Monthly Archives: February 2009

Baseball’s Most Boring Game (Until the 7th)

My ticket to the game -- they were cheaper then

My ticket to the game -- they were cheaper then

In contrast to baseball games now, in which players have to spit several times and adjust their crotches and cross themselves before they do anything, the game on September 9, 1965 was played at a brisk pace.  It was over in less than two hours, and when it ended, history had been made.

Sandy Koufax of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitched a perfect game that night, and I was one of 29,000 fans in attendance.  For some, I suppose a perfect game would be Free Beer Night, but in baseball jargon, a perfect game means that the pitcher did not allow any opposition player to reach base by any means — no hits, no walks, no errors.  In other words, no action.

What was even more boring — for a while — about this game was that Bob Hendley of the Cubs was pretty much doing the same thing to the Dodgers.  A journeyman who was with his second team of the ’65 season, Hendley had yielded a base on balls to Dodgers outfielder “Sweet” Lou Johnson in the 5th inning; Johnson advanced to second base on a sacrifice bunt by Ron Fairly.  He then attempted to steal third base, and Cubs catcher Chris Krug threw the ball into left field, allowing Johnson to get up and run home.  The Dodgers had scored without a hit — in fact, without an official at-bat.

That was pretty much the only action in the game to that point; those of us in the stands were reading the advertisements in the program just for something to do.  Along about the 7th inning, though, it began to occur to us that we were seeing something almost unprecedented:  both pitchers were throwing no-hitters!

With two out in the 7th, Lou Johnson broke up Hendley’s no-hitter with a bloop double just over the head of Cubs first baseman Ernie Banks, but Johnson was left stranded.  This proved to be the only hit in the game, and it had nothing to do with the scoring.

By now we were definitely not bored; from the 8th inning on, the crowd roared on every strike, and booed the umpire if he called one of Koufax’s pitches a ball.  Vin Scully’s voice wafted over the stadium, his call of the game being broadcast over thousands of transistor radios in the stands.

As Bob Hendley walked off the mound at the end of the 8th, he got a standing ovation from almost everyone in Dodger Stadium.  We wanted Koufax to prevail, of course, but we realized that Hendley had turned in an exceptional performance, even though it was in what we hoped would be a losing cause.

The last batter of the game was pinch-hitter Harvey Kuenn, batting for Hendley.  Kuenn was a lifetime .300 hitter, but he struck out on a 2-2 count; Koufax had completed a perfect game.

As you might imagine, at that point all 29,000 of us did not quietly file out to the parking lot.  Exultant fists were thrust into the air, seat cushions were flung onto the field, thousands of throats sustained significant damage to their vocal cords.  People jumped and hugged and proposed marriage to total strangers.  Koufax came out of the dugout and doffed his cap to the crowd; somehow the din grew even louder.

It was the best pitching performance by the best pitcher I ever saw:  Sandy Koufax struck out 14 batters that night, including the last six.  It was the best pitching performance of Bob Hendley’s career as well; his earned-run average for that season was just under 6.00.

What had been a boring game for the first hour or so turned into one of the most memorable in L.A. Dodgers history, right up there with Kirk Gibson’s home run in the 1988 World Series.  I was present for that one, too; remind me to tell you about it sometime.

Light My Fire

Crusaders, from 13th-century illuminated manuscript

Crusaders, from 13th-century illuminated manuscript

“God wills it.”  With that arrogant assertion in 1095, Pope Urban II launched the First Crusade.  That led to the Second, of course, and the Third, and so on; several hundred years later The Crusades finally came to an end, having taken a toll of at least a million dead.  Beyond those tragic consequences, they also “succeeded” in congealing the hatred and mistrust between Christians and Muslims and Jews that continues to this day.  If you like your humor extremely dark, though, The Crusades furnish some historical incidents and characters that are worthy of a Monty Python sketch.

Consider Peter Bartholomew, whose fifteen minutes of infamy occurred during the First Crusade.  During the struggle to secure Antioch in 1098, the peasant Peter went to the Bishop of LePuy and reported that he had been having visions of St. Andrew, who had revealed to him the hiding place of a sacred relic.  It was, according to Peter Bartholomew, the lance that had been used to pierce the side of Christ on the cross.  That was greeted by some with skepticism, but at this point the siege of Antioch had been going on for months.  The crusaders, who by now were reduced to boiling their saddles for food, were anxious for a little uplift.

A group led by the knight Raymond of Toulouse went to the cathedral and started digging into the floor, where the visionary Peter had said the lance could be found.  After several hours of digging hadn’t turned up the lance, Peter Bartholomew himself climbed down into the hole and by golly, he managed to fairly quickly find the lance down in that pit.

Following that triumph, his visions came frequently and he was consulted often in his role as spokesman for St. Andrew.  Morale of the troops was jacked up by this pipeline to heaven, and not long afterward, Antioch was safely in the crusaders’ hands.  Historians attribute that to bad political decisions made by the emirs on the battlefield, but at the time, the rank-and-file crusaders were giving most of the credit for the victory to the good omen of Peter Bartholomew’s sacred lance.

Within months, however, an epidemic had broken out in Antioch, the leadership was badly divided and battlefield successes had become few and far between.  Peter Bartholomew’s credibility was waning; some cynics even suspected that Peter had planted that sacred lance in the floor of the cathedral himself.  He needed to do something dramatic to restore his reputation.

It’s not clear who came up with the idea for the test of Peter Bartholomew’s divine connections, and maybe he was deluded enough to think he could pull it off.  In any case, he agreed to an ordeal by fire.  A gauntlet of olive branches, stacked four feet high and about one foot apart was constructed.  It was lit on fire, and Peter — carrying the sacred lance — walked through the flames and staggered out the other side.  An eyewitness report states that “his tunic and the holy lance, which was wrapped in the most exquisite cloth, were left unsinged”.

The same couldn’t be said for Peter himself.  He was mobbed by the crowd as he completed his fiery walk, and many of them grabbed burning sticks to keep as relics of this “miracle”.  Peter died a few days later from what we now call third-degree burns.

What became of the lance?  Raymond of Toulouse kept it for a while and led his troops with it, but after that the provenance gets hazy.  It supposedly went to Paris for enshrinement in Sainte-Chapelle along with the Crown of Thorns, but disappeared during the French Revolution.  Currently, the Sacred Lance is in several places:  there’s one in Vienna’s Hofburg palace, another in the Vatican, one in Krakow, Poland and yet another in Armenia.  For all I know the Sacred Lance may also be on eBay right now.  I haven’t had any visions about that.

If Money Can’t Buy Happiness, What Can?

Even having his face on the money couldn't buy happiness for Saddam Hussein

Even having his face on the money couldn't buy happiness for Saddam Hussein

The banks and brokerage firms are probably consoling themselves these days with the old adage “money can’t buy happiness” since they no longer have any.  Of course, that saying has been around since well before the current fiscal shocks, and it has spawned an odd little offspring of social science called “happiness economics”. 

Not content to take their mothers’ word for it that money can’t buy happiness, the sociologists and psychologists and economists in this field do studies — lots of studies, it turns out — to determine whether there is a correlation between a light heart and hard cash.

A 1971 research project postulated something called the “hedonic treadmill”, the concept that if we earn more money but our neighbors do too, then we’re not going to be any happier than we were before.  The treadmill aspect is that no matter what we have, we continually aspire to still more.  Who funded this study?  Had they never heard the expression, “keeping up with the Joneses?”

A 1974 “happiness study” came up with a variation on that idea, known as the Easterlin Paradox.  The general idea is that once people have enough resources to cover life’s basic necessities, increases in income didn’t make them happier, it just re-set the bar for wanting more.  In other words, once you get that 42″ flat screen TV you’d been craving, now you won’t be happy until you get a 56″ flat screen (on which to watch the same boring re-runs).

A couple of University of Pennsylvania economists made news in 2008 with the findings of their research project which basically said, “Yeah, money can buy you happiness.”  In this study, only 42% of households with income below $30,000 called themselves “very happy”, while 90% of households making at least $250,000 gave that answer.  I’m not sure about the methodology of the study, but it seems to me that a rich guy thinking “I’m glad I’m not that poor bastard” isn’t necessarily the same thing as actually being “very happy”.

The most recent study to see if there’s any truth to the old adage was presented this month by a group of researchers at San Francisco State University.  Their findings might be summarized as “money can buy happiness, if you spend it wisely.”  Buying experiences, according to lead researcher Prof. Ryan Howell, generates more happiness than buying material things.  Life experiences like vacations, going to the theater or renting a sailboat were cited as examples.  “We don’t tend to get bored of happy memories like we do with a material object,” Professor Howell said, suggesting that memories are, in a sense, a return on the original investment.

What all of these studies lack, as far as I’m concerned, is a satisfactory definition of “happy”.  How can a social scientist possibly quantify happiness?  It is by definition subjective — my happiness might be your hell, and vice versa — so how do they measure it objectively?

Whatever it is, maybe Leo Rosten got as close to the truth as any of these research studies:  “Money can’t buy happiness, but neither can poverty.”

A Long Way From Anywhere

moai-on-hillside2Easter Island is one of the most remote places on earth.  It’s a tiny speck on a map, located in the South Pacific approximately 2,500 miles east of Tahiti and 2,300 miles west of Chile. The nearest inhabited land is Pitcairn Island, roughly 1,200 miles west.  Easter Island, or Rapa Nui as it is known by its 3,000 residents, is triangle-shaped, with an extinct volcano at each corner.  As if those aren’t enough good reasons to go there, it also has those mysterious giant statues carved out of stone.

 

 Since there are only a couple of flights into its little airport each week, Easter Island isn’t exactly overrun with tourists.  Perhaps 10,000 visitors find their way to it each year; souvenir sales are not a high-volume business.  Sally and I were among the few guests in 2002.  Here are a couple of excerpts from my journal for April 12 of that year:

The statues for which Easter Island is famous are known as moais (MOE-eyes), and they are situated on stone platforms known as ahu.  Each site — and there are dozens — has a name, but given the paucity of consonants in the Rapa Nui language, they all begin to sound pretty much the same.  Also, many of the moais have been toppled over, centuries ago, by victors in tribal warfare.  After the first two or three sites had moai which were face down, Sally pointedly asked our guide Hermann, “Are we going to see any moai which are still standing today?”

About noon we went to Ranu Raraku, the quarry which had been the factory, in effect, where the moai were made.  It is the cone of an extinct volcano; the moai were carved out horizontally and somehow transported down the mountain.  There are various theories as to how they did this, but the fact remains that each statue weighs tons.  There were several standing moai near the base of the mountain.

The five of us (two Swiss young men, our guide, and the Reeders) walked a path over the blasted-out edge of the volcano, into the caldera.  A reed-covered lake is inside.  Hermann led us up the inside edge, all the way to the peak of the volcano — about 300 meters high.  There was a fine view from there, of course, and a precipitous drop in all directions.  We took another “path” back down.  The footing was treacherous; in some cases we had to get on all fours to ease ourselves down.  It was a challenge I probably would have declined if I’d been given a choice about it beforehand…

…We had been promised a swim at Anakena Beach, which is virtually the only sand beach on the island.  By the time Hermann took us through his preordained route — and shared his jumble of facts and opinions with us — we didn’t reach Anakena until about 5:15 p.m.  There were several moai on the ahu at Anakena: I saw an opportunity for a photo with the beach behind them.  This required a climb up a hill through waist-high weeds.  I had taken my pictures and was on my way back to the group when I saw a couple of cows a few feet away and headed in my direction.  I picked up the pace a bit to get out of their way, and saw that there were actually a couple of dozen or so, being herded by a Rapa Nui cowboy.  A few moments later, two riderless horses bolted past me, headed for the beach at a full gallop.  It was a surreal moment, and probably a frightening one for the people on the sand…

What Are You Lookin’ At?

Veneziano, Virgin and Child with Saints (detail).  Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Veneziano, Virgin and Child with Saints (detail). Uffizi Gallery, Florence

That’s the challenge every art object makes:  as you stand before it, what is it that you’re seeing?  That doesn’t apply only to abstract works, or to some of the nonsense being passed off as contemporary “art”.  “I’m seeing a beaker of urine,” you might say, “and frankly, I’d rather not.”

For many centuries, artists only had a couple of ways to make money.  One was from wealthy patrons who would commission them to do portraits or works with mythological themes — a good excuse for the rich guys to have paintings of naked babes in their game rooms.  The other potential source of income for, say, a painter in the 15th century, was decorative/devotional works for churches.  In effect, these were Bible stories for illiterates.  The faithful who came to services couldn’t read, but if the painter was skillful, the worshiper could see the drama of Jonah disappearing into the whale, or the anguish of Mary at the Deposition (taking Jesus down from the cross).

Over time, a “language” of symbols developed, one that painters learned and viewers came to understand.  As we look at a medieval painting today, we know that the guys wearing gold frisbees on their heads are supposed to be saints.  That’s part of the iconography, which is the fancy word for the subjects and symbols that constitute the characters of the language of religious painting.

You can usually assume that a woman holding a baby with a halo is probably the Virgin Mary, but another way to identify Mary is the color of her attire:  in most cases she’ll be wearing red and blue.  That practice began around the sixth century or so, and by the tenth century it had become part of the visual language.  There are occasonal exceptions, but red and blue is the Mary tradition.

So who are those other people gathered around Mary in a painting we’ve encountered at a museum or a chapel?  OK, if the man has a key (or keys) that’s Peter — a literal interpretation of Jesus granting to Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven.  A man holding what looks like a walking stick with a little cross on the top is John the Baptist.  A woman holding a jar of ointment is Mary Magdalene, not a Mary Kaye cosmetics sales representative.  If Andrew is in the painting, the clue is a transverse cross (X) on his person somewhere.  By tradition, that was the means of his martyrdom.

