has been argued that fans flocked to the ballparks because of interesting teams and tight pennant races, but these were plentiful between 1995 and 2000 too.

Baseball has enjoyed a long and colorful history of dealing … or not … with the abuse of controlled substances as well as plain old John Barleycorn. Tommy Barlow, shortstop of the Hartford Blue Stockings in the 1870s, earned two distinctions: he invented the bunt hit and he became the game’s first dope addict, held in thrall to morphine after an on-field injury.

As the late Joe Overfield wrote in the first edition of Total Baseball, “Countless players of the game’s early years were lushes. Liquor was readily available to them, often on the house, and there was plenty of time for carousing, especially when on the road. Some of the worst offenders were quietly blacklisted and faded from the game. Others who were heavy drinkers continued in uniform, because they were star players and the owners winked at their alcoholic escapades. Future Hall of Famer Michael “King” Kelly, for example, drank as hard as he played; yet in 1887 Boston paid an unheard-of $10,000 to Chicago for his contract. Toward the end of his career, he opened a saloon in New York, which was like putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop. His performance level deteriorated rapidly, and by 1894 he was in the minors. That fall he developed pneumonia, and on November 8 he died at the age of 36.”

A list of baseball’s biggest drinkers would have to include Babe Ruth, who in the years 1920-33 could also have been called an abuser of a controlled substance. As Steve Hall wrote in that first edition of Total Baseball as well, “That fine Yankee tradition was upheld by Mantle and [Whitey] Ford, aided and abetted by their drinking partner Billy Martin. But alcoholism unquestionably shortened the career of Cub outfielder Hack Wilson, and drinking problems came to be associated with such players as Paul Waner, Jimmie Foxx, Don Newcombe, Ryne Duren, and Dennis Martinez, to mention but a few. For many decades, during which sportswriting shared more with hagiography than with journalism, incidents of alcohol abuse never reached the public. It could be argued that only upon the publication of Ball Four by Jim Bouton in 1970 did the hangover earn its rightful spot in the locker room.”

Bouton also highlighted the prevalent use of “greenies,” later augmented by “red juice.” Were these performance enhancers? You betcha. And the players typically received them not from a Victor Conte or anyone associated with BALCO, but from the team’s trainer.

Recreational drugs like cocaine, marijuana, and LSD (Dock Ellis of Pittsburgh claimed he had thrown a no-hitter while tripping!) were the ruin of many a fine young man in the 1980s, and the baseball field proved no exception. Dwight Gooden, Vida Blue, Dale Berra, Darryl Strawberry, all suffered suspensions. Montreal base-stealing sensation Tim Raines may have epitomized the period when he admitted that he often slid headfirst into second base during a steal so as to protect the gram bottle of cocaine he kept in his back pocket. Unless instead of Raines you look to the truly harrowing story of San Diego second baseman Alan Wiggins, who died on January 6, 1991 of an AIDS-related pneumonia. Only 32 years old, the fleet and gifted athlete had wasted away to only 75 pounds at the time of death.

But steroids are not recreational drugs. They are designed to boost performance and prolong careers, and thus they translate to money for both athlete and owner, as they had translated to glory for East Germany in the Olympic competitions of the 1960s and 1970s. Yet the athlete may pay a price nearly as terrible as that paid by Wiggins. As Sean Lahman wrote to the SABR listserve, “The tragedy was given a face by Lyle Alzado, a four time Pro Bowl defensive end, who died from brain cancer at the age of 43. He spoke out about the problem in an interview with Sports Illustrated in 1991:

“‘Istarted taking anabolic steroids in 1969 [in college] and never stopped. It was addicting, mentally addicting. Now I’m sick, and I’m scared. Ninety per cent of the athletes I know are on the stuff. We’re not born to be 300 pounds or jump 30 feet. But all the time I was taking steroids, I knew they were making me play better. I became very violent on the field and off it. I did things only crazy people do. Once a guy sideswiped my car and I beat the hell out of him. Now look at me. My hair’s gone, I wobble when I walk and have to hold on to someone for support, and I have trouble remembering things. My last wish? That no one else ever dies this way.’
“Alzado was immensely popular, and that helped drive the NFL to adopt strict anti-steroid policies and a mandatory testing program. While a handful of players test positive each year, rampant steroid abuse is no longer a problem in the NFL.

“Eleven years after SI published Alzado’s revealing interview, they published a strikingly similar story from Kan Caminiti. Rather than prompting a call to action, baseball folks dismissed Caminiti’s claims of wide spread steroid abuse within baseball. Caminiti’s death at the age of 41 did not serve as the same sort of wakeup call as Alzado’s did. Sadly, I fear that nobody will be outraged until a bigger star faces an early death.

“Anyone in St. Louis know how Mark McGwire’s doing? He turned 41 in October.”

Steroid use is not a drug issue the way that cocaine was. Steroids, human growth hormone, etc., invoke the matter of cheating, which baseball has always encouraged or winked at, from Gaylord Perry’s spitter to the 1951 Giants’ sign-stealing or Whitey Ford’s scuffball. As fans, we like rules-flouters if they are bad-boy rockers or sympathetically helpless drug-crippled Hollywood stars. Why must baseball and baseball alone be the museum for our archaic values?

As I wrote in the latest edition of Total Baseball, “Barry Bonds has surpassed long-held records, changed the way his opponents play the game, and distanced himself from the performance level of his peers to a degree not thought possible, let alone made real, since the days of Babe Ruth. Over the course of half a century of paying serious attention to baseball, I have never seen anyone like him.”

Are you convinced that Bonds is the greatest? I didn’t think so.
--John Thorn

Baseball and Bullshit; or, The New National Pastime

From "Play's the Thing," the Woodstock Times, March 24, 2005:
Baseball is in danger, everyone agrees. Player salaries are skyrocketing while revenues — and soon, perhaps, teams — are contracting. Operating losses in the smaller-market cities are papered over with hope that a greater fool can be found to purchase the franchise at a price greater than that paid by the current fool. The abuse of controlled substances has called into question fans’ faith in the game and the integrity of its records.

Let’s review for a moment just how we got here.

There was much woe and lamentation in the seventies that the game was dying. Commentators bemoaned the sluggish play by roving mercenaries who had no loyalty to the teams or their fans; the players’ coming to the ballpark high, hung over, or strung out; the all-too-common consort with criminals; the inept and fractious ownership. But baseball bounced back in the next decade to reclaim its place as the national pastime: new heroes, spirited competition, and booming prosperity gave birth to dreams of expansion, both within the major leagues and around the world.

And then came the nineties, when owners, suddenly frightened that they had ceded control to the players, sought to restore baseball’s profitability by “running the game like a business”: they looked for ways to clamp down on salaries, reorganize the leagues to favor the big-market cities, and make real-estate fortunes from their ballparks. As we rolled into a new century, baseball was still struggling to recapture fans’ loyalty.

If I haven’t made myself clear, this worrisome chain of events describes the game of the nineteenth century. Yes, we’ve seen it all before. And yes, those who do not study history are condemned to repeat it. Baseball is such a great game that neither the owners nor the players have been able to kill it, if not for lack of trying. But over the last decade a venomous drip, detectable in the game ever since the Knickerbockers cavorted on the Elysian Fields in the 1840s, has now begun to resemble a tsunami.

Let’s call this tidal wave what it is: bullshit. Not as direct as a lie, which stands in opposition to the truth; not as endearing as hokum, which P.T. Barnum served up with a wink and a nudge to knowing patrons; and certainly not the truth, which is only dimly acknowledged by bullshit practitioners. In the furtherance of an aim, bullshit is foisted upon the public with utter indifference to the truth and guiltlessness about deception.

Until recently in respectable literary circles, none dared call this phenomenon by its pungent name. Academics like Daniel Boorstin certainly addressed the subject in such titles as The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, in which he observed that sport seems to offer us “a last refuge of the authentic, uncorrupted spontaneous event … an oasis of the uncontrived.” He might as well have said sport was a no-bullshit zone, but Boorstin was a proper sort, given to wearing a bow tie.

It was left to Harry G. Frankfurt, a retired professor of philosophy at Princeton, to call a turd a turd. In the fall 1986 issue of Raritan, he published an essay titled “On Bullshit.” Frankfurt reprinted the essay two years later in his book The Importance of What We Care About: Philosophical Essays, and in January it was reissued as a tiny gift book for bullshit practitioners, victims, or connoisseurs (On Bullshit, Princeton University Press, $9.95). In truth this is a fairly dry examination of a droll subject, with little puerile appeal beyond its admirable title and unsettling avoidance of euphemism: “Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it,” Frankfurt writes. “So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, or attracted much sustained inquiry. In consequence, we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves.” In May we will see a larger if perhaps less philosophically rigorous book on the phenomenon: Laura Penny’s Your Call Is Important to Us: The Truth About Bullshit (McClelland & Stewart, $21.95).

The difference between lying and bullshitting rests in the bullshitter’s complete disregard for facts. According to Frankfurt he “does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.” In other words, the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony: the words may be true or false, no matter; the intent of the bullshitter is merely to persuade by any and all means.

This puts one in mind of the original rationale for going to war in Iraq, of course. However, for a combination of sanctimoniousness and political calculation it would be difficult to equal what we have seen in recent days: the Congressional hearings on steroids in major-league baseball and the legislative affirmation of the right to life for Terri Schiavo. To detect bullshit in these proceedings may seem offensive, as both cases epitomize genuine issues – for families, though, not for politicians. From the Volstead Act to the new bankruptcy law, politicians have sought to impress us with the strength of their convictions (or connections) rather than the cogency of their arguments. Madison Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue are two addresses for the same fetid phenomenon.

For all those who would dispense some sort of bullshit, the common imperative is earnestness. The most astounding things may be uttered without eliciting a murmur of protest if one wears a pained or beatific expression. The postmodern skepticism of objective truth (i.e., all perspectives are tainted, even “facts” are tinged by who musters them) today favors sincerity as somehow delivering a subjectively true and thus more authentic experience … as if Benny Hinn were to be trusted over Socrates. “Our natures, are indeed, elusively insubstantial,” Frankfurt concludes, “notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.”

