Post breaks down ceremonial first pitches

worst first pitches

It’s the sort of feature that tends to leave journalism purists with their knickers in a knot, but kudos to the Washington Post for their examination of ceremonial first pitches and subsequent declaration that rapper 50 Cent’s recent effort was likely the “worst ever.”

The methodology was less than scientific, according to the publication: “We watched a whole bunch of YouTube pitch videos and plotted them, to the best of our ability, across a strike zone diagram, using the tried-and-true “eyeballin’ it” method.”

As the above graphic shows (click to embiggen), the Post categorized first pitches by government officials, athletes, celebrities and the fictional/extinct. That last group included Santa Claus, Cookie Monster and the ever-lovable T-Rex (the Cretaceous Period carnivorous dinosaur, not the ‘70s glam rock band).

50 Cent’s effort at a recent Mets-Pirates game was at least 12 feet off the plate. His form indicated it would be best if he didn’t quit his day job.

What’s more disquieting about the graphic is some of the individuals Major League baseball teams allow to throw out ceremonial first pitches.

Presidents, Supreme Court Justices and former athletes are understandable; pop culture figures that are famous for being famous, not so much.

50 Cent, whether or not you care for his music (or other endeavors), can at least be said to have actually accomplished something.

(Top: Chart compiled by the Washington Post showing ceremonial first pitch results by politicians, athletes, celebrities and fictional/extinct figures.)

Haw’s Shop: The seven-hour buzz saw

haw's shop battlefield

For all the notoriety of Shiloh, Antietam and Gettysburg, the American Civil War featured hundreds of smaller battles and skirmishes, many all but unknown except to students of the 1861-65 conflict. One such clash was the battle of Haw’s Shop, which took place in Hanover County, Va., 150 years ago today.

It marked the first action for the 4th, 5th and 6th South Carolina Cavalry regiments, which made up Butler’s Brigade, part of Hampton’s Division of the Cavalry Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia.

The battle is important because it marked an increased emphasis in a new style of cavalry tactics in which troopers would often use their horses to speed to the scene of battle, then dismount and fight from improvised fortifications, much like infantry.

Not coincidently, Haw’s Shop also marked the changing of the guard for the Army of Northern Virginia’s Cavalry Corps as Maj. Gen. Wade Hampton unofficially began his eventual succession of J.E.B. Stuart, killed earlier in the month at the Battle of Yellow Tavern.

The 4th South Carolina had only reached Virginia a few days earlier after spending the previous 2-1/2 years defending the South Carolina coast, as had the 5th and 6th South Carolina.

Just four days after finally arriving in Richmond after a six-week trek north, the 4th and 5th South Carolina, along with the 20th Georgia Cavalry Battalion and the regiments that made up Brig. Gen. William C. Wickham’s Virginia Brigade were dispatched to track the movement of Grant’s army and to counter Union cavalry commanded by Philip Sheridan.

Robert E Lee and Ulysses S. Grant, the opposing military leaders, were trying to discern each other’s intentions. Both sides relied on their cavalry to try to establish contact with enemy.

Lee, fearful that Grant might get around him and break through to Richmond, sent Hampton on a mission to locate the Union force. Grant, seeking a way to get around Lee’s army and into the Confederate capital, turned to Sheridan in a bid to determine Lee’s plans.

The two cavalry forces met on the morning of May 28, 1864, near Haw’s Shop, named for a large blacksmith shop owned by local resident John Haw.

The action began about a mile west of Haw’s Shop, near Enon Methodist Church, which still stands today. After a series of charges and countercharges by opposing cavalry forces, the conflict turned into a dismounted battle, with Union troopers from Brig. Gen. David McMurtie Gregg’s 2nd Cavalry Division battling Hampton’s forces in the woods near Enon Church.

Gregg would later write, “In the shortest possible time both of my brigades were hotly engaged. Every available man was put into the fight, which had lasted some hours. Neither party would yield an inch.” Hampton formed a defensive line with Brig. Gen. Thomas L. Rosser’s troops on the left, Wickham’s men in the center and Butler’s South Carolinians on the right.

Continue reading

Italian cataclysm forged on Pact of Steel

pact of steel photo

The three main Axis powers of World War II made for an improbable combination. Imperial Japan seemed an unlikely partner for Nazi Germany, considering the latter’s focus on racial purity and the “master race.”

Both nations, however, were militaristic and bent on expansion, and both were at opposite ends from a common foe – the Soviet Union – so there was much in the union that made sense.

Germany’s alliance with Italy, however, was much less logical, at least from the Italian point of view.

Outside of being led by a pair of dictators who embraced fascism, there was actually a great deal of difference between Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany when the Pact of Steel uniting the two countries was signed 75 years ago this month.

The two nations had fought on different sides in World War I, with Italy being a member of the victorious allies that laid down what Germans saw as the draconian terms of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. And while Germany lost the First World War, it acquitted itself well while Italy’s performance was seen by many as less than spectacular.

Despite having invaded and captured Abyssinia (today’s Ethiopia) in the mid-1930s, assisted Franco in the Spanish Civil War and taken over Albania in 1939, Mussolini knew his country suffered from a number of military shortcomings.

It had relatively few tanks and those it did have were of poor quality; its artillery was of World War I variety; and the nation’s primary fighter was a biplane that was obsolete compared to monoplanes used by the other major countries. Also, while the Italian navy did have several modern battleships, it had no aircraft carriers.

Italy recognized its military inadequacies. Under terms of the Pact of Steel it was stipulated that neither country was to make war without the other earlier than 1943.

But recognizing his military was ill-prepared Mussolini declined to get involved when Germany invaded Poland in September 1939.

Italy finally joined the conflict on June 10, 1940, mostly because Mussolini, having seen the lightning speed with which Germany was dispatching its European foes, was afraid he’d get none of the spoils.

On June 17, 1940, the day France sought surrender terms from Germany, Mussolini ordered an Italian invasion of southern France.

Continue reading

Lone survivor of WWII ship disaster dies


In late 1941, the Jewish immigrant ship Struma, overcrowded, 75 years old and fitted with an unreliable second-hand diesel engine, was jammed with 770 refugees, bound for Palestine from Axis-allied Romania.

The vessel’s engine failed several times before it arrived in Istanbul in mid-December 1941 and she had to be towed by tug into the neutral port.

Turkish officials ordered all 769 passengers to remain aboard and ultimately refused them transit. In late February 1942 the boat was towed into the Black Sea and set adrift.

Within hours Soviet submarine Shch-213, prowling the waters for German and Italian ships, torpedoed the Struma, killing all but one of the 780 refugees and crew onboard.

The lone survivor was 19-year-old David Stoliar, who was plucked from the icy water by a Turkish fishing boat.

Stoliar, who died this month at the age of 91, eventually was able to make his way was first to Lebanon than to Palestine with the help of Istanbul’s Jewish community.

The following year he enlisted in the British Army and saw action in North Africa. Upon his release from the British Army, he returned to Israel and joined the Israel Defense Forces. In the 1948 War of Independence he fought as a machine gunner, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

Stoliar had more than one lucky break in his life.

Continue reading

Beauty, questions abound in view of Neptune

photo of neptune

A huge previously unknown hexagonal wind pattern may exist at the south pole of the planet Neptune, Slate astronomy reporter writer Phil Plait posits in an article completed with stunning photography.

Plait noticed the fascinating pattern while studying images composed from photos taken by the Voyager 2 spacecraft a quarter century ago and later tweaked by amateur astronomer Rolf Wahl Olsen. (Click above image to see a glimpse of the stunning beauty of our solar system.)

Neptune, which is 2.7 billion miles from Earth, is little known relatively speaking, and there have been many things scientists have gleaned from Voyager’s pass-by en route to its destination with interstellar space.

However, one thing that not yet recognized was the possibility of a large hexagonal wind pattern, much like the one that blows around the north pole of the planet Saturn, according to Plait.

The Slate writer has contacted an astronomer whose specialty is the outer planets of our solar system about the pattern shown in the image. She, in turn, contacted other astronomers. All expressed excitement, but also prudence, cautioning that it’s easy to be fooled when looking at images of distant celestial bodies.

One thing for certain is that the hexagonal wind patterns do exist on Saturn.

Continue reading

The science behind new superheavy element

periodic-table_element 117

There are many skills which I willingly admit are beyond my grasp: Hitting a Major League curveball; reading a Papal bull in original Latin; and being able to sculpt human forms from marble are among talents I don’t see myself picking up anytime soon.

Another aptitude which I find myself decidedly deficient is the comprehension of physics inherent in the upper end of periodic table of elements.

Consider the following:

“(It) was recently announced that physicists have created one of the heaviest elements yet, an atom with 117 protons in its nucleus,” according to Scientific American. “This jumbo-sized atom sits on the outer reaches of the periodic table where bloated nuclei tend to become less and less stable. Element 117’s existence gives scientists hope, however, that they are getting closer to discovering a rumored ‘island of stability’ where nuclei with so-called magic numbers of protons and neutrons become long-lived.”

That’s the sort of egghead knowledge that you don’t pick up in Chemistry 101 (especially if you were noted for not paying attention).

Typically, elements heavier than uranium are not usually found in nature but can be produced in laboratories.

This effort comes with a caveat, however.

“The larger an atomic nucleus gets, the more its protons repel one another with their positive charges, making it, in general, less stable, or more radioactive,” the publication reported. “Element 117, for example, has a half-life of about 50 thousandths of a second, meaning that within that time about half of it will decay into a lighter element.”

At present, element 117 has the placeholder name of ununseptium, which will be used until it is formally accepted and added to the periodic table by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry.

The creation of element 117 was no trifling matter as researchers smashed calcium nuclei (with 20 protons apiece) into a target of berkelium (97 protons per atom).

The experiment was exceedingly difficult because berkelium is difficult to obtain.

Continue reading

What we learn from a pitchfork-toting robber

waffle house

It’s just a six-paragraph wire service story, but the article detailing a Georgia man’s efforts at robbing a Waffle House with a pitchfork is chock full o’ life’s rich tapestry.

A warrant has been issued for Jeffrey Wooten after he allegedly robbed a Waffle House in Norcross, Ga., by using a pitchfork to herd employees and customers into the back room, according to a UPI story.

However, things didn’t go as planned for the 50-year old, who may want to rethink his life choices.

“When he realized he couldn’t get the cash register open, he took the whole cash register and exited the store with his pitchfork,” Norcross Police Chief Warren Summers said.

Wooten, wearing coveralls and a ski mask, dropped the implement while leaving the Atlanta-area Waffle House.

A pair of restaurant employees took off after Wooten, with one grabbing the pitchfork and wielding it with great effectiveness, giving Wooten something more to remember of his visit.

Wooten’s vehicle also suffered injuries, as the pitchfork was employed to smash out the back window of his pickup.

In the end, it’s safe to say Wooten came out on the short end of the deal, considering the cost of replacing the back window on a truck and how much money is in the till of a typical Waffle House. Oh, and the fact that he’s looking at some serious time in the hoosegow for armed robbery.

“Once he didn’t have a pitchfork, he wasn’t as brazen. I know that,” Summers said.

Blast from the past has repercussions to present

La Provence

Ship disasters inevitably garner great attention, but not all disasters are created equal, it would seem.

Ask most Americans which peacetime shipwreck claimed the most lives, for example, and a significant number will assert the loss of the RMS Titanic in 1912. However, that catastrophe, which took 1,517 souls, doesn’t even make the top five.

Atop the list is the Doña Paz, a Philippine passenger ferry which collided with an oil tanker in December 1987 in the Tablas Strait. The resulting fire and sinking claimed nearly 4,400 individuals, nearly three times the loss of the fabled Titanic.

Likewise, ask a group of Americans to name the greatest wartime ship disaster and many will likely venture the RMS Lusitania, the British ship torpedoed by a German U-boat in the Irish Sea in 1915, taking 1,198 civilians and crew with it.

The Lusitania is among the best-known wartime ship disasters, but it’s not even close to being the worst in terms of fatalities.

In World War II alone, there were 15 separate sinkings which took the lives of 3,000 or more individuals, including the German transport vessel Wilhelm Gustloff, sunk by a Soviet submarine in 1945 with an estimated 9,400 deaths.

The Lusitania doesn’t even take top honors for World War I. There were three ships sunk in 1916 alone that resulted in more lives lost than the Lusitania: The SS Principe Umberto, a steamship sunk by an Austro-Hungarian submarine (1,926 deaths); the French troop transport SS Gallia, sunk by a German U-boat (1,338 deaths); and the British battle cruiser HMS Queen Mary, which exploded and sank during the 1916 Battle of Jutland (1,245 lives).

But as this year marks the 100thanniversary of the beginning of Great War, over the next four years it’s likely the Lusitania will garner the lion’s share of attention. That’s unfortunate because hundreds of ships were lost during the conflict, and each sinking created a ripple effect which touched thousands, if not tens of thousands of lives.

That’s not to say those who went down on the Lusitania don’t deserve to be recognized. The sinking served a propaganda coup for Allied forces working to convince the American public to side with their cause. But there were many other craft lost during the war that also deserve to be remembered.

One such vessel is SS La Provence, a former French ocean liner that had been converted to an auxiliary cruiser and was used to transport troops.

Continue reading