Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Royals edge Mets in the 2015 World Series

The Kansas City Royals upset my predictions for a Blue Jays-Mets World Series, but that wasn't surprising given the Royals' talent and excellent coaching. This Series will come down to defense, bullpen effectiveness, and timely contact hitting—the Royals have the slight edge in all three.

Royals in seven. Sorry, Jerry.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

One Road, Four Songs

John Loudermilk comes upon a band of marauding teens, a half-woman/half-ghost, and a man born here, maybe there, heading north.

Monday, October 19, 2015

After Larry Brown: Taylor, Mississippi (Google Maps)

As I've noted recently, I'm in a periodic immersion into all things Larry Brown, devouring his fiction and essays, watching documentaries online, listening again to the music that inspired or otherwise surrounded him in northern Mississippi, where he lived and wrote until his death in 2004. Though I'm loathe to let Google Street View do my work for me, and continually, if often unsuccessfully, guard against romanticizing a point-of-view and economic lifestyle I don't share—the air's getting cold outside and I can't resist turning to digital maps. I haven't been down through Mississippi in many years, and this ragged intersection of First and Main Streets in tiny Taylor (population 320) evokes precisely the hardscrabble landscape that Brown's characters drive past or stop at, walk around and struggle within.

This is the deep South, Brown's world. Taylor's official website makes a charmingly casual, understood reference to William Faulkner:
For a town of about 320 people, Taylor has more than its share of interesting history, culture and atmosphere. Taylor has survived good times and devastating times, and it faces the future, always changing, but always keeping an appreciation for hard work, good food and music, sociability, and a slower pace of life.
     From modest beginnings as a pioneer settlement to its rise and fall with the railroad and King Cotton, Taylor endures and is now, as Faulkner put it, a “postage stamp of native soil” that attracts visitors and new residents from all over the world who come for its famous food, music and arts scene and bucolic lifestyle.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Roger Angell, secretly hoping

From The New Yorker, November 20, 1978
That 95-year-old Roger Angell is again blogging his way through the postseason warms me to no end. We can't take him for granted. (His latest, on the New York Mets conniving their way past the Los Angeles Dodgers into the NLCS, contains a nice Angellic observation or three.) Last night, as the cameras closed in on Met Curtis Granderson's tense, concentrated face during an at-bat against the Chicago Cubs' starter Jon Lester, I was reminded of one of my favorites postseason moments, when young Dodger fireballer Bob Welch fanned Yankee veteran Reggie Jackson in a ninth inning showdown in Game Two of the 1978 World Series. The moment is indelibly imprinted in me: as much as I enjoyed the 1976 and '77 seasons and the great '77 World Series, my baseball cards and growing affection for Nolan Ryan and the Boston Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles, this moment, enjoyed in my rec room with my older brother and dad, eternally focused my love of the game. I carry it with me everywhere.

Unsurprisingly, the moment inspired Angell, too. I'm not sure what's a more deeply pleasurable experience for me, watching the at-bat or reading Angell's description.


Here's Angell, from the November 20, 1978 issue of The New Yorker. (The essay was later collected in Late Innings.)
The wonderful confrontation was executed in broad strokes. With the tying run on second base in the person of Bucky Dent, and with Paul Blair leading off from first, Jackson needed only a single to do his primary task, but his full, staggering foul cut at Welch’s third fastball, on the one-and-one count, told us that Reggie was not interested in shortening up. This was all or nothing: the famous millionaire slugger was going to take the kid downtown. Two more burning fastballs were fouled off, with Reggie’s lurching swing each time causing him to resemble a dangerously defective drilling machine, and we were all on our feet, yelling and pointing and laughing. Jackson took a ball, fouled off a high pitch, and took another ball, to run the count full. I had been secretly hoping that Welch would attempt a change-up, because it seemed possible that the Jackson machinery would break into several pieces when he swung at it, but Bob Welch, too, wanted this entertainment pure. He stared in, stretched, and reared, the two runners took off, fifty-six thousand fans yelled together, and Reggie cut mightily at a high fastball, swinging through it cleanly, and the game and the marvelous moment were over. Jackson, enraged at his failure, smashed his bat in the dugout, but he calmed down quickly. “The kid beat me,” he said in the clubhouse.

Three frames from memory's permanent bank:



Joy and rage.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Say Hey! Willie Mays shares

I came across this hardcover gem in the Juvenile Books collection at Northern Illinois University's Founders Library. My Secrets Of Playing Baseball was written by Wilie Mays with renowned children's book author Howard Liss and published in 1967. In it, Mays covers for kids the fundamentals of infield and outfield defense, catching, pitching, batting, base-running, as well as signals and situational hitting.

The book includes some great faux film-strip "action shots" by David Sutton, many in color, of Mays instructing via batting stance, outfield and defense positioning, etc. These photos were taken at an empty Candlestick Park probably in early 1967, and show Mays, entering his sixteenth season in the majors, as spry and athletically dynamic as ever.

For some context on Mays at this point in his career, here's a terrific hour-long ABC documentary that ran in 1967:

And this, from an August 1967 article in Sport World:
Mays refuses to try to guess when he will have to step down. It makes no difference to him that fellows like Ty Cobb and Stan Musial played ball well into their 40’s.
     “I’ll be the one who will make the decision,” said Mays. “It could be two, three or five years. When I feel that I am embarrassing myself I’ll quit. When I know that I can not maintain certain standards that I set for myself, you will not see me playing ball anymore.”
     It will be a sad day for the Giants, the National League and all baseball when that day arrives because Willie is the last of the real legitimate superstars who can play every day. Stan Musial and Williams have retired. Mickey Mantle is a part time player due to his many injuries. Only Mays goes on and on.
For six more seasons of diminishing returns, anyway. (Many felt that Mays was embarrassing himself well before his clunky curtain call with the New York Mets in the early 1970s.) In 1967 Mays played his fewest games up to that point in his career—141—and all of his counting stats were down, at-bats (486), average (.263), hits (128), home runs (22), and RBI (70); by advanced metrics, his WAR (Wins Above Replacement) was drastically lower in 1967, at 4.3.

Willie May is the player I most wished I'd seen in his prime, and in these photos taken in the last third of his storied career he still looks terrific—trim and ready to play.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Abandoned, Ctd.

One-room schoolhouse. 1871. Roditt Township, Illinois.

My friend, epic cyclist Dan Libman, hipped me to this a one-room schoolhouse at the intersection of Rock City and Kelly Roads, west of Rockford. Built in 1871, the building is remarkably well-preserved considering the brutal winters that have howled around and through it for the last hundred and forty-four years.

The Civil War was over for only six years when the town erected this schoolhouse. The empty bell tower, the acres of quiet surrounding farmlands, the gravel road that leads away going west, the few cars that fly past on Rock City—this structure evokes a time long, long gone.

The south side of the building:

As the doors aren't boarded up, I poked my head in and saw that someone had dragged inside a red plastic deck chair and a busted-up sofa. The result is a virtual stage set, telling what story I'm not sure:


Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Playoffs Are Here!

And I'm as excited as these kids cheering on the Tigers at Briggs Stadium in Detroit seventy-three years ago. Here's to chilly afternoons and nights of languor and drama.

My fearless predictions:

American League
WC: Astros > Yankees
ALDS: Royals > Astros
ALDS: Blue Jays > Rangers
ALCS: Blue Jays > Royals

National League
WC: Cubs > Pirates
NLDS: Cubs > Cardinals
NLDS: Mets > Dodgers
NLCS: Mets > Cubs

World Series
Blue Jays > Mets in seven

Photo via The History Place.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The story of Russ Mann, jukebox singles, and the hits that never were

Pull up a stool. And buckle up.

Who is Russ Mann? You got me. I can't find a picture of the guy, but I know that he released a handful of singles in the late 1960s and early 1970s on the Detroit-based Dearborn label, an imprint of Martin & Synder Distributing that produced many 45s exclusively for jukeboxes. In a long tradition, so-called jukebox labels worked with manufacturers and bar owners to stock jukeboxes with singles, many of them novelty, seasonal or, as in Mann's case, environmentally-topical songs. Mann sang songs about drinking in bars, and you headed to your favorite tavern to hear them. From what I can gather, Mann enjoyed little to no success on the airwaves; diverted to honky-tonks, his songs were limited to those who heard or didn't hear them as they were sent across the heads of drunks, regulars and newcomers alike. Although jukebox labels benefited from the loose change of tipsy tavern-dwellers, the owners of the labels eyed the far more lucrative radio market, but it was tough to crack for even top-selling jukebox-only singles. In the January 30, 1971 issue of Billboard, L&R One-Stop manager Rick Eliot lamented this, saying, "We have singles that sell in quantities of 12,000 to l5,000 copies that never get aired." Elliot added that, though records sell in heavy quantity to jukebox programmers, they receive little radio airplay.
"This creates a problem," he said, “because jukebox programmers will come back to us complaining that play doesn't continue without airplay support."
        He said perhaps stations lean away from records on small labels. "I just don't understand it," he said.
Alas, poor Russ Mann was fated to be a name trapped under smudged glass, a singer limited to the four walls of a bar and the suspect memories of hungover patrons. Surely fame of a sort, but dwarfed by that earned on Music Row. The blur of this reproduction from a January 9, 1971 Billboard article seems grimly appropriate to the bleary-eyed guy choosing Mann's song at last call:

A natural for country jukebox programming, but not for the airwaves? Here are three of Mann's singles, spanning 1968 to 1971. Written by J.P. Mayton and Tom Valentine, released on Dearborn in 1971, "Seatbelts On The Bar Stools" is a terrific slice of old-school honky-tonk, a well-played drinking song that masks the darkness of alcoholism with light of whimsy—that old story.:

His 1968 debut for Dearborn, "Hello Jukebox," written by Carl Knight, begins with a happy hour lament:

And a 1970 single, also written by Knight, employs a poetic title to tell another story as old as dirt, the pedal steel guitar as stinging as a hangover in the morning:

For the perfect reading accompaniment to Mann's tune I recommend the essential Honky Tonk: Portraits of Country Music by Henry Horenstein. Here are two of the many terrific photos in the book:


Note: Mann's story calls to my mind Dave Edmunds's "A. 1. On The Jukebox," a great tune that Edmunds co-wrote with Will Birch, of The Records, for his Trax On Wax 4 album, released in 1978. I'm not sure that the vexed fate of the "big Wurlitzer star" has ever been told so well. Nowhere on the charts, indeed: