ON YOUR MARK!
This is an article from the Aug. 27, 1956 issue
It is impossible not to note, this week, that the politicos of both major parties have ooched over into our (wonderful) world again and have borrowed almost everything in the way of effects, atmosphere and method they could find lying loose to facilitate the nomination of the presidential candidates. It is a point, it should be added, in which we take a certain pardonable pride. For all their solemn purpose—or, more accurately, because of their solemn purpose—American political conventions have always been great American sporting events too, and it is pleasant to be able to report that those of 1956 make no exception to the old pattern.
The Democrats referred to their Chicago ticket this time as "our team," an unabashed adoption of Republican nomenclature which the G.O.P., of course, got secondhand from us to begin with. As their hero dueled with New York's Governor Averell Harriman, Stevenson supporters (obviously former UCLA students all) set up a stunt card section in the Chicago gallery and spelled out such messages as ALL THE WAY WITH ADLAI with verve and precision. The political processes in Chicago were accompanied—and are being accompanied in San Francisco this week—by an endless and familiar uproar on the floor, in hotel lobbies and on the streets; by snake dancing, sign waving, by hoarse and awful oratory, by band music and by boos and applause which all might have stemmed straight from Ebbets Field or a campus bonfire before the big game.
In drawing these analogies between big-time politics and big-time sport—in drawing them, at any rate, in tones of satisfaction and approval—it is only fair to note that a good many critics, both foreign and domestic, take a very dim view of the whole noisy convention process simply because such similarities exist. It is easy to lament the American political convention, just as it is easy to lament American sport (the sharp practices of baseball, say, as opposed to cricket, of U.S. football as opposed to soccer) and easy to look with dismay at the fact that candidates for the most important governmental position in the world must be chosen amidst an atmosphere reminiscent of the Kentucky Derby.
While lamenting, however, it is also easy to overlook the fact that the stresses and strains and philosophies common to both institutions—and even the splendid and time-blessed vulgarity which flavors both a convention and a World Series—reflect qualities deeply ingrained in the American soul: vitality, exuberance, the instinct for reconciling teamwork with fierce individual competitiveness, a frontier-born reluctance to honor an unproved man. A Frenchman might have difficulty in understanding how Adlai Stevenson and Harry Truman could join hands with honor after their break in Chicago; the incident would be less puzzling to a man who understood the unwritten code of the brush-back pitch.
The man who competes in the arena surrenders himself to a kind of basic democracy, and it seems only right and proper that an American politician be called upon to perform there, that U.S. candidates do not "stand" for office but must "run" for it and that their backers fall prey to the national passion for victory and cheer them on their way.
Our props are yours for the duration, gentlemen—banners, drum majorettes, scouting reports and liniment. May the better contestant emerge triumphant, as the elegant Harry Balogh used to say in the old squared circle.
OTHER TIMES, OTHER CUSTOMS
There are certain things you just don't do. You don't besmirch the American flag, particularly in times of war, national crisis or an election year. If you live in the Tonga Islands, there is a taboo against touching the tribal chief or his clothing. If you are a movie actor nowadays, you are careful not to form any political affiliations left of, say, Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota. If you have won your major Y at Yale, you don't wear it in public unless you turn the sweater inside out (so only the stitching will outline the Y), thus demonstrating becoming modesty over your distinction as an athlete. If you are a baseball player, you don't whistle in the clubhouse, nor do you spit at the press and the public. At least, you shouldn't if you are Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox.
Yet there are baseball players who might get away with it. Billy Martin of the Yankees, for instance, because Billy is no symbol of rectitude; he is a Peck's Bad Boy of baseball, who is supposed to be mean and truculent on the playing field and a scrapper who would spike his grandmother for a winning run. It is hard to think of any roughneck shenanigans that a fellow like Billy would not be forgiven simply because of the sort of public personality he wears. Conversely, the upright, God-fearing ballplayers such as Gerry Coleman, Billy's Yankee teammate, or Robin Roberts, the great pitcher for the Phillies, might well be drummed out of baseball for the very behavior that is expected of Martin. The professional wrestling industry figured all this out years ago and developed clear-cut heroes and villains to satisfy the craving for symbols of good and evil. The villains are expected to perform every conceivable outrage while the heroes must suffer and win according to the code of clean sportsmanship.
The recent antics of Ted Williams serve to illustrate how time, circumstance and character affect public tolerance. A couple of generations ago, Christy Mathewson, who pitched the early Giants to several pennants, philosophized on the difference between honesty and dishonesty in baseball. "To steal signs fairly," he wrote, "requires quickness of mind, eye and action. Few players can do it. Perhaps that is why it is considered fair." The difference between fair and unfair, good or bad is not always so easily arrived at. In Matty's day, for instance, the bean ball was a respectable part of any pitcher's repertory—a device to detect whether a batter was yellow. If the batter was knocked silly by one, it was just his fault. Today the bean ball is not only a moral offense, it is illegal. In short, there is more respect for the unscrambled brain—but why?