I am put in mind of Mary McCarthy’s famous assessment of Lillian Hellman: “Every word she says is a lie, including and and the.” Or in the words of one of my elbow-bending mentors, “Once you can fake sincerity the rest is easy.”

In Congress that wisdom produced the long and largely redundant photo-op on baseball and steroids, followed by requests from our finest fawning representatives for autographs by the stars. Because I have written on the subject of players’ controlled-substance abuse recently in this space (“Steroids: The Fault Is Not in Our Stars,” December 9, 2004. present in this blog), for now let me share only my shorthand view of steroids and human growth hormone. They are dangerous and worrisome, and different from recreational drugs if not from amphetamines in this sense: they are performance enhancers and thus their use is not merely immoral or illegal, but also cheating. But baseball players and owners have always cheated, from spitballs to corked bats, from the reserve clause to municipality shopping; indeed, one of the game’s ten commandments has always been “It ain’t cheating if you don’t get caught.”

My problem with the glare of the Congressional klieg lights was succinctly stated on a recent baseball listserv by John Pastier:

“Hearings such as this are a farce, when Congress is unable or unwilling to deal with a myriad of far more pressing national and international problems. Given its dismal performance in recent years, a hearing such as this offers Congress a chance to posture over a relatively minor issue while ignoring or even actively exacerbating more important problems … the fact is that the steroid hearings are, in themselves, a classic and cynical example of the politics of distraction.”

This goes doubly for the sad spectacle that yielded the Terri Schiavo legislation. Professor Frankfurt might call both bullshit. I would say that Congressional egos were juiced.
--John Thorn

Athlete plus Gun Equals Hero

From "The Delicate Balance," the Cincinati News Record, April 29, 2004:
It's time to find out if it is possible to avoid speaking ill of the dead while disagreeing completely with everything the media reports about the subject.

Let us start with a positive memory.

Way back in December of 1998 I came down with a strep infection that nearly killed me. I spent a bunch of days in University Hospital watching TV and eating more Jell-O than a man's ever seen.

When I was released and sent home to my attic bedroom I was still extremely weak from my illness. The first week back was basically a liquid Codeine inspired haze, but I distinctly remember how hyped I was for the NFL Playoffs. Watching TV was all I could physically do for awhile, so I was even more excited to tune in than usual. I am an ardent New York Giants fan.

Consequently, I have a soft spot in my heart for whites that play in the defensive secondary. There's a reason there is only a handful of Caucasians playing safety and cornerback in the NFL. It's called ability. The perennial doormat Arizona Cardinals' Wild Card game against the Cowboys was the first game of the day of Jan. 2. I noticed they had a white guy with hair flowing from underneath his helmet roaming the secondary.

A few hours later, the Cards had prevailed 20-7. Even though they got lit up like a Mafia owned Tiki-bar and sent home by the Vikings a week later, I was still rather impressed by Pat Tillman, the long hair who looked like he belonged in the mosh pit of an Alice in Chains show rather than the NFL. There is a particular novelty to players who defy the mold of the position they play.

I thought Tillman was a skilled football player, but I don't think his face should be carved into the side of Mt. Rushmore just yet. His death in Afghanistan has been portrayed in a similar fashion to the plane crash death of Roberto Clemente, whose plane crashed while he was attempting to deliver earthquake relief supplies in his native country.

I have a theory that if you make your life's work walking around combat zones with an assault rifle you might end up dead. Tillman eschewed multimillion-dollar contract offers in favor of enlisting. He and his brother went so far as to request being put into a Special Forces infantry, where intense combat was essentially guaranteed. Tillman went to Iraq, carried his gun around the whole time and made it back in one piece. Apparently that wasn't enough playing army for him. He pressed his luck, went to play "Find Osama" and came back in a body bag.

It is certainly unfortunate to witness the loss of life, but the saying about living by the sword and dying by it rings true. As long as the cycle of aggression and violence is perpetuated people are going to die. Even NFL players. Thousands of women and children have been killed as a result of our military involvement abroad, yet the death of an athlete is somehow a million times more important. I'm beginning to understand why the majority of Europeans view our fancy-belt-buckle-wearing president as a greater threat to world peace than anyone hiding in a cave or a hidden cellar.

I am disgusted by the sensationalist coverage of the death of a man who played with fire and got burned. There, I said it.
--Isaac Thorn;

Frank Pidgeon grave, photo by Mark Thorn Posted by Hello

Finding Frank Pidgeon

From "Play's the Thing," the Woodstock Times, July 15, 2004:
You may know me as a baseball writer or, better yet, as a neighbor. The editors have generously asked me to start a column that reflects what I care about. Apart from family, what seems important to me is play, a more serious activity than work and one that reveals more about who we are or wish to be. Work is performed under duress; play, never. And the work that seems most like play to me is rummaging around in history’s attic, often emerging into the light empty-handed only to discover what was in plain sight all along.

The subject of this debut column is a man famous long ago and vanished since … only to turn up in our backyard. His name is Frank Pidgeon. He was baseball’s greatest pitcher in the 1850s and the founder of one of its fabled clubs. He was a pioneer shipbuilder whose colleague in the Brooklyn shipyards and lifelong friend was George Steers, the man who built the racing yacht America, for which the America’s Cup is named. He went round Cape Horn to California in 1849 to make his mark in the Gold Rush, and came back overland across the Isthmus of Panama. He was an engineer, a painter, a musician, an entrepreneur, an inventor. For the last twenty years of his life he lived in Saugerties, where today no one knows his name.

Fame is fleeting, we know. The fame of a mayfly was mine this past May, when the media descended upon me for scores of interviews about my discovery of a document that revealed baseball was played in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in 1791, far earlier than previous mentions. When the phone stopped ringing last month, I confess I missed it, in the puzzled way one misses a constant toothache that has suddenly disappeared.

Frank Pidgeon’s descent from fame to oblivion has been complete, a course we will hope to reverse with this column. The man who followed him as the greatest pitcher of the age, Jim Creighton, was remembered upon his death with a mighty obelisk in Brooklyn’s Greenwood Cemetery. Where was Pidgeon’s monument? Five years ago I received a good-hearted tip that Pidgeon had not only had a splendid home in the hamlet of Malden, which I knew, but that he was also buried there, on the Asa Bigelow property that he had purchased in 1860. My three sons and I clambered up and down an ivy-covered hill that contained an above-ground tomb, but it was not Pidgeon’s.

Readying a new book on early baseball this year rekindled my interest in finding Frank Pidgeon. I realized that I had a better chance of understanding how and where he came to reside in death if I better understood his life. So let me tell you who he was, to the extent I have learned that, and where he is, which I found only yesterday.

Francis Pidgeon was born in the Eleventh Ward of New York on February 11, 1825 to Irish-American parents. As a young man he entered the ship- and yacht-building trades. After his return from California, he married Mary Elizabeth Orr, with whom he was to have six children: Francis Jr, Mary, Annie, Jeannette, John, and Isabelle. (Isabelle died at age seven while the others lived into adulthood; I list them in the hope some readers may know a thing or two about them and be willing to share.)

At about the same time he also secured a patent for “a useful improvement in machinery for making Thimbles,” as reported in The Scientific American of December 13, 1851. (“The improvement consists in the employment of two rollers, of which one is divided transversely to its axis, and in combination with a stationary bar….”) In later years he also invented the only successful steam traction plow ever made.

In 1855 Pidgeon, along with fellow shipbuilders, founded the Eckford Base Ball Club of Brooklyn, one of the legendary early clubs and a national champion. Despite his advanced years (he had passed his thirtieth birthday), he was a great all-around player who captained the nine and played several positions. In the three all-star games of 1858, pitting the best of Brooklyn against the best of Manhattan, he was selected each time and, when he pitched, won the lone game Brooklyn was able to capture. He was a competent second baseman, shortstop, and left fielder, but he won his fame as a pitcher not of the speedy or wild variety that emerged in the 1860s, but as the paragon of “headwork,” changing speeds and arcs while pitching “fairly to the bat,” as was the mandate back then.

Frank Pidgeon was a pure amateur who played baseball for the love of the game. When “revolving”—inexplicable player movements from team to team, no doubt spurred by under-the-table inducements—became a problem, he authored the National Association of Base Ball Players bill against professionalism. He even spoke out against some clubs’ practice of recruiting young players with no visible means of support and then paying them expense money so that they could travel to play ball. “I suppose that you will admit,” Pidgeon wrote to the editor of The Spirit of the Times in 1858, “that a man who does not pay his obligations, and has in his power to do so, is a knave and not fit to be trusted in a game of ball or anything else; and if he has not the money, his time would better [be] spent in earning the same than playing ball—business first, pleasure afterwards.”

In 1860 the aformentioned Jim Creighton became the most prominent player to receive pay for his services, and other sub rosa professionals followed. Pidgeon walked away from the playing field after 1863 and within a year or so took his growing family up the Hudson to make a new home in the Saugerties area. He maintained business offices in Long Island City, where as a contractor he continued to do extensive dock-building and landfill work for the cities of New York and Brooklyn. Pidgeon had accumulated significant wealth through his contracting activities, frequently accepting parcels of land that he had filled, in lieu of cash. In the 1870 Federal Census the value of his real estate owned is $91,250 (multiply by twenty to get a comparable figure today); his personal property was worth an additional $18,000.

The family had three domestic servants and one farm laborer, and they built a spacious $30,000 home in Malden, depicted in an Edward Jernegan photo in the 1875 photo-monthly, The Pearl. “Paintings by his own hand adorned his parlors,” reported The New York Clipper.

Pidgeon’s eldest son, Frank Jr., joined him in the contracting business by 1870 and married Mary Kiersted, whose fine home on Main Street is today the Saugerties Historical Society. When Frank Jr. poured new concete floors for the old house, he inlaid his signature pigeons in four locations, still visible today. Frank Jr.’s success continued, and he was one of three baseball-buff petitioners whose efforts culminated in the creation of a fine ball diamond at what is now known as Cantine Field.

