"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Tag: kevin baker

New York Minute


From my pal Kevin Baker:

That is, our past. Not only the refusal of white people to live with people of colour, but their conviction, running back through the history of the US, that any black space is not legitimate – that whatever black people own can and should be expropriated by whites, if they so desire it. During the second world war, this idea of white primacy sparked one of the worst race riots in American history, after white people insisted not only that Detroit’s federal housing built for war workers be segregated, but that all of it be turned over to white residents.

The riot was no anomaly. During the first world war, in 1917, another white-on-black race riot all but annihilated the black community of East St Louis, Illinois. A few years later, armed white mobs (backed by local law officers) razed to the ground the all-black Florida towns of Ocoee and Rosewood, and the prosperous black Greenwood section of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Scores of black people were killed in these onslaughts. Greenwood was burned to the ground as airplanes dropped incendiaries on the neighbourhood. Some 10,000 African Americans were left homeless.

These flourishing black communities were erased not only from physical existence, but also from living memory. Bodies were hidden, accounts censored and the survivors scattered or intimidated into silence. To this day, we don’t know exactly what happened, or how many people died.

One of the most vibrant communities in black America vanished just across the street from where I lived almost all of my adult life. Until a few years ago, I had no idea it had ever been there. Soon after I graduated from college in 1980 – at almost the exact time the federal government joined a lawsuit by the National Association of Coloured People (NAACP) against the city of Yonkers – three friends and I moved into an apartment on West 99th Street on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

[Photo Credit: Damon Winter/The New York Times]

New York Minute


Here’s some goodness from our chum Kevin Baker:

Many consider the destruction of New York’s original Pennsylvania Station in 1963 to have been the architectural crime of the twentieth century. But few know how close we came to also losing its counterpart, Grand Central Terminal, a hub every bit as irreplaceable. Grand Central’s salvation has generally been told as a tale of aroused civic virtue, which it was. Yet it was, as well, an affirming episode for those of us convinced that our political culture has become an endless clown-car act with the same fools always leaping out.

“In New York then, I learn to appreciate the Italian Renaissance,” said Le Corbusier of Grand Central. “It is so well done that you could believe it to be genuine. It even has a strange, new firmness which is not Italian, but American.” It was not seen as such by its owner, New York Central Railroad, which viewed it mostly as a cash cow. As early as 1954, the Central proposed replacing the terminal with something called The Hyberboloid — an I. M. Pei monstrosity that, at 108 stories and 1,600 feet, would have become the world’s tallest building at the time. There was enough public outcry that a scaled-down Hyberboloid was built instead just north of Grand Central, where it was retitled the Pan Am (later the Met Life) Building. Even at a lesser height, it proved every bit as grotesque as promised.

Still unsatisfied, New York Central proposed in 1961 to build a three-level bowling alley over Grand Central’s Main Concourse, which would have required lowering the ceiling from sixty feet to fifteen and cutting off from view its glorious blue mural of the zodiac. This, too, was stopped. Foiled again, New York Central resorted to plastering the terminal with ads and bombarding travelers with canned Muzak, complete with commercials, over the public address system.

[Photo Credit: Boris Yale Klapwald/Brain-Ink]

The Big Crowd


Our pal Kevin Baker’s new novel, The Big Crowd, was reviewed by Scott Turow yesterday in the Times:

The novel succeeds in creating a compelling imagined world. Most of the telling is through dialogue, and Baker’s re-creation of the cadences and diction of another time is impressive. Charlie is described as “a jake guy,” while Toots Shor says of a bet he’d like to make, “I could use the kale.” In anger, Tom barks “Nuts,” rather than the coarser language of today. And the hit men have the colorful nicknames of bygone times: Kid Twist, Cockeye Dunn, Tick-Tock Tannenbaum.

Best of all, the novel delivers on what the title promises, a detailed rendering of the relationships within that era’s power cabal. “A city like New York,” Charlie tells Tom, “it’s got to have great men — not good men — to run it. . . . We’re held together against the chaos by the grip of a few strong men, that’s all.” Baker offers a vast array of secondary characters — cops and thugs, politicians, bureaucrats, clergymen, bosses and hangers-on — who grow increasingly vivid as they appear and reappear in the gradual recounting of various incidents, like the murder of Peter Panto, an upstart organizer on the docks. Actual historical figures, including Robert Moses and Cardinal Spellman, are served up unsparingly.

I’ve read few other novels that portray in such a nuanced way the temptations of power, the complex division of control in a great metropolis and the perils of political deal-making in that environment. Baker doesn’t like the Big Crowd any more than Tom O’Kane does, but, fortunately for us, he understands its workings very well.

[Photo Credit: Mark Nadir]

The Wonderful One-Pitch Mo

From our pal Kevin Baker:

…with apologies to “The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table” by Oliver Wendell Holmes.

The Wonderful One-Pitch Mo

Have you heard of the Mar-i-ano,
Who such a wonderful pitch did throw
He ran up six hundred saves and then some,
And then of a sudden it — ah, but come,
I’ll tell you what happened without delay,
Tearing the Yankees into bits,
Frightening their fans out of their wits, –
Have you ever heard of that, I say?

Nineteen hundred and ninety-five.
Georgius Steinbrenner was still alive, –
Snuffy old drone from the German hive.
That was the year when Seattle-town
Saved its team by beating us down,
And Black Jack McDowell was done so brown,
Left without his scalp to his crown.
It was during that terrible playoff round
That Mariano first came to town.

Now when it comes to closers, I tell you what,
There is always, always a weakest spot, –
They throw too hard or they throw too weak,
They throw too wild or they give up the gophers,
Fall asleep in the pen, those indolent loafers
Find their fault somewhere you must and will, –
In their arm or their head, or within or without, –
And that’s the reason, beyond a doubt,
That a closer breaks down, but doesn’t wear out.

But Steinbrenner swore (as Steinbrenners do,
With an “I dew vum,” or an “I tell yeou”)
He would find one closer to top the Sox
And the Orioles, too, and even the Jays;
And the Indians, and the Oakland A’s:
“Fer,” said Old George, “’t’s mighty plain
Thut the weakes’ pitch mus’ stan’ the strain;
‘n’ the way t’ fix it,’ he said with a hitch,
“Is to find a closer who throws just one pitch.”

So George he inquired down Panama way
Where he could find the toughest hombre,
That couldn’t be spooked nor rattled nor beaten,
Slim as a wraith with a boyish grin;
Who didn’t go for pills or gin;
A monkish halo upon his crown,
And one pitch that could put the toughest side down,
And make even Manny and Ortiz frown.

The pitch he had, well they called it a cutter,
It slipped out of his hand as easy as butter
And swerved and swooped around each batter,
It looked like a fastball, it bent like a curve,
And each one thrown with such vim and nerve,
That hitters were done before they got up,
Frazzled and razzled from helmet to cup.
Their bats were shattered and their confidence shaken,
They couldn’t believe they’d been so taken
And oh, how they would carry on so
To see the wonderful one-pitch Mo

“There!” said George S., “naow we’ll win!”
Win! I tell you, I rather guess
The lad was a wonder, and nothing less!
Colts grew horses, beards turned gray,
Steinbrenner and Steinbrenneress dropped away,
Children and grandchildren — where were they?
But there stood the stout old one-pitch Rivera
As handsome and fabled as Ernesto Guevara.

Ninety-six! — they beat the Braves
Mo pitched two innings, always to raves.
Ninety-eight, and they set some marks;
Mo was the closer now, they filled all the parks.
Ninety-nine they won, and you can bet your testes,
In the year Two Thousand they hammered the Metsies.

Sure, there was a blip here or there,
Thanks to broken-bat singles and the occasional err’r.
That night in Boston, Joe went to sleep on the bench,
And the one in Phoenix when the grass was drenched.
An Alomar here who was all too Sandy,
And a juiced-up Mueller who was mighty handy.

But try as they might they still couldn’t maim him,
He believed in God and who could blame him?
With a pitch like that he sure looked blessed,
And all the hitters he undressed
They just shook their heads and even laughed,
When his cutter ran in and they looked daft.

Running in from the bullpen each night to Metallica,
Rousing the Bronx into high hysterica.
He didn’t take steroids, HGH, or any P-E-Ds
Though the men who he pitched to went through them like Wheaties.
That was all they could do to try to even the score,
As he went rolling on through Ought-Three and Ought-Four

The last 42, he’d become just sublime,
A tribute to Jackie, but all in Mo’s time.
On he went to three hundred
Saves, and then four,
Got his first RBI in the game he hit five,
Did the deed out in Queens where he always did thrive.
Another title that year though his side was killing him,
Finished off Philly in the brand-new Sta-di-um.

On to six hundred he soon did sail,
Passed Lee Smith and Hoffman, and that’s no tale.
Beat the Angels of Anaheim and of Los Angeles,
The Royals in Missoura and the Rangers in Texas.
Topped the Indians, Tigers, the Rays of some kind,
Baffled the Sox, both Pale and Carmine.
It seemed as if he’d go on forever,
His cutter slower but never cleverer
Punching them out and running up flags,
Surpassing the Goose, Sparky, and Rags.

Yet little of of all that we value here
Takes to the field in its forty-deuce year
Without both feeling and looking queer.
In fact, there’s nothing that keeps its youth,
So far as I know, but Mo and the truth.
(This is a moral that runs at large;
Take it. — You’re welcome. — No extra charge.)

Third of May dawned with barely a care,
There are traces of age in our closer’s gray hair
A general flavor of mild decay,
But nothing so bad, as one may say.
He’d outlasted Rodriguezes, Felix and Frankie,
And save for Jeter, each fellow Yankee.
Watched the Wagner who tried to steal his music,
Meet his own Gotterdammerung (boy, were the Mets sick!).
Saw Papelbon off to the seniors’ circuit,
And Gagne, that flash—well, just fergeddit!

He had one pitch, that’s all he needed,
And all our fears he scarcely heeded.
He was a man of faith and a man of God,
And even if his ears were odd,
He threw one pitch and he threw it better,
Than anyone else, lesser or gre’ter.
With a whip-like motion and a flick of the wrist
It just came to him one day as a gift,
And stayed with him through that night in KC
When he ran out there to entertain the hayseeds.
Run his laps and joke with the guys,
His same routine just shagging flies.

Third of May, Two Thousand and Twelve!
Into this fabled disaster we delve.
Nix on the Nix who stroked that ball,
Out past the grass and to the wall
And here comes the wonderful, one-pitch Mo,
He couldn’t back off, he couldn’t go slow.
Unable to shake his outfielder’s blood—
When down he went with an awful thud.

He lay on the ground, in pain but still grinning,
Just as he always did, losing or winning.
It wasn’t the pitch that had failed him at last,
He hadn’t lost faith, gone weak, or got vast.
He hadn’t been done in by ball or by bat
A ligament frayed, it snapped just like that.
Despite a heart that was ne’er less stout,
Mighty Mo hadn’t broken, he’d only worn out.

Have we come to the end of our incredible story?
Or is there waiting some last wondrous glory?
Either way we’ll sing his praises fore’er,
And go see him in Cooperstown, the unrivaled River’
He threw one pitch, and that was all—
It just happened to be the greatest of all.

And with apologies to Frank O’Hara, check out this poem by Glenn Stout.

Another Fine Mess

Over at BP, our man Kevin Baker considers realignment:

I’m old-school. That is to say, I’m a hidebound, head-in-the-sand, troglodyte traditionalist. Especially when it comes to baseball.

I was vehemently opposed to the entire idea of including a wild card in the playoffs. I hated the idea of inter-league play with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns. I even viewed the original idea of dividing the leagues into divisions, a-way back in 1969, with a gimlet eye.

(One exception: I have always liked the designated hitter, mostly because I can’t stand watching professional athletes do something they can’t do, i.e., pitchers trying to hit. We don’t make linebackers kick field goals or goalkeepers—hockey or soccer—take penalty shots. Do those games suffer for it?)

So I’m none too happy with the latest proposals to expand the baseball playoffs yet again—and not just because they’re likely to extend the season through Thanksgiving.

Wait ’til you get to the Salsa Division and the Keillor-Terkel Raconteur Division. It’s a hoot.

feed Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share via email
"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver