Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 2, 2014

A Cuban Boxer’s Journey: Guillermo Rigondeaux, from Castro’s Traitor to American Champion

Filed under: cuba,sports — louisproyect @ 3:31 pm

In January 2013 I reported on an encounter with Brin-Jonathan Butler, a young writer and boxing trainer (a throwback to Hemingway) whose Salon.com article on a Cuban boxer named Guillermo Rigondeux triggered a reflex action on my part to spring to the Cuban government’s defense largely on the basis of Salon’s heading: “I came to Havana to film a documentary about a local boxer — and found a country by turns beautiful and terrifying.” After sending off a rude email to Butler, I learned that his views on Cuba were far more nuanced that I had given him credit for. After two or three email volleys, we decided to get together and exchange ideas.

In the course of our conversation, I learned that he was working on a book about Guillermo Rigondeux, who had defected to the U.S. in the expectations that the streets would be lined with gold. The goal of the book was to show that neither Cuba nor the U.S. could fulfill the hopes of an athlete who was forced to operate in one of the most exploitative sectors of professional sports. By comparison, the NFL is a paragon of virtue compared to the multiple boxing associations that view its gladiators as commodities to be exploited mercilessly. I was reminded of this by a poignant interview on WFAN with John Florio, the author of a new biography of Michael Spinks and his brother Leon who never received a penny of the $3.75 million he was supposed to receive for his rematch with Mohammed Ali. For his efforts, Ali was rewarded with Parkinson’s disease even if his earnings allowed him to enjoy a comfortable life. For Leon Spinks, the life after boxing included a job at McDonald’s and early dementia.

Last week I got word from Brin-Jonathan that “A Cuban Boxer’s Journey: Guillermo Rigondeaux, from Castro’s Traitor to American Champion” had finally become available. The early reviews are quite stunning:

Butler’s prose is “eviscerating… elegant… amusing” with “a storyteller’s ability to put these humanizing details into a bigger picture… Remarkable.”—The Ring magazine

“This is something very special.”—Leon Gast, Oscar-winning director for When We Were Kings

“A subtle and powerful examination of Cuba, as seen through the eyes of its most celebrated boxers. Filled with memorable characters caught in the middle of an existential struggle.”—Steve Fainaru, Pulitzer Prize–winning coauthor of The Duke of Havana: Baseball, Cuba, and the Search for the American Dream

“[A Cuban Boxer’s Journey] is a nuanced, deep, compassionate study of a subject too often boiled into simplicities, too often seen in black and white, too often used to forward agendas—left and right—that too often ignore the crushing human costs. Brin-Jonathan Butler’s story does just that by traveling, interviewing, and critically eyeing Cuba’s boxers at home and in the States, methodically unpacking the loss-imbued choice they all face. It is an invaluable document.”—S. L. Price, author of Pitching Around Fidel: A Journey into the Heart of Cuban Sports

There’s an excerpt of “A Cuban Boxer’s Journey” at http://www.sportsonearth.com/article/77478026/cuba-boxer-guillermo-rigondeaux-journey-defection-fidel-castro that will give you an idea of Butler’s viewpoint. I found this paragraph particularly revealing:

Only a few months before, I had heard that the new captain of the Cuban national team, since Savon had stepped down, two-time Olympic gold medalist Guillermo Rigondeaux, had attempted to defect in Brazil with teammate Erislandy Lara and had been arrested. This amounted to the highest profile boxing defection in Cuban history, unavoidably symbolizing a massive turning point in not just Cuban sport, but Cuban society on the whole. Rigondeaux’s attempt at escape had become an international news item and a national soap opera regularly appearing on Cuban television. Castro himself had personally spoken out in the state newspaper calling Rigondeaux a traitor and “Judas” to his people. “They have reached a point of no return as members of a Cuban boxing team,” Castro wrote in Granma. “An athlete who abandons his team is like a soldier who abandons his fellow troops in the middle of combat.” Compounding the significance and ambiguity of Rigondeaux’s situation was boxing legend Teofilo Stevenson, probably the second most famous Cuban in the world for the fortune he turned down to leave, defending Rigondeaux. “They are not traitors,” Stevenson declared. “They slipped up. People will understand. They’ve repented. It is a victory that they have returned. Others did not.”

Brin-Jonathan Butler has published an EBook through Amazon.com that can be purchased for a mere $3.79. As you are probably aware, Amazon is locked in a battle with publishers, Hachette in particular, over the giant’s determination to low-ball them to the point of bankruptcy. As loath as I am to recommend purchasing anything from Amazon, I will continue to be a Prime account holder and to urge you to buy Butler’s book. If Guillermo Rigondeux would discover upon making it into the American Dream, it is much more of a nightmare. Someday the advanced technology of Amazon will be wedded to a society that produces for human needs rather than private profit. In that future world, people will be able to play baseball or box without worrying about where their next meal is coming from. Until then, we do what we do to survive—in essence the story Brin-Jonathan Butler has ably told.

May 11, 2014

Michael Sams reacts to being drafted by the St. Louis Rams

Filed under: Gay,sports — louisproyect @ 1:23 pm

April 27, 2014

Donald Sterling: racist and sexist pig extraordinaire

Filed under: capitalist pig,racism,real estate,sexism,sports — louisproyect @ 8:45 pm

This week there were blatant signs that America was not yet a “postracial” society. First we were treated to the spectacle of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, hailed by the libertarian right for his stand against a federal government he deemed non-existent, telling a NY Times reporter that Blacks abort their young children and put their young men in jail “because they never learned how to pick cotton.”

Fast on his heels, Donald Sterling, the 81 year old owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, a basketball team with a Black coach and star guard who also happens to be the president of the players’ union, was caught saying over the phone to his 38 year old girlfriend—of mixed Latino and Black ancestry—that she should stop showing up at his arena with so many Blacks. Quoting Sterling:

It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people. Do you have to?

You can sleep with [black people]. You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want. The little I ask you is not to promote it on that … and not to bring them to my games.

I’m just saying, in your lousy fucking Instagrams, you don’t have to have yourself with, walking with black people.

…Don’t put him [Magic Johnson] on an Instagram for the world to have to see so they have to call me. And don’t bring him to my games.

This was all on a tape that his girlfriend released to TMZ, a gossip website.

This story has burst through the seams of sports and become a hot topic on television news and the newspapers. In today’s NY Times, William C. Rhoden, a Black sports reporter, wrote:

The more compelling question for the league’s players is whether they will speak out — or act out — against Sterling. And what about the league’s other owners? How will they respond? Will they remain silent? Will they issue a collective statement? Or will individual owners like the usually vocal Mark Cuban, who declined to address the Sterling issue, send their own messages?

Mark Cuban has a reputation for being one of the more progressive-minded owners (his Dallas team, like Sterling’s, is in the playoffs). He also owns Magnolia Pictures, a prime distributor of hard-hitting documentaries including one based on the the March 2006 rape, murder, and burning of 14-year-old Iraqi girl and the murder of her parents and younger sister by U.S. soldiers.

