The death of the “dead ball”

On this day in 1920, Ray Chapman died, and so did the way baseball was played up until that point.

Chapman’s death signaled the end of the “Dead Ball” era and, in theory, the end of many of the “tricks” pitchers used to fool hitters, including the spit-ball, the scuff-ball, the grease-ball, the carved-up-on-my-belt-buckle-ball, and so on.

Chapman was a 29-year-old infielder for the Indians, their best, and was noted for hanging in tough against any pitcher and his willingness to “take one for the team”, i.e. getting hit by a pitch to get to first base. In his nine-year career, he had led the league in runs scored once, walks once, and plate appearances once. A solid guy.

On August 16, 1920, in the fifth inning of a game against the Yankees at the Polo Grounds, he stepped in to hit against Carl Mays, a submarine style pitcher who liked to throw inside. Mays hit Chapman on the left temple and the sound made by the impact reverberated through the Polo Grounds giving the fans the impression the pitch had been hit by Chapman. The ball hit him so hard that although he had been hit on the left temple, he bled from his right ear.

Chapman went down, was helped up and back to the dugout by team-mates, and died twelve hours later. The last words he uttered on a baseball field were, “I’m all right. Tell Mays not to worry”.

It was the only case of a player being killed by a pitch at the major league level, although there have been several serious and career-ending incidents since then.

Statistically, Mays had been a very good pitcher indeed, and went on to win over 200 games before he was done, including five seasons of 20 or more. He was a potential Hall-of-Famer and was last on the Veteran’s Committee ballot in 2007, when he was turned down for the final time. Most people say it was his complete lack of remorse for the Chapman incident that kept him out.  “It’s not on my conscience,” Mays said 50 years later, just before his death in 1971. “It wasn’t my fault.”

At the time of the incident, umpires Billy Evans and William Dineen issued a statement that blamed Mays:

“No pitcher in the American League resorted to a trickery more than Carl Mays in attempting to rough a ball, in order to get a break on it which would make it difficult to hit.” 

The next year, the rules about what kind of baseballs were allowed in play were changed. Until then, the same few balls were used throughput the game, and became very difficult for hitters to see after a few innings of abuse. After that, new, more tightly wound balls were used, and new ones were brought in whenever a ball was no longer white enough for a hitter to see clearly. The balls could be seen better and traveled farther when hit.

The “lively ball” era was born, and the home run would be king from then on. In 1919, the greatest slugger in baseball history and always a statistical outlier, Babe Ruth, led the league with 29 home runs, a total that exceeded the entire output for ten of the other MLB teams that year. In 1920, he hit 54 which exceeded the total for every other major league team except the Phillies, who had 64 in aggregate. Apart from Ruth’s 54, the 1920 Yankees had only 61 home runs hit by all other players combined.

But after the Chapman incident, the trend started changing radically, and, by 1930 the long ball was firmly established everywhere. The pitchers, or at least those that didn’t cheat, had lost their biggest advantages.

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Happy birthday, Social Security

On August 14, 1935, President Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law, thereby creating a “safety net” for retirees who may not have saved enough to get by on their own after they stopped working. Unemployment was close to the all-time 1933 high of 24% in 1935, still at about 20%, with over 10 million unemployed.

At the time of the enactment, there were 37 workers paying in to the system for every retiree drawing out of it. Life expectancy was 61 years in 1935, so fewer people ever got to the point of collecting, and those that did collected for a much shorter time than they would today.

Today, there are only three workers paying in to the system for every retiree receiving benefits, and this number is expected to shrink even further going forward. The average life expectancy is now about 85, so many more people will collect Social Security and for much much longer.

Something’s got to give. The main problem, as we have seen most recently in the A.C.A. Repeal/Replace effort, is that once an entitlement is put in place, it is very, very hard indeed to take it away.

The apparent solutions to the new SSA math would be to extend the age of retirement so that there would be fewer retirees collecting for shorter periods, and also to institute further means tests for benefits. But it isn’t that simple.

