Bad Hair Day

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This week did not get off to a good start.

On Tuesday, after I returned from a workout at the gym, I sat down at the home computer to send a couple of quick e-mails.

Tuesdays are my busy days.  I have to prepare for class, run to the gym, take a fast shower and then head to the college.  Some days I have just enough time to slug down a yogurt for lunch before students start arriving for our afternoon seminar.

Taking the time for e-mails was risky.  Or so I thought.

The moment I was ready to hit the *SEND* button, the lights flickered, there was a muted whirring sound and all went dark.

No power. 

That’s not unusual out here in the woods.  For some reason, we seem to be wired with cast-off technology from the former Soviet Republics.  About every month, either the phone or the electricity goes out. The utility company once told me there was a problem with “moist weather.”  I swear.

So, now it’s noon and I’m in the throes of a classic Hobson’s Choice: do I shower and go to class as a wet-head (no hair dryer, remember?) or skip the shower, do what I can do, and fashion some reasonable sculpture out of old hair gels?

I went with the gels.

Later, while standing on a dusty ladder trying to trip the electric garage door opener so I can get my car out, I found my mind drifting to other character-building moments.  Or to be more specific, I was heating up for one of those full-tilt THINGS THAT TICK ME OFF tirades.

So, buckle up, dear reader.  I’m lettin’ loose!

TICK NUMBER ONE.

Why doesn’t anyone yield on entrance ramps anymore? Didn’t they take Driver’s Ed?  You know who I’m talking about.  That red Civic comes barreling down the entrance ramp just as you’re getting ready to pass the merge zone.  But do they hesitate, slow down a little to allow you to speed on by? NOOOooooooo! In fact, they speed up, taunt you, push as much Honda pedal-to-the-metal as that little Civic will take and force YOU to do the yielding.  It’s a metaphor for the whole country, isn’t it?  No one yields anymore. What’s with that?!?

TICK NUMBER TWO

I know I’ll suffer the wrath of musical lovers everywhere, but I can’t stand Glee. Or more specifically, I can’t stand that guy on Glee. The teacher.  The one with the corrugated hair.  Can’t stand the wrinkled forehead, the simpering looks and definitely can’t stand the upstage-the-kids prancing.  Now don’t get me wrong.  If Jane Lynch had a cable channel, I would be a charter subscriber. I’ve watched Best in Show about ten times. But that Glee guy? Ruins the whole thing for me.  And don’t even get me started on his vests.

That Glee Guy

TICK NUMBER THREE

Crest toothpaste.  I’ve used Crest for years.  I like the squeeze tube with the blue paste—whatever that flavor is. And that’s the problem.  There are too many Crests. Have you stood in front of the toothpaste aisle lately? Here’s an abbreviated rundown on what awaits you at your friendly neighborhood Crest display:

Crest 3D Advanced Vivid

Baking Soda Peroxide Whitening with Tartar Protection

Baking Soda Peroxide Whitening with Tartar Protection Striped

Cavity Protection Gel

Multicare Whitening Gel

Nature’s Expression

Minty Fresh Liquid Gel

Pro-Health Clinical Gum Protection

For Me Fluoride Anticavity

Sensitivity Clinical Relief

Citrus Splash

Herbal Mint

Cool Peppermint

Wintergreen Ice

Cinnamon Rush

And my personal favorite: Barbie Burstin’ Bubblegum Gel

Just tell me which one is the squeeze tube with blue paste.  PLUUEEZE!

Contemplating the dizzying array of choices at the toothpaste aisle reminds me of my grandfather. Florence Wilhelm Ackmann was a kind and patient man.  I can remember only one time when he bristled and that moment became family legend.  Grandma handed him a grocery list and off he dutifully went to the corner market. When he returned an hour later ruffled and irritated, we knew something was wrong.  “Beans?!” he complained, waving the list. “What kind of beans?  Green beans?  Pork and Beans?  Lima Beans? Kidney Beans? Navy Beans?” At the end of his rope, he let loose with a final salvo, reverting to his German roots. “Verdammit Bohen!!,” he cried—the grocery list fluttering to the floor.

Maybe I should have uttered that ringing family phrase as I stood on tip-toe trying to trigger the garage door opener with wayward hair glued to my head in a helmet of sheen.

“Verdammit Bohen!!”  DAMN BEANS!

That phrase does make a person feel better.

Into the Beautiful

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Most writers have day jobs.  Even Toni Morrison has toiled away at Princeton University when she wasn’t writing Nobel Prize winning fiction.

Me?  I’m lucky. I teach at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts–one of the nation’s great women’s colleges.  Remember the Seven Sisters?  Wellesley, Smith, Barnard, Bryn Mawr… Mount Holyoke is part of that crowd.  We get terrific students and more than our share of future leaders who make names for themselves in politics, science and the arts.

Teaching is a wonderful way to compliment the many hours I spend at home writing. The students energize me. The books we talk about inspire me.  And, going to class gets me out of the house.  I need that.  Left to my own devices, I would be a hermit.

Which brings me to Emily Dickinson.

I’ve studied the great American poet for over 30 years and I’m writing a new book on her.  I discovered Dickinson’s poetry in an English class back when I was a junior at McCluer High School in St. Louis.  I can’t tell you why Dickinson’s poetry initially moved me, I just know it did.  Her lines seemed to reach a part of my brain that didn’t exist before. There was something primordial, startling and volcanic about her work.  I’ll never forget encountering some of her lines for the first time. Lines such as “After great pain a formal feeling comes” and “I dwell in possibility” and then there’s this one: “The Soul selects her own Society/ Then–shuts the Door–.”

That last one hit home.

Even though I’ve read Dickinson for so long, I must admit that I still don’t understand everything she wrote.  Not by a long shot.  So, it’s always invigorating to start a semester with a fresh group of students and open my beloved volume of The Poems of Emily Dickinson and begin anew.

Each fall I teach a weekly Emily Dickinson seminar and take on ten students.  It’s an admittedly small class and that’s because ten students are the maximum number who fit.

Emily Dickinson Seminar 2010

Yes, fit.

I teach the course in the Dickinson Homestead in Amherst in the very rooms where the poet wrote her memorable verse. All of her life, Dickinson lived 11 miles north of Mount Holyoke and attended the school in 1847-48. About a decade after Dickinson completed her education, she became reclusive.  Biographers theorized she may have had eye problems or agoraphobia. Her sister dismissed Dickinson’s seclusion as “just a happen.” Today scholars argue that Dickinson wanted life on her own terms and turned inward to write 1,789 poems that transformed the face of American literature.

Yesterday was our second class meeting.  If the weather complies, I always spend that session giving my students a three-hour walking tour of the poet’s Amherst.  We cover about a mile and make twelve stops from the site of the academy where Dickinson received her elementary education, to the church her family attended, to her grave in West Cemetery.  Along the way, we talk about everything from immigration in the nineteenth century to Whig politics to characteristics of lyric poetry.

Look what we found at the cemetery--a "Letter to Emily" secret box.

And the students ask penetrating questions:  why didn’t Dickinson publish in her lifetime, what’s with all those dashes in her poems, did the Civil War coincide with her greatest literary productivity, were the problems with her vision what she called her “terror since September”?

As you can tell, it was a wonderful afternoon.

We ended our class in Dickinson’s garden with a final poem. The poet loved her flowers and images of roses and gentian and even the most humble blade of grass enhance her verse.

But it wasn’t a poem about flowers that ended our class yesterday.

As she usually does, Dickinson took us in another direction. On that last afternoon of summer, Emily Dickinson made us pay close attention to seasons and twilight and what lies ahead. Nobody says it better.

As imperceptibly as Grief

The Summer lapsed away—

Too imperceptible at last

To seem like Perfidy–

A Quietness distilled

As Twilight long begun,

Or Nature spending with herself

Sequestered Afternoon—

The Dusk drew earlier in—

The Morning foreign shone—

A courteous, yet harrowing Grace—

As Guest, that would be gone—

And thus, without a Wing

Or service of a Keel

Our Summer made her light escape

Into the Beautiful–

Hubbub in Harrisburg

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This weekend I’m heading down to Harrisburg for the Capital BookFest at the State Museum of Pennsylvania. If you’re around Harrisburg, Carlisle, Lancaster, York or even Philadelphia, come to the CreateSpace stage (we’re indoors) at 1:50 p.m on Saturday. I’ll be talking about baseball, Jim Crow America and Toni Stone, and also autographing copies of Curveball.

Harrisburg is an especially appropriate place to be talking about women in baseball. Ever hear of Eleanor Engle?  Not many people have.  Engle was the first woman to sign a minor league contract to play professional baseball. She got on the field, but never in the game.

In 1952, the Harrisburg Senators, a Class B Interstate League team, was in the dumps. Nothing seemed to shake them out of their seventh place doldrums.  That’s when the front office had an idea.  Why not sign a 24 year-old, hot-shot shortstop—a local player with a fan following? Eleanor Engle, a stenographer for the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission, had been playing softball in the Harrisburg area and drawing attention.  Perhaps she could add some punch to the Senators, the team owner thought. But the front office decision did not sit well with team manager. The skipper blew a gasket.  “She’ll play when hell freezes over,” Buck Etchison said.  “This is a no woman’s land and believe me, I mean it!”  League umpire Bill Angstadt piped up as well.  “If she ever comes to bat,” he said, “I quit!”

Harrisburg General Manager Howard Gordon added Engle to the team anyway. He gave her a uniform (Number 11) and then called the press. “She can hit a ball a lot better than some of the fellows on the club,” he declared.

That’s when the trouble began.  George Trautman, minor league boss, would have none of it. After learning of the hubbub in Harrisburg, Trautman immediately wired all minor league teams declaring women players would not be allowed. Major League Commissioner Ford Frick agreed, Trautman said and added, “It’s not in the best interest of baseball that such travesties be tolerated.”

But Trautman’s screed came just as Engle was trotting out to the field.  She took in-field practice, a few practice swings at the plate and then sat down in dug-out–by herself–as photographers recorded the moment.

Later when looking at how isolated she was in the Harrisburg dugout, Engle said, "Look at that! I'm like a skunk at a picnic."

By the time the game began, however, Engle’s debut was over.

The Harrisburg front office was not willing to push the case, take on Trautman, and square-off against the Major Leagues. Eleanor Engle changed into street clothes and was sent packing. Her brief career in professional baseball had ended

But the aftermath for women in baseball was only beginning. She “threw like a girl!” The Sporting News reported, pulling out not only derision, but tired clichés as well. In an editorial, the newspaper stated, “The Sporting News hopes this is the last time it will ever find it necessary, as a matter of news coverage, to print the picture of a woman ballplayer on a men’s team…As far as Organized Baseball is concerned, a woman’s place always will be in the grandstand.”

Other news stories followed arguing that women were physically unfit for the game, pitchers would be reluctant to throw close, tagging would be a problem, lockers rooms couldn’t accommodate women and “dugout language is too sulphuric for the ears of ladylike performers.”

Engle was not prepared for the wave of publicity that followed her short-lived attempt to play minor league ball.  “It was a nightmare everywhere I went,” she said.  “I would come out of church and photographers would be there.  The day the story broke, the photographers were in the hallways of my office building.  It was awful.  I thought I was going to lose my job.”

Reports later circulated that Engle was offered a tryout with the Jimmy Foxx who managed the Fort Wayne Daisies of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. But Engle never went to Fort Wayne or to any of the so-called League of Their Own teams.  Perhaps her time in the spotlight convinced her that she rather stay at home with the doors shut.

Engle did not fade from the scene, however, without a parting shot.  “I think baseball is making a big mistake,” she said.  “I love the game.  Women are good at a lot of things like golf, politics and track.  Why not baseball?”

Toni Stone's baseball card

Toni Stone loved the game as well. The next summer—perhaps inspired by Eleanor Engle’s audacity–Stone signed with the championship Indianapolis Clowns in the Negro League.  She became known as the “female Jackie Robinson” and played against some of baseball’s most celebrated athletes: Satchel Paige, Ernie Banks and Willie Mays.  With the departure of teammate Henry Aaron to the majors, the Indianapolis Clowns needed another sensation and Toni Stone fit the bill. At one point in the 1953 season, Stone hit .364—fourth in the league behind Ernie Banks.

Engle spent the rest of her working life with IBM and responded politely when historians occasionally tracked her down to ask what happened in Harrisburg. Toni Stone played one year for the Clowns before being traded to the legendary Kansas City Monarchs. After butting heads with Buck O’Neil, her Monarch’s manager, Stone left the Negro Leagues in 1955. She was largely forgotten until 1991 when baseball’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown finally recognized her accomplishments and that of other Negro Leaguers. Today, over a decade after Stone’s death, sports writers call Toni Stone “the best baseball player you’ve never heard of.”

