Wednesday, September 30, 2020

From the Rental Vault: Against All Flags (1952)

Errol Flynn had an unusual worry when he began reading the script for his 1952 swashbucker Against All Flags. It wasn't that the movie had an unrealistic historical setting or featured a clearly Anglo actress as the supposed Princess Patma, daughter of the Moghul Emperor of India. It wasn't that the ship movements depicted onscreen seemed very little affected by the supposed wind (a captain at one point orders his crew, anchored alongside a wharf, to "make ready to come about").

No, the problem was that he was supposed to have a sword fight with a woman and he felt it wouldn't fit with his traditional image as "the bravest guy onscreen." But the woman was Maureen O'Hara, who had by that point gone face-to-face with John Wayne onscreen and John Ford in real life and come up the winner. Director George Sherman had worked with O'Hara before and told Flynn that she could hold her own with swords, pistols or her fists and he'd better get in shape. She could, he did, and the result was 80 minutes of frothy fun on the seas near Madagascar in the year 1700.

Flynn is Brian Hawke, a man pretending to be a disgraced British East India Company officer embittered by ill treatment and seeking to join the Madagascar-based pirates sailing out of Diego Suarez. O'Hara is Prudence "Spitfire" Stevens, a woman captain who inherited her piratical position from her father. She's wary of Flynn but thinks she can use him to get out of Madagascar and enter legal society back in England. Anthony Quinn is Roc Brasiliano, another captain whose desire for Spitfire only magnifies his mistrust of Hawke. Alice Kelley is the aforementioned "Princess Patma."

Hawke tries to keep Patma safe while keeping Brasiliano at a distance and woo Stevens -- in addition to his original mission of locating and disabling the pirates' land-based fortifications so Royal Navy ships can destroy their base.

As mentioned above, it's a completely superficial romp that hits all the right notes -- Quinn glowers and schemes, Flynn swashes, buckles and swaggers about and O'Hara keeps her powder dry while making it clear she is a woman who decides things for herself. Flynn was 43 and his hard-living personal life was taking its toll, but he takes on everything his role demands, even down to a stunt that involved sliding down a sail to the deck with the aid of a rapier thrust through it. He did break an ankle at one point, in a more ordinary scene, which allowed Universal to recast the sets and shoot the B-picture Yankee Buccaneer while he recovered.

Against All Flags has a number of scenes that make a modern viewer uneasy -- the sale of Princess Patma's captured retinue as "brides" is treated with too many jokes in light of what it really represents and Alice Kelley is not in the slightest an Indian or a Moghul, although she and Mildred Natwick as her governess are funny in the right spots. Still, it was a movie made in 1952 and a lot of things about it -- from its special effects to its sensibilities -- are likely to make a modern audience wish them done better. But the solid performances from Flynn and Quinn, as well as the proto-lady warrior played by O'Hara, make it an interesting watch in the sea of similar features.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Still Champeen!

My FB feed had several people who posted their responses during tonight's presidential debate, and some others who discussed who they thought won (Spoiler alert: The candidate they already supported). As I pointed out, my choice to watch nary a second of it meant that I am the clear winner, maintaining the flawless record of victory I've held since Lloyd Bentsen told Dan Quayle, "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy." And then went and deposited the $600,000 he made off a stock tip relayed to him and only 10 other people.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Reality...What a Concept

Back in 2017, three academic folks believed that a lot of their peers were publishing nonsense under the guise of "critical theory" scholarship and they set about to prove it. They theorized that many disciplines, particularly within social sciences, were so committed to non-academic agendas centered on social change that their own skeptical threshold would be too low to catch fraudulent and even ridiculous ideas. As it happened, they were able to demonstrate that they were more right than wrong, getting an article about how modern urban dog parks expressed rape culture into a journal covering gender studies. Two of the trio, Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, continued exploring the issue with the 2020 book Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity -- and Why This Harms Everybody.

Pluckrose and Lindsay open by exploring the roots of postmodernism from writers like Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, as well as lesser-known thinkers in the field. But while current postmodern scholarship roots in what those thinkers brought to the table, it sets aside a large chunk of the conclusions they reached -- which can be summed up in the John Mellencamp album title Nothin' Matters and What if It Did? The original postmodernists believed that truth was constructed rather than discovered, so "meaning" was a concept without, well, meaning. But the current postmodernists are invested in deconstructing the received versions of "truth" in order to reconstruct them in order to reduce oppression of historically marginalized groups.

Cynical Theories outlines several modern fields and concepts built on this foundation and offers examples of how they have affected not just scholarship but university life. They also show how what is sometimes called "cancel culture" in public life grows from applying the idea of constructed rather than revealed or discovered truth to everyday interactions. One of the strengths of the book is that the authors, like their partner in the original project, are not a part of a perceived conservative backlash against "libral perfessors," being firmly leftist themselves. Their critique grows from what they see as uncritical acceptance of ideas and concepts that have as much basis in reality as religious faith (all three are also atheists) and therefore aren't any better as a basis for understanding the way the world works.

Although several fields -- such as racial studies, gender studies and so on -- are surveyed, the details tend to blend together since the different arcs parallel each other. Cynical Theories could benefit from losing one or two of its survey chapters. And when the surveys are finished, Pluckrose and Lindsay have a harder time laying out a coherent strategy for changing and repairing the situation. Part of that is organic -- they approach postmodern theory only partly as opponents and mostly as skeptics. Skepticism makes for an excellent interrogator but it's a lousy architect for figuring out what has to happen next.


Each year the approach of Easter seems to bring a new find of scholarship that will "rock the church to its core" or otherwise call into question some of the foundational beliefs of Christianity. Those are often interpretations laid onto the discovery or announcement by media coverage, rather than by the academic person at the center of the story. But in 2012,  a papyrus fragment that implied Jesus was married was given the name "The Gospel of Jesus' Wife" not by reporters but by the professor announcing its discovery. It quickly became the center of a controversy, but not about the supposed theological hand grenade it tossed into Christian teaching.

Ariel Sabar, then a journalist working for the Smithsonian magazine, outlined how many questions historians, Coptic language experts, papyrologists and so forth had about the fragment and its "provenance," or history of its discovery and delivery to Dr. Karen King, the Harvard professor who announced it to the world. In 2016, Sabar's investigation into that provenance reavealed who the anonymous donor was in an article in The Atlantic. He expanded both articles, as well as described how he found out what he found out, in the 2020 book Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus' Wife.

Obviously a big chunk of Veritas comes from the earlier articles, but Sabar has tried to add enough new material to justify book publication. Much of the additional material is biographical detail on King and some of the other players in the matter. Sabar also speculates about King's motives for choosing the sensational name "Gospel of Jesus' Wife" for a piece of papyrus as big as a business card and for her subsequent semi-admission that it's probably not an authentic document from the early history of Christianity. King hangs back, Sabar suggests, because the idea of a married Jesus opens up a new history of the possible ways women participated in the early church until patriarchal forces took over.

Veritas never really overcomes the way that the bulk of its most crucial information has already been in print -- in some cases, twice -- from the same author. The exploration of the way that King's own postmodern ideas saw the papyrus' forged status as less important than its value in constructing new narratives about women and Christianity would probably be better as a part of a new article or book, and the biographical sections feel more like padding than essential information.

Sunday, September 27, 2020


Because of a couple of brutal cold streaks, my preferred baseball team, the Kansas City Royals, will not be moving on into postseason play this year. So the 2020 year ended for them today -- with a win, as they had finally begun playing well.

Which means it's time for your humble correspondent to say thank you to Major League Baseball. The season was short and it was weird and it had no fans in the stands. But it was there, and when I listened on the app on my iPad I was listening to a game just like I had about any year, online or on the radio. It was a refreshing little slice of normal in a screwed up time.

When they began the 60-game abbreviated season back in July I saw a lot of predictions that they would fail, that tons of athletes would get sick, that they would spread the COVID-19 virus, that the season would shut down, and so on. To all of these naysayers, I want to say...something that I won't say on a blog sometimes read by my mother. Instead I'll just laugh a loud, "HA!" in their direction and enjoy 1) How wrong they were, 2) How their errors are on the record in many a print and online column and 3) How people taking a shot at doing something halfway normal actually managed it and all of the doomers managed to do nothing.

And then I'll say thanks to baseball again for a welcome anchor in a year of chaos.

Saturday, September 26, 2020


People can and will have a range of opinions on the suitability of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to serve as an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, a position for which President Trump nominated her today. I've read several of them over the course of the evening.

Among the responses are those of Democratic United States Senators Richard Blumenthal (Connecticut) and Mazie Hirono (Hawaii). It's more or less common practice for a nominee to meet with different senators in the days leading up to committee hearings, especially members of the judiciary committee who conduct the hearings. But because they believe that President Trump should not nominate a replacement for the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg so close to an election, and because they believe that the Senate should not take up such a nomination, Senators Blumenthal and Hirono said they would not meet with Judge Barrett before the hearings. Getting to skip out on having to spend time as a captive audience to Richard Blumenthal and Mazie Hirono? Judge Barrett's already ahead of the game.

Although Michael Avenatti -- the disgraced and suspended lawyer who promoted Julie Swetnick's claims that previous Trump nominee Brett Kavanaugh was a part of a gang of high school boys who drugged girls or got them drunk at parties so they had difficulty refusing sex -- is out of jail on a protection-from-COVID release, so perhaps the senators are skipping the meetings in order to get the band back together.

Friday, September 25, 2020

A Lot of Days, One at a Time

Over at Bored Panda, there's a post sharing some pictures and stories from a site called The Addict's Diary. The site's creator, Kevin Alter, is himself in recovery from substance abuse and wanted to show some real pictures of people taken while they were using and then later on, after they had begun a journey in sobriety. Diary also lets the people share their stories, not shrinking from exploring what they lost and what they are grateful for having won back.

It's not as much fun as mocking an addict so disoriented she begs for a chance to relieve herself before being arrested, but not everything in life is fun (For the curious, that's a dig at an Oklahoma City-based website that calls itself satirical but is a lot better at mockery and meanness, as evidenced by its post on this incident. And no, there's no link. They get way more traffic than I do and don't need help I'd rather not give anyway).

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Book a Film

Matt Stevens, a designer and illustrator, has a hobby whereby he reimagines contemporary movies as vintage book covers.

The cover art reflects a key feature of the movie (Fight Club's mirror-image boxer is probably a good example).  Stevens said the movies aren't necessarily ones he considers the best movies he's seen or which rate highly among critics, just ones he enjoys and gets an idea to illustrate. Which is probably why some of the imaginary book covers are better than the movies they represent.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020


The young Friar, who had his eyes on a journalism career, sometimes had a hazy picture of himself working for The New York Times. It was the apex of all of the newspaper monuments, the closest our nation had to a "paper of record" in the same sense that a county seat daily is for that county's publication of legal information. 

It was never fully formed and as time wore on, it morphed into the idea of a byline at The Chicago Tribune or someplace that wasn't New York City -- a place that, during those years, was very much a Dinkinsian area to be avoided. A deepening interest in working with young people at his church made it morph into a complete career change that brought him to a pulpit instead.

But still, early illusions fade the hardest, and the idea of that solid thump of paper landing on someone's doorstep while bearing within it my own words under my own name hangs around, lifting its head at odd intervals. Which is one of the reasons this story -- here linked from Quillette, but available in other places as well -- is such a bummer. We can discuss the virtues and vices of the Times' "1619 Project" at length, of course. An ambitious attempt to examine unexamined aspects of the role of race-based slavery on the United States in the time leading up to and after its founding, the Project has been called to account by historians across the political spectrum. Even some sympathetic to its goals seem to think its reach exceeded its grasp.

But that's all a part of give and take discussion, something people used to do back in the dim prehistory of the Eightyzoic Era and earlier. In Philip Magness's story, he uses screen shots to demonstrate how one of the most contentious claims of the Project -- that the arrival of African slaves to the New World in 1619 represents the true American founding, rather than 1776's the Declaration of Independence -- has been quietly disappeared.

Whatever truths the Project's different authors may have grasped, that contention was clearly without merit and so described by most of its detractors and some of its supporters. For the Times or Project coordinator Nikole Hannah-Jones to fess up to this error and print a correction wouldn't really affect whatever parts of it prove true. Instead, Hannah-Jones denies that she meant that claim and statements to the contrary simply disappeared without notice.

