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We Interrupt These Playoffs…

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Over at Grantland, Charlie Pierce weighs in on the many problems with Donald Sterling:

But there is one problem that never can be solved. This is because what is a problem for you might not be a problem for the good old boy network of plutocrats that actually own the games into which you pour your devotion and your money. And, even if you decide to stop spending the latter to satisfy the former, it may not really matter. The odds are that, through the largesse of television and the legerdemain of modern accounting, you can’t solve it that way, either. There never has been anything you can do about a bad owner. That one is out of your hands.

Which is where we find ourselves today in the case of Donald Sterling, the alleged racist slumlord owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, who was an alleged racist slumlord, and a confirmed terrible owner, for three decades before audio surfaced of a conversation that was reportedly between him and a woman named V. Stiviano, who appears to have James O’Keefe’d him. (Is there more? Of course there is.)

The league is investigating the audio, but by now, half the world has already weighed in, including the coach of his team, the commissioner of the National Basketball Association, LeBron James, and the president of the United States. All of them agree — as does any advanced carbon-based life form — that if the recording is authentic, the comments show that Sterling is undeniably racist, undeniably revolting, and undeniably rooted in the mind of a man who would have to yield his moral pride of place to algae. There have been a number of calls for the league to strip Sterling of his franchise. This, I confess, makes me more than a little nervous. Taking someone’s assets because of what they think and say, no matter how grotesque it is, sets off all kinds of alarm bells in my First Amendment conscience. The league certainly is within its rights to suspend him, for as long as it wants to suspend him. There were also calls for the Clippers players to make some kind of public statement. Before Sunday’s Game 4 against the Golden State Warriors, they did just that, when they removed their shooting shirts at center court and turned their red warm-ups inside out.

One and Done

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Charlie Pierce on the Sox:

The Red Sox of my youth [early 1960s] were losers, and not particularly lovable ones, either. They were shamefully late to integrate, and they lost enthusiasm for their work reliably around Memorial Day. They were not losers because they would reach the apex of the sport and then fail. They were losers because they lost, a lot. This is where I learned the basic lesson of being a Red Sox fan, a lesson that was lost for many years beneath an avalanche of mystical hoohah: It Could Always Be Worse.

So last season’s team was almost perfect. The local sports punditocracy spent almost the entire summer waiting for it to fail. This was partly because sports-talk radio is a job neither for grown-ups nor for advanced primates. But it also seemed for a long time to be grounded in empirical fact; sooner or later, the league would catch up to Koji Uehara, or Mike Napoli would strike out 111 times in a row, or Jonny Gomes would take a wrong step and send his kneecap spinning off into centerfield. I was waiting for it all to happen, and it never did. I waited for Tampa’s young talent to usher the Red Sox out of the playoffs. That didn’t happen. I waited for the Detroit pitching staff to melt their bats into a puddle. That didn’t happen. I waited for St. Louis’s obvious superior talent at most of the positions to assert itself. It could always be worse. But it never was.

This was the first Red Sox championship of the Post-Nonsense Era. It was achieved through the careful, and very wonk-based, construction of a roster that had precisely the right strengths at precisely the right times. And now, they are going about the business of defending that championship in much the same way. Winning is the newest normal. There are no curses to worry about anymore. Sometimes, a fishing knife is only a fishing knife.

Not for nothing but: there will be no repeat.

[Photo Credit: Pete Abe]

Full of Malarky

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Charlie Pierce on the Rodriguez-Selig slapstick:

That The Greatest Scandal That Absolutely Ever Was has come down to a faceoff between Rodriguez and Selig is proof enough of what a comic opera the whole escapade has been from the beginning. The hysteria over PEDs in baseball — and, thus, in every sport — has unfolded the way in which all drug hysterias in the history of this country have unfolded. It has been fueled by misplaced moral panic, anecdotal evidence, anonymous slander, and a fundamental disregard for legal and constitutional safeguards — all in the service of what has been sold as a greater good by executives and media members who became famous or wealthy in the pursuit. It has been an exercise in simplistic moralism, so why shouldn’t it come down to one villain and one hero? The whole thing has been a scary story for children right from the jump.

Rodriguez seems to have very few friends in baseball, and probably deserves to have even fewer than he does. His image has been leaking hot air ever since he joined the Yankees. And yes, he is floundering in a vain attempt to rescue the reputation he personally fed into the wood chipper. But, in his battle with Selig, it’s important to remember that — while Rodriguez is fighting for his reputation, and Selig for his legacy — they’re also both fighting just as hard to avoid something else. Neither one wants to be the lasting face of the steroid era. The commissioner would like to fit Rodriguez for the role, because that’s the only way to save Selig’s legacy; this makes his pursuit of Rodriguez look less like an attempt to rescue the game and more like an elaborate attempt to cover his own historical ass.

F is for Fugazi

Charlie Pierce on NBA free agency:

Is there any good reason for anyone to believe anything Dwight Howard says at this point?

He’s on the market again. On Monday, as the bell announcing the opening of the free-agency market was still pealing, he was being romanced by Houston and it was said that the Rockets were attractive to him at least in part because Texas has no state income tax. (This is a nice perk if you’re Dwight Howard the ballplayer, who will be making a gazillion dollars and can afford your own private police force. It’s a bit of a drag if you’re Dwight Howard from the Third Ward who’s trying to get him some public services.) Yao Ming Skyped in to pitch the team, and Howard’s also met with Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, as well as with James Harden, who likely will not be joining them in Springfield. He’s going to take the grand tour. Howard will be meeting with Golden State and Dallas, too, before deciding whether he wants to pick up the great burden of being a celebrity athlete in L.A. again.

Is there a bigger fake in this league? Seriously, the guy came into the NBA with a smile on his face and Bible verses on his shoes, and there hasn’t been a player in my memory who’s dived for every nickel with the enthusiasm this guy has demonstrated. (Dwight? Rich man. Camel. Needle’s eye. Google these terms along with “New Testament” and get back to me.) He can’t help being injured. He can help being miserable, though, and this guy is simply never happy. He wasn’t happy in Orlando. He wasn’t happy in L.A., and he’s not going to be happy wherever he ends up next. This would be tolerable if he brought championship ball with him. (Shaquille O’Neal wasn’t always a field of buttercups, either.) But the guy doesn’t necessarily help you win. He looks great — not good. Great — in the uniform. At the baggage carousel, there’s nobody more formidable. On the court? Not so much. He couldn’t really mesh with Kobe Bryant and he never really got along with Mike D’Antoni, and now he’s back running the grift again. Please, Houston, sign this guy. Moses Malone will come back from retirement just to kick his ass.

Then there’s Chris Paul, who has condescended to return to Los Angeles now that the Clippers gave him 107 million good reasons to be coached by Doc Rivers. This is another guy with a costume-jewelry résumé whom the league nonetheless slobbers over. You have your analytics and I have mine, but if you’re a big-money point guard, the basic metric is whether you can get your team to win anything and, right now, Paul’s got one division title with L.A. He, however, has fewer rings than Rajon Rondo or Mario Chalmers. But he gets to hold up the Clippers to the point where they raid another team for its coach, throw the league into an uproar, launch a brawl between my favorite person in the NBA and my, uh, boss, and all so that Paul won’t take his stylish, couldn’t-beat-the-Grizzlies-with-a-hand-grenade hindquarters somewhere else in the league. The barstools are full of point guards who guided their teams to a loss in a six-game playoff series.

[Picture by Greg Guillemin]

Come Together

 

Via The Atlantic.

For more on the Boston Marathon here is Charlie Pierce and Leigh Montville.

Hard Times

 

The Boston Phoenix, the once-great alternative newspaper is gone. Over at Grantland, Charlie Pierce remembers the old days:

I mean. Jesus Mary, where do you start with the newspaper at which you grew so much, and learned so much, and came to respect the craft of journalism with a fervor that edged pretty damn close to the religious? What memories have pride of place now? The fact that T.A. Frail, now at Smithsonian, suggested you might just like Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy and it wound up changing your life? The day that Doug Simmons, now at Bloomberg News, snuck up behind you and stuck a pair of earphones on your head, cranked Black Flag’s “Six Pack” up to 11, and taught you that rock and roll had not calcified when you graduated from college? What’s the song that plays when you realize that you’re young when you thought you were growing old? What’s the prayer of thanksgiving for a hundred days of fellowship, drunk on words, all of us, as though there were nothing more beyond the next word, the next sentence, the next paragraph locked into place? Please say that the muse is something beyond the balance sheet, something beyond technology. Tell me that she’s alive the way she once was when you’d feel her on your shoulder as one word slammed into the other, and the story got itself told, and you came to end and realized, with wonderment and awe, that the story existed out beyond you, and that it had chosen you, and you were its vehicle, and the grinning muse had the last laugh after all.

God, it was a carnival. I saw the publisher twice get into punch-ups, once with a staffer and the next time with a janitor. And, in both cases, it was at a Christmas party. We never got paid much, but we did get paid, and we were able to write about what we wanted to write the way we wanted to write it. We were a legitimate institution of Boston eccentricity, and we were proud of the fact that we were recognized for being that very thing. In 1982, when the 76ers beat the Celtics, and the Garden erupted into a chant of “Beat L.A.!,” the great Bob Ryan interviewed Darryl Dawkins and found Michael Gee, then covering the game for us. You have to have this quote, Ryan told him, because we can’t use it. Ryan had asked Dawkins what he felt like when he heard that chant from a Boston crowd.

“Man,” Dawkins said, “when I heard that, my dick got stiff.”

If I recall correctly, that was Gee’s lead.

Bucket List

Charlie Pierce has a nice piece on the Knicks over at Grantland. A reminder that reading about sports can be, you know, fun:

By this time in the NBA season, every team, good and bad, needs a healthy dose of ridiculous in its game to keep the fans interested and the snark flowing until such time as the playoffs begin and everybody has to get grimly serious about the whole business. (Back in the day, there was never a better time to cover the Larry Bird–era Celtics than during the trackless days of mid-February and early March. Those teams had Bird and McHale — and, earlier, Cedric Maxwell — as snarkmasters supreme and, eventually, they had Bill Walton come aboard as a dartboard. It was open-mic night four times a week.) Right now, and much to his dismay, New York Knick Jason Kidd is the element of ridiculousness that’s adding a certain je ne sais clang to what is, at the moment, the best team not only in your Atlantic Division, but also in your five boroughs.

Kidd is in a slump. No, check that. Kidd is in a morass. No, check that. Kidd is in the Great Grimpen Mire and we may never see him again. Jason Kidd, who already has a plaque gathering dust as it waits for him in Springfield, has missed 34 of 41 3-point attempts, including six Sunday night, in a closer-than-it-should-have-been, sparing–you–from–watching–Seth MacFarlane 99-93 win over the Philadelphia 76ers. He has missed them long and he has missed them short. He has barely missed them and he has missed them by a time zone or two. Anne Hathaway had as good a chance of hitting a 3-point shot Sunday night as Jason Kidd did. But what’s interesting is that this amazing pile of statistical roadkill likely will not even matter in two months. The Knicks didn’t sign Kidd to hit 3-pointers in February. They signed him to hit Carmelo Anthony in the eyeball with a pass at a critical moment of a game in June. And, if he is a step slow at that, too, and he is, he is still being paid a handsome $9 million or so for three or four passes that people will remember long after the sound of The Bells of St. Mary’s fades.

[Photo Credit: Joe Camporeale/USA Today]

The Banter Gold Standard: Thieves of Time

The following piece was written by one of our best, Charlie Pierce (Esquire, Grantland). It originally appeared in The National (May 10, 1990) and can also be found in Pierce’s excellent collection Sports Guy.

“Thieves of Time”

By Charlie Pierce

The press conference was over, and two men from New Castle, Pa., named Robert Retort and Ed Grybowski had been charged with interstate transportation of stolen property, which is a federal felony. In the conference room of the FBI field office in Pittsburgh, an agent named Bob Reutter was looking over the stolen property, examining it, not with a G-man’s eyes, but with those of a fan. There were baseball uniforms—thick, heavy flannel things with the names of the great, lost teams on them. The Memphis Red Sox. The Kansas City Monarchs. There were autographed baseballs, and old, sepia-shrouded pictures of young men wearing the heavy flannel uniforms of the great, lost teams. Looking at them, you could see back through time, all the way to the outskirts of town. Bob Reutter spent a long time looking.

It all belonged to an 86-year-old former security guard at the St. Louis City Hall named James Bell. In 1922, when he and the world were young, James Bell was pitching one hot day for the St. Louis Stars in the Negro League. It was late in the game, and there were men on base, and at the plate was a signifying hitter named Oscar Charleston. If the Negro League had a Babe Ruth, it was Oscar Charleston. The 19-year-old pitcher stared down the alley, and struck Oscar Charleston out of there, saving the game.

Lord, the other Stars thought, that young man is cool. So that’s what they called him. Cool Bell. But Manager Bill Gatewood thought the nickname lacked sufficient dignity for the grave young man man with the thoughtful eyes. He’s older than that, thought Gatewood. Cool Papa, that’s who he is.

Cool Papa Bell.

The man had style. Anyone could see that. In the Negro League, the wardrobes always cut like knives. A player named Country Jake Stevens cold Donn Rogosin, the author of Invisible Men, that he knew he’d made the big club when the owner took him out and bought him three new suits and two new Stetson hats. Even in this company, Cool Papa was sharp. When he walked through Compton Hill in St. Louis, children danced in his wake.

He played for 29 years and for seven different teams. He was the fastest man anywhere in baseball, so swift and deft on the basepaths that, when it looked like Jackie Robinson was going to be chosen to shatter the segregation of the major leagues, Cool Papa once ran wild just to show the young shortstop what kind of play he could expect when and if Robinson were called up. Jimmy Crutchfield once told a baseball historian named Robert Peterson that, when Cool Papa hit one back to the pitcher, everybody else in the field yelled, “Hurry!” Satchel Paige claimed that Cool Pap could hit the light switch in the hotel room, and that he’d be in bed before the room got dark. That was the story they always cold about Cool Papa Bell. They even told it when he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974.

He is old now, and half-blind. For years, he held court in his house on what is now Cool Papa Bell Avenue in St. Louis. He would tell stories, and sign autographs, and he would show the curious everything he had saved from his playing days. The uniforms. The programs. The pictures. He always was an obliging man, was Cool Papa Bell. Even when his health began to fail, he always was that.

“He always had all of this memorabilia,” says Norman Seay, Bell’s nephew and an administrator at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. “People came from everywhere, from Timbuktu, to get autographs from Uncle Bell. It was a normal occurrence around that house.”

The, on March 22, all that changed. Bell was visited by Grybowski and Retort, who had driven 17 hours to St. Louis from New Castle, where Retort owns a company called R.D. Retort Enterprises. It operates within the bull market in what are called baseball collectibles. By all accounts, Retort is an aggressive collector. “He called here a lot, and you couldn’t get him off the phone,” says a source at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. “He never quite made it clear what the purpose of his research was, but he made a lot of requests for uniform numbers, and for what teams certain players played for. He didn’t seem to have much of a working knowledge of baseball history, but he kept us on the phone a half-hour at a time.”

Retort has declined comment on the specifics of the case against him, but does say that “when it all comes out, you’ll see there’s one huge world of difference between what I’ve been charged with, and what really happened. It’s a situation where, basically, I was there to get autographs from a Hall of Famer, and I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

It is possible that Retort and Grybowski were invited to come to St. Louis by Bell, who rarely turned down such a request. The two spent several days there. Bell signed a lot of autographs, but it was a slow process. The FBI says that Retort paid Bell $100 for the various autographed items. That is all that Retort says he did there. The FBI does not agree.

According to investigators, Retort and Grybowski returned on March 25, and began to remove from the Bells’ house several cardboard boxes filled with the paraphernalia Cool Papa had collected over the course of his career. Bell and his wife, Clarabelle, told both the local police and the FBI that they had felt “trapped” by the two men, and that they were too intimidated to try and stop them. In fact, the Bells said, they were so intimidated that they didn’t even report the incident until their daughter, Connie Brooks, discovered what had happened a week later.

Retort, 38, and Grybowski, 65, were arrested on April 9. Both are free now, Retort on $25,000 bond and Grybowski on $10,000. They will stand trial this summer in St. Louis. Most of the memorabilia was recovered. Connie Brooks has flown in from New York, and she has spent a month helping investigators identify some of the articles. It is a federal offense to take more the [sic] $5,000 worth of stolen merchandise across state lines. The estimated value of everything that was taken from Cool Papa Bell’s house is $300,000, which has flatly flabbergasted some people who are close to him.

“I couldn’t believe it when they said that,” says Norman Seay. “I mean, a half-a-million dollars? To me, he was just my Uncle Bell, and all that stuff he had, I thought its real value was an internal kind of thing, that its value was intrinsic to him.”

But that is not the way the world is today. There are people who would call $300,000 a modest price for what was taken from Cool Papa Bell. These are people who understand a new and unsettlingly volatile marketplace in which the past is raw currency, and what energizes that marketplace is that same feeling that came over Bob Reutter, when he looked into the FBI’s conference room and saw an exposed vein of pure history stretched across its walls.

“I have to admit that I’m a fan, and I looked the stuff over,” admits the agent with a chuckle. “I saw those uniforms and I thought, ‘How did they ever play in those heavy things?’ It was all really interesting to me.”

Perhaps the Fourth Lateran Council had the right idea after all. In the 13th century, the Roman Catholic Church was awash in very pricey relics, including not only the purported heads of various saints, but also enough alleged pieces of the True Cross to build duplex homes for half the yeomanry in Western Europe. Embarrassed by this unbridled profiteering in the sacred, the church called the Council, which forbade the practice in 1215, whereupon the price of a saint’s head crashed all over Christendom.

That sort of naked interference in the free marketplace would not be tolerated today. We live in an acquisitive age, a trend encouraged from the very top of the political and cultural elite for more than a decade now. It manifests itself in everything from the leveraged buyout to the current desire of every cherubic four-year old to surround himself with replicas of pizza-chomping, Hey-Dude amphibians who are built like Ben Johnson. Indeed, today we have collectibles the instantly accrued value of which almost totally rests with the immediate demand for them. How much more, then, must genuine relics be worth?

It hit the art world first. In his book, Circus of Ambition, journalist John Taylor describes the rise of what he calls “the collecting class.” Taylor writes that, in the 1980s, “Collectors were returning in droves. One reason was the huge surge in income enjoyed by the individuals in the higher income brackets.” In one telling anecdote, Taylor overhears a rich young couple at an art auction. The husband complains that, “We’re unhappy with the Cezanne.” His wife responds, cheerily, “That’s OK because we’re going to trade up!”

Substitute “Pete Rose” for Cezanne in that conversation, and you’ve pretty much got what happened when this dynamic hit sports, the only difference being, of course, that, unlike Rose, Cezanne wasn’t around to pitch his own paintings on the Home Shopping Network. It is estimated that the trade in sports collectibles has become a $200 million industry in this country. It is manifested best by all those things that give the willies to the baseball purists. These include card shows—and the almost universally condemned notion of the $15 autograph—as well as the public auction of old baseball equipment.

When Taylor writes that, “Many of these collectors were frankly more interested in art as an investment than as a means of cultural certification,” it’s hard not to hear the complaint that echoes across the land every time another one of yesterday’s heroes starts peddling his memories. It’s hard not to hear the guy at Cooperstown saying that Robert Retort’s “working knowledge of baseball” was lacking.

As is the case with any good capitalist enterprise, if you push it far enough you find yourself passing through greed and moving all the way into the criminal. The case of Pete Rose is instructive here. First came the reports that there were several bats in circulation that were purported to be the one that Rose used to break Ty Cobb’s record on Sept. 11, 1985. Now, accounts of that historic at-bat indicate that Rose used only one bat. Where the other three (or four, or eight, or 12) came from remains a mystery, especially to the gullible people who bought them. In this, Pete Rose was lucky he only had to face the late Bart Giamatti. The Fourth Lateran Council would’ve had him in thumbscrews.

Now, however, it’s been revealed that Rose failed to declare to the Internal Revenue Service the cash income that he made at card shows, and in the sale of various memorabilia. There is some symmetry, at least, in the fact that, in the same week, Pete Rose and Michael Milken, symbols of their age, both faced a federal judge.

Nor is Rose the only criminal case in which baseball collectibles figure prominently. We have the odd affair involving National League umpire Bob Engel, who is alleged to have attempted to steal 4,180 baseball cards from a store in Bakersfield, CA. And, believing that his bats were being lifted by enterprisingly larcenous clubhouse personnel, at least one American League superstar has taken the radical step of having the bats sent directly to his hotel rather than to the ball park.

But the case of Cool Papa Bell is far more serious than either of these other two. After all, it involves the alleged intimidation of an 87-year old, half-blind, sickly man, and it also involves a federal felony even more serious than the one committed by Pete Rose. There would have to be a huge payoff involved for Retort to have risked such a crime. Experts say that there was, and that it has everything to do with the nature of the memorabilia itself.

In the first place, there is a finite number of Negro League collectibles available. When Jackie Robinson signed with the Dodgers, the Negro League essentially collapsed. Therefore, there’s no futures market in Negro League memorabilia.

In addition, the people who played in the Negro League are mainly quite old now—Bell is about the average age for a Negro League veteran—and there are not many left who even played back then. That means there are only limited prospects for the lucrative trade in replicas, in which a retired player will authorize (and autograph) things like duplicate bats and uniforms. The FBI charges that Retort and Grybowski forced Bell to sign a letter authorizing such replicas. Retort denies the charge.

Because Negro League memorabilia is so passing rare, there is no established price scale for any of it. Thus, traders are free to ask whatever price they want because there are no benchmarks by which that price can be measured. “If I saw a ball signed by the 1919 Black Sox, I’d know what that was worth,” says Alan Rosen, a New Jersey entrepreneur who’s known among memorabilia collectors as Mr. Mint. “But if I saw a ball signed by the original winners of the Black World Series, I wouldn’t know how to authenticate the signatures. I wouldn’t know how to price the thing.”

This is not an insignificant admission. Mr. Mint has been known to show up in the living rooms of baseball-card collectors with a briefcase full of cash. Indeed, if you were to skulk around Colin Cliveishly and dig up Christy Mathewson, Mr. Mint probably could price the bones for you. Nevertheless, Negro League memorabilia has brought top dollar at a number of auctions. An authentic poster advertising a Fourth ofJuly doubleheader featuring Satchel Paige once sold for $2,400. A program from an exhibition game between a Negro League All-Star team and Dizzy Dean’s barnstorming club went for $700. Intact tickets from the Negro World Series, or from the annual East-West All-Star game have fetched up to $500 apiece, and an autographed ball from the 1940 East-West game was sold to a collector for $850. A man named George Lyons even got $1,500 for an authenticated contract between a Cuban League team and one James Bell of St. Louis.

“Nobody really has any independent judgment regarding what to pay for something,” explains Herman Kaufman, a collector and auctioneer who specializes in Negro League memorabilia. “I’d say that 99 percent of collecting is pure enjoyment, but that the other one percent is knowing that you have something that nobody else has.”

Which brings up the question of how far a collector is willing to go to get what nobody else has. Investigators probing the recent massive art theft at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum say privately that, while they’re confident that they will apprehend the thieves, most of the actual paintings are probably gone forever, quietly sold to collectors and now hanging in someone’s library.

Kaufman dismisses the idea of a memorabilia underground—”Why buy something if you can never show it?” he asks—but others in the field are not as sanguine about the possibility. They think Cool Papa’s lucky that the FBI got most of his things back.

“If you’re asking if sometimes guys’ll come to me and say, ‘Look, I got this scuff here, and keep it between me and you where you got it,’ and that’s the deal, I’d have to say, yes that happens, says Joe Esposito of B&E Collectibles in New York. “You have to remember that you’re dealing with collectors. They’ll do anything.”

***

Cool Papa was hospitalized shortly after the incident with Retort and Grybowski. “He’s at the point of death,” says his wife. He’s at home now, but other family members wonder whether or not it’s time for him to leave the house on Cool Papa Bell Avenue and live out his days in a retirement home. They doubt whether Clarabelle can adequately care for him anymore.

“He’s very fragile and he’s very weak; ‘ says Norman Seay. “I don’t know what we’re going to do. You know, it’s funny, all those years growing up next door to him, I didn’t realize that he was a celebrity. He was just Uncle Bell. I never realized how great he really was. You know, as an African-American athlete, he never got the respect he should have. It was kind of a second-class identity for him.”

That, perhaps, is the real crime here. It’s more than a simple threat. It’s a kind of crime against history. Because of the entrenched racism of major league baseball, Cool Papa Bell never was able to profit fully from his enormous skills. At the very least, then, he ought to be able to profit fully from the accoutrements of that talent, or he ought to be able to leave it alone, snug in boxes in the basement. If what the FBI says is true, then that is the real crime here, not the mere pilfering of things to meet the demands of a marketplace gone dotty, or to satisfy an acquisitive age. *It is the further robbing of a man who’s already had too much of his self stolen.

There’s a man named Tweed Webb who knows what the crime is. He is the unofficial historian for the Negro League in St. Louis, and he is a friend of Cool Papa Bell’s. “I go back to about 1910,” he says. “I kept all my records because if you don’t have records, you can’t prove nothing happened. It’s like nothing ever did happen, if you don’t have records.

“Cool Papa, he’s been sick for 18 or 19 years, but we talk, you know? He told me about what happened right when it happened.

The FBI come out here to talk to me because, you know, I got valuable stuff myself. I got all my records, all my scorecards. Certain people’d love to get their hands on the stuff I got. But I don’t sell none of it. I pass along learning to people, but the records are priceless. At least, they’re priceless to me.”

Oddly enough, both the investigators and the defendant express concern for Bell’s health. “I did a lot of work on this out of loyalty to Cool Papa,” says Bob Reutter, G-man and baseball fan. “I heard that he wasn’t doing too well, and I wanted to get that stuff back for him. I don’t imagine the publicity’s going to help much, either. I mean, it probably isn’t good for him that people know he’s got a quarter-million dollars worth of stuff in his basement.”

“I’m worried about what all this will do to his health,” says Robert Retort. “It’s got to take a toll on the poor man.”

It will come to trial sometime this summer. For now, Connie Brooks stays in St. Louis, identifying pieces of her father’s past for the investigators. And Cool Papa Bell stays at home. He doesn’t get up much any more. In the twilight, Cool Papa Bell is already in bed. Someone else turns out the light.

Nobody was ever convicted of any crime in connection with Cool Papa Bell’s memorabilia. Cool Papa died on March 7, 1991 and he’s buried in Hilldale Cemetery near St. Louis. His fame lives on in the name of a popular Detroit funk band.

[Illustrations by Allan Mardon; Will JohnsonTom Chiarello; Mike Benny; John Wolfe]

And You Knew Who You Were Then

Over at Grantland, check out this great piece on the Red Sox by Charlie Pierce:

The franchise needed a year like this. It needed a year like this not just because it was forced to clear out the lumpy deadwood in the clubhouse, though it certainly needed that. It needed a year like this not just because it was a humbling experience that let the air out of the inflated hubris that had been keeping the franchise’s collective ego aloft since the wonderful autumn of 2004, though the franchise certainly needed one of those, too. The franchise needed a year like this because people like me are getting older and we missed the days when being a Red Sox fan wasn’t so much work. The franchise needed a year like this because we kept telling young folks that it wasn’t always like this, that, in fact, things can be much worse than simply piddling away a playoff spot to the Rays in September, that baseball — Red Sox baseball — can be so thoroughly, unremittingly awful that you can stop worrying every game to death long before it’s time to get back to school.

And, yes, it is sometimes possible that good seats indeed will still be available, phony shutout streak or no.

From a strictly baseball sense, this looks like a middling- to long-range rebuilding process. The manager has to go. The farm system is nearly desiccated, and there isn’t enough talent on the roster to contend anytime soon. Neither Jon Lester nor Clay Buchholz looks remotely like a consistent no. 1 starter anymore. Also, it doesn’t look as though life in the American League East is going to get any easier. (Sooner or later, even the Blue Jays will forget to underachieve.) And I don’t want to hear anything about rebuilding that most noxious of all marketing department curses — “The Brand.” Sooner or later, you realize that no matter how many things you can find to commemorate, The Brand is simply whether you win or not. Stop losing, and your Brand is all bright and shiny again.

So, I rather enjoyed the second half of this Red Sox season. I was reminded of all the afternoons I spent with my grandfather, watching lousy baseball while, bit by bit, he drank and smoked himself into the Beyond. Those were good days, and isn’t that what the baseball people tell us the game is all about? Generations, sitting together, watching players bumble and stumble while the old folks teach the young’uns new and exciting curse words? Let Ken Burns set that to banjo music. I’ll be in the Parakeet Bar, waiting for the show to begin.

[Photo Credit: ]

Cash Rules Everything Around Me

Over at Grantland, Charlie Pierce lights into the NFL:

ere’s what I think should happen. At the end of this farcical exercise in corporate avarice, and whenever he has determined that his ego has been sufficiently fluffed and his power sufficiently recognized throughout the land, commissioner Roger Goodell should take his entire 2012 salary and split every dime of it up among the players in the National Football League, because they are the ones he’s putting at risk and they are the only ones keeping the NFL from descending into a form of opéra bouffe that would embarrass roller derby. Sunday night, the New England Patriots and the Baltimore Ravens played a preposterously good football game, which the Ravens won, 31-30, on a walk-off field goal by rookie Justin Tucker, in a preposterous context that ended with New England coach Bill Belichick trying to grab the arm of an official as the ref ran off the field.

“I’m not going to comment on that,” Belichick said afterward. “You saw the game. What did we get, 30 penalties called in that game?”

Oh, yeah, the play that ended last night’s game was even worse.

Let’s Get Small

Charlie Pierce visited the Yanks in the Bronx this weekend. Here’s what he found:

If the Yankees rally and do anything in the postseason, when the game really becomes a serious television extravaganza, you might be able to point to this weekend as to when the season really righted itself. It had been building for a while. Injured players — including Saturday’s hero, Nova — are beginning to come back to the lineup. (Andy Pettitte and Brett Gardner are also expected back soon.) All season, the team had looked like the Island of Misfit Cleanup Hitters, a bunch of guys — Eric Chavez? Raul Ibanez? — who’d been big noises elsewhere, but who were manifestly out of place as the spare parts they obviously are in New York. (Part of this has to do with a Yankees farm system gone ragged.) The team had a weird, patchwork personality this year, and only the collapse of every other team in the American League East except Baltimore — most notably, the transformation of the Boston Red Sox into Mystery Zombie Theater — kept New York from serious trouble throughout most of August. But, over the weekend, in his first start since coming off the DL, Nova appeared to solidify their pitching and then, on Sunday, in the process of driving poor Matt Moore around the bend, the Yankees showed a real gift for manufacturing runs on the basepaths.

[Photo Via: Stuff Nobody Cares About]

The Curious Case of Daniel Bard

Tonight, Carl Crawford is expected to be in the line-up for the Red Sox. Kevin Youkilis will be in the house too, starting for the visiting White Sox. And Daniel Bard will still be in the minors. Over at Grantland, Charlie Pierce has a story on Bard’s interesting and horrible season:

There was an ill-starred attempt to make him a starting pitcher, which seemed to get deeply into his head. He started thinking like a starter, not like the blow-them-away reliever he had been. He was nibbling, trying to induce ground balls, the way starters are supposed to do it. As a starter, he was 5-6, with an ERA over five. He had 37 walks as opposed to 34 strikeouts. He hit bottom on June 3 against Toronto, his last start in the major leagues so far this season. He lasted 1⅔ innings, walking six and hitting two dudes besides. He told the Red Sox he thought he should be a reliever again. They sent him down to Pawtucket.

There were whispers that it might be gone from him for good, that whatever it was that had brought him to the majors had abandoned him at 27. The whispers were in Boston, but they carried down Interstate 95 to this small ballpark tucked amid the abandoned factories. Outside Gate A at McCoy Stadium, there is a cyclone fence covered with canvas billboards that display some of the players who have passed through Pawtucket on their way to the big club in Boston. The very last of these, right where the fans entered the park for this weekend’s series with the Buffalo Bisons, is a picture of Daniel Bard, his arm like a whip, throwing the ball very hard, looking very young.

In the clubhouse, as he got ready for whatever fresh hell baseball was going to hand him this day, I told him about that extraordinarily vivid evening in Fenway a few years earlier. “The first time I hit 100 was in college, I think,” he mused. “It was some time ago, and it was kind of a gradual thing. It was cool, like when you hit 90 in high school. It doesn’t really mean anything. It just sounds cool.”

He still looked very young. He sounded very old.

[Photo Credit: Charles O’Rear via It’s a Long Season]

Toon Town

We usually refrain from mixing sports with politics round these parts but this here column about Bryce Harper by Charlie Pierce over at Esquire.com is worth a look.

Fear and Faith in Phoenix

 

Charlie Pierce lowers the boom:

One thing is certain. Paige Sultzbach and her teammates deserved a chance to play for the championship. They were the only undefeated team in their league, and they’d already beaten Our Lady of Sorrows twice this season. They’d worked hard enough, and played well enough, to be allowed to win their championship on the field, and not have it handed to them because somebody hiding in a chapel somewhere decided not to give them the satisfaction. For all the theological dust they’ve thrown up to cover their cowardly retreat, Our Lady of Sorrows plainly and simply didn’t want to lose to a girl.

This is an embarrassment to sport and to religion, the functional equivalent of bleeding statues and the face of Jesus on the side of the barn. This is the kind of thing of which Blessed John XXIII was trying to rid the Catholic Church when he called on the council to “throw open the windows” and release the stifling air of repression that had built up over the centuries. Our Lady of Sorrows doesn’t want to play baseball against Paige Sultzbach because it’s run by an organization that harbors an attitude toward women that differs very little from that of Bishop Williamson, its crackpot avatar. And, no, I don’t have to “respect” the stand they took, or the beliefs that prompted it, unless I’m also prepared to “respect” the anti-Semitism and conspiracy-mongering that are at the heart of the beliefs in question. I’m not required to be as classy as Paige Sultzbach, state champion.

[Photo Credit: Carlos Chavez/Arizona Republic]

Who’s Gunna Take the Weight?

Charlie Pierce on Levon Helm:

It was a hot summer night very long ago, when my career in this racket was brand-new and distinctly alternative. I was in a beneath-the-sidewalk joint in Harvard Square called Jonathan Swift’s, and I was listening to Levon Helm play with the Cate Brothers, who were formidable players in their own right, and old friends of Levon’s from Arkansas. We were all deep into the howl of the evening when it occurred to my friend and I that we were enjoying the show so much that we really ought to buy Levon a beer. So we ordered one up, and the waitress brought it out to the stage and Levon took a long pull, looked down at the two of us, touched his drumstick to his forehead and said, “Thank you, neighbor.”

It was what they were all about, Levon and the rest of The Band, in 1968, when the country was coming apart at the seams. Nothing was holding, least of all Mr. Yeats’s center. There were tanks in Prague and there was blood on a balcony in Memphis, Tennessee. The traditional American values of home and family and neighborhood were being fashioned into cheap weapons to use against the people who saw the death and gore as the deepest kind of betrayal of the ideals that made those values worth a damn in the first place. The music was disparate and fragmented; the Beatles were producing masterpieces that they couldn’t or wouldn’t take on the road. Brian Wilson was long gone, spelunking through the canyons of what was left of his mind. Jim Morrison, that tinpot fraud, was mixing bullshit politics with kindergarten Freudian mumbo-jumbo and his band didn’t even have a damn bass player. Elsewhere, there was torpid, silly psychedelia. The British were sort of holding it together, but, in America, even soul was coming apart. Nothing seemed rooted. Nothing abided. Nothing seemed to come from anything else. The whole country was bleeding from wounds nobody could find.

…He was the true Voice of America, as far as I’m concerned. And, after The Band split up, he kept touring, wrote a hilarious memoir, and then started hosting the Midnight Ramble in his barn in upstate New York. He was as generous with his talent and his time as any artist ever was. There was a message on his website on Tuesday saying that, goddammit, he was in the last stages of a long and brave fight with cancer. I wanted to write all of this before he passed. I wanted to thank him for the way he sang, and for the throb of his drums, and for the way he helped point the way home for all of us who thought we’d lost our country. He brought us back to what was really important: the fugitive grace of a young democracy, that America, for all its flaws and shortcomings, for all its loss of faith in itself and its stubborn self-delusions, was a country that was meant to rock. For that, I return his salute from long ago. Thank you, neighbor. And godspeed.

What’s the Rumpus?

Here’s some random notes on a rainy but warm day in New York.

Chad Jennings on Phil Hughes.

Bill James on fan behavior.

Charlie Pierce on Manny Ramirez.

Richard Sandomir and Ken Belson on the Mets.

[Photo Credit: Meyrem]

 

Thug Life

Over at Grantland, Charlie Pierce takes on the NFL:

Think of all the illusions about the National Football League that the revelations of a bounty program in New Orleans shatter. Think of all the silly pretensions those revelations deflate. The preposterous prayer circles at midfield. The weepy tinpot patriotism of the flyovers and the martial music. The dime-store Americanism that’s draped on anything that moves. The suffocating corporate miasma that attends everything the league does — from the groaning buffet tables at the Super Bowl to the Queegish fascination with headbands and sock lengths while teams are paying “bounties” to tee up the stars of your game so they don’t get to play anymore. What we have here now is the face of organized savagery, plain and simple, and no amount of commercials showing happy kids cavorting with your dinged-up superstars can ameliorate any of that.

Which is why Roger Goodell is going to land on the Saints, and on their coaches, as hard as he possibly can. It’s not so much that they allegedly paid players to injure other players. That’s just the public-relations side of the punishment to come. Goodell can see the day when one of these idiotic bounty programs gets somebody horribly maimed or even killed, and he can see even more clearly the limitless vista of lawsuits that would proceed from such an event. But what the Saints will truly be punished for is the unpardonable crime of ripping aside the veil. For years, sensitive people in and out of my business drew a bright moral line between boxing and football. Boxing, they said, gently stroking their personal ethical code as if they were petting a cat, is a sport where the athletes are deliberately trying to injure each other. On the other hand, football is a violent sport wherein crippling injuries are merely an inevitable byproduct of the game. I always admired their ability to make so measured — and so cosmetic — a moral judgment. This was how those sensitive people justified condemning boxing while celebrating football, and, I suspect, how many of them managed to sleep at night after doing so.

Fine column.

[Photo via Painting Canvas]

More than the Moolah

Here’s Charlie Pierce on the end of the NBA lockout:

The NBA lockout was as exclusively about money as it was exclusively about astrophysics. One way you know this is that the settlement that finally was reached was one that could have been reached last June. Like Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho in 1972, the league and its players struck a deal they could have had much earlier, and without the extended bloodletting in the meantime. The players took a reduction in the amount of basketball-related income — and can we find a rocket and fire that little bit of business-school jargon off to Pluto, please? — while winning some concessions as regards the league’s salary structure and in the rules regarding free agency. And that was pretty much it after five or six months of loud public wrangling — a brief outburst of authentic MBA gibberish and (poof!) back to work, gentlemen.

Another way you know that it wasn’t really about economics is that the league’s economic public case for its position became more and more preposterous as the weeks went by, and even the public began to notice that it was being taken for a fool. The hilarity hit high tide for me when David Stern started going around explaining that 22 of his 30 franchises were losing money. Tell me, do you suppose that when Stern sat down and chatted with the Nike corporation, or with the People’s Republic of China, to name only two of the wildly successful authoritarian operations with which the league does its business, the first thing he explained while pitching the NBA to them was that 73 percent of his league was in the red? Did you, at any time, expect to see Herb Simon, the shopping-mall billionaire who owns the “small-market” Indiana Pacers — a team that he bought for $11 million and which is now estimated to be worth $269 million — swiping the leftover bourbon chicken off abandoned plates in his various food courts unless the players surrendered to him a chunk of their dough? Of course you didn’t, because your mother didn’t raise a fool when she raised you.

…Stern’s concern for his league’s fans was as transparently phony as was Carnegie’s concern for his workers. (Hearing the commissioner’s unctuous solicitude for the paying customers must have occasioned rueful chuckling, and projectile vomiting, in Seattle.) His primary constituency is a group of 29 men who don’t have to deal much with unions in their principal occupations anymore and who, therefore, are not accustomed to reacting well when the help gets, well, uppity. The lockout was THE perfect oligarch’s answer.

They got most of what they wanted, which means that most of them are probably very unhappy. The league suffered a public-relations debacle that very nearly became a public-relations catastrophe. But David Stern showed himself to be the tinhorn-in-charge once again, and there will be games on Christmas Day. God bless us all, every one.

[Photo Credit: Craig Brewer]

Being There

My grandmother on my mother’s side had dementia and spent the last years of her life in a home. I was told that she liked to bite people. I never saw her during that time–she was in Belgium, I was here in New York–but hers is the only experience I have with Alzheimer’s. I got to thinking about her as I read Charlie Pierce’s beautiful memoir about the disease, his family curse, which claimed his father and four uncles, and which may eventually claim  him, as well.

Here is an excerpt:

The waking dream is of a dead city.

There was a great fire and the city died in it. I am sure of that. I can see the smoldering skyline, smoke rising from faceless buildings, flattening into dark and lowering clouds. I can hear the sharp keening of the scavenger birds. I can smell fire on damp wood, far away. I can feel the gritty wind in my eyes. I can taste the sour rain.

The waking dream comes upon me when I forget where the car is parked, or when I buy milk but forget the bread, or when I call my son by my daughter’s name. Wide awake but dreaming still, I walk through the ruined city.

When it happens, I remember. I remember everything. I remember anything. For years, I have been a walking trove of random knowledge, but I’ve come not to believe in the concept of trivia. I do not believe that anything you remember can be truly useless because I have seen memory go cold and dead.

“Why do you know stuff like that? people ask.

I smile and shrug. I do not tell them about the relief I find in remembering that Leon Czolgosz shot President McKinley. Not to remember Leon Czolgosz is to realize that one day you may not remember your son.  Leon Czolgosz goes first, and then your children. Not to remember is to realize that the day will come when you cannot find your way back home, that the day will come when you cannot find the way back to yourself. Not to remember is to begin to die, piecemeal, one fact at a time. It is to drift, aimlessly, deep into the ruined city, and never return.

…There’s a game I play now, when the waking dream comes. I make a deal with the disease. All right, I say. I will allow you to have some of my memories. You can have my first polio shot, all the lyrics to “American Woman,” two votes for Bill Clinton, and both Reagan administrations.

Leave me my children’s names.

Let me know them, and you can have all four Marx Brothers.

This is not clinical. I know the disease does not work this way. But sometimes, when the waking dream comes and I can feel the wind all gritty on my skin, I play this game anyway, and I am very good at it. I was born to play it. I was raised to believe that truth is malleable, and that you can bend it so that even its darkest part can be shaped into the familiar and the commonplace. I can play this game. I can play it well.

Makes you appreciate the moment, this moment, for what we have.

You can order Hard to Forget: An Alzheimer’s Story, here.

[Photo Credit: Best of Rally Live and  Jason Langer]

The Professional

George Kimball, far right, with Mike Tyson and Marvin Hagler, mid-'80s

By John Schulian

George Kimball was blessed with the kind of voluble charm you find in an Irish bar, and, brother, let me tell you he’d been in a few. No amount of drink, however, could rein in his galloping intelligence. It was as pure a part of him as his love of the language and good company, and when he spoke, I did what I’ve always done best in the presence of gold-star raconteurs: I listened. Even when we were on the radio hustling our book of great boxing writing, I did little more than provide grace notes. At least that’s the way it worked in the beginning. And then George’s voice began to turn into a sandpapery whisper. It was the chemo, extracting its price for helping to keep him alive.

Now I was the talker, just me by myself, trying to score points with the strangers on the air at the other end of the line. Again and again, I gravitated to the idea that there is something noble about prizefighters in their willingness to accept the fact that every time they set foot in the ring, they may be carried out on their shield. But it was always George I thought of, the truest nobleman of my lifetime.

The cancer doctors gave him six months to live six years ago, and it was as if he said, with characteristic Anglo-Saxon aplomb, “Fuck you, I’m too busy to die.” He went on to write books, essays, poetry, songs, and even a play. He edited books, too, and worked on a documentary. Somehow he also found time to get out to the theater and concerts and dinners. When we were collaborating long-distance – George in New York, me in L.A. – he surprised me more than once with the news that he had just landed in France or Ireland. He wasn’t simply collecting stickers for his suitcase, either. He was savoring the world that was slipping away from him and looking up writers he had always wanted to meet, like J.P. Donleavy and Bill Barich. And he made a point of staying in touch with them, for once he wrapped his arms around someone, he never let go.

It will be that way even now that he has breathed his last, too soon, at 67. Those of us who knew him–probably even those who have only heard about him–will keep the Kimball legend alive with stories about his wild times and all the nights he dropped his glass eye in a drink someone asked him to keep an eye on. There was a look that George used to get when he was on the loose back then, a look that is probably best understood when I tell you I first saw it in the Lion’s Head as he was trying to set a friend’s sport coat on fire. His friend was wearing it.

I went a long time without seeing George, and when we reconnected, he had changed without sacrificing either his relentless view of the world or his ability to laugh at the hash that mankind has made of things. He was like the record producer in Jennifer Egan’s sublime novel “A Visit from the Goon Squad,” who tells a bewildered young man how he survived the self-destructiveness of the rock and roll business: “You grew up, Alex, just like the rest of us.” So it was that George put booze and drugs behind him and let his work take center stage. His unfiltered Lucky Strikes were the only remnant of his old life. “What are they going to do,” he said, “give me cancer?”

The transformation remained a mystery to me until Bill Nack, as treasured a friend as he is a writer, sent word a few years ago that George had esophageal cancer. I wrote George a note of support and got in return the most startling letter I expect I ever will from a sick man. There were no euphemisms, just pure, raw, unadorned honesty. George was going toe-to-toe with death, and he knew that death would win, but he was damned if he wasn’t going to take the fight the full 12 rounds. Never if my life have I seen a greater example of a fighter’s heart, and that includes Ali and Frazier.

George was fighting for the money he would leave his wife and children, and for a body of work that said he counted for something in the world of sportswriting. He wrote incisively, relentlessly, memorably, and he threw himself into the editing of our Library of America anthology, “At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing,” with the same fervor. Here was a book that would give him the spotlight he yearned for. On that March day in 2010 when the bosses at LoA told us it had passed muster, George was so happy it didn’t matter that he was too sick to swallow his soup. He was a champion.

He wasn’t finished, though. Space limitations–yes, even a 517-page book has them–had confined us to non-fiction, so he tracked down a small press and Lou DiBella, a boxing promoter with a literary bent. Voila! “The Fighter Still Remains: A Celebration of Boxing in Poetry and Song Lyrics from Ali to Zevon” was born.

And still George wasn’t done. We had an abundance of fiction we hadn’t been able to squeeze into “At the Fights,” either, unforgettable work by Hemingway, Nelson Algren and Leonard Gardner, to name but a few, and George wasn’t about to let them lie fallow. Back to work we went, each of us digging up new entries along the way, George zeroing in on Walter Mosley, me on Harry Crews. We didn’t have a publisher, of course, not even a nibble, but we had a title, “Sweet Scientists: A Treasury of American Boxing Fiction,” and that was enough to sustain us for the time being.

I mailed everything I found to George, who promised that he would overcome his Oscar Madison tendencies and send me the manuscript in good shape. I shouldn’t have doubted him, but I did. I read the e-mail he sent to the woman who watches over his web site, the one in which he gave specific instructions about what to do after he was gone, and I knew the final grains of sand were going through the hour glass. But on Wednesday, shortly before noon, Federal Express delivered a box to my door, and inside was the manuscript George had promised, looking neat, even pristine. A few hours later, on the other side of the country, he was dead.

[Editor’s Note: George is remembered by his friends Charlie Pierce and Michael Gee. Here is a lovely piece by Glenn Stout.]

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver