AFTER SPENDING 27 years in Los Angeles, I was rooting, along with my son and daughter, for the Dodgers in the World Series, but seeing the Astros win brought back memories of when they started, in 1962, as the expansion Houston Colt. 45s. I had a middle school baseball coach, Tom Adams, who had come to Dallas from the east coast carrying a lifelong allegiance to the NY/SF Giants. When the Giants visited Houston, he drove a carload of us down there to see the games, the first MLB games in Texas. The team was known as the Colt .45s for three seasons, 62-64, and played in a makeshift ballpark next to the site where the Astrodome was being constructed. They were overmatched in the NL but had some future stars in Rusty Staub, Joe Morgan and Jimmy Wynn.
Judge Roy Hofheinz, the owner, had promised MLB that he would build the nation’s first indoor, air-conditioned stadium because it was too hot to play baseball in Houston in the summer (though somehow the Houston Buffs, not to mention the Dallas Eagles, had done so for years in the Texas League). Hence, the Astrodome, which opened for the 1965 season, but during those first summers outdoors at Colt Park, MLB, in deference to the inhospitable climate, allowed the first Sunday night baseball games ever to be played. I was there for the very first one, June 9, 1963, and still have a certificate to prove it.
Dubbed “the eighth wonder of the world” and bearing the new team name acknowledging Houston’s space city identity, the Astrodome opened in the spring of 1965, and coach Adams took us down to see it. In addition to the oversized gaudy scoreboard that became a template for stadiums to come, I remember the field had real grass that first year. But not enough of it. When it became apparent grass would not grow indoors, despite the skylights in the roof, artificial turf (Astroturf) was invented.
IT TOOK DECADES for the Astros to get good and by the time they won their first pennant, in 2005, they had abandoned the Astrodome for the new Minute Maid Park (originally Enron Field — oops). With a retractable roof, the players in Houston once again had real grass underfoot even as they were forced to wear the worst uniforms in baseball.
So now after 55 years, the Astros, are world champions, the first Texas team to get there after the Rangers lost the World Series twice in 2010 and 2011 — to Tom Adams’ Giants and the Cardinals. A tip of the cap to them and their savvy management (compared to, say, the Rangers), but it’s still hard to accept that they came into the Series as the team from the American League. What? The Colt .45s and Astros were in the National League for more than half a century and got moved in 2013 by former commissioner and Milwaukee car dealer Bud Selig ostensibly on a whim, to even the number of teams to 15 in each league. But that put them in the same league and division as the other Texas team, the Rangers, violating MLB’s sensible tradition of keeping nearby teams in separate leagues (New York, Chicago, Bay Area, DC/Baltimore…) Why didn’t Bud move his Brewers back to the NL from whence they came? Not sure he’s ever answered that one and he’s now commissioner emeritus, sharing his wisdom about life and the game at Elks Clubs and Chamber of Commerce luncheons.
It may take another decade or so for the Astros to seem like they belong in the American League, and, looking at their young lineup of stars, by then they might have won a few more titles. God knows, the Rangers wish they could at least get them out of their division by the time they move into their own retractable roof stadium in a few years. It turns out it is also too hot to play baseball in Dallas in the summer, even at night (who knew?), but when the Rangers built their new ballpark in Arlington in 1993 that detail was somehow overlooked by ownership. Forget who that was.
FOOTNOTE: While the Astros seems a fitting name for a team from Houston, so was Colt .45s when you consider that east coaster Samuel Colt’s invention of the revolver in the 1840s went unwanted and unnoticed until the Texas Rangers discovered its usefulness against the expertly mounted and deadly Comanches. (Or so I learned from reading S.C. Gwynne’s epic history of the tribe, “Empire of the Summer Moon.”) If the Stros had remained the Colt .45s, then when the new North Texas team, the Rangers, came along in 1972, it would have linked them symbolically based on history – with one team in each league.
I had a chance to meet Dick Gregory once, in college, and I’ve always remembered something he said to me. It was 1968, and I was a sophomore at Brown, serving on the class council that was bringing him to campus to speak. A couple other guys and I drove to the airport to pick him up. His stage persona was that of an irreverent black man making humor out of current events with an underlying theme of racism, so we were prepared for him to be prickly or I don’t know what we expected. I hadn’t met many famous people then. Basically we thought he was great, which is why we had invited him to the campus. But I recall he was not particularly friendly and did not seem at all interested in the admiration of the three earnest white college boys who had come to fetch him in a VW bug. If he smiled, I can’t picture it. He was angry, just like in his act. On the ride back we got to talking about the news, and when I quoted something I had just read in The New YorkTimes, he turned and gave me a withering look. “The New York Times?” he said sourly. “You can’t believe everything you read in The New York Times.” Really? At 19 I thought you could. I had never heard anyone say that before, certainly not an important person. Plus I thought The New York Times was “liberal,” and why would a well-known black entertainer choose to criticize it? I was at a loss to respond, my callowness as plain as my buttoned-down shirt.
In the years ahead, I would come to see the truth of his remark, which had sounded brash and radical to my ears at the time. Not that he would have remembered me, but I wish I could have run into him on the street in 2003 after the Times published Judith Miller’s war-mongering stories about Saddam Hussein possessing weapons of mass destruction. “Hey, Mr. Gregory,” I would have said. “It took me awhile, but I understand now. You were right.”
SUNDAY MORNING I opened the Morning News and, after Doonesbury, looked in Metro for the obituaries, something I do more often than I used to. I scanned the gallery of faces — some in black and white, others in color, strangers — and sampled the religious content (“David went to be with our Lord God on August the 3rd…). Then, down the left hand side of the page, a familiar face caught my eye, with a name above it. No! Couldn’t be. But it was: VORHIES Jr. John Royal Harris MD. My doctor. Damn.
I had been thinking about Dr. Vorhies lately as it was getting to be time for my annual physical, and I needed to call his assistant, Roxanne, to make the appointment. I looked forward to seeing him, which I can’t say has always been the case with my primary care physicians through the years. When I moved back to Dallas from California four years ago, I suddenly needed a doctor before I had figured out how to pick one approved by my disorganized HMO. My friend David Searcy recommended Vorhies, telling me he was unorthodox, smart, worked with poor people in Latin America and would take cash.
I drove to his office on the back side of Preston Center, in a low-rise retro medical building that seemed frozen in time — that time being the 1960s. Oddly appealing. I discovered that he had a solo practice, with one nurse and a receptionist/assistant. The waiting room was not crowded. He was a tall, stolid man, a couple years older than me with a grave manner softened by a quiet, wry sense of humor. He had a bass voice that conveyed wisdom and authority without affect or pretense. I am reminded of that first encounter now. There was an honest austerity about him. No wasted words, yet he looked you in the eye and seemed to care. And he seemed interested in the world. He was aware of books and literary life. I liked him immediately.
I had a chest infection that required anti-biotics. My insurance situation was still unclear, but his assistant told me not to worry, they would work it out. She said $50 would cover the visit.
Over the next few years, I continued to see him occasionally and tried to select him as my PCP through United Health Care without United Health Care ever conceding that he was in their system — while his office said he was. It never got sorted out, and eventually I switched to another HMO that was able to find him in its directory. But all along he never seemed concerned, which marked him as unusual in the “concierge care” money-driven U.S. medical community.
I can’t say I knew him well, yet I was not prepared for him to go. Two years ago, he almost retired when his vintage office building was slated for demolition. He had been practicing internal medicine for almost 40 years, another way in which he stood apart from the swelling ranks of high-revenue specialists. I was relieved when he accepted an offer to partner with another general practitioner at Baylor. He was in his office on the 7th floor of the Wadley Tower examining a patient when his heart failed him last Wednesday. He was 71 and appeared to be in tip top shape.
I knew he was a rower, but not until I attended the memorial service for him at Lovers Lane United Methodist Church Monday, did I learn that he rowed almost every day after work with the Dallas Rowing Club at Bachman Lake, through all seasons and weather. He only took off Wednesdays for choir practice. An outdoorsman who grew up in Wyoming, he had rowed at Harvard and many years later got back into the sport in Dallas. During my physicals we talked about fitness and he offered advice and encouragement. When I told him I had stopped running and was trying out a water-rower machine, he smiled and told me he had one at home. He left out the Bachman Lake part or that he had won gold medals in his age division at the US Rowing Masters Nationals.
Members of the Rowing Club gave stirring remembrances of him at the service, as did his son, John, who is also a doctor, in California. Fighting back emotion, John remembered his father as the rock of the family, steadfast and calm through one crisis after another. From his father’s biography in the program, I knew that before John was born, his mother and father lost their first child to cancer. Once, when he was in medical school, John said, he was feeling nervous before an important exam in organic chemistry and called his father for advice. His father listened and then told him, “It’s simple: Just learn everything in the textbook exactly, and you’ll be fine.”
After these recollections and readings from Matthew and Luke, the long-haired Rev. Bruce Hearn asked the hundreds in the sanctuary to join in singing two short blessings the Vorhies family always sang before dinner, followed by a three-part round of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”
It was a beautiful and fitting service, but it was not enough. The feeling persisted: How could he be gone? I saw no one there I knew, yet I know I was sharing that thought with many of them. Some had been his patients for 25 years and more. I only got the last four, but they were important ones to me. I got over the nasty chest infection and later monitored some aging aches and pains with him. When I weighed the pros and cons of moving back to Dallas, John Vorhies was at the top of the “pro” column. I clipped the obit from the paper and have it on my desk. I am looking at it now, reliving the shock of first seeing it Sunday morning. In the photo he is smiling beneath his big horn-rimmed glasses. High forehead and untrimmed graying hair. Striped shirt open at the neck. His lips are parted as if he’s about to say something. I can hear his voice. Damn.
MICHELLE SHOCKED’S SHOW at the Kessler Sunday night was mostly a re-creation, note for sweet rocking note, of her impressive 1988 debut album Short Sharp Shocked. Anyone remember it? I do, but I had only heard the record and was not prepared for the ferocious talent she exhibited onstage — soaring vibrato, meticulous guitar work and feline physical grace — leaving no doubt about the current state of her art and abilities. Without mentioning the murky controversy (Is she really anti-gay? Hard to believe) that has dogged her for four years and likely left a few seats unsold, she displayed only gratitude and appreciation toward the cheering hometown audience that sang along on “Anchorage” and “Memories of East Texas.” Backed by the LP’s original producer and virtuoso guitarist Pete Anderson (and trio) she rocked the house, no qualifiers needed. At the end she called up onstage her East Dallas dad, Bill Johnston, for a winning mandolin duet on a Woody Guthrie rag, while crediting him as her early musical mentor and inspiration. A memorable evening in Oak Cliff.
IT’S SCARY OUT THERE. Three good guys in Portland calmly try to stop a raging bully from harassing teenage girls on a train, and two of them end up dead, stabbed in the neck by the bully. You never know. Once you walk out the front door, you never know who might cross your path on a given day and challenge your sense of self and decency, not to mention your physical well-being. It can happen in an instant, as I discovered on a recent Friday evening in the north Dallas suburb of Plano. I am having dinner at a small restaurant with live jazz and acoustic guitar. Violence awaits, one table away.
It’s getting toward closing time, and an improvising duo has just hushed the crowd with a pin-dropping version of James Taylor’s “You Can Close Your Eyes.” Except, not quite all the crowd. Toward the back, right behind me, a guy is jabbering over the music. He has been jabbering for a while with a companion, and some patrons have turned their heads toward him in silent rebuke, to no avail. When the song ends, a man in a blue shirt seated at a table nearby finally speaks up and says, “Could you please keep your voice down.” The talker, who’s got some heft to him and thick features, summons the waiter and asks for his check. I’m focused on the stage, where the band is reassembling for a last few numbers. Then, a sudden clap of angry words. I turn and see the talker looming over the guy in the blue shirt, his right arm cocked to throw a punch. “Come on, you #%$#&$%#!” he yells.
A fistfight? In here? After the James Taylor song? It’s totally incongruous, but it’s totally happening. I leap up from my chair and throw my arms around the talker from behind, in order to keep him from landing a blow on his critic. I get there a half second late, and his fist has already smacked into something, a part of the other guy’s shoulder or neck. Not too bad. So far. The talker is bigger and stronger than me, probably younger. I can’t be sure in the dim light. I’m almost as old as James Taylor and have no particular experience in this area. I hug him as tightly as I can while he and the man still seated exchange insults. He looks and sounds like a highway construction boss I had one summer long ago. “You don’t want to do this,” I say. He ignores me while the guy in the blue shirt, showing no signs of fear, informs his attacker matter-of-factly that he is already guilty of assault.
I AM WONDERING if that was wise, as I wonder what to say to the talker to calm him down. His face is aflame and close to mine now. His eyes turn toward me, full of fury and payback. I keep holding on to him. Words come out of my mouth. “I’m on your side,” I say, not sure why. I am not on his side, other than the side of no one getting blood on their clothes on this Friday evening. I don’t know either of these men. We are strangers, the three of us.
He and his critic continue to trade unpleasantries. I keep my arms clenched around his shoulders, waiting for someone else to come over to help. No one does. I figure he could surely get loose if he wanted, but I might have done the right thing by simply allowing him the appearance of being restrained. Now, he can back away without backing down. But I don’t really know what is going on in his head. Maybe he will break my grasp and then my nose. He could pull out a gun and shoot me, along with the guy who only wanted to hear the music. Two words come to mind: Concealed Carry.
By the standards of barroom melees, this was nothing, yet afterward I couldn’t let go of what happened – or almost happened. I was reminded that, not counting a supervised three-minute round with boxing gloves in middle school (when I was pummeled by a more adept classmate), I have never been in a real fight. How many men want to admit that? In the week after this incident, I asked a bunch of guys my age if any had ever been in a fistfight. Most of them had played contact sports in high school and college, and most of them said no. Most of them are privileged and white. One exception, a distinguished journalist, told me he grew up in a working class neighborhood in Southern California where fistfighting was common and accepted. His older brother taught him how to block punches. And it came in handy.
I GOT NO SUCH TRAINING. When I was 8 or 9, we had a bully in the neighborhood, and my mother told my father he needed to teach me to fight to protect myself. My father, a good man, standing on principle, declined. He told her he was not going to do anything to encourage fighting because that was the problem with the world. Peace had to start at home, he reasoned – on your street, in your yard, in your heart. Years later, I can’t argue with that but also see the challenge it poses to someone being called a pussy by a guy who wants to fight just because that someone politely pointed out his rude behavior.
At last, I feel the talker’s body unclench, and I pull my arms away. He retreats slowly, gathers his female companion and heads toward the door. He shoots a stare over his shoulder back in the direction of the man who asked him to be quiet, and I’m thinking, we are not done yet. But by now the owner of the place has emerged to escort him amicably out of the room. All this has happened in a blur, and as I sit down again, I begin to question what I have done. Might there still be further consequences? The talker could still come back with a firearm and the resolve to avenge his injured pride. Such things happen all the time in bad neighborhood bars, do they not? “A 34-year-old man was shot and killed last night outside __________,” we hear so often on the ten o’clock news. “Witnesses said the shooting followed a quarrel between the two men.” It’s never between two women; it’s always a quarrel between two men (though frequently a quarrel over a woman). Have we progressed at all since founding fathers Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton faced off in a lethal pistol duel in 1804 provoked by insults to each other’s “honor”?
Human history, plain to see, is a long bloody chronicle of aggression and conquest, with modern civilization maybe just a patch hiding our darker DNA. Lately civility itself has lost definition. Manners left us some time ago, but what’s different today is the definite possibility – as demonstrated by this encounter – that even asking for common courtesy can be a dangerous act. The author Chuck Palahniuk wrote the novel “Fight Club” (adapted into the 1999 movie starring Brad Pitt) after the experience of being beaten up on a camping trip following his complaining to some other campers nearby about the noise level of their radio.
CERTAINLY WE LIVE in a culture of violence, where Fox lights up the ratings with a show about Mixed Martial Arts pugilists kicking the crap out of each other. Images of terrible wars and weapons fill our 60-inch TV screens. Rage rules our roads. Politicians pose with rifles. Our current president signaled approval when, during the campaign, his supporters physically attacked a black protester. For decade upon decade the face-smacking, blood-letting mano-a-mano combat in countless movies has shown us how real men ultimately resolve conflicts. Real men hit each other. Apparently.
It starts early for boys, the macho thing. It’s in the air, huge and looming, waiting to slap a judgment on a young man. The first fight I ever saw was in the fourth grade on the playground at St. Monica’s School on Walnut Hill Lane. A crowd had gathered around two boys who were crouched and grappling with each other, and one boy I remember had his arm extended between the other kid’s legs from behind, the fingers of his right hand snapping like pincers in the direction of the guy’s testicles. Fourth grade!
It was also at St. Monica’s that another boy asked me at recess one day if I wanted to play football. He said if I didn’t want to play football, then I was a sissy – maybe the first time I heard that word. I did eventually play football but only through the ninth grade, after which my peace-loving dad conspired with our family doctor and a high school baseball coach to discourage me from continuing. My father wasn’t only worried about me being seriously injured at a young age, he also (in keeping with his general world view and very much at odds with his adopted state of Texas) objected to the warrior culture of football. I didn’t understand at the time, but I get it now. Football can be exciting, but even the great New York Giants linebacker Sam Huff once described the sport this way: “Football is war without guns.”
SOME BELIEVE THAT watching the bone-crunching, brain-scrambling hits in football, like watching movie mayhem, is cathartic and mitigates the need for men to beat up on each other in real life. Either that is true or the opposite is true: That enjoying violence once removed cultivates an acceptance of it and reinforces the idea that violence is necessary, important and useful. Like in a nightclub when somebody asks you to keep your voice down.
Our former national pastime, baseball, is intrinsically less violent yet still honors the hoary tradition of the “bench-clearing brawl.” When, last season, Texas Ranger infielder Rougie Odor decked Toronto’s Joey Bautista after a rough slide at second base, Ranger fans went wild, appreciating the punch as payback for Bautista’s cocky bat flip in the playoffs the year before. Justice served, it was tempting to think. Just like John Wayne would have done it. The Code of the West.
How many times have we heard in both films and real life, someone say, knowingly, “He can take care of himself,” meaning a boy or man who, while he might be a fine musician or Rhodes Scholar, somewhere away from the library or the piano also got schooled in the art of manly self-defense. Whether a notion born in Hollywood or elsewhere, deep down we love this, don’t we? The idea that even the cerebral and mild-mannered can flatten someone if necessary. It evokes memories of the tough men and women who settled the American frontier and later defeated Hitler and Hirohito. But where does that swagger and firepower take us from here, in an age when presidents and world leaders saber-rattle with nukes?
MY FATHER DID NOT live to hear the phrase “think global, act local,” but as I sifted the incident at the jazz club, it occurred to me that his reasoned opposition to fighting was the very essence of that proposition. War begins at home, out on the highway, in a bar. Which is not to say we can stop it, anymore than we can deny who we are. The evidence suggests we are fighters. The evidence was staring back at me that night in the sockets of another man’s eyes. But to accept physical confrontation as the unchangeable natural order of things also requires fatalism beyond my grasp.
I’ve been asked – and asked myself – what I was thinking when I tried to stop the fight. I wasn’t thinking anything. No courage was involved. I acted on instinct, maybe triggered by an aversion to the ugliness of violence going back to the fourth grade. Some would say I should not have interfered, allowing for the possibility of justice to be meted out to the bully. But there was no assurance the good guy would win. After learning of the horrific incident on the train in Portland, I felt a shudder and thought back to the evening in Plano, relieved that my own encounter with an angry stranger did not end up as a story on the evening news or send anyone to the hospital. Another time, another place, it could be different. You never know.
MOST JOURNALISTS who have been arts critics or columnists will admit to being wrong on occasion about a film, a show, a book or performer they once championed or raked but with the passing of time have reassessed, for better or worse. Not so sportswriters, who amazingly are never wrong about anything or certainly never admit it. (Skip Bayless, for some reason, comes to mind.) Latest case in point in my local sports universe, now based in Dallas again after 30 years in L.A., is one of the guys who covers the Texas Rangers for the Dallas Morning News, Evan Grant.
At the beginning of the 2015 season, Mr. Grant wrote a column making the case that, statistically, Elvis Andrus was the worst shortstop in the major leagues. Ouch. No matter how much money you make, that’s got to sting. It recalled the ignominy once heaped upon that other Ranger shortstop, Mario Mendoza, who in late ’70s was presumed to have a batting average below .200, thus giving rise to the insult “below the Mendoza line.” Except that it wasn’t true. Mendoza was a light hitter but finished his career with a lifetime average of .215.
As for Andrus, Mr. Grant’s mean-spirited measurement might have made eye-catching copy, but it proved to be premature. Andrus, at 26, hit .258 last season while playing in 160 games, and, yes, made 22 errors, not in gold glove range. (A-Rod made as many as 24 twice, for the Mariners and Yankees.) In any case, he finished the season as MLB’s 7th best shortstop according to ESPN’s Rotisserie League numbers — out of 30. He was 8th and 11th in two other rankings I saw. The Rangers won the West and made the playoffs.
BUT IN THAT UGLY Game 5 that decided the division series against Toronto, ending the Rangers’ season, Andrus did commit two unlucky bobbles in the seventh inning that invited Mr. Grant to torch him again, not only for the loss but the loss of the series. A heat-of-the moment judgment that I’m sure Skip Bayless shared if he was near a microphone and that reflected Joe Six Pack’s instant POV, but one that conveniently ignored the Rangers’ poor performance in earlier games, particularly the quick collapse of sore-arm starting pitcher Derek Holland in Game 4.
After winning the first two on the road in a best-of-five, the Rangers essentially lost the series by dropping the next two at home in Arlington. They should never have had to return to the Skydome. But scapegoating one player is easier and apparently more gratifying than reviewing the full dossier. Welcome to the sports page and sports talk radio, where Attention Deficit Disorder is a permanent condition.
BILL BUCKNER, a terrific baseball player demonized for decades for a single miscue in the 1986 World Series, knows this all too well. Andrus, who makes a lot more money than Buckner ever did in that pre-monster-salary era, didn’t need our sympathy in the big scheme of things. Even if he had been traded in the off-season, as presumably would have pleased Mr. Grant, Andrus would have been pulling down 10 or 15 million per annum in a new uniform.
But, hey, as the Rangers ready themselves for the postseason once again after winning 95 games and the AL West, Mr. Grant just the other day wrote a column celebrating the career year Andrus had — yes! Well, hard not to notice that in 2016 Andrus hit .302, some key homers, etc. Guess what? No mention of blaming him for last year’s loss to the Blue Jays or two weeks into the season going out of his way to call him the worst SS in the majors. Down the memory hole! I got the impression Mr. Grant even thinks Andrus is pretty good now. But the playoffs are here. Tomorrow’s another day and another column.
Re: “Why Trump Is Not Like Other Draft Dodgers,” by Ted Gup (8/3/16)
To the Editors:
Like Donald Trump and Ted Gup, I was also lucky to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War, but unlike Mr. Gup, I have never felt guilty about it. Without speculating about Mr. Trump’s motives, I would submit that for many young men there were others than “cowardice or careerism,” the two Mr. Gup cites in coming to his own reckoning years later. How about morality? Some of us had an ethical problem signing up for a military mission that seemed imperious, wrong and immoral – a view that history has not altered.
I rue the unequal access that draft-age young men in 1969 had to the resources of anti-war counselors, doctors, churches and universities. The war was a horror and tragedy, as we are reminded with each new book and documentary, its enduring cruelty brought home to all Americans of a certain age who visit the Wall. That said, I cannot see how those of us who opposed its carnage should feel compelled to atone for not participating in it.
P.S. While offering his op ed as a mea culpa for avoiding service in Vietnam, Mr. Gup doesn’t even mention the guys who went to Canada and prison. I wouldn’t call them cowards. I found it curious that some NYT commenters refused to accept his apology and fragged him for a different reason: the old red white & blue shaming for not taking up arms so that the rest of us can live in peace and freedom. Right. I guess not everyone has yet seen The Fog Of War or Born on the 4th of July or read A Bright Shining Lie, etc. etc. etc. The Domino Theory is still out there.