One of the major responsibilities of a news organization is to be accurate. When it's not, the way that the trust of the reading public is maintained is by swift and clear acknowledgement of the error and reporting what actually turned out to be accurate. Corrections on the sly, especially in a medium as malleable as pixels on a screen, are evidence of a news outlet's lack of trustworthiness. And so the fond old illusion of my byline under that masthead takes another jolt to the head, because it seems that masthead has lost much of its luster.

Monday, September 21, 2020


 C'mon, you know the drill.

As I asked on my FB news feed, how bad could 2020 be? It still has a "21st night of September."

Ba di ya.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Auggie's Right, Dorsey's Wrong

Among the things for which St. Augustine is known is the doctrine of original sin -- that human beings are sinful -- in this case he means separated from God -- from before their birth and they require outside assistance to correct that condition. A seminary classmate once explained it this way during a discussion: "We all suck, but God loves us anyway." It's kind of a riff on a quote from Will Campbell's memoir, Brother to a Dragonfly, which goes, "We're all bastards, but God loves us anyway."

In any event, original sin is a doctrine that produces evidence of its truth on a regular basis -- and comes now a group of people who have taken a family friend of the late Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to task for asking the justice to officiate when she married her now-husband on August 30. In short, these people have been Tweeting at the couple that they "killed RBG."

The Tweeting volume grew heavy enough that the couple locked their Twitter accounts, meaning that they are now private and no one can post to them unless the account owner allows it. That there are people who are so monumentally deficient in intellect and tact that they would suggest the performance of a wedding ceremony was the eventual cause of death for an 87-year-old woman with pancreatic cancer is proof that Augustine was right -- we all suck. That random strangers who hold this idea can shove it into the face of the couple via a social media platform is another horrible happening brought to us by Jack Dorsey's Greatest Wrong, Twitter.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Rest in Peace

For this post I would quote two people. One is Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who passed today: "Fight for the things you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you."

The other is from her longtime friend and ideological opposite on the Court, Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, who passed on February 3, 2016. Upon someone inquiring as to how many times Justice Ginsberg had voted with him in light of his practice of sending her two dozen roses on her birthday, Scalia said, "Some things are more important than votes." Scalia's son Christopher, in a Tweet expressing his family's sadness on Ginsburg's passing, recalled the story.

Judging by my Facebook newsfeed and what I have heard people are saying on Twitter, those who will emulate these two people whom so many profess to admire number in the thousands. Really? Thousands? Yes. Remember, we live in a nation of 330 million and somewhere just under 50 million are said to use Twitter, and I am nothing if not an optimist.

Thursday, September 17, 2020


On this day in 1787, the United States Constitution was signed by delegates to its creating convention and sent out to the states to be ratified. Among its many features is a very very steep hill that has to be climbed to amend it, meaning that public will for change is sometimes thwarted because the majority that wants the change still isn't large enough to meet the voting and procedural thresholds for altering it.

Given the results of a new survey outlining how little younger Americans know about the Holocaust, I'm currently quite pleased that the Constitution is hard to change. However smart the generations usually called "Millennials" and "Generation Z" may actually be, their ignorance of history that happened within memory of people still living means you want them to bone up on a few things before you hand them the wheel, and you'd like to make it tough for them to drive the country in the direction they want it to go in the meantime.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Radio Federal

Your humble correspondent was a little hesitant about offering an opinion on a podcast called The Federalist Radio Hour, because of its connection with the website and news organization that produces it, Federalist Media. For one, even though I have the website in the links section and I've highlighted a story from it now and again, a lot of tendentious material goes out under that banner -- material I'm not overly fond of or believe to be worth the reading time. For another, some of the site's writers and contributors cause a distinctly allergic reaction among many who view them as the no better than Neanderthal Nazi bikers. And on the gripping hand, some of the other people who like the website aren't anyone I'd want to hang around with -- or read or listen to -- either.

