Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Old Movie Time - "Holiday Inn" (1942)

We kicked off our Christmas Movie watching season the other night by watching this 1942 can of corn from composer Irving Berlin and director Mark Sandrich, "Holiday Inn".  This is a staple of the Christmas season, but, believe it or not, it was the first time that Marilyn and I ever saw it.  

In his movie guide, Leonard Maltin describes this as having a "paper thin plot", and he's not far off.  The song and dance team of Hanover (Fred Astaire), Hardy (Bing Crosby), and Dixon (Virginia Dale) is about to break up because Hardy and Dixon are going to ditch show biz, get married, and move to a farm in Connecticut.  Trouble is, Dixon has now fallen for Hanover, and wants to stay in show biz, so, on Christmas Eve, Bing gets dumped and moves to the farm anyway.  

In the ensuing year farm life proves to tough for Der Bingle, so he hits upon the idea of converting his farm into a combination nightclub and inn that will be open only on holidays, hence the title.  As two contemporary reviews of the movie I read while exploring the Internet rabbit hole put it, this then enables lazybones Bing to loaf around for the 350 or so days a year that the Inn won't  be open.

On the next Christmas Eve, into his life strolls Linda Mason (Marjorie Reynolds), looking to break into show biz.  Bing sings her a little ditty that he had just written, something that you may have heard, "White Christmas", and they get ready to open up Holiday Inn for New Year's Day.

In the meantime, out on the road, Lila Dixon has dumped Ted Hanover for a Texas millionaire, and this brings a drunken Astaire to Connecticut to see his old partner and where he stumbles upon a new dance partner, the wonderful Linda, with whom Bing has already fallen in love.  Trouble is, Fred was so plowed during his dance number with her, he can't remember her.  

Will Astaire ever find this beautiful mystery girl and go Big Time in the show biz world with her?

Will Astaire steal Crosby's girl, again, and break his heart again?

And whatever becomes of the treacherous Lila?

Drunkenness and romantic  two-timing are played for laughs in this one, and we are forced to endure a cringe-worthy Lincoln's Birthday number where Crosby, Reynolds, and the rest of the cast perform in black face, so throw in some casual 1940's era racism as well, but what the hell, you've got all these lively Irving Berlin numbers and some WW II flag waving (the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred in the middle of the filming of this movie), so the movie endures.  And there are two great reasons for that, in my opinion.

The first is Berlin's all time classic song, the song that won that year's Best Original Song Academy Award, "White Christmas".  In fact, Berlin and the producers of this movie figured that the breakout hit song would be the Valentine's Day song, "Be Careful It's My Heart".  Nice ballad, but it was snowed under, so to speak, by "White Christmas", which remains to this day the biggest selling single recording ever according to the Guinness Book of World Records (although this may be subject to some dispute).  It performed poorly at first compared to "Be Careful..." when the movie was released in the summer of 1942, but with a nation at war, the song "White Christmas" struck a chord that Christmas season, and it has never diminished in popularity.

The other reason to watch this movie, and, again, this is just me talking, is the opportunity to watch Fred Astaire dance.

He has four absolutely outstanding turns in this one.  The first is the drunken New Year's Eve dance with Reynolds, pictured above, the "Be Careful It's My Heart" dance with Reynolds for Valentine's Day, a minuet with Reynolds for Washington's Birthday that Crosby tries to sabotage by jazzing it up at different points, and a solo performance for the Fourth of July amidst a barrage of firecrackers.  I mean they just don't make them like Fred Astaire anymore.

It's corn, it's fluff, it makes no logical sense, but it's escapist fare and it's fun, and on that scale, it gets Two and One-half stars from The Grandstander. (It loses half a star due to that Lincoln's Birthday bit.)

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Broadway Shows and Me

When I made my post about seeing "Fiddler On The Roof" last week, it prompted a conversation between my friend and fellow Caring Place volunteer Kristy Fonger, who told me that "Fiddler On The Roof" was in her "top three" of all-time favorite musicals.  "What are the other two?", I asked.  "'Wicked' and 'Lion King'," she answered, "what are yours?" 

That prompted a train of thought that leads to this post.  It is inspired by Kristy and it is dedicated to our great friend, Bill Montrose, and more on that later on in this post.

Right off the bat, I tell you that I could not limit it to a mere three shows.  There are eight shows listed below, and I could have added more, but I have to be somewhat reasonable.  Also, I am not going to even try to place them in order, top to bottom, so I will just list them alphabetically.


I include this one for a couple of reasons.  One, it is a great story with all of those wonderful Carole King-Gerry Goffin and Barry Mann-Cynthia Weil songs. Two, we actually saw it on Broadway in New York City.  And three, we saw it in the company of our friends Joann and Bill Montrose.  Again, more on that later.


We have seen this show twice here in Pittsburgh, once with the CLO, once with the Broadway Series, and I will happily see it again should it ever come through town again.  Part play, part rock & roll concert, it tells the story of Holly and how he evolved musically in such a tragically short career.  The encore that the cast performs after the curtain call alone is worth the price of the ticket.


This is the newest play on my list.   Too soon to include on an "all-time list"?  Perhaps, but this one is so innovative, so different, and just so damn good that it simply has to be included.  Also, the circumstances of us traveling to Chicago to see this in 2017 are so special to Marilyn and me.  We will be seeing this in Pittsburgh once again in January and can't wait to do so.  I don't think that I would ever pass up a chance to see this one at any opportunity in the future.


We saw this as part of the Broadway Series back in the late 80's or early 90's.  It is the first show, I believe, that I ever saw that had practically no spoken dialog.  It was all singing, and it packed a true emotional and inspirational wallop.  I have only seen this show once, and every time I hear a song from it played, I long for the chance to see it again, and soon.


On one summer Sunday afternoon in 1962, I think my mother must have approached my Dad and said something along the lines of "get those two kids out of the house - somewhere, anywhere - so I can be rid of them for a few hours."  So it was that my Dad took my sister and I to the Stanley Theater (now the Benedum) to see the movie, "The Music Man".  It was the summer before my 11th birthday, and it was my first exposure to the art form of "musical comedy."  I loved it.  I have seen the movie too many times to count, and have seen it performed on stage at least four or five times....Broadway Series, CLO, even North Allegheny High School.   Simply put,  if you EVER have a chance to see this done on stage, at any level, you have to do so.  You just HAVE to.


Another absolute classic.  The movie version of this is great, but your theater going experience is not complete unless you see this one performed on stage.  I have seen it at least three times, once with the CLO when Noel Harrison, son of the original Henry Higgins, Rex Harrison, was cast to play the irascible Professor Higgins.  Also saw this one done by North Allegheny High School, and most recently at the intimate O'Reilly Theater by the Pittsburgh Public Theater.


What I said above about "My Fair Lady" can also apply to this one.  A modern take on Shakespeare's  "Romeo and Juliet", this is another show that you really just have to see.  So  many classic songs.  The movie is terrific, but seeing it on stage is special.  I believe that I have only seen it once, done by the CLO.  Just yesterday, I heard the number, "Tonight Quintet", played on XM Radio's On Broadway channel, and it gave me chills. I once worked with a young woman at Highmark who told me she played Maria in her high school's production of "West Side Story".  I was constantly asking her to sing something from the show, and she never would.   Probably drove her away from the department.


Another show that Marilyn and I  just saw in the last year as part of the Broadway Series, and we fell in love with it.  Two absolutely terrific numbers - the showstopper "Defying Gravity" that closed the first act, and the wonderful Eleven O'Clock Number, "For Good", which will bring tears to your eyes.  And several other great songs and just a great story.  We can't wait to see it again some day.

So there you go.  I could name others, but you have to stop somewhere.  I regret that I cannot remember what was the first live musical stage show I ever saw.  Probably a CLO production, probably when I was in college, but I just can't remember what it was.  I feel bad about that.

I mentioned that the post is being dedicated to Bill Montrose. Grandstander readers may remember that Bill always served as Guest Blogger when he made his annual Tony Awards Predictions - usually very accurate predictions - for this Blog. As such, I designated him the Official Broadway Correspondent to The Grandstander.  What many of you may not know is that Bill died this past September after a short and courageous battle with cancer.  A contemporary of my two older brothers, I can never remember a time in my life when Bill was not a part of the Sproule family circle of friends, but in the last ten years or so, Marilyn and I became quite close with Bill, and that eight year gap in age between us just disappeared.  We spoke and visited often (Bill lived in the Philadelphia area).  Sports, family memories, lively political discussions, and his love and intimate knowledge of the Broadway Theater made those visits and phone calls just so special.  Also special and significant to us was the fact that the last time we actually saw Bill was when we accompanied Joann and him to New York to see "Beautiful" in September, 2017.  It was just so, so appropriate.