I regret I did not find a way to get to know Blackie Sherrod during my seven years at the Dallas Times Herald. He died the other day at 96. He was a huge influence on me, going back to my high school newspaper homage to his famous Sunday column opening, “Scattershooting while wondering whatever happened to…” At St. Mark’s, we changed the sports column lead to “Marksmaneuvering while wondering…” Blackie never filed a claim of plagiarism against us. I didn’t get to the DTH until years later, after marching against the Vietnam War in college and working for Dallas’ first alternative weekly. The generation gap had widened, and Blackie was on the other side of it — old school, gruff and indifferent to the new breed of journalists and east coast editors who began to show up at 1101 Pacific. He had the biggest office in the building, just off the newsroom, and it was missing a welcome mat, as I recall. I’m not sure he came out much to mingle and chat, but then the features section, where I labored, was down the hall, beyond the pale.
Blackie was a maverick in many ways, eschewing literary pretension and inventing (I think) the terms “The World Serious” and “Sports Elevated.” He was a master of the short form of the sports column, combining observation, reporting and opinion in pithy, memorable prose that carried a whiff of irreverence. He had been a tail-gunner on a torpedo plane in the South Pacific and like many sportswriters of his WWII generation, he was no fan of the counterculture and slow to accept Cassius Clay’s desire to be known as Muhammad Ali. He used the word Negro as late as 1976, when he wrote a column critical of an article I did on assignment for the Sunday Magazine examining the belated integration of Southwest Conference football squads. Without mentioning me by name, he gently dissed the article that had appeared in his own paper and questioned the evidence of local racial discrimination in athletics as being anything but a reflection of the state’s sociology and not so far behind the rest of the country. In other words, much ado about nothing.
The thing was, Mel Farr, Bubba Smith, Charley Taylor and other top Texas recruits had left to play college ball elsewhere because of the color barrier. The Southwest Conference didn’t see its first two black football players until 1966, when Jerry Levias, a star split end, and John Westbrook, a walk-on running back, took the field for SMU and Baylor. Former SMU coach Hayden Fry told me, “we’ll never know all the bad things that happened to Jerry that first season.” When they traveled, Fry said, the team had to make special arrangements with hotels and restaurants because many were still segregated. Levias was spat on and received death threats. Blackie didn’t mention those details in his “we’re not so bad” follow-up column. “It was only four years earlier that the Washington Redskins integrated,” he reasoned.
It was my first year at the times-they-are-a-changin’ Times Herald, and in my hubris I took his public reproach as a badge of honor. But it did not make it easy to sidle up to him after that, and I wish things had gone differently. I wish I had joined the crowd at Joe Miller’s more often and maybe found easier access to him over a bourbon or two. He was someone worth knowing, a Runyonesque figure spanning decades of newspapering in North Texas, barnacled attitudes and all. Whatever his limitations, he and his estimable Times Herald colleague, the late Frank Luksa, now seem as giants compared to the the class of preening ESPN provocateurs like Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith.
Even if I did not win Blackie’s approval, I don’t regret getting that Sunday magazine assignment and a day-pass into the world of sports I might have chosen as a beat in another time and place. Some years after that article, when the Times Herald’s house organ interviewed me, I took the opportunity to say I had grown up thinking of Blackie as a hero. I hoped he might stop me in the hall one day and say, “Hey, nice of you to say that” or whatever. No way.
WHEN I READ that former Red Sox outfielder Dave Henderson had died of a heart attack at 57, I thought, well, he’s with Donnie Moore now. The two players are forever linked in baseball history by one of those game-changing reversals of fortune that can define a career in a moment both thrilling and cruel. It came in the 9th inning of Game 5 of the 1986 ALCS between the Red Sox and California Angels that I remember watching in my apartment on Tower Drive in Beverly Hills. Moore was on the mound in relief, and the count was 2-2 on Henderson. The Angels were ahead 5-4, with 2 outs — 1 strike away from their first trip to the World Series. But with Rich Gedman on first, “Hendu” hit the next pitch deep to left, rising over Brian Downing’s head before clearing the wall. Al Michaels went nuts. I’m sure all the bars in Boston went nuts. I can still picture Hendu gliding around the bases as if on skates, head up and chin out, his center of gravity low to the ground like the smoothest running back you ever saw. He had such style, Dave Henderson.
The home run off Moore was redemption for an earlier defensive gaffe allowing a drive off the bat of Bobby Grich to bounce off his glove and into the stands for a round-tripper. For Moore it was the opposite of redemption. He stayed in the game, and the Angels came back to tie it, but in the 11th Moore faced Hendu again and gave up a sacrifice fly that scored the winning run for the Red Sox, who returned to Boston and won the final 2 games of the series, earning a chance to face the Mets in the Bill Buckner World Series.
LIKE BUCKNER, who let that damnable ground ball skip under his first baseman’s glove in World Series Game 6 against the Mets two weeks later, Moore was scapegoated by Angels’ fans thereafter as a symbol of failure. He pitched two more journeyman years in Anaheim, then was traded to Kansas City and sent to the minors at the beginning of the 1989 season. The Royals cut him in June. A month later, at home in the Anaheim Hills, he shot himself to death. He was 35. A native of Lubbock, Texas, he had compiled a record in the big leagues of 43 wins and 40 losses with a lifetime ERA of 3.67. Not bad.
You want to think there’s more to life than baseball and its statistics — or fame and fortune. Buckner, a very good player, suffered decades of media-enabled mad fan abuse until the Red Sox finally won a World Series (then another), and the merciless court of public opinion at last pardoned him. For Moore, sadly, the sting of Henderson’s bat on that October evening in Anaheim did not go away fast enough.
Henderson, a native Californian, batted .258 and hit 197 home runs in 13 seasons — not exactly all-star material, though he did make the American League squad as an Oakland Athletic in 1991. But the stats were secondary to his presence in a lineup. He was one of those beautiful players who brought an uncommon élan to the daily challenges of a game that is difficult even for the most elite athletes. He was fun to watch not just because he was good but because he always seemed to be having fun himself, not exactly standard modus operandi in today’s dollar-wise dugouts.
Donnie Moore might have been such a player at one time. It’s hard to know or even imagine in the aftermath of that fateful Game 5 of the 1986 ALCS. On the oversized stage it presents to the world in the playoffs and World Series, Major League Baseball giveth and it taketh away, as the careers of these two guys illustrate. You’d like to think Donnie Moore and Dave Henderson can finally talk about all that now in baseball heaven, where everyone hits .300 and the highest ERA is 2.75.
Went to the Brown-SMU basketball game yesterday, got my first look at the new Moody Coliseum and actually first time I ever saw Brown play basketball. Somehow I managed four years in Providence without once making it to the gym. Sure, the revamped Moody with all the $$ accoutrements says “big time” (along with Larry Brown’s recruiting violations), but I can think of better uses for all that remodeling money. Maybe saving the SMU Press? Further adornment was provided by the sappy visage of fan #1 GWB, with Laura, projected on the Jumbotron. Seated next to them courtside was school prez R. Gerald Turner. I believe the term “courtside” in this case has more than one meaning. I understand the chief function of university presidents today is raising money, but with ISIS in the air and the debacle in Iraq resonating anew, I thought, how unfortunate for SMU that its president be aligned so publicly and proudly with the face of American infamy. Not that everyone in Dallas would share that view of course, including the sizable portion of the crowd of 6,000 that stood and applauded his introduction over the PA. What, did I think I was still in New England or California?
The game was a nice surprise for scattered alumni on hand to cheer their overmatched Bears. SMU is ranked #25 (and looks it) and I figured a final point spread of not more than 20 would be a good afternoon. But with luck and fruitful perimeter shooting, Brown took an early lead, led by Steven Spieth — brother of Masters champion Jordan — and managed to hang around against all odds until the end, losing only by 8, 77-69. SMU was missing its top player, someone said. No need to bring that up.