sunderland-uk-17

Brexit hotspot home to Sunderland Shagger

I was reading a story in the New York Times the other day from Sunderland, England, where voters gave the strongest push – 61 percent – to pull Britain out of the European Union.

The reporter, Kimiko De Freytas-Tamura – the Times loves exotic bylines – conducted interviews in a pub to ensure the local louts would have their say.

A sample:

John Todd, 18, an information technology apprentice, voted for the first time, and said he supported the U.K. Independence Party.

“We’re segregated from the south, and the north is a barren wasteland,” he said, wearing a heavy black leather jacket with metal studs despite the summer heat. “It’s us against them.”

“The E.U. is a mystery to us,” he added. “We’ve never heard about it up here.”

Since I’d never heard of Sunderland, didn’t know where “up here” was, and didn’t realize people in England talk about the south versus the north, I began investigating.

(I have a quirky craving to learn stuff when I read the news.)

Sunderland is on the northeast coast of England, where the River Wear meets the North Sea, about 250 miles from London. Its neighbor, Newcastle upon Tyne, is the place you don’t need to carry coal to.

Sunderland (pop: 270,000) was once a shipbuilding and coal mining center. Now, a Japanese auto plant is the city’s largest employer, though the jobless rate remains high.

Living on the dole is a habit for one of Sunderland’s most noteworthy citizens, Keith MacDonald, who, at age 29, was featured last year in a TV documentary for fathering 15 children with 10 women.

Tabloids branded him “Britain’s most feckless father,” the “Sunderland Shagger,” and a “notorious love rat.”

Sunderland’s most famous descendant is George Washington, whose 17th century ancestral home is preserved as a museum. It hosts celebrations on the Fourth of July and American Thanksgiving, exhibiting no hard feelings for the general who won the Revolutionary War and booted the British from its former colonies.

Enough about the olden days, for now.

Early this week, Sunderland was all atwitter over the arrival of a contemporary American.

“Excitement is building for Beyoncé fans who are already queuing up outside the Stadium of Light,” the Sunderland Echo reported Tuesday. “It may be hours until the doors open, but fans of the world famous singer are making sure they’ll be in prime position when she kicks off the European leg of her Formation World Tour tonight.”

(Please note: Britain remains in Europe for Beyoncé.)

Echo entertainment editor Katy Wheeler promised in a tweet: “I’ll be reporting on every hair flick, booty shake and foot stomp.”

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Since I couldn’t make it to the Beyoncé show, I checked out what else is coming up in Sunderland.

“Why endure the numb-bum of one two-hour-long story?” asks an ad for this weekend’s Sunderland Shorts Film Festival. “Why have only one epic tale when you can have ten?”

No thanks. I like long movies. Lawrence of Arabia is a favorite.

The event calendar for later in July appears equally uninviting. I stopped scrolling at: “Join the members of the Sunderland branch of the Knitting and Crochet Guild in the Textile Traditions Gallery as they demonstrate traditional skills of knitting and crochet.”

While this may not be my cup of tea, it seems hardly suggestive of the “barren wasteland” described by the kid who voted to leave the EU.

And while I may not visit Sunderland – ever – I would like to experience Britain again. The one time I was there was less than satisfying.

It was the summer of 1969, and I was stopping for a few days in London, en route to Switzerland and a promised job with UPI in Zurich. (That’s a long, sad story for another time.)

After a shitty interview with the bureau chief at the UPI office on Fleet Street, I returned to the Cadogan hotel, on Sloane Square, in late afternoon.

I went straight to the bar – which wasn’t open – went for a walk, sprained my ankle jumping over a stone wall in the middle of a roundabout near Piccadilly Circus, limped back to the Cadogan, took a taxi to a hospital, had my ankle X-rayed and taped – free of charge, my first experience with socialized medicine – took a taxi back to the hotel, made a reservation for a flight to Zurich the next day, went to the bar – which wasn’t open – and went to my room.

When the bar finally opened, I had a scotch, had another, had a double, went back to my room and thought about Oscar Wilde, Lillie Langtry and the Prince of Wales.

The barman had told me some of the racy history of the Cadogan: Wilde had been arrested in Room 118 and hauled off to jail for a sexual escapade with a much younger man, while the prince – later King Edward VII – and Langtry, a famous and beautiful actress, had their trysts in Room 109.

The son of Queen Victoria was quite the scamp. The married father of six was cited for affairs with more than 50 women.

Pity there is no record of his out-of-wedlock offspring, and thus no means for comparison with the Sunderland Shagger.

anecdotes

The Defender

My old courtroom chum, F. Lee Bailey, the most famous lawyer in the United States in his time, is back in the spotlight for his role defending O.J. Simpson.

This month, he was a major player in ESPN’s five-part documentary, O.J.: Made in America. And earlier this year, he was portrayed by Nathan Lane in the ten episodes of The People v. O.J. Simpson on FX.

As a kid, I’d wanted to be a lawyer – like Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird, Spencer Tracy in Inherit the Wind, E.G. Marshall on The Defenders. Like Clarence Darrow. Like F. Lee Bailey.

When I watched David Janssen as Dr. Richard Kimble in The Fugitive, I knew Bailey was the hero. If he had not freed Dr. Sam Sheppard, accused of killing his wife, there would have been no series and subsequent movie.

And while my undistinguished two years of college failed to approach the bar for entry to law school, I became a chronicler of legal drama, with Bailey as the combative protagonist, in the summer of 1972.

I was a 25-year-old reporter for UPI covering my first murder trial.

Bailey’s client was Bill Phillips, 42, a New York City police detective charged with killing a pimp and a prostitute in a posh East Side Manhattan apartment on Christmas Eve 1968.

The trial began not long after Phillips’ star appearance as a witness before the Knapp Commission into NYPD corruption, a crooked cop turned celebrity snitch.

The case was right in Bailey’s sweet spot – lots of press, infamous client, New York, New York.

Two press tables had been placed in the large, stately courtroom on the 13th-floor of the Criminal Courts Building in Lower Manhattan.

The first day, I grabbed a seat at the one behind the defense table, drawn to Bailey.

He appeared older than his 39 years, his ruddy complexion reflecting another night of scotch and manly bravado, his chunky build packed into a well-tailored three-piece suit.

I had been told by one of the courtroom buffs that Bailey always slipped “the Perry Mason line” into his opening statement.

Sure enough, he took a deep breath, puffed up his chest, looked straight at the 10 men and two women in the jury box and declared:

“I know some of you may have heard of me, know my reputation. And I know most of you probably watch Perry Mason. Well, I’m not Perry Mason and this is real life, not TV. So don’t expect someone to jump up on the witness stand and scream: ‘I give up. I did it. I killed them.’”

That elicited the expected chuckles. Then, he planted the seed that other cops framed Phillips for breaking the blue code of silence, that the defense might produce the “real killer.”

Nowadays, it’s ridiculed as the some-other-dude-did-it defense, and you’d need 12 geezers to buy the Perry Mason opening.

But, back then, it was wonderful theater, and the jurors seemed spellbound.

By sitting right behind the defense table, the reporters on our side of the aisle chatted during the many breaks in the proceedings with Bailey, his co-counsel and Phillips.

We’d listen to their off-the-record bitching about the prosecutor and the judge. They made us feel part of the team.

And, if I was sympathetic to the defense, the judge’s charge to the jury put me firmly in its corner.

“If he is found guilty, the consequences of your verdict will not be upon you, but will be the results of his own wrongdoing,” decreed Justice John Murtagh. “You will then return a just and true verdict, no matter whom it hurts.”

Bailey was livid. “No matter whom it hurts”? Who the hell else could be hurt, except Phillips?

After filing my story, after the jury retired to deliberate, I met up with Bailey at the nearby office of his co-counsel, Eddie Orenstein.

Phillips and his family were there, as was Bailey’s very young and very pretty girlfriend Lynda – she’d become wife No. 3 of four – who’d sat in the front row on our side of the aisle throughout the trial, looking like a prom queen in a whorehouse.

“Tough day,” I said to Lynda.

“Lee’s really mad,” she said.

The booze was flowing, lubricating the anger.

Bailey looked spent, not interested in anything except getting his fee, getting out of town and getting with his girlfriend.

It turned out we had to wait another day – and a second night in Orenstein’s office.

That’s when Bailey proclaimed he had the scoop – the jury was 11-1 for acquittal.

“It’s that fucking woman, the one that smiled at me every day,” Phillips confided to me as the empty scotch bottles piled up. “I told Lee not to trust any women on the jury.”

It was just before midnight that the jury came out. Deadlocked. The judge declared a mistrial.

Phillips, Bailey at his side, ranted before the TV cameras, calling it a “mockery of justice” and trashing the judge.

Bailey didn’t say much, and looked like a man who had a ticket on the red-eye back to Boston – or maybe Barbados.

***

Phillips was tried again, without Bailey, and convicted. He served 32 years in prison before being paroled in 2007 at the age of 77.

***

In the early 2000s, Bailey lost his license to practice law, cited for some funny business with a client’s funds. Now 83, he’s a partner with his latest girlfriend in a consulting firm in Yarmouth, Maine.

 

 

Rodney Dangerfield

Trump, Capone, golf and strippers

Donald Trump reminds me of the Rodney Dangerfield character in Caddyshack, a rich, loudmouthed slob who invades a country club.

“You think I actually want to join this scumatorium?” asks the character, Al Czervik, a real estate developer. “The only reason I’m here is because I might buy it.”

Trump has similarly scaled the walls of patrician sanctuaries, stamping his name on posh golf properties from L.A. to Ireland, Palm Beach to Dubai.

Le Grand Orange (sorry, Rusty) is in Scotland this weekend to visit two of his courses.

At one, near Aberdeen, where Trump’s minions bulldozed fragile seaside sand dunes, he’ll be greeted by a couple of neighbors flying Mexican flags within sight of the clubhouse.

“It’s just to show solidarity with the Mexican people and everyone else that Trump has derided, insulted and intimidated,” neighbor David Milne told the Guardian.

While golf has allowed the puffy politician to put a cap on his preposterous hairdo and mongrelize his inherited millions with old money, his foul mouth is becoming less welcome in the tony golf world.

After his slurs against Mexicans and Muslims, the Old World administrators of the sport, the Royal and Ancient, decided earlier this year that Trump’s other Scottish property, the venerable Turnberry course, would forfeit its turn to host the British Open.

And it was announced this month that Trump National Doral, in Miami, would lose its long-standing stop on the PGA Tour. That tournament will be played next year in Mexico City, presumably attended by hordes of rapists, drug dealers and aspiring wall jumpers.

My association with Trump’s garish golf imprint dates to 1999. That winter, while visiting my mother in Florida, I dropped by Trump International, his first golf property, in West Palm Beach.

(Mister Bluster attaches the words national or international to nearly all of his 17 courses.)

Since I didn’t have a tee time, and the armed guard at the gate didn’t invite me in, I checked out the neighborhood.

Casting a shadow over the course is the 12-storey Palm Beach County jail, the highrise home of the least successful practitioners of South Florida’s preferred occupational pastimes: petty theft and random violence.

Barbed-wire fences, thick shrubbery and armed guards form a Maginot Line between the club and the hoosegow, appropriately complementing the Sun Belt’s primary contribution to humankind – gated communities separating the fatcats from the riff-raff.

“The best view of the course is those cells up on the top floor,” a chatty deputy sheriff told me.

I’d pulled up alongside him in the jail’s maintenance yard and asked whether Trump was getting along with his neighbors.

