Willie Mays and America’s Oldest Professional Baseball Park

Growing up, I was such a Willie Mays fan that my friends called me “Say Hey” in honor of the Say Hey Kid.  In those pre-Internet days it was tough to live in Tennessee and keep up with late-night baseball in San Francisco.  However, many was the summer morning I called the sports department of the Daily News Journal to ask for the previous evening’s scores off the wire.  This was serious business.  Many years and games later, I still believe Mays was the best, most complete ballplayer to play the game.

So I was thrilled recently to see the new book Willie’s Boys:  The 1948 Birmingham Black Barons, the Last Negro League World Series, and the Making of a Baseball Legend by John Klima.  The title tells what’s in store.  This is a book about the difficult period when major league baseball was undergoing integration and Birmingham – that hotbed of both baseball and racial segregation – was at the center of the story.  In 1948, Mays was a 16-year-old rookie on the Black Barons and helped the team appear in the last Negro League World Series.  He went on to a storied career with the New York and San Francisco Giants, hitting 660 career home runs, collecting 3,283 hits, gathering 12 Gold Gloves and playing in 24 All-Star games.

There’s so much to like in this book, but I’ll only quote two passages.  The first is from the prologue.  Carl Hubbell, the “Meal Ticket” pitcher of the 1930s who famously struck out Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and three others consecutively in the 1934 All-Star Game, was at the Polo Grounds with New York Cubans owner Alex Pompez in 1950 to scout an 18-year-old Willie Mays.

Hubbell noticed how the boy liked to play extremely shallow in center field, which in the cavernous Polo Grounds was like walking the plank….Finally, a ball was struck well into left-center field, providing the first chance to watch Mays.  The ball landed safely for a base hit, a double in most circumstances.  Mays’s toes turned so quickly that his cleats severed the grass blades beneath him, and he reached the ball on the first bounce, speared it with his bare hand, and uncoiled the whip.  His throw to second was made off-balance, but arrived with such velocity that Hubbell noticed the second baseman lift his glove to meet the ball, not because Mays missed the target, but because he threw so hard that the ball was still rising.  The throw was enough for the trepid base runner to hurry back to first base, like a mouse running for a hole….Years of pitching in the big leagues had taught Hubbell to conceal his emotions, an advantageous ability for a scout.  But Pompez could read a man too.  He knew Hubbell was astounded.

Hubbell watches similar defensive plays throughout the day, sees Mays hit a home run with a bat that moves through the strike zone faster than any of the greats he played with, and is convinced.  Years later, after Mays became a Giant and the story of his “accidental” discovery had been told, Hubbell would…

relive that day in the Polo Grounds when the Giants truly discovered the talent, the power, and the voice of Willie Mays. “Gentlemen,” he’d say regally, “that was the day I saw the best goddamn baseball player I have ever seen in my life.”

Later in the book, Klima introduces the reader to Rickwood Field, where the Black Barons played when the (White) Barons were out of town.  The Birmingham Barons were affiliated with the Boston Red Sox, and in the spring of 1948 the Sox come to town for an exhibition.  Ted Williams…

…took batting practice and played left field in Rickwood Field….part of a banner spring in Birmingham.  On April 12, the New York Yankees came to Rickwood Field.  That was largely because of Yankee radio broadcaster (and Birmingham native) Mel Allen….Allen might have been the local hero, but there was no doubt that the real box-office gold was Joe DiMaggio….He collected a single in three at-bats and struck out with the bases loaded in the first inning.  It didn’t matter.  DiMaggio was DiMaggio, and in the spring of 1948, three of the greatest outfielders of all time, DiMaggio, Ted Williams, and Willie Mays played at Rickwood Field.

That’s hallowed ground in my book.  Thankfully, Rickwood Field is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.  The wonderful web site Baseball Pilgrimages has dubbed Birmingham’s Rickwood Classic the #1 Baseball Pilgrimage for 2010.  (As an aside, you’ll note that a visit to historic Durham Athletic Park – the star of the great sports movie Bull Durham – is #2 on the list.)  When the Rickwood Classic takes place on June 2nd, it will mark the  field’s 100th year of professional baseball, two more years than Fenway Park.  To learn the history behind the numbers, check out the preservation story of Rickwood Field as recounted in Preservation magazine’s Field of Forgotten Dreams.  Both the magazine and Willie’s Boys are recommended reading.

