All posts by daleyplanetadmin

Cooties: Did they Ever Find a Cure?

It was sometime in 1963 that children throughout my entire town were herded over to the local high school to receive a polio vaccine that was administered in the form of a sugar cube. Since this program to eradicate polio was very successful, some kids were wondering why a similar effort wasn’t being done to rid America’s young population of the most widespread and contagious disease of them all, the affliction commonly known as cooties. Of course, one has to wonder how modern science would have gone about battling something that was only in the minds of children between the ages of 5 and 10, but real or not, the outbreak of cooties in Millbrae became so severe in the early 1960’s, that I think even a token attempt to halt it would have been appreciated.

Although the concept of cooties is generally linked to the Baby Boom generation, and is described as a make –believe infestation carried and spread by members of the opposite sex, the origin goes back to the United States’ involvement in World War I. As much of the fighting came in the form of “trench warfare,” thousands of foxholes inhabited by the troops became breeding grounds for lice, bugs, rats and various other germ carriers. The combination of infectious pests and thousands of men living in such close quarters made the spread of several diseases inevitable. The term cooties, which became a catch-all phrase for all of the ailments picked up by the soldiers, came from the Polynesian word “kutu,” meaning a parasitic biting insect.

After the war, returning veterans began applying the word cooties to many unsanitary situations found in and around their homes, and soon, their offspring picked up on the term, and comparing other kids to infectious germs became a common method of teasing on America’s playgrounds. A generation later, children held full ownership of the term, and the meaning of cooties eventually evolved from germ carrying parasites to some kind of invisible social stigma which could be transmitted through even the slightest amount a bodily contact. Anyone could be accused of having cooties, through their own behavior or by way of ill advised associations…it was kind of a childhood version of Communism.

I began hearing about cooties during the first grade, as the word was constantly being bounced around the schoolyard at recess, almost as much as soccer balls. Unfortunately, my teacher didn’t bother to address the seriousness of cooties during class, so I had to rely on a fifth-grader to learn the in and outs of cooties. I was very lucky to run into this 10 year old chap when I did, because at that very time, Meadows Elementary School was in the midst of a cooties panic, and I needed all of the information I could get. It seems that some fourth-grade girl, who had a severe case of cooties, had recently moved, but not before she kissed the middle faucet of the school drinking fountain. Learning this, I now knew why no one at my school would ever drink from that particular faucet, even on the hottest days, while the lines for the left or right faucets were 25 kids long. Teachers, obviously out of the loop, would try pulling students out of the line, and encourage them to step right up to the middle faucet for immediate relief from their thirst, only to watch them walk away, still dry, but at least cootie free. Of course, no one had actually seen this gal kiss the middle faucet and most kids over the age of seven knew, deep down, that cooties were an imaginary ailment, but no matter… no one drank from that middle faucet for years. Maybe one would have to read Charles Mackay’s “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” to really appreciate the situation.

It was inevitable that a make believe disease would inspire make believe cures. Just as the cooties outbreak reached its peek, “cootie nurses” started popping up all over the schoolyard, offering to administer “cootie shots.” I’ve never been quite sure what kind of training or qualifications these girls had, but it made sense that since females were the primary cause of cooties, it stood to reason that they’d have an inside track on eliminating them. The “cootie shot” consisted of tracing a circle on the patient’s forearm with the index finger, then dotting the middle, all while chanting the phrase, “Circle, circle, dot, dot…now you’ve had a cootie shot.” Unfortunately, the medical profession has always had its share of quacks, and occasionally boys, thinking they were getting treatment, would be unpleasantly surprised when the so-called nurse would change the wording to, “Circle, circle, square, square…now you have cooties everywhere”…certainly a case of blatant malpractice.

The idea of cooties seemed to fade away by the late 1960’s, without benefit of a national vaccine, telethon or even TV public service announcements. It could be that later generations came up with new ways of abusing each other, or that the internet age has rendered children too sophisticated for such nonsense. But the term cooties remains in our lexicon, and has been kept alive with constant references made by Bart Simpson, and even has a modern believer in the form of “Big Bang Theory’s” Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons). But in any case, the disease seems to have been controlled, and a major outbreak appears remote.

Note: The photo, taken over 50 years ago, is of a young boy with an advanced case of cooties, the bowtie serving as a dead giveaway.

 

Annette: The Persona That Launched a Million Dreams

As a young boy growing up in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, there were a few things I had in common with almost every other kid my age. Almost all of us wanted to play baseball like Willie Mays, fight outlaws like John Wayne, sing like Elvis Presley, and date a girl like Annette Funicello. Suffice to say, a piece of my heart broke earlier today upon hearing the sad news of Annette’s death at age 70, after a 25 year battle with multiple sclerosis. While our dads had Lana Turner, Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth, and later Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, Annette belonged to us, and the bond lasted almost 60 years. Debuting on Disney’s “Mickey Mouse Club” in 1955, it was obvious almost from the start that Annette Funicello had that hard to define “something special” going for her.

In the early 1950’s, much of Walt Disney’s attention was focused on a project we now know as Disneyland. To help finance the building of his theme park, Disney partnered with ABC, with the TV network providing Walt with much needed capital, while the Disney studio would provide ABC with high quality television programming. Disney’s first effort was the weekly “Disneyland,” an anthology show which included the highly successful “Davy Crockett” episodes during the 1954-1955 season. By the summer of 1955, Disney began working on a kids variety program that would be televised after school on week days, and had his production staff set about casting the show. But Walt made it clear that he wanted “real” kids, not seasoned child actors who often came across as adult midgets. On October 3, 1955, the “Mickey Mouse Club” premiered, and America was introduced to the “Mouseketeers.”

Looking now at the early MMC episodes, it’s clear what made Annette stand out. While most of the other children had what I might describe as stereotypical all-American waspish looks, Annette Funicello had dark curly hair and dark eyebrows…almost exotic, at least for a 13 year old. Within a few weeks, Annette was getting the majority of the fan mail, and the “Mickey Mouse Club” had its first breakout star. The following season Annette, although still a Mouseketeer, joined the cast of the MMC’s popular serial, “Spin and Marty,” which, to my chagrin, completely changed the dynamic of the series. While before, Spin (Tim Considine) and Marty (David Stollery) would ride horses and rope cattle, now they spent most of their time fighting over Annette. Annette returned for the third season of “Spin and Marty,” during the final year of the “Mickey Mouse Club,” and also starred in her own serial, “Annette.”

When the “Mickey Mouse Club” ended, Annette was the only Mouseketeer that Disney kept under contract. From 1959-1962, Annette was kept busy, appearing on Disney TV shows (“Zorro,” Elfego Baca”), feature films (“The Shaggy Dog,” “Babes in Toyland) as well as becoming a recording artist, with hit records “Tall Paul” and “First Name Initial.” But Annette’s biggest post “Mickey Mouse Club” success started in 1963 when she made the first of several “Beach” movies with co-star Frankie Avalon. “Beach Party,” produced by American International Pictures, was a formulistic film, which featured comedy, surfing, music, and plenty of bikini clad girls. Immediately acquiring a solid cult audience, “Beach Party” was quickly followed by “Muscle Beach Party,” “Bikini Beach,” “Beach Blanket Bingo,” and “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini.” Throughout the entire series, Annette, at the insistence of Walt Disney, never appeared in a bikini, opting for a less revealing one piece bathing suit. By the late 1960’s Annette, now married with children, pretty much withdrew from show business, appearing infrequently in “Mouseketeer” reunion shows and other nostalgic venues. It was while filming “Back to the Beach” in 1987 that Annette first started noticing the symptoms that would later to be diagnosed as multiple sclerosis. Annette went public with her disease in 1992, after various tabloids began reporting her difficulty to walk as alcohol related. From that point on, it’s fair to say that Annette Funicello dealt with her illness with courage and dignity.

My first recollection of Annette was during the original run of the “Mickey Mouse Club” (1955-1958), but I really started to take notice when the program went into syndicated reruns in 1962, giving boys like me the chance to contrast the 1955 Annette to the much developed version we were seeing on “American Bandstand.” I was such a huge fan of Annette Funicello, I actually resented Hayley Mills, who began to grab all of the featured Disney female roles once Annette turned 16. It’s unfortunate that Annette’s only star turn in a major Disney production, “Babes in Toyland” (1961), was not a huge hit.

At first glance, Annette Funicello’s career does not seem that impressive. After the “Mickey Mouse Club,” her TV work became somewhat sporadic, and her time as a teenage singing star was somewhat brief. Her “Beach” movies, while fondly remembered, did not result in any Academy Award nominations for Annette, or anyone else. So what made Annette Funicello an icon? I guess she was, with little or no effort on her part, the embodiment of the perfect, wholesome 1950’s girl…sweet, smart, a bit shy, and unmistakably beautiful. The Disney brand always stood for something wonderfully innocent, and Annette Funicello represented that to the hilt.

My favorite Annette Funicello story: Sometime during the 1970’s, Annette went on a Las Vegas vacation, and was spotted by one of her fans relaxing, with a cigarette and a cocktail, at one of the gaming tables. The woman gasped at the sight, saying, “Annette Funicello, drinking, smoking, gambling?” Annette smiled at the lady, and said, “I have three children, so guess what else I do.”

Note: The second photo shows Annette with the Beach Boys, performing the title song to “The Monkey’s Uncle.”

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.

 

All Hail Dick and Jane

The greatest gift bestowed upon me by our public education system was the ability to read. Understanding the written word is the key ingredient to successfully dealing with almost every aspect of our culture, not to mention the unlimited joy that is provided by recreational reading. The world of literature has not only provided us with great writers, but also, in the case of fiction, memorable characters who, over the centuries, have become almost real to us. But before any of us became familiar with Hamlet, Robinson Crusoe, Sherlock Holmes or Captain Nemo, we were introduced to a pair of siblings who gave us our first brush with popular fiction…Dick and Jane.