The attributes of saints from post-Biblical times are often associated with the way in which they were martyred.  Paintings of St. Lucy, for example, almost always show her holding a plate with her eyes on it.  Just based on that, you can probably guess how she earned her palm frond.  (A palm frond is often used as a symbol for a martyr.)

I could go on, but I sense your cursor finger starting to twitch.  Next time you’re in a museum or gallery, though, take a moment to study that religious-themed painting.  See if you can pick up any of the visual clues to the identities of the subjects.  Ask yourself what certain enigmatic objects in the painting might symbolize.  Either that, or skim the little plaque that’s beside the painting and quickly move on.  That’s OK, too.

And The Award Goes To…

the-envelope“They don’t make them like they used to.”  That pronouncement, delivered with a sneer or a sad shake of the head, is as reliable an indicator of advancing age as gray hair or wrinkles.  Sooner or later, we find ourselves unfavorably comparing the current crop of — songs, toasters, tomatoes, plywood, whatever — to what we had in our youth.  In most cases, it’s pure horse manure (and not the dense, rich kind we had back in the ’50s, either).

It does seem possible to make the argument that the overall quality of movies isn’t what it used to be.  Exhibit A for that case would be the Academy Award® nominees for 1939.  I’ll admit that may have been the best year ever for films, but here was the lineup in the category “Outstanding Production”, which has since come to be called “Best Picture”.  By the way, there were ten nominees back then:

Dark VictoryGoodbye, Mr. ChipsLove Affair (which was re-made in 1957 as An Affair To Remember)… Mr. Smith Goes To WashingtonNinotchkaOf Mice and MenStagecoachThe Wizard of OzWuthering Heights… and the winner, Gone With The Wind.

Even allowing for differences in taste (and I’m among those who find Gone With The Wind cringe-inducing) one has to acknowledge that as an impressive lineup of films.  For the sake of comparison, here are the nominees for 2008:

The Curious Case of Benjamin ButtonFrost/NixonMilkThe Reader (no relation)… Slumdog Millionaire.

You’re welcome to disagree — and if you do, please comment — but I doubt that any of this year’s nominees would displace any of the best five from 1939.  For that matter, how many of the Best Picture winners from the last several years belong in the company of the nominees of seventy years ago?  To refresh your memory, the winner at last year’s ceremony was No Country For Old Men… the year before that was The Departed… 2005’s best was CrashMillion Dollar Baby won for 2004.  The big winner among 2003 releases was The Lord Of The Rings: The Return of the King, which also got my unofficial vote for most cumbersome title.

I’m not saying the recent-vintage films are bad, or that everything produced before 1980 was brilliant.  After all, The Sting won seven statuettes in 1973, and it was made of pretty flimsy stuff.  I’m merely suggesting that once upon a time it wasn’t as difficult to find five films that were worthy of a Best Picture nomination as it seems to be nowadays.  The one thing about movies that hasn’t changed is the popcorn:  what they’re currently selling at your local theater is from the same batch they made during the first run of Citizen Kane.

Another Endorsement for Sleep

The author fights off a cold at Ford Ord, CA -- 1969When we were little and our parents told us it was time for bed, none of us wanted to comply.  We were convinced that while we were sleeping, we’d miss something; that’s when all the fun would break out.  It wasn’t until our teenage years when we realized that our parents’ idea of fun was clipping grocery coupons or listening to their own stomachs gurgle.  By then their mission had changed from trying to get us to go to sleep, to trying to get us to wake up by noon.

As it turns out, Mom was right about the importance of a good night’s sleep.  A recent scientific study, the results of which were published last month, shows that lack of sleep is a major factor in catching colds.  The study found that people who get less than seven hours a night are about three times as likely to get sick as those who sleep at least eight hours.  Earlier research has already linked the less-than-seven-hours benchmark with increased risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, weight gain and hardening of the arteries.

This new study, conducted by a team at Carnegie Mellon University, also found that hours of thrashing around in bed are no substitute for actual sleep when it comes to bolstering the body’s immune system.  Calculations were made based on “sleep efficiency”, defined as the percentage of time a person actually slept while in bed.  Study participants who had less than 92% efficiency were 5.5 times more likely to catch a cold than those lucky participants who were zonked out for 98% of their beddy-bye time.  (Please forgive the technical terminology, but this is science, after all.)

So.  Give your immune system a fighting chance, won’t you?  Allow for at least eight hours of sack time, and if you find yourself awake in the middle of the night, don’t think about the damage you’re doing to yourself.  I said, don’t think about it… seriously now, you’ll just keep yourself awake with thoughts like that… that’s the last thing you need… go to sleep, dammit!  Now!…