To top off this Mays love fest, I’ve posted a video of his most famous catch, the grab and throw from the blast off the bat of Vic Wertz in the 1954 World Series.  Enjoy.

More to come…


Patty Griffin and Downtown Presbyterian: A Match Made in Heaven

I’m glad I was standing in my local Barnes & Nobel a few years ago when Patty Griffin’s 1000 Kisses came on over the store’s speakers.  Mesmerized by the voice, I wandered through the music section until I had listened to a majority of the album.  Needless to say, I took it home and have been a fan ever since.

Griffin has a new album out entitled Downtown Church, and it is a winner in so many ways.  Beginning with the wonderful old tune House of Gold all the way through to the beautiful hymn All Creatures of Our God and King, there isn’t a false note here.  Wade in the Water with Regina McCrary – the daughter of the founder of the Fairfield Four and “gospel royalty” to quote Griffin – really rocks.  Never Grow Old with Buddy Miller is beautiful, simple and meditative.  Griffin sang both songs and more on a terrific live stream tonight on her Facebook home page and you can catch the latter in a video below.  Every song on the album rings true and it is worth the price of purchase (or download).

The other winning part of this album is where it was recorded:  Downtown Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee.  Designed by the famous nineteenth-century architect William Strickland (also the architect of the Tennessee State Capitol and the Second Bank of the United States in Philadelphia) this is a masterpiece of the Egyptian Revival style.

I was honored to speak at Downtown Presbyterian in 2001 on the 150th anniversary of this wonderful place.  I spoke again from the pulpit a few years later at a national heritage areas conference.  And just this past October, I joined about 1,500 colleagues at the National Preservation Conference in that magnificent space and listened to Congressman John Lewis give a riveting speech about the civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s, ending with a call for a new Civil Rights Heritage Trail to help us remember those special places from our past.  Downtown Presbyterian is the kind of space that brings out the best in all of us.

This place has a personal connection as well and I told the story when I spoke on the 150th anniversary.  Here’s how it goes:

I’m delighted to be here today because one of your founders – the Rev. Gideon Blackburn – is a relative of mine.  My great-grandfather seven times back was a man by the name of Benjamin Blackburn.  Benjamin and Mary Blackburn had six sons and six daughters.  One of those sons was John Blackburn, my great, great, great, great, great, great grandfather.  Another son was Robert Blackburn – Gideon Blackburn’s father.  I think that makes him something of a great uncle six or seven times back – but I’ll claim him in any event.

Gideon Blackburn is listed on the tablets on the front of Downtown Presbyterian as being among the founders of the church in 1814.  He was a native of Virginia (in fact, I use to live in the county seat of Augusta County, where he was born).  Gideon Blackburn founded many churches from Alabama to Illinois, he served for a time as the president of Centre College, and in 1837 he deeded 16,000 acres of land in Carlinville, Illinois to the Trustees of what would become Blackburn College, which still exists today.

The Blackburn family history calls him one of the most eloquent orators of his generation.  An old newspaper clipping in our family’s possession notes that “it was under the preaching of Gideon Blackburn that Andrew Jackson’s beloved Rachel was brought into the Presbyterian fold, a circumstance for which the pious mistress of the Hermitage never thereafter ceased to ‘bless the Lord.’”  I have a lot to live up to here today!  And finally, we’ve found a quote that indicated that Gideon Blackburn generally preached for two hours or more.  As one author put it, “He was wont to preach at great length.”  I’ll try to refrain from following in those family footsteps today.

You’ll be happy to know that I got through my speech in less than two hours.

Downtown Church comes highly recommended.  When you hear Patty Griffin sing We Shall All Be Reunited, think about how special places such as Downtown Presbyterian bring us together.  This truly is a match made in heaven.

More to come…


Miami Landmarks Past (and the More Recent Past)

I’m wrapping up a visit to Miami and Miami Beach for work (I know – I love my job) that ended with a spectacular tour of two landmarks of Miami’s past…and the more recent past.

Recently the National Trust for Historic Preservation has listed three properties in Miami on the annual list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.  We visited two of those sites yesterday and they gave first-hand evidence to the wide range of places that make up the American experience.

