Advertisements

Summing Up a Life in a Two-Column Headline

A friend of ours is a formidable theater and movie critic, and over the weekend he fulminated on Facebook that the Scripps National news service ran an obituary with the headline “Albert Finney, who played Daddy Warbucks in ‘Annie,’ has died at age 82.” We don’t quite share our friend’s affinity for Finney, but we well understand the annoyance.
Finney was indeed an outstanding actor, and he earned five Academy Award nominations over a five-decades-long career and starred in such memorable movies as “Tom Jones” and “Two for the Road” and “Miller’s Crossing,” and although “Annie” was a nice enough flick and featured a typically fine Finney performance we’re sure he’d have preferred some other headline. It’s as if Dwight Eisenhower were remembered as a “well known amateur golfer,” or Tom Hanks is sent off as the “star of TV’s ‘Bosom Buddies,'” or Harrison Ford’s eventual obit identifies him as “One of the Soldiers in ‘Force 10 from Navarone.'”
Alas, the headlines on obituaries rarely put their subjects in proper perspective. The late and great country crooner Charlie Rich cut such little-known classics as “Lonely Weekends” and “Who Will the Next Fool Be?” for the legendary Sun Records label, but when he died all the “lede” paragraphs mention the schlocky major label hits “When We Get Behind Closed Doors” and “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World.” The late and great musician Doug Sahm got short but respectful mentions in the country music press and the rock ‘n’ roll magazines and the jazz and blues publications as well as the pages devoted to Mexican-American music, but no one put them all together to explain his extraordinary and eclectic career. Most musicians and actors and writers and athletes and politicians and businesspeople, as it turns out, tend to be remembered for work they’d rather forget.
Poor Monica Lewinksy could discover a cure for cancer, but the obits will still someday remember her as the femme fatale fellatrix of Bill Clinton’s infamous sex scandal, which will also surely be mentioned in the “ledes” and headlines when Trump passes on. Such notable statesmen as Sen. Hubert Humphrey and Sen. John McCain had historic careers that culminated in their parties presidential nominations, but the headline was that they lost the general election. Such athletes as Yogi Berra and the recently deceased Frank Robinson were noted for the record-setting achievements on the playing field, but you had to read several paragraphs into the obituaries to hear about their excellent character and lifelong devotion to family and friends. These days we expect a number of very creative people will be recalled for the time they made an unwelcome pass or told an ethnic joke that would have passed muster just a decade or so earlier. Writers’ obits, we shudder to notice, almost always omit their best stuff.
So it will probably be for the rest of us, too.
We started our journalistic career on the “dead beat,” as newspaper folk waggishly call the obituary desk, so we know all too well that it’s an impossible task. Even the most mundane lives can’t be encapsulated in column inches, even on the rare occasions when they jump to a later page, and the parents and spouses and children and longtime friends of the subjects never find them satisfying. The “last writes” — as newspaper folk waggishly call them — never fully convey the human faults nor the exceptional qualities of the dearly departed, and only God can weigh them in the balance. Still, we’d wish the “dethwriters” — are we’re known in newspaper lingo — will take more care.
One day on the “dead beat” at a Kansas City newspaper we had to write up the death of a Kansas City area man who’d been hit by a semi truck and dragged for several miles underneath on a highway outside Needles, California. After getting the accident report from the California Highway Patrol we were obliged to speak with the poor fellow’s widow, who told us that her husband was a talented welder who couldn’t find work in the recessionary Kansas City economy, which was why he was hitchhiking in central California and came to be hit by that truck. After conforming the spelling of all the survivors’ names and the details of the funeral service, we ended the interview according to journalistic best practice by asking if there was anything that people should know but we’d neglected to ask about. A pregnant pause followed, then she told us that “Well, he never was a lucky man.”
In some cases, we suppose, a life can be summed up in single sentence.
The great novelist Jospeh Conrad wrote such masterpieces as “The Heart of Darkness” and “Lord Jim” and “Nostromo” and “The Secret Agent,” but we have a particular fondness for a little known work of his called “Chance.” The novel defied the literary rule that everything in the plot should derive from the characters’ actions, as Conrad believed that pure random chance plays a bigger role in real life, and by chance we came across a second edition in a used book store. Conrad had an introduction to the second edition which responded to his editors and critics, who had complained that the story was overlong, which is a common complaint of both editors and critics, and we cherish his advice. Conrad rightly noted that with sufficiently rigorous editing the story of all humankind “can be written on a cigarette paper — he was born, he lived, he died.”

— Bud Norman

Advertisements

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