If Ted Williams had been a Leo Durocher, a Ty Cobb or even (to choose an area of more genteel combat) a Bill Tilden, he might have spat with immunity. But Ted is, in addition to being a baseball star of the first magnitude, a Marine officer with a hero's record in combat. To many, however, he is also a misunderstood hero, maltreated by the press and a hostile enclave of pitiless Boston fans. So the opinion on his recent gesture of hydro-theatrics is as divided as Caesar's Gaul (see page 5). At another time or in another activity or perhaps as another type of person, would he have been forgiven and applauded for his outburst? Unquestionably. But it is too late to change the circumstances.
A few harbingers of the yearly epidemic of late summer madness have been noticeable in the public prints lately. You can expect the symptoms of the disease to multiply as the sun burns down the sky into autumn.
Late in July one Wesley R. Struble paddled 12½ miles across Lake Erie on his back, wearing trunks, flippers, a thick coat of grease and handcuffs. After divesting himself of grease, flippers and handcuffs, he chinned a few times to relax and announced he would try to swim the English Channel both ways—presumably sans handcuffs.
This week, 30-odd marathon swimmers will take to the waters of Lake Ontario, aim at the coast of Toronto and $27,000. Most will be plain vanilla-type marathon swimmers, but a couple of unidentified young ladies among them are music lovers, too.
One is stowing a ukulele in her guide boat and expects to slow down occasionally, flip over on her back and strum a few bars of Sweet Leilani. Another, whose choice of musical instruments does not lend itself so readily to watery concerts, will be egged on by the tootling of a bagpipe virtuoso in her guide boat. This may be the first time in history that Over the Waves has been played on a bagpipe.
Phenomena like these are not new. They are peculiar to the intense, brooding heat of July and August, and they are as old as written history and probably older. Noel Coward was prompted to observe that only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun, and Shakespeare, doubtless confronted with the 16th century equivalent of a ukulele-playing marathon swimmer, wrote: "This is very midsummer madness!"
Anyway, it started a long time ago and will probably go on as long as the sun shines hot in August.
For instance, the venerable and once-popular sport of catching baseballs dropped off monuments used to reach a seasonal peak during the dog days and at one time it wasn't safe to walk within 50 feet of the base of a tall structure in late summer.
Catchers circled warily under the Washington Monument and the Bunker Hill Monument, and a chap named Earl A. Barter snared three tosses in a row from the top of the latter on Sept. 17, 1910. Unfortunately for Earl, his feat was a bit anticlimactic for buffs of the sport. The definitive catch had been made five years before when an Englishman, posing as a Japanese juggler and probably overexposed to the noonday sun, caught a turnip thrown from the same monument. He did it the hard way, impaling the vegetable on a fork held between his teeth.
Around the turn of the century, a young lady named Johanna Huslinger was an expert at walking on her hands. She set out from Vienna to Paris upside down, walked ten hours a day for 95 days, covered the 871 miles, won some sort of a championship, hands down.
In the summer of 1912, a Frenchman named M. Pauliquen disappeared in a tank of water in Paris and like to never came up. He stayed under for six minutes, 29 4/5 seconds, establishing a record for that sort of thing and dang near drowned in the process.
The world record for the 100-yard dash with your feet in a sack was set on a hot summer day in Brooklyn in 1929. John A. Finn negotiated the distance under difficulty in 14.2 seconds.
All in all, though, the baking hot sun conjures up visions of watery feats most often in its victims.
Take John V. Sigmund of St. Louis. A few years ago he waded into the Mississippi River one steamy July afternoon and swam away around the bend, bearing due south. He kept right on for 89 hours and 42 minutes and was just shy of docking in Memphis, Tenn. when friends fished him out. He swam 292 miles but, of course, he wasn't handcuffed. But he didn't take time out for ukulele or bagpipe numbers, either.
FAT IN THE FIRE
Criminal prestige in boxing has been discernible to most sophisticated observers for as long as anyone cares to remember. It goes far back. It has survived in this country largely because boxing is regulated on a state-by-state basis. The apathy of the states, in instance after instance of sporting chicanery, has been spectacular.
Only recently, though, the federal government has been taking an interest in boxing (aside from its continuing interest in Joe Louis and his marvelous, self-perpetuating income tax deficit). It moved first against the International Boxing Club (James D. Norris, president) and as a result the IBC now awaits a federal court decision as to whether or not it operates in violation of the antitrust statutes (SI, April 23).
From this, inevitably, the federal eye turned toward rather more sordid aspects of boxing. It is a sport in which, once you begin to appreciate what a sweet and scientific punch a left hook really is, you are driven to inquiring about the odds, and who makes them and why they so often turn out so advantageous to those who know more than anybody should. The federal government is just like any ordinary perceptive person in this respect.
In Chicago last week the Tribune bannered across the first page of its sports section: "U.S. PROBES CITY'S BOXING-HOODLUM TIES." The Trib reported what sportswriters of other publications had known but kept discreet silence on—that federal investigators were gathering information on hoodlums in boxing, not in Chicago alone but in Detroit, San Francisco and Los Angeles, among other places. A special federal grand jury, the Tribune said, would be impaneled in Chicago to consider such matters as the doping of fighters, income tax evasion and gangster participation in the profits. Not just the Department of Justice but the narcotics division and income tax agents were working on the problem. Max H. Goldschein, a special assistant in the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice, had been "closeted" with U.S. Attorney Robert Tieken, the Trib reported.
The net result was consternation among the federal investigators, who had asked sportswriters to keep their work hushed, a run to cover by the hoodlums, as anticipated, and a flush of deadpan but somehow hysterical statements by some who are vitally interested in federal investigations of boxing. Among them:
Arthur M. Wirtz, Norris' partner in IBC: "These charges reflect on the fighters, the judges, referees and the commission doctors. Furthermore, I don't think there's any major gambling on fights in Illinois.... The proposed [sic] investigation is so fantastic that I'm wondering if it isn't a publicity stunt of some kind." And then, in the quote of the decade: "If we felt there was anything wrong we wouldn't stand still for five minutes."
Truman K. Gibson Jr., IBC secretary: "This is utterly fantastic. We will welcome an investigation.... We'd like to know who gives the shots of dope and where, and what boxers are involved. The most controversial fight we've had in Chicago recently was the Johnny Saxton-Carmen Basilio one. Yet all the Chicago writers agreed with the judges and referee and all the Eastern writers thought Basilio won.... It's unfortunate these investigations aren't made public."
This one has been made public, has been immeasurably hampered thereby.
Leonid Khomenkov, chief of the Soviet Sports Committee, took a look beyond Melbourne last week and invited the U.S. to send a track team to Moscow in 1957 for a dual meet, with the hope of a return invitation for Soviet athletes to come here in '58. U.S. amateur officials welcomed the idea—right up to the big hitch: all non-official visitors to the United States must be fingerprinted. And every time this has been mentioned to prospective Soviet tourists, they have answered with a decisive "nyet."
The Russian objections to fingerprinting have delayed or canceled several visits to this country, caused quite a commotion in Washington and even led to President Eisenhower's calling for repeal of the fingerprinting provision.
An escape-clause precedent, however, has been established. A scattering of Russian farmers and builders have been admitted to the U.S. (hands unsullied by fingerprint ink) on the ground that, like the unmistakably governmental members of their delegations, they were all official visitors.
Last September, Russia's two great musical performers, Violinist David Oistrakh and Pianist Emil Gilels, were invited to play in this country. Once again the fingerprinting provision was brought up, and the Russians responded with their classic "nyet."
And there it stood until the experts fell back on the escape clause. Suddenly, Oistrakh and Gilels became official government representatives.
Early this year, the fingerprinting problem arose again, this time in the 8 case of Gabriel Korobkov, Russia's Olympic coach. He had been invited to attend a meeting of Olympic coaches on the West Coast, but he refused to be fingerprinted. Korobkov stayed in Russia. Coaches, it seemed, unlike musicians, were not in the government.
There the matter rests. The Russians have invited us to send a track team there next year, and then they'll visit us the next. But there can be no fingerprinting, or the whole thing is off.
Track fans apparently can only hope that in some way broad jumping or tossing the javelin can become as much a function of government as playing; the violin.
The Senator's arthritis
Won't hurt his golf at all,
But now with laryngitis
He can't address the ball.
—IRWIN L. STEIN
CURRENT WEEK & WHAT'S AHEAD
Look for Argentina to elect new National Olympic Committee before October to become eligible to send a team to Melbourne in November. The International Olympic Committee withdrew recognition of the present Argentine committee on grounds it was politically selected by Perón's successors.
Pravda exploded editorially against Russian picture magazine Ogonyok which encouraged Soviet youth to sport careers for such rewards as "wealth, fame and applause from the ladies." Screamed Pravda: "Such rotten advice [smacks] of vulgarity and cynicism...is affronting...bourgeois...alien."
Dick Savitt, who quit tennis for oil after 1951 Wimbledon and Australian titles, has entered the 1956 National Singles. Capable of extending or beating the best in the U.S. in his rare tourney bids, Savitt has consistently ducked Davis Cup play on plea of business pressure. If he returns to Cup competition, America's chances against Australia will look up.
•Out to Pasture?
Nashua suffered second attack of colic in 10 days, washing him out of Saratoga Handicap this week and, indeed, raising possibility he might never race again. Though attack was mild and Nashua is out of danger, his future now rests with Trainer Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons by whose decision owners will abide.