A “Classics Illustrated” Education

Okay, admit it. At some point during your school days, you were required by your teacher to choose a book from a list comprised of literary classics, read it, and follow the effort up with a comprehensive book report. But you never got around to reading the selection you picked, did you? Sure, you completed your assignment, but your so-called book report was based on information acquired by taking something on the order of a shortcut. Maybe you got lucky, and a movie based of your book happened to appear of television the week your report was due. Or, you got a hold of a CliffsNotes depiction of the novel, and read the condensed version. Some of you might have just given up, read the liner notes on the book’s cover, and just hoped your teacher never asked you any follow-up questions about whatever it was you were supposed to have read. Thankfully, there was another alternative…Classics Illustrated. Yes, for the price of a comic book, one could read an entertaining version of “Ivanhoe,” “The Last of the Mohicans,” Robinson Crusoe,” or “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” Of course, the reason why it was the price of a comic book because that’s just what Classics Illustrated was…comic book adaptations of some of the greatest works in the history of literature.

Debuting in 1941, Classics Illustrated was the brainchild of Albert Lewis Canter, a Russian born publisher whose first effort was an adaptation of “The Three Musketeers,” which was distributed by Elliot Publishing. Originally called “Classic Comics Presents,” it was Canter’s hunch that the medium of comic books could prove an excellent way to introduce young readers to many of literature’s great works. “The Three Musketeers” was soon followed by “Ivanhoe” and “The Count of Monte Cristo,” and by 1947, Classics Illustrated (name changed after 35 issues) began publishing monthly. The early titles, costing only a dime, were 64 full color pages, and although the artwork inside the comic was of varying quality, it was always the elaborately drawn covers that to this day are still fondly remembered by readers and widely celebrated by collectors. Naturally, the newsstand cost of Classics Illustrated increased over the years, eventually rising to 25 cents, while the number of pages decreased to 48 pages by the end of the comic’s run. Unlike other comic books, Classics Illustrated kept most of its issues in print, and would always be available either through newsstand reissues, or purchased by mail directly from the publisher.

I first became aware of Classics Illustrated at age nine, when one of my older sisters, assigned to read up on Shakespeare, obtained the Classics Illustrated issue of “Hamlet.” Knowing nothing about the Bard, or his works, I found the “Hamlet” comic very entertaining, especially the part about the ghost. It was only a few years later that I was required to read some of literature’s most treasured works, and naturally, Classics Illustrated became my go-to source. “The Red Badge of Courage,” “A Tale of Two Cities,” and “Huckleberry Finn,” are among the great novels I avoided by relying on Classics Illustrated. CI’s “Moby- Dick” alone probably saved me a month’s worth of reading, as Herman Melville needed 635 pages to tell the same story that Classics Illustrated knocked off in 56 animated pages. Don’t get me wrong, I love to read, but my interest has always been non-fiction, rather than anything found on my English teacher’s recommended list. Of course, I always assumed that somehow none of my teachers were aware of the existence of Classics Illustrated, despite the fact that it had been around since the 1940’s. But my reliance on CI came crashing down during my freshman year of high school. During the course of its 20 years of publishing, you’d think that Classics Illustrated would have done an adaptation of “The Great Gatsby,” but no, they somehow skipped that one. I’d rather not say how that situation turned out for me.

Classics Illustrated reached its peak of popularity during the 1950’s, as baby boomers drove monthly sales well past the one million mark. But with success came the inevitable criticism that CI’s comic books were driving children away from actually reading the works of Dickens, Stevenson, Verne and Twain. In the 1954 best-selling book “Seduction of the Innocent,” author Dr. Fredric Wertham complained that young readers of Classics Illustrated were not being exposed to the wonderful writing found in the original novels, and came away only with a vague notion of the plot. Wertham, whose book was a scathing attack on the entire comic book industry, also noted that CI’s adaptations emphasized whatever action was found in the stories, while ignoring nuances in the characters. “Seduction of the Innocent” also quoted several children, one in particular who felt that reading Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe” was not necessary, as Classics Illustrated gave him the story, without “all of the boring details that would be in the book.” Other critics charged that CI, in look and content, seemed to be influenced by other comic books as much as by the novels they were based on. David Dempsey, writing for the New York Times book review noticed that the Classic Illustrated issue of “Julius Caesar” included “a Brutus that looks astonishingly like Superman.”

But it wasn’t its detractors that led to Classics Illustrated’s eventual demise. Competition from television, paperback books and CliffsNotes began to erode CI’s readership, so after 169 issues and total sales of over 200 million, Classics Illustrated ceased publication of any new issues in 1962, although a few titles remained in print for several years. Ownership of the Classic Illustrated catalog has changed hands many times over the years, and there have several attempts to revive the series, the most recent effort coming from an outfit called Classic Comic Store Ltd., which, in addition to releasing the original CI’s, also produced the first new Classic Illustrated title in almost 50 years with their July 2011 release of “Nicholas Nickleby.” If they plan to continue, might I suggest an adaptation of “The Great Gatsby”… I hear it’s pretty good.

 

Benny Kauff: A Forgotten Giant

Although the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame balloting produced no new members to the Hall this year, the list of great players not enshrined at Cooperstown was expanded as Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens. Sammy Sosa, Craig Biggio and Mike Piazza joined Mark McGuire and Rafael Palmeiro as elite ballplayers denied entry due to being, or in some cases just suspected of being, involved with steroids. Of course, prior to the so-called steroid era, Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson, kept out due to gambling, were the gold standard for non-Hall of Fame greatness. There too, have been individuals with Hall of Fame talent, but had their careers shortened or adversely affected by injury (Pete Reiser and Tony Olivia), and perennial All-Stars who were just too unlikeable to be considered (Dick Allen, Albert Belle). But the name Benny Kauff never comes up when Hall of Fame discussions are being conducted, and although there isn’t a strong case for Kauff, he does fall into the category of excellent players who never reached Cooperstown, but not for any of the reasons listed above…Benny Kauff is in a class of his own.

Two reasons why Benny is largely forgotten is that his career started 100 years ago, and he only played five full seasons of big-league baseball. Kauff, a 5’8 left-handed outfielder from Ohio, first signed with the New York Highlanders (Yankees) in 1912. After languishing in the minors for two seasons, Kauff jumped to the brand new Federal League in 1914, and played for the Indianapolis Hoosers in their inaugural season. Making the most of his rookie year, Kauff’s batting skills and aggressive base-running proved a perfect fit for the style of baseball that was played during the 1910’s, now commonly known as MBL’s “deadball” era. In 1914, Kauff led the Federal League in batting average (.370), runs, hits, on-base percentage, total bases, doubles and stolen bases (75) leading Indianapolis to the Federal League title. Kauff’s performance was impressive enough to earn him the nickname, the “Ty Cobb of the Feds,” much to the chagrin of the real Ty Cobb, who disliked anyone being compared to him.

Following the 1914 campaign, the Indianapolis Hoosier franchise disbanded, and although the Federal League reassigned Kauff to the Brooklyn Tip-Tops, he considered himself a free agent, and began negotiations with the New York Giants, signing a contract with them two weeks into the 1915 season. On April 29, Giant’s manager John McGraw placed Benny Kauff’s name on the lineup card as the starting centerfielder for a Thursday afternoon game against the defending World Series champion Boston Braves. Unfortunately, Braves manager George Stallings correctly pointed out that Kauff’s contract had yet to be approved by National League President John Tener, and refused to play if Benny took the field. Home-plate umpire Ernie Quigley took McGraw and the Giants side in the matter, and declared New York that day’s winner by way of forfeit. Not wanting to hand out refunds to the large Polo Grounds crowd, McGraw convinced Stallings to stay and play an exhibition game, under the understanding that Kauff would sit it out. With Benny watching from the dugout, the Braves walloped the Giants 13-8, in a game shortened to seven innings. The following morning, the Giants received a double dose of bad news. Not only did NL President Tener rule that Kauff was still the property of the Federal League, but went on to say that the previous day’s “exhibition” between the Giants and Braves would be counted as a regular game. Kauff was back with the “Feds.”

Joining the Brooklyn Tip-Tops, Kauff resumed his status in as the Federal League’s best hitter, winning his second straight batting title with a .342 average. After the 1915 season, the Federal League folded, allowing Benny to re-sign with the New York Giants. In acquiring the 26 year old Benny Kauff, the Giants were not just getting one of MLB’s best hitters, but also one of it’s larger than life personalities. Kauff was the epitome of what was known 100 years ago as a “sport.” He was a flashy dresser, full of confidence, as much at home at a saloon or poolroom as he would be on the playing field. Coming to the Giants in 1916, Kauff announced that he would make everybody “forget that a guy named Ty Cobb ever put on a shoe.” Although he never performed at that level, he proved to be a solid player in New York for next two seasons, rarely missing a game, and helping the 1917 Giants win the National League pennant. At times, he showed signs of brilliance, as demonstrated by his finishing second in the league in both stolen bases and triples in 1916. But there were also lapses in concentration, most notably on May 26, 1916 when he became the only major leaguer to be picked off first base three times in one game. Kauff was in the midst of a fine year in 1918 when he was inducted into World War I in July, batting .315 in his half season of action. Returning in 1919, Kauff hit a respectable .277, but events were already unfolding that would ultimately end his career at what should have been its midpoint.

More than 90 years later, no one alive really knows what exactly happened with Benny Kauff during the 1919 offseason, other than the fact that he was arrested on February 17, 1920 on suspicion of grand larceny. It seems that a car Kauff sold in December of 1919 was stolen. Kauff, insisting the heist was the work of crooked employees of his auto parts business, was freed on bail, and with the trial pending, headed south for the Giants’ spring training. Benny started the 1920 season as the Giants’ starting centerfielder, but team’s management, worried that Kauff’s legal problems might affect the team, sold him to the International League’s Toronto franchise in July. Assured that he would be recalled (unless he was in jail) in time for the 1921 campaign, Kauff stayed in Toronto for the remainder of 1920, batting a lofty .343 for the Maple Leafs.

Benny Kauff’s greatest misfortune wasn’t so much being involved in a car theft, but the timing of the incident. In the wake of the 1919 Black Sox scandal in which eight Chicago White Sox players were suspected of throwing that year’s World Series, Major League Baseball appointed its first Commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who would use his position rid baseball of anyone he suspected of being a bad element. In March of 1921, Landis declared all eight “Black Sox” permanently barred from baseball, even before the completion of their trial, which surprisingly found them not guilty of fixing the 1919 Series. On April 7 1921, a week before opening day, Landis ruled Kauff also ineligible to play, and stuck to his decision a month later when Kauff was acquitted in his car theft trial. At the age 31, with a career batting average of .311, Benny Kauff was out of baseball forever. To this day, Judge Landis’s ruling is still one of great injustices in the annals of sports history. Not only was Kauff never found guilty of any crime, but the matter itself happened away from the diamond, and wasn’t of any consequence in terms of the integrity of the game of baseball. Landis defended his actions, claiming that the verdict in Kauff’s trial was simply a miscarriage of justice.

It didn’t take long for Benny Kauff to become forgotten. The New York Giants went on to win the World Series in 1921 and 1922, adding two more National League pennants in ’23 and ’24. But the big baseball story in the 1920’s was Babe Ruth, who took New York by storm after he was purchased by the Yankees, breaking every conceivable home run record. Relegated to obscurity, a few old-timers were reminded of Kauff’s onetime nickname in 1961 when the “Ty Cobb of the Feds” passed away four months after the real Ty Cobb.

 

 

 

 

When Worlds Collide

Early in life, I think we all become aware that we live in a universe that is comprised of two worlds…our own and a larger, outside one. Our own world is comprised of friends, family, school, and takes place in the immediate area that surrounds our home. The other world is the one that we read about in the newspaper, or observe while watching television…the world that is populated by famous people, and is the setting for important events in the fields of politics, sports and entertainment. Usually, except in cases of nationwide disasters or war, the two worlds remain separate, allowing most of us to live a normal life, regardless of what is happening in the outside world. But occasionally, the two can briefly intersect, sometimes by accident, a phenomenon I experienced for myself 45 years ago.

History will tell you that 1968 was one of the most traumatic years of our lifetime. Assassinations, anti-war demonstrations, and major social unrest all contributed to what seemed like general chaos in the U.S., while Europe was busy dealing with the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia. But my world was remarkably unaffected by any of this, as I was much more preoccupied with the day to day drama of my first year of high school. Yes, I paid attention to all of the major events happening in and around our nation in 1968, but frankly, I was more concerned with my algebra class than anything Walter Cronkite was talking about. And when school let out in June, my attention was directed at hanging out with friends and playing softball, and not to the riots taking place in Detroit and Chicago. It was the daily search for fun that led me and three of my friends directly into a brush with the outside world.

One of our favorite sources for amusement was the San Francisco International Airport. In 1968, SFO was much smaller than it is now, with fewer terminals, free parking (if you knew the layout) and a lot less security. On a hot summer night, I, along with my buddies Bill, John and Larry, hopped into Larry’s Chevy, and made the short drive over to the airport. Usually, our nights at SFO consisted of “goofing” on people, paging fake names on the white courtesy telephones, and playing catch in the hallways with the football that Bill always brought along. But this night would be different, as shortly after hearing “Dr Zachary Smith…white courtesy telephone…” over the intercom (good one John), we were handed a flyer informing us that Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Democratic candidate for president, was scheduled to arrive by plane in San Francisco at one of the outside gates within the hour. With little warning, our paths had crossed with the 1968 Presidential Campaign.

For those of you who aren’t old enough to remember, or are old enough but have just forgotten, the 1968 race for the presidency was a wild ride that took several unexpected turns. Early in the campaign, President Lyndon Johnson, struggling with the Vietnam War, and facing strong primary challenges within his own party from Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, announced he would not be a candidate for reelection in November. Now pitted against each other, Kennedy and McCarthy squared off in the crucial California primary, with the winner having a clear path to the nomination, and the loser facing elimination. Tragically, minutes after winning a decisive victory, RFK was murdered by an assassin’s bullet. McCarthy’s loss and Kennedy’s death almost immediately elevated Hubert Humphrey’s candidacy, much to the chagrin of the many young people who were attracted to McCarthy’s anti-war message, and had devoted many months working on his behalf.

When the four of us arrived at the gate, there were already hundreds of people gathered behind the barricade that had hastily been set up to separate Humphrey’s plane from the throng. As we quickly noticed, the crowd was split evenly between supporters of the Vice-President and sore loser remnants of the McCarthy campaign, who were there to heckle Humphrey (unless you counted Larry and Bill, who were solidly behind Humphrey’s Republican opponent, Richard Nixon). Clutching Bill’s football, I could see Humphrey’s plane taxi toward the gate. Just as the Vice-President disembarked and started to make his way over to the crowd for some campaign handshaking, I felt a firm tap on my shoulder. I turned around, and saw that I was confronted by two large men in dark suits…Secret Service agents who were very curious about me and the football I was holding.

One has to remember that we were still living in the wake of the Martin Luther King and RFK assassinations, and our government was understandably a bit jumpy when it came to the lives of presidential candidates. While one agent held me in a hammerlock, the other carefully inspected the football. To be honest, I found the situation quite thrilling. Moments earlier, I was merely a dorky lad of 15, but now I was a suspected terrorist. But it didn’t take long for the agents to realize that the football was harmless, and that I was as unimportant as I appeared. With little emotion, they gave me back the football, and disappeared into the darkness. Before long, Humphrey too was gone, whisked away by limo, no doubt to meet with some of his top Northern California donors. Soon, the entire crowd had dispersed, and the four of us were heading home in Larry’s car. As we were leaving the airport’s grounds, we spotted a McCarthy supporter hitch-hiking in front of the 101 on-ramp. At this point, Bill requested that Larry slow down enough for Bill to address the young man. As we pulled alongside the long-haired chap, Bill shouted, “**** you, and **** McCarthy.” His point eloquently made, Bill rolled his window back up, and Larry returned us to the safety and tranquility of our own world.