Every play and show we have seen since Bill's death has been accompanied by the thought "How I'd love to talk to Bill and see what he thought of this one."  And how I wish he were here to read this post.  I can just hear him screaming about how I could NOT have included some show that was a special favorite of his.

We miss him so much. 

This may seem like a "downer" to end this post on such a note, but trust me, if you knew Bill Montrose, this whole post would do nothing but put a big smile on your face.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

"Fiddler On The Roof"

"Tradition. Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as... as a fiddler on the roof!"
                            - Tevya, in the Prologue to "Fiddler On The Roof"

As a part of our Broadway in Pittsburgh subscription, last night we saw "Fiddler On The Roof".  This play opened on Broadway in 1964, and at one point, it was the longest running show in Broadway history (it ranks 16th on that list now, according to Wikipedia), and I had never in my life seen this show performed.  Not as a part of national tour (as last night's production was), not at the CLO, not as a high school musical.  I had never even seen the movie.  Of course, I knew many, many of the classic songs from the show, and while I was familiar with the music, I am almost ashamed to say that I wasn't totally familiar with the story of "Fiddler On The Roof".

I thoroughly enjoyed the show last night.  Great music, wonderful dancing numbers, and a great performance by Yehezkel Lazarov as Tevya, the Russian milkman struggling to raise his five daughters in czarist Russia as his beloved "traditions" begin to crumble around him.  The story was especially poignant here in Pittsburgh as a result of the awful events at the Tree of Life Synagogue last month. Sadly, many of the themes in "Fiddler On The Roof" are still with us today.

Four Stars from The Grandstander.

Oh, and a fun fact about this musical, again, according to Wikipedia.....on average "Fiddler On The Roof" is licensed for  amateur productions 500 times each year.  So, if you can't catch this current edition now at the Benedum in Pittsburgh this week or on its national tour, there is a good chance that it will be performed at a high school or college near you sometime this spring.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Quite A Football Weekend for Pittsburgh

The weekend of October 6-7 could have been a disastrous one for fans of Pittsburgh's two football teams. Pitt was 2-3,  was coming off of a loss to a bad North Carolina team, and was about to face 4-1 nationally ranked Syracuse.  The Steelers were 1-2-1, playing lousy and were about to play a 1-3 Atlanta Falcons team that desperately needed to win a game. A loss for either team that weekend could have sent the respective seasons into a tailspin from which it might have been hard to recover.  

We know what happened that weekend and what has happened since.  Both teams have combined to go 11-1 since then and the loss was a near upset of still undefeated Notre Dame by Pitt.  It's been a nice seven weeks.

Let's start with today's highly improbable win for the Steelers over the Jax Jaguars.

Jacksonville led 9-0 at the half and pushed it to 16-0 in the third quarter.   The Steelers defense could not get off the field in the first half as the Jags and Leonard Fournette ran roughshod over them.  Only the fact that Blake Bortles stinks and could not get into the end zone, prevented this from being a blow out.  The Steelers offense was worse.  Ben Roethlisberger threw three interceptions.  James Conner couldn't run.  Deep into the third quarter the Steelers had made only six first downs, and three of them came on Jacksonville penalties.

The something happened in the fourth quarter.  The Steelers defense came alive, and realized that that was Blake Bortles and not Joe Montana at QB against them.  A Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown pass clicked for a 78 yard TD pass in the third quarter, but Ben was still struggling.  It wasn't until there was 2:28 left in the game that a Ben-to-Vance McDonald TD pass put the score at 16-13.  The defense forced its fourth consecutive three-and-out, and the Steelers got the ball at their own 32 with 1:42 remaining.   Nine plays later.....

Ben Scores with :05 left;
Steelers Win!!

....and the Steelers had an amazing and highly improbable 20-16 win.

I have written countless times in this space that "You are never  - never! - out of a game with Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback."  He proved that today yet again, and in game where for the first three quarters, he was just plain awful.

Steelers now at 7-2-1 and hold a two and a half game lead over both the Ravens and Bengals in the AFC North.

Meanwhile, down in Winston-Salem, NC yesterday, Pitt overcame a 10-6 half-time deficit to Wake Forest by scoring 28 second half points and handily defeating Wake, 34-13.  It was Pitt's fifth straight ACC win, moved them to 7-4 overall, 6-1 in the ACC, and more importantly, clinched the ACC Coastal Division.  In two weeks, they will play Clemson for the ACC Championship, and who besides Pat Narduzzi and the players themselves saw that coming after being pasted by Penn State and Central Florida, and losing to North Carolina?  

