Hot Air: Slippin’ Away

Enjoy it, kiddies, your last four and a half days of national sanity.

Our holy land’s bureaucracies as well as our species-threatening weapons of mass destruction will be in the hands of a psychologically- and intellectually-challenged orange-tinged simian come noon Fri.

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You asked for it, you got it.

King For A Day

Martin Luther King Day. Trivia: My birth state of Illinois was the first in the nation to declare MLK Day a holiday.

The Day — as in gov’t employees get the day off, paid, was signed into law at the fed level in 1983 by none other than Saint Ronald Reagan. Keep in mind, signing a bill into law is a mere formality. St. RR had opposed the idea of a holiday for MLK for a variety of reasons, none of them making a lick of honest sense. He was joined in opposition by the likes of North Carolina Republican Senators Jesse Helms and John Porter East. The three of them, and other troglodytes, bandied about canards like MLK was a commie (false) and he was a horn dog (true but irrelevant). It wasn’t until Congressperson Katie Hall of Indiana’s 1st Dist. intro’d a bill making King the first private citizen to be honored with a paid day off,  with the subsequent okay by the Senate, that the fête became a fait.

On the state level, the last such body to recognize MLK Day was Utah in 2000. Yet, even today, three states (Alabama, Arkansas & Mississippi) observe Lee/King Day, Lee being none other than Confederate States of America General Robert E. Lee and I needn’t expand upon the sheer lunacy of that pairing.

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Odd Couple

To swipe the notoriously unfunny Yakov Smirnoff’s signature line, “America, what a country.”

Getting Through It

My aversion to winter is well documented. If there is a god (hint, there isn’t) winter is one of his 1) dirtiest tricks or 2) dumbest-assed mistakes.

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In order to survive the ordeal that is winter, I have identified a number of date and event touchstones to help me pass the dark, lengthy hours, days and weeks of the season. Martin Luther King Day is the first. See, hitting Jan. 15th means all the most sun-starved holidays have passed and, acc’d’g to meteorologists, the absolutely coldest day of winter, on average, is upon us. Ergo, it’s all uphill after this, huzzah.

The dates I mark in wait for spring:

  • Jan. 15th (or the closest Monday): MLK Day
  • The First Sunday in February or Super Bowl Sunday: I couldn’t care less about football; it’s just that this is the last day of the gridiron season so, again, huzzah!
  • February 14th: Three events — 1) “Pitchers and catchers report,” code for baseball spring training beginning around this date; 2) Valentine’s Day; and 3) the start of Big Mike’s Birthday Month
  • March 4th: The day I arrived in this mad, mad, mad, mad world
  • The Ides of March (give or take a day or two): The NCAA Men’s basketball tournament begins; again, a have zero interest in college basketball but this is as good a marker for the coming of spring as any
  • March 17th, St. Patrick’s Day: I’m neither Irish nor overly fond of drinking to sloppy excess but this date marks the end of Big Mike’s Birthday Month
  • March 21st (give or take a day): The first day of spring — at freaking last!
  • April 1st (give a take a few days): Baseball’s Opening Day

After that, it’s all gravy, babies. I’ve endured decades of such countdowns and survived them all. I fully expect to survive this one — although I hate to speak too hastily.

A Hit

Just read an article this weekend about the auctioning off of the notes of author Jim Bouton.

I read his first book when I was 14 years old and find it, to this day still, one of the defining and most influential literary works I’ve ever enjoyed.

Jim Bouton wrote Ball Four, his memoir of the 1969 baseball season when he was a sore-armed has-been trying to stay in the game.

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Author and Baseball Pitcher Jim Bouton

Bouton was first and foremost an iconoclast. He loved smashing plaster saints and calling out the hypocrisies of authority figures. At the time he wrote Ball Four, baseball — like all professional sports — was teeming with such phonies and hypocrites. Bouton wrote of the game’s biggest stars scrambling around the rooftop of Washington’s Shoreham Hotel, trying to peep into windows and catching women in various states of undress. He revealed who showed up for games drunk. He spoke of team officials lying, conning, charming, and extorting their way through contract negotiations with players.

Ball Four was much more than a baseball book — it was a snapshot of the times. Bouton recalled anti-war demonstrations, discussing race relations with black and Southern white players, navigating through changing sexual mores, and supporting his industry’s nascent labor union.

