Recalling a Canadian writer’s memory of distressed Wales


If one travels for any length of time, one is bound to experience an unhappy adventure or two. What turns a miserable traveling experience into one that can be looked back on with, if not fondness, than at least a smile is the ability to take something away from the experience, be it a lesson, a memory or the ability to count one’s blessings.

George Woodcock (1912-1995) was a noted Canadian writer of political biography and history, an anarchist thinker and a literary critic. He also published several volumes of travel writing. As such, he experienced his share of “bad trips.” Among those that stood out was one he took in the early 1930s, during the Great Depression, while in his early 20s.

Woodcock was born in Canada but grew up in England. While he would later move back to Canada after World War II, he had an aunt who lived in the Glamorgan region in South Wales, which gave him the chance for free holidays. Apparently, he got what he paid for:

One day, when I was visiting her, I decided to take a bus and visit the Rhondda area, the heart of the South Wales mining district. Rhondda has a special place in the thoughts of those with Welsh connections, for one of the finest of all Welsh songs – stunning when the daios from the valley sing it at a rugby match – is called ‘Cwm Rhondda’  the hill of Rhondda. There are actually two valleys – Rhondda Mawr, Great Rhondda, or the main valley, and Rhondda Fach, the lesser valley of little Rhondda that branches off from it. I intended to go up Rhondda Mawr, cross over the intervening hills, and come down in Rhondda Fach, which I would descend and then make my way back to Bridgend, where I was staying.

It was the worst of times in Rhondda, though it probably looked just a little better than the best of times, since most of the mines were not working, and the smoke that would normally have given a dark, satanic aspect to the landscape was less evident that in more prosperous days. Still, it was dismal enough: a long ribbon of a main road with no real gap in the houses, so that it seemed like a single serpentine town, thickening out at each village centre like knots on a string. The houses were mostly built of gray stone long turned black from soot. In the middle distance reared up the gaunt towers and immense wheels of the pitheads and the truncated pyramids of the slag heaps. There were a few sickly trees among the houses, but the hills on each side were bare and greenish brown; spring had hardly begun.

It had the feeling of occupied territory. Many of the shops had gone out of business, the mines had slowed down years ago, and the General Strike of 1926 – disastrous for the workers – had delivered the coup de grace to the local economy. The people were shabby and resentful. Groups of ragged men squatted on their haunches, as miners do, and played pitch-and-toss with buttons; they had no halfpennies to venture. A man came strolling down the street, dejectedly whistling ‘The Red Flag’ in slow time as if it were a dirge.

Later, after being caught on the hills in a drenching downpour, Woodcock soddenly came across a slag heap where approximately 50 men and women were industriously picking over the ground.

I caught up with a man walking along the overgrown road from the mine into the village, whose damp slate roofs I could see glistening about half a mile away. He was pushing a rusty old bicycle that had no saddle and no tires, but it served to transport the dirty gunnysack he had tied onto the handle bars. He had been picking coat from the lagheap. ‘No bigger nor walnuts, man,’ he explained. The big coal had been taken years ago, so long ago it was since work had been seen in the village. I asked him how long he had been unemployed. ‘Ach y fi, man, it’s nine years I’ve been wasting and wasted.’ Yet he was friendly, perhaps because I looked such a wretched object that he saw me as an equal in misery.

(Top: View of Rhondda Valley today.)

Baseball says thanks as Vin Scully prepares to sign off


As Los Angeles Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully winds down the last few days of his 67-year career, there are so many things to contemplate about his amazing stretch behind the microphone.

First, many people don’t even live 67 years; few work that long; and it’s safe to say almost no one else has worked for the same employer for that length of time.

Consider that Scully, now 88-years old, began his career in the spring of 1950, when the Dodgers were still playing in Brooklyn, a locale they departed nearly 60 years ago for the West Coast.

As Jayson Stark writes for ESPN, when Scully first began calling Dodgers games, Connie Mack, a man born while Abraham Lincoln was president, was still managing in the major leagues.

I first began listening to Scully in the mid-1970s, when living in Southern California. In the late 1970s, when my family moved to Northern California, I would sometimes catch Scully on far-flung stations, given that listening to baseball, any baseball, was preferable to homework.

(For many years, I thought his name was “Vince Cully,” likely because I’d never heard the name “Vin,” and because “Vin Scully rolled so smoothly off the tongue that I couldn’t discern where the break came. Also, I wasn’t a particularly astute youngster.)

The velvet harmony of Scully’s delivery and his penchant for stories laden with equal parts baseball knowledge, history and humor and left me more than willing to put up with the fact that he worked for the much-reviled Dodgers.

Even when I was 14 or 15 years old, more than 35 years ago, I was staggered by the fact that Scully had begun his career with the Brooklyn Dodgers, the same club highlighted in Roger Kahn’s 1972 book The Boys of Summer, featuring the likes of Jackie Robinson, Gil Hodges, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese,  Don Newcombe, Johnny Podres, etc.

By the time I started listening to Scully on the radio, the Dodgers had been gone from Brooklyn for not even 20 years, but to a 15-year old, the Brooklyn Dodgers were ancient history, not much different from the exploits of Babe Ruth, Lefty Grove or Ty Cobb.

As Stark’s article points out, Scully’s career was expansive, and because he was around so long it encompassed much of baseball’s ancient history, at least tangentially.

Stark includes a comment from Stan Kasten, president and CEO of the Dodgers, who in his current role has spent a considerable time talking baseball with Scully.

“ … we talk about a lot of things,” Kasten explained. “And at one point it comes to where he hates the way major leaguers do rundowns. They all stink at it. … The best way to do a rundown is the full arm fake. The full arm fake stops runners dead in their tracks, and you gently walk over and tag them. That’s the way to do it, you know? And so Vin and I had this thing. Vin said whenever there’s a rundown now he thinks about me, (and) whenever I see a rundown I think about him. And I was discussing this with Vin one day, and I said, ‘This is the right way to do rundowns, and the way I know that is because I read it in stuff that Branch Rickey wrote 70 years ago.’ And Vin says to me, ‘You’re right. That’s right. That’s exactly what Branch and I used to discuss.’ “

Kasten goes on to relate that Branch Rickey, who served as president and general manager of the Dodgers in the 1940s, broke into the major leagues in 1905.

“(So) Vin Scully has talked baseball with people who have played the game from [1905] through yesterday, OK?,” Kasten states. “Who on earth can make that claim? No one. One person. Vin Scully.”

Noted sportscaster Bob Costas added, “Six degrees of Kevin Bacon? It’s probably two, and no more than three, degrees of Vin Scully – to connect you in some way to everything in baseball history. Everything.

“He had to have known somebody … who knew Cy Young. He had to have known somebody who probably met Ty Cobb. Ty Cobb lived until 1961,” Costas added. “If he didn’t know Walter Johnson, he sure as hell talked to somebody who batted against Walter Johnson. … So there is no significant baseball personage that Vin Scully either didn’t know or potentially knew someone who knew them.”

Through it all, Scully has remained a class act. As players, coaches, managers and any number of others have made their way to his press box this season to say goodbye, he’s remained the same humble individual that he was when he broke in in April 1950, when major league baseball consisted of 16 teams and none farther west than St. Louis.

One story relates how a 90-year-old man wanted to meet Scully. Scully, as always, made time not just to meet the man, but chat with him for 10 minutes. The following day, Dennis Gilbert, current White Sox special assistant and a longtime friend of Scully’s heard from the gentleman’s son, “saying how his father says his life is now complete. It was one of the greatest moments of his life to meet Vin. And I called Vin to tell him. … Vin said, ‘Thank ME? I want to thank HIM because of what a great experience it was for me just to meet the gentleman.’”

For me, it’s been a great experience to have been able to listen to Scully over the years when opportunity allowed. There won’t be another like him, but the Dodgers – and baseball – have been fortunate to have had him for so long.

(Top: Vin Scully nearly 60 years ago in the broadcasting booth, back when the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn.)

Microaggressions: If you don’t confess, you’re guilty


The more one reads stories about political correctness run amok on college campuses, the more one begins to see parallels with the old Soviet Union.

A recent story in the New York Times profiled campus efforts to, among other things, stamp out “microaggressions.”

Among tips offered by Sheree Marlowe, the new chief diversity officer at Clark University in Massachusetts, is a prohibition on the term “you guys,” as it could be interpreted as leaving out women.

This, the Times reported, was an epiphany for Clark student Noelia Martinez, a Massachusetts resident who was born in Puerto Rico to Dominican parents.

Martinez “realized that she, too, was guilty of microaggressions, because she frequently uses the phrase ‘you guys,’ she said. ‘This helped me see that I’m a microaggressor, too.’”

How much further down the rabbit hole do we have to go before we end up at something akin to the Moscow Show Trials of the mid- to late-1930s, when senior Soviet officials publicly confessed to acts they had never committed, with the full understanding that they would be executed.

“I end as a traitor to my party, a traitor who must be shot,” former Soviet official Sergei Mrachkovsky confessed on Aug. 22, 1936, admitting that he played a role in the assassination of prominent Bolshevik Sergey Kirov in 1934 and had “organized a number of terrorist groups who made preparations to assassinate Comrades Stalin” and others.

In reality, it’s almost a certainty that Stalin himself ordered Kirov’s execution, and that the subsequent show trials and purges enabled Stalin to eliminate nearly the entire old Bolshevik guard, completing his consolidation of power.

Mrachkovsky and the hundreds of others who publicly confessed to all manner of crimes against the state had, in reality, done nothing of the sort. They were bullied into confessing, realizing they had no other choice.

While we’re still a long way from what ultimately took place in the Soviet Union, we seem all too happy to lurch along the path of philosophical myopia that shackles intellectual freedom.

The opening paragraph of the Times story begins with the following exchange between Marlowe and an unnamed freshman during a presentation at Clark:

“‘When I, as a white female,’ the freshman asks, ‘listen to music that uses the N word, and I’m in the car, or, especially when I’m with all white friends, is it O.K. to sing along?’

“The answer, from Sheree Marlowe … is an unequivocal ‘no.’”

This seems … odd. No question, the “N word” has a convoluted and troubling history. It’s a repellent word and one that normally shouldn’t be uttered at all except for academic or literary reasons.

But if it’s in a popular song, are all whites supposed to skip the word if they sing along? Who’s to say that they should even be allowed to listen to a song containing the word? Wouldn’t that be considered a “microaggression” to some?

If that seems like a reach, consider that diversity awareness is big business, and it’s growing. About 75 chief diversity officers have been hired by colleges and universities in the past 18 months, according to the Times.

Unfortunately, these are often individuals who would appear to have a vested interest in fostering a culture of victimization, in order to create job security. The more “microaggressions” that can be detailed, the more need for chief diversity officers, and bigger budgets.

Diversity has become a plum fiefdom that no one dares call out for fear of being labeled intolerant.

In reality, most college students, at least until recently, were able to negotiate relatively easily the differences that sometimes occur when happening upon individuals different from themselves. They didn’t need “safety spaces” or to be cautioned about “trigger warnings.”

Open bigotry was identified for what it was, while simply misunderstandings were usually hashed out through conversation or observation. It wasn’t perfect, and, yes, there were always a handful of jackasses around who hadn’t been reared properly.

But to hear diversity officers talk today, though, campuses are rife not only with rampant subtle cultural insensitivity, but overt racism.

There are no honest mistakes, of course, and all misdeeds must be confessed to and punished.

How long before the diversity police begin to demand Show Trials?

Final words of the fervent, a rogue or a public servant?

returned to sender

The above epitaph certainly leaves a bit of room for interpretation, doesn’t it?

Leaving out the wholly literal – and decidedly unpleasant – vision of James E. Williams being returned physically to the womb of his aged mother, we’re left with a few other options:

  • That the epitaph refers to the concept of Mr. Williams’ soul returning to God, from whence it came;
  • That Mr. Williams was a real jackass and was sent to his maker before his time was actually up because those around him had had more than their fill of him; or
  • That Mr. Williams was a former postal worker and the inscription was a means of underscoring his years of service.

While No. 2 is the most entertaining option, it would seem that if the decedent was real pill it’s likely his cohorts would have helped him shuffle off this mortal coil long before he reached 79 years of age.

Given that Mr. Williams is buried in the Hannah AME Church Cemetery in rural Newberry County, SC, it appears that No. 1 and possibly No 3 are the more probable explanations.

Of course, it could simply be that Mr. Williams wanted to ensure a chuckle to those passing by.

The man who recalls, and records, the glory of old-time baseball

1929 athletics

There are few alive today who remember baseball’s first golden era, that of the 1920s and ‘30s, when greats such as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Grove, Charlie Gehringer, Mel Ott, Carl Hubbell, Jim Bottomley, Rogers Hornsby, Ted Lyons, Pie Traynor and the Waner brothers, to name but a few, plied their trade on diamonds in a handful of major league cities.

Obviously, the length of time that has elapsed is a major reason – Babe Ruth, for one, retired more than 80 years ago – but there’s also the fact that one would had to have been not only a baseball fan, but located in fewer than a dozen cities to have regularly witnessed the slugging prowess of a Foxx or Ruth or the pitching wizardry of a Grove or Hubbell.

In an era before television, sports highlight shows and big-time commercial endorsements, the only way most Americans ever got to see professional athletes in action was through a trip to the park.

Given that there were only 16 major league teams spread among just 10 cities, ranging from Boston and New York in the east to Chicago and St. Louis in the west, many fans were lucky to see more than a game or two in person, if that.

Given the mastery with which Roger Angell has written about baseball over the decades, it’s hardly surprising that he is among the few still around who saw some of baseball’s first real superstars in person.

Roger Angell

Roger Angell

Born in 1920, he began going to games in New York in the late 1920s, and regularly attended both New York Yankees and New York Giants games. The Yankees featured not only Ruth and Gehrig, but also Tony Lazzeri, Bill Dickey, Earle Combs, Red Ruffing, Waite Hoyt, Herb Pennock and Lefty Gomez, while the Giants had, in addition to Ott and Hubbell, Bill Terry, Travis Jackson, Bob O’Farrell, Freddie Lindstrom and Freddie Fitzsimmons.

The two teams regularly won or contended for their respective pennants, which meant, in the days before baseball watered its product down with seemingly endless rounds of playoffs, that they would often go on the World Series.

Angell, who today is 95, wrote about his early-baseball memories in his 2006 work Let Me Finish:

My father began taking me and my four-years-older sister to games at some point in the latter twenties, but no first-ever view of Babe Ruth or of the grass barn of the Polo Grounds remains in mind. We must have attended with some regularity, because I’m sure I saw the Babe and Lou Gehrig hit back-to-back home runs on more than one occasion. Mel Ott’s stumpy, cow-tail swing is still before me, and so are Gehrig’s thick calves and Ruth’s debutante ankles. Baseball caps were different back then: smaller and flatter than today’s constructions – more like the workmen’s caps that one saw on every street. Some of the visiting players – the Cardinals, for instance – wore their caps cheerfully askew or tipped back on their heads, but never the Yankees. Gloves were much smaller, too, and outfielders left theirs on the grass, in the shallow parts of the field, when their side came in to bat; I wondered why a batted ball wouldn’t strike them on the fly or on the bounce someday, but it never happened.

Angell has written a number of highly regarded baseball books over the years, including Late Innings, Game Time, Season Ticket and The Summer Game, but for all the magnificence of those, it’s tough to beat the above for capturing the beauty of baseball’s early years.

“… Ott’s stumpy cow-tailed swing …” “ … Ruth’s debutante ankles …”  And anyone who recalls the history of the game and the 1930s Gashouse Gang has little trouble imagining the rollicking Cardinals of Hornsby, Pepper Martin, Frankie Frisch, Dizzy Dean, Dazzy Vance, Joe Medwick and Leo Durocher wearing their caps askew or pushed back, or of the Yankees of Ruth, Gehrig, et al declining to do so.

His ability to recall old-time players with names seemingly gleaned from the best of Dickens is a treat in and of itself: Eppa Rixey, Goose Goslin, Firpo Marberry, Jack Rothrock, Eldon Auker, Luke Appling, Mule Haas, Adolfo Luque, Paul Derringer, Heinie Manush , Van Lingo Mungo – all of whom played six, seven or eight decades ago.

The Baseball Writers’ Association of America recognized Angell in 2014 when they honored him with the J. G. Taylor Spink Award, the highest award given by the entity.

Angell became the first, and so far only, non-BBWAA member to be so honored since the award’s inception in 1962.

Angell has written on a variety of topics besides baseball with equal aplomb, but there’s something about his ability to cull out the quaint and curious, his understanding of the game and his imminently gifted writing style that makes his baseball prose sparkle.

(Top: Team photo of world champion 1929 Philadelphia Athletics.)

Teamster lackey: Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing


This blog remains largely immune from hate mail, probably because a) it’s readership is miniscule and b) the topics so arcane that few crackpots can work up the energy to put crayon to paper in order to fire off a misguided missive.

Still, just as a blind pig finds an acorn once in a while, the occasional screwball will manage to direct a harebrained epistle my way.

Consider: Last week a hack for the Teamsters Union decided to take me to task for a post I wrote in February 2009 about an area trucking company that had gained a well-deserved reputation for treating its employees particularly well. Mind you, this is a post that’s more than seven years old, but that didn’t stop the commenter, using the decidedly unoriginal nom de plume of “Greg Hoffa,” from wading into the fray, albeit very tardily and very ineptly.

Last Thursday, Mr. “Hoffa” wrote:

“WHY DONT YOU PAY YOUR DRIVERS OVERTIME PAY AFTER 8 hrs in a day or after a 40 hour work week? You are a damn crook, a typical preacher of religion. You must be related to Lyin’ Ted !!! Ps: and don’t tell me you don’t pay overtime because of some ridiculous agricultural law or railroad act. The Teamsters should represent this and every other shady trucking outfit. Pay your drivers what they deserve.”

It’s difficult to say what set off old Greg Hoffa. The point of my story, penned oh so many moons ago, was that a family-owned trucking company, during what was then the heart of the Great Recession, had managed to avoid laying off any of its more than 6,500 employees, the only major US trucking line able to be able make that claim.

My post contained no talk of pay, overtime and certainly no indication that I worked for the company. I don’t and never have. But then again, when it comes to reasoning skills, Teamster trolls are rarely mistaken for the second coming of Socrates.

I didn’t realize blogging made me a crook, and a “damned crook,” at that. As for being a typical preacher of religion, I am again mystified. I keep the proselytizing to a dull roar here, and with good reason. To paraphrase Mark Twain, “We were good Catholic boys when the weather was doubtful; when it was fair, we did wander a little from the fold.”

As to whom “Lyin’ Ted” is I have no idea. Cruz? Turner? Kennedy? Kaczynski?

A good rule of thumb if you’re going to write angry letters is that they should make sense and be based, at least in some small degree, on reality. Also, lay off the exclamation points. Greg Hoffa, you dropped the ball on all three counts.

I will give Mr. Hoffa one point and admit that he was pretty close to being accurate in one of his closing lines. Toward the end, where he wrote, “The Teamsters should represent this and every other shady trucking outfit,” he need only have shortened it to “The Teamsters should represent every shady trucking outfit,” and he would have been right on the money.

Beware the inebriates of St. Patrick’s Day


Per usual, I’m a day late and many dollars short, but perhaps I can make a bit of lemonade out of this by looking forward and replacing “Ides of March” with “Saint Patrick’s Day.”

Something along the lines of, “It’s not just about befouling one’s body with alcohol to the point of near-death intoxication, to a degree that one’s liver is ready to test the free agent market in hopes of finding a more responsible being – perhaps a hobo, a depressed former Soviet Gulag guard or an abused Mongolian yak – it’s about befouling one’s body with alcohol to the point near-death intoxication in groups.

Of course, I wised up after a generation of such foolishness and no longer inflict such near-death experiences upon myself. But I hear I had a great time.