books

Amazin’ Baseball

Mazer CoverUsually when I write posts for this blog, I’ve recently read, watched, or listened to whatever I am writing about; however, I haven’t done my homework this time, choosing instead to set aside the movie I was going to write about and take a few hundred words to talk about Bill Mazer, who passed away earlier today.

Mazer, if you are unfamiliar with him, was a longtime New York sports journalist and commentator, one of the early guard of sports radio hosts, and was a mainstay on WNEW (Channel 5, now WNYW, the New York City Fox affiliate) during the 1980s, kind of the same way that George Michael was a Washington, D.C. mainstay with his “Sports Machine” highlights.  The New York Times has an excellent obituary of Mazer that I highly recommend reading, as I was struck by the extent and longevity of his career.

To be honest, I wasn’t that familiar with Mazer or his career, as I was too young to watch him on television and have only had a passing interest in sports radio (and only then it’s to listen to the occasional game).  But for the last twenty-three years I have had a signed copy of Bill Mazer’s Amazin’ Baseball Book on my bookshelf, and when I saw the obituary in the Times, I immediately pulled it off the bookshelf and will be reading it again for the first time since my Uncle Michael and Aunt Clare gave it to me for my thirteenth birthday.

The title page of my copy of Bill Mazer's Amazin' Baseball Book, signed by the author for my thirteenth birthday.

The title page of my copy of Bill Mazer’s Amazin’ Baseball Book, signed by the author for my thirteenth birthday.

As noted in my post about the 1988 Mets, when I was in the latter part of elementary school and through most of junior high school, I was a rabid baseball fan.  I’m still a huge Mets fan, but this was a time in my life when I was the encyclopedic sort of fan, the type of kid who read or watched everything about baseball that he could get his hands on and who enjoyed the most minute, trivial details about the history of the game (ironically, however, I found Ken Burns’s Baseball boring but I may give that a re-watch at some point).  Bill Mazer’s Amazin’ Baseball Book was the perfect gift, as it is both a memoir of his life and career in relation to the game along with page upon page of facts and stories about the history of the game itself.  The facts are presented in Q&A format with all sorts of tidbits, such as:

WHICH FORMER LOS ANGELES DODGER PITCHER APPEARED IN SUCH TELEVISION SHOWS AS THE LAWMAN AND THE BRADY BUNCH?

Don Drysdale.

It was questions like these (and their answers) that had me flipping back and forth through the book and poring over every page with my friend Tom in the back of his mom’s Ford Taurus on the way to Shea Stadium, and I think what’s always drawn me to shows and books about sports history, especially baseball history, even if my interest in the subject has waned from time to time, replaced with film, comic books, or whatever other part of popular culture I was obsessing over.  Mazer himself, in the introduction to his book, talks about being a fact-o-phile, a proto-Schwab, the type of guy who could rarely, if ever, be stumped.   In fact, the Times obituary sums it up perfectly:

Mr. Mazer’s boyhood idol, Van Lingle Mungo, became the title of a song by the singer, pianist and songwriter Dave Frishberg, consisting entirely of old-time ballplayers’ names. Mungo, who died in 1985, won 120 games and lost 115 with the Dodgers and the Giants, and he led the National League in strikeouts with 238 in 1936. It’s a fair guess that the Amazin’ would have known those statistics without having to look them up.

I’m a fan of experts like that, guys who have extensive knowledge and are experts on topics.  I have always liked having an answer to almost every question and even though it’s becoming a bit passe for people in my field to want to be considered “experts” on anything, I still enjoy just knowing stuff.  I’m sure my fellow sports fans and comics podcasters know exactly how I feel.

But as interesting as all of the facts, figures, and stories contained in Bill Mazer’s Amazin’ Baseball Book are, his passing also reminds me of how many of those in his generation are passing away.  Mazer grew up in Brooklyn during the golden age of the Dodgers’ tenure at Ebbets Field, an era that I’ve only read about in books or heard about in stories that older relatives, like uncles and grandfathers would tell years ago at family functions.  For my money, if I could go back to any era of baseball, it would be the late 1960s so I could see the 1969 Mets, but I remember sitting at many an extended family barbecue listening to Grandpa Panarese talk to my Uncle Brian about the Giants, the Yankees, and whatever other sports stories they had.

While I think it’s out of print, you can find used copies of Bill Mazer’s Amazin’ Baseball Book on Amazon and I recommend picking it up.  It’s truly a trip back in time, one that I’m looking forward to taking again.

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Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 2 — We All Float Down Here (or, Why I Hate Clowns)

In the second episode of the Pop Culture Affidavit podcast, I take a look at Stephen King’s It, both the 1986 novel as well as the 1990 TV movie starring Tim Curry as the evil Pennywise The Clown.  It’s a Halloween treat that will remind you why demonic clowns dwelling in sewers will make you swear off the circus forever.