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Bouton’s current wife, Paula Kurman, a PhD in behavioral science, recalls meeting him, getting to know him, and then falling for him:

I couldn’t really call it love until I read the book because I realized something that Jim still doesn’t quite absorb, which is that he is one of the best social scientists around.

ESPN blogger David Schoenfield writes Ball Four “was culturally important, opening the lens on the behind-the-scenes aspect of major league baseball, such as the widespread use of amphetamines… and players fooling around with women who weren’t their wives, which traditional baseball writers had long covered up.”

NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” staff characterized Ball Four as “The book that changed baseball.”

Mark Armour writes on Fox Sports website:

The most incredible thing about Ball Four is that it’s not, in the nearly half-century since, been equaled. Or maybe this isn’t so incredible at all. There have been very few baseball players like Jim Bouton, and very few baseball writers like Leonard Shecter, Bouton’s collaborator…. And maybe the nature of the universe dictates that a happy marriage between two such characters will occur, whether due to Providence or Coincidence or Intentions, just once every half-century or so.

Make no mistake, though: Ball Four is a great book.

Leonard Schecter was Bouton’s editor. The story goes that one night Bouton and Schecter found themselves in a Greenwich Village saloon, their manuscript completed but still without a name. They tossed out possible titles to each other until a drunk woman, sitting nearby, having overheard them, said, “Why not call it Ball Four?”

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Early in the book, Bouton writes of meeting good old southern boy and new teammate Don Mincher:

I’m not sure I’m going to like Don Mincher. I keep hearing that big southern accent of his. It’s prejudice, I know, but every time I hear a southern accent I think: stupid. A picture of George Wallace pops into my mind. It’s like Lenny Bruce saying he could never associate a nuclear scientist with a southern accent.

There’s more than a touch of self-reflection here, with Bouton acknowledging his prejudice. How else to erase prejudice from one’s heart unless one first admits it?

Bouton went on to become a McGovern delegate at the 1972 Democratic National Convention, endearing him all the more to me. Tragedy struck in 1997 when his daughter Laurie was killed in a car wreck. Bouton then built a stone wall on his property, a therapeutic exercise that helped him pass through the grief. Here’s what he’d written about her back in 1969:

Unsinkable is what we call Laurie, our youngest. She’s only three, but a tough little broad. This spring alone, for example, she’s been bitten by a dog, hit in the head by a flying can of peas and had nine stitches sewed into her pretty little head. Nothing puts her down.

Bouton made enemies writing Ball Four. Bowie Kuhn, the stuffy commissioner of baseball at the time of its release, called the book “detrimental to baseball.” Kuhn then called Bouton in to his New York office and ordered him to sign an affidavit stating everything in the book was a lie. Bouton, naturally, refused.

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At The Commissioner’s Office

Pete Rose and his Cincinnati Reds teammates came down particularly hard on Bouton the summer Ball Four was released. Bouton wrote in the book’s sequel I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally:

I can still remember Pete Rose, on the top step of the dugout screaming, “Fuck you, Shakespeare.”

It turns out Bouton, like the rest of us, has succumbed to the years. He suffered a debilitating stroke not long ago. It’s hard for me to wrap my brain around that one. He’ll always be that 30-something athlete-cum-litterateur who inspired me to become the writer I am today. I’m not much one for celebrity-worship but when I heard, back in 1996, that he’d be making a personal appearance at the Evanston, Illinois, Barnes and Noble in support of the latest of his five books, I dropped everything and made sure I arrived a good hour before the scheduled event. I swooned when he took the podium and read from his new tome. Afterward, I joined the crowd surrounding him, getting autographs and having their pictures taken with him. I asked for neither autograph nor picture; I only wanted to be in his presence.

Then again, maybe I should re-think putting Bouton on a pedestal. He advises it himself, that iconoclast, citing author and psychologist Sheldon Kopp:

“There are no great men. If you have a hero, look again: you have diminished yourself in some way.”

One thought on “Hot Air: Slippin’ Away

  1. Joy Shayne Laughter says:

    “There are no great men. If you have a hero, look again: you have diminished yourself in some way.”

    Gawd, I love this line. There are scads of people in this world and throughout history whom I admire. But I think of them as examples of human strength, friends to my spirit. I would rather have a friend than a hero.

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