Friday, January 30, 2015

The Super Bowl

Regulars have no doubt noticed that I have been almost completely silent about the NFL Playoffs and the upcoming Super Bowl.  I just know that you have all missed my always not-so-accurate playoff predictions.  This can be traced to a couple of reasons.

One, due to our vacation in Hawaii and it's five hour time difference, I saw exactly NONE of the divisional playoffs or the conference championship games.  That's not exactly true.  I ducked into a bar in a town called Paia on Maui and saw Marshawn Lynch score the touchdown that put Seattle ahead of Green Bay late in the fourth quarter in the NFC title game.  The bar was filled with Seahawks fans, and the place exploded.  At the time, I was in a complete vacuum about the game and had no idea of what led up to that point.  And we got back to our hotel room in time to tune into the New England-Indy game in the fourth quarter with the Pats up 35-7, so why bother with the rest of it?

That has been the sum and substance of my NFL watching since the Steelers went down to the Ravens back on January 3.

The second reason for my silence on the game is the fact that I seem to be able to generate only negative passion for either of the participants.  Deflated footballs, smarmy coaches on both sides, loudmouth Richard Sherman, closed-mouthed Marshawn Lynch, blowhard Robert Kraft.  Hard to like either team, and both teams have enough going for them that you wouldn't mind seeing both of them lose.

This means I'm going to skip the game, right?  Not on your tintype, my friend.  The NFL has done a lot to turn you off in 2014, but I still like it, I like watching football, and, hey, it's the SUPER BOWL!!!!  And, whatever the faults of these two teams, they are both very good teams, and it should be a hell of a good football game.  As always, I will skip the hype and the hoopla of four plus hours of pre-game shows, (will probably watch a movie in the afternoon leading up to game time), and will tune in around 6:00 or so for the 6:30 kick-off.  I learned a long time ago that skipping all the network pre-game b.s. prevents you from being burned out before the game even begins.  Then there are the commercials, and the half-time show. I am completely unfamiliar with Katy Perry, other than I know shows a good looking young woman, and am anxious to see what kind of talent she is.

As for a prediction, well, here goes, and having not watched any of the games leading up to this one, it will not be my most informed prediction.  I am going to make this one based strictly on the two quarterbacks.  Russell Wilson is a terrific young talent, but Tom Brady is TOM BRADY, and, much as many may be loathe to admit it, he is one of they greatest of all time.  I am guessing that he wants to avenge those two Super Bowl losses to the Giants in recent years, and I am predicting that the old guy will out play the young guy in the one.  I also think that Bill Belichick will out coach Pete Carroll.

So call this one a win for the Patriots in what I hope will be a tense, close, and exciting game.  Then, we can all hold our noses when the Lombardi trophy is presented to Bob Kraft and Bill Belichick, or just turn the TV off when the final gun goes off, or immediately switch over to the new episode of "Downtown Abbey" that you DVR'd while the game was going on.

Enjoy the game, and party responsibly.

Book Review - "Rickey & Robinson"

I received this book as a Christmas gift (and Thank You again, George and Ann!), and finally got around to reading it in the post-holiday, post-vacation slowdown.

One might be tempted to say, "Another book about Jackie Robinson? What new can possibly be written on this topic?"  The one thing that would prompt me to overlook those questions would be the author, Roger Kahn, whose connections and closeness to the Brooklyn Dodgers of that era are well known, as best exemplified by his classic work, "The Boys of Summer".  Also, and I don't think that this can be overstated, the story of Jackie Robinson, Branch Rickey, and the integration of major league baseball is a story that cannot be told often enough, so any contribution to the literature on the subject, especially by so noted an author is welcome.

The book does tell you some things of which one might not be aware, specifically the byzantine workings of the ownership of the Brooklyn Dodgers, how Walter O'Malley came to be a part of it, and his maneuverings that eventually squeezed Branch Rickey out in Brooklyn.

