Every right-thinking Met fan misses Shea Stadium. Not a lot of good has happened to this franchise in the five years (five years!) since old Shea closed, and the old dump looks rosier with every passing year. For Sports on Earth, I dug into the history of Shea's construction, when New York City sold itself out to build a space age stadium that would be obsolete within a decade—signs of a city suffering stadium fever, a malady that continues to afflict the nation more each year.
All summer, I've been wasting my Sunday afternoons in the shady bits of Prospect Park. There's nowhere more shady—in every sense of the word—than the peculiar little corner known as the Vale of Cashmere. For Narratively, producer Emily Kwong and I dug into the Vale's history, for a short piece on WNYC.
If you liked it, thank Emily. She's a genius. I just like to talk.
Today at Narratively, I break out of my baseball niche to dig into historical crime of a different sort. Lee Morgan has always been one of my favorite postwar jazz musicians, but until I started reading up on him I had no idea about the heartbreaking story of his life and death.
On an icy night in 1967, one of the world's greatest trumpeters didn't own a trumpet. His horn was in the pawnshop, along with his winter coat, sold to pay for heroin. Three years after releasing one of the most successful jazz albums of the 1960s, Lee Morgan was in the depths of a drug habit that had consumed him for nearly a decade. Even if he'd had a trumpet, he was so out of practice that he could barely play. That was the night he met the woman who would save his life.
A transplant from North Carolina, the woman who would become Helen Morgan was known in jazz circles as "the little hip square." She didn't touch heroin, but her apartment was a refuge for struggling musicians, including many addicts. After the clubs had closed, "Helen's Place" was somewhere to get warm and get fed. On that particular cold night, she says in "The Lady Who Shot Lee Morgan," Morgan came by, "raggedy and pitiful…and for some kind of reason, my heart just went out to him.
"I said, 'Child, it's zero degrees out there and all you have is a jacket. Where is your coat?'"
"In hock," he said. She got the coat back for him, along with his trumpet, and like a lost puppy, he followed her home. From then on, she said, "he hung on to me," and in turn she "took over total control" of Lee Morgan, helping the onetime prodigy grow into the musician he was meant to be. Helen would get him well, she would get him working, and five years later, she would end his life.
"She was a sucker for people who were suckers," says Larry Reni Thomas, author of "The Lady Who Shot Lee Morgan." "He was a sucker for heroin."
It starts ugly and gets uglier. You'll like it.
Today, I make my Deadspin debut, with a meaty little story I've been wanting to write for the last few months. This is some of the best reporting I've ever done—the untold stories of Jack Lummus and Joe Pinder, the only two professional baseball players to receive the Medal of Honor during World War II.
The walls were plywood. The ramp was steel. On June 6, 1944, Joe Pinder fought seasickness in a cramped troop carrier, waiting to take his place on Omaha Beach. On March 8, 1945, Jack Lummus grew impatient in an Iwo Jima foxhole, after 36 hours pinned down by sniper fire. Both men had once made a living playing minor league baseball. Both would be dead by night.
Over 4,000 minor leaguers served the American military during World War II. While some major league stars spent the war barnstorming from base to base on service teams, minor league players were regular soldiers, no different from any other men who left behind careers to fight. Of those 4,000, only two were granted the Congressional Medal of Honor. As ballplayers, Jack Lummus and Joe Pinder were ordinary. As soldiers, they were special.
By the time Pinder made landfall at Omaha, less than an hour after the start of the Normandy invasion, the precisely planned assault had slid into chaos. The naval bombardment had failed to destroy the German guns, and the amphibious tanks designed to provide cover for the first wave of infantry had sunk just offshore. The beach was slick with American blood, and every new man who approached it faced a murderous combination of artillery, machine guns, and mines.
"Thousands of bodies were lying there," said Pfc. Buster Hamlett, as quoted in Russell Miller'soral history of the invasion. "You could walk on the bodies, as far as you could see along the beach, without touching the ground. Parts of bodies—heads, legs and arms—floated in the sea."
It doesn't get any more fun from there.
70 years ago this month, the Brooklyn Dodgers found themselves fantastically inconvenienced by a European tiff known as World War II. Rather than travel south for spring training, they went north, and not very far, to the upstate resort known as Bear Mountain. It was cold, it was stressful, it was baseball.