But Frank Sr.’s unbroken string of successes finally snapped. A Brooklyn commission investigated cost overruns and halting progress on a bridge project to which his crews and leased equipment had been heavily committed. The municipality held up his invoices as creditors pursued him for payment. A five-year pattern of underbidding municipal jobs so as to leave no profit in them, only parcels of land, had dried up his cash on hand and left him vulnerable. In 1881 he was forced to assign his assets for the benefit of creditors and to declare bankruptcy. His business was gone, and so was his fine home. By 1883 he was working for his son’s still thriving contracting business, overseeing construction; in April 1884 he was compelled to leave Saugerties altogether and relocate to a rented home in Harlem.

Let the contemporary accounts tell the rest. The Kingston Daily Leader, whose editor was Pidgeon’s son-in-law John W. Searing, wrote: “SAUGERTIES, June 14. On Friday afternoon the sad intelligence reached here by way of telegram that Francis Pidgeon, formerly of this place, late of Harlem was dead. His son-in-law Howard Gillespy had left him only the evening before in good health and spirit and as the telegram failed to state the cause of death, it was surmised that he had died suddenly of heart disease. This morning however that idea was soon dispelled, when it was learned that while he was walking along the track near High Bridge, a north bound train of the New York Central Railroad struck him and he was instantly killed. He was in that locality superintending a contract made by his son Frank with the Astors to lay out and sewer certain grounds on the Harlem River. [Why a man looking to place sewers would be walking along the tracks is a question that did not require an answer in the subtly polite newspapers of the day, let alone one managed by the family of the deceased.]

“Mr. Pigeon [sic] had resided in this village for about fifteen years, he erected an elegant and costly residence upon the bank of the Hudson river, which was recently sold to John G. Myer of Albany for $15,000, about half its cost….Of late years his business contracts proved quite disastrous, and although at one time it was supposed that he was quite affluent, yet he died a poor man. His untimely death is generally regretted in this village and vicinity. He was sixty years of age.”

The Kingston Daily Freeman later reported: “The funeral of Mr. Francis Pidgeon took place from the Reformed Church, on Saturday afternoon at 5 o’clock. It was largely attended. The remains were interred in the new village cemetery at the head of Main street. Rev. Dr. Wortman officiated. The remains were not exposed to the view of the assemblage, being so badly disfigured.”

Here was new information. Not buried in Malden after all, but in the village of Saugerties. But where, precisely? A tip took me out to the tiny, picturesque Lutheran Cemetery on Ulster Avenue, with my photographer son Mark ready to click the great discovery. This proved a bum steer. Corrected information received that evening took me to the Mountain View Cemetery next day … but where was Pidgeon to be found? The custodian’s listing appeared to have Frank, Jr, but not his illustrious father. And then there it was, right along the path, behind a boulder with a bronze plate emblazoned, “PIDGEON.” Couldn’t miss it, although the previous day we had.

Mark and I wrote a message for Frank Pidgeon on a baseball that we signed and left at his headstone. Safe at home.
--John Thorn

The Takanassee Pool, photo by Mark Thorn Posted by Hello

Mangled Forms

From "Play's the Thing, The Woodstock Times, July 29, 2004:
Stephen Hawking, the Cambridge University mathematician, is famous in this country for his best-selling if little-read Brief History of Time and for his role in an episode of The Simpsons. On July 21, 2004, in a paper to the 17th International Conference on General Relativity and Gravitation in Dublin, he recanted his long-held theory that black holes destroy all the “information” they consume, reporting instead that these collapsed stars spit out matter and energy “in a mangled form.” With this tilt back to the mainstream of quantum physics he also settled a bet he had made in 1997 with Caltech astrophysicist John Preskill, who had insisted that matter consumed by black holes could not be destroyed. The loser was to provide the winner with the encyclopedia of the winner’s choice, a repository of either indestructible or migratory information.

At the conference Dr. Hawking presented Professor Preskill with the reference work he requested—Total Baseball, which I have edited through eight editions since 1989—after having it expressed to the Dublin conference from the U.S. “I had great difficulty in finding one over here,” Hawking told reporters, “so I offered him an encyclopedia of cricket as an alternative but John wouldn't be persuaded of the superiority of cricket.”

A few days before the conference, appearing on the British Broadcasting Corp.’s Newsnight program, Hawking tiptoed around the major announcement he planned for Dublin. “A black hole only appears to form but later opens up and releases information about what fell inside,” he indicated. “So we can be sure of the past and predict the future.” This remark has set me to thinking.

Fleischmanns, New York, is an appealingly forlorn spot 30 minutes from Woodstock and 50 if not 100 years from the rest of America. Its old-fashioned Catskills summers—fresh air, cool mountain nights, porch sitting, ball playing, swimming, and dozing off in lawn chairs—have been swallowed up in this country’s black hole of visceral diversion, cheap transport, and festive biodomes in steamy locales uninhabitable before the advent of contrived cold air. In Fleischmanns the mangled evidence of its former glories has not yet become unrecognizable; on the contrary, the eerie remains of grand hotels and the burnt offerings of desperate arsons form the spur to memory. In this somewhat remote place, determined individuals and families who love the old ways are working to be sure of the past; the extent of their success will indeed predict the future of Fleischmanns and so many other communities whose histories, if properly understood and conveyed, are their principal assets.