I know what you’re probably thinking…Dick and Jane were merely characters in elementary school reading books, and not in the same league with figures found in the works of Robert Lewis Stevenson, Washington Irving and Charles Dickens. True, Dick is not exactly the Great Gatsby, but from age five to about seven, he and Jane were about all we had, at least when it came to reading. Although the two children were a part of my childhood for a relatively short time, I became quite fond of the both of them, as well as the quaint little world that they lived in, and when they stopped showing up in my reading books, I missed them.

As I’m sure most of you are aware, Dick and Jane were the principle characters featured in the elementary school reading books that were written by William Gray and Zerna Sharp, and published by Scott Foresman. Introduced in 1930, the Dick and Jane series was designed especially for first time readers, relying on the sight word reading method, which employed short sentences along with a lot of repetition. Phrases like “see Dick run. Run Dick. Run Dick run,” became as familiar to us as the characters themselves. Also included in the Dick and Jane stories were their younger sister Sally, Spot the dog, Puff the cat, and their mother and father. All of the stories were very simple, usually revolving around the kids playing games, with everyone behaving perfectly and being totally polite with one another. In other words, nothing like the world I lived in.

I first became aware of Dick and Jane a year before starting school. Meadows Elementary School was holding an open house, and I accompanied my mother to observe my sister Patrice’s first grade class give a reading demonstration. I was quite shocked. I assumed that reading was a skill acquired all at once, and was expecting the children to perform at a much higher level. Even though I was disappointed to hear kids struggle with words like “oh” and “see,” I did find something compelling about the boy and girl depicted in the book they were reading. I couldn’t wait to enter the first grade myself, even if it meant having to start at the bottom of the reading ladder, where, after a year of kindergarten, it was determined I belonged.

The first Dick and Jane book I remember was “We Look and See,” which was in the form of a pamphlet. Next came “Fun with Dick and Jane,” followed by “Our New Friends,” both of which were hard covers. What attracted me to the world of Dick and Jane was that although they were obviously part of a middle class family, and like me, lived in a small town, their universe seemed to contain so many small features that were missing from mine. There was a friendly policeman known as “Big Bill,” who knew all of the children by name. My neighborhood didn’t have anyone from the police department walking a beat. Around the corner from Dick and Jane was Mrs. Hill, whose house doubled as a small store, something that would violate my city’s zoning laws. Then there was the neighborhood handyman, Zeke, who somehow made enough of a living doing small jobs to afford a home fairly close to Dick and Jane.

Another big part of Dick and Jane’s appeal was they belonged exclusively to us. Unlike other icons of popular literature, Dick and Jane never strayed from their grade school kingdom, and were not seen in movies, television or comic books. It was almost like there was some kind of invisible shield that prevented Dick and Jane from leaving the classroom, especially considering that in first and second grade, we were not allowed to bring any of our school books home. By the beginning of second grade, I had become quite attached to Dick and Jane, and was quite pleased to learn that the two had followed me to my next level, and would be included in the reading book that we would be using the first half of the year. I loved “Friends and Neighbors,” as for the first time, we started reading stories that were based on old storybooks, featuring talking animals and more complex situations. But with its expanded format, “Friends and Neighbors” meant a reduction in Dick and Jane’s workload, and the two were seen less and less as the book moved along. The last time either of them was mentioned was in a story called “I Won’t Forget,” which saw a girl named Ann taking care of Dick’s rabbits while he and his family were on vacation.

The next book we were given was “More Friends and Neighbors,” which, to my surprise, contained no trace of Dick or Jane. Apparently they had been replaced by a group of kids whose names I don’t even remember. I probably didn’t give it much thought at the time, as even by the age of seven, I was learning that nothing is permanent. A few years later, Dick and Jane were completely phased out by their publishers, and were pretty much out of all elementary schools by the 1970’s. Looking back 50 years later, Dick and Jane seem to me like two real kids who went to school with me and who moved during second grade. Over the years I have read hundreds of books, and I have certainly come across characters more colorful than Dick and Jane, characters that were funnier, more real, and a lot more interesting. But Dick and Jane were my first…you never forget your first.

 

50 Years Ago: Stevens-Gomez Packs the Cow Palace

San Francisco’s Cow Palace (or Daly City to be accurate) has played host to virtually every kind of major indoor event. Sports, rock concerts, rodeos, political conventions and circuses have all added to the fabled arena’s history since its opening in 1941. But considering all of big names that have appeared there, it may surprise a few of you to learn that the man who sold out the Cow Palace the most times was professional wrestler Ray Stevens. Starting in 1961 as promoter Roy Shire’s top attraction, Stevens filled the Cow Palace 10 times with crowds north of 15,000, and had drawn houses in excess of 10,000 over 50 times by the time that he left the territory in the early 1970’s. Although the professional wrestling business was very profitable in the Bay Area throughout the 1960’s and ‘70’s, it reached its peek in early 1963 when a trio of Cow Palace meetings between Ray Stevens and Pepper Gomez was conducted, attracting close to a combined 50,000 patrons. And while pro-wrestling is an enterprise whose matchups and results are subject to the whims of the promoter, the buildup that led to the Stevens-Gomez bouts was shaped largely by events that were beyond the control of anyone involved with the promotion.

Roy Shire began promoting wrestling in the Bay Area in early 1961, and quickly turned a once dormant region into his own personal goldmine. Shire’s formula was simple but effective…he produced a weekly pro-wrestling television show for KTVU Channel 2, and used it to showcase his talent as well as to publicize matches he was staging all over Northern California, with the monthly Cow Palace show being his crown jewel. But TV aside, the most important factor to Shire’s success was his decision to build his wrestling empire around Ray Stevens. Billed as the “United States Heavyweight Champion,” Stevens represented a unique approach to the theater of professional wrestling-a bad-guy that always wins. Cast as a villain, Ray Stevens did everything in his power to make wrestling fans hate him, and in turn, those fans became willing to shell out money to hopefully see him get beat. Month after month, an all-American good-guy would be brought in as Stevens’ opponent, and each time, Stevens would somehow retain his championship, making the fans even more eager to witness his demise.

Ray Stevens had both the personality and athletic tools to make him one of pro-wrestling’s biggest stars. His tough talking gravel voice, delivered from the side of his mouth, produced memorable outrageous interviews, where Stevens would insult everyone from his opponent and the fans, to the announcer and entire San Francisco area in general. But in the ring, he was even better. Now acknowledged by many as one of the best showmen in history of the business, Stevens knew how to work the crowd, and in the process, almost always produced a great match. One of Ray’s best assets was his ability to make his opponents look good. By allowing himself to be flung all over the mat, and occasionally completely out of the ring, Stevens constantly seemed in danger of losing his title, only to bounce back in the end through some kind of foul deed. The fans, of course, ate it up, and kept coming back hoping someone, whether it be Bill Melby, Wilber Snyder, or Bobo Brazil, would give Stevens the beating he deserved.

On the June 17, 1961 Cow Palace card, while Ray Stevens was tangling with Cowboy Bob Ellis, Pepper Gomez quietly made his debut on the undercard. Hailing from Los Angeles, Gomez was billed as being from Mexico City in order to appeal to the many Latino fans. Within a few months, Gomez established himself as one of the top good-guys in Shire’s stable, making him a logical choice for a lucrative showdown with Stevens. But business was so good during the latter half of 1961, continuing into first part of 1962, that Shire decided to hold off on a Stevens-Gomez match, and instead placed Pepper in semi-main event tag team matches. But whatever long term plans Shire had regarding Ray Stevens and Pepper Gomez, they all came crashing down during the first week of July, 1962.

Much to Roy Shire’s chagrin, Ray Stevens took up motorized go-cart racing as a hobby, and days after his successful June 30 title defense against Bearcat Wright, Stevens suffered a broken leg while competing in a race, and was sidelined for three months. Stevens’ accident not only deprived Shire of his number one drawing card, but also left the U.S. title vacant. Shire moved quickly. No sooner had wrestling fans been advised of Stevens’ mishap when it was also announced the Pepper Gomez had won a tournament to determine Stevens’ successor, and now wore the belt. The fact that no such tourney ever really took place didn’t really matter…the show would have to go on without Ray Stevens, at least for awhile.

As the complete opposite of Ray Stevens in both personality and ring style, Pepper Gomez proved to be a popular champion, but not quite the box office draw that Stevens had been. Pepper’s first defense of the title against former Oakland Raider turned wrestler Don Manoukian drew 11,123 customers, a drop from the 15,750 people who watched Stevens battle Wright three weeks earlier. Gomez’s matches against Kinji Shibuya and Waldo Von Erich produced even smaller turnouts, so it was a relieved Roy Shire who welcomed Stevens back on October 13 to wrestle on the undercard of a title match between Pepper Gomez and The Sheik. Stevens’ return could not have come quickly enough, as the Gomez-Sheik match drew only 6200, by far the smallest Cow Palace gate Shire had ever experienced. Billed as being more than one year in the making, the first ever Stevens-Gomez bout was scheduled for November 10, 1962.

With a sellout looming, Shire knew a decisive victory for either wrestler could kill the golden goose, so in front of 15,450 fans, Ray Stevens and Pepper Gomez fought to an unprecedented 60 minute draw. Usually, an inconclusive ending like that would produce an immediate rematch, but Shire decided to hold off for a couple of months, teasing wrestling fans by having Stevens and Gomez wrestle in Cow Palace “co-main events” for two straight shows against other opponents, all while Stevens used his Friday night TV airtime to constantly clamor for another crack at his title. The ploy worked pretty well, as both cards drew more than 12,000 customers. If the publics appetite wasn’t wetted enough, an on air incident pushed the Stevens-Gomez feud to another level.

In his prime, Pepper Gomez was billed as the “man with the cast iron stomach.” To demonstrate the strength of abdominal muscles, Gomez would allow wrestlers to jump off the top rope of the wrestling ring onto his midsection, thus proving his imperviousness to any attack to that part of his body. During a January 1963 addition of Channel 2’s “National All-Star Wrestling,” Stevens asked if he could give jumping on Pepper’s belly a try. Gomez granted Ray’s request, but in typical Steven’s fashion, he landed on Gomez’s throat instead, severely “injuring” Gomez in front of hundreds of thousands of viewers (don’t worry…Stevens was an expert at that maneuver, and could pull it off without the slightest harm to his foe). A furious Gomez, recovered by the next broadcast, demanded a chance for revenge, so the second Cow Palace Stevens-Gomez meeting was held on January 26, with a no time limit, no disqualification stipulation. With 16,305 fans looking on, Stevens won back his title when Gomez, trying the same move Stevens had pulled on him on television, missed, and was rendered unable to continue.

The third bout of the Stevens-Gomez series took place on February 23, this time with a special “pin falls” only clause. A record crowd of 17,310 was on hand to witness Stevens successfully retain his U.S. championship in slightly less than 20 minutes. Rumors circulated that the Stevens-Gomez pairing had grown so profitable that promoter Shire was considering an outdoor match at Candlestick Park, but Shire knew that three Cow Palace matches (plus several more throughout the territory) was the logical limit, at least for the time being. Roy Shire’s wrestling promotion was profitable for several more years, and Ray Stevens and Pepper Gomez would meet several more times, often in tag matches (in fact, in 1968, Stevens became a “good guy,” and briefly became Gomez’s tag-team partner). But never again did professional wrestling match the popularity it enjoyed from 1961 to early 1963, and now, 50 years later, it’s hard to convince anyone under the age of 45 that there once was a local wrestler named Ray Stevens who, at least among young men, was as well known and popular as any San Francisco 49er or Giant.

 

Mayfield’s Who’s Who

A few months ago, the Daley Planet ran a piece entitled “The Unforgettable Eddie Haskell,” noting that the Cleavers were far from being the most interesting characters on “Leave it to Beaver.” Although the distinction of the most interesting character goes to Wally’s best friend Eddie, played by Ken Osmond. The “Leave it to Beaver” roll call of fascinating individuals does not end with Eddie Haskell, as Mayfield had a very deep bench. During its six season run, “Leave it to Beaver” introduced us to dozens of unique people, some who came and went quickly, and a few who stayed with the program through all or most of its duration. Although Ward and June were practically perfect parents, and Beaver and Wally were all-American boys, I think even they would have to admit that their lives would have been pretty dull without some of the names that I am about to submit as Mayfield’s unforgettable characters.

Fred Rutherford: Fred (Richard Deacon) had the duel distinction of being both Ward Cleaver’s office mate and Clarence “Lumpy” Rutherford’s father. In both roles, Fred sees himself in competition with Ward, with is unfortunate, as Ward seems to be to have Fred beaten 15 ways from Sunday in both categories. Fred comes off as both a stuffed shirt, and a bit of a blow-hard, particularly when he insists on speaking in pure Madison Avenue lingo. Mr. Rutherford constantly brags about his son Lumpy, although everyone is quite aware that Lumpy is a poor student, and is clumsy enough to have earned his nickname. In the earlier seasons, Fred seems oblivious to his boy’s shortcomings, but in later episodes, Fred seems to have caught on to the truth, which, of course, did nothing to stop the bragging. My favorite Fred line was his explanation for Lumpy being held back in his sophomore year of high school…”no sense rushing the boy, just because he has potential.”

Clarence “Lumpy” Rutherford: Lumpy (Frank Bank) was introduced during the first season as an older neighborhood bully, but eventually becomes a classmate of Wally and, next to Eddie, his most significant pal. In terms of friendship, Lumpy often seems closer to Eddie Haskell than to Wally, and sometimes displays some of Eddie’s negative traits, especially when it comes to picking on Beaver and his friends. But it should be noted that whenever Lumpy found himself in a mess, it was always Wally he turned to, possibly making Lumpy not as dumb as he seemed. Unlike Wally, Lumpy did not enjoy a close relationship with his dad, as he seemed fearful of Mr. Rutherford, whom he still called daddy. My favorite Lumpy moment was when he tried to pull rank over Wally after Wally made the football team. Although it was pointed out to Lumpy that he himself didn’t make the team, Lumpy shot back, explaining, “yeah, but four guys in my home-room did…four guys!”

Gus the Fireman: Beaver’s most reliable friend was not Larry, Whitey, Richard or Gilbert, but was instead an elderly gentleman who worked at Mayfield’s Auxiliary Fire Station # 7. Gus the Fireman (Burt Mustin) was both Beaver’s father confessor and his source for the kind of advice that only a well traveled adult could deliver. The great thing about was Gus was that he never talked down to Beaver, and he actually discouraged Beaver from idolizing him too much. “I might seem pretty smart to a young guy like you” Gus explained to Beaver…”but compared to other adults, I’d probably be the bottom of the barrel.” I never believed that for a minute.

Mrs. Margaret Mondello: While June Cleaver was depicted as the perfect mother, the same could never be said about Larry Mondello’s mom. Margaret Mondello (Madge Blake) seemed completely overwhelmed by the task of raising an eight year old boy, possibly because of two factors. First of all, Mrs. Mondello’s husband always seemed to be out of town whenever Larry would act up, and secondly, the woman appeared to be in her 60’s during her time on the show. I’m surprised no one ever seemed to realize that a Mayfield resident had apparently given birth in her mid-fifties, but I guess people minded there own business back then. Mrs. Mondello’s most memorable quote: “Things would be alright if my daughter could just find a husband. Then we’d always have a man around to give it to Larry when his father is out of town.”

Mrs. Cornelia Rayburn: Mrs. Rayburn (Doris Packer) was the longtime no nonsense principal of Mayfield’s Grant Avenue School, and frequently stepped in as Beaver’s teacher during his year in eighth grade. Mrs. Rayburn had obviously seen it all, and was seen given Miss Canfield valuable advice when the latter became flustered over Beaver’s failure to return with a response to the note she gave Beaver to bring home to his parents. It was in that episode that the raciest line in LITB history was delivered. Mrs. Rayburn, fooled into thinking that Ward was under the weather, sent him a card that read, “Dear Mr. Cleaver…Hope to see you back on your feet, Cornelia Rayburn.” Upon reading the card, an angry June asks Ward, “who is Cornelia Rayburn, and when has she seen you off your feet?”

Uncle Billy & Aunt Martha: William Cleaver (Edgar Buchanan), and June Cleaver’s Aunt Martha Bronson (Madge Kennedy) are the only two Cleaver relatives we ever meet or are even made aware of during Leave it to Beaver’s six seasons, and the two could not be more different. Aunt Martha is rather stodgy, and almost ruins Beaver’s social standing when, during an extended visit, she buys him fancy new clothes, the kind that almost would assure any kid a beating. Uncle Billy, on the other hand, is a loud and colorful fellow, filling Wally and Beaver with wild stories and outrageous promises, to the point where Ward becomes concerned that Beaver will become disenchanted if he learns the truth that Billy is all talk. Unfortunately, Beaver does find out while watching Uncle Billy get his hair trimmed at the hotel…Beaver notices the looks of disgust the barber and manicurist give each other while Billy talks their ears off. Happily, Uncle Billy redeems himself in a later episode when he deftly runs the Cleaver household while Ward and June take a short trip.

Harold “Duke” Hathaway: My all-time favorite. The Duke is only seen is two episodes, both during the third season, but his impact puts him right near the top of Mayfield’s who’s who. Hathaway was Mayfield High’s star athlete and big man on campus during Wally’s sophomore year, and is president of the school’s most prestigious club, the “Crusaders.” Like Eddie Haskell, Duke is overly polite around adults, but unlike Eddie, is not a suck-up, but instead, handles himself as an equal. Duke Hathaway almost seems out of place on “Leave it to Beaver,” as his mannerisms and self confidence make him better suited as a character in “The Great Gatsby.” Even June Cleaver swoons at the prospect of the Cleaver home being visited by a “swinger.” Duke’s personality is best summed up by the short conversation he and Ward conducted while waiting for Wally to come down stairs. Ward: “So Duke, do you think Mayfield will have a good basketball team next year?” Duke: “Oh, I don’t think so Mr. Cleaver…I’m graduating.”

Of course, I could go on (and on) and include such notables as Miss Landers, Mary Ellen Rogers, Tooey Brown, Judy Hensler and Benji Belamy, but I have to draw the line somewhere. In any case, Mayfield seems like a wonderful town, a place where anyone would love to live or visit. The only really problem would be finding it…at no point during its six seasons is it ever revealed in which state Mayfield is located.

Note: Two “Leave it to Beaver” regular cast members held down parts on other sit-coms during their time on “Beaver.” In addition to playing Fred Rutherford, Richard Deacon was seen as Mel Cooley on the “Dick Van Dyke Show.” Doris Packer, while playing Beaver’s principal, Mrs. Rayburn, was also Mrs. Clarice Osborn, the wealthy mother of Dobie’s main rival, Chatsworth Osborn Jr. (Steve Franken). Mrs. Osborn always referred to her late husband in the same manner…”he was a nasty man.”

 

Reviewing Classic Toys

One of the nice things about the Christmas season is that it gives me an excuse to roam around the toy department of large stores, although the truth is my daughter is in her 20’s, and my youngest nephew is a junior in high school. Of course, I’m usually disappointed, as I rarely come across any of my childhood favorites anymore, which would include the “Fort Apache” play-set, the “Fanner 50” cap gun, or a Lionel model railroad. It seems most of the shelves are full of electronic gadgetry, usually to be connected to a computer or a 55 inch screen TV. At this point, you might expect me to begin a rant about how superior the toys and games I grew up with are when compared to what is available for today’s generation, and believe me, that was my original intention. But upon further review, I am not sure that some of the time honored items that Baby Boomers played with were as fun as we might choose to remember. Here now is a description of some of those classic toys, along with an objective (yeah, right) assessment of them.

Pogo Stick: I never understood the attraction to the pogo stick. Yes, the user got to hop around like a kangaroo, but for how long, and then, what? Unlike roller skates, scooters and skateboards, pogo sticks were not an efficient form of transportation, and the owner would be pretty much restricted to using in front of his or her own house, while, one by one, their friends would leave while the pogo stick enthusiast was too busy bouncing to notice. Personally, jumping up and down on my parents’ bed was much more fun.

Stilts: I’m not talking about the professional kinds of stilts, which produce a 20 foot tall Uncle Sam at every Fourth of July parade, but the modified home versions, that elevated the user about two feet off the ground. Like the pogo stick, stilts were never a practical form of getting around, as movement on stilts was very slow, even if a kid had somehow mastered them. Another problem with stilts was walking on then required using both arms to hold on to the poles, making one completely vulnerable to being pushed to the ground by even the weakest of neighbors. The best description of stilts I can offer is that it gave you sensation of what it would have been like to be Wilt Chamberlain, had he lived to be 85.

Slinky: “What walks down stairs, alone or in pairs, and makes a slinkity sound…blah, blah, blah.” Okay, Slinky…you’ve been around for almost 70 years…when are you going to come up with a second trick? And did it ever occur to you that some kids live in one story houses? The Slinky (right up there with Silly Putty) is a great example of what TV advertising can do for a product that’s hardly more than a disemboweled bedspring. It has been pointed out to me that the Slinky is the official state toy of Pennsylvania. What is the state bird, Woody Woodpecker?

Jacks: I’m curious if jacks are still being played with, or have gone the way of the Hula-Hoop. The origin of jacks can be traced back over 2,000 years when ancient Greeks played something called “knucklebones”. Since I never played jacks, I’m somewhat vague on the rules, but I do know it had something to do with bouncing a small rubber ball, and picking up small metal multi-pointed objects between bounces (the way I described it, it’s a wonder it never replaced baseball). The most entertainment I got out of jacks was whenever my father would step on one while walking barefoot in the kitchen at 2 o’clock in the morning.

Marbles: The vision of a group of boys shooting marbles was once a slice of Americana, but I think the actual game called marbles has not been widely played since the early 1950’s. It’s my guess that kneeling around a circle drawn in the dirt and shooting tiny round objects at each other lost much of its appeal once television sets invaded the countryside. All that’s left are the expressions, “walking away with all of the marbles” and “that guy seems to have lost all of his marbles.”

Etch-A-Sketch: Talk about delivering a mixed message…The Etch-A-Sketch encourages young people to creatively make some kind of drawing by turning a pair of knobs, which direct a hidden pencil, allowing the picture to appear on a small screen. But then, the child is expected to shake away the results of their effort, and start again on a new project. Isn’t anything worth saving? Stick to crayons, kids.

Yo-Yo: Although the Duncan Yo-Yo website claims that their toy is as popular as ever, I see little evidence of this. Invented centuries ago, the yo-yo’s popularity exploded in the early 1960’s thanks to, you guessed it, television. At one time, Duncan had 10 different categories of their product, based on the skill level of the buyer. TV commercials and print ads would feature all of the various tricks that could be performed, especially if one owned the most advanced (and most expensive) model, the Duncan Imperial. Every community would host yo-yo contests, sometimes attended by a former Duncan Yo-Yo World Champion. I must confess that I was terrible at yo-yoing (if that is the term), and could only look on in envy watching Steve Banchero “rock the cradle.” Fortunately, the yo-yo’s heyday has passed, although I hear Steve still has his glow-in-the-dark Imperial.

Old Maid: Actually, “Old Maid” was a very fun card game. The only problem was in my house, a deck of Old Maid cards would not last for long. When a group of Daley kids would play, inevitably, someone would have bent the corner of the Old Maid card, giving that person the advantage of indentifying, and avoiding that card. Once the ruse was discovered, all of the cards would have to be bent in the same place, but by the next game the Old Maid would then have a torn middle. Soon, every card would have to constantly be mutilated to keep up with what was happening to the Old Maid. After a few games, all of the cards were ruined. My mother grew tired of having to buy a new set of cards every week, so the game eventually died out, which was just as well…updated versions of Old Maid depicted a less homely woman. We preferred the original lady…man, was she ugly.

Unicycle: Okay, I admit this probably does not belong on the list, as very few people ever owned a unicycle, let alone knew how to ride one. But one guy in my neighborhood did have one, and was always bringing it to the schoolyard to show off. No one liked him.

I’m sure I have omitted several other toys that deserved mentioning, and please, feel free to suggest more entries to this list. But before wrapping this up, I do want to mention something I learned recently that is kind of cool. There is a National Toy Hall of Fame, which started in 1998 with 17 original inductees. (The number now stands at 52) Entering the Hall in 2005, and now part of a group that includes Barbie, G.I. Joe, Lincoln Logs and Play-Doh…the cardboard box.

 

Alex Smith and the Legend of Wally Pipp

Recently, the biggest story in Bay Area sports has been the San Francisco 49ers starting quarterback controversy, as Colin Kaepernick, at least for now, seems to have replaced longtime starter Alex Smith. Although Kaepernick was originally placed in the position due to a concussion Smith suffered against the Rams, his outstanding performance has raised doubts as to whether Smith will get his job back once he has completely recovered. Alex Smith’s dilemma has evoked the inevitable comparison to the saga of Wally Pipp, who, according to legend, lost his job as the New York Yankees starting first-baseman in 1925 when he asked for a day off due to a headache. Those familiar with the story know what happened next. Pipp’s replacement, Lou Gehrig, proved to be Pipp’s superior, and began a streak of playing in 2130 straight games, while Pipp never started again for the Yankees.

So, how much of a parallel is there between Smith’s situation and Pipp’s? One big difference is that Smith was felled by a legitimate injury, while, according to the legend, Pipp’s removal from the Yankee lineup was voluntary, although not intended to be permanent. It was June 2, 1925 when Wally Pipp supposedly approached Yankee manager Miller Huggins, and, citing dizzy-spells, requested a day of rest. Huggins granted Pipp’s request, and gave Lou Gehrig his first start of the season at first-base. Gehrig collected three hits that day, and remained the Yankees’ first-baseman for the next 14 years. In losing his job, Wally Pipp became the poster boy for individuals outshone by their replacements, and the key character in what is now a cautionary tale describing what can happen to those placing themselves in that position. A Wally Pipp-like situation can happen anywhere: business, politics, entertainment and other sports besides baseball. But instead of asking if Alex Smith’s present plight matches that of Wally Pipp, the real question should be how much truth is there in the Pipp story? As with many sports legends, much of the Pipp tale is a myth.

In June of 1925, the New York Yankees were struggling through what would eventually be the teams’ only losing season between 1919 and 1964. Babe Ruth had been stricken ill during spring training, and his slow recovery seemed to affect the entire ballclub. Going into the June 2 game with the Washington Senators, the Yanks had lost five games in a row, and manager Miller Huggins felt he needed to shake things up. Wally Pipp, the regular first-baseman, was marred in an 11 for his last 68 slump, so Huggins benched him in favor of backup Lou Gehrig, who had only 24 at bats going into the Tuesday afternoon Yankee Stadium contest. Gehrig responded with three hits, as New York defeated Washington 8-5, thanks largely to a pair of homers by Bob Meusel. None of the newspapers of the day mentioned anything about Pipp having a headache, although one should consider that no one in June of 1925 knew that Gehrig entering the Yankee starting lineup would prove to be a historic event. But if it was Pipp’s decision to sit-out the June 2nd game, what would explain his absence over the following day, or the fact that he only appeared in 20 more games in 1925, managing only one hit in 14 at bats? It seems obvious that it was Huggins who made the switch, which turned out to be the right one…Gehrig become one of the best hitting first-baseman in MBL history, while Pipp was traded to Cincinnati after the 1925 season, and finished out his career with the Reds. Since it appears the Pipp/headache is false, how and when did the story start?

On July 2, 1925, one month after losing his starting position, Wally Pipp was struck by a pitch while taking batting practice, resulting in a serious concussion. Years later, as Gehrig’s consecutive game streak reached record numbers, some sportswriters, investigating the origin of the streak, began to confuse Pipp’s benching and batting practice mishap as occurring the same day. Pipp himself, either suffering from poor memory or large ego, began suggesting his spot in the lineup was lost due to injury rather than giving way to a better man. Of course, the idea that Pipp chose to sit-out the game that launched Lou Gehrig’s career did give the event a sense of irony, which is probably why Hollywood went with that version of the story, when Lou Gehrig’s life story made it to the screen in 1942, one year after Gehrig’s death. In “Pride of the Yankees,” which featured Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig, the Wally Pipp/headache scenario was reenacted by actors George McDonald (Pipp) and Ernie Adams (Miller Huggins), thus cementing the legend forever. As someone once said, when legend becomes fact, print the legend.

We don’t know how the Alex Smith, Colin Kaepernick saga will turn out. I’ll go out on a limb right now and predict that Kaepernick will not start at quarterback every game for 14 straight years, and Alex Smith will not quietly fade away. But whatever ends up happening, we should all reflect on the real lesson that Wally Pipp’s story teaches us…none of us are irreplaceable, and sadly, after we’re gone, life will surely go on without us.