On March 21, 1944, as the Nazis occupied Hungary, the Japanese pushed into India, and the Allies assaulted the ruined Italian hamlet of Cassino, manager Leo Durocher watched the snow, and dreamed of Florida. In deference to the army's need for trains, the sternly patriotic commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis had decreed that no club would travel south for spring training. And so, for the second time, Durocher's Brooklyn Dodgers wintered at the Bear Mountain Inn in New York, where the fires were warm, the steaks were thick and the practice fields were covered in eight inches of fresh powder.
They could work around the snow. While other teams shivered, West Point allowed the Dodgers to use its massive field house whenever the cadets weren't drilling. Durocher's problem was his infield, which had been so savaged by the draft that Branch Rickey had suggested his manager play second base or shortstop. Although ostensibly a player-manager, the Dodgers' skipper hadn't played a full season since 1938. His knees were bad, his bat was slow and he had acorns in his elbow.
If you're asking, "What the hell do you mean, acorns in his elbow?" then you have something in common with the sporting public of 1944. To find out what the hell Leo's talking about, click here, to be taken on to Sports on Earth.
I've spent much of the last few weeks with my head floating around in an imaginary version of New Orleans, editing stories for Narratively's week on the Crescent City. We have some really lovely stories up there, none closer to my heart than the one I spent entirely too long working on, about a Storyville murder that has largely been forgotten. We'll see if I can fix that.
Ever since the first flatboat sailor came down the Mississippi, loaded with cash and rotgut whiskey, New Orleans has been wary of outsiders. On Easter Sunday, 1913, a trio of New Yorkers learned that lesson well, when they found themselves in the center of a gunfight that forever altered the nation's most famous red light district. Driving the chaos was a man named Charles Harrison, better known as Gyp the Blood.
After the shooting, Harrison got his picture in the paper, under the headline "Harrison Bad Man." The Daily Picayune described him as a cold-blooded killer with a cocaine habit and a sideline in white slavery, but the picture does not match the crimes. About thirty years old at the time, Harrison is shown as soft-featured, with a bulging nose and an awkward smile. In his left hand, this "man of evil days and black surroundings" clutches a small white dog.
"He was spruce," the Daily Picayune would later write, "even dapper in appearance, as far as clothes went, but his pale, smooth-shaven face, bulging at the eyes, caving into sunken cheeks and squaring into a brutal jaw, bore the cold, steely cast of unregenerate impulse to crime."
Gyp the Blood was a hardened criminal of the Lower East Side. Or perhaps he was a fake, a coward who killed a man to prove he wasn't scared. He was a dupe, tricked by his employers into throwing his life away. Or he was a wild man, whose itchy trigger finger caused a bloodbath, and ruined business for hundreds of law-abiding purveyors of vice.
In the photograph, all Harrison seemed to want was to show off his puppy.
If you like that, there's about 5,000 words more. Eat it up—it's juicy.
Two hours before first pitch, Brad Tammen combs his stadium for peanut shells. He sees one wedged into a seat back, and points it out to a staff member, who prises the stubborn, seemingly-fossilized shell out with his fingernail.
"I swear, I thought we had every one of them," says the general manager of the Nashville Sounds. It's peanut-free night at Herschel Greer Stadium, which means no peanuts, Cracker Jacks, or (oddly) Dippin' Dots. Tammen has faith in his grounds crew getting the stadium clean. He's worried about the sky. "I don't need another thunderstorm," he says. "We don't need any more rain."
Not bad stuff, eh? I bet you want to find out what happens next, eh? Well click up there! Click click click!
I've had some other odds and ends run in the Classical this month, all quite heartfelt. The first is an appreciation of the most wonderfully verbose-named video game I've ever played: World Soccer: Winning Eleven 7 International. Just rolls off the tongue, don't it?
It was not a functional relationship. I gave and gave, time and energy and effort, and got nothing back but hurt. But we do not always have a say in such things, and the video game that stole my heart was Winning Eleven, a mid-2000s soccer franchise that was, for all its mastery over me, as awkward as my fifteen year-old self.
Its cover was ugly, its graphics were bland, and its generic team and player names ranged from forgivable (Merseyside Red, for Liverpool) to absurd—meet Ruud Von Nistelroum, star striker for, um, Trad Bricks. Even the name was clumsy, as the European Pro Evolution Soccer 3 was rebranded as World Soccer: Winning Eleven 7 International.
And yet, as with many early-life relationships, I saw something in the object of my affection that was, maybe, not there. It was janky and goofy and unconvincing, but beneath the surface was one of the smartest soccer games of all time. I have found healthier relationships since then, in life and on various gaming platforms, but I still believe that bit to be true.
If so inclined, you can enjoy that beauty here.
And last, out of fear that the Mets ace radio partnership was on its way to being broken up, I wrote a plea for continuity in an organization that has none.
What's the best season to need crutches? Look out your window at the blackening New York slush, and it seems reasonable that, if one absolutely must spend three weeks Rear Windowing inside a walk-up apartment, January would be the ideal time to do it. Why waste summer sweating in your bandages, staring out at clear blue skies and aching to be in a park? Only a fool, you’d think, would prefer crutches in July.
Unless that fool was backed up by Howie Rose.
Crutch-bound for three weeks last summer, I left my apartment only four times. Once was for lunch, when a foolish attempt to crutch my way to a nearby park left me feeling like I'd attacked my arms with a meat tenderizer. The other three excursions were for baseball. I'd slide down the stairs, crutch to the bench in front of my building, and spend three or four hours breathing and smiling, the Mets chirping from my transistor.
A person on crutches wants to vacate the body, head floating off cramped shoulders and away into the blue. Sports, at their best, make that possible—and nothing can deliver us from our blighted physical form quite as well as good sports radio. In the world of good sports radio, I know of no pairing so transporting as Josh Lewin and Howie Rose.
The blog has been characteristically quiet the last few weeks, and not because I got married a second time. I've been keeping my head down, trying to finish rewrites on the three plays I mostly-wrote this year so that I can start work on something new. I'll update you on those plays when the rewrites are finished. Not too long on them now, hopefully.
Theatrically, I had a bit of good news: a one act of mine will be in the Bad Theater Festival on November 2nd. It's tentatively called "S For Slaughter," but we're thinking about changing the name, since the play has nothing to do with slaughter at all, but does have a teeny bit to do with St. Louis Cardinals great Enos Slaughter. It's misleading, I know.
What's that, you say? You'd like to read more about baseball? Well let me indulge you, with this nifty bit of "writing" that I did for our good friends The Classical.
You're right, Marge. Just like the time I could have met Mr. T at the mall. The entire day I kept saying, "I'll go a little later. I'll go a little later." And then when I got there, they told me he'd just left. And when I asked the mall guy if he would ever come back again, he said he didn't know.
Homer Simpson never got to meet Mr. T., and I never got to see Kid Harvey pitch. I'd wanted to as early as April, when he embarrassed Stephen Strasburg's Nationals to giddy chants of "Harvey's better!" from a giddy Citi Field assemblage. But April was a long time ago. Watch highlights from that game and you'll see David Wright, Ruben Tejada and Jordany Valdespin—players who have been felled by injuries, managerial impatience, and savage Seligian wrath.
The Mets of April are long gone, and now Matt Harvey has been sent away with them. I could have seen him beat the Nats in April, the White Sox in May, or the befuddled representatives of the American League in July, but I kept saying, I'll go a little later. I'll go a little later. And now, he's not at the ballpark any more. The Mets themselves, depleted and defeated and desultorily playing out the string in Energy Saver Mode, are barely there in general.
This happens ever summer. The first particularly miserable Citi Field day saps my early season enthusiasm, and then the Mets fall apart around the All Star break, and I decide to steer clear of the stadium until the ridiculous, end-of-season ticket incentives kick in. Suddenly it's September, football is here, and I realize I have only a few more weeks to chug as much baseball as possible, a squirrel gorging on nuts when he reads in the paper that winter is coming.
My plan two weeks ago was for a spectacular doubleheader. After months of waiting, I would go meet Mr. T., who was scheduled to pitch an afternoon game against the Phillies on Thursday, August 29. Afterwards, I would take the 7 to the F and ride it all the way to the end of the line, for sunset, surf and the surging Brooklyn Cyclones. I was just about to buy my tickets when a horrible noise—a straining sound, maybe a tearing sound—resounded through Metslandia. Matt Harvey had (partially) torn his UCL. It was just a little rip, but UCLs are like condoms—any sort of tear is some sort of catastrophe.
There's much more. Read on, and learn of the briny delights of Coney Island! Read, I tell you. Read!
While I wasn't getting married last month, I watched a little baseball, talked to some people, and combined my experiences and their words into an "article." Apparently, it's called "sports-writing," and it's something that people publish in certain places. One of those places is The Classical Magazine, which you should purchase posthaste for your various mobile devices. It is a beautiful little app, full of smart writing about the enchanting nature of sportsliness. Despite all that, they agreed to publish my blather.
Here's the lede, for free!
Two hours before first pitch, Brad Tammen combs his stadium for peanut shells. He sees one wedged into a seatback, and points it out to a staff member, who pries the stubborn, seemingly-fossilized shell out with his fingernail.
"I swear, I thought we had every one of them," says the general manager of the Nashville Sounds. It's peanut-free night at Herschel Greer Stadium, which means no peanuts, cracker jacks, or (oddly) Dippin' Dots. Tammen has faith in his grounds crew getting the stadium clean. He's worried about the sky. "I don't need another thunderstorm," he says. "We don't need any more rain."
Greer Stadium is the third-oldest AAA ballpark in the country, and does not stand up well to rain. On a gray afternoon, its seats are rusty, its concourses spotted with puddles that seem decades old. Today there is a leak in the front office roof, and the famous guitar-shaped scoreboard is, as always after a heavy rain, only partially operational. But the field is spitshine perfect, and Tammen sounds like the proud captain of an aging diesel sub when he calls it, "the best playing surface in the Pacific Coast League."
Because excellent grass is not, by itself, enough to draw a crowd, the Sounds have been agitating for a new stadium for a decade. But just as Nashville finds itself on the upswing, plans for relocation have stalled out. The Milwaukee Brewers have been "patient," Tammen says, in their wait for a new AAA facility, but there's no evidence that patience extends past their current two-year agreement with the team.
This leaves Tammen, who will give a speech at this year's winter meetings about "how to make the best of an old ballpark," in limbo—patching leaks and fixing seats, but holding off on major renovations in hopes that a new stadium is on its way. As it turns out, limbo is an excellent, or at least fascinating, place for a ballpark. Greer Stadium's concourses are cramped, damp, and lit by eerie fluorescents; concessions are limited to burgers, hot dogs, and—most nights—peanuts. There are no amenities but cold beer, green grass, and cheap tickets. Its problems are plain enough, but Greer Stadium is one of the finest minor league parks in the country, precisely because it is good for absolutely nothing at all but watching baseball.
There are about 3,300 words after that, each one better than the last! Devour them now, you insatiable word addict. Devour them!
I've returned to you, good people of the Internet, and not a moment too soon, I'm sure. What was I doing while I was away? Well, mostly, thinking about baseball.
In a Mediterranean country, not very long ago, my sunburnt family chugged its way through pasta and a €7 jug of rosé and I banged my head against a foreign wifi connection, struggling to tune in New York’s sports radio station WFAN. This was not a good look, maybe, but Matt Harvey was considering throwing a no-hitter and everyone at the table understood. By the time the connection crackled to life, it was clear from Howie Rose's gutpunched tone that something Metsian had happened, and another near no-no was gone.
So: deep breath, and back to vacation mode. Harvey has carried three no-hitters into the seventh this year, and looks sure to throw one at some point this season. Of course, I thought the same thing last May about R.A. Dickey, before Johan Santana’s duct tape shoulder beat him to it, suggesting that Flushing may yet be due for a Shaun Marcum perfect game. What worried me, as I returned to slurping pink wine and slapping away high-class European mosquitos, was the name of the man on the mound. Not his stuff, which flattens hitters like a boulder does Wile E. Coyote. Not his future, which appears bright enough to confound every pessimistic Mets fan urge imaginable.
No, just: he’s Matt Harvey, alias Matt, alias Harvey. Nothing more. No nickname, nothing for short. Full stop.
How can we solve this great player's nickname drought? Read on, at the Classical.
And now it's Friday, it's four o'clock, it's hot as hell in my apartment—I'm gonna take a nap and then make something yummy to drink. Happy weekend, all!