Monday, November 27, 2006

Something no candidate mentioned this election

The comptroller general of the United States -- basically, the federal government's chief accountant -- is traveling the country warning of economic disaster if something isn't done about federal spending, beginning with Medicare:
Realistically, what we hope to accomplish through the Fiscal Wake-Up Tour is ensure that any serious candidate for the presidency in 2008 will be forced to deal with the issue. The best we're going to get in the next couple of years is to slow the bleeding.

O.J. Simpson and the grammar police

Has any recent news story been more dependent on correct verb tenses than the O.J. Simpson flap? Consider this passage from an Associated Press story (emphases mine):
"If I Did It," in which Simpson was to have described how he would have killed his ex-wife, had been scheduled to air as a two-part interview Nov. 27 and Nov. 29 on Fox. The book was to have followed on Nov. 30.
My breath is taken away by this stately procession of properly parsed time elements, without which the news story would make no sense whatsover. Are grammarians using this news coverage in their classrooms?

Astrological prudence

The other day, my horoscope read, in part: "You can entertain others with unusual tidbits of information or lightning-fast reflexes."

After I read that aloud at the breakfast table, Sydney thought for a moment and said: "If I were you, I'd go with the unusual tidbits of information."

The "face" of Jack the Ripper

Much is being made over the composite "police sketch" of Jack the Ripper done for a new Channel Five TV documentary. As always, the invaluable Casebook: Jack the Ripper website does a good job of sifting the facts from the hype. While conceding the sketch's resemblance to Ripper suspect George Chapman, Casebook editor Stephen P. Ryder focuses on the larger point:
There simply isn't enough information in the surviving witness testimony to make such a detailed facial sketch of "Jack the Ripper."

Chick & Ruth's Delly

I was pleased to read in Sunday's paper about Chick & Ruth's Delly in Annapolis, where the Pledge of Allegiance is recited every morning, where the owner (son of the late Chick & Ruth) does magic tricks, and where most of the menu items are named for current Maryland politicians. The sandwich menu, for example, includes the Roscoe G. Bartlett Jr., a veggie burger with lettuce, tomato and provolone cheese on toasted whole wheat. (I mention this only because I live in Maryland's 6th District, which Bartlett represents on Capitol Hill.)

Now that we have a new governor-elect, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, he's getting his own sandwich on the menu. The ingredients are up to him; so far, all we know is that it'll involve roast beef, of which O'Malley apparently is a fan.

Politicians lower on the pecking order than governors apparently don't always get to pick their signature dish. State Sen. John Astle still is brooding over the menu's original John Astle: a hot dog wrapped in baloney. "What a sandwich for a politician," Astle says.

Not all the sandwiches have Maryland connections; the George W. Bush is grilled Swiss, bacon and tomato on rye, while the Golda Meir is lox, cream cheese, onion and tomato served open face on a bagel.

I read the version picked up on the wires, but here's the original feature in the Annapolis newspaper, The Capital.

Quotes in the news

"We may have lost a dear old friend and teacher."
-- Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program, on the newly silent Mars Global Surveyor, which has been orbiting the red planet for 10 years

"What's really great about this place is you can smoke almost anywhere."
-- Actress Liv Tyler, who's filming a movie in Florence, S.C.

"Remember how Herbie could only be a dentist in the Land of the Misfits? Well, maybe this is the only place in Division I where I could be a head coach."
-- Rich Rodriguez, head football coach, West Virginia University, who is thinking of the Land of Misfit Toys and the elf Hermey, not Herbie; his confusion is common, as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer expert Rick Goldschmidt notes with frustration:
One thing I should make clear is that the elf who wants to be a dentist is named Hermey. Why everyone is calling him "Herbie" I will never fully understand.

Patenting the genetic alphabet

Michael Crichton's next novel, appropriately titled Next, is about the abuse of gene patents, so Crichton is giving interviews about the subject. "Major hepatitis C and HIV genes and various diabetes genes are all owned," he tells Parade. "Researchers working on those diseases must worry about getting permission and paying high fees. ... It's OK to own a treatment or test for a disease, but no one should own a disease."

In agreement is Lori Andrews, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law and an ethics adviser to the Human Genome Project. She tells Parade, "Gene patenting is like someone owning the alphabet and charging you each time you speak."

Here's the brief Parade article, which includes a "Genetic Bill of Rights" that's written, oddly enough, in the second person.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Everyday movie quotes -- identified

Back in October, I posted a partial list of movie quotes that Sydney and I invoke in our everyday conversation. But I never followed up by identifying the movies! So here we go.

"The Devil thought he had the keys."
-- One of the tent-revival preachers in Robert Duvall's The Apostle

"Everybody needs money. That’s why they call it money."
-- Danny DeVito in David Mamet's Heist

"How ‘bout more beans, Mr. Taggart?"
"I’d say you had enough."
-- Burton Gilliam and Slim Pickens in Blazing Saddles

"I am shocked, shocked."
-- Claude Rains in Casablanca

"Is correct."
-- Benicio Del Toro in Traffic

"It’s very nice." (Said in a bad French accent.)
-- John Cleese as the rude French knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail

"Oh, deary dear."
-- Gene Wilder in Blazing Saddles

"Pull the string!" (Said in an Eastern European accent.)
-- Bela Lugosi in Glen or Glenda and (imitating Bela) Martin Landau in Ed Wood

"So much time and so little to do. Wait a minute. Strike that. Reverse it. Thank you."
-- Gene Wilder (accept no substitutes) in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

"Superstitious, perhaps. Baloney, perhaps not." (Said in that same Eastern European accent.)
-- Bela Lugosi in The Black Cat
The last two, as I acknowledged earlier, are actually TV quotes.
"What has it got in its pocketses?"
-- Brother Theodore as Gollum in the Rankin-Bass TV movie of The Hobbit

"Wrapped in plastic."
-- Jack Nance in the Twin Peaks pilot

Thursday, November 23, 2006

More on the Edmund Fitzgerald

My post about the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald -- the event and the Gordon Lightfoot song -- generated a lot of responses. My friend Katy Miller writes:
Amen, Brother! I LOVE this song. There are a few songs from my childhood that have invaded my psyche, and this is one of them...

My favorite "hair on the back of your neck standing up" lyrics from the song are: Does any one know where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minutes to hours?

Oooooohhh... Love it love it love it.

Let the bell ring 29 times!
My hero F. Brett Cox points out, however, that Mariner's Church in Detroit no longer marks the anniversary by ringing the bell 29 times, once for each crew member who went down with the ship; instead, the AP reports, the bell now rings only eight times, "one toll for each of the Great Lakes and the interconnected waterways," in memory not merely of the Edmund Fitzgerald crew but of all the thousands who have died in Great Lakes shipping through the years. I dunno about this; wasn't the wreck observance always about all the deaths, via the symbolic 29?

Brett also writes:
Anyone who would link "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" with meretricious drivel like "Seasons in the Sun" is tone-deaf and tasteless.

Lightfoot also wrote and recorded another long song about a shipwreck: "The Ballad of Yarmouth Castle," which, if memory serves, is about a Caribbean cruise ship that caught fire and sank. Honest.
I haven't heard that one, but I'm glad to know it exists. Here are the lyrics, at the useful Lightfoot! fan site; and here is Wikipedia's extensive account of the disastrous fire, which occurred in 1965 between Miami and Nassau and left 90 people dead.

On the general topic of commemorating news headlines in song, something much more common in earlier centuries, my hero Jeffrey Ford writes:
The only thing similar that I can think of is "Hurricane" by Bob Dylan, although that wasn't an event but the tragedy of a single individual. I really like Gordon Lightfoot's music -- "In the Early Morning Rain," "If You Could Read My Mind," etc. The second of those songs refers to one of my favorite Abbott and Costello movies -- The Time of Their Lives. ... Thanks for helping me remember the Edmund Fitzgerald.
I never before knew there was an Abbott and Costello-Gordon Lightfoot connection, but I'm delighted to know it now!

My Clarion 2004 student Phil ("Dr. Phil") Kaldon writes:
Growing up near the Canadian border, we ran into a young Gordon Lightfoot in Niagara Falls ON while he was filming his first TV special. We asked who this guy we'd ridden on the elevator was, who did take after take of this song about a river flowing by. Our breathless waitress said, "That's Gordon Lightfoot."

Long before "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, us GL fans delighted with "The Canadian Railroad Trilogy," a song WAY too long for radio to play. Oddly, I've always loved really long and complicated songs, including the long "American Pie," and long program pieces by Emerson, Lake & Palmer and the group Renaissance (sigh).

Living in the middle of Lake Superior for 7 1/2 years, and in Michigan since 1984, the Edmund Fitzgerald -- boat, story, song and legend -- are a big news resonance every November. Hell, the wreck date is even on my mother's birthday and I teach about the wreck in my first semester physics classes.
What sort of physics lesson do you haul from the wreck, Phil? I'm curious.

I was always fond of long songs, too, even that hippie epic "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" -- infamous during my undergraduate days at the University of South Carolina for being the first song one half-assed student DJ at WUSC (90.5 FM) invariably played each shift, to give himself 18 minutes and 20 seconds of cover while he did his paperwork and the other chores he should have done already.

And speaking of Alice's restaurant: Happy Thanksgiving! Hope you all had another dinner that couldn't be beat.
Walk right in, it's around the back
Just a half a mile from the railroad track
You can get anything you want
At Alice's restaurant.

Ate some more burnt hoss flesh

In reply to my post about James Thurber and "No News, or What Killed the Dog," Rick Bowes writes:
Wow! That's my story with variations. The Thurber Carnival, the classic 1945 compilation which includes the entire My Life And Hard Times, was what my parents read to me at bedtime. At age four and five, stories like "The Night The Ghost Got In" and "The Night The Bed Fell" were funny/scary magic. When I was maybe ten or eleven - this was in the mid '50's when any old family house had '78's and phonographs to play them - a friend on a rainy afternoon played "No News...". It was revelation - The Dead Sea Scrolls - were as nothing. Thanks for reminding me.
"Funny/scary magic" is exactly how I felt about My Life and Hard Times. I've often thought that book, in the right hands, would make a riotous kids' movie, on the order of A Christmas Story. (One shudders, of course, to imagine it in the wrong hands.)

Two afterthoughts on "No News, or What Killed the Dog":

According to a brief bio by professional clown Bruce "Charlie" Johnson, now-forgotten vaudeville and Ziegfeld headliner Nat Wills (1873-1917) performed "No News, or What Killed the Dog" as a one-sided telephone conversation -- so it not only was an early variation of "The Aristocrats," but an ancestor of Bob Newhart's celebrated telephone routines and the brilliant scene of the president's bad-news phone call in Dr. Strangelove.

Archeophone Records plans a 26-track CD of Wills' greatest hits, the first track, of course, being "No News, or What Killed the Dog." I'd pay extra for a bonus track that repeats in the same spot as the recording in the Thurber household.

A Lefty Grove website

After reading my post about the great pitcher Lefty Grove, Bruce Pringle kindly sent a link to his informative Lefty Grove tribute site, which I recommend to all.

Bruce says that when he was about 11 years old, he saw the great man himself, standing outside his Lonaconing, Md., bowling alley. Bruce, where was that bowling alley? Is it still around?

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

More post-election analysis

"The bottom line here is that I think that the majority of folks in Maryland want Martin O'Malley as governor rather than Bob Ehrlich."

-- Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich, four days after he was defeated in his re-election bid by Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, 53 percent to 46 percent

My favorite recent "lineup" photo

You have to admire a Future Business Leader of America, newly elected as club historian, who wears a T-shirt that says "I came, I partied, I dont [sic] remember."

In all my high-school photos, I'm wearing plaid polyester pants, so the laugh's on me.

Here's the T-shirt in the online Wal-Mart catalog.


Hunters who go into the field not with "bird dogs," but with poodles, clearly are self-confident and independent, and I admire them. Check out this feature by Ben Shouse in The Argus Leader of Sioux Falls, S.D. An excerpt:
These hunters are impressed by the bird dogging ability of poodles, but there are serious obstacles to more widespread acceptance.

For one thing, the culture of dogs and hunting is aligned against the breed. The American Kennel Club puts them in the "non-sporting" group. In 2004, the National Rifle Association enlisted them as a symbol of presidential candidate John Kerry's lack of authenticity, using the slogan, "That dog won't hunt."
Note the license plate in the photo: HTG PDLS.

"A Mouth for Bluejohn"

My latest essay, "A Mouth for Bluejohn," is in the fall 2006 issue of NC State, the North Carolina State University alumni magazine. (It's on Page 11.)

The essay is about the words and phrases that I never heard before Sydney uttered them ("bluejohn," "have a mouth," "the mail has run," etc.), and the words and phrases that Sydney never heard before I uttered them ("faunching," "floojens," etc.).

The examples in the essay are far from exhaustive, of course. Sydney reminds me of one I was too demure to include: When I was growing up, my family never used the word "laxative," instead calling Milk of Magnesia an "active medicine," with an un-English emphasis on the adjective -- "ACTIVE medicine." This euphemism was news to her.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Clarysville Bridge

To get a good view of the Clarysville Bridge, at U.S. 40 and Route 55 between Frostburg and LaVale, I had to clamber through thorny bushes down to the streambank. The bridge, built in 1843 along the National Road, is a lot less impressive seen from the level of the highway:Unfortunately, the stream itself has the discoloration typical of acid mine drainage.

The Oxymoronic Arms

This sign is on Main Street in Frostburg, Md.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Ate some burnt hoss flesh

One of my two favorite books (the other being Alice's Adventures in Wonderland) is James Thurber's memoir of his youth in Columbus, Ohio, My Life and Hard Times. I first encountered it when I was about 10, in the pages of The Thurber Carnival, a sort of greatest-hits collection that includes My Life and Hard Times in its entirety (all 115 pages). (I still recommend The Thurber Carnival to any unfortunate who hasn't met Thurber yet.) I picked up The Thurber Carnival at that young age because it was full of cartoons, and I loved cartoons. Enough backstory. My point is that at age 10, I thought the funniest part of this very funny book was this passage from early in Chapter Five, "More Alarms at Night":
Father was usually in bed by nine-thirty and up again by ten-thirty to protest bitterly against a Victrola record we three boys were in the habit of playing over and over, namely, "No News, or What Killed the Dog," a recitation by Nat Wills. The record had been played so many times that its grooves were deeply cut and the needle often kept revolving in the same groove, repeating over and over the same words. Thus: "ate some burnt hoss flesh, ate some burnt hoss flesh, ate some burnt hoss flesh." It was this reiteration that generally got father out of bed.
As a child, I wept with laughter when I first read this passage, whenever I re-read this passage, and whenever I even thought about this passage. In fact, I took to amusing myself, whenever I was bored, by murmuring aloud, "ate some burnt hoss flesh, ate some burnt hoss flesh, ate some burnt hoss flesh," until I dissolved into giggles. (This helps explain why my childhood was interrupted periodically by serious conversations instigated by grave and concerned adults.)

I was sure then, and I am sure now, that while the expectation of Father bursting in -- the suspense of wondering when that would happen -- certainly heightened the entertainment value of the repetition, the repetition was entertaining in and of itself, indeed more entertaining than anything else on the record, and that the boys could have listened to "ate some burnt hoss flesh" for hours, had Father not inevitably burst in to complete his role in the (nightly?) drama. I was sure, too, that whatever "No News, or What Killed the Dog" might have been about, "ate some burnt hoss flesh" had to have been the absolute least fortunate line to repeat ad infinitum, the worst collection of syllables on offer, the record's nadir of taste. All this factored into my merriment, as did my utter mystification over what ELSE could possibly have been on that record, what else it might have been about.

This week, more than 30 years later, I finally found out. "No News, or What Killed the Dog" must have been the 19th-century version of "The Aristocrats," a lengthy, offensive shaggy-dog tale subject to endless variations, all of which lead inevitably to the same anticlimactic -- but, in context, grotesquely hilarious -- punchline. I know this because George G. Carey, in his book Maryland Folklore (Tidewater Publishers, 1989), includes a version told by Eastern Shore waterman Alex Kellam. It begins:
I heard the one about the rich plantation owner whose health went bad and the doctor ordered him away for six months' rest and he was to lose all contact with his friends and family. And so at the end of the six months he came back and his colored servant met him at the depot and took him home in the horse and buggy. On the way in he said to Sam,

"Now I've been gone six months and I haven't heard one thing from home. What's happened since I've been gone?"

He said, "Oh nothing, except one little thing. Since you've been gone your dog died."

He said, "The dog died? Well, what killed the dog?"

"Well, the dog eat some burnt horse flesh."

"Burnt horse flesh? How'd he get that?"

"Well, your barn burnt down and burnt up all the cows and horses, and after the fire the dog eat the burnt horse flesh and that's what killed the dog."

"Oh," he said, "my barn burned?"

He said, "Yessir, the barn burned."

He said, "How did the barn catch fire?"

"Well, it seems a spark flew over from the house ..."
And so on and so on, potentially endlessly, with calamity piling upon calamity, until at the end we reach the punchline: "But other than that, there ain't no news." Carey calls this story "a once widely told American yarn."

So now I finally know the context of "ate some burnt hoss flesh." And it's still funny! As David Letterman would say: For you students of comedy -- now, that's comedy.

Friday, November 10, 2006

The wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

On this date in 1975, the freighter Edmund Fitzgerald was lost with all hands during a storm on Lake Superior. I was 11 years old, and while I was a faithful newspaper reader even then, and read every back issue of Newsweek that my Aunt Willa May passed me, I don't recall the wreck itself making much of an impression. The Newsweek writeup did, however, make a deep impression on Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot, and the song he was inspired to write and perform, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," left me thunderstruck the next year, 1976, whenever I heard it on the radio. I got plenty of opportunity to hear it; the song went to No. 2 on the pop charts. Since then, Lightfoot's bone-chilling six-and-a-half-minute epic has cropped up occasionally on lists of most-hated songs; its critics claim that it's too long, too slow and too maudlin, down there in the depths with "Seasons in the Sun." But I loved the song then, and I love it now, without the slightest irony or distance. I hear the opening, and I'm immediately cold, as if "twas the witch of November come stealin'." And without that song, what are the odds that I would remember the Edmund Fitzgerald at all? This is one of the only examples in my lifetime of a disaster that immediately gets set to music and sung into myth, like the Baltimore fire or the wreck of the Old 97. It's downright bardic, what Lightfoot did in that song.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

How the Rolling Stone "10 Worst" fared

The day after the Democrats came back, I re-read Matt Taibbi's cover story in the Nov. 2 Rolling Stone, headlined "The Worst Congress Ever." It's full of eyebrow-scorching Mencken-style invective, for example the description of James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis., as "an ever-sweating, fat-fingered beast who wields his gavel in a way that makes you think he might have used one before in some other arena, perhaps to beat prostitutes to death."

Sensenbrenner was listed as one of the magazine's "10 Worst Congressmen," all but one of them Republicans. Before the election, my assumption was that all 10 would sail through the election unscathed, in spite of -- or because of -- Rolling Stone's dudgeon. But it didn't work out that way: Two were voted out of office, one was forced into a runoff, and four others, while re-elected by the loyalists back home, will lose their positions of national power, namely their chairmanships, to Democrats. Here's the Rolling Stone "10 Worst" list, with the nicknames the magazine assigned them and their fate in Tuesday's election.

  • Dennis "The Highway Robber" Hastert, R-Ill., re-elected with 60 percent of the vote but lost his position as speaker of the House.
  • James "The Dictator" Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis., re-elected with 62 percent of the vote but lost his chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee.
  • Don "Mr. Pork" Young, R-Alaska, re-elected with 57 percent of the vote but lost his chairmanship of the Transportation Committee.
  • William "The Bribe Taker" Jefferson, D-La., led a crowded field with 30 percent of the vote but now faces a Dec. 9 runoff with the No. 2 candidate, a fellow Democrat (more on that below).
  • Jerry "The King of Payoffs" Lewis, R-Calif., re-elected with 66 percent of the vote but lost his chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee.
  • Tom "Mr. Bigotry" Tancredo, R-Colo., re-elected with 59 percent of the vote.
  • Dick "Enemy of the Earth" Pombo, R-Calif., chair of the Resources Committee, lost with 47 percent of the vote to his Democratic challenger's 53 percent.
  • Curt "The Conspiracy Nut" Weldon, R-Pa., lost with 44 percent of the vote to his Democratic challenger's 56 percent.
  • Hal "Homeland Security Hog" Rogers, R-Ky., won with 74 percent of the vote -- the biggest winning margin on this list.
  • Marilyn "The Queen of Gay Bashing" Musgrave, R-Colo., won with 46 percent of the vote -- the smallest winning margin on this list. (Her Democratic opponent got 43 percent.)

    Jefferson was running against eight Democrats, three Republicans and a Libertarian. The three runner-up Democrats got 52 percent of the vote among them. Had all those rivals within his own party drawn straws, played rock-paper-scissors, etc., and put all their resources behind a single non-Jefferson Democrat, Jefferson would have lost this race outright, and Rolling Stone's batting average would be even higher.

    But as it stands, at least 20 percent of the magazine's list was ousted, and another 40 percent of the list was demoted -- which still looks pretty prescient, in hindsight. I'll be interested to read Rolling Stone's "10 Worst" list in 2006.

    (Thanks to Bob for pointing out my error in the original version of this post.)
  • Tuesday, November 07, 2006

    Black as the Pit from pole to pole

    This man-made canyon is a surface coal mine just south of Frostburg, viewed from the east rim along Route 36. For scale, note the house-sized earth-moving machines on the far horizon.

    Sharpe and "Seanbean"

    I am pleased to see on Dan's Slapinions blog that he read aloud to one of his children, when she was an infant, one of Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe novels.

    Cornwell has written 21 of these Napleonic military adventures so far (the most recent being Sharpe's Fury), and 15 Sharpe movies (if I count correctly) have been filmed by the BBC, with Sean Bean in the title role. We watched the most recent, Sharpe's Challenge, earlier this year on BBC America; we even watched the making-of documentary. Sydney has no interest in making-of documentaries, the novels of Bernard Cornwell or the Napoleonic Wars, but her interest in Sean Bean approaches totality. She likes to pronounce "Sean" with a long E, to rhyme with "Bean," and say them quickly: "Seanbean."

    The rest of the cast was good, too: Daragh O'Malley as Sharpe's burly sidekick Patrick Harper, Peter Hugo-Daly as the loathsome and toothy Sgt. Bickerstaff, Michael Cochrane as the pompous dimwit Gen. Simmerson. The villains were especially high-caliber: Toby Stephens and Padma Lakshmi, a.k.a. Maggie Smith's son and Salman Rushdie's wife. All worked hard, but Sydney paid them no heed, with Sean Bean around.

    Have you voted?

    Besides having the best first name in Frostburg, Avalon Ledong has an excellent letter to the editor in today's Election Day edition of the Cumberland Times-News. A Malaysian-American who just got his U.S. citizenship this year, Ledong explains why he's voting today. He concludes:
    America still has great promise and great potential. Not all of her dreams are yet realized. The best of the dream can still be yet to come. I want to be a part of making that happen.

    So today I will vote in my first general election. It will be a proud moment for me and for my family. It will be a moment of faith in this country.
    Here's an earlier Times-News profile of Ledong, who works in personnel at Frostburg State University.

    Sunday, November 05, 2006

    Christ in the mouth of Moloch

    While driving through Lonaconing, Md., yesterday, I happened upon a nativity scene in the mouth of the furnace.George's Creek Coal and Iron Co. Furnace No. 1 is the town's most striking landmark, a legacy of pre-Civil War industry. The town dates its founding from the year the furnace opened. The furnace produced pig iron from 1839 until 1856 and was the first iron furnace in the United States to successfully use not charcoal but coal and coke, both abundant in Allegany County. The George's Creek company soon, in fact, dropped the iron business to concentrate solely on the coal.

    These photos don't really convey how massive the thing is, and how startling it is to unsuspecting passers-by on Route 36. Commonly heard from the passenger seat: "WHAT in the world was THAT? Turn around!" Here's a shot of Sydney and Lily in front of the furnace mouth this summer.And here's a shot of Sydney "hiding" in the furnace mouth.

    Saturday, November 04, 2006

    The trail of Lefty Grove

    The great pitcher Lefty Grove, a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, was from the coal town of Lonaconing, Md., just a few miles south of here. Because the World Series is over, and because the Baseball Forever conference at Frostburg State University hasn’t started yet, I filled the void this morning with a miniature Lefty Grove pilgrimage.

    My first stop (of two) was the George’s Creek Regional Library in downtown Lonaconing, where Grove’s MVP trophy is on display.It reads:
    Robert Moses Grove
    IN 1931
    The figure on the trophy seems to be throwing with his right, but never mind; 1931 was the great left-hander’s best year. He went 31-4 for Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics, including a 16-game winning streak, with an ERA of 2.06.

    That Robert Moses Grove (1900-1975) would be known as Lefty was inevitable. In baseball, it was an era of nicknames. Lefty’s 1931 World Series teammates included Doc, Mule, Bing, Rube and Dib; their Series opponents that year included Sparky, Ripper, Chick, Pepper and Flint.

    Lefty’s story is told by Jim Kaplan in his book Lefty Grove: American Original and by Sarah Moses in the November 2006 issue of Allegany Magazine. Lefty’s dad made $50 a month in the mines, hauling “sixteen tons” a day, as in the (much later) Merle Travis song. Lefty worked briefly alongside his dad and brother in the mines before deciding to do something else with his life. He announced, “I didn’t put that coal in the ground, I ain’t gonna take it out.”

    In 1920, at age 20, he was hired to play Class C pro ball for the Blue Ridge League team in Martinsburg, W.Va., for $125 a month. Later that year, the Martinsburg owner sold Lefty to the Baltimore Orioles, then a top-paying minor-league team, for the cost of a new fence. For the rest of his life, Lefty proudly claimed he was the only player ever traded for a fence.

    During an exhibition game as an Oriole, Lefty struck out Babe Ruth nine times. That sort of thing gets you noticed. In 1925, the Philadelphia Athletics bought his contract for a then-record $100,600 -- you have to wonder how the $600 was negotiated – and Lefty was a major leaguer at last. Ruth soon learned that exhibition game was no fluke; Lefty would hold the Babe to nine homers in 10 years.

    In his 17 major-league seasons (nine with Philadelphia and eight with the Boston Red Sox), Lefty had a lifetime winning percentage of .680, with 300 career wins. His niece, Betty Holshey, told Allegany Magazine that “Uncle Bob” sent the family a case of Wheaties whenever he won a game. “For the longest time,” she said, “we didn’t know there was any other cereal but Wheaties.”

    Prematurely gray, Lefty presented to batters a severe and intimidating figure. A bad loser, he was known to berate teammates, rend uniforms, trash locker rooms in frustration. His United Press International obit would say he had “an explosive fast ball and temper to match.” Betty Holshey’s dad warned her, “You don’t want to cross your Uncle Bob.”

    Batters didn’t cross him often. Lefty was a six-time All-Star, pitched in three World Series (four wins, two losses and two saves) and was on two world championship teams (the 1929 and 1930 Philadelphia A’s). He led the American League in strikeouts for seven seasons and in ERA for nine.

    In his major-league career, he pitched 3,940 innings in 616 games, including 35 shutouts, for a lifetime ERA of 3.06.

    In retirement, he came home to Lonaconing, ran a bowling alley, and taught lots of youngsters the finer points of baseball. The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., wanted his MVP trophy, the first awarded in the American League, but Grove said no, no one from “Coney” would be able to see it there, so he presented it instead to the local high school.

    The school is long gone, and the trophy was in a bank vault for a while, before the library gave it a home in a $25,000, climate-controlled, high-security case alongside other Grove artifacts, including an autographed baseball and one of the great man’s golf clubs. Elsewhere in the History Room, a three-ring binder of Grove-related newspaper clippings is worth leafing through. His niece, I’m told, still has one of Uncle Bob’s Philadelphia uniforms; the library would love to have that in the case, too.

    In his last years, Grove lived with his son and daughter-in-law in Norwalk, Ohio, and he died there the night of Thursday, May 22, 1975, apparently while watching television. (One wonders what was playing: The Waltons, Ironside, Movin’ On?) He’s buried not in Lonaconing but in Frostburg, a few miles up the road from his hometown; his grave was my second and last stop of the day.LONACONING DIRECTIONS: The George’s Creek Regional Library is easy to find on Lonaconing’s Main Street, a.k.a. Route 36. Take Exit 34 from I-68 at Frostburg and head south. As you enter the library, the History Room is straight ahead. A few blocks north along Main Street is Furnace Park, where a plaque commemorates Grove on the grounds of the old high school.

    FROSTBURG DIRECTIONS: To reach the main entrance of Frostburg Memorial Park, take Grant Street south from U.S. 40, a.k.a. Main Street. The cemetery gate is at Grant and Green. Drive through the main entrance and up the hill past the flagpole, then turn right. At the intersection ahead is a plaque identical to the Lonaconing plaque; Grove’s tombstone is just up the hill behind it.