Books: “Wonder Girl”

August 31, 2011

If ever an athlete embodied the  phrase sic transit gloria mundi, it was Babe Didrikson Zaharias. There are a couple of generations of adults among whom she is virtually unknown, and yet she was such a combination of natural ability, hard work, and results, that she has no peer.

I’m not an expert on this subject. I had only the vaguest idea of who Babe Didrikson was until I read Don Van Natta’s excellent book, Wonder Girl. But thanks to Van Natta’s scholarship, his journalistic discipline, and his entertaining and literate writing style, I now know plenty about Babe – and I’m glad I learned, even at this  late stage of my life.

Babe Didrikson died of cancer in 1956, when I was 16 years old. In those days, I followed baseball and boxing, so I had  only the slimmest knowledge that she was a prominent golfer. What I learned from Van Natta’s book is that Babe Didrikson would have excelled at almost any sport she chose and that she made a considerable mark in both track-and-field and in basketball before she turned her whole attention to golf.

I’ll mention only one particular  performance, because every time I think about it I am impressed all over again. Babe, who gave up on education before she finished high school, took a job with a Dallas-based insurance company, but not because she was interested in actuarial tables. Some companies in those pre-television days sponsored amateur sports teams that competed with each other around the country and acted as living advertisements for their employers. Babe’s principal job at the insurance company was playing basketball and track, both of which she did at a championship level. She was so extraordinary, in fact, that in 1933 her boss and coach sent her to the American Athletic Union’s national championship meet in Illinois.

DON VAN NATA JR.

I mean that literally. He didn’t send the rest of the team — only Babe. And competing against squads from around the U.S., she entered eight of the ten events and won the gold medal in broad jump, baseball throw, shot put, javelin, and the 80-meter hurdles and tied for first in the high jump. She collected a total of 30 points; the second-place team scored 22. In that meet, Babe qualified for the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, where she won two gold medals and a silver and set two world records and an Olympic record.

I had to tell that story. But Van Natta’s book isn’t engrossing only because it reports on that and Babe’s many other achievements. This book tells the story of an American life. Babe’s parents were faithful and hard-working natives of Norway who settled in Texas. They had a large family, and they lived from hand to mouth. Babe loved this family and she remained loyal to her parents and siblings and other connections, always including their financial well being in her reasons for driving herself so hard.

Babe was a tomboy, and when she grew older she was perceived as mannish. This plus the fact that she remained single for so long led busybodies, including prominent sports writers, to speculate about her sexual orientation. She also was the target of verbal abuse from sports writers and others who believed, as Joe Williams wrote in the New York World Telegram, that “it would be much better if she and her ilk stayed at home, got themselves prettied up and waited for the phone to ring.” The rough-and-tumble Babe broke through the barrier of snobbery that surrounded amateur golf at that time; she was a founding member of the LPGA.

She put an end to much but not all of that talk when she married popular  pro wrestling villain George Zaharias in 1938. The marriage lasted a lifetime, but it was tumultuous. Zaharias was a compulsive promoter, and he insisted that Babe keep up an exhausting schedule of competition and personal appearances, even when she would rather have taken a break.

An important factor in the story of Babe Didrikson’s life was her complicated personality, which was at the same time endearing and obnoxious. She was a bold braggart, constantly tooting her own horn. Van Natta reports that Babe would walk into the clubhouse before a golf match and announce herself by saying, “Babe’s here! Who’s gonna finish second?” And when she wasn’t bragging and even lying about her prowess, she was needling and annoying her opponents, deliberately trying to throw them off their game. But it is part of the genius of Van Natta that while he tells a great deal about this  aspect of Babe Didrikson, he tells it in the wider context of her life, so that her braggadocio does not define her in the reader’s mind.

Babe Didrikson was diagnosed with rectal cancer and underwent a permanent colostomy. There would still be enough greatness in her to resume her golf career and win tournaments. But the cancer prompted her to rise to the occasion in another way. She became a tireless campaigner for funds to support cancer treatment and education, and she made a point of visiting cancer patients, especially children, to encourage them to go on with their lives.

Babe Didrikson: a life worth remembering.