You can listen here:

iTunes:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download 

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

And, for your viewing enjoyment, here is a scene from the TV movie version of It:

Get Out the Map

What is American is one of those things that is so hard to determine that at this point, it’s almost like a philosophical dilemma rather than a physical entity.  Many have tried to define or capture it; in fact, it seems that the right wing has sought to trademark it for the last couple of decades.  But pinning the answer to that question to one definition is never successful, and it seems that the journey to find that answer is just as if not more important.  Such is the case with Shainee Gabel and Kristin Hahn’s Anthem: An American Road Story.

In the summer of 1995, the two women, fed up with their jobs, decided to interview as many people as they possibly could under the auspices of looking for the definition of our country, of American heroes, and of the American Dream.  The result was a chronicle of that trip told through both a book and a film.

I am not sure if either the film or book were very popular upon their release, as I came in after the fact, getting the book as swag in the summer of 1998 when I interned for its publisher, Avon Books.  I was quite possibly the worst intern in the history of publishing because aside from free books and the ability to fix a five-way copier jam in under a minute, I took nothing away from my experience except for the desire to not work in publishing and to not spend my life commuting into Manhattan via the Long Island Rail Road.

But my ultimately unrewarding experience aside (which, by the way, is compounded by the fact that I turned down an interview for an unpaid internship with a major comics publisher because this internship was paid and I didn’t want my parents to be upset that I was working for no money), I got some very good reads out of it and Anthem was one of them.  During my time in editorial, the book’s editor, Jennifer Hershey, had a large poster of the cover to the paperback edition (Gabel and Hahn standing in a road holding their recording equipment) on the wall of her office and a huge stack of the hardcover edition by her door.  I either asked for a copy or swiped one (probably the former) because the concept of two people taking a road trip to interview people intrigued me, as it was a huge risk for someone to take with her life and I was one of the most risk-averse people in the world (still am to an extent).

I read Anthem on the train, taking it in kind of passively.  I don’t think that’s the type of reaction that the authors were looking for from a reader, but it’s not their fault; at that time I had the perspective of an overprivileged white college student who really knew nothing about the world beyond beers on Saturday.  Oh sure, I had service learning in classes that had me volunteering in sketchy areas of Baltimore and there was a professor or two that required a subscription to The New York Times, but the atmosphere at Loyola was very insulating; I went to college for four years and really didn’t take the time to look very much beyond myself or my own shit.  So really, it’s not their fault. (more…)

Put on your Mystery Sneaker and Give Me a Clue Because it’s Time to Ride the Sunrise

Mystery Sneaker, which was the "Holy Grail" of vocabulary development in Mrs. Hickman's first grade class.

She was telling us the class rules, and every single one of us was at attention.  After all, she had attention as being the “strict” teacher and her tall stature, tightly wound red hair, and impeccable wardrobe reinforced that.  Every once in a while, though, I’d sneak a glance at the back of the room at the giant target, which took up the entire bulletin board with its eight multi-colored rings and brown bull’s-eye that read “Mystery Sneaker.”  I had no idea what “Mystery Sneaker” meant, but I knew that it was probably important to Mrs. Hickman, who was still talking but now looking straight at me.  I sat up, looked right at her and allowed her to continue.

It was my first day of first grade and I was scared out of my mind.

Now, when I was five years old, I really didn’t know what “strict” meant, let alone that a “strict” teacher could be a good teacher.  I just knew that “strict” equaled “mean” and that meant bad.  Such information concerning Mrs. Hickman was gleaned from conversations with older kids who had been through first grade at Lincoln Avenue Elementary and spoke from experience—but also spoke knowing that we had no b.s. filter and it was fun to scare younger kids, even though some of the stories were true.  We found out right away that if your desk was too messy, for instance, she would put a sign that said “Lincoln Avenue Garbage Dump” above it.  And on the bulletin board behind her desk was the paddle.

Brown and stamped with “RAH,” the paddle looked like something she had gotten from a sorority and was single-handedly the source of every rumor about Mrs. Hickman.  Students who never had her and never would know about the paddle and the more you heard about it, the worse it became.  It didn’t merely hang on the wall.  Oh no.  The word on the Lincoln Avenue playground and the homes of Sayville elementary school students was that if you got out of line in any way, you got hit.

Now, I know there are people who did receive beatings at the hands of teachers, administrators, or nuns at some time or another. But by the time I got to school in 1983, I am sure that if Mrs. Hickman had hauled off and beaten the crap out of me because I didn’t clean my desk, tenure or no tenure, she would have gotten into serious trouble.  In fact, there was one time you did get a paddling and that was on your birthday, and even then it was a light tap or two (though I’m sure that you couldn’t get away with that today).  But when you sat in the classroom and looked at her desk, there it was, hanging, taunting you, telling you that she meant business.
And she did, although she didn’t need a paddle on the wall to show us.  She marked up our work with a red pen and expected nothing less than what she knew were our best efforts.  I remember one night sitting at the top of the stairs crying because I had colored in the exercise in my phonics book using a green Whitman crayon and had colored it so thickly that it prompted her to write, “Messy!  You can do better!”  Maybe I was being hard on myself or had a need for approval from authority figures, but this feeling that I had let her down was a sign that she was effective.

But as we discovered, she was effective because despite the pressure of high expectations and perceived fear of the paddle, she wanted us to love being in her class.  I’m sure that’s why she turned learning to read into a game.  Because when you’re six you may have a natural curiosity but you don’t have the natural love of learning that makes you purposely want to delve into existential philosophy or debate the merits of socialism in regards to public policy.  No, you are still getting the shakes from naptime withdrawal and you’re still struggling with making a lowercase n not look like a lowercase h.  So, with our education at such a base level, she knew that she not only had the challenge of teaching us how to read but the opportunity to make us want to read and love words and love reading and that is why the very first thing you noticed when you walked into the classroom wasn’t her paddle, but the giant target. (more…)

Avant Garde in the Final Frontier

When I look at what my son likes to watch on television and what he likes to play with, I am amazed at how similar we are.  Now, I don’t have a photographic memory from when I was 3-1/2–most memories from that age come in flashes and spurts–but right now he is really into superheroes and Curious George.  I am sure that we’ll have years of superhero awesomeness in our house (and that’s a whole other entry), and Curious George is definitely another topic for another day as well, although I do remember that when I was young I had several of those books that I read and decorated with stickers that told everyone that it belonged to TOM.

But he’s also really interested in space travel and when he first showed interest in it I was excited but I wasn’t sure exactly how to encourage that curiosity about space.  You know, beyond watching space shuttle launches on YouTube and a set of space-themed flash cards my wife found in the dollar bin at Target.  I mean, it’s a bit too early to get him into Star Wars because even that type of violence might be a little much for a kid who gets a little scared when watching Scooby-Doo (besides, I don’t remember seeing Star Wars for the first time until I was about four or five).  And while I’m sure that I will get around to The Saga, I was hard-pressed to find something until I was hanging out in the library at work and came across National Geographic’s Picture Atlas of Our Universe.

With a futuristic-looking spaceship on the cover, Our Universe is one of those library books that when I was in junior high I would check out at least a few times a year in order to pore over its pages, taking in every artist’s rendition and satellite image.  The edition I had in my hands on was from 1992, so it was later than the one I used to check out of the library but still accessible to even a very little kid and still awesome to me.

That space ship on the cover is sort of our guide through the universe, as the book’s narrative takes us on a tour through all of the planets of the solar system including Pluto (and I don’t buy that “Pluto’s not a planet” crap anyway), and beyond.  The beyond includes stars, asteroids, comets, other galaxies and the history of space travel as well as the possibilities for the future.

The title page, which leads to …

Open the book and the title flies at you kind of how the opening credits of Superman do.  But what makes this even more awesome on some level than seeing “Richard Donner” streak across a screen is that Our Universe does the title flight over the course of two spreads with the words nearly off the page on the second spread.  That, and it’s in Avant Garde and Avant Garde is just awesomeness in itself.

After an introduction, we learn about how ancient civilizations viewed the cosmos as well as how our modern scientific theories come to fruition through scientists such as Newton and Galileo.  it’s an encyclopedia’s worth of information being written in a pretty tight narrative that your average and elementary and junior high kid would understand and probably enjoy.  The examples rely on both scientific models and artist’s conceptions, something that’s carried throughout.

… a TWO-PAGE SPREAD OF AVANT GARDE GRANDEUR!!!

(more…)

Up, Up, and Away!

Superman: The Secet Years #1

I honestly don’t remember when I bought my first comic book or what that comic was.  I have vague memories of perusing the magazine rack at Greaves stationary in my hometown and coming home with an issue of The Amazing Spider-Man or Superman.  At some point, I know that I got an issue of the Batman team-up title The Brave and the Bold sometime in the very early 1980s, so that might have been it.  But Superman: The Secret Years #2 was the very first comic book that I remember buying at an actual comic book store.

Amazing Comics, which is on Gillette Avenue in Sayville, NY, opened in the fall of 1984 next to an iron-on T-shirt store named The Special-T, which is where my friends and I procured most of our wardrobe.  I am sure that I was at the Special-T buying a birthday present for someone when my dad noticed that there was a brand-new comic book store in the next building (it had previously been a junk/antique store, I believe).  It was and still is an extremely small store with barely any room to move; in fact, I think if you fit more than six people in there, you’re exceeding maximum occupancy.  But at seven years old, an entire room filled with comic books blew my mind.  Who knew that you could sell them on your own and not off a rack located between the cigarettes and the pens and pencils? (more…)