Be all that as it may, Radio Hour is frequently host to some interesting writers, political and cultural figures from across the political spectrum. Yes, publisher Ben Domenech is considered a conservative (he describes himself as an anarcho-libertarian, which is a political system that I think works when there's about one person per continent) and many of the guests are as well. But not all of them are, and Radio Hour also has interviews with people who've written about education, sports, theater, movies, music, art, architecture and so on. Whatever he does as an opinion writer, as an interviewer Domenech generally likes to let the guest get going and explain whatever topic of interest they bring to a conversation. Every now and again he seems prompted to squabble with the subject more than listen, but everyone has off days. Sometimes the interviewee is another staff writer, going into more detail about a particular story. Sometimes it's a new book, sometimes it's a current event, sometimes it's a political issue, sometimes it's the start of a sports get the picture. With several new episodes per week, there always seems to be something or someone who can be asked if he or she has anything interesting to say.

Although Domenech is the primary -- and best -- interviewer/host, other Federalist staffers sometimes take a spot behind the mike as well. This is where the quality can waver. Radio Hour misses the presence of former contributor Mary Katharine Ham, herself a skilled writer and interviewer who had a very good handle on how to conduct a broadcast-style conversation. Culture Editor Emily Jashinsky has improved greatly since she first joined the staff and although still with some room to grow, consistently puts on a program worth listening to. She's clearly politically conservative but usually does a good job of letting guests with whom she disagrees speak their minds. Some of the other contributors do well enough in their own fields or areas of interest, but unfamiliarity with the format of a broadcast interview shows through more often than not.

Seekers after a rigidly down-the-middle objective-style news show shouldn't stop at the Radio Hour, but others, if they find a topic listed that interests them, will find a show with a staff that does't always succeed but at least tries to let different sides speak their respective pieces in peace. And they could conceivably find themselves learning a thing or two as they listen.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Stuff and Nonsense

 -- Warner Bros. has a movie version of Frank Herbert's 1965 classic Dune scheduled for release later this year, and over at Comic Book Resources, writer Anthony Gramuglia suggests the proper reading order for the now 19 books in the "Duneverse" series. Herbert himself wrote four subsequent Dune novels and his son Brian, working with Kevin Anderson, has added another 14 that span thousands of years on either side of the original novel. In the interests of full disclosure, here is my suggested proper reading order for the series: 1. Dune.

-- Over at Bored Panda, we can see some photos that show how much places change over the years -- in some cases several decades and in some cases just a few. Several of the changes improve the site while at others "improvement" may be open to interpretation.

-- ProPublica once again shows how real journalism -- investigation, explanation and the willingness to confront and discard biases when they don't fit what's found -- matters when it's done. Elizabeth Weil interviewed California firefighters and fire management officials to find out why the current West Coast fires are so bad. Climate change -- whether anthropogenic or otherwise -- plays a role, but an even bigger one has been played by policy decisions to prevent every possible fire ever in an area that has no better way to clean out highly flammable undergrowth. Both President Trump and his phalanx of detractors and blamers will hate the story for many different reasons, but one they will share: It never mentions him.

-- Also in the arena of photography, the finalists for the 2020 Wildlife Comedy Photo Awards have been announced. Prizes will be awarded in October. My favorite -- a bear who has yet to perfect his ambush predator game -- is below:

Although the photo-bombing giraffe in the row above this one at the link is pretty good, too.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Setting the Stage

With Like a Mighty Army, David Weber brought the war between the Charisian Empire and the forces loyal to the Church of God Awaiting to an end -- more or less. The Charisians didn't crush the Church as they will probably need to do at some point because cooler heads took charge and sued for peace. Since the Church's mission is to perpetuate a system that keeps technology on the world of Safehold at a minimum to escape the notice of the genocidal Gbaba, it's bound to find itself at odds with the Charisians again. Because the Charisians are led by a synthetic human from the days of Safehold's founding, and that being's goal is to re-equip and rearm for round 2 with the Gbaba and teach them why humanity's a species best left alone.