History does not record that Toni Stone ever met Eleanor Engle. But this weekend down in Harrisburg, it won’t be difficult to imagine what the two women might have talked about.

It Takes a Village

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Toni Stone was a wonderful storyteller: animated, passionate, precise and especially good in making a story come alive.

It pained me that I never got a chance to talk with her.  Toni Stone died in 1996—about a decade before I started writing Curveball.  What I would give to talk with her!  I have a million questions: did you know you were making history when you signed with the Indianapolis Clowns in 1953?  What did it feel like to be the first woman to play professional baseball in the Negro League?  Who supported you?  Ernie Banks? Willie MaysSatchel? Why do you think Buck O’Neil gave you a hard time?

Before joining the Clowns, Toni Stone played semi-pro ball with the New Orleans Creoles.

The list of questions goes on and on.

Lucky for me there were a few baseball historians and journalists who did know about Toni Stone’s remarkable story when she still was alive. They tracked her down—not without some effort—and talked with her about those memorable days barnstorming in the Dakotas, playing in Yankee Stadium and seeing her name splashed across headlines in the Chicago Defender.

Many of those writers were extraordinarily generous in sharing their memories of Toni. Some even loaned me their taped interviews and notes, and talked with me at length about what they remembered.  I owe a large debt of gratitude to Doug Grow, Bill Kruissink, Larry Lester, Kyle McNary, David Steele, Miki Turner and others for sharing so much with me.

Not every article I found in library archives or through internet searches was good, however.  Many, perhaps most, offered a rehash of previous stories—sometimes even recycling errors of fact or presenting Toni more as a sideshow curiosity than a pioneer.

But a handful of stories were very good.  The writers of these articles took Toni seriously, asked pointed questions and did their homework when it came to tracking down specifics. When I came across one of these gems, I tried to locate the writer. Of course, I didn’t find everyone. Many writers had changed jobs or professions and even my crackerjack young student research assistants (who know their way around the internet, believe me!) couldn’t make contact.

One of the writers I went looking for was Ron Thomas of the San Francisco Chronicle. For nearly all her adult life, Toni lived across the bay from San Francisco and Thomas became acquainted with her through executives with the Oakland As. (Much to the A’s credit, they recognized Toni’s unsung accomplishments and gave her complimentary seats when they could—right behind the plate.)

Thomas wrote a terrific article about Toni in August of 1991 when she and other former Negro Leaguers were recognized for the first time by the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Thomas’s opening sentence stayed in my mind for months.  Here it is:  “There is no scale that accurately weighs how much a baseball player loves the game.  But it’s doubtful that anyone loves it more or has sacrificed more to play it than Toni Stone.”

I knew I had to find Ron Thomas.  That sentence showed he understood Toni Stone on a deeper level than most.

But I couldn’t find him.  I looked everywhere, asked friends of mine who work at the Chronicle if they knew him. I asked friends of friends.  Google. Facebook. Nothing.

A professor of mine from grad school days once made a profound impression on me when we were talking about how much time you give research.  “It’s a tricky business,” he said. “You have to be tenacious.  But I can’t be obsessive.  If you spend too much time tracking things down, you’ll never write anything.”

He was right.  After a string of dead ends, I gave up my search for Ron Thomas. I had to get down to writing the book.

If you’ve checked my Facebook Fan page recently, you’ve seen photographs of the great Decatur Book Festival where I spoke about Curveball to a group of baseball fans and readers interested in the history of Jim Crow America. After the talk, I enjoyed speaking with people about Toni Stone and signing books.

It was great meeting readers at the Decatur Book Festival, the largest independent book festival in the country.

As I was walking down the steps to the book signing tent, a man approached me.  I had noticed him out of the corner of my eye when I was giving my reading.  He seemed unusually intent on what I was saying: especially interested.

“I’m Ron Thomas,” he said.

I have to admit, it took me a beat or two before I connected the dots in my mind and exclaimed, “You’re RON THOMAS of the San Francisco Chronicle! I’ve been looking for you.”

Finding Ron was like meeting a long-lost relative—someone you hadn’t known who shares something precious and unique with you.

Ron left the Bay Area and moved to Atlanta several years ago to run the Journalism and Sports program at Morehouse College. We talked so fast that our sentences collided in enthusiastic pile-ups. We exchanged contact information and made plans to get together soon—perhaps at Morehouse—and talk some more.

Ron Thomas at Morehouse College

This morning, I scrambled around in my Curveball files until I found Ron’s article that meant so much to me when I was beginning my research on Toni Stone. “Baseball Pioneer Looks Back/Woman Played in Negro Leagues” read the headline. Accompanying the article was a photograph of Toni with a medal around her neck that she had received from Cooperstown. She holds up the medal with both hands as if making sure the photographer gets the shot right.  She looks proud and sad at the same time—a poignancy that Ron captured well in his story.

When I make it down to Morehouse, I’ll bring that copy of Ron’s article with me.  I want to show him what I wrote on the margin.  “Good story.  He gets her.”

Clemens on Clemens

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I’ve been thinking about Roger Clemens lately.  Not in an obsessive way, mind you.  What I’ve really been thinking about is whether Hurricane Earl is going to blow away my plans to attend the Decatur Book Festival in Atlanta this weekend.

Roger Clemens

Between checking the Weather Channel and watching videos with all those masses of swirling orange and yellow, I do think a little about Roger Clemens.

I’m a Red Sox fan.  I became one when I moved from Missouri to Massachusetts over thirty years ago.  Before that time I followed the St. Louis Cardinals, especially in the Lou Brock and Bill White era.  I think I could still fill out a scorecard for those ‘60s Cardinals: White, Javier, Groat, Boyer, Brock, Flood, Shannon, McCarver and—who else—Gibson.

But since adopting the great Commonwealth as my home and getting my first glimpse of Fenway Park, I’ve been hooked on Boston.  Remember John Updike’s lovely phrase about Fenway? “A little lyrical bandbox of a ballpark…”  He’s right. When I once visited the Red Sox front offices, there was Updike’s unforgettable phrase enshrined on the wall. Red Sox management, it would seem, understands what a blessing that creaky old park is.

Fenway exudes integrity. It knows who it is.

So along with loving Fenway came cheering Roger Clemens.  And, I won’t deny it.  When those “K” started adding up in the 1980s and the ‘90s, I was yelling with the rest of the Faithful.

When he signed with the Yankees, well…we won’t go there.

Since Roger and I had busted up years ago, I found myself surprisingly rankled by the news of his six-count indictment.  The indictment alleges that Clemens obstructed a Congressional inquiry into major league steroid abuse by making false statements under oath, including statements about his use of performance enhancing drugs. Clemens’ Hall of Fame certainty is no longer certain and a jail sentence may be likely.

But here’s what I have been trying to figure out: why do I feel betrayed by Clemens?

Believe me, I’m well beyond the age when I expect sports celebrities to be heroes.  And I blame Major League baseball for turning a blind eye to steroid abuse as much as I blame players for the bulking up so that they can hit long balls and play past their prime. I thought I wouldn’t care what Clemens told Congress. We were through after he put on pinstripes.

But I was wrong.  The whole Clemens story got under my skin.

As I often do, I talk sports with my friend James Fitzgerald. You’ve read about James.  He keeps me from fudging when I’m doing crunches or not giving the rowing machine my all.

I fudge and James keeps me honest.

And that moral calibration, I think, is at the core of my Clemens’ angst.

It’s one thing to use steroids when MLB refused to notice. It’s another to lie about it. .

Ask Andy Pettite, James reminded me.

James’ comment about Clemens’ assault on honesty somehow got me thinking about another Clemens: Sam.

Samuel Clemens

Maybe I was remembering my love for those Cardinal teams back in Missouri when Gibbie was King and the game seemed pure and I wasn’t so jaded and fickle.

A lie, Mark Twain wrote, “is an abomination before the Lord and an ever present help in time of trouble.”

And then there’s this one: “The most outrageous lies that can be invented will find believers if a man only tells them with all his might.”

Fenway Park doesn’t have enough wall space for any more quotes and who could improve upon Updike’s heartbreaking “bandbox”?

But I might offer two more sentences.

“You can’t pray a lie,” Huck Finn painfully admitted in his ultimate moment of crisis. “I found that out.”

Maybe baseball teams need that Sam Clemens’ quote in their locker rooms to remind them of the other Clemens.

Maybe we all need do.