Sunday, October 6, 2019

Shoot the Moon -- The 1969 National League Playoffs

EVERYONE WAS SHOOTING FOR THE MOON in 1969, the Americans, the Russians and even the Atlanta Braves, at least metaphorically.

 The team from The Launching Pad
Fifty years ago this weekend, Major League Baseball's first franchise based in the American southeast fought for the National League pennant. They did it while claiming the entire region as their own, just four seasons after moving from Milwaukee.

It wasn't the first time relocation had rejuvenated the peripatetic Braves, one of the N.L.'s founding franchises.

Sixteen years earlier, as attendance tanked in Boston, the moribund 64-win team relocated to the good land, won 28 more games in their 1953 debut and then, four years later, a championship.

The 1969 edition won 93 games, finishing first in the newly-created NL Western Division. Their roster was studded with stars: future home run king Hank Aaron, his fellow future Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda plus slugger Rico Carty and former New York Yankees' mainstay Clete Boyer. Leading their pitching staff was a 23-game winner, knuckleballer Phil Niekro.

Stoked to plant their pennant, they produced a gorgeous 80-page playoff program -- full of articles, photos, rosters and stats -- wrapped by a moon landing-themed cover that declared, "One step for the Braves. One giant leap for the Southeast."

The first ever NL West champions (from the Braves' 1969 NLCS program).

But to reach their figurative moon, they needed to step past the New York Mets.

After languishing in last or next-to-last place for the first seven years of their existence and merely a .500 ball club as late as June 2, New York's NL franchise caught fire in the summer, overtaking the first place Chicago Cubs on Sept. 10 and then winning the Eastern Division by eight games. They finished at 100-62.

Leading their charge was brash power pitcher Tom Seaver, a 25-game winner who would have been Braves property had they not violated the rules for signing college players in 1966.

Three years after his Braves contract was voided, Seaver was not merely the best pitcher in baseball, but leading a staff that included 17-game-winner Jerry Koosman, rookie Gary Gentry and down the depth chart, a young fireballer named Nolan Ryan.

The Mets' NLCS program, an adaptive reuse of their
regular season scorecard with minimal new content,
offered for just a single home game for 25 cents.
Their lineup was a mashup of platoon players expertly deployed by Manager Gil Hodges, but led by left-fielder Cleon Jones, who'd hit .340, sterling center-fielder Tommie Agee and hard-hitting first-baseman Donn Clendenon.

"Good pitching will always stop good hitting, and vice versa," baseball sage Casey Stengel reportedly once said. The best-of-five Mets/Braves NLCS was a vice versa kind of series, where good pitching largely took a back seat to good hitting and somehow, the Mets had more of that too.

On Oct. 4, the series opened in Atlanta, in a bullring of a ballpark that came to be known as The Launching Pad. Seaver vs. Niekro. The traded punches until the eight inning when, with the Braves nursing a 5-4 lead, when the Mets' erupted for five runs, helped by a pair of Atlanta errors. Game 1 to the New Yorkers, 9-5.

Game 2 the next day saw the Mets jump out to a 8-0 lead en route to an 11-6 romp. The Braves headed to New York, their moon landing in jeopardy.

Foreshadowing from the Braves program
There, the Braves rapped out five hits and a walk in the first three innings off New York's starter, Gentry, one of them a two run homer by Aaron, his third blast of the series.

With two on and no outs in third, Hodges pulled Gentry in favor of Ryan, who sandwiched an intentional walk around two strikeouts and ended the inning on Braves catcher Bob Didier's fly out.

Atlanta would never seriously threaten again, while the Mets got homers from Agee and infielders Ken Boswell and Wayne Garrett.

Ryan pitched seven innings, striking out seven while allowing two runs to earn the win, one of just two post-season victories in his 27 year Hall of Fame career. Aaron wouldn't appear in the playoffs again. He retired as a Milwaukee Brewer after the 1976 season with the most homers in major league history: 755.

