Thursday, January 20, 2022

Urge For Going

Imagine in 1966 tuning into a sedate, somewhat corny, Canadian folk music show and hearing a young woman you've never heard of sing this song.  In that context Joni Mitchell must have sounded like a being from another planet.  It was only in 1968 that she would record her first album.  The older gentleman introduced at the beginning is Jimmy Driftwood, who composed Tennessee Stud and the Battle of New Orleans.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022


 I'd seen a photo of Carl Hubbell's arm at rest with the left palm facing out but had never before seen a good photo that captured how his hand looked actually throwing the screwball.  Now I know how his left palm ended up permanently facing outwards.

From 1929 to 1937 Hubbell was one of the best pitchers in baseball and over the last five of those seasons was probably the best.

Monday, January 17, 2022


One of the phases of my explorations into baseball history took me back into the origins of professional baseball in America (I wrote about the origins of the game itself in Madame Blatavsky and the Birth of Baseball).   The still-amateur game exploded in popularity in the Northeast and Midwest in the years after the Civil War with clubs being established in many cities and towns.  In my reading I came across a discussion of the Pythian Base Ball Club of Philadelphia, a black ball team led by Octavius Catto, which mentioned that Catto died at the age of 32 in 1871.  The references to the Pythians and Catto piqued my curiosity and found his biography had been completed by the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) Bioproject, a reading of which revealed Catto had been a significant figure, known for much more than his baseball career.  More recently I've been making my way through a very long and very detailed biography of Catto, which exhaustively investigates his family background and race relations in Philadelphia, "Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America".  Catto's life and death are a reminder that while the white post-war South may have legally instituted (de jure) discrimination and introduced a reign of terror to control the newly freed people, the more de facto discrimination in the Northern states also proved effective in resisting the attempts at assimilation by blacks, sometimes with deadly consequences.

Octavius Catto

(Right, Catto from SABR Bioproject)

Catto was born in Charleston, South Carolina; his mother a free black woman and his father, born a slave later freed by his master and becoming a Presbyterian minister.  Reverend Catto moved his family to Philadelphia, the northern city with the largest black population, in 1848 and during the 1850s young Octavius attended the Institute for Colored Youth (ICY), the city's only high school for blacks where he was class valedictorian. In 1859 he was hired as a teacher at ICY in English, mathematics, Latin, and Greek.

During the Civil War, Catto actively led recruitment drives that raised several regiments of U.S. Colored Troops for the Union and with the end of the war he plunged into a leadership role, campaigning for passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, as well as undertaking direct action such as a campaign to allow black to ride on Philadelphia streetcars, which ultimately, with the help of his wife, succeeded.  The SABR biography provides a detailed, but concise account of his impressive efforts to obtain full civil rights for blacks.

Even in baseball, he was a pioneer, co-founding the Pythians in 1866 and becoming the team's star infielder.  According to the SABR biography:

". . . many of the players belonged to the Knights of Pythias Lodge, and thus they became the Pythians (derived from a mythical priestess at the Greek Temple of Apollo). Besides Catto, the Pythian leadership included other prominent blacks who emerged from Underground Railroad families. Club president James W. Purnell worked with abolitionists John Brown and Martin Delany, and vice president Raymond W. Burr was descended from American revolutionary Aaron Burr and was the son of a prominent black activist."

Catto saw baseball as both an activity for black self-improvement and an opportunity to press for integration.  Though in 1869 the Pythians played the first game between black and white teams, and continued to do so, the Pythian application to join the National Association of Base Ball Players was voted down.  While black ball players were to occasionally play in the professional leagues, a firm color line was established by the late 1880s which remained in place until 1947.

Active politically, Catto led another campaign to get black voters to the polls in the Philadelphia mayoral election in 1871, despite white intimidation.  The night before the election, two blacks were beaten and shot (one fatally), by whites.  The next day Catto purchased a six-shot revolver and was on his way home to get the ammunition he had purchased when confronted by two white men who had been looking for him.  One of the men, Frank Kelly, pulled a revolver and shot Catto three times, killing him.  Kelly was eventually tried for murder but despite the testimony of six eyewitnesses (three white and three black), all of whom stated Kelly shot Catto, he was acquitted by the all-white jury.

W.E.B. DuBois later wrote of Catto, 

"And so closed the career of a man of splendid equipment, rare force of character, whose life was so interwoven with all that was good about us, as to make it stand out in bold relief, as a pattern for those who have followed after.”

According to the SABR biography:

Even whites were outraged at Catto’s murder in his quest for civil rights. His funeral procession was the largest since Lincoln’s assassination and unprecedented for a black man. Over the three-mile route, tens of thousands of black and white Philadelphians watched in reverence for a fallen hero, as more than 125 carriages paraded by, containing Congressmen, military leaders, local politicians, students, colleagues, soldiers, ballplayers, and fellow civil rights activists.

Catto and his legacy were remembered initially but faded over the years.  Over the past twenty years, he has received renewed recognition for his pioneering efforts.  In 2017 a 12-foot bronze statue of Catto was dedicated and erected in front of Philadelphia City Hall.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Terry Teachout

There are times when the passing of someone you never personally knew hits you harder than you would have imagined.  Just heard that Terry Teachout died in his sleep at the age of 65.

Terry was a theater critic for the Wall St Journal, wrote monthly in Commentary, the author of Pops, the captivating biography of Louis Armstrong and of the play Satchmo at the Waldorf which I and the Mrs saw a few years ago.  He did several movie podcasts with my good friend Titus Techera - I'll always remember their discussions of Vertigo and Night of the Hunter (it wasn't just the analysis, Terry had the perfect voice for the medium), and appeared on the Political Beats podcast discussing one of my favorite groups, The Band.  I also read him frequently on Twitter.

He was a talented and insightful writer (his pieces in Commentary were one of the few things that kept me as a subscriber - he'd write about musicians, actors, producers, directors from the mid-20th century, often about whom I knew little but he always made it interesting) but what make me so mourn his passing is the spirit of the man, a spirit that was gracious and generous, always trying to find the best in people, and someone I would have liked to know.

His last few years were personally rough.  He found love late in life, but his wife had a severe lung disease and died about two years ago after a lung transplant failed.  For some time thereafter he sounded like the saddest man in the world on his twitter feed.  But he found love again, announcing he'd found someone special and was clearly enthralled by her.  It was wonderful to see him bouncing back.  Two days ago, his last tweet announced his new girlfriend's mother had unexpectedly died.  And now this.

John Podhoretz at Commentary:

The loss to his loved ones, the loss to the American theatre he both championed as a critic and mastered as a playwright, and the loss to the broader American culture he knew more fully than anyone else in our time cannot be overstated.

Terry possessed an extraordinary talent, all the more extraordinary because his life’s work was a defense of the value, meaning, and profundity of ordinariness. A child of small-town Missouri, he was someone who made a study of every topic that interested him and, with his passion for completeness, achieved a greater level of expertise in matters of high and popular culture than just about anyone in America.

This was part of his own understanding, based on his own experience, that there could be greatness anywhere—in an unknown actor in Idaho, a great director in Oregon, a great scenic designer in suburban Chicago. And indeed, in Terry’s estimation, the single best theatrical experience of his lifetime happened in Glencoe, Ill.—an innovative production of Our Town, the American play that exemplified Terry’s most profound sense of things: He believed the everyday lives of everyday people were as fascinating and as revelatory as depictions of the great and near-great.


Running a corporate metrics program for environmental and safety performance for a dozen years taught me a few lessons and following covid metrics for the past two years has reminded me of those days.

There are a number of factors important in designing and operating a metrics system.  Here are a few off the top of my head.  I'm sure I'm forgetting a few (age, you know).

1.   What is it you are trying to measure? 

2.   Are there alternative measures that might be more effective?

3.   Why are you trying to measure it? 

4.   What is the value of collecting the data versus the collective effort needed to collect it?

5.   How difficult is it to measure accurately?

6.   How can you validate the metrics being reported to you for accuracy?

7.   What is the criteria for accuracy?  Is close, good enough?

8.   Who will be the customers of that data?  Different customers may use it for different purposes.

9.   Are there desirable behaviors you trying to drive with the metric?

10.  Could you drive undesirable behaviors or create unintended consequences with the metric?

11.  Are you periodically reviewing metrics to make sure they are still necessary and driving the right behavior?

There are two other basic concepts to keep in mind anytime you are measuring and comparing performance on a metric:

Are you using the same measuring stick in all your operations and are others doing the same?

For instance, in the case of covid, is everyone using the same definition of "covid death"?  If not, comparisons become difficult.

Note: Even if it is not the "right" metric if all are using the same measuring stick you can still make useful comparisons.

Even if you are nominally using the same measuring stick is everyone counting accurately?  

In the case of international covid comparisons, some countries may have deficiencies in their health care and data collection systems that make accurate counting difficult, while others may be deliberating manipulating the data.  The global measurement problems with covid are way beyond anything I encountered in the corporate world; The Economist estimates the actual death toll may be up to 3X the current officially reported 5.5 million.

Which brings me to the U.S. metrics around Covid, a situation that has always presented challenges but is becoming even more difficult with Omicron. 

Since the start of the pandemic the states have been reporting Covid hospitalizations.  Under the CDC definition these include all those admitted, for whatever reason, who are found to have Covid.  This is a useful metric in gauging how widespread the pandemic is.  However, it does not tell you how many patients have been admitted because of Covid which would also be a useful figure, particularly for the public.  In my opinion, both types of hospitalization data should have been reported.

This information has been difficult to find.  Over a year ago, I did some research and concluded that about 30% of Covid hospitalizations were for reasons other than Covid.  Subsequent studies indicated that, for children, about 40% of such hospitalizations were for reasons other than Covid, a finding that makes sense given children have less serious Covid health outcomes than adults.

Because Omicron is so easily transmissible, the number of cases has increased very quickly and I would expect the number of hospitalizations with covid to increase substantially but the data I've seen from various hospitals and areas in the U.S. and elsewhere is that up to 70% of those hospitalizations are not because of covid.

The scale and pace of the increase is enormous.  Globally, the 7 day average pre-Omicron was about 490,000 cases (with the pandemic high being 826,000) while it is now 2,647,000 (source: Worldometer).  For the U.S. in early December the 7 day average was 71,000 (with the high in early 2021 at 251,000) ; it now stands at 789,000.  It's probably a good starting assumption now that anyone admitted to the hospital for any reason is very likely to have covid, or to get it while hospitalized.

Another complicating factor is that much of the Northeast, Midwest, and Southwest were still in the Delta wave when Omicron hit and since hospitalizations and deaths lag cases by 2-4 weeks it is difficult to distinguish between the two in the metrics (although individual studies have affirmed that outcomes are significantly better for Omicron).  In the case of Arizona, the case and testing positivity data show that Omicron hit us the week of December 27 which means hospitalization and, more importantly, mortality data is probably still predominantly Delta related.

This also means that covid deaths may become harder to assess.  To be precise, because so many of those hospitalized and in ICUs will have covid, determining whether covid is actually the factor, or a contributing factor to those deaths will become more difficult and I think there will be more people in that category.  Since those dying with a positive covid test are most likely being added into the death count, we may see a duplication of the confusion between dying with or because of that we've seen with hospitalizations.  As it stands, with the current definition probably around 20-25% of covid deaths are with covid.  Many countries other than the U.S., such as the UK and Germany, also use the same reporting standards.(1)

In the near-term I think this issue with how we report the metrics will make it more difficult to determine what is actually happening on a daily basis and will add to public confusion.

In any event, if you're old folks like us, or have risky health conditions, get vaccinated, including your boosters.  Though we've discovered it will not prevent infection as we originally thought, it still greatly reduces your chances of bad outcomes.  Of that there is no doubt.


(1) While there is some uncertainty in calculating covid deaths because of v with, I wanted make sure my views are clear.  Since early in the pandemic I've seen claims that most covid deaths are with, not because of covid.  This is false - I've never been able to confirm any such claims.  Also, whatever uncertainties there are about the covid metrics, it turns out that flu metrics (to which people minimizing the risks of covid like to make comparisons) are even more uncertain and, in my view, more likely to be too high than covid metrics as I discovered looking at the CDC flu methodology back in April 2020.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022



And you never sang with Pavarotti!