“He tried to have us moved, but we were here first,” the deputy said with a chuckle. “The boys in the exercise yard like to shout at the golfers. They can’t see them, but they know they’re on the other side of the hedge there.”

The course is on public-owned land, which the county leases to Trump for a song – Jailhouse Rock?

Once a Second World War ammo dump, it borders Gun Club Road, which plays politically with the Republican candidate’s newfound love of WMDs.

During my tour of the neighborhood, I spotted such landmarks as Tommy Richards Bail Bonds, a boutique called Condoms Galore, and T’s Lounge, home of the Miss Nude Southeast USA Pageant and birthplace of topless creamed-corn wrestling, which inspired Carl Hiaasen’s novel Strip Tease and the Demi Moore movie of the same name (shortened to one word).

Trump, of course, is not the first hustler with real estate connections to stake a claim in South Florida.

Al Capone arrived in January 1928, fleeing winter and the
feds in Chicago, hoping to get in some gangster golf before syphilis restricted his backswing.

The original Scarface was warmly embraced by Sunshine State politicians, whose true vocations were – are? – taking kickbacks and peddling swampland.

Slipping a tidy commission to one pol, the big-time bootlegger purchased an estate on Palm Island from the cash-strapped proprietors of the Busch brewing business, a refreshing reversal of Prohibition-era fortunes.

There is scant documentation of Capone’s skill as a golfer. But there is sufficient anecdotal evidence to suggest his enthusiasm for the game rivaled his passions for hookers and homicide.

At home in Chicago, Capone formed a regular foursome with Jack “Machine Gun” McGurn, Fred “Killer” Burke, and Jake “Greasy Thumb” Guzik.

They played for $500 a hole, cheated shamelessly and invented a game they called Blind Robin: each of the mobsters would lie on the ground and balance a golf ball on his chin, for the others to tee off.

Though no serious injuries were reported, Capone once shot himself in the groin when he hefted his golf bag, forgetting it concealed a .45-calibre revolver.

He played golf until he took up residence at Alcatraz, where he found he was unable to carry the water hazard.

Alphonse Capone died at his Palm Island estate on Jan. 25, 1947, at the age of 48.

His epitaph, ave, imperator, morituri te salutant – hail, emperor, we who are about to die salute you – is an equally apt swansong for Trump’s supporters.

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The circle of life

Recently, on the Internet, that storehouse of all human knowledge, I came across a meme suggesting a gator killed a two-year-old boy in Florida as payback for the shooting of a gorilla at the Cincinnati zoo.

I’m amazed the mainstream media have overlooked this angle behind the death at Disney World last week.

While there has been endless speculation about the nature of the Orlando shooter – ISIS booster, gay hater, repressed homosexual, acolyte of a closeted Muslim president – CNN failed to convene a panel of experts to jabber on the motivation of the alligator.

Cable news obviously lacks a roster of animal psychologists, herpetologists, and Disney animators.

This is puzzling, considering the conceit among Homo sapiens, attributable to a certain Dr. Doolittle, that only our species has the capacity to communicate with critters:

If we could talk to the animals, learn their languages,

Maybe take an animal degree.

We’d study elephant and eagle, buffalo and beagle,

Alligator, guinea pig, and flea.

Those incapable of consulting with bison or beetles nonetheless assign specific character traits to animals with such verbs as: ape, badger, crow, goose, hog, hound, leech, parrot, ram and sponge.

Yet we fail to celebrate the verbal skills of the nouns, though anyone familiar with Disney movies, from The Jungle Book to The Lion King, knows that various species of animals converse effortlessly.

Therefore, it is not unreasonable to assume birds or bugs spread news of Harambe’s death from Ohio to the gator community in Florida. And that members of the animal kingdom were as outraged as PETA, appreciating that Harambe was merely babysitting the three-year-old uninvited visitor in the primate’s home.

“Gorillas have shown that they can be protective of smaller living beings and react the same way any human would to a child in danger,” PETA proclaimed in a press release.

How can you blame animals that act like animals?

Some say eat or be eaten.

Some say live and let live.

But all are agreed, as they join the stampede,

You should never take more than you give.

In the Circle of Life,

It’s the wheel of fortune.

It’s the leap of faith.

It’s the band of hope.

Till we find our place,

On the path unwinding,

In the Circle, the Circle of Life.

When humans intrude, the path can unwind in unexpected directions. Consider my intervention in the circle of life.

It was the early ’90s, and my family – wife Linda, young daughters Jodie and Lacey, dog Jasper – were living in a house west of Toronto, near large swathes of woods and marsh off Lake Ontario.

It was not unusual to be visited by racoons, rabbits, foxes, skunks and other wildlife.

That spring, a young raccoon took up residence in our backyard. There was no sign of its parents or siblings, though the corpse of an adult raccoon was squashed on a nearby road.

Being animal lovers, we sought to care for the orphan. The kids named it Rocky, of course.

The first night, we made a bed of rags for it in a shed.

The next day, I was awaked to shouts of “it’s dead, it’s dead.”

Sure enough, after a night when temperatures dropped precipitously, the creature was frozen stiff.

I prepared a burial plot adjacent to the shed, the raccoon’s final resting place.

When the hole was deep enough, I lowered the remains. The first shovelful of dirt landed on the raccoon’s head.

It blinked.

Then shrugged.

Then rolled around.

“It’s alive, it’s alive,” I shouted.

Before the day was out, Rocky was taking sustenance, mainly milk, and had attached itself to Jasper, our young black standard poodle.

Every chance it got, Rocky latched on to Jasper, and climbed aboard for a doggieback ride.

Jasper, always a sweetheart, was most accommodating.

That night, Rocky bedded down in our basement, in blankets piled next to the furnace.

Dismissing the prospect of permanent adoption, I located a Raccoon Lady, who agreed to add Rocky to her brood.