Weber has said in interviews that a second arc of Safehold's story will deal with that part of the story, which makes 2019's Through Fiery Trials a kind of hinge between the two arcs. He re-sets the board and readies new pieces for their play and their own moves. Guided by Merlin Athrawes -- an android with the memories of Nimue Alban from the time of the founding, as well as a second android of Nimue herself -- Charisian inventors gradually build up the technological base of their world while not advancing so far that the orbiting satellites left by the Church's designers rain destruction down on them all. But Merlin and Nimue may be running out of time: A "prophecy" from the founders says they will return after a thousand years and even though they don't necessarily know when that clock started, they know they're in their world's tenth century.

Trials is a maddening book of the kind Weber is so good at producing -- some fine scenes and tidbits mired in acres of world-building minutiae and repetitive dialogue. The second arc of the Safehold series will require new minds, ones born into the world being remade by Merlin, Nimue and the Charisians. That implies new characters following in the footsteps of old ones, some of whom are faithful to the cause of their parents and some of whom have other goals and designs. And in Trials, we're introduced to every last one of them ad tedium.

Trials is 700 pages of table-setting, an egregious faux pas in any series but even more so when it's the tenth volume of a series of 500-plus-pagers bursting with opportunities for editing. In more than one interview Weber said it began as a prologue to the first book of the second arc that grew into its own book, which erases any guilt I may feel about slapping one star onto a series and an author I regularly enjoy. Pure unadulterated gems of mood and character like the betrothal and marriage of Princess Alahnah and Lywys Whytmyn drown in speechifying blather and accounts of old people passing away and new people taking their place. An excellently-designed cliffhanger ending might never be seen as readers throw up their hands and set this book on the pile to go to the second-hand store.

Weber is, in addition to being an author, a licensed local pastor in the United Methodist Church. As your humble reviewer can attest, preachers can all too often be tempted by love of their own words to wander high and low before coming to a point. The same tendency is evident in the world of creative universe-building authors, and the double whammy makes too many of his books patience-testing exercises in judicious page-skipping. Through Fiery Trials is very much one of those.

Friday, September 11, 2020


A Disney executive admitted at a conference that its credit thanking the Xinjiang local government for its permission to film in the area -- perhaps granted when said local government was on its coffee break from its attempts to wipe out the Uyghur minority in the region -- "has created issues."

The exec then demonstrated herself a member of the mustelidae family by saying that most of the movie was filmed in New Zealand and just a few shots were filmed in the same region as the many concentration camps in which the Chinese government is holding citizens of its nation who committed the crime of being born of Uyghur heritage. Try transposing that sentence into one that says "only a few of our movie's scenes were actually filmed at Dachau" or "we just used some scenery from Ukraine and we had no idea Stalin's government was starving everyone around us" and you'll see how exonerating it tends not to be.

Still, acknowledgement that the Xinjiang thank-you and the lead actress's support of Hong Kong police actions during anti-democracy crackdowns created "issues" for the movie is a welcome step forward. May their tribe increase.

Thursday, September 10, 2020


I could be mistaken and I haven't dug into this as deeply as have some others, I am sure, but if I read the new Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences diversity initiatives right, a curious little quirk pops up. A previous Best Picture Oscar winner that would meet the minimum standards as described in this Variety article is 1939's unenlightened Gone With the Wind. A previous best-picture winner that would not meet those standards is 2019's Parasite.

It's a shame the Academy backslid so much in those 80 years.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Good Rethinking

This item at Bored Panda shows some of the original names suggested for famous TV shows. A couple of them are not very different from the eventual show title and in at least one case -- The Seinfeld Chronicles becoming Seinfeld -- the earlier title was used for a pilot. Some were just working titles, such as Married With Children's developmental title Not the Cosby Show. Showrunners used that title to help sell their concept of a show that was going to be anything but the easygoing kid-friendly style of the NBC hit. But when it got picked up a new name had to be chosen.

Some renamings were clearly necessary. House of Comics had to be renamed to Full House because otherwise Bob Saget would have had to have lived in a different building from the other cast members.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Attentively Waiting

I am quite certain we will quickly hear someone from the National Basketball Association speak out on this latest police abuse of power, in which an officer in full riot gear tackled a 12-year-old girl and held her on the ground with his knee, even though she was trying to walk around the protest and wasn't part of it.

It happened where? Oh, well, never mind then.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

The Last W?

St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Lou Brock was accounted by many to be one of the nicer folks one could meet in professional baseball, despite his habit of making opposing catchers look bad with embarrassing regularity.

