Friday, May 20, 2016

Sex and the Spider-Man

PETER PARKER was my hero.

It wasn't just because he was a geeky kid like me -- but better at math and science -- who suddenly had great powers and the concomitant great responsibility. And it wasn't just because he had super strength, could climb walls and shoot sticky web stuff from gadgets on his wrists (though I spent more time than I should have, strictly speaking, trying to figure out how to make my own web shooters).

It wasn't even that he could afford to live in New York City, the albeit scary 1970s version, on a freelance photo journalist's income because at nine, 10 or 11 years old, I didn't think about those things.

Mary Jane and what's his name
It was because this transformed super-geek was able to date hot babes, stacked, brick house babes a pre-pubescent ordinary geek like me could only think about and never possess.

Never, ever, ever.*

First there was the gorgeous, platinum blonde Gwen Stacy.

Sweet Gwen, with her headbands, short skirts and gogo boots, murdered by the original Green Goblin, Norman Osborn, right before he accidentally killed himself.

Parker, my grieving hero, immediately found comfort in the arms of fiery red-headed Mary Jane Watson. Now there, THERE, was a woman. They went out. They dated. I -- the vicarious, invisible, third wheel -- tagged along.

One night, Peter Parker took her back to his place and...

KARA--BOOM! (No, really, that's what it said right in the bottom panel of page 3 of The Amazing Spider-Man, number 136.)

Kara-boom!?! Well, yes.
An explosion. Peter's place was laid waste by a bomb planted by Norman Osborn's son, Harry, who was going through a bad phase.

The Green Goblin was alive. Sort of. Thirteen issues later, so was Gwen Stacy. (T.A.S-M, 149)

And she was naked. Naked! Like, close the door, somebody might see, nude! Holy f*ck!

It was Autumn, 1975. Normal kids were probably watching Carl Yastrzemski, Fred Lynn and the Red Sox or Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and the Big Red Machine.

I've read they played one heck of a World Series. Carlton Fisk willed a foul ball into a home run.
I missed it. I had other priorities.

Gwen. Gwen! (Shh... wait, I hear somebody coming up the stairs. Close the door!).

The stuff that pre-adolescent dreams are made of
Man, she was beautiful and, in retrospect, tastefully rendered. Just enough play of light and shadow to leave most everything to the imagination. I had one. It worked really really well.

Suddenly my comic book was contraband, right up their with dad's copies of Playboy and the cheaper, more explicit knockoffs occasionally brandished by my delinquent friend around the corner.

Turns out Gwen was cloned by some heartbroken college science professor who never got over her death. Said professor was a bit off, given to emotional outbursts, enamored of his godliness and -- driven mad by guilt after accidentally killing a colleague -- transformed into some evil, clone-happy critter who called himself the Jackal.

(So much death, grief and madness in this Marvel universe. It was like a Russian lit class, only you know, fun and with pictures.)

He cloned Spider-Man, kidnapped his boss and ultimately died along with one of the homo-arachnae when he blew up the scoreboard at Shea Stadium. (Mets finished third that year). Deliberately left vague: which version of Peter Parker lived and which perished in the blast.

Gwen Stacy Mark II had seen enough to know that maybe paling around with either one wasn't good for her health. She split.

Peter -- one of them at least -- went home to Mary Jane, saying he had something to show her.

Some guys had all the luck.


*  At least not until I met my wife.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Meanwhile, high above the East River...

MAY 17 MARKED the 40th Anniversary of the Roosevelt Island Tram, a cable car spanning the East River between the slender strip of land named for America's 32nd president and that crowded, villain infested-yet-superhero-protected place known as Metropolis, Gotham City, Manhattan.

"Launched as a temporary transportation measure until the F subway line would be routed to the newly residential island, the Roosevelt Island tram soon became an icon of the fledgling community. As the nations's first commuter aerial tram, it carries thousands to work and school on Manhattan and then back home to their Island residences daily, initially for 25 cents,'' says a website commemorating the 100th birthday of urban visionary and activist Jane Jacobs.

Apparently there was a ceremony.

I was not there. Perhaps, in some attendee's mind, these fellows were. -- ah

T.A.S-M, Punisher and Nightcrawler, Nov. 1976


Saturday, May 14, 2016

Tomorrow the World, Part II

"MANKIND'S ACHIEVEMENTS on a shrinking globe in an expanding universe."

