Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Cooz And The Babe

Image result for bob cousyImage result for babe ruth

Eighty three years after his retirement, Babe Ruth remains the most dominating (relative to his time) athlete in American history.  Even by most modern sabremetrics he is still considered the best baseball player since the professional game became organized into leagues in 1871. Matching his prodigious on the field accomplishments with a gargantuan personality and that distinctive face makes him instantly recognizable to most Americans today.

Bob Cousy, The Houdini of the Hardwood, was the first superstar of the National Basketball Association, famous for introducing an uptempo and flashy style, featuring incredible dribbling and behind the back and no-look passing. He's credited with saving the NBA.  And once teamed with center Bill Russell, Cooz's Celtics won six NBA titles in seven years.  Unlike Ruth, off the field Cousy lived a fairly normal life, and today, unless you are a Bostonian or a hardcore NBA aficionado, he's mostly forgotten.  Here's a reminder:

Both are the subject of new biographies and the differences in their lives and in the nature of the information available to the authors makes for two very different books.

Jane Leavy, author of one of the finest sports bios I've read, Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy, and of The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood, which though well-written and researched is because of Mantle's wasted talent and what Mickey felt at the end was his wasted life, has now produced The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created.

The challenge in writing a Ruth biography is how to come up with something new.  There are already many, many biographies of the Sultan of Swat, including best selling recent ones like Leigh Montville's The Big Bam (2007) and Robert Creamer's Babe: The Legend Comes To Life (1992), along with more specialized studies like Breaking Babe Ruth: Baseball's Campaign Against Its Biggest Star (2018) by Edmund F Wehrle, and The Year Babe Ruth Hit 104 Home Runs (2007) by Bill Jenkinson (if you love Ruth and baseball get this fun book).  Moreover, Ruth died 70 years ago and none of his contemporaries are alive to be interviewed.

Leavy's solution is to, for the most part, eschew the details of Babe's baseball career.  Her book contains no breathless recounting of the Colossus of Clout's "Greatest Hits", nor a chronological accounting of each season.  Want to know how and why Babe was a great pitcher before becoming a full time outfielder?  This book won't tell you.  Want to understand the possible reasons for his incredible hitting feats?  Again, this is not the book.

What Leavey concentrates on is the books subtitle; "the world he created", by which she means the world of sports management and entertainment.  The Babe was the first team sports figure to become a nationwide media sensation.  He was also the first to hire a full time manager to promote and manage his finances, in the person of Christy Walsh who Leavey devotes considerable attention to.  It's that side of the Babe, more than what happens on the field, that dominates The Big Fella.

Along the way, the author also provides the best account of Babe's childhood, dispelling some of the myths of his upbringing in Baltimore and his childhood, mostly spent at St Marys Industrial School for Boys where he came under the tutelage of Brother Matthias, of whom Creamer, in his biography wrote:
"Ruth revered Brother Matthias ... which is remarkable, considering that Matthias was in charge of making boys behave and that Ruth was one of the great natural misbehavers of all time. ... George Ruth caught Brother Matthias' attention early, and the calm, considerable attention the big man gave the young hellraiser from the waterfront struck a spark of response in the boy's soul ... "
The Babe's real family was a nightmare, with four of his five siblings dying prematurely (an abnormal rate even for those times), a mother who was alcoholic, didn't show her son affection, and was divorced by his father because of alleged infidelity, and a father who ran a saloon and was killed in a street fight when Babe was a young player with the Boston Red Sox.

Leavy reaffirms that the Babe we've heard about who unstintingly gave of his time to charities and impoverished children was the real thing, and she writes well on racial matters.  Because of his appearance, the Babe was often taunted by other players and fans as being at least part Negro (which Leavy establishes is not true), but Babe also seems to have been without prejudice himself, a rarity for the time, visited Negro orphanages despite the cautions of others, liked barnstorming with and playing against Negro Leaguers, and would have been fine with integrating baseball.

The Big Fella is a very good and informative book, but lacks the baseball detail and emotional resonance that might have made it the equivalent of Leavy's Koufax biography.

When Gary Pomerantz began work on the book that became The Last Pass: Cousy, Russell, the Celtics, and What Matters in the End, he wasn't intending to write a biography of Bob Cousy, which is what The Last Pass is, despite the ambiguity of its title.  He planned to write a book on the great Celtics dynasty of 1957-69 when they won the NBA title 11 times in 13 years, a companion piece to his prior book, Their's Life's Work, about the Pittsburgh Steelers dynasty of the 1970s.  Unlike Leavy, most of the principals in the Celtics story were still alive as were many of their competitors, members of the media who covered the team, and family, and several of those who had already passed had been interviewed by Pomerantz for an earlier book project.