Not only did his former team post a win on the day he passed away, they did it over the team that idiotically traded him away for two aging pitchers and one light-hitting outfielder -- the Chicago Cubs. With the Cards, Brock went on to help win two World Series -- one of them the very same year he was traded away. He was a six-time All Star who won the National League stolen base title eight times. He held the record for stolen bases from his retirement in 1979 -- a year he won the Comeback Player of the Year award at 40 -- until Rickey Henderson broke it in 1991.

Brock probably started out as a nice guy but might have had his qualities honed by the man who scouted him for the Cubs, Buck O'Neil. In his own biography, I Was Right on Time, O'Neil notes the lopsidedness of the trade and says people ask him if he was mad or sad that the Cubs traded away a player he worked hard to get who went on to such great heights. O'Neil said he didn't feel either, he was just "happy for Lou."

When Henderson broke the base-stealing record he was carrying a card with a short speech he and Brock had worked on, since the two had become friends as it became clearer that the record would fall. In the excitement of the moment, he forgot his speech and gave the typically Hendersonesque statement that he was now the greatest of all time (Nolan Ryan pitched his unearthly seventh no-hitter that same day, so Henderson's ego was a bit premature). When he saw Brock later he apologized, saying he had been caught up in the emotion of the moment and forgot he had the speech. Whether that was true or not, Brock decided to act like it was and accepted the apology.

So while Brock might have rejoiced with you if you cheered on his former team in their win today, he might have suggested taking it easy on the chortling that might accompany the one last time the Cards put one over on the Cubs because of Lou Brock.

He might have found it more interesting that he passed just a few days after the great pitcher Tom Seaver, whom he faced more than any other pitcher in his career. Because Brock was the batter Seaver faced more than any other hitter in his career and his .250 average was better than a lot of top players could post. Upon his arrival, Brock might have found Tom Terrific waiting for him with an extended bat and a big grin: "Let's go again, Lou."

Edited 9/8/20 to spell Rickey Henderson's first name properly.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Adding Up

This is the second post in a row in which I link to an article from National Review, so I am sure there are many who are now convinced my knuckles drag the ground when I walk. Oh well.

Writer Brian Reidl casts his piece as a way of understanding why socialism can't work but I think his point is more basic than that. Even people who would not consider themselves socialists but simply good old-fashioned the-government-must-help statists sometimes don't do the math, as he describes. Claims that, simply by taxing rich people, we could fund extravagant social safety net programs -- let alone the full-blown nationalization of major sectors of the economy -- undercount 1) the number of rich people and 2) how much money they actually have.

Of course I sympathize with those folks. Math got me, too.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Major Effort

In this, the 100th year since the beginning of baseball's Negro Leagues, Major League Baseball is considering reclassifying at least two of the different leagues made up of African-American players as "major leagues."

As Dan McLaughlin notes in National Review, the push would do more than attempt to be another step in redressing the historical wrong of baseball's segregated era which stretched from the end of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th. "Major League" has a specific definition for the organization, and the reclassification could bring about a change in the record books. 

McLaughlin points out that there have been other major leagues in addition to the two we recognize today. They were usually attempts to create a third league to rival the American and National Leagues which did not succeed. The criteria are not concrete, but things like a regularity of schedule and record-keeping play the largest role. Quality of play is a factor as well, but given the wide range in that arena among the thousands of players who have suited up in one of the two current leagues over their history, it can't really be the determining one.

Such a decision would be the right one, McLaughlin writes. While it would not make things right for the men prevented from taking their shot at the Show because of the color of their skin -- even for the few Negro Leaguers who are still living -- it would stop the continuation of the injustice. In the same way that Jackie Robinson demonstrated that melanin had no role in creating a quality ballplayer, the move would show that historical injustice could not prevent the proper recognition of Negro League organization, talent and importance.

The move would have its own problems, of course. In addition to their league games Negro League teams often played many games in barnstorming tours against local or semipro teams. They dominated, as one might expect a team of professionals to do. Do those games count in figuring statistics? White major leaguers would create winter barnstorming teams as well -- they often played Negro Leaguers during them -- and they didn't count those hits or wins in their own official totals. Should the Negro Leaguers count their stats against the white barnstormer teams but not against the locals?