The problem is  compounded by pressures on corporate leadership to reduce all benefits to employees, which are the biggest drag on their profits, the poor job prospects for older workers in the digital age, the freedom of a poorly-regulated financial industry to siphon off large chunks of “retirement” savings in the form of fees,  and the inevitable migration of jobs to cheaper labor markets.

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I suppose all this is one of the main causes of younger people’s resentment against the Baby Boomer generation. Their view of it is the Boomers are selfish, entitled, and want to get paid now, while flipping off their kids and grand-kids who will have to fend for themselves. Again, it’s not that simple.

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Speaking as a Boomer who paid in to this pyramid scheme for decades, I certainly do want to get paid now, and, yes, I feel entitled to it. If that makes me selfish in the bargain, then so be it.

I fully understand that when the revolution begins, they will be coming for me first. Keep your eye out for me on the bread line – I’ll be the one carrying the sign that says, “Will work for C.O.P.D. meds”.

 

Ken Starr, please be quiet.

The other day Kenneth Starr said that the investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller might be overstepping its bounds, and should not turn into a “fishing expedition”. He said the original “gravaman” of the investigation was Russian collusion in the election, and that it would be inappropriate to go beyond this question into other areas.

On hearing this, everyone who remembers Ken Starr’s years-long quest to find something, anything, that would reflect badly on Bill Clinton threw up a little bit in their mouths. CNN filed this story under the headline “Ken Starr killed irony today”.

For those too young to remember, Ken Starr was the “Independent Counsel” charged with investigating the potential wrongdoings of Bill and Hillary Clinton in a failed 1970’s real estate development called “Whitewater”. The Clintons lost money on this investment, there was never any wrongdoing found , and they were never charged with anything. There was no “there” there.

Starr was appointed to head a three-judge panel to investigate “the scandal” in 1994, just a year and a half into the Clinton administration. Even though there was never anything to it, Republicans were bound and determined to keep the travesty going, and Starr moved from one subject to the next until, with the investigation finally winding down in 1998, he got wind of some inappropriate sexual conduct  between Clinton and an intern named Monica Lewinsky.

The Lewinsky scandal became a 24/7 cable news obsession in 1998, basically blocking out the sun and other real news for months on end. It led ultimately to Clinton’s impeachment trial for lying under oath about the nature of his relationship with Lewinsky. He was absolved and continued in office.

Today is the anniversary of the 1998 bombings of the American embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The bombings were carried out by operatives of Osama bin Laden, and presaged the 9/11 attacks. 224 people were killed in the bombings, including 12 Americans, and 4500 were wounded.

On August 20, 1998, Clinton ordered a retaliatory attack on bin Laden’s sanctuary in Afghanistan and 70 missiles hit three al Qaeda sites there, killing 24 people, but not bin Laden. 13 missiles hit a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, killing a night watchmen.

But because of the relentless and idiotic persecution of Bill Clinton by Ken Starr, who had clearly exceeded the “gravaman” of his original investigation, none of these events were regarded as particularly alarming or even newsworthy, and, tragically, none led to any increased effort to neutralize al Qaeda.

Instead, the events were reported, mainly but not exclusively by the young FoxNews network, as “wagging the dog”, meaning Clinton trying to create a distraction to get Monica Lewinsky off the TV for a day or two. A typical example of the coverage from the Washington Post:

Several Republicans yesterday raised the issue expressly. Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) said: “After months of lies and deceit and manipulations and deceptions — stonewalling — it raised into doubt everything he does and everything he says,” Coats said.

Administration officials said yesterday they had anticipated criticism that Clinton was following a “Wag the Dog” strategy — so-named after the recent movie in which a president tries to draw attention away from a sexual scandal by staging a phony war — but had no choice but to ignore it.

Perhaps there is a legitimate discussion about Mueller’s scope to be had now, but Ken Starr should not be part of it. His past transgressions and current hypocrisy exclude him. I don’t think it’s going too far to say that without this biased, self-important, corrupt and disingenuous fool, we may well have succeeded in limiting al Qaeda’s ability to carry out the 9/11 attacks.

To Ken Starr, I would say, “Thanks for nothing and shut the fuck up.”

One giant leap for mankind

It was 48 years ago today that Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the moon.

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In the following three years, five more successful missions to the moon’s surface were completed (and one, Apollo 13, that didn’t quite get there). By December, 1972, 12 people had walked on the moon. No one has been there in the 45 years since then. No one has even left low earth-orbit.

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The primary reason we undertook the moon-landing adventure was to beat the Soviet Union and assert our dominance in the “space race”. To the lay person all these years later, it doesn’t seem like we got much out of it, though physicists, materials scientists, cosmologists, and others would disagree.

It all seems like it happened a million years ago. In fact, to a lot of people, it seems like it never happened.

This morning, when I googled “Moon landing 1969”, I got 1,620,000 hits. Pretty good. Then I googled “Moon landing hoax” and got 3,730,000 hits. Turns out, the whole thing was probably a big phony government cover-up. Thank God for the internet – I’d be walking around with all the wrong info without it.

Your president is keeping an open mind about it so far. One of his most trusted advisers, Roger Stone, knows that the moon landings were faked.

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But Tweety hasn’t taken a firm position, on the record at least. Campaigning in Sacramento a year ago, he seemed on the fence about it:

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump said today he believes the moon landing in 1969 was real but “many people” believe the whole thing was orchestrated by the federal government to impress the world and scare the Soviets. “I’m not saying I believe that, but many people have questions about it,” Trump said at a campaign appearance here. “There are people who know about these things who say they saw the interior of a warehouse in Los Angeles converted to look like the surface of the moon, complete with fine dust and craters and the whole thing. Lot of tinfoil lying around. Did NASA hire a Hollywood crew to distract us from Vietnam? I don’t know.”’

To paraphrase Armstrong: One step for a small man.

John Walker Lindh

I used to think Paul Theroux was a smart guy whose books I liked. Then I heard him being interviewed somewhere and was surprised at his British accent. “Is this guy a Brit?”, I wondered. “Why did I always think he was American?” Well, yes, he is in fact an American, born and raised in Medford, MA where he went to high school and then on to the University of Maine.  After that, he joined the peace corps, and started a life of travel and travel writing, and ultimately settled in the U.K. where he started talking like the people around him, which I guess makes sense.

I suppose the British version of English is kind of like a second language to Americans, and it’s worth learning it if you live there, not only for the challenge but for increased acceptance by your neighbors. But most people are able to live abroad and speak the local language without losing the ability to speak the unaccented version of their first tongue. I have a cousin who has lived in Sweden for decades and doesn’t use English much, but also does not now speak English with a Swedish accent. I have another cousin who’s lived in Australia, also for decades, and does not greet me with “G’Day, mate” when she sees me.

I started to suspect Theroux was kind of a jerk, a self-hating poseur who wanted to appear to be something much more exotic than he actually is. A few months ago, I read an opinion piece by Theroux in the Failing New York Times that really cements this notion. In it, he explains what a naive 24-year old he was when he ran afoul of the Malawi authorities and was kicked out of the country and the Peace Corps as well. He explains that he had become

“…involved with a group of political rebels — former government ministers mostly — who had been active in the struggle for independence.”

And that he

 “…performed various favors for the rebels, small rescues for their families, money transfers, and in one effort drove a car over 2,000 miles on back roads to Uganda to deliver the vehicle to one of the dissidents in exile. On that visit he was asked to bring a message back to the country. He did so, without understanding its implications. It was a cryptic order to activate a plot to assassinate the intransigent prime minister.”

So, first let me just say that driving a car over 2000 miles of back roads is not a “favor” – it’s a huge undertaking.