Pitt did something that good teams do: They improved and got better as the season progressed.  Good for the players and good for the coaches who made it happen.

Clemson is undefeated and ranked second in the nation.  They will be heavily favored to beat Pitt in the championship game.  In fact, it will be the exact same scenario as it was two years ago when Pitt went into Clemson and, uh, defeated them.   It happened once; it can happen again.

Yeah, a good weekend to be a football fan in Pittsburgh!

Two Absent Friends, William Goldman and Scott English

The Grandstander today pays tribute to two Absent Friends who died this past week, Screenwriter William Goldman and singer/songwriter Scott English.

William Goldman

So, how many times in your life have you used the following phrases:
  • "Who ARE those guys?"
  • "Follow the money."
These are two of the more famous lines from movies that have passed into everyday usage, and they came from the pen of William Goldman.  The first quote is from "Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid" and the second is from "All the President's Men", and Goldman won Oscars for the screenplays for each of those movies.  That's a pretty good resume if he had never done anything else, but among other screenplays of his that were made into memorable movies are "Harper", "The Hot Rock", "Papillion", "The Stepford Wives", "A Bridge Too Far", "Marathon Man", Princess Bride", "The Great Waldo Pepper", and "Chaplin".

He was 87 when he died, and he was having screenplays of his made into movies as late as 2015.

Pretty good, I'd say.

Scott English

If you grew up in Pittsburgh and are of a certain age - mine - chances are you are very familiar with Scott English's 1964 recording of "High On A Hill", a song that probably still holds the record for being the closing number at high school dances throughout southwestern Pennsylvania.

I confess to the following misconceptions about English, who was 81 when he died this past Friday.  I thought he was from Pittsburgh, and I considered him a quintessential One Hit Wonder.  Turns out I was wrong on both counts.  He was born in Brooklyn, and while he didn't have a huge career, it did encompass more than "High On A Hill".  In fact, his Wikipedia entry doesn't even mention this song that is so near and dear to generations of Pittsburgh teenagers!  He was somewhat popular in the UK, and his most notable achievement is a song that he wrote and recorded called "Brandy", which was also recorded by and became a huge hit for Barry Manilow, who changed the name to "Mandy" to avoid confusion with another  song named "Brandy" (by The Looking Glass, a true one hit wonder, but I digress).

Back to the Pittsburgh connection, I did find this entry about "High On A Hill" in a website called

This song's initial release was in November of 1963; at that time, it was a flop on account of the assassination of President Kennedy. By March of 1964, it had become a national minor hit and had success in certain regional areas. Although it was only a minor hit nationally, it reached #3 in San Francisco and #1 in Pittsburgh. To this day, it is Pittsburgh's favorite oldie of all time.

Who knows why a particular song becomes popular in one specific place and not others, but to those of us in Pittsburgh who had teenage romances, or, like me, wished that they had had teenage romances, we shall be forever grateful to Scott English and his contribution to the Popular Culture.     So let us now close out this particular dance in The Grandstand.....

RIP William Goldman and Scott English

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

The Le'Veon Bell Saga Concludes

Throughout this NFL and Steelers football season, I have pretty much avoided discussing the subject of Le'Veon Bell.    I chose to adopt the Chuck Noll-ian philosophy of addressing only topics as they pertained to the Steelers that were actually, you know, playing.  Today, however, the matter reached its denouement when Bell chose not to report to the Steelers by the CBA mandated deadline of 4:00 PM, so he will not be playing for the Steelers, or anybody else, in 2018.  This also means that he will no doubt never appear in a Steelers uniform again.

We won't be seeing this anymore.

So here are The Grandstander's thoughts on the matter.  They are presented in a somewhat disjointed fashion and in no particular order of importance.
  1. It is important to remember, I think, that the only  person who took a risk here, the only person who has actually lost anything throughout this whole process is Le'Veon Bell himself.  He thinks that he is worth and that he deserves a whole lot more than what the Steelers were willing to pay him in guaranteed money, and in standing up for that principle, he has passed up the chance to make $14.5 million this year.  I like to think that I am a highly principled person myself, but I can't see myself ever walking away from that much money if the opportunity presented itself, which, of course, it never will.  So, give Bell some credit for that stance.
  2. The Steelers are coming out fairly unscathed in the court of public opinion over this whole affair only because of the emergence of James Conner as a star running back himself, one who has been able to do pretty much everything that Bell had been able to do.  Had Conner fizzled the Steelers would not be sitting with the second best record in the AFC today, and the fan base would be screaming for the blood of the cheapskate Rooneys.  And such a scenario could still play out if Conner were to become injured.
  3. As I understand it, the Steelers and Bell could go through this entire fandango again next year by putting the franchise tag on Bell, albeit at a price north of $25 million, for the 2019 season.  That will never happen. It would then appear that Bell would become an unrestricted free agent (although there is a way where Bell could sign an agreement with another team and the Steelers would have the right to match the offer, and if that happens, I can't see the Steelers matching such an offer).  
  4. So it would appear that Bell will be free to sign with the highest bidder for 2019.  Will his roll of the dice produce a contract that will give him what he thinks he deserves?  And even if it does, will he ever be able to make back that $14.5 large that he didn't get this year?  We'll find out, but as I said at the outset, Bell is the one that was willing to take this risk, and only he will be the one who will either reap the reward, or pay the price for his stance.
  5. One thing I heard on the radio today was the possibility that the NFL owners might agree to not pay Bell what he wants, if only to show other players that they can't play that sit-out-the-season card when their contracts come up for negotiation.  That, however, would be collusion, and you just can't see the NFL lodge brothers engaging in the practice of collusion, can you? Nah, that could never happen, right?
  6. You will never get a full and complete answer from Art II, Kevin Colbert, and Mike Tomlin, but here are questions to which I would love to know the answers: (A) Did they ever really think that Bell would stick to his guns on this issue? (B) If they knew in July and August what they know today, would they have traded Bell to another team for a second or third round pick just so they could get something, anything for him?
  7. Why do I just have a sickening feeling that Le'Veon Bell will return to Heinz Field one day wearing a New England Patriots or Baltimore Ravens uniform?

Monday, November 12, 2018

"The Girl In The Spider's Web"

This movie is based in the novel of the same name, which is a continuation of the "Millennium Trilogy" that featured ace computer hacker, vigilante-supreme, and kick-ass heroine Lisbeth Salander, aka, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  

The storyline in this one involves the theft of a computer program that enables the person who possesses it to have access to and control of the nuclear arsenals of all the nations of the world.  How do you like THAT for a Macguffin, huh?   The guy who designed it  now regrets that he ever came up with such a thing and turns it over to Lisbeth - not sure why he'd pick her - and lots of bad guys, plus an American National Security guy and his Swedish counterpart also want it.

We are also introduced to Lisbeth's back story, which began when she was small child, and we also learn that she had a sister.  Along the way we see lots of amazing things that can be done by expert computer hackers like Lisbeth.  You see some spectacular views of Stockholm and the Swedish countryside.   You also see lots of violence and lots of people die.  This one is not for the squeamish (I went by myself; I knew that Marilyn would not like this one!)

The casting of Claire Foy as Lisbeth is what intrigued me and was the primary attraction of this one for me.  She is a far cry from the young Queen Elizabeth in this one, and a far cry from Mrs. Neil Armstrong, too, but she is quite good in the role.  She certainly has range, that's for sure!

Foy as Lisbeth
She ain't the Queen of England in this one!

Other casting include a gorgeous Dutch actress named Sylvia Hoeks, who played Lisbeth's sister, Camilla:

Hoeks as Camilla
Loved the blond eyebrows!

The cast also included actor Stephen Merchant as Frans Balder, the guy who invented the dastardly computer program.  Mr. Merchant has a boatload of acting credits to his name, but I knew him only as "Dave Gibbs", a character who appeared in three episodes of "The Big Bang Theory" back in 2015.  He was the guy who Amy briefly dated when she was broken up with Sheldon.

Stephen Merchant
It's a big jump from dating Amy Farrah Fowler 
to getting involved with Lisbeth Salander!

You won't fall asleep when you watch this one, but it's probably not one you're going to put in your Top Ten List either.  It's pretty much of a jumble to be honest with you.

Two Stars from The Grandstander.