It was only after his first interview with Cousy in 2015 that Pomerantz realized his book should focus on the 6'1" guard who captained the Celtics from 1951 to 1963.  Eventually, the author conducted 53 interviews with Cousy, many extending over several hours,

The Cousy who emerges from Pomerantz's well-crafted book, is introspective, intense, intelligent, a voracious reader, and decent man, who at 90 years of age still questions his life and his actions.  The result is a fine, thought-provoking and, at times, moving biography I rate up with Leavy's Sandy Koufax.  It's also a meditation on the aging process, as Cousy talks about panic attacks at nighttime and physical frailty and the loss of his beloved wife of 63 years, who suffered from dementia in her final decade; Pomerantz describes Cousy's large home in Worcester, MA, as a virtual shrine to Missie Cousy.

The Last Pass touches on all of the biographical way stations; Cousy, the only child of French immigrants, raised in struggling circumstances in New York City, watching as his mother regularly hit his father who never retaliated.  Finding refuge in the world of basketball he obtained a scholarship to Holy Cross College in Worcester, and eventually ended up on the struggling Celtics franchise of the early 1950s, under coach Red Auerbach, who plays a prominent role in The Last Pass.  And how could it be otherwise since Red is one of the most unique and entertaining characters in American sports?  And it gives you a good flavor for Cousy's game style and career.  We also hear and learn about his teammates, Bill Sharman, Satch Sanders, Frank Ramsey, Jim Loscutoff and, of course, Tommy Heinsohn - Gunner Tommy, running into the locker room at halftime to smoke as many cigarettes as he can before the second half, carousing much of the rest of the time and then quietly sitting in his hotel room painting with watercolors.

The raw and ramshackle early NBA is fun to hear about it, though maybe it wasn't so much for the players.  The Celtics locker room in the Boston Garden had a hook on a wall upon which the players could hang their clothes during the game while an attendant came round with a bag into which the players placed their wallets and valuables.  The bag was stored under the bench during the game!  Cousy organized of the players union which extracted from the owners the first improvement in working conditions.

The story reaches its peak with the relationship between Cousy and Bill Russell or, more precisely, in Cousy's attempt to make sense of that relationship and his guilt as he's gotten older over not doing more to support Russell, the first black NBA star and the greatest winner in sports history, with 11 championships in his 13 seasons as a player and then as the first black player-coach in professional sports, on racial issues during his troubled time in Boston.

(Cousy & Russell hug after Cooz's last game in 1963)
Image result for bob cousy bill russell
Cousy was not overcoming any prejudice.  In his early years with the Celtics he roomed with Chuck Cooper, the first black ever drafted by an NBA team.  He and Chuck went out to jazz clubs together and became life long friends.  But Cooper, like Cousy, was a quiet guy. 

Bill Russell was another matter.  Joining the Celtics in 1957, the 6'10" center was a transformational player with his defense, rebounding, and outlet passing.  If LeBron James is the best NBA player since 2000, and Michael Jordon #1 between 1975 and 2000, Russell was the best during the NBA's first 25 years.  He was also very smart, very proud, very sensitive, not willing to quietly suffer racial mistreatment, unapproachable at times (refusing to sign autographs) and with a personality that could change abruptly from gregarious to closed and wary.  Auerbach once remarked, "The real Russell is a very difficult man to know, but one worth knowing".  I also learned that, surprisingly, one of Russell's biggest fans was Ty Cobb who praised Russell as Boston sportswriters as the greatest money player of any professional athlete he had ever known, "other than myself".

During the late 50s and into the 60s, Bill Russell was outspoken on issues of racial justice both in American society in general, and Boston specifically - and the issues he spoke out on deserved to be addressed.  Russell suffered personally for it with numerous incidents of vandalism, and some truly disgusting acts, at his home in the Boston suburbs.  Those events scarred him, leading him to insist for decades that he played for the Celtics, not the city of Boston, once saying, "I'd rather be in jail in Sacramento than be mayor of Boston."

Cousy and Russell respected each other, played together seamlessly, and never had any personal conflict.  But they were not close, making even more surprising the often-reserved Russell's gracious words for Cousy on his retirement:
Cousy is outstanding.  We see each other as brothers not as great athletes.  Cousy, just by being himself, has given me so much . . . You never got the impression - 'This is Bob Cousy . . . [and] this is the rest of the team . . . You meet a Cousy not once in a month, but once in a lifetime.  Bob Cousy has made playing with the Celtics one of the most gratifying things in my life . . . Like the guy [at Bob Cousy Day] said, 'We all love you, Cooz,' and we really do.
Russell and his wife also presented the Cousys with a bronze desk clock with the engraved inscription; May The Next Seventy Be A Pleasant As The Last Seven, From The Russells To the Cousys. It was the only retirement gift he received from a teammate.

For many years Cousy has wished he had a better relationship with Russell.  He has stayed in touch with many of his former teammates, black and white, but has only occasionally run into Russell and has continually played over the events of those years in an effort to figure out what went wrong (Russell would still occasionally call his white teammate Heinsohn and tell him "You are one of the few people I still like").  It finally broke to the surface in 2001 when Cousy did an interview with ESPN for a documentary on Russell.  Asked about racial issues, Cousy said:
"We could've done more to ease his pain and make him feel more comfortable.  I should've been much more sensitive to Russell's anguish in those days.  We'd talk - uh . . ."
And then Cousy broke down weeping.  Later, he reflected on his relationship with Russell.  After having friendships with Boston's first black players:
"Then I run into literally my first angry black man.  And Russ to this day is angry.  It's obvious from the get-go, and now in my Psych 101 analysis, I think this simply scared me off.  I still think it was my fault.  I'm six years older, I'm the Man.  I'm in charge.  I'm the captain.  It was my responsibility to reach out, but it intimidates me for whatever reason.  I don't know how to deal with this.  Like so many times in life, when we are unsure, or stumbling, and doing the wrong thing in establishing a relationship, I do nothing.  Obviously nothing is not good enough.  At the end of the day, Russ doesn't know how to take me, and I don't know how to take him.  We don't have any confrontation.  We get along, but it's like a couple that decides to stay together for the sake of the kids, you know?"
The Russell relationship was something Cousy returned to time and time again in his interviews with Pomerantz, and the author relates Cousy's attempts through teammates and others to reach out to Russell.  To find out what happens read The Last Pass.  This book will stay with you after you finish.

Monday, November 12, 2018

The Tower Of Katoubia Mosque

Trying to find a calming escape from politics, Winston Churchill took up landscape painting between the two world wars.  Over his lifetime he completed several hundred paintings but during the Second World War he only attempted one.

At the end of the Casablance Conference in January 1943, Churchill persuaded President Franklin Roosevelt to accompany him to his beloved Marrakech to see the sun set over the Atlas Mountains.  Arriving in Marrakech, Churchill arranged for FDR to be carried in his wheelchair to the roof of their hotel to watch.

After Roosevelt left, Churchill spent two days in his rooms completing the picture you see above, and then had it sent as a gift to the President.

The mosque, built in the 12th century, is the largest in Morocco, and is considered a forerunner of the Moroccan-Andalusian style of architecture.  Non-Moslems are not permitted inside.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Armistice Day

A century ago today, at 11am, the guns stopped in Europe.  Between nine and ten million soldiers lay dead.  Empires crumbled; Russian, Ottoman, Hapsburg, and German.  Hateful and dangerous ideologies were unleashed; Bolshevik Communism, the Nazi Party founded in 1920, the Fascists beginning their rule of Italy in 1922.  The "War to End War" did not; a worse conflagration started twenty years later leaving perhaps sixty million dead in its wake. 

I've visited many battlefields over the years, Civil and Revolutionary War in the United States, the D-Day beaches and American Cemetery in Normandy; solemn places, reminding us of the sacrifice of those who fought and died, yet fascinating and instructive and, at times, inspirational.  About twenty five years ago, Mrs THC and I were driving from Paris to Alsace.  Just off the payage was Verdun and we decided to make a visit.  The emotions it invoked were very different from those I'd experienced at other battlefields and we ended our visit earlier than planned.

From February through December of 1916 the Battle of Verdun ground on between the French and German armies.  During those months somewhere between 700,000 and 1 million soldiers became casualties with 300,000 killed (about equal to all U.S. combat deaths in the European and Pacific theatres during WWII).  Weeks were spent by fighting for gains measured in hundreds of feet and tens of thousands of dead and wounded.  At its end the front lines were only a few miles from where they'd been at the start.