Theroux explained himself to his “de-briefing” interrogators at the State Department back home. He said he was just a silly idealistic kid, had gotten in over his head, and that history and events had “overtaken” him.  The government realized they were dealing with a now-terrified moron, albeit one who seemed well educated, and let him go.

This story was prologue to Theroux’s defense of the “American Taliban”, John Walker Lindh, who Theroux sees as much like his own 24-year-old self: idealistic, naive, overtaken by events, and who now surely sees the error of his ways and is remorseful.

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In the piece, written in the last days of the Obama administration, Theroux was advocating that Lindh, who has now served 15 years of his 20-year plea-bargained sentence, should be given a pardon by President Obama and have his sentence commuted. As I said, Theroux seems like kind of a jerk, and we really don’t need to listen to his opinions on this. He may be missing the bigger picture here, as he did in Malawi.

Lindh is 36 now, and is scheduled to be released in two years. He will leave prison with an Irish passport, and, according to the U.S. government,  “a stubborn refusal to renounce violent ideology”.

This piece in Foreign Policy paints a different picture from Theroux’s young, remorseful, innocent victim who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It cites a report of the National Counterterrorism Center from January of this year, which says that Lindh continues to advocate for global Jihad and continues to write and translate extremist texts.

The document says intelligence agencies have noted a high rate of recidivism among home-grown extremists, and claims that in March of last year Lindh “told a television news producer that he would continue to spread violent extremist Islam upon his release”.

Soon, it will be up to President Tweety to figure out what to do with “Johnny Jihad” on his release. It’s hard to imagine he’ll be as magnanimous as Paul Theroux would be, but you never know what Tweety might do.

At the time of his trial, Lindh apologized for fighting alongside the Taliban, saying, “had I realized then what I know now … I would neve have joined them.” He said Osama bin Laden is against Islam and that he “never understood jihad to mean anti-American or terrorism.”

Lindh’s  father said,  “John loves America and we love America. God bless America.”

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We shall see.

 

Marat and The Third Estate

Yesterday was the anniversary of the death in 1792 of Jean-Paul Marat. He was in his bath tub when he died, where he typically worked and sometimes received guests, as he had a bad skin condition and sought relief for it there. He had agreed to an interview with Charlotte Corday, who produced a dagger and stabbed the defenseless Marat to death.

Jacques-Louis David’s depiction of the scene:

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Marat had been a doctor and a favorite of French aristocrats, based in part on his success in curing cases of gonorrhea. He published works on eye diseases. In 1777, he was appointed physician to the bodyguard of the comte d’Artois, Louis XVI’s youngest brother, who was to become king Charles X in 1824.

This position gave him the money needed to pursue various scientific studies, and he published works detailing experiments on “The Physics of Fire”, his responses to Newton’s ideas about the nature of light, and research on the nature of electrical force. He reached various conclusions that were accepted by official censors and the Academy of Science,  but  that were disputed by the likes of Lavoisier, e.g. that fire was an “igneous fluid”. Lavoisier demanded that the Academy repudiate the findings, and they ultimately did so, creating a rift between Marat and several important scientists of the day. It also soured Marat on the aristocracy.

Marat gave up science and medicine for politics in 1788, as the French Revolution was at hand. In 1789, he published his “Offering to a Nation”, detailing his thoughts on the Third Estate, i.e. the common people (The First Estate was the clergy, and the Second Estate was the aristocracy).

He had “radical” ideas, arguing that society should provide all its citizens the fundamental needs like food and shelter if they were expected to follow its laws, that the king was simply the “first magistrate” of his people, that the death penalty should be applied the same way for anyone regardless of class, and that every town should establish an advocate for the poor to ensure fair trials.

He started a newspaper called “The People’s Friend”, in which he railed against the various centers of influence in Paris and conservative revolutionary leaders. He was forced into hiding several times during this period and took refuge in the sewers of Paris.