That was the dedication on the biggest model of the Earth ever made. It was called Unisphere.

Though it took 64 years for Major League Baseball to award any sort of trophy to its World Series winner and another 32 years for that trophy to include any representation of the game's home planet, the Unisphere -- for a time -- was a ubiquitous marketing companion of the New York Mets.

The Unisphere story
Built by U.S. Steel, the sphere stands 12 stories tall, weighs about 450 tons and has special textured surface to prevent blinding reflections of the sun. It was created as the centerpiece and symbol of the 1964-65 New York World's Fair and constructed at the same time as the Mets' nearby new ballpark, Shea Stadium.

Like its 1939-40 antecedent, the 64-65 World's Fair strived to put an optimistic spin on bleak circumstance.

The space race was under way, but so was the cold war.  In September 1962, John F. Kennedy challenged the nation to put a man on the moon before 1970. Just over a year later, he was dead.

"Peace Through Understanding" was the theme of the fair, but war through misunderstanding was imminent in southeast Asia.

Good neighbors, the Mets and the Fair embraced the Unisphere -- Earth -- as a their common cross-promotional symbol.  Peace through understanding at least reigned in Queens.

.283 Winning Percentage

Born just two years earlier, the Mets were the 10th-best team in the 10-team National League. Over their first two seasons, they'd lost an astonishing 231 games while winning just 91. Their home had been the decrepit Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan, abandoned by the New York Giants when they moved to San Francisco in 1958.

The '64 NYWF guide
and Unisphere logo.
NYWF souvenir glassware and
 the ever-present jet over Shea
Now the Mets had a new residence: the 55,000-seat multipurpose Shea, midway between LaGuardia Airport and the Fair. 

The Fair was grand -- too grand for the Bureau of International Expositions, which refused to sanction it because it would run for two years, not one -- and costly to construct and to run. 

With easy access via footbridge over the Long Island Railroad and subway tracks that separated the fairgrounds from the stadium, cross-promotion made good sense.  

Come for the Fair, stay for the game, or vice versa.

A Unisphere logo appeared on the cover of the official NYWF '64 guidebook, with the story of the metal earth's creation within. The '65 edition would feature a double-truck photo of Shea, calling it "sporting neighbor to the fair.'' Both books listed the new ballpark as an attraction.

Shea Stadium touted in the 1965 NYWF guide
The Mets reciprocated in kind, adding an orange and blue Unisphere logo to the team's 1964 and 1965 yearbooks. They even wore a form of it as a patch on their uniform sleeves (which didn't alter their performance on the field).

Cover art for the regular season game program -- billed as the "World's Fair Edition" -- also incorporated the big steel ball next door. A back cover ad featured the 'sphere and dinosaurs.

The Mets' '64 season program.
Before they became fossil fuel...

Unisphere would also make the program cover for Shea's one and only MLB All Star Game. That contest, won by the NL 7-4 on a ninth-inning walk-off homer, featured the Mets' first All Star starter, second-baseman Ron Hunt, who hit .303 that year.

The world comes to William A. Shea Stadium.
The team would finish that year a dreadful 53-109, a two game improvement from 1963 but still in last place. Despite adding a couple of dinosaurs of their own in '65, future Hall of Famers Warren Spahn, 44, and Yogi Berra, 40, they'd regress to 50-112.

Four years later, they'd stun the world by winning 100 games and a championship.

Nearly all of the Fair's attractions were torn down soon after it closed. Those that remain appear as modern ruins visible to motorists on the nearby Grand Central Parkway and from above on flights in and out of LaGuardia. Shea was dismantled after the 2008 season in favor of the posh, retro Citi Field.

The Unisphere lives on* as an officially designated New York City historical landmark and pop culture icon, an object so cool even Donald Trump had to have a copy.

* - As far as I know, this didn't happen.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Tomorrow the World, Part I

FOR PURE BADASS GRANDEUR, it's hard to beat the Stanley Cup.

A horse-and-buggy era prize still fought for in the time of self-driving cars, it's the mac daddy of big league trophies. So cool, it defines the National Hockey League championship. The object of the game is to possess it. NHL dynasties are measured by success in doing so.

One...
Two...
Sure, the other so-called major team sports have their prizes. The NBA bestows something like a golden basketball perched on the edge of a wastebasket, the NFL has its trylon-impaled chrome football and baseball has, well... let's come back to that.

Formally known as the Larry O'Brien Trophy -- named for a long-time league commissioner -- the National Basketball Association's top award is actually a two-foot tall, Tiffany & Co.-cast sterling silver ball and hoop, sheathed in 24-karat gold. While not lacking for bling, according the Maps of the World website, it suffers from a lack of recognition and perhaps of cachet.

Tiffany also makes the venerable Vince Lombardi Trophy, awarded annually to the NFL's Super Bowl winner. Appearances aside, it's not chrome, but sterling silver like its NBA cousin.

Three...
Dynasty
The baubles are bestowed, but nobody speaks in terms of Larrys or Lombardis won. It's about three-peats and one for thumb. The hardware is almost incidental, announced trips to Disney World more memorable.

Soccer too has a sought-after "cup,"* but the emblematic trophy  -- which stands just 14.5 inches (36.8 cm) tall -- is relatively dinky considering the planetary nature of the tourney that precedes it.

So Lord Stanley's grail, at nearly three feet (89.54 cm) tall and 34.5 pounds (15.5 kg) is the undisputed heavyweight champion of championship hardware.** All hail to the lord of the rings.

But there was once a challenger.

Wha?


If you were born after 1990, the 30-team NHL may seem like part of the firmament, an immense and immensely successful and mostly stable major league. In the geologic history of the sport, however, that's a relatively recent development.

For most of its history, the NHL was tiny, mono-divisional unit romanticized nowadays as the Original Six that included no team south or west of Chicago. All that changed when the league doubled in size in 1967, then added two more franchises in 1970.

In 1971, six of its 14 teams were veritable toddlers, two more mere infants, and not all of them were healthy. Two of the new teams would ultimately move and one of those two would later fail.

Enter the World Hockey Association, boldly going where major league hockey had never gone before: Cleveland.

Final fight to capture the globe.
Plus Edmonton,  Winnipeg, Quebec City and Houston. Franchises were also placed in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, St. Paul and Ottawa. Twelve in all took the ice in 1972, half of them in markets without an NHL rival. They raided the elder league for talent and signed away the Blackhawks' Bobby Hull, the Bruins' Derek Sanderson and the Flyers' Bernie Parent. Red Wings legend Gordie Howe came out of retirement to play with sons Marty and Mark on the Aeros in Houston.

All they needed was a championship trophy.

Teams, talent and trophies cost money, so the WHA's top prize got a sponsor. The AVCO Financial Services Corp. paid $500,000 for the right to put it's name on the Avco World Trophy. True to it's name, it came with a crystalline globe that appeared to float in the Lucite stem connecting the silvered bowl to its cylindrical base. While it wasn't the Stanley Cup, it was pursued all the same.

Over the six seasons the trophy was available (it was absent in year one), Winnipeg's Jets won it the most, three times, including 1976 when the Bobby Hull and company swept the Howe family and friends in four straight.

The star studded rosters for the WHA's 1976 Avco World Cup championship series.

The world was not enough. After seven tumultuous seasons that saw both the NHL and WHA rocked by franchise instability and failure, they declared peace. Winnipeg, Edmonton, Hartford and Quebec City were admitted to the elder league. The World Hockey Association folded and its planetary award became a part of hockey history.

But about that baseball trophy



Despite it's name, there's never been anything particularly worldly about Major League Baseball's World Series, a tournament that has included a team based outside the U.S. just twice since 1903.

Nonetheless, top teams were annually crowned the World Champions and, starting in 1967, received a flag bedecked gold and black trophy attesting to that status though the knobby appendage at the center of its base was not a globe, but a baseball.

But, in 1999, the MLB's (nameless) Commissioner's Trophy was redesigned, by Tiffany, and the award's recipient was subtly downgraded from World Champion to World Series Champion.

Sterling silver became the dominant color, with gold accents, while the stair-step ring of flags, one for each MLB franchise remained. The knobby appendage, which had been flanked by press pins representing the pennant winners fighting for that year's title, all vanished. So too did a gold hoop and crown.

In their place: a curving dome featuring baseball stitching, in gold, and etched in the silver semi-sphere, the latitudinal and longitudinal lines of a globe.

The world, at last.

The 1977 World Champion Yankees and...
... the 2005 World Series Champion White Sox.
* - I'm sorry, but that doesn't look very cup-like, but its purloined predecessor did.
* *- Russian's Kontinental Hockey League awards it's champion the Gagarin Cup, named for the first Cosmonaut to orbit the earth and return home safely. At least one website says it weighs 40 pounds.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

FernandoMania Meets the Mets

In the spring of 1981 -- nearly 20 years after BeatleMania and and an almost equal number before basketball fans experienced LinSanity -- a chubby, Mexican screwball-tossing phenom named Fernando Valenzuela arrived at New York's Shea Stadium with his Los Angeles Dodgers entourage and the press corps trailing in their wake.

Valenzuela, 20, had been a late season call-up as the Dodgers unsuccessfully battled the Houston Astros for the NL West title the prior season. In 17.2 innings, he'd fanned 16 batters, won two games and saved another.

The Dodgers made him their opening day starter for the 1981 campaign.

Fernando responded by out-pitching Astros 20-game winner Joe Niekro and silencing the division title holders, 2-0. It was only the beginning. Five days later, he'd defeat the San Francisco Giants and their ace, Vida Blue, 7-1. Next, came a 2-0 shut out of the San Diego Padres, besting veteran Rick Wise and then a complete game 1-0 whitewashing of the Astros and ex-Dodger hurler Don Sutton.

On April 27, Valenzuela pitched another 9-inning shut out. One month into the baseball season, he was 5-0, had thrown five complete games and had four shutouts. Over his first 45 innings pitched, he'd allowed just a single run.

A star was born. It was Fernandomania and it was headed east: first to Montreal, where he beat the Expos and then on to New York to face the Mets.

As good as the Dodgers were, already 18-8 and in ensconced first place, the Mets weren't. They were just 7-14 and though they'd beaten the Giants, 3-2, snapping a two-game losing streak on May 7, they'd done so before just 5,653 fans.

Friday, May 8, 1981 -- already 35 years ago -- would be different. A crowd of 39,848 would make it so.

As the Swedish pop group Abba once sang, there was something in the air that night.

To be sure, although they were in the midst of a losing season, their fifth in a string of seven, the Mets roster was already dotted with players who would play key roles in their eventual emergence as an NL power, some by staying and some by being traded away. Among the retainees were outfielder Mookie Wilson, infielder Wally Backman, reliever Jesse Orosco and the briefly exiled Lee Mazzilli. Those destined to be dealt away included infielder Hubie Brooks, relievers Neil Allen and Jeff Reardon and that night's starter, Mike Scott.

Not yet the Cy Young Award winner and Mets' tormentor he'd become just five years later, Scott, 26, pitched valiantly for seven innings. His efforts would be immediately undermined by shortstop du jour Bob Bailor, whose first inning error led to an unearned run. It would be all Valenzuela would need, but not before the Mets would mount their greatest threat.

Mazzilli led off the Mets half of the first with a hit and then stole second. Bailor struck out, but catcher John Stearns walked as did rightfielder Joel Youngblood, loading the bases for slugger Dave Kingman.

Shea Stadium buzzed with anticipation. The underdogs had the phenom in a jam.

Over the course of his 16-year career, the man called Kong played for seven big league teams, clouted 442 home runs and struck out 1,816 times. Valenzuela would fan him three times that night. But not this time.

The often all-or-nothing Kingman made contact of the worst kind, grounding into a 5-4-3 double play extinguishing the Met threat.

It was as close as they'd get to scoring. Valenzuela scattered seven hits and four walks while striking out 11 over his now customary nine innings for yet another shutout. His record: a spotless 7-0. Scott would yield just four hits, walk one and strike out six, but still take the loss, dropping him to 1-3 on the young season.

Along the way, Mets manager Joe Torre would be ejected.

Valenzuela would win just six more games in a season remembered mostly for a mid-year strike that cleaved the schedule, produced first-half and second-half division winners which played each other for the right to duel in the league championship series.

The Dodgers would go on to defeat the New York Yankees in the World Series. Fernando, though his record sagged to 13-7, won the NL's Cy Young and Rookie of the Year awards.

Scott, traded to the Astros in December 1982 for outfielder Danny Heep, would blossom into a dominating pitcher and claim his own Cy Young and NLCS most valuable player honors in 1986, though that year's championship would be won by his former team, the Mets.