We saw a landscape still completely pockmarked by shell holes from the battle's devastating artillery barrages the results of which gave birth to landmarks like (in its English translation), the Forest of Dead Men.  A quarter century after our visit the scene looks the same as you can see from this recent picture by Michael St Maur Sheil (for more of his pictures go here).  A century after the battle sixty five square miles around the town are still prohibited for any use due to the density of unexploded munitions.
world war i battlefields 100 years later michael st maur sheil (6)
The relentless artillery and machine gun fire pounded the bodies of dead soldiers into unrecognizable fragments embedded in the endless mud that covered the entire battlefield.  After the war the Douamont Ossuary was constructed to house the bones recovered from at least 130,000 unidentified combatants of both sides.

The sense of waste, loss and despair at Verdun is overwhelming and we left there depressed.

The Ossuary

During four years of war more than 800,000 British soldiers would die, including Wilfred Owen,  author of Dolce et Decorum Est.  Volunteering for the army in October 1915, he reached the front lines in France in late 1916 seeing extensive combat and enduring horrific experiences culminating in being blown into the air by an exploding shell.  Diagnosed with shell shock, Wilfred was sent to Craiglockhart Military Hospital in Edinburgh where he was befriended by fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon.  Returning to the front lines in August 1918 Wilfred participated in the final campaigns of the war.  Leading his company in action during October he captured an enemy machine gun which he used to kill several German soldiers, an action for which he was posthumously awarded the Military Cross. He wrote frequently to his mother of his life at war; from a letter of October 8, 1918 (quoted by Ferdinand Mount in his review of an Owen biography in the Wall St Journal, March 29, 2014):

"All one day we could not move from a small trench, though hour by hour the wounded were groaning just outside.  Three stretcher-bearers who got up were hit, one after one.  I had to order no one to show himself after that, but remembering my own duty, and remembering also my forefathers the agile Welshmen of the mountains I scrambled out myself & felt an exhilaration in baffling the Machine Guns by quick bounds from cover to cover.  After the shells we had been through and the gas, bullets were like the gentle rain from heaven."

Wilfred was killed on November 4, 1918 while leading his troops in a crossing of the Sambre Canal in Belgium.  He was 25 years old.  Word of his death reached his parents on November 11 while the bells were ringing, celebrating the Armistice and the end of the war.

Dolce et Decorum Est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.--
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.


Saturday, November 10, 2018

Revisiting Bing

This morning's Wall St Journal contained an interesting assessment of Bing Crosby, of whom I wrote yesterday, commenting that his emotional remoteness limited his appeal to me.  Today's Book Review section of the Journal (which is wonderful every Saturday) contains a review of Bing Crosby: Swinging On A Star: The War Years, 1940-46 by Gary Giddins.  Ted Gioia's review provides a counterpoint to my comment, quoting a 1945 letter from an unnamed U.S. military commander to Bing, in which the officer informs Crosby his music possesses the:
"power to soften the hearts of the man who so shortly after goes back to shoot down his brother man . . .  [yet keeps] our boys from turning into the beasts they are asked to be . . . [because his voice] strikes to the bottom of the hearts of men.  I have watched it happen, often, not just in the rare case but in many many thousands of men - sitting silent, retrospective, thoughts flying back to home and loved ones . . . [as his voice tapped into the] power of music, put into humble, throbbing words, as these fellows want it, need it, bow to it."
Gioia goes on to write:
"Gary Giddens . . .  calls this aspect of his singing 'a zone of emotional safety'  You could even claim that Bing Crosby invented emotional restraint in popular music.  As leader of the first generation of singers to take advantages of the improved microphones of the late 1920s and early 1930s, Crosby grasped better than anyone the potential of conversational delivery."
It was during the war years that Crosby's recording of White Christmas became the best-selling record of all time (and remains so) and won an Oscar for his first serious film role, as a priest in Going My Way.  He also devoted enormous time to traveling and entertaining troops in the U.S. and abroad.  In a public opinion poll, conducted at end of the war, to pick the most admired man alive, Bing easily won, beating President Truman, and Generals Eisenhower and MacArthur.

From 1944, Out Of This World, composed by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer:

Friday, November 9, 2018

Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?

Once I built a railroad, I made it run
Made it race against time
Once I built a railroad, now it's done
Brother, can you spare a dime? 
I admire Bing Crosby's vocals but they've always struck me as more emotionally remote compared to Sinatra.  And I can't imagine Bing singing a torch song like Frank.

Brother, Can You Spare A Dime? is an exception.  With lyrics by Yip Harburg, music by Jay Gorney, and recorded in 1932 at the height of the Depression, Bing perfectly captures the pathos of the time, and the personal tragedies. As we progress through verse and chorus the narrator becomes more desperate, transitioning from speaking of his "brother" to the more impersonal "buddy", as friendship shatters in the ruins:
Say, don't you remember, they called me Al
It was Al all the time
Why don't you remember, I'm your pal
Say buddy, can you spare a dime?
Harburg, best known as composer of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, and Gorney were songwriting partners for several years until Yip ran off with Gorney's wife.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Hail, Caeser! As Christian Parable

Sometimes a joke is just a joke, sometimes with the Coen Brothers it's also a joke but also something else, and sometimes there's a man . . . now, where was I?

On first seeing Hail, Caesar!, the 2016 film by the Coen Brothers, during its theatrical release, I seriously misunderestimated it.  You can find my initial take here.

Watching it on cable a few months later caused me to reassess and move it up a few notches in the Coen oeuvre.  This time I caught the underlying themes of faith v science and utopianism v practicality.  Here's my second take.

While my reassessment discussed issues of faith I think the film can be more explicitly seen as a parable for Jesus.  Being Jewish I'm out of my theological depth when it comes to Christianity but the Coen Brothers are in the same situation and it didn't stop them, so here goes.

In Hail, Ceasar! Jesus is embodied in Eddie Mannix, the general manager of the studio.  He is shown as devoted to his Catholic faith with frequent visits to his confessor.  In my prior post I wrote of Mannix:
"He's willing to tackle the tough job at the studio enduring constant strain, long hours, and separation from his family, sacrificing himself, rather than take what he sees as a simpler, less stressful role at Lockheed."
But, it's more than that.  Eddie is a man of faith.  Both the screenwriter communist study group and Lockheed represent pure materialism.  For the communists materialism is a matter of Marxist creed; there is no place for spirituality in their world.  Or, as Baird Whitlock, the dimwit actor so well portrayed by George Clooney, who has been temporarily converted to their creed explains to Mannix:
"These guys were pretty interesting, though.  They've actually figured out the laws that dictate, well - everything, history, sociology, politics, morality.  Everything.  It's all in a book called Kapital." 
Here's Professor Marcuse explaining to Baird how it works (sorry for the bad sound synch):


It's a more benign materialism for the Lockheed executive; it's just the world he exists in.

Eddie Mannix is willing to give to Caesar (the studio owner) what is owed but no more.  But in doing so he will drive those driven solely by materialism (the communists) from the studio just as Jesus drove the materialists (moneychangers) from the Temple.  Art and creativity may generate material goods but they have a spiritual aspect too, as does the very act of creating it, which Eddie explains to Baird after slapping him around a bit:
"Shaddup.  You're gonna go out there and you're gonna finish "Hail Caesar!".  You're gonna give that speech at the feet of the penitent thief and you're gonna believe every word you say.  You're gonna do it because you're an actor and that's what you do.  Just like the director does what he does, and the writer and the script girl and the guy who claps the slate.  You're gonna do it because the picture has worth and you have worth if you serve the picture and you're never gonna forget that again."
And, after solving the problems of one day at the studio, Eddie returns to church, still struggling with a job offer from Lockheed that promises wealth, security, normal hours, and more time with his family.  From the confessional booth:
Eddie:   May I ask you something, Father?
Father:  Of course, my son.
Eddie:   If there's something that's easy . . . is that . . .
Father:  Easy?
Eddie:   Easy to do, easy to - an easy job - not a bad job, it's not bad.  But then there's another job, that's . . . that's not so easy.  In fact it's hard.  It's so hard, Father, sometimes I don't know if I can keep doing it.  But it seems right.
[Silence.  Then:]
Father:  God wants us to do what's right.
With that advice, Eddie's decision is made.  He will stay with the studio, bringing art and creativity in the world though it means dealing with misfits, idiots, gossips, incompetents, prima donnas, and, of course, materialists.  He sacrifices his personal happiness, and that of his family, to suffer on our behalf.

Or perhaps he's just a shallow man, afraid of new challenges, comfortable in doing what he does best, perhaps unconsciously avoiding the burden of family duties, all on behalf of creating trifles like Hail, Caesar! to please the public and his boss.