But I am not that surprised he declined to comment on the Sterling affair. Cuban is a diehard libertarian and as such views property rights as sacrosanct, just like the Nevada rancher.

In digging into Sterling’s past, I made the discovery that he was born to Jewish immigrants surnamed Tokowitz. Like many men getting off the boat, his father made a living as a peddler just like my grandmother. Sterling’s father peddled fruit while my grandmother pushed clothing.

Sterling started off in Los Angeles as a divorce lawyer but soon switched to real estate cases. That led in turn to a full-time real estate business that included properties in Black and Latino neighborhoods. This is where his racism first reared its ugly head. Dave Zirin, a radical sportswriter for the Nation Magazine, details his sordid past:

Sterling is also the Slumlord Billionaire, a man who made his fortune by building low-income housing, and then, according to a Justice Department lawsuit, developing his own racial quota system to decide who gets the privilege of renting his properties. In November of 2009, Sterling settled the suit with the US Department of Justice for $2.73 million, the largest ever obtained by the government in a discrimination case involving apartment rentals. Reading the content of the suit makes you want to shower with steel wool. Sterling just said no to rent to non-Koreans in Koreatown and just said hell-no to African-Americans looking for property in plush Beverly Hills. Sterling, who has a Blagojevichian flair for the language, says he did not like to rent to “Hispanics” because “Hispanics smoke, drink and just hang around the building.” He also stated that “black tenants smell and attract vermin.”

One of my earliest memories was visiting “Tante Leya” in New York with my mother—I must have been 10 years old or so. This was most likely my grandmother’s cousin who spoke no English. After spending two of the longest hours in my life as Leya and my mother chatted in Yiddish over tea and cookies, we finally left to go downtown—probably to see the Radio City Christmas show or something like that. In the elevator, my mother turned to me and said,”Leya is a slumlord. She buys buildings and rents the apartments to Negros who complain about rats and broken boilers.” That was the first time in my life I heard the term slumlord.

At 81, Sterling’s values were a lot closer to Tante Leya’s than mine. This was a man who worshipped money not “Jewish values”. When a Satmar Hasidic slumlord was killed a few months ago, I was reminded of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express”, a case in which Inspector Poirot was stymied by the fact that a multitude of people had motives to kill the victim. The Satmar was such a crook and so callous in his dealings with Black tenants that it was impossible to figure out who killed him. If Donald Sterling ever ends up with a knife in the back, the cops will have the same problem.

A Sports Illustrated profile on Sterling from 2000 analyzes his cheapskate behavior as a reaction to childhood poverty. Michael Selsman, his former publicist, told SI: “As a kid, Donald never had enough of anything. With him, acquiring great wealth is a crusade. He’s psychologically predisposed to hoarding.” Not every Jew who lived through the Great Depression ended up in quite that manner. My mother complained bitterly about my father’s reluctance to buy a house in the roaring 1950s but understood it as a reaction to childhood poverty. That being said, my father—like most Depression era men—had no ambition to build an economic empire over hapless victims, particularly Black people.

Perhaps taking the advice of another publicist concerned about his shitty reputation, Sterling got involved in a project to benefit Los Angeles’s enormous homeless population but like everything else the billionaire gets involved with, it was nothing but a scam. The Los Angeles Weekly reported in 2008:

These days, though, Sterling’s vow to help the homeless is looking more like a troubling, ego-inflating gimmick dreamed up by a very rich man with a peculiar public-relations sense: Witness his regular advertisements proclaiming another “humanitarian of the year” award — for himself. From homeless-services operators to local politicians, no one has received specifics for the proposed Sterling Homeless Center. They aren’t the least bit convinced that the project exists.

“He uses every opportunity to have it announced somewhere,” says Alice Callaghan, an Episcopal priest who runs the Skid Row day-care and education center Las Familias del Pueblo. “But it sounds like a phantom project to me.”

Like many other scumbags who made a fortune (George Steinbrenner, Fred Wilpon, James Dolan) in some other type of business, Sterling decided to buy a professional sports team at the top of his game. In 1981, he bought the Los Angeles Clippers, a franchise that was nowhere near as prestigious as the Los Angeles Lakers (Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s team) but a bargain at twice the price. His initial 12.5 million dollar investment is now worth a half-billion.

The SI profile captures a man who would make Scrooge McDuck look like Lucky Jim Fitzsimmons. He suggested to coach Paul Silas that they could save money if he taped the players’ ankles.

Nobody ever bothered to challenge Sterling until the superstar Elgin Baylor became general manager. Baylor was committed to making the team competitive even if it meant demanding that his boss open up his wallet. After 22 years of fighting a losing battle, Baylor was probably relieved to be fired in 2008 but not so much so to prevent him from filing a racial discrimination case against Sterling. The LA Times reported:

In the original lawsuit, Baylor said that Sterling had a “vision of a Southern plantation-type structure” for the Clippers and accused the owner of a “pervasive and ongoing racist attitude” during long-ago contract negotiations with Danny Manning. The lawsuit also quoted Sterling as telling Manning’s agent, “I’m offering you a lot of money for a poor black kid.”

Baylor alleged Sterling said he wanted the Clippers to be “composed of ‘poor black boys from the South’ and a white head coach.”

It should of course come as no surprise that Sterling was a sexist pig as well as a racist. ESPN, a sports magazine similar to Sports Illustrated, Jason Easly recounts his scandalous abuse of women. Christine Jaksy, a former employee, sued Sterling for sexual harassment in 1996. ESPN states:

Jaksy first worked for Sterling in 1993, as a hostess at one of his “white parties,” where guests dressed Gatsby style at his Malibu beach house; she eventually went into property management. Jaksy testified that Sterling offered her clothes and an expense account in return for sexual favors. She also testified that he told her, “You don’t need your lupus support groups I’m your psychiatrist.” Jaksy left her job in December 1995, handing Sterling a memo that read in part, “The reason I have to write this to you is because in a conversation with you I feel pressured against a wall and bullied in an attempt to be overpowered. I’m not about to do battle with you.” She carried a gun because, according to her testimony, she feared retribution.

One of the most shocking revelations about Donald Sterling was the NAACP’s decision to present him with a Lifetime Achievement award this year. (Of course, they also decided to give a Man of the Year award to the snitch Al Sharpton.) Even though they made the decision to present the award before the phone call tape was released to TMZ, they must have been aware of all his other anti-Black words and actions. What prompted them to overlook this was his handing out of from 2 to 3 thousand tickets to Black youth for home games of the LA Clippers. They have since rescinded the award.

Professional sports fascinates me both as a fan and as a critic of American society. What makes it unique is the tension between private ownership and the public’s sense that it is “their team”. Toward the end of the NBA season, New Yorkers planned to stage a protest against owner Jim Dolan in front of Madison Square Garden. They were sick and tired of his meddling in the team’s business, making decisions that undercut the team’s fortunes. Apparently nervous that the protest might lead to more escalated forms of action such as a boycott, Dolan hired Phil Jackson, a basketball legend like Elgin Baylor, to run the team and promised to not interfere.

When you listen to sports fans calling in to WFAN or the ESPN station in New York, they sound more informed about the team than Jim Dolan. Unlike their generally passive acceptance of whatever Chase Manhattan Bank has up its sleeves to screw the working person, the sports fan is ready to take to the barricades in order to win a championship. In the documentary “Manufacturing Consent”, Noam Chomsky states:

Take, say, sports — that’s another crucial example of the indoctrination system, in my view. For one thing because it — you know, it offers people something to pay attention to that’s of no importance. That keeps them from worrying about — keeps them from worrying about things that matter to their lives that they might have some idea of doing something about. And in fact it’s striking to see the intelligence that’s used by ordinary people in (discussions of) sports (as opposed to political and social issues). I mean, you listen to radio stations where people call in — they have the most exotic information and understanding about all kind of arcane issues. And the press undoubtedly does a lot with this.

If and when that passion becomes devoted to challenging the corporate system as a whole, we might finally see the possibility of realizing that old-time vision of a Socialist America.

 

March 4, 2014

Particle Fever; The Iran Job

Filed under: Film,Iran,sports — louisproyect @ 8:43 pm

“Particle Fever” would be compelling enough in its own right as a you-are-there documentary that follows the leading scientists of the Large Hadron Collider project as they move inexorably toward the experiments that will reveal whether the Higgs Boson (the God particle) exists or not. But when you factor in that the film was produced and directed by nuclear physicists with uncanny filmmaking abilities, including a knack for including graphics and animation that makes the most fearsomely abstract things concrete, you are in for a rare film-going experience, as exciting in its own way as the class trip I took to the Hayden Planetarium when I was in junior high school.

A hadron is a composite of subatomic particles (quarks) that have mostly been identified, except for the one that is at the hub: the boson. It is commonly referred to as the Higgs boson, after the British physicist who theorized its existence back in 1964. Don’t ask me to try to explain this (as if I could) but the boson is viewed as the critical sine qua non for the creation of the universe. As the film barrels along at an exciting pace, we learn that if the experiment fails to prove its existence, some physicists will conclude that reality consists of multiple universes each with its own set of discrete laws of physics. While that sounds like a good plot for a Star Trek episode, some of the physicists interviewed in the film—including uber-physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed, who is a multi-universe adherent, fear that it will make the task of a unified theory of matter impossible.

The film explains that there are two kinds of physicists, theoretical and experimental. Both came together to make the Hadron Collision work. The collider itself is one of the greatest engineering feats of modern history, consisting of a seventeen mile magnetized tunnel in a seven-story building beneath the ground in Switzerland that is designed to hurl subatomic particles through the tunnel in opposite directions like greyhounds on performance enhancing drugs until a switch is turned on to make them collide in four separate locations in the tunnel to be examined by high-powered computers networked around the world.

The film consists largely of physicists at work either in the US or in Switzerland putting the finishing touches on the eagerly awaited experiments and explaining to laypeople like us in the movie theater what it is they are trying to accomplish. Their sense of excitement is infectious, especially so from Monica Dunford, a startlingly young woman who works on the experimental side. You see her with a hardhat on her head tightening bolts and connecting wires on the mammoth collider in the final stages before countdown. When she is not at work, she is off running marathons or mountain climbing. Leave your stereotypes of nerds at the door. All of the principals are exceedingly well adjusted and don’t take themselves too seriously.

One of the key interviewees is David Kaplan, a 56-year-old theoretical physicist who held research positions at the U. of Chicago and Stanford’s Linear Accelerator Center. He looks about 30 years younger and wears his hair in a ponytail. He is also the producer of the film.

The director is Mark Levinson who has a PhD in particle physics from U. Cal Berkeley. He was the producer/director/writer of a narrative film titled “Prisoner of Time”, about the lives of dissident artists after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

As compelling as the interviews are, the film reaches an even higher level with the graphics and animation developed by MK12, a studio that did the FX for “Stranger than Fiction”, a comedy starring Will Farrell. Their talents are served better here.

When asked how he made the transition from particle physics to filmmaking, Levinson replied in a way that reminds us of how inadequate CP Snow’s notion of “Two Cultures” was:

The transition actually seemed remarkably straightforward to me. What entranced me about physics was the profound beauty and elegance of the theories, and the magic and mystery in the fact that abstract symbols encoded deep truths about the universe. I made the transition to film when I recognized an alternate avenue for exploring the world around us, in the human dimension, that also seemed mysterious and magical. For many years, I harbored the hope that I could find some project that could weave together the two seemingly disparate strands of my life. The start-up of the Large Hadron Collider provided the perfect combination of both a profound scientific and human endeavor. One of the characters in Particle Fever speculates, “Why do we do science? Why do we do art? It is the things that are not directly necessary for survival that make us human.”

“Particle Fever” opens tomorrow at the Film Forum in New York.

Like “Particle Fever”, “The Iran Job” benefits from an appealing protagonist—in this case a 28-year-old journeyman (as he frankly describes himself) basketball player from the Virgin Islands named Kevin Sheppard who was not good enough to make to the NBA but good enough to work professionally overseas, including Iran.

He has signed a contract to play for Shiraz AS for one year on a tryout basis. If he produces results, they will renew his contract. Since American basketball players are so highly regarded, they will pay him double the going rate. He and a 7-foot Serbian named Zoran “Z” Milicic, hired to play center, are the maximum number of foreign players allowed on Iranian professional basketball teams.

The style of “The Iran Job” is almost DIY and consists mostly of the filmmakers following Sheppard around as he practices, leads the team as a point guard as they advance their way toward the playoffs, and develops a friendship with three young Iranian women who chafe at the restrictions put on them by a paternalistic clerical state. When they are sitting around Sheppard’s apartment making small talk and teasing each other, the women have to go to the bathroom and hide whenever there is a knock on the door since they might be arrested for un-Islamic behavior. When they drive around with him, they risk getting busted by the morality police who have the power to investigate whether they are up to no good. They also had to put up with a temporary ban on women attending sporting events. No wonder the three women became activists in the Green Movement.

Throughout it all, Sheppard remains an extremely likable and self-effacing character, exchanging high fives with a merchant who says he likes Black people and used to smoke pot when he lived in the US. Without being prompted, the merchant breaks into “’Everythings Gonna Be Alright”—a Bob Marley song.

The film is an eloquent statement about the need to stop demonizing Iranians and to finally put an end to a system that is as restrictive toward women in its way as foot binding. During one of their bull sessions, one of the women insists that Islam has nothing to do with keeping women in their place. It is a clerical dictatorship speaking in the name of Islam that is at fault.

As an indication of what a gifted filmmaker is capable of, director Till Schauder (his wife Sara Nodjoumi, an Iranian-American, produced) told Indiewire how he filmed under obviously difficult conditions:

Journalist visas were denied so we had to shoot under the radar. We decided it was safer for me to go on my own, entering as a German tourist. I packed an HDV camera – small enough for an unassuming backpack. If I got into trouble I could say I’m just a tourist filming the sites. I used that line a few times until (before the presidential election) I was detained. Shooting like this was challenging. I didn’t have the best equipment, nor a crew. But it was a blessing in disguise, and crucial for building trust and intimacy with the film’s subjects.

It is so interesting that someone who has something to say can be ten times as interesting using a camera that probably cost less than one minutes worth of production on some of the offal that earned prizes on Sunday night at the Academy Awards.

“The Iran Job” is available from http://www.filmmovement.com, the Netflix for the cognoscenti.

February 14, 2014

Ted Rall on Michael Sam

Filed under: Gay,sports — louisproyect @ 10:02 pm

February 13, 2014

Good commentary on Michael Sam

Filed under: Gay,sports — louisproyect @ 8:29 am

December 25, 2013

42; The Jackie Robinson Story

Filed under: Film,sports — louisproyect @ 5:58 pm

Since I am disdainful of worshipful biopics to begin with, my expectations for “42” were even lower than they were for “Philomena”. I was also annoyed with the oversaturated commercials for the movie that left you with the impression that it would be shallow entertainment at best. Once again, I was pleasantly surprised.

Although the film has flaws (how could it be otherwise given its Hollywood origins?), it was a serious attempt to dramatize Jackie Robinson’s epic struggle to integrate professional baseball with solid performances all-round, especially from Chadwick Boseman as Robinson and Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodger general manager who decided to break the color barrier. As I will get into later, Dave Zirin is quite right in pointing out how the film left out the broader civil rights movement within the post-WWII historical context. But if you are a leftist parent with young kids, the film is great family entertainment and an opportunity to refer them to books or films about the civil rights movement. That’s what commie parents are for, after all. Just don’t overdo it!

The film was directed and written by Brian Helgeland, who has functioned mostly as a writer during a 25 year Hollywood career. Most of his films have been junk like “Salt”, the 2010 spy movie starring Angelina Jolie that was deemed rotten by 38 percent of Rotten Tomatoes critics.

What works best in “42” is the fairly detailed and thoughtful accounts of what went on in the locker rooms and on the field, something that was entirely missing from “The Jackie Robinson Story” discussed below. For someone my age, who collected baseball cards obsessively in the mid-50s and practically memorized the Baseball Encyclopedia, it is really a delight to see the baseball players of that wonderful period brought to life with both their flaws and their virtues. The film depicts a petition campaign to get Robinson off the team organized by Brooklyn Dodger outfielder Dixie Walker, who as his name implies, was a racist. It also shows the role played by Pee Wee Reese, the shortstop from Kentucky who originally lined up with Walker. It was only his fierce desire to compete that made him overcome his bigotry. Once he got to know Robinson as a teammate and a human being, his feelings grew even warmer—so much so that at a time when Robinson was putting up with the worst racist taunts, he made sure to be seen with his arm draped around Robinson’s shoulder at the beginning of a game in Pittsburgh.

But the most dramatic moments involved Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman baiting Jackie Robinson when he arrives for the first time in the “city of brotherly love”. Chapman’s taunts can be heard throughout the stadium, calling Robinson a “nigger” and a “monkey”. At the end of the game, reporters ask Chapman to explain his behavior. He defends himself by saying that this goes on all the time in baseball. Joe DiMaggio was called a “wop” and Hank Greenberg a “kike” from the sidelines. Robinson finally put a cork in Chapman’s mouth by hitting a game-winning home run.

Allan Barra, a left-leaning sportswriter like Zirin, interviewed Alabama native Ben Chapman back in April 2013 for the Atlantic Monthly. While Chapman apparently is no longer quite the bigot he was back in the 1950s, he continues to explain his behavior in terms of how people describe Howard Stern: an equal opportunity offender. But Barra explains how some people were more equal than others:

In one of the most intense scenes in the film 42, the story of Jackie Robinson that first season when he broke the color barrier, Chapman’s abuse of Robinson is recreated with chilling effect. What hit me like a fastball to the side of the head, though, was the next scene where reporters grill Chapman (played by Alan Tudyk): The movie Chapman defends his behavior in almost exactly the same way the real Ben Chapman did to me.

It was then I realized that for more than three decades Chapman must have been telling reporters the same things he had told me.

Over the years, retired players and sportswriters I’ve talked to have confirmed that, yes, baseball banter was pretty harsh back then and ethnic slurs and insults were a big part of Depression-era and post-World War II baseball. They did say those things to DiMaggio and Greenberg, and, yes, a lot of northern players did harass southern boys mercilessly. (Sample: Ed Walsh, born and raised in Pennsylvania, loved to yell at. Georgia-born Ty Cobb, “Cobb, I hear you’re from Royston, where men are men and sheep are nervous!”)

But as Lester Rodney—”Press Box Red,” who wrote about sports for the Communist paper The Daily Worker—once told me, “That Chapman, he was something special. He could taunt with a viciousness that would have made Ty Cobb blush.” As Rodney pointed out, DiMaggio and Greenberg could give it right back, but Robinson wasn’t allowed to: “Jackie had promised Branch Rickey that in his first season he wouldn’t fight back.”

Dave Zirin’s problems with “42” are of course right on the money:

Early in the film, Jackie Robinson, played by newcomer Chadwick Boseman, says, “I don’t think it matters what I believe. Only what I do.” Unfortunately that quote is like a guiding compass for all that follows. The filmmakers don’t seem to care what Robinson—a deeply political human being—believed either. Instead 42 rests on the classical Hollywood formula of “Heroic individual sees obstacle. Obstacle is overcome. The End.” That works for Die Hard or American Pie. It doesn’t work for a story about an individual deeply immersed and affected by the grand social movements and events of his time. Jackie Robinson’s experience was shaped by the Dixiecrats who ruled his Georgia birthplace, the mass struggles of the 1930s, World War II, the anti-communist witch-hunts and later the Civil Rights and Black Freedom struggles. To tell his tale as one of individual triumph through his singular greatness is to not tell the story at all.

Considering all this, it is somewhat surprising that Zirin did not mention Lester Rodney in his article. The film includes Black sportswriter Lester Mitchell (Andre Holland) as a major character. Shown throughout the film pecking away at a portable typewriter in the stands, he finally explains that he is a victim of segregation as well. Black sports writers were not allowed in the white-only press box. Mitchell is key character in the film. But it would have been even better if Rodney had been included as well.

The aforementioned Barra, who used to write for the Village Voice when it was readable, did a memorable interview with Lester Rodney in 2003 that is fortunately still online. The paper might be crap but the archives are a gold mine:

The Best Red Sportswriter
Commie Columnist Lester Rodney’s Fight for Jackie Robinson
By Allen Barra Tuesday, Oct 14 2003

For nearly a quarter of a century, Lester Rodney was the sports columnist and sports editor for The Daily Worker, the largest and most influential Communist newspaper in the U.S. For more than a decade he was one of the leading agitators for the breaking of baseball’s color barrier. In the 1940s, he became an intriguing footnote to the signing of Jackie Robinson and other black ballplayers.

Thanks to the publication of Press Box Red: The Story of Lester Rodney, the Communist Who Helped Break the Color Line in American Sports (Temple University Press) by Irwin Silber, Rodney’s story becomes much more than a footnote, and his role as one of the key figures in the most important era in baseball history is established. Rodney, now 92, spoke to us from his home in the Bay Area.

VV: For decades you were an outsider. Now I see on the Internet that your story is available online at Wal-Mart.

LR: I never thought I’d live to see that.

VV: Who do you like in the Series this year?

LR: Well, how can I not root for the Cubs? The Red Sox created a lot of their own misery over the last 50 years with their racial policy.

VV: I know. They passed up a chance to sign Willie Mays. Instead of “the Curse of the Bambino,” they ought to call it “the Curse of Willie Mays.”

LR: I think when you get away from the Eastern seaboard, the Cubs are a much more interesting story. You gotta root for Dusty Baker.

VV: The last time the Cubs were in the World Series was 1945, and about 10 days after it was over, you received a telegram from a friend saying that Branch Rickey had signed Jackie Robinson.

LR: Yeah, I was a sergeant in the army serving in the Pacific, and a friend sent me a telegram saying, “You did it!” I didn’t do it, of course. Many people did it. But I have to admit that it was one of the proudest days of my life.

VV: You were one of the leading agitators with your open letters to Commissioner [Kenesaw Mountain] Landis—

LR: A blatant racist. The baseball owners of that period couldn’t have picked a more appropriate man to represent their policies. He simply kept denying that there was a color barrier. I would write stories with headlines like “Can You Read, Judge Landis?” and “Can You Hear, Judge Landis?” I know we got to him. The Daily Worker didn’t have a big circulation, but we got noticed, and what we wrote was read by people in baseball and by other journalists. We had an advantage over the black press of the period, whom most sportswriters could simply ignore because their work wasn’t seen by many white people.

VV: I can’t imagine what it must have been like getting the players, the owners, and other journalists to accept you. How often did the issue of Communism come up?

LR: To tell you the truth, not very often. I think some players just thought it was a trade union paper or something.

VV: But why did the owners give you access?

LR: Hey, I was helping to bring some business in. (Laughs.) They were capitalists, they wanted to sell tickets. They didn’t care whom they sold the tickets to.

VV: What about the other journalists?

LR: It took a while for them to accept me, but once I did it I got along pretty well with most of them.

VV: One of the things I liked about Press Box Red is that you get to see a side of some people that you might never see anywhere else.

LR: That’s true. I saw some sides of ballplayers that others didn’t because they weren’t asking them the same questions I was. Joe DiMaggio, for instance. It stirred up a lot of fuss when DiMaggio was honest enough to admit to me that Satchel Paige was the greatest pitcher he ever saw. That took guts, and it was honest. I had a lot of respect for Joe back then. He changed when the aura of superstardom overcame him, but he had a decency in him that you didn’t see in too many guys. Leo Durocher, too. Leo was very open in his praise of black ballplayers. You heard a lot of stuff about Leo, both good and bad. I think it’s all true. But somewhere it’s got to go on the ledger that he helped integration.

Read full

There are two good things that you can say about “The Jackie Robinson Story”. Number one, it is free:

The second thing, more importantly, is that you see Jackie Robinson playing himself on and off the field. There are very few opportunities for young people today to see baseball during its golden age nowadays and moreover to see one of its all-time greats. That being said, the film is poorly written, directed, and acted but a must-see for a chance to see the thirty-one-year old Jackie Robinson swinging a bat and stealing bases.

At the very moment that “42” was showing in Cineplexes all around the country, newspapers were reporting on the vanishing African-American presence in baseball today, not a function of de jure segregation but of the de facto segregation that rules today. If you’ve seen my review of a documentary on the NCAA, you’ll recall that “amateur” college athletics was designed originally to keep working class kids out of sports like football, which during Teddy Roosevelt’s time was white only. That only changed when colleges figured out that championship football and baseball teams could generate millions. And the only way to win championships was by recruiting Black players and giving them scholarships. Those scholarships were still one-sided since the school paid pennies in exchange for receiving millions from ticket sales, TV rights, and merchandise franchising.

Apparently, baseball remains a preserve for the lily-white as explained in an April 10, 2013 NY Times article titled “Looking Into the Decline in African-American Players”. In 1970 Black players (including Black Latinos) constituted 27 percent on baseball rosters; now it is 8.5 percent. This explains why:

LaTroy Hawkins, the veteran reliever for the Mets, said Monday that baseball in the United States had become a game for the rich. Hawkins, who is African-American, said the main problem was that N.C.A.A. Division I baseball programs offered so few scholarships compared with other sports.

Top-level college football programs offer 85 scholarships, all full rides. Division I basketball programs offer 13 full scholarships, also full rides. Division I baseball programs offer 11.7 scholarships, but those are often divided among many players.

“Kids in the inner city play basketball and football, because they give out full scholarships and parents don’t have to worry about anything,” Hawkins said. “In baseball they give out quarter scholarships. That’s what needs to change.

“In the inner city, you need to get a scholarship because most families can’t afford to send a kid to school, especially when you’ve got more than one. You need to get a scholarship, and baseball doesn’t provide that luxury.”

Hawkins also noted that, well before college, specializing in baseball can mean expensive travel teams and a year-round commitment.

“I played 17 games in high school; I’d have gotten burned out with that much baseball,” Hawkins, a native of Gary, Ind., said of today’s schedules. “But that’s what it requires now, because if you don’t, all the kids that don’t live in the inner city and live in the affluent neighborhoods, they’re getting ahead of you. You might be a better athlete than they are, but as far as a skilled player, you can’t keep up with that.”

November 15, 2013

Bullying in the National Football League

Filed under: sports — louisproyect @ 1:15 am

As a sports fan since a young age, I enjoy listening to sports talk radio shows on WFAN and ESPN. Since October 30th the phone lines have been burning up over the Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito controversy. These are two offensive linemen (in Incognito’s case, a double entendre) from the Miami Dolphins National Football League team who are antagonists in “hazing” incidents that left Martin on leave for what amounted to a mental breakdown and Incognito suspended for role as chief hazer. Commentators have also referred to the actions as “bullying”, something that appeared confusing at first since Martin is 6’5” tall and 312 pounds. I was bullied in high school but I was shorter and weaker than the boys who bullied me. How does someone who makes a living colliding with other huge men become a victim of “bullying”?

There is also some question as to whether the term hazing applies since Martin is a second year player. Rookies are routinely harassed in institutions like private schools, fraternities, sports teams, and the military but once you have gotten past the first year, you are off the hook.

There is a marked contrast in identity. Both of Jonathan Martin’s parents are Harvard graduates with law degrees. The dad is a Cal State professor and the mom an attorney for Toyota. Their son could have easily gotten into Harvard but preferred to enroll at Stanford (a top school with a top athletics program) in order to pursue his ambitions as a football player while studying the classics.

Incognito was asked by the coach to “toughen” Martin up. Ordinarily when a football player is not playing up to expectations, he is supposed to go through some drills to improve his game, like blocking a dummy or running wind sprints. In this instance, “toughening” him up meant harassing him day and night. The first report on the “toughening up” campaign was reported on NBC Sports on October 30:

Glazer said Martin had an incident in the team cafeteria this week in which teammates jokingly said they wouldn’t sit with him, and that Martin’s reaction to the joke was that he “flipped out, smashed a food tray on the ground, took off, and they haven’t seen him since.”

You’ll note the “jokingly” thrown in here as if to say it was all in good humor, and the obfuscation as to whether they actually got up from the table when he sat down or just “jokingly” threatened to do so. The Glazer referred to here is Jay Glazer, a reporter who is close friends with and mixed martial arts trainer for Incognito. Just recently Glazer did an interview with Incognito that was anything but probing.

In the days following this initial report, much more information came out that painted an incriminating portrait of Incognito as an abusive twitterer and someone who left crazed and violent phone and text messages:

Hey, wassup, you half-nigger piece of shit. I saw you on Twitter, you been training 10 weeks. [I want to] shit in your fucking mouth. [I'm going to] slap your fucking mouth. [I'm going to] slap your real mother across the face [laughter]. Fuck you, you’re still a rookie. I’ll kill you

When Martin’s agent went to the team’s general manager, one Jeff Ireland, to complain about the mistreatment, Ireland’s response was to urge Martin to “punch” Incognito. This is the same general manager who asked a potential draftee in 2010 whether his mother was a prostitute just because she had spent some time in jail for selling drugs.

With management like this, it is no wonder that they would not only put Incognito in charge of “toughening” Martin up. His teammates were just as derelict as management, voting him onto the team’s leadership council in utter disregard of his long record as a miscreant. He was kicked off the team at University of Nebraska for various offenses both against opposing teams and his own, so egregious that he was sent to the Menninger Clinic for anger management treatment. He then transferred to the University of Oregon where he was kicked off the team a week after joining it. Once he turned pro, he went from team to team, always being forced to move on for the same kind of problems. In 2009, NFL players picked him as the dirtiest player in the league.

Since Jonathan Martin has not given an interview since taking his leave, we do not know his side of the story. In his interview with Glazer, Incognito argues that he was Martin’s most reliable ally on the team, which speaks more about the horrors he faced than anything else.

It does raise the question, however, why it might have been possible for Martin to put up with such abuse as long as he did. My own experience with bullying in high school tells me that you often put up with it in order to be accepted. When your ego structure has not been fully developed, you feel much more of a need to be approved by your peers, even if they have a sadistic need to humiliate and beat you. From what I have seen of Richie Incognito, it appears that he never grew up. Furthermore, despite Jonathan Martin’s blue chip upbringing and Stanford degree, he still felt the need to be “part of the crowd”. Maybe now that he is outside the sport he will find a different crowd not fueled by testosterone and volcanic fits of rage.

His off-the-field problems were just as serious.  In 2012 a drunken Richie Incognito stuck a gulf club into the crotch of a 34-year-old African-American female volunteer and then emptied a bottle of water in her face according to a police report. This is just what you would expect from a character that called for a team meeting in a strip club.

One might reasonably assume that Incognito is a racist based on the “half-nigger” tweet and the abuse of the Black volunteer but it is a bit more complicated than that. There is no apparent racial division on the team, with Black players considering him an “honorary Black man” according to the Miami Herald.  Furthermore, one of Incognito’s most diehard supporters is a Mike Pouncey, an African-American who plays center on the offensive line (his job is to hike the football to the quarterback), who apparently does not hold Incognito’s reference to him as a “nigger” in the Youtube clip against him. Pouncey has stated that he “loves” and “respects” Incognito.

We have to take into account, however, that Pouncey might not be the best judge of character since he is a close friend of Aaron Hernandez, the New England tight end that is awaiting trial on the murder of his sister’s fiancé. He is expected to testify in a grand jury on Hernandez’s illegal gun trafficking, transactions he was supposedly well aware of. Here is Maurkice Pouncey (r), also a pro football player, and his twin brother Mike (l) wearing “Free [Aaron] Hernandez” caps.

The brothers, who played with Hernandez at the U. of Florida, were with him at a Gainesville nightclub in 2007 on the night of a shooting that left two men seriously wounded. Hernandez was not charged at the time but cops are now looking at the possibility of adding this charge to the one for murder.

Pro football is continuously being roiled by controversies such as this for a good reason. The sport is simply a modern version of the gladiator games that were a hallmark of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. If the goal is not necessarily to kill your opponent, it is certainly implicitly a goal to maim them. That is why Incognito was drafted by a number of teams. His brand of aggression was considered key to a team’s success. One wonders whether Martin had any concerns as a classics student about what it meant to be a modern-day gladiator. That’s a question I would love to pose to him. Edward Gibbon, the author of “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, wrote that “History is little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.” Doesn’t that apply to American history as well?

The owners and the NFL officialdom will most certainly draft new rules against hazing but they do not really speak to the essence of the sport that values victory using any means at one’s disposal, just as is the case in warfare. Not too long ago, the NFL had to deal with the bountygate scandal. Gregg Williams, the defensive coach for the New Orleans Saints paid bonuses to any player who would inflict an injury on an opposing player severe enough to make him leave the game. In a rant to his team before a game with the San Francisco 49’ers, Williams told him to aim for wide receiver Kyle Williams’s head and “the body will follow”, an especially ominous statement given the 49er player’s history of concussions.

The NFL is also embroiled in scandals over its refusal to investigate the epidemic of  Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, ALS, and early Alzheimer’s among players who suffered repeated concussions, the latest of which is Dallas Cowboy’s running back hall of famer Tony Dorsett. ESPN reported:

Two weeks ago, upon arriving in California for his evaluation and brain scan at UCLA, Dorsett described to “Outside the Lines” the symptoms that compelled him to seek testing: memory loss, depression and thoughts of suicide.

The former Cowboys running back, now 59, said that when he took his Oct. 21 flight from Dallas to Los Angeles for testing, he repeatedly struggled to remember why he was aboard the plane and where he was going. Such episodes, he said, are commonplace when he travels.

Dorsett said he also gets lost when he drives his two youngest daughters, ages 15 and 10, to their soccer and volleyball games.

“I’ve got to take them to places that I’ve been going to for many, many, many years, and then I don’t know how to get there,” he said.

It is entirely conceivable that fear of concussion might dry up the well upon which professional football relies, at least among the more privileged players like Jonathan Martin not willing to exchange their brains for a hefty salary. Football might evolve into a sport like boxing in which the only participants are from the most poverty-stricken.

Like warfare, football always seems to find a way to survive. In 2011 Harper Collins published “The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football”, written by John J. Miller. Miller, a rightwing slug from National Review, portrayed Roosevelt as a savior of a sport that had not yet become professional, even though it was arguably a lot more brutal. A Wall Street Journal review ties the book to current events:

Today a major problem is concussions. One study sponsored by the NFL found that professional veterans over the age of 50 are five times as likely as the general population to suffer from dementia. Those numbers are bad, but consider the situation in 1905, when 18 people died on the gridiron. Back then, foes likened the game to gladiatorial combat in Roman amphitheaters and launched a crusade. Led by Harvard President Charles Eliot and joined by the Nation magazine and muckraking journalists, Progressive-era prohibitionists wanted to sack the increasingly popular sport.

At one point, Harvard actually quit playing the game. So did Columbia, Northwestern, Stanford, the University of California and several smaller colleges. Following the 1897 death of Richard Von Gammon, a fullback at the University of Georgia, the Georgia state legislature voted to ban football. The governor vetoed the bill, but only after hearing from Gammon’s mother, who urged him not to outlaw a sport that her son had loved.

Harvard’s Eliot was adamant. No honorable sport, he wrote in a 1905 report, embraces “the barbarous ethics of warfare.”

Roosevelt had little patience for such talk. “Harvard will be doing the baby act if she takes any such foolish course as President Eliot advises,” he wrote. Elsewhere, he worried about producing “mollycoddles instead of vigorous men.”

As is the case today, football was a vital part of a culture of Empire. In Roosevelt’s day, it was gunboat diplomacy; now we have drone diplomacy. If you have the stomach to watch the pregame ceremonies of a Super Bowl, you will be struck by the salutes to the troops, the overhead flights of jet fighters, the American flags, and all the rest. It is our version of Hitler’s Nuremberg rallies.

On August 4, 2013, Michael Perelman posted an excerpt from his latest book titled “The Matrix: The Intersection of War, Economic Theory, and the Economy” on his blog that has a chapter titled “Muscular Christianity and Football” that you can read it in its entirety here. The first paragraph referring to a problem with “softness” might tell you that as long as there is capitalism and imperialism, there will always be professional football and the Richie Incognito’s who serve as its gladiators:

In the late nineteenth century, a fear about the softness of American society raised doubts about the capacity of the United States to carry out its imperial destiny.  This problem was associated with the final settlement of the frontier.  As important as the development of open space was to the expansion of the territory of the United States, the completion of the continental expansion brought an attendant fear that traditional masculinity was on the wane and would bring about a withering of the individual and the national body.  This fear spread to the church as well, where the result was thought to be a moral softening (Miller 2011, p. 38).  To make matters worse, waves of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe were flooding American cities with foreign cultures.  This concern became so pressing that talk of “race suicide” became common.

August 6, 2013

Art Donovan, a Behemoth of Modesty, Dies at 89

Filed under: obituary,sports — louisproyect @ 3:12 pm

NY Times August 5, 2013

Art Donovan, a Behemoth of Modesty, Dies at 89

By

Art Donovan, a 300-pound tackle for the Baltimore Colts whose nimble brutality helped propel him to the Hall of Fame and his team to two championships in the 1950s, and whose humor-laced tales about himself and the game won him an equal helping of celebrity, died on Sunday in Baltimore. He was 89.

The Baltimore Ravens, the city’s current football team, announced the death.

Donovan was an All-Pro defensive tackle, played in five Pro Bowls and in 1968 became the first Colt and the first pure defensive lineman inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. A 12-year National Football League veteran, he was one of the Colts’ “Magnificent Seven,” led by quarterback Johnny Unitas, who together helped make the 1958 league championship showdown against the Giants at Yankee Stadium the greatest game ever played, in the opinion of many football historians.

The Colts won the game, 23-17, on a Unitas-led drive in the league’s first sudden-death overtime championship game. A national television audience of 40 million watched the game as it spilled into the night. Suddenly, baseball was no longer America’s indisputable national sport.

Other members of the Magnificent Seven may have been better known than Donovan: Unitas, Lenny Moore, Raymond Berry, Jim Parker, Gino Marchetti and Coach Weeb Ewbank. But Donovan’s smack-down belligerence, coupled with astounding agility for a 6-foot-3, 300-pound behemoth, was at the center of the Colts’ effort. Donovan made a key tackle to help set up their final drive. But always self-deprecating, he volunteered in his autobiography that at another point in the game, he had ended up flat on his back.

Donovan practically made a second career of talking, and joking, about his weight and his battles to reduce it, gamely using his nickname in the title of his autobiography, “Fatso: Football When Men Were Really Men” (1987). In the book, he wrote that he was a light eater.

“I never started eating until it was light,” he said.

He barely hid his distaste for calisthenics: he said he did 13 push-ups in 13 years of training camps.

Donovan became a darling of late-night talk shows. Promoting his book on “Late Night with David Letterman,” he confessed that he had not exactly read it but knew most of the stories. Mr. Letterman asked if he would recommend it. “I don’t know, I guess so,” Donovan responded.

Despite his modesty, his peers were quick to praise him. He was in the sixth class admitted to the Hall of Fame, vaulting over a backlog of players going back to the 1920s waiting to get in. One opponent, Stan Jones, a Chicago Bears lineman, likened his agility to a matador’s. Ewbank said nobody could fool Donovan twice with the same play. Buzz Nutter, a Colts center who played with him, said, “One man alone could not knock Artie off his feet.”

Donovan came from a blue-collar era of football, played, he said, by “oversized coal miners and West Texas psychopaths.” He wondered how today’s players deal with continual meetings and films and dietitians — all of which he experienced as little as possible. He thought hot dogs and cheeseburgers and full-contact practices twice a day were good enough.

He played much of his career without a face mask, prompting a writer to observe that he had more stitches than a football. Donovan spoke warmly of the time Norm Van Brocklin, a quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams and the Philadelphia Eagles, was tired of his pass rush and threw a bullet pass right into his unprotected face.

“I couldn’t believe he’d just waste a play like that,” Donovan wrote. “I guess he was mad. You have to respect a guy like that.”

Arthur James Donovan Jr. was born, weighing 17 pounds, on June 5, 1924, in the Bronx. His grandfather, Mike Donovan, was a world middleweight champion and taught boxing to Theodore Roosevelt. His father, Arthur Sr., was a boxing referee who officiated at 14 heavyweight title bouts, most involving Joe Louis. Both father and grandfather are in the Boxing Hall of Fame.

Art Donovan Jr. attended Notre Dame for a year before enlisting in the Marines and fighting in the South Pacific. He was the first professional football player to be admitted to the Marine Corps Sports Hall of Fame.

After his discharge, he was a standout player at Boston College, where he earned a bachelor’s degree. The Giants, his favorite team, tried to draft him as a junior and even sent him money, but he remained in college and was drafted by the Colts in 1950, signing a contract for $4,500. He was 26, having delayed his career for military service.

The Colts franchise at the time was dissolved in 1951, and Donovan was picked up by the Cleveland Browns before being injured in a scrimmage. He was soon traded to the New York Yankees football club, which moved to Dallas and became the Texans in 1952. A year later, the franchise moved to Baltimore as a new version of the Colts.

In 1959, the Colts reprised their 1958 title victory over the Giants by defeating them again for the championship. He retired from football in 1962 after the Colts cut him from the squad a few weeks into training camp. His top salary in the game was $22,000.

He later owned liquor stores and the Valley Country Club in Baltimore and was a popular sports commentator on local radio. Mike Preston, a columnist for The Baltimore Sun, wrote of Donovan on Monday, “He drank Schlitz beer and burped on the airwaves.”

Donovan is survived by his wife, the former Dorothy Schaech; his daughters Kelly Donovan-Mazzulli, Debbie Donovan Smith, Christine Donovan and Mary Donovan O’Hern; his son, Arthur III; his sister, Joan Elizabeth Donovan; and seven grandchildren.

“Take me for what I am,” Donovan once said. “I’m a nobody, like you or anyone else. I was lucky enough to play football, and everyone liked me. That’s it.”

Frank Litsky contributed reporting.

July 20, 2013

Young woman plays with the big boys in Central Park baseball

Filed under: sports — louisproyect @ 11:51 pm

As I mentioned some time ago, I like to take in an inning of baseball or so when I run in Central Park on the weekend. I generally prefer the games involving men over 21 or so since their skill level is qualitatively higher than the high school kids who play there as well. There’s nothing like standing right behind the catcher and watching a capable pitcher throwing a ball at 85 miles per hour or so.

Today when I stopped in the park, the catcher on the field was quite a bit smaller than most and wore a pony tail, which in itself might not have meant that much. Lots of Latino players are smaller than Anglos but make up for it in toughness. I watched the catcher throw the ball to the second baseman on an attempted steal but he was off by a second or so, which is fairly typical in these games. But when he asked the ump how many outs there were, I was shocked to discover that the he was a she unless the he had a very feminine voice. After the side was retired, the catcher returned to the bench with the rest of the players and took off his mask. He was a she, no doubt about it.

I went up to her and struck up a conversation. Her name was Hera and she had been playing baseball for 13 years. She loved playing catcher because she liked working with pitchers. She also found no resistance to her being on the team. When I got home, I googled “Hera” and “baseball catcher”. This is what came up from the New York Daily News:

High School

Baruch College Campus HS catcher Hera Andre-Bergmann feels right at home behind the plate

By / DAILY NEWS SPORTS WRITER

Friday, October 21, 2011, 12:05 PM
Hera Andre-Bergmann will be lone girl in Saturday's PSAL Senior Baseball Showcase.

Howard Simmons/News

Hera Andre-Bergmann will be lone girl in Saturday’s PSAL Senior Baseball Showcase.

You don’t ask a tough ballplayer about such trivial matters as a little injury – even an ailment that requires 14 stitches to repair.

Joe Bergmann learned that lesson two years back when his daughter, Hera Andre-Bergmann, opened a deep gash on her thigh while trying to block home plate during a nasty collision with a baserunner.

“It doesn’t matter,” Hera – then a sophomore at Baruch College Campus HS in Manhattan – told her dad after she was treated at Roosevelt Hospital. “The son of a (gun) was out at home.”

Joe nearly flew off the couch on Wednesday while recounting the story in their apartment near Times Square. Hera, sitting a few feet away, mustered a small smile.

“That’s her,” he said. “She’s tough.”

For the past two seasons, Bergmann has occupied a unique position in high school sports: baseball catcher. She may be the only girl to start on her school’s varsity team, and she’s most certainly the only girl to don knee pads and a mask.

In recent years, girls across the country have been gravitating toward such traditionally male-dominated sports as wrestling, football and ice hockey, but the notion of a girl playing baseball hasn’t received similar attention.

Bergmann, 17, routinely absorbs collisions, calls pitches and controls baserunners with a strong throwing arm. Saturday, she will participate in the PSAL’s annual Senior Fall Baseball Showcase at MCU Park in Coney Island, a platform to give players exposure to college coaches and pro scouts. Bergmann is expected to be the only girl participating.

“When you’re practicing, you’re not seen,” she said. “So it’s good to be able to show off what you’ve been working on.”

Bergmann is relaxed and reserved. Her father says she badly wants to fit into the fabric of the city’s baseball community without calling too much attention to herself.

“It’s important for me to be seen as just another player,” she said. “I want to let my play speak for itself.”

That’s not to suggest that Bergmann is bashful about her role with the Blue Devils, who went 1-10 last spring in the PSAL Manhattan “B” South.

She changes into her uniform alongside her teammates in the dugout and has repeatedly declined invitations from the school’s softball coach, always answering with the same response: “I don’t play softball.”

She never considered switching to softball, even though her chances of winning a scholarship in that sport would be exponentially greater.

“I don’t play for a scholarship,” Bergmann said quickly, minutes before she would trek to a private coaching session with Gabe Diaz, who coaches the N.Y. Gothams travel team. “I play because I love the game.”

Howard Soskind, Baruch’s athletic director and new baseball coach, had to petition the PSAL to allow Bergmann to try out for the baseball team as a freshman. She gained approval but failed to crack the team, reaching the varsity as a sophomore. “I worked hard to get better,” she said. “And they couldn’t deny me.”

Bergmann won the starting catcher’s position last season, but struggled while playing through a nagging shoulder injury that hampered her throwing and contributed to her difficulties at the plate. In eight games, Bergmann batted .083, although her on-base percentage was a respectable .353.

At tomorrow’s showcase, the 5-2, 147-pound senior will try to establish her standing among the city’s top players while trying to determine whether it’s possible for her to continue playing after high school.”I wanted to give her an opportunity for this,” said Soskind, who nominated Bergmann and Baruch pitcher Charles Porcaro for the showcase. “It was an easy call to make. It wasn’t like I picked her because she’s a girl. She was deserving of it.”

Bergmann, who also plays goalie on the girls soccer team, displays an intensity that has helped her to convince both her teammates and opponents that she belongs.

“She’s amazing,” said Elvis Valdez, the coach at divisional rival Health Profession/Human Services HS.

“When we first saw her, my players were concerned with hurting her or hitting her with a pitch, but she’s a true warrior, the way she plays, how she handles herself. Now, they accept her on the field as an equal. I applaud what she’s doing.”

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