Perhaps Jasper’s interaction with the raccoon prepared him for the three years we lived on the north shore of Lake Superior, among bears, wolves, foxes, moose, deer, porcupines, skunks, and flying squirrels.

He exhibited appropriate respect, though no fear, of creatures great and small.

When a large black bear prowled our deck one night, Jasper told it to get off our property. He barked a similar reprimand by treeing a smaller bear that trespassed in daylight.

These days, back in the ’burbs, Jasper’s successor, Brady, a white standard poodle, unquestionably the product of an abusive breeder, is afraid of everything, especially men, motorcycles, bicycles, scooters, and people with Eastern European accents.

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Red and Me: A baseball memoir

When my mother was dying last month, my sister Janice and I tripped into recollections of our father’s death twenty years earlier. Late at night, a little punchy, we retold the most memorable – and funny – episode from that time.

I was alone with my dad when he died in JFK hospital, near West Palm Beach. He’d had a stroke a couple of days before, and never regained consciousness.

Suddenly, he stopped breathing, his eyes popped open, and that was that. (I closed his eyes, as I’d seen done in movies.)

I phoned Jan at our parents’ house nearby, and gave her the news. “He looks different,” I warned her.

Soon enough, the family arrived at the hospital. Jan and my daughter Kate walked into the wrong room, where a Hispanic man was lying in bed.

When they caught up with me, Jan said: “You weren’t kidding. He does look different.”

A dozen or so years before my dad died, I read Russell Baker’s 1982 memoir of his childhood, titled Growing Up. It was rich with family history, and I realized I knew little about my parents’ lives before I was born.

My dad and I had one strong bond – baseball. So, I phoned him from my home in suburban Toronto and began a series of interviews focused on his baseball career.

His memories, the names and places, painted an enchanting picture of the Depression era sandlots of New York.

I wrote a 4,000-word story, which I called Red and Me, and gave it to him on his birthday.

After he died, at the age of 75, I found a copy in his house and extracted an excerpt to read at his funeral.

Here – on the day after his birthday and a few days before Father’s Day – is the full story:

My father was a left-handed shortstop. When I was a boy, and he was in his early thirties, I’d tag along to his softball league games on Sunday mornings.

Watching him field ground balls, seeing him go to his right, deep into the hole, I often feared his legs would tangle and he’d topple trying to pivot and throw. But he never did. He always made the play.

He was such an exceptional ballplayer that his left-handedness did not restrict him to first base or the outfield. Besides, he had experience.

When he was ten, at P.S. 106, in the Parkchester section of the Bronx, his English teacher, Mrs. Busch, coached the school’s baseball team.

In class, Mrs. Busch honored the rules of the New York City school system – forcing her left-handed students to write with their right hands.

But on the ballfield, at St. Raymond park, she championed the unconventional.

“Never mind that you’re left-handed,” she told the skinny, little red-haired boy. “You’re the best ballplayer in the school and you’re my shortstop.

It was 1929, the year of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, the stock market crash, the dawn of the Great Depression. But my father’s horizon extended only as far as Jerome Avenue and 161st Street, to Yankee Stadium, the House that Ruth Built and still inhabited.

When my father wasn’t playing ball he was watching the Yankees: Ruth, Gehrig, Dickey, the double-play combo of Leo “the Lip” Durocher and “Poosh ’Em Up Tony” Lazzeri.

For four bits, my father would scramble for a place in the centerfield bleachers. On summer weekdays, he would grab a free seat in the upper deck, with thousands of other kids, guests of the Yankees’ benevolent despot, Colonel Jacob Ruppert.

Every boy on every sandlot in New York City dreamed of playing on that holy turf in the West Bronx.

When Hy Becker graduated grammar school, after the eighth grade, Mrs. Busch wrote in his autograph book: My wish is to someday see you in a Yankee uniform.

“I really thought I’d be a big league ballplayer,” my dad told me many years later.

***

The photograph shows a knobby-kneed toddler in bloomers, holding a tiny baseball bat in a left-handed stance.

It was snapped in July 1948, at a bungalow colony in Rockland County, north of New York City.

On the back, in my mother’s script, it reads: Kenneth at 20 months.

I have no recollection of the time or place. But I know who positioned me in that left-handed batting pose.

I was born in the Bronx and lived my first five years there, on Walton Avenue, a dozen or so blocks from Yankee Stadium.

I retain only two images from that time: Playing catch with my mother on the sidewalk in front of our apartment building; my dad and I walking hand-in-hand along Jerome Avenue, toward Yankee Stadium, on a sunny Sunday morning.

We stop at Macombs Dam Park, across 161st Street from the stadium. We sit on a bleacher bench along the first-base line.

A game is in progress, between teams of black players. My dad points to right field. “Your dad used to pop them over that fence all the time.

“Son,” he adds, caressing the back of my neck, “most of the big league parks are set up for left-handed hitters.”

It is now afternoon and we are inside the stadium, between games of a doubleheader. We are standing at a field gate, just up the line from the Yankee dugout.

My father is talking with a player in a Yankee uniform. “Son, this is Eddie Lopat. We used to play ball together.”

But I’m not interested, tugging at his trousers.

“I don’t want to talk to him,” I cry. “I want to talk to Joe DiMaggio.”

***

My father was born in Brooklyn on June 12, 1919, the second son of Henry Becker, a first generation American of German-Jewish origin, and Bessie Becker (nee Agran), a Polish immigrant.

He was named Hyman and denied the option of a middle name. When he was four, his family moved to the Bronx, where he would live for nearly 30 years and always be known as Red.

In 1933, Red left P.S. 106 and enrolled at DeWitt Clinton High School. He chose the all-boys school because of the reputation of its baseball team.

Clinton would afford him citywide competition, some of the best school-league baseball in the country.

When my father entered high school, Hammerin’ Hank Greenberg was batting .300 in his rookie year with the Tigers; Frankie Frisch, the “Fordham Flash,” was the player-manager of the “Gas House Gang” St. Louis Cardinals; Gehrig was in his ninth full season with the Yanks.

All three would go on to the Hall of Fame. All three were products of the schoolyards and sandlots of New York City.

When the baseball season finally came around at Clinton, the school discontinued its sports programs. The Depression, it was reasoned, was no time for games.

My father would remain at Clinton, however. Some days he would forget his homework. Some days he would forget his civics book. He never forgot his baseball glove.

At lunchtime, he would meet his new friend, Joe Lobel, and they would toss a baseball. My father was teaching himself to pitch. Joe was his catcher.

Red was still short and skinny – he’d grow to no more than five-foot-seven – but he could throw a baseball with great velocity. And he had developed a snapping curveball.

He and Joe worked out together day after day, through the winter of 1933-34. In the spring, they played together in the school’s intramural league.

They became best friends. (Thirteen years later, Joe married Red’s kid sister, my Aunt Emma.)

On their intramural team was another southpaw, though he played mainly first base in those days.

Edmund Walter Lopatynski would change his name to Eddie Lopat and spend a dozen years in the Major Leagues, eight of them as a successful pitcher for Casey Stengel’s great Yankee teams of the late 1940s and early 1950s. He would win 21 games in 1951 and pitch in five World Series.

At family gatherings, going back as far as I can remember, my Uncle Joe would take me aside and confide: “Your dad was as good as Lopatynski and better than most of them other guys that made it.”

Red and Joe also played together on a sandlot team called the Mactes (pronounced Mack-tees). My father never knew where the name came from. He figured it was Indian.

They called their home The Valley, a dusty ballyard in the recesses of Crotona Park in the Bronx.

Their coach was a man named Pop Babbitt. He had watched the boys for several weekends and decided to take them on. He bought them uniforms and booked their games.

Pop Babbitt told the boys he was a representative of the hat-blockers union. My father later learned that kindly old Pop was a well-known racketeer.

The Mactes of the 1930s fielded a pretty good ballclub. Red was the ace pitcher, Joe the catcher, Meyer “Mike” Feig at first, David “Doodo” Rosenbaum at second, Jerry “Lover Boy” Zucker at short, Louis “Sleuch” Marino at third; an outfield of Irving “Sloppy” Levy, Harold “Bucky” Bachner and George “Flash” Sosa.

Every weekend, April through October, the Mactes and similarly organized teams travelled the parks and playgrounds of New York.

They came into neighborhoods and hustled ballgames. The players each would chip in a couple of bucks, whatever they could afford, in some cases a week’s salary, and bet on themselves.

Pop would cover bets from all comers. By game time, Pop would be holding a couple of hundred bucks, a lot of money in those days.

The action was particularly crisp at a rocky pit of a ballpark on Vyse Avenue in the Bronx. Tall apartment buildings surrounded the field.

Middle-aged men and women, mostly immigrants from Eastern Europe, sat and watched the games from rickety fire escapes. Boys in short pants pressed their faces against the chain-link fence. Girls in Sunday dresses perched on wooden benches.

A ballgame was an entertainment for the neighborhood and the neighborhood turned out.

The Mactes archrival was a team called the Beltonas, (pronounced Bell-toe-nas), another squad of Bronxites that sported the superior double-play combination in Harold Grossman at second and Milton “Mickey” Rutner at shortstop.

Grossman and Rutner also played for James Monroe High School, the Bronx alma mater of Hank Greenberg. Rutner’s exploits at Monroe earned him publicity and attracted big league scouts.

He went on to make a career of professional baseball, mainly in the minor leagues. His Major League career amounted to 12 games with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1947. His lifetime Major League batting average was .250.

I wonder if my father would have swapped his successful business career for 12 games with the A’s.

The Mactes also played against a team that wore the uniform of McElhenney’s Bar and Grill and had a star pitcher named Harry Feldman.

My father did not admire Feldman’s stuff. They had their share of duels and Red usually came out on top.

But old man McElhenney knew a guy, who knew a guy, who knew a scout for the Giants. Harry Feldman pitched for the Giants for six seasons, through the war years, appearing in 143 games.

I know my father would have gambled his future against a chance to pitch six seasons in the Polo Grounds. That’s what he was hoping for when he went to a tryout in 1941.

                                    ***

My father was born a Yankee fan. In his father’s house there was no choice. A stubborn and opinionated man, my grandfather would not condone the least act of rebellion.

A printer by trade, he survived the Depression without major discomfort. He fancied himself rather prosperous, taking the wheel of his sleek 1929 Chevrolet on weekends, cruising to ballparks to watch his son Red play.

Between games of a Sunday doubleheader, he’d take the family to the Hunts Point Dairy Restaurant on Southern Boulevard in the Bronx. After lunch he’d return Red to the ballpark for the second game.

My dad remembered when his father was young and vigorous. I remember my grandfather only as an invalid.

In 1941, my grandfather was injured in a subway crash and taken to a hospital where he was told he had cancer.

He left the hospital, abandoned his business and went home to die.

He took to his bed and stayed there for 27 years, smoking cigars and following the Yanks on radio and TV, until he died in 1968 at the age of 76.

My dad did rebel in 1939, becoming a Dodger fan. He liked the style of the team’s new player-manager, Leo Durocher, the same “Leo the Lip” who’d played shortstop for the Yankee teams of my father’s childhood.

The Dodgers were a scrappy bunch with colorful names – Goody Rosen, Cookie Lavagetto, a pitcher with an alien moniker, Van Lingle Mungo.

My grandfather, of course, mocked the Dodgers, Dem Bums.

In 1951, my father and I watched the deciding playoff game between the Dodgers and Giants, on the television in my grandfather’s apartment on Featherbed Lane in the Bronx.

When Bobby Thomson hit the home run to beat the Dodgers, my father’s face turned ashen. My grandfather laughed. “Don’t matter, the Yanks would beat either one of them.”

He was right, of course – the Yanks won the World Series over the Giants in six games. But that was the time I too became a Dodger fan.

My dad tried to stick with the Dodgers after they abandoned Brooklyn for Los Angeles. But, over the years, the players changed and the distance remained the same. He gravitated to the Mets. I became a Red Sox fan.

                                           ***

My father’s crack at the big leagues came in 1941. He was 22 and had played seven seasons for the Mactes.

He had graduated from Clinton and worked at various meaningless jobs. One was making milkshakes in a storefront stand on 34th Street in Manhattan, where he earned $8 a week and the owner taught him to cheat the customers by pretending to add ice cream – “just rap the side of the container with the empty scoop.”

He had developed an ulcer when he was 17 and it hemorrhaged two years later. It would leave him unfit for the army when the United States went to war, after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

That summer of ’41, Pop Babbitt called my father aside during a game in Crotona Park. It was a muggy city day and the crowd was sparse, a few kids sitting on the boulders that guarded The Valley.

“You’re never going to be noticed playing ball here,” Pop told my father. The old racketeer handed Red a clipping from the Daily News, announcing a mass tryout at the Polo Grounds.

“Why don’t you go down, Red,” Pop said. Red took the clipping, stuffed it in his pocket, and trotted to the pitcher’s mound.

When the day of the tryout came, he went to the Polo Grounds, joining hundreds of young men in mix-and-match uniforms and well-worn cleats, all hoping they’d somehow stand out.

Red was ushered into a group that surrounded Sam “Sambo” Leslie, a first baseman with John McGraw’s Giants and still a member of the organization.

Sambo, a Mississippian with the abhorrent nickname, passed around his big first-sacker’s mitt, letting the bush leaguers try on a big league glove. It would be the high point of the day for Red.

He thanked Sambo, found someone to throw with and went off on the sidelines to warm his arm.

Soon, the young men were arbitrarily divided into groups of 10 or 15 and assembled at the right field foul pole. Each group was directed to dash to the left field pole. When they arrived, most – Red included – were told go home.

“They never even saw me pitch,” he’d tell me, more than 40 years later. “I was fast, I felt sharp, and they never even saw me pitch.”

***

In 1951, my family moved from the Bronx to Bayside, Queens, to a new complex of two-storey apartments called Clearview Gardens.

The young families that settled in Clearview were refugees from the Bronx and Brooklyn, young breadwinners climbing the ladder in the post-war boom.

They gave their wives mink stoles and themselves new cars with automatic transmissions. They gave their sons new bats and balls and gloves, and safe places to play.

Our ballpark was a vacant lot behind the apartments. We played hardball until we broke Mrs. Kiff’s kitchen window too many times. Then we switched to stickball.

Every spring, we sawed off old broomsticks and spent our allowances on a fresh supply of pink rubber balls, Spaldeens.

Our field was laid out with the foul lines stretching to the fence of a children’s playground in left and to the end of Mrs. Zimmer’s kitchen window in right.

A ball hit off the apartment-house wall was a ground-rule double. Onto the roof was a triple, over it a home run.

We played stickball from the first warm day of spring until the first freezing day of winter, then switched to football, snow or shine.

A basketball hoop erected by our dads in a parking lot accommodated a third sport. A spotlight allowed night games.

There were also more organized sports, provided by Tony DePhillips, a part-time bullpen catcher for the Yankees who owned a sporting goods store in Bayside and ran the DAC. (DePhillips Athletic Club), our Little League.

***

My father left the Mactes and stopped playing baseball when he was 23, when he met my mother. (He said the timing was coincidental).

That year, 1942, he’d taken a job as an usher in a movie theatre, the Loews Fairmont in the Bronx, and couldn’t make the Mactes weekend games anyway.

The disappointment of the tryout at the Polo Grounds also dragged him down. But the lustre of those years never left my Uncle Joe, who never stopped telling tales of Red on the mound.

“Your dad was sneaky fast – ya know what I mean? – and he had a hook that was no nickel curve,” Joe told me in the early 1960s, when we were weekly golf partners – our families lived in neighboring towns on Long Island.

“There was this one game, in Crotona Park it was, and Red was as sharp as a tack. He was strikin’ ’em out like gang busters – I think he got ten of ‘em – and we only played seven innings in them days. I just sat back there and it was like playin’ catch – wherever I put the mitt, he hit it.”

We were sitting outside the clubhouse at Bethpage, waiting for our tee time. The sun was rising. I looked down the first fairway of the Black Course, sparkling with dew.

“That day he coulda beat the Yanks – and he was just a kid,” Uncle Joe said with a sigh. “Your dad woulda made it to the big league if anybody’d ever seen him.”

When my Uncle Joe died, my dad lost more than his brother-in-law and boyhood chum. He lost his catcher and biggest fan.

                                           ***

I began playing organized baseball the summer of 1954, when I was eight years old. The DAC league played its games at Sylvania Field, on the grounds of the Sylvania Electric Company plant in Bayside.

Our team, the Amana Freezers, was managed by my dad. He drilled us in fundamentals. Batters were pressed to make contact, to punch hits, not swing wildly from the heels.

“Get that bat off your shoulder,” was a recurring shout from my dad on the sidelines, generally followed by “a walk’s as good as a hit,” a cliché he truly believed.

He made us take one strike to test the opposing pitcher’s control. He encouraged us to bunt for hits and sacrifice when a sacrifice was called for: usually with a runner on first and none out, always with runners on first and second and none out. He loved the squeeze play.

Infielders were expected to get in front of the ball: “Take it off your chest, knock it down, then throw ’em out.”

Outfielders were taught to turn their backs on the ball, never backpedal. He showed us how to use our gloves to shield the sun. No one – not even a first baseman – was allowed to catch with one hand.

The catcher was expected to stay on his toes, the better to throw his body in front of errant pitches.

On me, the pitcher, the manager was roughest. Not mean. Not unreasonable. Simply most demanding.

He allowed me to throw a fastball and a changeup, pitches that were, in my case, generally indistinguishable. He did not allow me to throw a curve.

“You’re too young,” he’d say “you’ll hurt your arm.” He demanded control. “Throw strikes, throw strikes” would echo in my head through the years.

When I walked a batter, I could hear him sigh. The same when I struck out swinging at a bad pitch.

He wanted us to be a scrappy, hustling bunch. We won games on bunts that turned into four-base errors. We won games drawing walks with the bases loaded. We won games scooting home on passed balls and wild pitches.

He taught us the proper way to slide and we boasted the dirtiest uniforms in the league.

I won the league batting title with an average over .400. More than half my hits were bunts. My father was proud.

My pal Barry Ginsberg, my catcher, called me a “sissy bunter” and tried to swipe my trophy.

                                           ***

On a warm October afternoon in 1955, the Brooklyn Dodgers won their first World Series. The final innings of the game were broadcast over the public address system in my school, P.S. 184, into my fourth-grade classroom.

After school, I ran to Oggie’s Delicatessen, where I had arranged to meet Barry, win or lose. Barry was from Brooklyn and as dedicated a Dodger fan as I was.

He was already there and we shouted and jumped up and down. He had seen the last inning of the game on TV and told me how Podres had jumped into Campanella’s arms. We imitated the embrace.

We bought two knishes, smothered with mustard, two huge dill pickles and a giant bag of Wise potato chips. We walked along Utopia Parkway, across the bridge over the Cross Island Parkway, and camped on a hill overlooking Little Bay. We sat there until dark, talked about the Dodgers and laughed at their victims, the Yankees.

When I got home, the celebration started all over again, this time with my dad.

Barry and I maintained our friendship for several years, though I’d stopped playing DAC ball and spent my summers as a counselor at a camp in the Catskills, where I discovered smoking cigarettes, drinking beer and the pleasures of going into the bushes after dark with Jeannie Railser.

In 1960, my family moved to Plainview, Long Island, where I finished my baseball career.

My sophomore year at Plainview High I played third base respectably and had an average year with the bat. I was on the junior varsity and figured I’d move up to the varsity my junior year.

It didn’t happen. I was the last player cut at spring tryouts and bounced back to the JV. After three games, I quit and joined the golf team.

My dad was disappointed, yet he seemed to know my interest in baseball had waned, that I’d peaked too soon – sometime between the ages of eight and ten.

                                           ***

My dad played softball well into his fifties. I first saw him play shortstop left-handed in a league in Queens.

In the early 1960s, when I was home from college, we went out on the front lawn of the house in Plainview to have a catch.

“You think you can still pitch?” he teased.

He crouched down, gave a target, and I tried to muster a hard fastball. It smacked his glove and broke his thumb. It never healed properly.

                                           ***

I met Eddie Lopat at Fenway Park in Boston in 1978, when he was scouting for the Montreal Expos and I was covering baseball for a Toronto newspaper.

I didn’t tell him how I’d snubbed him as a small child, how I cried for Joe DiMaggio at Yankee Stadium.

“You know my father,” I told Lopat, “you played together at Clinton – Hy Becker.”

“Never heard of him,” Lopat said. I found the remark hurtful and didn’t say another word to him.

When I told my dad, he said, “No one ever heard of Hy Becker. You should have said Red Becker.”

He never understood why I gave up the baseball beat after only one season.

***

In 1982, I played one game at first base for my newspaper’s softball team. I got two hits, a double and a homer.

A hard throw from the shortstop broke my thumb. It never healed properly.

***

I last saw my father in his casket. I tucked a baseball beside his left hand and closed the lid.

index

Sex and suicide at the Star

The Toronto Star’s view from within the bubble of its self-importance seems to be the only explanation for revealing details of its reporter’s suicide – against her wishes – and the newsroom sex triangle that preceded her death.

The chore fell to public editor Kathy English, who is often more apologist than critic of Canada’s largest-circulation newspaper.

English’s 1,300-word piece was headlined: When a private tragedy becomes a public spectacle.

But it was hardly big news, a “public spectacle,” outside Starland before English’s column went online late Tuesday.

The National Post followed with a long story, mainly parroting the key information English disclosed.

And the Post reprinted a statement from the union representing Star newsroom staff, calling for an independent investigation of the affair.

The union noted “a significant amount of unconfirmed speculation is swirling about.” The statement did not mention that reporter Raveena Aulakh killed herself, or that two high-ranking Star editors were playing musical beds.

That whole sordid mess was left to English.

The public editor wrote:

“By all reports of those closest to her, the last thing this award-winning global environment reporter wanted was to be the focus of this story about her suicide and its aftermath. She left explicit instructions that this very thing should not happen. (“Please don’t talk about me. Please don’t let anyone write about me,” she wrote.) …

“Her family also made clear those explicit wishes and the Star had tried to respect that.

“I know for certain that I am letting Raveena Aulakh down in writing this story in my role as public editor tasked with reporting to our readers about her death in light of this now public call for an independent investigation. I can say that because several years ago, she sent me a note about my role at the Star, telling me, ‘You have never let a Star reporter become a public spectacle and that comes from owning up to mistakes quickly and honestly before it spirals out of control.’

“This tragedy should not be a public spectacle and I wish it had not come to this. Certainly, serious mistakes of a personal nature have been made, and relatively quick and serious action taken by the Star as a result. But, sadly, too much here has spiraled out of control and in making this reporter’s death ‘news’ in the interests of the ‘transparency’ today’s journalism seems to always demand we are all doing exactly what Raveena, 42, implored against.”

Today’s journalism also demanded English wash the Star’s filthy laundry in public, name names:

“Raveena and Jon Filson, the senior manager, who had led the Star’s tablet project in the past year, had been involved in a relationship for some time that had ended recently. “Further, the clearly heartbroken reporter made allegations in those emails (sent to colleagues) about an improper relationship between Filson and his boss, managing editor Jane Davenport.”

Filson was apparently canned and Davenport booted out of the newsroom, to an unspecified corporate position.

Most news organizations are squeamish about reporting suicides. Of course, if it’s Hitler, or Hemingway or Robin Williams, it’s news.

But this young woman, who was unknown to most of us on Monday, deserved a private, dignified death.

Instead, the Star has unwrapped enough salacious material to unleash the jackals.

(My wife told me “it’s all over talk radio.”)

Adding insult to tragedy, the Star’s star columnist, Rosie DiManno, indulged in a Twitter brawl with a rival at the Toronto Sun, Joe Warmington, who employed the hashtag ripraveena to call for an investigation of Aulakh’s death.

DiManno: How low will you go? Was a time you were a decent person and ok reporter. You’re neither anymore. Just a sleazeball.

Warmington: Not near as low as you have already gone

DiManno: A disgrace to yourself, your paper, your profession. You write endlessly about “scum.” Take a look in the mirror.

Warmington: I think you are talking about yourself #ripraveena. Do you even care about her?

DiManno: How fucking dare you? Come here and say that. I’ll rip your fucking throat out.

This is also a slice of today’s journalism.

paul_godfrey-cp

The Sultan of Smarm

In the past few years, there have been two major newspaper profiles of Paul Godfrey, the bush-league politician turned multimillionaire media honcho and my onetime boss.

Both stories – in the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail – had essentially the same lead, quoting Godfrey’s mother, Bess, as telling him it’s better to be lucky than smart.

Her son, now 77, appears to have overdosed on Lucky Charms.

How else do you explain Godfrey becoming publisher of the Toronto Sun without knowing a damn thing about journalism; CEO of the Toronto Blue Jays without any experience running a sports franchise, and top dog at Canada’s largest newspaper chain – and still not knowing a damn thing about journalism.

Chalk it up to chutzpah. No one not named Trump has more.

Recently, the Postmedia president and former alderman from the wilds of North York went hat in hand to Parliament Hill to ask the federal government to enrich his business.

“Advertise in our newspapers and on our websites,” he pleaded with members of a House of Commons committee last month. “We’re asking the government to be an ally, not for a bailout of the Canadian newspaper industry.”

Liberal MP Adam Vaughan pushed back, saying “there have been no fiercer critics of subsidies to the media than the Toronto Sun and the National Post,” two of Postmedia’s principal papers. “How do you square your editorial position with your corporate position?”

The long-time influential Tory insider said something about columnists having free rein, apparently not understanding writers do not establish a newspaper chain’s editorial/political viewpoint, which in Postmedia’s case is decidedly conservative.

Godfrey, undeterred pressed on … and on … and on.

It was positively Trumpian.

Postmedia owns nearly 200 newspapers in Canada, constantly folding, spindling and mutilating its properties as it chews up competition and spits out journalists.

At the same time, Godfrey, who reportedly cashed a $28 million bonanza from a newspaper deal in the late ’90s, pocketed a meagre $2 million or so in salary and bonuses last year.

Told that Postmedia could have hired – or not fired – 15 reporters with his bonus, he fired back: “Guess what? Jose Bautista’s pay could’ve probably paid a lot of people … too.”

That’s Bess Godfrey’s boy – Paulie Bats, the Sultan of Smarm.

And while Cooperstown is not calling, Godfrey is already enshrined in one hall of fame.

Last fall, he was inducted into the Canadian News Hall of Fame – which puts the emphasis on fame.

“I was quite surprised when told I was going to be inducted,” Godfrey said. “I’m not a journalist, I don’t pretend to be a journalist.”

Whether a rare attempt at understatement or a poke at those who link the words news and journalism, he should not have been surprised.

The hall, run by the Toronto Press Club – a place that hasn’t poured a beer for a working journalist since the ’70s – honors mainly media celebrities and fat cats, not the country’s finest reporters and editors.

My introduction to Godfrey came in September 1984, shortly after he became publisher of the Sun.

I was Toronto bureau chief for United Press Canada, which had come under the thumb of the Sun when the tabloid bought control of the wire service.

That September, a bomb went off in the main railway station in Montreal. People were injured, maybe dead.

Our three reporters in Montreal went to Central Station.

At UPC’s Toronto headquarters, we worked the phones, calling police, the station, hospitals, the railroads. I cranked out leads as more information came in.

In the middle of all this, I got a call from Godfrey.

“ How we doing on the Montreal story?”

I knew who he was, that he was technically my boss, and that he had admitted when he became publisher that he knew nothing about running a newspaper and less about journalism.

“Good,” I said.

“Do we have people there?” he asked.

“Of course we have people at the scene,” I said. “Our whole Montreal bureau is there.”

“Is there anything we can do to help?” he said.

“Like what?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “Just thought I’d ask. We’re here to help you, you know.”

You could help by not by wasting my time, I didn’t say.

Or how about fetching coffee for the troops, I didn’t say.

(The pipe bomb, planted in a locker, killed three people and injured more than 40. The bomber was an American Second World War vet and serial mental patient, who thought he was Jesus and was protesting Pope John Paul’s visit to Canada the following week.)

My final encounter with Godfrey was in his first year or so as president of the Blue Jays.

It was the early 2000s, and I was producing weekend news at CBC Newsworld, occasionally venturing out as a TV reporter when a quirky story idea hit me.

This time, I was struck by the ballclub’s latest ad campaign, which featured Godfrey, the old pol, as its star.

So, I went to the ballpark to talk to Godfrey, and interview fans about the team’s latest acquisition.

What position does Paul Godfrey play? I asked.

“Shortstop?” one fan responded.

“Left field?” said another.

“Who?” said a third.