On Oct. 6, 1969, the Mets captured the NL pennant before a raucous crowd at Shea Stadium in Queens. Ten days later, they'd stun the Baltimore Orioles and the world by taking the World Series 4 games to 1. The moon belonged to them.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

No place for MAD in a World Gone Ever Madder

FOR THE SNOB, THE HIGHBROW and those who feigned ignorance, it was easy to dismiss MAD Magazine as silly, sophomoric trash, supermarket checkout line fodder a harried mom might quickly yank from her kid's grubby hands and stuff right back into the rack where it came from.
The end of the line, styled as a throw-back,
and, at $5.99, no longer really "cheap."

As one of those grubby kids, I knew better.

MAD was the key to unlocking the truth about the adult universe, the hypocrisy, the vanity and inherent cynicism of every day life. Each issue was a cleverly disguised instruction manual, teaching kids how to see through, if not actually defeat, the bullshit being shoveled their way every day.

Every goddamned day.

MAD was dynamite. Now it's done.

After 64 years, America's greatest purveyor of subversive satirical shtick has published its final issue of new material. From here on in, it'll be all re-packaged greatest hits collections not unlike the quarterly Super Specials MAD churned out when I was a kid, only more so. Immortality through re-runs.

The cause of death: Obsolescence.

MAD outlived its usefulness, done in by a world crazier than the one it lampooned, superseded by TV bridezillas, bachelors and bachelorettes, by real housewives and teen moms, by Survivor, The Apprentice and by a social media landscape more shameless and self-referential than its editors ever imagined.

A Super Special reprint
MAD was born in the ultra-self-congratulatory, self-serious 1950s, a time of sock hops and the red menace, of Disneyland and fall-out shelters, of American chest-thumping over beating the Axis powers and making the world safe for suburbia and shopping malls.

It sprung from the skull of publisher William M. Gaines and legendary artist Harvey Kurtzman as a full color comic book, something I only ever glimpsed as reprints packaged with those Super Specials.

That incarnation lasted just 23 issues before being transformed into the glossy-cover black and white illustrated magazine we came to know and love.

My dad got that first issue of the new MAD while serving in the U.S. Army and kept it long enough to give it to me together with a half dozen more issues of similar vintage, proving this type of MADness too could be hereditary.

Where it began: dad's July '55 issue
There was a lot of mocking of Madison Avenue (those other Mad Men) in that first outing, their gray flannel-suited false earnestness, plus jibes at mid-century modernity, television, professional wrestling (as if it needed to be mocked) and America's as-yet-unrealized space program.

In time, the magazine would turn its sights on Elvis Presley, Walt Disney and, unavoidably, politics, producing for its December 1956 issue a cover both timeless and iconic.

About 25 years later, I started reading MAD and, in 1976, became a subscriber.

I was 11 years old and wouldn't miss an issue for the next four years, spending lots of time with the so-called "usual gang of idiots" -- Al Jaffee, the father of the fold-in, purveyor of Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions; Dave Berg's The Lighter Side...Antonio Prohias' Cold War-inspired Spy vs. Spy and Don Martin's epic onomatopoetic sound effects.

December '56, October '80

They repeatedly spoofed Star Trek and Star Wars which meant a great deal to an unrepentant geek like me. I remain forever grateful.

MAD was great fun.

Behind the humor, there were serious messages from the editors: they hated hypocrisy and war, drugs, poverty, bigotry, pollution and politicians.

Their send-up of The French Connection was titled What's the ConnectionIn it, Gene Hackman's "Cockeye" Doyle is an unabashed bigot telling every minority he's encounters -- real or imagined -- to go back to where they came from. That lesson stayed with me. Even as a kid, I got the point that that was wrong.

MAD taught generations of kids to think critically about what they were being told and sold by the establishment. Its writers' unsubtle message: People are generally full of crap.

They were of course right. For a time the formula worked and MAD had a little media empire going, one filled with paperback books, phonograph records and even a TV show.

Peak geek -- October 1976
In 2013, they published Inside MAD, full-color, hard cover coffee table book -- not even its first! -- a gorgeous 256-page collection of its creators' favorite entries -- much which came from the sweet spot of my era, MAD's golden age  -- plus encomiums from Judd ApatowWhoopi GoldbergKen BurnsTodd McFarlane, Ice-TTony HawkMad Men creator Matthew Weiner and others.

MAD influenced all of them too.

Nine issues ago, its publishers attempted a re-launch, resetting the counter to issue 1 from 550, to no avail. The insanity of every day life had rendered MAD passably sane. Now, the magazine has wrapped up its role in educating America's youth, leaving disciples everywhere.

We're still out there, and we can see right through you.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

Sunday, August 11, 2019

A Baptism in Springsteen's Church of Rock & Roll

I'D HEARD ABOUT EVENTS LIKE THIS, the fanaticism, the ecstasy, the rapture and delirium brought on by four hours of pure joy. Yet I still wasn't ready for what I witnessed that night.

Bruce Springsteen, The Boss, live on stage at the Brendan Byrne Arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey. He was midway through a 10-night stand somewhere in the swamps of Jersey, in the middle of the epic Born in the USA Tour, at the peak of his career.

The official tour program.
And then, right in front of everybody, the biggest star in rock and roll -- still a bachelor at age 34 -- danced with his mother.

Just like that.

It was August 12, 1984 and I was seeing Springsteen live for the very first time. Me, Richie, Wayne and Big Ed had driven across New York City from Long Island to the arena New Jersey's favorite son christened with a concert on its opening night just three years before.

Big Ed remembers: Rich Fields was also a big Springsteen fan. He and I became close one winter when he missed a semester at school recovering from a tumor. Born in the USA was out and a huge success on radio and this new thing called MTV. I had just gotten home from a Mets game, crawled into bed, and then my phone rang at around midnight.

It was Rich, with the news that Springsteen tickets were going on sale in the morning. He suggested I pick him up and we go camp out in front of the ticket store. This was before Ticketmaster and the Internet. We got there, and there were only 25 to 30 people in front of us. I thought that was great, but the process was also excruciatingly slow. I could write a whole article about just the ticket experience. We bonded with lot of people, I even went on a lunch date with a hot blonde from North Woodmere with a Datsun 280ZX, whom I never saw again. Finally around 4 p.m., Rich and I had the tickets.

Eddie and Rich slept outside our local Ticketron outlet. There, for $16 a piece they nabbed four seats in the front row of section 211, the upper level near what would be center ice.

Four hours of jubilation for $16.
The stage was to our left. Though we had seats, I don't recall sitting very much. I do recall the entire tier bouncing to the beat, not just the people, mind you, but the stands themselves.

The dance song was, of course, Dancing in the Dark, a smash hit by a guy who wasn't about dance songs. But this was a new Bruce -- Megastar Bruce, MTV star Bruce -- and he could get away with doing pretty much whatever the hell he damned wanted to do.

"That's my mom!" he shouted.

Big Ed: It was more than a decade before Friends premiered on TV, but half the male Springsteen fans were already in love with Courteney Cox, Bruce's dance partner in the DitD video. Well, I was expecting there to be some hot chick that would come up on stage and dance with Bruce. Instead he pulled his mother Adele on stage for that song.

In June Springsteen released Born in the USA, his seventh LP. Though the name evoked his breakthrough album Born to Run, issued nine years earlier, this was no sequel. The nation had changed and so had The Boss.

The Interval

Between those recordings, Springsteen had an all-out legal war with his original manager that kept him out of the studio and on the road for more than a year. He'd written a surfeit of songs out of which emerged Darkness on the Edge of Town, a searing blue collar crie-de-coeur.

This was a bitter album for post-Watergate, post-Vietnam America, a time of double-digit inflation, gasoline shortages and the national malaise President Jimmy Carter later labeled "a crisis of confidence."

Two years later, Bruce and the E Street Band released The River, a two-disc mix of rock-and-roll rowdiness and melancholy story songs about accidental pregnancy, metaphorical adultery and despair. Among those 20 tracks was a song about a man who'd walked out on his wife and kids, set to a party beat.

Clocking in at a radio-friendly 3:19, the song -- Hungry Heart -- spent 18 weeks on Billboard Hot 100. Topping out at number five, it was Springsteen's first bona fide radio hit. The River LP went to number one on the Billboard 200. [Ridiculously, improbably, 14-year-old me had been offered a ticket to a River tour concert and turned it down, a mistake I'd not make again.]

The original vinyl release.
Most artists would have looked at that hard won success and ordered up more of the same. Bruce Springsteen isn't most artists. What carried over into the next album wasn't the hootenanny of Hungry HeartSherry Darling or Cadillac Ranch, but the loneliness of Stolen CarDrive All Night and the album closer, Wreck on the Highway.

Titled Nebraska, Bruce's 1982 release was bleak, stark and spare, a collection of vinyl-pressed demo tapes featuring The Boss alone on acoustic guitar and harmonica.

The title track was based on the 1958 midwestern killing spree of 19-year-old Charlie Starkweather, accompanied by his 14-year-old girlfriend, Caril Fugate. Her parents were his first victims.

What to expect after that?

The Boss Goes Boom

The answer came in the stadium scale heartland rock of Born in the USA, an LP containing a dozen songs. Seven of them reached the Top 10, including Dancing...Glory DaysI'm on Fire and My Home Town.

Ronald Reagan was president, the national mood was different, and crowding into Springsteen's genre were rockers John Mellencamp and Bob Seger plus Canadian counterpart Bryan Adams.

The Boss's sound was now bigger and bolder, right from the opening title track.

If one ignores the lyrics, Born in the USA the song can easily be mistaken for a patriotic anthem. It's really an indictment of a nation indifferent to a generation of people it sent to fight an ultimately pointless foreign war. It was precursor to the more overtly political music Springsteen would make in the ensuing decades.

Glory Days -- Me and college friend Laura K.
circa 1985. I still have that shirt somewhere.
It opened his show on that August night, a four-hour marathon punctuated by The Boss's trademark stage stories and banter. There were three songs from Nebraska, though not the one about Starkweather, five from the double-album River, four from the first Born and eight from the new Born.

Among the most memorable: Tenth Avenue Freeze Out, the Hungry Heart sing-along and show closing covers Twist and Shout and Do You Love Me?

Big Ed: I am finally at a Springsteen concert and my first event at this new arena named after the former Governor of New Jersey in what Springsteen would refer to as The swamps of Jersey. My memories of the set list are fuzzy, partially because it was a lifetime ago and partially because I would go on to see Springsteen another 13 times over the years.

To me, it was the equivalent of a Jew's Birthright trip to the Holy Land or a Muslim's Hajj to Mecca. I never saw a more enthusiastic crowd in an arena as I did when the band played Born in the USA.

The four of us -- really the 20,000 of us -- danced and sang all night. I've no idea how Bruce and company did that night in and night out. I was exhausted well before he introduced his bandmates during the rousing Rosalita (Come Out Tonight). Little did we know (and who knows if he did) that the newly-added Patti Scialfa would one day be his wife.

Big Ed: It was also our first sighting of Nils Lofgren, who'd replaced Miami Steve Van Zandt. He'd appeared on the Born in the USA album, then left to reinvent himself as Little Steven, fronting a band called The Disciples of Soul. Later he'd return to the E Street Band before reinventing himself again as Silvo on HBO's The Sopranos.

Thirty-five years and a couple of dozen concerts later, some starring The Boss and some not, this first time seeing him live on that summer night remains the best time. It made me a believer in Bruce almighty and the power of his music.

Thanks to Eddie and Wayne for helping to reconstruct our memories. This entry is dedicated to our friend and fellow concert-goer Richard Fields, who died on Aug. 22 of last year. He was just 54.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Jim Bouton's Seattle Pilots: a Tale of Two Yearbooks

THE SEATTLE PILOTS published a yearbook in 1969. It's a handsome document with a navy blue cover wrapped around 40 glossy pages of standard fare biographies and statistics punctuated by color and black and white photos.

But that's not how most people came to know or why they remember Major League Baseball's one year wonders and why they'll never be forgotten.

The incendiary unofficial yearbook
The Pilots, an oddball collection of players and coaches stationed in a decrepit minor league ballpark, gained inadvertent immortality courtesy of Jim Bouton, a former New York Yankees phenom who lived through and chronicled the team's lone season in Ball Four the greatest baseball tell-all ever written.

Bouton died last month from a brain hemorrhage at the age of 80. He'd suffered from cerebral amyloid angiopathy, which causes blood vessels to burst. It also causes a dementia and long before it killed him, the disease -- and a 2012 stroke -- robbed Bouton of random words, facts and correlations.

That had to be a particular type of hell for a man best known by recent generations for what he said about baseball rather than what he did with one.

A young flamethrower, Bouton won 21 games for the 1963 American League champions. He won 18 the next year, plus two more in a World Series he, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Whitey Ford lost to the St. Louis Cardinals.

It was the end of an incredible 18-year run for the Bronx Bombers during which they won 15 pennants and 10 championships. It also capped a flicker of time when Bouton was among the game's best pitchers before arm trouble reduced him to a knuckle-baller barely hanging on to his career.

Despite sunshine and great promise...
(from the 1969 Seattle Pilots yearbook)
It was in that debilitated state that the former standout hurler for a legendary team came to be acquired by the American League expansion Pilots, who lasted just the 1969 season, before failing as a business and moving to Milwaukee.

An iconoclast who never missed a chance to clash with authority, Bouton chose that year to keep a diary. The resultant book, Ball Four, blew the lid off baseball's wholesome image, revealing that Mantle drank heavily, amphetamine use was rampant, players chased girls and spied on them whenever and wherever they could, owners were petty and management was often hidebound and stupid.

It was literary yearbook and highlight film the likes of which had never been seen, a personal memoir and log book from a doomed voyage.
The less well-read official yearbook

With an ear for dialogue and an eye for human foibles, Bouton immortalized men like Gene Brabender, the Pilots' gentle giant of a pitcher. A 13-game winner, Brabender hailed from a place called Black Earth, Wisconsin, and once ended an argument with the author by telling him he was lucky it was just that. "Where I come from, we just talk for a little while. After that we start to hit," he said.

And men like pervy shortstop Ray Oyler, who sprung an erection on the team bus and offered to buy it from the driver, outfielder Steve Hovley, whose eccentricity earned him the nickname "Orbit," and pitcher Gary Bell, whose best advice for confronting any batter was simply "smoke 'em inside."

Bouton had a special affection for the Pilots' beleaguered skipper, Joe Schultz, whose favorite profanities were "shitfuck" and "fuckshit." His best advice for dealing with any situation was "pound that old Budweiser."

Bouton's ex-Yankee status gave his book gravitas and credibility. People had to take it seriously, whether they liked it or not, and many inside baseball's crumbling old order did not.

Pilots pitcher, author, idol smasher.
(from the 1969 Pilots' yearbook)
He was denounced as a Judas, a man who broke a raft of unwritten rules, an apostate unwelcome for decades at Old Timer's Day.

Ball Four also revealed something more about human nature, something that transcended baseball and applied more universally to anyone capable of independent thought but trapped in an organization ruled by group think and conventional wisdom.

Bouton was an outside-the-box thinker. Baseball wasn't ready for him, but late 1960s-early 1970s America was and remains so to this day. So Ball Four remains a testament to one man's struggles against the establishment. The New York Public library deemed it one of greatest books of the 20th Century.

Just as importantly though -- within the realm of baseball -- Ball Four was a testament to the Pilots' travails, a history of people and events that surely would have been forgotten but for Bouton's decision to make their year the year the faded former fireballer recorded for posterity.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Michael Collins Drops Off Two Guys at the Moon...

"WAIT IN THE CAR, MIKE," Neil and Buzz said, hopping out after their four day, 238,900-mile road trip. "Gonna take a walk, talk to some folks, grab some rocks. You drive around the block, we'll be right back."
Aldrin, Collins and Armstrong conquer the Moon
Life Magazine photo.

With that, Michael Collins, a dutiful, low key sort of guy listened to the radio, sipped coffee, circled and waited for his cohorts to return from their errand.

Or not.

The actual details likely differed, perhaps substantially, but just in dialog, not in result.

On July 20, 1969, American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin became the first to human beings to set foot on the Moon, Earth's orbital companion for the past 4.5 billion years or so, previously an unreachable place in the sky.

Armstrong, the commander of NASA's Apollo 11 mission, arrived preloaded with matchless lines that would echo down through history: "The Eagle has landed," "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind" and "Good luck, Mr. Gorsky."

Apollo 11 blasted off
on July 16, 1969.
Life Magazine photo
Aldrin, the second man off the lunar lander, helped plant a U.S. flag on the dusty surface and posed for pictures taken by his boss with a Hasselblad camera. And, during their relatively brief 2 1/2-hour lunar romp, the men collected roughly 13 pounds of rocks.

Fulfilling a fundamental dream of human existence, Armstrong and Aldrin spent more than 21 hours at Tranquility Base (another Armstrong-ism) etching their names in history.

Meanwhile, Collins flew around the Moon alone in a spaceship called Columbia -- glimpsing the dark, far side we can't see from Earth -- waiting for the others to fly up from the surface aboard top half of the lunar lander Eagle and rejoin him for the long ride back home.

Eventually they did, leaving behind a wire-stiffened flag, a solar wind experiment and the lunar module's descent stage. Affixed to one leg of that landing craft, a stainless steel plaque bearing the signatures of all three travelers and President Richard Nixon, stating, "We came in peace for all mankind. July 1969 A.D."

The facsimile signature was as close as Michael Collins would get.

Imagine flying nearly half a million miles to ferry two companions to a place where no man had gone before, while your assignment is simply to wait for them to return.

Michael Collins did that, without evident rancor, bitterness or disappointment. He was a pilot flying his mission.

"I didn't feel lonely or left out," Collins wrote in his recently republished memoir, Flying to the Moon. "II knew my job was very important and that Neil and Buzz could never get home without me." So he flew, and waited, and listened to pre-recorded music including, he said without irony, the 1965 Jonathan King song, Everyone's Gone to the Moon.

Collins actually had another destination in mind, he said: Mars. "It, not the Moon, is where I wanted to go as a child."

The Collins-designed mission patch.
That said, after the travelers returned, they were kept in quarantine for nearly three weeks, until scientists were sure they'd not returned with Moon bugs. Then the now-world famous trio was released to the public for a trip around the world good will tour that included a ticker tape parade down New York City's lower Broadway, a thoroughfare nicknamed the Canyon of Heroes.

And then Collins walked away from the space program, returning to his Earthbound life as a husband and father.

Armstrong, famously reclusive, gave few interviews and died in 2012 at age 82. Two years later, Congress renamed NASA's primary flight research center in his honor, adding to a veritable mountain of accolades he'd received in his lifetime, including a Presidential Gold Medal bestowed by Richard Nixon. His name also adorns a museum, an airport, public schools and an engineering center at his alma mater, Purdue University.

Aldrin, 89, too received those medals, had schools named in his honor, a lunar crater and this toy.

At 88, Collins legacy is less distinct as he shares his name with a noted Irish independence leader about whom a movie was made starring Liam Neesen. Born in Rome, Italy, the son of a career Army officer, spaceman Collins wrote that he had no home town to honor him with a parade after his first spaceflight, Gemini X, in 1966.

Special edition.
He graduated West Point but opted to join the Air Force, rather than the Army, becoming first a fighter pilot, then a test pilot and then an astronaut. Upon leaving NASA, he briefly served as U.S. Secretary of State for Public Affairs. Like his crewmates, he was honored by the president, Congress and other distinguished groups.

Collins retired from the Air Force with the rank of Major General in 1982.

Today he dreams of mankind traveling into the solar system, perhaps establishing a permanent town in space called Libra at the solar system's libration point where the gravities of the Sun, Earth and Moon cancel each other out. He's still willing to go to Mars, just to find out what's there.

"And Mars is just the beginning," Collins said.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive