Howie Rose photo by Kevin Ryan

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

First In War, First In Peace...

Call me crazy but every time I think of 1939, I think of Ireland and W.B. Yeats. 1939 was the year the bard of Ire swooped the mortal coil just in time to miss history's next few years which would have confirmed all the doom and gloom he may have suspected all the horror homo sapiens  might still be capable of inflicting upon themselves. One of his final poems, "Lapis Lazuli," was published just a year or so before he died and, for whatever reason, remains one of my favorites. I doubt if Yeats was much of a sports fan or had much of an  inkling of baseball beyond it being a scion of soccer (uh, "football") but I love to think that he would have been a great baseball color man on the radio. Situated behind a mic on a sticky day in some old ballyard way back when, what splendid words he might have used to describe the arcs of various pitches, line drives and fly balls!

Yeats' "Lapis Lazuli" seems to anticipate the dark days ahead while at the same time extolling the virtues and possibilities of the human experience.

And there is both a similar sense of foreboding and celebration  in this edition of "Painting The Word Picture" featuring not merely the bulk of September 21, 1939 Washington Senators-Cleveland Indians game but the complete day's WSJV broadcast preserved in fairly immaculate condition by clicking here for download or stream (the game can be found  on sections 11 & 12):

I'm a little fuzzy on the details but it appears that this recording was made as part of a National Archives-commissioned time capsule project so it would make sense that WSJV, a CBS-owned Washington, D.C. affiliate, would be a top candidate for such a project.

Provenance aside, what a snapshot of Americana this link provides! From Arthur Godfrey's "Sundial" show commencing the day's festivities (you can practically smell the black coffee and flap jacks on the city's breakfast tables and diner counters) on through the morning and afternoon soaps, quiz shows, kiddie programs, late night Swing, news, weather, and sports reports, this dusky audio jewel describes a world both distant and quite familiar. "Amos 'n Andy," Agnes Moorehead, comedian Joe E. Brown (himself a later Yankee radio guy), "The Goldbergs," "Major Bowes' Original Amateur Hour," Teddy Powell, Louis Prima... these are just a few of the talents and names mentioned in the course of a day in sound that can be relived at the click of a mouse.

And, for all us diamond-headed hipsters, we have the game called by none other than Hall of Fame pitcher Walter Johnson and Harry McTosh (or McTigue), a broadcaster I can find virtually nothing about. All things being equal, Johnson and Harry Mc. both do a pretty decent job of coloring the canvas of the late Thursday afternoon's events unfurling at D.C.'s long gone Griffith Stadium. Considering baseball had only been being broadcast for a just few years, it is really quite revelatory to hear how entrenched the art and craft of the whole enterprise had already become up to pairing a former star with broadcasting stiff. Put Johnson and Harry Mc. in any broadcast booth today and, after an inning or two, they'd be right at home. The highs and insides, the lows and outsides, the swings and a misses, the high fly balls, the back stories, the real low down, the shared language of the game all lead one to believe that the average fan of today and one of a century ago might easily fall into a familiar and comfortable repartee.

With a refreshing dearth of commercial pap peppering their banter, Johnson and Harry Mc. are allowed to focus on the game itself, the on-field doings of which comes through the recording loud and clear be it crack of bat, hollers of the crowd and even, I think, the caws and crows of some of the players themselves. Be here now, indeed! Or was that  be there then? Whatever, the immediacy of a meaningless late season game is both tangible and vital. The one angle the pair keep pushing is Johnson's in-person appearance later in the evening at a suburban eatery—an echo of which can still be experienced when a Big League bench warmer is tasked with representing the team and signing autographs in the parking lot of a local mall.

Johnson, it must be noted, was truly one of the great men of early 20th century baseball—a stand-up role model ready for any era and the veritable Derek Jeter of his day without, I imagine, a trail of fashion models left in his wake. Johnson's amiable, Kansas-bred demeanor is in evidence but so his knowledge the game and, more specifically, the players tussling in the long shadows of an autumnal equinox.

Walter Johnson Wikipedia entry:

The game itself is not without its curiosities, one of those taut scoreless pitchers' duels that strangely devolves into a late inning slugfest of sorts. Most of the names of the players are foreign to me. A rookie Lou Boudreau holds down the fort at short for the Tribe and his teammate, Ben Chapman (future big league manager and, ironically, lifelong racist and anti-Semite), is ensconced in center.

Ben Chapman Wikipedia entry:

Box Score of September 21, 1939 Washington Senators-Cleveland Indians game:

WSJV, according to my minimal research, chose September 21 to record its offerings that primarily because of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's momentous Congressional address earlier in the afternoon urging repeal of the Neutrality Act, his previous signing of which he is brave enough to admit regret. Listening to FDR and bits and pieces of the various newscasts from the recording, the similarities to today's events are uncanny and  striking. A president urging aiding allies on what amount to humanitarian grounds in the midst of economic hard times. Congress, itself, haggling over a budget discrepancy of—get this—$13 million smackers. And the reports from Eastern Europe describing the Axis violent push for power when set against the innocence of much of WSJV's fare that day point to a kind of real time cognitive dissonance. People then and now (me very much included) love their mindless pleasures and employ them as a kind of shield against all that unpleasantness out there.

Yeats could see it coming, that's for sure. And, had he been a baseball fan, his County Sligo gravestone's epitaph—"Cast a cold Eye/On Life, on Death./Horseman, pass by!"—might include a Big Train too.

Years ago I visited Comiskey Park late in its life for a trio of games with my college buddy Alec and his friend Max. The trip inspired a take on Yeats' "Lapis Lazuli" which I called "Emerald & Turquoise." For your literary pleasure, I present both offerings...

"Lapis Lazuli"
(For Harry Clifton)
I have heard that hysterical women say
They are sick of the palette and fiddle-bow.
Of poets that are always gay,
For everybody knows or else should know
That if nothing drastic is done
Aeroplane and Zeppelin will come out.
Pitch like King Billy bomb-balls in
Until the town lie beaten flat.

All perform their tragic play,
There struts Hamlet, there is Lear,
That's Ophelia, that Cordelia;
Yet they, should the last scene be there,
The great stage curtain about to drop,
If worthy their prominent part in the play,
Do not break up their lines to weep.
They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay;
Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.
All men have aimed at, found and lost;
Black out; Heaven blazing into the head:
Tragedy wrought to its uttermost.
Though Hamlet rambles and Lear rages,
And all the drop-scenes drop at once
Upon a hundred thousand stages,
It cannot grow by an inch or an ounce.

On their own feet they came, or On shipboard,'
Camel-back; horse-back, ass-back, mule-back,
Old civilisations put to the sword.
Then they and their wisdom went to rack:
No handiwork of Callimachus,
Who handled marble as if it were bronze,
Made draperies that seemed to rise
When sea-wind swept the corner, stands;
His long lamp-chimney shaped like the stem
Of a slender palm, stood but a day;
All things fall and are built again,
And those that build them again are gay.

Two Chinamen, behind them a third,
Are carved in lapis lazuli,
Over them flies a long-legged bird,
A symbol of longevity;
The third, doubtless a serving-man,
Carries a musical instmment.

Every discoloration of the stone,
Every accidental crack or dent,
Seems a water-course or an avalanche,
Or lofty slope where it still snows
Though doubtless plum or cherry-branch
Sweetens the little half-way house
Those Chinamen climb towards, and I
Delight to imagine them seated there;
There, on the mountain and the sky,
On all the tragic scene they stare.
One asks for mournful melodies;
Accomplished fingers begin to play.
Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.

"Emerald & Turquoise"
(after W.B. Yeats, for Alec Marsh and old Comiskey Park)
I have heard crazed diamond widows rants
That they're ill of the ash and looking home
And play-by-play that forever cants
For this blue/green orb or soon will know
That if sever action is not taken
Wrecking ball and tractor will come like Billy Ball bombing in
Till the Park lie broken and rubble strewn.

All play out their doomed hand.
There struts Shoeless, there is Fox,
That's Appling, that Minoso,
But they, when the last pitch is hurled,
The final batter about to fly,
If deserving their just place in the field
Do not alter their stance to cry.
Be it known that Minnie and Nellie can play;
Rapture alchemizing all the doom.
Every player has shot for, won and lost;
Strike out; Homers soaring over the host:
Disaster brought to new depths.
Though Minnie scampers and Nellie stomps,
And each ballgame ends right now
Atop a hundred million diamonds,
It can be measured in parts of inches.

In their own sneakers they came, or on El train,
Trolley, bus, bicycle, horse cart carriage,
Ancient ballyards shattered in vein.
Then they and their memories of the heart:
No handiwork of the Bambino,
Who handled ash like it was gold,
Made four-baggers that seemed to go
Like hawks over the corner of the stands in right;
His wide beer belly circled like Buddah
Of a sun splashed afternoon, lasted a couple of hours;
Everything crumbles and is renewed again
And that renew them look home.

Two Chicagoans, meeting a third,
Find their place amidst the Emerald and Turquoise,
Over them towers a Pudge Fisk blast,
An omen of forever;
Third, a long-suffering Chisox fan,
Holds a pen, scorecard and mouthharp.

Each pine tar stain on the bat.
Each freak of nature like Bucky Dent,
Is like rushing river or earthquake,
Or big League Park where masses shake
However many barren seasons pass
Can splinter the bleacher planks
Those Chicagoans strive to; and I
Cheer to behold them sitting there;
There by the sandlot in the sky,
On the whole doomed night game they stare.
Joe asks Charlie to play a blues;
Mournful strains begin to tone.
Their eyes mid extra innings or sorrow, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes look home.