Friday, November 9, 2018

The Path For The Steelers

So I'm working at The Caring Place last night and early in the evening a buddy and I are discussing what the Steelers need to do in the second half of the season to position themselves for a run into the playoffs and, we hope, a trip to the Super Bowl.  Here's what we came up with:

Of the eight remaining games, four are with what we would call Good Teams: Panthers, Chargers, Saints, Patriots.  The other four are with Not-So-Good Teams:  Jaguars, Raiders, Broncos, Bengals.  (Okay, maybe you could say that the Bengals should be considered a "Good" team, but, c'mon, they're the Bengals.  Also, we know that the Jags did to the Steelers last year, but they've kind of hit the skids in recent weeks.)  So we figure that the Steelers need to split the four games against the Good Teams and go 3-1 against the Not-So-Good Teams.  We figure that each of those goals is doable.  That makes them 10-5-1 which should win the AFC North and get them into the Playoffs where as we all know, it's a "crap shoot" and "anything can happen" (sounds like Neal Huntington, doesn't it?).

So, there's the formula, Mike Tomlin.  Now it's to you and your players to, you know, execute it.

Like I said, that discussion took place early in the evening, and when I got in the car to come home last night, I hear the mellifluous tones of Billy, Tunch, and Wolf describe James Conner's two yard run for a touchdown  to put the Steelers up 21-7. In the first quarter.  I get home in time to watch the remainder of that 52-21 dissection that the Steelers put on the Carolina Panthers, yes, one of the aforementioned "Good Teams", last night.

Jesse James Scores
He was one of seven Steelers to score a TD,  and one of 
nine different Steelers to catch a Ben Roethlisberger 
pass in that game last night

No team is as good as it looks on its very best day, and let's face it, that performance that Rooney U put on last night was one of the best all around performances I've seen in years, but after a shaky 1-2-1 start, the team has won five straight games and has looked awfully good in doing so.  It was hard to find fault with anything that they did last night.

Could be a fun ride the rest of the way for this team.

A subject that I have pretty much avoided in this space all season is the holdout of Le'Veon Bell and all the drama that has surrounded it. It now appears that he will report to the team on Tuesday.   I certainly have my opinions on that subject, which I shall share with you when his rejoining the team becomes a fait accompli.

Until then, #herewegosteelersherewego

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Are You Ready For Some Football (Observations)?

It has been 23 days (I looked it up) since The Grandstander has made any serious commentary on football, so it's time to catch up.  Since I last checked in....

  • The Steelers kicked the collective asses of the Cleveland Browns and took revenge upon their earlier defeat at the hands of the Ravens, by beating them in Baltimore.  The score of the Ravens game would indicate a close contest, but the Steelers pretty much had that one in control from start to finish.  They have now won four straight games and sit in first place in the AFC North at 5-2-1.  The second half of the schedule won't be easy as it includes games against the Panthers, Chargers, Patriots, Jags, Saints, and the rematch with the Bengals.
  • James Conner has made people forget Le'Veon Bell, who has to fish or cut bait by, I believe, next Tuesday.  That is the subject of a whole 'nother post, which I will probably write up as soon as we know whatever the hell it is he decides to do.
  • As it stands, though, if I were voting for Steelers MVP today, I would probably vote for Ben Roethlisberger, but James Conner would not be far behind.
  • After that win over the Browns, we all know what happened.  The Brownies fired Had Coach Hue "Mr. 3-36-1" Jackson.  This marks the sixth consecutive Browns HC who has been handed the paper key following the second game of the season against the Steelers (all Browns losses, of course).  SIX TIMES this has happened.  In an ESPN interview a few days later, Jackson blamed the whole thing on Baker Mayfield!  The man is totally delusional.
"What, me worry?"
  • A lot of people laughed at the beginning of the season when Head Coach Pat Narduzzi said that Pitt would be playing for the ACC Championship.  That thought was especially hilarious after Pitt got pasted by Penn State and Central Florida and lost to a bad North Carolina team.  Since then, though, Pitt almost beat Notre Dame, and have run off three straight ACC wins, sits at 4-1 and are in first place in the ACC Coastal Division.  Win out against Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, and Miami, and guess what?  They will be playing in the ACC Championship Game.  At the beginning of October, I'd have given you long odds that they would be in this position with three games remaining in the season.
  • Remember after the Pitt-Penn State game when I said that I would sure like to see James Franklin get dealt a big heaping helping dose of humility at some point.  Michigan 42 - Penn State 7.  Thank you, Jim Harbaugh, who, it must be said, could stand to be dealt some humility himself, but that's college football coaches for you.
  • Were you like me and looking forward to watching the Alabama - LSU game last week, a game where all keen observers of the sport said that Alabama would be tested and might well lose to the third ranked Tigers?  29-0 Alabama, and the game wasn't as close as the score indicated.  Don't want to hear about LSU anymore.  Their coach Ed Orgeron, by the way, appears to be certifiably insane just from watching him on the sidelines.
  • Back to the pros, throughout the season, I have been posting on Facebook a Top Four, College Football Playoff-Style, ranking for the NFL.  As of this week, it looks like this: 1. Chiefs 2. Saints 3. Patriots 4. Rams.  Other teams are knocking at the door (Steelers, Chargers, Texans, Panthers among others), but right now, those four teams have separated themselves from the rest of the NFL pack.  It will never end up that way, but for right now, does anyone disagree?
  • On the Sunday Night Football game, the Packers won the coin toss and deferred, thus kicking off and giving the ball the Tom Brady and the Patriots to begin the game.  Did you watch that one?  If you did, you saw Brady and the Pats march down the field and score in ten plays and less than two and one-half minutes.  The Packer defenders were gassed and sucking wind on THE FIRST DRIVE OF THE GAME.  Why would a team choose to give the ball to Tom Brady to start a game?  You're just asking to have your heads handed to you on a platter when you do that.
  • Speaking of the Patriots, did you notice Bill Belichick during that game?  On a Sunday when every coach and player in the league was wearing those olive drab military style sweatshirts and hoodies on the sidelines, Coach Bill was out there in his blue Patriots hoodie.  As much as everyone outside of New England is supposed to despise Coach Bill, there is something about his way of giving the NFL Suits on Park Avenue the middle finger every chance he gets that makes me admire him in a perverse sort of way.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Book Review: "The Big Fella" by Jane Leavy

