Leo the Lip, Arky Vaughan, And A Holdout Called Frenchy

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.

The Killer Named Gyp The Blood

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 Plays By Me: As Short As You Want Them To Be

Those of you who read this blog may sometimes ask yourself, "Who is this W.M. Akers?! And what gives him the right to talk about theater?!" Well: 

  1. W.M. Akers is me.
  2. I have absolutely no right to talk about theater. 

While I'm not blathering unfounded gobbledywhatnot about other people's plays, I am writing my own. This month, I've got two short plays in production, both of which are utterly ridiculous, and both of which want you to see them very bad. The relevant info: 

 October 29: As part of their monthly TinyRhino theater/drinking game, the Gowanus theater company UglyRhino is producing my stirring ten minute play "The Most Dangerous Cat In The World"—a comedy about love, evil, and the dangers of the atomic age.

November 2The wonderful women of Squeaky Bicycle are producing my sci-fi one act "R. For Roxy" as part of the Bad Theater Festival. (Which is not for bad theater so much as it's for unpretentious theater.) While I can guarantee the delightfulness of my play—which is about a lovelorn astronaut composing an encyclopedia in space—I have no idea what the rest of the programming will be like. Let's assume it will be spectacular.

So, come one come all! Or come none, come none! If you do happen to be at either of these events, come introduce yourself. Or if you can't make it, but are interested in reading either of those little tidbits of inspired nonsense, email me.

Does Anybody Want A Play About The Mets?

Ain't no pathos like Stengel pathos.

This post is not a joke. Bronx Bombers closed Off Broadway Saturday, and though it was been dismissed as (big surprise!) hagiographic pap, it is on its way to Broadway come January. This play, which centers vaguely around the 1977 Bronx Zoo, but features ghostly cameos from Ruth, Jeter and all the rest of the fresh faced Yankee heroes, is not a play for people who care about plays. It is probably not really a play for people who care about baseball, either, since those in the know understand that the only important lesson to be drawn from the sport is how to deal with heartache, 162 games at a time. There is no possibility of heartache in a Yankee story, and so (it seems, anyway, to me) no possibility of real drama.

But there is heartache in Flushing. Permanent, asinine, endlessly churning heartache. A cycle of disappointment and false hope and disappointment that has gone on for some time now—climaxing endlessly, like a bad piece of organ music or a particularly drawn-out high school break up. I speak, as I do too often, of the New York Mets—a team bad enough, beautiful enough, interesting  enough, to deserve a spot on the stage.

Does the horrifying futility of the New York Mets make them a more worthy baseball team than the Yankees? Of course not. Although at this point I'm more comfortable with a losing franchise than a winning one, I'm not Stockholm syndromed enough to suggest that failure is superior to success. (Though some May nights I think it may be.) But as far as tragedy goes, the Mets are Death Of A Salesman . The Yanks are a second rate middle school Thanksgiving pageant. 

Bronx Bombers has a good shot at a long, healthy Broadway run. There are enough fans out there of inspirational codswallop to keep the theater lit up. And the longer it reigns on Broadway, the sharper acid reflux will hit theater-minded Met fans, who expect the offseason to be a time when Mets and Yankees are equal, and will instead be confronted endlessly with nightmares about the pinstriped minstrel show on 50th Street.

So it seems right to even the score. The Mets don't need a play on Broadway, and they certainly don't deserve it. But somewhere in New York there is a 99 seat theater perfect to host a play about misery and meaningless failure and ceaseless anxiety which is a good thing only because it keeps us from worrying about the real problems that life has a habit of tossing our way. The potential topics are endless. Some pitches:

120: A riff on crinkly-faced Casey Stengel and his 1962 Mets, who lost more games than any team in modern history but won the city's heart

SATURDAY NIGHT MASSACRE: While the boys of the Bronx Zoo were jibing and jawing and winning championships, the Mets imploded, trading Tom Seaver for peanuts after a nasty Dick Young column soured him on the city.

THE COLLAPSE: A collection of 162 vignettes, telling the story of the Mets' epic 2007 collapse. Or maybe just an hour in the life of a family watching Tom Glavine implode. (Couldn't find a clip of that, so enjoy this vintage Carlos Beltran.)

THE PASSION OF JOHN MAINE: A moment in the life of declining Mets prospect John Maine, whose fastball deserted him just two years after a near-perfect game at Shea Stadium. Based on an article by Patrick J. Flood.

LET'S GO METS—A TRAGEDY: A fantasy based on one of my recurring nightmares, when I'm at a stadium but can't find my seats or see the field. So it's the Inferno , but set on the escalators of crumbling Shea Stadium.

I'm not interested in putting famous sports heroes on stage. What could be more boring than a not-quite-portly-enough Broadway star trying to cigar chomp his way through an impersonation of the magnificent appetites of Babe Ruth? I'm interested, as ever, in the fringe players, the grounds crew, the sportswriters and the fans, whose stubborn refusal to quit on a lousy franchise—badly run, badly managed, badly owned—is a testament to all that is great and stupid about mankind. 

This is not something I want to write on spec. But if there are any Met fan/theater producers out there, or directors, or actors, or anyone who's interested in providing some counterprogramming to Bronx Bombers,   drop me a line.  We can bat around ideas, come up with an outline, get started on a workshop. I like to write about the universality of sports pain, the sadness that comes even in success, the pleasant futility of the whole mess of corporate nonsense. I think it could make for a cathartic night at the theater.

This play is not meant to be self-flagellation. Met fans love to harp on their failures, picking at them like old scars, but most of us understand that this is how most fans feel, most of the time. Most people, even. Like Jimmy Breslin asked in 1962:

“The Mets lose an awful lot? Listen, mister. Think a little bit. When was the last time you won anything out of life?”