DENIS AVEY/BBC photo

The title of the book is misleading. Denis Avey, a British soldier during World War II, didn’t break into Auschwitz. He was a POW there, so he was already within the walls, as it were. He and the other inmates had been put to work building an enormous industrial plant in which a German company planned to manufacture synthetic rubber and methanol. From the first, Avey was deeply disturbed by the condition of the Jewish prisoners – the “stripeys” he called them because of their pajama-like uniforms. He was so distressed in fact, that he became obsessed with the need to see for himself the section of the Auschwitz complex where the Jewish inmates lived. If he survived the prison himself, Avey wanted to be a witness.

AVEY with Prime Minister GORDON BROWN/BBC

So compelling was this need in Avey’s mind that on two occasions he swapped clothing with a Jewish inmate and shuffled off with the other Jewish prisoners at the end of the work day. What he found was at least as bad as he had imagined.

That part of Avey’s story is recounted in “The Man who Broke into Auschwitz,” which he co-wrote with Rob Broomby, a BBC reporter who worked very hard to help Avey reconstruct the experience 60 years after the fact.

Before he was sent to Auschwitz, Avey had seen plenty of combat in North Africa. He was part of the force that first drove the Italian army out of Egypt and across Libya and then went on the defensive when Erwin Rommel brought his Afrika Korps into the fray and reversed the tide of battle for a time.

ERWIN ROMMEL

Avey, who explains that he went to war in the first place for adventure, not for King and country, was a brash sort whose chutzpah both got him into scrapes and enabled him to survive on both the battlefield and in prison. Once he was captured, he escaped several times including one final time during a forced march eastward in the dead of winter when the Nazis abandoned Auschwitz in order to elude the advancing allies.

On one occasion, Avey watched while an SS officer repeatedly beat a Jewish inmate until the young man died. Avey was already frustrated by both the fact that the Nazis were deliberately working the Jews to death and by the knowledge that he couldn’t do anything about it. When that young man died, Avey shouted a crude German insult at the officer, who responded by cold cocking Avey with the butt of a hand gun. The injury cost Avey his sight and eventually the eye itself.

But the worst injury he suffered was psychological. When he finally returned home, his own family – including his father, who had also enlisted – didn’t want to discuss the war at all, and others wanted to hear only about derring-do on the battlefield. No one was interested in, or capable of confronting, the truth about the concentration camp.

Avey himself stopped talking about it for decades, and he suffered nightmares and other signs of post traumatic stress disorder – a problem that was not recognized and therefore not treated at the time.

There is much more to this story, including the unexpected outcome of a small favor Avey was able to do for one Jewish inmate, but that’s best read in the pages of Avey’s book. It was largely because of Broomby’s work that Avey was eventually able to talk openly, and write, about what he experienced. The two men have performed an important service, because it is critical that knowledge of what the Nazis did be kept alive in the public consciousness.

That’s true both because of the crimes committed by the Third Reich and its collaborators but also because such atrocities have been committed again and again since then – the difference being only one of scale.

WARREN SPAHN

Since it was our 47th wedding anniversary, Pat and I went to dinner Monday night at that great Italian place in Clinton. We ate on the patio. In the opposite corner was a family of four — parents and a teenager of each gender. Before we got there, some guy who was riding a bike along the sidewalk recognized the family and stopped to talk. In fact, he parked the bike and sat down on the brick wall and made himself comfortable. The father in the family act, pretty much ignoring everyone else at the table, spend the time shooting baseball trivia questions at the visitor. I found this a little off-putting, both because he was talking loud enough for us to hear and because of the quality of the questions. What left-handed pitcher won the most games lifetime? Puh-leez! Give me something I can work with, will ya? (By the way, that was Warren Spahn with 363, which is also the greatest number of wins by any pitcher who spent his entire career in the live-ball era.)

Now, me? I would have asked him about Allen Travers, capisce? I was thinking about Travers the other night when the announcers on the Yankee broadcast were obsessing over the fact that Phil Hughes had thrown 106 pitches in a game for the first time this season.

EDDIE ROMMEL

Besides making me worry that Hughes might have to spend the rest of his life with a prosthetic arm, that conversation got me to thinking about all the great performances that would never have taken place if the pitch count had been a part of baseball from the beginning.

I was thinking, for example, about Eddie Rommel — later an American League umpire — who spent 12 years pitching for the Philadelphia Athletics and supposedly invented the knuckle ball as we now know it. In 1932, Rommel came in in relief against the Indians in the second inning, behind 3-2. He pitched 17 innings, gave up 29 hits and 15 runs, and won the game 18-17. The 29 hits allowed is still the single-game record.

Travers was a different matter. He was a student at St. Joseph’s College in Philadelphia in 1912 when Ty Cobb of the Detroit Tigers went into the stands at Hilltop Park in New York to pummel a New York Highlanders fan who had been verbally abusing him during a game. It turned out that the fan had lost one hand and several fingers from the other hand in an industrial accident. Ban Johnson, president of the American League, suspended Cobb indefinitely. When the Tigers were supposed to play the Athletics in Philly a couple of days later the team announced that they wouldn’t take the field until Cobb was re-instated.

Fr ALOYSIUS TRAVERS

The League told the Tigers they faced a $5,000 fine and would forfeit every game until there were players. To avoid the penalties, the Tigers enlisted Allen Travers — non-playing manager of the St. Joseph baseball squad — to round up a team off the streets and sandlots of Philadelphia. The nine guys were signed by the Cardinals. Travers was on the mound, and no one counted his pitches. He pitched eight innings and gave up 24 runs, which is still the major league record. The Athletics won the game, 24-2.

Travers later became a Jesuit and taught in college and high school in New York and Philadelphia. The 24 runs allowed wasn’t his only record. He was also the only major league player to become a Catholic priest.

But who’s counting?

You can read a fuller account of Father Travers’ experience by clicking HERE.

Gov. CHRIS CHRISTIE

I caught a few minutes of Ann Coulter’s appearance on one of the Sunday talk shows this week, and found that by not tuning in earlier I had missed hearing her reasons for promoting Chris Christie as a Republican presidential candidate.
Apparently, it wasn’t a half-hearted endorsement; I heard her refer to the governor as “my first love.”
Coulter is not the first person to make this case. Christie is a controversial figure in terms of his public policy and his style, but he seems to be developing a following around the country.

Still this kind of talk has an unfamiliar ring to us in New Jersey because, except for Bill Bradley’s failed attempt to win the Democratic nomination in 2000, making presidents has not been our thing in recent decades.

Even the two we contributed in the distant past had imperfect credentials. Woodrow Wilson wasn’t born in New Jersey, and Grover Cleveland – who was born here and is buried here – spent most of his life someplace else.

GROVER CLEVELAND

Christie hasn’t lent much credibility to the idea that he would be a willing candidate, but if he should run, one thing that has come up already and surely would get a lot of attention in the news coverage – and late-night commentaries – would be his girth.
Christie himself has often acknowledged that his weight is a result of his eating habits and that it is unhealthy.
In the world we live in, it is also a potential liability from the aesthetic point of view.

There already have been stories speculating as to whether a man of Christie’s size can be elected president – kind of a diss on the intelligence of the body politic.

In fact, that question has already been answered twice by the elections of William Howard Taft and Grover Cleveland.

Taft, the largest president so far, was six feet tall and weighed more than 330 pounds when he was elected president in 1908. After Taft had left the presidency, he lost about 80 pounds, which lowered his blood pressure and improved his ability to sleep.

WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT

Cleveland – whose weight isn’t mentioned as frequently as Taft’s – was five-feet-eleven and weighed between 235 and 280 pounds. His weight is noticeable in photographs from his presidential years, but it apparently didn’t trouble the citizens who gave him the majority of the popular vote three times in a row – the only president besides Franklin Roosevelt to achieve that. (In 1888, Benjamin Harrison won the majority of the electoral votes.)
The criticism directed at political candidates in the 19th and early 20th centuries could be as cruel, in its own way, as the attacks that are leveled today. Cartoonists gleefully exploited the proportions of both Cleveland and Taft, and no one’s physical appearance attracted more public ridicule than that of Abraham Lincoln.

But the pervasive and relentless nature of media in our age add a lot of destructive power to negative messages.

Some voters might be legitimately concerned about the life-threatening nature of Christie’s weight, but the web of electronic communications has given people the idea that they can – and should – say virtually anything that comes into their heads. The comments posted on web sites suggest that many writers think it’s a virtue to be as coarse and demeaning as they can.

I noticed, for instance, that folks who frequent a Facebook page for graduates of my high school alma mater, say some pretty awful things about former teachers and classmates – undaunted by the fact that most of their targets are still living and could easily read these messages.

For his own well-being – particularly if he takes on the rigors of a presidential campaign and a term or two in the White House – Christie ought to do something about his weight.

Besides prolonging his life, it would spare him and his family the meanness that has become the lingua franca of smart alecs in the digital age.

Woodrow Wilson with his predecessor, William Howard Taft, shortly before Wilson was inaugurated as the 28th president. In 1921, the 29th president, Warren G. Harding, appointed a slimmer Taft chief justice of the United States. Taft is the only person to have held both offices.

LOUIS ARMSTRONG

Sometime in the early 1960s, I went with a couple of my cousins to hear Louis Armstrong and his band play at Seton Hall University. I can’t remember how I decided to attend that show; there was not a single Armstrong recording among my LPs – which were dominated by operatic arias and country-and-western songs. I knew Armstrong from his television appearances, and I do recall finding him irresistible: not the trumpeter — I didn’t know from trumpets — the whole package. Whenever Armstrong’s image appeared on the black-and-white screen, I would pay attention. He was unique, and he was entertaining.

I was not aware until I read Ricky Riccardi’s recent book, What a Wonderful World, that the quality that attracted me to Louis Armstrong was the very thing that some folks found irritating, disappointing, even traitorous. Jazz purists objected to Armstrong’s departure from his musical roots in his native New Orleans, and many black Americans objected to his on-stage persona, in which they saw the perpetuation of the minstrel end man – a clown whose vocation was amusing white audiences. This was complicated by the fact that although Armstrong was at the height of his international fame in the heyday of the American civil rights movement, he played no visible part in the campaign — this, despite the fact that he and his band had often felt the sting of prejudice.

In fact, Armstrong refused for decades to appear in New Orleans as long as local laws prohibited mixed-race bands — perhaps an ironic position for him to take, given the fact that one of the raps on him was that he was willing to play before segregated audiences. His explanation was that he played where his manager booked him, and that he played for whoever wanted to hear him — and they were legion. Armstrong maintained that he contributed as much as anyone else to the progress of black Americans, because he paved the way for others to be received by white audiences.

His bookings are an interesting topic in Riccardi’s book. Armstrong’s manager during the last several decades of his career was Joe Glaser, a Chicago tough guy with a criminal background. There was some kind of bond between the two men — so much so that their arrangement was based on a handshake so that Glaser’s financial obligations to Armstrong were not spelled out. Glaser certainly got rich on the relationship, and Armstrong insisted that he had everything he wanted in life, including his  daily regimen of marijuana and an herbal laxative that he treated as kind of a sacrament.

Riccardi describes in some detail the schedule kept by Armstrong and his band, the All Stars. It’s exhausting just to read about it. It was not unusual for the musicians to perform forty one-nighters in a row without a break — and this went on for decades. Outsiders thought Glaser was taking advantage of Armstrong, wringing out every dime he could before the man dropped dead. Armstrong denied this; Riccardi doesn’t seem to accept it, but even in the material the author provides in this book — such as a letter in which Armstrong complains to Glaser about being treated “like a baby” — there’s a strong insinuation that the critics were right. Armstrong himself insisted that he was doing what he wanted to do, but he also complained from time  to time about exhaustion, and he lost more than one player from the All Stars because the grind was just too much.

Riccardi, who is a student of music and an authority on Armstrong, defends Armstrong’s repertoire; the subtitle of the book is The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years. Among the criticisms of Armstrong was that he played almost the same song set night after night, to which Armstrong replied that he played what the paying audience expected him to play. As for the indictment of Armstrong’ s wide grin and rolling eyes, it never occurred to me that those mannerisms were supposed to be a stereotype of a black man — if it had occurred to me, I would have been offended and would not have been at that show at Seton Hall. To me, Armstrong was just being himself. Still, his position on race, as Riccardi presents it in this book, was ambiguous at most. At times he would lose his temper and rant about the way black Americans were treated, but he was also capable of making a statement in which he adopted a shaky rationale based on a distinction between “lazy” black people and industrious ones like him. In the event, Armstrong had almost no black audience when he was recording his enormous pop hits, “Hello, Dolly” and “What a Wonderful World” and whether that was due to his play list or to his attitude toward his race remains a matter of conjecture.

You can watch and listen to Armstrong sing and play “Mack the Knife” by clicking HERE.