Don, Sleepy, and Gertrude, RIP

Over our many years in the writing obituaries for daily newspapers we noticed that January was the busiest time of the year on the dead beat, as many terminally ill people cling to life through one last holiday season. This young year has already brought obituaries for three very different individuals, and we think passing is worth noting.
The first obituary we noticed was for Don Larsen, who died New Years Day at the age of 90. Larsen was a journeyman baseball pitcher, just good enough to hang on through a journey of 14 seasons in the major leagues with seven teams before arriving at a career record of 81 wins and 91 losses, but he’s well remembered as the only man to ever pitch a perfect game in the World Series.
He’d been been knocked out of the second game of the ’56 Fall Classic in the second inning by a powerhouse Brooklyn Dodgers squad and didn’t expect to get another start, but New York Yankees manager Casey Stengel gave him the ball for game five, and Larsen went out determined to at least do better. He had a full count against future Hall of Famer Pee Wee Reese in the first but threw a third strike and retired the side in order, and after that he turned in the most flawless pitching performance ever seen, and on baseball’s biggest stage. Larsen got some help from one of Mickey Mantle’s signature spectacular defensive plays after Dodger great Gil Hodges slammed a likely single to the middle of the outfield, and the legendary Yogi Berra was calling the pitches from behind the plate, but Larsen earned his place in baseball history.
Back in Larsen’s day journeyman pitchers didn’t earn enough to retire to a life of leisure, and he spent of the rest of his working days as a liquor salesman and the a paper company executive. His second marriage lasted 62 years and produced a son and two grandchildren, he got to be in the stands when David Cone pitched a rare regular season perfect game for the Yankees, and he always had that one October afternoon of perfection. This gives hope to all of us journeymen journeying through life, so he’ll be missed, and we hope he’s safe at home.
We were also saddened to read about the passing of Sleepy LaBeef on the day after Christmas at the age of 84. If you don’t know the name that’s because you’re not sufficiently hep to cosmic American music jive, as LaBeef was as rocking and rolling a singer and guitarist as you’re ever likely to hear. His 6-foot-6-inch and 270 pound frame packed a basso profundo voice that could shake a honky-tonk’s roof, and he could do anything with the full-sized hollow body electric guitar that looked like a mandolin in his hands.
Born during the Great Depression in Smackover, Arkansas, as Thomas Paulsey LeBeff, or LeBeouf according to some accounts, he took his stage name from the droopy eyelids he had despite constant coffee drinking and his massive size and burly guitar licks. He grew up playing the black gospel music he loved, but first broke into the music business playing the rockabilly style that was hot in the late ’50s, and despite cutting some classic records for obscure labels he didn’t generate sell a lot of records at a time with the good-looking and hip-shaking Elvis Presley was the big deal. He kept at it long enough that he was around for the big rockabilly revival craze in the ’80s, though, and his Rounder Records releases and live appearances wowed all the aficionados around the world.
One hot August in the ’80s LaBeef played a four-night stand at the Spot Recreation Center, a notorious dive just east of downtown where we liked to hang out, and we were there for every minute of it. The music was as raw and real and rocking and rolling as we could have hoped for, and we got the chance to hang out with the man between sets. He was friendly and funny and turned us on to the gospel great Sister Rosetta Tharpe and all sorts of other fantastic musicians we’d been missing out on, and it saddens us to think of all the great American music that the young folks of today will be missing out on from now on.
The death of Gertrude Himmelfarb at the age of 97 is also worth noting, and perhaps more consequential at the moment. She was best known as the historian who came to the defense of the Victorian era, which had long been much derided for its puritanism and imperialism despite the great advances in social justice and modernization she demonstrated had been made, but she was also an important voice for conservatism in general, and wound up playing a role in America’s victory in the Cold War.
She was born in 1922 in a Jewish ghetto of Brooklyn, with immigrant and Yiddish-speaking parents who had no formal education but ambitions that their daughter would do better, and she became a star student of history and philosophy and economics at Brooklyn. While there she met and fell in love with Irving Kristol, a formidable intellectual in his own right, and they remained married until his death in 2009. Both were Trotskyites during their undergraduate courtship, but both gradually grew to recognize the error of their ways, and became leading voices of the neoconservatism that provided the intellectual underpinnings for President Ronald Reagan’s more aggressive and ultimately successful stance against the Soviet Union.
Back then conservatism was an intellectual movement, led largely by such bona fide intellectuals as Himmelfarb and such Nobel Prize-winning economists as Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek and such erudite commentators as Bill Buckley and Russel Kirk, and it saddens us to think what the kids are missing out on in an age when low-brow radio blowhards such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and such demagogues as President Donald Trump define conservatism.
It’s a rough start to a year when we could use the likes Larsen, LaBeef and Himmelfarb, but we’ll hope somewhere out there are those ready to step up and take their places in history.

Happy Halloween, and All the Rest

Today is Halloween, and we have mixed feelings about the holiday. We’re in favor of kids dressing up in costumes and asking strangers for candy, and cherish our childhood memories of the strange custom, but everything else about Halloween is depressing.
Halloween means the World Series is over, so there won’t be any baseball until pitchers and catchers report to spring training in 102 long days, and even the arrival of basketball season offers only so much solace.
Around here Halloween always brings the first hard blast of winter weather, and this time around there’s even an early snow on the ground. On Sunday morning the clocks will fall back and sundown will start arriving an hour earlier, and we’re not looking forward an extra hour of darkness. These days all the advertisers skip past Thanksgiving and starting selling Christmas on the day after Halloween, and two whole months of Christmas cheer is more than we need.
This year Halloween also kicks off a rare impeachment season, which the Democrats hope to wrap up before Christmas, and that won’t do much for peace on Earth and good will toward men.
All the more reason to enjoy a happy Halloween, and keep a couple of candy bars for yourself.

— Bud Norman

A Good Night for Royals and Republicans

Due to our principled refusal to pay for cable television, and the National Broadcasting Company’s refusal to share its cable affiliates’ content over their internet without recompense, despite their constant rants about evil capitalism and corporate greed and the rapacious one percent and all that share-the-wealth drivel, and because every bar television in town was of course showing the Kansas City Royals battling the New York Mets in the second game of the World Series instead, we missed most of Thursday’s Republican presidential debate. The press accounts describe an interesting contest, though, and apparently it was mostly fought between the ten invited candidates and the panel of CNBC moderators.
Although it is our usual style to use the full name of an institution on first reference, no matter how much more familiar the acronym might be, we’ve made an exception here because we have no idea what CNBC stands for and don’t care to look it up. We assume the NBC is National Broadcasting Company, and that the C is for Cable or Communism or the first name of some executive’s mistress. In any case, the company seems to have gotten the worst of it, at least as far as the Republican audience was concerned. Some questions were booed, and all of the inevitable pushback by the candidates played well. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz reportedly started it off with a rant about the obviously pointed nature of the questions that brought sustained applause, and then Florida Sen. Marco Rubio got off a line about the media as the “ultimate Super-Pac” and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie interrupted by the moderator’s interruptions by saying it was rude even by New Jersey standards.
The Republican National Committee chairman “tweeted’ his own indignation about the the questions, but it’s worth noting that he signed off on CNBC and its choice of moderators despite their long records of on-air anti-Republican animus, so we can only hope that he was expecting the field would prevail against the questioners and it was all part of a diabolical plot. Or perhaps he’s prepping the eventual winner for the post-season, to borrow a sports metaphor, and knows that he or she will need to be inured to such biased questioning. It does seem to have been pretty biased, too, with almost every query framed according to such liberal assumptions as the 77 cent pay rate for women or the inevitable failure of tax-cutting as an economic stimulus or the Republicans’ supposed relative tolerance for deficit spending, or clearly intended provoke fights between particular candidates. In a debate ostensibly devoted to economic issues Ben Carson was asked about his past service on the board of a corporation that provided benefits to same-sex couples, with the clear implication that he was therefore a hypocrite for opposing same-sex marriage, and his characteristically soft-spoken but stiff-spinner reaction seems to have won that round as well.
So far as we can tell from the first round of stories, though, neither Carson nor fellow front-runner Donald Trump had the expected starring roles. Most of the pundits declared Cruz and Rubio the big winners, and given their past strong performances we’re not surprised. None of the candidates who most needed a strong performance are getting any rave reviews, except perhaps Christie, who won’t be the nominee, so our guess is that Carson and Trump will remain at the top of the next polls but that Cruz and Rubio will be the ones who still stand a chance despite having previously held elective office. We expect that CNBC’s ratings won’t much improve, either, and the Royals wound up winning convincingly enough to rest the bullpen that had been worn out by the previous game’s 14-inning victory, so all in all we’ll count it a good night.

— Bud Norman

Taking the World Series-ly

The World Series commences today, and folks around these parts are enthused because the locally beloved Kansas City Royals have ridden an improbable hot streak into the fall classic, and almost every sports fan outside the rooting area of the opposing San Francisco Giants seems favorably inclined toward the plucky under-paid underdogs from the relatively small midwestern market, but it’s not like the old days. Perhaps it’s just the difference in perspective of a wide-eyed youth and a wizened old man, but nothing in sports or aught else seems like the old days.
For a long period of time that began many decades before our birth and stretched into our childhood, the World Series was by far the most important event on the American sports calendar. One of the rare advantages of attending a mediocre elementary school in the ’60s was getting an autumn afternoon off to watch the daylight games on a fuzzy black-and-white television that had been wheeled into the classroom to placate the boys, whose boyish tendencies were still indulged by the country’s public education systems. An eerily similar example of the World Series’ former cultural significance can be found in Ken Kesey’s novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” in which the denizens of a snake pit mental hospital were willing to endure all the drugged indignities of a cruel nurse but finally rebelled when she forbade them to watch the games. There was a time, you youngsters should know, when any man or boy who wasn’t enrapt by the World Series would have his red-blooded Americanness questioned.
Since then there have been labor strikes and steroids and assorted other scandals, and the salaries have skyrocketed and the ratings for the night games lasting well past a boy’s bedtime have plummeted, and the World Series is now just the biggest event of the week on a calendar that constantly offers up some heavily hyped sports event or another. The National Football League’s single-game Super Bowl is now the biggest deal of the year, to the point that even the gazillion dollar commercials are scrutinized to a greater extent than Democratic presidential nominees, and only the old-timers can recall when it was a little-watched exhibition game against an upstart league in the aftermath of the all important NFL championship game, and the half-time entertainment was a college marching band and a guy flying around the stadium in one of those James Bond jet packs. Even when the locally beloved Kansas City Chiefs won it all in one of the Super Bowls that was so early you could understand the Roman numerals the kids on our block all left at half-time to have our own contest in a nearby cow pasture.
Those neighborhood football games were rough and tumble affairs, conducted without pads or helmets or agents, and particularly rough on such undersized but game sorts as ourselves. The basketball games that took place on the driveway, whether one-on-one or two-on-two or three-on-three or the free-for-all variation we called “21,” were just as bruising and as likely to knock to the wind out of you. Baseball usually involved some adult supervision, but the gloriously free sandlot contests also involved a violent degree of contact. The most popular pastimes of our boyhoods would probably get an entire neighborhood of parents arrested for child endangerment these days, yet another reason for nostalgia, but even such exhilaratingly dangerous physicality would have never kept a neighborhood kid from watching the very best of the big kids duke it out in a World Series.
The constant saturation of sports on cable television and the networks and the social media and your local tavern and the average guy’s casual clothing have somehow diminished its significance, a development that some part of our culturally conservative nature welcomes, but we can’t help lamenting that in sports our aught else in our culture there’s no longer the same society-wide appreciation of how well the best of the big kids are playing the games. This year’s Kansas City Royals only won 89 games and snuck into the play-offs via that one-game system we have derided as sports socialism, which provided the nail-biting local interest in the last days of the season which the cynical ploy intended, but since then they’ve been playing with an undefeated and record-setting and Hollywood-scripted extra-innings excellence which commands respect in any human endeavor.
Our favorite baseball team is the Wichita Wingnuts, which has already wrapped up a double-A American Association championship after compiling a remarkable-at-any-level .730 winning percentage in the regular season, and our second favorite is the New York Yankees, which finished out of the socialistically expanded plays-offs despite its usual heavy payroll, but we’ve always had a certain fondness for the Royals. We’re old enough to remember that long ago time when George Brett and Frank White and Bret Saberhagen and Willie Willson and Hal McCrae and Dan Quisenberry gave our beloved Yankees heck in the reasonably two-tiered playoffs of the late ’70s and early ’80s, and the town was kind enough to us during our stint as obituary writers for the Kansas City Star that we wish it well, so we’ll be tuned in and hoping for a Royals victory. They’re playing the 89-win but suddenly hot San Francisco Giants, too, so any sort of conservative’s choice should be clear.

— Bud Norman