And the two dominant teams for much of the Negro Leagues' history were the Kansas City Monarchs and the Homestead Grays. Add the Indianapolis Clowns and Newark Eagles to them and you have a huge chunk of the Negro Leagues World Series champions before you -- realistically some of the actual Negro National League and Negro American League teams weren't much better than the local opponents on a barnstorming tour.

McLaughlin thinks those problems can be ironed out and he's probably right. Plus statistics are a baseball fan's preferred subject for arguments, so adding an entirely new set has great appeal for some. And while I agree that this kind of reclassification would be the right thing to do another argument makes me hesitate. As the 2013 movie 42 illustrated, stepping across Major League Baseball's disgraceful color line took a tremendous effort from and a tremendous toll on Jackie Robinson. I worry that naming the NNL and NAL as major leagues would be a step down the road to diminishing the significance and cost of his accomplishment.

I know, I know, that sounds unlikely. Baseball more than other major sports lives within and around its own history. The fact that every team officially retired jersey number 42 -- even teams which didn't exist when Robinson joined the Dodgers -- and that the entire league holds a recognition day in which every player wears that number on that one day should make it difficult for Robinson's monumental role to be lost to history. I agree. But then I remember how Millennials and Generation Z tend to handle history and my worry returns.

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Craft and Guile

Sherman and Filmore use the advantages that years of experience have given them to win in their nerf battle over the youngsters.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Time Capsule

Baseball, maybe more than any other major sport, draws fans who like to allegorize it and its varied parts. This happens in part because professional baseball has a longer history on the national stage than do its companion sports, so its changes since the late 19th century connect with changes in our nation's society and culture.

But are these allegories real, or are they just sappy sentimentality? An awful lot of them play on nostalgia and could be just airy statements without a lot of basis in fact or reasoned thinking. Richard Skolnick decided to examine several of them in the early 1990's and created Baseball and the Pursuit of Innocence: A Fresh Look at the Old Ball Game. In it he reflects on those allegories and whether or not they really can indicate the "old-fashioned" values they are said to represent.

From Skolnik's point of view, there's a way of looking at baseball that does exactly what baseball fans claim it does. The value of patience, for example, that a 162-game season requires in order to succeed can easily serve as a model for the way patience helps people navigate regular life issues as well. The high failure rate -- the best hitters miss the ball more than half the time -- models how much of life can be a struggle to get back up again after falling down.

Innocence offers a way to reflect on baseball that supports the idea it reflects time-honored values, but Skolnik takes care not to imply his vision is the only way to see the game. He's also clear-eyed about the way that some players, managers and writers romanticize the sport, and about how some of the allegorical lessons we are to draw from it contradict each other -- which makes it clear that some aspects of baseball can be molded to fit whatever the eye of the allegorizer wants to see.

In one way Innocence came at an odd time. Team owners had pushed Commissioner Fay Vincent out of office in 1992 and replaced him with an ownership committee kind of structure headed by Milwaukee Brewers owner Bud Selig. Players' union representative Donald Fehr had zero trust in Selig's good faith and not much more in the owners as a whole. The collective bargaining agreement ended in December 1993, just two months before Skolnik's book was published. The owners' proposed agreement contained a salary cap and several other provisions that Fehr and the players' union rejected. Barely five months after a book about baseball's expression of longtime virtues was published, major leaguers walked off the job. A month later the World Series was canceled. Business bumped Skolnik's ruminations aside and the vices of greed, dishonesty and double-dealing supplanted the virtues he'd considered.

After several years fans finally began coming back in numbers that matched pre-strike totals. Toughened by the exposure of the seamy business side of the game, fans weathered revelations of performance-enhancing drugs and how they fueled some modern stars' big numbers. Still, read today Innocence shows a quaintness, more connected to the way people might have thought of baseball and its players in the middle of the century. The game's values and virtues remain, but Innocence seems like an account of them written in Eden. We consider them today in a more fallen light, but Skolnik provides a good reminder of both the virtues allegorized by the way the sport is played and the way we once looked at them.