Back in 1970, my first year at Robert Morris College - before it became Robert Morris University - I was faced with choosing a topic for  a research term paper for an English Comp class.  I chose to do one which I pretentiously titled "Babe Ruth and His Role As An American Hero".  Up until then, I, of course, knew who Babe Ruth was, knew all his records, remembered reading a grade school level biography of him when I was a little kid, but I didn't know much more than that.  When researching that term paper, for which I received an "A" by the way, I became an even bigger fan of George Herman Ruth, Jr., and have always been a willing reader of just about anything about him.

Ever since Jane Leavy announced that she would be writing a new bio of The Babe five or so years ago, I looked forward to it's publication.  What more could be written about Ruth, what could Ms. Leavy possibly write about that we didn't already know?  Fair questions, but having read her previous biographies of Sandy Koufax and Mickey Mantle, I figured that she would be able to deliver the goods, and after just finishing the book this morning, I can positively say that deliver them she did.

Publication of "The Big Fella" is a major event in the book world, so reviews of it in major publications across the country can be found all over the Internet, so I will not go into great depth here, but will highlight a couple major points here that make this book different from other Ruth biographies.
  • Research.  Leavy spent eight years researching and writing "The Big Fella".  She conducted over 250 interviews, and her bibliography of source materials covers ten pages.  She also had available to her digital records that were not available to previous biographers.
  • She uses the device of the 21 day coast-to-coast barnstorming tour that Ruth took with Lou Gehrig following the 1927 season  as the structure around which she tells her story.  She used similar devices in both her Koufax and Mantle books, and, as it did in those books, it works perfectly.
  • Unlike previous books (and very good books at that) by Robert Creamer and Leigh Montville, the digitization of newspapers, birth, marriage, and death records, as well and websites like enabled her to tell the story of Ruth's  childhood and what led him to be committed to St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys in Baltimore at the age of 7 in a way that no previous author could. Ruth was not an orphan, he was one of only two Ruth children to survive childhood, and his parents were divorced.  It was not a happy childhood.
  • The book tells the story of Christy Walsh.  In today's terms, he was Ruth's agent, although back then he was described as a "business manager".  He was the first of his kind, and the precursor to the ubiquitous sports agents of today.   He was the promoter behind that 1927 barnstorming tour, was able to secure commercial endorsements for Ruth, and provided astute financial advice and management that enabled Babe to become the first athlete whose off-field earnings exceeded his team salary, and, more importantly, survive and even prosper financially throughout the depths of the Great Depression.  
  • Unfortunately, baseball rules at the time prohibited anyone accompanying a player when he was negotiating his contract with his team.  While Ruth was the highest paid player of his time, this pesky little rule enabled the Yankees to pay him far blow what his actual worth was to the team.  It would take another forty plus years before Marvin Miller came along to balance that particular inequity.
  • The book does not dwell a lot on the runs, hits, and errors aspect of Ruth's career.  I guess Leavy figures that if you are reading the book, you already know that. Instead it dwells along little known aspects of his life, such as the previously mentioned childhood, the circumstances of his first marriage and how it tragically ended.  His various peccadilloes are not obscured, but they are not sensationalized either.  It also tells about his final years outside of baseball and the grimness of the illness that ended his life.
  • "The Big Fella" also is a social history of life and sports in the 1920's and -30's.  And of celebrity.  As much as he was a great ball player, he could also be called the first big time sports celebrity in American history, a precursor to Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Muhammad Ali, and Tom Brady.  He could never go anywhere without crowds,   cameras, newsreel photographers, and those newfangled radio microphones following him.
  • Oh, and for all of us Pittsburgh people out there, Leavy gives a great accounting of the game of May 25, 1935 at Forbes Field when Babe hit his final three home runs of his career (his four hits that day would also be the final ones of his career), including Number 714, which was the first to ever clear the right field grandstand roof at Forbes Field.  Her research into this included an interview with Phil Coyne, who was a Forbes Field/Three Rivers Stadium/PNC Park usher for over eighty years, and whose 100th birthday was celebrated by the Pirates this past season at PNC Park.
Okay, I won't go on any longer with this, but I will include one little anecdote from the book.  With the subject of the use (overuse?) of analytics and defensive metrics as the game is played in 2018, these paragraphs from page 301 sort of jumped out at me:

Like Gehrig, Ruth divided the world into "choke" hitters and "swing" hitters. Ty Cobb, who would get his 4,000th hit on July 18 that season, was the best of the former; Ruth was the prototype of the latter. "The choke was all right," Ruth would say later, damning with faint praise.  "But he couldn't give you much of a thrill."

Having created that expectation, he understood it was his job to fulfill it. During the 1946 World Series, the St. Louis Cardinals employed a then radical defensive shift to foil Ted Williams, packing the right side of the infield and leaving the left virtually unprotected.  "They did that to me in the American League one year,"  Ruth told (sportswriter) Frank Graham.  "I coulda hit .600 that year slicing singles to left."

"Why didn't you?" Graham asked.

"That wasn't what the fans came out to see."

That was The Babe.  The Greatest of Them All.  And as for Jane Leavy's "The Big Fella", it gets the full Four Stars from The Grandstander.  

Read it.

Friday, November 2, 2018

To Absent Friends - Paul Zimmerman

Long time New York and Sports Illustrated sportswriter Paul Zimmerman died yesterday at the age of 86.  Zimmerman covered pro football for SI for over 30 years, but had been silent since 2008 when he suffered the first in a series of strokes.

He was a terrific writer and reporter, and 1971 he wrote what I consider to be the single best book about pro football that I have ever read, "The Thinking Man's Guide to Pro Football."

A revised edition of the book was published in 1984.

If you love pro football, but have never read this book, it might behoove you to track down a copy and give it a read.

RIP Paul Zimmerman.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

To Absent Friends - Willie McCovey

Willie McCovey

Here's one of the ways I evaluate a great ball player.  I ask myself, "If my team - the Pirates - were in a tight ballgame, tied or holding a one run lead late in the game, who would I least like to see coming to the plate against them in such a situation?"  Willie McCovey of the San Francisco Giants of the 1960's and 1970's ranks high, very high, on such a list.  He died yesterday at the age of 80, and all those thoughts came back to mind with vivid clarity.

The numbers and accomplishments speak for themselves.  Twenty-two seasons, 19 of them with the Giants, .270 lifetime BA, 521 home runs (I might whimsically add that it seemed like about 400 of them came against the Pirates), 1,555 runs batted in. His OPS was over .900 in eleven different seasons, and in three of those seasons it was over 1.000.  A six time all-star, Rookie of the Year in 1959 and MVP in 1969.  He hit 30 or more home runs in a season seven times.  His lifetime production pro-rated per 162 games: .270 BA, 33 HR, 97 RBI, .889 OPS. Could I interest you in that?

The numbers are one thing.  It was actually seeing McCovey that really put the fear of God into you.  He was big, 6'4" and 200 pounds - there was a reason he was called "Stretch" - and it seemed like he could hit a ball farther and harder than anybody.  To use a word that is overused these days, Willie McCovey was just awesome.

His election to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1986 was a no-brainer if ever there was one.

RIP Willie McCovey.