Marat was elected to the National Convention in 1792. He thought that Louis XVI should be executed, but not actually accused of anything until he accepted the constitution of 1791. Marat was arrested and imprisoned in April 1793, on charges that he had called for widespread violence, but was acquitted at trial.

Charlotte Corday, a young woman from Caen, came to his apartment claiming to have information about the whereabouts of Marat’s opponents in Caen, the Girondists. Marat’s wife, Simone, objected to granting her an audience, but he saw her anyway. He talked to her for about fifteen minutes, at which point she pulled a 5″ knife from her clothing and stabbed him. His last words were to Simone,  “Aidez-moi, ma chère amie!”.

Corday was from an aristocratic family who had been impoverished by the Revolution, and was a sympathizer of Marat’s antagonists. She was tried for her crime, and testified that, “I killed one man to save 100,000.”

She was guillotined on July 17th 1793.

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Marat was gone, but the ideals he articulated for the Third Estate are as relevant now as they were then.

Yesterday, our president was in Paris on the occasion of Bastille Day. He read a speech which he was apparently seeing for the first time.

In it, he noted that our two nations are forever joined in the spirit of revolution. I would like to think that Tweety understands what the French Revolution was about, and the changes it brought to the dynamic between the Second and Third Estates. However, I’m certain he doesn’t have a clue, and that his ideas more closely resemble Corday’s than Marat’s.

He said that France is America’s first and oldest ally and that “a lot of people don’t know that”. Well, at least one person.

 

Mother of Exiles

Happy birthday, America! This is still the greatest country on earth.

It’s the greatest not because we have the best roads and bridges and airports. We don’t.

And not because we have the best healthcare system in the world, or the cleanest air, or even the best broadband internet or cell-phone systems. We don’t.

And not because we have the best education system or the highest literacy rate. We don’t.

And not because we have the highest standard of living in the world. We don’t.

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And not because we score very highly on the “Social Progress Index” which attempts to aggregate most of these measures, including medical care, sanitation, shelter, education, access to technology, life expectancy, personal rights, freedom of choice, and general tolerance. We barely squeak into the top 20.

And not because all twelve men who have walked on the moon were Americans. They were, but that’s not it at all.

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America may not be the best place to live, using any truly objective measure. And we may be causing as much misery in other parts of the world as we’re preventing.

Worst of all, we may not be living up to own ideals.

But it is those ideals that make us the best. If we come up short in trying to make those ideals reality, that’s one thing. But if we abandon them altogether, we are lost.

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Emma Lazarus was born in 1849, the fourth of seven children. She died at age 38 of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Her interest in her Jewish background and in the idea of Zionism was raised by the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, and the terrible anti-semitic pogroms that followed.

Tens of thousands of destitute Jews fled the “Pale of Settlement” because of these events and Emma tried to help them and advocate for them as much as she could. She helped establish the Hebrew Technical Institute in New York in order to give new arrivals useful training so they could have a way to support themselves in the new land.

Most of all, Emma Lazarus understood the vital importance of the American promise to these unfortunates and others, and the role it played in giving them a home and life itself. Her most famous poem, The New Colossus, was written to help raise money for the construction of a pedestal for the newly acquired Statue of Liberty, and, since 1903, has adorned the inner wall of the pedestal.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

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In America, it doesn’t matter who your parents were, or where you came from, or how or even if you worship God. Everyone is free to pursue their interests and strive to achieve their goals. Everyone is protected by the same law and everyone has the same rights.

In America, anyone can become the President, the most powerful and influential position in the world. Even someone who has never held any elective office at any level. Even someone who is ignorant of all our history and traditions. Even someone who doesn’t understand the basic principles of our founding, or what “Mother of Exiles” means, or where it is inscribed, or who wrote the words, or why. Even a childish and vindictive demagogue who would use the privileges that have been freely given by our country to abuse and abolish those same privileges.