Kahn makes no secret about his admiration for Robinson, as both a ballplayer and a human being, and for Rickey in his role as the instigator of this huge societal change. He also expresses a great deal of admiration for Walter O'Malley, although in the end, Kahn does revert to "Great Satan"-type imagery for O'Malley because he moved the Dodgers out of Brooklyn and out to Los Angeles.  Kahn also uses much of the book as a vehicle for grinding axes against many of his contemporary sports writers, Dick Young in particular.  While his assertions may be and probably are correct, is that really what this book was supposed to be about?  Kahn also lets you know that any other book or writing on this topic pretty much falls short of anything that he, Kahn, has written on the subject.  And for all his admiration for Robinson, at the end of the book he relates a rather prurient story about him, that to my mind had no need to be told.

On balance, though, "Rickey & Robinson" is an interesting and readable book about a part of baseball history that, as I mentioned, cannot be told often enough.

Movie Review - "The Imitation Game"

We recently saw the movie "The Imitation Game", and I cannot recommend it highly enough.  It tells the story of mathematical genius Alan Turing and his efforts while working for British Intelligence during World War II in cracking the German's "Enigma Code".  The movie has been nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, and star Benedict Cumberbatch has been nominated for Best Actor, and both nominations are quite worthy.  

The movie is very well acted and quite suspenseful and it does tell a terrific story.  It also tells a very sad story in how the real life Mr. Turing was treated by the very British government, a government that, it can be argued, he did very much to save, because he was homosexual.  Sad.

You also get to see the guy who plays Thomas Branson in "Downton Abbey" in a different role.

In any event, we will always remember this movie, not so much because it was so good (which it was), but because of the circumstances under which we watched it.

Last week, on our last day in Hawaii we had, and this often happens when traveling, an inordinate amount of time to kill between our 1:00 check out time and when we had to get to the airport in Maui for our 10:00 flight home.  What to do?

So, we found this place

in the town of Kahului, and in this open air shopping mall we found this place

so, what the hell, we took in a movie.

Now "seeing a movie" was not on the agenda as we planned our trip to Hawaii, but it turned out to be great way to kill all those empty hours we had on our hands.  And it will assure us that we will never forget "The Imitation Game".

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Book Talk - Nathan Heller and Charlie Chan

 While on our recent trip to Hawaii, one of the books I chose to read was Max Allan Collins' 1996 Nathan Heller novel, "Damned in Paradise".  I chose this one because it just so happens to take place in Hawaii, so why not read it when we are actually there, right?

Like all the Heller novels, this one is based on an actual crime, the so called "Massie case" that took place in Hawaii in 1931-32.  In involves the alleged rape of the wife of an American navel officer stationed in Pearl Harbor by a gang of native Hawaiians, and the subsequent murder of one of the suspects by the mother and husband of the victim.  The actual defense attorney in the case was the famous Clarence Darrow, and, of course, for the purposes of this story, Darrow has hired Nate Heller, at the time still a young member of the Chicago police force, as his chief investigator as he prepares for trial.

As he does with all these stories, Collins sticks to the main facts of the actual case, but manipulates history just enough to create a fun and entertaining story.  Another story in the Nate Heller series that I would highly recommend.  And as with all of these stories, there are many real historical figures included.  Besides Darrow and the principals of the Massie case, the story also features a Honolulu police detective named Chang Apana, and the interesting thing about Apana is that he is said to have been the inspiration to author Earl Derr Biggers for his famous fictional detective, Charlie Chan.

Upon finishing "Damned in Paradise", I was prompted to search Amazon for this book, "The House Without a Key" which was the first Chan novel that Biggers wrote.  In fact, Biggers wrote only six Chan novels.  "The House Without a Key" was published in 1925, and the style of the writing is a bit, shall we say, dated.  Charlie Chan himself is also almost a minor character in the novel, but it is set in Hawaii, so it was a fun read while vacationing there.

Reading this also made me remember the great "Charlie Chan Theater" which ran for a couple of years as a late night movie on Channel 4, WTAE, in Pittsburgh, and was hosted by Dave Crantz back in the early 1970's.  The fact that Hollywood cranked out dozens and dozens of these Chan movies in the '30s and '40s made for easy and no doubt cheap programming for a Saturday late night movie.  The movies starred Warner Oland and, later, Sidney Toler as Chan and were lighthearted and fun movies, although probably so politically incorrect (as were, no doubt, Crantz' introductory and commercial break commentaries) that they are seldom shown today.

Anybody else out there remember watching those movies on Channel 4?

The 40th Anniversary Trip, Part III - AT&T Park

A part of the San Francisco portion of our recent trip was devoted to taking the guided tour of the home of the San Francisco Giants, AT&T Park.

Whenever rankings of major league baseball parks are complied and published, you usually see AT&T Park and PNC Park listed at the top of these lists.  Now being a Pittsburgher and a Pirates fan, I will probably never concede that any place is better than PNC Park, but I have to be honest with you, AT&T Park is really nice, and I can see how this place finds its way to the top of many lists.  

You begin your tour from the Giants clubhouse store, work your way through various lounge areas and concourses, and take an elevator to the top level, whereupon you are directed to your first glimpse of the actual playing field, which is the picture you see at the top of this post.  It is called the "view level", and the view is spectacular, although it was enshrouded in fog the day we were there.  

Even from that top deck view, you get the sense that you are really close to the field, so the intimacy that is such a great part of the charm of PNC Park also exists in AT&T Park.

As you can see, we were ready for some action:

Of course, it would have been nice to actually see a ball game that day, but it was January, after all, and on the tour, we did see more of the Park than we would have if we were there on a game day.  Oh, and you can see by the cap I am wearing that I did spend some money in that Clubhouse Store before the tour began.

Here are some of the highlights:

The outside walls of the ball park feature plaques of a Giants "Wall of Fame".  I took pictures of these three Pirates nemeses of my youth:

For what it is worth, there is a plaque on this Wall for Bobby Bonds, but no such plaque for Barry Bonds, yet.

Inside what would be the equivalent of PNC's Lexus Club, you find these really beautiful  baseball murals.  The murals are huge, and these photos do not do them justice.

Throughout the Park, the Giants pay tribute to their history, including their roots in New York, but it is dominated, as you would expect, by one man.  Both on the outside, 

and the inside.

The tour takes you into the clubhouses and, on this day, the visitor's dugout, where I got the chance to channel my inner Clint Hurdle.

And I was also able to get some pictures of me with Giants heroes past

and present.

I am most grateful to Marilyn for forcing the issue of a tour of the ball park.  How many wives would do such a thing?  However, we both really enjoyed the two hours that we spent there. It was a worthwhile touristy thing to do, even in our limited time in the city.

San Francisco is really a terrific town, and I have detailed the rest of our visit in a post a few days ago.  A great town to visit, and one I would love to see again some time, and maybe on that next visit, the Giants will actually be playing a game that night.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

To Absent Friends - Ernie Banks

Baseball Hall of Fame member Ernie Banks died on Friday at the age of 83.

I saw my first major league baseball game in 1959.  That season was the first season in which I became aware of ball players and teams, who was good, who wasn't so good.  One player that I learned early on was good, really good, was the short stop for the Chicago Cubs, Ernie Banks.  In that 1959 season, Banks became the National League MVP for the second year in a row while playing for a seventh place team.  It took me a while in my baseball learning curve to realize just what an accomplishment that was.

We all know Banks' story.  He was a veteran of the Negro Leagues, the first African American to play for the Cubs, he hit 512 home runs, a Hall of Famer who never once played in a post season game.  No one loved the game more, as his trademark, "Let's play two" tag line indicated.  No one was a better ambassador for the game or his team, right up until the end, than was Ernie Banks.

As a Pirate fan, I remember being fearful every time Banks came to bat against that the Pirates.  In that regard, he was like other giants of his era like Willie Mays and Hank Aaron.  He was that good.

And I can remember that even though he played for the "other guys" it was hard, if not impossible not to like Ernie Banks.

In looking for pictures of Banks to use for this post, it was difficult to find any picture of him, even when he was in the heat of competition in a ball game, where Banks was not smiling, was not happy just to be out on a ball field.  Quite a contrast from some of the dour guys you see out playing the game today.

As I mentioned, there was no greater ambassador for the game of baseball than Ernie Banks, and in 2013 he was so recognized by being award the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential of Freedom.

I just can't imagine how bad Cubs' fans must be feeling.

RIP Ernie Banks, and "Let's play two".

To Absent Friends - Catching Up

While we were on vacation, the passing of three significant persons occurred, and they merit Absent Friends recognition from The Grandstander.

The first of Rod Taylor's 92 acting credits listed in IMDB was for something called "Inland with Sturt" from 1951.  His most recent one was from 2009's "Inglourious Basterds" in which he played Winston Churchill.  It was a long and solid career that included many, many roles in both television and movies.  His most famous role, however, will always no doubt be that of Mitch Brenner in Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" (1963).

Rod Taylor was just a few days short of his 85th birthday when he died earlier this month.

Swedish born actress Anita Ekberg was 83 years old when she died last week.  IMDB shows 63 acting credits for Miss Ekberg, mostly foreign films, probably the most famous one being 1960's  "La Dolce Vita". 

I can't tell you that I ever saw an Anita Ekberg movie, but I do know that back in her glory days, she had what Mad Magazine used to call the "VaVa Voom" factor, and for that alone, she gets recognized in this spot today.

TV director and producer Tony Verna passed away last week at the age of 81.  Who was Tony Verna, you may ask?  Well, something that Tony Verna did in a telecast of an Army-Navy football game in 1963 has had a profound effect on sports, sports fans, and the watching of sports ever since.  Allow me to quote from an online column form a gent named David Young from

In December of that year, Verna unleashed his literal game-changer during the fourth quarter of the Army-Navy football game, a somber affair as it was played a couple of weeks after JFK’s assassination. Verna and his team had been trying all game long to make the technology work, but didn’t get it going until late in the game. They replayed an Army rushing TD, which was so unexpected that the announcer had to tell the home audience that Army had not scored again; they were watching a tape of it. The term “Instant Replay” wouldn’t be coined until the next time the technology was used – a month later – by Pat Summerall.

Now, of course we take it for granted, and some sports actually incorporate it into their officiating, but over fifty years ago, it was a huge step out of the box for sports broadcasts. Verna had other noteworthy accomplishments, such as directing 1985′s multi-continent Live Aid and 1987′s world-wide “Prayer for World Peace,” but it’s his creation of instant replay that he will always be remembered for. 
So thank you, Tony Verna. May you rest in peace. 
So thank you, Tony Verna. May you rest in peace.
RIP Rod Taylor, Anita Ekberg, and Tony Verna.

The 40th Anniversary Trip, Part II - Pearl Harbor

One of the highlights of our trip to Hawaii, if not THE highlight, was a visit to this most important place in American history, Pearl Harbor.

I don't think that I need to recount WHY this place is so important, nor detail the events of December 7, 1941.  I can tell you that I can think of no other place that we have ever visited where the sense of history so enveloped us.

One striking thing to both of us was Pearl Harbor itself is relatively small, and one can only imagine what it must have been like on that Sunday morning all those years ago.

Your visit to the USS Arizona Memorial begins with a movie that lasts 15-20 minutes and recounts the events of December 7, 1941.  If you can watch that movie and not be moved to tears, then I am not so sure that you are a person that I want to know.  You then board a small Navy launch and are taken to the Arizona Memorial.

This scene at one end of the Memorial is completely overwhelming:

You also learn that those who served on the Arizona and survived (there are nine survivors still alive) have chosen to be cremated and have their ashes interred with their shipmates aboard the sunken ship.

And, of course, the ship is visible below the water and oil continues to leak from the Arizona to this day.

Aside from, perhaps, Arlington National Cemetery, the USS Arizona Memorial is the most solemn place I have ever visited.


Also anchored at Pearl Harbor is the retired Navy battleship, USS Missouri.

For those who may not know, it was on the deck of the Missouri that the formal Surrender  Instrument that ended World War II was signed in September 2, 1945.

The highlight of a tour of the Missouri is to stand on the Surrender Deck where these ceremonies took place.  We had an amazing tour guide that day, and her narrative of the events of that day was an amazing thing to hear.  Spellbinding.

As I said, the sense of history was overwhelming.

The USS Missouri, by the way, continued to serve during the Korean War and was retired by the Navy in 1955.  It was then recommissioned in 1986 - at a cost of over $400 million - and continued to serve the Navy, and it saw its final battle action during the first Gulf War in 1990.   It was decommissioned for good, and moved to Pearl Harbor in 1992.  It is maintained today by a private, non-profit group, the USS Missouri Memorial Association.

No words that I can write, no pictures that I can take, can possibly capture what we felt during our visit to this remarkable place.

Friday, January 23, 2015

The 40th Anniversary Trip, Part I - San Francisco

When we decided last summer that we would celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary by going to Hawaii, it was a no brainer that we would begin our trip by making a stop in San Francisco.  We had visited this city on two previous occasions and loved it, but it had been thirty years since we were there.

Our hotel was located just a block away from the famed Fisherman's Wharf.

The Wharf was not as I had remembered it.  A great place to see, to be sure, but much of it has become inundated with touristy-type of junk places, t-shirt shops, cheap souvenirs, stuff like that, but there are still some fabulous places to eat.  At the suggestion of friend Jerry Frissora, on our first night there we ate at this place,

It is right on the Wharf, right by some grungy docks and boat areas, but our meal there was probably the best one we had during our entire trip.  The cioppino, for example,

served with fresh hot sourdough garlic bread was not to be believed.  So, thank you Jerry!

We rode public transportation (a $2.25 far got you a transfer that you could use for the entire day!) on the full day that we were there.  Went to the North Beach district and ate lunch at this neat place...

We sat at a small table on the sidewalk in front of the place.  Made us feel like part of Tony Soprano's crew sitting in front of Satriale's!

We also took the bus to the top of Telegraph Hill, and visited this place, Coit Tower, which you have no doubt seen on dozens of TV shows and movies filmed in San Francisco.

Coit Tower was built in the early 1930's to be a landmark for the City, and on the inside, there were several wall murals that were painted by local California artists as a method of providing employment through FDR's Works Progress Administration.  The paintings were fabulous.  Here is a sample, a photo that in no way gives these murals justice:

A trip to the top of Coit Tower provides some spectacular views of the City.

Dinner on our second night was also on the Wharf,

and featured clam chowder served in a bread bowl.

Here's a great story from our time in San Francisco.  I stopped at the concierge desk for some advice and spoke with a lovely young woman named Jennifer Speigel.  During our conversation, it comes out that while Jennifer has lived in SF for over fifteen years, she is actually from Pittsburgh.  Where in Pittsburgh, I ask, and she says, are you ready for this, Squirrel Hill!  Did you go to Allderdice, I ask, no, she says, I went to Oakland Catholic, whereupon I tell her that I went to Central.  At this point, given our respective ages, I wanted to use my old friend Chuck Spatafore's great line "Oh my God, I think I dated your mother!", but I didn't. 

Just goes to show that you can never get to far away from Pittsburgh no matter where you are (and I have a similar story to tell about an encounter later in the trip while in Maui).

The stop over in San Francisco was great.  We had a wonderful visit, and it was a wise way to begin our trip.

One part of our San Francisco trip that I haven't mentioned was a guided tour that we took of this place:

That part of the story, however, deserves its own separate Grandstander post.