Yogi Berra, RIP

Although we rarely comment about sports, even on those all-too-frequent occasions when it spills over into the political news, we do try to take note of matters of importance to the broader American culture. The death of New York Yankee legend Yogi Berra, therefore, demands respectful mention.
Berra was, by consensus of expert opinion, one of the very best to ever play America’s pastime, and by objective measure he was he one of the most successful athletes in the entire history of American professional team sports. By all accounts he was also a man of high moral character, who bravely served his country in war and was devoted to his wife from their courtship until her death and played the game by the strictest standards of sportsmanship and spent 70 years in the public eye without a hint of any scandal. Somehow, though, he is best remembered as a funny-looking guy who said things funny. Add it all up, and he was one of those all-too-infrequent characters who enriched the American scene by pure American individualism.
You wouldn’t have known it by looking at his short, squat, graceless body, but a glance at Berra’s numbers makes clear that he could play some serious ball. You can look it up, as they like to say in baseball. He was a three-time Most Valuable Player, finished in the top four in MVP voting four other times, was an 18-time All-Star,  smacked 358 homers and batted in 1,430 runs, and as a catcher he earned a reputation as the best friend a pitcher ever had, among many other notable individual accomplishments. What his teams accomplished with him behind the plate was even more impressive, as The New York Yankees played in 14 World Series, won ten of them, and were almost always in contention. Those teams were loaded with such all-time talents as Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford, to be sure, but there were seven seasons when Berra led the team in RBI and never a time when even his more heralded teammates didn’t acknowledge that he was the most essential Yankee. All those World Series appearances allowed Berra to set seemingly unbreakable “Fall Classic” records for games played and at-bats and hits and RBI and doubles, not to mention the perfect game he caught from journeyman pitcher Don Larsen, and he trails only Mantle and Babe Ruth for most home runs hit in October. In American professional sports history, the ten championships he won are surpassed only by the 11 that Bill Russell won with the Boston Celtics in the National Basketball Association and Henri Richard won with the Montreal Canadiens in the National Hockey League, and both of those guys also played on teams laden with all-time talent.
The New York Yankees’ many years of dominance, which had begun even before Berra arrived, with his mentor Bill Dickey manning the plate, made the team so hated everywhere outside the five boroughs that they became better known as The Damn Yankees. Berra, though, was such a appealing fellow that even a Boston Red Sox fan found it hard to work up a mild dislike for him. It helped that he wasn’t a handsome hunk who was always being photographed at a  swank nightclub with a couple of hotties hanging on his arms, like DiMaggio or Mantle, but was instead going home to his beloved and equally plain wife in a simple place in New Jersey that he described as “nothing but rooms.” He didn’t like to talk about his years in the Navy, which included hazardous duty just a hundred yards off Omaha Beach on D-Day, but the stories got out and enhanced the good guy reputation he so earnestly earned on the field. Teammates and opponents alike vouched for the quality of the man, and so far as we know no one ever disputed it over the many decades he spent in baseball as a coach, manager, and goodwill ambassador of the game.
Despite all that, the first thing people think of when Berra’s name is invoked are all the “Yogi-isms,” and the inadvertently comic character they created. A “Yogi-ism” is something that Berra would blurt out which makes no sense at all if parsed according to the rules of the English language, but makes perfect and often profound sense if you hear them the way he meant to say it. The brilliantly redundant “It ain’t over ’til it’s over” and “It’s deja vu all over again” are now part of the popular lexicon, and his observations that “baseball is 90 percent mental, the other half is physical” and “in baseball you don’t know nothing” are probably the most oft-cited explanations of the seemingly complicated game. Another record that Berra holds is the most citations in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations of any athlete, and we note that he also has more than any living president. Some of Berra’s gems are less well-known, but prove to us that Berra truly was a sort of Yogi. His advice that “You should always go to other people’s funerals, or they won’t go to yours,” and that “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might wind up someplace else,” and “If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be,” and “You can observe a lot by watching,” or that line about “When you reach a fork in the road, take it,” which is by now a staple of college commencement speeches, all strike us as more eloquently deep than anything Shakespeare could think of for Polonius to tell Laertes. Berra always insisted such philosophical malapropisms simply fell out of his funny-looking face, and he titled his autobiography “I Really Didn’t Say Everything I Said,” but they’ll probably be what ensures his place in American mythology next to Mike Fink and Huck Finn and Mr. Dooley and all those other quotable fictional characters.
Berra became such a myth that one must take care to sadly note the passing of the man, and of the better era of baseball and America from whence he came. A more careful observer of the current sporting scene notes that the San Francisco Giants’ Buster Posey is widely regarded as the best catcher of this day, and that he needs to triple his numbers to approach Berra’s achievements. Nor do we note anyone in professional sports who can boast of Berra’s military record or exemplary personal life or stellar reputation as one of the good guys, and if there were someone who could he probably would boast of it, which Berra never did. Baseball still offers such stellar wits as Bob Uecker and John Kruk, and something about the way the game forces even its greatest players to constantly confront failure ensures that it will always have the best sense of humor, but it just doesn’t seem to fall right out of their funny-looking faces with the same profundity.
Yogi Berra was the kind of guy who went to other people’s funerals, so we’re sure that they’ll all go to his, and he lived 90 years in a world that wouldn’t have been more perfect even if it had been perfect, and he won ten World Series, and in this imperfect world he got to lose four of them, and he was always in contention, and he spent the rest of his life in the game he loved and most of it with the woman he loved, and he wasn’t the sort to complain, so we’ll take comfort in that. When his wife once asked if he’d like to be buried in St Louis, where he grew up in an Italian slum, or New York City, where he became a legend, or New Jersey, where he quietly lived most of his life in that house full of nothing but rooms, Berra reportedly told her, “Surprise me.” Wherever that short, squat, graceless, and yet three-times most valuable body ends up, we hope and pray that his spirit is at long last safe at home. And we hold out faint hope that we’ll see the likes of him again.

— Bud Norman

Mickey Rooney, RIP

Mickey Rooney died Sunday at the ripe old age of 93, ending one of the longest and most impressive careers in the history of American show business, and thus ends an era of American popular culture.
That era actually ended so long ago that Rooney’s death has been relegated to a few inches deep inside most newspapers, while the golden age of entertainment he exemplified is now seen only on the cable channels devoted to the old-fashioned movie buffs or the late-late-shows of the cheaper UHF stations. Those who do chance upon Rooney’s better efforts will likely find it a bittersweet experience, as it provides a stark reminder of our society’s decline.
Rooney started in show-biz way back in the vaudeville days, when he debuted as a 17-month-old in his parent’s hard-luck burlesque act, and he was a seasoned pro by the time he made his first move at the age of 6. As an example of his natural talent and precocious polish we recommend the 1935 production of “A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream.” It’s a slick Hollywood take on Shakespeare that stars Olivia de Havilland and Dick Powell and Victor Jory and all the high-toned stars you’d expect to see in a silver-screen Shakespearean epic, but the stand-out performances are James Cagney’s cocky turn as Billy Bottom and Rooney’s perfectly nasty portrayal of the supernaturally mischievous Puck. Such talent kept Rooney busy at the studios in a wide variety of roles for the next several years, including such notable flicks as “Captains Courageous” and “Ah, Wilderness,” and by the end of the decade he was arguably the biggest star in pictures.
The persona that made Rooney so popular was far from the evil sprite of “A Midsummer’s Night Dream,” however, and instead expressed the squeaky-clean earnestness of the era when America was coming out of the Great Depression and into World War II. He was the titular character of the hugely popular “Andy Hardy” series, about an all-American boy in an all-American small town, and co-starred with all-American girl Judy Garland in a number of wholesome musicals about all-Americans kids putting on a show in somebody’s suspiciously opulent barn. He got to revive his earlier tough-kid persona in “Boys Town,” opposite Spencer Tracy as the saintly Father Flanagan, but by the final reel he had reverted to suitably endearing form.
At the height of his box-office popularity Rooney went off help out with World War II, and by all accounts his service was brave and distinguished. Originally turned down for duty because of health problems, he joined the USO to entertain the troops until he was allowed to enlist, then continued to entertain his fellow soldiers on makeshift stages built atop jeeps in between battles. He declined to draw any attention to his war record when he returned to Hollywood, and although he retained his popularity for a while he soon found himself struggling to maintain his career in a rapidly changing world.
Part of the problem was that Rooney was now too old for the wholesome lad roles that had once been his specialty, and the barely-five-foot-tall actor was attempting to play prize fighters and race car drivers and other grown-up variations on the tough kids of his earlier career. By the mid-’50s the movies were taking a turn toward film noir and gritty-but-preachy social justice screeds, and by the early ’60s Rooney’s Andy Hardy character and the let’s-put-on-a-show wholesomeness of his musicals was slightly embarrassing to a properly hip movie-goer.
Rooney’s career probably would have ended there if not for his formidable talent, which enabled him to play a variety of character roles with convincing ease. He was one of the slightly disreputable characters chasing after a hidden treasure in the brilliant “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” a nosy Japanese neighbor in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” a gambling-addicted soldier in “The Bold and the Brave,” and countless other roles in movies and television programs ranging from outstanding to downright awful. The former kid actor proved adept at old-man roles in the ’70s, earning him praise as a horse trainer in “Black Beauty” and an Emmy Award as the mentally-challenged “Bill” on a television movie of the same name, but he never regained his superstar status or quite shook the lingering image of good old Andy Hardy.

<div-style=”text-indent:20px;>Rooney got some revenge in the ’80s, when he applied his still-strong talents for piano playing, singing, dancing, and stand-up comedy in the hit Broadway revue “Sugar Babies.” With co-star Ann Miller, who had been the top-billed star of B musicals at Columbia before moving on to second-billed roles in the A+ musicals at MGM back in the ’40s and ’50s, the show went on the road for years and routinely out-drew such rock ‘n’ roll acts as the Rolling Stones. There was still a gray-haired audience for old-fashioned entertainment, and it had the disposable income for the tickets, and even the grumpiest critics acknowledged it had a certain charm. Despite all the money he made from “Sugar Babies,” Rooney continued to work in small roles in such big-budget pictures as “Night at the Museum” and then take to the road to play dinner theaters in mid-sized cities. He was well into his 80s when he played a second-rate venue here in Wichita, which afforded us the opportunity to interview him, and although he was rather cranky at that early-morning appointment he gave an energetic and well-received performance.

According to the obituary writers Rooney found religion and a lasting marriage and some peace with himself in his later years, a marked change from the eight-times divorced life of debauchery that had characterized his earlier days, and we’d like to think his early roles had helped prepare him for the part. All those marriages and the seamier sorts of legends have often been cited as proof of the phoniness of those all-American movies that once made Rooney the biggest star in movies, and that whole era now seems uncomfortably cornball to a properly jaded modern perspective, with Andy Hardy and “let’s put on a show” reduced punchlines in the ironically detached hipster humor, and Father Flanagan and “Boy’s Town” are deconstructed by the post-modernist critics for any subtle signs of pedophilia or some other darkness lurking beneath the surface, but there’s no mistaking the sincerity of those pictures. That’s part of the problem, of course, as sincerity is another one of those cornball qualities that offend the modern sensibility.
Call it progress if you want, but we have our doubts. In an age when “reality” stars become celebrities without any noticeable talents, it’s sobering to look back at an age when a singing, dancing, piano-playing, joke-telling actor who could play anything from Shakespeare to slapstick was what Hollywood was looking for. That gosh-golly gee-willikers enthusiasm of those great Rooney-Garland pictures and the Andy Hardy series got America through the Great Depression and whipped the Axis, whatever else you might say about it, and it’s hard to imagine that ironic hipster detachment that has replaced it will work as well in the coming challenges.

— Bud Norman

About the Author

Our longtime friend Jake Euker died Friday at the tragically young age of 50, a victim of pneumonia and the way life works out sometimes.

Jake was an outstanding writer and a first rate wit, an astute reader, movie-watcher and music-listener, always meticulously careful with the English language and dangerously reckless with his own well-being, and he was an effortlessly strange fellow and an invaluable contributor to the cultural life of an old-fashioned prairie community that he so dearly and inexplicably loved.

More importantly, Jake was a good friend. For more than 30 years he provided us with hearty laughs and wild times whenever possible, and was a source of sympathy and compassion whenever necessary.

To tell a little more about his remarkable life, and with hopes that he wouldn’t mind, we proudly publish the following autobiographical sketch that Jake shared with us many years ago:

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jake Euker was born and raised in Hutchinson, Kansas. He relocated to New York City at age thirteen, where he attended law school at Fordham University. He left school two years later to pursue his passion for poetry, a quest that resulted in the publication of his first collection, Things I Left Up to My Mom, in 1980, when the author was only sixteen years old, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Adventures With Sticky later that same year. Adventures With Sticky was also selected as a Brandeis University Creative Arts Citation in Poetry finalist. Mr. Euker’s subsequent poems appeared in The Atlantic, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, Grand Street, The Selected Writings of Guillame Apollonaire and the film “Top Gun.” His poem “Photo of Nut Trees” was included in the Best Short Stories 1981 anthology, an honor rarely accorded verse.

Mr. Euker entered Yale as a freshman in 1983, graduating from Harvard summa cum laude only eighteen months later. Upon graduation he was the recipient of the Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship and the Henfield/Transatlantic Review Award. In 1984, at age seventeen, Mr. Euker underwent a much-publicized sex change operation, becoming a twenty-nine-year-old woman named Phyllis who never really trusted her mom. The move won Ms. Euker the coveted Orlando Life Achievement Prize. Influenced by such works as Nancy Friday’s My Mother/My Self, Ms. Euker became a visual artist and spent the next seven months in isolation, brooding. She developed a passion for romance novels and, subsequently, men nine to twelve years older than herself who were always wealthy and handsome, and often tall. These men were given to volatile moodiness, while remaining very loving and tender, and usually had British-sounding or compound last names. Ms. Euker’s lifestyle during this period won her the “Like a Virgin” Award for Wicked Immorality and, conversely, the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. It was also this period that produced the now-legendary “Hero” series of canvasses, paintings which later provided the substance of the infamous 1985 opening at the Leo Castelli Gallery in Manhattan’s Soho district, and for which — despite popular belief — no formal charges were ever brought against Ms. Euker herself. Her romance novels of this period, written under the name July Prentiss, have sold over seventeen million copies and have been translated into most known tongues. Autumn and Forgiveness, her last romance, was selected by NASA for inclusion in its American Tribute ™ Intergalactic Culture Capsule, slated for launch in 1991.

In 1985 Ms. Euker was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire — an unheard of honor for a transsexual Kansas native — and two weeks later underwent a second sex change, this time becoming a man. The author’s hospital visitors included such luminaries as Michael Jackson, Congresswoman Pat Schroeder of Colorado, Mother Teresa, Season Hubley and Queen Elizabeth II. After recovery, Mr. Euker eschewed what he called the “visualness” of painting, renounced his own works, and became a stage actor, making his first appearance as Pendel in an off-off-Broadway production of “Grrt.” In 1986 he appeared on Broadway as Lew in “Hispanic Beefcake,” a role that demanded grueling physical training and for which he won glowing reviews, a Tony nomination and a place in the top 10 finalists in the Mr. Universe competition of that year. It was while touring Europe with “Hispanic Beefcake” that Mr. Euker met his future wife, journalist June Carter Cash; the two were married in 1987, and later that year collaborated on the film “Candy’s Favorite,” for which Mr. Euker won Best Supporting Actor and Best Director Oscars. The couple’s only child, Joshua, was born that year as well, and was subsequently named Best Infant of 1989. The marriage ended in excellence shortly thereafter, and Mr. Euker went on to direct “Patience, Patience,” “Speedtrap!” (Palme d’Or, Cannes), “Blue Velvet” and “Because …”

Mr. Euker’s most recent works have explored the kind of uniquely diverse experience that his own full life best characterizes. His radical approach to narrative — especially in Light in August and Sanctuary — promises to expand the scope and function of “literature” as it is traditionally known. Norman Mailer, in his review of Sanctuary, called Mr. Euker “the one true voice of his generation, explosively so … The future of fiction,” Mr. Mailer continued, “is clearly encompassed within the broad confines of Jake Euker’s fertile mind.” The author’s current projects include guest hosting “The Tonight Show” and completion of a medical degree. He is currently sixteen all over again, and lives in a treehouse Downtown.

——

Rest in peace, Jake. You live on in a treehouse in the downtown of our memories.

— Bud Norman

A Down-Home Kind of Greatness

Today we take a break from our usual grumblings about politics, economics, and the gradual decline of civilization to note the passing of one of the great men of American culture. Earl Scruggs died Wednesday at the age of 88, and the nation is vastly poorer for the loss.

Scruggs wouldn’t have minded a bit that most of the obituaries will describe him as a banjo player, but anyone who ever heard him play that much-maligned instrument knows that he was much more than just another picker. He was a extraordinary virtuoso who revolutionized the way his instrument is played, became a key figure in the development of an important American musical genre in the process, and influenced musicians in fields ranging from country to rock ‘n’ roll to jazz. Just as important, he was widely respected for his character, helped bridge the musical generation gap of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and stood as an example of the democratic greatness of American music.

Born to a poor but loving family of talented musicians in the hills of North Carolina, Scruggs was a child prodigy who began to develop his own three-fingered technique for playing the five-string banjo by the age of 4. Passionate about the music, and free of the modern distractions that have doubtless derailed many young talents in a more affluent age, Scruggs was single-mindedly devoted to music and given to a legendarily rigorous practice regimen. By his teens he was ready to change the course of American music history, although he was probably only hoping to make a living.

He first came to prominence by joining Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, a crack outfit that was beginning to attract attention with an innovative style of traditional rural music. Scruggs replaced the beloved David “Stringbean” Akeman, a capable banjoist of the old claw-hammer school whose main role in band was to provide cornball comedy between songs, and the change transformed the band. Although his shy, taciturn, and rigidly dignified personality made him ill-suited to the comedian’s role, Scruggs had a fast, flowing, propulsive style of playing — known to fans everywhere as “the roll” — that sped the band into a brand new style of music that became known as bluegrass.

Having played the pivotal role in creating bluegrass, Scruggs joined forces with fellow Bluegrass Boy Lester Flatt to do more than any other musicians to popularize it. The pair and their outstanding band introduced the music to the folk-crazed college students of the early ‘60s at numerous festivals, serenaded an audience of millions every week with their “Beverly Hillbillies,” and gave millions of others their very first taste of bluegrass by providing the soundtrack for “Bonnie and Clyde” with their signature tune, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.”

Bill Monroe had been famously hostile to the hippies who were already taking over his musical creation by the late ‘60s, but the easy-going open-minded Scruggs had a more accepting attitude than his old boss. When he formed the Earl Scruggs Revue, featuring his long-haired sons, both fine musicians in their own rights, Scruggs added songs by Bob Dylan and The Byrds to his repertoire and welcomed the tie-dyed set to his shows. We had the privilege of hearing Scruggs play at the old Henry Levitt Arena in Wichita on a bill with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Dave Bromberg, and a little-known comedian named Steve Martin back in the early ‘70s, and we vividly recall that everyone in attendance seemed to agree that the quiet, middle-aged hillbilly in the non-descript suit was by far the hippest cat they’d ever seen.

Scruggs has been a constant musical companion ever since, his finest recordings taking their place of honor our shelf along side those the other truly great musicians of the American tradition. In addition to the hours of happy listening, he also provided us with a cheering reminder that true greatness can come from anywhere, and in any form. Scruggs proved that greatness can be learned through family traditions as well as an academy, that it can be honed out behind the barn as easily as in a classroom, and that it can happen in the Grand Ole Opry as well as the fanciest opera halls.

Rest in peace, Earl, and may your music always roll on.

— Bud Norman