First up was the 1963 Miami Marine Stadium.  Arriving by boat while listening to the architect – Cuban born Hilario Candela who at age 27 designed this aquatic marvel with its zigzag concourse floating over the stands – was an incredible experience.  It is threatened because the city sees the site as much more valuable for development, even though it doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to understand how this wonderful place could thrive again as a civic center for all South Florida.  Watch the video at the end of the post to hear that quintessential South Floridian – Jimmy Buffett – talk about why this place matters.

After a short bus ride, we were transported to Vizcaya – one of the country’s great early 20th century marvels.  This estate was built from 1914-17 by James Deering of International Harvester, and the 70-room house and magnificent gardens are filled with artwork, architectural detailing, and landscape views that are more than the eye can capture in a short visit.  This National Historic Landmark, threatened by nearby high-rise development that would destroy the view from the gardens, has a bright future thanks to the work of so many people who understand the value of saving not only the buildings, but the settings, of great places.  I had the good fortune to have dinner with Joel Hoffman, the Executive Director of Vizcaya, and my colleague Laurie Ossman, who had been the assistant director and chief curator at the site before joining the National Trust.  They told of the hard but satisfying work to fight the development plans, making for a terrific ending to a wonderful four days in Miami.

More to come…


Not So Fast, My Friend

The next time you hear someone say, “I understand preserving truly historic buildings, but I don’t think we should try and save this structure from the 1950s (or 60s, or 70s)” remind them that the Art Deco architecture of the 1920s and 30s use to be similarly dismissed.

Reporting from the South Beach Art Deco Historic District in Miami Beach…

More to come…


Old Time Zen

A friend from Philadelphia recently sent the following quote to me via email:

“A year or so ago on the bluegrass mailing list, one of the
bluegrassers was comparing their custom of playing a tune
until all the verses had been sung with the old-time custom
of playing the same tune ad infinitum. He remarked that
the object of old-time music was to bore people.
I explained that the object of an old-time jam session is
enlightenment (satori, if you will)—boredom is only a
means to that end.”  Charlie Bowen

This led to a search online (shouldn’t all posts about zen include some reference to a search?) and took me to the original source: an information sheet about a Hillbilly Zen workshop at the 2006 Solfest.  Other bits of wisdom from the workshop:

The violin music is important because we play it.

Repetition of the tune in the groove leads people to an absorption, a place of clarity which most old-time musicians like.

And my favorite:

Respect for tradition is a kind of filter. People who are willing to bow down to tradition have a certain amount of respect for something greater than themselves.

So, stop to recognize a power greater than yourself and enjoy two minutes of Old Time Zen with Uncle Earl, playing the appropriately titled (for this blog) Browns’ Dream.

More to come…


Support Earthquake Relief in Haiti

I had planned to write about something else tonight, but everything seemed to pale in comparison to the need to simply encourage your support for earthquake relief in Haiti.

Partners in Health is the organization where I chose to send my support for relief work in Haiti.  Why?  I have seldom been as moved by a book as I was two years ago when I read Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains:  The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World. Farmer – one of the founders of Partners in Health – has dedicated his life to curing infectious diseases and to bringing modern medical care to the world’s poorest citizens.  As the book jacket notes,

Tracy Kidder’s magnificent account shows how one person can make a difference in solving global health problems through a clear-eyed understanding of the interaction of politics, wealth, social systems, and disease….Farmer changes people’s minds through his dedication to the philosophy that “the only real nation is humanity.”

Today, you can do something quickly to help ease the immediate pain in Haiti: donate to PIH or any of the major disaster relief organizations that are reacting quickly to this human tragedy.  But do yourself a favor and read  Mountains Beyond Mountains.  You’ll be glad you did.

More to come…


Eighth of January

For all who love great old-time fiddle tunes, here’s a little luncheon treat.

One of my favorites among the old-time tunes is the Eighth of January, which many will remember from the old Johnny Horton country hit The Battle of New Orleans. (The date of the battle was January 8, 1815, and Jimmy Driftwood, an Arkansas school principal who wrote the words to the song to interest children in history, used the fiddle tune for the music.)  The Eighth of January is a sweet little melody that’s relatively easy to play but has lots of possibilities for variations.

I found this video by Roland White with a nice short mandolin version.  I wrote about Roland and his brother Clarence back in March 2009 when they were featured in the Fretboard Journal.

So, on January 8, 2010, enjoy the Eighth of January in a more timeless mode.

More to come…