John Duda is one such person. As a trustee of the Skene Memorial Library (a handsome 1902 building on Main Street) and the Greater Fleischmanns Museum of Memories, a granny’s-attic barn alongside the library, he proudly rummaged through some of the museum’s treasures. Billheads, photographs, postcards, scorecards, tools, menus—all attested to a vibrant Fleischmanns whose permanent population ca. 1940 reached 500 (today it is 351); but by the Fourth of July back then, it was said there would be 10,000 folks in town. While recent summers have brought no trainloads of tourists, Mr. Duda loves the Fleischmanns that was and, while he works toward the community that might be, it was plain that he loved the Fleischmanns that is.

And so do I. I loved it when I was 5, vacationing at a local bungalow colony with my extended family, and I loved it two decades later, when it was time for me to leave New York City with my wife and four-month-old son and look for a new home in the old Catskills. The swarms of tourists were gone, but I figured the mountains were still there, so was the air, and one could make out pretty well on a small purse. While I live there no longer, the place still tugs at me whenever I visit. For years the onset of spring—which in our household meant the chance to play, watch, and chatter about baseball—was not assured until my sons and I drove up to Fleischmanns—gloves, bat and ball in the trunk—to cavort on the field along Wagner Avenue where we knew Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb and other major leaguers had once played (either as autumn hunting guests of the Fleischmann brothers or as ringers brought in for the semi-pro team they sponsored). Local legend had it that the elders of Fleischmanns named the Avenue for Honus Wagner, but that has since proven to be apocryphal.

Julius and Max Fleischmann came to this community to escape the heat of Cincinnati summers around 1883, when it was called Griffin Corners. (The newly incorporated village was renamed “Fleischmanns” in 1913, after the family’s donation of the ballfield.) Their father, Charles, who had founded the Fleischmanns distilling and yeast companies, had just bought land west of the village near the Ulster & Delaware railroad station. The Fleischmanns and their friends soon built summer homes that were the stuff of fantasy, with porches, turrets, and terraces and costly interior trappings; the Fleischmanns’ grounds included a deer park, a riding stable, a heated pool filled with spring water, and a trout pond. Jewish families—not welcome in many respectable hotels of the region, despite their wealth and stature in New York City—flocked to the new hotels that also sprang up in the region. Entertainment was provided by Broadway and operatic stars of the first rank, furloughed for part of the summer because of the city’s heat. Some, like Julia Marlowe and Amelita Galli Curci, built fine summer homes in the hills.

Julius joined his father’s firm out of prep school and by age 28 he was elected mayor of Cincinnati in 1900; his popularity won him a second term as well. He and older brother Max became principal owners of the Cincinnati Reds in 1902, and they even had, secretly, a piece of the Philadelphia Phillies, too, a breach of baseball law even in those lawless days. But the Fleischmann brothers, for all their success back in Cincinnati, were active sportsmen first and foremost—polo players, yachtsmen, hunters, and would-be baseball players. In the summer, away from their home town, they had no way to see or play their beloved game. So, anticipating the movie Field of Dreams, they built a fine ballgrounds (by 1903 it could accommodate 5,000 spectators) and started up a team; as if it were just another trout pond, they stocked the Mountain Athletic Club—also known as the Mountain Tourists—with the best players they could buy, generally professionals or high-caliber collegians willing to play under pseudonyms that would safeguard their amateur eligibility. Honus Wagner may not have given his name to the avenue beside the playing field, but he did play with the Fleischmanns club in 1895 along with Max Fleischmann, who did the best he could in the outfield. (Manager of that team was Harry M. Stevens of Niles, Ohio, who five years later would wrap a frankfurter in a bun and, after seeing cartoonist Tad Dorgan’s characterization of the wiener as a dachshund, call it a hot dog.) In the first years of the new century, the Fleischmanns club featured such future major leaguers as Miller Huggins (playing as “Proctor,”) Red Dooin, Doc White, Jiggs Donahue, Barney McFadden, George Rohe, and Kingston-born Pete Cregan.

The New York Sun of July 12, 1900 observed that the Mountain Athletic Club “diamond is at the base of the mountains and the field has been laid out with no sparing of expense. The grounds are inclosed [sic] with a wire-netting fence and there is a small grand stand, which is always devoted to the Messrs. Fleischmanns’ guests. Guarantees, as much as $150 a game, are paid to the clubs to play there, irrespective of the small gate receipts. The players are quartered at a first-class hotel, and are serenaded by a band once a week.”

On August 10, 1903 the Mountain A.C. played at home against the famous Cuban Giants, who featured Bill Galloway at 2B. He was the last African-American to play in an integrated professional league (for Woodstock of the Canadian League in 1899) until Jackie Robinson. The “Cubans” were held to one run by the Fleischmanns’ pitcher, “Goldburg.” Jews summered in Fleischmanns because they were excluded from other, tonier resorts; blacks had to play on teams of their own because they were excluded from both the major and minor leagues. This was an oddly emblematic contest.

