A Boy’s View of the Boys of Summer

April 28, 2023
Posted by Jay Livingston

The previous post was about the belief that a ballplayer with a modicum of talent should keep at the game regardless of the sacrifices he has to make or his realistic probability of success. I added a Durkheimian gloss -– that this belief and its attendant rituals are essentially non-rational; they are a mechanism for group cohesion. The baseball-as-divinity belief serves the purposes of the group as a group, not of its individual members.

I myself once held this belief. Of course, I was fairly young at the time. Two moments stand out in my memory.

1.  When I was young, probably at the low end of Little League age range, my father let me tag along once when he was meeting casually with a man he had some kind of business deal with, buying or selling steel not that it matters. The man’s name was Mickey Weintraub, and although he was probably in his forties at the time, he looked much younger. He was tanned and handsome, and he just had one of those eternally young faces. He had also been a professional baseball player, an infielder.

He had spent years in the Giants farm system, Double-A and Triple-A minor leage teams, but had never quite been able to make it to the majors. Good field, no hit, I think. The Giants were still in New York then, and they figured that a player named Weintraub in the line-up would boost attendance at the Polo Grounds. So they were willing to keep giving him a chance.

“Every year, I’d go to spring training in Arizona, and they’d ask me ‘How old are you.’ And every year, I’d say ‘twenty-four.’ I could have gone on like that forever.”

“Why didn’t you?” I asked. I was incredulous that he had ever stopped.

“You can’t fool your legs.”

At age nine, I didn’t understand about legs and how 32-year old legs might be different than 24-year old legs. But what I really didn’t understand was why someone would stop playing baseball and go into the steel business.

2.  When I was twelve or so, I went with my parents to visit my younger brother at summer camp. One of the counselors there had until recently been a pitcher for Montreal, which was then the Dodgers’ Triple-A farm team. He was what we would have then called a “light-skinned Negro,” and tall, like the Dodgers’s ace Don Newcombe but better looking. He was also apparently not quite as good as Newk; he had not been called up to the majors.

Somehow, I wound up playing catch with him. We had thrown the ball back and forth for a while when he said, “Can you catch a curve ball?”

“Sure,” I said. After all, some of my friends that I’d caught could throw pitches that broke a few inches. He took a short wind-up, leaning back then bringing his body and arm forward. The ball seemed to be headed for my left shoulder or maybe a little higher when suddenly it spun downward and to the right, and next thing I knew it was sailing past my right leg. I could hardly believe what I’d just seen. Embarrassed, I turned and trotted back to the bushes where the ball had finally stopped rolling.  

I don’t remember if we kept playing or if he threw any other curve balls and if so whether I caught them. I just remember thinking: How could anyone who can throw a pitch like that not keep trying to get in the Dodgers’ rotation?

I heard from one of the other counselors that he was going to med school.

Durkheim at the Bat: The Elementary Forms of Baseball Life

April 27, 2023
Posted by Jay Livingston

Drew Maggi was a 15th-round draft pick by the Pirates in 2010. He played in the minor leages for thirteen years — Double-A and Triple-A farm teams of a half-dozen different MLB franchises, 1,155 games, 4,494 times at the plate,  Yesterday, three weeks shy of his 34th birthday, he made his first appearance in a MLB game. He was a pinch hitter in the bottom of the eighth inning in a game the Pirates (the division-leading Pirates!) were winning 8-1. He struck out.

The fans cheered. They had cheered even more loudly the moment he was announced. All the Pirates in the dugout had cheered and applauded. And after the game, he was interviewed on the field and on the jumbotron just as if he had hit a walk-off home run.

I imagine Durkheim watching all this, sitting somewhere in the upper deck, thoughtfully sipping a beer. Yes, this is a celebration of Drew Maggi, he thinks, but rituals — and surely this is a ritual — even when they focus on some central individual, are performed not just by the group but for the group. What’s being extolled here is not Drew Maggi, it’s baseball itself. The important point is that we are acting here not as individuals doing what’s in our self-interest, but as members of the group, doing what’s necessary for the group.

Groups come together for these rituals often in response to some threat. External threats are obvious. In the face of threat from another team, we wave our yellow towels. Internal threats are harder to see, but when you see people reacting as if to a threat, and they are not under attack, the threat is probably internal. Quitters are a good example.

A quitter is a threat to the group not because the group is left with one less team member. What’s at stake is the whole premise of the group, because what the quitter is saying is that the very basis for the group  is silly or stupid or harmful. That’s why group reactions can seem way out of proportion. Two years ago, I wrote (here)  about the reaction, especially on the political right, when Simone Biles, for perfectly understandable reasons, chose not to participate in the Olympics. “Quitter,” “selfish psychopath,” “very selfish ... immature ... a shame to the country,” “selfish, childish, national embarrassment.” Jason Whitlock at The Blaze wrote about Biles’s “felonious act of quitting.” Yes, a felony.

Drew Maggi is the other side of this coin. Minor league players have about a 10% chance of making it “to the show,” and even those odds dwindle with age. In sports, thirtysomethings are not exactly hot prospects. The annual salary is less than $30,000 (Triple-A minimum is $700 a week). As for working conditions, the principal attraction is that you get to play baseball. A lot. The sensible thing for a 34-year old man who for thirteen years has never gotten to the major leagues would have been to quit. We the group, we fans and players, raise Drew Maggi up as the focus of this ritual because he symbolizes the reassuring idea that despite all that, baseball is worth it.

Durkheim drains the last of his beer as the fans file for the exits. This spontaneous ritual in PNC Park, he thinks, has the same function as nearly all other rituals: to uphold the fundamental idea of the group and to reaffirm each participant as a part of that group.

Mrs. Maisel Yet Again — 1961 Talking Like It’s 2011.

April 18, 2023
Posted by Jay Livingston

Five years ago, I posted here about the language anachronisms in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” That post (here) remains the most visited page in this blog, the number of views now approaching 20,000. Last night I watched the first two episodes of Season Five, and I have the same question that I had five years ago with Season One: How can they let these obvious anachronisms make it into the final script?

In Season Five, the year is 1961, and Midge has taken a job in the writers’ room for a TV show much like The Tonight Show. She was reluctant to take the job – she’s a performer, not a writer — and on her first day, she calls her manager Susie to ask for advice.

Fake it till you make it may be good advice, but nobody used that phrase in 1961. Nobody. Nor did anyone talk about “going rogue.” But in Episode One, Midge tells Susie, “We had a plan, then I went rogue.”

I ran these phrases by Google nGrams. Here are the results:

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

These phrases did not exist in 1961. Yes,the nGrams data is from books, and trendy phrases turn up in speech — in conversations, on television — before they appear in print, so we should allow for some lag time. A few years perhaps, but not a few decades.

There were others you can find on nGrams: out of the loop, track record, not on the same page. These too arrived much later in the century. Other words in Season Five just sounded wrong --- at least to my ears, and my ears were around in 1961 —  but I had no quick way to check them: not gonna happen, and suck meaning to be of poor quality.

In that 2018 post, I quoted Amy Sherman-Palladino, co-creator and chief writer of the show saying that she hired a “delightful researcher who has like twelve masters degrees in everything in the world” and who questions things that don’t sound right. Sherman-Palladino herself says, “The last thing I want to do, when everyone is making sure that the piping on the wall and the colors are all correct, is . . . come in and throw in a bunch of dialogue that’s not appropriate.”

But the glaring anachronisms remain, and I’m still puzzled.

Mimi Sheraton and Me

April 10, 2023
Posted by Jay Livingston

Mimi Sheraton, long-time food critic for the New York Times, died last week.

It may be difficult now to appreciate just how big a deal Mimi Sheraton was.  In the late 1970s and early 80s, food and restaurants had become an important part of the cultural landscape. Huge steaks and the like were for men with a lot of money and not much of a palate. On the rise were nouvelle cuisine and authentic ethnic restaurants. More important, information about these places was highly centralized. In 1975 when Mimi Sheraton started at the Times, there was no Zagat’s and of course no Yelp or the  dozens of online restaurant review sites today. There was Mimi, and everybody knew who she was.

Our paths crossed once, briefly many years ago. I was on jury duty one morning in early January back in the early 80s – civil court, downtown Manhattan. A woman was suing the movie theater where she had fallen or tripped, presumably suffering some injury. Civil court judges, to make more efficient use of their time, were not present for voir dire, at least not in this case. The lawyers conducted voir dire themselves. If some dispute arose, they would pause the proceeding and walk down the hall to see the judge.

Even to non-attorney eyes, these lawyers did not seem like the brightest lights in the room. One of my fellow jurors, a philosophy professor (it was Winter Break for him too) said to me, “If my students asked such questions, I would fail them.” It also seemed they weren’t listening closely to the answers.

The plaintiff’s lawyer was questioning a prospective juror, one Mimi Falcone. “And what do you do Miss Falcone – is it Miss or Mrs.?”

“I’m a food critic. I write a column under the name . . .”

But the lawyer wasn’t listening. As soon as she said she said “food critic,” he started speaking over her.  “Where do you write your reviews. I mean if you were someone like Mimi Sheraton. . . .”

She interrupted him firmly. “I am Mimi Sheraton.”

From there, things went even further south. “Are you familiar with the Coronet Theater?”

“I’m not sure which it is,” she said, ‘The Coronet or the Baronet” (the two theaters stood side by side on the Upper East Side), “but one of them has this terrible staircase.”

Ms. Falcone was not selected for the jury.

But I was.. Go to lunch, we six jurors were told, and after lunch we’ll begin the trial. But before we left, we approached Mimi Sheraton and asked her to recommend a restaurant in Chinatown. She did, and we went. It was more expensive than most Chinatown lunch places, but most of us could afford it, and for the one who might have chosen a more modest place — an underpaid secretary as I recall – the rest of us shared her part of the bill.  The food was great, and different from much Chinatown fare. Mimi had not steered us wrong.

We returned to the courtroom ready to hear the case only to be told that the parties had reached a settlement. That’s often happens in civil cases. But most civil court juries don’t get a personal recommendation from Mimi Sheraton.