Although the Catskills region may have exhibited more tolerance than other locales, its appetite for diversity was no greater. There were the Jewish Catskills (and among these, pockets devoted to specific national clientele: Rumanian, Hungarian, Austrian, German, etc.). There were Irish Catskills. There were Italian Catskills. Oh, there still are such designated areas, but the national pursuit of homogenization and standardization has robbed them of authentic flavor.

In any event, the era of the grand hotel—atop Highmount or tucked in the hills along the Delaware River—is forever gone at Fleischmanns, and hurtling along toward its exit in Sullivan County. An arson epidemic, not all of it inspired by insurance fraud, robbed the region of many fine buildings (remember the Catskill Mountain House?) that might have been reclaimed by later generations, more attuned to the economic and psychic value of preservation. The question must be asked: In the absence of tangible ruin, how can we “be sure of the past and predict the future,” in Stephen Hawking’s words?

A pilgrimage to the site of the Takanassee Hotel in Fleischmanns, scorched or torched in 1971, reveals a fantastic remnant. Two massive stone pillars along the roadside invite the pilgrim to a broad vista of parched earth, bulldozed up the hill to where the hotel once stood. Where the clearing efforts appear to have ceased, nature has begun to reclaim her ancient right of way. Walk a little into the overgrowth, past the incongruous concrete slab and there!—in the sacred wood—a vast reservoir, filled to the rim, with fat fish swimming lazily amid the wrecked lumber tossed in long ago. This was the hallmark of the Takanassee—the famously huge swimming pool, 275 feet long, nearly a football field, and 145 feet wide. Information mangled beyond recognition, yet with the aid of memory, revivified.

--John Thorn

The first dime novel, 1860 Posted by Hello

Virgins, Villains, and Violence; or, That Dastardly Dime Novel

From "Wake the Echoes," the Kingston Times, March 17, 2005:
“Touch but a hair of her head, and by the Lord that made me, I will bespatter that tree with your brains!”

This is from page ten of the first dime novel, Malaeska: The Indian Wife of the White Hunter. It was not long before such chilling propositions would become the first words on page one.

“We will have the money, or she shall die!”

“Bang! Bang! Bang! Three shots rang out on the midnight air!”

Or my favorite, uttered by the evil Duke of Tula in The Gunmaker of Moscow by Sylvanus Cobb: “‘Rosalind Valdar,’ he hissed, ‘my bed shall be your bed! My will shall be your master! My lust shall feed upon your charms, and your body shall be minister to my passions! I’ll use thee — use thee as I list — and when I tire of thee I’ll cast thee out into the streets for dogs to bark at; for men to sneer at; and for all honest women to shun! So will I do if you become not my wife! God in heaven witness!’”

The aforementioned tale containing the proposal to deck the tree with bits of brain opens peacefully enough: “The traveller who has stopped at Catskill, on his way up the Hudson, will remember that a creek of no insignificant breadth washes one side of the village.” The authoress of these bucolic words was Mrs. Ann S. Stephens, already well known for novels serialized in such high-society magazines as The Ladies’ Companion, Graham’s Magazine, Peterson’s Magazine, and Godey’s Lady’s Book. So how, from this prim and proper start, did the dime novel come to symbolize all that was overwrought if not downright sleazy?

“The writers of the early dime novel,” according to Edmund Pearson in his 1929 study, “were reverently following the lead of Cooper and Scott, and had not the slightest intention of composing ‘sensational’ fiction.” Yet Mrs. Stephens’s 128-page, four-by-six, yellow-back melodrama (the books came to be named for the color of their covers, although their publisher felt compelled to repeat, like Christo, that the color was saffron, dammit) was about an Indian woman whose white husband is killed by her dying father’s hand. She carries their son to his grandfather in New York, who forbids her to live openly as the boy’s mother. She attempts to reclaim her boy to a savage life and fails, leaving her son on the island of Manhattan, then returns to her tribe, yet somehow (don’t ask) is not murdered. Ultimately she reconnects with her son on his wedding day and reveals his parentage, resulting in his suicide and her death.

The appearance of this cheery saga in June 1860 was a sensation. Malaeska sold gratifyingly well, with some estimates at 300,000 the first year. The publishers of the dime series, Erastus Flavel Beadle and Irwin Pedro Beadle, were soon proclaimed wizards of commerce and even, as radio and television would be in their earliest days, possible forces for uplifting social and educational values. The Beadles also published a series of similar little pamphlets, including dime books of jokes, songs, verse, cooking, etiquette, speeches, dance instruction, and even tax guides. The titles ran into the thousands and their sales into the millions.

But it is the novels that interest us at this moment: not only the 321 yellow-backs and 310 “illuminated” (i.e., colored) covers published between 1860 and 1885 by the house that came to be known as Beadle & Adams, but also the thousands more that issued forth from its competitors. What gave the dime novel birth were the industrial revolution, technological innovation — especially the creation of groundwood or “pulp” paper — and the premium placed on portable amusement with the advent of the Civil War. The broadsheet “story papers” that had been popular before the craze for dime novels could not be tossed into a knapsack as easily as a Beadle “dollar book for a dime.”

Reformers railed against the dime novels for their prurience, their racism, their encouragement to wasteful daydreaming, and the generally corrupting tendencies of their bare-legged lasses, mustachioed villains, and rampant gunplay. Literary types hated the genre for its formulaic plots, stilted dialogue, and illogical story development. As Edward Wagenknecht wrote, “In the usual sense of the term, no boy was ever corrupted by reading dime novels, for their heroes were not allowed to drink, smoke, swear, or make love. But killing Indians was another matter, and the reader’s nerves were battered by an unending succession of sensational incidents, dished up according to carefully prescribed formulas, with endless repetition of incident and utterly without grace of style.”

Writers like Gilbert Patten, author of more than a thousand titles behind the nom de plume of Burt L. Standish, dreamed of being the American Dickens when he started writing for Beadle in 1886. By the time he moved on to Munro and then, in 1895, Street & Smith, he was just another disillusioned hired pen, so tired of poverty that he was only too willing to write stories to order. Ormond Smith, senior partner in the firm, proposed very specifically how Patten ought develop a juvenile series built around a young man at a boarding school:

. . . something in the line of the Jack Harkaway stories, Gay Dashleigh series which we are running in Good News and the Island School series . . . the idea being to issue a library containing a series of stories covering this class of incident, in all of which will appear one prominent character surrounded by suitable satellites. It would be an advantage to the series to have introduced the Dutchman, the Negro, the Irishman, and any other dialect that you are familiar with . . .

It is important that the main character in the series should have a catchy name, such as Dick Lightheart, Jack Harkaway, Gay Dashleigh, Don Kirk, as upon this name will depend the title for the library.

The essential idea of this series is to interest young readers in the career of a young man at a boarding school, preferably a military or a naval academy. The stories should differ from the Jack Harkaways in being American and thoroughly up to date. Our idea is to issue, say, twelve stories, each complete in itself, but like the links in a chain, all dealing with life at the academy. By this time the readers will have become sufficiently well acquainted with the hero, and the author will also no doubt have exhausted most of the pranks and escapades that might naturally occur.

After the first twelve numbers, the hero is obliged to leave the academy, or takes it upon himself to leave. It is essential that he should come into a considerable amount of money at this period. When he leaves the academy he takes with him one of the professor’s servants, a chum. In fact any of the characters you have introduced and made prominent in the story. A little love element would also not be amiss, though this is not particularly important.

When the hero is once projected on his travels there is an infinite variety of incident to choose from. In the Island School Series, published by one of our London connections, you will find scenes of foreign travel with color. This material you are at liberty to use freely . . .

After we run through twenty or thirty numbers of this, we would bring the hero back and have him go to college - say, Yale University; thence we could take him on his travels again to the South Seas or anywhere. . . .

Two weeks later Patten sent in a story called “Frank Merriwell; or, First Days at Fardale” (dime-novel titles were always two-parters, including a semicolon and a comma). “The first of the Frank Merriwell stories appeared on April 18, 1896” wrote Ronald Weber in Hired Pens, “and thereafter they were a regular feature of Street & Smith’s Tip Top Weekly. Patten’s first contract covered a three-year period and paid him $50 for a 20,000-word story. Although the money was modest, the contract meant a regular income and Patten reasoned that at the rate of five thousand words a day he could finish a story in four days and have two left over for other work.” (Emphasis mine; as a fellow pen for hire, I can only gasp in shock, awe, and dismay.)

After writing 20 million words over 17 years as Burt L. Standish, plus millions more as Lefty Locke and who knows what else, Gilbert Patten went to his grave as the most famous American author no one knew. Yet in Frank Merriwell he gave us a hero for his age and, in a not instantly visible way, our own. No one today knows of Malaeska and few of Deadwood Dick, but everyone knows Frank Merriwell, the pride of Yale, supreme athlete, courageous hunter, and master ventriloquist who, in the words of his creator, stood for truth, faith, justice, the triumph of right, mother, home, friendship, loyalty, patriotism, the love of alma mater, duty, sacrifice, retribution, and strength of soul as well as body. Frank was manly; he had “sand” … and he was modest to a fault.

The formulaic quality of the series, the crudity of the cover illustrations, the implausibility of the settings and impossibility of the outcomes, all combined to deliver a bindingly archaic experience of Young America when it was strong and, like its dime-novel heroes, noble. There is a reason that our enduring heroic figures — strong, silent, resolute types like John Wayne, Ted Williams, Gary Cooper, and Ronald Reagan — echo an archetypal past, one that is, in the words of historian J.H. Plumb, “a psychological reality, used for a social purpose: to stress the virtues of courage, endurance, strength, loyalty and indifference to death.” In other words, the virtues embodied in Frank Merriwell, Davy Crockett, Kit Carson, and their dime-novel chums.

--John Thorn